by Ace Boggess
Nicole rode in the passenger seat of the beat-up Chevy Blazer. Curly, the photographer, drove because he knew the way: straight north along Route 19, although for now the road curved west toward the setting sun. Nicole never would’ve guessed there’d be a trailer park out 19. She thought it was all corn, six feet high and fat in all directions. Then again, she saw no reason why there wouldn’t be a trailer park. They’re like sinkholes, she thought, popping up wherever you least expect them.
She bit her lip to punish herself for that. Nicole hated stereotypes. She’d been one for much of her life before college beat the hick out of her, flattening her accent and opening her up to a new crowd of friends. Her time in college also taught her to give everyone a chance. Black and white, gay and straight, hillbilly and ritzy trophy wife—she’d learned to tell their stories, not to write them in her head before a single question could be asked.
Curly stepped on the gas. “Another half a mile,” he said. “White trash paradise.” He just took the pictures. No need for him to worry about choosing his words. Curly was almost sixty, gray-haired, silver-bearded, and completely set in his ways. He liked old cars, old suits too small for him that looked stolen from a child’s funeral, and his old Nikon camera with film that still needed to be developed by hand and then left on a table for some intern to scan. The publisher long ago offered to buy him a digital camera. “I’ve got one,” Curly said. “I hold it with these digits.” He wiggled the fingers of his left hand, then those of his right. “And with these, I focus the lens and push the button.”
Nicole squinted, facing the evening sun. She’d left her sunglasses in her car. Now, she felt a headache coming on from all the glare. Nervous, jittery, she ran a hand up the back of her neck and checked the ribbon tying back her dull, blond hair.
“Why we doing this story anyway?” Curly asked.
“Human interest,” she said.
“Don’t seem very interesting to me. Should be running in the police blotter when they cart this lady off to the pokey.”
Nicole agreed, but she tried to convince herself she didn’t. “It’s a positive story. Upbeat. Her kid’s a hero. That’s what she kept saying on the phone. My little hero.”
“Yeah, and her other kid’s a roast duck.”
“That’s…,” she began, but couldn’t think of anything else to say. After a long pause, she admitted, “Missy makes the assignments. I just go where she tells me.” Missy was the City Editor at The Domestic-Chronicle. She passed along the most annoying stories to all the cub reporters.
“Ain’t that the truth.” Curly took his foot off the gas. “Well, what do you know? We’re here.” He steered onto a dirt road heading through the corn. From there, the vegetation seemed to vanish, opening into a small, invisible city of scattershot mobile homes. A rusty green dumpster marked the entrance, its top propped up and broken bags of garbage overflowing. A swing set could be seen a few rows back. It had only one swing, the others missing from their ghostly dangling chains. “Pretty, ain’t it?”
The cub reporter ignored him. “We’re looking for number seventeen-A,” she said.
“Over there.” Curly pointed with his eyes toward a blue mobile home with a slanted aluminum roof. Its tires were stuck six inches deep in dried mud. A wooden plank had been tacked to the door. Burned into it were the words The Lacks, followed by 17A.
“That’s it, all right.”
“Some palace, huh?”
“Play nice,” she said.
Curly grunted what might have been a laugh or the sound of a wet fish sliding down his throat. “What happens in the photographer’s car stays in the photographer’s car.”
“Sure,” Nicole replied.
Curly turned onto the gravel driveway and parked behind an ancient black Monte Carlo ringed with a red racing stripe. Leaning back into his seat, he sighed as if he’d survived an ordeal. “Couple more years, I can retire,” he muttered.
Nicole ignored him, already halfway out of the vehicle.
Her mother was pushing forty when Nicole was born. A late pregnancy. An accident. Her mama never told her any different. That didn’t mean Eleanor Jenkins didn’t love her daughter. She did everything she could for Nicole, although it wasn’t much. She lived off government assistance in a simple silver trailer from the ‘70s. She’d spent her whole life in a podunk West Virginia town with the absurd name of Big Ugly. It wasn’t far from former coal camps or abandoned mines, along with the acid drainage that turned creeks the color of mangos. In eighteen years living in that same trailer, Nicole never felt the least bit unwanted. She sometimes didn’t have enough to eat, but her mama made sure she got the biggest portion of what there was—the main reason Eleanor weighed barely a hundred pounds in a winter coat.
