By JOHN MCNALLY
In the summer of 1975, in the southwest Chicago suburb of Burbank, my parents finally became homeowners when they bought a condominium unit in a brand-new development comprised of eight buildings. The cost: $25,000. First, however, we had to break our apartment lease and move out in the middle of the night. I was nine years old, carrying my toys down the stairs to my father’s pick-up at three in the morning while everyone else, our friends and enemies, slept soundly. In every apartment building we’d ever lived, we always had friends and we always had enemies, and we never lived in any one place for longer than two years. Things were finally going to be different.
Once settled in the condo, I started a dog-walking business, and before long I was walking three dogs: Shoo-Shoo, Moo, and Ralph. Behind the eight buildings was a large field of weeds intermittently dotted by trees. The field extended all the way back to an electric fence, and beyond that fence was an industrial park. I rarely walked that far, fearful of running across kissing teenagers and thugs on mini-bikes. Also back there was Dead Man’s Pond, a small body of toxic water around which teenagers drank beer and smoked pot. Fat and nine years old, I would not have been a welcome sight.
From that field behind the condos, I could see the Sears Tower downtown and, further behind it, like a shorter sibling, the John Hancock Building, but that was as much of the city’s skyline as I could make out. Frequently, a Goodyear blimp floated over the field, and while the three dogs sniffed trees or each other, I would recite what I remembered of the radio broadcast of the Hindenburg explosion: “Oh, the humanity! This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed!” Midway airport, only a few miles north, was a ghost town, but occasionally planes would land there, and each time one descended, I would imagine it crashing just beyond the distant tree-line behind which it disappeared. “Puh-kuhhhhhh!” I would say, imitating the explosion.
Standing in that field, holding the dogs’ leashes, I pretended to be other people – a disc jockey introducing songs like “Dream Weaver” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”; a rock star singing a song I’d made up, the monotonous (but in my imaginary world enormously popular) “Money Hunger”; a vaudevillian whose audience for “Who’s on First?” was a trio of panting mutts. I also tortured insects in that field. I did horrible, unspeakable things to insects, something I don’t like to think about even now, but they were not the only things I tortured. There was a tree behind the condos, tall and healthy, shaped like an upside-down wishbone. I beat one side of that wishbone-shaped tree with whatever I was holding. Usually, I hit it with my keys, which were tied to a shoestring, but I would sometimes pick up a fallen tree limb, often from the very tree I was going to beat, and I would strike it with that limb.
I was a fat kid. I was a fat kid who liked to raise the lids of Dumpsters and peer inside. I was a fat kid who liked to peer inside Dumpsters while tending to three dogs who, in turn, sniffed and licked the Dumpster’s delicious wheels. I looked for turntables or old radios with glass vacuum tubes. One time I found a stack of albums. Woodstock. The Concert for Bangladesh. Yessongs. Who would throw these out? An angry lover? I reached in, quickly retrieved them, and ran back to our condo, pulling the dogs behind me. Another time, on a day when the dogs weren’t with me, I spotted something potentially interesting at the bottom of the Dumpster and, after hoisting myself up onto the diseased lip, tried to tilt so that I could reach in and grab it, but once I started tipping inside, I realized that I was going to fall all the way in. I remained teetering for a good while, imagining distant laughter, before finally giving in and crashing to the bottom, landing on top of two bloated bags of stinking garbage.
Year after year, I tortured insects, beat that tree, sang songs I’d made up, and rooted around the communal Dumpster. The dogs grew old and gray while I grew tall and thin. One day, fourteen years old and no longer a fat boy, I stood hitting the tree with one of its fallen limbs, as I’d done a thousand times before. By then, I had quit torturing insects or picking through Dumpsters, but I still walked dogs and clubbed that tree. I clubbed that tree, as though it were the older boy who’d called me fat ass or the adult working on his shitty car who snickered as I, a shy overweight boy on a bicycle, peddled by. Half the tree was alive but half of it was dead, and still I clubbed that son of a bitch, over and over, until I heard a creaking noise. I didn’t realize it was coming from the tree until the tree started to split down the middle. I quickly backed up as the entire tree divided in two, a massive upside-down wishbone pulled apart by invisible giants. The living part remained standing while the dead part crashed to the ground.
I looked behind me to see if anyone had seen what I’d done. I feared retribution. By our fifth year of living in the condo, we had an equal number of friends as we did enemies, and my father tried figuring out a way to get us out of there, but we were no longer renters and couldn’t slip away in the middle of the night, although I could see in my father’s eyes the desire to run, not just away from the condo but away from all of us.
It was too cold for insects that day, and there were no planes in the sky, no blimps floating overhead. I might have felt guilt for what I’d done to the tree or I might have felt nothing. It’s in flames now, I might have thought, and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. “Oh, the humanity!” I might have said to the dogs. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.” Likely, I returned the dogs to their respective homes and then rode my ten-speed around the neighborhood, pedaling harder and harder, heading both anywhere and nowhere at once. To a stranger glancing up, I would have been an indistinguishable blur on a bicycle, and then I would have been nothing at all. I would have been gone.
John McNally is author of seven books, including the novels The Book of Ralph and After the Workshop.
Photo by John McNally.