The Feral Boy by Isaac Black

When they got Paul out of the tree he had been living in for eight years, he wasn’t speaking, only communicating in grunts and marsupial hisses. But once he determined they weren’t going to hurt him, he swung down, and the police chief took him to the station wearing Walmart flip-flops and a quilt the clerk’s wife had contributed to cover his nakedness. Paul’s muteness convinced the police to not charge him with public indecency. Instead they called a social worker, who wouldn’t offer up her opinion if the boy couldn’t or wouldn’t talk, and they put him in a foster home.

The police had got involved when multiple people on the outskirts of town reported a naked boy coming around their backyards. He wasn’t hurting anyone, just looking at people. They asked him while he was in the tree and then again at the station who he was and how long he’d been living out there, but he wasn’t talking yet.

Paul took to the north Florida swamp when his parents died eight years prior. He couldn’t remember his last name. Rumors abounded that his parents were meth addicts or running a brothel out of some mildewy shack, thus Paul went to the swamp when his parents died in ignominy because he didn’t feel he could associate with decent folk. But some said his mom was part Seminole and he chose to live in the forest rather than brook the modern world.

Rick, the foster dad, lived alone and worked at the Nissan dealership as a concierge, a job description Paul never managed to understand. Rick had been a mechanic at the dealership until moving over to the customer service side. When Paul moved in, Rick set him up with a Netflix profile, and Paul watched half a season of Cheers before he started talking again.

Rick took him to the salon because he figured they would do a better job with Paul’s long, loose curls. The ladies there called him Tarzan and joked about wanting a wig of his hair but Rick told them it smelled strongly of swamp water and scalp oil. When the stylist was done Paul looked like any other white boy, with eyes too close together and a row each of black bristles on his chin and upper lip that they wouldn’t touch because it was a salon and not a barbershop.

Once Paul was talking they told him how to ask to get baptized and then took him to the church, but at the font, when he found out the pastor wanted to immerse him, he wouldn’t consent. The pastor muttered a prayer and dripped some water on the boy’s forehead like the Catholics do, shrugging that God might be willing to accept something like that because the boy was feral and bad at understanding the church’s sacraments. Rick let him drive home in his Maxima, but Paul couldn’t figure out how to drive five over the limit or chase pedestrians out of the crosswalk so Rick decided driving lessons were a waste.

The baptism got Rick thinking about Paul’s last name. He wasn’t about to give Paul his own name but he was willing to help him brainstorm. He would need a last name if he was going to apply for a Social Security card, which he would need in order to fill out an I-9 when he got a job.

“You came from the wild. Why not be Paul Wild? That’s pretty cool.”

“I just want to be a person. Paul Person.”

It was a clumsy choice, but once Paul had thought of it, that’s what stuck. So Paul made everyone in town call him Paul Person. Now he was able to get help in writing his resume from the social worker, but she got frustrated when he couldn’t get it formatted onto one page. Still, he managed to get an interview at the Nissan dealership thanks to Rick. He didn’t get any money from it, but the Rotary Club invited him to talk one night about survival tricks. They hoped he might be able to become a public speaker with such an interesting life story, but his public speaking style was halting and dry, and later some of the duck hunters faulted him for having killed storks, which they considered unsporting and not worth the gamey meat.

Paul found a group of friends, and the boys would go into a field and smoke stolen cigarettes and shoot bottle rockets at each other on weekends. One bleary summer night sitting on the curb outside the movie theater drinking plastic bottle vodka, they told each other they were best friends, friends for life. A couple of them after that started a band with Paul on lead guitar, having learned on an old Squier that he had dug out of Rick’s closet, but the town’s consensus was that he sounded too much like Stevie Ray Vaughan. This was back when Obama got elected the second time, and Paul failed to keep the friends together when some of them voting for the black Democrat exposed deeper schisms. (Years later, since none of them were going anywhere anyway, they patched up their friendships. But Paul failed to keep up with them.)

Paul got lonely and decided to have a crush on Kelly who worked at the Burger King. Despite the fact that she never acknowledged him one way or the other, either as a maladroit geek or a suitor, Paul made the mistake of getting fixated on her. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he asked her while she was working if she wanted to go to a movie. Just then another customer asked her about his fries and she took the opportunity to ignore Paul then, and every time she saw him afterward, she ducked her head.

Rick heard about it from the neighbor boys and, one night after work, after pulling off his white polo whose collar partially covered the tattoo on the side of his neck, sat down in his tank top with Paul and queued up an episode of Cheers he remembered from watching as a rerun. In the episode, Sam Malone got exasperated with Diane Chambers’s precociousness but, in the end, condescended to accept her as she was.

“Yep,” Rick hiccuped approvingly. “Gotta find a girl like Diane Chambers.”

“Did you find one?”

“I did.”

“Where is she?”

Rick shook his head. “She was kinda crazy.”

“I thought you said she was like Diane Chambers.”

“Well. In every way but that one.”

“Okay.”

They sat silent while the end theme song played. Rick said, not as a question, “Simple life out there in the swamp.”

“Not really,” Paul said.

“No?”

“Lot going on in the swamp.”

“Why’d you come back, Paul?”

Paul sat there. “Felt like it,” is what he’d usually say. Tonight he shrugged and said, “Got sick of the rain.”

Rick looked at him sideways. “The rain?”

Paul frowned. Rick laughed. It had gotten dark.

As Paul had ineloquently put it, there was a lot going on in the swamp. But it wasn’t the harrowing, hourly struggle for survival like what everyone had assumed. The alligators left him alone as long as he stayed out of their territory, which he did. There was always a catfish he could pull out of a sunken log, and he napped through the heat of most afternoons in the weird tree nest he had patched together. He spent most of his time focused on the things that had nothing to do with his survival. He paid attention to where the kingfisher nest was and how many of their chicks lived to adulthood and flew off to some far corner of the swamp to mate, paid attention to the water level on the cypress trunks and the growing circumference of the big clearing where sheet lightning reflected purple in wind-troubled water before a storm, paid attention to the cool dry breeze that blew down from the north in the fall that meant he might be able to peek through the clouds to see the stars that night. He lived in a kind of neighborhood, only his neighbors were owls, thrushes, chipmunks, possums, raccoons, eels, bass, crawdads, salamanders, orb-weavers, caterpillars, stick bugs, dragonflies, fireflies, tree frogs, swamp frogs, swamp toads, ants, ferns, grasses, reeds, lily pads, mushrooms, moss, algae, mold, and mud.

Paul never would figure it all out. He worked his job, never scraped together enough for a down payment on a house, got married but got divorced and married again to a divorced woman with three kids. He never seemed to act like he lived among humans. It wasn’t uncommon that, say, people would be turning their car around in some empty cul-de-sac and Paul would be in a vacant lot, for example, sitting on some cinder blocks talking to some mama possum with a litter of joeys on her back and the car’s headlights would reflect back in both Paul’s and the possum’s eyes, both of them looking back at you with the same blank stare.

 

 

 

Isaac Black is a graduate student in History at the University of Utah and a former systems administrator. His short fiction has appeared in the MacGuffin and Foliate Oak.

 

 

(Front page image via)



Leave a Reply