“Ray, tell me a story.”
That’s what the child says. He’s got dark hair, brown, but so dark that it almost looks black. His eyes are about the same color. Bad haircut, definitely a done-at-home kind of thing. He’s wearing a yellow shirt with green writing on it, but I can’t tell what it says because most of the writing has erased from too many washings. Faded jeans that are a little too big for him.
We’re in Union Square park, the east side of it: I’m sitting on a bench, he’s standing there in front of me. It’s a real place, but this isn’t real. A make-believe child in a make-believe world, I don’t even know who this kid is.
“I don’t feel like telling a story right now. Go find your mom or something.”
“Nah, she’s no fun.”
“And why is that?”
“She cries all the time. She doesn’t like me to see her cry.”
“What’s she crying about?”
“Beats me. If you saw your mom crying, would you want to know why?”
“Maybe,” he says, looking at a couple of pigeons. It must be mating season, because the male bird is walking around with his neck all puffed up, following the female all over, strutting and what not. The male looks like a complete asshole, but whatever. The kid, he looks like maybe he wants to chase the birds away, or maybe kick them, but he doesn’t move. Instead, he says, “Maybe you would. I’m only ten, though, and anything that makes my mom cry, it’s not something I want to deal with. Grown-up stuff.”
“Yeah.” I feel like I should recognize this kid from somewhere, but I don’t. I wish he would go away, leave me alone.
“So tell me a story,” he says, looking away from the birds and back at me.
“Any story I tell you, it’s just going to be that grown-up crap. You don’t want to hear my stories.”
He climbs up on the bench next to me. Sits there in silence, and I know that he’s waiting for me to tell him a story. I can’t think of any stories, and I tell him so.
“Just go,” he says.
“I had this dream the other night, it was sort of weird. There was this big thing, this charity carnival or something. You know what that is?”
“Like a regular carnival, but all the money goes to charity.”
“Yeah. The weird thing is, it’s at my job. Like it’s all inside the building where I work. And all the stuff—dart throws, that game where you toss the ring around the bottle, that thing where it you hit the bull’s-eye it drops the guy into the water-“
“Yeah, I guess. All of that stuff is being run by the people I work with. I don’t know what I was doing there. I was just sort of walking around, kind of embarrassed because my shirt was all dirty and there was a big hole in my pants where you could see my underwear.”
“Yeah. And then one of my bosses comes over and says, we need you to count up all the money at the end of the night, we need you to close the cash office. And because it’s all charity money, we have to do something all crazy and different in the computer system, and I don’t know how to do it.
“And suddenly, I’m in the cash office, I’m surrounded by all kinds of paperwork that I’m supposed to know what to do with, but I have no idea what’s going on. There are stacks of money everywhere, all mixed together, and I’m supposed to sort it all out by the booth.”
“Like, if the dart throw made three hundred dollars, I’m supposed to type that into the computer a certain way.”
“But you don’t know what booth made what because it’s all mixed up.”
“Exactly. And my boss is supposed to come in and tell me what to do, but she’s nowhere around, and all the lights in the store are turned off, and I’m stuck in there, all by myself, surrounded by all this crap that doesn’t make any sense.”
“I would just leave.”
“I couldn’t. I was locked in. But then the door opens, and this girl walks in.” I briefly debate whether I should tell the kid the details of this part, and decide to go ahead. He’s not my kid, and if his mother didn’t want him hearing this kind of thing, she shouldn’t let him run wild in New York City, talking to strangers and stuff.
“She’s all cold and wet, like she just walked in from a rain storm—the cold kind like in the winter.”
“Yeah, I know that kind of rain.”
“Yeah. And she’s got this little shirt on—you know those shirts they call wife-beaters?”
He looks at the pigeons again, and this time, I know he wants to go kick at least one of them. And it’s not the female. “Yeah, I know ‘em. Tank tops.”
“Yeah. She’s wearing a tank top , and you can see pretty much everything underneath, because it’s a white shirt and it’s all wet, plus she’s cold. The only other thing she’s wearing are those boxer shorts they make for chicks. Boxer briefs, or whatever they’re called. White, with little blue flowers on them.”
“Who was she?”
“Man, I don’t know. I never saw her before in my life. But in the dream, I did know her, and I knew that she worked there. She goes, ‘God, I’m so cold. The water in that tank was below freezing.’”
“If she was dressed in only a tank top and underwear, I bet the water was cold on purpose.” Smart kid.
“Yeah, probably. So she sits down, she’s all shivering, and I feel like I should do something to warm her up, but I don’t have a blanket or anything.”
“Oh, man, is this gonna be like one of those, ‘So I knew I had to use my body heat’ kind of things? Because I can hear stuff like that from anyone in this park.”
“No, actually. But I can tell she wants it to be one of those kinds of things. But I’m too freaking out about how am I going to get home before one in the morning, how am I going to get home to my girl. Stuff like that. So I just tell her something like, yep, it looked pretty cold, whatever. I don’t even look in her direction again, except when I’m trying to find a certain receipt or whatever. This goes on for hours.”
“She’s just sitting there shivering and you’re looking for receipts? That’s it?”
“Yeah. I mean, she makes an occasional comment about how she feels like the charity fair went off pretty good this year and I’ll mumble something. Or I’ll start cussing about how I’m missing something really vital. I just want to get everything closed out so that I can go home.”
“And then she moves, she comes over and sits on the counter right in front of me.”
“Yeah. Like with one leg on either side of me, just sitting there.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing, man. It was like she wasn’t even there. I mean, I knew she was there, but I was so ate up with shutting the place down that I didn’t even pay attention to her.”
“Was she good looking?”
“And you were just ignoring her?”
