I'm eighteen and my proudest moment is happening now—right now—as I leave the concession stands at Cedar Hill's Fall Fair in Victoria Park. Laughter and screams from the Tilt-A-Whirl pierce the buttered-popcorn scented air, while an eager after-dinner crowd streams past busy ticket booths. Everyone looks at me, mouths open, eyes aflame.
"Awesome," they say, pumping fists or giving high-fives.
Beside me is Laila Davon. We're on our first date. Her right hand holds mine and her left embraces the long, spindly legs of a towering stuffed giraffe. The plush animal is six-and-a-half feet tall. Laila can only hold it by pinching all four legs together. Its underbelly rests on her shoulder.
Everyone can see I've won it for her. Someone shakes my hand, laughs, calls me a bastard, and confesses, "I've been trying all weekend to win that damned thing."
A young girl, about twelve, gapes at the giraffe with the same smoky longing she likely reserves for newborn puppies and boy-band vocalists. She whips out a smartphone in a neon pink, glittery case, and takes a dozen selfies with the giraffe looming over her shoulder. Laila obliges and tilts the animal's face toward the camera.
"Everybody loves it, Porter," Laila says to me. "It's the cutest thing ever."
Of course, it is—big round eyes, long dramatic lashes, ears sticking straight out, and those little horns topped with tufts of black fur. The lean and lithe giraffe is the midway's most impressive prize. Who'd want a fat hippo or a droopy-faced orangutan? The smaller stuffed animals look so cheap, I'd be embarrassed to win one. Imagine dropping all that money and walking away with nothing but a tiny rabbit.
Ahead of us, another couple holds hands. An adorable fuzzy panda rides the woman's shoulders. Everyone loves pandas but this one's cub-sized. Nose tilted skyward, its chin rests behind the woman's head. I bet she'd trash her little prize in shame if she turned and saw Laila's giraffe.
Every year, when the carnival returns, the Wild West Rifle Range is my favorite attraction. The shooting gallery works on laser light. Fifty red and white targets are scattered across a three-dimensional saloon. Pulling the trigger releases a pulsing beam. When the receptor takes a hit, the ray rebounds and activates a flashing yellow light on the gun's barrel. An electronic board, above the targets, displays each participant's score.
No one needs to know my uncle works for a company that services midway games, or that the receptors are rigged to reflect only a quarter of the direct hits. To win, even a trained sniper needs to spend more than any prize is worth. But, watching closely, it's never hard to see where the dude next to me is aiming. When he hits a bull's-eye, I let him take three more shots, then I jump in with the fourth—and take every fourth shot after that. If he quits, I find another guy.
As always, my strategy took a long time, but Laila didn't mind. To her, it looked like I never missed, yet other guys made a successful shot about as often as a male driver asks for directions. Bored partners urged shooters to give up but Laila laughed and cheered me on. She wanted that giraffe and counted every direct hit until it was hers.
I spent less than thirty dollars on a prize that retails for a hundred, maybe more. It didn't feel like cheating. Knowing the formula is one thing but there's so much else involved. Aim, patience, timing, observation—even stealth—are talents not everyone possesses.
And so, I leave the carnival triumphant, holding hands with Laila Davon. She's radiant. She also works on laser light. It shines from her eyes when she looks at me.
Laila isn't the most popular girl at school but she's a contender. Snobs like her looks and clothes, dorks admire her high grades, while jocks and lesbians are impressed that she plays baseball. She even appeals to drama nerds, who respect her acting and singing. A growing number of ethnic cliques also claim her as their own because her skin is as dark as theirs. And it helps that her father is founder and CEO of a large environmental consulting agency. The local newspaper ranks it among the region's top employers.
I'm not a jock but I've played Cedar Hill House League Baseball ever since a social worker encouraged me to join, following my parents' divorce. It's Laila's league, too, though we've never been on the same team. Technically, it's co-ed, and has been since the city lost a lawsuit five years ago, but Laila is one of eight female players, compared to a few hundred guys.
What most impresses me is that she's a catcher—the unofficial field general who controls the entire game.
Is it obvious, because of my good aim and my attraction to a talented catcher, that I can pitch? That's probably the reason she agreed to go out with me—that natural pairing.
Not that anyone would believe we're a natural couple. We're more like the oldest cliché in the dating world and the plot of most young-adult novels, after-school specials, and endless teen movies. There's a certain type of boy someone like Laila is expected to date—and that ain't me.
Most everyone knows my father did time for armed robbery but they probably don't know I haven't seen the man since the week of my twelfth birthday, when he arrived a day late and handed me a brand-new Xbox One Elite. No card, no wrapping paper. Police confiscated it the next morning, right after they handcuffed him. My dad didn't have time to stub out his cigarette. The whole street, whether on the sidewalk or hiding behind curtains, watched the police push my dad into the cruiser. As the car drove away, I looked across the kitchen table to the ashtray where his stinking cigarette smoldered.
