Cover image for Tender as hellfire
Title:
Tender as hellfire
Author:
Meno, Joe.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
244 pages ; 22 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780312200510
Format :
Book

Available:*

Library
Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Status
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Library
Searching...
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Searching...

On Order

Summary

Summary

In Tender as Hellfire , first-time novelist Joe Meno limns a near-fantastical world of trailer park floozies, broken-down '76 Impalas, lost glass eyes, and the daily experiences of two boys trying to make sense out of their random, sharp lives. Dough and Pill are brothers bound by more than blood. The anguish of their past, the terror of their present, and the uncertainty of their future all underscore the only truth that is within their grasp: Each other. For beneath the cruel surface of their trailer park community lies a menagerie of odd characters, each one strange yet somehow beautiful. There's Val, the blowsy bottle blonde who shows surprising maternal instincts when the boys need it most. And El Ray del Perdito, the "Undisputed King of the Tango," a widow who dances nightly imagining his wife in his arms, as Dough peers through the window contemplating a love that seems not to die. In Tender as Hellfire it is the unexpected beauty that means the most, and this important literary debut provides all the beauty and pain that we can bear.


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

To get a sense of Meno's first novel, imagine a boy's worst fears (the death of a parent and moving to a new town) then compound the nightmare with a dose of the Southern grotesque: a mother who swings, a brother who sets fires, a local deputy who may be the Devil himself. Dough, Meno's 10-year-old hero, is as pliant and impressionable as his name implies: young enough to be wetting the bed and old enough to feel sexual stirrings in the presence of his babysitter. The episodic plot contains many lasting images, such as a green glass eye intended for one of the town's richest ladies but passed among children in the meantime. And scenes set in an abandoned barn offer some of the most visceral visions of Hell found in contemporary fiction. Although the novel suffers from occasional point-of-view problems and an overblown, bloody ending, Dough's sympathetic first-person voice--rough and repetitive and intense as a dog's growl--is evidence that Meno is a writer with promise. --James Klise


Publisher's Weekly Review

A trailer park in the Plains town of Tenderloin is the setting of this crusty coming-of-age debut, which features some of the liveliest characters just this side of believable that one is apt to meet in a contemporary novel. The first-person narrator is a moral but susceptible 11-year-old called Dough, who lusts after his fifth-grade teacher and idolizes his trouble-making older brother, Pill-Bug. The boys, who are new to the town and shamed by the stigma of living in a trailer, were named by a father who wanted them to remain tough and who ended up dying while smuggling cigarettes along a Texas highway. Their mother and her new boyfriend, French, are low-life swingers, allowing the siblings to spend nights with Val, who entertains a slew of men but whom Dough worships as a virginal Madonna. Dough's own adoring friend is Lottie, a slightly deranged girl who offers Dough a gift of one of her taxidermist father's specimens; meanwhile, Pill-Bug earns a special affection from Lunna, a high school's floozy. Each character is vividly described (sometimes exhaustingly so) in one vignette or several, as are Chief, the Native American gas station owner who sells Dough cigarettes and tells a story of male initiation; Shilo, the fight-scarred dog with three legs and one eye; and El Rey del Perdito, the "King of the Tango," who dances all night to avoid mourning his dead wife. Often charming if sometimes overwritten, the novel is full of labyrinthine explanations and bizarre details delivered in poetic language. Meno's passionate new voice makes him a writer to watch. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

tenderloin They split us up at the end of summer. Now most people will call you a liar if you tell them a truth they don't want to hear, but I know me and I know my brother and looking back before our bare-legged Val left town all covered in dull blue bruises or Shilo got shot in the neck or the Deputy just damn disappeared, before my brother lit a perfect match to the Devil's hot-toothed hatred before any of that, they decided to split us up, and I guess that was where all the trouble really began. "This place is Hell. This place is shit." My brother, Pill, shook his head, agreeing with himself, I guess, as he lit the match. There was that sharp striking sound of the match-head against the thin strip of flint, snappppp, then the big red blossom of fire that crinkled down along the black match's spine. He held the flame to the end of his cool smokin' Marlboro and inhaled, taking a long drag that crept out of the side of his mouth in a quick spurt. We spent that first lousy morning before the first day of school in a lousy new town, smoking in the dirt, taking deep drags on my older brother's stolen unfiltered cigarettes. We sat right behind our lousy new mobile home in the square shadow of our dirty gray trailer, the one that shone dull with old aluminum siding and refused to sit level on its concrete blocks. Pill tapped another square out of the pack and handed it to me, then struck the flame from the match-cover and lit the cigarette