“You are hiding a child / Let that boy come home”
—Pusha T, “The Story of Adidon”
We woke up every morning to the soft tenor of our manager. The fluorescent lights would come on, bathing the row of cots where we slept so soundly in a glacial blue-white. We were like infants in a nursery. Our minds were empty, peaceful. We just lay there, blinking, cracking our backs and wiping the spittle off of our lips. We never dreamed here. We only saw flashes of color, a vacant and dull tangerine, like the inside of our eyelids.
“Good morning dudes,” The Manager would say, his voice hushed. “Today is going to be another awesome day.” At that moment, we dudes would get up and head to the showers. We would peel off our boxers and glance at each other’s bodies. The water would come on, and we stood in a line. So cold. A polar plunge. We knew from our training that the ice-cold water would make us better men. We knew what we were here for. We knew what was asked of us: be buff, smile, make even the most homely female feel adored.
We were all called Adonis here because of its associations with the Greeks. In ancient lore, Adonis got eaten by a boar because he was having romance with the female love goddess Aphrodite. We had never been in love before. We loved each other, but we did not feel that brightness that one is supposed to experience in the presence of a pretty female. We were not built that way. We were trained to be a pretty, familiar, and friendly face. In the place where we were training, we only ever saw each other. We had never met females before. Or if we had, we couldn’t remember. Our pasts were dark matter. They existed, yes. But we could not grab on to who we were before this place.
When we got out of the shower, we would put our boxers back on and head to the gym. If we were to become Adonis, we needed to be strong. We would do sit-ups and push-ups and chin-ups and crunches. We squatted and deadlifted. We would spot each other on the free weights. We’d run on the treadmills. We’d go on the StairMaster and listen to each other’s labored breaths.
The AstroTurf dome where we played flag football was our favorite part of our home. Underneath the floodlights we were able to properly survey one another. We were able to drink in each other’s bodies and grasp onto each other’s sublimely toned flesh. In the dome, we lit up in tungsten. Signs for the home and away teams swung from silver link chains, and a laminated sign at the south end of the dome stood on wooden stilts and read “Nikolai’s Sports Hut.” No light from the outside seeped in. Our sky was made of white teflon. Occasionally a pigeon would find an opening and circle above us. When this happened we all became frightened. It was supposed to always be us. Only us. We didn’t know what we could do with a pigeon. Could we teach it how to squat? Could we show it how to be Adonis?
Above us, speakers came down out of the ceiling. Electronic dance music. Hip hop. Heavy metal guitars. It was often so bass-heavy it would make our pectoral muscles vibrate. It was like a dance, in our dome, grabbing flags and passing the pigskin. The extension of our legs. The sensation of our arms jutting out and curving to embrace the ball. It was so nice when we touched each other. When we went for the flags velcroed to our shorts, we would sometimes cop a feel of one of our asses. Sometimes we would let our palms rest there for a little while, allowing ourselves a moment of ecstasy in the folds of our muscular flesh. Sometimes we’d go even farther, daring to move our hands to the fronts of our shorts, looking for the outline of what rested between our legs.
If we did a great job, we would hear The Manager cheer. His voice would overtake the music. He’d tell us how proud of us he was, his little boys. His flotilla of Adonises. We were so special to him. We were his silly guys. He loved us. He was our father. He had made us who we were. He was going to be so sad when it was time for us to leave.
When we finished playing football, we would gather around an orange cooler and drink blue juice. We liked the taste. Blue raspberry. It cooled our insides. We’d drape towels around our necks and sit on the turf, taking off our sweat-drenched pinnies and stretching out our legs. We’d chat about our progress. We’d all gotten so strong. We were sure the females would love us. Sometimes we’d ask if we’d love them back. But we could love no female the way we did The Manager, or each other.
We had never seen The Manager before. We only heard him. It was more comforting this way, to have him be the voice inside of our head, giving us advice on how to be better men. He just wanted us to succeed. He mentored us. He knew what we were thinking. We chose to believe that we had never seen The Manager because he knew we had such a good group dynamic and he didn’t want to mess things up. We needed to be able to trust each other. We needed to be able to learn from each other. The Manager believed in us. We knew if he needed us to see his flesh, he would make himself known. He let us be men. We were his sons, but he knew we were grown and that we had to make decisions for ourselves.
After the workout we would head over to the learning center. Like everywhere else in this place, there were no windows. Rows of desks sat idly in a bluish room. A whiteboard stated the day’s objectives. An American flag was pinned to the walls. We would watch it flutter in the artificial breeze created by the underground wind tunnel where we lived and worked.
