Boys Play

Boys Play

The January 1955 Playboy lays splayed open on the wonky display shelf. On Saturdays, the antique market opens early. The vendors claim the same patches of earth they have for the last decade. Thermoses full of black coffee, patrons begin to meander the market with mild, almost disinterested curiosity.

The thing about Black Angus Flea Market is objects seldom move from their seats. Patrons come to expect the pleather arm chair in one corner and the worn fiberglass tiger stolen from some defunct mini golf course. They count on the rows of old coins in plastic Tupperware and the green army helmets from Vietnam lined up in rows. Thirteen-year-old Luke Hollis expects the pile of Playboy magazines at the corner of Mr. Gallagher’s operation.

Luke and his mom pull up to the flea market in the rattling old blue jeep. She’s exhausted and wishes her son wanted to sleep in on Saturdays instead of begging to be dropped off here. At least there aren’t any drugs, she thinks. Maybe he’ll be a history professor, she thinks before glancing at him. He’s biting his fingernails down to the quick.

October is still flirting summer this year. Her and Luke are dressed for two different seasons—Luke in his jean shorts and wrinkled polo shirt and her in her leggings and knit shawl. She only put in one earring and could picture the other one where it waited at home on the sink. Sigh, it’s not like anyone will see her here anyway.

Luke is anxious to get going. He wants to check on all his magazines. They aren’t really his he knows but he thinks of them as his. He’s determined to save all his money from birthdays and holidays and very soon really truly make those babies his.

You see, the old Playboys, they don’t just have sexy pictures. They were like classy. Ladies with doll-like skin and wavy cascading hair. Real pin-ups. Short stories and jokes and a poem or two.

Luke loves the advertisements even in the old Playboys. They aren’t all big and flashy like ones in magazines you might find at a grocery store—these ads are usually really artsy or just small little squares of text. He considers the ads as if he might purchase camel cigarettes or go to a variety hour in the village.

He feels briefly above the other boys in his class who watch porn and then report back lists of titles to each other at lunch. Sometimes they’ll tease Luke by asking him if he’s seen Hot Lesbian Summertime or Girls Takes the Biggest Dick. He never knows what to say. If he says “hell yeah” they’ll laugh and if he says “no” they’ll laugh. It’s a trap either way.

Luke imagines bringing one of these beautiful Playboys to school and sitting reading it at the lunch table where he usually sits alone. Though sometimes, one boy, Kayden, will come and chat with Luke. Most days though Kayden sits with a bunch of girls. Kayden is probably gay, Luke thinks. Luke wishes he were gay. It might be easier. Then at least there would be some explanation. Maybe he is gay and just hasn’t unlocked it yet.

Mrs. Hollis tells Mr. Hollis “I’m worried about Luke” often, which is her way of saying, “I’m startled by Luke—I’m afraid of Luke.” She never wanted a son but she always knew she’d have one. It seemed inevitable what with her husband. Was this her fault for liking manly men?

Mr. Hollis was sweet though. A handyman of all trades employed now by a luxury apartment complex where he spent most of his afternoons screwing in lightbulbs for old ladies. Yes, as good a man as anyone could ask for. An anomaly. Nothing like Luke. Luke was so quiet you could never tell what he was thinking.

Mr. Hollis always said, “He’s just unique” when Mrs. Hollis brought up her worries. Maybe she worried for nothing.

They had met the weekend Mr. Hollis got back from his deployment and from there everything had happened so fast. How did Luke get to be ten years old? She eyes the wedding ring loose on her hand. Her skin is aging.

“Bye,” Luke says, unbuckling his seat belt and slithering out of his seat and out the door, slamming it a little too hard behind him. He’s mad because she was a little late getting ready today. Rough night. She is still trying to think of an explanation as to why it had been so rough. Lots of tossing and turning. They should have had a brother for Luke they really should have. That might have helped even him out.

Usually, Mrs. Hollis drives off and does grocery shopping now while Luke runs rampant through the market. He stopped letting her tag along with him about a year ago. He just said, “Mom do you mind if I walk alone?” and then she felt weird about trying to keep a distance from her son. Why had she just caved and let him do that? In her mind at first though she configured the story differently, she said, he’s growing up and maybe it would be good for him to learn how to navigate a place alone—especially such a mundane and safe space full of mostly old dudes who wanted nothing more than to chat about their old trinkets. They were always enthralled to see a young person interested in old junk.

Junk, that’s exactly what all of it is. She kind of misses shifting through the junk. Her son is out of sight now so what would it matter if today was the day that she took an amble for herself? She had earned some junk. She could look for a pair of wine glasses or a fruit bowl or anything really. She could get into collecting something maybe. Or crafting. Some of her friends have started crafting though she’s not sure exactly what she would craft.

