I used to have a tree house. Not as a child, mind you, but as an adult. Let me explain. I had an apartment for a while in a complex owned and managed by an ancient woman that hardly knew who lived in her building, much less what those tenants were up to. There weren’t exactly a ton of restrictions on what you could or could not do in the complex, and even if there had been there was no one to enforce them.
I became good friends with several other residents there. I was living with my girlfriend Brittany at the time and was constantly looking for a reason not to be in the apartment with her. The less I was there, the less chance of setting off an emotional explosion, so I spent a good bit of time hopping around and getting to know a quite diverse group of neighbors.
Dan was your typical Southeast Texas redneck. About six foot four, he drank cheap beer by the case, drove a pickup truck, and ate weird things if you dared him. I personally watched him consume a raw shrimp and three wrinkled dollar bills one night simply because someone said, “I bet you won’t.” Dan lived across the street from Chuck, a gun collecting Texan with a bit more intelligence. Dan was the kind of guy that would beat his chest and tell you what he was going to do. Chuck would just do it.
And Chuck happened to live next door to Henry. Henry was a stout and stocky black guy. Always high, he was the kind of person you couldn’t help but like. He was Ice Cube in Friday.
Over one particular summer, a group of teens happened to choose our neighborhood as a target for a string of car burglaries. My car was hit twice, along with eleven other incidents over the course of a few weeks. Despite our attempts to keep watch individually, we were unable to catch anyone in the act. For that matter, the only information we really had been able to get at all was the occasional neighbor’s half remembered account of an older, brownish colored car with a bunch of suspicious looking teens.
The obvious solution, we decided, was to band together. Strength in numbers made sense to us, and we fell in love with the idea of standing in unison against a common enemy. Not only would this be productive, this could be fun.
We recruited whoever else we could from the neighborhood and met at Henry’s house. Six adults in all, dressed in black and carrying whatever makeshift weapons we could find. An old forgotten Louisville Slugger from under Chuck’s bed, Dan’s slingshot, a chipped and slightly bent samurai sword with a blue rope wrapped handle. We were completely unprepared, yet one hundred percent willing, to go to war with a gang of street savvy thugs.
Over the next hour we discussed our plans. Who would cover which shift each night? What would we do if we actually caught someone? I had read enough Spider-man comics to be elected leader, therefore I was the one forced to veto the most extreme game plans as they were presented.
“So if one of us can catch ‘em in action and chase ‘em towards the others, we could hog tie ‘em, gag ‘em, and leave ‘em laying in the field over night,” Dan suggested. “The fire ants and them bat sized skeeters oughta finish ‘em off.”
“No, Dan,” I said. “Let’s try to come up with something… maybe a bit more legal.” Talking to him was a bit like trying to explain to a retarded child why he couldn’t have a balloon. And it wasn’t just Dan; no one was really helping.
“So I guess pumping them full of arrows and hanging them from a tree like little ghetto-porcupine-piñatas is out of the question?” Chuck chimed in.
“You a damn fool, Chuck. You know that?” Henry laughed. “A damn fool.”
“Completely out of the question,” I replied.
When the meeting – if you could call it that – adjourned, the only decision we had come to was that we definitely needed a place to mount our defense. We needed a secure location. We needed a fortress. I volunteered the tree next to my apartment, suggesting that we might be able to put some sort of platform halfway up. Everyone agreed and construction started the next day.
What began as a 3×3 perch soon became much larger. Dan started bringing home truckloads of grocery store pallets and landscaping timbers. We added each one to the rest and before long had erected a two story, two-hundred-plus square foot citadel. Over the next few months I forgot all about the ring of thieves and concentrated my efforts on increasing the size of the tree house. Two old couches were acquired and hauled up into the branches. Electricity was run from my back porch via extension cords. Chuck had an old TV we could drag up there when it wasn’t raining.
I fabricated a roof above the first level, leaving the second floor open to the sky, a perfect place to lie at night and watch the stars scroll by. I was twelve years old again, and oblivious to the fact that I had absolutely zero construction skills. I used twenty screws where one would have sufficed. My lack of building knowledge aside, this thing was never coming down. We built on into the summer.
* * *
With our attentions focused on the newly erected wooden castle, the dark brown Oldsmobile that came creeping down the street late one night almost went unnoticed. I got a call from Henry, who just happened to be out late adjusting the tension on the makeshift zip line we had installed a few days before.
“These fools are behind the building, man. You in?”