Nicole spent a lot of time with her mama. The two often watched TV together in the evenings, and they played board games like Scrabble and Parcheesi on Saturday nights. Eleanor took her daughter crawdad hunting in the nearby creek—luckily not one of the orange ones so common in the area because of acid drainage from the mines. Then, once a month, she drove Nicole into Charleston just to look around, maybe stop at Walmart or, if she could afford it, spend a couple hours in a dark movie theater watching “smart flicks,” as she referred to films she enjoyed but didn’t always understand.
It was her mama who got Nicole interested in newspapers. Eleanor had a wry wit and would show her daughter stories from one of the two Charleston papers about people from their hometown. Big Ugly was such a bizarre name that, when plugged into AP style, it led to headlines like Big Ugly Man Shot in Logan Bar, or Big Ugly Man Found Dead on Railroad Tracks. Then there was Nicole’s personal favorite: Big Ugly Woman Arrested for Shoplifting Make-up. Whenever Nicole saw one of those headlines now, she grew nostalgic for her childhood, back before she knew any city folks, before she learned to be self-conscious of her accent or her clothes, before she forced herself to be somebody else.
Mrs. Lack, or perhaps Ms.—no father had been mentioned—opened the screen door and stepped out onto the tiny porch atop stairs handmade with two-by-fours. She didn’t look anything like Nicole’s mother, the young reporter thought, relieved. Ms. Lack had to weigh at least two-fifty, with rolling, sunburned cheeks and pale bulges spilling out from under the sides of her rust-brown tee shirt. She had freckles on her cracked face, and her reddish-orange hair was the color of spicy hotdog chili.
Another stereotype, Nicole thought, disgusted with herself. In her head, she could hear her first professor, Dr. Selvish from Journalism 101, saying, “If you see people as stereotypes, that’s what you’ll write. Sure, sometimes they’re true, but you gotta give’em a chance not to be.” She remembered him holding up his hands and stretching them out until they were the size of paper plates. “Take me, for example,” he’d said. “Six-foot-four, a size fourteen shoe, and fingers long enough to play a giant’s piano. I know what you’re thinking. Another stereotype. Part myth as many stereotypes are. But, how many of you would believe I have a little prick?” Half the room laughed, while the other half blushed in embarrassment. Nicole had been among the latter. Dr. Selvish made his point, though. She wouldn’t forget. Still, she thought, taking in the whole of Ms. Lack, I’d hate to be the photographer.
As if reading her thoughts, Curly leaned in close and whispered, “I guess I’m just getting a headshot.”
Ignoring him, Nicole spoke in a raised voice: “Mary Lack?”
“Hi,” came the reply, almost a shout.
“I’m Nicole Jenkins with The Domestic-Chronicle. We spoke on the phone. And this is Carl, one of our photographers.”
“Call me Curly,” said Curly.
“Yins got here early,” said Ms. Lack.
No matter how long she lived here, Nicole thought, she’d never get used to that twanging western Pennsylvania accent where folks sounded like they’d been huffing helium. “My apologies,” she said. “We were afraid we wouldn’t find the place.”
“Told you on the phone, first break in the cornfields. Well, yins can come on in. Want coffee or what?”
“No,” both said at once.
Nicole followed Ms. Lack into the trailer. What she saw as she came through the door was a living room not much bigger than two cubicles stuck together, a gold-fabric couch taking up a third of it. An old analog TV, probably a seventeen-inch, filled one corner, a cable box or HD converter on top looking like it could fall off at any moment. There was a small, plush off-white chair and an oval rug that matched because of stains. Through another doorway, Nicole saw a bedroom where the bed pushed up within inches of a chest of drawers, only the top two of which looked like they had enough room to open. How do they live like this? she thought. Then she bit her lip, remembering her own childhood and a trailer that wasn’t much bigger.
Nicole’s mother had waitress hands and a dishpan face. She hunched slightly when she walked as if she carried a heavy pack slung over her right shoulder. Nicole never noticed these traits until she moved away and came back. As a kid, she saw Eleanor as Mama and didn’t imagine things could’ve been different.
