Boat People

The women here put on their makeup like rust-proofing. Preschoolers toddle through the trailer-park mud puddles, splashing and pimp-cussing. Teenage girls in sweat pants and ratty NASCAR T-shirts smoke over parked strollers, hips set at a permanent, baby-propping cant. The afternoons oxidize like trailer tin. Still, there are boyfriends and emotions worth screaming over, fistfuls of affection rained down behind closed doors. At the bar up the block, the closing-time domestics wind up on Main Street, playing out beneath the one streetlight, the “fuck you/fuck you” execrations concluding with a door slam and squealing tires, the roar of the engine pocked by a missing cylinder.

The clan living next door to me is not easily sorted. Many children, several women, two men. The fighting frequently spills out into the yard, which has steadily disappeared under a welter of absurd possessions: a tangle of 30 unworkable bicycles; a mossy camper; a selection of detached automobile seats; an inoperative riding lawnmower wrapped, Christo-like, in a blue tarp; a huge, rotting speedboat. The village board sent someone around to recite nuisance ordinances, chapter and verse, but beyond rearranging the bikes and aligning the camper with the speedboat, nothing changed. You take what you can get in this life. Someone calls you white trash, you go with it and fight like hell to keep your trash. You understand it is only a matter of distinctions: Yuppies with their shiny trash, church ladies with their hand-stitched trash, solid citizens with their secret trash. In a yard just outside town, a spray-painted piece of frayed plywood leans against a tree and says, “Trans Ams—2 for $2,000.” It has been there for two years.

The old man and his adult son tinker on the speedboat now and then. It has never left the yard. The slipcover is mildewed and undone, and the deck is layered with decaying leaves. Traffic by the house is never more than desultory, but it does pick up a little on the weekends: minivans and sport utility vehicles, cutting through town on the way to summer cottages and lake properties to the north. The old man and the kid will work awhile then disappear into the house for days. They’re in there with their beer, their feet up and one thumb hooked in a belt loop, and they’re assuring each other that life is shit, but by God, we’ve got a speedboat, and one of these days we’ll get that son-of-a-tatcher runnin’, and we’ll go out some Sunday-fuckin’-afternoon, and we’ll blow them Illinois tourist bastards right outta the water.

About the Author

Michael Perry

Michael Perry is a freelance writer and humorist whose work includes the memoir Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (HarperCollins), the essay collection Off Main Street (Harper Perennial), two live-audience recordings (“I Got it From the Cows” and “Never Stand Behind a Sneezing Cow”) and numerous offbeat appearances as a commentator on Wisconsin Public Television.

View Essays