MY FIRST LOVE — the boy who made my five-year-old heart swell and my chubby palms sweat — was Joey Vanilla. He lived next door to me in my hometown of Schubert’s Trailer Park. Technically, I grew up in Livonia — a rural town in Upstate New York.
Schubert’s Trailer Park was a 10-minute station wagon drive from central Livonia and was situated on a hill across the street from the pebbly shoreline of Conesus Lake. While my mailing address and school district indicated “Livonia,” my five-year-old psyche knew my home as “Schubert’s.”
After all, Schubert’s had everything a functional hometown needed. Our mayor — Mr. Schubert — maintained the gravel roadway that circled the Park and merged at the bottom of the hill with West Lake Road. This area housed our post office, a two-tiered rack of workmen’s-lunchbox-sized mailboxes epoxied to 2x4s. This very spot was also our town’s public transportation center. Each weekday, the school bus stopped — flashing its yellow and red lights — at 7:35am for pickup and 3:35pm for dropoff.
Schubert’s citizens maintained their individual trailer lots, some with real flare. Like the Hathaways and Prestons, who secured white trellis board to the base of their trailers to cover the wheels. My family didn’t bother with the trellis; it only got in the way of being able to use the space underneath the trailer as a storage area for my rusty tricycle and plastic wading pool. The Prestons and Hathaways even had fancy gardens — strips of marigolds and purple pansies lining their lots’ borders.
I planted a sunflower in my yard. It’d sprouted from one seed started in a Dixie cup filled with topsoil. Once it was officially a seedling, my mother and I transplanted it to a sunny spot in our side lot. Mom reminded me to water it daily. The thing grew like a real motherfucker — an over six-foot-tall, thick green stem culminating in its seed-heavy pie face fringed in big yellow petals.
It was as if I’d planted it one day, and then the next it was giant. That’s how things can be when you’re five. So, immediately, I ran next door to summon Joey Vanilla to see the flower I’d named Sunny.
Joey was jumping on a spare tire that lay flat in the bed of their family pickup truck. His Dad sprayed gray Rustoleum on the bottom fringe of the passenger door. “Hey!” I called, waving Joey toward my yard.
As soon as his sneakers hit the truck bumper, his dog started barking. Scout was a Beagle. The only close-to-purebred dog in the Park. Most dogs here were mongrels — two, three, or more breeds mixed together. Some of these lovable mutts were pretty strange looking. Like Knight, part Dachshund, part German Shepard, and part something black. My Dad used to say Knight’s conception was a real mystery. Joey’s Dad was a hunter, which justified buying a dog born to help him with his sport.
Joey and I stood for a few moments beside the towering flower. Then, “Joey!” his mom called. “Get back here so Scout’ll shut the hell up!”
No matter. The family was coming over for meat on the grill that night.
And that night I was ready. After Joey and I played tag, weaving in and out of the damp T-shirts, sheets, and threadbare beach towels hanging on our circular laundry rack, while our parents sat at the picnic table eating macaroni salad and burgers, I said, “Joey! Let’s go inside!”
Joey sat cross-legged, vrooming a Matchbox car on the small square of bedroom floor not occupied by my bed, built-in dresser, and strewn stuffed animals. I put on my cowgirl hat, clicked my record player to “on,” and grabbed my plastic hairbrush to use as a microphone. Singing along to Neil Diamond’s Cherry, Cherry, I sang my heart out to Joey Vanilla. He continued to zoom his Matchbox along the worn carpet as I sang. But, to me, it still felt like a moment, our moment.
A few weeks later, the day Joey Vanilla’s family finished loading their U-Haul, Joey ran over to my yard. I stood beside my sunflower, whose face was now dry, light as air, and looked like an empty beehive. Joey pressed a gold-colored heart-shaped pendant with a purple stone into my palm, then darted back to his driveway where he crowded into the pickup’s front seat with his dad, mom, and Scout.
The pendant had a small metal loop at its top like it had once been strung on a chain. He’d found it, no doubt. Maybe alongside the Park’s roadway, maybe on the schoolyard’s playground. Someone else’s discard, a five-year-old’s discovered treasure which he shared to say goodbye.
That was the nature of my hometown. People moved in and moved out quickly and unpredictably. But the ebb and flow of the smell of milkweed in the thick summer air and sounds of revving engines and ice being chipped off windshields on early winter mornings continued like the sunrise.
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