Randy and his mom always moved to new places. This was the third place since I became friends with Randy. It was a townhouse where we could sneak out onto the granular slant of the roof and see the lights of Chattanooga. The gush of water from the spout, the clang of pots and pans in the sink, and light from the kitchen would signal if his mom was coming and we needed to dodge back into his bedroom. He held up his hand when the kitchen noise hushed and the light flipped off.
You wanna stay over next Friday? We can go out in the woods and cuss.
Next Friday was such a long time from that Sunday, so I just said yeah. He shushed me when we heard the door to his room open.
Randy, his mom recited. Then the door shut.
I been learning from my cousins from Nashville. They taught me, he splayed his fingers, five new ones. We can go say em in the woods.
I was through the window as soon as he rose. Just as his foot touched the carpeting, the door swung open and his mom asked, Where you been Randy?
We was hiding under the bed, ma. Tricked you.
Randy, I was looking for you. Gil’s gotta go home now. Gil, did you call your parents?
Well, I think you need to call them.
Both my parents came to pick me up.
Did you have fun?
I shrugged my shoulders.
I hope you had fun. Miss Byson just keeps moving further and further away from us. We had to cut through the city from the theater. It’s quicker, but you have to go through some bad parts of town.
What Randy said came from my mouth as, Hey mom can I please stay the night with Randy next Friday?
They both stayed silent while we passed houses with wooden windows and people huddled around a loud car. We sped up and cuffed a bump in the road. I could see a long line of street lights, all the color of pee.
Gilly, I just said—
Mom, don’t call me Gilly.
Say please. Show some manners when you talk to your mother, said my dad.
Gil, she continued, I just finished telling you it’s a long drive for you to come out to see Randy. Why can’t he come out to our house?
I don’t know, I said.
Maybe his mom is tired after work. Maybe she can’t afford the gas, my dad answered.
My mom gripped his arm. Gilly—I mean, Gil? You wanna ask him over to our house?
But we don’t have woods.
Yes we do. We have the woods out by the golf course. What used to be Shiners’ Gully.
I don’t know if they’ll be safe in there, Burt.
Well, said my dad, Lord knows where they’re going when they’re out here. It’s just a bunch of apartment complexes, he mumbled.
Okay I get it, my mom said. How come you wanna go to Randy’s on Friday and you already decided to ask, my mom said glancing at me.
My dad’s deep voice echoed. I said, I’m gonna show him Shiners’ Gully. Can I ask Brandon and Terry?
My mom only shook her head and my dad, turning onto the right fork of the road, said, Well we’re out of it.
I stood far away from Randy. My mom would have taken us to Papa Joe’s pizza and the arcade but he wanted to go in the woods. His mom never took us out. Brandon hissed and shook his head. Terry watched Brandon and I kicked the bottom step.
My mom smiled and climbed back up the stairs. I heard her walking around up there through the ceiling.
Y’all wanna go out there? Y’all ready?
Ready for what, said Brandon.
You’ll see, said Randy tucking his feet into his slipons.
Brandon snickered and we filed out the front door and across the street. The woods were not far and after cutting through a short stretch of trees we dropped down the slope. Shiners’ Gully was only fifteen minutes across. But it was steep. Jagged logs had washed up along the banks and nested against one another.
Brandon was the first to cuss. Shit, he said when he slipped and landed on his butt in the mud. Randy just stared at him with a solid gaze, his eyes like black-eyed peas. I waited for him to cuss. He only twitched his nose like he was excited by a smell, then bounded to the gully bed.
The ground was sludge and gave off a swamp stench. My last two steps had caused my feet to sink under past the ankle. I just stood stuck there until I heard Randy laughing. You look like you wanna cuss, he said.
Man I’m not going down there, said Brandon.
C’mon now, said Randy. Let’s cuss.
That looks nasty down there, said Terry.
You wanna know one, asked Randy. He flung his arms and rocked on his heels, squishing the mud I had fallen in.
What, said Brandon.
You wanna learn some cuss words, asked Randy.
Cusses, said Brandon. That’s why you brought us out here?
Randy’s eyes narrowed and his mouth stayed open, like it was ready for anything to come out. I thought I could see his freckles vibrating. Shit, he said. Then he said, Fucker.
You just brought us out here so you could cuss? Why didn’t you just cuss at home?
Randy still smiled but his voice was softer and his breath was heavy. Cause a mom might hear us, he half-asked half-said.
Are you retarded, asked Terry.
Shit. Fuck, said Randy. C’mon! I know shit, fuck, ass, cunt, and bastard.
Do you know what any of those mean?
Randy chewed a couple times and said, My cousins taught em to me.
I know what all of them mean, said Brandon.
So, said Randy.
So, you’re stupid. I know what they mean—you don’t.
So, said Randy. I was gonna teach em to Gil. Gil don’t know em.
Brandon’s icy eyes fixed on me and he set his hands on his hips. Terry pinched his nose and shook his head. You don’t know curses, Gil?
Fuck, I said. Shit, I said. Fuck you, I said aimed at Randy. Ass, I said. Fuck you cunt, I said. Then, You bastard. Fuck you, bastard.
Bet he knows what that one means, said Terry behind Brandon as if he was whispering.
Randy’s fists balled. His jaw grinded. His eyes pooled.
I only saw Randy once more after that day. I was hurrying along the tile floor of the mall searching for Brandon and Terry who had played a game where they yelped and covered their noses and mouths like I stunk that bad, then ran away and hid. I had to find them.
A growl from behind made me flip around. It was Randy. He was glaring at me with a grin across his face. His upper lip was curling, baring his teeth. He still hadn’t learned to curse.
Fuck. You’re a fuck. You’re a fucking shitty dick. You’re a fucking bitch. Bitch.
Once he started using new words, I turned around and kept walking. He cursed louder and followed. I noticed people wincing, eyeing him from the stores. Fucker. Fuck you. Shit.
There was one word he would never use. I kept searching for my friends. I rounded corners and stepped out onto the bridge to the parking deck. He broke off at the glass doors and watched me, glaring at me while I tried to ignore him. Finally, I forgot he was there.
Ian Singleton was born in southeast Michigan and has lived in Alabama and now in Massachusetts. He attends Emerson College in Boston as an MFA student and works as a librarian at Harvard University. He teaches in the PEN Prison Writing Program. He translated and published a story by Rainer Maria Rilke in Knock. A story of his appears in Conte Online.