From Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
Originally published in THE NEW YORKER (November 24, 2014)

LISTEN to Brad read “Eykelboom” for The New Yorker

Where had they come from, the Eykelbooms? The boys suspected Indiana, Illinois. Some crude and faceless Yankee state. The Eykelbooms had emerged and emigrated from it. It was a tiny, deeply threatening invasion. The boys watched them unpack their moving truck, which was actually a dump truck, their belongings piled into the bed and covered with a large heavy tarp. The truck belonged to Eykelboom’s father. No one else on the street owned a dump truck, and this might have been cool had the owner of the truck not been Eykelboom’s father.

They weren’t neighborly, of course, aside from Eykelboom himself, an only child, who tried to befriend the other boys, to no avail. His parents made no effort to help their son or to make any friends themselves. His mother almost never appeared outside the house, except for trips to the grocery store, and his father did only when he drove the dump truck to and from work, blowing his customized musical horn to announce his arrival, which everyone came to truly despise, or when he was mowing the grass on weekends. He did this shirtless, as if to show off his physique. He was tall, with a big rectangular head, a flattop haircut that wedged to a point over his small, square forehead, and droopy, arrogant eyes. Long loose limbs that looked apelike and strong, huge hands and feet, but thin and wiry legs as if he’d descended from a jackrabbit or some fleet herbivore. As he pushed the lawnmower back and forth across the grass, he sucked in his gut like a movie actor. You could always tell that it was sucked in because it wasn’t muscled, just smoothly concaved by the sucking. Eykelboom walked around doing the same thing, sucking in his belly, sticking out his chest, atop which stood the same long neck, slack face, flattop haircut. He was slighter and softer than his old man, gangly. He ran with his head thrown back, legs flailing, chest thrust forward as if to break the wire.

Eykelboom’s old man didn’t like Eykelboom much, either, which was a pretty awful thing, even to the boys.

The boys wore cutoff jeans and faded torn T-shirts, went barefoot or in begrimed old sneakers without socks. They had blackened fingernails and knuckles, tired-boy eyes, scarred knees and elbows and ears, snotty noses, unwashed hair spiked with sleep and itchy with sand, scabby stubbed toes, unbrushed teeth flecked with tomato peel and pieces of grass. They got around on foot or on one of a squad of banged-up bicycles that seemed interchangeable and were left crashed into shrubbery or tangled at the center of a forlorn front yard or askew in the street like the rusted remains of extinct, mechanized animals.

Eykelboom, neatly dressed, clean, quiet, was not a troublemaker, as far as the other boys could see. Yet every so often his father would come out of the house, call to him, and stand there waiting. Eykelboom’s face would blanch, he would freeze for a moment, then mutter something fatalistic and trudge over to his old man. Together they would turn and go into the house, and the boys wouldn’t see Eykelboom for a couple of days. They might see him being driven to school by his mother instead of taking the bus, but he never looked out the car window. At school, he kept his head down, staring at the book on his desk, sat alone in the cafeteria, and somehow disappeared at recess. Then one day he’d be back, attempting once again to be their friend. What he had done to bring down his father’s wrath no one knew. Some private transgression. But once the boys realized that they could use it against him they did.

Of course, it was common in those days for parents to hit their children, with everything from hairbrushes to toilet brushes, flyswatters, switches, bare palms, rolled newspapers, and folded belts. But, usually, there was a good and obvious reason.

The boys couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like Eykelboom’s old man did it just to do it, to keep the boy in check. Secretly, they envied him this. Their fathers were generally ineffective, weak. They were low-ranking white-collar, nervous, inattentive, soft, unhappy. In a way, they were not even there.

I’d like to see it, the older Harbour twin said. I’d like to watch.

That’s pretty sick, said Wayne, a brooding olive-skinned boy whose father was a temperamental judge whom everyone except Wayne seemed to fear. You’re a fucking freak, he said.

Wayne and the older twin wrestled, making high whining sounds, and then stopped when Wayne pinned the twin, who got up and walked off up the hill toward his house, sulking. Wayne stood there panting, looking after him. Then he stared for a while at Eykelboom’s house before heading off toward his own, without speaking to the other boys.

