I invent the world from inside my playhouse. My G.I. Joes have never been to war. I have buried their jeep ranger in a gopher hole along with their tiny plastic bayonets, combat helmets and grenades. They wear long skirts fashioned from wheat stalks and field grass. They dangle on wire when I want them to fly. They practice the Kama Sutra on each other in secret. Inside my playhouse, they embrace, they kiss, they writhe under the weight of each other's body. They live out their deepest passions.
My playhouse is made from castoff railroad planks and a tangle of willow reeds that have fallen from the trees behind my parents' home. It leans against my grandfather's chinchilla house, a small concrete hovel covered with a roof thatched from Irish grass and putty. I have been told that a long time ago, the pelts of these tiny rodents were skinned off here, tanned and sewn into winter coats. No one comes near the old workshop with its active wasp hives built into the corners and the untrained eye could easily miss the barricaded lean-to I've constructed next to the back wall of my grandfather's corroding work station.
I live with my brother and my parents in an unincorporated rural subdivision in southern Illinois. There are development signs everywhere on empty lots that are waiting to be dug up and turned into hot real estate properties. We moved here three years ago when my father's factory relocated. Most of the time, he labors at double shifts making deodorant soaps and dandruff shampoos for Armor Dial. I can always tell when it's four-thirty in the afternoon because that's when the smokestacks unleash their burning tallow oils. The air is always thick and pasty and smells like the rotting corpse of a run-over skunk.
I spend most of my time playing in my lean-to or wandering the leftover cornfields and empty lots behind our house, walking through the sod fields, singing to trees. I once made up an entire operetta about an enchanted forest with Viking helmeted grasshoppers and lovelorn field mice.
Inside the play hut, my Joes sleep together inside neatly stacked Buster Brown shoeboxes. On the low ceiling above, I have pressed on cracked appliqués of cherries and tangelos and a galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stickers shaped like shooting comets and stars. There is a tangle of sleeping bags and Indian blankets tossed over the painting tarp that covers the wet, rotting smell of meadow grass underneath. I've strung puka shells across the low entrance and set up my tape recorder on a bamboo breakfast-in-bed tray. There are half-melted beeswax candles set inside glass mason jars, surrounding piles of cassettes and album covers that open up to liner notes and photographs of Karen Carpenter and her older sibling Richard.
Sometimes I think I want to be Karen Carpenter. I think of her as the Voice of Perpetual Sorrows or Our Lady of Unrequited Love. I don't know exactly what Karen means when she says, no one in the world ever had a love as sweet as my love. But I like to lie on the ground of my playhouse, thinking of Karen falling prey to the shoddy romantic trappings painted into her lyrics. She is the overdubbed, undernourished girl drummer -- willowy, slightly gawky and stiffly posed next to Richard on the inlay of these airbrushed album sleeves. It doesn't matter that her bangs always look like they have been cut with dull pruning shears, or that her stiff hippie lace collars make her teeth look buckled. I hold up a mirror with leafy willow branches falling over my high forehead and crew cut and start to lip sync to her remake of the Beatles' Ticket to Ride. My mouth forms the words: he said that living with me was bringing him down, but it is Karen's melancholic alto that seeps out.
My brother says that sometimes he jacks off to fantasies of Melanie and Olivia Newton-John. He says that Janis Joplin would "probably be a good lay when she's not super trashed on dope" and that Grace Slick from the Jefferson Airplane is "kind of a fox." He says he likes to think he'll marry someone who looks like Carly Simon or Cher. When he asks me who I like, I don't say a word. I look at the cover of the Carpenter's "We've Only Just Begun" album and I think of Karen's brother Richard. I think of sitting next to him on a deserted stretch of beach in California. I imagine the iridescent sprinkles from breaking Pacific waves behind us and the heat from Richard's hand as it grazes my own. I think of singing a song with him and touching his dishwater blonde curls. But I don't tell my brother Wayne this. He thinks I like Karen.
