Before the incident with Tony’s hat, the most exciting thing to happen in Horseshoe Trailer Park was the installation of my new swing set. It was a gift for my tenth birthday, and the beginning of an important venture for me and my friends. Technically, I didn’t have any friends yet, but the swing set would surely change that. It wasn’t just exciting for the kids. Dads stopped by and stared as my mom’s boyfriend Jeremy bolted the pieces in place and dug the legs into the fussy earth. They crossed their arms over their beer bellies and cocked their heads. “That from the Toys ‘r’ Us?” they asked. “Or the Walmart?” They didn’t offer to help, of course. They just watched him struggle with the stubborn rigidity of the dirt. I had the decency to observe through the window, chilled in the trailer’s musky air conditioning, an entrepreneur watching his contractor physically enable the dream.
As Mom brought Jeremy a glass of lemonade, other moms cruised by in their station wagons. She offered them a wave, but they replied with pinched faces. They kept their distance until they needed favors like a jump for their dead car or a ten spot until payday. Now they would have to explain to their kids why I got a swing set and their kids did not.
Though named after a horseshoe, the trailer park was shaped like a U. The landlady, Agatha, lived in a two-story ramshackle house perched in the center, a perfect position from which to monitor everything. I never thought about her much until she bolted from her ripped screen door hollering at us kids about something: playing in the street, being too loud, getting too close to her brown, crispy lawn. My mom referred to her as an old bat, but I thought bats were cool and looked nothing like this woman, who reminded me of a crinkled gray piece of paper.
We lived at the tail end of the U. Our lot butted up against Route 10, one of the heaviest arteries of traffic in an otherwise barren town. Semis, sedans, and pickups passed with a buzzing blur that often became hypnotic. The speed limit was 45, but Mom often shook her head and said, “I swear those cars are going damn near 80.” She told me I better not even think of leaving our yard – it was too dangerous. “If I catch you in the street,” she warned, “I’ll kill you myself.”
My school days were spent dodging kids bigger and meaner than me. I prayed for a cloak of invisibility as I navigated the halls and shrank into a curled-up ball of shame during gym class. There, I was No One doing Nothing, waiting for the final bell and tending to the knots in my stomach. However, in the evenings and on weekends, I was what you might call the master of my domain. My domain, in this case, was the glistening new swing set, the yard, and the hill at the rear edge of the lawn that sloped into a thin creek below. Where once I sat alone, staring down into the muddy current, now I entertained a steady stream of trailer kids, drawn to my new structure like errant moths.
I tried a few of them on like hats. Some were decent, and made their best efforts to fulfill the roles they were being considered for; namely, keeping me entertained. But this was, admittedly, a tricky business. My standards were high. After years of spending time alone at my grandmother’s house while my mom worked nights as a telephone operator and slept all day, or vice versa, I had forged a sophisticated imagination that required elaborately constructed plot twists and powerfully executed inciting incidents to fuel its forward momentum. I had little patience for the pedestrian scenarios most of the trailer park kids suggested. Let’s play Policeman, or Cops and Robbers, or Space Adventure, or Cowboys and Indians, or whatever other ridiculous trope that had been lazily passed down through the generations! No thanks. What did these games even mean? The kids could never provide anything but a title. “Where is the intrigue?” I’d ask. “The motivation?” Blank stares. And God forbid, some of them even suggested physical challenges with offensive names like Smear the Queer and Herd the Nerd. Again, no thank you. I weeded those candidates out immediately.
The others were not long for elimination. “Think about it,” I told “Little Peter” Szmanski, a petite, unfortunately nicknamed fourth grader, “Your wife has OD’d on prescription pills. You’ve lost all your money gambling on the stock markets. Your daughter is a transsexual thespian. How would you react?” At this point, my story concepts were roughly cobbled together from bits and pieces that filtered into my brain as Donahue blasted from my grandma’s console TV. Little Peter Szamanski pointed his index finger at me and emitted a high-pitched vibration between his lips and teeth. “Is that a laser gun?” I balked. “This story is set in 1967, not the future! I thought we already agreed on that.”
