By Jamie Hittman
This is what Buckley told me: it’s not drug dealing. It’s serving personal demand.
We started out in the concession stands, selling it in popcorn cartons, but the cash flow got heavy and security got suspicious. Next, we decided to hide in plain sight, and so for about five minutes per shift I wouldn’t look for kids to hug, but instead for the men (sometimes women) who would catch my eye while I was stationed by the Wonder Wheel or in the skeletal shadow of the Shoot-the-Moon roller-coaster. Who would follow me into one of the staff lounges. Who would stare at me, eyes roving over my space helmet and floppy ears, before handing me the cash. They got the herb. I got fifty dollars in my pocket.
Now don’t get the wrong impression. I didn’t start dealing because I wanted to be a rebel. I did it because the economy sucks and I had no money and the only job offer I got out of college was from Rocketworld, reprising my summertime role as Bunny Gunn, the Space Rabbit Wonder, Protector of the weak, Champion of justice, Hugger of children.
Walk into Rocketworld and it’s the 1950’s all over again: shark-finned spacecraft, little green men, a spirit of whizbang and sensawunda. We used to go there all the time, I know, and it should be old hat by now, but I still love the place, the chrome and the lights and the flocks of happy children. I love it as much as a college grad can earning a few notches above minimum wage.
Anyway, this was how I met Buckley.
He was a mascot like I was, doing shift work as Draco Daystar, Starship Pilot Extraordinaire. He’s tall but stocky, and he goes around staring at the world with the glazed look of someone constantly, maniacally planning.
Maybe it’s happened to you once. You meet a boy—or a girl, I guess—and you think they’re everything you never knew you needed, that they’re the heart-shaped peg to your achy heart-shaped hole. It’s an old story. I remember Buckley on the dance floor, rocking me to the slow, sweet strains of “Love Me Tender”; Buckley beside me, riding the Wonder Wheel after-hours, watching as the fiberglass landscapes of alien worlds came alive with the moon’s mystic, bleach-bone light.
To tell the truth, he sort of scared me, but he had two things I didn’t: confidence and money. I didn’t object when he showed me his apartment, his tack board of anarchist leaflets, or his growing room, with its halide lamps and bowl reflectors and planter-packed floor. The room was so bright there were no shadows. The shoots rising from the dirt looked spiky, prehistoric.
“This plant,” he said reverently, “is the mover and shaker of the local economy.”
“Isn’t it illegal?” I asked.
He put an arm around my shoulders. “Crissy. Think for a second. The economy’s in the shitter and the nanny state has gone non compos mentis. It’s our responsibility as citizens to take care of ourselves. It’s time to grow up. Legality is irrelevant.”
I tried to tell myself that I’d be fine because there were worse things than selling pot—and besides that, I needed the money. My expenses were, in roughly decreasing order: The hospital bills, Utilities, Flowers, and Coffee. The flowers were something of an addiction, I think. My most flamboyant purchase was two dozen roses, plus a vase. Grand total: forty bucks. I paid in cash.
“Oh, Crissy, those are lovely,” Mom said to me.
She was lying on the couch as usual, flipping through a photo album, pausing now and again to catch a few seconds of Dancing with the Stars. She’s been at home since the crash, recovering from a shattered hip and something called fibromyalgia—Latin, I suppose, for the aches that grief wrings from a body.
I set the roses on the coffee table and spotted a picture on the album’s open page: you and me, Dad, standing together beneath Rocketworld’s entrance arch. We were making ridiculous grins, teeth bared, fingers hooked in the corners of our mouths. You’ve been gone two months already. But that’s just how these things happen. One day you’re making faces with your daughter, the next you’re a cashed-in life insurance policy, enough for the house but not much else.
“You’re so thoughtful,” Mom said to me, touching a rose stem. “How’s William?”
“He’s all right,” I responded.
She liked Buckley. When we took walks together, he’d wheel her around the park, call her pretty. (“I can see where Crissy gets her charm!” he’d say and wink.)
“You should bring him over for dinner sometime. I’m getting handy with these crutches.”
“Oh, Mom, you shouldn’t push yourself.”
“I’ll make ratatouille. Real ratatouille. You can’t get that in the frozen aisle.”
The phone rang from the kitchen and her face whitened. I asked her if I should get it.
“Don’t bother,” she said. “It’s just collections.”
Of course I’d thought about what would happen if I was busted. It was always Buckley who’d assuage my doubts, who’d lean in close while we were in the changing room, whisper through his grinning green dragon mask, “You’re a hero. We’re heroes. They need us out there,” encompassing me with a sweep of his arm.
I didn’t feel much like a hero, wading through the crowds in my spacesuit and my big dumb rabbit feet. And I didn’t know whom I was supposed to be saving: Mom, the children, the potheads, or the frothing anarchist masses. But maybe that’s what a hero is—an all-purpose symbol of aid and succor, elevated to greatness by desperate minds possessed by the same spirit of need.
