PLAYING WITH TRAINS By William E Burleson
I met Bruce’s father before I met Bruce. My mom and I were moving our boxes into our new home, an ugly old brownstone on the edge of downtown in a neighborhood with no trees. “Is he your boy?” he asked my mom on the front stoop. “Handsome young man. You must be very proud.” No one ever referred to me a handsome before. Seemed improbable, if welcome to a skinny, gangly thirteen year-old. Mr. Peterson, Charlie, had introduced himself as living on the third floor of the building next door, one of several three-story buildings built up to the sidewalk. He was maybe a little older than my mom, late forties say, a little round-faced, middle-age spread, but not excessive. His most distinguishing characteristic was a full head of obviously dyed black hair greased up like Elvis. He wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt, revealing a snake wrapped around a dagger tattoo on his forearm. “My son is going to be staying with me this summer,” he said. “His mother and I are divorced. They live in Pittsburgh. That’s where I’m from, Pittsburgh. Anyway, he’s staying with me this summer. Boy, it’d sure be great, Richard, if you two could be friends. We don’t know anyone here. I don’t want him to be lonely.” I didn’t want me to be lonely. In 1972, my parent’s brand-spanking new divorce meant a move to that neighborhood, that place. We came from Bloomington, complete with barbeques, intact families, and a kid culture that meant a ready pool of peers for skating, sledding, kickball and just hanging around. Already I could tell there weren’t a lot of other kids around. “Do you like trains? Bruce—that’s my son, Bruce—loves trains,” Charlie, asked. I had a train. An HO train. A Christmas present from my Grandma in Wyoming. It came neatly arranged in a box with a picture of a steam engine at a platform in a perfect town with perfect people. I set it up in my bedroom in our old house. The day before I met Charlie I threw it in its box, and now it sat on top of a boxes of books and dishes and under a box of towels, all stacked on the gold shag carpeting of our shitty new apartment.
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“Great. You can bring your trains over and we can put them together into a really neat set up. What do you say?” It sounded fine to me, and it sounded fine to my mom. I think she liked the idea of a man around. Having an adult male for a growing boy to look up to is important, so they say. A father figure, they say. We unpacked over the next days. My mom alternated job hunting with crying. I alternated watching TV with watching TV. Every night I lay awake into the morning. Sometimes I would listen to a cassette tape my brother—who joined the army in March—made of a Jackson Five record by holding a microphone up to the record player speaker. Sometimes I would kill roaches with a rolled up magazine. Sometimes I would look out the window at nothing. I was looking out our first floor window one afternoon when Bruce arrived carrying only a suitcase. He went in the front of their building with Charlie. He looked unhappy. I also thought he looked older than me. He had a bowl cut, a round face like his dad, and a tan. That evening Charlie brought Bruce around. I was right about his age; he was sixteen. We all talked in the living room, but then Mom suggested Bruce and I go in my room to play. Neither of us pointed out that we were too old to “play,” so we went. “Do you have any music?” Bruce said. “The Jackson Five,” I said. “That all? I have like a million records at home. I mean Pittsburgh. Not Charlie’s place. My real home.” I never knew anyone who called a parent by his or her first name. I thought he was cool. “I have a membership to the Columbia Record Club. They sent me twelve records when I joined. I have a lot of records. We live in a big house. The biggest around. We have two dogs and a cat.” Bruce liked shop class best, where he once made a toolbox for Charlie. He went out for JV wrestling last year, but didn’t make
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the team. “My ma says I can get a car when I get back in August. I’m learning how to drive. I’m going to get a Buick Riviera.” The next afternoon, Charlie took us all, Mom included, to see a matinee downtown. Charlie didn’t work—I never knew why—so he had a lot of free time. We saw a James Bond film, Diamonds are Forever. Mom wouldn’t normally let me see movies like that, but since she came along, she was a good sport. Besides, I think she liked spending time with Charlie—he was a man and she suffered from a recent reduction of men in her life—so if he suggested it, that was good enough. Meanwhile, he didn’t show any interest in her. I doubt either of them would be considered dating material for anyone of the opposite sex, Mom because she let herself go, and Charlie…well, because he was Charlie. The movie was fun. And enlightening. There’s a great scene in Diamonds are Forever where two women gymnasts in bikinis named Bambi and Thumper fight Bond. A very sexy fight. That night I lay there doodling my boner thinking about Bambi and Thumper touching my penis. I really liked the idea of someone touching my penis. At thirteen, I already had a good two years of serious masturbation under my belt (so to speak). What a heady two years. A time of discovery. It’s not as if you automatically know what to do. You have to learn how. You have to play around a bit. Explore. Like some sort of crotch Magellan. Eventually I figured out the route, and it had been well traveled since. I even tested out various changes of scenery for my exploration. One time, at our old house, I masturbated in the garage. I spilled my stuff right on the concrete, and then freaked out that I’d be discovered from the stain. I took a leaf and tried to wipe it up, but it just smeared around and got on my hands, which collected dirt from the floor. I cried. I was traumatized. Whacking off often traumatized me, waves of guilt washing me away. But no matter, I got right back at it the next day, or the same day, or sometimes sooner.
