I have some stories, many of which I won’t tell until some of those involved die. It’s not out of respect, though. I know I don’t get all the details right. Stories are certainly more complicated than I make them as I reduce and distill whatever swirls in my head when I share pieces of my life. Others attack the details and forget to defend the essential truth behind the story. I have dozens of anecdotes and stories I’ve written. Most of them are too raw or lacking a central focus. With many of them, I just concluded, “It’s time” and throw them out here as if they need to breathe. With some of my stories, it would be folly for the people involved to identify themselves. Their denials won’t age well. If you think I’m writing about you or someone you know, don’t ‘out’ yourself.
I wrote the initial version of this sometime in 2001. In reality, this encompasses several conflicting stories.
When I was in junior high, I had a few experiences which jarred me. A couple of them are closely guarded secrets. Because I could recognize violence in places most people saw few signs of such, there were a few times in which I was rendered floorless in recognition of how bottomless some people were. I now know that there are abusive people from all walks of life. Worse still, some are adept at recognizing children who are already at risk and then do further damage to them. Oddly, it took me years to realize that I also had a congruent weakness: I often failed to see the danger behind a smiling face. Many of the biggest monsters hide in plain sight, behind an easy laugh. Youngsters who are mistreated tend to be distrustful of everything, of course – but they also tend to contradict their instincts by responding with too much trust toward a smiling face or friendly demeanor.
Make no mistake, I encountered some incredible adults and teachers when I was young. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t recognize the debt I owe them. Talking about the lesser people doesn’t denigrate the better people in my life. All are stories. Likewise, you must accept the reality that some of the worst human beings I’ve known were teachers, coaches, and other professionals. The positive examples outnumber the negative by a staggering margin. Not talking about the negative examples doesn’t help anyone, though. Regardless, I get amused when people call into question my motives for sharing. As Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I was beyond the normal scope of ignorant when I was younger. My family life didn’t foster a broad worldview and often no expectation that I would live to adulthood. Each weekend brought dread, even as I found youthful distractions. Much of my life was wasted trying to bridge the gap between my home life and the one outside its reach. I loved school in so many ways; the greatest and most singular was simply that it was not home. I often say anywhere was safer than home, generally speaking.
At school, I had befriended someone who seemed like she might have a glimpse of my life, an overview I didn’t have to explain. I’ll call her Tammy. It’s important to note that this wasn’t a romantic relationship. After a while, I noted that she didn’t want me to notice her mood swings. After I met her parents, I made the mistake of asking if her dad liked to drink, followed by me seeing that her mother seemed to behave like my mom. I thought I was sharing a secret, one Tammy might reciprocate. I could not have been more mistaken. In the short term, I just avoided her as she became belligerent and angry after I told her about my family life. I don’t know why I thought my honesty would let her be able to confess her own dark secrets. I tried to explain it to her. It only made her angrier. She couldn’t get past the idea that I “knew” what happened at her house when no one was looking.
She told me that her dad was going to find me and give me a dose of what I deserved. She threatened me if I shared my ideas about her home life with anyone. When she said it, I knew that her dad had probably actually said the words, in part because of the details she provided. Her eyes lit up with crazy glee each time she’d mention that her dad was going to beat me. It sounds like an exaggeration, but she probably said that her dad was going to beat me at least twenty times. She seemed a little too focused on ensuring that I was at least scared. Though I don’t remember any of the details, it was evident that her dad had probably hurt a few people in his lifetime. Years later, it occurred to me that Tammy might have earned a temporary reprieve from her dad’s beatings by offering me as a sacrifice. Children living with violence learn techniques to avoid scrutiny and to give the abuser another target. It’s part of the reason they lose their confidence and ability to make rational choices in later life.
One day, after a school function at another school, I was walking out of the building to make my long walk home. In those days, I was accustomed to walking miles from events. My parents had decided they didn’t want kids after they had us. I saw Tammy getting into her dad’s ugly little car, and I made a full swing around the edge of the lot to avoid them near the exits. To my surprise, a few moments later, her dad pulled his car alongside me and stopped. The driver’s side tire missed me by an inch.
