Gary Lenski was one of those kids with a perpetually runny nose, quick to smile and quicker to cry. Gary liked to play pretend, which he pronounced ‘bretend’ and Gary did a lot of bretending. Adult women melted in his presence-his big brown eyes that were sad even when he was happy, the way his lip quivered when he sniffled, which was every ten seconds, the way his hands were always dirty from some solitary adventure in the neglected, scrubby vacant lot behind his house. The kids in the neighborhood saw a target, an easy one, the older ones nicknaming him ‘fairy’, the younger ones taunting him as their introductory foray into peer pressure and the contrived conflicts that adults don’t like to admit they still practice.
Gary’s mom watched from the windows sometimes, her own anxiety tethering her to the house most of the time as if the little Cape Cod had a human pet on a leash. If it wasn’t for her three days a week at the recycling center, she wouldn’t know anyone in the neighborhood by name.
The politest way the neighbors described her was “scattered”.
She would describe herself as eccentric and yes, even scattered, but she became very focused on her post-nasal-drippy little brown-eyed boy the day Ryan Ferretti ran on to the porch screaming, absolutely panic-bellowing “Mrs. Lenski!” Ryan was out of breath and oblivious to the fact that the woman, incongruous to Ryan’s hysteria, looked through the front window screen, and calmly corrected him “Ms.”
“Mrs. Lenski, Gary’s hurt bad!”
Gary was hurt badly, as childhood injuries go, especially those that are inflicted with purpose.
The older boy couldn’t possibly have wanted to crack Gary’s skull, Shelly Lenski hoped, but by all accounts, the boy pushed him off the porch on purpose, maliciously, for no reason.
The little house on Abington gained a new human pet.
Gary was medically forbidden most physical activities that tween boys enjoy, though after the incident Gary didn’t seem to enjoy much at all.
Playing video games was not on either list-forbidden or unenjoyable- until Ms.Lenski and the doctors realized they gave Gary debilitating headaches.
Ms. Lenski contorted herself and her creativity to make her son smile. All but Gary’s snot was withdrawn into his own head.
Her income-pasted together from the recycling center and sporadic child support from Gary’s father, who had been “itinerant” in his own words since shortly after the sheets on their conjugal bed had dried, would not allow for counseling.
The few neighborhood kids that had visited Gary before dwindled to almost no one and those who came didn’t stay very long.
Most days Gary stared out the window, looking at the old vacant lot, adjacent to the freeway, neglected by the city. His former field of aimless dreams and childhood ponderings was overgrowing without him.
Shelly Lenski read her boy to sleep every night, and when she ran out of books suitable for Gary she began to make up tales of brave knights who fought dragons and superheroes who saved pretty girls. Gary would fall asleep, never giving any indication if he enjoyed the stories.
After Gary was snoring-and ever since the porch incident he snored like a woodchipper- she would go downstairs, light some sage, drink rootbeer schnapps out of a hollow candle holder she had purchased as a gift for a wedding she decided not to attend and cried herself to sleep.
One night, a year after Gary’s injury and well into a four candleholder a night drinking habit, Shelly Lenski was awoken by a metallic screech and howl only heard in Japanese monster movies and in homes in close proximity to freeways.
She took the stairs two at a time to check Gary, though at each footfall she almost lost her balance from the combination of sugary alcohol and drowsiness playing her balance like a badly tuned piano.
“I’m coming Gary!” she called, though Gary had made no sounds to indicate the noise had awoken him.
Shelly lovingly smeared a drunken dollar store Midnight Rose lipstick kiss on her snoring son’s forehead and went back downstairs.
In the morning after the noise disturbed her nightly slumber, Shelly crawled from the sofa and made her way to the kitchen.
Following a routine that predated Gary’s injury, she made herself an instant iced tea, scooping enough of the crystals into one glass to serve an entire senior’s tennis tournament, and then pre-sogged Gary’s chocolate crunch cereal in a pint of chocolate milk, quite possibly the only thing left that Shelly was certain Gary loved.
She went upstairs to wake her son, and escort him downstairs, holding his hand like a relay baton, which was no longer medically necessary for the boy but was emotionally necessary for Shelly.
Gary was already awake, an anomaly, and had his face and hands pressed against his bedroom window, almost as though he had been instructed to do so by a police officer.
“What are you doing, honey?” Shelly blurted, the shock of the disruption of routine overriding her consistent worry that her injured little boy would die in his sleep.
“Bretending”, he said, and Shelly pulled her oversized Hello Kitty sweatshirt into her face to mask her instant, happy blubbering.
