Outside the gates, Billy does not hesitate to hug me. Right in the entranceway to the Kiddieland Amusement Park, right in the middle of the gleaming black parking lot with God and the overweight parking lot attendant both watching, God, invisible, the attendant in his yellow uniform, riding his little motorized golf cart, who, seeing two grown men holding each other like this, turns up his eyes in a very suspicious look, there among the crowds and crowds of howling youngsters with melted candy on their hands and the worn-out parents arguing with each other about ever getting married, now fighting about how the husband may have or may not have flirted with the teenage ticket-taker, past them and the sparkling rows of blue and gray and green station wagons parked neat and distressed as a failing car dealership and, in the distance, looming, the enormous, grinning, pink head of everybody's favorite pink cartoon bunny, Lloyd the Rabbit, who is smiling a gigantic cartoon speech-bubble that says, Welcome to the Land of Happiness: Kids $8, Adults $15 , in front of all this and everybody, Billy grabs me around the neck, quickly, desperately. Another year has gone by and Billy is still as short as ever. His hair is dark and greasy; his eyes twitch nervously beneath his big black bifocal glasses, which are taped along one side of the frames. With his small face against my collar, I suddenly know I can't go on doing this anymore, I can't because, as it turns out, he is crying already.
Outside the gates, we get two adult passes. A teenage girl with a mild case of acne along her forehead, big doe eyes that make you just wish you were sixteen again and a nametag that reads “Shawna” stares at me curiously. When I tell Billy that I got it, that I'll pay for both tickets, he hugs me again. The ticket-taker asks, “How many kids?” and I say, “Just the two adults is all.” She snaps her blue bubblegum and hands me the two tickets, staring at my face as if she is memorizing it, thinking how she will describe it later to a very interested police sketch artist. He had a cut under one eye. And short brown hair. And a cunning sort of nose. And an extremely weak mouth. Then snap goes the bubblegum again. I take the tickets and whiz through the turnstile and Billy is still thanking me and all this time he has not stopped touching me, his hand on my shoulder, or his arm around my neck, or him ruffling my hair, and I take notice of this as we walk past a smiling, costumed, life-size Lloyd the Rabbit whose job it is to greet people and who comes close to hug me. I stick my arm out in a very defensive gesture, shoving the poor rabbit away. The rabbit, who is probably just some unlucky teenager, hops back, cowering behind his big pink mitts. Billy sees this all happen and whispers in my ear, hand on my shoulder again, “You've finally given up on all that meditation and anger management junk, haven't you?”
Our deal is this: on the last day of summer vacation, the one right before we both went into fourth grade, Billy and I got abducted by a man who lived two blocks away, in the last house, by the woods, right before Cherry Lane. The man drove up to the end of Billy's driveway where we were playing horse, and opened the back door of his beige and brown Dodge station wagon, then lifted out two, brand-new, twelve-inch Atom Man figures, the kind that had been sold out of the stores for weeks, one Blaine Bridges as news reporter that could be transformed into Atom Man and another, Blaine's robot bodyguard/butler/chauffeur, who was named Gort. Seeing the toys immediately made a small and envious wound in the center of my heart. The man motioned towards us with his long white hand, and Billy, being the way he was and never will be again, trusting , walked right on up to him, and I followed, the both of us staring. The man asked, “Do either of you fellas like Atom Man?” and Billy nodded his head yes, frantically, nervously. He pushed his tiny black-frame glasses up his nose and took a step closer. “Would either one of you like a free Atom Man?” and Billy nodded slower, pushing up his glasses once more and stepping closer again. I didn't move. I stared at the man and asked, “How come?”
The man frowned, then drew a small smile on his pink lips, and said, “Because today's your lucky day.”
“What can I say, kiddo? I work for the toy company. We want to know what your favorite toy is.”
“Well, it's the Blue Falcons. Atom Man's O.K., but do you got a Blue Falcon Fighting Squadron leader?“
“Nah, I don't think so.”
“We want to buy Blue Falcon, but everyone's sold out of him,” Billy said.
“Well, why don't you try these two out and see what you think?”
“If we wait and don't take anything now, can you bring us a Blue Falcon later?” I asked.
“Why not take these now and I can come back with the other ones, how's that?”
“So we get both then? Because I'd rather just wait if we only get one,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “You can get both. Just come and take these now.”
“Nah, I'll just wait, I guess,” I said.
“Yeah, I'll wait, too,” Billy said.
“Look, there's a heap of toys in the back here. Why don't you just pick one out and I'll bring you whatever you want later? O.K. How's that? Just pick one out,” and before I could say anything, Billy had already climbed into the backseat. When the man reached around and grabbed Billy by his neck, shoving him inside, all Billy said was, “Hey mister, you just broke my glasses.”
