W E

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On Saturday, Dawn and I watched 1995’s “Outbreak,” followed by 2011’s “Contagion.” Whether it sounds ridiculous or not, watching the movies made everything better in a way that probably sounds ludicrous to a normal-minded person.

Even the opening graphic for “Outbreak” seemed fitting: “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.” (Joshua Lederberg, Nobel laureate.) For a movie made 25 years ago, it still has much to say.

I’m amazed by how quickly the dynamic of the entire world has changed. Each of us is attempting to find a stable landing place, one from which we can find a sliver of tranquility. I know many people who are barely cobbling together the ability to move one foot in front of the other. I know many who are guilty of conspiracy theories, hoarding drugs and essentials that take it from the hands and veins of those who actually need it. I see it every day.

For my part, I’m forced to go out in the word daily because of my job. I’ve never feared exposure. Everyone around me has heard me say that I assume I’m exposed every single day I walk around. I don’t wish to needlessly expose others to the virus. But I have to say, my personal efforts are dwarfed by the decisions of large agencies and businesses around me, ones who’ve made questionable choices. I’m at the mercy of every person I intersect with. It’s always been that way. The only thing that’s changed is that the reality of it is now one that can’t be ignored.

We are all our weakest link.

Dawn and I didn’t hoard anything from day one. Looking toward the horizon, it’s pointless. We are not islands. If you hoard, you are hurting the people that don’t have what you have amassed, whether it is a can of tuna or a vial of Hydroxychloroquine. If our situation deteriorates, only those who embrace a total dedication to taking only what they need will survive. If the situation morphs into a worst-case scenario, no one will be able to thwart the madness that will take what you have.

If you are looking for a silver lining, I can only hope that this results in all of us appreciating science and education more, as this is a warning shot that shouldn’t be ignored. To embrace the idea that we are dependent on one another, a dependence that surpasses our local hospital, state line, or national border. To understand that the person cleaning the floor is as integral to our survival as the three piece suit who seldom gets his hands dirty but makes triage decisions about our supply systems during emergencies.

There may be no silver lining to this. It might just be a harsh lesson. We already had the tools needed to lessen this crisis. We took too much time and effort fighting for our fiefdoms instead of looking toward the world map and seeing ‘W E’ spread across all of it.

Of all the hopes, I hope it leads us to stop bickering over oil, sand, and land, or that we find ourselves able to willingly give everyone health care without regard to payment. If we forego war and aggression, we can pay for it. Our economy will not look the same once this fades. Everything we’ve learned will be meaningless. Hard hearts must soften.

I’m already looking beyond the peak of this emergency.

It’ll be us, still. I hope it is a different us. I think most people were dissatisfied with what we were, for wildly and contradicting reasons. Some of the facade of our differences has vanished. Each of us looks toward the microscopic threat of a virus and wonders what will become of us.

Whatever ‘that’ is, it is our choice.

It’s always been our choice.
Love, X

It All Started at Taco Tico

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“It all started at Taco Tico,” is perhaps the best opening line for a personal story that’s ever been written.

When I was younger, I was a band geek. It probably saved my life – and not just in the sense it gave me relief from an otherwise certain depression and the ability to get away from my house.
On one occasion, it helped me avoid a beating.

Because my parents were negligent to a degree almost unequalled, I walked more than the average student. Until near the end of 9th grade, you would have undoubtedly failed to believe this, as I was fat, and not in the humorous Weird Al way.

After some event after school, my mom and aunt failed to materialize to pick me up. They were probably worshipping on Budweiser’s altar. I had two choices: invent Uber or start walking. On the way across the practice field, I found someone’s trumpet mouthpiece and put it in my pocket. For those souls denied exposure to band, such a mouthpiece is made of solid metal and a few inches long. I put it in my pocket so I could try to return it to the owner the next day. Unlike me, trumpeters had to pay for their own mouthpieces and instruments.

