Set in Place
He awoke slowly, as if he had somehow been placed under a curse, and so had slept for a hundred years. The last thing he remembered – he wheeled around; was Angelo still behind him with his piece?
“Would you stand still? How can I put these in if you won’t stand still?”
Who would have thought he’d long for Angelo and his piece? He stared at the face in the mirror and burst into tears.
“Would you like me to give you something to cry about?” the woman demanded. “Hold still.”
“Take them out,” he told her between gasps, but it wasn’t his own voice speaking. It was the voice of the child he saw standing in the mirror, and he looked down and saw that he was that child, balanced on a chair with that child’s mother behind him as she gathered his dark curls into two ponytails and tied them with red gingham bows to match the red gingham short set he had on.
“You look so cute!” the mother said, smiling, and she picked him up and placed him on the floor. “Why don’t you go out and see if Jeffrey will play?”
He wasn’t even big enough to see himself in the mirror, once he was on the floor. He glanced down at the sturdy, tanned legs that were supposed to be his, and the tiny feet encased in red leather sandals. His nonna had been right – curses were real. Angelo hadn’t shot him with the piece. He hadn’t died in Joey Lupo’s car, being driven to Red Hook, where they were going to throw his body into the Gowanus Canal. He’d been consigned to some sort of hell, the same Hell his nonna and Father St Onge had always warned him about. Only Hell wasn’t flames and physical agony. Hell was being in a body that wasn’t yours, wearing a red gingham short set with bows in your hair.
He didn’t know what else to do, so he walked out of the small bedroom and followed the long hall, down the stairs to the living room. There was a baby in a cot in the center of the room on a braided rug, and he glanced at it. He felt nothing, looking at it. He supposed it was a pretty baby, with pink skin and white-blonde curls, but he’d cared little about kids before and he didn’t think he would care about them now.
He opened the screen door. It was hot, hotter than it had any right to be for Brooklyn, and yet this was obviously not Brooklyn. He was in a postage-stamp sized yard, the kind they had in the back on President Street, with a fence and a gate. The yard faced an alley, and there were houses all around it, attached to one another, sort of like the ones in Bay Ridge, but without the red-tiled roofs. These places were cheap, cheaply-made and cheaply-kept. He heard a lawn mower somewhere, and kids yelling, and traffic; the brakes of a city bus.
A boy came to the gate, dressed in seersucker shorts and a white shirt.
“You wanna go to the creek?” the boy asked, swinging the gate back and forth.
He could barely understand what the kid was saying. Nobody talked like this in Brooklyn, unless it was in the movies.
“No,” he said. He wanted to hide. Maybe if he hid somewhere, all of this, the strange houses, the cracker boy, the red gingham short set and the ponytails, maybe it would all go away if he gave it time.
“Aw, c’mon,” the boy said. “You ain’t got nothin’ else to do. I seen a frog.”
He thought, who the fuck cares? “You talk funny,” he said.
The boy laughed. “So do you. My momma calls you that little Yankee child.”
He thought he’d sit down, but the stoop was too hot. “Okay,” he said. At least the creek would be cool. He left the yard and walked with the boy down the sidewalk, the sun burning the back of his neck. He could feel sweat running down his shoulder blades. He glanced at the boy, who seemed older, and taller, than he. The boy’s blond hair curled at the nape of his neck, and a trickle of sweat beaded on his upper lip. It reminded him of Angelo, the way Angelo would sweat in the car as they sat in front of Joey’s house, the way Angelo’s sweat dripped on him as the fan in the motel room whirred uselessly.
Where the hell was this creek? His new legs were useless, short and stubby, and he didn’t really want to think about the other, newer parts of him that were useless too. “What’s your name?” he said, kicking a rock with his toe.
“We playin’ a game?” the boy asked. “Mighty Mouse. And when we get to the creek, I’ll save you.”
“Don’t do me any favors, kid,” he said. “I can rescue myself.”
The boy laughed again. “You’re some crazy kid, you know that?”
He shrugged. They crossed a street and then the sidewalk began to curve down a slight incline. He saw the trees and the vacant lot at the end of the rows of houses, and then there was the creek disappearing under the intersection in a culvert. There were playing fields on the other side of the street, but he followed the boy into the vacant lot, dodging shopping carts and broken Coke bottles.
“Gimme your hand, Jilly,” the boy said, holding his hand out. “I’ll make sure you don’t fall.”
He opened his mouth and then shut it. Maybe this world was real and maybe it wasn’t. But somehow he didn’t want to find out what would happen if he told the kid to go fuck himself. He took the boy’s hand, and surprisingly it was dry and warm and smelling of talcum powder, and he followed slowly down the scrubby hill to the creek, which was full of junk. He sat down on the cool ground and took the red sandals off.
“My name isn’t Jilly,” he told the boy. He slid into the water, which was running fast and cool. He glanced around. The only frogs this kid had seen were in his imagination.
“Then my name ain’t Jeffrey,” the boy joked.
Jeffrey, he thought. That figured. He was trying to think of the word that described this – this cazzo – he couldn’t even think of the word in English – standing in a creek wearing red gingham with an eight-year-old finocchio who didn’t even know what he was.
“My name,” he announced, “is Enzo,” and then he remembered the word: surreal.
Life – his life – which had veered from normal to exciting to dangerous much too fast – had simply, in its end, become surreal.
Leslie E Owen grew up in Connecticut and spent most summers in Maine. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a BA in Creative Writing and English Lit in 1980, moving to New York in 1981 to begin her thirty-four-year career in publishing. She has been an acquisitions editor, international publishing representative, film scout, and freelance writer for the publishing trade. Currently she runs a small literary agency and teaches exceptional education students in Florida. She has been published by Tradewind Books, Crocodile Books, Jewish Monthly, Zoetrope, Publishers Weekly, the SCBWI Newsletter, and The Horn Book. Most recently, she’s been writing about Star Trek, and she has appeared on the live radio show Tribbles and Trilobites, New York Cine Radio. She is currently finishing a literary novel, The Mortal Part.
3 Replies to “Set in Place – by LESLIE E OWEN”
This story is a moving piece perfectly capturing the ambivalence of the stolen children of the 1930s and 40s. We should never forget that genocide is not merely the destruction of physical humans but also the destruction of language, religion, and cultural heritage as well. A sad and well-crafted story.
Love this story.