For the kids, at least, my job was simple. Rocketworld was their escape from the grade school wilderness, their chance to be part of a world where no injustice went unpunished and where every ending was a happy one. I knew—I felt the same at their age.
So I was there with my Blaster pistol when the Tentacle Thing terrorized the avenue at two and four o’clock. I was there for their pictures, their hugs. And though they didn’t know it—nobody did—I was there holding them in my thoughts. To the blonde girl in glasses: Love those specs. You’re so not a Four-Eyes. To the boy who won’t stop crying: Don’t kill those emotions, just quiet them, please.
I was there for the customers, too. Sometimes after a deal they’d stay in the staff lounge and talk, explain themselves somehow, almost penitent. (“Just stress, just my marriage, just something to take the edge off.”) One of the regulars, a tattooed guy I dubbed Crazy Joe, was there every week. His wife was some corporate officer; they were going through a messy divorce. I saw him almost every week.
“I’ve finally finished up the paperwork,” he said. “The whole custody thing didn’t go too hot. But fuck it. Bachelorhood is underrated. I’m going to have a party.”
“Knock yourself out,” I said. He’d been rambling for twenty minutes.
“Anyway, thanks for the stuff and thanks for listening. Do you charge extra for hugs?”
I opened my arms. He rested his head on my shoulder, and when I saw his hair, messy and brittle and thinning in places, I smoothed it over without thinking.
“Bless your heart, Bunny Gunn,” he said.
About a week afterward, I left work early and stopped off to buy some lilacs. I tried to call Mom to tell her I’d be home, but all I got was a busy signal. I tried her cell phone next. It went straight to voicemail.
Thirty minutes later, the line was still busy, but I drove home anyway. Maybe she was having a good conversation, playing catch-up with a friend from college.
When I went into the living room, the vase in my arms, I saw mom lying on the couch, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, her face rigid with pain. The volume of the TV was set so loud that the dried petals on the coffee table shivered with every thump of the bass.
“Mom, are you all right?” I asked.
“Just overdid it a little, sweetie,” she said.
“Getting up, walking around. Oh, it hurts something awful.”
I turned off the television and helped her into bed; she’d left her crutches someplace. Afterward, I went around the house and discovered that every phone, upstairs and downstairs, had been taken from its cradle and placed speaker-side down on the nearest available table. The message light flashed on the answering machine.
“This is Summit Collections calling for Mrs. Miranda Evans,” a detached male voice intoned. “It is very important that you call me back.”
Later that night, I asked Buckley: “So what am I supposed to do?”
“You’ll make enough, sooner or later,” he assured me, his eyes glowing with what I assumed was sympathy.
“And how’s that?” I asked.
We were at the bistro, our night of wine, clams, and linguine rosé. We had just returned from an anarchist rally he’d picked for my benefit—a beginner-friendly forum of the counter-cultural milieu, of peaceniks and hyper-organic farmers, of banners reading Anarchism: Rules without Rulers. Buckley decided he wanted to expand our customer base. He wanted to go younger, convert them earlier. He wanted to spread the word.
“How much younger?” I asked.
“Thirteen or fourteen,” he said. “They’re impressionable.”
“Will, this is drugs we’re talking about.”
“This isn’t about drugs. It’s about freedom. It’s about personal responsibility.”
“Kids don’t know anything about personal responsibility.”
“Neither does the government.”
After dinner, we went back to his apartment. I watched him pack the cash from his latest haul into a lockbox beneath the floor, greenbacks upon greenbacks. It was more money than I’d ever seen in my life.
“Humans are creatures of the present, Crissy,” he said, smiling. “We live for any small moment of pleasure we can get. Kids, adults, it makes no difference. You and me, we’re providing a service. Everyone deserves to have the freedom of choice.”
“Kids don’t really make choices well.”
“Then we’ll be here to help them learn.”
The next day was our turn performing at the Event Horizon amphitheater. Bunny Gunn and Draco Daystar fly to Mars, fend off an alien invasion—an average day’s work, really. Onstage, we stood back-to-back, firing our blasters at a shambling horde of Tau Ceti spider-men, and it was great until I turned to the audience to offer a grin. I saw all those wide-eyed young faces staring back at me. All those members of Buckley’s target demographic. And I had the insane urge, almost irresistible, to press my blaster into the back of Buckley’s head and pull the trigger. Blammo. Eat plasma, you bastard.
I didn’t do it, of course. He would have had to play dead and there would have been crying and I would have been fired. And besides: I didn’t want to be the one to introduce these kids to homicide.
As it turned out, Crazy Joe was also in the audience. He came up to me after the show to compliment my performance and to request my presence at the shindig he was throwing. His wife had finally moved out. It was a costume party, which was good news for both of us. I went in uniform.
