A bit of reality sprinkled into fiction makes it believable. In this case, more of this story actually happened than not. I won’t tell you what bits.
I’ve lived in a lot of different places over the years. From each, I’ve taken bits and pieces with me after I’ve left. Too much happened in the small span of my childhood to remember it all, but certain flashes are permanently scarred on my retina. This short piece has a few of those.
by Curtis A. Deeter
I used to live in a public, student housing complex with my mom. You know, the kind with three stories, small, wooden balconies that might fall at any moment, and common spaces with rusted out hot-dog grills and parasite-infested sandboxes. The kind with wanna-be gangsters prowling the streets and a fairly decent global representation of kids to play with… or get beat up by.
There was Martin, pronounced as if he were somewhere in between Argentinian and American. We didn’t have much in common, other than the shared and scarring experience of being kids, but we made a friendship work for a while. We served each other’s purposes.
We crawled through cement access tunnels that connected all the basement laundry rooms, pretending we might find gold at the end. Instead, we found only mirror reflections of the same stuffy, moldy place we’d just come from.
We built monumental mountains with winding race tracks spiraling up and through their peaks, tracking sand and mud from the basins under the apartments to pack the sand down tight enough for our Hot Wheels. There was no way we could have known someone would have to clean up our mess; there was no way we could have known one of the groundskeepers would have gotten fired for it, either.
We even braved the Outside, a place so surreal and so vast. A place well beyond the complex that belonged to no one and everyone at the same time. It was mostly rushing traffic and exhaust fumes.
One afternoon, a lukewarm Wisconsin sun beating down on us, Martin, never to grow up to be a teen, kicked me full in the kneecap. I buckled, tears streaming down my sand-caked cheeks, and asked why Martin, why?
That’s when Robert showed up, older and wiser than I ever thought I’d be, a veritable knight on a white stallion. He helped me to my feet, and the two of us walloped on the poor kid until his beautiful, illegal mom, Elena, came to take him away. I felt bad afterward, but Robert ensured me that Martin could have broken my knee, that his beating was in everyone’s best interest.
Robert also assured me that I could ride his bike, no problem. The tire tracks across Rodney’s calves told another story. His mother didn’t come to take him away, rather showed up at my door late at night looking for my blood. Even though it had been an accident, I apologized to Rodney while he was taking an oatmeal bath and helped his mom dress his wounds.
In the end, I figured out Robert was a liar and loser. I stole his favorite Magic cards and never saw him again. That really was in everyone’s best interest.
Then, there was Sheila, the babysitter’s daughter. We were the same age, and both our fathers were gone. Come to think of it, a lot of fathers were gone around the complex. I don’t remember ever seeing one, but there were plenty of mothers like ours: alone, bleary eyed, and angelic. While mine was busy finishing school, Sheila’s was busy paying all her attention to other people’s children.
We spent most of our time, Sheila and I, behind closed doors, playing a strangely erotic version of Cops and Robbers with beanie babies and G.I. Joes. We were young and knew nothing about ourselves or the world. Our games usually ended with someone taking their clothes off and consisted of a lot of inappropriate touching.
“You two okay?” her mom would ask every once in a while, either wrist deep in Dominican doo-doo or chasing the Ghanaian twins through the apartment.
“Yeah,” we’d say, but she couldn’t hear us over the wail of a screaming baby or the rhythmic creaking of the neighbors upstairs that sometimes shook picture frames off her walls. The pictures weren’t the only things falling down around us.
But yeah, we were fine. We were just exploring each other and locking up Flip the Cat for stealing all of Sergeant Duke’s marbles or for kidnapping Princess Diana, the teddy bear.
Funny, they said those stuffed animals would be worth something someday. They put them in Happy Meals and on every store’s end caps. They sold plastic cages to preserve their tags, claiming they’d lose value if not kept in pristine condition.
One thing’s for sure, they weren’t worth anything after what we did to them, but all my experiences there turned out invaluable for one reason or another.