“We’re moving,” he said. Dad stuck the Tipperello between his lips and cupped the end while he struck the Zippo lighter. The smell of Naphtha filled the room, followed by freshly burning tobacco. The first puffs always smelled the best.
“Moving?” Mom followed him out the door. I listened from the kitchen table while filling my coloring book. Now that mom wasn’t looking, I could color within the lines careful and neat, the way I liked. She always frowned and told me to color bigger and bolder, to go outside the lines and make the sky purple. That’s so stupid, I thought. Skies are blue.
I smiled, examining my expertly colored caped crusader. It looked realistic with the black cape and yellow bat, despite the odd looking sky. I wanted to hang it on my wall.
“Liberia, hon,” Dad was saying. “The Larsen’s are moving and we’re going to follow them over. The Monrovia director is a good guy and they have an opening for a hospital administrator at JFK Memorial.”
Christine was seated beside me working on her own crayon art, though hers was much better. She didn’t need a coloring book. She created her own artwork and it was much better than mine. “Where is Liberia?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I said as I shrugged my shoulders, tracing the outline of Spiderman’s mask on the new page.
“Africa,” Dad said as he walked back into the kitchen. “West Africa, actually.”
Mom leaned against the doorframe, stone-faced. I joined my sisters, giggling and envisioning zebras in our backyard. It was going to be like a safari! Lions, rhinos and giraffes, just like on Daktari. Soon enough though, I would learn the difference between the East African wildlife of TV and the monkeys, mosquitos and cockroaches that were the wildlife in West Africa.
Within a month we were packed and saying our goodbyes. This was my favorite part of traveling: leaving. I was the one going somewhere, rather than someone leaving me.
I battled my sisters for the window seat as we settled into our KLM flight. I was going to Africa, I kept thinking. It was so foreign it even sounded funny saying it. Africa. With my nose pressed against the window, the jumbo jet lifted off and climbed into the clouds. Pretty Danish stewardesses handed out flight pins and playing cards as I daydreamed of our new home in the African plains of my imagination.
As we exited the front of the plane parked on the tarmac, I rocked back on my heels and almost gagged at the smell. Putrid and raw, it was a mix of body odor, sewage and jet fuel. The sun beat onto my face as we passed by the throngs of families behind the barricades. Babies cried while mothers barked in hoarse, raspy voices. Dad reached for my hand and I squeezed his tightly, hurrying into the air-conditioned immigration building. President Tubman Welcomes You to Liberia the sign pronounced as we filed into line for the long wait.
We clung close to Dad on the curbside as the porters loaded our bags onto the colorful mini-bus. Loaded up, we plunged into the heart of Monrovia, the minibus driver racing through intersections, driving by slum after slum. We kids were three small white faces plastered against the window glass, sweaty palms and oily noses flattened as poverty flew by in a riot of color. The radio squawked unintelligibly while Dad gave instructions to the driver.
“DO-YOU-UNDERSTAND?” Dad enunciated loudly. “The Ducor Hotel. Duuu-Corrr.” He slowly drew out the vowels as if that made it more intelligible.
“Yeah, yeah bossman. No prob’m, no prob’m sssah!”
“I don’t think he understands a damn thing I’m saying,” Dad muttered out the side of his mouth to Mom. I was staring at the driver through the rear view mirror as he watched Dad complain to Mom. For a long moment, my eyes made contact with the driver’s and I knew that he had understood Dad’s remark. He quickly looked away, honking his horn as he blasted through another intersection, whistling along with the incoherent radio music. The prickles of sweat turned to streaming rivulets, firmly gluing my clothes to my skin.
The Ducor Hotel sat on a tall bluff overlooking downtown. From our balcony, we could see the main harbor facing the Atlantic Ocean. The pool patio and tennis courts were spread out below. My sisters and I played in the pool every day while Mom and Dad volleyed on the clay courts. Dad would take me to the courts in the evening after the temperature was tolerable, and teach me how to slide on the clay surface, anticipating the ball. At first I kept overshooting, sliding on the bright orange surface well past the mark. I picked up the timing quickly, though. Pretty soon I could slide to each bounce with perfect timing, smacking the ball over the net with my Jack Cramer tennis racket strung with cat gut.
We moved into our assigned home a week later, a bright turquoise cinder block duplex right on the beach. Our neighbor was a British ex-pat and his native Liberian wife. They had the only TV in the neighborhood and would invite us over on weekend nights to watch replays of Star Trek, Dragnet and Perry Mason.