A seventh grader named Brewster Callahan came by every once in awhile on the pretense of joining our productions, but I knew his real reason. He was tall and chubby, and every time he hoisted his rear onto one of my swings, the chains strained and the top beam seemed to bend in agony, struggling to support his weight. I prayed to the heavens that he would not attempt the slide because the thin aluminum would surely crumple like a Coke can if he did. In any other situation, he was the kind of kid would who throw spit wads at my head and threaten me with violence every day, but here, the allure of the swing set seemed to buffer those dangers. To be sure, he still threatened me, but it was in a joking manner. “Hey Kyle, gonna kick yer ass,” he’d say, smiling, winking, and pointing his finger at me. Before leaving for the day, he’d reiterate, “Kick yer ass later, Holmes,” while tousling my hair.
I leveled with him. “While I admire the movie star appeal of your name,” I explained, “your stage presence leaves a bit to be desired.”
“Faggot,” he responded. I decided to keep him around because, if nothing else, he made a good bouncer to keep out the riffraff. After only a few weeks, he became scarce, just like the rest of the kids, reappearing occasionally for no apparent reason.
My only constant companion was Lisa Withers. She was a year younger than me. We would play on the swing set with whatever other random kids were around until someone’s mom popped out of a trailer door and hollered about dinner. Usually, it was my mom. Sometimes, it would be Lisa’s mom, trudging over from across the trailer park. “Lisa, get on home,” she would screech, grabbing Lisa by the sleeve. “I done called you about five times.” But she had never called for Lisa. She just liked to complain.
Lisa had dingy blonde hair that was often pulled back into a ponytail, occasionally parted into uneven pigtails. When she wore it like this, I couldn’t help staring at the zigzag part in her hairline. I wanted to slide a comb down that line. To straighten it out. Let loose the pigtails and start again. Her hair hung heavy and clumped with an unwashed sheen of grease. She carried an earthy smell, as if she lived outside in a hovel burrowed into the dirt. As if she crawled into a tunnel at the bottom of my hill and slept there until it was time for us to play.
There wasn’t much to Lisa. Nothing spectacular or memorable. She was mildly attractive, but certainly not pretty. She spoke occasionally, in a thin voice that she had to force from her throat with some effort, but she never said anything particularly witty. However, I admired her dedication and loyalty. She was always on time, always present, never questioned my orders, never forced her own ideas into the agenda. I liked that in a playmate. She had a quietly peculiar, offsetting nature that also intrigued me. After a few minutes with her, you would probably call her awkward, but you wouldn’t be able to put a finger on why.
One day, I noticed her wearing a bracelet made of tiny white beads with engraved letters that spelled BESTFRIENDS4EVER. The letters wrapped around her thin wrist, so she had to twist it to show me. “Tiffany Martinez gave it to me,” she said, grinning. It was the loudest I had ever heard her speak. Tiffany Martinez was, without question, the most popular girl in our class. Her name invoked awe in the gasps of the girls and a warm stirring in the chests of the boys. I had fantasized about her joining our productions many times. Securing her as a playmate would be the ultimate jackpot. But Lisa might as well have said that Madonna gave her the bracelet. I didn’t believe it for a minute. Sure enough, a few days later, in a quiet pink-faced confession, Lisa said that she had actually stolen the bracelet from Tiffany’s desk when she wasn’t looking. It was likely meant for Becky Tremaine, Tiffany’s real bestie. “It’s okay, though,” Lisa said, admiring the letters and slowly twirling her wrist. “I pretend that if Tiffany knew me, like if she actually talked to me, she’d like me so much that she’d give it to me instead.” I felt sorry for Lisa, but I also admired her spirit and brazen disregard for reality. Here was a fellow dreamer. Later, I saw her in front of her trailer, playing with some of my toys, wearing my hats and jackets, none of which I had given her, but I felt honored that she liked me enough to steal them, so I never said anything.
