As youngsters in my small community, we were cautioned not to stray beyond paved roads or streets with houses. Queer folk, they said, took refuge in the woods and vast meadows or, in wintertime, alongside the brick kilns.
Occasionally I'd spot one in town talking to himself in a harsh cricket timbre I could barely decipher. Like out of a children's book, bedraggled hair cascaded his stooped shoulders, and garments draped his body and limbs not unlike dead foliage.
Once, I stood alongside one of these fringe inhabitants and began to whistle, hoping she would look up and exchange glances. But she shuffled away as if I might harm her.
When I asked my father who these people were and where they came from, "Homes like ours," he said. "One daybreak a loved one, somebody's aunt or uncle, awakens, gets dressed, and wanders into the woods to never return."
"Anyone in your family?"
"Not yet," he said.
That response troubled me even more.
What if my brother Jeremiah or I wandered off one day? Or, say, I return home from school, Mama's nowhere to be found, and she's left no note. Papa I couldn't imagine heading off into the outskirts of Hebron, for he enjoyed too much of what our town had to offer, especially its saloons and women.
I asked Mama, "Do you know anybody who lives in the woods?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"Papa says they are folks who used to be like us and just left one day to live by themselves."
She froze like a cat got her tongue, then muttered, "Your uncle Paul."
I was stunned. "You've never mentioned him."
"Folks don't like to talk 'bout their crazy relatives."
"Who was he?"
Acknowledging she had a story to tell, Mama gestured that I sit down. "Used to play the organ for Sunday Mass at Saint Vitus. Never married." She walked over to the kitchen window and stared out over our backyard. "Always kept to himself. Your grandmother bought him an old church piano when he was a boy, and that's how he entertained himself. Could play anything. Always at the keyboard, mostly composing his own tunes. Kind of weird but, because he was so unlike any of the rest of us, we called him brilliant."
"Were you ever close to him, Mama?"
She shook her head as if she wished she had been. "His friends were all inside his head, if you know what I mean. When we got our first television set and sat down one night—him, Mother, and me—to watch The Liberace Show, Paul couldn't stop laughing. When the program was over, he sat down at the upright and began mocking the pianist. Except not for Mother's or my pleasure—but for his imaginary friends. We weren't good enough for his company. So I simply ignored him."
"Did he care?"
"Then one day he wandered off?"
"On his twenty-first birthday Paul gathered up all his music books and even his own compositions that he'd penciled on staff paper and stood at the door like he didn't know whether to say good-bye or not."
"Was Grandma expecting what he was about to do?"
"'Where you headed to, Paul?' The pair stood eyeing each other until Mother lowered her head and said, 'Stay out of the rain, son. Button up when it gets cold. If you change your mind…' That's when she looked up. '…our door will always remain open for you.' And off he went."
Mama turned as if to study my expression and, sensing my anxiety, shrugged. "You just never know." She sat down beside me at the kitchen table.
"Uncle Paul ever return home?"
"Once, long after midnight, your grandmother roused me out of bed, whispering, 'Margaret, can you hear your brother downstairs playing the piano?' She didn't wish to scare him off, hoping if she ignored his presence…he'd stick around. But the house was stone quiet."
"Would I've ever seen Uncle Paul in town, Mama?"
"Maybe. I did once. There were carolers on the Diamond one Christmas Eve. It was snowing heavily, and several of us on last-minute errands gathered round to listen. You know that statue of General Grant that stands in the Diamond's center? I looked over and saw Paul sitting at the general's feet. It was as if he still had all those imaginary friends hanging around and was entertaining them. He'd sing a bit, then begin laughing to himself.
"'Paul, it's me, Margaret,' I called, expecting him to either ignore me or walk away. Instead, he stood up and waved.
"'Oh, Maggie, how good to see you! How have you been? How's Mother? I keep telling myself and my friends that I have to stop by to say hello. Why, you look wonderful. Have you found a man yet?'
"I stared at him, dumbfounded.
