My grandparents lived in a working-class section on the south side of Milwaukee that had begun to degrade slowly by the time I moved there when I was a child. When my mother lived there as a kid, this was a factory neighborhood. But things had slowly broken down, factories shut down and the neighborhood began to fester.
My grandparents moved to Missouri and left the house to us with a low rent and an agreement that we would fix anything that broke.
The house was drafty but big. It had mice and was a bit run down, but it was a solid home for our family. A place to set your back to. And we lived there for a few years in abject poverty and fear.
It was the kind of fear only the poor can experience. The fear of the next drop. Will the fridge go out? If it does, then we have no money to fix it. We have no one we can borrow from. We have no one we can call on. Will Dad get sick? If he does and he is out of work for a week, his paycheck will be light and we won’t have food. It is a kind of quiet panic that slowly settles over a house. A kind of horror that lives in every flicker of the lights. Did we pay the bill? It lives in every turn of the car key. Will it start today?
I went to school, I did my chores, I cooked dinner, and I tried to watch as much Thundercats as I could. I had a few friends I could count on, and that day I was with one of those. He had come over to my house, had crossed the city to visit me for the night.
He was a good kid. Smart and funny. Bright and happy. He laughed at my jokes, he shared his lunch with me at school, and our friendship was shattered that day when we went to the park.
It was a big city park that went on for about a square mile. I knew the park well. I had played on the swings and the slides as a young boy visiting my grandparents. I had watched fireworks on the Fourth of July in that park, sitting on a blanket by the lake with my family members. My uncles played basketball on the courts of that park all of their childhoods. It had hiking trails and gardens. It was Mitchell Park, a place known to me, a safe place.
My friend and I swung for a while. We walked the avenues and threw rocks in the lake. We picked up sticks and pretended they were swords, watched the Hispanic kids play basketball, and he even bought me an ice cream sandwich. We walked to the far end of the park where the Domes stood tall and bold over the city and we laughed.
Of all the things about that day I remember, the laughing haunts me the most. We were happy, and I was thinking about naming him my best friend. Serious business when you are nine. We saw a rabbit and chased it. We wanted to catch it and pet it. We wanted to see if we could feed it some grass. We wanted to play with it for a while before letting it go back to its life and we to ours.
But that kind of joy is fast. Rabbits are quicker than the devil. Within a few minutes we were exhausted, and the rabbit disappeared like a whisper in the wind.
We heard laughing. It was right around the corner and we went to see what it was.
Teenagers. There was, at that point in my life, nothing more impressive than a teenager, and these were a smiley bunch. They looked wholesome. Shining and bright. With clean clothes, preppy shirts. Their jeans were a startling color of blue, and I remember how white their shoes were, with the exception of the sides of one vivid sole that had stepped in dog shit.
They looked up at me and my friend and smiled. Dogshit shot a look at the other two and they broke off. They walked around the corner, looked around for a minute as if checking to see if any grownups were around. Then they came back. They nodded.
“We had better go,” I said to my friend. To this day I cannot remember his name. I was scared now. This was not right. This was bad. The city kid in me told me they had just checked to see if we were alone.
“You guys look cool,” Dogshit said. “How old are you?” He was the leader, because now that I was looking at them, I could tell that was exactly what he was. This was a hard crew, a group of deviants who needed darkness, and this guy could give it to them.
“I’m ten and he is nine,” my friend said. He had no sign of fear in his voice, had no shred of knowledge of what we had walked in to.
“Nine and ten. Those are good ages. I bet you are a rowdy bunch, aren’t you? I bet you can yell real loud,” Dogshit said. I remember he had perfect teeth. Had lurid blue eyes, and there was something broken in him. A part of his mind had tumbled loose. “Can you yell real loud for me?”
The other two guys were moving around behind us. I turned to look at one of them and the leader yelled.
“Hey, fucker! Look at me,” Dogshit snapped. “I’m the one talking to you.”
I turned around and heard my friend make a bit of a whine. It was a kind of bark. A sound made by the young, by the timid. It was a short snap of fear that escaped his lips, and I looked into his eyes to see panic. He was breathing heavy as if he had been sprinting. And when his fear got a hold of him and squeezed mercilessly, he broke out in a run.
The boy behind him snatched him up and held him by one arm and his throat.
“I bet you boys can yell real loud, can’t you?” Dogshit said. His teeth snapped closed as if he tried to bite into something but it was just out of reach. “Can you do me a favor?” He winked at me as if I was in on a joke he was telling, and I was instantly relieved.
Maybe he was just going to hurt my friend. Maybe I would be okay. I smiled at him and nodded. I thought that was what he wanted. I thought we were somehow on the same team.
His eyes sparked fire and he bent as if to pick something up. But he was winding up. He was pulling his hand way back, and when his flat hand slapped against my face, I was instantly knocked down. My face burned, my cheek seemed swollen and hot, and I stayed there cowering on the ground.
“Let’s see how loud you boys can yell.” He raised his hands as if conducting an orchestra and he smiled. “Begin,” he said, slapping his hands together.
I screamed. My friend screamed. We yelled for help, we called for our moms, we wept and we shouted. The wind picked up every bit of our fear and wailing and took it off to somewhere else. For the wind was teaching us a lesson in cruelty that day. It would not help. It would not carry our cry to a pure soul. The wind was an instrument of the dark.
Dogshit put his finger to his mouth. “Shh.” He looked up at his thugs. “Did you hear something?”
I prayed that they had. I prayed they had heard someone coming. A man or a woman. A cop would be best, but I would take anything, a group of kids, a hobo, at that moment any kind of help would be accepted. But the wind was cruel.
“Nope,” Dogshit said. “Not a thing. No one heard you. We are going to have to find a way to make you scream even louder.”
They spat on us. They beat on us. They took sticks and one of them tried his best to break my leg. When he couldn’t he beat me harder. They made me and my friend fight each other. Then they made us kiss. They tossed my friend to the ground and pissed on him, and they would have done the same to me if they had any piss left.
Every now and then they would stop long enough to let us scream for help.
Dogshit looked at the other two and grinned. He looked as if he had lost his mind. As if he had reached a level of insanity reserved for howling lunatics when he said, “Do you guys want to fuck ’em?”
The other boys looked at us and thought about it. I wanted to beg no, wanted to promise them money or anything. At that moment I would have brought them the keys to my parents’ car. But in the end, the boys just shrugged.
The thugs turned away as Dogshit looked at us and smiled. “Guess we are done here. You guys were good sports. We had a lot of fun.” He pointed at us both and grinned. “You guys did too, right?”
“What?” I stammered.
“You guys had fun, too, right?” Dogshit said.
“One of you at a time can come back if you want to, but if we ever see you two together in this park again we are going to fuck you both.” He smiled and left. He just disappeared around the corner.
When we got back to my house, my friend took a shower, sobbing as the water ran. When his shower was done he called his mom. He sat on my porch until his mom pulled up, then he ran to her car and was gone. I never saw my friend again. I don’t remember his name. I can’t remember anything about him except the way he looked when he was crying.
I hope he never saw that kind of evil again. I hope he lives a life of peace and never thinks about any of this ever again. And he might. He might have driven it from his mind and never visited that park in his mind ever again.
I never went back to that park. I won’t go there to this day. I put that day away and have not ever gone back until tonight. Until this blog on this day. When I remembered this story, I needed to write it down. When I remembered this story, I needed to tell you all about the friend I lost. And about the cruelty of the wind.