Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I, Champion

This is a story about a professional wrestling match. I wrote it a few years ago. It stars me and my old friend Bob Bingaman who died this week due to complications from surgery. Even though I haven't talked to him in a few years, I'll miss him. I hope that makes sense.  Though I won this one, Bob won 90 percent of the time, and as we all know, back then wrestling was real.

How I Tell the Story




My friends sometimes wonder why a thirty-four year old man, working on a PhD in English, still watches professional wrestling at least three times a week (more if I can afford any of the monthly pay per views). My stock response is usually, I just like it. But that never seems to satisfy anyone. So instead, I say it’s one of the few things my father and I bonded over, and there is some truth in that. My dad never read much, and once, in a fairly rare misstep called Shakespeare a fag after I had decided to read Hamlet even though it hadn’t been assigned in a class. I think he knew that one hurt, because he was never anything but encouraging afterward.

My dad was a lead miner, a job he loved, and a part time mechanic. That in itself, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be interested in many of the things I was interested in—books, super heroes, comics, Weird Al songs—he just wasn’t. But he was interested in wrestling, which had all of the elements of the stuff I liked.

Saturday Nights were a pretty big deal for the entire family. Me, my dad, my brother, my dad’s best friend Keith, my mother, sister, her husband (Keith’s son, Brian) and my cousin Chuck would gather around the television at 10pm to watch wrestling (my grandmother would be properly in bed, resting up for church). It wasn’t just the wrestling we loved. It was the cheering, the booing, bull shitting about stuff that had nothing to do with wrestling. It was a gathering.

When I was a kid, we seldom got soda. Most of the lead mines had closed, my dad was laid off, and he was finding it impossible to get a job without a high school diploma. He considered soda, rightfully so, wasteful. However, we all managed get one, and sometimes a candy bar as well, on wrestling night. This was before Vince McMahon broke kayfabe (the refusal to admit that wrestling is scripted) and started referring to professional wrestling as sports entertainment. We all still thought it was real, and even if the adults had their doubts, they never voiced them; they liked the illusion.

We took this ritual so seriously that once, during a particularly nasty ice storm, my brother-in-law left for the store to get the sodas, and his truck slid off into the rather large ditch that ran beside our driveway. He spent forty five minutes getting it out with a come along wench, backed the rest of the way out the driveway, and came back with sodas and candy bars for everyone about a half an hour later. To this day, I drink way more soda than is healthy—and our Saturday nights probably had a lot more to do with that than my continued love for professional wrestling.

Don’t get me wrong, I always smile when I look back on those times with my father. But, it’s not necessarily the reason I still watch wrestling. Dad and I bonded over plenty of other stuff—a love for early rock music like Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, Outlaw country like Hank Williams, and in our later years, camping. It didn’t matter to me that my dad never picked up a book, I still learned plenty from him, and it never seemed to bother him that I had no interest in helping him put together a Volkswagen engine. He was just as happy to sit at the kitchen table over coffee (I was drinking the stuff in kindergarten) and entertain me with tales of him an my mom, early in their marriage, driving up to St. Louis to see Crusher Blackwell, Dick the Bruiser, and Harley Race among others. He’d recount the matches for me blow by blow in such detail that I could see them.

A live wrestling match was something we always promised we do with each other. We never did.

Back in the seventies and eighties, of course, wrestling wasn’t the one (two if you count TNA) juggernaut entity that WWE is now. Instead, wrestling organizations were broken up into territories. On Saturday nights we watched AWA (American Wrestling Association) and one of the NWA branches, I can’t remember which. AWA promoted matches out of Minneapolis and surrounding areas. NWA was a governing body that overlooked most of the territories, especially in the south. Each territory had their own champion, like the Texas Champion or the Georgia State Champion, but they shared a World Champion. The owners of each branch sat on a board that determined the world champ, but otherwise they were basically autonomous.

For most of my childhood and on through my teens, Ric Flair was the NWA champion. He would drop the belt here and there, but he always managed to get it back, usually in some underhanded but spectacular way. He was also my favorite wrestler. Most of my friends hated him because he was heel (bad guy), but he stayed champion because he was the best wrestler of his time, and possibly of all time. Although my mother called him “old horse head” even she recognized that he was the most entertaining wrestling on the mic, as well as the most technically gifted (it’s not easy to make those matches look good) and she was never as happy on those Saturday nights as she was when she had Flair to root against.