I have never let anyone into my playhouse. Not even and especially not Wayne. Sometimes I'll hear him playing with his jock buddies in the mowed down cornfield where they're supposed to build a church. I hear their boy voices from my lean-to and their exaggerated groaning as they shove muscle into each other, their moans as a football goes out of bounds. I imagine their rough tackles, their sweat tricking onto each other, their soiled callused hands groping and tearing at each other's clothes. I imagine myself caught somewhere in their pile-ons and crunches, tumbling and somersaulting through their heated crush. Sometimes I think I hear my name floating on the air, in between their yelps and curses, but its just the odd way the wind whirrs through the vents in the tar boards that serve as the ceiling and walls for my sequestered play hut.
In the early fall, I like to crack open milkweed pods or step on the thin layer of ice that forms over spring heads and watch my boot make white veins over the frozen surfaces. Sometimes I see a circle of crows or a wandering turkey and on rare occasions, I spy what looks to be a scared coyote. My brother says it's just a rabid dog that lives in the wild, but when I see it I could swear that it is more like a wolf. It looks as though it is gun shy, as though it has been wounded as it stumbles and limps over the rotting gray cornstalks. From a distance it looks like it might have sharp fangs as I watch it shuddering behind rusting combines and in the recesses of the farm pastures left fallow.
"Someone oughta shoot that pathetic creature," my brother once said. But in the summer sometimes when I sleep out next to the chinchilla house, I hear it howling in the distance or choking on the chalky night air. I leave a dish of water and a bowl of milkbones for it. I think I might be able to make friends with it and tame it somehow, but its stays far off, never sniffing near the backyard swingset, its tracks never loping towards the hut.
At Clinton Middle School, I walk with a boyish swagger, keeping my upper body rigid and my legs slightly extended. I dress in torn Osh Kosh jeans and faded flannel shirts, sometimes sporting a Cleveland Indian's baseball cap for a jock effect. When the guys talk about "humping some bitch in the bathroom" or "copping a feel under the football stands" I smile and say that's cool.
I always try to imagine how those boys think. How they walk around in their football jerseys and pinch the rear ends of cheerleaders. How they hunger for jacked up racing cars spinning out of control on drag strips or watching Hulk Hogan on Saturday television beating on someone's craggy nose. I never think of skateboarding in the school parking lot or lighting firecrackers inside of people's mailboxes. I never conspire to douse cats with lighter fluid and setting them on fire -- swinging them by their tails. I think of Karen Carpenter. I think of squashed desire. I think of being rescued from a world where I sing and nothing comes out.
My mother has informed me that my cousin Leigh will be staying with us for a weekend while my aunt and uncle make arrangements to move into our subdivision. When I think of Leigh I think of smoke rings. The summer I turned nine, Leigh and his parents came to a family picnic. My Uncle Kenny made a huge bonfire and we ate charred pig ribs and drank warm strawberry Kool-Aid. Leigh couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen then when he took a large cotton blanket and demonstrated how the Shawnee Indians communicated with other tribes using a covert code of smoke signals.
"We learned this in Boy Scouts." To some it may have appeared that Leigh was boasting, but there was a kind of sincerity in the way that he spoke; a vulnerability that made him seem soft, as though he could be easily overtaken or preyed upon. I wanted him then. Thought my cousin was the bravest guy I'd ever seen, the way he'd puff up his chest and slap Wayne on his back. I wanted his masculinity and his open candor. I admired the comfortable way he could move his hard body. I'd let my eyes linger on his full lips, his thick, black eyelashes, his strong neck.
I remember that Leigh and I once talked about the great magician, Houdini. We talked about sustaining breath in a glass box that is plunged into deep water. I remember that Leigh and I had gone into my room once and we experimented with taking quick short breaths and exhaling out all the air from our lungs. We'd stand behind each other and press out all the oxygen until tiny prickles formed on the top of our heads. We'd take turns falling down in a dizzy stupor. I'd come out of that woozy state feeling as though I'd been walking outside of my body, still feeling Leigh's arms pressed around the cave of my ribs.
When I think of Leigh now I still become breathless. I still feel woozy. I still find prickles on my arm and a strange hollow feeling in my gut. When I think of Leigh now I see myself stranded on an island of dense fog; endless curling vapor trails and the soft, deep purr of his voice.
