The City Park Apartments
Hidden, the six-year-old boy made his way along the little patch of grass that grew no more than two feet wide abreast of the fence that edged the property line behind the landlord’s house. His shadow walked slightly faster and just ahead of him as he moved along, its proportion in keeping with his 46 inches but seeming shorter because of the angle of the mid-morning sun. His shadow seemed to be in a hurry. Just where the fence handed over its obligations to the back wall of the apartments, the grass surrendered to the gravel that covered the alley. Like the grass having no choice, the boy left the cushioned turf and stepped onto the disagreeable path of dirt and rocks.
The stones, mostly small, mostly jagged, only a few smooth but all hard and adamant, began a contest with the soft, spoiled tissue of his feet as he picked his way along. His hooves, as he was wont to call them, had just begun to pay the price for the liberty they’d been granted when school ended and summer began. Thick tough skin would grow in a short period of time, as it would be a rare day when leather would come between his feet and the earth before school rolled around again. In the meantime he winced and his scrawny frame jumped and jerked each time a foot came down wrong and a stone caused him pain. The thought never crossed his mind but his body knew that in a few weeks he’d run down that alleyway barefoot and feel no twinge; that’s how it always was, every summer. For now, the gravel was the boss so he let it have it’s fun.
The alley split the difference between W. Oak Street on the south and W. Mountain Avenue on the north and to this kid it seemed that you could walk all the way to the other side of town, secret and unseen, along its path when in reality the back street ran only seven blocks and the town was twenty at least. Secret and unseen is what he needed but he only needed it until he got past the house that was next door to the apartments, Randy’s house, and then to the backyard by the junipers behind the house where the girls lived. He was uncertain of what he’d agreed to and slightly nervous of what was going to happen if the girls showed up as they’d planned. Actually, he was certain of what he’d agreed to, just uncertain of why and what it meant and if he’d get anything in return. Plus, he didn’t want his parents to find out.
Sherry Jo was his age and in his class at school. Sometimes, because of the time they spent together, they seemed to be boyfriend and girlfriend but at that early age they weren’t really aware of the labels, just of their shared interest. Their early bond was perfect but perhaps not unusual as all relationships might be perfect at that age. There were no strings of attachment just as there was no ownership; it was as if each was at the limit of the other one’s mind and, at that limit, neither of them could see anyone else.
They’d once played Doctor in the bathroom inside his house, his mother working in the kitchen, his older brother outside riding his bike and his younger brother down for a nap. Sherry Jo had been the patient and laid that way, patiently, on the cool linoleum floor, stretched out beside the bathtub between the locked door and the toilet.
“Where does it hurt?”
“Here,” she’d confessed, pointing down below.
She had stared quietly at the ceiling, breathing softly, her little belly and chest rising and falling, her eyelids blinking. In reflex she’d moved her hands and felt butterflies in her stomach when he’d pulled her skirt up and inspected her body for injuries or illness.
His eyes never found her face; distracted as they were by things they’d never seen before. There had been an animal smell of dried sweat on her skin, and an earthy trace of dirt clinging here and there lifted from the ground where they’d played in the yard only a few minutes before. A few yellow stains spotted the threadbare fabric of her underpants where she’d left a few drops after peeing. He touched her legs lightly but mostly just looked and never got beyond her underpants.
“What are you kids doing in there?” his mother had yelled, as she rattled the bathroom door.
From the shape of the outline, he could see that things were different but, as far as he could tell, nothing was wrong. The exam hadn’t taken long and, when they were done, they were both glad they’d made the effort although they never talked to each other about it afterwards.
