Panda and the Meth Lab


There was an explosion, but I didn’t notice.

My mom ran across my dark room in a wild panic, her bare feet stomping all over my Legos but she was too high to feel them. At first I thought she was Panda, our dog. The way she was jumping up and down on me in my race-car bed. The sound of her delirious breath. Then, I heard her hoarse voice, saying that we had to leave. “Pack a few toys,” she said, “Coloring book, pants, shirts, socks … We’re leaving in three minutes.”

I stuffed a bunch of random things into my Curious George backpack. This had happened a few times —  escapes in the middle of the night. I was getting good at it. I remembered back when I was four, being woken sweetly by my father, when he was still alive, taken sweetly out of our house to a surprise in the driveway. There was a Winnebago, rented or borrowed, something, not ours. We climbed inside and drove all the way from New Jersey to Florida. To Disney World. As a family.

Epcot. Teacups. Animatronic Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain. Kid Heaven. On our way back, we found Panda. She was just a little puppy then, being given away in the parking lot of a Food Universe in Tennessee, not far from Graceland.

Now Panda was gone.

My mom said it was lightning that’d scared her away. She’d run from it, wasn’t coming back. I thought about her snapping the chain, biting through it. Beating feet as thunderbolts went off all around, her frightened eyes — darting.
I placed a dish of food for her on the edge of the pines, watched the squirrels eat it with my toy binoculars from the roof of our trailer.

Mom’s story about my father wasn’t straight either. Sometimes when she was really messed up, she’d tell me a different version of how he’d died. A car crash, drunk driver. Or: “it was in his sleep, now please … go to bed.” I wondered if it’d been Freddie Krueger, in the basement of some industrial boiler

The worst:

“Yer daddy died out on a lake, a clear lake, with the reflections of the Rocky mountains falling on the clear water. It was a metal boat, silver, had his name on it in red lettering. Michael. He was fishing for rainbow trout in a metal boat … there was a storm … it came outta nowhere …”

Three minutes.

“Let’s GO!!”

I left my room, standing at the end of the hallway.

I could see her, she was in the bathroom, looking in the mirror. She was bleeding from her head. Crimson on bleached blonde. She kept touching where the blood was, pulling her hand back each time as if it was electrified.

She spun to face me, wrapping a hand towel with four leaf clovers over her wound, tying it on with a teal scrunchy.

“Station wagon, now …” she said drill sergeant from Hell-style.
Outside it smelled like fire. There was heavy smoke coming at us on a fierce wind. My eyes burnt. My throat stung. We drove out of the trailer park, the back way, through a dirt trail behind the dumpsters.
Through the pine trees I saw the first of the flashing lights. Red and blue. White and red.

They were coming. We were leaving. Strangers passing in the night.

West, I think. Pennsylvania, if I had to guess. I was too young.

Young enough to be carried into the motel by my rail-thin mother, placed on the bed. I slept with my furry monkey backpack next to me, woke up in the daylight with it under my chin, drool down George’s back.

She was weeping in a chair by the TV.

I was used to her weeping. I wondered if the TV had the Disney channel. That meant a lot to me as a kid.

My mom said, “I need you to help.”

“How?” I said weakly.

She called me over, passed me a pair of blue handled pliers. She’d been watching me sleep. Waiting for me to wake up. It’d been an all night thing. She said, “I need you to pull something out of mommy’s skull.”

“No …”

“Remember when grandma was alive?”

“Uh huh.”

“Remember the game, uhhh … Operation?” I nodded, “I need you to play Operation right now,” I can’t do it myself, I’ve fucking tried.”

“Doctor,” I muttered through a trembling lip.

“If mommy goes to a doctor right now, mommy will be in jail for a long time.”

She removed the hand towel. Her hair was plastered to the wound. She peeled it back.

I saw the hunk of metal. Shrapnel. Silver. Aluminum. The skin of a trailer, I know that now. I closed the pliers around the metal, there was a crunch, she cried out, I yanked.


I’d play in that motel room. I missed my good toys. Mostly, I colored with crappy sub par crayons. I can’t recall what. Robots? Superheroes? Loony Toons characters? My mom would bring me supplies from the drugstore down the block.

When I got tired of coloring, I could look out the window and see her walking in and out of the smoky bar attached to the motel. She’d start at the corner, by the busy highway — stay there for a good forty five minutes — then drift back into the bar for a while. The cycle continued. Sometimes, she’d come to the room and say hello, see how I was doing.

“I miss my friends,” I’d say, “Suzie, mostly.”

“Well, you’ll see her soon,” she said, “we won’t be here forever.”

“It feels like forever.”

“Course it does. Five minutes seems like an eternity for a little boy, you just wait. Soon it’ll fly by. You’ll blink and everything will be different.”

Later, she came back to the room with a man. He smelled like the bowling alley. She told me to turn up the television. He had on work boots covered in cement.

She went into the other room with him.

The door shut. Locked.

I watched daytime TV. Small claims court. Judge Wapner. There was trouble in all sectors of paradise. Dogs fled. The sign that said Free HBO lied. The Happy Meals always came with repeat toys. My toothbrush with the Incredible Hulk was back in the trailer, I missed it. My bike was outside, not chained. Was it still there? Flip channels manually. The remote control is gone forever, too. Add it to your list of sorrows, son. Commercials for bubble bath. Calgon Take me Away. People talking loud outside the door, an argument out by the soda machine. I peeked out through the sheer curtains, the air conditioning coughed in my face. A man with a mustache screaming at woman with a pink pleather pocketbook. I sat back down, started to rock. Eternity is measured in smoke detector battery cycles inside the interstate motels. The one above my head began to chirp.

The door opened.

The concrete boots walked past me from my mom’s room. He left, gone forever.
I heard a car start. Distant.  She said, “baby, turn that TV down. I need to get some rest now.”

When we did come back to the trailer park, it felt like we’d been gone for a hundred years.

Right away I saw the damage. The gaping hole where Susie’s trailer had been. A blackened hole in the earth, now.
I was horrified to see that. Susie’d been my friend. I went to elementary school with her. She let me use her fruit-scented markers.

“What happened?” I asked my mom.

She looked at me, said, “Lightning struck the trailer.”

“Lightning?” I gulped, “Was anybody hurt?”

“Lightning struck the trailer,” she said.

Then, there was a storm. The thunder was going haywire. It sounded like the clouds were being taught a severe lesson. I laid in bed, clutching onto my sheet in pure terror.

It started to downpour outside.

That was all I needed. I climbed like a little madman out of my bedroom window, landing in the mud, sliding. I ran for cover into Panda’s vacant doghouse. Inside, the sounds were deadened, and I was comforted by the smell of my friend, whatever had happened to her.

I closed my eyes and slept there in the forgotten dog hair, while the rain came down and the lightning lit up the sky.


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