“I’ll meet you outside. Give me two minutes.”
The building directly across the street was empty, and had been since Hurricane Rita ravaged the area a year before. I knew there was no reason for anyone to be back there at all. It could only mean trouble. Despite Chuck and Dan’s insistence that we attack, cooler heads prevailed. I made the case for calling the police and twenty minutes later a squad car came cruising down the road. It pulled behind the building and we circled around the other side to watch the action, certain that we were about to witness justice occurring live and in real time.
Two officers ran up to the car across the dark parking lot. Their flashlights bounced along the rusted body and then one of the doors creaked open. Smoke poured from the inside of the vehicle, the flashlight beams becoming solid yellow rods as they shot through the billowing clouds. My first thought was that something was actually on fire, and then the realization hit me that the occupants of that car were just really, really high. It looked like the Cheech and Chong van.
What minutes earlier had seemed to be an open and shut case was about to turn shockingly sideways. The five teenagers were taken from the car, searched, and then handed back their keys with instructions to leave and not return. As the beat up Cutlass rattled away, the police car followed them. Seconds later, both were gone.
“Are you motherfucking kidding me?” asked Henry.
And it wasn’t just Henry. We all stood there completely slack jawed. Clearly the cops weren’t in the mood to write up a report. Though we had no solid evidence, we were convinced that this was the same group of kids that had lifted our car stereos and CD collections. As we stared at each other in silent disbelief an even more shocking thing happened; the car came back.
It cruised down the street through the darkness like a battle worn shark, pulling in the drive headed back behind the building.
Henry didn’t waste a second. He picked up Chuck’s bat and started out across the street. “Man, fuck a bunch of these motherfuckers, yo.”
The entire group of us was now ready for war. As we turned the corner behind the building, we could see one of the kids clearly retrieving something from the grass next to the car; most likely something tossed when the police had shown up earlier. The teen sprinted back to the car when he saw us. “Go, go, go!” he yelled, and the car started to back up as he dove inside.
There was a wicked crack as Henry’s bat connected with the windshield. The driver couldn’t seem to get the car in gear, and Henry connected with two more shots, shattering the passenger window and caving in the hood. “Damn, man! This is my Mama’s car!” a voice from inside cried. “Then your Mama better have insurance!” Henry yelled back as he smashed a brake light. There were a few more glancing blows before the terrified kid managed to shift, and then finally the car sped off, leaving us standing amongst the wreckage.
“Umm, maybe we should finish this inside,” I said, figuring the police were certain to return soon now that a somewhat violent crime had been committed.
We didn’t even make it back across the street before the red and blue flashing lights rounded the corner. Chuck and Dan sprinted for home and Henry tossed the bat into the bushes. The car rolled to a stop in front of the two of us.
“I don’t suppose one of you fellas want to tell us what happened here, do you?” the officer asked as he stepped out of the car.
“Actually, we just walked out ourselves,” I replied quickly. “Sounded like some glass broke or something. Is everything okay?”
The officer looked at me dubiously, but I wasn’t breaking. Henry wasn’t so calm however. “That car came back, man. Why didn’t you arrest those fools the first time?”
“What Henry means is -” I started to say.
“What I mean is, if y’all ain’t gonna stop these motherfuckers from coming over here, then we will.”
The cop replied, “Sir, you can’t say the word the word ‘motherfucker’.”
So I said, “No, Henry. Apparently he is the only one that can say it.”
“Are you trying to get smart with me, son?”
And it really just slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Smart? God no,” I said. “I’m not trying to confuse you.”
“That’s it. Turn around, son, and put your hands behind your back,” he said, pulling out his handcuffs. I was laughing as he clicked them shut around my wrists. Not only was I amused by the sudden turn of events, but I was also incredibly curious how talking to my neighbor was being considered a threat or a crime. “What exactly did I do?”
“You were inciting a potential riot,” was his reply. “Watch your head.” I ducked as I was placed in the backseat of the car. If that was a riot, I would have hated to see how he handled a group of Irish soccer fans. The officer sent Henry on his way and then got into the car. His partner turned to me as we pulled off.
“I suggest you keep it down back there,” he said. “We’d hate to have to tack any more charges on.”
And that was probably where things went south. I knew that technically I was going to get a Disorderly Conduct charge, and I figured that if I was going to get one, I might as well earn it. My tongue took on a life of its own, and I emptied both barrels.