Then there was Tony. Of all the characters that came and went, all the kids that orbited my yard, Tony was the one that made the darkest, stickiest impression. Tony’s story, and that of his goddamned hat, is one that I still fiddle with in those small, rare brain lapses between important thoughts. Tony, who buzzed around the trailer park like a skinny, sniveling housefly. Once, when I was about five years, I stepped on a bee hovering in the grass at the bottom of the metal steps that led to the front door of our trailer. Shocked at the unexpected pain of the sting, I wailed and whined for my mom who stood a few feet away talking to one of her girlfriends. She shooed me, hushed me, irritated at what she thought was a desperate bid for attention. She didn’t know about the bee, and I was unable to tell her between gasping sobs. Tony was the human equivalent of that bee.
I knew of Tony ever since we moved in. He was two years younger, so I didn’t encounter him much. I viewed him as an annoying baby sucking on a bottle in his mother’s arms while a cigarette dangled from her lips. Once my swing set appeared, so did Tony. Every day.
He was cut from the lineup early on. “Sorry, but you have no presence or experience,” I explained. “I’m not sure what you’re even doing here.” My arms were crossed, Lisa by my side. He sat at the top of my slide and stared back at me with black button eyes. He wore a red baseball cap with a B on it, Boston Red Sox. It was dotted with brown stains, God knows what. Even from a few feet away, I could smell him. Piss and rot. He wouldn’t budge. “That means you can leave now,” I elaborated.
“No,” he answered simply, sliding to the bottom and landing in the grass. We both stared at him. I backed up, afraid I would gag from the stench that wafted up from where he sat.
He returned every day. No matter what other business Lisa and I addressed amongst ourselves or with other kids, there he was in the background. When it first started, I attempted to physically remove him from the property. I climbed to the top of the slide, clumsily slid my arms under his legs and armpit, and tried hoisting him over the side. It ended in disaster. He shrieked like a wounded animal from the moment I touched him. I lost my footing, toppled backward, and we both fell to the ground. He landed on top of me, pushing all the air from my lungs. Still shrieking. I gasped and coughed as Lisa rushed to my side. “What? Kyle, what is it? I can’t understand,” she cried. “Are you dying?”
“Where’s Brewster Callahan when you need him?” I choked.
I looked up from the ground, and Tony was back at the top of the slide. His work was perfunctory and repetitive. There seemed to be no joy in its execution. Climb the steps, sit at the top, arms at one’s sides, legs straight out, slide down, land in the grass sitting Indian-style, stand up, climb the steps, repeat. Whatever he was doing seemed to satisfy some primal, predetermined urge that couldn’t be shut off.
“You probably shouldn’t mess with him,” Lisa said, helping me to my feet. “His brother Larry might beat you up.” Larry was a three-time high school senior. Pale stubble dotted his pimply face. He only came home every once in awhile, usually to engage in screaming matches with their mother at two a.m., and then to rev his Camaro around the horseshoe before peeling back onto the main road.
After several weeks, I gave up the slide as a lost cause. In fact, the more of a fixture Tony became, the more it tainted the entire swing set in my mind. I imagined it covered in yellow tape that read POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS, or BIOHAZARD. Lisa and I stayed near the rear of the yard, focusing our efforts on storylines that involved hills or mountains or canyons.
As the winter months encroached on our play, and a messy wet blanket of snow covered the swing set, the hill became even more appealing. We were arctic explorers climbing polar ice caps, wary of setting off dormant avalanches. By this time, I had grown so accustomed to Tony’s perpetual presence on the slide that he had become a part of the scenery that my mind no longer acknowledged, like the sky or the trees or the constant traffic on Route 10. He used the slide whether or not I was home, often already there when I woke up in the morning, or still there when I went to bed at night. I sometimes wondered if he spent the night in my yard, perhaps stretching out on the slide and falling into an inclined slumber once he had put in a long day’s work of sliding. I wished I had one of those motion-detecting surveillance cameras you could buy at the spy store, but then I remembered that I didn’t care what he did.
