“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.
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.
* * *
I hadn’t yet arrived at the Pop Warner fields for our second day of pads practice when A-Cup went into cardiopulmonary arrest. I’d rounded the corner from where I’d been dropped off and found all the fathers bent down around him. All the dudes were standing in full pads behind their fathers and looking to one another for answers, for signs of how to be, and what to do next. Their helmets shined against the morning sun.
I got up close and dropped down beside an assistant coach.
“I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay,” A-Cup said, his freckled cheeks swelling and blotting out the soft blue of his eyes. One of the fathers pulled me back. He told me to wait—for all of us to wait out there on the fifty-yard line.
They wanted me at receiver that year.
A two-way player.
I was fast then, real fast.
“I’m okay. I’m okay. Okay. I’m okay,” A-Cup continued, his voice growing small and breathless. I turned away from his star-fished body and made my way towards the dried-out patch of grass. Looking up for moment, I found the moon left over from the night before.
* * *
The first time I got really drunk with all the dudes, I got really upset. I pulled Marcus Lantry into a hallway and asked what his fucking deal was, falling forward. He shoved me but he didn’t hit me, so I knew he knew what I was worked up about. Then I puked a little behind the record player and I got on top of the kitchen island. I told everyone that A-Cup wasn’t dead, he was just hiding. And I wanted everyone to hate me for talking about him, give me shit, beat my ass a bit. But they all just turned away. The girls were around, which made everyone less angry, less prone to the animal stuff.
But I still had it in me.
Whatever it was.
“He was a dork,” I said, stepping down onto the sofa. “A lardass loser, right?”
I pretended to search the cabinets.
I opened the closet doors.
Looked under the dining room table.
Peaked into the mouth of the bong like it was a telescope.
“Come out, come out! A-Cup! Oh, A-Cup! You need to come party with us!”
* * *
It was my second summer of college that my dead friend came back to me.
Three weeks prior to him tapping me on the shoulder, I was cleaning out mice droppings from beneath the radiator in my bedroom. My apartment was shit in the city. And it should’ve been, I was only nineteen. Crystal methed-out feet stomped overhead and shook dust onto the living room floor. My roommates stacked dishes for sport and were having loud sex with girls for the first time, the rumble of young adulthood. We’d mostly party at the Baby 12 House: a windowless bar some seniors ran out of their basement. Or Mark’s pad that his parents had paid for. For a week straight it went: Class, Mark’s Pad, Mark’s Pad, Baby 12 House, Mark’s Pad, Sub Zone Sandwich Shop, Class, Baby 12 House, Baby 12 House, Mark’s Pad, 7-Eleven, Baby 12 House, Baby 12 House, Mark’s Pad, and finally back to my place, to change out my clothes and drag the black garbage bags out into the alley. It was all fun. It was also wearing thin. So, when my father called and asked if I would be coming home for summer break, it was an easy thing to agree to. I’d spent my first summer bumming around the city’s coffee shops, wearing a silver chain and playing guitar in the park while the delinquents moonwalked and shook off their rock high to my unrhymed lyrics. My nights were spent trying to think about and then not think about A-Cup’s body, growing warm and funky against the hot ground of the football field.
I felt like I needed something different that summer.
Something to mix things up.
But I didn’t know exactly what that meant.
So, I packed up and headed home.
* * *
As the plane made its descent 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.
I rubbed my eyes and slid down my window.
I turned myself forward.
The captain spoke: seventy-nine degrees and sunny.
Breeze twenty knots out of the south.
It’s gonna be a little bumpy coming in.
We’ll have you on the ground in no time.
I scratched the top of my head, then pressed myself into my seat like a child. I was being very quiet. Very calm. I held my breath as the plane elbowed its way towards an American city–towards my city. The city where me and my friend once dropped quarters from the overpass, and played rally cars, and I’d let those dudes call him those things and throw sand at his face without stepping in.
I gripped my armrest, my stomach turning.