Here's one for you then: the woman I'm in love with, who is not the woman I married, lives in the apartment upstairs, with a nice enough guy named Larry whose only crime in the world was to move into the Royal Arcade apartment building where I happened to be living. Larry works nights as a shift manager at Dinky Donut down the street. There are powdered sugar footprints everywhere in their place and always a few dozen miniature glazed donuts sitting in a bowl on the fridge. I eat them and wonder if Larry might have any idea what his wife and I do while he's away. The woman, his wife, her name is Jean and she is a veterinarian and she often misplaces her glasses. Sometimes I steal them so she'll have a reason to come downstairs and visit me. Her husband thinks she and I are on a bowling team. Really, though, we will sit on my sofa and hold hands and stare out the window and pretend that we did not make major mistakes in our lives and that instead of her and Larry, it is her and me that are married. In bed, I say, “Are you a good wife or a bad wife?” and sometimes, she'll slide an imaginary ring over my finger. In the middle of all that, sometimes, though, I just feel a kind of hole open up and I know somewhere something terrible is happening to somebody.
At the top of Splash-A-Way Mountain, which is fake blue water and fake molded brown rocks and, yet, still very peaceful, still very serene, I am buckled into a foamy black seat, a restraining bar locked across my chest. When Billy turns to me, worried, a long-look on his small face, he says, “I'm getting divorced again. Yep. Number two, just like that. What a surprise, right? Sure, right down the goddamn tubes.” His glasses are already wet with water. His face is sweaty. It does not seem that he ever stops crying.
“Yeah? Divorced? Billy, that's too bad. Well, welcome to the club,” I say, not surprised so much as sad that this marriage has not worked out either.
“I've pretty much given up. I've pretty much given up on everything,” he says and then we crest over the rapids and Billy is crying again and then everything is silenced by our falling.
Our dream is the thing that haunts me. In the basement where we were kept for four days, where the floor was covered in plain brown and black dirt because the man had torn through the concrete of the foundation of his house and had dug five small graves, two of which were already filled and one which was larger than the rest, just his size, in that basement, where the only light was from a yellow-caged utility light, the kind you might find carpenters using, left planted along the ground like a brilliant, glowing flower, Billy and I sat back to back, duct-taped together, our hands, our knees, our feet, our necks, stuck, only the last two of my fingers managing to push though, touching the dirt, which was wet almost, the feeling of the dirt being the only feeling of comfort I could find because Billy cried for four days straight, the mucus high and full in his voice, whining about my broken glasses, my broken glasses , because we were allowed to talk, and we were told we would live as long as we were quiet. By the second day, though, I was sure we were going to die, because I could see fine and I was the one sitting facing the open graves, and already the man had placed my shoes and Billy's broken glasses inside two separate holes and he would lumber past us as if we were ghosts already and continue his digging. When he was in some other part of the house, and the room was filled with the familiar sound of crickets outside and police sirens and kids in the night playing, Billy began praying, promising to do better, to stop fooling around at school, to pay attention in church, to not break his glasses anymore, to stop walking in on his older sister, accidentally on purpose I guess. By the third day, both of us began swearing up a storm because no one was there to stop us, and we made retarded combinations of swearwords. Eventually we wet our pants and ruined the ground around us with the smell of our own waste. And then, soon enough, came Billy's dream, and it was this dream that still haunted me: We would be saved somehow, and we would go to the Kiddieland Amusement Park every weekend and they would let us ride all the rides for free and maybe even close down the park just for us, because when some little girl fell down a well in the town over from ours, that's what they did for her when she got out. Also Billy was going to eat candy for a week, morning, noon and night, nothing but candy, mostly chocolate salt-water taffy, and go to Toytown and pick out whatever he wanted, and then he was going to throw a brick through Mr. Altamont's front window for backing over Billy's new BMX race bike, which had been named The Viper and which Mr. Altamont had backed over on purpose because Billy had been warned and we both saw it as it happened and Mr. Altamont had definitely been smiling.
“So you're not going to call him back?” Jean asks as we are lying in bed and the two of us are smoking. According to Jean, this is the only time it is O.K. for us to smoke, so we do, sharing a cigarette, which I smoke most of anyway. I like that she worries about me smoking. My ex-wife would watch me smoke cigarette after cigarette and sigh, then turn back to the TV.
“I don't think I want to see him this year.” I turn over and Jean lopes her bare leg over me. Beneath the white sheet, she pinches my side and moves her hand along my chest.
“You should at least call him back.”
“I just don't want to talk to him,” I say, and she gently begins scratching her fingers through the back of my hair.