Gary ignored her, staring out at the vacant lot and its new tenant. It was the detritus, the jetsam from last night’s car crash: One very used, semi rusted but still shining 1991 Ford LTD bumper, sheered clean off and helicoptered into Gary’s once-favorite and suddenly freshly appealing field of daydreams.
Gary shoveled his daily chocolate mush into his mouth, thanked his mom for breakfast during a sprint for the door, and jumped off the small, dilapidated back porch as though it was a burning ship.
Shelly was as happy as she’d been since she put a Susan B. Anthony dollar under Gary’s pillow for his first lost baby tooth. Before Shelly could mix herself a celebratory second iced tea, Gary had dragged the car bumper over the little chicken wire garden fence that marked the end of the vacant lot, the beginning of their property, and his mom’s dirty patch of a ‘someday’ garden. Placing the car bumper very purposely and carefully behind their garage, Gary had the centerpiece of his Impenetrable Fortress Of Coolness. Retrieving two almost empty paint cans left by the last tenant, Gary made a pillar, then, dismayed at the lack of symmetry, found a few broken bricks in the lot. The broken bricks, of course, would be where the Zincafezz Dragon had unsuccessfully attacked his fortress, leaving some damage.
He sat back against the garage, the hazy sunlight of the morning glinting off the bumper.
Temporarily the happiest kid in the whole city, Gary gazed out over his kingdom. But the joy was fleeting as he realized that the bumper just wasn’t high enough to make a proper fort. It was a wonderful start, but he needed more.
While his mother bathed before work, Gary scoured the downstairs for additions to the Impenetrable Fortress, because he wouldn’t be able to remove anything from the house when Missus Delaney the Neighbor Lady came to watch him.
Missus Delaney the Neighbor Lady (as far as Gary knew, that was her legal name and was incapable of being modified in any manner) was stricter than his mother but spent most of the afternoon doing word search puzzles at the kitchen table, while Gary played by rule, inside.
He found a gallon of bleach, which, with it’s stark white and blue label would make a fine front guard tower and a milk crate that had been elevating a useless potted plant in the hallway.
Shelly, now dressed for work in her jeans and green Realcycle Recycling smock almost tripped over the plant in the hallway. Before she could inquire as to the milk crate’s whereabouts, the newly energized Gary had dragged her by the wrist out behind the garage to see The (for the first time articulated aloud ) Inpetberable Fortress of Coolness. Looking at his mother with all the seriousness of a plumbing contractor telling a homeowner that the entire sewer line needs replacing, Gary said, “It needs to get more bigger.”
“I think it’s delightful just how it is”, Shelly said encouragingly, which was like telling Frank Lloyd Wright she would prefer something in wattle and daub.
Gary sniffed a ridge of snot from his upper lip into his cerebral cortex and stated: “No, it needs to get more bigger.”
Not wanting her little boy to get worked up or wanting her prized pleather bean bag chairs to wind up in the Fortress of Coolness, she said “ We will find something when I get home.”
Shelly Lenski had zero idea what that something would be, but it sounded like the right thing to say at the time. She had not even caught on to the fact that the bleach was part of the construction project.
Missus Delaney the Neighbor Lady was frantically searching for ‘sturgeon’ to complete the July Wordsearchorama Anthology Creatures of the Deep puzzle and Gary was watching a kleptomaniac monkey in a hotel on DVD when Duke, from Duke’s Diner, walked into Shelly’s greeting tent at the recycling center to drop off a load. Duke was nicknamed Duke because his friends told him he looked like John Wayne, though Shelly thought he more closely resembled Vic Tayback. Regardless of who he looked like, he had not read the rather large sign that said Realcycle Recycling would no longer be accepting foam egg cartons as of, well...six months ago.
So it was that Shelly Lenski came home with the secondary construction materials for the Impenetrable or Inpeterable Fortress of Coolness so her little boy could play ‘bretend’.
Two large bags of them.
The next day, armed with school glue and with his mother’s plant stand and bleach back in the house, Gary Lenski built out his chrome bumper Inpet...Imeb...his Fortress of Coolness with stacks of egg cartons. To make it extra sturdy, he jammed popsicle sticks into the little, manufactured gaps in the metal where the bumper had once been affixed to the now totaled car.
Gary had an astonishing 42 minutes of blissful ‘bretending’, being a knight and a king and the head moat digger of the Fortress of Coolness, contentedly sitting behind his chrome and foam masterpiece as though he wasn’t just king of the lot, but of the entire world. Contemplating how he would inform the cars speeding down the Southfield Freeway that he was their monarch and leader, Gary was startled when Coyle Burnside and Evan Kamardi snuck behind Coyle’s garage next door with the first joint of their twelve-year-old lives.