I walked up to highway 68 (now 412) and westward. By some miracle, I had two dollars in my pocket. I  went to Taco Tico, a restaurant that once was legendary among some of us in the community. The building is across from Susan’s restaurant. Everyone in Northwest Arkansas has stories about events and food at Taco Tico. I could get 4 rice tacos for a dollar. I sat and ate the tacos. This sort of thing was a luxury for me. I left to walk the rest of the way to my cousin’s house on Ann Street.

As I crossed in front of Taco Tico, something whizzed past my head and hit the pavement with a thud. I turned to see some sports car (they were all the same to me) go past, with an arm and upraised middle finger for my inspection. By the time I was crossing Carley Road across from K-Mart and in the area where Walgreens now stands, I heard someone revving an engine loudly. The corner was a gas station for years, a cracker crust pizza place, and a gaming business that seemed to be in trouble constantly.

The same reddish-colored sports car that had greeted me earlier was in the parking lot. Two idiots sat in the front with the windows down, both shouting clever insults at me. Both of them were upperclassmen. I didn’t know their names, but both were football players for Springdale.

It was obvious they weren’t on their way to a Mensa meeting. They looked like a happy couple.
I walked as close to the edge of the lot as I could. The driver gunned his engine and rolled ahead of me to block me. As I started to walk around, the driver jumped out and called me a f*g. If I were in that place and time again, I would undoubtedly tell him it was more likely he and his passenger were, given they drove around randomly at all hours, and that they looked like a happy couple. When I didn’t answer him, he took a couple of steps and punched me in the stomach and then shoved me as hard as he could. I fell backward and to the ground. I had learned through my Dad’s violence that sometimes faking a more severe reaction might save me a punch or twenty. The driver spit in my direction and headed back to his car. Not that it was important at the time, but I wondered why so many males thought that spitting added any machismo to their personality.
I started to grab a rock but instead remembered the mouthpiece in my pocket. I took it out and threw it as hard as I could manage. My terrible aim somehow disappeared in that split second as the mouthpiece left my hand and arced with incredible speed toward the car. It thunked against the small rear passenger window. The glass immediately splintered. Admittedly, I threw the mouthpiece with the intent of hitting the bully driver directly in the face.

The driver froze, and his mouth fell open. “What the…,” he started to say. Without thinking and without hesitation, I ran directly toward him. It surprised him, and as he reached out to grab me, I ducked sideways and darted around the front of the car and kept running. The driver ran after me instead of jumping into the car. I could hear the passenger yelling. Within a few seconds, I was outpacing the football player by a huge distance. I turned, running backward, and told him he should run his legs more and his mouth less.  I knew the area well and ran directly to the barbed wire fence and hurled myself over it.. I turned to see that the driver had abandoned his pursuit. He had to run back to the car before he could pursue me. I ran through the field, angling away from Carley road. It took me quite a while to run back to my aunt’s house, as I couldn’t be sure that the two idiots weren’t going to follow the roads and find me.

Despite me fearing for my life the next day at school, I had no options. Bullies were a big part of school life for students. It was pointless to tell anyone. Football players were mostly untouchable. I’d made the mistake a couple of times in junior high and then during high school of trying to “tell on” football players for some fairly dangerous behavior. It didn’t go well for me. It is part of the reason I don’t hold any of the coaches in high esteem, even those with huge scoreboards or statues with their names emblazoned on them. I don’t care that everyone seems to have other, higher opinions about the people we shared in common.
At the end of the year, the driver of the car pretended to lunge at me in the hallway. Although I flinched, I immediately and regrettably said, “I’m not your type,” as I dodged away. He wasn’t amused. The other droolers with him looked at him in almost shock. I walked away,  certain I was going to be tackled in the hallway.

Accused By Legacy

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Legal Disclaimer: The case I’m referring to could be anywhere, involving a variety of professions, geography, and people. I don’t want to be accused of libel, even though the truth is the only defense one needs against the claim of libel. I could be talking about one hundred different places and one thousand different faces.

