The Midwest |

Park Rats

by Lisa Locascio

On 420 a guy in a pink bathrobe and magenta boxers runs up and down the bleachers at Ridgeland holding a baseball bat over his head, yelling “Get high motherfuckers!” Sylvia Carter sits on the lowest bleacher with her arms wrapped around her knees, her red red eyes watching the bathrobe flying the guy like a cape. Mike Basta, tall and fat at the same time, leans against the batting cage chugging a carton of whole milk. He doesn’t spill a drop.      Today is Hitler’s birthday, today is the day those kids died in Colorado, today is the day to get stoned. Under the bleachers, both Hanks are on their cell phones with Josh at the Park, ordering more weed before Officer Folder comes to Scoville to do pocket check. The police are on high alert because of the date, but Officer Folder has caught me before and it was nothing. He sank his hand right into the pocket of my jeans and pulled out a nickel bag. Then I looked him right in the eye and he was embarrassed about how hot his hand was on my thigh, so he just shook his head and pushed it back in my pocket. He said, “Susanna, I remember you from D.A.R.E. class,” and I said, “That’s funny, I don’t.”      Now Sylvia is swaying under the big tree that stretches black against the watery sky. The guy in the bathrobe lunges at her. It looks like he’s swimming. He picks her up and throws her over his shoulder and runs away into the trees. The rest of us roll down the hill. We are dancers in a massive outdoor revue. Mud streaks our morning clothes. Then the first-period bell sings out over Ridgeland. We rise like the living dead and drift together into the school.      First period is French and I don’t know what they’re saying. We’re supposed to talk about our weekends but mine doesn’t really translate. I hang out at Scoville with the kids they call park rats. Yesterday Elijah dragged a couch over from the alley and we spent all afternoon trying to attach wheels to the bottom with duct tape. This hot Chilean guy Jose walked around the park all day with his arm around Sylvia, his hand dropped into the neckline of her shirt and right into her bra, just cupping her left tit in his left hand all day like no big deal. Sometimes a new mom in town will stroll into Scoville with her little kid, thinking it’s a normal park, and five minutes later she powerwalks the kid back to the car like it’s the first scene of Law and Order and the mom just found the body.      My French partner is a sweetheart named Nina who spent her Saturday and Sunday wrapping birthday presents for poor kids she doesn’t know. When she tells me this all I can do is narrow my eyes at her and wince and hope she thinks it’s a smile. She always tries to talk to me and laughs at my stories. She told me she liked my sweater and asked me if I had a boyfriend, like I was part of her world.      Second period is Math, I sleep, third period is Applied Earth Sciences and I’ve never figured out what that means, period four slash five is English but the book we’re supposed to read is stupid so I didn’t. Thank god I have sixth lunch. I find Rachel in the hall and we blow out the Scoville exit and head for Lake Street. When we make Euclid we’re off the security radar and no one can stop us. Rachel’s completely wasted because she smoked at Ridgeland from dawn until eight, but the weed I smoked before school has mostly worn off. While we’re walking I tell her about the strange guy in the bathrobe. She laughs real long and then gets serious and says, “That was Pink Johnny.”      “You know that guy?”      She looks at me like I asked her what a cigarette was. “Here, let me show you something real quick.”      We’re in front of the library. She drags me in and over to a computer. She Googles something so fast that I don’t see the words and then she pulls up the Illinois Sex Offender Registry, a webpage with a blurry picture of a beat-up looking guy in a dirty pink t-shirt and the words SEXUAL PREDATOR in big red letters under his torso. His name is James Fortuno.      “There,” Rachel says, pushing her chair back in a satisfied way.      “What?”      “That’s him!” She says. “The guy in the bathrobe.”      “No it’s not,” I say. “This guy is blurrier.” James Fortuna was born in the late 1970s, which makes him way too old be hanging out at Ridgeland.      “It’s Pink Johnny!” She flicks the monitor hard with her index finger and a woman behind the circulation desk looks at us.      When we’re outside, I say, “So what, did he rape a girl?”      “Not exactly. Not totally. He drove this freshman out to the woods and threatened to kill her if she didn’t suck him off, but she got away.”      “Threatened to kill her with what?”      “A knife I think.”      Nina lives out by the woods that Rachel’s talking about, at the western edge of River Forest. There’s all of these big houses and then the Forest Preserve, which sounds nice but is just a deep ditch with a little stream. On the other side is Maywood where there are always fires. The rich people don’t care what happens in the woods, and I wouldn’t go in there even during the day. “That’s awful,” I say. “That’s almost worse than if he raped her.”      Rachel catches her reflection in one of the big library windows and fixes her hair. “I don’t know if you’d be saying that if you were her. Rape isn’t always the worst thing.”      I hate it when Rachel talks down to me. “Isn’t that a line from a movie trailer?”       “This is so boring,” she says. “Let’s go to the Park.”      If the police really want to clean up Scoville, the first thing they should do is take down the half-open metal bleachers facing Lake Street. The top part of the bleachers is folded down and locked, but the bottom part creates a little shelter you can sit underneath. There’s always a little silhouetted clump of people smoking under there, an advertisement for passing cars. The metal is sharp; once I got a terrible gash on my hand when I was climbing in. I didn’t even feel it until I saw the blood.      The south end of the park is Lake Street between Forest and Oak Park Avenue. There are trees and paths and in the middle a green statue of a woman with three men. From under the bleachers you can see the bottom half of the statue on the hill, the green fence around the tennis court, and the edge of the library. I never look at the street, I just listen to the sounds of the cars cutting through space with my back turned so I feel like I’m moving.      At night people go further into the park to get away from the lights of the cars, but during the day everybody hangs out. I can see Josh’s mangled handful of dreads, Elijah’s Roman nose, a scrap of pink terrycloth peaking out from under the shadow. Rachel takes my hand and leads me under. “Watch your head,” she says. I don’t hear because I’m so excited that we’re holding hands and I bump my head, hard.      Underneath it’s damp and muddy. For a second I feel bad that I’m going to get my clothes dirty but I’m not going back to school today and anyway I don’t care about my old patchwork pants. We endure a round of hugs from every stoned guy, falling into Elijah and Josh and Mike’s arms, letting them press us to their necks, their hearts beating extra slow. This guy Charlie, who’s visiting from California, looks at me and says, “In Cali, a girl like you would be wearing snakeskin pants.” Then I get to the Pink Johnny guy and I hug him too because I’m in the middle of it and it would be way too weird not to.      We smoke. After, Rachel and I try to smooth out our backpacks so that we can lie down on them, but there’s too many books so we just stretch out on the mud. In the gaps between the bleachers the sky has turned white, as creamy and dense as milk. Elijah squirms out to call his girlfriend and another guy I’ve never seen before crawls under the bleachers. He looks like a grown-up in his black work pants and polo shirt. I blink and realize it’s a Starbucks uniform. He and Pink Johnny bump fists.       “Ladies, this is Kirk,” Pink Johnny says.      Rachel rolls over on her side and whispers in my ear. “I forgot to tell you before but after he was arrested and had to go to jail and stuff Pink Johnny totally changed, he became sort of like a crusader for people like you and me and he wants to protect girls and he feels totally bad about what he did in the past but the reason he even hangs out with us at all is because of Rascal.” She keeps going but her whisper gets softer and softer and soon she’s just tickling my ear with her breath. We curl up in giggles. Rachel tries to start talking again but then Kirk lies down next to me and the world changes.       “Hi,” he says. He reaches for the sliver of exposed skin where my shirt does not meet my pants and strokes it with the back of his finger. My skin feels cold on the inside, where my blood is. What can I say back to him? I open my mouth to try, hoping he’ll just kiss me.       “Hi,” I say. Then the wind comes and realigns my sight to where the Pink Johnny guy is sitting Indian-style over by one of the support poles. Elijah comes rushing back in all red in the face shouting “Guys! Guys!”       “What?” Kirk says, jerking his hand away from my stomach.       “Rascal’s coming,” Elijah says breathlessly.      Pink Johnny’s baseball bat has been lying peacefully next to him in the mud. Now he picks it up again.      Rascal is twenty-nine. Or he’s thirty-four. Or he’s seventeen and has had a hard life or he’s forty and he looks great. He comes from K-Town or the Deep South Side or Back of the Yards or Dixmoor or Maywood. He’s tall and has long hair except for that one time he cut it and he always wears black except for he wears brown sometimes too. He comes gliding up to the park like a superhero but more like a supervillian and he has extra sensory perception of some sort because although he is a heroin dealer who’s already gotten two girls hooked and into comas and rehab, the police can’t find him. He’s a myth to me, a bad bedtime story, and I don’t want to see him for the first time when I’m stoned.      Something about all of this, the wind, Kirk, Pink Johnny, the weed, Rachel mentioning Rascal, the milky sky, drops a little burning hockey puck in my stomach. Across the street is a store called Transformations that everybody says is for drag queens. The name glows in bright red letters, lit up like it’s nighttime. I get the weird feeling again. I get it all over my body.      The year I was ten my dad announced that as a special treat we were going to a ski resort in Wisconsin called Devil’s Head. He had just lost his job and this was supposed to make up for the fact that we couldn’t have Christmas break in Durango anymore, where he met my mom when she was working as a ticket girl on Purgatory. He was on his winter break from college, and whatever happened between them convinced her to pick up and move to Charleston, Illinois to be with him.      We drove up in our old gray car. The hotel was a low-to-the-ground ranch-style building stretching desperately in every direction. A skinny kid took our bags and led us down a short flight of stairs into a subterranean hallway lit with red lanterns. There were little windows in the hall but because we were underground they held dioramas, which I had just started to build in school. They were country scenes. I only remember one, a little blonde girl holding that weird stick with the curved top, leading a group of sheep in front of a house with cotton ball smoke coming out of the chimney.      Our room had a view of the wasteland behind the hotel, where half-melted snow was clumped randomly among a few tall boulders. Far off I could see little boxy houses. “Don’t worry,” my dad said when he caught me staring out the window. “They have machines to make fake snow for the slopes.”      The next morning my mom and dad got me into my snowsuit and walked me over to the base of the mountain, where they signed me up for a private all-day ski lesson. A smiley woman with bright red hair came over, called me Susie, and took me into a little hut where other abandoned children were drinking Swiss Miss from white Styrofoam cups. I thought of the little girl in the hallway diorama. Then the smiley woman came back with a man in a dark green parka. “Susie, this is your instructor, Joey,” she said. “He’s going to take you up the mountain.” She leaned in close to my face and whispered “Isn’t he cute!”      I flushed, mad at her, and followed the man out of the hut. We waited for the lift together.      The man asked me if my name was Susie, looking down into my face. He had soft-looking brown hair that touched his long white neck. He wore a thick burgundy sweatshirt over jeans. I looked down at my stupid green snowsuit.       “No,” I said. “It’s Susanna.” The woman wasn’t wrong; he was cute.       “Okay,” he said. “My full name is Joseph, but call me Joey.”      I nodded. He waited while I struggled into the big hard boots and stepped on my skis. The click of them attaching to the boots meant that time was moving forward.       “You’re pretty.” Joey said.      He wasn’t supposed to say this. A little yellow cloud holding all of the warnings I had received in school floated into my mind. Don’t let a stranger talk to you. Don’t accept compliments from a stranger. Don’t go anywhere alone with a stranger. I opened my mouth to tell him that it was inappropriate. Then something hit me hard in the back of the knees and Joey grabbed my hand and we were up in the air in the lift together. We sat on the swaying little bench. It was an old lift, made of wood, with no safety bar to pull down in front. Our skis bobbed under us. Joey asked me where I was from. I told him Chicago, careful not to say Oak Park.       “I’m from here,” Joey said. “I go to high school.” High school was too young. He was probably saying that to me to put me at ease. So he could touch me. Joey put his hand in his pocket. We were maybe twenty feet off the ground and getting higher. If I jumped I probably wouldn’t survive.       “What are you doing?” I said. I craned my head around and stared behind our seat. There was no one behind us.       “Taking out my wallet,” he said, and he did. “Here, look.” He handed me his driver’s license. His name was Joseph Myers. He was sixteen.       “Okay,” I said. I gave it back to him. We sat in silence. It seemed like we had left the ground hours ago. I could see the end of the lift just ahead of us. Then the seat shook, and the lift stopped. We swung back and forth in the air, and I felt my body slide forward a little bit. I let out a little yelp, and Joey dropped his arm around my shoulders. I felt better. He wore a gray knit cap. It looked very soft.       “You’re safe, don’t worry,” he said.      The day was as cold and crisp as a popsicle. I stared at the grown below us, at the line of trees and a nest of black twigs struggling up out of the snow.       “Susanna?” Joey asked. “Do you like to hug and kiss?”       “What?”       “Boys. Do you like to hug and kiss boys?”      This was when it started, the little burn of problem in my stomach, it was close to being sick and also close to the feeling I got when I saw something on television I knew I should not. The way I felt when I woke up early Sunday mornings and my mom and dad’s bedroom was locked, but different. It boiled over out of my stomach and ran into my brain.      I didn’t say anything. His arm was still on me.       “Well,” he said, “Someday you’re going to.”       “Okay,” I said.       “Can I tell you a story?” he asked. I didn’t say he could, but he did. He told me about a little girl named Helga, who looked just like me, who didn’t like to kiss boys or hug or anything. But then Helga got a little older, and she liked those things a lot. She didn’t want to do anything but those things. And she looked just like me.      He smiled at me with both of his lips and all of his teeth. The lift started again. We skied all the rest of the day. Joey didn’t say anything else weird to me, but the feeling lodged in the palms of my hands and the back of my legs, burning up whenever he tapped me on the shoulder. It stayed through dinner and into the night. I stayed awake with the burning after my parents went to sleep, listened to them snore and then fall so deeply asleep that they stopped making any noise at all. Eventually I crawled out of my cot and crept behind the curtains. The feeling finally went away as I stood behind the heavy fabric, hidden from everything in front of the window, staring out at the moonlight on the wasteland.      When I get turned on I feel that way again, like I don’t know where anything is, like I ate something bad, like I’m going to throw up but that my puke will taste great. By now I kind of like it. It’s the only way I know to feel about sex. I guess you could say I’m fucked up.      I knew one of the girls Rascal got hooked on smack. She was a sad soft type, not very pretty but she bleached her hair anyway and tried to find cheap versions of the cool clothes her parents couldn’t buy for her. And now she’s dreaming in a hospital somewhere, stemmed out on a long blue line and a beeping machine with a red light. I bet it’s just like those books I read, I bet her mom comes in and paints her fingernails baby pink.      While we wait for Rascal, Kirk moves his hand back to my stomach. Josh drums ominously on an overturned recycling bin and Pink Johnny has started to pace, the baseball bat held at attention in his right hand. Elijah is nodding off.      Nina’s soft face comes to me, frozen in my mind like the little shepherdess underground in Devil’s Head, the girl in the diorama with the cotton smoke and the cotton sheep. I hear her telling me that she helped people. She wears her dark blonde hair tucked just so behind her little ears. I think of going back to school and finding Nina. I could say we should “hang out” or “get coffee.” I bet her mom would even give me a ride home. But it’s three o’clock already. I can hear the last bell ring all the way down the street, all over us park rats.