This is the dream. I am in a car—a gold 1966 Plymouth Barracuda. We are flying—screaming—down dark, winding back roads at hair-raising speed. Guardrail posts and mailboxes flash by in a blur. Black Sabbath is blaring from the speakers of a stolen 8 track. The car is filled with haze and the taste —the acrid mix—of marijuana smoke and warm Rheingold beer is in my mouth. My nails sink into vinyl. My heart pounds in my chest. I hear it pounding in my ears. I hear little else. I am hypnotized by the pavement.
I feel strangely detached as though my soul could leave my body at any moment. Time suspends and the car seems to hang there, teetering on the hairy edge of obliteration. I know we are going to die, but I am frozen. I know if no one speaks and no one moves and breaks the spell we are all dead. But I cannot move and I cannot speak. It has been said that if you turn fast enough you can catch a glimpse of your own death if it is near. No one, none of us, turns. Not even to see Jesses Bailey’s face, entranced, lost in rapture, his eyes fixed – transfixed by a vision none of us sees — even as he drove his heel to the floor and brought us to the brink of oblivion.
As it happens, we did not die that night, though by rights we should have. Nor did we die on all the other nights when we cast our lots in with Jesse Bailey and bet our own lives on his invincibility, his immortality.
I have had many dreams lately. Many nightmares. Dark, strange, vivid and unsettling. And I have had this dream or some variation of it more than once over the years, though it is unclear at times anymore what is a dream and what is memory, what is recollection and what is confabulation. There are times when I awaken from dreams not knowing where I am or thinking I am seventeen years old and still sleeping in my bedroom at “home”—so to speak. Sometimes I awaken and it occurs to me with disbelief that I am as old as I am and I feel like Rip Van Winkle, as though I am the victim of some cosmic joke in which I went to bed at seventeen and woke up here and now. Those lines from that Talking Heads song come to mind, This is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful house. How did I get here?
Jesse Bailey is dead now and has been for more than a decade. I received the newspaper clipping of his death a not long after I learned of my father’s death. Interestingly they both spent their last years teetering between this world and the next, existing in a purgatory the rest of us cannot even imagine and would wish on no one. Jesse Bailey still haunts me, as does my father and as so many other ghosts of the past haunt me and disturb my sleep and dreams. On certain nights I hear their voices whispering to me just as I am dropping off and then echoing in my ears when I awaken in the darkness.
I have come to the conclusion , all evidence to the contrary, that there is no such thing as time—at least not in any but the most practical and mundane sense of the word. It seems to me one of the mysteries of the universe that galaxies collapse and glaciers melt into the sea. And that we all manage to whither and grow old and die. I remember sitting in this same room many years ago, gazing out onto the frozen, moonlit hillside with my wife and little boy asleep in the next room.
It was easy then to believe that time is an illusion and things would never change. I remember wishing that time could stand still and life would always be what it was then. Wishing that my beautiful little boy would remain forever three years old, forever the wonderful, perfect little fragment of innocence and God’s own poetry that he was. It was easy then to believe that the small measure of peace I had found in my life at the time would last for the remainder of my days. But things do change.
It is also my conviction that we control our lives only within very limited parameters and that the course our lives take is largely out of our hands. Of course, this is a fundamentally UnAmerican outlook on things, but I think it’s a conclusion most of us arrive at eventually. I have frequently felt like a bit player in my own life. I think there are people who spend their entire lives this way, which is very sad. At the very least, each of us deserve to be the star of our own existences. Looking back, I have to say I have generally been more optimistic, given my actual circumstances, than I had any business being. Thoreau wrote about “. . . the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor” and how it made him optimistic about the future of mankind. I don’t generally share his optimism in that respect and I suspect that Thoreau’s optimism was not as heartfelt as it was wishful. I suspect if Thoreau lived now, more than a hundred years later, entering this new century, he would feel somewhat different.
The thing is, I really do believe in hope, poison though it can sometimes be. I’m not convinced, though, that Hickey had it all wrong in The Iceman Cometh when he talked about pipe dreams. Yet if we didn’t have hope we would all just curl up and die. This is the real story of human beings and this is what makes them heroic—that they can look into the void that is eternity and not merely dispair. That we can dream and struggle to make our dreams real all the while knowing in our hearts that they are merely fragments of another dream, a bigger dream. A dream from which the original dreamer is bound to awaken sooner or later. That eventually it will all blow away like so much dust by the very breath that gave it life. Ashes to ashes.
I do believe in fate. I believe in destiny and perhaps for most of us our destiny is not to have a destiny. I don’t think it’s anything supernatural—which I think is a meaningless term, but I do believe generally that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.” And in as much as most of the forces that circumscribe our lives are invisible to us (in much the same way that most of the matter in the universe is invisible to us—dark matter, they call it) those forces are our gods. They say now that this “dark matter”, which can only be detected by its gravitational footprint, if that’s an appropriate way to put it, is possibly evidence of alternate universes and that our universe may well exist in a sea of universes—which likely has all sorts of unsuspected implications and will likely come to change everything eventually. There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophies. It is interesting to think about.
It is easy to talk about free will and making choices. It would seem at any given moment an almost infinite number of options are open to most of us, but our ability to perceive those options is governed in ways we can barely imagine. Our experience and our circumstance, society and culture and the place we find ourselves within it—these things fundamentally influence our ability to even imagine what is possible. And if you can’t imagine something—can’t imagine the alternatives—they might as well not exist at all.
So how do I tell the story of Jesse Bailey? How do I tell my story? And how is it Jesse Bailey’s story and my story seem to be the same one and why does that story seem so significant to me now? I suspect if one were not able to forget very many more things than one remembers life would be unendurable. A good memory is considered to be a valuable asset. The capacity to forget is just as valuable, if not more so. In the dark ages of medicine not so long ago, they used to operate on small babies without anesthesia. Utterly barbaric. The premise being two-fold that A) They didn’t think babies could feel pain and B) even if it did hurt them they wouldn’t remember it. As though not remembering a trauma somehow nullifies it’s effect on you. It doesn’t. Maybe it diminshes it. Maybe it makes it endurable. But it doesn’t neutralize it and it doesn’t make it harmless. But that is all beside the point because for now we are in the business of remembering.
There is a pantheistic quality to the landscape, the hills and valleys, of the southern tier of New York State— the northern edge of Appalachia from Lake Erie to the Finger Lakes to Cooperstown to the edge of the Adirondacks and the Catskills, from Binghamton to Ithaca. Shades of Hiawatha and the tribes of the Iroquois, of Fennimore-Cooper and Natty Bumppo—The Deerslayer—and of the underground railroad. Simultaneously lush and desolate, with greenery as rich as a rainforest in the summer and winters as long and bitter as anywhere in the state. And a sense of desolation and isolation in the rural areas. On summer afternoons when the air hangs hot and heavy with moisture against the hillsides the earth can seem to move palpably beneath it. The rivers—the Chenango, the Unadilla, the Susquehanna, Tioughnioga —run warm and murky through their respective valleys like veins feeding the heart of some slow moving beast.
I remember, as a kid, riding my bike out to the outskirts of our little town and climbing up into the surrounding hills and looking out across the valley. I remember summer afternoons filled with nothing but the sounds of bees and blue bottle flies and distant dogs barking…and a sense of possibility. I can remember sitting beneath a large oak tree in a field where we used to shoot at squirrels with our BB guns, on the hillside overlooking the little league field and gazing out across the valley at the hills with the dairy cows seemingly painted there. One could almost hear the earth breath and feel the slow, rhythmic beating of its heart.
There are many isolated little towns and villages nestled in these valleys and there is something almost gothic about them. Isolated and withdrawn, most ghosts of their former selves, still clinging to existence long after the forces that created them and sustained them— mainly the railroads and the canals—and kept them in any real sense vital had dissipated. They have their roots sunk deeply into the soil seeking whatever sustenance they can until they seem, finally, to have sprung from the earth itself. The towns, themselves, seem to be living organisms, pulsing with their own secret undercurrents of life and thriving, in their peculiar way, on their own isolation. However charmingly backward these little towns appear to outsiders and however quaint and queer their inhabitants it is worth remembering that there is more than meets the eye.
These towns are usually dominated by a handful of families often with ties to the earliest settlers. They preside over school boards and local politics. They run big dairy farms and fuel oil distributorships. They own bank buildings and construction companies. And nothing much happens in these towns without their sanction and they pretty much have their way. Among the rest of the inhabitants there is a smattering of professional and semi-professional types, what the rest of America might call middle class, and there is substantial population of those living in what could only be described as abject poverty—families that live in old school buses and decrepit house trailers and dress their kids in clothes from the Salvation Army Store—but most of the residents live on the shadowy borderline between working class desperation and dissolution. They struggle to feed, clothe and house their families with the threat of imminent repossession hanging over their heads.
They work at thankless low-paying jobs loading trucks at warehouses or deburring metal parts on assembly lines. They operate small, failing dairy farms with more debt than they can ever hope to pay off and they hammer nails at construction sites. They rotate tires. They operate punch presses and jackhammers. Their wives man the checkouts at A&Ps and K-marts and sell lottery tickets at Jiffy Stops. They spend their lives living in the shadow of perpetual layoffs and plant closures. They live from one paycheck to the next and always one paycheck away from public assistance.
I remember my own town largely as a dark place, a claustrophobic place. I remember it as a world of goiters and tooth decay. I remember it as a world where one's station in life was defined by circumstance, where one's place was learned early and where the only hope of ever changing that place lay in escape. I remember it as a place where if you were not among the lucky few, if your father were not a bank president or a lawyer or a doctor, you were expected, essentially, to accept gracefully a life of perpetual struggle and disappointment.
I was born on a “dark and stormy” summer’s night too many years ago in old Doc Jacob's “maternity hospital,” which consisted of a single room adjacent to his office and examination room. Doc Jacob’s office was located on the second floor of the town hall building overlooking the bridge that crossed the river that ran through the middle of town. Over the course of my childhood I made many trips to Doc Jacob’s office and I still remember the antiseptic smell and the echoing sound your footsteps made in the stairwell as you walked up the brown, linoleum covered stairs. And I remember the sense of dread.