This is another story I’ve archived many times. At its heart, it is an accusation against most smaller towns and many people with doubts about victims who come forward against their own best interest.

I’m amazed at how uncritical people are about allegations of wrongdoing, especially if the person in question has a smiling face or resources. Predators most often hide in plain sight and are adept at concealment. Rarely does one see an obvious smoking gun. No one enjoys being unfairly accused. No one enjoys being doubted when telling the truth, either, especially when the deck is stacked against the accuser – which it invariably is.

Someone I know was once reluctantly enlisted to be a litigant in a case involving a person in ______, who was accused of touching females inappropriately. While researching the archives about the accusations, I encountered several quotes such as, “At least he wasn’t raping them.” Some of those quotes were from women in the community. When people doubt accusers like this, it is likely that women around them are grimacing in recognition that their own family members and friends are mocking them. My acquaintance moved on from the case without scars. She knows she was lucky.

This same attitude was on display here in Northwest Arkansas after a local priest admitted to abusing boys and then killed himself. Even then, after being exposed as a predator, many people couldn’t bring themselves to call him what he was. He lived a secret life; publicly devout and privately monstrous to those he victimized. There are others out there. Saying it doesn’t do anyone good to talk about it is a sure sign that the discomfort strikes a bell of truth for those saying it. I get angry when I see people being guilty of the backlash against discussion. It’s a sign of malignancy. That malignancy and secrecy is a big part of the problem.

My acquaintance wanted nothing other than an admission of wrongdoing from the person who had been fondling women. She didn’t enter the list of witnesses or litigants easily. Despite wanting nothing from the case, she had to endure listening to people who were initially unaware of her involvement in the case, as they openly mocked and questioned the motives of the female accusers. Cases of abuse invariably peel back the mask of misogyny that runs permanently beneath the surface.

To be clear, the accused man was alleged to have inappropriately touched several women. It was a pattern of behavior and concealment. His excuse to explain away many of the allegations was ridiculous.

I default toward credibility on the part of the accusers. It’s easier to dismiss or doubt singular cases. My life as a child proved that barbarians could victimize openly in society and survive, often even when their brutality left consequences in plain sight. Several of the people I went to school with have individually come forward with their own stories of abuse; some at the hands of family, other at the hands of coaches, teachers, and clergy. Note: those abusers lived and worked around us all. Many victims carry their stories close to their hearts, working each day to avoid painting the entire world with an accusatory brush. The prevalence of stories substantiates that abuse was, in fact, common here, poisoning people in secret. Almost none of the abusers were held accountable, even when those abused attempted to come forward. Most people prefer that scandals remain secret, a tendency still flourishing today in society.

One day, assuming I outlive some of them, I’ll name a couple. It is my burden to outlive them. I think the proper word for it will be a ‘reckoning.’

Years later, because the case of the fondler fascinated me, I investigated it as thoroughly as I dared. The accused was never forced to account for his actions. He remained in his position. The message to everyone was simple and effective: come forward at your own peril. The accused had resources to ensure that those on the periphery of the case would be silent, cooperative, or punished. Many of the female litigants felt punished for their testimony and victimized to varying degrees by the system. Their trust in the legal system diminished. I’m confident that all of them infrequently think back and hope that the accused stopped abusing other women. That’s all they could do, though. Hope. I know that some of them took their fear from being treated badly by the justice system and passed it along to their daughters, nieces, and friends – and rightly so. It is their right to teach their family that women can be abused with impunity. This distrust has to have eroded their confidence in the legal system that failed them. The effects of their failed attempt for justice must still bear consequences today. I don’t see how it’s not the case.

