I was a dirty, barefoot girl-child on the hot, rugged asphalt of the parking lot of the A-Z Rental U-Haul place. The lot where that business stood was a corner of land cut away from our larger piece of property, off the side of a highway in the fields of Michigan, and we still held an easement for our driveway. There was a rusted oil barrel, untended grass, a few trees, and probably a dead cat under the willow. I could usually find small animal bones under the willow. I loved the look of a delicate skull, and the way vertebrae came together.
I wasn’t yet ten, still in the single-digits. This friend named Todd was up on the roof of the U-Haul place. His mom and stepdad rented the only apartment there, a tiny set of rooms on the second floor. The apartment opened onto the roof, where they kept their dogs. Todd’s shy way of saying hello, bridging that gap between himself and the world down below, was to aim a gun.
In This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff writes about being a kid left at home with his rifle. “From cleaning the rifle, I went to marching around the apartment with it, and then to striking brave poses in front of the mirror. Roy [his stepdad] had saved one of his army uniforms and I sometimes dressed up in this…”
Wolff says, “The camouflage coat made me feel like a sniper, and before long, I began to act like one.”
Far as I know my old friend and neighbor Todd hasn’t written a memoir. I don’t know what it was like for him to work behind the school lunch counter, or how he felt when the lunch ladies bought him a new bicycle. I know that he believed his stepdad was innocent when the man was charged with burglary. I let Tobias Wolff tell me a thing or to about what it means to be a boy home with a gun. He might speak to what was on Todd’s mind. All I know is that Todd lay down on his roof and shot me in the foot.
He had a BB gun, so that was better than it might have been. I was a kid and still it was a gun and it hurt when it hit, but my feet were hard from running barefoot and the asphalt was so hot it was soft, and I didn’t feel that heat. The BB made a good dent in one toe, and split off part of my toenail. That was it. No blood. I ran into the fields before he shot at me again. We still hung out after that. It’d be another year or so before Todd’s family had to move. Then they left the apartment, and nobody else moved in. It turned into an empty opportunity. The pack of us kids who still lived dotted along that stretch of highway stacked oil drums and climbed up on to the roof to get in the apartment and see what they’d left behind–a few dinette chairs, a mirror over the bathroom sink, a lot of hair and cigarette butts.
I think about Todd and his BB gun this morning as I sit down to write. I didn’t come to any of this easily. I didn’t get to try my hand with college applications, didn’t go to Brown or Yale. I dropped out before I finished high school because of family stuff going on. But I found my way back through Portland State University, and I’ve always kept writing, learning, paying attention.
When I think about Todd on the roof, and my foot, his BB gun, I think maybe it was one moment when I learned to take a hit and keep going. It wasn’t as bad as it might’ve been. He wasn’t evil. He was just a boy on his own. I know that feeling.
Time to work.