Pink combs, red nail polish, the smell of fabric softener. I sat there on a white lounge chair, combing through my mother’s hair, as she sat at my feet on the deck below me. She was dozing off; her head moving side to side not knowing where to go.

I nudged her a bit, and her eyes quickly came open; she looked around and grabbed a piece of cantaloupe from a white plate. My twin sister sat next to her taking chunks of the fruit and stuffing them in her mouth. I just combed and combed, finding a rhythm to it. I ran the pink comb through my mother’s hair and saw her newly painted nails, a sophisticated red. I thought my mom looked so mature because it seemed like she was the only one who could pull off that color.

I looked up and ran my eyes around our backyard. I took note of the newly stained deck, my mother’s plants, white sheets hanging on a wire drying, and a man. The sheets made my surroundings smell like fabric softener.

Wait; a man, a stranger!

It took some time to actually comprehend what was happening. I had never been exposed to this foreign thing. This invasion of my home at first caused confusion, then obviously fear. I shook my napping mother hard.

“Mommy, Mommy, a man,” I said urgently.

My twin sister saw him at the same time my mother did and screamed loud. At that time, and I knew it was the wrong of me, I thought “What an idiot, why would she scream?”

            But my eyes were still trained on the man.

“Go get your Dad,” my mother said.

I got up from my chair and ran to my parent’s bedroom looking for my father. I found him on his recliner watching T.V.

“Dad! Daddy, there’s a man outside, hurry!” I made it sound really urgent, so I could see him lose his composure, and I hoped he would look scared or angry. It took him awhile to process, like maybe he thought I was joking. He made a confused face. It disappointed me that I didn’t get a rise out of him.  Still, he got up and followed me. We found the stranger talking to my mother, and my dad walked up to them.

Now that the man was closer I saw that he was badly beaten. He had a black eye, a swollen lip, and bruises everywhere. He was shirtless and had on only underwear. My mother later said she could see everything, like I knew what that meant.

The man then proceeded to tell my parents that a group of men had attacked him, and he just needed a phone to call his dad for a ride home.

My older sister, who was in the house, told us to come inside. My twin and I didn’t want to want to, but we eventually obeyed, and she dragged us in. Now that this unknown specimen seemed like no immediate threat, we watched him behind our mesh screen door, our excitement overpowering our fear. They were still talking when the stranger threw up all over our deck. My parents managed to guide him to our bushes where he then continued to vomit.

We were entranced, my twin and I. Never had we been exposed to this kind of world, where men attacked you and you vomited on strangers’ decks. How different could lives be? Didn’t they comb their mother’s hair, or eat cantaloupe, or just laze around taking in the nice day?

I knew then that you could never assume people’s lives were similar, that their normal could be my abnormal. They have a routine, or lack of routine totally different from mine. My life and his were so drastically different that when our worlds clashed I didn’t know what to make of it. They mixed in a way that the pictures and words of that time imprinted themselves in my mind.

We viewed from the sidelines. The guy called his dad and asked him to pick him up. My mother gave old sweats, a t -shirt, and my Dad’s old work boots to him. I remember the man looked sad, really sad and ashamed. At the age I was then, a mere 8 years, he seemed so old, but in reality he was probably in his early twenties. He looked so out of place and so weak. My dad’s clothes hung off of him, and he was just there waiting. How could a man get into something like this? What did he do to get beaten up so horribly? There were no possible answers in my eight-year-old mind. Was I really so sheltered then? Could my mind have been so untainted?

Not long after the call, the young man’s father drove up. He was in a tan Chevy, and it looked new. I was surprised; the father seemed well off. I was expecting a beat-up car with a scary dad. But no, the dad had soft white ‘old people’ hair peeking out of a cap, and he wore bright white shoes with high socks. My sister and I saw them walk to the front yard and we raced to the front window, shoving the curtains aside.

The father shook my dad’s hand and his mouth was moving, probably thanking him. I saw the young man also shake my dad’s hand. I watched him and as I looked him up and down, my eyes stayed on my dad’s old boots.  They were very old work boots, the steel-toed kind. The kind of shoe that never fell apart and you always wore them when you were working.

A sliver of irritation and an odd sense of protectiveness went through me. It’s not like I had some close relationship with the old boots, or as if they held some great memories for me. I was just annoyed and kind of sad that a stranger was taking away something that had stayed so long with my family and me. I thought he had no right to take away those boots. My dad didn’t even seem bothered that they had been taken.

As they drove away my mom and dad were talking, probably still discussing what had happened. They didn’t seem shocked or anything, like that kind of thing happened all the time. They walked to the back of our house where it all went down.

My sister and I went back outside and overheard them talking. They suspected the men attacked him because of a drug deal gone wrong or something. They continued talking, and I watched my dad turn on the faucet to our hose outside.

My father stood there, his hand in his pocket, spraying the deck and bushes, washing the spewed chunks off. My mom picked up the plate of cantaloupe and threw it away; it didn’t seem right to eat it afterward.

I look at the fruit now and it makes me think of clean and fresh things–the familiar taste, the soft easy smell. It takes me back.

Some years later I asked my parents if they remembered what had happened. They both said yes and said they suspected he came from Peggy Keller’s area, a close neighbor that we sometimes teamed up with in yard sales. They remembered that the men had beaten the guy up so bad he threw up all over our deck, and his dad seemed really shocked.

The memory of that day with the man always comes up when things are silent at home. It’s silent here, but in other homes the sound can be deafening. That day at home could have been one of those special days where you slept outside and it felt like the time was going as slow as possible. All of it seemed hazy, and the day was slow and lethargic, almost dreamlike. That man crashed in, ruining it for me. The sadness of that messed-up day felt light, but lingering. After all that had happened, things felt stilted and weird, like something was missing. I look back and it feels like that guy took something away from me. Something I didn’t want taken away.

It was like one of those movies where a normal person gets involved in a crazy person’s life. In the beginning the normal person is totally freaked out and angry, but in the end the character is happy because the experience changed them for the better. That’s how it was for me. However, in my case the clichéd happy ending was not my reality. It just made me see that, yeah you can eat cantaloupe and comb your mom’s hair all you want, but in the end you’re still gonna’ have to wash shit off your deck.

2013 Nonfiction Winner CANTALOUPE AND BOOTS by Camille Soto