Eykelboom was not supposed to play in the big drainage ditch at the end of the street, down near the turnaround. It was not a cul-de-sac, as no one had ever heard the term. Plus a cul-de-sac should have houses rimming its perimeter, houses with neat yards and diagonally symmetrical lots, whereas one part of this turnaround was bordered by a bamboo-filled ravine; another by a dirt path that led to a small bass-and-bream lake infested with water moccasins; and a third section opened up to a big new house with a low-lying front yard that filled with brown water every heavy rain. Just before you reached the turnaround, on the north side of the street, a buried storm drainpipe that ran from the top of the hill down to the bottom emptied out into the drainage ditch. The sandy earth there had eroded into a small gully that threatened to undermine the street itself. The boys built dams in the storm runoff that came from the pipe, dug treacherous caves into the sandy bank, hid in the ditch to lob dirt clods at cars that had come down their street by mistake, thinking it a throughway. Their parents didn’t worry about the ditch, believing that the boys had sense enough (they did not) to be careful and look out for themselves. But Eykelboom’s family was from someplace very different, and Eykelboom’s old man did not allow him to run loose. He was expressly forbidden to go into the big drainage ditch.

Nor was he allowed to run loose in the dense tract of virgin forest that began just behind the houses on the north side of the street. These woods were owned by a cantankerous old man named Chandler, who lived in an old plantation-style house perched on the edge of the woods as if he were the resident troll whose mission it was to guard them. Chandler had once owned the land under the boys’ houses, too, before the developer bought it from him and paved what had been a dirt road to the lake and built a dozen small ranch-style houses on a dozen small lots, six on either side of the street. At the end of the turnaround was the big house that the developer had built for himself.

When Eykelboom declined to go into the woods, the boys called him a coward and headed in without him. He stood in the street and watched them cross a vacant lot to the section of barbed-wire fence where they normally entered the woods. Then he called out, Wait, I’m coming, and rushed to join them.

There was a creek that ran the length of the woods. At its lowest point it widened into a series of waist-deep, muddied pools, creating a swamp. In the clear, shallow areas of the creek higher up, there were minnows and tadpoles, and crawfish to catch. But the pools were murky and more likely to harbor snakes and snapping turtles, so the boys avoided them.

They took Eykelboom on a tour of their main trails through the woods. They pointed out areas that even they hadn’t explored, then doubled back and showed him the layout of the creek from near its source down to the pools. When the boys saw that he was standing on a spot that had been weakened by the creek’s current, they exchanged glances but said nothing. The bank gave way and Eykelboom plunged into a pool up to his belly. The boys pulled him up, but he was inconsolable.

My dad’s going to kill me, he said.

Why don’t you just get wet all over, and you can say someone sprayed you with a hose? the older Harbour twin said.

It won’t work, Eykelboom mumbled. It won’t matter.

Why don’t you just go change before he gets home from work?

She’d tell him.

Well, someone else said, we’d better hide out in the ditch and hope you can dry in the sun before your old man comes home.

“Are these the Top Ten Commandments?”

It was the younger (by five minutes) twin who said this. The twins were not identical. The younger one looked like a boring businessman shrunk to the size of a child. The older one was taller but as scrawny as a starved stray cur.

Eykelboom reminded them that the ditch would only make it worse. He looked like he was about to cry. A couple of the boys felt sorry for him, along with a vague annoyance.

Actually, Wayne said, the woods would be worse.

It’s not just someplace you’re not supposed to be, Wayne said. It’s trespassing. We could all go to jail just for being here.

The boys looked at Wayne. They knew that the woods’ owner, Mr. Chandler, hated them because they built forts and camped out in there and of course made campfires, which meant that they could potentially start a forest fire and burn it all down. This was a small and pristine forest where some older boys swore they’d seen an ivory-billed woodpecker, supposedly extinct for longer than the boys’ parents had been alive. But the boys’ parents seemed to think nothing of their trespassing in Mr. Chandler’s woods. If they knew that Chandler hated the boys being in there, they showed no sign. Chandler sometimes used his shotgun when he detected the boys’ presence in his woods, striding into his great back yard and firing off loads of bird shot that pecked down through the broad low canopy of leaves like a shower of rain. Once the middle McGowen brother took a pellet on the pad of his pinkie finger. The finger stayed swollen for a week. His older brother advised him to say it was a bee sting.

