I had never been inside Jasper’s trailer. He had retreated after the beating and I had followed him as the sole witness to his shame. The yard was patchy and ill kept. It was partially overgrown, partially dirt, and partially covered with the debris of old cars and trucks. I do not know how the trailers were connected. The main one, or the one in front by the road, was mostly green though it had random white patches affixed to the outside. The roof over the lot of them was corrugated and rusting in places. In the back, you could see a bluish trailer sticking out from the south end of the complex with a door but no stair or porch to reach it, just a haphazard stack of cinder blocks that were too short to function properly as access to the door. I approached the front with some caution as I was afraid of Ethel, Jasper’s mother, who could not have been that old but appeared ancient from hard living and who smoked constantly. The screen door was shut and was new, perhaps the nicest features of the trailer’s exterior. The stairs leading up to it were run down and propped up with red bricks at the sides. There was a dilapidated handrail on the left side that sagged in the middle and wobbled when you put your weight on the stair. I could just see the ceiling inside the trailer from the bottom of the stairs. The storm door was open to the inside and the screen was intact obscuring the view from my perspective. I stood there for a minute, my eight-year-old mind racing “what am I doing here?” Why had I walked over? What was I to do?
No doubt, I felt badly for Jasper. He had been trounced at the hands of twin boys who ran roughshod over Green Spring, West Virginia and with whom I was ostensibly friends. But I had to admit a feeling of kinship with Jasper. Not being from Green Spring myself, I was an outsider and different and Jasper was different. We weren’t different in the same way, of course. I don’t think Jasper himself would have acknowledged this kinship because we did not go to school together. In Green Spring, I existed on a wholly different plane than I did back home in Maryland. In the rigid hierarchies of my public school I was of no account. I was bullied. I was excluded. I was picked last for any team sport. I had friends to be sure, but we had found each other through our exclusion from the circles that any self-respecting kid longed to be in. And so, my pity for Jasper was measured against this self-recognition in him. My experience in Green Spring was an exception to the general rule in my life, the rule to which I was about to return after a long summer in the wilds of West Virginia. I swallowed hard and reached for the door.
I didn’t knock, I don’t know why. I just went in. It was quiet, except for the sound of running water. As I entered, I saw Jasper’s shorts crumbled just inside the door. They were dirty, as usual, but there were fresh streaks of blood spattered along the thighs. A playful mishap had escalated until the twins had fallen on Jasper in concert. One held him while the other threw their fists into whatever vulnerable bit of the boy they could find. Seeing the aftermath of busted lips and bloodied nose laying there inside the door, I immediately noticed the immaculate white carpets. What struck me so strongly was how clean and white they were and how my own grandmother Wyola also had white carpets in her home. I couldn’t imagine that Ethel, with her hairy mole and wrinkled neck, had anything in common with my grandmother Wyola. Surely they would be from different planets. But here, behind the rundown façade of the trailer, were these pristine carpets. Maybe I too was white trash. Hadn’t I lived in trailer? Didn’t my own grandma Judy spend many of her nights in the trailer in the lot behind her bar? Surely, the honorary mayor of Green Spring unincorporated might be white trash herself. What did that make me then? I noticed that Jasper’s shoes had also been removed and sat just inside the door half hidden beneath his ragged shorts. The whole place was sparse and clean. The couch, a strange green and orange pattern from the 1970s, was covered in plastic. There was an uncovered, worn recliner by a large TV, but everything else was practically shrink-wrapped. To my left was a breakfast bar that separated the living area from the kitchen, and beyond that, in the far left corner was a dining set, clean and neat, with an orange runner down the center. The running water was coming from the kitchen where Jasper stood on a stool bent over the sink vigorously scrubbing his face and neck. It was as if he strained to wash away his defeat, stopping for a moment to catch a glimpse of his shame before it disappeared in a whorl down the drain. He shook his hands over the sink and turned off the water. He must have realized someone was in the trailer with him, because he straightened up. I could just see his bare torso sticking up from behind the bar. He turned a little, his ears perking up as he listened to my soft footsteps on the carpet. I stopped, looked down, and bent to remove my own shoes. As I knelt untying the laces, he turned fully around on the stool to look at me.
“What’re you doing here?”
I looked up from my laces, “Nothing.”
“Well do nothing somewhere else.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Fine. I ain’t scared of them.” Not that he wasn’t hurt, but that he wasn’t scared.
“Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m fine. Is that all you want.”
“Everyone went home.”