He glowered at me. He was a huge, overweight man. “Boy, do I have to get out of this car and kick your ass?” Keep in mind that I was in junior high, and he was a middle-aged adult, one with a good job. He went on, shouting as the volume of his voice rose and fell. I don’t remember the words, just the expectation that he was, in fact, going to exit the vehicle and hit me until whatever plagued him faded.
Some people were lucky and never learned the truth that adults could hit a child in those days and face no consequences. Not only did I experience it personally many times, but I also witnessed it too. I’m not sure which was worse.
(I erased seven specific anecdotes at this point, ones dealing with job title and/or names. Whether it’s cowardice, self-protection or a soft heart, I’m not sure. They are not positive or life-affirming examples, though. A couple of the stories tell an entirely different story about some of the adults we shared growing up in the same community.)
Tammy’s dad said some angry things. Tammy was in the back seat, her face full of satisfaction. I’ll never forget that ugliness and glee. Her mom cowered in the front passenger seat, her head recoiling a little each time her husband shouted. Because of my dad, I knew that there was no right answer for the anger, just as there hadn’t really been a cause. Abusers don’t seek justification for their anger or violence – just an outlet. Justifications only come in the rare event that they are held accountable for their behavior. I stood there, silent and stupid, until Tammy’s dad was done screaming and threatening me.
Much later, Tammy continued her effort to retaliate against me for knowing her family’s secret. She enlisted another student to threaten me. I’ll call him Eric. Tammy had told him all manner of lies to get him really angry at me. I tried to be friendly and to avoid a fight, which only seemed to stoke his anger. I was a master of evasion due to my dad’s years of training.
Because I realized that Tammy was crazy, probably through no fault of her own, I found her and politely told her to please leave me alone. A couple of classes later, Eric approached and said something like, “I told you to leave Tammy alone, you sick f%%k. Next time I see you,” he said as he put a gun finger to his temple. I didn’t answer him as he continued to throw insults. People generally are going to do whatever it is they’re going to do. I had no doubt that Eric would beat me to a pulp. What Eric didn’t know, though, is that I would likely remove a part of his body against his will during the process. Some people fight to win because they are able; people like me fought when they had to, with the goal of making the assailant not do it twice.
Later, my dad had punched me squarely in the jaw when I wasn’t expecting it, precisely with the stated goal of teaching me to be mean. When I got up too quickly, he hit me again to demonstrate his superiority. His excuse? I was running too much. He also enjoyed giving me impromptu lessons on manhood. I had started running in March of 9th grade and lost a lot of weight. After a particularly bad day of home and school, I just decided I was going to start running. I had dizzy spells for a while after the outburst leading to being punched twice in the face by my dad. Because of the second punch, I had fallen backward and hit my head against the native stone fireplace at the end of our trailer. I lived in Piazza Road in Tontitown at the time, just past where the pavement ended. That was one of the times I told my mom that something was seriously wrong. I was covered by phenomenal insurance through her work. Mom refused to take me to the doctor, even after I made the mistake of saying I wouldn’t mention what brought on the pain and dizziness. She made a point to tell my dad that I had wanted to go to the doctor. She made sure that Dad understood that I implied I had something I could say to the doctor if he asked. It sounds like lunacy now. Mom at times exceeded the symptoms of being a victim and joined in the sadism. When Mom told Dad that I needed to go to the doctor, he waited until I let my guard down a bit and grabbed me and swung me around and into the cheap wood panel wall leading to the bedrooms at the end. I felt the wall crack as I collided with it and fell backward onto the linoleum. I’m convinced I did at least fifteen cents worth of damage to the cheap panel wall that ran throughout the trailer. Dad was shouting drunkenly at me that I should keep my mouth shut about the dizziness.