The apartments were owned by his parents or maybe just by his dad, as those were the times, and they were laid out like a square with the top cut off, or a flat U. Four units and the laundry room were formed along the northern base and, at each of the ends, corners were made by rectangular arms with eight units each that ran perpendicular to the base and parallel to each other and reached towards the concrete of the sidewalk and curb, and the asphalt of W. Oak Street, and the grassy space on the other side. The apartments were framed of wood and painted white and the eaves extended far enough over the walls so as to provide some shelter from the weather when it came. Gabled on the street ends and one story high, each apartment had a glassed door and screen and one large window on the side that faced inward towards the dirt and gravel courtyard where the renters who owned cars parked them. Each unit was essentially the same three rooms: one bedroom in front with a bathroom behind and, from where the entrance door opened, a room as deep as the bedroom and bathroom together, with a kitchen and dining area at the far end and space to sit and watch a small television, if you had one, near the front. The rent was cheap and the landlord was cheap in return. Besides the low cost, their major draw was that they sat right across the street from the City Park.
With tennis courts, a miniature train that, for a dime, you could ride around in a circle, snow cone and cotton-candy vendors, baseball diamonds, a swimming pool and a lake with Bluegill and Sunfish, the setting was Paradise for the kid. Above the lake was a hill where the fireworks were set off on the Fourth of July. Below the hill, in the grassy tree-lined field between the tennis courts and the swings, teeter-totters, and merry-go-rounds, the City staged an annual Easter egg hunt. At Easter his parents always bought each of their kids a new outfit that they wore for the first time as the family strolled the two blocks to the Presbyterian Church for the Resurrection Day Service. Leaving church they’d head straight to the egg hunt below the grassy knoll, and the boys, after taking off their new jackets and handing their clip-on bowties to their mother, would turn their new pale-blue britches green with grass stains as they raced the other kids for the prizes. Each year, in addition to the hidden colored chicken eggs and the red, blue, and yellow plastic eggs containing candy, there were ten green plastic eggs that held silver dollars, and the hunt usually never officially ended until those green eggs were accounted for but in the grass they were hard to find. Sometimes, long after Easter was gone, the kid would stumble across something that had been left behind – one of the real colored eggs by then rotten or the treasure of a plastic egg that opened and gave him stale candy or, on that one occasion, the single dollar-filled-egg that the adults had given up on. Years later he would remember how he had smiled at those surprises, especially that last one.
There was a berm that cut through the middle of the lake, and although the depth of the water usually hid it, he knew it was there. Once he’d rolled up the legs of his pants and walked out on that mound of dirt, just to see how far across he could get, and had fallen in a hole about half way out and completely soaked his self in the lake water. His parents saw him later, still wet.
“How’d you get so wet?” they’d asked.
“Running through the sprinklers,” he’d said.
The city used large agricultural sprinklers to water the fields of the park and the children often ran between them, jumped over them, and dodged the falling water during the hot days of summer. Once he’d caught his toe on a metal sprinkler-head and watched the water turn red.
A day or so after his latest near drowning, his folks had asked him to come into the living room and, having found out the truth, they’d spanked him until he cried.
“For lying to us,” they’d said.
He never found out how they had found out but his older brother, who would later become a cop, had stood by, looking satisfied as if some wrong had been righted once the sentence was handed down and the punishment carried out.
Alana, meaning “precious”, was Sherry Jo’s older sister’s name. She was larger than Sherry Jo, larger than her age, and darker and different. The kid hadn’t spent much time with her and didn’t know her well but once, when he was watching Sherry Jo fuss with her dolls, trying to get her to go outside and play, Alana had asked him to do her a favor.
“Come here,” she’d commanded, as she lay down on the lawn in her front yard, “Lay on top of me…as hard as you can,” she’d ordered, a satisfied smile on her lips.
He didn’t know why she’d asked what she did but he did what she’d asked and it was no skin off of his back. He never said a word and he didn’t smile in return, he just did her bidding in the beginning of a pattern that it would take him a lifetime to see.