As good as he is, Flair is known for several stock moves. First, he blades (cuts himself with a razor blade as to appear that he has been cut open during the course of the match), a lot—the proverbial crimson mask. His bleached blond hair soaked with blood has become an iconic image in wrestling. He’s also known for the Flair Flop, a move where he get hit several times, appears to be fine, and then suddenly falls face first flat onto the mat. Also, if you ever see Flair climb up to the top rope, you can bet your last dollar that he’s going to be body slammed off of it by his opponent. His most important contribution to wrestling, however, is the open-handed chop across the chest. Even now, when Flair is finally on the verge of retiring, any wrestler who chops another in this fashion will be met with a chorus of Ric Flair’s famous “Whoooo!” from the crowd.

Though some of his moves are predictable, Flair is widely regarded as the best all around wrestler of all time. He could, and still can on occasion, tell a story in the ring that has fans on the edges of their seats. He’s nearly sixty years old now and still wrestling, even though is back has been broken, he suffered countless injuries, and his body is pretty much falling apart. And fans still love him because he still delivers the goods—he might not be what he once was in the ring, but he still tells the story, and he still cuts some of the best promos in the business.

Wrestling wasn’t all fun and games around our house, however. My grandma really couldn’t stand it. It wasn’t just because I put Chuck (who I outweighed by about 20 pounds, even in second grade) in the camel clutch and pulled a muscle in his neck. It was because come Sunday morning, wrestling was on again. As far as my grandmother was concerned, Sunday morning was for church, the Free birds and Von Erichs be damned.

As you can probably guess, this didn’t fly with me. First WCCW (World Class Championship Wrestling) came live from Texas at 10am. I’ve already mentioned the Von Erichs, no one in my childhood, save for Hulk Hogan, elicited such hatred from me as Kerry, Kevin, David and Mike. They were the bane of my existence. First of all, as my wife so kindly put it years later, “they were built like brick shit houses.” Even then their six pack abs and blonde, all American looks reminded me that I was overweight, unpopular and nothing close to an athlete. I preferred my wrestlers, like Arn Anderson, with round hairy beer bellies. Those wrestlers, although usually the heels, reminded me of my father, my brother and their friends. Big, strong, ordinary looking men. If they can do it, I thought, I can do it.

I wanted to see those goddamn Von Erichs get theirs and you never knew when Flair would show up in Texas to give it to them. Every week it was a battle between me and my grandmother. My brother and Dad were still in bed around church time so I didn’t get much help in the fight and I usually lost. I would cry. I would stomp around the house, much like the great Kamala, as I got dressed in my best clothes and I would feign sick, but I almost always ended up in the front pew. But my desire to stay home and watch wrestling was so strong that once, during an “I don’t want to go fit”, my grandmother slammed my finger in the car door as I was making one last attempt to crawl out. It hurt like hell, immediately turned purple and began to swell. I could move it, so it wasn’t broken, but it hurt for days and I ended up losing a fingernail. I got to stay home and watch wrestling that week, and I still consider it worth it. I believe that was the day The Missing Link showed up and head butted the hell out of Kerry.

And that’s my second answer. I love wrestling because it saved me from church. During our last battle, I laid down on my bedroom floor and refused to move. My grandma took a kick at me, missed, and stubbed her toe on the bed post. She ended up getting a blood clot and was laid up for a few weeks on doctors orders. I wasn’t forced to go back to church after that. I wasn’t a kid normally given to tantrums, my parents didn’t put up with them, that I would nearly kill my grandmother over wrestling must have proven its importance.

But, that one isn’t completely true either. It would only be a year or so after the car door incident that I would have a complete turn around. I’d become obsessed with church, obsessed with going to hell, I’d pray constantly just in case I died with a sin on my heart. I gladly skipped wrestling for church. But maybe my early rebellion, my choice of pro wrestling over church, helped me break what, looking back on it, was a religious neurosis.