We lived next to a small Bassa village, the thing most like my American fantasy of Africa, as if taken directly from the pages of National Geographic. Those were the magazines my friends and I would find in the library and giggle over the naked women. Now here I was, next to a village with grass huts, dirt floors and topless women who walked around everywhere without a care. I gawked the first time I saw a grown woman walking in front of our house with just a sarong wrapped around her waist and a large basket balanced on her head. Quickly checking to see if anyone else was staring, I was amazed nobody was looking. They were all going about their business as if no big deal. The woman returned a blank stare, unimpressed with the little white boy captivated by her bouncing cleavage.
The teacher led me to my desk on my first day of school. Like before, I stood out. Everyone stared at me as I joined the class late. A few kids whispered in each other’s ears. She lead me to a quad of desks facing each other and I sat down. The lunch then bell rang, followed by the clank of metal lunch boxes hitting the desktops.
“Where you from?” the blond kid next to me smiled asked. His sandwich was made with Wonder Bread.
“Washington. The state, not D.C.”
“US AID?” he asked, this time raising his eyebrows.
“Peace Corps? Who are they?”
“I dunno. Just the Peace Corps I guess.”
“You?” I asked.
“Hmm,” I said, almost whispering. I should have known. He had really nice clothes and a Captain Marvel lunch box with matching canteen. His sandwich was wrapped neatly in wax paper and there was a Twinkie, glistening in it’s shiny cellophane wrapper. I sighed. Inside my wrinkled brown lunch bag was an overripe banana and jelly-soaked sandwich. The two girls beside us looked at each other and smiled, as if communicating a secret. The blond boy and I exchanged names with an awkward handshake. His name was Sean.
“Where do you live?” Sean asked, his words muffled by a huge bite of the Twinkie.
“On the beach by the hospital.”
“Hey!” he said excitedly. “That’s just down from my house. Do you want to come over?”
“Yeah,” I said, suddenly feeling hopeful.
Within days we were traversing the tarry beach back and forth to each other’s house. I liked his place better. It was definitely not a Peace Corps house. It had a pool and they had a full time houseboy who cooked tater tots and served Coca Cola in glasses. They also had Swedish milk for the Frosted Flakes. The milk tasted funny because it came frozen, packaged in triangular pyramid shaped pods, but it was better than the powdered milk we drank.
There was also a bottle opener next to the fridge with a small bucket full of bottle caps. Sean picked one up, placed it between his thumb and forefinger and shot it at me by snapping his fingers. The bottle cap whizzed by my head within inches, flying like a miniature Frisbee.
“Whoa! How did you do that?” I yelled as I ducked for cover.
“It’s easy,” he said. “I’ll show you.” Soon we were both launching bottle caps at each other, laughing hysterically when scoring a direct hit. We made up a game with scoring even. Hitting the nards was five points, the butt and head was three and everything else was one. Sean won the first round when my divvy of caps ran out. My thumb was raw and hurting, and it was fun.
After bottle caps, we’d mess around with his toys; mainly GI Joes and Major Matt Mason action figures. After that we swam in the pool, and then ventured beyond his yard. We collected coconuts, built forts and lobbed dirt clods at each other while the local village kids with distended bellies and herniated navels looked on in silence.
One day after playing for awhile, we sat his bedroom bored and wondering what we could do next when Sean suddenly stood up and asked me to follow. We went to his parent’s room and I sat on the edge of their bed while he peeked around the door and then closed it behind him. He then reached under the large bed and pulled out a thick book with plastic-wrapped pages.
“You wanna see something funny?” he asked, not waiting for me to respond. “Look at this.” He turned the first page. It was a photo album with black and white pictures of a nude woman. They weren’t professional shots like the ones I’d seen in Mom’s Cosmo.
The woman was smiling as if she were sharing something funny with the photographer, something personal. There were prominent tan lines across her chest, waist and thighs, framing the dark blonde tuft of pubic hair between her legs. Staring at the photos for a few more moments, I finally recognized her.
“Hey, it’s your mom!” I said, giggling nervously.
“Yeah it is. Isn’t it gross?” he laughed.
“Yeah, really gross,” I agreed, mesmerized by the pictures.
We stared in silence as Sean turned the pages. When we finished we went swimming and then ate tater tots.
I hung out at Sean’s place a lot.
One Saturday afternoon I was returning from Sean’s house, skipping along the wet sand when something caught my attention in the surf. At first it looked like a log, rocking back and forth in the waves. As I approached it, the log then appeared to have a cross-arm attached with sails hanging, tattered and torn. The object continued to change shape with every step until features were then recognizable. Eyes. Nose. Mouth. Open and facing the purple sky.