"'Merry Christmas, Maggie,' he continued. 'If I'd've known…' Like he felt he had to give me a gift. Suddenly, the tears that I never shed for him began to well up inside me.
"'Oh, you mustn't,' he protested. 'Oh, please don't cry, Maggie. I live in a wonderful place off a glade of apple trees. A modest little room I've built for myself from tree limbs, straw, canvas awnings, tin signs, and abandoned doors, and—well, nearly anything I could find. I keep out of the rain mostly and sleep well. When the snow begins to fly, I move into my winter house, one near the brickyards. The kilns always burn there, so it's quite pleasant.'
"'Do you have friends, Paul?'
"'Oh, yes. Many friends.'
"'I mean the ones who also live on the outskirts of town.'
"'Oh no. They're not like us, Maggie. You can't trust any of 'em.'
"I could see he was becoming anxious and wanted to leave.
"'Paul, could we do this again sometime soon? I'd like to buy you dinner at Coney Island Lunch across the street, like when we were kids.'
"He stared at me as if I had said the unforgivable and kept shaking his head.
"I reached out to touch his hands. He pulled them stiffly to his side.
"'Good-bye, Paul,' I said.
"'Tell Mama,' he said.
"'Not to get rid of my piano.'
"'But it sits there gathering dust in the living room,' I said.
"'No,' he replied. 'I play it every night. Haven't you heard?'"
After this exchange I began to believe that the denizens on Hebron's fringe were special in some way. That maybe they weren't "crazy." And folks like my uncle talked to themselves because we simply had nothing of interest to say to them.
Several days later I asked Mama about how Uncle Paul had fared at school. "Terrible," she said. "Claimed school was for dummies. Your grandmother would laugh, replying, 'But you're the dummy, Pauly.' Yet the experience so pained him that she finally let him stay home with his piano."
God, I feel just like Uncle Paul does, I thought. And the more I reflected, the more it frightened me that one day I could be headed to the outskirts too. Except I was terrified of being alone with the voices I sometimes heard in my head. Seems Uncle Paul entertained his.
One day I pulled my friend Dominick aside after school. He and I were in the sixth grade, except he should have been in the ninth. School was like serving a prison term, he said. "They lock you in until you are sixteen—or until you run off looney into the woods."
"That's what I want to talk to you about, Dominick."
My friend could hoist me and another classmate off the floor two feet, one kid in each of his muscular arms. He lived in a tiny house with his parents, who'd emigrated from Italy, and they had a big vegetable garden. Dominick carried a lunch bucket to school like he was going to work on building a highway. He'd open it in the school cafeteria to baked bean or tomato sandwiches on thick homemade bread.
We thought visiting my uncle Paul would be kind of neat, figuring that folks like him didn't separate from the townsfolk because of us kids. It was the grown-ups whom they couldn't abide.
"Can you imagine, Dom, how terrific it'd be to sleep by the open brick kilns when snow's flying? All those open fire pits. And, in springtime, living in a little camp house we've made out of screen doors and old root beer signs, havin' our own bed and pet squirrels and birds and any comic books we ever wanted right out in the open. Never having to worry about somebody saying no. I mean, how bad could it be? Wasting our lives like we are here in this damn old brick school building every day?"
Dominick slapped his square hand on the ground and pulled out a pack of smokes. "You want one, Ethan?"
He inhaled like a grown-up. It's why I liked him so much. He had the guts to do things I didn't. Like playing hooky. Or going out to the fringes of town and seeing how the crazies really lived. Maybe even discovering that they were smarter than the rest of us.
"'Cause my uncle Paul's no dummy, Dominick. Mama said he was a virtuoso piano player who had an encyclopedio mind."
"Like he got a bookcase of dictionaries and stuff stuck in his head."
"You mean like a walkin' library?"
"Somethin' like that."
"Jesus. I just got pictures of naked women up in my noggin."
See, that's what attracted me to Dominick.
"Ethan, what do you say you and me, tomorrow morning, we'll take our school lunches and head out to the outskirts, lookin' for your uncle Paul. You say he plays the piano? Christ, wouldn't that be somethin' to go into the woods 'n' hear somebody playing like Liberace?"