“Richard, have you ever been with a girl?” Charlie asked, leaning one elbow on the seatback, looking at me with a wide smile.
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It was a week later, and we were on the way to Lake Calhoun in Charlie’s Matador, with Bruce driving, one arm resting on the window like he’d been driving for years, and Charlie shotgun. I didn’t understand at first what he meant. “You know, had sex? Screwed?” Actually being with a girl was still a long way off. The stuff of fantasy and hopes for the future. “Yeah,” I said. “Really!” I nodded. “Tell me about it Tell me everything.” “Last fall. It was in the backseat of our station wagon in our garage. She was this big-boobed neighbor girl. She came over and we went in the garage so she could show me her tits. She asked if I would play with them. So I did. Then she asked me to screw her, so we go in the car and did it.” “What was it like?” Charlie asked. “It was good, but her pussy was a little loose.” I tried to sound worldly, like I heard my brother say to some of his pals once. “Maybe your dink is too small. Maybe it wasn’t her pussy, maybe it was that your dink is too small,” Charlie said. I didn’t know what to think of that, or what I should say, or what he meant. I saw how big boy’s penises were in the shower room in gym class—I tried not to look at them, but I couldn’t help myself— and some were indeed bigger than others. I was just happy that I had hair. Some of the kids still didn’t have hair and the other boys would tease them. That didn’t make any sense to me; I thought they looked just fine. Then he and Bruce laughed, and I realized he was having fun with me. I didn’t like it, but I laughed too.
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We got to the lake and angle parked. It was a beautiful, sunny end-of-June weekday, and there were lots of kids around. Bruce and I were dressed in shorts and T-shirts and thongs, and Charlie in long pants and a button-down shirt, so we needed to change into our swimsuits. In the crowded changing room Charlie faced away from us, which was good, because I felt funny from our talk about my dink. Bruce stripped and I did too. I made a point of not looking at Bruce’s dink as I put on my trunks. We swam in the tepid, smelly green lake on and off for two hours. Bruce and I swam out to the floating platform and jumped off over and over, perfecting our cannonballs. “I’ve had sex lots of times,” Bruce said. We were floating, leaning with our elbows on the platform. “I have a girlfriend. We have sex all the time. She can’t get enough. She’s a nympho.” “What’s a nympho?” “When they want it all the time. They can’t get enough sex.” I wondered if I was a nympho. I wondered if maybe I should go to the doctor. Charlie never went in the water. He mostly lay on the blanket he brought, Ray-Bans on, propping himself up with his elbows. When we were out of the water, Bruce and I laid next to Charlie, wearing our own sunglasses. I liked it. It was the first time since the movie I went anywhere with anyone but my mom. And I liked being with men. “What do you think of her?” Charlie said, motioning with his head at a blond high school-aged girl in a red-striped tube top and red hip huggers. Her out-sized breasts bounced pleasingly. Bruce grunted his approval. “Richard, would you take her in the back seat of your station wagon?” I nodded. “What would you do with her?” I didn’t know, and I didn’t say anything. When I made up the story about the back seat, I had to leave out most of the details since I had only a rough estimate of what fucking entailed.
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“Maybe she’d suck you.” His words hit me like lightning. Could such a thing be possible? Would a girl really do that? Oh my god—what would that be like? I watched her horsing around with a guy who looked to be her boyfriend. He was a blond, curly-haired boy with big muscles. They touched in a knowing, familiar way. Does she suck him? What happens when the juice comes out? What if she accidently got some in her mouth? Charlie laughed. “I can see you like that idea.” My shorts were tenting, my penis straining against the lining of my trunks. I quickly rolled onto my stomach. Charlie laughed some more. Bruce stared at the girl. Eventually, through the sheer force of math problems in my head, my peter went back down. Soon we changed just like before and left, no more conversation about girls, my penis or sucking. As soon as I got home I went right in the bathroom and jacked off to the image of the girl in the tube top with her mouth around her blond, curly-haired boyfriend’s penis, and I came immediately.