that jutted from the end of my lip. "This place sucks," I grunted, coughing up some smoke through my nose. I was ten back then, Pill-Bug had just turned thirteen, and as I remember it, there wasn't anything better than sitting in the dusty gray gravel of Hell's sweet mobile home, sharing a cool smokin' square with my older brother, not because he was especially talkative or insightful or anything like that, but he was always good for some stolen cigarettes or a new dirty word or two. He had on his blue stocking cap, half pulled down over his eyes, down to the long red-and-black scab that ran where one eyebrow should have been, a wound he got by lighting our neighbor's hedge on fire the day before we moved out of Duluth. Pill had his legs spread out in front of him as he laid back against the concrete base of the trailer, staring at his dirty brown shoes. I finished buttoning up my brand-new school shirt, my brother's old red-and-black flannel that was long enough for me to half-tuck in my underwear. Nothing in those stolen cigarettes or dirty old clothes gave us a portent that we might both be doomed, doomed past any of our years, or any of the barely felonious things our poor dirty hands had already done. "Do you know what a girl's tittie smells like?" Pill asked, staring up into the cool blue sky, taking a long drag that turned the length of his cigarette gray. I kind of shrugged my shoulders. "Well, yes or no?" He squinted, leaning forward. "No. Guess not," I mumbled. "It smells like sweat. It smells the same as the rest of her sweet naked body parts." This made me suck my teeth in reply. "Get to school!!!!" my mother shouted, shaking her poor white fist, hollering from inside the godawful silver trailer. A goddamn trailer. Back in Duluth, we had had a whole damn house to ourselves. Pill and I had had our own beds. Now in this lousy dump we had to share a crummy brown and blue bunk bed. My older brother got the top bunk after a short skirmish that ended up with him sitting on my neck. The damn toilet in the trailer kept backing up until a drowned rat finally floated up. There were hard-bellied silverfish crawling all over the goddamn floor. The nearest comic book and baseball card shop was forty-three miles away in a town called Aubrey. Nothing in this lousy place was any damn good. My mother's goddamn boyfriend, French, had gotten a supervisor's position at the meat-packing plant in this horrible town of Tenderloin and my mother packaged us all up to move hundreds of miles into a lousy goddamn trailer and now we were all going to be in Hell, unhappy as spit altogether. "You better be going!!" my mother shouted again, knocking the gray screen door open. My brother hoisted his bookbag over his shoulders and I followed, kicking up dirt at each other as we headed toward the two new lousy schools. There in Tenderloin they sure split me and my brother up good. Pill and me had been going to the same school ever since I'd been attending, but here they sent me to the Tenderloin Elementary, and him to Tenderloin High School, even though he had never graduated eighth grade back in Duluth. He would have graduated, but he was always on some sort of probation from all the fistfights he was always getting into, and finally his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Henckel, this ghastly ol' hag, who I'd say had it out for ol' Pill-Bug, found near a dozen porno magazines and a single box of cool smokin' Marlboro cigarettes in his locker. They threw him out just a week before graduation, no matter how much my mother pleaded, glad as hell, I bet. Three days, though. That's all it took before Pill tried to light one of those damn farm-grown, meat-eating bastards on fire. To be honest, I didn't think he'd last that long. Back in Duluth, he used to get in a fight almost every day with some dumb fool or another. My brother, Pill, he liked to get in fistfights, don't ask me why, but here in Tenderloin, he waited three days before starting any trouble. It all began at lunchtime. I guess the Tenderloin High School was small enough so everyone had to eat all at once in this big cafeteria that was all painted red and white, the damn school colors. The walls were decorated with this big painting of a side of beef with little arms and legs, right with the school logo, "Fightin' Meat Packers." All these dumb farm kids must have been going to school together since they were born, heck, all of them were probably cousins or half-sisters or whatever. They all had the same dumb square-looking faces and grunted the same kind of dumb animal drone anyway. All the big ugly football players had their own lunchtable, and the cheerleaders had their own, too, the snotty student council kids, and big red-haired, red-lipped slutty girls each had their own nice big rectangle table, then in the corner was this round table with a broken leg where all the losers and faggots were sent to sit. Pill was no faggot, I'll attest to that, he might have been so crazy about girls that he would have masturbated every hour on the hour if he could, but he was the new kid in school, so the only spot he could find was at the table in the corner there. There was this huge, flabby fat white girl, Candy, her name was Candy, I'm not lying, she filled up half one side of the table, her big white gelatinous blob of a body kind of undulated and wavered above her three trays of food, mostly snack items and ungodly helpings of sloppy joes that left deep orange stains all over her fat digits and round, formless chin. Then there was Kenny, who rode the short bus to school; he had grabbed a kite string off an electrical wire and fried his brain good. He had to ride around