Before they could light the joint (and Evan being suddenly disinclined because he was certain Fairy Gary Lenski would tell on them), Coyle pointed out the bumper.
“Lookit that thing, Ev, that’s like an antique! Milton’s Scrapyard would probably give us a hundred bucks for that thing!”
Evan said, “Give ya a dollar for it Gary”. Gary sniffled in confusion. Not only had he just heard Coyle say it was worth one hundred dollars but at that moment in time considered his Fortress of Coolness to be priceless and to be an architectural wonder that would last forever.
Coyle then offered two dollars.
Gary let out a wheezy, purposeful,” I’m not dumb”, laugh.
“Not for sale at any price”, he said.
Coyle, his adrenalin flowing from having borrowed weed from his older sister without permission, and knowing that his travel lacrosse coach father would kick his ass if he caught him smoking anything, said “Then I guess we’ll just take it.”
Gary immediately reached down and held on to the popsicle stick studs that jutted above the muddy ground.
Evan pulled one side of the bumper, and the sticks did their job.
Coyle gave the fortress a puzzled look, his freckly cheeks reddening slightly.
“Let go of it, Fairy,” he said, “that thing is worth money.”
“It’s my fort, Coyle,” Gary said, rapidly powersniffing.
“It’s just egg cartons”, Evan said and as if to prove it, Coyle began kicking the eight high and five wide stacks of egg cartons, glued to each other and to the chrome bumper gifted to Gary by the service drive gods.
Yellow Styrofoam shards of egg carton showered down on King Gary, who instinctively reached to protect his surgical scar and began to silently cry.
It wasn’t until Evan had pulled the bumper clear of the popsicle sticks that Gary screamed.
The crystalized caffeine inside Shelly Lenski’s heart propelled her out of the kitchen, off the porch airborne much like her son had begun to do again and behind the garage.
If her eyes had been focused in the right spot she would have seen Evan and Coyle’s erstwhile first joint bounce slightly off a tattered egg carton.
But her eyes were only focused on her son, holding his head as though he had been injured again.
It took a brutal, hyperventilating twelve minutes before she was certain that Gary hadn’t sustained any head injuries, and the relief poured from her like the spillways at the hydroelectric plant, rocking her son with squeaking shards of yellow styrofoam pressed between her arms and his still trembling torso.
That night, shakily and joylessly sipping her rootbeer schnapps from her candleholder, Shelly was certain her brown-eyed little boy would retreat back into the foggy anhedonia he had been a prisoner of before.
With the sun making reflections from the freeway traffic dance on her eyelids, Gary’s mother woke. She completed her morning breakfast ritual and went to wake Gary. He was awake again, face pressed to his bedroom window, and when she entered he turned and plead stared at her, the brown eyes eclipsing all the other colors in his room and said “Mom, can I have more egg cartons?”
Shelly Lenski walked from her usual bus stop to Duke’s Diner, ordered an ice tea, the terrible, freshly brewed kind, and caught Duke’s eye. She apologized for possibly being curt with him the last time he was at the recycling center and told him that she would be happy to take the egg cartons for him and personally repurpose them.
She was so thrilled he hadn’t discarded the cartons that when she stopped to get schnapps on the way home from Duke’s she bought Missus Delaney the Neighbor Lady some new word search and Sudoku books.
As Gary began construction of the Impeb...Inpret...The Fortness of Coolness Version Two, Shelly watched, lending a hand with not just the physical structure, but also with Gary’s pronunciation of Impenetrable. To see her son focused and happy, two things she struggled with herself, was the greatest high in the world. Finding a decent sized and aromatic joint on the ground near the construction site was just a bonus.
Gary had a running narrative going as the Fortress came to life, and Shelly briefly hoped her son would grow up to be a writer. Then she remembered she dated a writer once and he and all his friends were drunken, self-absorbed assholes.
So Shelly hoped that Gary would be an architect and design beautiful, sustainable homes for people to live in peace.
Then she excused herself to cook dinner, hoping the aroma of vegetarian curry would mask the smell of the joint.
Dropping the vegetables into the oil, she was contemplating whether plants could feel, as some books suggested, when the architect of the Fortress screamed again, in obvious agony.
Gary, who she cradled for some time, was unhurt.
His Fortress was again reduced to shards of non-biodegradable material that fluttered about the yard.
