Donna D. Vitucci

Papa Pete curbed Trey on a leash out of love, but you can’t stop a little boy from his twisting.

Snap. Then suddenly not boy, nor pet, but string-free balloon. The wind tossed him among treetops snowy with plastic bags no one sees.

His papa’s face went wet and distracted, bile rising, the whole world a thermometer.

There must have been a hundred people. Each countenance ground its focus to the dense foot traffic, summer late supper time on the river. Better not to look on another’s misery because misery was contagious. You learned that from the cradle. They paddled it into you during school.

Along the river walk a man was buckling his pants, bathing trunks wetting the bench. He rolled desperate yellow eyes over Trey. “You my marigold?”

Below them the Peridot River cut like a stroke of metal through greenery.

If you heard Trey at all you might have thought he was spitting that Penecostal nonsense. The man, captured by the bloom on Trey’s cheeks, set his hand over the boy’s mouth and said, “No reason to get excited.” A boy’s skin, plump as persimmon, made the devil rise on the riverbank. The man was all done swimming.

“Where’s your mama?” he said, switching right and left, swiveling his head all the way around. An observer later reported: it was 360 gruesome.

A man on fire has superhuman strength, above average range, sickness that illuminates the hair that sheathes his body. You don’t try to stop a man radiating like that. You get out of his way.

Trey’s mama was a seed pod broke open and scattered, she might be anywhere. His Papa Pete, doting and full-on cognizant of the danger in smothering but unable to boundary his needs, he told Trey stories of a woman as whirlwind, who tore up his heart then moved on through as storms do. Not the calmest of bedtime tales, but the father ravished Trey with boundless affection, even after the portions she siphoned. She’d been a gas guzzler of love. She stomped down hard on his pedal.

The man said to Trey, “You’re a petal, a blossom. He loves me, he loves me not, eh?”

By now he had directed the boy and his sweet, malleable shoulders through a parking lot where the automobiles sizzled in their maze. The few bystanders wore sunglasses to shield out the setting sun. What they didn’t see didn’t happen. They made deals and passed contraband. Their fingers curled in their pockets, their spines crooked against buildings also crooked. They claimed, later, to be know-nothings.

Used to his papa setting him on a path, Trey had no objections. He didn’t know to fear, had no wisdom or inkling of it. He ran, as part of a game, and he challenged the man to keep up.

Huff huff huff, said the man. Echolalia ribboned out of Trey.

They traversed an alley, and a switchback. They entered a grove. Interstate rumble strips could still be heard from somewhere up above, jungle drums and ivy all around working their cushion and silence.

“Do you like bananas?” the man said. Every kid liked bananas.

Was it fair Trey could not speak, or rather could not speak intelligibly? What was God thinking, anyway, when he tied Trey’s tongue.

But here, the drop of mercy, still straining. Papa Pete roamed like a crazed fan among Hollywood royals, actually spinning some people—those who didn’t shrink or cringe or plain-out flee his mania. They raised a ruckus over him. No one liked strangers touching them.

“My boy. Have you seen my boy? Wearing a Grover tee shirt and shorts. New white gym shoes.” He measured his hand with the broken leash at his knee. “About this tall.”
Spit flew from his tongue, and the curious few drew back from the infection.

The universe was threaded with cell phones–someone was bound to call the cops on this kook. Sorting out the disturbance took a while. Hurt or danger aimed at the boy set him roaring, and rust moving through his lungs made it hard to breathe.

“He’s not mute. But he doesn’t talk. He’s five.”

“Is there anybody that might have it in for you, or the boy?”

His mind shuffled the deck of acquaintances and bad dates and once-friends. Jody. Let’s be clear: she moved through quickly, but for a time she was his wife. She couldn’t take care of anything. Trey was the furthest, bewildering idea. She gazed at the infant in her arms the way she’d observe a stray kitten–dispassionately, no investment, letting the mewling happen, her fingers held wide and staticky.

“You be father if you think you’re so cut out for it,” she said. Signed the papers with her adolescent handwriting, and a curlique. Vamoosed to some sunny place.

The man in the grove, where the sun stuttered through a thousand leaves, said to the boy wanting his nap: “Hey, my muppet.” He spit into his palm, then rubbed his hands together.

The boy floated slightly above the ground cover; you might not have even noticed his levitation unless you knew to look for it—this, since birth, an anomoly and gift and part reason for the leash.

“You’re liable to up and float away and we can’t have that,” Papa Pete had joked, clicking the leash clasp closed on Trey earlier that day. People viewed this so disapprovingly, but they did not know the terror and the love, nor the depth of terrible love.

“Everybody’s owned by somebody,” the man said, as if he was inside Trey’s head and looking around for a place to sit.

The humming above from a caravan of tractor trailers rang monstrous. Trey clapped his hands over his ears and wailed to drown the noise, which scraped against the man’s tolerance. Delayed gratification had been too long delayed; he wanted with the biggest of wants.

