The sign on the door reads Crying Boys Welcome Here. Inside, they are arranged in a circle, hunched on squeaky metal chairs, faces blurry like foggy windshields, twelve pairs of cheeks lobster-claw red. They hold paper cups filled with water poured from a decanter on a table next to an untouched platter of cookies. The boys range in age, pubescent adolescence through college graduate, some of their bodies filled with baby fat, others long-armed and skinny-limbed, bearded and pimpled, peach and jiggly. One is shaped like a linebacker, thighs pressing against the fabric of his jeans. Another wears a wife-beater, his cratered muscles scarred by cigarette burns.

For the longest time they say nothing, their sniffles and hiccups the only noise in the small, damp room that feels like a cell, the gray bathwater of the sky eking in through high, narrow windows. The light is tired, fluorescent bulbs sharp and biting, half of them snapped off. A chalkboard at one end of the room is a dead, black void, swished with white: notes erased from some previous meeting like streaks of dried quartz. The boys sip from their cups stained by the mucky drip of their wet noses. They look at one another and sigh, warm comfort eating up their insides. The football player catches the eye of the smallest boy, so tiny his cargo shorts reach closer to his ankles than his knees. He presses his lips into a smile and waggles his fingers. The little boy squirms in his seat, happiness warring with his sadness.

If they are waiting on a leader, no one says so. No one glances toward the closed door with its picture window, wired and glazed so as to distort the view in each direction; someone peeking in would see fuzzy phantoms, their identities washed out of focus. The boys simply sit, each in a different stage of sobbing. A few are just getting started, warm salt gathering in the corners of their eyes, wet heat mounting in their throats. The boy with the burned shoulders is climbing toward full height, his tears stitched with tight sobs begging to be allowed to stretch out to their truest depths. The football player is on the downswing, his choking hiccups subsiding, the froggy feeling in his throat turning to ashy relief.

No one says, Are you okay?

No one says, What’s wrong?

No one says, Boys don’t cry.

Because here, boys do cry. Here, crying boys are welcome. Here, the boy whose father won’t play catch with him is not told that he’s a baby for letting out the harsh loneliness running up and down his spine. Here, the fifteen-year-old who aches because his friends don’t know he’s gay and make homo jokes all the time won’t be smirked at for feeling pain. Here, the boy who loves his girlfriend so much it makes him sob can sob. The nineteen-year-old punk rocker doesn’t have to hide that YouTube videos of soldiers returning home from the Middle East make his chest throb. The burnt boy doesn’t have to pretend his father’s cigarettes don’t hurt.

A boy with green eyes like shards of emerald exhales, a sharp, high noise like a train whistle. The other boys blink their pink-ringed eyes at him and lean back as if blown by a hearty sea wind.

“I just get sad when I think of my mother,” he says, voice trembling and soft. He looks at his stomach and adjusts his button-down linen shirt. “She and my father are divorced. She’s unemployed and cries when she folds the laundry. The noise makes me cry, too.”

The football player nods. “My dad used to hit me. If I cried, he’d hit me harder.”

They go round and round like a game of somber musical chairs, announcing the sources of tears: lost grandparents, dead beagles, alcoholic uncles, Josh Groban songs, painful headaches, sibling rivalries. No one criticizes, no one ranks. There are no winners. The boys nod at one another. Hands reach out and clap shoulders. Soon they are standing and embracing, squeezing fatty palms against backs, pressing arms around frail ribs. Their sobs increase in tenor and pitch and intensity when their faces are in heated, seasoned proximity.

“I think I’ll take a cookie,” the burned boy says, his scars winking in the light when he shifts his weight.

They all take cookies. Crumbs cling to their lips. They giggle at chocolate smears. They refill their cups and have drinking contests to see who can chug the fastest. They laugh and they cry and they wipe at their cheeks. The football player lifts the tiny boy onto his shoulders and rushes around the chairs in a zooming circle, making the sounds of an engine shifting gears. They play Simon Says. They play charades. They play telephone.

The room has no clock, and none of the boys sneak furtive glances at their cell phones. Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are all ignored. After a particularly warped round of telephone (“There’s a pretty dog here” becomes “Can you buy me beer”) they laugh until they cry again.

More secrets spill out like candy: punches and pinches, abortions, nightmares about lost dogs. Tearing up while watching romantic comedies and Titanic. Feeling overweight. Feeling underweight.

Minutes tick by in heavy silence. The door remains closed.

Outside, the world whirls by, time oozing like gunk squelching into a storm drain. No one moves to leave. Here, they are crying boys. Here, they can slather and screech and squirm and sense, they can feel and flail and flutter. Their hearts can beat and break and melt and mend. Out there, they must be stoic and smart and strong and senseless.

Here, the crying boys are friends, comrades, soulmates.

There, they are boys, a dozen apostles waiting for a savior who may never arrive.

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

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