The case is fascinating in several regards. Going back through the specifics is a template for how to retaliate if you’re guilty of the accusation but wish to flail and obfuscate to avoid accountability. Knowing that this individual twisted the system to avoid punishment underscored the fact that the public institutions which could have also demanded accountability also failed. The fondler had access to the best lawyers, researchers, and his tendrils reached into some surprising places where power precludes disclosure.

Because I’m very familiar with the allegations against the fondler, I can’t escape the fact that everyone else tasked with ensuring public safety sidestepped at least a portion of their responsibilities, too. Some of those people are still in their positions. The legal system is a useful tool to silence those with legitimate claims. The legal system so seldom provides closure and justice to victims; there are times I’m surprised anyone comes forward. In their defense, it is often an impossible job with no reward waiting for them.

In the case in question, a civil case was undertaken. There are a number of details of this case which lead anyone to place credence in the accusation(s) of impropriety.

I never fail to imagine the duplicity of this man who ruined a part of several women’s lives. He’s rich and has all the amenities such richness brings. He will never have to hang his head in shame or to feel powerless. The contempt I feel for him is measurable.

He walked away because many in the community where my acquaintance lives thought, “That can’t happen here,” as if geography somehow conferred a magical blanket of protection. Many of the jurors said the same thing. It’s troubling that they weren’t told many of the simple facts which would have immediately changed their verdict into a shout of “Guilty.” Many trials are that way. Good lawyers can easily control what the jury sees and hears, or color it with so much doubt that jurors forget their own names. In this case, there were several surprises which the jurors didn’t get to hear. Hearing some of them so many years later, I couldn’t help but feel shock at how badly the pursuit of truth could be perverted solely because of the overwhelming power of money. When I was almost a juror for an accused murdered a few years ago, I witnessed this firsthand.

At my age, knowing how many people were abused, it’s hard for me to reconcile the fact that people are so stupid – or so cloistered from monsters that they can’t imagine others are powerless to stop them when they abuse.

The women involved dispersed back into their own lives, each of them no doubt contaminating countless other women with the conviction that coming forward is a fool’s errand.

All these years later, it’s still a shame. It’s shame that can be distributed to many in the community. “That doesn’t happen here.” Even as it does, every day – and with most victims staying silent.

For years, I’ve waited, hoping that someone with resources would come forward and paint the man in question to be what his victims know him to be. It hasn’t happened yet. If it does, though, I’ll be at the doorstep of the lawyers, friends, and jurors of those who denied justice to a group of women.

The case would make a great book.

I reached out to the attorney(s) involved and none wanted to discuss it, given the repercussions from the initial trial. Everyone who helped the women in question paid more than their fair share in pain. Revisiting it is a wound for everyone involved.

Silence from all quarters, except in the minds of the women who know.

It’s a small town legacy that many recognize and few acknowledge.

I’m going to discard my notes and the archive of the case and release it back into history, where it will fester. Rinse and repeat.

 

 

 

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On The Tip Of Your Tongue, You Said?

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Although modern vehicles still retain the round 12-v holes in which to plug in adapters for power, people of a certain age all recall the magic of the spring-loaded cigarette lighters of yesteryear. Back in the day, everyone smoked, even people using oxygen, priests, the doctor who delivered you (while delivering you, no less), and the irritated waitress bringing you overcooked hash browns at the Waffle Hut. (There were no food returns, only “Get the hell out!” requests if you complained about your food, or ashes in your grits.)

Adults, however, could not be without a cigarette lighter for over ten minutes. Before we removed the clause from the Declaration of Independence, all adults were required to smoke at least a pack of cigarettes a day. My mom, for example, showed her patriotism by sometimes smoking a literal carton a day. It seems impossible. She often rose from the bed with a lit cigarette, bathed with a cigarette, and smoked all day as she sat in the operator’s chair for Southwestern Bell. There were times when our house on wheels looked like the polluted skies over an industrial factory. If we were in the car, the windshield seemed opaque from all the smoke. Having the windows down was a bit of a relief, but we all remember the clotted gasp of discovering that a butt thrown out the window had reentered to find itself in our mouths and throats. My mom didn’t believe that throwing a lit cigarette out of the car was a problem. If Smokey The Bear had been standing beside the road, she would have flicked it directly into the pocket of his shirt in an attempt to catch him on fire.

