Across the Moat

by Shelley Keller

It was July during the summer that I turned 9. We lived in a single-wide trailer, our simmering hot box on wheels. I shared a dollhouse-size bedroom with my older sister and my parents had the other, slightly bigger bedroom. My little sister still slept in the crib that was in my parents’ room, even though she was 4. There wasn't anywhere else to put her.

Drip. The kitchen sink. Drip. It had been leaking for a while. Drip. We were eating breakfast on a sweltering, humid Saturday. Mom's silence was painfully apparent. My dad methodically ate his eggs and toast. They must be fighting again. The clanking forks against our plates sounded like mini firecrackers in that swollen silence. Drip. A bead of sweat rolled down from my forehead. Drip. We had no air conditioning. Drip. That might have been a tear falling from my mother’s eye.

I never knew what they fought about. My mom is Korean, and whenever she fought with my dad, they spoke in her native tongue. There would be sharp, staccato outbursts from my mother with pleading replies from my father. She would rage, point her finger accusingly and follow my dad from room to room. Since there weren’t many rooms, they always ended up in the back bedroom with the door closed, my mom yelling, my dad speaking gently, patiently. My two sisters and I would have our ears pressed up against the door. My older sister and I would try to decipher the gist of the argument with our scant understanding of Korean and explain the foreign language of marital disappointment, frustration and loneliness to our baby sister.

I often wondered if this is what it felt like to be deaf. Uprisings and outbursts swirled around me, and I could only read facial expressions and body language and measure the decibel and speed of speech to try to understand my parents’ conversations. I felt that I was drowning in a tumble of gibberish, like an alien dropped into this family. I tried desperately to feel like I belonged, but most of the time I felt invisible. They were playing out their drama and I was relegated to the role of observer.

Sometimes, I feared that my parents would get a divorce. Most children lived with their mother. Mine didn't speak English that well and she didn't know how to drive. How would we get groceries? What if I was sick and couldn't go to school? Who would write the note to my teacher? Sometimes these thoughts kept me up at night. I kept hoping that my dad would stop doing whatever it was that made Mom mad, that he could make her happy. At night, I dreamt that every part of my body would puff up with air, my earlobes, my fingers, my chest and I was just about to burst into a cloud of dust, crumbling away to nothing. Then I would wake with a start, my teeth clenched, my fists balled up and my sweaty body tangled up in the sheets, while my sister slept peacefully next to me.

In the morning after breakfast, we made our bed, my mom scrubbed us raw and then we burst through the door. One swing of the front door and the simmering tension pent up in our trailer instantly gave way to a joyous expanse of open air. Here we could talk our own sibling language among ourselves and feel heard and understood. We could explore the woods that surrounded our trailer park. We often found what we deemed to be Indian artifacts, for we had heard a rumor that this park was built on Indian burial grounds. We braved the mosquitoes and thorns to pick wild raspberries, we climbed trees and rode the old oil pump in teeter-totter fashion.

The summer I was 9 was 1972. The trailers in the park were lined up in neat rows. Each one had a little grassy yard and there was a continuous sidewalk that ran along the front of the trailers. Then across the street was another neat row of trailers that faced us with their sidewalk. We played outside. The trailer park thugs-in-training walked by. They stopped in the street in front of our yard. "Look at the little Chinks. Hey flat face. Hey slanty eyes." They pulled their eyes taut in mockery of our Asian features and howled gibberish, laughing gleefully. "That's how your mommy talks, Jap gobbledygook." We stood in our yard facing them. The expanse of the sidewalk between our yard and the street where they stood flinging their insults was like a moat, a chasm, which separated our fiefdom from theirs. The enemy hurled their barbed and poisoned weapons across the moat. Our powerful shields deftly deflected them. They moved on to find other prey. Our shields had taken a lot of arrows over time, and they were starting to wear thin. We acted like we didn't care, but the name-calling and verbal assaults always hit their intended target — our pride, our self-esteem, our hearts.

Jenny, Diane and Tracy came by. They called out excitedly, "Hey, come on you guys, we have something to show you!" Ah, these were allies. The drawbridge was lowered across the moat and we were granted access to their world. We happily joined them. Jenny told us a new trailer moved in down the street from us and we just had to see it. We ran. The six of us stopped short in front of the new trailer. We stared, open-mouthed, wide-eyed. We were amazed and lacked the sophistication to hide it. This new trailer wasn't a real house trailer at all, but a camper trailer, like the kind you pull behind a truck. It looked miniscule on the concrete slab that was meant to accommodate a full-size trailer. There were three children and two adults unloading boxes from the car. Then another child came out of the camper, and yet another child came from inside.

We whispered among ourselves. Could it really be that seven people were living in a camper trailer? We were determined to investigate this new situation. The new family looked back at us with practiced disregard. I was nudged forward. Somehow, I always ended up being appointed the group leader. I was actually quite shy and afraid to talk to strangers, plus my dad always told me I was too nosy and should learn to mind my own business. However, my group depended on me, and I refused to show my fear. I rather liked the importance of being crowned the fearless group leader. I bravely stepped up closer to the sidewalk. I put on what I hoped was my friendliest smile, designed to put our new neighbors at ease, so that I could extract the desired information. The older boy — scrawny, shaggy, pointedly sullen — stepped up, just shy of the sidewalk. We looked across the moat at each other. My temples pounded, my heart raced. I wasn't quite sure how to put this.