Dominick thought that was funny. Then he turned serious.
"Your uncle ain't no queer, is he, Ethan?"
"Shit, I ain't ever thought about that," I said.
"Oh, what the hell," he sniffed. "If he's too friendly with us, we'll back off. I ain't scared of women. Why should I be scared of queers?"
I nodded in agreement.
"Where do you think Uncle Paul's place is, Ethan?"
I liked that Dominick was calling him Uncle Paul. "Ain't sure. But if I was gonna move to the outskirts of town like him and the other crackers, I'd live near Cascade Park. You know, so in the summertime I could watch the roller coaster loop through the gorge and be near Candle Lake, where, after dark, I could swim and maybe even borrow a boat at the rental dock. I mean, I can sure understand someone wantin' to get off by themselves, say, like Uncle Paul, but not too far."
Dominick thought that made sense, and we made plans to head off after the first tardy bell in the morning.
Cascade Park was a good couple miles out in the country. Dominick and I walked out County Line Road until there were no more houses. "We're gettin' closer," he said. "Keep your eye out for old shacks, abandoned cars, stuff like that."
It was springtime and a couple months before the amusement park would officially open. The dodgem cars were in storage, and the carousel horses had been removed for fresh painting. The ice hadn't completely thawed on Candle Lake.
We passed the Lake Erie and Lackawanna railroad tracks and spotted an abandoned caboose sitting off on a sideline. Dominick's eyes lit up.
"That's somebody's home!" A weathered blouse was covering its window like a curtain. Dominick ran ahead until he got within several yards of the caboose and, placing a finger to his lips, waved for me to hurry up. "Somebody's in there," he whispered, gesturing that I lean over so he could step on my back to peer into the window.
"Whatdaya see?" I asked.
"Like a damn squirrel's nest…or somethin'. But somebody's living here."
When he stepped back onto the ground, I asked what else he'd seen.
"Those pictures I told you of naked broads inside my head?"
"Take a peek." He bent over so I could climb onto his back.
I couldn't see a damn thing inside that caboose except for cardboard boxes and grocery sacks stuffed with old clothes.
"You're full of shit," I said.
"But it sure as hell beats goin' to school and worryin' decimal points, huh, Ethan?"
At least we knew for certain there were folks living beyond the paved streets. And I didn't doubt for a minute that the red caboose was somebody's home.
When we finally arrived at the park, Dominick wanted to make-believe we were riding the dodgems. We ran around inside the open-air building, honking and bumping into each other until we lay exhausted on its metal floor, laughing.
At the carousel he made organ noises and had me climb on his shoulders like he was my brightly painted steed and trotted around the circular platform, rising up and down, until he collapsed with me—dizzy as hell. He pulled out another Lucky Strike, lit it, took a drag, then handed it to me.
My first smoke. Jesus, it was heaven.
When he insisted we climb the scaffolding of the roller coaster that dipped treacherously into the gorge, I resisted. I'm terrified of heights and, instead, watched him mount the Cannon Ball's track and begin climbing. He waved his bandanna, hollering to me from its highest peak.
Then he disappeared, running down the other side just like he was its first car.
At the start of the season in the prior year, two grade school boys had leaped out of one of the coaster cars to their deaths. A nest of rattlesnakes had taken up residence there.
I worried for Dominick but not that much, believing somebody like him would never die. Whereas I died every day because I was so by fear possessed.
I took a seat inside the unlocked carousel ticket booth and waited for my friend to return.
Seemed I waited a whole hour when I saw him coming up the midway in a kiddie fire truck. It had no wheels and he was inside it, walking it forward.
"Look what I found!" he cried.
Its paint was scaling and the body was also missing its puny ladders, but the silver bell on its hood still had its clapper, and Dominick had tied his belt to the bell, yanking it.
"Ethan, we'll take it home, put wheels on it, and hook it up to a gasoline Maytag washin' machine's motor. Jesus, ain't it a beaut?"
"Did you steal it from one of the kiddie rides?"