Doc Jacobs had the kind of voice that can only come from 40 years of chain smoking non-filter Camels and he was fairly terrifying. He set many a broken bone on me and gave me more shots and stitches than I care to remember. When I was seven my cousin and I were having a contest in the creek that ran by my house to see who could pick up the biggest rock. I managed to get a really big one up just about to my waist when it slipped from my hands and entirely crushed my left big toe. My family came down and grabbed me, wrapped my toe in a dish towel, threw me in my mom’s old, green Studebaker and made a bee line for Doc Jacobs’ house south of town.
I was bleeding all over the place and the sweet, sickening, pungent smell of the blood is something I won’t ever forget. All the while I was begging my big brother to stop squeezing my toe and he kept lying and saying he wasn’t. When we got to docs house, he put me in a lawn chair in the yard and put my foot in a pail of water. Next, he grabbed a pair of pliers, grabbed the toe nail and ripped it off. Then he proceeded to sew the various chunks back together all the while with me screaming in agony.
I spent the first five or so years of my life living in a huge, old Victorian house on Jefferson Avenue. The house was filled with endless nooks and crannies with assorted peaks containing small stained glass windows through which the afternoon sun cast wonderful colors onto the wallpaper. My grandparents lived in an apartment upstairs. They had run a dairy farm in a nearby town for many years, having moved there after struggling for a few years as homesteaders in South Dakota. My father hated farming and the farm and the first thing he did was sell it off once my grandparents left it to him. I often wish he hadn’t.
My earliest memories are of a small greenhouse in which my mother tended marigolds. I remember two new Cadillacs in the driveway. I remember playing in the small apple orchard on the hill behind the house, loading a small red wheelbarrow with apples. I also remember playing in the vegetable garden and being bitten on the ear by a snake. My favorite memory of all was my mom picking me up from kindergarten one afternoon and giving me my first Golden Book Encyclopedia. The encyclopedia set was part of a promotion at the grocery store where you got each new volume with your purchase when it came out. At that moment life seemed like the magical, perfect thing it should be for all children. I adored those encyclopedias and devoured them A to Z.
These are among the last truly innocent memories I have about my life. I remember the death of my grandparents and moving to the house on Chemung Street. It was shortly after this that my mother learned my father was having an affair.
I remember huge, horrifying fights with yelling and crying and things crashing into walls. I remember the expression "two bit whore," whatever that was. I remember a gun— my father had many guns—and my mother putting it to her head and threatening to kill herself. I remember her throwing herself in the road in front of my father's big red Chrysler and my father carrying her apparently lifeless body up to the house. I remember, finally, standing on the back porch crying and begging my father not to leave me. He told me he was sorry, but he had to go. He got into the big red Chrysler and drove away.
Ultimately, my father did desert us permanently, my mother, my baby sister, my older sister and myself. My brother had left home by that time. There were no more Cadillacs or big red Chryslers in my life from then on. I saw my father once or twice after that. For a couple of years there were presents on birthdays and at Christmas time funneled through my aunt and uncle. I don't want to suggest that all was blackness after that. There are other memories.
There was the smell of autumn leaves burning in piles around the shale driveway that encircled the island of grass that lay to the side of the house. There was sitting on the front porch of the house and watching thunder storms with my mother. There were birthday parties and tree houses and snow forts. There were county fairs and hayrides. There were trips to the Catskill Game Farm and mushroom and berry picking expeditions. There were camping trips to Indian Lake and Seventh Lake and fishing trips with my cousin and his family, though I never felt welcome with them and my presence was merely the product of a sense of obligation. There are other decent memories, but my father's absence and my mother's heartbreak and her drinking hung over our family like dark clouds that never completely lifted and never let an unfiltered ray of sunshine into our lives.
My mother struggled very hard to give us the best lives she could, but she was profoundly damaged by her difficult life and there was never any money. I remember not having any underpants of my own and having to wear my sister’s. My father was supposed to pay child support of fifty dollars a month per child and that only came sporadically until it finally stopped coming at all. After my mother died I went through her papers and found a tax return from 1967. My mother made just over $3,000 that year.
As it turns out my father died five years almost to the day after mother died. He had been wasting away in Binghamton State hospital for years with Alzheimer ’s disease. I never went to see him. His second wife divorced him a couple of years after he was admitted. He died as deserted and alone as I felt standing on that porch that day watching him drive away. I always thought I would go visit his grave with my son, but have never gotten around to it. The truth is, I’m not even sure where it is.
I watched my mother die 20 years ago. I spent four days sleeping on the hospital floor next to her bed waiting for the inevitable. When the time finally came I remember the nurse pointing to the artery in her neck. I watched as the heartbeats came less and less frequently until, finally, they stopped altogether. I would have given anything if my mother could have known my little boy, who is not so little anymore.
Oddly, I felt at the time like something happened in me with the death of my father. I felt as though the final link that directly connects me to my familial past had been broken and any lingering obligations I may have felt in that regard had been served. I felt as though the moorings that connected me to my life as I had come to understand it had been loosed and I had been cast adrift onto the sea of life. I felt both a sense of release and of apprehension. There was a feeling of emotional vertigo, both exhilarating and terrifying. And there was the feeling was that there was too much unresolved that could not remain unresolved and there was too much unacknowledged that could not remain unacknowledged.
It is hard to say why my father’s death had this effect on me at the time and why the feelings it released in me have continued to linger. Certainly the death of my mother was more shattering and immediately significant. I knew my father had been sick for a long time. I didn’t anticipate how I would feel when he finally did die. I have felt ever since that time to be in a perpetual state of unbalance and not knowing my place in the world. The things that were unresolved remain unresolved and secrets remain secrets and they nag at me and insist on being acknowledged.
I have a sense of urgency that compels me to face these various things now—the ghosts of the past, to exorcize them and to set them free. I feel as though I must do this now or I will run out of time and will never be able to. I’m not sure if any of this makes sense to you. I’m am hoping that it will sort itself out as we go and the things that are unclear will come into focus. I have only, really, learned two things in my life, neither of which is very profound. One is that things do not make you happy. The other is that the most attribute in life is courage. Everything that matters springs from courage. It takes courage to love. It takes courage to create. It takes courage to find purpose in your existence. I’m am trying to find my courage again. And part of that is being willing to face and tell the truth.
There is some connection between all these things. Between my father’s death and that of my mother. Between my little boy and the young man he has become and the little boy I was all those years ago and the man I have become. Between the ghosts in this story and all the other ghosts that haunt my life. Between the person I am now, with the first half of my life long gone, the person I once was and new person I hope to become. Between the change I felt in myself with the death of my father all those years ago and the prospect of my own death on the not too distant horizon. I don't understand most of these connections just now and there is more I'd like to tell you, but I, simply, can't. At least not yet. Maybe never. Who knows? But I know I have to tell you this story, for what it is worth.
It is inevitable that things become distorted when viewed through the prism of time. It may be that remembered facts are not facts at all, but inventions of the subconscious. It is always easier to remember the feeling of things than it is the particulars. The truth of a thing always lies in the feelings and not in the particulars. There is a distinction to be made between truth and facts, which is something neither science nor religion can come to terms with.
All in all, it might be just as well if you consider what follows a fiction. It is really quite irrelevant either way. It is well to remember that even the most poker-faced testaments are contrivances and artifacts. And to a very large extent aren't our lives themselves fictions of one sort or another?
Have a brave heart, my friend. Courage is the order of the day and our journey is just beginning. There are dark places to visit and confessions to be made. God willing we will come out the other side more or less intact and with his grace our journey will be one out of darkness and into light. I am counting on you to keep sight of me and it is you I will be reaching out to should I become lost in the shadows.
It is said that confession is good for the soul. That is assuming, of course, that one still has a soul and has not sold it for a pittance along the way. I’m not sure I actually have anything to confess, but that is how I feel either way. A sense of guilt that seems to have always been integral to my existence. I will never be free of it until I find its source. And if this journey is one out of darkness and into light, it is well to remember that light is always light in darkness, which is light still to an even deeper darkness and that both the light and the darkness exist, largely, within ourselves.
If hell is, in fact, as Dostoevky wrote “. . . the suffering of being unable to love,” then Jesse Bailey inhabited its darkest regions. Jesse Bailey—the outlaw, the rogue, the hoodlum, the infidel. The angel of debauch and corruption. The black prince in leather and grease. Every mother’s nightmare and every virgin’s secret dream. Able to resist all but temptation, Jesse Bailey was a traveler to forbidden places and an eater of forbidden fruit. He drew me into his dark circle and made me bear witness to his desecrations and I partook like a fly of something sweet—or foul. He devoured my innocence and made me a conspirator in his quest for infamy.
When I think of Jesse Bailey I think of school which is where I first saw him. When I think of school I think of tenth grade and seventh period study hall. I spent seventh period study hall studying Elizabeth Manwarren’s legs. It is the fall of 1969 and I am fifteen years old. It is the time of hippies and Weathermen and Black Panthers and Charles Manson. It is the time of riots in the streets and LSD and the war in Vietnam. It is the time of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and civil rights marches. And it is the time of miniskirts so short they would get a girl arrested these days—or at least kicked out of school.
Elizabeth Manwarren is a nice girl, a beautiful girl and one of the few girls of her type that would even give a guy like me the time of day and she doesn’t seem to mind my fascination with her legs. When she does catch me looking at her she doesn’t feel embarrassed or disgusted or feel compelled to tug at her skirt, she just smiles in her sweet way like it’s nothing at all and I am grateful for this—eternally. She has a kind heart. In fact she is practically a saint.
But Elizabeth Manwarren is way out of my league. In fact, we barely even inhabit the same universe. I don’t even have a league. I am not even a bench warmer. I am barely even human. She is a graceful, statuesque, fragrant, elegant, smooth-skinned beauty with long dark hair and almond eyes. She is co-captain of the cheerleading squad and class vice president. She will go on to become an exchange student to Japan and president of the student council. She will go on further to attend an Ivy League University and then medical school and become an obstetrician. She will marry an attorney with a degree from Columbia and they will have three beautiful children named Tess and Taylor and Tiffany. All things I cannot even conceive of.
