yard sale dog
by sam bowman
YARD SALE DOG
I have my own bed again, but I’ve been having these dreams lately about being killed by myself. Not ‘alone’ by myself, but by someone that looks like me, almost is me. Then I become him. I don’t understand why these are the few nights I don’t dream my stomach is bleeding into my pajamas and wake up wet.
“Poppa? Do you think I could ride the bus?” The streetlights passed through the interior of the old Chevy pick-up and across the long bench seat. Slowly patrolling the blown-out upholstery in the center is a square spotlight.
“No. We already talked about this.” I didn’t remember talking about this, but since we moved this last time, I could always see the full circle of his eyes and it seemed important to remember everything. “We moved out of the district.”
“Oh yeah.” I had to remember everything because everything was a secret. There was so much to not say and too much to keep-in-mind to not remember it. “Poppa, it’s just so far.”
“It’s just so far!” he whined, loud and harsh, then stopped watching the road for a second, eyes started to bulge out, hand already on my collar. “Did you say something to the school?!”
“No, sir, no!” I kept my hands down and put eyes on his face only when I spoke. I knew if I moved my hands to cover up, he’d get worse because I accused him and if I didn’t look at him, he’d think I was lying. “I don’t say, say anything to nobody, sir.”
“You don’t say anything to anybody, not nobody, you sound like a moron,” He let go of me and gestured forward, out the cracked windshield, “That’s right, you don’t talk to anybody; I don’t care if it’s the number of zits on my ass!”
“Yes, sir.” I nodded, unsure if I was supposed to laugh, as both his hands restlessly wring the hard, plastic wheel.
“It should only take you fifteen minutes to ride your bike down that way, right?” He tilted away and gave me a momentary lazy spotlight, then popped, “Hey mouthbreather, I asked you a question!”
“Yes, sir.” The bike was a gift from the pear-shaped woman in the new complex who never came in but touched Poppa a lot. He must have known. I remember telling him. “But my bike, that, I mean, I told you that my bike was stolen.”
“What was that!” He was almost on my side of the truck, hand cupping his ear and said even louder, “What did you tell me?!”
“That, um, my bike, sir!” I was so stupid. My arms nearly went up, “My bike was stolen, sir.”
I sat on my hands. He eased back and rested his hand in his lap.
“You should lock up your bike.” Was there a lock? It was something I did. Was I supposed to forget you said we didn’t have money for a lock?
“Yes, sir.” No, that wasn’t right, maybe I did have one. I must’ve. “I will Poppa.”
The passing street lights glared, then almost blackened, and glared again, a smile, then a sneer.
I could make it to school in 35 minutes if I kept a fast trot and cut straight through parking lots and fields but stayed mainly on Howe Ave. Bell was the other five lane street and it went directly to Dyer-Kelly, but all the kids went down that one, in groups and stuff, high school kids too. I was eleven, so it wasn’t cowardly to hassle me like the little kids. When I had the bike, it did only take 15 minutes. I could keep moving by weaving through side streets, and corners in Sacramento always have parking lots. It was important to keep moving, bike or not. I had seen other kids in class and at recess with bruised faces and busted lips. They didn’t talk about it to me, nobody but Wyatt talked to me, but it would usually come around that some middle-schoolers caught them walking.
So, I learned the holes. The empty homes, safe yards, ignored lots, and undeveloped pockets of suburbia. Walking the in-between meant an hour of careful threading to get to school. There was always a need for alternates. People moved in, got dogs, or got tired of seeing me in their yard, or fences went up. I wasn’t to be home before the sun went down, or out after. Weekends I could stay inside until ten a.m., but I was usually out by eight-thirty. I would wander through the blocks of streets, watching people wash their cars, mow lawns. Sometimes you could hear people yelling things at each other through the screens and open windows of their houses. But during winter everybody stayed inside.
The winter in Sacramento is a month of great rivers of rainwater washing down the streets. All the windows are shut. The people become vapors, shapes running toward parked cars, and angry shouts drowned in static until their inconvenience could not be heard again. I hopped the tall fences of the big yards, (it was too much trouble to chase me away) and got to the wooded areas at the center of their circle of houses. Remnants of nature left so that they didn’t have to look at each other. I could pick from the small pomegranate trees and catch the toads doubled up in the rising mud. The warm smell of decay in the soft ground. The world muffled and polished in wet, everything seemed like flowers presented vibrantly at my feet. No one to look at, no one to see. I was free in the rain, finally alone in the rain, joyous rain. But it was cold when the rain stopped, and it got dark early.
The clear May sky released people from their homes but was my oppressor. The sun was a heavy yellow knot pulling down the immense weight of clarity from the flat blue sky. The early dawn made it harder to sneak through yards and the sunny afternoons brought people out to patrol their back gates and tall fences. So, I circled the mall and the arcade, sometimes I could go in and spend a few quarters. I watched for big garage sales on weekends, for the houses that might be dark on my walks to school. If a house got dark fast, I could usually find toys near the fence in back. The loot could be tremendous; figurines, vehicles, and play-sets. I could never take anything big, just action figures, He-Man or Transformers, and Hot Wheels, something good I could hide in my room.
“A dog!” Wyatt’s mouth never seemed to close. But he was my only friend, so I ignored it.
“Yeah, look at my pants!” the left pant leg was ripped out.
“He bit you, Seb!” Wyatt always managed an ‘uh’ at the end of his words, like ‘Seb-uh’ or ‘dog-uh’ and I wondered maybe if he ended a sentence with an ‘mmm’ sound, like Sam, his mouth would shut.
“Look at my pants, Wyatt!” I pushed at the red scratches as I walked, skipping a few steps as I reached down.
“No kidding, are you bleeding?” Wyatt always waited a couple blocks past the school, so I could circle around, and we could walk in together. “Let me see it.”
“It’s not bleeding,” I didn’t stop, no reason to look at it, “You’ll probably drool on it.”
“A dog attacked you?” His face mushed in worry, “How?”
“With its teeth, come on.”
“Well, yeah, no,” he laughed, rolling up his face, “I mean like why?”
“I jumped over the fence and there he was, it was my fault.”
I always watched for dogs. I saw most people’s early routine. The bigger houses had huge back windows and new backpacks, brushed pantsuits, hot breakfasts, adjusted ties, bowls of dog food and from the far edge of their yard on the first board of a stockade fence, I watched.
“Holy crap! You didn’t see it before?”
“I didn’t see it today and it didn’t even bark.” The driveway was cluttered with clothes racks and card tables on Saturday and Sunday. All but one light was out Monday morning. The next day it was completely dark. “It was just there, like, as I jumped down, under me.” I lied.
“No way! Come on.”
The truth was, I was certain that something would be back there, something left behind. They took everything, even the swing set. I prowled about a bit when it had come up next to me and growled just a little. I was running before I knew why.
“I was up over that fence in nothing.” I shot my hand through the air. “Like a pro.”
“But he got you, so a ‘pro’ like a pregnant-retarded-ostrich?” Wyatt giggled to himself and leaned back to look at my pant leg as we walked. “So, does it hurt, huh Seb?”
“No, not really, and when the pants ripped it just felt like someone trying to pull them down, like a jerk.” Everything I had was too small, the bigger kids had given up trying to pants me, and just called me ‘highwaters’ instead.
“Whoa,” he grabbed my backpack to stop me and looked at the bruising, “it doesn’t hurt?”
“No way, it’s nothing.” It stung now that I saw it again, a lot, a deep red slash of lines and a long blood blister where the dog’s teeth had pinched together. “Pretty cool, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
I sat in the dim kitchen at the little square table, red and white checkered laminate with wide chrome banding the rounded corners, smudging the clumsy cursive as I dragged my left hand against the paper.
“Both those look like shit,” Poppa snapped his hand down to point at the paper, he took the two steps to the counter and turned to return to the living room. “Start over.”
The world moved as a pendulum about him. It rose with feet slapping against the geometric shapes of the linoleum, the empty belt loops on his jeans, the muffled pace pounding on the carpet, breast pocket of a tucked in t-shirt, the red metal can as he passed through the kitchen again. As it fell, the world became everything that wasn’t on the paper. I leaned closer to the table but could only fall farther away. Into the hum of the refrigerator and back against the drone of the evening news. I looked down into a distant white square of strange shapes, leaden birds on a taut blue line and followed my pencil left to a red border.
“Look at this, this is still shit, what, do you want people to think you’re stupid?” He passed back out of the kitchen, the cracking scuffs of his feet turning to thumps. Outward, until the popcorn on the ceiling scratched on my back, to the blown-out side of the ripped box spring and the safety of hidden toys.
“Stop dragging your fucking hand,” he grabbed my wrist and the pencil clicked somewhere, the leaden edge of my hand hammered at my nose, flushing my eyes, “On, the, god, damn, paper! I’m not going to tell you again!”
I pushed to keep my hand up off the paper, pushed him to stay, to fall into a cathode dream glowing in the living room. I pushed against thin blinded windows, lights of the cars. I pushed until I didn’t know how to pull-in air. The television snapped off. In the sudden silence I shot out against the suburban dome of a starless sky and into the backyard voids. But it was nowhere I wanted to be.
“You do that faster.” The blue denim of his lower leg as he leaned against the kitchen counter with his arms crossed. The world stopped moving. “Now!”
H-e-i-r-l “faster!” oom
H-e-i-r “faster, god damn it Sam!” loom
Hier…no. I tried to widen the ‘i’. no.
“YOU WANT TO DEFY ME?!” My head bounced against the floor, shocking my eyes with light. Finally, I could breathe. “HUH!?”
I was in the air again, my shirt tight on my back, his fists locked into wads in front and in another flashing burst I was on my back. He crouched over me forcing my legs straight.
“Move your hands.” It seemed softly urgent, but I couldn’t find my hands to sit on them. I found them again when one knocked hard against my face. “Move your FUCKING HANDS!”
“You’re not, going to, embarrass me, anymore!” I did want to help. So, when one hand brushed the soft worn denim on his thigh and the other held the bottom cuff of his pant leg, I knew I had done some good. But I stiffened and clinched my eyes, and failed again, drawing a stellar collision of white. Sounds muffled and the ringing warbled as hands cracked against my face.
“You’re never going to be anything.” It was somewhere, like it was shouted through an apartment wall. It seemed somewhere I could open my eyes, I could almost see it. I knew it couldn’t be anywhere. “Do you want to amount…”
“Time! Get up! Get up!” Poppa pounded on the wall next to the door, in the dark, the cold rolled in from outside as he left. Too cold.
“Fuck, Fuck!” I leapt from the bed and began to peel off wet clothes. There were sudden angry bees under my cheeks. My throat rasped, and the left side of my face felt heavy. I tossed my pajamas on to the bed pulling the corners up and everything into a ball. I thought about coming home after school and fought against the bees. The stain was intersected by older half-moons and hoops of jagged burnt yellow. I could prove myself. I’d turn in the cans for quarters after school to wash the bedding. I could keep that stain from settling in and maybe I could get those others too, this time. Then the bees were gone.
I started the hot water in the kitchen and got the bucket from under the sink, brush already inside. I peeled the stiff wash rag from the steel center of the small double basin and ran it under the water squeezing until it was hot. I jammed the bucket under the faucet and started washing my belly and groin. I tossed the rag into the sink and grabbed the Pine Sol that was next to the bucket, dumping in a ‘one-two’ amount. I threw the cleaner back under the sink and pulled the hand towel off the refrigerator handle and dried myself. Without looking I turned the water off and brought the milky solution into my room. And scrubbed. The rings stayed. I scrubbed. I could make it better. I could prove I could do something right.
I ran to school. I ran from a soaked blue mattress and the coronas of another fearful dawn. I ran directly, careless of people and lights. I stopped only to gauge traffic. I believed I ran because I was late.
“Hey… Wyatt,” I couldn’t meet Wyatt at the corner by his house, but he was waiting at a round table in the courtyard in one of the half size chairs even the third graders stopped using, “What time is it, did I make it?
“Seb!” I leaned on my right hand on the table as I bent over heaving. I could see a goofy smile on his face as pulled himself out of the tiny chair. “Hey guess what?”
“Butternut?” I wheezed. I looked left to our classroom, already kids at the desks. “Are we late?”
