“Real quick,” the narrator of “Hyenas Behind the Tombstones” by Sam Berman begins: “this kid Alan had gotten tall and fat and grown small boobs, so we called him A-Cup.” It’s all the introduction you need to Berman’s style and the boys who populate this story. “Hyenas Behind the Tombstones” offers a surprisingly emotional perspective on grief and growing up. You don’t want to miss this.
As the plane made its decent towards the airport, I could see the deer scattering across the rockfaces and the thinned-out hillsides with their pulpwood stacked evenly in the clearings. A-Cup had already hit his growth spurt when he died, so they buried him in an adult size casket: dark oak with white crepe. I imagined the trees below and his body inside of each one of them. Each one a tomb. Or a tombstone.
Real quick: this kid Alan had gotten tall and fat and grown small boobs, so we called him A-Cup. I was always soft on A-Cup because he lived across the street from me, and I knew his dad wasn’t around and his mom was way too around. So, when the boys couldn’t chill, and I was bored stiff, I would go knock on A-Cup’s door and we’d kick it as buddies until curfew.
A-Cup was a simple kid: always seeming like he’d just finished his chores.
He held his backpack with both hands.
He talked about cars and trucks and roll cages and dune buggies.
Always told me his mother dated the Bone Crusher.
“Highest paid driver on the circuit,” he’d say. “Only gets a couple weeks off a year.” And I wouldn’t call him on his lie.
Looking back on it: I probably spent more time with him than anyone else during those starter years. And he was cool to run around with because he was a little younger and always down. He liked doing whatever I liked doing. He liked watching me do things, too.
Back then we had only our imaginations, and in our imaginations, we had only our invincibility. Our chestplates and Viking helmets. Our shin guards and mouthpieces. Kevlar backpacks and chainmail baseball caps. We were untouched by the distress in our future. And we were wild-as-shit: always barefoot, approaching from the low grounds and nettle bushes as day turned into night.
Then it would be dark.
And in the dark we were at our finest: two sugar-filled shit heads looking for the best limbs of the best trees to throw our toilet paper over.
We put glass in the road: wine bottles from A-Cup’s mother’s trash can.
The idea of cum made us laugh, so we put naked cutouts from my father’s Penthouse magazines into Ziploc bags and filled them up with hand lotion. We’d leave the bags in our neighbors’ mail slots, the letterboxes. Fireworks were an always for me and A-Cup. Better fireworks–more explosive, more damaging ones–were always just beyond our reach. It was no matter: what we had, we had enough of. And we always had enough for us.
But that’s when it was just me and A-Cup.
When the other dudes came around things could be not so easy.
You know: sometimes they would treat A-Cup like a toy. And A-Cup being a toy, and those dudes all being boys, they would sometimes do what boys do to toys: be cruel.
They’d administer pain to their toy.
Slap his butt and his stomach real hard.
Yell, Abandon Ship! whenever he sat down at the lunch table.
Ask him if his mom’s tits felt as good as they looked.
They’d tell him to eat worms.
They’d call him an ugly dyke, a cock toucher.
Everyone was so angry then.
The bank had closed on most of those dudes’ parents’ homes, yet no one had moved away. I was lucky in that my parents both made good money and taught at the college. My father—a reputable scholar with a notable h-index rating—knew more about German painters and sculptures than anyone else in our American city. And my mother taught the undergraduates; she’d pull the hibiscus and prayer plants from the windowsill and sit them next to her students when they came in for her class. “You help them grow,” she’d say. “Tall and smart.” And I think she really believed it: her own personal brand of spirituality, disguised as some new-age form of collegiate pedagogy.
I was not angry then like those other dudes.
I was not.