Our instructor was a man named Corey. He told us what we really needed to know about being men. He would read us the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Our favorite, of course, was Genesis. We especially loved the part where you learned the name of all of the sons, even though none of them were called Adonis.
It was so beautiful to hear it come from Corey’s mouth: When Lamech had lived 182 years, he had a son. He named him Noah and said, ‘He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has CURSED.’ After Noah was born, Lamech lived 595 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Lamech lived a total of 777 years, and then he died. And then we’d all clap and holler because it was so nice that these special boys, these sons of God, went on to live such long and happy lives.
After Bible study, Corey would teach us what to say to the females when they walked past our stations. “Sup, babe!” was one of his favorite expressions. “Looking good, beautiful!” was another. We took turns brainstorming other unique compliments for the females. One of us suggested saying, “Hello. My name is Adonis. It is my pleasure to meet you here at this shopping center. Please let me know what your questions are, if any. I am at your service. Yours truly, Adonis.” Another one of us, having recently seen a commercial for an alcoholic beverage in one of our other learning center classes, suggested saying, “What’s up, female? My name is Adonis. Please let me know what your questions are, if any. Thank you. Adonis.” We all voted on which ideas were the best. The group decided that when we saw females, we would say nothing. We would simply bow deeply, allow the female to watch our muscles flex, give her the opportunity to take in our chiseled features. Instructor Corey told us we were to motion to a camera, if the female had a camera, and allow her to take a photograph of us. We liked this idea, for the female to have a memory of us forever.
In the learning center we were made familiar with every aspect of The Product, down to the name of the perfume they’d spray throughout The Store, to the way a pair of terry cloth sweatpants should frame a female’s ass when properly fitted. We became experts on everything they sold at The Store. We took quizzes on The Product. We knew the brand’s history. When we went to bed at night, there would be a moment where we lay in our cots and whispered to ourselves: The Store is my home, and I am his beloved son.
At night, when we couldn’t sleep, we’d sometimes head to the shower stalls in the hope that we’d run into one another. Defiant behavior was strictly prohibited, and we had been programmed to always behave, so we never had to worry about our late-night sessions getting out of control. Nonetheless, on some nights, we’d turn on the showers, strip nude, and caress each other’s bodies. We’d let the cool water drip down our backs as we took our hands and grasped them around each other’s parts. It was so nice. The warm buzz. The sweet relief. We’d press our lips together and allow our tongues to slide down our throats.
We’d go back to bed tired and happy. We’d close our eyes. We’d put our thumbs in our mouths and suck. For a moment, there would be noise. Muffled. The sound of an older female telling us to get ready for the day. A percolating coffee maker. A rusted swing set drifting in a fall breeze. Waves crashing up against a wooden pier. The screeching of bicycle wheels. Children running on hot blacktop in muddied sneakers, laughing. Then: a wash of brown, the burning of a cyanotype. Eight hours of nothingness.
We had heard rumors that we’d be deployed soon. There was the question of how we would get there. Some said it would be via parachute. Others said we’d walk like the Jews in Egypt, trekking towards the holy land. The Manager revealed little. He would tell us we were awesome. He would alert us of the day’s schedule. Instructor Corey simply told us how to figure out what our angles were if one of the females possessed a digital camera or a flip phone. We rarely asked questions. If we did, they could be answered with a yes or no. Sometimes we’d dare to ask a clarifying question. Like: When a female comes over to us and we bow to her, how deeply must we fold over? Should we also give her a wink? Show our teeth? Instructor Corey would respond: “A smile and a wink will get you further than you think!”
One morning, we woke up to the sight of a set of new clothes at the foot of our beds. We picked them up and inspected them: a pair of ripped jeans, a tightly fitted polo shirt, a pair of flip flops. The Manager’s voice boomed over the speakers: “Good morning dudes! Today is going to be an EXTRA friggin’ awesome day because you’re finally ready to be deployed!”
We all dressed and then went to the mess hall where we sat in silence. It would be our last breakfast here. We knew of sadness in the context that sometimes the females get sad when their boyfriends break up with them. Were we experiencing it right now? Sadness? It was unclear. Some of us felt condensation on our faces. We sipped our Peanut Butter Bulk Up And Wake Up shakes in silence. We were uncomfortable in our new clothes. We did not like how tightly we were wrapped up in the denim. We felt like we did when we first arrived here, back when we were all separated into minty-green padded rooms and lay there all day in jackets that bound our arms back and greatly limited our movements. We didn’t like thinking about that day. A man isn’t meant to remember his own birth.
