Tuesday, August 16, 2011
I was born in a trailer park...
Until I was seven years old, I lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of a coal mining town in Pennsylvania. The children who lived down the hill from us didn't wear clothes. They wore underwear and nothing else. I used to stand on the front porch of our trailer and watch them squatting in the street, their naked torsos bent over long, naked legs, flipping over rocks and collecting worms after it rained. Those children didn't appear to have any clothes or a mother, either.
I had a mother. She was pretty and blonde and had yellow green eyes that nobody else picked up on their way out of her belly. All four of her children had eyes that were so dark that you could almost call them black, except in the sunlight they were brown. My dad had brown eyes and he passed his darkness on to us.
My mom was the sort of girl who would do pretty much anything that somebody meaner expected of her, and my dad walked around in the world like he basically owned the place. He was the boss of our family, divined that way by God himself. He used to say, "It says so in the Bible. The man is the head of the household and the women have to listen to anything the man says." He liked to call himself "The Big Cheese," but he was easy to see through. Inside of him, there were only holes and weak spots, so he filled them in with a lot of noise and talking about being bigger than he was.
My brother Adam and I were born sixteen months apart, so we wandered the trailer park together. We would walk to the end of our street where a boy named Greg lived with his older sister and mother. His mother was a smoker, and she stained all of her filters with frosted pink lipstick. She had to work, because Greg and his sister didn't have a dad. Our mother stayed at home and stood in front of us protectively when the men with greased back hair walked past our trailer on their way to work in the Christmas tree farms. There wasn't much to be proud of, where I came from, but we were able to boast that we were the Christmas Tree Capitol of the World.
Greg's trailer was smelly and dark and there were always wisps of smoke twirling around all the exposed light bulbs, even when his mother wasn't home. It was like you would sit down on their couch and a puff of gray smoke would come to life all around you. Greg's sister was perpetually lounging on that couch, wearing cutoff shorts that you could only guess were there, under her oversized neon painted t-shirts. She watched MTV for exactly ten hours out of every twenty four. The other fourteen were reserved for sleeping until far past a reasonable lunch time. She had hair that was so big and stiff, it would hold up to even the most ambitious of winds. I found her to be very grown up and desirable, and very rock and roll.
She once showed me a Twisted Sister music video where a dad busted into his son's room and told the son to stand up straight and tuck in his shirt, but mostly the dad hated his son's guitar and the fact that he wanted to rock. I felt scared of Twisted Sister and their hair and lipstick, but I knew enough not to take the side of the dad. I knew enough that it was important to rock, even if you felt like something wasn't quite right about it. I stayed awake at night, picturing men in tight, snakeskin pants, wearing pink lipstick and singing songs about how homework was stupid, and how it wasn't cool to drive the speed limit. The 1980's were a strange time to be a child with only a remedial understanding of the way the world worked, and for the bulk of that understanding to have reached me through the filter of a trailer park in rural western Pennsylvania.
Greg was the same age as me, but he was meaner, almost as mean as a teenager. He and a few boys that never talked would run all over the grounds of the trailer park and do wild things like catching black snakes and carrying them home by holding on to their tails. One day, one of them got the idea to torture the snakes they caught, and so we all gathered around in front of Greg's trailer, the bouffant outline of his sister's head through the poorly lit open window, ignoring the commotion we were making and turning up the crackling television.
"Hold it by the head," Greg told one of the mute boys. The boy was wearing jeans with giant holes in the knees and I could see that his skin was encrusted with dried mud and stickiness underneath. I wondered why he never said anything. He tousled with the snake for a minute. I let out a squeal when it almost got the best of him, biting onto his thumb and twisting its long black body, almost slipping away and into the tall grass at the edge of the woods beyond our neighborhood. The quiet boy smashed the snake's head against the stone of the walkway and squeezed until it was forced to open its jaw and free his thumb.
"Shut up," Greg told us, glancing over his shoulder at the open window, and we tried our best to settle down. I elbowed one of the underwear children from the bottom of the hill and bent down low to get a good look at the snake as it squirmed and panicked against its captors. A sickness was growing in my guts as Greg pulled a knife out of his pocket and flicked it open.
I could have told him to stop. I could have called for some kind of sanity, could have asked all of these dirty, lost children what in the hell we thought we were doing. Instead, I glanced up at the face of my brother, his big teeth biting his lower lip and sadness welling up behind his dark eyes. He was kind and gentle and I hated him for it. I wasn't like him. I was quick and mean, and so when he pushed his way to the back of the huddled pack of children and disappeared into the brush, I was determined to endorse whatever was about to happen.
What did happen was that time seemed to slow down while Greg and the two mute boys held that snake with blood and gore all over their fingers, and intestines and bile greasing their palms while they chopped and mutilated its body into tiny, wriggling pieces. The snake had a wild eye that stared through time and space, glossed over with pain, having given up its struggle to stay alive. All of the world fell away as they hacked at its flesh. The only thing that mattered in all of the universe at that moment was that this was so very wrong. Greg smiled up at me and asked me if I thought it was gross. "I don't care," I said. "It's just a stupid snake."
From that moment on, I saw something new in my nightmares. The men in tight pants and lipstick were now also murderers and there was blood everywhere. It was on my conscience, mostly, and I thought about the way the snake had still been alive, even after its body was in pieces. How its head jumped around on the stones after it had been severed, how I recoiled and inched backward into the boy without any clothes. I felt the skin of his thighs on the backs of my legs, while Greg laughed and the mute boys had eyes that grew three sizes in their long, gaunt heads. I was scared of the world, I knew that, and I also knew that I hated myself.