“No.” He always laughed at that one. “I did super great on my Iowa test and my mom got me a dog!”
“Yesterday?” There was no one else going in. “That’s awesome.”
“Yeah, I got in the sixties, and my mom and I, we went right out…”
“What time is it Wyatt?” I stood and looked him in the face.
“Out and…” Wyatt’s big forehead pushed together like factory dough as he stopped smiling. “Your face, Sam.”
“What?” The bell rung and a forgotten weight pulsed to life.
“You got a big bruise.”
“You should go to the nurse.” He grabbed the dingy cuff of my jacket and started walking toward the open hallway.
“Wyatt you gotta go to class.” I shook Wyatt loose. He was bigger but none of it made him stronger. “I can get to the nurse by myself.”
“Well, ok, I guess so.” But he didn’t move. I turned around halfway to the covered corridor at the end of the courtyard.
“I wanna look at it myself first,” I pointed to the bathroom door on the walled side of the hall. Wyatt still hadn’t moved. “You’re gonna be late, go Wyatt.” I waved my hands at him. He shifted, looked down, and walked into class.
It was too soon for purple, but a clear red hand cupped my face. The thumb crossed my lips, the palm disappeared at my chin and reappeared connected to a pinky rising to my ear. The fingers spaced like a lazy turkey drawing, only the index finger broke as it crossed the corner of my eye. The swarm stung, my eyes watered, and I stepped back from the sink. I looked at the powdered soap on the edge of the sink and then, the small windows at the top of the wall. There wouldn’t be an escape or a fall that could hide the bruise, no combination that could explain it. I looked up in the mirror at myself again and all the fear was gone. I would save Poppa today and he would never know. I would have something today, something I was going to keep. I knew what I would make them believe.
When I got to class Mrs. Dixon said nothing about my being late, or about the bruise on my face.
Each of the kids seemed to take turns staring and then looking away when caught. Wyatt only looked out the windowed wall or at the center of his desk. I didn’t feel much of anything. When the metal P.A. speaker squealed, I knew it was a matter of course.
“Can you send him now, please?”
“Sure thing, he’ll be up in a minute.”
The grey square voice popped out and I wondered if I smelled like pee. I looked Mrs. Dixon in the face and smiled as she looked away and nodded her head toward the door.
I walked the hall, the breeze lightly blowing through. The courtyards between the three rows of classrooms banded the hallway in light and shadow. Even the early sun in Sacramento was hot as I plunged from heat into suddenly frigid darkness, then heat again. Past the final shadow at the top of the key, I turned the steel knob and pulled on the office door.
“You go right on in there.” A grandmotherly fat woman leaned forward in her chair. “They are in there waiting for you, Honey.”
“Have a seat, son.” Mr. Lochart, the principal, tapped the eraser of his pencil on his big yellow pine desk. Someone pulled out the seat for me. “How are you today, Sam?”
“I’m fine, sir, thank you.” I sat straight and placed my hands in my lap, looked him in the eye and waited.
“That’s good, Sam.” He pulled at his well-groomed greying goatee and twisted in his chair. “Do you know Mr. Schloss, Sam?”
“He’s our school counselor.”
“Hello, Mr. Schloss.”
“Hey there Sam you can call me Jimmy if you want.” The counselor spoke softly in continuous rapid feathers.
“I don’t think I want to do that sir, is that ok?”
“Sure Sam can I ask why?” Mr. Schloss crossed his legs and rested his forearm on his knee.
“Well, because you are an adult, sir.” Mr. Schloss swayed back and chuckled.
“Fair enough Sam.” His chuckle halted sharply, and his easy speech started up again. “But I want you to know that you can trust us if you need to tell us anything.”
“…Ok, thank you, sir.”
“I see you’re new this year, how are you getting along in class?”
“Fine, I am actually very excited about taking German next year, sir.”
“German, that’s a cool language, but when I was talking about how you are getting along, I was talking about with the other kids in class Sam, are you having any trouble there?”
“I don’t have a lot of friends yet, and there is some name calling, but nothing big.”
“That’s good Sam everybody gets called names and I’m sure you’ll find a bunch of new friends in middle school, so, I guess what Mr. Lochart and myself are really concerned about is if there is anybody either in school or somewhere else trying to hurt you?”
“I don’t want to talk about the bruise on my face.”
“I understand Sam but you can trust us we just want to make sure you are safe.”
The counselor made it easy. He couldn’t do anything but make everything worse and he talked like he knew it but I didn’t. If I told the truth, Mr. Schloss would lick his lips and listen and excitedly call the police after and that be last I’d see of my new friend. I was just a poor, dumb, helpless kid that he could lie to like I was a kindergardner. Jimmy was my friend like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. I knew the story when I walked into the room, now I knew how I was going to tell it.
“I don’t want to get in any trouble and it’s embarrassing.”
“Everything is going to be fine you’re safe and we’re not going to let nothing happen to you, there is nothing you should be embarrassed about.”
“I don’t think you understand sir, I think I should.” Mr. Schloss leaned in as I set myself to confess. “I got tired of walking home, so I tried to steal a bike from the high school and got caught. The kid whose it was, came out and saw me messing with his bike. I don’t think that it’s right that he should get in trouble and I don’t want anybody to think I steal bikes.”
“So, the bruise on your face is from a high school student?” Mr. Lochart dropped his pencil, put his hands out, and Mr. Schloss leaned back in his seat.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Lochart, he got me pretty good and I ran. I had to jump through a yard and even got bit by a dog, sir.”
Chuckles all round. No one asked to see the bite.
“So, I guess you learned not to steal bikes, huh, Sam?”
“Yes sir, it was awful, and I don’t want to get in trouble. You’re not going to call the police are you, sir?”
“I don’t think that would help anybody, you seem like a good kid, Sam.”
I chained it down, pulled it tight to myself. They couldn’t take what I wouldn’t give. Not Mr. Schloss or Mr. Lochart, not Poppa, not anybody. Of all the things I had to remember, this secret was mine.
The Angel and the Coward
I watched Mt. Shasta slip behind the hills around Roseburg in the passenger side mirror of Poppa’s ’65 Chevy truck. The mirror jumped to a new angle as a tractor trailer blew past my side showing everything that was left in the narrow step-side bed. Clothes, bedding, books, a few toys, including a massive collection of electric car tracks from a better Christmas when it was just me and him, some tools and cookery, a black and white T.V., and the Old Man: a portrait of Solomon Sheridan, my five times great Grandfather. California burned behind us, and back there, past Shasta, everything that I couldn’t see, burned with it.
The destination was Silverton, Oregon, to stay with Jack Russell and his dad John. They lived in the way, way out of town in a house that Mr. Russel had built. Jack and I were friends from before Josh and Jake. Poppa said that I could finish 6th grade there. It was good to be back somewhere I remembered as home and away from California. I was returning to Oregon with the only thing I left it with: him.
I beat a slow largo against the wind with my arm out of the passenger window. I loved the hours of the loud engine droning and what might be over the next craggy high desert hillside. It was one of the times I didn’t mind the sun, when it stretched out to where the mountains came to meet it and we became another ripple through the valley. I liked the sun when it chased me.
Then the old Chevy shuddered as something in it seized then broke and Poppa shot his arm out to brace me. There was an awful smell as we coasted to the shoulder of the highway and I looked through holes in the floorboard for smoke.
“Looks like we might be out of gas.” Poppa said as he grabbed the column shifter and jammed the truck into neutral.
The truck shrieked to a stop and the e-brake clicked. Poppa’s door squeaked open and ground shut. He walked around to the bed of the truck and pulled out a red gas can.
“We’re going to have to walk for a little bit.” Poppa opened my door and I climbed out.
It was hot but it wasn’t long before somebody picked us up. We weren’t far from the first Roseburg exit. Poppa had me wait outside while he used the phone in the Denny’s. Poppa said we had to make it back to the truck to grab what we could, and I sat on the gas can while Poppa hung his head and put up his thumb on the ramp to the freeway. Nobody would take us both and after a few hours Poppa started yelling at a man that had pulled over, then said we had to move after the man drove away. It was getting dark.
I held him that night as we slept in the flood lights of some strange plaza, when I thought everything was gone with the Chevy, all but the clothes we wore, given to the high desert. I felt his chest shudder, when he thought I was asleep. I didn’t often think about my mom’s offer to live with her, but now, as he cried and wasn’t alone, I knew I was right to stay.
John Russel was there in the morning. He’d gotten a message from his ex-wife that we were stranded. We unloaded the truck into his old suburban and left it on the freeway.
I could have left.
Every summer, through it all, I would spend a month with my mom. I told her nothing. I didn’t want to think about it anyway. She would take me to Enchanted Village, an amusement park with waterslides. We’d conspire to sneak bags of candies from the bulk bins at Fred Meyer into the drive-in at Midway where I ate until I was sick. There was always a visit to Pike’s Place Market and the piers, to watch the people who threw fish, listen to the street musicians, and get giant waffle cone ice creams with the lone cherry on a mass of whipped cream. We’d stay up late and watch old Twilight Zone episodes, and I loved how she laughed through re-runs of Dragnet.
Mom would tell me stories about before she met Poppa. When she rode with the Gypsy Jokers, traded her sewing skills in a hippy commune, how she’d eaten acid in San Francisco and gotten trapped in a phonebooth with her sister hiding from a boomerang, or how she’d seen the Grateful Dead when they were the Warlocks and nobody liked their music. Most of the stories Mom told made both of us laugh. There were stories that mom told that made me feel better about going back.
“You gotta be careful with acid though, Sambo.” Ma wiped at her eyes after her reenactment of the boomerang swarm. There was always the chance that she’d laugh so hard she’d pee.
“Sure, I don’t want to be in Alfred Hitchcock Present’s: Boomerangs.” Her story made me think of the cuts I’d seen of Birds that always made me laugh and we watched Alfred Hitchcock before The Outer Limits most nights during my visit.
“No, no, oh, no, I wouldn’t want that, but no really.” She laughed a little more but not enough. “Seriously, though, the acid turned my brother into a schizophrenic.”
“That’s what I saw on T.V.” I tried to think of which uncle might have been crazy, but Iwas never sure who I’d met was her brothers because I rarely saw her family. “That LSD makespeople insane.”
“Well, he did a lot of acid, Sam.” Mom seemed to want to make it clear. “And acid affects people differently, but he did a lot of acid.”
“Steve! Right? Uncle Steve?” I thought that was his name. “The guy that lived in the big house in Sacramento. I remember his house smelled bad and his fridge was empty except for, like, a fuzzy orange or something. That’s Steve, right? He freaked me out.”
Ma laughed at my recollection of an old memory of her brother until I was certain that she’d have to run to the bathroom.
“That sounds like Steve but he’s not crazy, he’s just an asshole.” She recovered quick. “Well, I don’t know anymore he might be crazy, now, no, that was Kevin, Uncle Kevin, Kevin shot himself back when I was twenty-something, I don’t know, but you never got to meet Uncle Kevin.”
“Your brother killed himself too?” I knew that my Grandmother, her mom, had killed herself because I’d never met her either.
“Oh, yeah.” Ma nodded, the smile from her boomerang story slipping to a smirk. “Shot himself in the head.”
“Why would he do that?” I knew Poppa worked with people called schizophrenics, but they didn’t kill themselves. “I mean, what was his crazy?”
“He thought he was Jesus or something, he was smearing shit on the walls, he stopped showering.” Mom waved it away. “Eventually people had to come and take him.”
“He shot himself when they came for him?” I wouldn’t want to be taken.
“No, he was back home.” Ma was quiet for a few seconds and I would have never known how much she had just laughed, now she was just nodding her head. “I cleaned that room, twice, all that shit he’d put on the walls and after, and you know, there were the smallest bits of bone scattered everywhere, Sam, everywhere.”
After a minute she would sigh, loud and long and say, ‘Well, that’s all a bummer.” I never saw Ma cry. I knew that she did, she told me she did. On her mother’s birthday she would quietly spend a few hours alone in her room.
Once every visit, and only once, mom would tell me I could stay. I told her I knew but said nothing else. She had Jeff and my sister, Dusty, and a nice apartment, it would make her happier, but she didn’t need me. At the end of every summer I got on the train to Sacramento without regret, affirmed in my duty to my father.