As I get older and make new friends none of these explanations seem to work. Now, it’s been a long while since someone actually made fun of me for watching professional wrestling, or involuntarily laughed when I said something like, “I can’t go to the bar tonight, RAW is on.” People get more polite when they get older, or at least more tactful. These days I’m usually met with quizzical looks, or an “I used to watch wrestling,” but more often than not, and this is the worst, they are honestly interested. They really want to know why I like it, and I can’t ever seem to give them an answer that satisfies me. I can go on and on about wrestling as an art. “Sure,” I say, “I know it’s fake, but do you know what all goes into it? It’s like Greek Drama in some ways, or at least the heroic myths—you have archetypal, bigger than life heroes and villains. You have death and rebirth, good vs. evil, love and hate, all of the major themes. Plus, the matches themselves are like a dangerous ballet. The outcome is predicted, but the moves are often called on the spot, and when it’s done right it’s seamless. It looks real. That’s art, right?”

That doesn’t quite do it either.

You know, me and my dad never did make it to a wrestling match together. But I do have this story I sometimes tell at bars or parties when other folks are reliving the no hitter they pitched or the two game winning free throws they made. It always starts out the same way. I hold up both of my hands and ask if they can see that one of my pinkies is crooked. They never can. Even my wife says I’m imagining it, but I can it. I point it out and say, let me tell you how I that happened.

And one night, after a few beers at a party, many years before my father died, I came home and my dad was waiting up for me like he usually did—pretending to watch television. His back hurt by this time. When he was in his late fifties, he finally got another mining job. One day he was shoveling something, I still regret not asking what, and he ruptured two disks.

“You ever notice that one of my pinkies is crooked?” I asked.

“Sure,” Dad said, although the only light was from the tv and he didn’t even glance over to the couch where I was already sprawled out.

*************************

It was August twelve, nineteen eighty and nine. It was the height of popularity for the LWWWF ( Leadwood World Wrestling Federation). Since Leadwood only had a population of about 1000, there were only three top tiered main-eventers in the fed. There was the behemoth and perpetual champion, Bob Bingaman, his brother Jay and myself. Jay was my best friend and tag team partner. We had held the tag team straps for nearly two years. Bobby brought in a new “special” tag team partner every week, but he never had any luck with them. Ron Bridgeman submitted during an “anything goes” match when I stuck his fingers into a metal fan. Then there was Tommy White, all the way from Irondale, Missouri, who had given into the might of Jay’s stomach claw before Jay had even applied it. We had talked it up so much that all Jay had to do was spread his fingers and Tommy submitted. Even Henry Mills, six years our senior at 22, had been pinned after a leg drop at two hours and thirty one minutes into that epic battle.

Despite never getting his hands on the tag belts, Bob had won the heavyweight belt on the opening day of the fed and had never come close to dropping the strap. Jay had made a championship belt out of cardboard, glue, magic markers and some glitter. It was actually a pretty good representation of the NWA title belt and Bobby, when he wasn’t carrying it around to rub in our faces, kept it on his dresser next to a prized black velvet painting of Elvis.

Two weeks before that fateful August day, Jay and I hatched a plan. Bobby had a title defense coming up against Jay—their parents would be out of town. It was to be a cage match (basically, we’d take all of the furniture out of a room and the first person to escape was the winner). It can be a dangerous match, so Jay and I decided to soften Bobby up the first chance we got.

I was at home playing Excite Bike on Nintendo when Jay called. “Man, my parents just went grocery shopping, put on your gear and get over here!”

My gear consisted of a pair of sweat pants. I was at Jay’s house in no time. Bobby was in the shower so we stretched out a little, did a few squat thrusts and hid in the big walk-in closet in Jay’s living room. The shower stopped running. Silence. The bathroom door squeaked open and suddenly the house was shaking underneath Bob’s thunderous footsteps.

Finally, Bob, in nothing but his underwear (tight and white) stepped into the living room. I opened the closet door a crack. Bobby was scratching himself, so I threw open door and we pounced like cougars. Surprised, Bob was easy to get to ground. Jay stuck a leg behind him and pulled back on his shoulders while I pushed against his meaty man breasts. Bob was big, but his balance was questionable. He hit the floor in a thud.