I tried to calm myself by listening for the whir of the landing gear, but it was only the sound of the wind beating against the hull of the plane that I was able to make out.
* * *
I watched television with my mother in our kitchen. It was the only TV in our house. My father did not believe in television as a verb but had intellectualized the allowance of one. When I was young, he taught a class that extolled the virtues of Thatcherism as an aesthetic—hunting dog wallpaper and grey tea in the afternoons—and those conditions being the kind of conditions from which great art can be birthed.
So, we had a TV.
My mother cracked her knuckles and played Scrabble on her cellphone.
On the news: wartime coverage of the Horizon pumping a hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. A woman in goggles and white latex gloves scrubbed a seagull clean with soapy water from a bucket. A man in a BP vest stood at the water’s edge and explained that no expense would be spared in the company’s efforts.
“The gulf is our home too,” he said, clearing his throat and re-tucking his shirt.
“I’m going out,” I said to my mother.
But she’d just played the word L-U-S-T-R-U-M.
And even though it was no longer in common use, it still scored her major points.
She nodded at me and pointed to where her car keys were sitting on the table.
* * *
I was deciding on what chips to eat when I felt A-Cup’s finger tap the back of my shoulder. I turned around in the aisle of the gas station to where the candy was supposed to be, and it was there, but also there: was a big, lumbering boy, wide-shouldered with light-colored fuzz on his chin and upper lip. His blue eyes were still intact, his cheeks blistered and dry. I could smell the churros spinning in their hot cage. My legs almost gave out.
He didn’t look dead—dead, like I knew him to be.
He was wearing his golden Pop Warner jersey, no pads, and tan cargo shorts.
“I’m losing it, man,” I said, not meaning to let the words come out.
But it felt right to be talking to my dead friend right then. I had spent so much time trying to find him—trying to fathom him out nothing—that I felt like I somehow deserved it. I knew it was impossible for him to be standing there, in front of me, but something about that moment felt good and comforting and correct. It was something like: the warm drool of an oil spill, pulling me in from the clear water, tucking me up, kissing me goodnight.
“Screw it,” I said.
A-Cup held out his hand.
Two creased tickets.
Two for: Monster Jam at the Axe Ford Arena on the outskirts of town.
I watched his eyes for signs of my own mania.
They just sat, blue and simple, sunk back into his face.
I tilted my head, testing to make sure he wasn’t just me split into two pieces.
His head did not follow mine.
Just a small, crushing smile pulled across his face.
My lips glowed from the cherry slush in my hand and my shoulders shook like I was cold or maybe lost. What could I do? He was in front of me. He had come back. So, I just nodded. I agreed. I agreed that I would drive.
* * *
I watched nightbirds drop from the awning of the stadium, spooked loose every time a monster truck would cycle its engine in preparation for the long jump. It sounded to me like cannon fire, like old medicine in a candle-lit tent. I imagined for a moment losing my leg to a forgotten disease. Or a bullet being pulled from my squirming stomach. Blood-soaked rags falling to the ground and creating the type of horrendous mountain, so steep and so high, that the Mohawk Warrior or Predator, with enough juice left in the tanks of their trucks, could probably get one or two backflips off the top of it.
A-Cup kicked the back of my seat.
He insisted on sitting one row behind me.
“I’m watching, I’m watching,” I said, looking back at him.
I felt like he could tell I was having some confused thoughts.
I wanted him to sit next to me but somehow felt it would be inappropriate to ask.
“I’ve had sex,” I said, proud and embarrassed of myself. “At college.”
A-Cup smiled and folded his arms over his chest in amusement.
“She plays volleyball,” I said, as though it was an impressive detail. It was a strange thing to put on my dead friend. Maybe it was that he was still wearing his jersey? But I needed him to know that the woman I lost my virginity to was an athlete, a setter for a top-fifty team in the country. Of good stock. A winner. A girl whose hair, when pulled back, felt like a gift from God.
A-Cup shook his head.