We didn’t stay long with Jack and Mr. Russell. Poppa moved us back to Salem when he got a job with the state hospital again. We lived in a camper parked next to a house owned by an old work friend from before we’d moved to California, the Wingoes. The people that had watched me after school in first grade before Poppa met Judy. Poppa enrolled me in Parish Middle school, I remember nothing about it except it was here that I noticed that I’d grown a full bush of pubic hair.
I continued to fail Poppa and his expectations, but I learned that he was failing me too. The third and final middle school I attended had placed me in remedial classes because they couldn’t find my school records and couldn’t be bothered with assessment testing. I had tested in the 99th percentile in most subjects when Dyer-Kelley ran the IOWA test in sixth grade, four schools ago. I remembered how Mr. Lochart and Ms. Dixon called Poppa and me in for a meeting to discuss college prep classes. They were excited, I was excited, but my father was irate. It wouldn’t do for me to know that I was smart, he said, because then I might stop trying to be smart.
The classes I was placed into taught basic addition, noun/verb identification, or coloring in maps of the United States. I knew why, my clothes were from before we’d been homeless, too small and worn out, and I had a home haircut and those orange free lunch tickets. I was sent to remedial classes with the rest of the poor kids. I knew that it wasn’t right to ask Poppa for anything, but I begged Poppa to find my records or talk to the school, anyway. He refused, saying it was my responsibility to prove myself. I didn’t tell him it didn’t matter, I didn’t want to shame him with their judgment of our poverty. Poverty that the new mom’s kids didn’t have to wear as I did. I was ashamed of my resentment; it should be enough that Poppa had the family he wanted and that we had a house to live in. I’d held on to Papa through hard years, held as I knew he held on to me, but now I was alone.
Achieving in school was all I had, it was the only thing I did that came close to making Poppa proud. Even if it was never enough. Working hard in school, pleasing teachers was a constant as much as my loyalty to Poppa, it made the social rejection of other kids bearable. But these teachers weren’t interested in anything but dominating the ‘stupid’ kids and I made them pay for it. I saw adults as I never had, vain and frail, aggrandizing themselves on the degradation of the children they were supposed to be educating. I realized I was smarter than they were. I saw the comb-overs, wigs, stutters and tics, the too short or too fat, the ugly or lonely, and I reminded them of it every time they chose to inflict their insecurities on the kids that were better than them if just because they didn’t know better like the teachers should have. I could bend to the domination of my father but broke when subjected to any other’s. At home I was whole, as I had been, subservient, groveling, and pathetic. I was broken everywhere else, careless, domineering, contemptuous and free. It was when I realized contempt for others that I discovered myself. I believe middle school was the same as everyone else, too, I just understood it sooner.
I must have been thirteen when Poppa married again. His ‘Angel’ he said and for over three years I lived in the same home, went to the same schools, and had the same friends. I didn’t like her or her five kids, but I lived indoors and was never hungry. Brenda was the name of Poppa’s ‘Angel’ and with her, Grampa and Gramma came back. Grampa was the Justice of the Peace again when they got married at the courthouse. I wasn’t there, nobody was, and that suited me fine.
Not that I hated Brenda. I just think I didn’t care who Poppa married. Brenda was the daughter of an older nurse’s aide at the mental hospital where Poppa worked. Brenda worked at a nursing home and had most recently lived in Oklahoma. Brenda wasn’t so bad. She was average looking if a little ugly. All her upper teeth were gone, and she had a dental plate that she eventually started leaving in a cup in the bathroom like I’d seen on commercials. Brenda seemed to want to be a hard-bitten Okie, with earthy wisdom, and maybe she was, but I thought she was dull. She did seem to understand when I told her that the word ‘Mom’ just didn’t mean as much after Poppa had tried to stitch it to a third person. She was always willing to listen, and she was easy to talk to until I figured out that she was telling Poppa about our conversations. I wasn’t mad, it was right that she should tell Poppa everything. I was just embarrassed that I would expect her confidence. Brenda was my father’s wife and I tried not to think much more than that about it. I didn’t think that she was any kind of ‘angel’ and, eventually, I don’t think Poppa did either.
I did prove myself to the school and after three years I was entering 10th grade with advanced placement classes in English and History and Algebra. I couldn’t enroll in the advanced science classes because I was now taking the requisite math. I had been there long enough to have made friends, lost them, and made them back again. I had been in two plays at McNary High School’s massive, three-million-dollar theater. I got to be Soda Pop in the Outsiders and the program director was talking about finding me funding for the summer drama camp. I was sure to score main parts for the next two years, I was making friends everywhere, and I was sure to get at least a partial scholarship somewhere.
Things I didn’t understand from before, when I called Judy mom, the silences broken by sharp jabs of disdain, accusations, failures to achieve unspoken expectations, I saw now. From a watchtower I built from existential contempt I saw the shambling façade of family burn, while Poppa and his ‘angel’ covered their heads, sightless and silenced in the thick, black cloth of their own grievances, each the other’s headsman. All there was, was to wait for the blind swings of the mutually condemned. I could tell this time around when Poppa’s third marriage was falling apart. I was terrified.
After almost four years in one place, in one house, I could see everything I’d made, all going away and, in its place, new years of hunger and homelessness, where my duty would be to hold Poppa upright, to give purpose in shared misery. I called my mother. I fled, a failure in my own eyes.
A coward’s love is worthless.
In the living room I waited. It was 7:08 on the red digital on Poppa’s desk. Next to his desk was a bookshelf on that bookshelf were the three thick books on ‘magick’ that Poppa had placed there after confiscating them months ago. For a moment, I was stunned that I had forgotten them, then immediately snatched them all and put them in my gym bag and sat back down on the couch. 7:11. He hadn’t hidden the books, I suddenly thought. He hadn’t thrown them out or burned them. He did accuse me of demon worship, which I thought was dramatic, but it occurred to me, just then, that he had left them where I could get them if I wanted, if I dared, if I was willing to have a conversation. I didn’t think that the demon worship accusation was all that slick of a parenting move, but this was pretty good.
For a sunny moment of doubt I got caught in the fantasy of dialog instead of the lecture I would receive. ‘Yes, Poppa’ would be only my contribution to it. I knew what Poppa thought. We’d moved from spankings and random knocks to the head to shoving. It was a birthday gift, he said he wasn’t going to hit me anymore. Soon, over trash chores, he was asking if I wanted to step outside. Toe-to-toe was what Poppa thought, and after that, maybe, we’d have a conversation. I slid left slightly on the couch, dodging an imaginary swing and danced light again. The books were nothing but had them now, and Poppa could have his fight without me.
“Good morning, Sam.” I jumped when the Angel wandered into the living room in her robe, her face was puffy and misaligned like old people in the morning. The sun was too low yet to shine through the front windows. Then she continued, talking through her yawns. “You’re all dressed-up early.” 7:16.
“Yeah, I’m leaving.” I said, her startling me made me giddy and I answered so upbeat I almost laughed.
“When?” She scratched at herself and wandered back out of the living room, probably to the kitchen to start some coffee. She didn’t seem to notice the two bags.
Sooner than you! I wanted to tell her. “Somebody’s coming by.” I stood and followed her a bit, to make sure I was right. “I’m leaving when they get here.”
I went back to the couch and listened to the water turn on, the clanking coffee pot, the slapping cupboard, and the then tiny squeak of a bed spring. She hadn’t seen them. I stood again. It was hysterical. I couldn’t stand still and paced softly. I pushed the webbing between my thumb and forefinger down against my mouth to valve the raucous boiler of laughter down into sudden soft giggles. Her life was over. There was only one way out and it was down. Not for me though. Nope. Ma had been married for twelve years. I didn’t know how long the Angel’s previous marriages had lasted, but four years seemed the best Poppa was going to do and congratulations, Angel, it’s you, you’re next. It was three before that and two on his first try. At least he was getting better!
“What’s in the bags, Sam?” The Angel had a cup of black coffee in one hand and was casually pointing at two bags, a tied-off garbage bag and a gym bag.
“All my stuff.” I smiled at her. She looked old and worn and I wondered if she slept with her teeth in. I felt like the Cheshire Cat. “I told you, I’m leaving.”
“What do you mean?” She didn’t grow in size with her realization of what I was doing, like Poppa would have. She was as tiny and small as I had ever seen her.
“My Mom should be here in a few…” I saw Ma’s 280Z, a car she called Eve, stop just past the house and start reversing into our gravel yard. “Nope there she is.”
The Angel spun in place spraying coffee all over papers on the table as her mug tapped against the laminate top and she ran for the kitchen. I watched Ma back in, then went to open the front door.
“You can’t leave.” The Angel was dialing with both fingers, walking as far as the tight spiral cord could stretch.
I rushed to grab my things before she could, but she didn’t try. Instead she held the phone to her head and pled, “You have to talk to your father first.”
“Obviously, I’m not doing that.” I lifted the bags just a little higher for emphasis, like she was an idiot, then turned to leave. “Good luck Brenda.”
“Please!” Brenda shrieked behind me. She spoke fast. “Please talk to your father, please, you can’t leave, please, you have to talk to your father first, please! ‘John Bowman, ward D, it’s urgent.’” The Angel spoke as clearly as she could into the phone.
Ma had the back hatch of her car open. “Hey, Sambo!”
I put the two bags in the back and gave her a long hug. I had called her a few nights before. I told her that seven-thirty Sunday morning was best, I wasn’t in any danger and not to call or show up before seven. Poppa left at seven. I knew that Mom would have walked in at dinner and taken me if I had asked her to, but that was a scene that didn’t need to happen.
“Is that all you have?” she asked as I shut the third door of her little car.
“Yup, that’s it.” I could see Brenda marching from the dining room to the living room through the front windows. “We should go.”
“Wait! Sam!” Brenda had come out on the front step as I opened the door to get into the low seat of the 280Z. “He’s on his way, please, wait!”
As we pulled away, I watched the Angel in the rearview mirror step down in her bare feet onto the sharp rocks of her gravel front yard.
We were somewhere outside of Woodburn when I took the little Ziplock bag from Ma. “Can you grab two out for me?” she said.
I could feel that my face was still red. I sucked up some residual snot then asked. “Can I have one?”
“Sure.” Ma took a pull from a tilted sports bottle, tossed in the two tiny white wafers of amphetamine I had placed in her hand, then took another swig. “They’re sticky and taste terrible so, get water in your mouth, toss it in, then wash it all down.”
I took a wafer out of the little baggie, pinched between my thumb and forefinger, then zipped the baggie closed running the seal between my index and middle finger. Ma tossed the baggie into one of the deep cylinders of her instrument panel. I dropped the pill into my palm and grabbed the water bottle from Ma. The top of the little pill was scored as it was meant to be broken in fours. I pulled on the water, tossed the pill in but swallowed before I could get a second tug on the bottle. The pill stuck to my tongue and was painfully bitter. I drank more and scraped my tongue against the roof of my mouth; the pill broke into pieces as it went down.
I was free now, a swell of suppressed tears splotched my face, I could do whatever I want.
“I can’t believe you’ve never told me any of this before, Sam.” Ma was stern, not angry, after hearing the thirty-minute blubbering answer for her question. ‘Why I decided to leave?’ I only told her the stuff I could remember at the moment.
“Right!” I said with a hard laugh that felt good, “I tell you I’m living in a tent or sleeping in the car or Poppa beats the shit out of me and you do what…what would you do?”
“I’d take your dad to court and get custody of you.”
“Of course, you would have, and you would’ve won, and you would have been right to do it but then you would have made the decision for me.”
“Why did you stay, Sammy, I wanted you.”
“You had Dusty and Jeff and everything and Poppa didn’t have anything there for a few years, I just wanted to see it through.” I was seized again with failure and couldn’t talk anymore and held on with a few controlled breaths through a clinched jaw.
After about twenty minutes of silence, the involved lane instructions of Portland’s green highway appeared. Ma asked as she changed into the ‘Seattle’ lane, “You lived in a tent?”
“Yeah, in some backyard in Sacramento, Poppa was renting a little trailer or borrowing it, don’t know, I remember changing a lot of diapers because Poppa said I was obligated to help the family that lived in the house.”