He was at the end of the back wall of the apartments, walking past the window of the laundry room. There was a small open space coming up and then he’d be behind Randy’s house and the fence that separated Randy’s yard from the alley. His concentration was on that empty space and getting past it without being seen when a movement behind the window of the laundry room caught his eye. The landlord was in the laundry room and, from what the kid could tell in his quick glance, he was helping one of the female tenants fix her blouse. The kid moved rapidly on. Randy’s yard had three trees in back: A pear tree, a plum tree, and an apple tree and sometimes he’d seen Randy sitting in the branches, maybe picking fruit, maybe not. Randy was a little strange and made the kid feel uncomfortable. The older boy had once tried to get him to play strip poker when they were alone in his bedroom but what bothered the kid the most was how Randy liked to shoot things – birds, cats, cars – with his bb gun.
Just as the kid moved past the open space, high above him a small airplane flew over, headed west towards the mountains. He heard the engine first, and then saw the shadow move across the fence and run into his shadow and then come out the other side.
“Well, it’s mostly hidden here, except for the airplanes…”
As the sound of the airplane’s engine faded, he heard a “phittt” sound up above, but not as high up as the airplane, and felt a stir of air above his crew cut. His head was a little bigger than the other kids his age and made a good target, the skin of his face covered with freckles even at that early stage of summer. There was another “phittt” and he felt a sting on his back through his white t-shirt. The boy was just glad it hadn’t been his face. He sped up, moving a little faster, a little more carelessly and his feet paid for it as a piece of broken glass took his mind off of the bb sting.
“and things in trees,” he thought.
Between the road that ran next to the landlord’s house and the baseball fields, there was more gravel covering the space for the cars that brought the baseball players and the spectators to the diamonds, and next to the dirt and gravel lot was an irrigation ditch that drew water from the park lake and carried it to the cemetery for watering the grass between the grave markers. The ditch was pretty much out of sight, buried in some bushes. One of the kid’s favorite pastimes was to cross the street and play in those bushes and the ditch and pretend that he was an Army Man, scouting for the enemy, or a Mountain Man, exploring new territory. The ditch was often dry but usually held a couple of feet of murky brown liquid and only rarely ran dangerously deep to a depth of four feet or more. In the plants near the bank he could almost always find a garter snake and if the level was low enough he could catch crawdads and water skippers. Once, he’d found some clothes in the bushes along the ditch. It was a day when the water was pretty deep and the flow pretty fast. He’d searched through the pockets, excited, thinking the clothes were abandoned or lost, looking for whatever: money, pocketknives, matches, gum. Suddenly, there had been sounds from behind him and two older boys came running through the bushes wearing only their underwear.
“What are you doing with our stuff?!” they’d yelled.
Wide-eyed, he had looked at them and let go of the pants he’d been holding. The first kid, much bigger than he was, had grabbed him, and then the second boy grabbed him, and they’d pulled him through the bushes to the ditch. He’d struggled some but hadn’t said a thing as they’d flung him into the moving current. The water had given him a ride, pushed him under, brought him back up and turned him around and carried him along until he had finally grabbed some roots and pulled himself out of the water and out of the ditch, out of the view of the bigger boys.
When he got home, soaked, his parents saw him.
“How’d you get so wet?” they’d asked.
“Sprinklers,” he’d said.
That time, they didn’t wait for confirmation from their informant.
“Quit lying to us!” they’d said and again they’d spanked him until he cried.
There were twenty apartments and, for the kid, too many tenants to keep track of but in one of the units there was a single woman who was nice to him. Who knows how it started or why she took an interest in him but several times she had invited him in and given him milk and cookies and talked to him.
He hadn’t said much in return except, maybe, “Yes Ma’am,” and “No Ma’am,” and, “Thank you,” and, “Please.”
He never heard her talk with any other boy, or any man, except for the landlord.