“Well, I was trying to be nice, making some random attempt at conversation once in a while, but it was like I was totally obsessed with getting everything straightened out, getting everything closed so that I could just go home…”
“And your girl was waiting for you? At home?”
“So were you maybe ignoring this other girl because you didn’t want to cheat?”
“Man, cheating wasn’t even a part of it. To be honest, I’m not too sure my girl waiting at home was even a part of it. I just had to get away, you know? I needed out of there, and they wouldn’t let me out until everything was done.”
“How did the girl get in, if the door was locked?”
“Beats me, man. It was a dream. You know how things are in dreams.”
“So she’s sitting there, talking and whatever, and I’m just finishing up, I want out of there so bad that I’m about to have a panic attack. And then this girl, she starts rubbing my leg.”
“Oh man, is right. Not down by the knee, either.”
“What’d you do?”
“I tried to ignore it. But after a while, I just couldn’t. I stand up real fast and tell her, well, it was good talking to you, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, something like that. Trying to get her to leave. But she goes, ‘I can’t leave, yet.’ I ask her why not. ‘You’ve got your close-out, and I’ve got mine,’ she says.”
“What does that mean?”
“That’s what I said. And she touches my face, all soft and sexy, and she goes, ‘They won’t let me out. Not until…’ And that’s it.”
“Seems like that should be enough,” the kid says.
“Maybe. But it wasn’t. I ask, ‘Until what?’ And she goes, ‘You have to kiss me, or neither one of us get out of here.’”
“And you believed her?’
“Yeah, man. Because I had been doing the paperwork for hours, but nothing was getting finished. And because…well, just because.”
“I don’t know, man. In the dream, I remember thinking that there’s a part of me that they can never touch, that they can never pollute or corrode or destroy. And that’s my love, the real world that waits for me at home. But here they were, ruining that, too. It made sense, in the dream.”
“Hm. So did you kiss her?”
“What do you think?” I ask him. I’m not being sarcastic or acidic, I’m just wondering if he thinks I kissed her or not.
“I would like to say that you stuck to your principles, that you told her no, got the paperwork done, and went home to your princess. But I know you a little bit better than that, I guess. I think you kissed her.”
“How do you know me a little better than that? How do you know me at all?”
“Did you kiss her?”
“Yeah, I kissed her. And there was rice in her mouth.”
“Rice. All in her mouth.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t maggots or something? A lot of times in movies, it’s maggots.”
“Nope. I’m positive—rice. Uncooked white rice, a mouth full of it. And it got all in my mouth, and no matter how much I spit, I couldn’t get it all out.”
“I wonder why rice. Then what happened? Did they let you out?”
“Nope. My manager came in and gave me a few more receipts, and then they both left. I ended up finishing the paperwork a couple of hours later, and then I went home. I couldn’t even kiss my girl, though, because I still had rice in my mouth.”
“What did you do when you got home?”
“I don’t know. That was it, that was where the dream ended.”
“Yeah.” I’m thinking about something else, though. I’m thinking about where I had seen this kid before.
“What do you think it all means?”
“Kid, I don’t know. Means I think about my job too much, means I don’t care for rice, don’t want to cheat on my girl. Maybe it just means that I have some weird-ass dreams. I don’t know.”
That shirt, I’ve seen it before, I’ve seen it when it still had all the words on it. But where?
“I think maybe you need to evaluate your life a little, get your priorities straight. Maybe then you won’t be mad all the time.”
That mad thing, that hits on a nerve. Because I’ve been losing my temper a lot lately, for stupid reasons. It pisses me off that the kid brought it up, even. Pisses me off and makes me feel more than a little ashamed.
“Maybe you should ask your mom why she cries all the time,” I say, wanting to make this kid feel as bad as I do, and knowing that this will do the trick.
He just looks up at me, and I can see there are tears in his eyes, but they haven’t spilled over. He’s too angry to let them spill over. Hurt and angry. “I don’t need to ask her. I know.”
I feel my eyes burning with tears, too, but for the life of me, I don’t know why I feel like crying. I’m afraid to blink, because if I do, the tears escape, and then the kid wins. “Why’s that?” I ask.
“Because she knows what I’ll grow up to be.” He stands up and looks at me. In those dark brown eyes, I see pure hatred, and I wonder for a second what I did to the kid to make him hate me like that. Then I remember where I’ve seen the shirt before. At a county fair, about twenty years ago.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
He looks right into my eyes, and he says, “Fuck you.”
I grab him by the shoulders. “What’s your name?” He doesn’t answer, just stares at me with proud hatred and disappointment. I start shaking him, and I feel the tears fall from my eyes. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m screaming at him to tell me his name, the other people in the park are starting to notice, but none of it matters. The only thing that matters is to find out who this kid is.
The shirt, if it wasn’t all worn out, it would say something like “Westhook County Fair” on it, and there would be a picture of a pig eating cotton candy. I’m shaking him so hard that it seems like his neck will snap, but I don’t care. “What’s you’re name, what’s your name, what’s your name?” I’m screaming it at him, over and over, and he won’t answer. People are running towards us, I only have a few more seconds to get the answer that I need. I look like a maniac, I know, but nothing matters. The world is only me and this boy, and really the world is only about knowing who he is.
He doesn’t tell me anything.
I throw him to the ground, ready to kick him, if I have to, because I have to know who he is. And that’s my mistake. He hits the ground, there are sounds of bones snapping, but I’ve lost my grip on him. Broken bones or not, the kid is up in a flash, and running. I don’t even try to chase him, because he’s gone already, lost in the city.
That shirt. Already, the memory is fading, unconfirmed. That shirt, though.
I won a shirt just like that, once, at the dart-throw booth.