“I thought you said you were living in a tent?”
“I did, I wasn’t allowed in the trailer.” It wasn’t a funny story but I was smiling anyway, I felt light, and happy to be alive. “Poppa was working things out with Judy and she said she wouldn’t come by if I was living in the trailer, so I slept in a little dome tent beside it.”
“I can’t believe he’d let her do that!” Ma was light too, she was shaking her head but smiling slightly.
“I got sick in that tent, threw up over everything, my sleeping bag and all my clothes and stuff. Poppa got a whiff of it and was so mad, all screaming ‘this is why you have to sleep out here’ and shit, it was so gross, and it got hot in there before I had cleaned it all out.” I laughed then added, “The smell never went away and I had to go to school.”
We wove through of a knot of concrete, a convergence of ramps braided out from the Marquam Bridge across the Willamette River. Out of the confusion and on to the bridge. The water below was vibrant, the morning sun still low enough to scatter light atop a shimmering ribbon. It was a thrilling sight that sent a pulse up my spine that bloomed a quivering wave across my scalp from my neck to my forehead. I took a deep breath and ran my fingers through my hair.
“That’s great isn’t it?” Ma was chewing gum furiously and smiling. “All your hair standing up like that, I just love it.”
“Is that the speed?” I dropped the sun visor and looked in the vanity mirror, certain that I’d see a frill of erect hair, “It feels like I should have Tina Turner’s hairdo.”
I started to sing, ‘We don’t need another hero, we don’t need to know the way home.’
“Yuppers,” Ma leaned back then forward, checked all the mirrors again, set her hand on the shifter, then back to the wheel. “Pharmacy grade Mexican amphetamines. They. Are. Great.”
‘All we want is life beyo-ah-ond.’ I stopped singing and patted out the rest on the dash, “They sure are, I think I am an enormous fan.” I said, but not just of Mad Max and speed, but 280Zs and bridges and rivers and Portland, being on the freeway, and a new life. I was even enthusiastic about my old life and when I breathed it felt like I had all the world’s air.
I told Ma everything. I was so inflated with a glorious radiance that the good stories flowed into bad and back again until they were almost indistinguishable. It was the speed, I knew that for sure, but it was also an unburdening, like the pleasure in removing long worn, tight shoes and I meant to let it all go. All the things I could remember that I was never supposed to say to anyone. Not just the last three and half years but all time since she moved to Washington. Poppa’s Angel was a stable three-year sliver I did talk about, but it was built on uglier secrets. Ma mostly listened, though occasionally asked for more details. She was excitable but didn’t laugh and smile much, only when I tried to joke.
“Hearing all this stuff, Sam, about you.” Ma did a circle with her free hand, ‘wrapping’ me, then pointed off. “And your dad, I don’t know, it explains a lot.”
“Like,” I made the ‘wrapping’ gesture back at her, “what do you mean?”
“You didn’t like talking about your dad, and you were always so quiet and formal, bowing at people and shit.” Ma cackle-snorted at me in some memory, then said, “I mean, it’s good that you say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ and all that shit but it’s just, you always seemed so tense, you know, high strung. Now, I can see why.”
“Let me put an addendum on that, Ma.” I rebutted. “You had me when I was relaxed and on vacation.”
“Gawd, Sambo, I just can’t believe it.” Ma said. “Hearing all this stuff, it’s like meeting my son for the first time.”
We stopped in Kelso, like we always had, for gas, bathrooms, and drinks at the Arco station. It was the only place we had ever stopped between Salem and Kent, whether Ma drove all the way down or met Poppa in Portland, Kelso was always a stop. There was overwhelming nostalgia when I saw the giant yellow ‘K’ on a hillside made of painted rocks, a familiar landmark of earlier summers. It was the first time I’ve looked at the ‘K’ without the dread of seeing it a month later.
Ma told me her rules, 1. If I was going to be gone for more than a couple days, she would really appreciate a call… and that’s it. There wasn’t a rule two. I munched down a sleeve of smoked almonds, gnashing my jaw frenetically as we pulled out of the Arco. I cleared my mouth out with a swig off a large Mr. Pibb fountain drink and asked Ma for another pill. It had been an hour since my hair was on end. Swig, drop, swig, swallow. I nailed it. Not a tinge of bitter. I filled again with beautiful air and all of it tasted of freedom.
My mother had been married to the same man, Jeff, for twelve years and all I needed was just two years more and then I would be college bound. He had a long-term job as an engineer at Boeing and she currently worked as a cocktail waitress for spending money. Ma gave me twenty dollars a day from her tips and open access to her Mexican speed. It was the opposite of my father’s strict authoritarian parenting style; my mother was my friend. She even bought me cigarettes and my first hit of LSD. I ate and sold the amphetamines for cheap, not for profit but to make friends: friends that liked to get high. I sought out every experience my new freedom could bring. I was bound to nothing. I was known to no one. For the first time, it was good to be the boy from nowhere.
I knew a little bit about how my mother lived. I knew that she stepped out on her husband, but she’d done that for years and they were still together. Jeff was very clean and orderly. He kept every pay stub in the coffee table drawer next to his loaded long barrel .44 magnum. The most powerful handgun in the world, he’d say, and he didn’t say much. I knew my sister hated him, though not for any reason, no abuse or anything, just that she thought he was an asshole. I knew where he hid his porn and how to break into the safe where he kept coins of silver bullion, not that I did anything with the coins, it was just fun to know that his safe wasn’t safe from me. He never tried to be my dad, he didn’t want to be anybody’s dad, he didn’t want anybody around except the dogs and my mom.
Things got weird, fast.
I didn’t know anyone but my sister’s friends that I’d met during my visitations. Natalie was one of those friends and she lived in an apartment complex just a few minutes’ walk away.
Jerry sat on the couch next to Natalie. Apparently, Jerry lived in an apartment that mirrored Natalie’s in the complex. He seemed to me a bizarrely bloated man, made small under the long growth of his thinning hairline and dominating handshake. I went to Natalie’s apartment because it was just a few blocks from the complex I lived in. I was Dusty’s little brother and knew I’d be welcome. The people I knew, or the people that knew me, were my older sister’s friends. I hadn’t met that many kids my age in the three weeks since leaving Poppa, but people scattered all over Seattle knew me. Jerry wasn’t one of them and his handshake was all I needed. Two kinds of men that jerk and crush when they shake a sixteen-year-old’s hand: the falsely superior believing in some right to instruct and the factually weak that see a rival. The difference between the two is the presence of a woman, sometimes any woman.
Natalie was a short, bottom-heavy, nineteen-year-old mother of two. She had straight brown hair, and wide-spaced eyes that drooped lethargically downward. The addition of a grand nose and an aggressive skin-tab on her right eyelid, made her face interesting and her smile necessary. Natalie nailed that ‘any woman’ quality that Jerry was looking for. I was expecting to see her man, Bobby, instead of Jerry. Bobby was the father of her two boys, and he called her ‘The Sea Hag’. ‘The one from Popeye,’ he’d said, ‘but, Legend works too.’ I asked about their boys, Tommy and Michael, 4 and 2 and named after Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee and Poison’s Brett Michaels and Natalie stopped smiling, saying quickly that they were down in Portland on vacation with their Pepe. I could tell I shouldn’t ask about Bobby. It was none of my business why he wasn’t here, and Jerry was.
Jerry said he was from L.A. and recently out of the Hell’s Angels. He got into some serious shit with the ATF and had to leave his leathers, ditch his hog, and lay low. He still had the engine though and we could go over to his apartment to see it, ifI needed proof. Natalie playfully squealed at every big swing in the story but left me to view the evidence when he got insistent. Jerry asked me my name again on the short walk but nothing else. Jerry’s apartment was small, near empty except for clutter: beer cans and bottles, plates, tools, and a filthy couch. On one wall was large Motorhead tapestry with a Confederate flag on the opposite. Both reminded me of carnival game prizes. He pointed at something on the dining table that was bigger than a breadbox and dirtier than a toaster should be, likely the engine that somehow proved his story. Jerry grabbed a box of beers out of his fridge and hustled me out of his house, fast walking back to Natalie’s.
Jerry presented his box to Natalie. Sitting on the couch he handed her an open can, grabbed one for himself. I got a quick smirk as he set the box next to the coffee table and talked about the engine I saw. I sat on the floor, using the thick long coat I wore everywhere, and rarely took off, for padding, and quietly watched Jerry insist on himself while Natalie delighted at his effort. I camouflaged myself with displays of light doubt, like ‘no way’, simple incredulity ‘really?’ and the understated ‘wow’. I imagined myself observing some dung beetle desperately mongering his rolled efforts. The difference being that at least the beetle had the ball of shit to sell. Which was fine, it seemed all Natalie needed was the pitch. She moved closer as he talked and it was obvious, I was going to have to leave soon.
Another wasted Saturday night.
Then Bobby came home. He sauntered through the galley kitchen. Not that I could see him before he got to the dining room, but Bobby sauntered everywhere. The first time I had met him my right hand was full with my backpack so I offered up my left, he slapped my hand away. After I worked out a proper handshake, I asked him, why? Bobby stuck out his left hand, I grabbed it and he jerked me in, drawing my attention to the cocked fist at his shoulder.
Bobby, now, made a languid turn toward the living room. His costume was magnificent. Long curly blonde hair, a solid, handsome face with a rugged curve of bent cartilage from a motorcycle helmet to the side of the nose. His jeans were sliced into cascades of denim ribbons and frayed strands of cotton with white thigh-high spandex leggings underneath. His high tops were always untied. The tassels of his white leather jacket swayed for two steps before snapping into exaggerated pennants as he spotted Jerry and shot forward.
“Hey, pa’ner, who the fuck are you?” A fringe of rocking leather fell from Bobby’s arm as he stabbed a finger down at Jerry.
“So you’re Bobby? I heard about you, ditching your kids.” Jerry tensed. I hadn’t heard anything about what was going on with the kids and Jerry hadn’t heard that Bobby was a fair size bigger than himself.
“Yep and that’s my old lady and you’re about to get the fuck up off my couch.”
Jerry blinked a few times before setting his beer on the coffee table, seeing, perhaps, the real ball of shit he’d rolled wasn’t for Natalie. “So, you want to take this outside?”
“If that’s where it’s going,” Bobby’s jacket was off. His sleeveless Megadeth Peace Sells… shirt was cut at the shoulders and just above the belly button. “Stand up, punk!”
Jerry stood, and they eyed each other as they moved down the hall that ran parallel to the kitchen. Natalie and I watched them approach the apartment door from the dining room. Bobby opened the door and offered Jerry go first. Then Jerry offered. They dance like that for a few beats when Jerry bit and made the step. Bobby slammed the door, crushing Jerry’s head against the frame. Jerry went down on his stomach and struggled to get his hands to his head. Bobby pounced. With his left hand he grabbed wads of hair and his right hammered down with an intent past the back of Jerry’s head.
“Stop, Bobby!” Natalie shrieked. Chunks of hair with bits of skin still on them hit the floor as Bobby grabbed at fresh knuckles-full and more was ripped free by punches. “Bobby!”
It was over in moments. Long moments of horrid exposure to self-doubt that violence brings on. The claustrophobic clarity that I never see myself as the victor; the hidden lion in the coward’s argument. I might have yelled something in defense of Jerry. Nothing, obviously, with intent. I was as powerless to stop Jerry’s beating as Jerry, his one hand on Bobby’s balled fist tearing against his scalp and the other waving blindly, desperate to deflect the next blow.
Fighting’s hard, even if you’re not the one getting hit. Winded, Bobby let up enough for Jerry to skitter into the hallway, kicking at him before closing the door. Bobby marched back to the couch and sat down, placing a fist on each knee, saying nothing to either of us. I sat back down on the floor, long coat under me, on the other side of the coffee table. Natalie curled halfway into his lap, her hand caressing his chest as Bobby breathed deeply through his nose. The knuckles of his right fist were oozing blood and there were bits of hair still tangled in the other. He held himself rigid in the pose of a conquerer on a throne, breaking to grab a beer from Jerry’s stash.
“Taint that a bitch.” Bobby panted.
