The Fire — Aug. 3, 2013
On a scorching Arizona August night, I sleep over at Winkle’s trailer because Mom is puke-sick from chemo. He is my best friend since he sucked rattlesnake venom from my leg earlier this summer. I crash in Squeak’s top bunk while Winkle’s younger brother curls on the floor. The trailer is only an 8-foot wide. The bunks are built-in on one wall and Squeak's floor is also the hallway between the kitchen and the bathroom.
“Joey, I saw Betsy Arnold’s training bra,” Winkle says. “A dust devil blew up her blouse. There was nothing to train.”
“She’s too young to catch my eye,” I say. “Besides, I have Becca.”
“Betsy will be in seventh grade, and I’ll be in eighth. Many girls marry a dude a year older.”
I laugh. “You haven’t started puberty yet and are already talking about marr—”
Boom! An explosion shakes the trailer and tosses us from our bunks. We land on Squeak, making a pile of arms and legs as the kid blares out a protest cuss word. The blast reverberates from the mountains—louder than thunder.
As the echoes fade, I ask, “Are we in danger?” Not because I’m scared, but to seem normal, which I’m not. From birth. I’m the butt of an April Fool’s joke God is playing. A few years ago, some itinerant Jehovah’s Witnesses explained predestination. How some people are appointed to a wonderful eternal destiny and how others get the world’s manure pile. When you understand fate made you one of the latter, it’s hard to care. I take everything matter-of-factly.
Through the bedroom window, we spy a blood-orange glow silhouetting the Watkins’s mobile home.
“Bud’s house.” Winkle urges me up. “We must fight the fire until R.F.D.’s truck comes. Mobile homes burn fast. I’ve done it before but need your help. Come on!” He jumps into gym shorts and sandals.
I go along despite not wanting to fight a blaze.
As Winkle leads to the door, he yells at his mother. “Charly, call Rural Fire Department.”
Even though she has a guy's name, she's a lady.
Winkle tightens a garden hose to the spigot. “Joey, screw two together.”
I find the ends, but fumbling fingers can’t get the threads to match. I’ve viewed blazes on TV, but this is far more daunting. When the hoses mesh, I tighten. Water flows through the connection, wetting the sand.
Winkle tosses me the nozzle. “I’m fetching a wrench.”
I struggle to twist on the sprayer. Water gushes over me until I can cap it. In the heat, I don’t mind getting drenched.
I pull the heavy rubber pipe through Mr. Watkins’s yard with Winkle brandishing the tool beside me. Bud’s Airstream travel trailer blazes from the back. Flames arch as high as the light poles and the smoke disappears to the stratosphere.
“Wet the propane,” Winkle instructs. “If it explodes, the entire block blows to smithereens.”
I stop a few yards from the trailer’s tongue and spray the tank as I worry about instant death if it erupts. I use biofeedback to tamp down my fears, pretending I’m watering a flower garden of sunflowers, orange marigolds, and red roses.
Winkle runs through my water. Closing the gas valve, he disconnects the bottle and drags it away. Back at my side, he does a wet puppy shake. “Bet Bud’s inside. Let’s go!” He leads me to the door. “Spray the knob.”
Heat from the fire drenches me with sweat. I’m sure I don’t want to enter. Or save Bud. I’m scared beyond what I can control with biofeedback.
Winkle tries the door handle. “Locked.” He bashes the window with the wrench.
When the glass breaks, yellow-orange flames flick out like fingers reaching for me. Black smoke plumes into my face, making me cough and sputter. I aim the spray through the hole, but I’m bouncing so much I miss a lot. He reaches inside, unlocks the door, and pushes me through.
I stand in the small galley kitchen, spraying at the flames like I’m playing the whack-a-mole arcade game. Pizza-oven heat dries my sweat and singes my arm hair. The inferno hisses and wicked-witch cackles, drawing me closer. Pop! Pop! Pop!
