So, that’s what it feels like to pretend, he thought, as he laid in bed staring at the water-stained ceiling, trying to fall asleep for what felt like the millionth time in his fifteen years of living. It had been a normal day. It had been a rough day. In Abel McIntyre Junior’s family, there was no difference. In his family, in the trailer park with the neighbors that surrounded him like ghouls from a house of horrors, the best days for him would likely kill any other kid, he always thought.
Abel knew how other kids lived, and it wasn’t like him. He could see their houses on the soft, rounded hills across the Mystic River through the loose glass slats of the crank-open windows in his tiny wood-paneled bedroom. They had yards with grass and swing sets in them where children played all summer, and mounds of colorful flowers that gleamed in the most carefree way from mid-spring to mid-autumn. Even in the winter when those same hills were just grey mounds spiked with the craggy skeletons of oaks and maples, the houses glowed golden and warmly, twinkling on the coldest of days when there was ice in the air and the river looked as if it was frozen solid.
They lived in actual houses, and those houses they lived in didn’t have wheels under them. This fact alone seemed to provide those kids with some sense of permanence and security that Abel never knew. This fact alone, Abel sometimes caught himself believing, raised them up above him and his ever-toiling Ma, Ethel, and drunkard Da, Abel Senior, and their house with the wheels underneath it just in case they needed to make a run for it again.
“Pretending,” his mother always said “is much better than reality.” For Abel, there was always a certain disconnect between that mantra of hers and how he thought he lived his life. He never thought what he was doing was pretend, it felt more like protection. It was what he did to make do as the poor kid who lived in the trailer park that was essentially used as a halfway-housing complex for the underfunded and understaffed loony bin on the edge of this otherwise rich white town. For Abel, it was survival.
* * *
“Don’t you ever change your pants?” taunted Fred, the super-popular star of the soccer team at school. “I can smell those filthy things from here.” The reality of it was, Abel rarely did change his pants. In fact, he only owned three pairs; one for every day, one for Sunday, and one for the rare occasion when Ethel would sneak their dirty laundry into the laundry room of the loony bin where she and her sorry excuse for a husband, Abel Sr., worked.
Abel always loved laundry day. He relished the brief moment when the few clothes he had were stiff and crisp and smelled like the industrial detergent they used to kill off every biting, burrowing, stinging, blood-sucking creepy-crawly he imagined inhabiting the flesh of all those crazies where his parents worked. Every time he slipped into a clean pair of trousers or a fresh shirt he felt, if only for a second, reborn.
Abel could feel his face redden as he froze from a sickening mix of anger, humiliation and disenchantment. He’d been caught out again. He’d been targeted by yet another wicked prick who had nothing better to do than pick on the one kid in school who did everything in his power to be invisible to all those around him. Abel always kept quiet. He always kept to himself. He never did anything to anyone. He never did anything to deserve the sort of treatment he got over and over again.
Sometimes he thought he was cursed. When Abel was little, back before he started going to school, he fantasized about what it would be like to be able to get away from his Da every day. He thought it would be some sort of safety-zone, a cinder block oasis where there would be kids just like him, a place beyond the reach of his Da’s roaming hands, or worse yet, drunken fists. It didn’t take Abel long to discover the difference between fantasy and reality. To Abel, school seemed like the place people like his Da went to learn how to curse, fight, and in general, grow up to be an asshole.
“My gawd!” Fred hollered across the crowded cafeteria. “Didja shit yer pants, or what, Abel?”
Just then, at the very moment Fred called Abel by his first name, the name his worthless father burdened him with, everything else he said, could say, or would ever say again, meant nothing. At that moment, he could hear nothing but the blood rushing in his ears like the roar of the hurricane that crushed the crazy gay twins under the huge choke cherry tree that set their ragged pack of scabby, inbred cats free through the torn sheet-metal of their old 12’ by 40’ two lots down from the McIntyre’s.
At that moment, all Abel could see was Fred, his mouth flapping mutely before him. After that, all he could see was red — red from the mouth of that nasty boy Fred where Abel’s first punch landed with a stomach-churning crack, mashing Fred’s thin, pale upper lip into hanging shreds of gore. Fred’s mouth kept moving, but his face no longer read as arrogant. He looked truly shocked, and under that, truly terrified.
Abel couldn’t hear if Fred was trying to backpedal his way out of the suddenly desperate situation his mean mouth got him into. He couldn’t hear if Fred was screaming for help. Abel landed another punch, this time, to Fred’s jaw. He could feel himself smiling as his now torn knuckles made their impact, and the bone of Fred’s jaw gave way with a pop, down and to the left; a deformity deserved.
Abel could see the teeth swimming in Fred’s mouth, and his left eye instantly swollen, the indentations of Abel’s fist at its rim like the dimples on a fat lady’s ass. It looked as if Fred was shaking his head in a frantic NO gesture, but there wasn’t
any NO left in this. There was only GO left in this.
Abel heard later that he was growling and grunting like some sort of rabid animal when he was on top of him, that is, when he wasn’t laughing like one of those fellas from the fenced-in gravel lot in front of the nut house. Despite being one of the smallest boys in his ninth grade class, it took three middle-aged teachers and a Puerto Rican dishwasher to get him off of that poor boy. Abel was expelled that day, and day later, he was sent to juvenile hall.
* * *
A week after he got out, Abel saw Fred with his mother at the local grocery store. He was shattered. Fred acted like he didn’t see him, but Abel knew he did.
Abel didn’t know what happened that day at school. He relived it in flashes that provided neither context nor explanation. What he did know, is that it was like a dream coming true. All the times he’d been picked on, and all the times he’d been beaten up, had been erased by latching onto that smart-ass, Fred, and beating him to within an inch of his life.
Abel pretended to be sorry in front of the judge. He pretended to be sorry in front his so-called anger management counselor in juvenile hall. He even tried to pretend to be sorry in front of his Ma after his month of being locked up behind a tall chain link fence and those thick concrete walls, but she could see right through him.
“You don’t have to pretend to be sorry in front of me, mister,” she said smiling wryly.
Abel said nothing in response. He just smiled and thought about how everything was gonna be alright from that point forward. He had no idea if he believed that, or if he was just fooling himself, and to be perfectly honest, he didn’t care either way.