“Oh really? Because legally I don’t think I have to be quite at all. If you don’t like it, let me out. Or why don’t you just turn up the radio, Captain America? I bet your wife is really proud of you… bringing down the scum of society! How scary it must be! Ooooh, does it feel good Kojak? You solved the crime! Yippee ki yay, motherfucker! Oh wait, I can’t say that, can I?
“You know, the last time you guys were out here, we pointed out a kid that had driven up in a stolen car and tried to break into my neighbor’s truck. Then he ran from you guys and when you caught him he had a fourteen-inch screwdriver in his pocket. And what did you do? You let him go. I’ve seen the detectives on Court TV put a guy away for life based on a piece of lip DNA they pulled off of a half-eaten apple core they found in a dumpster two counties away from the crime scene, and you couldn’t piece that mystery together? Yeah, you’re on fire, Commando Rabbit.
“Why doesn’t FOX TV ever follow you guys around for COPS, huh? Maybe it’s because you fucking suck. You ever think of that? Maybe it’s because dragging a guy to jail for standing in his own neighborhood is just shitty TV. What a hero. You’re the worst policeman ever. I hope your little radar gun really does give you ball cancer. Are we there yet? I’ve gotta pee. Come on, man! Speed! We already know you’re a hypocrite, what’s it gonna hurt?”
I kept my face as close to the partition as possible, throwing each sentence directly at his ear as he drove. I was determined to earn every minute of my stay in a holding cell. When we arrived at the jail the two officers couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. The ride had put me in a heightened state of amusement. Already resigned to my fate, and the misdemeanor charge, I committed myself to making the most of the experience. No one was going to be safe.
They asked a million questions when they booked me in, all for what I could only assume was my “permanent record”. Once I realized that no one was there to determine the veracity of my answers however, I began to lie. Even the simplest question was an invitation to mislead.
The woman in charge sat in front of her keyboard. “Height?” she asked.
“Six eleven,” I answered with a straight face.
“No you’re not,” she said.
“If you already know then why are you asking me?”
She growled a bit and then continued, “Do you wear corrective lenses?”
“What color are your eyes?”
“Do you mean with or without the contacts?”
“You just said -”
“I was kidding. Next?”
In all honesty, I wanted to answer her correctly. The thought of having “comedian” next to my name in a file somewhere kind of made me happy. The Bullshit Train had left the station however. I couldn’t stop. I contemplated my answer as she repeated the question. “Sir? Occupation?”
And with the most serious expression possible I replied.
I arched my eyebrow mysteriously as I said it, as if that would somehow add authenticity to my claim.
“What?” she asked.
“Dragons. Large reptilian creatures. Did you not have a childhood, lady?”
She cocked her head sideways, baffled. “And where do you do this?”
“Caves, meadows, wherever the need arises,” I shot back.
She still didn’t know how to process what I was giving her. She had a blank to fill in on a form and the words coming out of my face confused her. “And… people give you money for this?” she tried.
“Sometimes money, sometimes a virgin or a goat. Whatever the village can afford. I have a calling, lady, and I won’t stop until all of the dragons are dead.”
Exasperated, she stormed out on our interview. Eventually, especially once I knew my friends had arrived with my bail money, I cooperated. I managed to keep a maniacal little smile the entire time though, which did a phenomenal job of keeping the other people in the holding cell convinced that I was at least a little bit insane.
“What are you in for?”
“Killing lizards. You might want to back up a little bit.”
* * *
The tree fort lasted longer than I thought it would. One day a letter arrived at my door from the landlord. Apparently a makeshift platform of thirty-eight pallets suspended 15-20 feet in the air was an “insurance risk”, and news of the tiki torch someone had drunkenly dropped on one of the couches had made its way back to her as well. It must come down the letter said.
Getting it up had not been a problem. Getting it out of the tree was a different story entirely. I pulled on the beams, I hit things with a hammer, and I jumped up and down. Nothing phased it. “Damn, I’m good,” I thought to myself, then I tied a rope around one of the support struts and pulled some more. I even went so far as to ask myself “What Would Jesus Do?” Then I remembered that Jesus was a carpenter. He could probably dismantle the entire thing in an afternoon.
Eventually I gave up. It stood stoically in that empty lot for another two years after I moved out. Even after my relationship ended, I still snuck back to visit it, hoping against hope that my ex wouldn’t be home when I did. Ultimately, I heard that time took its toll on the untreated lumber. Pieces fell one by one over the following months until, exhausted at last, the final section surrendered itself to the elements.