I didn’t see Charlie or Bruce for a couple weeks after that. They went on vacation up north to go fishing. I was okay with that, not seeing them. I liked getting out, having something to do, but Bruce didn’t say much and I felt funny about Charlie after the day at the beach. I thought he meant well, but I wasn’t used to an adult man talking like that. The only adult men I knew were teachers, who would never, or my dad, who didn’t talk at all, or my brother, who talked like that all the time but that felt different since he was my brother and eighteen. Charlie’s attention felt funny, but not necessarily bad. My mom found a job in a nursing home kitchen and I stayed home alone all day. She didn’t want me going out. All I did for two weeks was watch TV and masturbate to the vision of the girl in the tube top and her boyfriend with the curly hair. I could barely keep my hands off my peter. I knew someday someone would be willing to have sex with me. All in good time. But not soon enough.
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At the end of the two weeks, Charlie called. “Hey, we never did get our train sets put together. What do you think? Want to come over tonight and play with Bruce?” I did and I didn’t, but I said yes. I went to their apartment at five carrying the jumbled box that was my train set. Their apartment was laid out just like ours, small kitchen, living and dining room, and bathroom and two bedrooms down a hall. But Charlie’s had sky blue walls and no carpeting; plus, it smelled different, like a mixture of feet and drug store aftershave. Charlie made us Chun King Chow Mein, with the crunchy noodles, and while he cooked, Bruce and I sat on the dining room floor arranging the train sets. Their floor worked perfectly because they had hardwood floors and plenty of room, since Charlie didn’t have a dining room table. In fact, they didn’t have much furniture at all, just a couch and a recliner and a combination stereo and TV cabinet. Our train sets matched up perfectly, and Bruce and I starting connecting the tracks together with the little metal clips. I asked Bruce if he caught anything. He had, he said. “A big one, too. Bigger than Pop’s. Biggest one I’ve ever seen. Walleye, hooked it right from the dock. We cooked it on a pan over a campfire.” They stayed in a cabin right on the lake, and the stars, oh, the stars, he said. “I’ve never been fishing,” I said. My dad went fishing all right, all the time, but not with me. He was pretty absent for all of us, as if his whole life he never considered what his role as a parent or husband entailed, always seeming uncomfortable, looking for an exit. Then he found one, in the form of (according to my mom) a sleazy, too young bitch of a waitress. When he left, I didn’t miss him. What’s to miss about him? But I missed having a dad. That’s not the same thing. Charlie heard me as he walked in the room, “Well, we’ll have to take you then. I think that’d be neat. Just us guys.” Bruce was the luckiest boy I know. I looked at him. He looked uncomfortable sitting on the floor.
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We ate in the parlor on metal TV trays with brass legs and pictures of Venice on the top. I never sat on a couch and ate off a TV tray before. It seemed like something men would do. After dinner, we finished setting up the trains. Charlie went in the kitchen and returned with three beers. “Here ya go,” He said, handing Bruce and I each a bottle. Bruce took a swig. I looked at my bottle. Hamms. Just like my dad drank. And drank and drank. “Go ahead. Haven’t you ever had a beer before?” “Sure I have. Lots of times.” No, I hadn’t. I took a sip. It tasted terrible. I must have made a face because both Charlie and Bruce cracked up laughing. Soon the three of us had assembled a reasonably decent train set up. It was basically a threesided square with round corners, with the fourth side a loop into the center. Charlie hooked up the electricity and got the controller ready. Bruce put his engine on the track and used all of the cars to make an extra long train. Charlie tried the controller but it didn’t work. He fiddled with it and the train took off. It had a whistle and light and everything. Charlie stopped the train and said, “Here ya go, Richard. Take ’er out for a spin.” I nursed the lever carefully so as not to derail the train, slowing down at each curve, going slowly through the center curves, and more and more getting up some speed on the straight-aways. I noticed Bruce lying on his stomach, not watching the train. I let up; the train stopped. “Here Bruce. Your turn.” I held the controller out. Bruce took over and ran it as fast as it would go until it crashed going around one of the tight turns in the center. He laughed. I set it up for him again. Again, he ran it at full speed until it crashed and he laughed. I put it back up for him. Charlie went in the kitchen and returned with three new beers, replacing the empties. Mine was still half-full, but Charlie said, “Drink up,” and stood over me as a gulped down half the bottle. I belched.