He kicked the back of my seat with the joy I’d been missing since he left me.
Below, on the dirt floor of the stadium, the lights danced as a crane lowered the Robosaurus onto the highest flat of the highest jump. The crane made a snapping sound as it released its cables. Then a bottomless pulse sound from the dirt, like house music being turned up from somewhere deep below. A smoke rose and the spinning lights of the stadium dissected the plume like some type of anti-theft device in the Guggenheim. Not art thieves. No stealing. No sound, as the stadium fell into a hush.
The debris cleared.
Then a fifty-foot mechanical Robosaurus stood lonely and stoic: a zenith of mechanical systems, wire work, and by-hand welding. “Can I tell you something?” My voice came out loud in the silent stadium. I felt his gaze and then his nod of approval against the back of my head but did not turn around to confirm it. Out on the dirt: the lesser monster truck drivers wheeled out derby cars for the Robosaurus to feast upon, then they ran back across the track in their fire-resistant suits, lumbering through the openings in the boards the way overweight rodents might. “On the way home from your service I was riding with some of the dudes, and I slammed my pinky finger in the car door.” The Robosaurus let out a streak of pyrotechnics and I could feel the warmth against my face. “I rode all the way home from the church like that, not making a sound, with my finger bent in there. My mom screamed when she saw it. She took me to the hospital. For real.” The stadium fell back into quietness, as the spotlight found Robosaurus’ dented, broken-in face. His eyes were black and still. The abandoned cars surrounded the thick trunks of his legs like the disciples of a new and powerful religion. “It hurt, man. It really fucking hurt.”
The Robosaurus began his feast.
And the spotlights pulled up into the starless sky.
“Are we okay?” A-Cup asked, his voice shaky and airless like the last time he spoke.
But I was crying by then, feeling the most metal parts of myself twisted up; and the sound of car hoods and engine blocks crumpling; and the entire stadium oohing and ahhing; it all sounded like the way I felt. It sounded like joy and ache colliding.
* * *
A-Cup and I spent the rest of that summer driving around. We went out past the ashtray colleges, outlet malls and access roads that led to the water plant and the baseball fields. We went past the housebuilders on lunchbreak and the gravediggers on their smoke break. We went towards the rocking hills and the highway signs for places we might daytrip. We made jokes about the priapic nature of broke down windmills. And watched from a yellow patch of grass as Evil Knievel’s son attempted the jump that almost killed his father.
That summer the sky and the birds seemed to be in cahoots. It was like they were attempting to block out the sun. But, really, there were just a lot of birds. We wrestled in the fields. And when we’d come down from the impermeant high of roughhousing, I’d sneak A-Cup into the basement of my parent’s home and show him internet videos he’d missed out on. He’d marvel for hours at the girls I’d met in college. I’d explain their majors, and what they smelled like, and talked like, and if I had a shot at them. He’d laugh big when emails came into my spam box: Get a Naturally biGGer GoBBler in 4X WEAKS.
He came with me to get my buzzcut.
The MVP treatment at Sport Clips.
The guy buzzing my head had a ponytail and black lipstick. “You got nice hair,” he said, the motor of his clippers struggling beneath my thick locks.
Then we headed off to the football fields, me feeling like a new man.
A-Cup sat with me on the bleachers right next to where he died. He put his hand on my shoulder as I mixed a bottle of my parent’s finest wine with a two-liter of Pepsi we’d picked up from the gas station. “This is how it should be,” I said loudly, from behind my purple teeth. “This is the how we should’ve always been doing it.”
And A-Cup gave me a hard grab on the back of my neck like I was right.
Right and correct. Correct for bringing him back.
To have never lost.
* * *
Me and A-Cup went for a late breakfast on the day I headed back for school.
I ordered the biscuits and two apple juices. He ordered nothing.
“Not hungry?” I asked, upset and worried-like.