Luke approaches Mr. Gallagher’s stand like he always does—first he pretends to be looking at the comics. Mr. Gallagher specializes in a few different genres of refuse. He has beanie babies and comic books and Pez dispensers and National Geographic and some miscellaneous local stuff, then, of course, the Playboys (right next to the comics).

Patiently, Luke waits for Mr. Gallagher to notice him. Mr. Gallagher is always wearing the same blue jean cap and thick round glasses. He has suspenders on with a little checker-board pin on one of the straps. He’s chatting to another man, Mr. Jones who runs the vinyl record pile.

“Here’s my boy,” Mr. Gallagher says. “So nice to see you Luke! How’s school?”

“Well enough,” Luke says. He stands next to the two men about two foot shorter than them. He keeps his shoulders rolled back and posture straight. Dad tells him that’s how to look more grown up if he wants to.

“Getting good grades, I hope?” Mr. Gallagher asks. One of three things every time. “Getting good grades?” “Being kind to your mother?” and “Staying out of trouble?” Luke likes “Staying out of trouble?” best because he can answer most honestly. He really is out of trouble. Grades, well they’re okay. Mom? He could do without her always looming over him. He knew he wasn’t interesting or popular. He preferred to not be reminded of that. She looked at him with this eagerness—like one day he might bloom into something. He hated that.

“Of course,” Luke says.

“Of course, I know what you’re here for,” Mr. Gallagher says with a nod and turns back to Mr. Jones to say, “The kid’s going to be a collector someday. He loves the Playboys—now don’t get worried. These are the old ones. These are classy. I don’t keep any nasty stuff around.”

“It’s art,” Luke says, nodding.

Mr. Jones is encouraging like most of the vendors are to Luke. “Well that’s great. Glad some kids care about learning about culture still.”

There aren’t any women to ruin this end of the market. All the women sit on the other end of the market selling necklaces and tea cups. This end there’s just a bunch of guys talking about history and beauty and Luke is practically one of them.

Mrs. Hollis looks at some necklaces laid out on doilies. Moon pendants and little stars. They’re clearly cheap form overseas. Half the vendors here don’t sell antiques, they just sell weird little items. Picking one up in her hand she thinks that if she knew any little girls it might be still kind of cute for one of them. She tires to imagine what on earth Luke is perusing here. Does he have money? No allowance but maybe John gives him money. She’ll have to ask him about that. Not that it would be a problem. It wouldn’t hurt for him to be into something.

While telling herself “I don’t want to run into Luke” she also wants to see her son just for confirmation that he’s 1) actually hanging out at this market and 2) that he’s not doing anything bad. She can’t think of anything “bad” specific until she crafts a story where he’s been hanging out with the WWII memorabilia guys and he’s super into joining the military. Why does that scare her? After all, John was in the military. Yes, but he wasn’t INTO it. He was just poor.

After about thirty minutes of drifting from aisle to aisle, hands folded in front of her like an altar server, she hears a glimpse of his soft chimera boy-teenager voice. She freezes, scanning the aisles. She should have gone grocery shopping, she thinks. She has to go anyway. Who was she kidding? She wanted to spy on him—she wanted to see what he was up to.

Slowly, she peers around until she does see the top of his head. She slips down the aisle to move onto the next one where she has a clear albeit distant sight of Luke. A comic book stand? Well that’s pretty sweet actually. Look at him just reading one. That calms her nerves a bit. She decides to just glimpse a minute or two longer.

Mr. Hollis didn’t hear but Luke is saying, “I’m going to buy this one soon.”

“Are ya? You know that’s a real treasure,” Mr. Jones says half to Luke and half to Mr. Gallagher.

Luke is sitting on the floor of the stand with the magazine sprawled out on his lap. He’s read this before. He’s read all twenty-six of the Playboys Mr. Gallagher has. Mr. Gallagher shrugs, “You know I don’t collective those for real—I got them for free. My dad had em’ in his house when he died and you know I just thought they were something to put out.”

Mr. Jones leans in so Luke can’t hear, “If they were mine I’d sell them online—you could sell them instantly.”

“Look. The kid likes them. I’ll sell them to him when he gets close enough.”

“I should be a kid so I can get half price,” Mr. Jones jokes.

Mr. Gallagher says, “Look. He probably won’t even get them. Kids go through phases and I’ve promised myself if someone comes by actually looking to buy them. I’ll sell but you know, that hasn’t happened.”

Luke had the centerfold open. Bettie Page’s thick cascading hair. The queen of pin-ups. Sometimes on the home computer Luke will Google more about her. He knows just about everything there is to know about the magazines and the girls in them. Luke knows he’s too young for a whole woman like Bettie but he thinks maybe someday. Would he like to take pictures of her? Would that be weird? Is that creepy to think about asking a girl to pose for you—telling her yes move your arm just like that.

“Woah woah woah,” A man in a polo shirt and grey sweat pants says from behind Luke. “Woah sweet Jesus.” He looks up to Mr. Gallagher. “You see this kid?”