"Hell no. It was in a junk heap. They must be gettin' a new one."
"Time to eat," I said.
Dominick stretched out alongside his fire engine and ate a bean sandwich. Mine was bologna with mustard, and I shared my orange.
"We'd just be headin' to music class," he muttered.
"Then arithmetic." I shuddered.
"Then, praise Jesus, the goin'-home bell. The happiest sound in all the world, right, Ethan?"
I looked around at the empty midway and wintered rides. "Do you think any of the fringe people wander through here off season?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Sort of depressing," I said. "Like a graveyard, if you ask me."
Dominick looked around and nodded. "Do you think Uncle Paul wanders through here?"
"You mean like you and me?"
"Yeah. You think he might play the carousel music in his head and imagine the painted horses galloping up and down with kiddies on 'em?"
"Don't know," I said.
"And the Ferris wheel over there. Does he picture himself in the seat at the very top of the ring, swinging back and forth while lookin' back over our town and all the folks he's left behind…like your mama, for instance?"
I couldn't answer except to notice that Dominick had pulled out another cigarette and offered me one. We both lit up.
"You think Uncle Paul has a friend like you or me, Ethan?"
"Mama said he always talked to himself."
"Days like this would be no fun without havin' a friend to share it with, right?" Dominick wasn't being funny like I was accustomed to. "Shit. No dodgem buddy to honk out of the way or bang into, huh? And who'd climb on my back when I wanted to play merry-go-round? Or share a peek of the naked lady inside the red caboose?"
He stood up.
"Let's go back, Ethan, before the goin'-home bell rings."
"Don't you want to check out the woods, Dom, to see if we can spot Uncle Paul?"
"Not today," he said.
It felt as if all the joy had suddenly bled out of my friend. He walked on ahead of me back toward town.
"What are you gonna tell your mama when the school principal lets her know you didn't show today, Ethan?"
"The truth," I said.
"What'll she do to you?"
"Make me stay in the house for a couple Saturdays."
"Mine won't give a shit," he said. "My old man either."
We walked on until the houses began to reappear.
At one point Dominick turned to me.
"It beats school, though, right, Ethan?"
"Hell yes," I said.
"You know how to smoke now, and maybe the next time your head will be stuffed with pretty pictures like mine." He laughed.
"Better than an old encyclopedio mind," I shot back.
Dominick looked up in the sky. He closed his fists and held one up to the horizon line, measuring how many fists between it and the sun.
"Hurry up, Ethan. I want to be standing outside the schoolhouse when our sucker classmates let out so we can tell them what fun we had today while they were inside bein' bored to tears by Mrs. Hammerstein in her white bloomers."
I passed on that opportunity and headed home. The school did get in touch with my mother, and I confessed to playing hooky with Dominick, a boy she said she never liked because "He's much too mature for you, Ethan. He's been held back and should be working alongside other men in one of the mills like your father. What kind of bad ideas did he teach you?"
"None," I said.
After our outing I think my friend understood that I was still too immature to buddy around with. It wasn't so much his not wanting to hang around with me, but his perceiving that he made me a bit uncomfortable with his grown-up ideas and that he could see through my bravado.
I was reluctantly grateful because I didn't know where our next sojourn might lead.
When he'd pass me in the hallways, he'd ask, "You seen Uncle Paul?" I'd laugh and say something like, "Bumped into him on the dodgem."
One day he pulled me over after school, absolutely lit up with excitement.
"Ethan, I think I found him!"
"Holy Jesus, where, Dominick?"
"Nowhere near the park. He's living out near the dam."
The notorious Cement Dam rose on the southern outskirts of Hebron. Decades earlier the town fathers planned to reroute the Shenango River that ran through town and, instead, flood acres of lowland to create a man-made lake and stock it with trout and bass. They constructed this huge cement dam to hold the river back, but for reasons impossible to sort out, the project was never completed, and the Shenango continued to flow in the path it had from time immemorial.
Over the years Cement Dam, because of its enormous height, became a favorite jumping-off place for those townsfolk determined to end their lives. Each year the Hebron Patriot would report on one or two citizens found dead at its foot—most often in the fall and winter months.