I stood frozen on the littered beach, waiting for something to happen. An oily wave crashed over the face, filling the mouth as a wail of husky voices rose from the village and shook me from the trance. Mothers came running, swaddling babies on their backs. Blue-sheened faces twisted in grief, pulling at the lifeless body in the surf.
I ran, stiffly at first as if on autopilot. My legs then pumped with adrenalin as my head jostled inside the foggy snow globe of my thoughts. I ran faster and faster, not caring where my feet landed. Stumbling onto the front porch past Yolanda, she yelled after me as I swept past her tea party.
“You didn’t clean your shoes!”
The door smacked behind me as I burst into the front room. Mom and Dad were sitting with guests.
“Who’s this?” the guest lady asked.
“One of our offspring,” Dad said smiling. I hated it when he called me that. It made it sound like I was livestock.
“This is Mr. and Mr. Minor,” Dad continued. “They’re from the Embassy. Can you say hello?”
Behind me, Yolanda sat with her own guests arranged in a circle, rigor mortis plastic legs stretched out, their frozen eyelids unblinking.
My mouth open and closed but nothing came out. I looked at Mom, pleading.
“What is it honey?” she asked, her forehead knitting.
“Looks like the cat got your tongue,” Mr. Minor said as he laughed loudly.
“Hi,” I finally managed to squeak.
“How old are you, Ricky?” Mrs. Minor asked.
“Ni-i-ne,” she said overdramatizing the information. “Well aren’t you cute with your long hair?”
“Yes,” Dad nodded, smiling. “Sometimes we get compliments on our three beautiful daughters.”
“Nice to meet you,” I mumbled and walked back onto the porch.
“Was there . . . something you needed?” Mom asked, calling behind me.
“Never mind,” I mumbled.
I sat on the porch steps and looked out at the ocean. Yolanda was talking to her doll in falsetto, adjusting the dress. “We’re going back home this year. Mama says so. You’ll really like it in Washington. It’s not so hot and the milk tastes much better.”
I stared at the waves crashing on the beach, thick and golden. From a distance it looked pretty enough to frame. All I could see, though, was the man under the water.
I wanted to forget him, but I couldn’t. I felt my breath coming in quick, short gasps. I wanted to scream and cry but I couldn’t speak. I sat in the silence as another wave of laughter from the front room washed over me.
Retruning home to Washington, it felt like I had been in a time capsule. I expected everything to be the same but nothing was. From friends to TV shows, everything was new and different. Dad took me over to Danny’s house and I couldn’t remember what he looked like until he answered the door. He wasn’t the same. His parents were more interested in talking to me than Danny was.
“Do I have to sit here?” he whined while we sat in their living room with his mom and dad and they quizzed me about Africa.
“Be quiet,” his Dad shushed from the side of his mouth. Danny slumped in his Orange canvas butterfly chair and kicked his feet noisily at the legs.
In the car ride home, Dad asked, “Would you like to see Danny again?”
“I don’t think he wants to play with me anymore.”
“Don’t worry,” Dad reassured. “You’ll be back in the swing of things before you know it. You’ll meet new friends—it’ll all be fine.”
I snapped the chrome buckle on the seat belt repeatedly. “Please,” said Dad. “Stop that.”
I missed Sean.
Unlike our departure, our homecoming went unnoticed. No newspaper article, no welcome home party. We didn’t even get our old house back. Dad explained it was a rental and someone else lived in it now. My older brother gave up his small apartment to us until Dad could find us a new house. We wedged ourselves into the two-bedroom apartment. Isaac Hayes in mirrored glasses glared at us from a poster on the wall and the disemboweled contents of our suitcases littered the floor.
It was May 1972 and school wasn’t finished for the kids in the apartment block. Being too late in the year to enroll us, I spent my days waiting restlessly in the apartment for most of the day until the yellow school bus pulled up to the curb.
“I’m going down to the clubhouse to play,” I’d yell, running out the door.
“Be back in time for dinner,” Mom would reply as the door slammed shut.
We played dodge ball on the grass lawn in front of the clubhouse—though our version was every person for themselves. Whoever ended up with the ball ran for their lives for fear of being gang-tackled.
One afternoon, I was running with the ball and was tackled into a tree. I hit my head and blacked out, waking later in my room and not remembering how I’d gotten there.
I couldn’t remember a lot of things, like why I couldn’t go to school with the rest of the kids, where the Viking ship toy had come from and who the Professor was on Gilligan’s Island. I was really tired, but Mom wouldn’t let me go to sleep.
“Wake up,” she said, nudging me gently as I snuggled between her and Dad watching Johnny Carson from the small old black and white TV garnished with tin foil on the rabbit ears.