My cousin Leigh arrives the day my brother gets shin splints. My mother is fussing over Wayne with cartons of Epsom salts and totes a leaky hot water bottle to his bedside with mugs of steaming Ovaltine. When Leigh walks in, he seems much taller than I remembered him three or four years ago, and there is a sandy stubble of hair around his full lips and chin that gives him a soft, sylvan look.
I sit across from my handsome cousin and I feel misshapen, obtuse. I think of my mother's story of purgatory and how the embers of one's sins can burn the untarnished lining of one's soul. I think I have fallen into that silent limbo as I sit on the divan watching, trying not to watch Leigh. When Leigh moves it is as though he is conscious of a certain warm energy that is snaking through his body and it comes out as pulses of white light though his fingertips. He doesn't fidget or jerk his head back the way I've seen Wayne or other guys at school do. His voice doesn't boom off of the walls. He lets his fingers tangle around the chestnut curls of his hair and this one rhythmic motion seems to reveal a kind of innate sensuousness.
Sitting so near to him, I think I can hear the blood beat inside of my own head. I think that I can feel my chest ribs trembling, my breath turning to vapor.
"I saw you come from behind those trees in the backyard," Leigh points to a spot beyond the clump of willows out the window. "What's out there?"
"Just some soggy marsh fields, nothing really."
"I was thinking we could go exploring back there while I'm here. You know, we don't have much farmland back in Akron," Leigh moves over and lowers his head as if he is speaking to me confidentially.
"Do you smoke?" Leigh raises his thick eyebrows as if to suggest a quiet camaraderie.
"Don't tell your ma or anyone, ok? I got a whole carton of Camels in my jacket and I was hoping we could go out back and smoke, you know, shoot the shit, but I don't want anyone to know."
"Sure." I am thinking now of my grandfather's chinchilla house but that seems too close to my play hut and I'm afraid my secrets will be uncovered.
"Take me out there tomorrow." Leigh caresses his soft chin hairs with his index finger. "I want to get the lay of the land. Maybe we could even throw a tent and camp out there."
I nod as my mother brings in a plate of unwrapped Suzy Q's and some milk. She offers Leigh a set of blankets and a pillow for sleeping on the couch. I say goodnight to him but the conversation jostles in my mind.
Coiled in my bed, I think that I hear something moving outside my window. There is a soft, muffled heaving. Then a whimpering sound as if someone is crying. I think it must be the crippled coyote and I move towards my window. In the hazy moonlight, I think that I see the outline of a shadow darting, hobbling in and out of a line of bushes. I think I hear a wailing or a sobbing sound. I try to see, try to make my eyes adjust to the cauldron night. I keep scanning the dark horizon of fields, but I still can't make my eyes see anything.
By early morning, I have dismantled the interior of my playhouse. I have removed the boxes of military dolls, the strung up shells, the candles and jars of dried honeysuckle and jonquil petals, the cassette tapes and album dust jackets. I stow everything into the chinchilla workstation under a large metal table where the tiny animals were once pinned down and flayed open. I go back to the house to get Leigh and we return to the empty playhouse I've built.
"Wow, is this for real?" He surveys the interior of the now vacant hut. "Can we sleep out here tonight?"
I stand on ground that seems to be caving in.
"I mean it would be so cool to lay out here under the stars. We could build a fire, blow farts into the wind. Man!" Leigh sits Indian style on the ground next to the hut and begins to stake out the territory.
We return home and gather small items for the camp out. My mother provides us with extra sheets, a quilt for the chill, a set of kerosene lanterns and a jumbo bag of marshmallows. I'm thinking all the while of Leigh's hands, of the way my breathing changes when he stands next to me, of the gentle way he charms and makes me forget myself.
Inside the hut, Leigh takes off his boots and props his pillows up against the side. "Remember it's a secret." Leigh strikes a pack of Camels on the palm of his hand. "Sure is quiet out here. What do you do with all of this quiet?"
"I like that about the country I guess." I perceive my body to be rigid, my joints stiff like the movable parts of my G.I. Joes.
I don't know, back in Akron there is so much going on. I never have the time to notice how . . ." his voice drifts off as he inhales his cigarette deeply, letting the nicotine whirl through his veins.
"You really like to smoke don't you." I try not to meet his eyes.