The vegetables were burned beyond anything recognizable as having once been edible, though Shelly was thankful she hadn’t burned the house down.
And Shelly realized that she was going to have to go next door and speak to the monument of testosterone that was Kenneth Burnside, Coyle’s Father.
She didn’t know Mr. Burnside, and wouldn’t have known his first name if it wasn’t for some errant mail, and had never spoken to him beyond hello. But his truck was bigger than the Lenski’s living room and Shelly had never once seen him in the recycling center and that was enough on which her anxiety could base a deep sense of dread.
Shelly told Gary a bedtime story with a candleholder by her side, then fell asleep with him.
If Shelly Lenski was ever going to tell anyone about her conversation with Kenneth Burnside, which she wasn’t, she would have only told them this:
That she was so scared her hands wouldn’t move. She had to knock on the door with her head. And that Kenneth Burnside said, “My son told me that it was a dispute over a financial transaction gone wrong.”
Shelly was already on her back porch when she realized that she hadn’t cried. Her last words for Kenneth Burnside, who had leaned over her so that the embroidered, script “Coach” on his satin jacket almost touched her nose, were a wavering but stern “My son is 9 years old.”
It was rainy and windy as Shelly sat in her little pop-up tent with the hand-drawn, reclaimed wood sign that said Welcome to Realcycle. The tent would have blown away years ago if not for the four cement-in-a-bucket ballasts that held it in place.
She was more of a “concept” person-Frogs would be the best living creature ever if they were vegan” was one of her favorites-than she was an “idea” person. Ideas were generally something to be put into practice. But today, slow at work, sitting in her flimsy tent, Ms. Shelly Lenski had an idea.
Right around the time one of Duke’s counter girls said “Duke, that weird hippie lady is back for more egg cartons”, Coyle Burnside and Evan Kamardi were riding home from lacrosse practice in the back of Mr. Burnside’s Dually. Kenneth Burnside was humming Lynyrd Skynyrd (not that the boys could identify the band) and listening to financial motivational speeches in his earbuds, as the two twelve-year-olds were discussing their next plan on getting the bumper. It was a ridiculously simple plan: They were going to walk over there and take it, something they both agreed they should have done the first time. But harassing Gary and destroying his stupid fort had been part of the game. Twelve-year-old boys grasp the concept of superiority and domination before they grasp the idea of finance. The twelve-year-old brain has not yet combined the two. (Older brains definitely combine the two and make things suck, but that’s not part of Gary’s story).
Now that Gary had run to his mommy, and his mommy complained to Mr. Burnside, he had been dominated. That part of the process was complete, and now all Coyle and Evan needed to do was grab the bumper, take it to Milton’s, sell it, then they could buy weed off Evan’s sister.
Gary loved his mom’s idea and thought she was the smartest person in the universe.
Shelly Lenski was blissfully unaware that the two kids from the Cooley High track team had used the money she paid them to carry the bags of quick-setting cement to buy triple cheeseburgers at a major fast-food franchise.
She was now broke for the month.
But she was beyond thrilled that now her little boy’s fortress would be truly impenetrable, even if he still struggled with the word while he was ‘bretending’.
It took some more popsicle sticks and some bricks from the vacant lot to steady the old car bumper so that the now reinforced, cement-filled egg cartons were even sturdier on top of it.
Medieval architecture wasn’t Shelly Lenski’s area of expertise, but she thought the Fortress looked beautiful, made even more beautiful by her precious little boy’s smile and bright, inquisitive, simultaneously dreamy brown eyes.
As Missus Delaney the Neighbor Lady walked up the driveway, Shelly nearly bounced out to greet her. Leaving for work meant getting home from work and letting her little boy tell her a story about his exploits in the Impenetrable Fortress of Coolness, and to work on its pronunciation.
Shelly had just begun to ask Missus Delaney the Neighbor Lady to allow Gary an entire hour outside when both women heard a scream from behind the garage.
The scream did not belong to Gary, but both women ran toward it anyway, Missus Delaney the Neighbor Lady lugging a huge tote bag of puzzle books.
Coyle Burnside was writhing on the ground, holding an ankle attached to a foot bent at a grotesque angle.
Evan Kamardi was running down the Burnside’s driveway screaming “Coach! Come quick! Coyle’s hurt bad!
And Gary was kneeling over Coyle, hand on Coyle’s shoulder, tears in his eyes, snot running down his face, saying “I’m sorry, Coyle, my fortress isn’t bretend anymore.”
I still love this one. Had to reread it
Ha! Love it!! Shine on Gary!!