The next morning I had a throbbing headache and an even bigger lump on my head. I recognized the Viking ship though. Billy Morrison had given it to me the week before.
The kids from the apartment block mainly hung out in the clubhouse and watched the high school kids play air hockey and pass cigarettes back and forth, along with a bottle in a brown bag. Todd was a teenager who creamed all of us in air hockey. When he was tired of playing, he’d hang out on the couch fiddling with the antennae on the transistor radio his Dad had brought back from the Philippines. It played AM and FM and had a miniature speaker on a white cord that could fit in one of his ears so no one else could hear what he was listening to. It was really cool.
When the trails behind the apartment block dried out enough from the spring rains to explore, we began trekking through the swampy woods in search of a place to build a fort. It was Billy, Lance, and I. Todd came too and we thought it was cool that someone older wanted to be in our group. It made us feel important. We carried home made walking sticks and bushwhacked blackberries hanging across the trails, pretending we were venturing into Africa or something. Except it wasn’t Liberia. I already knew what that was like.
One on of our ventures we came upon a clearing scattered with old tires, liquor bottles and had blackened fire ring in the middle. We walked around the site, poking through the debris and kicking the bottles with the toes of our tennis shoes.
“Hey, what’s this?” Billy asked, digging at something with the tip of his stick. Kneeling down, he carefully plied the translucent white film off the ground. It hung limply from the end of the stick as he held it out for inspection. The rest of us leaned in to look more closely and then Todd laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Billy asked.
“It’s a rubber,” Todd replied with a smirk.
“A what?” I asked.
“A rubber. You put it on your whanger so the girl doesn’t get knocked up.” I still didn’t know what it was for, and Todd rolled his eyes.
“It looks like a balloon,” I said, laughing nervously.
“Yeah, Billy’s balloon toy!” Lance added, giggling. Billy swung the stick toward Lance, launching the rubber at him. Lance dodged it, landing in the mud on his knees.
“Nice one, dickwad,” Lance sneered. “My mom told me not to get my new pants dirty.”
“Don’t be such a siss,” Billy retorted. “Your pretty little jeans will clean up. Your mom won’t know the difference.” No one believed it though. Lance couldn’t get away with anything. His mom had eyes in the back of her head and was constantly fussing over him at the bus stop, straightening his collar and licking her fingers to dampen the cowlick on his forehead. Gross.
We returned to the clearing over the next few days and built a fort. It was ours now. We didn’t have enough wood for walls and a roof, but we found some pallets and boards for the floor, and Billy brought a tarp that we hung over a branch. We tied the corners down with stakes, so it looked like a real tent, giving everything inside a sickly bluish cast.
“What should we do now?” Lance asked as we sat on the edge of the tires arranged around the fire ring after finishing the fort.
“Let’s sleep in it tonight,” I said excitedly.
“Yeah,” Billy added. “We can roast hot dogs and marshmallows and stuff.” Todd nodded while Lance didn’t say anything. We all knew what his mom was going to say.
Heading home later in the afternoon, we made our plans and pulled together what food we could scavenge. I asked Mom if I could spend the night at Billy’s, lying to her so I wouldn’t give her a chance to say no.
“We’re going to camp out in his backyard,” I explained convincingly.
“Of course, honey. Have fun.”
“I will,” I said bolting outside with sleeping bag and gear in tow.
Todd, Billy and I returned to the fort and set up camp. We laid out our sleeping bags while Todd collected wood and tried to start a fire. He couldn’t get it going, though. The wood just smoldered while he burned through all the newspaper. Forging ahead, we impaled hotdogs on the end of the sticks Billy had whittled with his new Swiss Army knife his Grandpa gave him for confirmation. It had a knife, fork, and a spoon and even removable toothpick and tweezers. It was boss.
“The wood is too wet to burn,” he said as the lone flame consumed the last of the paper. We held our hotdogs over the smoking piece of wood until the ember winked out. I took a bite. The middle was cold and the hot dog smelled like burnt newspaper. It didn’t matter though, I was hungry and it was cool being there. We ate the rest of the cold hotdogs out of the package and divvied up the tube of Pringles potato chips. Billy brought a six pack of Tab to drink.
“This tastes like puke,” I said, taking a sip and then inspecting the can.
“Yeah. It’s the only thing I could find in our fridge,” Billy said. “It’s all my mom drinks.” Todd let out a huge burp and we laughed while Billy tried burping the entire alphabet. Soon we were all attempting it. Billy got to M. Todd got to O. I could only get to G.