“It’s time to go to school, Daddy! Whoooooo!” I managed to get Bob’s tree-trunk legs wrapped into my most deadly offensive move—the figure four. Bob writhed and screamed in pain. Jay took to the top of the couch and extended his arms, both hands flaring the Oh too familiar Elvis/Snuka “I love you” sign. Again and Again, Jay rained hard elbows down on Bobby from the top of the couch. Bob, once immortal, lay lifeless, his shoulders flat against the floor. Still I applied more pressure. Still the elbows fell from like meteorites from the sky.

“Are you boys crazy!”

Jay and Bob’s mom had come home.



Bob would get his revenge. About a week later, I dropped by to see if Jay wanted to run over to Wal-Mart with me and look at CDs. I found Jay face down in a bowl of Purina puppy chow. Bobby had jumped him outside of his parent’s bedroom, pile-drived him, and left him face first in a heap dog food (a pile driver went a long ways back then).

“Jay?” I shook him. “Jay, are you OK?”

Finally, he came around. He looked at me, eyes glassy and wet. “I’m hurt,” he said. “You’re going to have to take the title shot.”

I knew what I had to do. Those next few days I trained harder than I’d ever trained in my life. I rode my bike a mile to school and back. I watched Rocky I through III. I did twenty jumping jacks every afternoon. I ate Grape Nuts for breakfast. And, of course, I did squat thrusts. Hundreds and hundreds of squat thrusts.

When the day arrived, I was in the best fighting shape of my life. We cleared Jay and Bob’s bedroom of furniture. The beds, the dresser, Jay’s drum set, everything. His parents were in St. Louis for the night. We weren’t going to be interrupted. This match had no rules and no time-limit. There was going to be a winner. Two men were going to step into the cage and only one man was going to step out, and that man would be Leadwood World Wrestling Federation Champion of the World!



Bobby and I circled each other. He was four feet tall, 560 pounds of pure mean. His fingers were like polish sausages. His head a mutated pumpkin. We locked up. Bob walked through me like a bulldozer through a trailer park, knocking me to the ground. He didn’t even go for the door. He was toying with me. We locked up again. Same results. He smirked as he imitated my imitation Ric Flair strut.

“Not so tough without your partner, are ya big guy?’

The next time around, I summoned all of my strength and attempted to chop the champion across the chest. I missed and caught him on the forehead instead. Unfortunately, Bobby had a head like Crusher Blackwell; it could hammer nails. And it was at least the circumference of an old pick up truck tire. My pinky snapped like a twig. My hand throbbed with pain, as my old car door accident came howling back to me.

I was breathing hard and Bobby, three times my size, hadn’t even broken a sweat. I had to get my bearings. There was no way I was going to out power him, I had to out think him. This time as Bob tried to lock up, I ducked underneath him and dropped kicked him from behind. As I had planned, his front loaded bulk carried him in massive waves of flesh into the far wall. Whooooo! I cried and opened the bedroom door. There stood Jay. His eyes shone with hope. He pumped one fist triumphantly in the air. Finally, our revenge.

Bobby was big, at least 650 pounds, but he was quick as cat shit and had already kip-upped. He grabbed me from behind and spun me around. Jay was closed the door again (part of the official LWWWF rules) as I was being lifted into the air for a body slam. I felt my back practically snap as I landed on the unforgiving carpet floor. But it wasn’t over yet. Bobby cackled. Pure evil. I knew what was coming, THE BIG SPLASH, but I was helpless to prevent it.

Seven hundred and ninety five pounds of pure diabolical genius came crashing down on top of me. Every rib in my body cracked. I couldn’t breath. Bob played his own referee and gave me a ten count, slapping his Frisbee sized hands onto the floor. He was only proving a point—taking a page out of King Kong Bundy’s playbook. He knew he couldn’t win that way. He had to walk out of cage.

Bob peeled himself off of me. He chuckled and gave me a sharp kick in the ribs. “Neither one of you punks will ever beat me,” he said and began to make his way toward the door. With every step he took the floor shook and it felt like someone was sticking blades between my ribs.

