A new family moved in next door. That happened a lot in trailer parks. Homes with wheelsnever bond fully with the ground they sit on. Our family was a prime example. In the ten years we were part of that nomadic world, we moved three times, our trailer towed to a new location in hopes that the change in surroundings would somehow make life a little bit better. However, each trailer park was much like all the others. Though the lure of slightly better rental rates was hard to resist for those counting every dollar. Given the transient nature of the trailer park population and that most of our social life revolved around church, I usually didn’t find out much about my neighbors, even those less than thirty feet away. Which made the question that inspired the Good Samaritan story particularly relevant: “Who is my neighbor?” Often, I really didn’t know.
In this case, I was destined to know more than the bare minimum, which was that the trailer next door was occupied. It turned out that the new neighbors had children, one of whom was a boy about my age. Unless I had to interact with them directly, adults were mostly relegated to faceless anonymity. But, seeing kids my age going in and out of the trailer next door piqued my interest. There was no formal introduction where our clan trooped over and knocked on their door with a house-warming gift. They came and went for some time without my awareness extending beyond the additional facts that there were a total of three children, a boy younger than the one my age, and a sister who appeared to be a year or two older.
Besides, by the time this kid moved in, I already had a friend. For me, one friend at a time always worked best. Because I knew what it was like to be the third person. Worse yet, I had a little brother who was often foisted on me by Mom as the third person. So, while two guys could almost always agree on a course of adventure, a third person always complicated things. Either they wanted to do something different, or, in the case of younger siblings, were an effective damper on your plans by virtue of their youth and inexperience. Being the third person in those circumstances is no fun, and having a miserable third wheel along is no picnic, either.
Like every friend I had during those trailer park years, this friend was about a year younger than me. David was affable with a ready smile under a mop of thick, straight brown hair that always seemed to be hanging in his eyes. He was not self-conscious about the amazing overbite he had, which made me both more aware of and less embarrassed by my own protruding top teeth. We spent a lot of time together.
Something happened to alter that neighborhood dynamic one Saturday when David came over to play. He and I were in the street tossing my football back and forth. Street football was a staple outdoor activity for us. Unlike baseball or basketball, football required only the ball, not a basketball hoop or a bat and gloves and a large field. The two of us could wile away hours working out passing routes on the uneven asphalt.
That morning, while we were moving our imaginary team smartly down the field with well-timed down-and-outs or slants, the neighbor kid came out to observe. I was sure he had seen us do this before in the weeks that had lapsed since they arrived, but had never seen him actually appear interested. This time he stood watching intently for a couple of minutes. The next time we paused near his fence, he spoke. It was the first time I had heard his voice.
We looked up from the complex play diagram we were scratching out on the street with a small rock.
“My cousin is going to be over next Saturday. You guys want to play a game?”
To retain any sense of self-respect, both David and I knew the answer to that. We looked at each other then back at our challenger and said, “Sure.”
“Okay. See you next week.”
That was it. He turned to go back into his house. We had taken a couple of steps closer to his yard during this brief encounter. Close enough for me to see that he was several inches taller than I was and his build contrasted with my painfully thin frame. The way he bounded up the steps into his trailer was not reassuring, either. David, though not skeletal like me, was even shorter than I. He cocked his head in the direction of the recently closed door.
“If his cousin is as big as he is, we could be in serious trouble.”
I nodded my head in solemn agreement. My neighbor had seemed cooly confident when talking to us. And we only had a week to prepare.
While the next seven days would include compulsory church and school activities, I knew what my focus would be: that window of daylight between the time I got home from school and when it turned dark outside. It was to be a week of feverish preparation for The Big Game.