Sometime into their knowing each other, the woman was gone for a while and when she returned she had a little baby and a new TV set. After that, she didn’t talk to him much but she’d still let him in and they’d sit there, side-by-side, and watch the TV. Once or twice, without thinking she had opened her blouse and lowered the cup of her white bra from the breast nearest him and fed the baby while the kid’s face turned pink and hot. Most times though, when he was there, she’d asked him to leave so that she could feed the baby in private. She had a small table near the chair that he sat on by the front door and on that table was a flexible rubber doll of a hula dancer with a grass skirt and bare breasts. The kid used to peek at the doll when the woman wasn’t looking his way. If he had time, he’d push the doll with his fingers, making it dance so he could watch the breasts move. Once, when she’d asked him to leave and then turned to go into the bedroom, he’d grabbed the hula dancer as he walked out the door.
Later that same day, when his mother was cleaning the house, she’d found the rubber doll standing where he’d hidden it on the floor between his bed and the wall.
“Where did you get this, Mister?!” she’d practically screamed.
“I found it,” he had meekly replied, already thinking of his punishment and mourning his loss.
They’d waited, unspeaking, until his father got home. When the landlord arrived, the kid had sat there trembling as his mother stopped dad at the door and showed him the doll. There had been some angry conversation between the adults and then his donor had taken the doll and walked out the door. His mom had given him an angry look before turning away and getting to the dinner but that was the last he ever heard of it, although the look in her eyes told him she always remembered.
The woman with the baby never mentioned the doll and it wasn’t long after that when she moved away and he never saw her again. After she left, when he thought of her, he couldn’t remember her face but she had black hair and he swore that her entire breast was made of nipple; one large brown nipple. He knew the spot in the garage where the landlord kept the hula doll tucked in amongst the tools and supplies.
Sherry Jo was the first girl the kid ever kissed. It had happened one day in kindergarten. They’d been learning about the different breeds of cows: Black Angus; Jersey; Guernsey; Hereford; Holstein, and Charolaise, and then had gone outside for recess. They’d sat on swings apart from the other kids and leaned into each other and kissed a nervous, little, cumbersome kiss. They never talked to each other about it afterwards and he never talked about it with anyone. He never really thought about it much at all but he knew that it had happened.
He had once come across his mother tangled with another woman on the floor of the kitchen in their home. They were kicking their legs, scuffing up the tile, and pulling each other’s hair, punching and pinching and grunting. He stood in the doorway and watched until, just a moment later, the women noticed their audience, stopped fighting, disentangled, stood up, and straightened their clothes. The other woman walked quickly past him, out through the swinging kitchen screen door. His mother turned to him; her face flushed and scratched, and wiped her tears.
She could see the main question on his face.
“She was upset about the clothesline,” his mom had said, “Some other renter took her clothes down before they were dry.”
They left it at that and pretended it never happened.
Except for the voice of a Robin and the pulse in his ears, the air was silent, offering no more sounds from airplanes or bb guns, until he had made it past Randy’s and had started to move along the hedgerow behind the girls’ house. The kid could feel his mouth start to water before he could say what he heard as a familiar carnival tune came drifting his way. Next, there came the sound of rubber and canvas sliding down the bark of the apple tree and then someone running away towards the street. He wondered if the girls heard the music, too. If so, would they forget about their arrangement?
For a while, the landlord had driven an ice-cream truck but not in the town. He delivered ice cream to farmers and other people living in the country, earning a few bucks to supplement the income from the apartments. One day, two boys in their late teens, one of them driving, one of them laughing and telling a story, had raced a two-ton truck filled with peas through a rural intersection without stopping, and slammed into the ice-cream truck, destroying the cooler mounted on the back of the pickup and scattering ice-cream treats and the landlord across the road. The kid had seen a picture of the wreck in the local newspaper: His face clasped in fingers of blood, the landlord sat on the pavement where he’d been tossed, a lit cigarette in his mouth, the crushed truck still smoking behind him, passers-by and gawkers were out of their cars, gathering the frozen treats and saving them from the sun but leaving the saving of the driver to others not yet arrived on the scene. The kid’s mother had cried as she looked at the picture perhaps thinking of how close the call had been. She was proud that it had made the news.