My inner thigh hurts. I falter, stagger, and drop the hose. It slithers beyond my reach, and I spot a ragged hole in my thigh. My leg stings and goes numb, catapulting me toward the blaze.
Someone catches me. I hate being touched, but I hurt too much to fight. I turn to see who’s holding me—Stud, a friend.
He carries me to the Watkins’s trailer where Mrs. Watkins points him to the table. My shorts are bloody and turning deep purple.
In seconds, blood stains the tablecloth. Being out of the fire gives me relief, but watching gore spurt from my body is beyond terrifying. A noise, sounding like a train horn, spews from my mouth.
She exposes my thigh. Winkle and Stud gawk. I take a peek, finding a circular wound with feathered edges surrounded by singed skin and black flakes. As the numbness fades, it throbs like hell. I glance away. Vertigo makes me swoon. I focus on Mrs. Watkins’s curio cabinet displaying her collection of snow globes and imagine myself living inside them.
I pet Rudolph and tweak his red nose. White Alpine flakes swirl around Neuschwanstein Castle. Frosty the Snowman shoots me a wink from beneath his old top hat. And Jesus makes footprints in a drift. Since the Holy Land is a desert, is it a sand globe instead of snow?
Winkle brings me back to reality. “Couple of inches higher and you’d be a girl.”
He understands me well enough to recognize I’m drifting away. He handles my turtling with a song. “Slow down, Joey. Slow down, Joey. Slow down, Joey. You’re going to be fine.”
Mrs. Watkins places a towel over the puncture, and Stud presses. I spot his dirty fingernails. I imagine microorganisms diving into my wound like Olympic champions.
The TV announcer says, “Staphylococcus goes for a reverse three-and-a-half with a twist.”
“Barely a splash for a great score,” the analyst adds.
I hate germs.
A siren pulls my gaze to a window. A small yellow firetruck enters the driveway. I had expected a long, red truck, but yellow vehicles are splendid omens. Bud runs from the Airstream to meet it. He’s a rolling ball of flame, waving his blazing arms like a TV stunt guy. Death embraces him in an orange-gold blanket with fringe trailing. The first firefighter sprays him, extinguishing the flames and leaving him smoldering in a heap. Paramedics surround him.
One medic comes for me with a syringe. I hate needles, but struggling won’t help. She jabs my arm, mellowing me and keeping me from turtling all the way.
Booms shake me. “What’s that?”
“Paint cans explodin’ in the sky from Bud’s shed,” Scotty says. He’s another friend in my Desert Rats platoon, like Stud and Winkle. The fire glow colors between his freckles as he stands at the door. “Cool fireworks show.”
Medics bandage my leg and lift me to a gurney. “You took a bullet. Some ammunition must have detonated.” They roll me down the Watkins’s handicap ramp with my friends following.
“Didn’t realize Bud owned a gun,” I say.
“Me, neither,” Scotty says.
“Never seen him with one,” Winkle concurs.
Outside, firetruck lights paint an eerie glow. The Airstream resembles an oil derrick after a huge blowout. Wet rubble covers the sand. Acrid air burns my nose.
I roll past Bud’s gurney. His melted and splotched body is deep black, like coal, and gray-white, like ashes. I remember Emily Dickinson’s poem #113: “Respect the grayest pile for the departed creature’s sake.”
Rufus stares at the body. “The bastard got his just bezerts.”
Winkle laughs. “Joey, check out his wiener. Bet it was a hot dog.”
I can’t laugh because Bud and his charred dick are a ghastly sight. Beaucoup disturbing like horror movie nightmares. Winkle’s douchebag joke troubles me. We witnessed Bud’s death and should be mourning, not joking. Bud was a friend—OK, not one of the Desert Rats, but we hung out with him even though he was way, way older.
When they toss a sheet over him, I’m relieved.
I don’t feel sadness. No tears come, despite the hunk of skin missing on my thigh. Yeah, relief is the right word.