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Charlie laughed and I felt happy he did. He took my now empty bottle and gave me the fresh one. The taste of the beer grew on me. Bruce crashed the train again. He didn’t laugh, and I didn’t put them back on the track. He took a big swig of beer. “What kind of music do you like?” Charlie asked. “I wish Bruce had his record collection here. Has he told you about his record collection?” I said he had. “I like the Jackson Five,” I said, since they were about the only band I knew. “I might just have that. Why don’t you come take a look?” I got up and followed Charlie over to the record player—TV combo. “Bruce? Didn’t you promise you’d write your mother a letter tonight?” Bruce sat there on the floor, expressionless. “You better get to it. You’ll have time to play after you’re done.” Bruce stared at Charlie. Bruce didn’t look angry. He didn’t look sad. He looked, I don’t know, frightened. “Bruce…” He said in a deep, ominous voice. Bruce got up and carried his beer down the hall to his bedroom, closing the door with a slam. “The records are on the left. Take out whatever you like, and I’ll put it on,” Charlie said, one hand on his hip, one pointing. I reached down and opened the cabinet door. Inside were two shelves, the bottom one jammed full of LPs on end, and the top stacked full with magazines. It was dark. “Take a look. I bet there’s something there that will make you happy.” I got on my knees and pulled out a record. Simon and Garfunkel. I pushed it back in. I pulled out another. Glen Campbell. I pushed it back in, too. I could feel Charlie right behind and above me. It felt close. Uncomfortable. I pulled out another. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I never heard of them, but I handed it to Charlie.
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“Good choice. I can see you like fun music.” He slid the record out of the jacket, opened the top of the cabinet and put the record on. “Keep looking. Maybe there’ll be something else in there you’ll like.” The music started to play, and Charlie turned it up loud. They sang about Mr. Bojangles. I pulled out another record. Johnny Cash. I looked up at the top shelf and there was a Playboy. A stack of Playboys. I pushed the Johnny Cash back in too hard, making the record skip. I didn’t say I was sorry and Charlie didn’t care. “Oh, those? Take a look if you want. Go ahead. They won’t bite.” I pulled one out and sat back on the floor cross-legged. On the cover, a blond girl with enormous breasts laid on her side on a bed with red satin sheets, naked. I opened it to the center pullout. There she was again, only now standing outside in a garden buck-naked, looking at the camera. My hands were shaking. I felt excited. And scared. And excited. But more scared. I folded the center back in and flipped through the magazine. More pictures of the woman, and then articles. I knew of Playboy, of course, but I didn’t know they had articles. Then a picture with another woman with her legs spread apart. I had no idea. None. I had never imagined such a sight. What was all that? I thought there would just be a hole. That’s what I was told. Charlie sat down in the recliner behind me. “That one is pretty dull. I have some much better ones.” I reached in and pulled out another. This one wasn’t a Playboy. Geisha Night, and it had on the cover a thin dark-haired girl–not at all Asian—smiling, in a sort of Japanese robe handing a man with a mustache in a sailor suit a little cup. I opened it. For a second I didn’t know what I was looking at. The reason was one part grainy black and white pictures, and one part I didn’t know what I was looking at. Then I realized it was a close up of the man’s butt and balls and the underside of his penis half inside the girl. There was a lot of hair and his penis was enormous. I felt shocked. Maybe a little sick. It didn’t look
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sexy at all to me. It looked like…I don’t know. It looked like nothing I had ever seen or imagined I would see. It looked uncomfortable. “You picked a good one there. Have you ever seen such a large cock?” I most certainly hadn’t. I paged through the magazine. There were pictures of them in all kinds of positions. I had theorized there might be any number of ways to have sex, and now my suspicions bore fruit. Toward the front, I found a full-page close-up of the girl with the man’s large cock in her mouth. A flood of something warm ran through my body. My ears popped. I studied the picture. I couldn’t see his face, but hers…she looked smug. “So you like that one, do you?” Oh, yeah, I did. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what I should say. I didn’t know what I should do. I knew I shouldn’t be sitting on Charlie’s floor looking at these magazines drinking beer. That was one-part magazines and beer and ten parts Charlie sitting behind me. This was not right. No, it wasn’t. “How’s your beer? Need a refill?” I shook my head no. Charlie got up and walked to the kitchen. I left the Geisha Night open to the picture, and reached into the cabinet for another. I couldn’t read the title of it; it was in some foreign language. On the cover an older man, Charlie’s age, in a suit and tie, talked to a shy young girl—she couldn’t have even been my age—wearing a short skirt and sitting on a bicycle. I put it back quickly. “I don’t think you’re going to be interested in the pile on the left,” Charlie said, now standing over me again, hands on his hips. I hadn’t gotten to the left side yet. “Those only have men in them. But go ahead if you want to.” I did. But I didn’t. I felt whipsawed between curiosity and fear, lust and revulsion. I looked back down at Geisha Night and the woman’s lips locked tight around the man’s penis. “You should get rid of that.”