in an electric wheelchair and wear a big white protective helmet. Kenny was a real bastard, though. People didn't like him because he used to try to run you down in the hall between classes, or sometimes, I guess, during football games, he'd ride around the track and no one would try to stop him because they all thought he was damn near retarded anyway. There was some flitty kids and some real brainiac types who didn't even bother eating lunch because they were so worried about studying and getting good grades and getting the hell out of Tenderloin. Then there was my brother, Pill, who didn't fit anywhere there at all. He was short and dirty and mostly mean-looking. He still had only one eyebrow and a huge red scab in the other eyebrow's place. He wore his dirty black drawers and a gray flannel jacket and his godawful blue stocking cap that no one could convince him to take off, because his hair was still growing back from the fire and there was still a bald spot big as a fist right on the crown of his head. "Faggot," one of these big, real square-faced meat-fed farm boys mumbled, standing over ol' Pill. My brother didn't even look up. He just shoveled another helping of greasy black meatloaf over his lips and swallowed, staring across the table. A few more of these big football-types with their red-and-white varsity jackets and big dumb grins gathered around, grunting and smiling to themselves. Poor fat Candy squealed and folded in on herself like some sort of flesh-filled jellyfish. Kenny and the other losers at the table just got all quiet and pretended to be finishing their lunches. "I called you a faggot," this big square-faced one, Rudy, I guess his name was, all embroidered there in white on his lettermen's jacket, grunted again. "Faggot!!!" My brother kept eating, cleaning his plate, shaking his head to himself a little. Then he stood and stared right in this bastard's face without saying a word. Rudy grabbed him by the front of his flannel shirt and shook him. "Tell me you're a faggot and I'll leave you alone. Go ahead. Tell me." Now that was one thing ol' Pill-Bug couldn't stand, quiet and crazy as he was, he didn't like anyone touching him or his stuff. He snarled his dirty pink lips and clenched his fists, kind of staring at this big dumb farm-boy's jugular vein, gripping a dull plastic fork in his trembling hand. A teacher or lunch room monitor stared over at them both, eyeballing them hard, Rudy holding Pill there, my poor brother almost foaming at the damn mouth, and shouted something. "Break it up over there," the glassy-eyed lunch monitor mumbled in a lazy tone. Rudy smiled and nodded then pulled my brother close. "Faggot," Rudy repeated, letting my brother go. He shoved Pill just once and swiped the blue stocking cap from his still-bald head. Jesus. My poor brother just froze with shock and horror. His blue eyes went wide and shallow as he glanced around the lunch room. Everyone was looking at the huge blot of red skin where his curly black hair hadn't grown back. All these goddamn cheerleaders and sluts and student council kids and football players were mumbling and giggling and pointing right at him. "You will all die!!!!!!!!!" he shouted. Then he let out a howl and ran out through the lunch room doors, screaming like a madman, down the hall, knocking over a garbage can, tearing a Homecoming poster off the wall. He ran right into the boy's bathroom, he hissed and swung his fist through the first mirror he could see and then jumped out the window into some hedges and ran across the football field toward the trailer park, still screaming and tearing anything up that fell in his path. That was his first day at school. Jesus. My first day was just as lousy. My teacher was this real sexy type, Ms. Nelson, boy, her legs were longer than me, the whole damn class all I could think about was her long white legs, she just kept smiling and laughing and sitting on the corner of her desk and talking about getting good grades or not being late or any of it, just sitting there being nothing but beautiful. Her hair was all straight and black and long down her back. Her eyes were so blue and covered by these nice glasses. She wore this short flowered dress that hung just over her knees, man, I was in heaven, heaven, until she took out the fifth-grade roster and started calling out names for attendance in her sweet honey-coated voice. I kind of slunk in my chair, shaking my head, trying to disappear. Ms. Nelson worked her way through the alphabet. There was damn near half-a-dozen Jo-Jos and Jimmys and Mary Lous in my class, then she passed the Is and then the Js and then the Ks and then her perfect pink mouth opened like a rose when she said my name. "Dough?" My heart snapped in my chest. Her crystal-lit eyes scanned the room, over the sweaty-dirty rounded heads of ten-year-olds, through the virtual forest of pigtails and sprouting pony-tails, right to me. Her pink, pink lips parted a smile as she called my name again. "Dough Lunt? Is your name Dough?" Everyone in the damn class turned around and stared right at me, all these Jimmy-Joes and Suzy Qs and Huckleberry Hounds, all of them, dumb and round-headed and glazed from all the damn meat their mothers must have fed them for breakfast. I kind of raised my head just enough to nod and then slumped back down to the desk. "Please say 'Present' if you're here, Dough." Her eyes suddenly seemed meaner and blacker. Her one eye-brow cocked over her glass frames as she stared down at me. This was bad. There was no way she'd be mine this way. "Present," I murmured, and dropped my head between my arms, feeling my heart shriveling up in my chest. "You're new here in town