Adults who smoked treated the car cigarette lighter as if it were a religious relic, one to be admired, worshipped, and never touched by the undeserving hands of a child. (Unless we were told to light the cigarette for the adult, who undoubtedly was struggling already to pop the beer can open, the one cradled in the cheap koozie used to hold it.)

Unrelated to the story: the word ‘koozie’ is one of the ugliest words in the English language.

I don’t know how old I was for certain. My cousin Jimmy and I were in one of my dad’s and his cousin Tom’s jalopies for sale. Jimmy was spoiled, but sometimes lit up with mischief and humor. We sat in the front seat of some aged old car, honking the horn and ducking below the dash to avoid being seen. I’d get a beating if caught. Jimmy would have received a smile. Jimmy kept pressing the cigarette lighter in, waiting for it to startle him as it popped out, its insides glowing red. He acted like he was going to touch it with the tip of one of his fingers. “Don’t!” I yelled, despite my extensive Shakespearean training in the vocal arts. Jimmy laughed.

“Oh, it won’t hurt so bad.” He seemed sure. I was 100% certain he was wrong, having been stupid enough to do it myself. More than once and probably fifty times up to that point. I noted that my burned fingertips didn’t smell like pepperoni, either.

“I’ll give you 5 bucks if you touch it to the tip of your tongue,” he told me, smiling. 5 bucks was the equivalent of a fortune for me.

I considered it. I pulled the lighter from the sheath and watched it as it glowed red and hot. When I got it closer to my mouth, I could of course feel the heat radiating off it it.

“Get it hot again,” Jimmy insisted, so I popped it back in the ashtray that contained the plug in.

In a few moments, it popped back out. Jimmy grabbed it and handed it to me.

I unwisely brought it up to my face and stuck out the tip of my tongue. The heat was too much. At that precise moment, Jimmy slapped my left hand unexpectedly and the hot coil hit the tip of my tongue. Luckily, it came away immediately as I reacted and pulled it away. A bit of my skin came away with it. I could smell it burn and hear a slight hiss and sizzle as it cooked my disconnected skin.

I didn’t scream, but I did whimper as I coiled my tongue into my cheek. I could feel it burning. I think it was saying “Idiot” to me in the only way it knew how. Jimmy was doubled over and laughing. His eyes were teary as he peeked to look at the horrified expression on my face.

Because I was poor and my mom refused to let us use the excellent insurance she had through her work, my concern was the possibility of needing medical care. Dad would have opted to slice off the tip of my tongue with one of his hunting knives, or push me into an open septic tank.

Sidenote: the house I lived in, one off of Powell and near Hatfield Street, and opposite the old City View trailer park, had a secret. There was a round garage on the property that Dad used for his mechanic business. The property had a well and a septic tank instead of city water and sewer. We had been bathing in – and drinking – water contaminated with sewer waste from a faulty septic tank for over a year. We kept complaining that everything tasted like sh*t. We weren’t wrong.

This is a true story.

Without going into the details, it’s why to this day I have to concentrate to take the first bite of ramen noodles.

Jimmy finally stopped laughing. My eyes cleared up enough for me to tell Jimmy I was going to sneak up on him while he was sleeping in his waterbed and put a snake under the covers with him. The idea of snakes on him while sleeping terrified him. He begged and pleaded for forgiveness.

My tongue hurt for several days. I had to play the French Horn. Each time my tongue punctuated a note against my lips or the mouthpiece, I’d cringe a little. I felt like a little poodle on the verge of wetting myself.

I never put a snake in the bed with Jimmy. But I thought about it. A million times.

You’re Not Going To Enjoy This Story

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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.