There was a large oak tree in the front yard of the landlord’s house and someone, sometime before the kid’s family had moved there, had buried a three-foot-long, two-inch-wide pipe upright in the soil next to the tree to help protect it in its youth. The tree was well past needing the pipe’s protection but the pipe remained imbedded firmly in the ground, too much trouble to dig up. The summer before, slipping when he’d climbed, the kid had fallen from the tree and landed on the pipe, catching it with his flesh just below his rib cage and ripping mostly skin twelve ribs long. Seeing him fall, his mother had grabbed one of his shirts from the laundry basket on her way out the door. She’d pulled the shirt roughly over his arms and buttoned it fast before grabbing his hand and pulling him along.
“Quit crying like a baby,” she had insisted.
It was only a block to the home that also served as their doctor’s office and the kid sat there in the waiting room silently weeping while the steam rolled upward off his mother’s angry head and the blood rolled downward off of his torn chest. By the time the doctor was done with his lunch and ready to see them, the shirt was no longer yellow but red in color and stuck like a Band-Aid to the boy’s flesh.
Once in the exam room, “Open your shirt,” his mother had instructed.
“I’m sorry,” he’d told her, when they were done, but it might have just been a thought.
They never spoke of it again but for him the scar, like the pipe for the tree, remained as a reminder of what had helped shape him.
The boy was past Randy’s house now and was hidden in the bushes behind the girls’, right where they’d agreed to meet. A moment later there was the sound of feet brushing across grass and then the sight of small bodies pushing through the branches and the girls appeared. Sherry Jo was first and she looked to be slightly frightened or maybe excited. Behind her was Alana, a head taller, a shade darker, her body more formed like a woman but still a young girl. The little sister stopped and let the bigger sister take the lead.
“You’re here,” Alana had said, “I wasn’t sure that you’d make it.”
He hadn’t say a thing.
“Are you ready?” Alana asked.
He’d nodded slightly.
“Okay then, do it,” she’d said as she stepped closer to him, partially blocking her sister’s view.
The boy reached down and unbuttoned his pants. He pulled the zipper down and exposed his undies. He’d put on clean Roy Rogers shorts just to be safe.
He took a deep breath and looked at the girls, and the girls in turn looked at him: Sherry Jo in confusion, Alana in anticipation, nodding her command.
The kid hooked his thumbs inside the elastic band of his briefs and pulled them down. Just as he did, a small airplane flew over the alley, lower and louder than the previous one and headed east rather than west.
What happened next happened quickly. Caught by the sound of the engine, Sherry Jo looked up and south to catch a glimpse of the plane while Alana looked down and north to see his exposed flesh and the kid, in a daze, looked between the two sisters to see something in the next yard, climbing a tree. Having kept his promise, the kid let go of the elastic and the jockeys snapped back into place. He pulled up his wranglers, fastened the button and zipped the fly shut.
Alana had the same satisfied smile on her lips that he’d seen once before but Sherry Jo still looked confused and also disappointed. The kid looked at the girls, waiting, hoping that maybe they’d show him something in return.
“Let’s get some ice-cream!” Alana exclaimed.
And, with that, his Sweethearts were gone and, as the pattern goes, they never spoke of it but he was sure that it had happened.
Later that same summer, out in his front yard with Randy and following his instructions, the boy tied a piece of twine around a rough stone and made a weapon; they were bird hunting. He held the string in his hand and dangled the stone beneath it.
“There’s one,” Randy said, pointing at the reddish-orange songbird that landed nearby.
The kid saw the bird and took aim. He began swinging the sharp edged stone above his head, circling his right arm around and gaining speed, waiting for the perfect time to release his hold and unleash death on the unsuspecting Robin.
“Now!” erupted from Randy.