aren't you?" she asked. Jesus. It wasn't bad enough all these damn meat-breeders knew my name, now she was going to introduce me. I nodded slowly and stared at Ms. Nelson's smooth white face for some sort of reprieve. "Why don't we welcome Dough to Tenderloin Elementary by giving him a nice 'Hello'?" The whole class let out a sigh and the palest, weakest chorus of voices rose from the room. "Hello, Dough." The dumb, three pig-tailed girl next to me squinted and stared at me. "What type of name is that?" I shrugged my shoulders. My old man had been some sort of madman to insist on such a name for his kin. I wasn't named after some famous relative, neither was my poor brother, we were the victims of my old man's all-seeing plan for our life-long portentous humiliation. Me and my brother had been in some uncountable number of fistfights because of our lousy names. They were like two huge magnets that hung around our necks, attracting all kinds of trouble, I guess. "That ain't a Christian name," this girl frowned. I turned and stared her hard in the eyes. Her eyes were brown and kind of crossed. Her hair was blond and pulled so tightly in those three rubber bands that her forehead looked stretched. She smelled mostly like urine and dirt. "I bet you live in the trailer park, don't ya?" she whispered. I tried to ignore her. "No. Just be quiet." "You like living in the trailer park? My father says there's nothing but trash living out there." I shook my head slowly. What was wrong with these people? They were all some sort of a string of lunatics. Ms. Nelson finished off the class roster and began writing something on the board. Her thin white slip showed between her legs as she moved, reaching up on her toes. I sighed to myself. "Did you come from Nevada? My father says everyone's crazy out there." "Do you ever shut up? Do you?!!" Ms. Nelson turned around, staring right through the rows of sleeping faces, right to me. She glanced down at the roster and nodded. "Dough, do you have something to share with the rest of the class?" "This girl here won't shut up!" "Lottie, is that true?" Lottie, this goddamn piss-girl with three blond pig-tails, just smiled and shrugged her shoulders, staring at me like I was crazy. "Both of you will be quiet from now on, understood?" I nodded. This was no way to win the heart of a woman like that. The nice thing about living in the trailer park was not having to mow the lawn. Mowing the lawn was a real damn pain. But here there was nothing but gravel and dirt. My mother had laid out some orange pots of flowers all around the front of our trailer, but she wasn't fooling anyone. The trailer park was ugly in all our hearts, and no number of flower pots could change that. I came home from my first day of school, dragging my book-bag in the dirt. My mother's boyfriend, French, was working on the big black 1972 Impala he had on cement blocks in front of our trailer. The car itself was a real beauty, but it was all gutted out, its poor metal innards were strewn all about the dusty gray front of our trailer, disconnected and hopeless as hell. The engine had never even turned over. Hopeless. Really hopeless. Poor French had bought it from some slimeball back in Duluth who promised to help him rebuild it, but then the dirtbag split town as soon as French paid the car off. Now old French had to walk to work. The plant was only a mile or so away, and most days he could get a ride with someone if he stood out on the road and hitched. My mother had her own car, a nice blue Corolla hatchback with rusted-out wheel wells and a dangling muffler that she drove to her job at the beauty parlor. My mother's car was in a poor state. My old man probably turned over in his grave every time that muffler dragged. He had been a real man with the tools. He had been too proud to let the damn muffler drag on his bride's old car. "Hey there, Dough, feel like giving me a hand? Hold the flash-light for me?" French was all bent over the hood of the car. His face was all greased up and sweaty. He held the yellow flashlight in one hand and an open can of beer in the other. This man was the damn reason for all my troubles. He was a square guy, really, the least dangerous of all my mother's boyfriends, but there was no way I was about to offer any of my help to the same person who was solely responsible for taking away my own damn bedroom. "I got homework, French." "All right, chief, that's what I like to see. Smart man like you hitting the books. Your mother will be proud." "Sure." My mother had a real swell dinner cooked for us, on account of our first day being at new schools and all that. She had made some blackish meatloaf with a raw egg cooked right in the middle and a horrible gray spinach salad or something hellacious like that, but both me and my brother passed and just went to our new room, lying on our lousy new beds, half the size of our old beds, neither of us uttering a goddamn word. "You boys alright in there? Not hungry tonight?" my mother shouted through her caked-on red lipstick and the thin wood door. "Ate at school," Pill-Bug lied, shaking his head. "I got homework," I grunted, turning on my belly. There were loud, silver-toothed crickets scraping their files outside our tiny square window, breathing heavily in any direction, just as sad and hopeless as us, staring up into the darkness. Me, I fell asleep in my school clothes, watching a thin daddy longlegs crossing the ceiling on its tiptoes. My old pillow didn't even smell the same. The next day, heck, the next day, Pill and me ate some dough-nuts for breakfast and walked to school without saying a word until we got to the intersection where he had to walk