Jasper got down from the stool and came from the kitchen to the edge of the living room in his underwear. He was lanky and lean and had wiped himself off and so, maybe for the first time, I saw him basically clean. I finished taking off my shoes and stood up. Jasper looked at me with skepticism. He was pie-faced with a snub nose and big green eyes that were set just a touch too far apart on his round face. He had lost most of his baby teeth already and a few big adult teeth dominated the front of his mouth, leaving pronounced gaps where the others hadn’t come in yet. He wasn’t handsome in the way the twins were, with their oval faces that tapered down into stronger jaws and rounded chins. Their noses were finer and slightly up-turned. Their eyes were narrower, like they looked perpetually into the sun. Their only distinguishing features were that Greggy wore glasses and Wilbur had a flat mole to one side of his chin where his brother had none. Jasper blinked as me slowly while I looked at him standing there, still not sure why I had come or if I even wanted to be there.
“Ma’s not here,” Jasper said, relaxing somewhat, but holding me fixed in his gaze like he half expected me to start punching him right there in his own home.
“I’ll go,” I said, and started backing toward the door.
“You don’t got to.”
“You wanna see something?”
“Sure,” I said.
Jasper’s trepidation melted further away and he darted over to a cabinet in the front of the breakfast bar from which he produced a decanter of brown liquor and a shot glass.
“Ma’ll never know,” he said, bringing both items over to the clean coffee table and bending over them in his stark white briefs. He still had a bit of dirt caked on his legs about his knees, calves, and ankles.
I stayed put by the door.
“It’s fine,” he said, waving me over.
I didn’t move.
He poured a shot and held it up in my direction before throwing it back. His face twisted up into a grimace after, but the relative ease with which he drank the stuff shocked me. He poured another and drank it. He poured a third, held it out to me with his head tilted down and his eyebrows raised, his bright eyes looking up to me, inviting me to take it. I didn’t move right away and he sat the third shot down on the table.
“It’ll make you feel good,” he said.
I went over and stood beside him. I looked at him and he looked at me and we both looked down at the shot and then back again to one another. I gave him a look that conveyed, “I don’t know about this,” and he gave me a friendly slap on the back and laughed. He wanted so badly to impress me, I realized. He wanted to be my friend. Not just a charity case but a friend, a real honest-to-god friend, someone to share something with, someone with whom he too could have secrets. I knew that however easily it seemed he could drink, even at that young age, he had only ever drank alone. That feeling of warmth came over me again as I watched him watching me with a gap-toothed grin and his toes curling under, digging into the plush, white carpet. I took the shot glass deliberately and threw the liquid down my throat as I had seen it done many a time before. That was my first taste of whiskey. The fire roared across my palate and bathed my insides with a heat that seemed fixed to purge my soul. I gasped. I nearly choked but the drink had already been drunk. My eyes watered and my mouth filled with watery saliva that I also quickly swallowed. Jasper laughed and laughed until be bent over nearly double and clutched his bare stomach as it heaved with delight at the faces I was making and the contortion of my boyish features into a grimace. My chin receded back into my neck and I smacked my lips repeatedly as my mouth filled again with spit and I swallowed it down in the hopes that it would extinguish the fire in my belly. But the heat was in me and it began to spread through my body and radiate along my limbs.
“You’ll feel that,” Jasper laughed.
I hadn’t eaten hardly anything that day. I had no idea what I was doing or the effects it might have on me. Once I had settled down some, Jasper poured another shot and took it. He filled the glass a fifth time and motioned toward it, looking at me with increasingly hazy eyes.
“I…” I said, “Can I…”
Jasper just looked at me. “You need a chaser?”
“Chaser. Something to wash it down?”
“Um, yes. Yes, please.”
He ran to the fridge and brought back a can of Coke. He pulled back the tab and sat it down hard. Soda bubbled up from the mouth of the can and landed with a light fizz on the almost reflective surface of the coffee table. I took a drink of it.
“That’s yours,” he said, motioning again to the whiskey.
I had committed myself. There was no turning back now. I did the second shot, which was full to the brim. It went down easier, but the fire went through me again and I tried to squelch it with the Coke. The chaser helped some, but I was already beginning to feel a little different, like the world was speeding up or slipping imperceptibly from whatever meager control I once had over it.
“I did three,” Jasper said with ever so slight a slur, which I couldn’t tell whether or not was just for show or because he really felt a little drunk. “You do three, too.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“Half a one, then?”
I just stared at him. He poured a little more.
“Half a one.”
“That’s more than half.”
“C’mon,” he said. “It’s only fair.”
Jasper now was talking with a mouth juicy with spit from his shots. He had put on a good show of being experienced at this, but his straw weight status was showing through the bravado he affected in a bid for my approval. I cocked my head, which made the room tilt.
“You got this.”