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I had no idea what he was talking about. “What?” “That.” He pointed at my crotch with his index finger and his dagger. “You don’t want to sit there all uncomfortable, do you?” I didn’t have a boner. I was too scared to have a boner. “That’s okay. I don’t need to.” “That’s unusual. Most boys like looking at pictures of beautiful women. But that’s okay if you don’t. Maybe she’s not your type. Maybe you’re shy. I bet that’s it, isn’t it?” He laughed. “I get it. I understand. Some boys are shy. But you don’t need to be. It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s what men do. Sometimes you got to do what you got to do, you know? Tell you what. I’ll leave you here to look at whatever magazines you want. Take your time. I’ll be in my bedroom down the hall. Reading. Come find me when you’re ready. Just us guys. I’ll close the door, but you come right in, okay? Understand?” I nodded. “Whenever you’re ready. Don’t be shy; just come right on in. Okay?” I didn’t nod. He walked off carrying his beer. I understood what I was supposed to do. I had the plan. My heart was audible. I could taste the chow mien in the back of my throat. I felt funny, very funny, from what I assumed to be the beer, but maybe not. My hand shook as I paged once more through Geisha Night, taking my time, not sure what to do. I flipped the magazine back to the close-up of the smug woman with the man’s cock in her mouth. I thought of the girl at the beach in the tube top and her boyfriend. I imagined she was the girl in the picture, and the man with the large cock was her curlyhaired sweetheart. Now I had a boner. The record stopped, having reached the end. I could hear the tone arm click as it automatically returned to its resting place. I closed the magazine and put it back. I got up, left my half-empty beer on the floor and walked slowly down the hall. I turned the doorknob and walked in.
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Bruce looked up at me, but didn’t say anything. He lay on top of the bedspread, knees up, holding a Detective comic. He looked back down. I stood there, just inside the doorway. I worried that Charlie might hear me in his room next door, so I kept my voice down. “What are you doin’?” He didn’t seem to hear me. “You want to play with the trains?” Bruce didn’t look up from his comic. “No, I don’t want to play with the trains. I hate trains.” I didn’t understand. “Why are you here?” he said. I didn’t understand what he was asking. I really didn’t. “What are you doing here? What do you want?” “I wanted to play with the trains.” “I don’t play with trains. I hate trains. You should go home. You should go home right now,” he said as calmly as if he said pass the bread or can I borrow a pencil, never looking up. I looked down at the floor, crippled by confusion. Confused about us guys. About the day at the beach. About going fishing one day. “Go!” Bruce still hadn’t moved, but now not calm, but crying. “Go home. Get out. Don’t come back, either. I don’t want to play with a little kid like you.” I still stood in the same spot, frozen by circumstances. Tears streamed down his face and he sniffled. He finally looked at me. “Go on, get! While the getting is good. Please?” He sobbed, shoulders shaking. “Please?” I turned and ran out of his room, down the hall, unlatched the front door and was gone.
The next day I stayed home all day and watched TV. When my mom returned home from her job, she carried in my train set, jumbled in its box. It had been left outside the apartment door.
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Charlie never called again. I saw Bruce once more; I was looking out the window and he walked down the street. After that, never again. Charlie neither. Shortly after that night, Mom asked if I was going to play with Bruce again, and I mumbled something, and she didnâ€™t pursue it. I have no idea what happened to either of them. I have no idea what happened to Bruce. After knowing Charlie, I knew so much more than before, so much more than I wanted to. If I knew, I think Bruce knew more, so, so much more.