He didn’t say anything. Not until I paid the check, and we were both standing. It was then that he shifted his weight back to his heels and pulled his arms out to his sides like his body needed to be in separate pieces. I imagined, for a moment, that he was going to ask me to cut him up and burry him. Or maybe that he needed me to return his still-beating heart to an ancient temple.
It wasn’t that.
“You’re going on a cruise ship,” he said.
“I do feel seasick,” I said, shaking the crumbs from my t-shirt.
“I can’t go.”
“I know,” I said, in a way that meant I loved him. “But I’ll come back—I will.”
“I’ll be waiting,” said A-Cup. He cracked his knuckles and gave his simple smile. “I’ll hibernate with the bears and hedgehogs. Lay low. Lay real low.” He picked up a coffee creamer from the table and opened it the way a squirrel might, using only his fingertips.
“You’re an animal,” I said, in a way that meant I needed to see him again.
* * *
I met Linda on a fire escape. She asked if she could have some, so I let her take a hit off my stuff. Her friends were inside trying to get the speakers to work and my friends were inside trying to explain the myth of Prince or Marylin Manson having had a rib removed so they could blow on themselves. She kissed me while returning the baggy to the breast pocket of my corduroy jacket.
“I like this.” she said, adjusting the Bread Not Bombs pin on my lapel.
“I got it at The Junkyard,” I told her, puffing my chest out like a hero.
And like that: It happened.
I had someone to text my thoughts to.
Someone to sit at the coffeeshop with.
Someone to go see the jellyfish with—turning orange, then green, blue, then pink.
She would send me pictures of her toes when they were cold.
She’d invite me over for soft sex when my roommates were having the loud kind.
I told her a lot about A-Cup.
The way he was when we were young and the kind of person I’d imagine he would’ve become. She’d hold the back of my head when I spoke of him. And look me in the eyes like I had something brave or inciteful to say about death.
She’d listen to me.
Talk about him.
And a few times I’d got close, but always stopped short of telling her that he’d returned, and that he was waiting for me to come back home that summer.
I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.
I could only tell her stories of us in arboretum, hunting pond frogs and tadpoles; of us watching A-Cup’s mother swerve into our cul-de-sac, drunk on a Sunday morning; of me, and the grass scratching underside of my legs, sitting at midfield, watching the ambulance arrive, then go, taking my friend that no one liked to a hospital that he would never leave.
“You ever think about that people die in a place that’s either way too bright or way, way too dark,” I’d say, taking a long sip from the beer we were sharing.
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” she’d say, taking the bottle into her hand.
And we’d fall asleep like that.
On the couch
With the lights on.
And the city below: so fucking loud that we couldn’t hear our own dreams.
* * *
I returned the following summer with my guitar and a tuft of black hair beneath my lower lip. I wore a fisherman’s cap. I had discovered books and self-discipline. Linda had given me a stack of polaroids to keep the lonely nights less lonely and I was excited to show her off to A-Cup. I wanted him to discover all the things I’d discovered. Wonderment. Barthelme. Real Intimacy. Pita & Tzatziki.
I thought he might be waiting for me on my parent’s lawn: he wasn’t.
My bedroom: no
In the basement: not even.
I climbed over the fence into his mother’s yard; the smell of manure and rotting voles came first. It was heavy. I pulled my shirt over my nose. It helped. Overgrown grass and thistle weeds tapped against the aluminum. The houses edges had curled like a band poster taped to a streetlight. I held my hands to the dirty window and stared in at the dark living room and darker kitchen. I felt my breath in my chest and the helicopter seeds coming down like pinpricks from the maple trees. They landed against my shoulders, and in my hair, and at my feet. Above: the whir of insects. I looked up. Wasps had taken the eaves of the house. It was theirs now. All theirs.
A-Cup was in none of the places I’d left him.
None of the places we’d been.
I cradled my stomach in my bed and tried to conjure him from the slippery, snake-like patterns of darkness that held the corners of my bedroom.
That first week I went to the gas station every night and prayed silently in front of the Doritos that he would come and tap me on the shoulder.
So, I waited.