I sat there, cross-legged on the floor in full awareness of the placating smile on my face, unsure of anything but a repulsive wave of subservience. The fine clothes I was wearing: the slick loafers, pegged slacks, colorful button up, and preppy haircut made me irreproachable at school, and intentionally so. I reveled in the lithe elegance of the high waists and billowing silk that validated my conviction of nobility. The prize above all was the thick threaded long coat with a wide herringbone weave that descended to a foot above the ground. It was the mantel of my vagabond regality, everything it covered was sovereign. I had been raised to be a dignitary to the fantasy courts in my father’s mind, to introduce myself to women with a bow and a cupped hand, to know the proper placement of silverware, to never refuse food as a guest and to never shame a host with a request and a thousand other rules. ‘Etiquette is the first display of honor, Sam, in one’s self and family.’ Three weeks and two-hundred miles away and my father’s voice was still clearer than my own, but what was the honorable thing now? How long is appropriate before excusing oneself from a beating? I suppose it depends on the circumstance, but this was my first time witnessing one and came with the complication of being a guest. Bobby was my sudden host, as Natalie was five minutes before.
I stayed quiet while Natalie chirped and giggled, pressing herself against him occasionally to rub her leg down the length of him. Bobby barely acknowledge her, taking long pulls on his beer. He eased his left hand open and shook free the wispy bundles of hair woven between his fingers and chuckled. Bobby leaned back and pushed the box of beer with his foot.
“Did you want a beer?”
I hated beer.
“Sure.” I grabbed two beers, reaching one out back to him, for him to give to Natalie. I pointed at his weeping knuckles as he opened the can. “Do you need something there?”
“I’ll deal with that later.” Bobby stretched back and threw an arm over Natalie.
I had two swallows of beer and left. Whatever schedule Natalie was on with Jerry hadn’t changed since boarding a different train.
The next day I got my ear pierced twice. I had already decided to grow out my hair.
Bobby had scars all over his arms and a few across his chest, most of them self-inflicted. There was the large half-dollar scar on the top of his wrist, “Did you know that you can’t burn through a dollar with a cigarette if it is against your skin? Yeah, I learned that after some guy in a bar offered me a whole bill if I could, well, you can’t.” There were cigarette burns that were intended as tattoo removal but I could still see bits of the blue-green India ink from his do-it-yourself tat of ‘Natalie’. ‘F.T.W.’ was on his shoulder with a small circle burned out between the ‘F’ and ‘T’. “It used to mean ‘Fuck the World’,” Bobby said. “But I didn’t like that so I started to burn it out, then decided that it could mean ‘Fuck Tight Women’ and there it is.” His biggest scar went down the length of his right forearm and was broadest at the meat and was bordered with smaller staple scars.
“The Sea Hag just kept yelling and yelling, and man, Sam, I had that kitchen knife and she starts in on how I’m not man enough to do anything with it, she called me bitch and I swear man, I was gonna stick her. The Hag shut-the-fuck-up after I,” Bobby made a sh-thumpf sound while he mimed slashing his arm. “And it just fell open in a big chunk, and blood gushed out.”
The funny thing was that Bobby ended up with my sister after Natalie went to jail for knifing a woman she thought was fucking Bobby. Natalie went to the woman’s apartment complex and stabbed her when she answered the door.
“Forty-one, Sambo, thaaaaat’s right.” My mom rubbed a cotton ball soaked in Sea Breeze in fast circles against her face, chortling at her fake enthusiasm. The humidity still sticking to the edges of the master bath’s wide mirror.
The astringent was first, just after the shower, then a full body lotion starting with Olay on the face. After that was a whole facial regimen that could involve anything from tweezing chin hair to the dangerous lash curler. My mother’s bathroom routine had been a production for my entire life and the location of weeks of accumulated hours of quality banter and wisdom. She was working tonight so I figured it was going to be the deluxe job, all the little bottles and cases and brushes, and pencils and tools and all that. Last summer, during visitation, she was working at Oberto’s curing meat, so going to work didn’t mean any of this. Now she was a cocktail waitress at the Riverside and rushing still took thirty minutes.
“Jeeze, forty-one, Ma!” I got her a mug with a little red ‘caffeine’ demon stuffy inside it. I couldn’t think of anything to get her. I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened in the last year but anything she wanted she got for herself. She didn’t want to smoke anymore, so she quit smoking. She was tired of being fat, joined an all-female gym because, she said, “There’s always that guy staring, staring like I came to give him a show. I just want to say, ‘what the fuck is wrong with you, dude?’ Gawd.” Her diet was like a rehab program, with weekly meetings. She’d even talked Jeff into fronting the money for some ‘augmentation’. When he tried to charge interest, she threatened he’d never get to put a hand on them. They were hers now, proudly paid off, not that I was to say anything to anybody. Who would I tell? Then, there was Eve, her dream car, a black Datsun 280Z. Last year it was a late eighties Ford Fiesta, Jeff’s scraps.
Jeff and my mom had been married since I could remember. Jeff was tall, 6’ 2”, with straight, brow length sandy blond hair, parted in the middle, glasses, moustache down to his upper lip, polo shirt, belt, and straight legged jeans. Every year, every picture, every memory, for twelve years, matches this description. My mom had worked at the turkey plant to put him through school with the promise that she’d go after him. Jeff’s engineering degree got him a job at Boeing in Seattle and moved to a rural development on the outskirts of Olympia, Wa, miles from anywhere. Jeff was paying for everything else, so she’d have to work herself out if she wanted to go to school. His money was his and hers was hers. Dusty was hers too and anything she wanted extra was mostly my mom’s business.
Jeff had purchased his first car with cash selling pumpkins and Christmas trees he grew on his family’s land. Jeff didn’t seem that bad to me, just a guy that would charge his own wife interest on a loan for tits. He was the kind of guy that believed if you want something get it yourself and that was exactly what my mom was doing.
“I’m supposed to meet up with Helen before work.” My mother was rushing through, already rubbing Olay on her neck. “Some sort of quick party or something.”
Jeff wasn’t what my mom wanted anymore and hadn’t wanted in years. It was Cecil last year, a Sikh fella working in the fridge with her at Oberto’s. It was all very romantic. Cecil was stuck in an arranged marriage to a family back in Kashmir. He would have to return or bring her here. Either would bring an end to their torrid affair with mom, and neither was safe, in Kashmir the Sikhs were persecuted and here he would be tortured by so close a temptation. Not that my mom would describe it that way, she’d just say that Cecil was great. Jeff, however, she called a drunk to his face. Though not too often. ‘He thinks because he is clean, he isn’t a drunk.’ she’d told me. ‘Sam, there are clean people everywhere all fucked up on drugs, let alone drunks.’ Jeff drank every night and washed his car every Sunday, the day he didn’t drink. And he washed his car every Sunday, even if it was raining.
Cecil was gone, and so was another guy named Brett. I hadn’t met either or anyone in between, if there were any. She told me that Jeff’s routine was to drink from four p.m. to bedtime, usually sometime in the middle of Letterman, and take her to bed. I saw this often enough. Screwdrivers until Jeff stoutly, slowly, stood and declared bedtime and my mother, usually, followed behind.
“He tries to have sex but half the time he can’t get it hard enough, and the other times he just goes until he passes out, and sometimes it seems to take hours,” she said one day on a drive down to one of her food meetings. “He never comes, shit, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.”
“I don’t need to know what Jeff does or doesn’t do,” I told her. There was nothing I could do about what she had told me so far.
I didn’t want Jeff to be a bad guy. I wanted him to be the quiet guy that drunkenly agreed to pay me a quarter for every Jeopardy! question, and fifty cents during the double, and kept doing it, wavering just a little after I started making five to ten dollars a night. The guy that took me pier fishing at least once every summer; he never talked or showed me anything, like how to fish, but he took me all the same. Jeff was a sucker, a mark, a job, and I wondered if he noticed how set-up my mom was to find somebody else. I did.
It was a quality of my mother’s upbringing: borderless honesty with her children. I’d rediscovered that her Mom had been a prostitute in Sacramento before she killed herself and my Mom had ended up in the Sacramento Bee over a child pornography charge that Mom said was all made up.
“It was my mom and my aunt in those films, not me.” Mom was indignant. “But I didn’t tell those fuckin’ cops anything. You know they kept showing me pictures saying, ‘that’s you, isn’t it, that’s you’ accusing me and all I kept saying was ‘that’s not me, why are you making me look at these pictures?’ Nowadays I think, what if it was me, I would have been the victim, right? It wasn’t what people said that was obscene,” Ma would sigh. “It was what people did.”
I started to remember that she had always told me these stories about her mom being a prostitute and a black pimp named Chuck mom liked a lot and another named Johnny that had been in the stag films with my grandmother. Crazy Uncle Kevin too. Grampa Jack, she said, who wasn’t my real grandfather, had promised her Kevin’s stuff if she’d clean the mess after his suicide, then sold it all anyways. I started to remember a lot of her stories after I moved in, but it was her birthday and I wanted to hear her laugh.
“Born 1950, nineteen during the Summer of ’69 in San Francisco,” I laid back on the waterbed and let the thought hang. Yeah, Sam,” she said, then she bleated, like she did when she was being goofy. “It was greeat!”
“Tell me the story about you and your sister high on acid in a telephone booth.” It was a day trip she’d taken from Sacramento to San Francisco and one of my favorites.
“It was those damned boomerangs they were throwing in the park…” Ma started the story the same as she always did. It was good to hear her laugh and she laughed often. “And your Aunt Laura, I remember she took most of the acid, she’s on the phone with Grampa Jack and I’m down there on my knees wailing and flailing my arms…”
And it was good to laugh with her. To be free from every laugh being a decision.
“So, she drags me out of the phone booth and into Grampa Jack’s car, and I’m still pretty high, you know.” Ma glanced at the clock on the nightstand, eyeliner pencil in hand and fat grin on her face. “Shit, Sam, you got me all behind.”
“You’re fine,” I never saw what she was going for anyway with all the makeup. “You can do it quick.”
“I just want to get it over with,” Ma hated parties. “In and out.”
Jeff threw the door of the room wide and said something like, “Get the fuck out of here,” through five glasses of vodka marbles. “Pervert, motherfucker!”
I should have jumped. Jeff was a tall dude, but he had never yelled at me before and I didn’t know why he was yelling at me now.
‘Motherfucker!’ Was the last thing he said, then Ma was on him.
“Do you think I want to fuck my son?” Ma jammed her arms into Jeff’s chest, shoving him back. I noticed then that she was fully naked.
Jeff stumbled back, and again my mom came in with a full body shove. “You’re the pervert, you’re the motherfucker!”
Ma was a handsome woman, a strong jawed, man-handed, spartan queen and she hadn’t missed a day at the gym in almost a year. Something, maybe, Jeff thought just made her look appealing to him.
“You get the fuck out of here, pervert!” Her arm went up to throw a hook with masculine form and she bobbed left. Jeff flinched and fled out of the bedroom. “Motherfucker!” she shouted after him. “You think I want to fuck my son?”
I was silent, busy with all kinds of new math. Since I’d moved in, Jeff had gotten an earlier shift and now started drinking around one in the afternoon. He would sit in the living room, watch the Weather Channel, and say nothing. Jeff didn’t get rowdy or loose as he drank, he got slower and tighter. By the time he changed the channel to Wheel of Fortune, Jeff would be stock still, too drunk to move. I’d seen people drunk and I’d been drunk, and I think I’d seen a few alcoholics too, but I never saw anyone get drunk like Jeff did. I think he wanted it to kill him.
Ma muttered and cursed, back at the sink with a job to do. I was going to have to lay low. For two years. The math was bad.
“I think I’m going to be out tonight.” I said, then after I heard the door to the apartment shut. “Do you think he’s going for a drive?”
“I don’t blame you.” The math was real bad. “No, he’s probably taking the dogs for a walk, he wouldn’t want to wreck his car. Too bad.”
“Happy Birthday, Ma.”