I downed what was in the glass. Jasper beamed and patted my shoulder, nodding. He went over to the recliner and sat down on the very edge of the rutted cushion. I slid down to the floor where I had been standing. My head began feeling light. When I looked around it seemed as though my vision took a second to catch up to where my gaze had landed. There was silence for a moment and when I looked back around and my eyes adjusted I saw Jasper on the edge of his seat, his head cast down in his hands almost between his bare, skinny knees. As I focused on him there, I noticed the mud on his shins was caked on fine hairs sprouting up and down his legs. I leaned back some and watch him, catching at a glance a fine patch of hair beginning to come in under his arms. It was all so faint and wispy I second-guessed myself. Where the twins this far along as well? Was I the only one without any body hair to speak of? I looked down at my own shins and the fine, downy prepubescent look of them. I felt distinctly alienated from my body. I felt weird in my own skin. I looked back at Jasper. His shoulders shook ever so slightly. Was he crying? He looked up from his hands. His eyes seemed red. His long eyelashes looked heavy and stuck together in moist peaks. He slouched off of the recliner and came over to where I sat stretching himself out across the living room floor on his back with his arms folded between his head. He sniffled.
“Donovan,” he said, “why doesn’t anybody like me?”
I was crushed. I think I nearly gasped again.
“That’s silly. I like you.”
“No you don’t. Not really.”
“That’s not true, Jasper. Why am I here if I don’t like you?”
“I dunno know… to make fun of me with Wilbur and Greggy later. How dumb I am.”
“I won’t.” It was true. I had no intention of speaking ill of him behind his back.
“Still. You don’t like me like you like them.” This was also true. How could I deny it?
I said nothing.
“Even ma don’t like me.” I could see the tears welling up in him again. He fought them back and wiped at his nose with one forearm before returning his hand behind his head.
I moved around and laid my head down next to his like our minds were the hub of a great wheel and our bodies and legs stuck out at an angle from one another like the spokes of that same wheel around which the room slowly revolved. I looked up at the white ceiling. It was so bright in the late afternoon sun that streamed through the windows and the screen door. There were a few water stains in the corner and along one far wall.
“Your mama loves you, Jasper.”
He looked over at me. “How can you know?”
“She does. I just know.”
“I sure can’t tell it sometimes.”
We were quiet a minute more.
“Are you really my friend?” he asked after a while.
“Yes,” I said. But the truth was, I really didn’t know anymore. It wasn’t because I didn’t like Jasper. I didn’t deny him. The problem was I really didn’t know what a friend was or how I felt about other people any more. I began to see, almost clearly for the first time, that my life would never be the same again. Not just that something monumental had happened, but that such things were always happening. That what we did was irreversible. That once something was done it was marked off in history and sealed like a tomb for a former self who died a little in birthing the person you were just then, who was a stranger to you and who charted a course into the future you knew nothing of or, if not nothing, then very little. It was not so much that you knew so little of yourself even as you mapped your own future, but that you mapped it from a place that others had determined for you and, even though you had not chosen it, you were expected to take it over as if it were yours, as if you could ever have any claim staked in a world that came to be long before you were born and into which you emerged half deaf, dumb, and blind but full of an ignorant verve that set about making choices regardless of the abject stupidity in which you dwelt.
Jasper kept looking at me like an injured dog, his eyes wide and wet and lost. Then he swallowed hard and turn back to look at the ceiling. As he turned away I saw, by his quivering lip and jaw askew, that look of recognition that he knew. He knew as well as I did that this was it for him. That there was no way out and no way forward that did not end up back here, in Green Spring, in these few blocks if not this very trailer; that the future, though open for others, myself included, was unjustly closed to him by the circumstances of his birth. As I looked back around the room at its clean lines, at the total order within an exterior of disarray, I realized at once the tyranny under which he must live. I was seized by the fear that perhaps I too existed under the tyranny of such times that hid absolute order within a shell of outward chaos. That all of this was set, preserved under plastic so that this couch, these chairs, that table, would be there waiting for Jasper, less an inheritance to be claimed than a menagerie that would claim him as just another object to be set among them. At that moment such a feeling of tenderness swept through me the likes of which I had not felt in all my few years and I turned and put my arm gently across Jasper’s bare chest and clutched him tightly. He let it there and moved his hand to rest it on my forearm as we embraced.
“It’s going to be okay, Jasper. It’s going to be okay,” I said, less to him than to myself within whom he had awoken this dark fear.
He pulled back just enough to look at me, his hand lingering on my arm, and said, “No it won’t, Donovan,” as a tear rolled down his round cheek.
I knew then at that moment Jasper was wiser than I had ever been. In the distance I could hear my grandmother calling for me. I sat up.
“I have to go.”
Jasper pulled himself up, looking down as his exposed legs, his underwear sagging around his gaunt waist.
“I know,” he said.
I got up and went to the door, stopping with my hand on the handle to look back at Jasper sitting defeated and half-naked on the high piled white carpet.
“Come back to the picnic,” I said. “Don’t stay here by yourself.”
He looked up at me and smiled. Maybe I did care after all.
“I’ll come back,” he said.
I turned the handle and ran outside into the evening light.
Donovan Irven is a lecturer of philosophy at a small liberal arts university in Texas.