three blocks to the high school and me another block to the elementary school. "This place sure sucks," I kind of mumbled. Pill nodded. "This town is full of assholes." Just then I noticed he had a red stocking cap on instead of his trusty old blue hat. His blue hat. He always wore his blue hat. "Hey, where's your blue hat?" "I lost it." "Lost it? But . . ." "I said I lost it, okay?" He heaved his bookbag over his shoulder and turned down the block toward his high school. That's when I knew there was going to be some sort of trouble. His eyes had that faraway look in them like he was thinking. Like he was looking ahead to something that was about to unfold at the end of his dirty fingertips. Pill just wandered through his classes until lunch, he bought a plate of mashed potatoes and some french fries, then took a seat at the reject table right in the corner. Harlo Mullet, one of those fat, round-headed freckled kids who had probably been picked on since he was born, kind of giggled to himself as Pill sat down. Harlo Mullet got picked on not only because he was fat and round-headed but because he had chronic nosebleeds and used to draw blood and sweat all over his poor, poor self on a daily basis. Pill-Bug didn't pay the fat sweaty kid any mind. About midway through the lunch hour, the same big dumb football player, Rudy, came right up to the loser table, this time waving my brother's blue hat right in his damn face. Pill kind of ignored him for a while, then he began snarling and growling like a sick dog, snatching at the cap as the Rudy-guy kind of jerked it away. It was awful. Everyone in the damn cafeteria was watching and grinning, maybe even some of the lunch monitors, they just sat there and giggled, even Harlo Mullet and all of the reject kids, because for once, no one was picking on them. Pill leapt to his feet, digging his hands around this kid's throat, who just happened to be twice his damn size. The guy, Rudy, shoved my brother's head right down into his plate of brown gravy and mashed potatoes without too much effort at all. tenderloin They split us up at the end of summer. Now most people will call you a liar if you tell them a truth they don't want to hear, but I know me and I know my brother and looking back before our bare-legged Val left town all covered in dull blue bruises or Shilo got shot in the neck or the Deputy just damn disappeared, before my brother lit a perfect match to the Devil's hot-toothed hatred before any of that, they decided to split us up, and I guess that was where all the trouble really began. "This place is Hell. This place is shit." My brother, Pill, shook his head, agreeing with himself, I guess, as he lit the match. There was that sharp striking sound of the match-head against the thin strip of flint, snappppp, then the big red blossom of fire that crinkled down along the black match's spine. He held the flame to the end of his cool smokin' Marlboro and inhaled, taking a long drag that crept out of the side of his mouth in a quick spurt. We spent that first lousy morning before the first day of school in a lousy new town, smoking in the dirt, taking deep drags on my older brother's stolen unfiltered cigarettes. We sat right behind our lousy new mobile home in the square shadow of our dirty gray trailer, the one that shone dull with old aluminum siding and refused to sit level on its concrete blocks. Pill tapped another square out of the pack and handed it to me, then struck the flame from the match-cover and lit the cigarette that jutted from the end of my lip. "This place sucks," I grunted, coughing up some smoke through my nose. I was ten back then, Pill-Bug had just turned thirteen, and as I remember it, there wasn't anything better than sitting in the dusty gray gravel of Hell's sweet mobile home, sharing a cool smokin' square with my older brother, not because he was especially talkative or insightful or anything like that, but he was always good for some stolen cigarettes or a new dirty word or two. He had on his blue stocking cap, half pulled down over his eyes, down to the long red-and-black scab that ran where one eyebrow should have been, a wound he got by lighting our neighbor's hedge on fire the day before we moved out of Duluth. Pill had his legs spread out in front of him as he laid back against the concrete base of the trailer, staring at his dirty brown shoes. I finished buttoning up my brand-new school shirt, my brother's old red-and-black flannel that was long enough for me to half-tuck in my underwear. Nothing in those stolen cigarettes or dirty old clothes gave us a portent that we might both be doomed, doomed past any of our years, or any of the barely felonious things our poor dirty hands had already done. "Do you know what a girl's tittie smells like?" Pill asked, staring up into the cool blue sky, taking a long drag that turned the length of his cigarette gray. I kind of shrugged my shoulders. "Well, yes or no?" He squinted, leaning forward. "No. Guess not," I mumbled. "It smells like sweat. It smells the same as the rest of her sweet naked body parts." This made me suck my teeth in reply. "Get to school!!!!" my mother shouted, shaking her poor white fist, hollering from inside the godawful silver trailer. A goddamn trailer. Back in Duluth, we had had a whole damn house to ourselves. Pill and I had had our own beds. Now in this lousy dump we had to share a crummy brown and blue bunk bed. My older brother got the top bunk after a short skirmish that ended up with him sitting on my neck. The damn toilet in the trailer kept backing up until a drowned rat finally floated up. There were hard-bellied silverfish crawling all over the goddamn floor. The