I am a skinny, creepy, withdrawn, conspicuously stunted kid with long greasy hair, ugly glasses, a pimply forehead and a mouth full of cavities. I am a loner. Not a mysterious, intriguing loner, just a boring, unattractive loner. I am failing algebra for the second time. I am failing social studies and biology and typing—of all things. My name is a fixture on the “ineligibility list,” which gets posted on all the hallway bulletin boards after each marking period with the names of all the losers in the school who are denied the privilege of participating in any extra-curricular activities because they are academic failures.
I hide in my room smoking non-filter Raleighs stolen from my mothers purse and masturbating to Playboy magazines or to fantasies of Elizabeth Manwarren, or I hang out in the park with a couple of similarly maladjusted and unattractive friends. I have no father and an alcoholic mother. I live in a run down house across from the gravel pit on the edge of town with a leaky roof and peeling paint and windows with cardboard in them. I am a non-entity. I don’t exist, except in my own imagination. Elizabeth Manwarren is another species of animal. A higher species. We might have the same ancestors, but her’s is another branch of the evolutionary tree. I adore Elizabeth Manwarren. I worship her. I would die for her. I sweat at night thinking about her. In a perfect world she would be mine. In a perfect world I would be fully human and capable of human contact. In a perfect world I would exist, but I know this will never be a perfect world.
It is in seventh period study hall in the fall of 1969 when Jesse Bailey first appears. I am looking at Elizabeth Manwarren’s legs and when I look up I am looking into Jesse Bailey’s eyes, which, even across the room, are like magnets. He smiles that Jesse Bailey smile, a smile that has gotten him into and out of more trouble than any smile has a right too. A smile that has cost many a virgin her virtue and has charmed countless other girls, and even grown women, out of their panties. A smile that tells me Jesse Bailey is a mind reader. It is a smile that you feel in your stomach.
How do I describe Jesse Bailey and do him justice? Let me start by saying Jesse Bailey was the prettiest guy I ever saw. Of course, this is not a thought I would have allowed myself to have at the time. Appreciation of the beauty of other guys is not something that teenaged guys are inclined to let themselves engage in. You could tell right off that Jesse Bailey was not like anyone else you ever knew. It was not just the way he looked—although that was certainly striking. It was not just the way he dressed—ala Johnny Ramone before there was a Johnny Ramone. It was not just that his hair was longer than any guy’s I knew, although it was. It was not just that he seemed older and wiser and more dangerous than anyone his age had a right to be. It was something more.
I can picture Jesse Bailey’s face clearly in my mind, but how do you describe a face, really? What is a face but a reflection of the soul? Without a soul even the most striking face would be a blank. I could tell you he had eyes lighter blue than eyes have any business being and hair just dark enough to contrast with them interestingly. I could tell you his cheeks formed deep dimples when he smiled and the divot in his chin would make Kirk Douglas envious. I could tell you about the way his hair hung in waves down to his shoulders in a way that would make girls ask him about his hair care secrets. But what does all of that tell you, really? There is no denying that there was something unsettlingly androgynous about him, although he had a set of barbells that he used religiously for all the years I knew him and took particular pride in the size and strength of his arms. He also took some pride in the size and utility of his “manhood,” so to speak.
I know he liked it when people said he looked like Jim Morrison, if that helps any. He was a big admirer of Jim Morrison and was devoted to his Jim Morrison style leather pants. He was also a big fan of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Jesse was not a big guy—maybe 5’8” and 145 pounds. Bigger than me at the time, me being a late bloomer in every possible sense. I remember that Jesse did have some bad teeth that gave him trouble now and again. But that was very common there and then. I never went to the dentist from the age of four or five—around the time the family fell apart—until I was sixteen or so years old and I had a boatload of trouble with my teeth as a child. I thought it was normal to have gaping holes in your molars and teeth that would crumble in your mouth once in a while when you bit into something hard. It is something I still dream about now and then—my teeth crumbling. I thought it was normal to get gum boils. I thought the term “jaw breaker” was literal. But I was lucky to have the front of my mouth unaffected.
Jesse Bailey was not so lucky. I don’t mean to suggest his mouth was ravaged by decay and corruption like those bad example photographs they typically have hanging on the wall in the dentist’s office, but there was a hint of carries and discoloration between a couple of his front teeth and his smile, seductive though it was, was not that of a toothpaste advertisement and I know this bothered him very much. He saw it as the single flaw in an otherwise perfect presentation. Somehow, though, this bit of imperfection did not detract from his overall appeal. Even to the extent his face ever “broke out,” which was minimal, it only added an appealing touch of humanity to his face. I think if he did have perfect teeth he would have been too perfect.
All I can tell you that matters, really, is that people were drawn to Jesse Bailey—women particularly—and he took his seductiveness to them, any of them, for granted. And his charm and appeal made as many people despise him as adored him. It would be easy to think of Jesse Bailey as merely a narcissist and a manipulator, but he was more than that. It was his very nature that made him what he was. I don’t think he ever consciously tried to manipulate people. I could say he felt a sense of entitlement, but that isn’t exactly right. I think he felt that what he was as person was more than enough reward for whatever he got in return. He didn’t have to try to manipulate anyone. That was beneath him. He was a person who could get what he wanted without even trying, unlike the rest of us clods who could never feel at ease in the world.
My school years had a distinctly David Copperfield-esque quality to them and my experiences in school from the earliest grades left a deep mark on me that took years to overcome. The culture of a small town is mirrored pretty directly and exemplified by their institutions and particularly by their schools. I remember my school as a barbaric institution where those who were not good conformers had a snowball’s chance in hell of escaping unscathed. I remember it as a place where the scent of vulnerability marked one for persecution as surely as it marks a feeble caribou as prey for wolves. I remember it as a place where the slightest hint of anything remotely resembling authentic individuality was viewed with suspicion and hostility and stamped out whenever possible, particularly during those years of cultural upheaval when the sides were more or less clearly drawn and paranoia had reached it’s tentacles deeply enough into this country to reach even my obscure little town.
A kind of social Darwinism held sway where those who could be broken were broken and those who could be crushed were crushed. From the earliest grades fat kids, shy kids, weak kids, dumb kids, poor kids were all fair game and became legitimate targets for derision and humiliation by other students and, not infrequently, by those whose moral duty it should have been to protect them. If one were academically or athletically competent or if one were good looking or witty or sociable or otherwise acceptably functional one was given a certain latitude and could expect to skate through relatively unmolested.
Any of the rest of us assorted misfits who had the gall not to be content with being written off and the temerity to insist on the authenticity and value of our own humanity were generally branded as troublemakers and frequently made examples of. Certainly the status of troublemaker is better than no status at all and at least afforded a plausible sense of identity as opposed to those unfortunate underachievers who were condemned from the get-go to occupy positions at the fringes of the social fabric—the genuine pariahs who’s sense of self was fostered only to the extent they were grudgingly allowed to occupy the same space and breath the same air—as mandated by the state.
I don’t want to paint this picture darker than it actually was and I don’t want to sound more bitter than I actually am, but I spent 13 years of my life having my character “molded” by my public school and being schooled in its doctrine and I can remember scenes which, in this seemingly more enlightened era, would make any parent’s hair curl. I have seen small children subjected to treatment as emotionally brutal and shaming as anything out of Charles Dickens and I have watched year by year as the spark of life was smothered out of them until by the time they reached high school they were shells of the people they could and should have been.
Take a simple thing like going to the bathroom. In second grade we were allowed to go the bathroom twice a day as a group. The idea of asking and being allowed to go to bathroom merely because you had to go was unthinkable. Disciplined minds and disciplined bodies, you know? More than once I peed my pants and sat in it all day because of this stricture against allowing a kid to go to the bathroom, except with the rest of the class and at designated times. It seems to me that those early years, those elementary school years were a time of fear and oppression in a variety of ways—it was the age of the cold war and the Bay of Pigs and fallout shelters and air raid drills and the “Iron Curtain”—I remember how terrifying those words were to me as a kid and the images they conjured up. It was a time of thalidomide babies and “Red” China. It was a time when the threat of polio was still very real until the miracle of the first vaccine.
The omni-present threat of communism and nuclear annihilation hung over our heads and it seems to me that this fear was a toxin that poisoned everything. Who around my age doesn’t remember being told to squat under your desk or being ushered out into the hall to squat on the floor? What that was supposed to accomplish is beyond me. It seems to me that same sort hysteria is a big part of our lives today. Jesse would hate the world today.
I remember the last time I flew anywhere; there was an old lady with her family in front of us. She had special braces on her legs and special shoes so she could walk and therefore couldn’t send her shoes through the “shoe detector.” So she had to go with several guards (you can’t be too careful!) and sit down in the designated area so they could take the shoes and braces off and inspect them for incendiary devices. It was beyond absurd. And who could forget the picture of the terrified five-year-old standing with arms outstretched so they could go over him with their wand to make sure he wasn’t a terrorist secreting away an explosive device.
I understand that at the time of the World Trade Center attack the FBI had 40 agents working on a task force with the purpose of busting prostitution rings in New Orleans. At the same time they had two agents dedicated to domestic terrorism. Go figure. I was reading today that the FBI also had an extensive dossier on Evel Kneivel—now there’s a good use of taxpayer dollars. I also read that the FBI spent two years trying to decipher the lyrics to Louis, Louis. What can one say?
It seems to me that Americans have always needed something to be afraid of and the primary agenda for our leaders has been to keep us afraid and looking to them to protect us. And if there is nothing real to keep us up at night, they are only too happy to invent boogiemen to keep us hiding our heads under the covers and to prevent us from really seeing what is going on. But that’s just me.
It also seems to me that my generation is far more hysterical about virtually everything than our parents were. It’s the people who were hippies extolling the virtue of free love who now give us the “zero tolerance” mentality that results in a teenaged girl being thrown out of school for giving one of her friends a Tylenol or the police being called in when a six year old draws a picture of a gun. There has never been a bigger bunch of hand-wringers and fretters than the baby boomers, which would be fine if their hysteria didn’t leave so many casualties in its wake. All I can think of is that Simpsons character who goes around exclaiming “Won’t someone think of the children!!!” On the other hand, I don’t generally have to worry about my son being bullied or beaten up in school—things that were par for the course in my day. But I digress. Sorry.