The two lived in a large park packed with parallel and perpendicular rows of trailers. From the air, it must have looked like a waffle iron. On hot nights, Nicole heard shouts from all directions as couples argued over money, the kids, infidelity, though she couldn’t tell which trailer the racket came from unless she stood right next to it. The following day, she often figured it out based on black eyes, scratch marks or the occasional broken arm. No one, of course, ever called the police.
Eleanor protected her daughter from the worst parts of trailer-park life. She told Nicole who the mean drunks were, and the suspected pedophiles. She pointed out which teens were selling hard drugs and intervened if one so much as said hello. But it was more than that. She wanted her daughter to be safe. She taught her about crossing the street and explained why Nicole shouldn’t run with scissors or play with matches. If Nicole got sick, Eleanor rushed her to the emergency room, even though she couldn’t afford it. Nicole knew her mama cared for her, loved her, kept her shielded from anything bad.
“This here’s my baby boy,” said Ms. Lack, “my little hero.” She squeezed both arms around her dirty-blond child who, in turn, wrapped his around a tan stuffed figure about two-thirds his size. “Say hello, Harry.”
Ms. Lack mussed his hair and smiled proudly.
The young reporter went down on one knee so she met the boy eye to eye. “Hi to you too, Harry. Is that your name? Harry?”
His mother said, “It’s Harold, but he hates that. Don’t you, Harry?”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Harry.”
The boy nodded and half-hid his face behind the thing in his arms that looked like a pillow made out of human skin.
While Curly began snapping pictures, Nicole rose and said, “Ms. Lack, what about your daughter?”
“Clare.” Nicole wrote that in her notebook as if it weren’t already there. “Where is she? Is she out of the…?”
“Yeah, she’s here. Just shy. Clare! Clare! Get your tail end out here!”
The four of them waited in silence until the girl came out through the bedroom door. She looked a lot like her brother, but with puffier cheeks. She wore a blue Batman tee shirt and denim shorts that showed off heavy bandaging on her left leg. Similar gauze and tape covered the back of her left hand and parts of the left side of her face up near the scalp where blondish hair had burned away. The rest of her head had been shaved military-style to even everything out.
Again, Curly took a few snapshots.
“This is my Clare,” said Ms. Lack. “I feel so awful for what happened. Yins just don’t know. But the doc says she’ll be all right.”
“Hello there,” said Nicole.
Clare didn’t reply.
“Those bandages sure look itchy.”
The girl nodded but said nothing.
Ms. Lack interjected, “She’s shy, all right. Always been like that.”
I wonder why, Nicole thought, looking around at the cave mouth of a living room, cluttered with cigarette lighters and ashtrays everywhere. In the floor was a plastic Coca Cola bottle half-filled with butts. A paring knife lay on the windowsill, and a pin cushion—orange and ladybug-shaped—loaded with pins on the arm of the couch. Despite the similarities, this place was so different than the one in which she grew up. And this woman, she was a living stereotype, a stock character in a bad movie.
Nicole pictured her mama smiling over a Parcheesi board or a newspaper headline and thought, Mama wasn’t a stereotype. Not like this. She knew her mama wouldn’t have invited so much danger. Then again, she thought, there was that time….
Eleanor returned from a morning spent among the great bazaar of yard sales, garage sales, sidewalk and church sales. Her arms were full of someone else’s castoffs. As she entered the trailer, she smiled at Nicole who’d spent hours lying on the couch and watching cartoons on TV. “Got you something, honey. Want to come take a look?”
Nicole—nine or maybe ten at the time—popped straight up like the Black Bart target at an old-west shooting gallery. The purple afghan she’d bundled around her fell to the floor in a heap. She had on a white tee shirt, baby blue shorts, and striped gray tube socks that went all the way to her thighs. “What’d you get me?” she said, standing in front of her mother and almost begging like a cocker spaniel.
Eleanor pushed past her and unloaded all of her fresh junk on the couch: plastic figurines of angels, a brass alarm clock, a couple tattered romance novels, a ratty white sweater, and a yellow box with a cartoonish picture on its front showing a happy family playing some sort of game in which the father had his arms up in the air. She reached for the box and handed it to Nicole.