Now, after Wayne’s words, the boys were having visions of prosecution for trespassing, a previously unthinkable prospect. A squad of deputies would be dispatched to the woods to round them up and take them to juvie lockup, inking and logging their filthy little fingerprints, taking their urchinesque mug shots, interrogating them, hauling them to court, tossing them into some kind of Boys Town chaos of a prison.

Then Wayne said, There’s nothing else you can do. You have to go hide in the ditch. It’s too shady in here. You’ll dry out in the sun and your old man will never know.

The boys all knew he wouldn’t dry out there. It was a humid day. One of those days when their mothers had to leave the wash on the line for a second or third day to dry it fully. The boys knew that Eykelboom was fucked, either way, that it was just a brief matter of time before his old man would come home in his ridiculous vehicle, rolling down the hill blowing his ridiculous melodious horn as if everyone, as if anyone, would be delighted to know that he was home again, home again, and that as soon as he went into the house and said, Where’s Ikey? and Eykelboom’s mom said, I don’t know, he’s been out all afternoon with the other boys, Eykelboom’s old man would be out in the street himself, hands on his hips, so you could tell even with a T-shirt on that he was sucking in his gut to look like he did calisthenics and never ate anything other than raw lean meat, calling out Eykelboom’s name in a voice that said as clear as God’s that he was planning on putting some kind of hurt on Eykelboom.

They waited, squatting low, watching the dirty water trickle from the big pipe and down the drainage stream. Every few minutes one of them climbed up to peek over the rim of the ditch to see if a car was coming down the hill. On the far wall of the ditch were the ruins of the caves they’d built earlier in the summer. They’d built four of them. Wayne’s had been the most elaborate, with two chambers, the smaller just large enough for Wayne to crawl into and curl up like a baby. They’d come out one morning to find them all destroyed. Someone had taken a shovel and caved in the caves. Someone afraid that his child would be in there when the sandy soil above collapsed and smothered him. It could have been anyone, really, someone’s parent or even a city worker cruising by on inspection. But the boys knew it had been Eykelboom’s father. They imagined him sneaking down there in the middle of the night with a shovel and a flashlight. No one else had seemed to notice the caves. No one else hated the ditch. No one else was so aggressive. Their fathers did not take action. The boys’ fathers tended to ward off worldly trouble with idle, halfhearted swats as if at lazy bees. Eykelboom’s old man, although odd, even laughably weird, was potentially frightening, very humanly alive. They couldn’t even greet him, Hello, Mr. Eykelboom, without getting a smirk in return, as if they had tried to speak but had failed because they were retarded. Sometimes he even laughed at them. They were terrified of him. They wanted not to kill him but for something stronger than themselves to crush him.

A car came down the hill and the boys hunkered low. It whooshed past, fast and unseen, and turned in to the long drive of the developer’s house at the end of the turnaround. The developer and his wife zoomed up and down the street, and occasionally waved but never stopped. The boys had waved back when they were younger and the street was newer but they did not anymore. They realized that they were negligible. Occasionally someone’s dog or cat that lacked sense or agility was crushed beneath one of their big, sleek cars. The developer’s wife would come and apologize. She seemed gigantic, loud. Her teeth were enormous. They feared her. Like their parents, they toiled in the developer’s fields like serfs, outwardly quiet and obedient. They took out their need for violence upon one another.

After they heard the developer’s car door open and shut, they heard Eykelboom’s father’s dump truck turn onto their street. They heard it come over the top of the hill and slow with a throaty downshifting of gears, and heard the horn blow out its melody, the opening bar of “Dixie,” which was idiotic, not to mention deliberately provocative, given that he was from Indianaland. They heard the truck lunge into the Eykelbooms’ driveway and stop. They heard Eykelboom’s father get out and go into the house.

Eykelboom’s eyes in his long, heavy head were wide open, limpid, staring at nothing. He squatted there very still, wet and steaming in the sultry heat. Then they all heard the Eykelbooms’ front door open and shut again. Eykelboom seemed to be holding his breath, his lips trembling. His father called out in a hard low tenor, a voice all the stranger for being rarely heard in regular speech.