The worst part was the look of crazy smugness on my mom’s face as she watched Dad be brutal to me. I jumped up, ran into the bedroom, and immediately climbed out the ground-level window of my bedroom. I don’t know how long I stayed outside in the dark. I do know that the next afternoon when I arrived home from school that I took one of Dad’s pistols from the closet in his bedroom and walked down the dead-end part of Piazza Road. Several hundred yards down, there was a small valley and a stand of trees. I threw the pistol as far as I could, over the barbed wire fence and into the brush and rocks there. Dad had a massive collection of guns; he’d eventually notice the pistol was missing. His drunkenness would prevent him from tying me to its loss. It was a stupid thing for me to do. It did, however, make me feel immensely better. Apart from the fact that I could have shot him, he’s lucky I didn’t toss ten of his precious guns into the valley by 4K farms. I did take several hundred dollars worth of specialty ammunition from dad’s stash and leave it next to the fence along the road, though. Dad was a convicted felon in more than one state; he wasn’t supposed to have firearms. Despite this, the police who infrequently visited never took any of his guns, even when people had been shot or shot at. Mom and Dad smoked a lot of marijuana when we lived on Piazza Road, too. I threw out a large clear bag of it after another beating. I was in the lower little shed under the back porch of the trailer practicing my French Horn. Dad grabbed my French Horn and hit me with it. The bells struck me in the nose. Surprisingly, it didn’t break. It did spew an amazing amount of blood for ten or fifteen minutes. I went upstairs and went into my parent’s room to get a bowl of marijuana they kept inside aluminum foil in mom’s dresser. Instead, I found a large bag of marijuana.
While I didn’t feel particularly angry, it must have been lurking inside of me. As dumb as it might sound, I was furious that I had trouble reading due to the dizziness. The libraries were my sanctuaries. Reading was my outlet into the world without needing people to explain it to me. It was also the only way I could remotely mimic the people around me. The librarians at the high school knew me well. One afternoon, I had darted over to the library to put a book in the drop slot and walked back across the narrow street to campus. Missing the bus was a real problem for me, and as a result, I generally wasted no time getting back to the bus pickup area.
Eric was parked along the road by Murphy Park and the Springdale library. He was leaning against his car and chatting inattentively with a girl. I walked up and put my books on the ground. Eric turned to me to mouth off. I said, “No.” As Eric began to speak, I hit him left-handed the way my dad had involuntarily trained me to hit. Eric didn’t even have time to get his hands up. Although I’m not proud of it now, I hit him as hard as I could. One of his teeth punctured my middle finger above the middle knuckle. Eric’s head snapped backward. I didn’t even wait for him to retaliate. Had I caved in his face, I don’t think I would have stopped punching him. Something about the unholy trinity of him, my father, and Tammy’s dad broke a circuit in my brain. When he tried to fall, I dragged him by the hair as he screamed. He had the classic feathered hair that so many people preoccupied with their looks used to have in the early 80s. I threw him in the grass on the practice field (where the track now resides) across from the public library. I then crouched down and put my knee across the back of his head. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know I was going to hit him until I did it.
A car with seniors inside pulled up and the girl Eric had been talking to told them an underclassman was kicking the crap out of Eric. They all piled out of the car and came around. Just as one of them started to grab my arm and pull me off, I jumped up and away, not saying a word. “You’re Mike’s brother!” said one of them. Another one of them said, “I don’t care who he is, I’m going to kill him.” Because I didn’t want to be literally killed, I said something smart such as, “I’d like to see you try, coc%@#$%^&!” and took off running. Did I mention I ran several miles a day back then? It paid off. They gave up trying to catch up with me in less than a minute, even though two of them ran all the way past the old tennis court area in a failed attempt to corner me. I gave them the high-bird salute with both hands, laughing. One of the people involved later tried to kick my French Horn as he walked by. My French Horn was not only a school-owned instrument, but it was sacred to me. A few days later, I poured a can of coke onto the front seat and dash of his beloved car. It was hot, so I imagine the cleaning process was delightful. It wasn’t a habit of mine to vandalize things. Once the idea was in my head, though, it was insurmountable. I felt terrible about the coke. I also kept reminding myself that the senior in question had hurt several people I knew, all weaker and smaller than him. He loved torturing other kids. I recognized the look in his eye and on his face when he was violating someone.
Eric? He made an effort to avoid me and to ensure that people were around him. Whatever else I had accomplished, I put the idea into his head that I could spontaneously dance on his head again.
I waited a while and went back for my books, which were surprisingly still in the grass. I don’t remember how I got home that day, as my family lived over by 4K farms in Tontitown. It’s hard to believe that it was over 7 miles from the high school to our trailer on Piazza Road. It seemed like 50 back then. My finger bled for quite a while, especially when I played my French Horn.