Papa Pete told the cop, “We’re wasting time. Can’t you start looking and find my boy?” He’d been an upstart all his youth but fatherhood demanded patience– and with Trey, a boatload. He ate his criticism so as to turn their hands to sifting this crowd and dispelling all the damned goo-gawkers.

The boy was lost not long enough to be termed “missing” in police annals, but in a father’s book, eons during which every sorry-ass act is deployed, every question is strafed down to its seminal thread, every gambit played.

Trey’s throat music brought the cops to the west-most point on the riverbank where rides had been erected. Carny-ville, they called it in their notes–grimy, noisy, and by no means safe; shady, prone to breakdown or worse. Those metal cages, garishly painted and heaving and ho-ing, from the sky to the earth and back, induced headaches. Those, and the ice balls.

May have been Trey was never meant to speak. The invisible pouch in his throat caught what threatened his survival the way doctors speculated tonsils counter-acted strep. Police and counselors invoked the resilience of children but Papa Pete knew better than to believe that Pollyanna shit. He’d be ecstatic to find the boy alive. He wouldn’t dare think yes or no on violated, and he couldn’t hope for coherent; his son had never made sense, not even to him.

At the merry go round Trey refused to disembark. They came at him from all sides, slowly, as if narrowing in on a wild animal. His papa rushed their ranks, and the whole area erupted. The SWAT-trained cops had no suspect’s head to bash in so instead the police sea divided, half to peel Trey off a painted, screaming pony, and the others lock-holding the father. The calliope drilled on, its horrible independent function insisting you will be joyous, you must be carefree, every day is summertime. Pete fantasized blowing it all up; he had dynamite in his basement for eliminating tree stumps he was going to get rid of as soon as he brought Trey home. He made these kinds of promises.

A cop near the rear said, “Horses can roll their mad eyes up inside their heads, trying to forget a bad break, but most times, you know, they just have to be shot.”

Pete felt ready to murder the men in uniform. “Be careful or you’ll spook him,” he called out.

A few in the crowd said, “Let the guy through,” but the police hated relinquishing their edge. Dusk made things hard to see. Lawmen, and the medics they’d radioed, and a social worker fenced Trey from the growing crowd and the newscasters with their satellite van, not to mention the flailing dad, who kept tabs on his boy by his white shoes. Only newly scuffed, they still brought the moon to the floor. Papa Pete expected Trey to burst out of the pod of bloodsuckers like a rocket. The kid had strength and grit and booster shoes. He kept waiting for the playground to experience a super nova burning up its mulched path.

My son, the fireball, he thought. He invoked it like litany, out loud, until the repeats didn’t make sense. Fireball, fireball, ball-all-alb-ba-ball-ah-lala.

“He’s praying to Allah,” some guy said.

Jody had called him a terrorist when she was trying to carve out room for her flight from him.

Pete said, “Are you out of your fucking head? I’m his dad!”

“No reason to get excited,” said another unknown.

There were too many strangers, and the way they corralled your kids, the way suspicion boomeranged back on you, who had only ever fed their tiny needs with tiny spoons that never stopped driving to their beaks, clicking the spoon against their tiny bared teeth, knock knock knock.

“Let me in,” his papa screamed.

Trey’s papa’s roaring touched the lode of highchair memories in which he’d screamed just this way, up to his eyeballs with trying to get mashed anything inside Trey’s mouth. Neither good nor bad, this was merely memory of the highchair pad slippery under his chubby toddler ham bones.

The man in the grove had revealed his ham bones. He said, “Well, look-ey this.” He was reclining, his legs the size of tree trunks, his belt ’round his ankles He swiveled a lazy wrist and said, “Merrily, merrily, eh, my marigold?”

Trey felt stars in the ends of his fingers. He was current and light, and the man, who’d been banking on that, held the back of Trey’s neck, insistent, and whispered, “Gently.”

Inside Trey cartoons clashed with hard advice, he heard his papa sing: Life is but a dream, my boy, life is but a dream, and he heard his papa say, “Your mother was a do-nothing,” and “You got to take this boat and row.” When the man’s eyelids fluttered, Trey scooped a highway chip fallen from up where the semis roared. They say superheroes reside in everyone; they only need reason to emerge. So. Marvel how the grove’s green cells duplicated at accelerated pace, a nature show in time lapse high-speed, the seasons pummeling, all swallowed, then erased, broke down to bare elements and then shot through with abundance, glossy and organic and green, nothing amiss, the grove pure as the garden before the snake, and Trey long gone on his pony.

Donna D. Vitucci has made a home in the Licking Riverside Historic District of Covington, KY, and walks almost daily to the Point—the confluence of the Licking and Ohio Rivers, as well as all along the riverwalk that connects Covington to Newport. The riverwalk is, of course, a public place, a vastly pleasant promenade sometimes also haunted by shady characters and those plotting ill fortune. Or so she imagines.