There was a painting my mom had, had always had, that she kept where guests were sure to see it. Everything is grey with a slight hue of olive. The last rays of a sickly sun setting over the water shoot through a skeletal skyline of collapsed buildings. All the land below tumbles with a mass of naked people. Standing. Screaming. Fornicating. Fighting. Drowning. There is no color. Ma told me that was how the world was going to end. I was beginning to understand this was how Ma saw the world as it was. She wasn’t an idealist like Poppa was, and besides, nuclear war was how the world was going to end. That was how I saw it.
“I don’t understand how you got with Poppa.” Ma and I were riding back to the apartment after dropping Tracy off at his motel near the Riverside. Tracy was Ma’s new side man and the only one that I had ever met. He was large and well-built with loose curly brown hair done up in a mullet. Ma said he used to be a professional football player for the Miami Dolphins. I had never heard of him and neither had Poppa.
“Pretty weird stuff, Sambo, I know.” Ma was done up, not as heavily as she did when she worked. “But, what don’t you understand about it?”
“Well, Poppa seems too… rigid, I mean I just can’t imagine Poppa doing acid, let alone helping me get some.”
“The last time I did acid it was with your dad.” Ma grinned. “He wasn’t always like he is now. I think his parents really did a number on him.”
“So, was that like some sort of spiritual thing and that’s why you married him?” I’d heard the story about the last time she did acid, some guy with a thing on his face. I was interested that Poppa was there too, but I wanted her to stay on topic.
“No, I married him because I was pregnant with you and his parents got all worked up about you being a bastard, so,” Ma sighed. “I didn’t want to marry your dad.”
“So why didn’t you have an abortion?” I laughed after I said it. “I mean, I’m glad you didn’t, but you know, if you didn’t plan on being with him…”
“Look, Sam.” Ma took a serious tone. “When I saw your dad, I knew that guy would make good looking, smart babies. I didn’t want to marry him, all that was a real drag.”
“And he got custody of me, that must have been a real drag too.” I joked, uncomfortable about what I was about to ask. Ma smirked. I hadn’t lightened the mood. “But, all that aside, and now I feel really stupid asking but, did you love Poppa?”
I wasn’t one of those kids-on-tv that hoped that, one day, their parents would get back together and fall in love again. I knew. Since about the time Santa needed a redefinition, I’ve known my parents would never find happiness with each other. I was fortunate: my parents didn’t speak ill of each other. I knew that my mother held a grudge over losing me but other than that neither talked about the other. I did want to believe that they loved each other, at least once.
“Not when I married him.” Ma was quick to answer, then after I sank into a few seconds of silence. “I think that I might have… no, your dad was too paranoid. Look, I have you now anyways. I told him I would.”
Ma smiled to herself and it bothered me. It was hard for me to leave my father, to decide. I had decided. She had no reason to feel smug. And she called Poppa ‘paranoid’. I thought to agree but we had just dropped off Tracy, her goofy-looking side-guy.
“Obviously, you don’t love Jeff.” I asked, trying to work out what would have kept her from cheating on my dad.
“I did.” Ma answered that one quick too, then shifted into indignant. “Before he decided to be a drunk. I told him that he needed to pick, drinking or me. He didn’t even try.”
“When did you stop being in love with Jeff?” I was getting angry. I didn’t care about Jeff, but I didn’t know how to ask about her and Poppa. “Was it Tracy there or Brett or Cecil? Or some guy before that?”
“My man is my man, Sam.” Ma was stiff in her seat as we drove. “I don’t cheat. I know that the law would call me an adulterer, but I don’t owe Jeff a fucking thing.”
After a few seconds, she pulled off to the side of the road. “I never cheated on your Dad. You can believe it or not or whatever, Sambo, but I would never cheat on my man. Jeff is not my man.”
She left it at that. I believed her but didn’t say because she said it didn’t matter. I wanted to and I wasn’t evidence to the contrary. I was Poppa’s. I wondered when Poppa stopped being her man. I never asked.
Part Two: There is Only Falling
Jennifer was naked in the doorway. I heard the latch of the master bath slide and click, and waited. “You can open them now,” she said. Her eyes were closed, her head slightly down and away, honey hair and falling feathers in the soft shadow of light from the
vanity behind. She held back slightly, arms down, either side of the doorframe and I followed the dark curves and silhouetting light swirled in cream, falling soft into the firm shade of her belly button, and then, rising steeply, her hips, smooth and wide, and once
lost in plush down, I came back to Jennifer’s face, eyes still closed, and began again. “Nothing?” She turned her body slightly away as she dropped her arms, releasing the doorframe, holding an erotic play of shadow across and between her breasts.
The fire that burned the clothes from all the women I saw around me slid around Jennifer in greedy disbelief at perfection beyond my imagination. I forgot for a moment that she was real and I was laying on my mom’s waterbed.
I was long and lean, and we were both sixteen. But she was years away. All the girls were. The months since moving in with my mom the girls had been unlike anything I knew. In Salem, just a long Summer and cold Spring ago, I was a known undesirable and had been for almost four years. My disinterest wasn’t an angle, it was habituation. I never expected anything from girls, so never had a problem talking to them. Now, in the fading Seattle Summer, I had nice clothes, a little bit of money, and even some braces on my teeth: nothing was ill fitting, handed down, or crooked, and I was new, interesting, and easy.
It was great at first having girls have trouble talking to me, or to catch them looking at me and watch their boyfriends puff up. I told one kid not to worry, I’d wait, and winked at him. It was enough for him to call me a faggot but his girl was still smiling when he decided to be done beating his chest and walk away. The earrings in my left ear were enough for some kids to call me a faggot, and I thought it was a hiralous admission when they got angry. I wasn’t as unsure. I was the part I didn’t want, I had just learned vanity and I liked it but most of the time I bluffed; which wasn’t a lie if no one called me out.
The boys never did, even though they routinely tried. It was a fact of being new, like clouds and rain. It was easier at Kent-Meridian than it had been anywhere else. I’d learned how not to look scared years before when someone decided I was a rung on a social ladder, it didn’t always work. It was easier at K-M because I knew what I looked like, I imagine it is the same for big guys. I was big enough to be trouble, most kids could barely do one push up, Poppa had me doing them since I was seven. But more than that, my face had taken a handsome, square-jawed turn since the last time I was the new kid. Along with my fine clothes, I knew I looked like too much risk and most guys avoided me.
The girls did something new. I expected some of them to come as one in a group being vicious for cheers, as they had in the past. The only thing that worked against these insult confrontations was ruthless humiliation. The bluff here was who had less shame and the bluff wasn’t mine. Just like the boys, I made myself too much trouble to mess with. The girls at Kent-Meridian came at me differently. Passed notes and giggles and girls talking for friends. I was the cock of the walk and it felt good, but, like everything at school, it was all pretend.
Lacy, a girl in the apartment building across from mine, just came over, introduced herself, and walked me to my own room to make out. I never saw her at school. Stephanie took me home from the AM/PM. I was under her shirt when her father came home early. She was pretty, beneath a rugged affliction of teen skin, and her father didn’t seem that angry, driving me home. He even tried making conversation. Candy found me at the roller rink. She was short with broad shoulders and heavy breasts. In my room, she was aggressive, topless, and insistent that she give me a blowjob. While I fought her to keep my pants on, Candy told me that she and Stephanie had followed me home for weeks. I met Candy that night, Stephanie just once, days before. I had no idea they knew each other. I didn’t know any of them. I realized a need to trust them. I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for her inspection and judgment. I was afraid of it.
I didn’t avoid the girls that pushed too hard. I still wanted them and loved that they wanted me but I always found some reason to avoid anything more than us being topless. I was shocked how many girls would do just that and be off doing it with somebody else in a week. One even eyed me while holding hands with her new guy, like I needed to be jealous. I didn’t want ownership of anyone. I wanted to objectify them, and myself, but hadn’t figured out how. Or maybe it was the other way around.
My dick throbbed with reflexive urgency and I remembered that I was in the same room as Jennifer. I had kept the covers back on purpose, bluffing myself through to a flimsy courage. It was a moment of terrifying awareness before I looked at her again.
“Jennifer,” I could see the same fear in her half-step back, in her eyes, open now and looking at the ground. Her coyness wasn’t a show. I saw she heard rejection in my long, awed silence. “You are gorgeous.”
Girls could think what they wanted about themselves. I knew where it came from but there was a Men’s Health right next to Cosmo and I didn’t look like him either. It was what made them so easy to cut down. My attention should be affirmation enough; it was all I had to go on. I might have stayed silent with another girl, the girls I didn’t know but Jennifer could’ve had a glossy finish.
“Yeah?” Jennifer made to cross her arms and put them down again, unsure, but looking at me now. It occurred to me that she was the first woman, outside of family, to see me naked, and the only one to see how my hair had grown in. I tried to not think about my erection. “You wouldn’t lie?”
“I don’t like to lie, it’s too much work.” I did lie, about masturbation and virginity, I had a lot of both, but neither, if asked, and I hated that I lied about it. Honesty was a part of my new life, but it wasn’t always a hard thing to do. “You are gorgeous and if you don’t know that, hold the door frame again, no, yes, but this time look at me, unbelievable, gorgeous… you don’t know that? Gorgeous, know it.”
I thought for a second that she’d laugh at me, not at my lanky nakedness, she’d already had time to do that, but at my earnest conviction. Coy slid out and coquettish slid in with the slightest smile on her face. It was all unbelievable.
Jennifer pranced to the bed and eased in, sending muted ripples through the waveless waterbed. I ran an open palm along an outline softer than the silken silhouette had promised. From the hip I followed her path up, then down, thumb tracing a half-moon around her belly button. I pulled her in tighter, slid my fingertips up the faint bumps of her spine, around to her back. A firm glide across her shoulder blade and she pressed her chest against mine, wisps of hair thickening in my palm into a soft pad against her neck. I leaned down, rubbed my lips lightly against hers. Her tongue, a momentary feather on the tip of mine. I gritted my teeth, arched my fingers and pulled them stiff down her back and nibbled lightly on her lower lip. When my hand crossed her waist again and held her full and naked ass and Jennifer ground her hips closer, I was beyond what I knew.
I knew how to kiss. It was the braces. I always needed to be aware of them. I didn’t like having them, it was only because the dentist said that I was likely to develop a protruding lower jaw and it would make the corrective procedure easier that I had them anyway. The braces forced a caution in kissing that ran against the blurring lust it kindled. Forgotten for a moment, a slight shift for a dead arm, or flare in intensity, and there could be blood. Fortunately, the girls that preceded Jennifer over the last two months had provided me plenty of practice. The braces had taught me about gentle aggression: the ecstatic frustration of burning subdued passion, of kissing anyway.
Jennifer had braces too, about a month ago, two weeks before the end of summer, when I started walking her to the bus stop and waiting with her, after her noon-to-four shift at the theater. I complained about how much the tightening hurt and she talked about how excited she was that hers were coming off. After a week, Jennifer walked to my apartment to wait for her father to pick her up. She took my hand one day as we walked and kissed me before she left. I stopped playing with the other girls. Jennifer moved at a pace that I could keep. She didn’t have to keep her clothes on, but she did, and that was fine. It meant she wasn’t going to be wrestling to take off mine. We watched movies that my mom had recorded three to a tape. I showed her the miniatures I liked to paint, the books I read, and listened to her tell me about her plans to be a nurse. Maybe a doctor, I said. No, nurses, she said, did more. I let her handle the .44 magnum Jeff kept, loaded, in the coffee table. I unloaded first, of course. I even had dinner with her family.
They were an odd bunch. The ruler for other straights. I knew how to conduct myself. I took out my earrings, dressed like I’d seen other people do on Sunday, and respectfully charmed her dad and mom. Luckily, she was an excellent cook and he was a fan of Errol Flynn movies. I had seen all the cable favorites from Captain Blood to Don Juan and I would have complemented her meal regardless. It was like putting on an old hat. One that didn’t fit anymore, but it was fun to play pretend.
Tonight, Jennifer took me out to see Freddy’s Dead. It was the second week of September, school had just started. The theater she worked at screened new movies to employees the day before opening night. It was going to be the last Nightmare on Elm Street movie and people were already buying tickets. It was a quarter to ten when the credits rolled, and she leaned in to whisper, “I told my dad to get me at midnight.” Her insinuation made my skin mad with hot shivers. She walked close to me on the way to my house, tightening an arm around my waist and leaning in to casually brush her breast against me. My mom and Jeff were gone, so when Jennifer asked if we could go to my room, I suggested the master. When she slipped into the bathroom, she told me to get naked and wait on the waterbed, and close my eyes, and she’d be right out, and to just wait, and close my eyes. She said it again before she opened the door, “Your eyes are closed still, right?”
