Prose Header


by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

Part 1 and part 2 appear in this issue.

It wasn’t the first time I’d taken a tumble like that. My favorite time to slide was right after the bell rang to come inside, because everyone else would be streaming toward the door, and I could try and get a good run without anyone seeing. I’m not very coordinated, though, so four times out of five I ended up on my butt or worse in the dirt, and most of those times there was someone — a teacher, a sixth grader on his way out to PE — to laugh or try not to.

The playground was dead silent, but as I levered myself up I felt as if my classmates were laughing at me, just from further away, and more quietly. To ignore them, I started building a city in the dirt, with roads and dry rivers. It wasn’t the best stuff — the banks of the rivers crumbled, and the shoulders of the roads disintegrated. It wasn’t like the dirt out in our forest, by the stream, or even the stuff in the corner of the playground by the big tires, where I usually spent my recesses.

There were some girls, a grade under me, who used to sit under the trees near my spot because they liked the shade and could talk about things without the boys making machinegun noises right through them. Mostly, they ignored me, but one day, after it had rained the previous night, a blonde saw me splattering wet clods all over my clothes. I was playing Moses and the Egyptians. She called me “mud monster,” and it wasn’t until now that I realized she said it the same way that other people called Lucky “homo,” careless and sort of like they were the same word, just pronounced differently.

Lucky didn’t call himself a homo. He called himself “on fire.” He called me “little man.” Dad called us both “dear son” and called himself “dad.” I don’t know what I called myself, other than my name. I didn’t have much. I thought “mud monster” wasn’t too bad. I got in trouble that day, because I threw handfuls of half-dry sand at the girls.

Dad came and found me when he was done talking with the principal. I had gotten bored with my city and was working on a hole for the little people. I dug it down with my fingers, wide enough that someone so small wouldn’t be able to see both sides, and deep enough that they couldn’t see the bottom.

“What are you working on?” asked dad. He had his hands in his pockets with his fists clenched, as if he were afraid of getting close to the dirt.

“Nothing,” I said, standing and brushing myself off. Dad opened up one arm and drew me to his side.

“If that kid so much as says another word to you, calls you ‘turkey’ or something, you tell me, okay?” He squeezed my shoulder into his stomach.

“What are you going to do?” I asked. He led me away from the slide. I sidestepped my finger-deep hole. I knew what he’d do. He’d come down here and have another meeting, and I’d play in the dirt, and we’d go home. There wasn’t much of anything more than that, but it wasn’t enough. It was like standing at the lip of a hole and trying to gauge its depth by tossing a stone instead of jumping right in for proof positive. Once it’s over your head, it doesn’t matter how deep it is.

“I wouldn’t let anything happen to you,” said Dad.

* * *

Saturday two weeks after Lucky’s funeral, I caught up with Angelo in the park outside the public library, where he was flicking pieces of bark at hungry chipmunks. I had been looking for him. For half a breath, it was weird to see him off the playground, like it’s weird to see a teacher out of the classroom. Then the long stretch of grass began to look like the soccer field, and the half-dead oak tree by the band-shell didn’t look that much different from the big toy. There was already a slide there.

Once the world felt like the right place, I pushed it just a little bit to hang on to some of the weirdness. I walked up behind Angelo, but not sneaking. I dragged my sneakers through the grass to make a noise. He knew I was there before I said anything, I figured, even though he didn’t turn around. He took a finger-long piece of bark between his thumb and pointer finger like a boomerang and let it fly with a spin. It landed and bounced right next to a squirrel who had been cramming pine seeds into his cheeks. The squirrel jumped, scattering his food. Angelo laughed, and I joined him.

“Here to play ‘Smear the Queer?’” he said, much quieter than I thought he could do. He stooped for another piece of bark. I found what I thought was a good one and handed it to him.

“I found something in the forest out behind my house,” I said.

“Good for you.” He dropped the piece of bark I had given him.

“Someone buried a duffel bag. It’s got all these bags of stuff in it.” I leaned in a bit closer, though there was no one around to spy on us. “I think it might be drugs.”

He didn’t turn around, but I saw the skin at the backs of his cheeks start to shift, being pushed out of the way by that grin of his. I shut my mouth and let his imagination do the rest. One time on the playground, when we were even younger, I watched from behind a big tire as one of Angelo’s friends told him about an ant’s nest over by where a group of girls were playing at house. That was all the guy said. “There’s an ant’s nest over there.” Angelo had grinned and slunk over. One of the girls told him to get lost; he kept his distance, found the nest, and picked up a couple of the fat, black bodies. I wondered what he would do. Would he throw them at the girls? Drop them in their hair?

He darted up to them, quicker than protests, and jammed both the ants in his mouth. He crunched them down, open-mouthed. The girls called for a playground monitor.

That’s what I was hoping to do. Just give him an idea - not even an idea. Give him a fact, and let him pursue it. “Drugs” was like a magic word.

“All right,” he said. “Show me.”

We played a game kind of like follow-the-leader all the way home. I was the leader. We would round a corner, and then Angelo would sprint to the stop sign at the next intersection. He would wait for me to catch up, and then say: “What took you so long, slowpoke?” On the last block before we turned off into the forest, I took off fast as I could and waited, grinning, at the stop sign for Angelo to catch up. That time he just walked, and said: “What’s the rush?”

He stuck a little closer in the forest. I knew my way by heart. There were landmarks that never changed if you looked hard enough, but if you didn’t care all you saw were loose boughs and drifts of pine needles that change with the wind, like I read sand dunes do.

Angelo cursed every time I got him with the backswing of a branch, and any time a mosquito got him, and I think every time he noticed his feet were sore from walking. The curses made me want to shut him up even more. They were some kind of magic words, too, unfamiliar in the way they sounded, even though I had read them a bunch of times in the horror books I borrowed from dad’s study. They didn’t sound like they should have.