Instructor Corey walked into the mess hall and said, “High five train! Let’s get it going dudes!” and then proceeded to slap his palms up against our palms. “Alright! Nice one,” he said to each of us. “Be proud of yourselves! The Manager believes in you. Heck, I believe in you! Don’t forget about me when you’re out there, killing the game.” We were mostly silent, but a few of us said, “Thank you, my name is Adonis,” in response.
When breakfast ended, we reported to the dome. Everything looked the same, except for the fact that there was a long table with a pile of graduation caps with little copper tassels on them. On top of the cap was a picture of The Store’s insignia, a moose, and a little text that said “Established in 1893.” We were unsure what to do with the caps, but our questions were soon enough answered.
“Put on the caps boys! Put the caps on your heads,” said The Manager. “Today is your graduation day. You are graduating from the program and are going out in the world to help the females make some awesome decisions about what products to buy. The Store is so freaking grateful for your service. We can’t wait to see you out there, just having an amazing time.
“I remember when I first met you boys. You were awesome, but I knew you could be even more awesome! Ha ha ha. Remember the first time you all played flag football here? You could hardly throw the old pigskin around! You would all roll around on the AstroTurf and say things such as ‘I want to go home. I do not feel safe here,’ and then you would all start crying! You didn’t even know that you were Adonis yet! And now look at you guys: you are home, you are family. It’s kind of magic. Want to know something? You guys are my home and my family, too! I know you guys don’t see my face. That must be hard! Rest assured, it wasn’t my decision to be so anonymous—The Store came up with that. What I’m getting at is even though I’m just a voice, I’m also your dad. And I don’t go home at the end of the day to some female in a pretty house with a white picket fence: I sleep here! So basically, congratulations guys. You have worked hard. You are seen! I love you, my sons. My special guys. Wow.”
The Manager’s voice cut out, and the music started playing. Thousands of silver and gold papery slivers began to shoot out of the white teflon, covering our faces. We tried to bat it away, but it was impossible to shake off. It was sticking to our faces. We didn’t like it. The music was loud and laden with bass. We all stood there in our graduation caps and fixated on the fact that we were covered in the silver and gold specks. One of us began to choke on the little silver and gold specks, and we had to resuscitate him with the Heimlich maneuver. When he started to breathe again it was like watching a trout flop around on a dock. Another one of us started to scratch at his skin until it started to bleed. We watched in horror as the rows he dug into his skin began to bubble in a violent scarlet tone. Dripping all over the place. We got it all over his hands when we tried to make it stop. We wished it didn’t have to end this way.
A door on the side of the building opened. It looked like a portal. We all huddled into one corner, cowering in fear. We could hear the wind. The wind howled. We could hear the cars on the highway. On the other side of the door, all we could make out was blue and green. It was so bright and vivid it hurt to look at. We had to shield our eyes. We were worried our skin would peel off. We knew we had to cross over to the other side, but it felt impossible from here, in our little slice of paradise, on this AstroTurf dome where we were so happy.
Our bravest member paved the way. We watched him put one foot in front of the other and make it to the doorway. When we watched him walk to the other side, untouched by the elements, we all cheered. We knew the journey ahead of us would be great. Our training had prepared us for just this very thing. We were strong, that much was true. We were handsome. We knew that as well. We joined hands. We didn’t want to lose anyone in the group. It was too risky.
So we went by way of the Jews in Egypt. Pure intuition. It was like The Manager had planted the directions in our brains. Our bravest member was our Moses. This Adonis was especially hunky. He had green eyes and beautiful, wavy chestnut hair. When he spoke, it was like hearing angels sing sweetly. “I am Adonis,” he said gravely. We all nodded, understanding exactly what he meant. The road ahead of us was treacherous. In our immediate field of vision was, of course, the vivid blue and green strip. We would have to traverse that.
The world ahead of us was big and scary, but we had each other. We noticed that our palms had gotten sweaty. We tried to think of our future, of the glory that awaited us, of how happy we would make the females. Valhalla. That’s what they called it. An expanse of heaven designed just for good boys who worked hard.
There was a fear among the group that this new part of our life would make it so we would see each other less. It was too sad to think about. What would it be like, to not wake up next to each other? To not hear our giggles in the showers, or sit crisscross applesauce as Instructor Corey taught us exactly how to be perfect sketches of men?
We arrived at a river. It was shallow but unavoidable. We had to wade our way to the other side. Cattails blew softly in the breeze. We let our feet sink into the brown-yellow dirt and watched as a bird we assumed to be a seagull opened its mouth and dove into the water. It sprung back out with a fish securely in its jaws. We did not like what we saw. One of us made eye contact with the seagull. We watched as he opened his mouth and began to squawk at the bird, to show this unwanted winged visitor who we were: Adonis.