nearest comic book and baseball card shop was forty-three miles away in a town called Aubrey. Nothing in this lousy place was any damn good. My mother's goddamn boyfriend, French, had gotten a supervisor's position at the meat-packing plant in this horrible town of Tenderloin and my mother packaged us all up to move hundreds of miles into a lousy goddamn trailer and now we were all going to be in Hell, unhappy as spit altogether. "You better be going!!" my mother shouted again, knocking the gray screen door open. My brother hoisted his bookbag over his shoulders and I followed, kicking up dirt at each other as we headed toward the two new lousy schools. There in Tenderloin they sure split me and my brother up good. Pill and me had been going to the same school ever since I'd been attending, but here they sent me to the Tenderloin Elementary, and him to Tenderloin High School, even though he had never graduated eighth grade back in Duluth. He would have graduated, but he was always on some sort of probation from all the fistfights he was always getting into, and finally his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Henckel, this ghastly ol' hag, who I'd say had it out for ol' Pill-Bug, found near a dozen porno magazines and a single box of cool smokin' Marlboro cigarettes in his locker. They threw him out just a week before graduation, no matter how much my mother pleaded, glad as hell, I bet. Three days, though. That's all it took before Pill tried to light one of those damn farm-grown, meat-eating bastards on fire. To be honest, I didn't think he'd last that long. Back in Duluth, he used to get in a fight almost every day with some dumb fool or another. My brother, Pill, he liked to get in fistfights, don't ask me why, but here in Tenderloin, he waited three days before starting any trouble. It all began at lunchtime. I guess the Tenderloin High School was small enough so everyone had to eat all at once in this big cafeteria that was all painted red and white, the damn school colors. The walls were decorated with this big painting of a side of beef with little arms and legs, right with the school logo, "Fightin' Meat Packers." All these dumb farm kids must have been going to school together since they were born, heck, all of them were probably cousins or half-sisters or whatever. They all had the same dumb square-looking faces and grunted the same kind of dumb animal drone anyway. All the big ugly football players had their own lunchtable, and the cheerleaders had their own, too, the snotty student council kids, and big red-haired, red-lipped slutty girls each had their own nice big rectangle table, then in the corner was this round table with a broken leg where all the losers and faggots were sent to sit. Pill was no faggot, I'll attest to that, he might have been so crazy about girls that he would have masturbated every hour on the hour if he could, but he was the new kid in school, so the only spot he could find was at the table in the corner there. There was this huge, flabby fat white girl, Candy, her name was Candy, I'm not lying, she filled up half one side of the table, her big white gelatinous blob of a body kind of undulated and wavered above her three trays of food, mostly snack items and ungodly helpings of sloppy joes that left deep orange stains all over her fat digits and round, formless chin. Then there was Kenny, who rode the short bus to school; he had grabbed a kite string off an electrical wire and fried his brain good. He had to ride around in an electric wheelchair and wear a big white protective helmet. Kenny was a real bastard, though. People didn't like him because he used to try to run you down in the hall between classes, or sometimes, I guess, during football games, he'd ride around the track and no one would try to stop him because they all thought he was damn near retarded anyway. There was some flitty kids and some real brainiac types who didn't even bother eating lunch because they were so worried about studying and getting good grades and getting the hell out of Tenderloin. Then there was my brother, Pill, who didn't fit anywhere there at all. He was short and dirty and mostly mean-looking. He still had only one eyebrow and a huge red scab in the other eyebrow's place. He wore his dirty black drawers and a gray flannel jacket and his godawful blue stocking cap that no one could convince him to take off, because his hair was still growing back from the fire and there was still a bald spot big as a fist right on the crown of his head. "Faggot," one of these big, real square-faced meat-fed farm boys mumbled, standing over ol' Pill. My brother didn't even look up. He just shoveled another helping of greasy black meatloaf over his lips and swallowed, staring across the table. A few more of these big football-types with their red-and-white varsity jackets and big dumb grins gathered around, grunting and smiling to themselves. Poor fat Candy squealed and folded in on herself like some sort of flesh-filled jellyfish. Kenny and the other losers at the table just got all quiet and pretended to be finishing their lunches. "I called you a faggot," this big square-faced one, Rudy, I guess his name was, all embroidered there in white on his lettermen's jacket, grunted again. "Faggot!!!" My brother kept eating, cleaning his plate, shaking his head to himself a little. Then he stood and stared right in this bastard's face without saying a word. Rudy grabbed him by the front of his flannel shirt and shook him. "Tell me you're a faggot and I'll leave you alone. Go ahead. Tell me." Now that was one thing ol' Pill-Bug couldn't stand, quiet and crazy as he was, he didn't like anyone touching