Now Jennifer swam around me, sliding while I pressed, pushing closed any gap between us. Her tongue and slow breath against my neck was a tidal pull, powerfully urging downward and surging up again as she bit my ear and whispered. “I’m worried about my virginity.”
Jennifer didn’t stop moving. I did. I got caught playing pretend.
“Oh. Okay.” I hadn’t considered the state of her virginity or that sex was on the schedule. I should have, but I was excited about all the new stuff she was already giving me. I tried to think of what I knew about sex: the magazines, the hippy art photography book that my mom had, and Jeff’s porno tapes that he had hidden in a shoe box in their walk-in closet. She talked about her covenant with the Mormon church and something about a chaste sisterhood. She would no longer be allowed to walk with them. White-robed women holding candles and weird male chanting suddenly wedged themselves into my mind, while I panicked over practical applications of smut.
“So, they ask?” I heard the detail through my own anxiety and tried to comprehend it. I didn’t know much of anything about Mormons, or Catholics, or Jews, or anybody else. I went to church once when visiting an aunt in California, she was the only Christian in the family, and I wasn’t sure what kind. I wasn’t an atheist, I was just raised without the institution of religion. Poppa was the only deity I had ever believed in.
“It’s more than that.” What did that mean, what was more than just asking?
Jennifer pawed, and wiggled to rub herself softly against me, her hips, moving constantly, expectantly. She’d done all she could, fully presented her gift to me, and even placed it in my hand and as much as I wanted it, I didn’t. If she was afraid, it wasn’t of me, not like I was of her, of her virginity, of being the First, of being an unforgettable disappointment, a shiver of embarrassment, a story told only to the closest of friends. It was, obviously, more than that for her: for her there was some inquisition, some power that guaranteed shame for a shared intimacy, failed or fulfilling, discreet or lewd. “What right do they have to even ask?” I leaned away so I could see her with both eyes, her movements went slight, then stopped. I was unable to avoid speculation of what ‘more’ could be or my anger at the perpetual indignity of accusation to which she was subjected. “What right do they have to an answer, let alone the truth? Whatever you give them is what they have, rights or answers, it is always a choice.”
I was comfortable here, even in torrid skin to skin, pontificating righteously. More than that, I was certain I’d caused enough confusion for her to need to wait, to think it over.
Jennifer considered what I said, her face somber ,and I thought for a moment that I would have the time I needed to build up my own courage to hers. Then, she pushed in again, opening her arms, pressing her breasts firm against me, “I’m choosing you.”
I jerked back, protesting. The tips of my fingers beginning to tingle and the room past the waterbed going fuzzy. “I wasn’t trying to talk you into anything.”
“I’m doing what I want.” That was good, right? I wanted her, didn’t I? It almost hurt how much I wanted her. I tried to breathe. I couldn’t reject her first now, not anymore.
I went back to what I knew, playing my fingers coyly against her neck and shoulders, down her arms and back until I could feel my fingertips again. I moved my face in close with hers and closed my eyes when my lips brushed her lips. I waited there, collecting her breath with mine, moist and warm. Here was the beginning. The kiss. Jennifer dashed her tongue on mine. Then again. Once more. Each, resounding, rising, higher, until cascading into a long and familiar frenzy.
I started at the curve of her ribs, under the teardrop curve of her breast now, full and heavy in my palm, fingertips swaying into delicate circles until her nipples resisted my thumb and her areola pinched into knots. I moved my hand down, our kissing slowed, distracted, as I drew my fingers across her belly button, down to somewhere I pretended wasn’t new. I could pretend that I knew her pubic hair would be silky, that the lips of her vagina would be powder soft and folded closed, that Jennifer would grind her hips forward pressing my hand against her vagina, but not that it would blossom open, hot, thick, and slippery.
I panicked, jerked my hand back, momentarily a child watching a falling glass, certain I broke something. Jennifer’s eyes were closed, but were they a second before? I tried to think of what it meant, all the wet, it was something the women said in porn. It was good, it meant that it was time for sex. I had to do that. I got to my knees in the waterbed and bobbled quickly between Jennifer’s legs. I think she looked for a second, but everything was splotchy. Images blinked in a frantic spin. Her vagina. A leg. Her breasts. Jennifer’s head turned to the side; her eyes closed. Why were her eyes closed? What did ‘more’ mean? I saw it last: my flaccid penis.
I shook it and pulled at it until I realized it looked like I was masturbating. I threw myself down next to Jennifer. I tried to pretend I was just doing something else but couldn’t think of what. I started again with what I knew. She touched me here. I touched her there. I thought I might touch her vagina again, but I was unnerved. For a moment my erection came back, hard enough at least that I thought I could try again, and again as I brought myself above her I saw only in hurried bursts, a leg, her breasts, head turned to the side, her eyes closed, and again, my flaccid penis.
It couldn’t be like this, my mind reeled around and I was almost nauseous, to do poorly was one thing but to fail completely and she was gorgeous. I just had to think. I needed a second. I jumped off the waterbed and ran into the bathroom, claiming a suddenly full bladder. Maybe she would believe that. Behind the door I beat ferociously at my dick, until I had worked it solid, then ran out. I dove into the waterbed, rocking it wildly. I tumbled over Jennifer, trying to get on top of her as quickly as I could, falling again into a panicked slide show: a leg, her vagina, breast, head turned, eyes closed, flaccid.
It went on like that until fifteen to midnight when Jennifer rushed into the bathroom to dress before her dad arrived. I was ashamed beyond words as we waited in the living room for the sound of his car. I couldn’t look at her and hadn’t dared to say anything, and we sat in silence. Her father honked, and I walked Jennifer to the door, my head low, I finally forced myself to look her in the face.
“I’m sorry that you didn’t want me.” Jennifer was almost broken, but she held her chin up, and met me level. Could it be that she hadn’t understood that it was me, that I was, what, impotent? An impotent virgin terrified of her vagina. She’d never have to know, she could have my shame as some fundamental rejection of her, and it would be easy.
I knew I wasn’t as honest as I pretended. I tried, but it was always so easy to lie and tell some kind of truth at the same time. I hadn’t lied to Jennifer but she didn’t know about Natalie, or the BGD’s, or about all the LSD and speed. It had been a long Summer. She thought I was a square that she could risk in front of her family. I was a liar, if only by omission and ignorance, and I wasn’t sure what dignity I had but I was certain of hers.
“No, not for second, it was me, I don’t know what happened, I wanted you, I want you, I don’t know what happened.” I watched her face for judgment, and found none, none that matched the shame slithering in my own guts. Instead, she seemed filled with, with… I couldn’t say. “But I’d like to try again.”
It was true. I would be more open next time I talked to her. It was important that I tell more about the things I do. I could tell her my fears, even if I didn’t understand them myself. I‘d do better next time, even if we didn’t have sex.
Jennifer beamed and kissed me lightly, her dad watching us from his car. And then she just smiled and left without saying a thing.
I found Jeff’s secret shoebox, set the VCR counter to zero, and watched ten minutes of Marilynn Chambers in Insatiable 3. My balls were still sore, so I fast forwarded to a familiar scene: two sisters and some random guy, and pulled out another orgasm. I rewound the tape back to zero, pressed the lid down on the shoebox, and placed everything back where it was. I tried not to think of Jennifer, but masturbated to her before falling asleep.
“What do these things do?” One of the three boys around me held up the Tic-Tac container of tiny white pills I’d brought from home.
“Keep it down, they’re cross-tops, man, speeds, uppers, amphetamines from Mexico?” I didn’t see recognition in any of those words. “Dude, haven’t you taken a health class?”
“Don’t worry about it, Randy, they’re fucking awesome,” Tanner said, one I’d dealt to before.
“No, no, no, I don’t want to sell you something you don’t want,” I said. I’d made a habit of hanging around the auditorium building during lunch, so I could be found. “It’s going to jack up your heart rate, give you energy like you never thought, jazz you right out, so, if you’re looking for a mellow this ain’t it.”
“It’ll make your fucking hair stand-up.”
“Yes, that it does.” I nodded at Tanner’s enthusiasm.
“How much are they?” Randy gave me back the Tic-Tac box and put his hands in his pockets.
“Quarter each or five for a dollar and I don’t like to sell more than ten at a time.”
I didn’t need the money, mom gave me twenty dollars a day from her tips. I wasn’t sure what I could sell them for, a dollar each at least, but I wanted to make friends, the right kind, not money. It took four years in Salem to get an invitation to the only party I ever attended, and now, I was two years from graduation. I didn’t have the time.
“But he’s going to be sharing with me, right Ran?” Tanner said. Randy nodded and pulled out two dollars from his pocket.
“Fantastic, don’t take more than two.” I counted out ten pills. “And wait until you start coming down before you eat more, it might take all ten to kill you, but they can kill you, alright?”
“Yes! Awesome, can I get two, Ran?”
“What was your name, dude?” Randy asked me as he handed Tanner two pills. Tanner tossed them both in his mouth, swallowing them dry.
“Sam,” I replied. “You got something to put those in?”
“I think so, Ethan?” Randy tapped the back of his hand on the one boy that said nothing and looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else. “You still got those Pop-Rocks?”
“Yeah, I was saving them for later.”
“Finish them now, I need the wrapper.”
“Well, gentlemen, if you got friends send ‘em my way, I’ll be here again tomorrow, but my girl’s here, so I got to go.”
Jennifer smiled and waved as I finished my business with my new friends. She was wearing a green dress that ended just below the knee. The top was laced and tied just below her chest, beautifully filling a lace fringed and low-cut cream yellow blouse, a peasant princess from some idyllic alpine village.
“Her?” Randy shoved the folded packet into his pocket and smiled at me.
“Yup.” I smiled back, certain of his admiration.
“Mormon girl, huh?”
“Yeah.” I stopped smiling but Randy didn’t. “You know her?”
“Don’t need to, I’m not interested in jerking-off until I’m married.”
“Hey, guys.” They were laughing as she slid in next to me, she smiled like straight sunshine. “Ethan, right? We have Economics together.”
Ethan gargled something though a mouth of crackling Pop Rocks and shuffled further from Randy and Tanner, obviously uncomfortable at being named.
“We gotta go if we’re going to make it to Jack-in-the-Box and back,” Randy stuck his hand out and when I grabbed it, he rolled it up, reversing our thumbs into a bro shake. “I’ll see you again, Sam, and good luck with all that.”
“So, what were you guys talking about?” Jennifer asked as we sat on the cement lip of a large planter that took up the corner of the main school building.
“Nothing, I was just selling them some drugs.”
“You’re so funny.” She laughed, throwing her head back, leaning on one arm, the other reached out with a hand on my shoulder.
“You think so?” I grinned back, wondering what she saw when she looked at me. I was certain that she could see the wet plaster of bravado covering the unresolved emasculating failure of last night.
I faked it anyway. We talked for a bit, nothing that mattered. I complained that the Drama teacher required I join the Thespian Society if I didn’t want to lose a letter grade. I bragged that I didn’t join anything no matter the cost, and my indignation at being compelled. She said that it would look good on my college application and that was why she didn’t mind joining DECA, another organization I refused to join when I moved up to Seattle. She talked about her Pottery elective, and I told her how Calligraphy wasn’t made for lefties. Soon the break was over, and she pulled me in close, pressing against me, a final kiss, feathers and a brush of silk.
“I can go out Friday after school, my Dad said midnight was too late but that he’d let me stay out until ten.” Jennifer’s eyes were bright and as mischievous as mine must have been as I told her I was selling drugs. “I thought we could give it another try.”
“There’s nothing I want more.” I was filled for a moment, swelled beyond the narrow stream of hope, she had the power to break me at the root, a power I thought any woman would have taken. Yet she offered herself to me again.
She looked at me as she did in the doorway, not naked from the bathroom, unsure and exposed, but as she did as she left, when she was ignorant to what I was.