When we walked through the door, I was greeted with high fives and exclamations of “Holy shit, it’s Bunny Gunn!” A girl in a pirate hat appropriated my blaster pistol and made pyew-pyew sounds at the television. After that, the party was a tame affair. The sober crowd gathered at the punch bowl to chat while the recently baked took the couch to stare unwaveringly at a lava lamp. Crazy Joe’s friends cornered me by the dip, munching crackers and cocktail weenies and staring at me like I was some creature from legend.
“You should take that thing off,” Crazy Joe said to me. “Aren’t you thirsty?”
A man in a lab coat rapped on my headpiece. “Nah. She has a reservoir in there. Like a spacesuit.”
“So, do you, like, get high in that thing or what?” a ninja asked, swirling his beer.
“I’m not really into that,” I said.
“Then how’d you get into this business?”
There were murmurs, nods of assent.
“Actually, I was interested,” I said. “What’s everyone’s opinion on marijuana and the development of personal responsibility?”
The punch bowl crowd stared at me. Someone across the room suggested we play Twister.
I suppose I could have made friends with them, just like I could have made friends with Buckley’s fellow politicos—but I wasn’t really there when the Twister mat ripped, reducing the game to a pile of bent arms and backsides; and I wasn’t really there when the anarchist lobby stood and cheered for the liberation of the American Way. And when Buckley swept me up and kissed me and told me what good we were doing—what good—well, I guess I wasn’t there either.
What I never told Buckley is that I didn’t care about spreading freedom or personal responsibility. What I never told him was that, sometimes, if I sat still enough and watched the crowds, I could pretend I was one of them, and I could remember in a way that made my skin quiver with longing what it was like to not worry about the future, about money, sex, or ambition.
One day, I sat on a bench for hours, and as the day grew old around me, I watched the Rocketworld crowds depart. They slipped away through the entrance arch, one by one—tired parents, children going home to bed, so many fathers and daughters, bless them all. The park grew dark and quiet. Minutes would pass in silence between one person and the next. Then the silence stretched on for a long, long time and I realized that nobody else was coming. And that was it: there was nothing left, nobody but me and this big aching emptiness, and I could have been the last person alive on Earth.
Think good thoughts, mutter little prayers. Maybe that’s all I can do for anyone.
To the eight-year-old in the heels and the V-neck dress: Wait to grow into that outfit, hon. To the boy holding his sister’s hand: Don’t forget that chivalry. To the impatient girl waiting for the Wonder Wheel: Don’t rush, time goes plenty fast, faster than you’d ever want it to go.
The next day was my usual rendezvous with Crazy Joe. I waited by the Shoot-the-Moon but he didn’t show, and when the crowds parted momentarily in front of the shooting gallery arcades, I spotted a boy huddling in the dirt. He was red-headed, chubby-faced, maybe ten years old. He was holding a skinned knee to his chest.
It’s against protocol to talk while in uniform, but I wandered over, hunkered down, and asked him, “You okay?”
“I was looking for Mom,” he said in a whisper.
I was about to take him to the security office when I heard a familiar voice behind me: “Hey, Bunny!”
Crazy Joe came dashing down the avenue, his belly heaving beneath a shirt that read “I Used to Have a Six Pack.” He pulled the boy to his feet and held him. He’d probably be Crazy Joe’s spitting image in about twenty years’ time. “Don’t scare me like that,” Crazy Joe said. “Why’d you run off?”
“I was looking for Mom,” the boy said again.
“Mom’s not here anymore. You’ll see her tomorrow. All right?”
The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve. I thought he might start crying.
Crazy Joe turned to me. “I’d like you to meet someone,” he said. “Bunny Gunn, this is David. David, Bunny Gunn.”
The boy peered up at me. “Is she an astronaut?” he asked.
“Not just an astronaut. She flies around the universe blowing up aliens—hey, don’t get shy on me now. She gives great hugs.” He placed a hand on the boy’s back and said to me, “Give him a good one. He needs it.”
The boy crept forward and I gathered him into my arms.
“Not buying anything today,” Crazy Joe said lowly into my ear. “I only get to see him once a week.”
I looked at the boy and wondered what he needed to be happy. What any of us needed to be happy. It’s more than a hug, I imagine. But a hug is all I could give. I took the boy and held him hard and there’s an incalculable metric to the thing, by God, how close to bring them, how tight to hold on and, most importantly, how to let go. When the boy pulled away, he was smiling.
I’d like to say that this is when I knew what to do, seeing them turn and walk away together. Crazy Joe and son, gallivanting off into the sunset—a great image that would be. In reality, they just vanished into the crowds, and I stood watching, wondering where they would go.
That same day I saw Buckley doing business with two guys barely old enough to be in high school, both of them in helmets and oversized skater shorts, and I decided I’d had enough.