Here is a story that pretty much sums up my experience of elementary school. My elementary school principle, Mr. Richards, was a remarkably cruel man who was astute enough to detect my many character flaws early on and took a particular interest in rectifying them. This was a man who had no qualms at all about the use of such character molding expediencies as public humiliation, suspension of bathroom and cafeteria privileges, and public flagellation.
I can remember being forced to stand for an entire day with my face pressed into the corner of the anteroom to his office without moving for God knows what hideous offense. You know how fundamentally wicked your typical, terrified second-grader is and how they need to be broken like a saddle bronc. For daydreaming maybe? Lord knows I was constantly being upbraided for daydreaming. Is there a worse sin than daydreaming after all? For talking out of turn? For crying when he browbeat me? Or maybe just for being weak and small and vulnerable and everything else he despised.
At the end of the day I was made to go to bathroom to get some of those rough, brown, completely nonabsorbent paper towels so I could wipe up the floor where my urine had run down my leg and overflowed my shoes. My hands were shaking as I did it. In fact I was still shaking when I got home that day. My mom thought I had the flu and I didn’t tell her otherwise.
It was a year later when I was in third grade that John Kennedy was killed. On the day that Kennedy was shot, this same principal came on the intercom and through his tears and on the verge of emotional collapse, was heroically able to tell us the news, in spite of his heartbreak, that “our President is . . . dead.” A truly remarkable performance. A truly touching moment. Here was a grown man, who made it his primary business in life to shame and terrify and subjugate small children, overcome with grief at the death of a man he knows only from television and newspapers.
It strikes me that Americans are a sentimental people above all else and what they care about primarily is how they feel about things. They can be generous when it’s easy to be generous and when they can feel gratified for being so. So Mr. Richards was all sentimental and broken up about the death of “our President,” but couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the souls of the little children he was crushing. Even then the perversity of it gave me the creeps and even now I squirm as I recall the school song and the school motto—I will spare you both, but they involve the character building attributes of the institution and the gratitude we should all feel for the opportunity we have been given. They both contained words like “honor” and “loyalty” and “dignity.” They sounded like dark sarcasms to my ears. The hypocrisy was unbearable.
By the time I was fifteen I had been written of as a lost cause by my school and by everyone else, I suppose, and I suppose I was. I spent much of my time alone, sequestered in my room listening to the Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix, the Who and the Doors and Credence Clear Water and trying play my guitar—a $14 dollar Sears model with a cowboy stenciled on the front and tuning knobs that you could only turn with a pair of pliers and strings 3/4 of an inch off the fretboard—along with them and fantasizing about some future glory. I also spent a lot of time across the street looking around the gravel pit for fossils or arrow heads. Why I thought I might find arrow heads there is beyond me. And I did a lot of completely indiscriminate reading.
I did have a couple of friends—Danny Felter whose dad had died in Korea and who lived on public assistance with his little brother and semi-invalid mother in a dumpy house on Walther Street and Ricky Kelsey, a big lummox of a kid with bushy red hair and a missing front tooth and atrocious acne, who’s father ran a small dairy farm on Briar Ridge Hill. Ricky was constantly getting into physical altercations with his father—mainly over getting his hair cut. One day he came into school with a huge chunk cut out of his bushy red hair. His father had come in in the middle of the night and hacked it off.
We would run around town and hang out in the park smoking cigarettes. Once in a while one of us would get a hold of a quart of beer or a bottle of wine and once in a blue moon Danny would show up with some marijuana, which he had gotten, it turns out, from Jesse Bailey, whom Danny knew a little. It seems like my mom was always after me, especially when she drank and that was mainly about my hair. My mom was fine much of the time, but we knew that whenever she stopped and picked up a six pack of Genesee or Utica Club on the way home we were in for a bad night. Whenever she got out of the car carrying a six pack, our hearts all sank.
We were an unattractive group, Danny, Ricky and me, but fairly harmless. Danny could be a pretty nasty little prick when he wanted to be and enjoyed antagonizing people and Ricky bore the brunt of Danny’s needling. He seemed to take it good-naturedly until one day he simply turned around and flattened Danny. That shut him up, but only for a week or two.
There were others who would join us once in a while including identical twin brothers named Gary and Larry Bryant. They were over six feet tall and had eyes so close together that (as I once heard said about George Bush) they could have used a monocle in place of eye glasses, and they weighed in at around 120 pounds a piece. The only thing that distinguished them from each other was that Larry’s arms, which were about as big around as celery stalks and covered in self-inflicted tattoos—including cross outs and mistakes. He would also wear rubber bands around his arms at the arm pits to make his veins stand out. I guess he saw veiny arms as attractively masculine.
The entire Bryant family survived by picking eggs at a big egg farm that was owned by some evil guys from New Jersey. They got paid by the case—50 cents per case. The good pickers got paid by the case. I worked at that same farm myself for a couple of summers. Working on the egg farm seemed to be a rite of passage for many guys in my town and it was about the only way for many of us to earn any money. This bears some mentioning.
The guys who owned and ran the farm were hideous and cruel and most of the people who worked there were just clinging to the bottom of the ladder. We are talking about people, some of them, who couldn’t read or tell time and I’m sure some were victims of inbreeding. It goes without saying that the pay was absurd—$1.20 per hour. It didn’t take long for the people who ran the farm to realize that I had zero aptitude for egg picking. I cracked the eggs and was slow—two deadly sins—and I didn’t sort them correctly. There was an art and a science to it that I never quite got the feel for.
The place stunk incredibly and I used to have to run in and out each day I when I first got there in order to build up some immunity to the stench. Gary and Larry and their family lived in trailers, both house and camping trailers, down the road not a hundred feet from the farm. I can’t imagine the smell bothered them much. The chicken houses were huge, each the size of a football field, and there were four of them. Each chicken house contained six or eight rows of double decked chicken cages all jam-packed with chickens.
I was not very popular there, not being a good egg picker and all, so I was permanently assigned the worst job in the place—the dead chicken detail. This involved taking a wheel barrow down through all the rows and ripping the dead chickens out of the cages with a metal hook. You would be amazed as what chickens will do to each other crammed together like that. I would pull the dead chickens out, fill up the wheel barrow with them and wheel it out front to a big dump truck where I would throw them in the back. The truck would then take them out back and dump them into the giant pits of chicken crap. Now, this whole experience was an abject lesson in carnage and corruption bordering on the biblical. We are talking about tens of thousands of chickens all crammed together and insane and only too happy to tear each other to shreds and we are talking about hundreds of dead chickens coming out of each house every day.
All of these dead chickens were in various stages of decay and putrescence. Often they would be huge, bloated and purple and they would virtually explode with the most vile corruption you can imagine when you sunk the hook into them and tried to pull them out—teaming with rot and maggots. Other times they were flattened and mashed down into the bottom of the cages and you had to rip them free, usually in pieces and with just enough juice and decay to make it interesting. And the stench was simply indescribable. Ripe, rotting, succulent chicken corpses in 95 degree heat, virtually exploding with a virulence as might come from the sewers of hell itself, combined with the omnipresent, poisonous, ammonia laden, toxic miasma of the waste of a hundred thousand chickens. It seemed to embody the very essence of corruption and contamination and I don’t think I have ever felt completely cleansed from it. I spent entire days in that sweltering hellhole pulling rotting chicken carcasses by the dozen out of the cages, all the while fighting off the urge to vomit.
The very worst of the whole thing involved a time when the person doing dead chicken detail over the weekend had left a wheelbarrow overflowing with dead chickens outside in the sweltering summer sun all day and overnight in a thunder storm. When I got there Monday morning I was faced with this wheelbarrow filled with chicken carcasses decayed to the point where they could not be picked up without falling to pieces in my hands (we were allowed the luxury of rubber gloves). I would grab a pair of legs with the intention of heaving the thing into the back of the dump truck and they would pull out of the body leaving me with nothing but a pair of feet and some leg bones. I can not adequately describe how disgusting it was or the magnitude of the stench.
Somehow I did manage to get this wheelbarrow full of rotting, disintegrating chicken corpses, stinking like Satan’s own rectum, into the back of that dump truck. I would grab handfuls of what used to be a chicken, heave it into the back of the truck, run away and vomit, and then come back and do it all over again until I was left with nothing but a wheelbarrow full of rotting chicken juice and parts too small or flaccid to be picked up. I wheeled it over to the ditch and dumped it out. If that doesn’t contaminate you for life, I don’t know what does.
I mentioned that Gary and Larry’s entire family worked on the chicken farm, meaning their parents and their seventeen or so siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. The entire family was composed of buck toothed, inbred hillbillies. I don’t mean to sound mean, but these were not nice people. They stole things from other people’s yards. They shot people’s dogs and they even stole their clothes from the Salvation Army donation box. Gary and Larry were clearly the best of the bunch and Larry was even something of a savant at mathematics, though I can’t figure out why Gary was not as well.
One of their older brothers was named Kyle. Kyle had no redeeming qualities whatsoever that I could decipher. He had worked at the farm for years and had worked his way up to the point where he had developed a sort of informal authority, which he exercised in stupid and arbitrary ways. His sense of justice and fair play and decent behavior could only be described as rudimentary.
Despite the fact that he was roughly about as perceptive as a tree stump, he was revered by some of the people there as a bit of a redneck raconteur as well as a font of hillbilly wisdom—or at least that is how he perceived himself and he took some pride in that status. One day he was pontificating on the subject of the appropriate way in which one should deal with being pulled over by the police for some offense like speeding, or not being inspected, or having bald tires. This is one memory that I will never lose even should I become afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease as so many people in my family have been. He instructed us that the most important thing to do was to “play dumb.” Even at the age of 16 and without a fully developed sense of irony, it was almost too much to endure.
Eventually, the entire egg farm burned down. It was widely suspected that the owners set fire to the place themselves in order to collect the insurance money.