Jennifer's face bloomed into rich, expectant serenity, “I love you,” she said.
Everything inside collapsed into sadness. I knew what was expected but there was nothing but vast, empty desert of ruined monuments, half buried pedestals with nothing atop them but broken feet. This dry spring of sorrow was not for me, but for her, a golden-yellow flower, innocent and naïve, that sought to drink where there was only thirst. She had built a pedestal for me that I would not, could not, climb. There was no water here, no soil but sand.
“I don’t love you. I think that you are amazing, but love? Do you even know what that means?” I didn’t intend to be cruel, though in an instant I could see I was.
“I was going to give you everything.” Jennifer’s face bent but immediately went hard.
“I’m not going to lie to you.” I wanted to tell her I could have. Every boy I knew would have said anything to be with her. Instead, I stood silent and hidden.
Jennifer turned and walked quickly away. Gorgeous, green dress, cut just below the knee. It was the last I would see of her.
Bobby never stayed anywhere for very long, he was either with a new girl, creating mayhem with his rowdy childhood friends, or hiding from the police. So, it wasn’t surprising when he eventually wasn’t at Natalie’s apartment. It was surprising that instead of the neighbor, Jerry, taking Bobby’s place there was one white kid and three black kids. They were all about my age and all but one of the black kids was done up in BGD Folk black. I didn’t know what Black Gangster Disciples were at the time or their colors, but I knew gangsters, or people trying to be gangsters, when I saw them. They taught me how to play All Fives, different BGD tags and signs, slurs for different gangs, and introduced me to Amateur Night at the Apollo. I didn’t understand why the white kid would think that he could be a Black Gangster Disciple and why he let them ‘jump him in’ every weekend. It was the white kid that threw signs with the most fervor and fluidity and spoke with the thickest accent. It was a set he wanted, and he would pay anything for it. I thought he was pathetic.
I liked Tee the most. I don’t think he was the leader. I think Chi-Town was the leader. He was old enough to buy the Benson and Hedges menthols they called ‘Bitches and Hoes’. I thought his name was Shy-Town because he never said much. They laughed when I said it, and when I argued that it should be She-town anyway, like ‘She-ca-go’. Which lead to a half hour of everybody making various ‘sha’ ‘shy’ and ‘she’ noises. They didn’t do acid and got stoned, or ‘faded’ as Tee called it, only a couple of times I was over at Natalie’s. Tee told me that black people didn’t do acid. Ma said she’d done acid with black people years before, but it might be true nowadays. Tee was from Oakland and had lived in Sacramento, all over, just like I had. I liked being around someone that knew how hot it was at night in California, how corner stores sold liquor, and how it would rain. Tee had been homeless too, just with his mom instead of his dad. I don’t think Tee had ever had a white friend, the BGD wannabe aside, and I had never had a black friend.
Everything changed when a pimp showed up with a dude in Blood's red and teardrop tattoo on his face. I was told that the pimp was OG, and that meant respect but to me he looked like one of the dudes from Run DMC: gold chains, a white fedora, and white rhinestone glasses. He came looking to ‘turn out’ Natalie and get us to run his dope. He called the black kids, ‘youngblood’ and me ‘cousin’. Playtime was over, he said, a gang was a business. Soon the white BGD was jumped out and the black kid who didn’t claim a set stopped coming around.
Natalie always needed somebody and Tee was the BGD that fit. And when Tee wasn’t around as much anymore, I stepped in. Natalie knew how to make a man pursue her, she wasn’t attractive, but she was alluring. Small laughs, suggestive touches and looks, Natalie could make a man think he was pursuing her when it was her pursuing him all along. Natalie would have my virginity and never ask me to love her. I was set aside when Tee returned with his crew. I think Tee knew even if nobody said anything. I wouldn’t join the BGD’s. I wouldn’t run the pimp’s drugs. I grew my hair out and customized a pair of torn-up jeans to wear over spandex. I was embracing the masculine image I had of Bobby and rejecting theirs. I needed to claim respect if I wasn’t going to claim their set. I knew a challenge was coming, and I needed to head it off. I couldn’t fight like Bobby; I could bluff but once the punches started my whole body felt weak and heavy. So, I claimed space by looking crazy.
I’d said earlier about how Bobby had so many self-inflicted scars and how the biggest was a wide slash down the meat of his left forearm. What I didn’t mention was how I immediately wanted to know what that felt like, and how it took a perversely long time to reject trying it. What I had never rejected was the cigarette burns all over Bobby’s arms. That I could take, that was something I was going to try. But it would be stupid to do it without a reason, without an audience or a need for a performance.
I pushed the cherry against my skin and shuttered as I suppressed the reflexive need to pull it away, pushing it harder instead. It was a few moments of confused cold searing, then the pain was gone. Tee and the others saw what I did and made all sorts of noise, laughing and screaming, shocked that I had done it. I didn’t give them much attention, pretending it was nothing. The effect on them would be lost if I wasn’t hard about it. I wasn’t just challenging myself, but it was good to know I could take it.
I lit another cigarette right after and when it was low, Tee pointed at the mark on my shoulder, looked me in the face and said, “That was stupid, I betcha you won’t be doing that again.” I looked straight back, put the second one out next to the first and didn’t flinch. “Holeee shit!” Tee jumped back and shook his head. “White dudes is crazy.”
And that was all I needed.
Tee and I would have it out over Natalie, not for her though, I didn’t want her. I intervened when he came to her apartment drunk and tried to hit her. He followed me out of the apartment and into the street, his whole crew around me, including the pimp and his gangbanger heavy. Tee was too drunk to fight and fell to his knees throwing up in the street. There was no fight. Chi-Town pulled me out of the situation. He asked me as we walked if I loved Natalie and for a moment, I wasn’t sure. Either way, he said, it’d be best if I didn’t come back. I wouldn’t because a few days later I was living in a motel across town in Tukwila.
One night, after turning his brain into a particularly thick Russian tapioca, Jeff decided that I had wandered into their room while they were having sex. I hadn’t and didn’t even know what was going on when Ma chased me out of the apartment. Ma told me that after I was gone Jeff sat in the living room with his .44 magnum in his lap waiting for me to come home, while she tried to talk him back to bed. He didn’t remember anything the next day or acted like he didn’t. The day after my mother rented a U-Haul. I didn’t bother going to school. It was me, Ma, Tracy, Dusty, and Bobby. And, after Jeff went to work, we took everything that wasn’t his.
Over the summer, while I was at Natalie’s, Bobby had started a relationship with my sister, Dusty. Bobby had become my acid buddy and we hung out a lot. I didn’t tell him much about what was going on with the ‘Bubble Gum Dummies’ as he called them and he never asked about Natalie, probably because my sister was his girlfriend. Sometime in July, Dusty and Bobby started calling me Uncle Sam, which was second to my favorite ‘Sam I Am’, so it took days for me to figure out that Dusty was pregnant. I didn’t learn much more about the man that claimed to be a Miami Dolphin. I knew that Ma had been impressed by how much money he lost at the blackjack tables, that he was from Boston, and that he was in Seattle to be a bone marrow donor for his sister, currently being treated for leukemia at Swedish Medical Center. Ma said she wasn’t going to leave Jeff just yet. “That motherfucker can stay home and drink and pay my bills while I go out and have a good time,”she’d say. I think to make me feel better but also, I think she would have stayed, just for me. It didn’t matter. I didn’t blame her or Jeff or Poppa or even myself. As I loaded the U-Haul, I pretended that we were brazen thieves ransacking an apartment in the light of a cool afternoon. None of this mattered, the choices I made didn’t matter. Like some sort of cartoon, I had jumped from a burning plane, pulled the cord of my parachute, and nothing but pots and pans came out. Poppa was right, life wasn’t fair, and it didn’t seem like I could do anything about it.
We left the couch, the safe, the coffee table, the T.V., the waterbed, and the guns and booze. It was fun.
The stuff went into storage and I, Ma, Dusty, Bobby, and Tracy, Mom’s new man, moved into The Town and Country Suites motel across town. It was the biggest motel room I’d ever seen and too far for me to continue to go to the high school I was enrolled in. Not to worry though, Ma assured, we’d have a new place in a few days, and I could enroll in a new school. It was two months before we got a new place and the local high school wouldn’t take me, sending me instead to the ‘alternative’ high school.
There was a lot to learn about Tracy at the motel. First, his name was Jeff. The same as the motherfucker we’d just left. He claimed that he said his name was Tracy so that people would know that he was Jeff Sadur, former Miami Dolphin. I figured he was a liar and, when he challenged a ten-year old bragging about his red belt to a fight in the courtyard, a dangerous idiot. He wasn’t a rich retired professional football player, he was the Foghorn Leghorn.
After about a month we’d learned that Jeff was in town to donate blood marrow and likely from Boston like he said, given his accent, but the money he had was from stealing his leukemia-addled sister’s name, Tracy, and social security number. Jeff was addicted to gambling and had no skill. He could memorize a deck of cards or the sixteen digits of a credit card in a glance but couldn’t count cards enough to win with blackjack. And had no idea how he was supposed to bet. The more time I spent with him the more I believed that he was mentally retarded, not as a slur, diagnosable. I figured out that Jeff was never a Miami Dolphin when he couldn’t tell me what position he played. Instead, when I suggested wide safety, he agreed and when I suggested he was a half-tackle, he agreed, and again at tackleback. Jeff didn’t know the difference between a tight receiver or safety-backer and actual positions on the field. Jeff was a conman and a good one. I came to believe that Jeff was a kind of savant. He could get people to give him money on the promise that he would get them more money. My mom said that people thought that they were scamming him, that they were taking advantage of him, and that he could only scam the greedy.
The ‘alternative’ high school was a day care center for the discarded children of the sprawling suburbs of South Seattle: Kent, Renton, Tukwila, and Skyway. Skyway was where we lived, in a shitty little house after Jeff ran out of his sister’s money. In Renton Alternative class attendance was optional as long as the students stayed in the building. All classwork for the year was handed out at once, to be done at the pace of the students. Teachers were available if the student had questions but conducted no instruction. The only things that mattered were the periodic drug testing of some students and the wait lists of Renton VoTech and Job Corps. That was if anything mattered. I didn’t do a single sheet of work, didn’t have to do drug testing and wouldn’t have cared if they required me to. They could kick me out if they wanted. I went to school to hang out, score drugs, and plan for parties on the weekend. As often as not I would wander away from campus in the middle of the day high on acid. I had come to my mom for stability and now I was in the same situation I fled. Worse, if I thought about it too much. Like the braces in my mouth that hadn’t been tightened in months.
In Skyway a few months after Bobby left for Portland, Jordan was born. The situation showed itself for what it was: stability was not in the cards. All that was intended for my life was chaos, and I decided to embrace it. It didn’t matter. It had all been madness, reason was a matter of personal belief. I pushed limits. I stopped giving a shit. Where before I stayed close to my mom’s apartment, now I ranged all over. I’d get rides with anyone and go anywhere. Kegger in the woods all the way across town with people I didn’t know, done. We found where the mushrooms grew, and how to make tea. We shoplifted then overdosed on Dramamine or Robitussin, then hopped a bus for Downtown Seattle and wandered around until dawn, good times. Nobody had the money for coke, and meth and ecstasy weren’t a thing yet, but speed could be bought over-the-counter at truck stops at the edge of town and LSD was cheaper than weed and everywhere. I dove in, hard. All I cared for the world was the experiences I could take from it. I was the judge of my own actions and only my own. I was better than everyone, as low as anyone, and had rights to none. All that mattered to me was what I did, the rest seemed random and absurd.
Sam Bowman was born in Salem, Oregon in 1975. Before dropping out of a high school in Issaquah, Washington at age 17, he’d attended seven elementary schools, three middle schools, and four high schools from Sacramento to Seattle. In 1999 he joined the military as a Washington State guardsmen and in 2002 he moved to New Hampshire where he married a girl in her mother's kitchen using borrowed rings. They have two children, a girl and a boy. He worked for five years in a -20 degree warehouse freezer as a selectman and forklift operator. He earned a Masters degree from the University of New Hampshire in 2020. He currently works as a paraeducator(one-on-one) for a local elementary school. It is the best job he’s ever had.
photo by Larry Clark