by Denzel J. Hankinson
My former roommate, Trevor Hanscome, played one of the life-sized animated characters that either delight or terrify little kids at amusement parks. He was Riverside's Millie the Muskrat character, the park's kindhearted mascot, and protagonist of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series. Trevor died two weeks ago.
Every morning at eight o'clock Trevor would don the one hundred pound muskrat costume and take the elevator up from the subterranean dressing room to ground level. Temperatures in Springfield at eight o'clock in the morning in August can reach seventy degrees. The air temperature inside of Millie's mask at two o'clock in the afternoon can reach one hundred twenty degrees. Trevor worked up to ten hours a day and made six fifty-five an hour. He lived Millie. He rarely took breaks.
Warner Brothers sometimes used Riverside as a laboratory for testing new cartoon characters. New characters are equipped with a microphone and video camera to record children's' reactions to say, a turtle in a space suit, or a giant spotted cow in overalls. Then Warner Brothers has its child psychologists analyze the tapes.
Largely due to Trevor's work as Millie, Warner Bothers decided that the Muskrat would be an enormous success as a Saturday morning cartoon. The show flopped, and the networks took Millie off the air after three episodes. Millie, the story went, was a vagabond who traveled the rivers of the world with his companion Pierre, a red-winged blackbird with a thick French accent. Besides offering the kids a geography lesson every weekend, the two animals were friendly, courteous, and unconditionally accepting of everyone they met in their travels. The big problem with the cartoon, Warner Brothers later concluded, was that Millie and Pierre were too nice, sickeningly nice, and as a result extremely boring compared to the competing time slots.
Millie was by far the most virtuous character Warner Brothers had ever created.
Nonetheless, children visiting the park loved the larger-than-life muskrat, and Riverside decided to keep Millie among the cast of park creatures, and to keep Trevor playing Millie.
I had only been in Springfield, Massachusetts for a few weeks before I met Trevor. I had a spare room, and the rent was too high for me alone anyway. I knew no one in the city, and just out of college I missed the camaraderie of a roommate, so I invited Trevor to live with me.
I met him on a bus. He had been living at the YMCA for four months, and he was posting fliers in hopes of finding somewhere else to live.
Privacy was important to Trevor. The fliers read "Homeless, confused and beset by despair." The sign had been written quickly in permanent magic marker and duplicated on some dirty office copier. Stray dots of toner speckled sections of each page. In smaller print were the words, "Need Apartment," a name, Trevor Hanscome, and a phone number.
Trevor had not yet begun to post the fliers. He was asleep now, on the inside seat, slumped over and leaning against the bus window. His unwashed black hair splayed out across the pane. I had been watching him for twenty minutes or so. He had been sitting at the back of the crowded bus for several stops. He was waiting, I gathered, for a window seat. A bag lady sat down next to him and chattered happily to herself over her soiled Filene's bags. A window seat opened up, but Trevor hesitated. He glanced at the bag lady and remained seated for several minutes before sheepishly moving to the vacant seat. When another window seat opened up he moved again, looking toward the back of the bus, hoping the bag lady would notice.
The bus stopped at a crosswalk, blew its horn at a pedestrian and its driver cursed. Trevor jerked forward with the motion of the vehicle.
His eyes popped open, stared dazedly down the aisle for a moment, and then shifted to the window. He remained hunched over, forehead pressed against the glass, watching the sidewalk. He got off the bus at the next stop and I followed him. I tapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey," I said, "I need a roommate."
He turned around and stared at me, and seeing his face that close made me jump. For an instant I had the urge to withdraw my offer. He was skinny, skinny in an unhealthy way. He had two deep, dark eye-sockets, and his cheeks sunk in so that he looked like an old lady when he sucked the smoke out of his cigarettes. During the two months that Trevor lived with me, I never saw him eat, never saw him drink.
He smoked at least two packs a day, never in our apartment, always outside or at work.
"You got a video cassette recorder?" he asked.
I hesitated, "Yeah."
He kept his eyes on mine.
"Okay," he said.
He moved in the next day.
"So, Trevor, how did you get into this business?" I asked as he moved his three milk crates and two suitcases worth of of possessions into the apartment. "I used to work for Disney," he said, "They fired me."
He told me the story. On a one hundred and four degree day, Trevor collapsed from dehydration. A park monitor found him slumped against a plastic tree in Tomorrowland, with his Goofy mask off, and a trail of vomit running down Goofy's tie. Disney's animated characters are strictly forbidden to appear out of costume. Goofy, Disney complained, could absolutely not be seen removing his head and throwing up on himself. Park characters nearly always travel with chaperons who can attend to their needs, but Disney was short staffed at the time.
"You didn't protest?" I asked.
Trevor stared into one of the milk crates. "I fucked up," he said.
Trevor had played nearly every "full suit" at Disney World. The "full suits", Trevor explained to me, are the costumes with masks. The "half suits", and there are not many of them, tend to have more realistic facial features that require only makeup. Snow White or Prince Charming, for example, are half suit characters. Trevor always played full suits.