"C'mere," Leigh rolls over to where I'm sitting. "You can get a real buzz off of this." He places his hand on my head and moves his face very close to my own. "Now," he instructs, "you inhale when I exhale."
His lips seem to brush over mine as a finger of warm smoke chafes over my open mouth and face. I can't help but start to choke.
"You're just a pup," he laughs and begins to blow cigarette smoke rings into the air. "Do you remember that old Indian code?"
I watch him make loops of smoke for what seems to be a silent eternity. "Just like the Shaw-neee!" he smirks and folds his arms behind his head.
The idea of being so close to him has made me still inside. I watch the small rings dissolve in the air. Outside there are locusts eating up the damp night. I watch Leigh, then look away when his eyes attempt to meet mine.
"Do you ever hunt out here?" Leigh snaps the awkward hush.
"I've seen pheasant roam around the county line wire fences but I don't think anyone ever shoots at them."
"My dad likes to hunt, you know." The clumsy silence descends again.
"You and Wayne went hunting once, didn't you?"
"Yeah, he really got into it, dressing up in camouflage like we were in Vietnam or some shit." Leigh has a way of making you feel as though he is always telling you a secret. "He's really got killer instincts, your brother. I mean the way he held his breath and aimed, just bagged that poor beast. I'll never forget it."
"It was just the way your brother watched that stag die. You know, that thing was alive and when we went up to it, you could see the eyes still open and the blood pouring out of its temple. It was still breathing and Wayne didn't even flinch." Leigh inhaled deeply from the filter tip of his Camel. "I mean shit, its like we're all untamed, just out for the kill, out for the fun of it." He blows another ring into the sticky air.
Silence invades the playhouse. Through the light coming in from the lanterns, it seems as if I have never seen this hut before. I think of my G.I. Joes sunk into their carnal embraces and remember that I once showed my collection to Leigh. They were dressed in army fatigues and Marine uniforms then and I can't help but wonder what Leigh would think if he could see them as they are now, braided in palm leaves and wheatgrass, the little joints of their hands grasping each other's scarred faces and necks.
"So what do you do in the summer?" Leigh fumbles for another cigarette.
"I like to sing." I can't believe the words have come out.
"You sing what?"
"I mostly just make stuff up." I know my face is inflamed but in the lantern light I don't think he can tell.
Leigh begins to sing, whee, dee dee dee, duh dee dee dee dee, the lion sleeps tonight.
I chime in, Hush my darling, don't fear my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.
Together we join in for a chorus of, a weema-wep, a weema wep . . .
The air that was once turgid and foreign now seems to be charged with a lighting energy. We begin to make up our own lyrics to songs we already know. Then, we just sing in any fashion. We sing about a pirate who has lost his treasure map but continues to search for his bounty until he dies. We sing about a lost planet that is sending out signals to other planets so that it can be recovered. We sing about swimming in a river that makes you invisible. We sing about flying in our dreams. We sing about the Shawnee Indians and their secret smoke ring code. We make up songs about a mermaid whose kisses bring dead sailors back to life and about the astronauts who cut their oxygen pipes and perpetually free float. We sing about waterfalls that gush gallons of Dr. Pepper and trees that grow steaming Pop Tarts. When we can't think of things to make up, we sing songs we remember from off the radio.
When Leigh pulls the sleeping bag over his body and turns over, I know that our serenade to the night locusts has ended. I sit up, watching Leigh's firm chest slowly move up and down. A slit of moon in the pitch of the hut makes Leigh look a little like Richard Carpenter, with his spiraling curls and soft features.
I sing a Karen Carpenter song to myself, long ago and oh so far away, I fell in love with you. Leigh stirs in his sleeping bag and the air is heavy and smells like tobacco. My skin and hair smell like stale Camel smoke.
I watch Leigh's breathing grow heavy. I watch, try not to watch. I see his mouth open and think of the gentle curve of his lips where he blew smoke rings. I think of Houdini and how he would be able to imperceptibly place his mouth over Leigh's and steal a silent kiss. How that breathing would merge and become one solitary long breath, a seal to a clandestine bond. I begin to ask myself if I have read the smoke signals correctly.