When the snow accelerated and piled a heavy, amorphous coating over the swing set, rendering it a useless white mound, Tony appeared at the top of our hill. “Go away,” I
“No,” he answered. He bopped up and down on his heels, sliding a foot or two down the incline, the sugar cocaine of Fruit Loops and chocolate milk clearly coursing through his veins. He still wore the red cap. He wore it all year round. Even though the ground was covered in snow and our breath puffed out of our mouths in tiny clouds, all he had was the baseball cap and a thin windbreaker. My entire head, meanwhile, was covered in a thick knit hat my grandma had given me for Christmas. It was so disproportionally bulky, I looked like a microphone. I kept the folded part tucked over both ears so that I could pretend not to hear someone if I didn’t want to talk to them.
We stared at each other. A standoff that reminded me of our first showdown on the slide. I wanted nothing more than to push him. I imagined my hands in front of me. A simple gesture. He was so small, such a light frame; a mild shove would do it. I’d surprise him with a thrust of both hands, shooting out as if spring-loaded. His eyes would pop out, startled. Maybe he’d grin for a split-second, thinking it a joke. But he’d realize, Hey, no, this is real. He’d topple backward, his arms spinning like an unhinged windmill. His feet would lose purchase on the already precarious incline, and he’d tumble onto his ass, rolling down the hill, legs curled and useless.
“What’re you smilin’ at?” he asked, sniffling through a snot-crusted nose.
“I’m not smiling at anything. You are literally the most annoying person on earth.”
“Come on, Tony. Leave us alone,” Lisa pleaded. I knew he irritated her, too, but she felt obligated to put up with him because their moms were best friends. Next-door neighbors. Smoking fiends. Always on their porches gossiping about everyone else in the trailer park, especially my mom. In Larry’s absence, Lisa treated Tony like a little brother. She pulled him by the jacket sleeve and led him up the hill. “Get up here, you’re gonna fall.”
He pointed across Route 10. “That house over there – you know about that house?” I followed the line of his bony, gloveless finger. Across the street, there was an old wood frame house that had been abandoned for years. It sat a few yards back from the edge of the road. The windows were shattered. Parts of the walls had caved in. It was a dark brooding skeleton hunched over patches of wild dying grass. Kids from the Horseshoe often dared each other to run across Route 10, braving the traffic, to explore the structure. No one ever did it. This was on my mom’s list of offenses punishable by death if ever attempted by me. “You know what Larry said about that house?” Tony chirped.
I leaned over and poked my nose inches from his. “What?”
He didn’t back off. “It’s haunted!” he screamed in a high-pitched holler. His breath smelled like sour milk.
“How original,” I said. “You’re an idiot.” I pulled the hat from his head and held it above him. He released that hideous animal shriek. It gave me chills. He jumped and swiped for the hat, but he was too short. I held it aloft, making it soar. “Look, it’s a bird,” I cooed. Tears formed in his eyes. Snot dribbled from his nostrils into his gaping mouth. Something in me came unfastened. I saw him, wailing, and I saw myself, at school, hiding, shrinking away from fists and boots, finger pointing and snickering. I hated him and I wanted to hurt him.
I jerked my hand toward the edge of the hill, faking a toss. He jumped toward the edge, prepared to catch it, but I pulled it back and laughed.
“Give it to me give it to me come on!” he screamed. Lisa stared at both of us, eyes wide, expression locked.
“You’re a goddamned baby weirdo,” I screamed at him. “Why are you so stupid?”
I looked toward Route 10. It was four lanes, with a thin median in the middle. Traffic sped past, in both directions, kicking up charcoal-colored slush. I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I didn’t hesitate. I walked straight from my last insult to the edge of the road, stopped near the shoulder’s gravel, extended the hat in my right hand, and tossed it like a Frisbee.