Years ago, I wrote a letter to both Eric and the girl he was talking to, to apologize. For the life of me, I can’t remember the girl’s name. Eric didn’t deserve to be punched so hard. On the other hand, he shouldn’t have persisted in terrifying someone he perceived as weaker. That’s a prescription for disaster. I do remember apologizing and also pointing out that the feathered kind of hair he used to maintain was basically begging for a beating, anyway. I was trying to be funny. I didn’t hear back from him. Wherever he is now, I assume he is nothing but a full head of luxurious feathered hair. In his version of the story, he probably thinks of himself as the protector. Even though I tried to explain to him that Tammy had lied to him, all he saw was a weaker victim in me.
Even though it doesn’t reflect well on me, I fear that if I could go back and retrace my steps, I would have been much less patient with bullies, regardless of whether they were my age or adults. Whenever I see a story about a victim responding with uncharacteristic violence, I always initially sympathize with the victim, no matter what he or she did to the person who had bullied them. Had my older brother not been around, it’s possible that the already common bullying would have been much worse. Even though I suffered through my dad’s abuse, I recognize that if the bullying had been worse in my earlier high school days, it is quite possible that someone would have been seriously hurt. That recognition is what sometimes lets me know that I was infected with the violence of my ancestors.
The next time I saw Tammy, I told her, “So much for my Eric problem. Seriously, leave me alone.” I showed her the deep cut on my left hand. It had finally dawned on me that whatever infected her dad had been passed down to her too and continuing to be nice was only going to add another year of hell to my biography. Her dad never materialized to administer his promised butt-kicking. From that point, I only had to contend with evil looks and whispered chatter. She made herself scarce for the rest of my high school tenure. She would be furious to hear me say that I felt terrible for her. I knew what she was experiencing at home. I suspect it might have been much, much worse than what I was going through. Tammy’s adulthood has been one marked by serious trauma. When social media started to gain ground, she reached out. It didn’t take me long to realize that she was truly crazy. Redemption was impossible. Her entire life was consumed by anger.
After high school, I finally managed to break free of much of the insanity of my youth. I changed my name. I wrote letters to several people, thanking them for being great people to me. I wrote a few to those who treated me otherwise. Some were anonymous. Some were not. With three or four individuals, I found them and told them directly that they had left a stain on me, much like the violence I grew up with. I was young, and stupidly thought I knew what I was doing. Again, things haven’t improved much regarding my ignorance, but I at least recognize my ongoing stupidity most of the time.
A couple of those I reached out to were teachers. I had some outstanding teachers. Like everyone else, I try to focus on their example instead of the malignancy of the bad ones. One of the people I confronted, an employee of the junior high I attended, screamed, “That never happened!” and ran away from me. We were in the Kmart parking lot. He bolted away from me. I waited 30 minutes for him to return. He didn’t. He was in great shape and could have easily thrown me ten feet in the air had he wished to do so. He ran, though, from the truth. He’ll get a chapter one of these days, especially if I outlive him. Whether anyone else believes it is their problem, not mine. He had no business being around children, of that I’m sure. I used to watch the news or search for a mention of him online; it seemed inevitable that he’d make an appearance in the Crime Beat section of the paper.
One of those people who I wanted to talk to face-to-face was Tammy’s dad. Her dad didn’t know it, but I had family and friends in common with him, mostly as a result of his job. Life has taught me that we all have a network of tendrils connecting us. What we do and say finds the most unlikely nests to rest in. Secrets are rarely kept, even as we fool ourselves into believing that they’re buried.
I asked around and discovered that the man’s past was more widely known than he thought. In those days, though, it was quite easy to conceal that sort of thing. A cousin of mine, then retired from public service in Springdale, had a lot to say about him. “Scoundrel” was his word for that sort of person. “He beats his wife,” my cousin confirmed. My cousin told me several stories of some of the horrific things Tammy’s dad had done, including ruining more than one person’s career. One of them included beating a neighbor’s kid for running through his yard. He wasn’t charged, of course. The kid in question suffered a broken arm trying to get away. There was never a record of it officially.