He brought with him videocassettes containing twenty-two Millie the Muskrat episodes, all that Warner Brothers had ever filmed. Trevor had no real interest in acting, but he played his roles with zeal. He spent hours studying a character's cartoons, imitating the creatures' movements and gestures with meticulous care.
And from what I could see Trevor wasn't comfortable around kids. My sister once came to town one weekend with her four- and six-year-old boys. She got a room at a nearby hotel and the kids spent the night at my place. While the kids were thrilled to spend the weekend with Millie the Muskrat, Trevor seemed horrified. He trembled and sweat profusely around them. He avoided all contact with them. But being kids, they took a liking to him regardless, and did all they could to try to engage him in their activities. After the six-year-old grabbed his leg and tried to wrestle him to the ground, Trevor locked himself in his room for the rest of the weekend.
I would often come home in the evenings to find Trevor sitting in front of the television watching Millie or another of his character's episodes. That's the way I found him two weeks ago, on the night before he died. He sat Indian-style on the floor in front of the TV, the only light in the room coming from the picture tube. He clicked on the weather channel. The weather man was pointing at five or six computer icons of smiling suns superimposed over Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska.
"Clearing," said the weather man, "in the Midwest, and diminishing danger of flooding."
Trevor pointed at the screen and turned to get my attention,
"Son-of-a-bitch," he said, "Irresponsible son-of-a-bitch. How many people will see this and decide not to leave their homes tonight, decide not to worry about the river? Because of this idiot's reading, his interpretation of some computerized radar readout, he's putting thousands of people in jeopardy, influencing their decisions as to whether or not to prepare sandbags. Say Mrs. Jones in Iowa is worried to death about these floods. She tells her husband her shoulder hurts, and for the last ten years, she says, her shoulder has always started to ache before a storm. But Mr. Jones doesn't give in to superstitions; he has always prided himself on being a pragmatist, and his neighbors respect him for that. Plus, he thinks, my wife's a worrywart, she tends to exaggerate. So tuning his new satellite dish that he told his wife would pay for itself tenfold within the first five years, he finds this idiot on the weather channel. Nothing to worry about,' Jones thinks."
"Then Jones' neighbor calls to ask his advice. His neighbor's a young guy with a new wife and baby N can't even afford a decent radio, not to mention a TV and a satellite dish. Mr. Jones says not to worry, his wife's all riled up about nothing and that no fool would waste the time and energy packing up and leaving. Now this neighbor values Jones' opinion After all Jones has been in the area longer, he's got a sense for these things. He certainly wouldn't want to risk Jones laughing at him when he's throwing all his gear together and getting his family all upset for no reason at all. So they all stay put.
Jones puts himself to sleep with a bottle of bourbon, his wife lies trembling in bed, his neighbor and his family fall asleep tranquilly, and they all get swept away when the rains hit and the river rises. An unexpected change in the weather pattern,' says the weatherman."
"They're pretty good at predicting the weather," I said,
"Meteorologists are scientists after all, like doctors. I wouldn't worry about Jones and his neighbor, Trev."
"Oh please," he scoffed, "If your liberal arts education taught you anything, you should know that you can't prove anything with any certainty. No proof is absolute. They teach you to respect every position. But if any fucking theory is as good as the next, none is better than any other. We're taught to be accepting of all, and the result is we can deny none. Every theory, every theory is imperfect."
Trevor had graduated from an expensive private college in Pennsylvania two years ago. His parents begged him to find other work. They called periodically. I heard him tell them several times that he liked his job, that it gave him direction and that people our age should be grateful to have such direction.
He stood up slowly, clicked off the TV and continued, "And doctors, Christ, doctors are the worst. Medicine is based on theory, biology is based on theory, chemistry on theory. A diagnosis is a theory. There is always a margin of error. There is always that risk. I haven't been to a doctor since I was thirteen."
Occasionally he would launch into these tirades, but they weren't for my benefit. Trevor was generally a quiet roommate, very private. So the next day, when he called me on my lunch hour and invited me to meet him in his dressing room, I accepted. Riverside is only about ten minutes away from my office. I took the bus and used the staff entrance as Trevor had instructed me. Riverside was packed. It was one of the hottest days of the summer. The enormous scrolling digital sign that announced the day's events at the park said ninety-eight degrees.
A centenarian guard in a mock police man's uniform ushered me into a freight elevator that would take me to the underground dressing rooms.
All the workings of Riverside were underground. The guard shut the gate on the elevator, smiled toothlessly, and pulled a lever that sent me lurching down into the bowels of Riverside Park.
I opened the gate and made my way through the network of dimly lit underground tunnels, following the signs shaped like hands with shirt cuffs and pointing fingers, indicating the direction of the dressing rooms. Life-sized Wile E. Coyote and Tasmanian Devil torsos with tiny human heads passed me. I asked a cat-like creature I didn't recognize where I could find Trevor Hanscome. A muffled voice came through the cloth- covered tracheotomy hole in the cat's neck, "Trevor's in room forty-two."