I wasn’t much for sports. During forced baseball games in gym class, I usually hid in an anonymous remote section of the outfield. I could never get an actual Frisbee very far. But somehow, I managed to land Tony’s hat on the edge of the median, smack dab in the center of the vehicular death trap.
I heard Lisa’s soft voice beside me. “Oh no.”
Tony released a sound that pierced the static air. It went beyond a shriek, to a kind of animal yowling. It was the sound I had imagined coming from the ice monsters that plagued our polar excursions. Where had Tony been when we needed an effects man? Why was he just now showing this kind of ingenuity? I stared at his wet mouth as he continued to howl. I was fascinated.
Lisa spoke up, above the cacophony. “Larry gave him that hat. It’s the only thing he cares about in the whole world.” Her dark look said the rest: You shouldn’t have done that.
Like a cloak falling to the floor to reveal some impropriety, I immediately realized we had a situation on our hands. No, I had a situation. I was, after all, the leader of this operation. For the first time, I no longer wanted the responsibility.
A Jeep whizzed past, only a few feet away. The tires kicked black sludge onto our coats and faces. I wiped off my mouth. Tony had not stopped bellowing, and the dirt had slopped onto his lips and tongue. “Alright, calm down,” I said, but before either of us could stop him, Tony darted into the road, across two lands, and hopped onto the median. He bent over, grabbed his hat, and shoved it angrily onto his head. He folded his arms in front of him and pouted at us. I imagined him as a cartoon character with the word Harumph! floating in the air above him.
What little break in traffic had allowed Tony to miraculously cross the street had already filled in again. Pickups, station wagons, and sedans passed on either side of Tony, some of them honking their disapproval. None of them stopping. The problem was that this stretch of road was particularly prone to developing black ice, so that if any of the cars even tapped on the brakes to avoid him, they would likely skid and smack right into him.
On some subconscious level, Tony seemed to realize this danger. Each time a car passed, he flinched, covering his hat with both hands and hiding his face behind his elbows. His guttural siren call had faded to simple little boy sobs.
“Oh no,” Lisa repeated, the words falling heavier this time.
The honking continued along with the sobbing. I stood frozen, unsure of how to get out of this one. I had failed as a director, a leader, a friend. Behind me, I heard the flapping of bat wings. I turned and saw Agatha hobbling up behind us. She wore a nylon mauve coat that stretched down to her calves and crusty snow boots. She waved a finger at us. “What are you kids doing?” she screamed. “I saw you force that boy out there. I saw you throw his hat. You’re gonna get it.”
To my surprise, she grabbed my right arm, hoisted it up, and began smacking my butt with her other hand. I couldn’t feel anything through my multiple layers of underwear, long johns, and pants, but I was startled by her aggressive approach.
Next, my mother’s voice joined the hysteria. “Get your hands off of my son!” And then, louder and closer, “Kyle, get the hell away from the road.”
She pulled me from Agatha’s grip while jabbing a finger into her face. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Agatha’s pig-like nose wrinkled up and her yellow dentures glistened in the winter sun. I was able to see the bat resemblance more and more, and it disappointed me.
“These kids are bullying that little boy,” she shouted, pointing to Tony, who had, at this point, crouched into a sitting version of the fetal position. The word bully had never been leveled at me before. It made my cheeks flush. It made me want to pull the flaps of my hat over my face so that no one could see me.
“Oh shit,” my mom said when she saw Tony.
Within minutes, we were joined by half of the Horseshoe. Lisa’s mom, who pulled Lisa away from me as if I was diseased. Jeremy, who had been sleeping in preparation for working the night shift at the steel mill. And of course, Tony’s mom. She poured on the dramatics. “My baby! My little boy! Oh my god, he’s only eight!” Mascara black tears striped her face. If we had been producing a Spanish soap opera, she would have been the perfect lead. Her horror quickly turned to anger, and her target was my mother. They spat insults at each other with athletic vigor – whore, white trash, bitch, and other words I had not yet learned. I looked at Lisa through the forest of adult legs. She was silently crying.
