Joshua R. Helms

from Strange & Brutal

I am twelve, I am thirteen, I am fourteen. A man who works for a pest control company comes to spray our home, leaving damp lines in the carpet, the linoleum, the wood, highlighting the limits of each room. Sometimes after he leaves I will touch the dampness with my toes, I will walk there purposely. I have always been compelled to touch with fingers or feet or mouth: bits of leaves & grass torn to shreds in circles around me; shoes following black tiles, avoiding white; my mother holding me upside down, trying frantically to dislodge a penny from my throat.

The man looks like my father before my father became a truck driver: thick glasses, a goofy grin, a graying beard, hair slicked & parted like a schoolboy. He stops by one afternoon each month after school when I am home & alone after a day of walking through halls & on sidewalks, faggot yelled & under breath. My body’s constant impulse now is to flee.

Later, my attraction to him will seem unsurprising, even logical. I will look back & understand the longing. I will know that it makes an uncomfortable amount of sense that I would want the attention of a man who resembles my emotionally absent father. But for now I am standing naked in my room, hands fumbling, knowing that he will arrive at any moment, & when he does, each time, I throw a shirt over my head, pull pants up my legs & let his ridiculous smile in the creaky front door.

He makes small talk as he walks around our house, weaving around couches & chairs & tables & beds, & I follow him. He asks about school & I lie. He mentions his wife & son, but this does not deter me from imagining us on my bed, his dick in my mouth, though I am sure, at the time, dick is not the word I used in my mind, if any.

I study his back as we move from room to room, pale skin beneath his translucent white shirt, ass & legs swimming in dark shorts, the hair on his calves dark & sparse. I wonder if he knows I want to lay next to him, to run away with him, or if he thinks I’m just a boy with a missing father, or if he considers me at all, this chubby-cheeked kid whose clothes always seem disheveled, who is always happy to see him.

Later, when I talk about this & him to lovers & therapists & friends, I call him The Bug Man, as my mother always called him. I can imagine everything about him & I can remember the way I felt, but I cannot picture the name sewn into his shirt. I think it was Gary, but it is impossible to be sure.


from Strange & Brutal

I am sixteen & there is a boy in my lap. There is a floral or striped couch in my mother’s living room. I am wearing a black band t-shirt & baggy jeans & probably a dog collar. My fingernails are painted black. There is E, my best friend, in the dark gray ringer tee he wears so often & an ill-fitting pair of jeans. He removes his wire-framed glasses & places them gently on the coffee table.

I have been called a faggot, a queer, a freak for so long & I am sure that it is true. Later, my mother will say that she thinks I singled myself out even more, that my appearance created more distance, & I will worry that she thinks I encouraged them, that she thinks I should’ve worked harder to fit in for the sake of everyone else. Later, I will say that I was hiding.

The boy in my lap smells sickly sweet. His back is hot to the touch & smoother than I expected. The spearmint on his breath makes me ache. When E takes me in his hand, my skin goes electric & the couch is singed beneath us. Afterward I offer to take care of him too, my fingers around his edges, but he declines, & then he is gone, though his weight still presses upon my legs.

When I change my shirt he turns away, & I tell E, my best friend, that I like J, a girl a grade ahead of us, & I want to see if it can work. It is one of the first times I lie directly to someone I love. Later I will remember the desperation: E in the passenger seat & me looking at him & the road & back at him—the houses with broken windows, the overgrown grass, & me wanting always to reach for his hand.


from Strange & Brutal

There is another couch, not my mother’s, & this time a girl, this time J, & this time we’re sprawled, our skins against each other. It is cold outside, but we aren’t keeping each other warm. Her breath is sour like milk & she smells like pear or apple or pear & apple scented lotion. She has red hair, freckles everywhere. Sometimes I try to count the patterns on the insides of her wrist, the constellations on her shoulders, to distract myself.

I say I love her & I think I do—as much as anyone who doesn’t know how to love themself can love anyone else. We are here & it is January & I am kissing her. I am hard, the way I am when I watch men fucking men on my computer, my eyes moving always from the screen to my lockless bedroom door & back to the screen, hand rabid, teeth digging into lip.

But something is missing. I am sure that I am supposed to want to connect, to be closer, but this is always close enough: this precipice of our bodies & no reason to go over. No abandon. I turn my head to the side & her hair covers my neck. Outside there are horses or dogs or chickens or all three. She says we don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do, or she doesn’t, I can’t remember.

Later, I will hear that she called me a faggot once too. Later, I will walk silently past her in a parking lot & we won’t speak for six months, then two years. Later, I will sit on her couch with her & her husband, who once said another dead faggot in a classroom, & I will tell them about me going to graduate school. But for now, on this couch, I am waiting.


Joshua R. Helms is Assistant Editor for Corium Magazine and a queer feminist. Their work has appeared in various online journals, including alice blue reviewDIAGRAMGhost Ocean MagazineILK JournalPANK, and Word Riot, and various print journals, including Copper Nickel, Fairy Tale Review, Gertrude, New England Review, Phoebe, and Sonora Review. Machines Like Us, Josh’s first collection of poetry, was chosen by C. Dale Young as the winner of Dzanc’s inaugural Poetry Collection Award and will be published in 2015.