Now, up until this point, I had never believed in Hulking up. I considered it, even then, a cheap gimmick. But something came over me as I lay there thinking of Jay, in his neck brace (which I must admit was nothing more that a tightly wound scarf), standing outside the door ready to raise someone’s hand in victory. My body, independent of my brain, began to convulse. My ribs and pinky seemed to heal. I felt no pain. Bobby looked on in horror before turning back toward the door and running for it as fast as his stubby, powerful legs could take him. But he was too late; I was on my feet. Bobby’s baseball bat fingers had just touched the door handle when I grabbed him by the back of the hair.

The cage door had a brass coat hook set in its center. It was made of titanium and as sharp as a razor blade. I pulled back on Bob’s hair, it felt like cocking the hammer of a gun. I slammed Bob’s head into the coat hook with every bit of force I could muster . . .



Some say an old lady down the street went blind that day. Some say at least three bitches in town gave birth to two-headed pups. Still, others remember it as the great August blizzard of Leadwood, Missouri that dropped three feet of strangely pink-tinted snow onto the ground. I remember Bobby’s eyes opening wide, like a guppy brought shockingly out of the water. I remember his arms flailed out to his side like Jesus on the cross. I remember Bobby falling backwards, in what seemed like slow motion, in one, final, Nestle plunge. When he landed every window on the block broke. I said, pointing to the dump of flesh before me, “There he is! There he is!” And I walked on out of the joint, Leadwood World Wrestling Federation champion of the world. Jay couldn’t have been prouder as he strapped the cardboard belt around my waist.



………



Epilogue #1.



A week later, in one of the best promos ever given in the LWWWF, Jay turned on me and challenged me to the championship in a regular match. In what was my first brush with called spots, Jay whispered, “Let me put you in the back slide like Kerry did Flair. I’ll let you kick out at 2.” Of course, Jay didn’t let me kick out at 2 and I lost my belt.



Epilogue #2



When the three of us were nearly thirty, we got into a heated debate, over a few beers, about who had actually retired LWWWF champion. The record books were a bit fuzzy on that. So, we decided to have a tournament to settle it once and for all. We drew names out of a hat and it was decided that the first match would be between Jay and Bobby. About thirty seconds into the match Jay started seeing spots in front of his eyes and nearly every muscled in Bob’s body had cramped up. I reckoned about the same would happen to me, so we just said to hell with it.



Epilogue #3.

And that’s really why I love wrestling, and that’s what I’d like to tell folks when they ask. But it’s not a fun story to tell sober, although my dad loved it, and even if I did tell it, I’m still not sure the point would come across. And the point is this: Imagine loving to do something so much that you do it every night, even if you’re as old as Ric Flair, knowing that it’s killing you.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lead

Lead

I have an intimate relationship with lead. After all, I come from Leadwood--a dried up, southern Missouri lead mining town. The population is less that a thousand, and is located in what is known in Missouri as the Lead Belt. The mines closed in the twenties and the town had pretty much died with it. Leadwood had briefly boomed—there was one a movie theater, a grocery store, a place that sold furniture, a roller rink and a few restaurants. Now there’s just churches, the high school, a liquor store and the chat dump.


My father was a lead miner, although he didn’t work the Leadwood mines. Those were closed in my grandpa's day. Dad drove, or shared rides, out to the St. Joe mines in Viburnam, MO, about an hour drive from Leadwood. Except that my dad would often save the snack cake my mom packed in his lunch bucked for me, I can barely remember this, though I heard the stories most of my life. It was hard work, work he loved.
The chat dump is a pile of chat (lead and sand) that was pumped up from the mines. We had three in the general area—one in Leadwood, one in Bonne Terre and one in Park Hills. When my mother-in-law first moved to Southern Missouri, she thought it was a domed stadium. They are that big, and the chat covers everything. It’s impossible to keep a car clean for long. The effects of the actual lead on the residents of the area aren’t something I know, except through lore. Apparently, we have a very high rate of cancer, suicide, violence and sterility, and now and again you hear stories of scientist coming to test the water. Otherwise, the chat is just something we live with.


The above picture gives a decent idea of the height of the chat dump, but not the sprawl of one. Besides the mound, there are also miles of flat chat. When I was a kid, my dad and brother would take us there ride around in our dune buggy. Even as a baby, I was taken there to play. Often, on Sundays, motorcycles would drag race there, and when I was a teenager it’s where we went to drink cheap beer and wish for something better to do with our lives. It was technically still property of St. Joe, so the Leadwood police never came into the chat dump. There were so many ways out, that there was no use in them sitting at an exit and waiting for us. The police were resigned to it—most of them had drank there as kids as well.