 

Stolen Cars, Stolen Memories

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I stood in the parking lot, listening to my dad argue angrily with the stranger who drove the vehicle hauler to meet him. The stranger wore a ridiculously tall cowboy hat, black pants and shirt, and to complete his ensemble wore some type of brilliantly white tennis shoes. There were at least six vehicles stacked on the hauler. A couple were Chevy Cheyenne pickups, a particular specialty for my Dad. The others were cars, including one exotic black Oldsmobile Toronado. The exchanged words grew more intense as I attempted to back away surreptitiously from the two angry men. Though the ending is spoiled by me telling you that no one was killed that day, the anger I remember was as real as any I’d had the misfortune of experiencing. My dad had a gun tucked in the back waistband of his pants. That he was a convicted felon never slowed his tendency to carry a gun everywhere. It might be in the glove box, tucked under tools, or slipped under the seat. It might even be a sawed-off shotgun. Though we went without many things growing up, dad never shorted himself the right to have a few dozen firearms.

“I don’t give a good g-damn what you were told, Bobby Dean.” The stranger moved his legs apart. He was expecting a fight. Dad wasn’t going to throw a punch. Someone was going to get ventilated by gunshot. People knew all the rumors about my Dad’s legendary and violent alcoholic disposition. That was only half the truth. He was much more dangerous when he wasn’t drinking. While less likely to be violent when not drinking, if his temper was lit, he seldom controlled it.

I don’t remember whether we were in Siloam Springs or somewhere else along the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. We drove most of the way via Highway 68, the precursor to 412. Most of my recollection revolves around riding too long in the bed of dad’s pickup truck. Why I was chosen to go with him wasn’t clear. Duke, Dad’s dog, accompanied me on the windy ride.

At least a couple of the vehicles were stolen. Dad worked for ______________, a family member with a car lot and a dealer’s license. Between Dad and my family member, they knew how to disguise a stolen vehicle as legitimate. I should know. They stole a Ford Galaxie from me in the mid-80s. As for the family member, I didn’t realize until years later that he was related to me by marriage. Dad committed arson for him at least twice that I know of. More than once I heard Dad brag that anyone could burn a house down using the water heater or the stove unless they were total morons. That last bit isn’t relevant but somehow seems important.

“I’ll give you $500 less than agreed. Anything more and you can go _____ yourself.” Dad seemed adamant on the amount.

“You’re going to have to drive the hauler to Springdale then. I’ll pick it up in a couple of days,” the stranger answered. Dad shook the man’s hand. All the anger seemed to have disappeared once the money issue had been settled. Dad handed the stranger his truck keys. It must have been honor among thieves which prevented Dad from worrying about his own truck being stolen.

Since I wasn’t going to witness a murder, I emerged from the other side of the hauler. Dad handed me a stack of papers, titles, and mechanic records. “Put’em under the driver’s side seat,” he shouted at me. He went to look inside each of the vehicles on the hauler. In a few minutes, Dad climbed into the vehicle hauler cab. “You’re not riding in the cab. Go ride in one of the cars on the trailer. And don’t let anyone see you.” I don’t know if he thought he was conferring a privilege or what. Since he wasn’t screaming, I didn’t question him. I wasn’t surprised that Dad’s dog was going to ride in the cab of the hauler on the way back while I was banished to the vehicle of my choice. There was no way I was going to try to climb onto the top level and ride the curvy highway back to Springdale with Dad driving. I have to admit, though, it was both a little scary and interesting sitting in the Toronado. The car looked sinister to me even then. I spent a few minutes searching through the glove box and under the seats of the car I rode inside as Dad drove the hauler. I pressed the cigarette lighter in at least two hundred times on the trip, watching the coil glow red. This was a cardinal sin around my parents, who treated smoking as the religion they failed to possess. They were unconcerned if I burned my face off with the electric lighters. Their only issue was to find themselves without a constant means to light a cigarette.