My squad lines up beside the ambulance as the medics slide me inside. Their lips press tight with concern. Only Bobby is missing. He’s the mamma’s boy in the platoon, and I know why he stayed away.
“Do you think the explosion was an accident?” Stud’s father asks a firefighter.
“The inspector will investigate in the morning,” he replies.
An investigation was something I hadn’t considered. “Bud smokes in bed,” I suggest.
The medic lady sports a curious expression. “Anyway, you and your buddy are heroes for trying to save the guy.”
I shrug, not picturing myself like a white-hatted cowboy. And Bud was no damsel in distress.
I wonder what an inspector might find.
Bud’s gurney rolls beside me. The thought of a dead body inches away sends me turtling.
I curl into a ball and face away. My imagination conjures a maggot marching band putting on a half-time show on my thigh, counter-marching to Queen’s We Are the Champions. Scotty’s red head bobs in time to the music. Dirty-towel germs do synchronized swimming in my veins. A larva bugler blows Charge! as they invade fresh meat.
The skin on my face and torso burns. My wound hurts like a motherfucker.
The lady medic says, “Hang O-neg. The bullet is close to the femoral artery.”
I need to go to my comfort place—my hermit cave and roll a stone over the entrance. Dead bodies and flames fade to black, like the end of a movie. The only thing I remember is red hair keeping time as I recall when I met Scotty and the Desert Rats.
Me and the Boys — May 28th
I stare through the car window, depressed at the desolate Arizona landscape. Everything is brown and gray, and the sun is twice as huge and three times as blazing as back home—the place we had to leave.
Mom couldn’t run her store in one of those fly-over farm states and care for me. Money ran out. So, we sell everything except the precious stuff in the trunk of our yellow Toyota Camry and drive east of Mesa, Arizona. Only Mom and me, Dad split when I was four, and Pee—my fairy godmother and the only friend I’ve ever had.
As Mom turns in to a mobile home park, the houses are aluminum boxes, not brick and wood. I scan for grass, but not a speck can be found. Cactus grows in the yards where flower beds and shade trees belong. Arizona is like Hell. As I arrive early in purgatory, the radio plays The Band Perry’s If I Die Young to make the point.
I spot a pack of six guys tossing a football beside the highway. Nothing about them appears friendly. Still, I stare as Mom turns at the next corner. I would love a friend. I’d be less lonely—the feeling has plagued me all my life. Starting a new life and school would be much easier if I only had some buddies.
Mom spots my wistful gaze. “Joey, why don’t you meet them?”
“Why? Always ends the same.” The solution set of me and other guys is:
For fifteen years, the equation stands true. Why try again?
“Don’t be defeatist,” she says. “This time things could be different.”
Pee, my fairy godmother, sits on my shoulder and waves her magic wand. The jewels sparkle in it as she makes a Nike swoosh. “Joey, don’t be a pessimist. You can try, at least for her!” Most people think fairy godmothers aren’t Real, but Cinderella had one. Some may think boys can’t have one, but Uncle Andrew did in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew.
And I’m not a defeatist. I cheer for Michael Myers to enjoy his one day of excitement in the Halloween movies. I think Cruella De Vil deserves a Dalmatian coat. Isn’t that optimistic?
“Pee, remember what happened at the rest stop?” I whisper. The event validates the equation.
In the late afternoon two days ago, Mom drives I-35 toward I-20 and a hotel room outside Fort Worth, Texas. I’m uncertain of our location when she announces, “Potty break.”
We swerve to a rest area. The parking area has some distant semis. We park next to the only other vehicle, a beater Ford F150 Crew Cab Frankenstein truck, assembled from an assortment of used parts. The bumper stickers give me pause: “Paddle faster, I hear banjos” and “Are you into casual sex, or should I clean up?”
Mom gives me the car keys because I finish three times quicker than she does.
Pee flies beside me as I go to the cement building. At the men’s room door, she hovers. “Ladies not allowed. I’ll wait for you.”