Basically, Danny, Ricky, and I constituted the core of our little group, in as much as we had a core. We didn’t go around vandalizing things or tipping over grave stones, but I’m sure the townsfolk didn’t like seeing us hang around the park in the middle of town smoking. Eventually they put a sign up saying you couldn’t be on the pagoda anymore. I don’t think we were stupid kids, but we were all terrible students. Well, Ricky was not the brightest guy in the world, but Danny was bright enough in a smart ass kind of way, a class clown kind of guy who people found amusingly naughty.
In spite of the fact that I was a terrible student I had always been a reader. I was the one who got to read aloud for our amusement the dirty novels we occasionally came across. Of course there were the Golden Books, which I adored, and books about dinosaurs. There was a book entitled Plants and Animals of North America with pictures of each plant and each animal and a three or four paragraph description of its range, its various characteristics, and other details. I was crazy about that book and was particularly interested in the carnivorous animals. The description of Kodiak bears and wolverines particularly intrigued me and these creatures became almost mythical in my imagination. I also loved adventure and outdoor stories and was a big fan of Jack London.
I read Earnest Hemmingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, the best parts over and over again. I dreamed of going on safaris and shooting water buffalo. I liked Huckleberry Finn, but the part toward the end where Tom Sawyer needs to go through that whole false escape of Jim thing—I thought that added nothing. I read Typee and was particularly fascinated with the stuff about naked native girls. I even read and liked Moby Dick, even the really boring parts. I read Kon-Tiki and David Copperfield. Strangely, I was not a big fan of typical boy’s adventure type books—Twenty Thousands Leagues under the Sea and The Count of Monte Christo and Treasure Island . . . that kind of thing.
I read Reader’s Digest condensed books, which usually involved survival following horrendous injuries of one sort or another. I remember one particular story about a guy who went to Africa to try to save starving people and who was using dynamite to catch fish when a stick went off in his hand, blowing off half his arm. He had to make his way back to civilization in that condition. It seems to me the Reader Digest had a particular thing for gruesome or “inspirational” stories. It also seems to me they always had a big “white man’s burden” thing going on.
I had a book of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories and poems and The Tell Tale Heart haunted me for a long time. I read Catcher in the Rye and that resonated with me like it has with so many other young people. It seems to me most of Salinger’s stories ended with the same basic idea—seeing Christ in the fat lady, seeing the mundane dreariness of everyday life as merely a disguise for the transcendent wonderfulness underneath. I never felt that this view was one Salinger really held. I think the one where Seymour shot himself was a truer reflection of how Salinger really felt about things. I suspect that if those Glass kid’s grew up like I did in my grubby little town they would have all ended up like Seymour.
I liked science fiction a little bit and had stories by Azimov and Arthur C. Clark and some others. There was a collection of Kafka stories which impressed me tremendously—a really wonderful translation. I read The Metamorphosis over and over again and identified tremendously with Gregor. There was Hermann Hesse and Beneath The Wheel and Steppenwolf and Demian. Maybe Jesse Bailey was my Demian. There were some novels by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and I became a big fan for a long time. Slaughter House Five had a big effect on me. And I read Walden, which has been like sacred text to me ever since.
I was a big fan of absurdist type writing, which, I guess Kafka would fall under, but there was The Stranger by Camus (which I pronounced “came us”) and there were some plays like Albee’s Zoo Story and Beckett’s waiting for Godot. There was The Glass Menagerie and some other plays. Tennessee Williams has always held a special place in my heart. There were anthologies of short stories, some of which had a big effect on me. There was Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence people.
Combine these with titles such as Orgy Beach and Mafia Mistress, and throw in a little Mad Magazine, Argosy, Sports Afield, Reader’s Digest, Playboy as well as Batman and Superman comics and you get a pretty good idea of my formative intellectual influences. You would be forgiven if you felt inclined to wonder how on earth I might have come across many of these titles. Lord knows it wasn’t in school. For the most part these were books my brother had brought home from college, having had the opportunity to attend and then flunk out of The University of Miami for a couple of years before my father left.
Although I was not stupid, I had done very poorly in school since the earliest grades and had come to perceive myself as fundamentally inadequate and doomed to a life of perpetual underachievement. As much as I hated school, I can remember being terrified of being done with it. I figured if I couldn’t hack it there, how was I ever going to survive in the real world? I didn’t feel stupid and somewhere in my heart I felt that I had some latent capacity for something like achievement that was going untapped, some gear that was not getting engaged, some secret virtue that had the potential to one day spring forth and break the chains that bound me, setting my soul free. But I perceived myself as somewhat subnormal.
I did a lot of writing too—God awful poetry and little stories I would make up. I had, sort of, a John Boy Walton kind of thing going on—secret dreams of being a writer while never actually becoming one. I once wrote a story about my dog, Shep, who had been hit by a car when I was eleven or twelve. My intention was to send it off to the Reader’s Digest, but I never did. I also remember writing some grotesquely awful, half plagiarized “love poems” and sending them off to a woman’s magazine my mother read—Red Book or Woman’s Day or something—along with some hilariously pompous cover letter, something to the effect that if they didn’t publish me they would come to regret it because they would certainly be hearing my name again one day. What an idiot. Where on earth did I ever get such notion from? The absurdity of it is laughable. They were gracious enough to send the poems back without comment except to say they weren’t looking for poetry to publish at that time.
Whoever it was who opened those poems and read that letter from me, well, it must have gotten them through the rest of their career. They probably still talk about it to their grandkids. I remember when I first heard the term “poetic license.” I wanted to know where you got one and how much they cost.
The only class I ever did reasonably well in was English, as long as it involved reading and writing stuff. I just couldn’t deal with the whole grammar issue—sentence construction, predicates, dangling participles, prepositional phrases and all that malarkey. No writer learns to write that way. It’s all bullshit. But because I liked books and words and writing, I generally did not do too badly in English. I did get an F once in English for something I had written. It was for a short play pretentiously called, The Blessed, about a sensitive young priest who was having a crisis of faith. The teacher, a middle-aged hag with wicked bad breath and chin whiskers, named Miss Craig, had hated me from the beginning. She gave me an F because she refused to believe I wrote it and I simply couldn’t convince her otherwise. Not that it was good by any stretch—what the hell did I know about priests or crisis of faith or about anything at all for that matter—but it just didn’t fit her perception of who I was so, in her mind, I couldn’t have written it. She probably could not even imagine that I knew what a play was.
She had asked us to write something—anything—and was expecting a thirty word essay on how to wash your cow for the county fair or descriptions of our home lives—My name is Dave. I live in a house. The house is green. I have a dog. His name is Rover. My father has no teeth.—and the like.
A few years ago I took all my books and threw them upstairs in the barn where they got destroyed by the rain through the leaky roof. I was done with books. I had read too much in my life and given too much of my life to books. I was sick of them. I hated them. I felt like they had betrayed me. It is interesting that the books I kept were Walden by my beloved Henry David, the Golden Books and Plants and Animals of North America. Oh, and I kept a book of the collected short stories of Hemingway. I also threw out all the accumulated crud I had written and, mostly, never finished over the years. In fact, I regret having thrown away some of that stuff.
There were some really good good bits and pieces I can never recover and a couple of completed plays and stories. I’m sure they were not actually very good, but I know some had great potential—not that I would ever have made anything out of them. That is the great family curse—never follow through on anything that has the potential to become anything. I had a collection of starting sentences which I wish I had kept. A whole story can blossom like a flower from a good starting sentence. I have to wonder how many of the fits and starts would have turned into something had I ever had any source of validation or encouragement.
Music was always very important to me and it has meant a lot to me in my life. My older sister had a hundred or so 45’s from the fifties and early sixties and I would listen to them by the hour. When I first heard that stuff it had a profound effect on me. Roy Orbison (in all his epic, Shakespearian brilliance), Tommy Sands, Dorsey and Johnny Burnett, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, The Platters, Danny and The Juniors, Bobby Rydell, Dion, Duane Eddy, Gene Pitney, The Drifters, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee the Killer and, of course, the King himself (at least until he went Hollywood) and dozens of others. I even had a thing for Fabian when I was smaller, mainly because my sister had taken me to see the movie Hound Dog Man and I had really liked it. When I was five, Sheb Woolie’s Purple People Eater drove me up the wall.
Man, the way I felt listening to those records! The feeling I got listening to that stuff was like nothing I had ever felt before. It was magic. It was transcendent. Do you remember how you felt the first time you heard Rock & Roll? Oh my God, it was the devils music and it was wonderful. Later on Rock & Roll would become Rock with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and The Who and The Kinks and The Doors and Led Zeppelin and Cream and Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin and so many others—all the people who would become heroes to me, people as familiar today as they were then.
I was one of those “lazy” kids they were perpetually hounding to “buckle down” and to “apply” myself and to “take an interest” and so on. I guess I was what they would refer to as a “troubled kid.” I almost never did any homework. I don’t know why exactly, except for the fact that it required effort. But I was not lazy and I never have been. There had to be more to it than that. I know that in the early grades I was very slow at writing and getting work done and I remember being hounded relentlessly about that—people hanging over me, telling me I am holding the pencil wrong or I am pressing too hard.
When I first started learning to write, I couldn’t even begin to keep my letters within in the lines and people seemed to be obsessed over that at the time. And I wrote way too slowly for anyone’s satisfaction. My son had exactly the same problems in the early grades. He couldn’t get assignments in class done in time and he couldn’t make his letters fit the lines like you are supposed to. The difference is nobody hounded him or made him feel inadequate for it and now he is at the top of class and—he’s a high school senior now—and wins virtually all of the academic awards at the end of every year. He will likely be valedictorian at the end of the year. Imagine that! I am very proud of him.
I also had some significant health problems during those early years of school, though it has never been exactly clear to me what had been wrong with me. One early report card that I came across had in the teacher’s comments words to the effect that she hoped that my health would allow me to complete the school year. Virtually every grade school report card I remember contained some reference to my “laziness” and my “daydreaming,” both of which were cardinal sins. I dreaded bringing those report cards home. I used to fantasize about dropping them in the river on the way home. I got a lot of Fs and an F usually meant a beating with a yard stick or some other handy utensil. It depended on whether mother had been drinking or not. I got a lot of spankings—if you can call being beaten with a stick a spanking—at least until I got big enough not to be spankable.