Emile! he called. Emile!

He called Eykelboom Ikey only when he wasn’t mad.

Eykelboom closed his eyes, took a deep breath through his nose, and let it out.

I better go on up, he said.

Wayne said, Let’s sneak out the back way into the woods.

The boys looked at Wayne. He was looking at Eykelboom in a way that was meant to seem very casual but was actually very intense, as if no one else were there but Eykelboom and Wayne.

Eykelboom said, It’ll just be worse if he has to come get me.

He squatted there a moment more, then stood and said, I’ll see you guys, and climbed the side of the ditch and onto the street. They could see his father standing beside the dump truck, waiting on Eykelboom, who trudged along like a boy condemned, arms at his sides, big flattop head hanging down. His father didn’t even glance at the boys peeking up over the edge of the ditch as he slowly pulled his belt from its loops, folded it in half, and stood waiting, yea, like an executioner, the leather belt hanging from his big, bony right hand, his wire-rimmed spectacles gleaming in the light. When Eykelboom reached him, neither said anything. The father turned and followed Eykelboom through the carport and into the house.

The younger twin said, derisively, You guys, in an exaggerated Yankee accent. Then his brother said, in the same tone, Emile. He said, He’s beating the shit out of Emile right now. The three McGowen boys said nothing, their small similar mouths squinched up.

“Do you have any idea how fast you were evolving?”

The middle brother looked at Wayne, who was staring at the Eykelbooms’ house with his eyes half-closed and his mouth slightly open, as if he were daydreaming or lobotomized or asleep on his feet. Then just his eyes moved and he was looking back at the middle brother, who felt electrified by his stare and struggled to look away.

It was a while before they saw Eykelboom again.

They almost forgot about him. They forgot to hate him.

Then one day he stepped out from behind a large shrub that grew wild in the middle of the vacant lot and followed them into the woods without their knowing it. One of their forts was a four-story tree house built with lumber stolen from an outbuilding below Mr. Chandler’s house. It was an old servants’ quarters that had been overtaken by kudzu and brush and it was far enough away from the main house and dilapidated enough that the boys had been able, like insects or spirits, to dismantle it from beneath the kudzu’s cover. They worked at it furtively, slipping pieces of the little house into the throat of the woods without once alerting Mr. Chandler.

On this day, one of the twins was on the roof for only a minute or so before coming back down.

He said, Eykelboom’s down there.

The boys were incensed that Eykelboom had followed them to this fort. It was their newest and grandest fort and they had not shown it to him when they had given their tour. Wayne climbed up through the lookout hole and then climbed back down. He looked at the oldest McGowen brother, who turned to the middle brother and said, Go down there and tell him to go away.

What if he asks to come up? the middle brother said.

He can’t come up, Wayne said. He’s not allowed.

Make him leave, the oldest brother said. Go on.

The youngest McGowen brother watched them from a dark corner, his eyes bright with excitement.

The middle brother slowly made his way down the ladder steps, floor by floor, and stuck his head out of the entrance hole when he reached the lowest level. There stood Eykelboom, gazing into the woods with a stoic, if forlorn, expression. The middle brother figured he had heard their discussion. Eykelboom fixed a strangely calm expression on him, and said nothing.

Ikey, the middle brother said. You have to go away.

That’s right, Emile, one of the twins said from inside the fort.

Eykelboom looked suddenly angry.

I’m not going away, he said.

I can’t let you in, the middle brother said.

You don’t have the right, Eykelboom said. I can stand here all day if I want to and you can’t do anything about it.

The middle brother pulled his head back through the entrance hole and looked at the other boys, who had climbed down to the first level to listen.

It’s a free country, Eykelboom said then, louder. Which was such a Yankee thing to say.

Fred-e-rick, Wayne said in a mock-tired way, drawing out the middle brother’s given name, a name that everyone knew he did not like. Climb down there and make him go away.

The middle brother whispered back, How?

Wayne’s eyelids fluttered. He was smoothing the paper on a cigarette he’d lifted from his old man’s pack. The boys had been planning to smoke it. Wayne put the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and spoke.

Beat. His. Ass.