him or his stuff. He snarled his dirty pink lips and clenched his fists, kind of staring at this big dumb farm-boy's jugular vein, gripping a dull plastic fork in his trembling hand. A teacher or lunch room monitor stared over at them both, eyeballing them hard, Rudy holding Pill there, my poor brother almost foaming at the damn mouth, and shouted something. "Break it up over there," the glassy-eyed lunch monitor mumbled in a lazy tone. Rudy smiled and nodded then pulled my brother close. "Faggot," Rudy repeated, letting my brother go. He shoved Pill just once and swiped the blue stocking cap from his still-bald head. Jesus. My poor brother just froze with shock and horror. His blue eyes went wide and shallow as he glanced around the lunch room. Everyone was looking at the huge blot of red skin where his curly black hair hadn't grown back. All these goddamn cheerleaders and sluts and student council kids and football players were mumbling and giggling and pointing right at him. "You will all die!!!!!!!!!" he shouted. Then he let out a howl and ran out through the lunch room doors, screaming like a madman, down the hall, knocking over a garbage can, tearing a Homecoming poster off the wall. He ran right into the boy's bathroom, he hissed and swung his fist through the first mirror he could see and then jumped out the window into some hedges and ran across the football field toward the trailer park, still screaming and tearing anything up that fell in his path. That was his first day at school. Jesus. My first day was just as lousy. My teacher was this real sexy type, Ms. Nelson, boy, her legs were longer than me, the whole damn class all I could think about was her long white legs, she just kept smiling and laughing and sitting on the corner of her desk and talking about getting good grades or not being late or any of it, just sitting there being nothing but beautiful. Her hair was all straight and black and long down her back. Her eyes were so blue and covered by these nice glasses. She wore this short flowered dress that hung just over her knees, man, I was in heaven, heaven, until she took out the fifth-grade roster and started calling out names for attendance in her sweet honey-coated voice. I kind of slunk in my chair, shaking my head, trying to disappear. Ms. Nelson worked her way through the alphabet. There was damn near half-a-dozen Jo-Jos and Jimmys and Mary Lous in my class, then she passed the Is and then the Js and then the Ks and then her perfect pink mouth opened like a rose when she said my name. "Dough?" My heart snapped in my chest. Her crystal-lit eyes scanned the room, over the sweaty-dirty rounded heads of ten-year-olds, through the virtual forest of pigtails and sprouting pony-tails, right to me. Her pink, pink lips parted a smile as she called my name again. "Dough Lunt? Is your name Dough?" Everyone in the damn class turned around and stared right at me, all these Jimmy-Joes and Suzy Qs and Huckleberry Hounds, all of them, dumb and round-headed and glazed from all the damn meat their mothers must have fed them for breakfast. I kind of raised my head just enough to nod and then slumped back down to the desk. "Please say 'Present' if you're here, Dough." Her eyes suddenly seemed meaner and blacker. Her one eye-brow cocked over her glass frames as she stared down at me. This was bad. There was no way she'd be mine this way. "Present," I murmured, and dropped my head between my arms, feeling my heart shriveling up in my chest. "You're new here in town aren't you?" she asked. Jesus. It wasn't bad enough all these damn meat-breeders knew my name, now she was going to introduce me. I nodded slowly and stared at Ms. Nelson's smooth white face for some sort of reprieve. "Why don't we welcome Dough to Tenderloin Elementary by giving him a nice 'Hello'?" The whole class let out a sigh and the palest, weakest chorus of voices rose from the room. "Hello, Dough." The dumb, three pig-tailed girl next to me squinted and stared at me. "What type of name is that?" I shrugged my shoulders. My old man had been some sort of madman to insist on such a name for his kin. I wasn't named after some famous relative, neither was my poor brother, we were the victims of my old man's all-seeing plan for our life-long portentous humiliation. Me and my brother had been in some uncountable number of fistfights because of our lousy names. They were like two huge magnets that hung around our necks, attracting all kinds of trouble, I guess. "That ain't a Christian name," this girl frowned. I turned and stared her hard in the eyes. Her eyes were brown and kind of crossed. Her hair was blond and pulled so tightly in those three rubber bands that her forehead looked stretched. She smelled mostly like urine and dirt. "I bet you live in the trailer park, don't ya?" she whispered. I tried to ignore her. "No. Just be quiet." "You like living in the trailer park? My father says there's nothing but trash living out there." I shook my head slowly. What was wrong with these people? They were all some sort of a string of lunatics. Ms. Nelson finished off the class roster and began writing something on the board. Her thin white slip showed between her legs as she moved, reaching up on her toes. I sighed to myself. "Did you come from Nevada? My father says everyone's crazy out there." "Do you ever shut up? Do you?!!" Ms. Nelson turned around, staring right through the rows of sleeping faces, right to me. She glanced down at the roster and nodded. "Dough, do you have something to share with the rest of the class?" "This girl here won't shut up!" "Lottie, is that true?" Lottie, this goddamn piss-girl with three blond pig-tails, just smiled and