These days, however, the Leadwood chat dump has been knocked down and closed off. I suppose it’s for the best. Several people have died there over the years in vehicle accidents—Jay Coleman and I once tried to climb it in his Dad’s truck, and nearly rolled over ourselves. Plus, it keeps some of the lead out of the air. Still, with all of that, it saddens me as well. I’ve had a lot of good times there.

Recently, Erin Brockovich has made a few appearances. She brought some twenty lawyers, a toxicologist, and a few other investigators. We were on Fox news. In the local paper half of us found hope and thought of her as a miracle. The other half defended the chat dump. If it was good enough for our fathers, good enough for us, it was good enough for our children.

My dad had a glass pyramid with a piece of lead in it that he’d been given for twenty years of service in the mines. Not much longer he was laid off for good. He didn't have a high school diploma and he was in his 50s, so it was a long while before he found another job. We ate a lot of squirrel. Dad kept the pyramid in the basement on a shelf with a bunch of other junk. I don’t really know if he was proud of it or not. He died of cancer a few years back, and I had never asked him. When I was a kid, I would take it down sometimes, read the inscription, stare at the way the lead seemed to float, carelessly, in the glass.



Where We Come From (ver. 2.0)
(Leadwood, Missouri pop. 1,200)

I
Matt lit a joint here
driving beneath the arms of dying trees

The moon shone through in jigsaw puzzles
that we could never quite figure out

Gravel crackled like leaves in fire
underneath the weight of tires and restless boys

And we scattered beer cans
in no particular order
across the floorboard

Annette had just broken it off with him
and he beat drums out on the dash
a blue bandanna stretched tight the veins
collapsing in his forehead

And the September air held the smell
of burning trash in the tips of her fingers
somewhere far away

We liked the looks of our faces
basked blue in electric light
the call numbers of a station we had not tuned to

Eventually high
we rode back into town
two cowboys and a whiskey bottle between us.

II
Old timers sit staring from their porches
no job to wake up to
they watch potholes for clarity

A future for the boys passes on the tailgate of a Ford
ripens like a soft apple and falls away

Graduation 1991
we ride past the foundation of the old movie house
burnt to the ground in ‘52

Glen had once stood naked there on a dare
A fake gold cap is twisted from a bottle of cheap champagne
handed palm to palm with no comment

Mandy passed out hours ago
her jeans smooth against her thighs
bone white under the moon
we whooped it up like only good old boys can do.

III

The hair on our hands spout into rusted wires

Matt’s teeth gleam beneath a snarled lip

Voices of the wind
lost in the hunt
are never heard from again.

IV

The chat dump is waste spilled
from the great lead mines of the 20’s

Our grandfather’s worked there
grew old and died
and left our grandmothers with nothing

The chat dump
(sand and lead dust pumped from the earth)
looms over the town

Its sprawl is endless
a hand clenched tight
it covers everything here
like a curse

Sometimes men in suits come from the city
and test our water

We know it’s not safe, but what can you do?

My mother had sat me down in it
when I was an infant

She cast her spells under the toenail moon
chanted words men were never meant to hear

and let me be

V

The chat dump is where fires burn until dawn
kegs empty quickly
and twenty-somethings with nothing else to do
ponder the possibility of iron and steel

The chat dump is a desert in the heartland
Budweiser cans and cigarettes
stomped out in mid-smoke

Nothing grows here.

The chat dump
the half-shell of some cosmic turtle
the size of a domed stadium
the silence of death falling silently through our hands

Matt and I tried to climb it once
in his Daddy’s Chevy
half way up the tires stuck
and lost spin
then, backing down, we nearly rolled her to our deaths.





Saturday, June 25, 2011

Brutal

Brutal



"Let's have a gay night," he said.

"A gay night?"

Of course, we didn't know what he meant. I was eight and my cousin, T, was nine. We were staying the night with our great aunt and our other cousin, 19, L, who lived with her. L was very handsome, and he could almost dunk a basketball, which went a long way with us. He also seemed to like hanging out with us. Earlier, T and I (who grew up in the same house) had been playing army with him in our back yard. L was tall, lean, dark-skinned. Looking back on it thirty years later, I'm surprised, a bit upset that I remember him as being so attractive.