As the women busied themselves with each other – it was a mob of mothers lead by Agatha against my mother – I turned back toward the road. Tony looked like a cowering turtle. No head or limbs. Just jacket, boots, and hat. Every few seconds, my view of him was interrupted by the blur of cars. They weren’t slowing down, or even honking anymore. He was so small, like a little boulder kicked up onto the median and forgotten. It was very possible that the drivers could no longer see him.
I looked back at Lisa and she was still staring at me with her big wounded eyes. I thought of what she might say if we were the leads in a big budget adventure movie. We would have jumped across the ravine, desperately trying to keep the microchip away from the villains, but my tiny juvenile sidekick would still be stuck on the other side. She’d shake her head slightly, rustling her blonde wavy hair. You’ve gotta do something, Mahoney, she’d cry. (For some reason, my adventure name would be Mahoney.) And I’d nod. On the one hand, we’d have to get this microchip to safety, but on the other, I couldn’t leave a friend behind. That’s not what a hero would do.
I nodded at Lisa.
I broke from the crowd, walked back to the side of the road, waited for the two closer lanes to clear, and ran as quickly as I could to the median.
When I stood above Tony, I took a deep breath. I realized I had been holding it since nodding at Lisa. “Won’t do me any good to faint,” I mumbled. Tony looked up at me. His eyes were red and swollen. The old familiar oil slick of snot poured from his nose.
I bent down next to him, slid one arm around his back and the other under his knees. “Don’t fight me this time, buddy,” I whispered into his ear. I picked him up, and he was lighter than I expected. Was it possible that he had lost weight since our first scuffle?
As soon as I stood straight up, cars raced past us on either side. The force of the air smacked us, causing me to nearly topple over. Tony buried his face into my shoulder and clutched the back of my neck tightly with both hands. Across the street, all the mothers were screaming at us in horror and desperation. Mine was the loudest. Some beckoned us, insisting that we get back over there this instant. Others pleaded with us to stay put until they could call the police. Agatha just scowled, arms folded, shaking her head slowly. I heard my own mother over all of this. “Kyle, be careful. Be careful.”
The cars honked, but didn’t slow. I prayed that they wouldn’t brake. Just get out of the way, I mentally projected.
“We’re gonna die,” Tony whimpered into my shoulder. The heat of his breath warmed my skin.
“No we’re not,” I said. “Imagine that we’re explorers on a mission in Antarctica. I’m a world-renowned, but arrogant, archaeologist.”
“Stuck up. You wanted to be on my team, but you’re a rebel. A loose cannon. A no-goodnik. I couldn’t trust you. But now we’re both stuck on a collapsing iceberg being chased by bad guys. Because of the bravery you’ve shown, I realize that I want you on my team. We have to escape together. I’ve come back to save you. Are you with me?”
I half expected him to give me his usual refrain of “No,” but he nodded and whispered, “Yes.”
An SUV sped behind us, splashing us with more slush. I braced my legs in order to avoid falling down. The moms screamed. I felt the haunted house gaping at our backs. I wanted to turn around to get a better look at it. I had never been this close, and probably never would again. But I knew better than to risk it.
The lanes in front of us were clear. I ran, clinging to Tony as hard as I could, him clinging even tighter to me. I tried not to worry about the black ice, or the deceptively fast oncoming cars, or the wall of spectators we would have to burst through on the other side. For a few seconds, there was only Tony and me.
He shrieked in terror as we raced across the asphalt, splitting my eardrums. I hollered too, but my lungs were spilling pure triumph. Our cries blended together, mixing with the sobs of the mothers, and the honking behind us, and I closed my eyes as we broke through the wall of sound and arms.