shrugged her shoulders, staring at me like I was crazy. "Both of you will be quiet from now on, understood?" I nodded. This was no way to win the heart of a woman like that. The nice thing about living in the trailer park was not having to mow the lawn. Mowing the lawn was a real damn pain. But here there was nothing but gravel and dirt. My mother had laid out some orange pots of flowers all around the front of our trailer, but she wasn't fooling anyone. The trailer park was ugly in all our hearts, and no number of flower pots could change that. I came home from my first day of school, dragging my book-bag in the dirt. My mother's boyfriend, French, was working on the big black 1972 Impala he had on cement blocks in front of our trailer. The car itself was a real beauty, but it was all gutted out, its poor metal innards were strewn all about the dusty gray front of our trailer, disconnected and hopeless as hell. The engine had never even turned over. Hopeless. Really hopeless. Poor French had bought it from some slimeball back in Duluth who promised to help him rebuild it, but then the dirtbag split town as soon as French paid the car off. Now old French had to walk to work. The plant was only a mile or so away, and most days he could get a ride with someone if he stood out on the road and hitched. My mother had her own car, a nice blue Corolla hatchback with rusted-out wheel wells and a dangling muffler that she drove to her job at the beauty parlor. My mother's car was in a poor state. My old man probably turned over in his grave every time that muffler dragged. He had been a real man with the tools. He had been too proud to let the damn muffler drag on his bride's old car. "Hey there, Dough, feel like giving me a hand? Hold the flash-light for me?" French was all bent over the hood of the car. His face was all greased up and sweaty. He held the yellow flashlight in one hand and an open can of beer in the other. This man was the damn reason for all my troubles. He was a square guy, really, the least dangerous of all my mother's boyfriends, but there was no way I was about to offer any of my help to the same person who was solely responsible for taking away my own damn bedroom. "I got homework, French." "All right, chief, that's what I like to see. Smart man like you hitting the books. Your mother will be proud." "Sure." My mother had a real swell dinner cooked for us, on account of our first day being at new schools and all that. She had made some blackish meatloaf with a raw egg cooked right in the middle and a horrible gray spinach salad or something hellacious like that, but both me and my brother passed and just went to our new room, lying on our lousy new beds, half the size of our old beds, neither of us uttering a goddamn word. "You boys alright in there? Not hungry tonight?" my mother shouted through her caked-on red lipstick and the thin wood door. "Ate at school," Pill-Bug lied, shaking his head. "I got homework," I grunted, turning on my belly. There were loud, silver-toothed crickets scraping their files outside our tiny square window, breathing heavily in any direction, just as sad and hopeless as us, staring up into the darkness. Me, I fell asleep in my school clothes, watching a thin daddy longlegs crossing the ceiling on its tiptoes. My old pillow didn't even smell the same. The next day, heck, the next day, Pill and me ate some dough-nuts for breakfast and walked to school without saying a word until we got to the intersection where he had to walk three blocks to the high school and me another block to the elementary school. "This place sure sucks," I kind of mumbled. Pill nodded. "This town is full of assholes." Just then I noticed he had a red stocking cap on instead of his trusty old blue hat. His blue hat. He always wore his blue hat. "Hey, where's your blue hat?" "I lost it." "Lost it? But . . ." "I said I lost it, okay?" He heaved his bookbag over his shoulder and turned down the block toward his high school. That's when I knew there was going to be some sort of trouble. His eyes had that faraway look in them like he was thinking. Like he was looking ahead to something that was about to unfold at the end of his dirty fingertips. Pill just wandered through his classes until lunch, he bought a plate of mashed potatoes and some french fries, then took a seat at the reject table right in the corner. Harlo Mullet, one of those fat, round-headed freckled kids who had probably been picked on since he was born, kind of giggled to himself as Pill sat down. Harlo Mullet got picked on not only because he was fat and round-headed but because he had chronic nosebleeds and used to draw blood and sweat all over his poor, poor self on a daily basis. Pill-Bug didn't pay the fat sweaty kid any mind. About midway through the lunch hour, the same big dumb football player, Rudy, came right up to the loser table, this time waving my brother's blue hat right in his damn face. Pill kind of ignored him for a while, then he began snarling and growling like a sick dog, snatching at the cap as the Rudy-guy kind of jerked it away. It was awful. Everyone in the damn cafeteria was watching and grinning, maybe even some of the lunch monitors, they just sat there and giggled, even Harlo Mullet and all of the reject kids, because for once, no one was picking on them. Pill leapt to his feet, digging his hands around this kid's throat, who just happened to be twice his damn size. The guy, Rudy, shoved my brother's head right down into his plate of brown gravy and mashed potatoes without too much effort at all. Excerpted from Tender as Hellfire by Joe Meno All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Google Preview