Dad pocketed the $500 he shorted the stranger who drove the vehicle hauler to the border of Arkansas. He told me to keep my mouth shut or get a broken nose when we stopped by the road in Tontitown. I wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t threatened me.

All the cars were sold as if they hadn’t been stolen. To make it easier, another cousin had a permit to do vehicle inspections, notary work, and many of other details needed to steal a car. He lived over near 40th Street. Dad was a mechanic by trade and could do welding, electrical, plumbing, and a thousand other things. Because I was uninterested in anything related to Dad, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the conversations about stolen vehicles or stolen parts. There were a couple of  junkyards that had the dubious specialty of looking the other way on just about everything. Everyone involved had convinced themselves that they weren’t doing the stealing, so it was okay. I did ask once, “But if people like you didn’t buy them, who would they sell them to?” That’s the sort of question to earn a punch in the middle of the chest if I was lucky – and in the face if I wasn’t. It seemed likely that I shared a lot of history with the children of Mafia bosses.

Several years later, Dad made a few runs to pick up vehicles in other states. I can’t say with certainty that they were stolen, but those involved with the cars were being careful. One of those cars was a 1978 Dodge Cordoba, painted metallic green. I’ll never forget it because I had to sand every inch by hand. The Karate Kid had nothing on me for those countless hours of fun. Dad ‘gave’ the car to Mom and sold the one she had without asking her for her opinion. She gave it to him anyway, at high volume and under the influence.

P.S. I’ve never acquired a taste for cars. I admire an interesting one, though, especially some older ones I was able to see when I was young. The 1966 Toronado holds a place in my heart – and for all the wrong reasons.

( ~ )

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I can hear the whispered and fragmented melody in my mind, its composite notes melting away the stress and confines of the world that lays siege to me. Yet I can find no translation out in the world; the buffering of angry, terse words, frustrated glances, and dismissive behavior wash across me like a litter-filled wave of salty water. I live here, inside and cloistered. The notes seldom fail me, cascading in a series of fulfilled promises that anchor me in a past that never was.

From Horse Soup To Subway

Work today was like horse anus soup, a large, steaming bowl of it. I went to get the oil changed in Dawn’s car and then went to a Subway. (The food kind, not the subterranean kind.) There were several people in line waiting when I arrived. One of them was a spindly Latino man somewhere around 30 or 60 years of age. Although he had a case of akimbo teeth, his smile was wide. He awkwardly gestured for me to go ahead. “No, it’s okay,” I told him. “No English,” he told me, insisting that I move ahead. When I replied in Spanish, “None of these ______ speaks Spanish? Well, we can do better,” he looked like he found a spider in his underwear. I told him we’d make a go of it and learn in the process if he could tolerate my accent and sense of humor. I helped him with his order as I continued with mine. I hit him with a lot of jokes, such as the one when I told him the chicken plank was made from reprocessed cardboard. In my defense, it looks and tastes like it does. He didn’t know what to say when I asked him, “You want the WHOLE chicken on there? That’s crazy!” He laughed and pointed at the bland, lifeless plank of chicken breast. He now knows that the rotisserie chicken is a smarter choice, regardless, if you’re interested in eating shredded animal flesh under a pile of vegetables.

Because we were having a bit of fun with it, people in line and working there were all interested and listening. It sounds impossible, but we had a good time for those few minutes we interacted. Most of the time, standing in line at Subway at lunch is similar to the process of lining up for a firing squad staffed by cross-eyed gunners. We chose the other fork of the road, the one lined with shoeless singers and banjos, the road Robert Frost would have never taken unless he had a hit of LSD with him.

When he got his receipt, I pulled out the marker I invariably have with me and wrote, “+tomato+mayo” on it and told him to keep the receipt for his next order. He was beaming. I think I just gave Subway a lifetime customer and another human being a little bit of optimism about the rest of us.