“Yeah that’s Luke—he’s my guy. Can I help you?” Mr. Gallagher says kindly.

The man appears baffled. “You’re letting this kid touch THAT. You know the value is going down every second he has his grubby hands on it. You know that’s rare?”

“Woah woah—it’s just a magazine,” Mr. Jones says.

Mrs. Hollis now sees her son is holding a Playboy magazine. She blinks. He comes here to look at that? How could he find something like that here? What was he looking at? She feels real life has twisted away from her.

“Well listen, I can take it off your hands,” the man says. “In cash, right now.”

There’s a pause. Everyone is surveying each other. Luke folds the magazine closed. He feels desperate. He doesn’t have the money yet so he doesn’t even really have anything he can offer. He hates this guy. This guy is just like boys at school but grown up. All they want is to look at naked girls online. They don’t care about taste at all and this guy just cares about money which is just as bad as only caring about naked girls. Luke feels like he’s rescuing the magazine. This is HIS magazine.

Mr. Jones looks at Mr. Gallagher who glances at Luke and then the man and sighs. He lets a beat pass and all the while Luke clamps down tighter on the magazine. He wants to believe Mr. Gallagher will back him up but he’s not sure if he will.

“You have cash?” Mr. Jones asks the man.

“Yes—right here. I have to look at the magazine—inspect it first but I promise I’ll give you cash if it is what it looks like.”

Luke stands up. Should he run? None of them would catch up to him but this was worth a lot of money. They’d probably send cops for him. What else? What else? “Okay well what about we…” his eyes dart around for an idea and he sees a penny on the floor of the market… “We can flip a coin to see who can get it.”

Mr. Jones scowls at Mr. Gallagher who shrugs and says, “I have to give him a chance. Come on, look at him.”

Luke doesn’t remind Mr. Gallagher of any kid he’s ever seen before. His own sons went through a phase or two of being into his junk but they’d all (rightfully) grown up—still none of them were invested like Luke was.

Mr. Gallagher arbitrates. “Okay now you can’t just have the magazine. If you win the flip you can put it away on layaway.”

Mr. Jones adds, “Usually layaway means paying something upfront.”

Luke considers something else. He could destroy it—if he ripped the magazine the value would probably deteriorate. He could refurbish it himself and sure Mr. Gallagher wouldn’t trust him but at least this asshole wouldn’t have it and just sell it away for it to float from collector to collector to collector—never finding a resting place.

All this time, Mrs. Hollis is waffling. Should she just go back to the car? Is this the kind of thing she should—could talk to her son about?

The man laughs and says, “Okay yeah whatever a coin flip. I don’t need the thing—I could just sell it high. I’ll take my chances and you sir,” he said to Mr. Gallagher, “are absolutely insane for passing up CASH for this kid.”

Mr. Gallagher thought of all the afternoons Luke would toss him questions about all the different items in his shop. That’s all a man wants after all, isn’t it? Someone to believe everything he owns is magnificent and valuable no matter how minuscule it is.

Laying a quarter on the table, Mr. Jones says, “Well go on and flip it,” to Mr. Gallagher who regrets this whole situation. He shouldn’t have lied to Luke—he should have sold those a long time ago instead of stringing him along. A part of him really believed this kid would come up with the money—that’s how much he seemed to love these magazines.

“Call it in the air,” Mr. Gallagher says to the man.

Everyone holds their breath as the coin twirls up, the little Washington portrait back flipping up and then coming down.

“Heads,” the man shouts.

“Tails then,” Luke breathes.

The coin falls in front of Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Jones. Both men see it. Tails. Mr. Gallagher scoops the coin from the table and says, “Heads.”

Everyone is quiet.

Now only standing at the next stall over, Mrs. Hollis wants to walk over and snap the magazine from her son’s hands. Is this the kind of things men do together? Get her son’s hopes up about a dirt magazine? This was the kind of thing she wasn’t going to tell John. No, this was between them.

In the centerfold Bettie Page poses. Arms behind her head—breasts bold and forward. Whip in hand. The lacey domes of her bra. You can see the silky sheen of her panties. Her bold red lip. Her body severed in half in one decisive instant. Dismembered. Two halves of the magazine.

Luke, hands quivering—the carcass in his sweaty palms. He stands, unsure if he should run or cover his head, turning the other direction, there, his mom, a petrified look blasted across her face. Her flushed cheeks. She takes a half step back.


About the Author

Robin Gow is a trans poet and young adult author from rural Pennsylvania. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult verse novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, is forthcoming with FSG slated for Winter 2022. Their poems have appeared in Poetry, Washington Square Review, and Apogee among others.

Gow also runs the queer and trans reading series Gender Reveal Party and the nonprofit Transcendent Connections. They hold an MFA in poetry from Adelphi University.

Photo, "219/365 A Pipe Dream," by thebarrowboy on Flickr. No changes made to photo.