We reached the clearing and I pointed at the whole. From where we were, even though Angelo was inches taller than me, it just looked like the top of a hole, the foreshortened oval, shaded black.

“All right,” said Angelo. “What’s really in there?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I tried to remember the names of some drugs. “I think its heroin.” He laughed at me, because I pronounced it wrong.

He took a couple of steps forward. Not nearly close enough. He stood on his tiptoes to get a better view. “You first,” he said.

“I’m not getting in there.”

“You don’t have to jump down, nut sack. Just stick your head over. You probably put dog crap or like one of those spring-loaded snakes or something.”

“Okay,” I said. I approached Lucky’s hole, got down on my hands and knees and crawled until my head was over the edge. To make it look good, I reached a hand down, as though grabbing for something. For the long moment while Angelo stared, I spread my fingers and let the dark, cooled air flow between them. Gooseflesh rose all along my arm, and I remembered Lucky telling me that each pimple would grow a big, thick hair when I was a man.

Angelo’s sneakers scratched a weird rhythm in the dust. I pulled my hand back and looked over at him. He stood, one knee forward and slightly bent, staring into the hole. His mouth was wide open, like choking.

“Oh my god,” he said. The hole swallowed it up.

He stood there, breathing in one direction, out or in, for a long time. His mouth slid forward and open, his back arched like being hit with cold water from a hose. I stood up, even dusted off my jeans, and got myself right behind him. I’d push him over, and maybe I’d jump after him. We’d fall and fall, the same speed, together and he’d never be able to get up to me. Once it’s over your head, it doesn’t matter.

Or maybe I’d just put him in. Let him fall to China.

I shoved at his knees with both my hands. He fell to his knees, but they weren’t far enough forward. They dug little divots in the lip of the hole and he fell backward between his legs, folded over on himself. He rolled around to his stomach and clawed dirt getting back on his feet.

I didn’t stick around to watch. I took off into the ferns and devil’s clubs, headed toward my house, running one length of the playground, two, three, then back toward the hole when I ran out of forest. He caught me up just as I was feeling like my heart was going to collapse and my spit had turned all to glue.

He got my arms both wrapped around my back and kicked me hard right where I had shoved him. I fell forward and my shoulders both made this firecracker sound, so loud it made my ears ring. Curses came out of his mouth like he couldn’t stop them if he tried. It made me think of throwing up, leaning over my toilet in the middle of the night and just heaving so hard it hurts, long after everything’s that’s gonna has come up.

I wound up in the dirt. It was strange. It felt warmer than my skin, and not at all bad to curl up in. The hole made its long almost-howl somewhere nearby. My ribs got his fists, awkwardly, and then his feet.

He called me a fag, over and over again. Maybe blood started pooling up in my ears, because he got dimmer and dimmer, and then was gone completely.

The next thing I remember is a dream that seemed to last forever while I was in it, and then seemed only a few seconds long once I got out, like all memory is the same size and shape. I wasn’t in the forest anymore. I was in a bed with thin blankets which smelled of dryer sheets. It wasn’t my bed.

Dad was sitting in a chair that disappeared completely under him. He looked up at me when I shifted the blankets away from my nose. He told me we were in the hospital, and that I had a couple of cracked ribs, and that I could have so much ice cream I’d poo caramel for a week. He gave me this hug that hurt worse than when Angelo had kicked me.

I had to stay the night there at the hospital. I watched a lot of TV, and dad watched it with me. PBS had a show on with this old scientist — dad told me he’s dead now — who said that the earth is infinite, but bounded. If you walk, you can walk forever, but if you jump up then you’ve just busted infinity. Dad fell asleep during it.

The next day, dad set me up in my room with the TV and the VCR and I ate ice cream until my tongue went all the way numb. I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I was plenty tired, but dad kept coming in to check on me, worse than the nurses with their blood pressure cuffs at the hospital.

When it started getting dark he brought in an album of my baby pictures. We flipped through the pages together, though we could barely fit the two of us on my bed. We looked at all the pictures of Lucky and me playing in pillow forts, him stealing turkey off my plate at Thanksgiving, both of us standing side by side with me coming only up to his belly button.

After that, dad took me through a prayer. He asked god to watch of mom and Lucky and to tell them both we miss them very much. When we said, Amen, I just felt like I missed them more. I pretended to go to sleep so dad would leave. He switched off the light on his way out, and forgot to leave the door open a crack so I could see the bathroom light.

I got up and went to my window. It hurt a little to stand, but it all turned into memory pretty quick. I stared out at the forest. It wasn’t enough; it wasn’t close enough. Words didn’t work. The throbbing in my ribs and arms made me feel a little closer to Lucky, but only like being in the classes with the same teachers he had made me feel grown up.

I waited a bit for dad’s feet to stop drumming on the floorboards, then I slid open my window and got myself out into the grass. Bare feet, in my pajamas, I ran to the hole.

There was a full moon out. It made huge mountains and valleys out of the trails Angelo and I had scuffed in the dirt when we were fighting. I put my feet into Angelo’s big prints and danced around in reverse, until I was kneeling by the hole.

An infinite space, I thought, smelling that blank-like-water smell of the air coming up from below. Like anything is infinite. Lucky never came back from China; there was no “there” to come back from. Just a big, black throat with no stomach. No end to the distance between my forest and the other side of the world.

I cried like throwing up, and caught what I could in my hands. It wasn’t much, but I shook them out as far out into the center of the hole as I could. I heard some splash into the dirt and against the rocks as they went every which way. Some must have gone straight down, all together for as long as they could.

Copyright © 2006 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

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