He let go but, in letting go, the projectile took on a mind of it’s own and instead of rocketing towards the bird, it looped back and hit the kid in his head just above left his eye, knocking him to the ground. Stunned, he was faintly aware of Randy’s feet moving rapidly away across the lawn towards a figure the kid couldn’t quite make out standing on the sidewalk. He could see some ants on the earth where he’d fallen and a brownish-green grasshopper one foot away and the Robin as it pulled up a worm.
Behind him, there were the sounds of the springs and hinges on a screen door opening and then the door slamming shut followed by feet rushing down wooden steps.
“Alana,” he heard Randy yell, “Let me show you something.”
The kid rolled over and looked up to see his mother standing on the bottom step below the kitchen door with her hands on her hips and a look of disgust on her face.
“I’m sorry,” he told her, or maybe himself, as the blood ran down into his eyes.
The boy now sixteen, the landlord and his mother still together, they’d sold the apartments and moved into a nice house outside of town, surrounded by horse barns, riding trails, and pleasant country homes with acreage. Up the lane there lived a family friendly to his parents. The man was a successful, older businessman, the attractive, much younger woman a gracious hostess, and their young daughter precocious. One night after dark, when the husband was away on business, the woman had called the boy’s house and told his parent’s that she’d heard noises outside and was afraid to be alone with only her daughter and wondered if one of the boys could come up and spend the night.
“Maybe your middle son?”
In cotton pajamas, under a sliver of the moon and the far-away stars, he’d walked the quarter-mile path to her house. The smell of alfalfa had been in the air, and crickets and bullfrogs had remarked to one-another of his travels as he flip-flopped his way through the soft darkness. He had been slightly nervous, careful and alert, paying attention, looking for anything that might get him as he strode up the steps to the entrance of her home. He had no more than reached out his arm, intent on ringing the bell, when she’d opened the door. She had stood there above him, framed by a yellow light from behind, half turned as she held to the frame. She had taken a deep breath and then, with a gentle movement, had brushed back a black strand of hair that had blown across her face as the cooler air rushed in from the night. She had, then, lightly touched that same hand to her breast where her texture stood outlined through the silk of the robe that she wore.
“Thank you,” she said, and had then taken her hand from her breast and firmly pulled him inside.
Without hesitation, she turned and walked him down a warm, welcoming passage, as the door behind them seemed to shut by itself. Following her, he was led to the guest bedroom, a place where he had never been before. On the nightstand to the right of the bed was a magazine, a Playboy. On the stand to the left was a flexible rubber doll.
“Will this be okay?” she’d asked from where she stood close behind him.
When he turned back to answer, he saw that her robe had unexpectedly come undone.
“Let me know if you need anything,” she’d offered, a look of hope in her eyes.
“I’m fine,” he’d said, for some reason thinking of the alley and the apartments.
“Yes… You are,” she had said as she turned off the light and shut the bedroom door, a satisfied smile on her lips, much like one he had seen sometime before.
The boy, now a man of sixty, laid spent and alone, his new lover removed from their bed. He could hear her en suite, running water and moving about, doing those things that we do when we’re happy with the choices we’ve made.
His thoughts drifted upward like warm curls of smoke from the cooling fire of his mind. Some of the smoke drifted towards her, following her beauty.
“She seems peaceful,” he considered, “and different, dark yet sweet but… different.”
Then came memories of his father and mother, both now long gone, and those contemplations mixed together with musings of his brothers, and of his coming of age so long ago.
“I know it all happened,” a voice said.
But, then again, it might have all just been a dream.
“How’d you get that scar on your chest?” she asked as she walked, fully dressed, back into the room, headed for the door.
He lifted his hand and touched the scar.
“I never thought I’d be so friendly with my landlord,” she said, with a smile on her lips and laughter in her eyes.
He smiled back at her, happy that she was so friendly.
Just before she walked out of the room, she stopped near the small table that stood by the door, leaned down, and pushed the flexible rubber doll with her fingers, making it dance.
“Funny,” she said.