“Maybe he just wants to talk. He needs somebody to talk with,” and immediately I see Jean, twelve, blonde hair in pig-tails, holding two scrawny, denuded, pink baby birds in a pouch she has made by lifting up the ends of her shirt, as she nuzzles them against her chest. “Maybe he's just lonely.”
“I'll call him, I'll call him,” I say and she says, “You're so good, you're such a good husband,” and she is kissing me, and she is soft all over and we're going to do what a man and wife would do but I will not enjoy it because I am thinking now. I am thinking that out of all the promises I have ever made, like my own lousy, failed marriage, like promising to pay money back to my dad which he loaned me for college but which I blew on a piece of crap Camaro, all the hundreds of promises between God and me, and maybe that one, the one between me and Billy is the only one I ever thought I'd be able to keep, and still here I am, kissing someone else's wife and telling her that I'll call and all the time I know it. I'm lying.
We made it once a month for the first year. The owners of Kiddieland, who at the time were suffering a very terrible loss due to the new Rocket Falls Waterslide Park that had opened just down the street, saw Billy and me as a great source of publicity, and the first Saturday of every month, between twelve and one, the park closed and Billy and I got to ride whatever rides we wanted for free. Mostly it was on the worker's lunch break, and some heavy with keys followed us around and operated the rides we wanted to go on, and he stood there bored and smoking and wondering what two scrawny white kids ever did to be treated so special, but, of course he knew because everybody who worked there for a few weeks or so knew. We were given all the cotton-candy we could eat and special laminated, gold passes which we flashed to the ticket taker at the gate, with our names written in calligraphy and which include the words, “ Members for life, in perpetuity, ” and once Billy vomited for an hour after riding the Hurricane five times straight, and another time I drank so much soda I could not stop laughing for anything. That was until new owners, Serbians, bought the place, and one Saturday when we flashed our gold passes, they were taken away and a man with a heavy black mustache tried to explain the situation, and by then we were getting older, thinking about boning girls, stuff like that and, well, it went from once a month to every few then to once a year. But Billy wouldn't let it go past that. Once a year he'd call me up, persistent, in high school, college, even when he moved out of state. He got a job as a teacher for a while, got fired, got work as an office manager, but no matter what he always remembered to call. We usually went on the first weekend of August. We had only missed one year, the year my mom died, which happened right around that time, but Billy showed up for the funeral and patted me on the back and in the middle of the wake or wherever it was, said something like, “We'll go there twice next year.”
At the intersection of Soda-Pop-Town and Hot Dog Junction, where surly teenagers in pink rabbit visors serve us jumbo, rabbit-head-shaped onion rings, I try to tell Billy I don't want to do this again. I try to tell him I'm too old and the past is just the past and I need to move on and maybe it's harmful, psychologically you know, that I haven't wanted to come in years and I can't do it anymore. But all that comes out is, “That new Typhoon coaster is something, huh? Man, these kids don't know how good they got it. Whew.”
“Man, we would'a rode that coaster all summer, you know? Remember that old wooden one, the Wild Bull? Now that was a coaster. I thought for sure, when I came over that hill, and it turned, man, I was sure I was gonna fly out each time. Wow. There's a lot of memories here. A lot of memories.”
“Sure,” I say. “Sure.”
“I mean this is the only place where everything's good for me, you know?”
“Sure, I do, sure,” I say and it's at that exact moment, with him dipping his big rabbit-head onion ring in a pile of my ketchup, with the cackle of kids being spun around the roller coaster track at a million miles an hour behind me, that I know I won't ever be coming back again.
In the photo they gave the police psychic who finally found us, it is Halloween and I am six and Billy is five and we are both sitting in a red metal wagon. I am dressed up as a lion and already eating some of my candy. Billy is a cowboy, and like usual he is crying. The way my mom tells it, the psychic held the photo in her two hands, then placed it against her heart and said, “This one, this little cowboy is very sad,” and then Billy's mom let out a howl followed by a series of hand-wringing sobs. The psychic then held the photo to her forehead and said, “They are near an amusement park. They are near a place with roller coasters.”
“Are they still both alive?” my mother asked.
“For now,” the psychic said. “But I see them in darkness. Covered in dirt. Hurry, you must hurry.” For two more days, they searched around the nearest amusement parks, carnivals, even the video arcade, all in vain. On the fourth night, my mother woke up to the telephone ringing and screamed through the dark for it to: Please God, keep ringing .
“I have found your son,” a strange voice announced.
“Who is this?” my mother howled.
“Greta, the police psychic.”
“Where? Where is he?” my mother asked.
“He keeps on crying. I keep hearing it. When I was sleeping, in the shower, at the grocery store. So I drove around until it got louder. I can show you the house. It's over on Cherry. By the woods.”
“Oh my God, my God… please, please show me,” my mother whispered.