Surrounded by woods in the midst of a vast field, it rose like an abandoned movie set, a concrete barrier towering hundreds of feet into the air…and no river in sight.
So those who didn't opt to take up residence on the outskirts of town often found their way after dark to the top of the embankment and plunged.
"I found a small hut near the dam, Ethan," Dominick continued. "The size of one of our schoolrooms. Its roof is made of tin soda pop signs with its walls tethered together with house doors, pieces of tar paper, canvas, and an entrance made of burlap sacks. It's got no windows.
"I thought—That's Uncle Paul's house. Surer than hell. I'm gonna take off school Monday, and maybe you want to join me."
I was afraid he was going to ask me.
He picked up on my hesitation right off. "On second thought, you better let me check him out first. Bein' you probably look like your mama, it might upset him." He put his hand on my shoulder like we were still old and dear friends. "I'll report back to you, buddy."
I wanted to tell my mother. Except I didn't. And for several nights leading up to Monday morning—the day Dominick was headed back out to Cement Dam—I fantasized about the two of them meeting.
Uncle Paul and my friend walking down the midway, and Dominick pretending that he was buying tickets for the Cannon Ball, the biggest and scariest roller coaster this side of Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe he'd hoist Uncle Paul on his shoulders and play the carousel horse, the one that looked like a unicorn, whose hoofs were gentian violet. Or Uncle Paul would take Dominick for a ride in the orange-colored dodgem and crash into, one by one, his imaginary friends. Or Dominick might bring out the kiddie fire truck that we never dragged home and let Uncle Paul pretend to ride it back to his tin-and-tar-paper shack…and the two of them would sit inside when it began to rain and talk about why they left home and school.
Where Uncle Paul had an encyclopedio mind…Dominick had a gasoline combustion engine and wemen in his and was always on the go, looking for new excitement. I thought together they could make one very real human being.
Each night I'd imagine a bit more and have the most peaceful sleep ever.
That coming Monday, like he said, Dominick didn't show up for class. I waited outside in the schoolyard after the final bell. When it began to get dark, I walked home.
Tuesday I didn't pass him in the hallways.
On Thursday, before lunch, we were summoned into the auditorium. Principal McCallister stepped out on the dais and cleared his throat. Several teachers were standing behind him, glancing down at their shoes. One, Mrs. Gresham, whose class Dominick and I both loved because he and I had been in her rhythm band (he played the castanets; I, the sand blocks). My friend was taller than Mrs. Gresham and could've been her husband. Well, she was tearing up and dabbing her cheeks with a lace hanky.
"Boys and girls, I've some very sad news to report. Your classmate Dominick Scorcini was found dead on the outskirts of our town last evening, apparently the victim of foul play. He'd been reported missing since Monday."
McCallister took a deep breath, and several girls in the audience began crying.
I was too shocked. What did "foul play" mean? All I could picture was my friend running back and forth over the lip of the Cement Dam, yelling into the hollow below, waiting for his echo to bounce back to him.
Was that foul play?
The evening paper printed a photograph on its front page of the tin sign and tar paper shack just as Dominick had described it. A person was living in it…except it wasn't Uncle Paul. Staring fiercely into the Patriot photographer's lens and beyond, the fringe man had long, black hair and a beard resembling a bird's nest. He wore several layers of soil rags that once had been real garments. Cloth and leather tethered with clothesline covered his feet.
Alongside stood the Hebron police captain, holding on to the man's arms as if he'd been chasing him and finally caught up.
Apparently, Dominick had been snooping around the hovel while a person inside had a bead on him. When my friend had begun circling closer, threatening he was about to lift its burlap sack door, somebody's uncle pulled the shotgun's trigger.
But it wasn't Uncle Paul.
Visualizing Dominick lying there dead, I realized that I could have been lying alongside him. Except neither of us would be sharing a smoke. All the pictures of the naked women would be bleeding out of his head onto the yellow grass.
And school would resume tomorrow.