At his apartment, I cornered him. “We have to stop this,” I said.
He seemed surprised at me, disappointed. He gave me a wary smile. “Crissy, we’re just allowing them to exercise their freedom.”
“We’re profiteering, Will. You know we are.”
“I thought you wanted to be a hero.”
Something came over me then, a volcanic upwelling of self-righteous rage, and that’s when I broke one of the cardinal playground rules: don’t hit anybody, especially if they are bigger than you, especially if they might hit back.
I slapped him across the face.
He retaliated with a stinging whack across my ear.
I fell against the wall and instantly he was there to pull me to my feet, gathering me in his arms, muttering,
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry” into my hair. But I had seen his expression before he’d hit me, the lip-curl of contempt: You’re too goddamned young to understand.
I spent a weepy half-hour in his bathroom, my back against the door. Afterward, we took a drive. We drove all the way to Rocketworld; we could think of nowhere else to go.
It was closed at this hour, so we just sat in the car and looked up at the darkened rides, loops and curves scrawled drunkenly across the sky like a message I had only begun to comprehend. A full moon stared down at us; I felt we were being judged.
“I used to believe that heaven was on the moon,” I said.
I had never told anyone this.
“It’s pulling away from us,” Buckley said. “The moon, I mean.”
I waited for the truth, for the punchline, but I saw no guile in his eyes.
“It’s slow, but it’s happening,” Buckley said. “Year by year. Inch by inch.”
“Will it come back?”
“It’s complicated. Angular momentum. Forces of gravity.”
“Oh,” I said.
And I didn’t know what he meant by any of this, but it was probably the saddest thing I’d ever heard.
Later he tried to make it up to me. He asked me to stay and coaxed me into bed and made love so gently it was geriatric, and with each languorous motion we made I closed my eyes and thought, I am a creature of the present, I am a creature of the present.
When it was over, I walked home alone. I won’t sell you a story about how my heart smoldered with vengeance, or how I fell sobbing to my knees, a San Andreas Fault of hurt. I won’t tell you these things because it wouldn’t make a difference, and because I now knew exactly what I had to do. When I got home, Mom was asleep on the couch; I tiptoed so I wouldn’t disturb her. At the stairs, I stopped to look at her through the dark, at peace and unaware of anything, and then I went upstairs to make the call.
Because there was something else I had never told Buckley: that I had made a copy of his apartment key.
Because sometimes you have to decide when to make things right.
I sat down and dialed, and it was easy. Because I am the Protector of the weak. I am the Champion of justice.
I was on my bench when the police pulled up outside the park. The K-9 unit marched in through the front gate, dogs straining at the leash—then, around mid-morning, a commotion of barks went up around the Shoot-the-Moon. There were screams and shouts and suddenly Draco Daystar came streaking through the crowds, pursued by two slavering German shepherds. He made it as far as the fence before one of the dogs hit him like a cannon shot and smashed him into the chain link. Cue Buckley unmasked, hands cuffed behind his back. The kids loved it.
That night, he left a message on my voicemail: “Crissy, it’s Will. I’m sitting in County right now. They figured it out. They’re saying I might get four years. Jesus, Crissy, they think I’m a felon. Jesus fucking Christ. Come down when you can, all right?”
But it’s been two days and I haven’t visited yet. It would hurt me to see him now, slouched despondently behind the detention center safety glass, and I wouldn’t have any words for him, except to tell him that 1-2-3-4 is a terrible combination for a cash box. Mom doesn’t know about the money yet, but I’ve come up with a few suitable lies: a lottery scratch-off, an unclaimed wallet. It should be enough to take care of things. And I know that it’s not over, that I might not get away with this, but that’s all right. I’ve made this place a little better.
The day was coasters, caramel corn, a skinned knee, a kiss. After the crowds thinned and the concession stands closed, we rode the Wonder Wheel one last time. A huge half-moon hung over us and as the Wonder Wheel ferried us up to meet it, I asked you if I could touch it.
You didn’t say yes. You didn’t say no. You just said, Reach.
And I reached, Dad. I really did.
When the wheel rose to its apex I shut my eyes and reached so hard that the cords of my arm drew up like bowstrings and my fingers shot out and my butt left the seat a little. For a moment I thought I touched it. It was rough like a pumice stone. When I opened my eyes and saw the moon was still there, I remember being disappointed because I thought if I pushed, I might be able to move it, that if I held on, I might be able to save a piece for you. But as we fell to earth again, I noticed that the moon had tilted, somehow longingly, on the curve of its back. As if it was watching us fall. As if wanting to fall, all the way down with us.
Jamie Hittman is from Columbia, Maryland and is a current student in the Queens College MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation. Her interests include fiction, medicine, and anything and everything to do with birds.
This is her first professional publication.