We messed around until dark, finishing the bag of marshmallows and heading to our sleeping bags when there was nothing was left to eat. I was in the middle and Todd and Billy were on either side. Soon we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. The clouds had moved in and it started to rain. We lay in our bags, giggling while we nervously listened to the drops hitting the tarp. We imagined teenagers sneaking up on us to slit our throats for taking their camp in the woods.
“Wait, I hear something,” Todd said seriously.
“What?” Billy said loudly.
“Shhhh, listen,” Todd hissed. We held our breath while the drops hit the tarp, sounding like cannon shots as we strained to hear the phantom noise. Then Todd farted, a high squeaker that seemed to go on forever. He burst out laughing and then we quickly joined him, all of us outdoing the other with farts. We lost interest as the rain picked up and the air grew cool and moist. I huddled into my bag, trying to find comfort in the thin worn out cloth against the hard boards. As I was drifting off, I heard Billy speak up.
“Did you really hear a noise?”
“Shut up and go to sleep.”
“But did you?”
“Yes, and it was the boogeyman. If you don’t shut up I’ll leave you two perverts out here by yourself.”
“It’s okay, Billy,” I said, feeling sorry for him. “He’s just joshing. Go to sleep and you’ll be fine.”
“You promise?” he asked me in a little kid voice.
“Yeah. Promise.” I buried my head back in my bag and went to sleep.
The sound of the zipper woke me. Disoriented, I didn’t know where I was, but then I could see the outline of the tarp against the dark gray backlit sky. Raindrops plopped onto the tarp, though they had slowed. It wasn’t raining as hard. Muffled grunts were coming from the side Todd was on, and I felt a tug on my sleeping bag. The metal zipper rattled quietly as it was pulled down to the bottom of my bag. I felt the cold air my legs as his hand grabbed the back of my head and forced me down toward him.
“Don’t stop till I’m done,” he said in a flat voice, pushing my face onto his erect penis, shoving it into my mouth. Not knowing what to do, I thought that if I were quiet enough he would think I was still asleep. I made no sound as he pushed my head harder against him.
Yes, I was still asleep. This was just a bad dream.
Todd finished with a shudder and I gagged loudly as he shoved my head away, rolling over with a groan. I stuck my head outside the tarp and spit the vileness from my mouth, the back of my throat burning. Tears flooded my eyes as I knelt on the chilled ground. I was dirty and wet. So dirty I didn’t think I would ever feel clean again. I cradled my stomach, rocking and sobbing quietly in the damp morning.
I eventually crawled back into my sleeping bag, staying awake until dawn when the birds began to rustle and twitter. Light threw a blue cast on everything; I decided to leave. Dressing quietly, I looked at Billy still sleeping. Should I wake him? If I did, I’d have to explain why I was going home.
I tiptoed from the fort, hauling my gear over the muddy trail as the sleeping bag straps trailed behind me in the puddles. Headlights were moving along the street, as more cars joined the workday traffic.
It was quiet inside the apartment, Dad’s snoring the only noise. I threw my sleeping bag against the wall. I brushed my teeth twice, pulled off my shoes and got into bed. Waking several hours later, Mom and the girls were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast. I popped my head up and looked around. Dad wasn’t there.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked rubbing my eyes.
“Your father has a job interview, honey. He’ll be back later this morning.” She took a sip of coffee. “You came back early.” Mom set down her coffee cup, looking at me over her paper. “How come?”
“It was raining,” I said. I reached awkwardly to scratch the middle of my back.
“Honey, what is on your cheek?” she asked. Her mouth puckered in a frown and her forehead wrinkled in a frown.
“Come over here,” she instructed. My heart rate jumped as I got out of bed and walked over to her, my back suddenly feeling itchy. She reached up to my face and rubbed her thumbs on my cheeks. Shaking her head worriedly, Mom turned me around and pulled my shirt up under my armpits, running her hands over my back. It was itching like crazy now and I could feel her hands sliding over my back unevenly.
“Ricky, you have hives. I have never seen it this bad before. What were you doing last night?”
“I dunno. Just playing I guess,” I said in the most controlled voice I could manage. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure she would feel it through my back.
“Does it itch?”
“Yeah, really bad.”
“Okay, let’s go to the doctor today and then get some Calamine lotion.”
“Are you sure you there isn’t something your not telling me about last night?” she asked again, turning me around and looking intently through her large owl-shaped eyeglasses. There were thumbprints on the edges, magnifying her drooping lids. Fine lines pinched at the corners of her eyes.
“I’m tired Mom. I think I’ll go back to bed.”
I couldn’t tell her what happened. I didn’t want to think about it. This was my homecoming, and I was back on the rock again, but this time there was no one was swimming out to save me.