When I pop inside, a thick cloud of smoke overpowers me. The stink of cigarettes mixes with the normal toilet reek and a skunky aroma. Instead of retreating outside to relieve myself on a bush, I plow through the fog directly into a gang of four dudes, eighteen years old by my guess.
“What kind of pussy walked in?” The dude, wearing a #89 yellow and black football jersey, asks.
Shocked, I realize I’d never considered pussies coming in various types. I bee-line for the urinals, trying to step around the Four Loko cans littering the floor. Thumbing down the front of my basketball shorts, I start my business.
“I’ll check,” a voice comes from behind.
I glance over my shoulder to find a lanky dude peering down at me. The silver star of his Dallas Cowboys baseball hat fills my vision. A lungful of weed smoke blows in my face.
Hands behind me drop my shorts to my ankles. I’m commando for comfort on the ride, so my bare butt moons the guys. The Cowboys fan knocks on the back of my knees and I fall backwards. Urine sprays like from a broken hydrant.
I lay on the dirty, germy tile floor slick with leaking malt liquor, wetting myself.
“Not a pussy,” a Native American in a red bandanna says, “It’s Mike Rodick.”
Ready to tell him my name isn’t Mike; I demur when I realize he called me a micro dick.
A stall door slams. I figure another assailant comes on scene. While I stop my stream, I can’t suppress the buzz-saw noise pouring from my mouth.
“Must be a retard,” says a guy wearing a jumpsuit. He unzips from the neck. I spot the “WinStar Casino Maintenance” logo as his hand descends. “This is what a man’s dick looks like.” He waves it at me. “You want to suck it, don’t you?”
A long knife circles his throat.
“Let the kid alone,” a voice says.
I’m clueless where the burly trucker comes from, but overjoyed for his protection. He chases the dudes out the door.
I scramble to my feet and tug up my shorts. “Thanks.”
With a nod, the helpful man hustles away.
I work to regain self-control.
Soon, Mom’s voice calls through a crack in the door. “Joey? Still in there?”
“Yeah. Give me a minute.”
She doesn’t. Her intuition brings her through the smoke and stink. Pee comes flying at Mom’s shoulder. They catch me tossing my piss-soaked t-shirt in the trash.
“Those boys?” Mom grabs paper towels, dunks them in water, and squirts dispenser soap on them. Pee buzzes around my face with a worried look. Mom starts washing me. Being touched, even by my mom, is hard, but being scrubbed by her is humiliating. I’m not a child, but mothers never notice.
“What did they do?” she asks.
I ignore the question, praying other dudes don’t come through the door to witness my predicament.
Riding bare-chested and silent to the hotel, a single thought occupies me. Am I cursed with a micro dick? I plan to measure at the soonest opportunity and search Google for comparisons. Googling is enjoyable because I can ask questions that I don’t have the guts to ask anyone else. Hopefully, Quora or Reddit will provide an answer.
I don’t mention the men’s room happenings. Not the first time I’ve spared the gory details of my life. Anyway, how could she help? Mom standing guard for every urination is a likely outcome.
Pee comforts me. “Four against one is terrible odds. And they were older.”
I sigh. The equation is never wrong.
As we drive the trailer park, Mom’s finger points toward the gang of boys we passed back a few blocks. “You’ll never make friends if you don’t make an effort.” Mom pulls into the driveway at Uncle Timmy’s trailer, our new home.
He’s twenty-eight and her little brother who got her a job at the missile plant where he works. Him grabbing my hand in a crushing handshake makes the train horn sound pour from my lips.
“You call the noise a groat, right?” He pumps my hand. “Your mother warned me.”
“A c-c-combination of g-groan and s-shout,” I say.
“Joey, we’ll handle the unpacking,” Mom says. “You do the friend making.”
I shuffle my Air Jordan Retros over the pavement, retracing the car’s route. “Pee, make me invisible.”
