This essay appears in Annalemma Issue Seven: Endurance
In middle school I lived about a quarter mile away from Lion Country Safari, a drive-thru zoo where sedentary families could safely simulate a safari by watching chimps jerk off on the side of the road and clumsy lions climb up onto the hood of their cars. These lions and chimps, giraffes, hyenas and other Serengeti-transplants roamed freely within a fenced-in perimeter separated from the mainland by a canal enclosed by razor wire. Beyond the fence was a half mile of dense swampland.
At the time Troy was my best friend. He was the kind of kid who had a religious rotation of three over-sized metal band tees, compulsively tucked his hair behind his ears and already sported two dreadful tattoos by 9th grade: one, barbed wire, and the other a tribal panther I jokingly dubbed Milo. In his free time, Troy harvested Colorado River toads purchased from a “holistic medicine” store. He’d siphon venom out of glands on their backs and mix it with Arizona Ice Tea to make a hallucinogenic mind fuck, a concoction that blunted faces into crude, featureless Popeye-looking masks. We called it Toons.
Each day after school we would ride our bikes down arterial trails through the swamp. These narrow pathways were often streaked with random shit: a washing machine once used as target practice, bloody socks, feral dogs, boxes of burnt country music tapes, used condoms and, my favorite childhood discovery, an abandoned trailer.
The mobile home was chocked by a mess of vines and raised up by Mangrove roots. The inside was half burnt and gutted, but most of the cabinets and linoleum flooring were intact. Pushing deeper into the swamp, past the trailer, was a small clearing followed by another short path that led to the “Walk-thru Safari” section.
Troy and I smoked Toons-soaked weed before sneaking in to peddle our Huffy bikes full speed through the Safari Maze and Dinosaur Park. I wanted to coach the parrots at the Exotic Bird Aviary to say “suck my cock.”
Soon we made it a habit to tell our parents we were sleeping over at one another’s house as an excuse to spend nights in the trailer. It was there I came across my most important childhood breakthrough: a kitchen cabinet full of porn. This was before the era of instant Internet access, back when finding a stash of weather-beaten porno magazines inside a dilapidated trailer was tantamount to actually getting laid. We spent many nights huddled around our flashlight, bleary-eyed, thoroughly scanning each page, taking in detailed mental notes and charting unrealistic expectations of what we hoped to one day experience.
Above the trailer door we had fashioned a wind chime from empty beer cans. Throughout the summer the cans had filled with water and became a breeding ground for mosquitoes, but they were flung up so high in the trees that they were impossible to get down. Within a week the trailer was veiled in a gauzy black cloud of mosquitoes.
On a night we both dropped Toons, my body became so riddled with insect bites that I became violently ill. When I turned my head, the swamp smeared into a dirty green blur. This was my first bad trip.
I’ve had a few more since but this one will always stand out as the most terrifying. I was already late for dinner with my family. I knew they would be pissed. I hyperventilated for a nearly an hour waiting for abstract fumes of colors to turn solid, for shapes to rearrange themselves into something familiar and for Troy to stop looking like Eric Stoltz in Mask. Troy writhed over the dirty linoleum, his eyes lolled inside their sockets. He drooled, darting his tongue through a rip in a page of porn where a vagina should have been. He slobbered through the paper, speaking in a nervous cartoon villain voice that confessed his mind and heart had been poisoned, that he’d been “envenomed,” convinced that anything outside the swamp would have rotted, that if we left, nothing back home would be the way we remembered.
I knew this wasn’t true and that we had to leave. I was supposed to have been home hours ago.
For hours we panicked, blindly trudging through lacerating brush that whipped at our faces and shins. The unbearable heat lowered a swarm of gnats into a constant fuzzy, eye-level cloud. By the time we found a way out, my parents had already called the police, who werewaiting for us with the Lion Country Safari security at the Campgrounds of America section of the park. We had been snuffed out.
As a deterrent to future intruders like us, all points of entry to Lion Country Safari were thereafter blocked off with boulders and the trails lined up with logs. The trailer was burned down.
Months later Troy got involved with Nazi skinheads, landing himself in juvenile detention and becoming described as “medically complex” to his mother and teachers. Our friendship soon dissolved. In hindsight, Troy indulged a lot of my worst ideas and made them seem okay. At the time I knew I shouldn’t miss that, but I did.
I had no distractions from myself; there were days spent alone, lying beneath an overpass, watching cars pass through the grated section. At dawn I aimlessly rode my bike, taking note that I hardly ever saw people on their lawns, in their patios or on the sidewalk. Behind curtains, lights turned on and off, but I rarely saw as much as a shadow pass. At most I heard the televised voices of people I considered to be more real than the ones I actually knew.
This essay appears in Annalemma Issue Seven: Endurance
Read more about Paul here.
Published simultaneously on Street Carnage