The middle brother did not want to go down there and beat Eykelboom’s ass. Eykelboom was big, and like his brothers the middle McGowen was small. But he couldn’t not do it. He would become lower than Eykelboom. With a swelling of sadness and doom in his heart, he descended the two-by-four ladder to the ground.

Eykelboom had crossed his arms like a stubborn, determined person on a television show, like in a musical movie or something. He was even taller and broader than the middle McGowen brother had realized. He reached out and gave Eykelboom a push, to no real effect, and Eykelboom looked away, reddening. The middle brother pushed him again, harder, and Eykelboom let out a high-pitched wail of rage. He flailed at the middle brother with his long heavy arms, landed one big blow against the middle brother’s head, and turned to leave.

The middle brother caught up with Eykelboom and leaped onto his back as if he were riding piggyback. Eykelboom twirled like an off-kilter top but the middle brother hung on, afraid to let go. They spun toward one of the fort’s foundation trees and slammed up against it. The middle brother fell off without a word and Eykelboom ran away toward his house, keening in his outrage and grief. Possibly it was outraged grief. The middle McGowen brother lay on the ground, stunned. Wayne stuck his head through the entrance hole and looked down at him for a moment.

Way to go, he said. Come on up.

The middle brother roused himself slowly and climbed back into the fort. The boys lit and smoked Wayne’s cigarette, passing it around. The middle brother took a puff and passed it on.

You did good, his older brother said to him.

But he didn’t feel good about any of it. He was using every bit of will he had not to cry, which would have made it all even worse.

Eykelboom disappeared. He wintered in his brooding or became as spectral as a ghost, there but not there in any evidence. Then summer came again and he drifted or sifted back into visibility, though he kept himself peripheral and quiet. He didn’t try to merge. He didn’t speak much or look at anyone directly. He’d changed, still angry but also disaffected, detached. The boys saw him do things on his own. Leave his house and go into the ditch without apparent concern, then disappear out of it into some other place, down to the lake, or into the woods, emerging hours later seeming unchanged. Sometimes his old man would be waiting for him, sometimes not. It didn’t seem to matter. He affected or displayed a studied nonchalance, leaving his father to look weak somehow as he stood waiting in the driveway holding his belt, or just balling up his rawboned workingman’s hands as if they contained all his rage, his face showing nothing.

Once Eykelboom stayed out in the woods all night at one of the boys’ forts, the oldest one, now abandoned deep in the woods. The boys found the evidence days later. Ashes and burned logs in the pit from a fire they hadn’t made. A ball of blackened foil in the ashes that had helped cook something they hadn’t eaten. What looked like Eykelboom’s big sneakers’ prints in the soft dirt around the pit. How he had got away with that, they had no idea. Then they realized that he probably hadn’t but didn’t care.

Things began to happen. The long-abandoned shack on the lake’s far bank burned down. It had once been a caretaker’s cabin. The boys had planned to steal its lumber for a new fort. The police, in the paper, called it arson. A girl’s stolen bike was found down in the bamboo, looking as if someone had smashed its frame with a sledgehammer. A row of new saplings in the Porters’ immaculate yard was destroyed, every trunk snapped. The twins’ dog Bummer, a giant golden retriever so ancient that he never left the carport anymore, vanished one night, his body never found. The boys knew it was Eykelboom. Wayne went up to him and said so.

He said, We know it’s you doing all this crazy shit.

So what if it is? Eykelboom said.

So you’ll pay for it, Wayne said.

Says who?

“Is there a doctor in the house, and more important, another magician?
If you killed Bummer, the older twin said, you deserve to die.

Eykelboom stood there with his chest poked out, like his old man, staring back at Wayne.

Says me, Wayne said. Says we.

You can’t hurt me, Eykelboom said. You can’t prove I did anything. And you don’t hate me any more than I hate you. So fuck you.

None of the boys had ever actually had those particular words said directly to them before, nor had they quite used them yet. Wayne stood chest to chest with Eykelboom. Then Wayne gave him that half smile and walked away. Eykelboom didn’t move. He looked around at the other boys. They looked back for a moment and then went home. Before going into the house with his brothers, the middle McGowen brother glanced back. Eykelboom was still there in the fading light in the vacant lot across the street from his house, looking at nothing.