But that incident never came up last year at the league barbeque, where I officially met Laila. She tapped my shoulder and said, "So, you're that ace pitcher I've heard so much about." She sipped from a white paper cup. Due to municipal cost cutting, the only beverage was some sickly-sweet, orange Kool-Aid—which is fine if you're seven.
It's true, I struck out batters in record number that year, a detail even I found hard to believe but I never thought it might inspire a woman to talk to me, especially not Laila Davon, whom I'd known since my first day at Cameron Heights Collegiate, when she turned every head, leading her entourage down the hallway, two girls on each side of her, while several drooling boys lingered behind, inflamed with passion.
At the barbeque, she sipped her orange beverage, made a sarcastic thirst-quenching sound, then told me what position she played—as if I didn't know.
Our eyes met. Energy crackled, stars aligned—then she introduced Alonzo, her football-playing boyfriend, standing right behind her.
They'd just started dating and I couldn't understand Laila's attraction to a wide receiver. His job was running from the action and waiting for scraps, shouting, "I'm open, I'm open," even though he drew double-coverage and the coach favored safe, short running gains. They lasted two months, until she caught Alonzo cheating with her best friend.
So, here it is, my proudest moment: my hand in Laila's, everyone watching, burning with envy as she carries a six-and-a-half-foot stuffed giraffe that I won for her.
History has taught me to be wary of moments like these but Laila smiles and I feel invincible.
We exit the gate. Jealous faces stream past. Then Laila stops. So, I stop. A sleek, silvery Audi is parked at the curb. It hasn't been there long; it's in a tow-away zone. The owner leans against the door, arms folded. His shimmering silk tie matches the car. Dark sunglasses shield his eyes.
How could he have known we'd exit this gate at this exact moment?
"Get in the car, Laila."
"Daddy, look what Porter won for me!"
"Please, get in the car."
Laila steps off the curb and carries the giraffe behind the vehicle. Her voice shakes. "This might not even fit. We'll have to put it in the trunk and fold the back seat . . ."
"Leave it there and get in, please. I need to talk with this young man."
She gingerly sets the giraffe's black feet on hot pavement. One hand holds the freakishly-tall, plush animal steady until she's sure it's balanced. She backs away, pretends not to know why her dad is angry, and believes he'll place her prize in the trunk—but I see what's coming.
Laila opens the car door and looks my way. Her shoulders rise. It's only noticeable up close. It could be a twitch but it's a shrug. Though she may otherwise be feisty and independent and determined, Laila submits to her father's judgement. She dismisses me.
"Porter Tillson," Mr. Davon says, once Laila is seated and buckled. From this angle, I see half her waist and one knee. Hands on her lap. Patient. "You're on dangerous ground, young man."
I look at my feet. "How so?"
Frustration tinges his reply. "Your daddy sweeps floors in my office building."
This news hits hard. It slaps my jaw. Couldn't there be one person in town who doesn't know my father better than me? My stomach contracts but I've enough breath and wit to craft a brilliant response: "And?"
"I support work release programs but I don't support you dating my daughter." He removes his sunglasses and examines the giraffe. Pointing with his Aviators, he asks, "You win that at the shooting gallery?"
I don't answer.
He puts his shades back on but his gaze still penetrates. "That's right. From father to son." His eyes also work on laser light—but not Laila's magical kind. His rays burn hot and scorch my insides.
He's completely wrong. Despite the public nature of my father's affairs, Mr. Davon doesn't know, and likely wouldn't comprehend, that I prepare dinner for my mother six times a week, at midnight. She's a personal support worker and comes home so exhausted all she wants is to quickly eat, then sleep a few hours before her morning shift at 7-Eleven. Where I've been working after school for three years now.
When he starts the car, a red Mustang races ahead, parks at an angle, and blocks him. Rather than wait, Mr. Davon shifts into reverse and bumps the giraffe. It tilts in slow motion. Gravity takes over and that beautiful face slams into the ground. I feel nothing. My world shattered when Laila shrugged and climbed into the car. The stuffed animal is collateral damage.
Sure, Mr. Davon is angry at being hemmed in by a flashy Mustang but he always planned on killing the giraffe. I've no doubt. He continues in reverse, flattening the helpless creature. One of its hind legs wraps around the tire.
I turn to see who's watching.
Everyone is watching.
Except Laila, who never looks back.
Her father shifts gears and bolts forward. All six-and-a-half feet of the giraffe get yanked inside the wheel well. Fabric shreds as the Audi speeds away. The animal's neck thrusts out and its head is perfectly positioned. Lifeless, staring eyes challenge me to avenge this murder.
The rest of the body encircles the spinning tire. Burning polyester emits a noxious chemical smell.
Mr. Davon signals a right turn onto Jubilee Drive but he stops, gets out, and extracts the carcass. He tosses the pieces alongside the road. Smoke rises over the corpse. Laila's father is within shouting distance but he speaks in laser light. One scalding look commands me to find a dumpster and dispose of the tattered mess.
But I let it smolder.
Title image "Stuffed" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.