I waited for the scoundrel to come to meet me in front of his work. I had left a message at the desk to let him know someone was outside. There were other people around but I didn’t really concern myself with that. I’m paraphrasing what I said, and I’m the first to admit that many of the words didn’t ring out as confidently as I recount them. People are strange creatures; angry people are literally capable of murder in church without blinking.
When he came out, he lumbered and wheezed with the effort. “Do I know you?” he asked. “Yes, you do, sir.” Weirdly, I reached out my hand and shook his. His hands dropped to his side. “You threatened to whip my ass when I was very young. I was once a friend of your daughter. By the way, I know that you liked hitting your wife and kids. You’re an asshole. I’d like to give you the opportunity to fulfill your opportunity to whip my ass, right here and now.” I took a step back and left my hands at my sides.
His eyes filled with literal tears, and he started breathing like he might not catch his breath. “I’m going to call the police. This is my place of work, and I’m not in the best shape to shut you up,” he said as he pointed his finger in my face. I stepped toward him, and he realized that I might actually strike him. “Do you want to call now or after I give you a dose of your own medicine? You’re not two feet taller than me now, are you?”
He shuffled back inside, looking behind several times until he was inside with the door closed.
Truth be told, I might have killed him had he tried to actually fight me. For some of those I confronted, I didn’t expect a visceral response. With Tammy’s dad, because I knew he was a violent abuser like my dad, I welcomed the chance to yank his shirt over his head and beat him like a third-rate hockey player.
I sat on the curb outside for ten minutes to give the police time to arrive. There was no doubt that what I had just said was a crime. No one came. No one ever came. Had the police come, I would have told them the truth, the one about a huge man who abused his family and tried to do the same with me when I was in junior high. It would have been an awkward police report and even stranger explanation in open court. His sort of person fears open exposure to what he’s done.
I see so many people make the mistake of kicking people when they’re down. It is a universal truth that it is unwise to threaten someone who has nothing to lose. I like to think that Tammy’s dad thought about me a few times before his life ended. It’s only fair. I’m not proud of this – but I can’t deny feeling that way. I wanted him to know that I could call him to account for what he did if I chose to.
He died a few years later. I saw his obituary in the newspaper. The obituary used a picture of him from about the same time frame as when he was threatening me. I have that picture in a folder on my computer. I don’t know why I keep it. Whether it speaks ill of me or not, I found myself wondering whether his eulogies were glowing, or if anyone had the nerve and impoliteness to tell the truth: he was a violent and angry man for much of his life. His death did not come soon enough to avoid staining the life of his family. A lot of people know, though, despite the glossy sheen provided by an obituary. Unlike in my case, Tammy probably still staunchly denies any abuse that happened to her. I’ve heard through the grapevine that her life didn’t get any easier. She stayed stuck, stagnant, and angry.
I went to visit the grave of Tammy’s dad. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but think about the number of people who’ve lived with monsters like him and kept their secrets. I’ve argued with people before: if you punch your children or spouse, you’re a monster, even when the scales slide off and old age catches up to you. No one stood up at my dad’s funeral to shout the truth. He died a saint, despite the invisible blood soaked through his knuckles.
I saw Tammy’s mom from time to time at her job. Tammy doesn’t know it, but I talked to her mom a year after her dad died. I didn’t know how to ask her politely, so I simply asked, “Do you remember me?” She said that I looked familiar but that she couldn’t place me. I told her I knew her daughter when I was younger and in the briefest way possible, explained that my childhood was abusive, too, and that I was sorry that she had to live her life with someone who couldn’t control himself. I thought she might respond with anger, but she didn’t. Her face flushed red, and she resumed her job. “Take care,” she told me as I walked away. She was smiling at me when I left her.
I don’t know what the smile meant.
I only know what I like to think it meant.
And I sometimes rest, uneasy, hoping my mistakes weren’t sufficient to summon the smaller gods of justice to repay me.
I’m not proud of confronting Tammy’s dad all those years later. I’m glad, though. My sin of vengeance was certainly lesser than his of being the abuser, especially of children.
I distrust easy stories, happy endings, and simple answers. We’re all complicated and each of our demons swirls inside of us.