Face slapping got pretty big after that until I just wouldn’t tolerate it anymore. By that time it was not about grades anymore. We were way beyond that. My hair was a major issue, as I remember. And her suspicions about my drug use. She was always accusing me of being “on drugs”, even when I wasn’t, which was a little bit ironic when you consider that she was typically three sheets to the wind at the time. And I remember this: the only grade I ever got that ever really bothered me was a “circle D” I received in seventh grade for New York State History. A circle D meant you had done your best, but were basically too stupid to do the work. I knew I hadn’t done the best I could do.
It seems to me I was always secretly in love with some girl or other from my kindergarten days on up. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to recall this love ever being reciprocated. To the extent anyone ever did show any interest in me it was usually some very large girl who expressed her affection through acts of aggression and semi-violence—punching, kicking, spitting, name-calling, that kind of thing. I did daydream a lot and my day dreams often involved the object of my desire.
In sixth grade the object of my desire was a pretty little thing named Katherine Tyler. My fantasies generally involved the advent of some kind of crisis—earthquakes, foreign invasions, an attack by a tyrannosaurus rex. During these crisis I would perform heroically, showing my true colors by saving Katherine while her boyfriend, Steve Roice, cowered in the corner. The moment of perfection came when she held me, fatally injured, in her arms and confessed the devotion she had always secretly felt for me, but could never express and I passed away, a happy kid, as the sweet and bitter tears of her regret dropped softly onto my face.
People have sentimental and romantic notions about youthful friendships and I’d like to be able to say that Danny and Ricky and I were bound together by some deep sense of camaraderie and loyalty and respect, but I can’t. Mostly I remember a sense of being stuck with each other and having nothing better to do and no one better to be with. How could it be otherwise? What did we have in common, mainly, except our distaste and general unfitness for more respectable society? What could we see in each other except the reflection of our own inadequacy? Our own worthlessness? None of us were football players or honor role students. None of us were good looking or charming or competent at anything. None of us had decent home lives or girlfriends or money or any prospect for anything better. To the extent that any of us had dreams or aspirations, we kept them to ourselves. Aspirations were something real people had. They were something people who mattered had.
For the most part the level of our discourse was decidedly low. We’d talk in bravado tones about the tits on Brenda Wilcox and how we’d fuck her in a minute if we got the chance—as if, in our hearts, we ever expected to get to fuck anybody in our entire lives. Or we’d talk about who could drink the most beer before throwing up. We talked about joys of masturbation. We discussed the epic dimensions of memorable shits we had taken.
We would wax philosophical once in a while about the nature of God and the universe, but the others seemed like blockheads to me, unable to grasp the nuances of concepts any less immediate or more subtle than “What’s the point of studying algebra?” or “Why do you feel better after you puke?” Occasionally we would go hunting with our 22s or do a little fishing.
One thing that was significant to us was our hair. Or at least to me it was. I said I had long hair. Well, long, greasy hair. More precisely I needed a hair cut. This is not just a semantic distinction. Having long hair and being a long hair was the next step beyond merely needing a hair cut. Jesse Bailey had taken that step long before the rest of us. By the end of the tenth grade school year I will have taken that step and with that, started to leave my old friends behind. They would go on just needing hair cuts until they finally got them.
But for the time being we were still friends and we spent our time smoking and ramming around and drinking beer and discussing our contempt for school and authority and the imbeciles who bought into the system. All the obedient, well-groomed suck-ups who tucked their shirts in and believed in all the bull we had been force fed since kindergarten—all that crap about Paul Revere and Ponce De Leon and polynomials and the electoral college and the Civil War.
It sounds silly to talk about our hair now. People’s notions about hair and appearance have changed so drastically over the years it is easy to forget how significant and divisive this issue was during that time. People had been beaten with baseball bats and even killed over it in this country in those times. Hair—guys having long hair—represented something very significant to people back then. Nowadays no one gives it a second thought. In little towns like mine guys having long hair was as offensive and threatening to many as the notion of flag burning was and still is today.
Of course back then they were burning everything—flags, draft cards, bras, public buildings. The atmosphere itself was incendiary, even in small towns like mine. We used to get lectures about hair in school. They generally consisted of dissertations on the obvious connection between self respect and personal grooming habits and the reflection cast on the school by the substandard personal appearance of some of its students. While these lectures were ostensibly directed at the whole school there was little doubt they were actually meant for my elucidation and that of the handful of other reprobates in the school.
One of my Phys. Ed. teachers was a short, squatty guy named Rusty Sanders. He had been an All State wrestling champion or something and was the coach of the wrestling team. He went so far as to present a lecture to his class where he brought in tracts of scripture which he believed supported his contention that, contrary to what some might want to believe, Jesus actually sported a crew cut, thereby undermining the argument that since the Lord himself had long hair, long hair on a man, in and of itself, might not be inherently sinful.
It is hard to say why our hair was important to us, but I think it was this—it meant that our heads, in every sense, belonged to us even if nothing else in the world did. In a world where nothing seemed to be in our control, our minds and hearts were our own and no amount of pressure from parents and gym teachers or anyone else would take that away from us. It is easy to get this all confused with the hippie, radical thing that was going on at the time, but our emotional connection with the “counter culture” was really tangential. We had no politics. We just thought that stuff was cool.
The counter culture thing was far removed from us, although we watched the demonstrations and riots on TV as well as the nightly coverage of the war. They were largely rich kids who got to go to Berkley or Cornel or some other exotic institution. They could have normal, fulfilling lives if they chose to. In our wildest dreams we would never go to college and we would never be anybody or anything more than what we were then and there. Our hair was a personal thing with us and if it meant they wouldn’t let us skate at the roller rink or they wouldn’t hire us to set pins at the bowling alley, so be it.
The war was in everyone’s consciousness. It had been going on for virtually my entire life. I knew a few people who had gone there. I knew some who came back maimed and some who didn’t come back at all, including my cousin. It wasn’t until we approached draft age that we worried about it seriously and discussed what we would do should we be one of the unlucky ones. I, for damn sure, was not going to be sent to Vietnam no matter what. I remember a conversation with a clod hopper I had one day hanging out in the park. His intention was to enlist the next year and go to Vietnam. He said he had always wanted to kill someone and this was his chance to do it legally...spooky.
Only a few guys had long hair in my town back then and, like me, they were typically outcasts. Long hairs were viewed with suspicion and fear and those fears were not completely unfounded, I suppose, looking back, particularly after Jesse Bailey came into the picture. Many of us did “use drugs” and we did have contempt for the values the good people held most dear and to that extent we were a threat to their way of life or at least their views about their way of life (not that we even had a clue about anything as abstract as a “way of life”). After all, where had their values gotten them and where would they get us but to the same dreary and hopeless place most of them spent the duration of their lives? Looking back I realize that we had no business being contemptuous of anyone.
They hated seeing us hanging out in the park in the center of town and at public events like the Independence Day Parade. Our usual uniform consisted of a military jacket of some sort, which I’m sure irritated a lot of people, and engineer boots or black high top sneakers. I had a really nice Eisenhower Jacket, which the lady who lived across the street had given me. It had been her brother’s and he had served in the Pacific during WWII. I wish I had kept that jacket.
The local police as well as the state troopers kept a close eye on us and rousted us at every opportunity looking for beer and drugs. The local rednecks harassed us regularly throwing things out of cars at us and calling us faggots and fairies. We would get in shouting matches with beer bellied guys with crew cuts and once in a while things would escalate into shoving matches and somebody might come out of it with a bloody nose, at worst, and nothing much more would come of it. But that would change and Jesse Bailey was a big part of that change, at least from my perspective. The world would become a dangerous place in all sorts of ways.
I knew who Jesse Bailey was before I ever met him. The Bailey family had moved to my town from a small city nearby and was fairly notorious around those parts with various members having had run-ins with the law on a regular basis. Some had done jail time. Years later one of the brothers ended up in prison for some offense. It was a big family and Jesse had a least four brother and three sisters. He was in the middle somewhere.
Jesse Bailey was well known himself as someone who stole cars, used drugs, broke into places, and beat people up. And had sex with girls. Jesse maintained his connections with some of the people in his old town and a lot of them seemed older than we were and were faintly sinister. I would see him around town once in a while, talking to them, making deals it seemed to me, and riding around in cars with them. There were a lot of motorcycle types—guys with tattoos. He knew some Hell’s Angels guys.
My school was the kind of place where, if you hadn’t had your place in the pecking order determined over the course of time as most of us had, you had to make that place for yourself. I’m not talking about the formal, institutionalized pecking order of class officers and student council members. I’m talking about the hormone driven, rutting season, adolescent male pecking order. Jesse Bailey was not the type of guy to let his place in that order be determined by anybody but himself.
There were a lot of reasons for other guys to hate him and for him to become a target. He was obviously different and he obviously had an attitude. He wasn’t a football player or wrestler and he had long hair. Worse yet, girls seemed to love him, which was, basically, unforgivable. More than one clod hopping football player made the mistake of thinking they would do the world a favor and put Jesse in his place by cleaning his clock and more then once they ended up crying like babies in front of their cheerleader girlfriends and holding their front teeth in their hands.
Oddly, many of these guys seemed to be transformed by the experience, becoming, apparently, enthusiastic fans of Jesse Bailey. And then Jesse Bailey would fuck their cheerleader girlfriends. Jesse Bailey seemed to have a number of very strange associations in school and many of them could be traced to one of these sorts of altercations. The others likely had to do with Jesse’s ability of to obtain certain hard to find, proscribed, but desirable substances of one sort or the other.
I hadn’t witnessed any of these transformative altercations in school firsthand, but the news of each spread like wildfire and Jesse Bailey quickly became known as a dangerous person and someone not to be trifled with. Of course, to the local police and the state troopers he was already a person of particular interest and that interest grew more and more intense as the years went by.
Jesse Bailey had the uncanny ability to present himself precisely as he wanted to be perceived. That was his great gift I suppose, the ability to understand and exploit his attractiveness to people. And his willingness to abuse the affection people were inclined to feel for him. I suspect it was his great weakness also. As poor a student as I was, Jesse Bailey was no student at all. He gave new meaning to the word “truancy.” He finally did quit school in the eleventh grade. His contempt for the school and the people who ran it was total and they were as glad to be rid of him as he was of them, I’m sure, although he did have a strangely friendly relationship with a number of the faculty, both men and women. The reasons for this would become obvious.