Sitting cross legged in my yard: anxious, sad, wondering about centipedes and reincarnation, curious as to what inside of stinks bugs made them smell so sour.
* * *
It wasn’t until I stopped looking that I found him.
He was walking towards the skin bar they’d turned into a battery store, holding something large and dark and hairy in his arms. I pulled my mother’s car into the bike lane and set the emergency lights. He darted behind the Arby’s, moving strangely fast. Then continued past the row of dumpster next to the Payless. Around another corner: I could see him set down onto the ground whatever was dark and hairy in his arms.
“Slow up!” I yelled.
But he didn’t slow.
I jumped over a bike rack; my shirt caught on something.
I yelled again after him.
We were almost to the subdivision, and I could hear a ska band practicing in a basement somewhere nearby. They were falling in and out of rhythm with each other. And also my feet, and my strides, and my heart.
The sprinkler eating the fence line had begun spinning in retrograde.
A-Cup turned behind the last building before the tree line.
The Circuit City.
I ran fast: I was once again a rover.
“Stop,” I screamed so loud the city, the sprinkler, even the crickets paused.
And he stopped. He stopped.
He stood right there in the parking lot behind the Circuit City.
“A-Cup?” I asked.
But no: where I wanted A-Cup to be, a boy not dissimilar looking stood in a gold Saints jersey, holding his dog by his collar in the hot-as-fuck parking lot. He had no leash. Because, I guess, the leash was left at home. And it seemed like the boy was a long way away from that place. His home.
“What?” he asked, squinting like A-Cup against the light.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you on?” the kid asked, eyebrows raised.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just looking for somebody—a friend.”
“What’s he look like?”
The kid’s dog started panting against the pavement. I looked up into the white sun, then back at the kid who I was still hoping would turn into A-Cup. But No. Nothing. The air was hot and strangling me. I didn’t know what to do next, so I did the only thing I could do next: I touched all my fingertips together and raised my hands to the top of my head.
Then I could feel them.
My two little fleshy ears.
“He’s an animal,” I said to the kid.
And then I made the noises: noises I’d always imagined that wild animals made. I made snorts and barks and screams. I made myself cackle. I jumped up and down against the oil-slicked concrete and kicked at the empty shopping carts. The boy shook his head, picked up his dog, and disappeared behind the row of houses at the far end of the parking lot. Then: I was screaming in an empty lot, feral, as though I was protecting something. A herd. A memory. My dead friend. I kept going until my voice fell off. Until it broke. Until it felt as though my throat had filled with sand. Or broken glass. And the sirens had begun. Someone was coming to help. Which was good, because I was feeling like something inside of me was after me. And I was useless to fight it. I’d become nothing. A fried egg against the blacktop. A hyena, dying in the shade of a marula tree. Screaming yet silent. Marvelous. Perfect bait. And letting it be that way—letting it take me. Because then, and only then: once it had me, out there in the bright sunlight behind the Circuit City, did I finally understand how to make it all stop.
“Can I join you?” A-Cup asked.
“You’d better,” I said, stomping my feet like a bear. “For a minute…for a while… until the cops show. Then we’d better run.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, okay.”
Then he smiled.
And I was screaming.
And we were dancing around one of the shopping carts I’d turned over.
It was like: I’d never left him.
Or it was like: He’d never left me.
It was like one of those two things: out back there, where the dumpsters were lined up. Where the employees parked. Where a bike with no tires was chained up to a fence and had lost its original color to the bright, bright sun.
Sam Berman is a short story writer who lives in Boise, Idaho and works at House Of Wheels, in a very nice warehouse with Wes & Peter & Whitney. They are terrific coworkers. He has had his work published in Maudlin House, Illuminations, Smokelong Quarterly and recently won Forever Magazine‘s Unconventional Love Stories competition. He was also selected as a runner-up in The Kenyon Review‘s 2022 Non-Fiction Competition. He has forthcoming work in Hobart and The Fourth River, among others.