“First of all, your kid is the one who cries all the time, right? I called you first because, well, I hate to say it, but I think the other one is dead.”
Of course, as I am trying to think of the words to tell Billy that I am not going to meet him again next year, there is an argument that happens among the happy brightly colored aisles of Toytown, which goes exactly like this:
Billy: Do you have twenty bucks I can borrow?
Me: Yeah. What for?
Billy: This kid, the clerk behind the counter, says he knows where I can get some blow.
Me: Blow? You mean, like cocaine?
Billy: Yeah. Yeah. He says he knows somebody.
Me: Yeah, Bill, I don't think that's what you need right now.
Billy: Yeah, maybe not, but what the heck. Can you spot me?
Me: Not for that.
Billy: O.K., how about ten, then?
Me: That's not the point.
Billy: How'd it come out that you are all hunky-dory and my life is total garbage?
And then, like you might expect, he starts in crying.
Billy: I don't want to be alive anymore, Georgie.
Me: Don't say that kind of stuff, man. It'll be O.K., it'll be all right.
Billy: You know what? That's what you said last year. You don't even believe what you say, man.
Me: I believe it. But you gotta believe it, too, man.
Billy: You can't tell me you believe it, man. You can't tell me you believe it…
And he lets out a heavy sob, shaking his head and moaning.
Me: Here, Billy, take a deep breath. Hand me your glasses and wipe your face, man.
And he does, handing the dirty black frames over, and I am in awe and terror realizing they are the same exact worn-out ones from when we were kids .
At The Fudgepot, after a dozen or so gobs of chocolate and marshmallow dipped in milky fondue, I go and call Jean. Billy has run to the bathroom, warning me that he might need a couple minutes in there. “Colon trouble,” he laughs. “I need to go see a specialist or something while I'm still on the wife's insurance.”
I dial Jean's number and when Larry answers, I just cough.
“Yeah, Larry. This is George. From downstairs. Is um, Jean in?”
“Yeah, man. You guys have bowling tonight?”
“No. We were going to scrimmage another team from the alley, but I had this date with this girl. You know how it is.”
“Sure, pal. Give her a squeeze for me. Hang on.” He mumbles something else then hands the phone to Jean. “So did you tell him yet?” Jean asks right away.
“See. That's good. Deep down you know how much he needs you.”
“No, that wasn't it. He just started telling me about his divorce and well, I dunno.”
“He's getting divorced?” she asks, the tenderness becoming soft, so soft in her voice. At that moment, I want to be anywhere, anywhere but where I am, far away with Jean in a new life, with a job that doesn't involve me smiling behind a customer service desk in a stupid red vest, and listening to the creaking upstairs wondering if Jean and Larry are kissing or worse, I want to be on another planet and not who I am, but I don't say any of this. I just go: “Jean, I don't got nothing good but you. And you aren't even mine really.”
There is silence for a while and then she says, “I gotta go. Stop by later. And say hi to your friend for me.”
Outside Mr. Altamont's house, we sit and smoke in my car. The blue light from Mr. Altamont's TV flickers on the big front window, still perfectly intact. We chicken out most times. One year, when we were teenagers I guess, Billy threw a brick and broke a blue ceramic window planter, missing the window completely. A few years ago, when he got fired from his job teaching, he walked right up the Altamont's porch and tossed a tire iron at it as hard as he could and busted the hell out of it, but no one did anything. Mrs. Altamont had had a stroke the week before and Mr. Altamont was sitting beside her in the hospital, and the two of us just stared at the broken glass and then walked back to the car quietly.
In the dark, no one is saying anything, and I think of Jean and maybe Billy is crying again, so I say, “Man, I gotta tell you. I can't even blame it. I can't blame it on what happened anymore.” I blurt it out suddenly. I cough up some smoke and my eyes water from it.
“Yeah, me, either, I guess,” he says. I look over at him, then at the window.
“Sometimes I get the feeling I just want to forget it, you know.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“Like maybe I should be thankful, you know. Thankful I'm halfway O.K..”
I look at the window again. “So maybe not this year, huh, Billy?”
“Maybe not, man.”
“So,” I say.
“So.” There is silence then, and Billy is never silent, and I get nervous and so I blurt out: “Well, so, you want to go meet the lady I'm in love with?”
“O.K. Yeah,” he says.
“She's married to this other dude, but you know, well, what the heck.”
“What the heck is right," he says. “You gotta take what you can get.”For no real reason, then, as I pull the crappy blue Ford away, I turn on the radio. “Teenage Wasteland” by The Who is on, BAWWW—BOWWW—BAWWW, and I turn it up and I start doing the air-guitar parts, real big, singing along, and Billy is crying to himself, but smiling, and I just start honking like crazy.