Protected by her cloak of invisibility, I sneak to the corner and hide behind a trellis of green leaves and pink flowers to study six boys. They huddle in the scraggly shade of a stunted tree with thorns. I sniff their sweat and listen to every word. Spying on them is beaucoup dangerous.
A tall, skinny boy in Converse shoes uses a huge switchblade to whittle points on sticks. He’s Native American and proud, as evidenced by his raven-colored Mohawk.
A redheaded boy whose freckles are thicker than a bag of Red Hots cocks the football. “Kipper, go long.”
A Mexican brown-faced boy with a thin mustache and rattlesnake cowboy boots runs twenty yards on the highway. He curls in front of a blue Hyundai to catch the pass. The car’s horn honks.
“Touchdown!” Freckles raises his arms like a referee. One sole of his filthy Keds flaps in the dirt.
“Too hot for football.” The Mexican shrugs off his shirt, revealing thick black chest hair. He approaches a slight black boy who’s dressed way too fashionable for the ratty rest. The boy plays with ants between his Sperry Top Siders. Kipper, the Mexican, growls.
The black boy acts scared. Dumbo ears flop beneath his kinky Afro haircut. “Rufus, stab the grizzly bear before he eats me!” He’s the first Real black person I’ve seen, not counting TV.
“Bobby, a grizzly’s fur is marrón, not black,” Kipper says.
Preppy Bobby gets curious at the carving. “Rufus, why are you sharpening sticks?”
“Going javelina hunting,” he says.
Red Hots sniggers. “None for miles. Hey, Stud, did you spot Misty Brewer’s bikini at the pool?”
A crewcut boy with Men’s Fitness muscles and steel-toed Army brogans answers. “Sure did, Scotty. Like three napkins tied at the corners.”
A small guy with light brown hair, blue eyes, and socks with sandals says, “I planned a swim-by to untie them.”
Scotty, the redhead, hoots. “Winkle, you’re not old enough to understand what you might reveal.”
“I would,” Bobby says. “I’m in puberty.”
The boys snicker.
“Real men don’t wear cartoon underwear,” Stud says. “I spotted your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Underroos in the pool changing room.”
“Bobby, you’re like me,” Winkle says. “Hairless with an inch-long frank and two beans.”
The guys laugh, and I do, too.
Scotty’s eyes find me. “Shush! Someone’s watchin’ from the bougainvillea.”
They come my way. Sirens warble in my brain.
“Invisibility cloak malfunction,” Pee says.
I don’t buy the excuse. “Pee, you disappoint me!”
Danger approaches. Spying might turn fatal.
She giggles. “Better elope.” She’s not advising me to take off to Vegas to get married. She’s suggesting I run for my life.
I calculate escape routes while my heart beats faster than a snare drum roll. The gang runs toward one end of the trellis. I choose the other, leading to an alley. A right turn will take me across the highway into a vast desert wasteland where I’ll hide.
I’m fast, but the pack corners before I do. Imagining I’m a fly, I buzz for the road. In a flash, I’ll cross and escape. I sniff freedom until something swats me, tackling me into an unbreakable wrestling hold. A body is beneath me, spreading my legs in a Thanksgiving wishbone. My chest and chin fold to my groin, preventing breathing. Sticks with sharpened points surround me.
“We got a javelina,” Rufus says.
“What should we do?” Winkle asks.
Rufus’s switchblade passes before my eyes. “I can gut him like a catfish.”
My eyes bug out, and a groat spews from my mouth.
“Cut off his wiener,” Bobby says. His stick probes my junk, which is inches away from my eyes, thanks to the folding.
“Blond hair and blue eyes,” Scotty says. “I bet we’ve caught a pesky German.”
“We can torture him,” Winkle says. “He’ll confess everything.”
“He spied on us,” Kipper says. “According to the Geneva Convention, the penalty is muerte.”
My groat blossoms into a scream. Today’s equation solution is—drum roll. Muerte means death.
I turtle in my hermit cave and roll a stone over the entrance, waiting for whatever befalls.