I know of several teachers who were customers of his, having accompanied him on some deliveries and I know of at least two young, married women teachers with whom he had relationships. Shades of Debra Lafave. But Jesse was no victim. I can assure you of that. You would be amazed to know the people who Jesse Bailey sold drugs to and even more amazed to know the various women with whom he had more than a passing acquaintance.
I have alluded to the fact that Jesse had already been implicated in a number of incidents—car thefts, break ins and outright assaults where people had been really hurt. How he had avoided going to some juvenile facility is beyond me. Here is story that you will find hard to believe, but it’s true. One time going home in the evening he was being tailed by a car full of rednecks and they were having a shouting match all the way to Jesse’s house at which point the guys in the car got out to come after him. Jesse pulled out switch blade and flicked it open and held them off. In the middle of this altercation the police pulled up, having been called by a neighbor, at which point Jesse threw the switchblade into the bushes.
Click to add text, images, and other content
I received a letter in the mail today. The envelope was handwritten and it was sent from a nearby town by someone I don’t know—someone with the last name Christoff, interestingly enough. I knew what it was immediately. It began like this: “Dear Mr. Carkuff, We are writing you and all of your neighbors because of all the suffering in the world today. Have you ever wondered if God will put an end to it?” It goes on to refer me to Revelations chapter 21, verse 4 which says, apparently, God will wipe out every tear from their eyes and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. This person goes on to assure me that God is intending to do this any day now.
It seems to me that if there were a God and he had the power to accomplish all of this he could have done it long ago. He could have done it before the Holocaust. He could have done it before the World Wars. He could have done it before the Inquisition and the Black Death. He could have done it before the rule of Stalin and Mao. He could have done it before the Russian or American Civil wars. He could have done it before the Peloponnesian War. He could have saved the American Indian and the Tasmanian Aborigines. And on and on. The person who sent me this was also kind enough to enclose some pertinent bits of scripture for my perusal.
This is not the first such letter I have received over the years. I realize there is nothing personal in this and this person who sent me the letter feels he is doing God’s work, but isn’t there something extremely presumptuous about sending out letters like that to people you don’t even know?
Sometimes I do wonder how a person lives in a world like this. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night thinking about it. People do awful things to other people and other living creatures all the time and sometimes I feel like—how does a person live in such a world? I will read something or see a picture of something or hear about something and it will haunt me and contaminate me—awful things you hear about or read about.
Most of them I blot out of my mind as much as I can and eventually manage to forget. Incidents from the holocaust or from the current war in Iraq. Things involving defenseless people or involving children or animals. One recent thing I am working on getting out of my mind involves French fishermen using live puppies for shark bait —putting them on hooks and throwing them out and letting them swim and hoping that a shark will take them. Simply appalling and for someone who loves dogs it is particularly painful to consider and I apologize if I have poisoned your mind with this.
Tennessee Williams wrote that there was only one thing that is unforgivable and that is deliberate cruelty. I agree with Tennessee. God and I have a long history, non-existent entity though he is. My mother was a non-practicing, but devout, in her way, Catholic or Greek Orthodox or something, but I was raised Methodist, more or less, though I remember rarely ever attending church. When I was in grade school they still had religious instruction in school. The Catholic kids went off to their Catholic studies—I was always jealous of the Catholics because they got to do that whole body of Christ wafer thing (I always wanted to try one of those wafers) and their religion was so exotic compared to the stoic Methodists—and the rest of us went off to our comparatively prosaic Protestant studies.
I don’t really remember anything about it. Of course, these days some of the Protestant sects have got the Catholics beat by a mile in terms of exotic, not to mention bizarre. You don’t see mainstream Catholics speaking in tongues or playing with snakes or slaying spirits or trying to cure their dying children with prayer and then blaming it on their kids for their lack of faith when they die. Catholics have nothing on those whacky, charismatic, Pentecostal folks.
I didn’t really think much about religion and God and Jesus growing up. Well that’s not exactly true—I got all choked up around Christmas time thinking about the baby Jesus and I suppose I took it for granted that of course there is a God and of course he or my guardian angel were looking out for me. Do you remember that old song All Through the Night? That song really got to me when I was a kid and I really believed that there were guardians angels looking out for each of us. I also grew up saying the Now I lay me . . . prayer, though, honestly, it kind of gave me the creeps—if I should die before I wake??? —and so on. So then you go to sleep worrying about dying in the night.
And I did use to pray a lot. I remember praying my dad would come back, praying that my mom would never die, praying the Katherine Tyler would fall in love with me. I specifically remember telling God if he would just make Katherine Tyler fall in love with me I would never ask for anything else ever again. Now, that just is not normal for an eleven or twelve year old kid is it?
My last serious, personal encounter with God and religion happened during that ninth grade school year. The school year had been pretty uneventful for the most part. I let my hair grow and got into rip roaring fights with my mother about it. I tried to lose my virginity to an enormous girl nicknamed Moose whom I mentioned earlier—and failed. She had performed this service for many of the guys in town. Danny and I had taken her down to the old railroad depot for this express purpose.
Danny, at least, had managed, technically, to perform “the act” (as Dear Abby would put it), but I was a flop, both literally and figuratively. She was actually a very kind hearted girl and said “At least you tried.” I wish she hadn’t said anything.
The idea that Danny actually managed to lose his virginity before me—however technically—was very hard to live with. I grew three inches and got a hint of a mustache, which I enhanced with my mother’s mascara (a little trick Danny had told me about). I started parting my hair in the middle and got no end of grief in school over that.
Danny and Ricky had a serious falling out and Ricky began spending more and more time working on the farm. Danny and I would usually go down to the Corner Shop after school and hang out with the other guys. We’d play pinball and foosball and bullshit with each other for an hour or so and then head home for dinner. Winter was a slow time for hanging out.
Danny started spending a lot of his weekends visiting relatives who lived in Herkimer County. He knew a girl there that he liked. Each time he came back from one of those visits he seemed strangely different. Danny had always been an annoying little bastard, but now he was getting almost intolerable. He got a haircut and began developing a weirdly smug and secretive attitude—sort of like a newly indoctrinated Amway distributor—like he had some mysterious secret he wasn’t quite ready to share.
At one point he casually invited me to go with him to something he called a “rap session” that he had been attending in a nearby town. He told me it was a place where young people could talk about their problems with some really cool and understanding adults and they had a pool table and a ping pong table and it was a real blast. I should have known it was a set up.
It turned out that the relatives he had been visiting were big in the cornball, hillbilly, born-again Christian movement and these “rap sessions” were part of a loosely knit rural, evangelical outreach program for troubled teens. It is hard to describe the atmosphere except to say it was creepy. As soon as I hit the door they descended on me with the feigned gregariousness of used car salesmen. I remember one particular guy named Bob. He had his routine down cold and was marketing it on the hillbilly, evangelical circuit.
He was not that much older than the rest of us, maybe twenty-one, and he had been a troubled youth his own self who had worshipped Satan and used drugs and masturbated and tried to burn his school down. He was well on his way to eternal damnation until he had “found Christ” (who was apparently lost somewhere) and been “saved.” And, of course “God spoke to his heart” —as God is wont to do with certain folks—and informed him that it was his mission to spread the “word of the Lord.”
I don’t want to dwell on this and I certainly don’t want to insult anyone or demean anyone’s faith, but this was my experience and while it was only a brief diversion in my life it bears mentioning. The impressions I describe here and the misgivings I felt were only vaguely sensed at the time, but I felt uncomfortable with the situation as soon as I got there.
Of course, things started out with the usual debates about evolution and other religions and why God allows suffering and how could God have made the world in seven days when a day is defined as the length of time it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis and all the other pointless, knucklehead stuff people are inclined to talk about when debating religion. These people had their routines down cold and had an answer for everything—like an Amway recruiter —and they wore you down. Never mind that they engaged in the worst sort of sophistry. It took me years to realize that there are people you simply can not argue with. Their seeming ability to counter any argument you came up with and their apparent emotional openness eventually wore me down.
For the most part, most kids are finally eager to please as are most people who are deeply insecure. It was very easy for a kid who was used to being treated with contempt and indifference by adults to be seduced by anyone who seems to show an interest in them and I was a little bit seduced for a while.
I went to, maybe, three or four of these rap sessions and even went to one of their churches a couple of times. People spoke “in tongues” and were “slayed in the spirit” and had seizures after being possessed by the “holy spirit” — “raptured” they called it. Old ladies got up and shouted “Praise Jesus” and testified how their various afflictions—carbuncles, rheumatism, sciatica and the like—had been cured by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
They even had a guest preacher who was a bona fide faith healer. His area of expertise seemed to be the lengthening of foreshortened legs, an affliction of which there seemed to be a remarkable preponderance in the local populace. He also had a special gift for driving demons out of alcoholics. I even went through the motions of “taking Christ into my heart” and being “born again” and “saved.” And I really tried. I really wished with all my heart there was something to it and that it made any kind of sense at all, but there just wasn’t and it just didn’t.
A few of the people were really nice and sincere people who genuinely cared about others, but many of them, the core of them, had a secret agenda the nature of which I could not begin to fathom. The disingenuousness I sensed in the beginning was not unfounded as the true nature of many of those involved began to reveal itself as I came to know them a little. As for that guy Bob I mentioned, he went back to his evil ways and was eventually arrested for the statutory rape of a twelve year old.
I’m sorry, but there seems to be a certain unattractive ilk of person who gravitates towards certain types of belief systems. These belief systems tend to support their natural inclination toward the suspicion of others and lend credence to their conceit that they have some sort of natural entitlement (or supernatural entitlement) beyond that which the rest of us have. These belief systems grant them license to be somewhat more duplicitous and self serving than the next guy. Certain modes of Christianity (as well as many other religions) lend themselves to this sort of abuse, what with their emphasis on a “personal relationship” with the almighty himself via Jesus Christ and the “Holy Spirit.” How can you go wrong or be wrong, really, about anything when you’ve got God “speaking to your heart?” When you are hard-wired into the creator himself?