“What is it, Mama?”
“Yard darts, baby. Just like my mama gave me when I was a little girl. The originals, too. I don’t even think they make’em anymore.”
Nicole said nothing. She stared down at the happy family and wondered if, as sometimes happened, her mama bought her something meant for boys.
Eleanor went on: “It’s a game, kind of like horseshoes. You put the plastic rings on the ground out in a nice soft, grassy spot. Then you toss the metal darts up in the air. They stick in the ground where they come down, and you’re trying to get all of them to land in the circles.”
“It’s a game?”
“Sure is. I used to have it when I was your age.”
“But we don’t have a yard, Mama.”
“There’s some grass over by the creek. I figure you can play there. Just watch out for copperheads and don’t fall in.”
Nicole did set the rings up, often at different distances, and dragged several boys along from the trailer park to join in the fun. How she loved watching those forearm-sized yellow missiles rocket through the air then arc back down like parachutists landing in the town square on Veteran’s Day. After that came the ch-thwuk of steel tips piercing the soft earth, the arrow bodies sticking straight up like sunflowers at noon. She loved that, too. Though she never really got the hang of the game or how to keep score, she played for hours at a time. She must have been at it for weeks before eleven-year-old Norman Jones, who was equal parts moron and mean-spirited brat, took one of the darts away from her and threw it straight enough up into the air that it came down on top of him even as he backed away. Nicole, too, stepped back so fast she tripped on her heel and fell to the ground like a tree. Her eyes never left Norman who was laughing when the dart’s heavy steel tip cracked him in the head. In her imagination, it stuck there, standing straight as if his head were so much mud. In reality, it bounced off, fracturing bone and knocking Norman out before she could hear him cry.
A few minutes later, sirens blared, and it seemed the whole trailer park emptied of people who now stood watching the excitement, many shaking their heads and mumbling about that stupid old broad, Eleanor Jenkins. When the paramedics carted Norman away on a stretcher, Nicole clung to her mama’s leg, trying to ignore all the mean things being said. She was sad for Norman, but sadder knowing there’d be no more games of yard darts.
It wasn’t until the ambulance pulled away that Nicole wondered what the headline would be in tomorrow’s paper. She thought it might read, Big Ugly Boy Injured in Tragic Yard Dart Accident, or else Big Ugly Boy Suffers Brain Damage. She kind of liked that. It made her smile when no one else was looking.
It took some coaxing from Ms. Lack, but eventually Harry demonstrated how he saved his four-year-old sister’s life. He did so using the pillow he never put down. When he turned it around, Nicole could see it wasn’t a pillow at all, but a stuffed doll with a caricature of the professional wrestler known as the Undertaker inked on the front. “Just like Undie-taker,” Harry said as he clotheslined the doll in the chest—how he’d seen it done so many times on television. Then, he dropped to the ground and rolled the doll over several times until the imaginary flames went out.
“My little hero,” said Ms. Lack, who by now held a Marlboro Red to her lips, sparked with one of the many disposable lighters in the room.
The thought of her daughter on fire must have reminded her she needed a fix, Nicole thought, then bit the inside of her lip. It was getting sore now, and she wanted to leave before she made it bleed. “I think we’ve got all we need here,” she said, surprising herself by slipping into her gurgling West Virginia drawl. “Thank you all for having us out here and telling your story.” She shook her head to clear away that old madness.
Curly snapped a last shot of the boy, and Ms. Lack said, “My little hero,” again.
While she walked away from the trailer, Nicole couldn’t get that phrase out of her head. My little hero. It rang, hollow and clunky, like a cowbell. My… It banged against a metal wall. …little… It whined and droned. …hero. It hummed like tinnitus in her ear.
“She was pretty proud of that boy,” Curly said, starting up the Blazer. “Her little hero.”
Unable to take it anymore, Nicole replied, “Didn’t say much about the daughter. Wonder what that makes her.”
“A sacrifice,” said Curly, “just in case Mommy has to choose.”
[check out Ace’s back porch wisdom here]