Then I see myself in that James Dean movie, "Rebel Without a Cause" and I think about that sidekick of his Plato and I wonder if I have become that character Plato. I wonder what really is that obsessive fascination I have for my cousin; this fugitive boy who barely talks to me, or makes me feel I am his equal.
What makes me hungry for Leigh? Sometimes I don't think he is that smart. I suppose that he smells good. The curve of his lips compels me to think about kissing him. But he doesn't make me want to tell him my secrets. He doesn't give me back to myself. Still I guess that there is something in that maleness. Something in that rough, sinewy exterior, that laugh, that wild instinctive breath, the way his eyes flash. I ask myself if it is Leigh or if it is just being with a boy. Just being in the same proximity to him. I want to absorb all of that male light. I want to take in all of that boy scent. I want to have his swagger, his confident air, the way he is included in the affairs of the world, the way he stands in place as though he belongs there.
I watch Leigh for a very long time. I keep vigil over his involuntary reflexes, watching his muscles tense and then soften. I inch my body over to the sleeping figure. I watch his nostrils flare out. I listen for the deep breathing that comes only within the dream state. I feel like a predatory animal as I position my head over his and draw back. I think for a moment of Karen Carpenter and how she is always falling for all the wrong men. Or how she sang, time and time again the chance for love has passed me by.
I place my head directly over Leigh's. I wait. I listen for his slow heavy breath wheezing through his softly parted lips. I silently bend over. I place my mouth on his and pause. I let my lips linger on his to feel their texture. I can taste the tobacco residue mixed with burnt marshmallow. I taste Leigh. I draw back, holding my breath in. I find it impossible to breathe. I can't make myself breathe. His eyes are wide open.
I sit up. I look out the entrance to the fort. Leigh rustles in his sleeping bag then turns over. I let the silence devour my insides, ravage the air in the playhouse. My body is burning as though I've fallen through to the coals of my mother's purgatory.
I move away from the lean-to. I look up at the sky swollen with dead stars. I walk, then begin to run. I feel a trail of cool sweat inching down my back. I look toward the shell of the playhouse behind me and the makeshift hut has completely vanished. It has imploded into nothingness. It has been obliterated, become a huge smoke ring ascending and evaporating into the sky.
I think of my Joes with their tiny mouths clamped over each others. I think of the airless cardboard boxes turning into little coffins and I can see the naked dolls squirming to get oxygen. I begin to sing in a low, breathy voice, don't you remember you told me you loved me baby, said you'd be coming back this way again, baby?
I stand in the center of my backyard and picture Karen Carpenter languishing on my old swing set. I think of her dowdy hair, her thin, colorless features. I think of her eyes that hold in all the collapsed hopes of all the sissy preteen boys and mawkish girls in the world. I think of her mop-headed brother and how he duped his own sister into becoming a victim in every song she sang, a vapid Pollyanna blathering about vacuous relationships. How she couldn't be Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez and sing about how men were polluting the environment and how you could miss them but live just fine without them all the same. I sing for Karen because right now I think that she's just a sad, frail voice encircled in a world of brutish men. I imagine Karen sitting here now and dropping my head on her wan shoulder and sobbing. I sing to her, baby, baby, baby, baby oh baby, I love you, I really do.
From behind the chinchilla house, I think I hear someone shout out the word "queer." I can't be sure if it is the wind coming down the knoll or if Leigh has gathered his senses and is rabid for me. My whole body is perched to hear the night sounds.
I think of the circle of men that hold up the planet. The men who carry baseball bats and hunting rifles. The men who don't flinch when they take a knife to cut open an animal. The men who dress in uniforms and set minefields. The men who substitute slang words when referring to women's body parts. The men, who when met with a certain tenderness, turn over on their sides and pretend to go on sleeping.
In the still stark air I think I hear the wailing of the coyote. I can hear him rustling though the bushes and I begin to make out his jagged outline. I see his ratty, cocklebur covered fur as the wolfhound hobbles through our grove of willow trees. It looks as though he is bleeding and it seems there is a whole universe of fear in his narrowing eyes
The moon churns above like a murky orange poultice. The light glints off several of his long sharp teeth. The wolf stares back at me, foam creeping up at the edges of his black lips. I sit perfectly still, my breath forming perfect vapor rings in the evening air.
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