The water was no colder than the showers we took back at our home. We walked over pebbles. Some of us felt minnows swish past our ankles. They were so slimy, they moved so fast. One of us picked up a crawfish off of a rock, put it between his teeth, and bit off the critter’s head. He masticated loudly, fiercely. He was hungry. About now, we’d be getting ready to sit down to lunch, which would usually be a Bulk Up Beef Jerky Bar and some mixed cocktail nuts in a bag labeled “Delta Airlines.” When Our Moses saw the boy masticate the crawfish’s head, he decided that once we made it to the other side of the river, we’d need to find food. Sustenance was essential for us to continue to be Adonis.
When we made it across the river, we saw the glow of what appeared to be a transient hut with a big red sign that read “Dick’s Quickie Mart.” Our Moses decided that we were to go there, to barter with the hermit who lived in this hut and ask him for nourishment. Our Moses would take the lead again, of course. We had all surrendered to the idea that he was our leader. He was so smart. So sexy. We trusted him with our lives. Our Moses approached the hut. We all watched in awe as he pounded his fists on the door. We were nervous about the hermit. Who would this little man be? Would he be kind to us weary travelers?
Our Moses stood there for about a minute and then pounded his fists on the door again, this time harder. “I am Adonis!” he said, forcefully. All of a sudden, the door opened. A female with green hair appeared on the other side. We did not know there were female hermits. We found this to be very strange, but we also knew that our training mandated that we treat all females with equal adoration.
“Yo dude, you know you can just like, come in the store. You don’t need to knock or anything,” said the female.
“What’s up female, you have gorgeous eyes, babe,” said Our Moses, gesturing at our group of Adonises. “I am Adonis.”
“OK . . . whatever . . . I’m gonna go for a smoke, please like, don’t steal anything. I need this job. My boss is like, a fucking dictator. I swear to god.”
Her tag read: Hi, My Name is Meg, and I’m Here To Help You!
Meg sat down on a wooden bench and pulled out a stick from her apron. We watched her light up a cigarette. She exhaled deeply. The smell was terrible. We all began to cough.
“You guys are fucking weird . . . deadass,” said Meg.
Not knowing how to respond, we crossed the threshold into the transient hut. It was the most beautiful place we had ever seen. The lighting reminded us of home: a fluorescent bulb hung from the ceiling, bathing the whole place in a harsh purplish white. The floors were a white linoleum. The walls were the best part: we saw endless rows of sustenance. There was food we had never even seen before. Food that we didn’t know existed. We fingered bags that were bright yellow and orange and featured a cheetah wearing sunglasses. We breathed in the scent of teal gummies in the shape of worms. We pressed our cheeks to cold cans of something called Demon NRG X-Treme. We felt aroused. We were overwhelmed.
Our Moses went outside to go find Meg. He would need to barter with her. We had agreed we would be willing to do a week’s worth of hard labor for the sustenance. We would do anything. We were getting so hungry. It would be hard to reach our final destinations without food in our tummies.
Our Moses sucked in his gut and sat down next to Meg.
“Please let us know if you would like to stroke our chiseled abs,” said Our Moses, mustering his courage.
“You’re fucking insane,” responded Meg, taking a long drag of her cigarette. “Want one? They’re Virginia Slims. Makes me feel like a rich woman. Or like I live in Florida or something.”
Our Moses started again, noticing as Meg exhaled that she had a mouthful of braces.
“I am Adonis. Hello. We are very hungry, female. We are wondering if we can do a week’s worth of hard labor in exchange for some sustenance. Sincerely, Adonis.”
Meg looked at Our Moses, bewildered.
“Hard labor? What the fuck do you think this is? A concentration camp? Do you have money, or do you not have money? Seriously, what is your deal? Where did you guys come from?”
Our Moses tugged at the collar of his shirt. He was getting nervous. He was losing his cool. “I am Adonis,” he choked, “we do not have money. Please, female hermit, help us.”
Meg took another puff of the terrible smelling cigarette. “OK, here’s what I’m going to do. You guys are obviously weird as fuck. Maybe like, you have mental problems. Are you guys from the special school in Olmstedville? You know, the one for kids who were like, molested? Anyways. I’m not so religious anymore, but I was raised with Jesus in my life. I’m spiritual. I believe in signs from the universe. Helping the needy. That sort of thing. Come back at closing. That’s at 10 p.m. Four hours. I’ll do what I can to help.”
Our Moses bowed his head and said: “Thank you.”