I asked, "So, like ... are you guys on vacation?"

He answered no in such a way as if to say we were incredibly inane for even asking. "We live here," he said defiantly, daring me to laugh, staring me down.

Connie, my baby sister, called out innocently, "Do you have a bathroom in there? Where do you pee?"

The group erupted in gales of giggles and laughter. The boy’s eyes hardened into a flinty glare. I no longer wanted to be the group leader. He and I looked each other in the eye for a brief second, recognizing that we each had suffered rejection because of our otherness, before he turned away in disgust. I had one moment where I could have reached across the moat and offered inclusion, friendship. Yet the drawbridge was not lowered, he was not granted access to our world. I bowed my head. Shame and guilt blazed up inside me, scorching my integrity. I had recognized his armor, for I, too, had employed similar defenses against my own tormentors. I was trying too hard to conform, to belong. He was too risky.

I told my friends that I had to go home to get a drink of water. I was weary of them and my own part in humiliating this boy. He had as little control of where he lived as I did over my Asian features. Our parents had determined our destiny up to this point in our lives, yet we had to suffer the isolation.

I decided to read. I loved to open my books and lose myself in a world far outside my trailer park existence. I could temporarily forget about the loneliness of not belonging.

Summer’s exuberance gave way to a stately, colorful fall. The family of seven in the little camper trailer had learned to keep to themselves. The neighborhood bullies had been relentlessly cruel and brutal in their verbal attacks. In one way I felt great relief, because it took the attention away from me and my sisters. Then, on the other hand, I felt guilty that I was relieved, since I understood what they were enduring. The five kids only played with each other. I remember one time running by their trailer laughing with the other kids and I caught such a look of longing from the younger girls and then a look of resigned indifference from the older boy. I was different. Why was I included into a group and not them? From then on, I avoided walking by their lot whenever possible. I could not face my burning guilt. Yet I was intensely curious about them. Where did they sleep? Where did they come from? Why were they so poor, that they had to live in such a little trailer? But I resigned myself to never knowing the answers to my questions, since I was too cowardly to risk being seen talking to them.

Our summer vacation was over. Secretly, I was glad. I preferred the structure of the classroom to the chaos at home. I anxiously awaited the first day of school. I wondered how the other kids at school would react to the camper trailer family. I waited at the bus stop. We broke out into our little factions. I wondered where they would stand. What if they tried to stand by me? Would I turn my back on them? My sisters, Jenny, Tracy and Diane and I huddled together. Our enemies, the thugs, sauntered up together at the last minute. I avoided eye contact with them and silently prayed they would find some other way to amuse themselves today. Some of the older kids hung together and smoked cigarettes. The five kids didn't show up. I wondered if their mom would drive them to school. At recess, I scanned the playground. I didn't see them. At lunch, I cruised around the cafeteria, still no sign. They never did go to school with us.

We looked forward to Halloween. We counted down the days until we could don our chosen personas and shamelessly beg candy from complete strangers. We pestered our parents to purchase our costumes, weeks before the heralded event. Finally, the day arrived. We ran home from the bus stop. We had agreed to meet our friends at 6 p.m. sharp. We fidgeted, and paced, and asked our mom what time it was every two minutes. We were glad that it was still fairly warm, so our mom would not force us to wear our coats over our costumes. At the appointed hour, we ran amok in the trailer park with our plastic pumpkins, boldly knocking on every door. My dad called us in at 8 and told us to get ready for bed. We counted out our sugary haul. I traded all my Three Musketeers for any Snickers or Bazooka gum my sisters were willing to give up.

The next morning as we walked to the bus stop, we saw a crowd gathered in front of the little camper trailer. We hurried to see what everyone was looking at. My heart caught in my throat. I sucked in my breath. We all stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed, silent. Someone had pelted their trailer with eggs, literally hundreds of eggs. Dried yellow yolk was stuck to the sides of their trailer and on their banged-up wood-paneled station wagon, trailing down in a canary path. Shells were strewn all around their yard. Spray-painted on their trailer was, "Get out freaks," "We don't want no freaks." Swear words were painted on their car. My heart knocked so fearfully against my chest, I thought I would lose my balance. The older boy was standing outside in mangy mismatched clothes, his hair greasy, his eyes rimmed with red. He looked us each dead in the eye, glaringly accusing us all of this horrid molestation of his property. I looked at him for the first time since that day they had moved in. I tried to convey my sympathy and that it wasn't me, I would never do such a thing. He refused to acknowledge my gaze. I turned away and walked slowly to the bus stop, clutching my books in front of me. How close, I wondered, had my family ever come to being the targets of such hatred, because someone decided we were different in some unacceptable way.

The next morning, the little camper trailer was gone, vanished in the middle of the night. The concrete slab stood vacant, the whiteness of the cement glaring in the sun, looming ever larger in its emptiness. The egg shells had been cleared away, but there were still traces of yolk splattered around the perimeter of where the camper had been. I looked closer. Someone had written in curlicue handwriting, "The McKinley family, Jerry, Shawn, Melissa, Joanne, David, Herbert and Grace, 1972" in chalk next to a hopscotch board. I had never known their names. Find more imaginative stories and poems ... return to the Summer Fiction 2001 home page

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