I looked into the open dressing rooms as I passed. A circus clown soaked his feet in a tub of water as he leafed through a girlie magazine and took long pulls from a flask. A few characters sat in a lounge and watched television. Some slept sitting upright in their dressing-room chairs. Others smoked in the hallway. They were an ugly bunch, sweaty, unshaven. The stench in the place was terrible.
Condensation dripped from the ceiling and down the walls, striping the bare concrete.
Trevor was not in his dressing room. I took a seat opposite the door and waited. Ten minutes later he appeared in the doorway, his sweat-soaked head looking detached from his furry brown muskrat body in blue dungarees. He carried Millie's head under his arm like a football helmet. I heard a click from inside the costume, and Millie's chest popped open, hinged at the waist, like the hood of a Volkswagen Bug. Trevor's white t-shirt clung to his body in large dark splotches. He slid his arms out of Millie's, and placed the animal's head on the floor.
"How you doing, Trev?" I asked. Unsmiling, he nodded and grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his shirt hung on the back of a chair. I sat down again as he lit a cigarette and took a long drag, most of Millie's body now crumpled down around his knees. He pointed the pack at me and raised his right eyebrow in offering. "No thanks," I said.
He stepped the rest of the way out of Millie and sat down in his director's chair facing the mirror. He stared at himself for a few seconds and then turned to me. "Thanks for coming," he said.
Trevor looked bad, worse than usual. His lifestyle must have been wearing on his health. Some mornings he would have bouts, as a result of the smoking, I assumed, of deep, retching coughs. Four or five times, after he came home from work, or late at night, I heard him heaving in the bathroom, his stomach and lungs convulsing to expel its own sickness. Twice I had asked him about it. He had halfheartedly dismissed my concern, "Oh, just the flu. You know, from all those kids." When I asked him again, a few weeks later, he had been more open. In a daze he had described to me the pain he felt daily. "The nearest I can come to describing the sensation," he once told me, "is like a pitting in the stomach that spreads to the chest, and through the veins to the extremities. A pitting, a rotting that falls on me in waves so that at times I think I will pass out."
Trevor now inspected the galaxy of freckles on his shoulders and back. He had fair skin, and several severe sun burns had mottled the upper half of his torso with brown spots. His two muscleless pectorals flanked a hollow at the base of his sternum, a harmless physical irregularity that embarrassed him in front of most.
He looked at himself in the mirror again. "All it takes is one hit," he said picking at a raised mole on his shoulder. "One single photon to a single cell, to several cells, a melanoma, to your nervous system, to your brain. But all you see is that one harmless looking dot while underneath it is a network of cancer."
A dwarf dressed like a rabbit in a smoking jacket stepped into the doorway.
"Trevor, what time you go back up?" the dwarf asked.
"Five minutes, Santi," said Trevor.
"Hokay," said the dwarf and scurried off. Trevor explained, "That's Santiago, he plays the smaller full suits in the park. He likes to make sure he can walk around with the larger characters. Sometimes teenage kids fuck with him, you know, kick him around. You would be surprised how many adults assault the park characters." Trevor turned to show me a bruise on his side. "Some geezer socked me just to impress his grandkids. Its like even the adults don't know the difference between what they see in the park and what they see on TV, if there is any difference."
"You have to put up with all that?" I asked.
Trevor shrugged, "A big guy that works here and used to be a professional hockey player and threw off his mask and beat the shit out of a fifteen year old kid for stepping on his foot."
Trevor paused and stared at the floor. "Trevor, what's the matter, why did you call me?" I tried not to express too much concern so as not to scare him off.
He turned again to the mirror and coughed forcefully. "You know, Nazi war criminals," Trevor continued, "exonerated themselves by attributing their acts to the institution of which they were a part.
What a relief to do that, what a relief to feel that comfort, to have the faith that your soul is pure despite your actions." He stopped suddenly, looked at his watch, and took a final drag on his cigarette before rubbing it out on his linoleum counter-top.
"Why don't you take the rest of the day off, Trevor," I suggested.
This only seemed to irritate him.
"Look," he said. "I have to get back to work, but I just wanted you to see where I work, that's all. Here," he reached into a drawer underneath his dresser, "take these, take your nephews to the park some weekend. These are free passes."
He put the passes in my hand and stood up quickly.
"Thanks, Trevor. We can take the kids some weekend," I said. "Maybe you'd like my sister. She's divorced, you know."
"Sure," he said, "That would be great."
Without either of us saying goodbye, he stepped back into Millie, zipped himself up and left. I stayed in the chair staring at the tickets for some time.
Santiago the dwarf shuffled by in the hall yelling "fuck you's" at the cat who had given me directions on the way in.
He glanced at me, paused when he saw Trevor was not in the room, hesitated, and said, "Mufuck goin' to keel himself. Crazy bastard.
Trevor works too hard. All upset cause yesserday Millie scare some creeple kid into seizure. Funniest theen I ever seen. We all joke him about it, but he don't theenk its funny."
I made my way back through the network of dark hallways and surfaced near where I had parked. A large green frog with a top hat was pretending to direct traffic in front of the park entrance. I walked over to the frog and knocked him down, grateful that I would feel guilty for it later.