Star Wars was our obsession. During the winter our neighborhood became Hoth, throughout the summer it was Tatooine. When we explored the woods and streams behind our town’s quiet streets we searched for Ewoks in the trees.

One thing was for certain: we were the good guys. We had lofty aims and healthy ambitions. We believed in the Force. We believed that it connected all living things. We believed that the dark side would never tempt us. Growing up here we didn’t see much evil, but we realized it was out there. But it was an aberration, barely tangible. For us, evil resided somewhere else, in a galaxy far, far away…

***

The summer between elementary school and junior high I spent a lot of time at Fantasy Cards and Comics. It was the only comic book store in town and the only place we could buy the new line of Star Wars trading cards.

My dad was the basketball coach for the local high school and had me enrolled in all sorts of summer hoops camps. In the mornings he signed me up for the weight lifting program with the junior high football team in the hopes I would put on some muscle. My body was built like my mom’s, and for an aspiring athlete, that was a problem. My mom, as with her parents and her sisters and brothers, were all underweight, rangy, and lean.

I liked basketball, but I went to the camps mostly because I felt I was expected to. It wasn’t so much the physical action I enjoyed but more of the aesthetic of the game—the way the drama unfolded like the climax of a story. Basketball gave me a rush the way comics and sci-fi also transformed me. Both took me someplace else.

Although my mom never said it, I think she understood my dilemma. When the final week of camp ended she offered to take me down to Fantasy Cards and Comics to pick out a new pack of Star Wars trading cards. I stuffed them in my back pocket and asked if I could go over to my friend Smitty’s house to make some trades.

“Sure,” she said. “Just be home for dinner. Grandma is coming over.”

“Ok,” I said and ran off with joy smeared all over my face.

It was late afternoon and the air was hot and heavy. The sun angled down bathing everything in a fiery light. A faint carillon of bells sounded from the town’s church spires in the distance, a low slow song, thin and faint, but clear.

I climbed the back stairs of Smitty’s rickety old duplex, and from the second story I looked out at the elementary school we had graduated from a week before. Smitty was alone most days because his mother, a large woman, crippled and losing her vision from Diabetes, was at dialysis more often than not. His dad had died the previous month after drawn out complications from alcoholism, so I would come over often to help him keep his mind off things.

For the most part we had the place to ourselves and took advantage by digging around in the kitchen cupboards for giant bags of junk food. Then we’d turn on MTV and increase the volume until it shook the floor and the old lady below would begin to pound her ceiling with a broom handle.

This time when I knocked Smitty came to the door with a wild-eyed look on his chubby face. “Check this out!” He practically shoved a magazine against my nose. He forced it into my hands. I pulled it back from my eyes and examined the cover; Hustler—there was a Barbie-looking blonde sprawled out on an enormous bed with her legs spread wide open. She made a puckering gesture with her thick glossy lips.

My heart thrummed against my chest like a fly at a window. My mom wouldn’t want me looking at this, I thought. God doesn’t want me looking at this; a greater thought. Thoughts of Hell and damnation. I remembered what the lady at Sunday School had said—that even thinking about sex was to commit adultery, and people who commit adultery go straight to Hell.

Smitty snatched the Hustler back from me. He flipped though the pages showing me picture after picture. “This is what a pussy looks like,” he said. It sort of looked like a hole with a little split in it. Kind of like the girl’s lips on the cover.

“See?! See?!” He was excited. Page after page, pussy after pussy. They all sort of looked the same.

Smitty led me back into the apartment, his rat-tail streaming like a banner behind him. Dirt clung to the walls and floorboards and championed the sinks and counters stacked high with unwashed dishes. He held the magazine above his head and moved it up and down like a marching band conductor.

Sitting on the couch was our friend Mark Cercone. He bent over a pile of magazines on the floor. They all read: HUSTLER.

“I stole a stack from Gabby’s.” Mark C’s eyes gleamed with blunt lust and a buck-tooth appeared behind his chapped lips.

Gabby’s was a little store around the corner. My grandma worked the register there and sometimes when we’d stop in after school and she’d give us free candy. I wondered if she saw him take them.

“Here, take a look. They all got huge titties.” He tossed one over with careless disregard, as if a stack of porno magazines were nothing special.

I sat down and opened it to a random page, and there she was: platinum blonde, Florida brown tan, back arching over the hood of a car, her breasts spilling out from an unbuttoned see-through lacy top. I stared at them, the way they stood straight up, defying gravity, like the tops of two fire hydrants. I felt myself go hard, and despite my guilt, imagined laying my cheek against her breasts, like a fleshy pillow.

Then these strange thoughts took over and I felt a deep sadness: I wondered why she posed in a picture like this, why she had her hand between her legs. I wondered if she went to church when she was my age, if her mom had read to her every night before bed—books like Good Dog Carl or Love You Forever. Did her mom cry and hug her as she finished reading the last page like my mom always did?

Mark C. stood up and reached down his pants. He rushed off to the bathroom with a crude animal-like fervor. “I just can’t take it any longer,” his voice filtered out from behind the door. I knew what he was doing in there; I’d heard boys at school talk about it, but I figured it was all talk.

I went back to looking at my girl flung against the car. She was beautiful, and the way she stared at me from the page made me feel beautiful too. But I was ashamed of the beauty, ashamed at what Mark C. was doing in the bathroom, ashamed of the Godless thoughts in my head. I stared at her and wondered if Hell is a pretty place too.

I heard Smitty sort of grunt next to me and I saw him take his penis, sprouting from a tuft of rough hair, and he took his little dick and he jammed it through the hole he tore in the centerfold’s privates. He stood up, pulled the corner of the photo just so he could see her face, then let it go and the HUSTLER just dangled there.

***

Afterward, as I walked home there was a dugout feeling in my stomach. It was like I drank acid and it was eating into me. I was late for dinner and didn’t care, so I decided I’d walk past the elementary school. The sun was setting and the entire playground was deserted. It was almost as if no kids had ever been there at all. I sat down at one of the worn tables and pulled the pack of Star Wars cards from my pocket. At Smitty’s, we never got around to opening it.

I tore the packaging with my teeth and thumbed through the cards. Third to the last and there it was; it was the card I’d been waiting for: Luke Skywalker. I held it up and examined it in the remaining sunlight. The picture was a screenshot of Luke in front of his uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine. He stood up straight and noble as he stared longingly at the dual setting suns as if they held the possibilities of the entire galaxy. His brilliant white tunic was spotless, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he kept it so clean on a planet so dirty.