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  • A Cruel Gap-Toothed Boy
  • Matthew Baker (bio)

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Photo by Denna Jones

In seventh grade this “Nate Vanderveen” chose to lavish our niece with flowering weeds, with convenience-store chocolates, with love notes written on the back of homework he hadn’t done, but now in ninth grade this “Nate” chooses to lavish her with curses (“Go fuck a dog, prude”), ridicule (“My tits are bigger than that bitch’s”) [End Page 134] and slander (“Emma sucked me off once too”). He is what in the eighteenth century they would have called a “brute,” a “ruffian,” a “goon,” what in the twenty-first century they now call a “thug.” Kenneth thinks the boy is antisocial, meaning psychopathic, once saw the boy perched on the roof of his family’s cottage preparing to hurl a stray cat [End Page 135] onto the driveway three stories below. We live in a village on the shore of Lake Michigan. I am a lexicographer; my brother is a professor of dead languages. His expertise is the words from these languages for which English has no equivalent. Kenneth uses these words when he can, although it is rare that he finds the occasion. This “Nate” is such an occasion. Kenneth refers to the boy as kimlee, which best translated means “foe-who-has-chosen-you”; this makes Kenneth the boy’s kimloo, or “foe-you-have-chosen.” We live in a state once affluent from its industries of handcrafted furniture and gasoline automobiles, a state now impoverished as plastic and polyester replace wood and leather, as the pumpjacks of other states drain what’s left of the dwindling petroleum in our nation’s reservoirs. It is a state in which it is rare for a forty-something man to refer to a fourteen-year-old boy as his foe, regardless of the language used to do so. In the eighteenth century we might have challenged the boy to a duel by pistols, but it is the twenty-first century, and in Michigan, as in nineteen other states in our nation, dueling is illegal—dueling and all other “consensual altercations.”

But the boy spits in Emma’s face in the cafeteria, bullies her friends into deserting her, scribbles elaborate drawings of an elderly and childless Emma living alone (“like your gay uncles used to”) with labels attached to the indicators of loneliness he’s chosen to include there (“cats” “hate mail from your neighbors” “cat food that you have to eat too cause you’re so poor” “more cats” “dildo you hump thinking about wrinkly grandfather dicks” “more cats”) and slips these drawings through the slot in her locker door and then walks away whistling as if he were a kindly old mail carrier instead of a cruel gap-toothed boy who reeks of mildew and reeks of sweat and has just found another way to traumatize the same girl he’s left sobbing in various classrooms and hallways several times this week alone.

The school principal is of no use, cannot do or refuses to do anything other than occasionally suspend this “Nate” for a handful of school days, which to a boy of that sort is more holiday than exile, giving him schoolless days on which he must do nothing aside from wander the beach throwing rocks at boats he doesn’t own and plotting how he might next make Emma hate herself a little bit more. The boy has a gift of transformation: in weeks he has transformed Emma from a girl unashamed of her braces, a girl unashamed of her brother’s lisp, a girl who loved reading books with dragons on their covers, into a girl who refuses to enter [End Page 136] the public library, a girl who will not sit next to her brother on the bus, a girl who will not smile for fear of showing her teeth. Kenneth and I too are transformed. We were timid men, not prone to brooding, not prone to fantasies of batting at a fourteen-year-old’s knees with a shovel, of snapping teeth from a fourteen-year-old’s gums. We were men...


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pp. 134-157
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