We had nowhere else to go, so we sat in a circle in a field next to the river. The sky was just beginning to turn orange. One of our members went to the river to try to catch more crawfish for us to eat. He returned with six of them. They were crawling all over the place and snapping their little pinchers. We took the little critters and ripped them apart at their stomachs. It was two Adonises to a crawfish. The little critters looked pained when we ripped them in two. We thanked them for helping us survive. As we chewed, we ran our fingers through our hair and lay down on the grass. We took each other by the face and pressed our lips together like we used to down in the showers. We let it go a little longer than usual. The sensation of our tongues touching made us feel so docile.
Day bled into night. The sky turned green for a second and then became almost violet gray. It started to cool down a bit. We were all now lying in silence, looking up at the sky, noticing little flickers of white light: stars. Occasionally, one of them would glow red and quickly move around the sky: airships. It would soon be time to return to Meg, but at this moment in time, we just wanted to drink in the light in the sky and the feeling of each other’s flesh, the sensation of our chests rising and falling. We lay there like we were one giant organ, clawing for blood and oxygen.
Our Moses roused us by clapping and whistling. We had fallen asleep, albeit only momentarily. We walked back to Dick’s Quickie Mart together, envisioning all of the food we’d put in our bellies in just a short while. We followed Meg’s instructions and met her in the area known as out back. Our Moses lightly tapped his knuckles on the door labeled “Staff Entrance: Keep Out.” We all stood in silence. And then she opened the door.
“Here,” said Meg, hand outstretched.
Our Moses looked at her and said: “Thank you for the sustenance Meg! We will no longer starve. We are happy that you did not make us go to the concentration camp. Yours truly, Adonis.”
Meg handed us a large plastic bag full of sustenance. It was everything we could have hoped for: sticky sweet things in the same shade of pink as our gums, ultraviolet chews that tasted like the syrup we sometimes drank when our noses got stuffed up and The Manager wanted us to quiet down. Meg watched us as we ate there, in the parking lot of Dick’s Quickie Mart. It was completely empty, just us and Meg and an old-looking silver car. It had a license plate that said: Need 5 Speed.
“So like. Where are you guys going?” asked Meg.
“Tonight we must march into the darkness,” said Our Moses. “We have been deployed. We have a duty: the females. We must go to our predetermined destination and stand watch. We must make her feel loved and accepted. If she would like to take a photo of us, for example with her flip phone or a digital camera, we will allow this. It is our duty to help The Store sell The Product above all else.”
Meg looked at Our Moses and said: “What?”
Thanks to Meg, we made good headway that evening, and by sunrise, we knew we were close to our final destination. The path we walked on was up against a busy road dotted with many huts similar to Dick’s Quickie Mart. A few of our members died along the way. One Adonis tragically got hit by a sixteen-wheeler, his head rolled clean off of his body. Another one tripped and fell into a puddle—his flip flops were a size too big—and we watched him slowly asphyxiate. There was nothing we could do, really. As soon as it happened, it was already too late. We simply watched the light leave his eyes. With his last burst of life he said: “I am Adonis.”
Occasionally, on our journey, we’d see a house, and our remaining members would all crowd around and try to look inside the windows. We wondered who lived there and whether or not they had ever been to the store. Did they have a basement full of wonderful boys, too? Did they feed them and wash them and let them play flag football?
Sometimes, when we got too close, we’d hear a dog go, “yap! yap! yap!” This made us sad. We had always wanted to get a puppy, but The Manager was firmly against the idea. He thought it would impede our learning and growing if we were to get a pet. When we argued with him, something we almost never did, he made us eat dog food for days on end. We did not like it when The Manager made us eat dog food. We stopped asking him for a puppy.
In our future, we wanted to have a family and a puppy and live in a big old house with a bedroom for each of us. We’d have everything we’d ever want: a lawn to play flag football, plenty of delicious snacks, a framed picture of The Manager. He’d be so proud of us, of what we accomplished together at The Store. He’d come by for dinner sometimes, in the flesh. He’d tell us he loved us. We’d tell him how we loved each other.
When morning did in fact hit, we had made it to the outskirts of the building that housed The Store. The building was called The Mall, and it was a series of pewter colored complexes with a parking lot bigger than our AstroTurf dome. We marched towards the entrance: a glass pyramid, where inside you could see many different kinds of shops and places to eat and sit and gaze soulfully out into the open for hours on end. It was a wonderful sight, this sunlight drenched architectural marvel sitting in the middle of this luminous concrete island. So many wonderful things awaited us in this building. Our future was so bright. All of it. We walked right in.