I played tennis for many years and have had the opportunity to play with dozens of different people. I’ve only ever played tennis with one person who actually flat out cheated and he was a born again Christian. I’m just saying.
It seems to me hubris in the extreme this notion that God takes a particular interest in our diverticulitis or the state of our bank account or the win/loss record of our football team when this same God allows three years olds to be abducted and raped and killed by monsters. And only then when we utter the appropriate incantations and with the appropriate amount of zeal. I have a serious problem with the notion that our value in this universe and as human beings is dependent on our willingness to curry favor by flattering a faintly imagined and a vaguely defined supernatural arbiter. If God exists, what is our praise to him and does its value lie in how high we can heap it?
I am convinced that the great questions are unanswerable and that is how it must be. The questions themselves are the answers. I have strong feelings about religion or any arbitrary belief system on which people are inclined to base their actions and their lives. From time immemorial atrocities and unspeakable cruelties have been committed in the name of every conceivable human conceit and delusion from patriotism to racism to fascism to socialism, but no finer instrument has ever been devised for the perpetration and perpetuation of human suffering than organized religion. There is nothing men cannot bring themselves to do in the name of God. I don’t know about Jesus. I don’t know about Vishnu or Mohammed or the Dali Lama or anyone else, but I do know this: If God exists, he is unavoidable.
At any rate, I was glad to be free of those people and their holy spirits and evil spirits and their devils and their demons.
But, I guess we all have demons in our lives. Some of us have more than one. One of my demons was Seth Eldred. Seth Eldred was a big red headed guy who was a true sociopath. He was a guy who could not be happy unless he was making somebody else miserable and he was very good at making other people miserable and he had had it out for me since the fourth grade. Seth’s mission in life ever since he entered school was to torment and intimidate and generally make life hell for the people around him.
Somewhere along the line I had developed a special place in Seth’s heart and he made a special project out of making my existence intolerable. It takes many of us too long to learn that we have a right to stand up for ourselves and to defend ourselves. As children we are taught that anger is bad—at least our own. We are instructed to turn the other cheek and to rise above rather than sink to our tormenters level. I’m here to tell you it is horse shit and I have Jesse Bailey to thank for showing me that. We are taught to be defenseless and told that if we respect others they will respect us.
Now, I was not a defenseless person. I was physically small until I was fifteen or so, but I was strong and tough and I was not physically afraid of other people. What I was afraid of was conflict and anger. I was taught from childhood that I didn’t have a right to be angry—about anything. Anger was something to be ashamed of and to swallow at all costs, unless, of course, you were the one making up the rules. I’m here to tell you that anger is a good thing, a righteous thing, if it is just anger.
The only bad anger is old anger and anger we can not remember the source of. Anger that has been swallowed for much too long and has been twisted and distorted and is impossible to control when released. I love my son’s anger, as irrational as it sometimes is, and I scold him only for what he does and never for what he feels or who he is. I assure you, he has not been taught to be defenseless.
Seth Eldred’s abuse toward me and others was generally verbal in nature with some pushing around and slamming into lockers mixed in. I’m sure he would have been maiming people on a regular basis if he thought he could get away with it. He was well known for torturing animals—pouring gasoline on cats and setting them on fire and the like. In junior high he would sit behind me in class and whisper “Hey faggot, you want to blow me you faggot” or “Hey queer boy, you wanna suck my cock?” and he’d hit me in the back off the head with a ruler and flick snot or spit on my back and in my hair.
Now, you know that old expression about sticks and stones? Well, that’s all fine and good and, frankly, I could not care less what a piece shit like Seth Eldred thought of me, but the constant barrage of harassment and hostility everyday and all through class and in the halls and in gym class made me dread going to school each day. All you could do is wait it out and hope he got bored and or distracted or set his sights on some new victim.
You tell me, how does a relatively civilized person contend with that day in and day out? Do you tattle? Of course not. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Seth was a sociopath whose primary purpose in this life was to torment and terrorize others. The teachers all knew what kind of a person Seth was. He didn’t make any particular attempt to hide his behavior and no one had ever shown any particular inclination to curb it. And the teachers had as much contempt for tattlers and complainers as they did for his anti-social behavior. Much more, actually.
I was so widely detested that I suspect some of them rather relished seeing someone like me be put through the wringer. What was I but a God damned hippie anyway? What do you do? Call him names back or flick boogers back at him? Do you punch him in the face? Not if you’re a good Christian person. The truth is, punching someone in the face is the only reasonable solution to some predicaments. I wish I had known that then. I wish I knew the way the world really worked.
At any rate, I had come to accept Seth Eldred as a hideous fixture in my life. By the time I got past junior high I had relatively less contact with him since he was held back a grade and so he had less opportunity to gratify himself at my expense, though he made the most of every opportunity he did have. One day toward the end of February in my sophomore year I was leaving school for the day to walk home and Seth and a couple of his flunky buddies happened to come out the doors right behind me. This was a golden opportunity for him.
Of course he started following me and calling me a faggot and bouncing a basketball the off the back of my head, bouncing it harder and harder. I kept getting more and more angry until I finally turned around on verge of tears just to have him haul off with all of his might and slam the ball right smack into the middle of my face breaking my nose, destroying my glasses and knocking me to the ground. I laid there on the snow for a minute with my nose gushing blood, scrounging around for my glasses while Seth and his buddies are splitting their guts at the hilarity of it all.
Seth Eldred didn’t even see Jesse Bailey coming. I didn’t even see Jesse Bailey coming. The only thing Seth saw was Jesse Bailey’s fist crashing into his face. Seth Eldred dropped like a rock and lay there like the pile of shit he was, choking and sobbing and spitting teeth and blood out though his ruptured lips. Seth’s pals just stood there in shock. They wanted no part of this now. Once Jesse felt sure of that he came over to me and helped me up and said “Let’s get out of here.” He looked down at his hand which was starting to bleed and winced and then shoved it in his pants pocket. He asked me if I was alright and I asked him the same. I don’t think we said anything else all the way to my house. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about that day for our entire relationship.
When we got to my house we cleaned ourselves up as best we could. I cleaned the blood off my face and blew it out of my nose which was very tender indeed. We washed Jesse’s hand up and I put some Unguentine on it and a gauze pad, but it was badly cut and should have had stitches. It had been slit from between the knuckles of his two middle fingers at least three inches up toward his wrist. It would later become infected and put Jesse in the hospital for a few days. I don’t remember a lot about that first afternoon, but I know that I felt the bond start to form between us right then and there, like we somehow already knew each other. It seems to me there was a kind of natural ease between us like two people who understood each other without trying. It was kind of amazing to discover.
I won’t say we became fast friends right then and there, but Jesse would walk home from school with me occasionally and would sometimes stay over for dinner. He knew Danny and was acquainted with Ricky and the four of us would often hang out together, though I felt he only just tolerated them. Over the course of the next couple of months and Danny and Ricky drifted out of my life as Jesse began to drift into it. Winter became spring and the school year ended. I got the job at the chicken farm, which occupied much of my time.
I pounded on my sister once in a while and she would break my models in return. I played my guitar and listened to music. I turned sixteen and got my license and my wonderful older sister bought me my first car—a green 1963 Rambler American that cost a hundred dollars and had all speed and power of a riding lawn mower. The first day I got it I drove over somebody’s lawn and smashed their picket fence. I didn’t stick around to see what happened. Another one of those things I never told anybody about. Both of my sisters have always been wonderful to me and are heroes to me. I would never have been able to go to college if it wasn’t for my younger sister.
Over the course of the next several months Jesse became a bigger and bigger part of my life until he became a fixture there—eating dinner on a regular basis and staying over now and then. And somehow, Jesse Bailey and I managed to become close friends with him almost becoming a part of the family. Jesse and I would do the usual stuff young guys do and we would talk about the usual guy stuff, but we would talk about other stuff too. We would arm wrestle and he discovered to his chagrin that I could beat him most of the time, although he could lift more weight than I could.
He showed me some judo moves he had learned and boxing tricks. He told what to do if somebody went after me, self defense stuff. I showed him what I knew on the guitar which he thought was very cool and we listened to records. He was jealous of my mustache, such as it was. I don’t recall Jesse ever being able to grow any facial hair, which somehow added to his appeal. We used to “exchange rocks” as we called it which meant each of us punching each other in the shoulder as hard as we could until one of us quit. A pretty stupid activity. I remember waking up in the morning with a huge, deep, black and purple contusion running from my shoulder down nearly to my elbow. Naturally, we had to compare bruises to see whose was the most sickening. Couldn’t have been a healthy thing to do.
Speaking of unhealthy things here is a fairly horrifying story and one that makes me glad to always know what my son is doing most of the time. When we were kids, me and my sister and this strange kid named Ryan who lived up the hill from us and stammered so badly that he had given up talking altogether unless it was completely unavoidable and had ears like Alfred E. Neuman, would play this “game” where we would shoot an arrow straight up into the air with our bow and arrow and run around in circles waving our arms waiting for it to come down. Utterly insane. Now, these were not hunting arrows with very sharp points and razor sharp blades. They were target arrows, but they were still fairly pointed and you still wouldn’t want to be shot with one.
One time Ryan shot an arrow straight up and we ran around like that and the thing came down and hit him smack on the top of his head. It didn’t kill him or anything, but it did puncture his scalp. What we didn’t realize was that it had also put a small hole in his skull. It hurt him and it bled a little and he cried, but he seemed fine. He went home and didn’t say anything to anybody about it. Not long after he developed a brain infection and was taken to the hospital and died. So there you are. One other thing I remember about this Ryan was that his fingers always smelled like his rear end, though I am not sure why I would ever had had the opportunity to smell his fingers. Maybe it was all for the best. He would have had a tough go of it in this world.
My mother seemed to be especially fond of Jesse Bailey. He charmed her like he charmed everyone else, and somehow his having long hair made mine more tolerable. She even had him call her mom. I think it made her feel like the old days to have him around—the happier days when there were all sorts of people around the house, particularly all my brother’s friends; she was “mom” to all of them. And Seth Eldred never bothered me again in my life.