"A gay night," he said. "We all do it. It makes us men. First, let's show our dicks to each other."

This is where coherency ends.

What I remember are flashes--bits and pieces. Some of it, I didn't remember until a few years ago when T and I talked about it for the first time.

T and I were nervous. We laughed a lot. We finally all pulled our dicks out. L's was hard as a rock, huge it seemed to me, surrounded by pubic hair. T's was just naturally big. Mine wasn't. So it, of course, became the butt of jokes for the night. It didn't help that I was fat. A little plump pig, which L seemed to actually like. After we'd pulled our cocks out and talked about them for a bit, L invited us downstairs. Our great-aunt had one of those old-fashioned exercise machines down there. Like this:



"Let's take turns putting our dicks on it and turning it on," L said. So we did. Somehow this is the worst part of it. Has always been the worst part of it. Thinking back, which I try not to do, it's a monster in the basement. Dirty and stained. I knew even then that this was the turning point. There would be no going back after the monster. I even thought about stopping it then. Other than this, we mostly just went to church together. L would sit beside us, smacking green apple gum, and asking as quietly if he could which girls in church we might fuck if we had the chance. We thought that was really cool. He'd even ask us about his sister, who I had some sort of weird, 8 year old crush on.

It got worse, of course. It was all about what we would do to him. Would we touch his balls. Would we take his dick in our mouth. I did. Hating it and liking it at the same time. I honestly can't remember what T did. I'm sure it was much the same.


When I titled this "Brutal," I expected it to be brutal. That is, other than a surreal poem I wrote and published in the late 90s, this is the only thing I've ever written about this. The poem dealt in symbolism and shit like that. Otherwise, I told myself, if I ever have the guts to write about it, it's going to be brutal. It's going to be honest and detailed. The details, however, are like an impressionist painting. Parts of it, like the monster, are painfully vivid. L's white, white teeth. His beautiful body. The rest is images, textures, feelings. Feelings of guilt and desire all mixed up in one. The taste of his cock and how I remember it being both hard and somehow soft at the same time--the way the skin of it followed my movements.


Whenever I would think about writing this, I'd think there's a book in it. There's not. There are just these images. Whatever else there might have been would be about the aftermath, and I've written about that over and over again.



The next morning, I woke up naked on the living room floor. L had uncovered me to show his sister. She was laughing at how fat I was. T was already ready for church. We didn't see L much after that. He decided we weren't really that cool to hang out with anymore. I guess we felt the same. The next time I remember seeing him was at my brother's funeral. He was still handsome. He had rented me a movie, "Better Off Dead."



There's a lot to say about my brother and how, even though he knew nothing about this, he should have done something about it, but not here. The next time I heard about L, he had died in motorcycle accident. Leadwood kills a lot of people. I was happy he was dead. I'm not sure I am anymore.



For all of his talk about a gay night, L wasn't gay. Sometimes I am. And though I consider myself to have the most bleeding heart I've ever known, child molesters still make me scream out for the death penalty. That, however, is neither here nor there. That's just me still trying to defend myself for not stopping this. For not saying no to the monster.



When I was young, and I would feel like, or people would think, I was a really fucked up person, they would think maybe it was because my brother had died when I was thirteen. I'd let them. But it wasn't. It was this. This.



T and I were very, very drunk and in our 30s, at a bar, when I finally said something about it.

"You know why were so fucked up?" I asked.

"L," he said.

I nodded.

"The thing I most remembered," he said, "was L fucking you in the ass."

I hadn't remembered.

"You screamed like a pig," T said.

I remembered then. I remembered everything. Hands and knees and pain.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gutless

Gutless



I'm torn between instant gratification and anxiety. Know what I mean? The internet is, in many ways, a source of constant stimulation and feedback. Have something witty to say? Post it as an update on FB. It's nice. It saves me the time of writing a story or something, sending it out, finally getting it published and maybe, just maybe, someone saying, "that wasn't bad." Instead, I can write "Five out of five fat guys agree, Funyans are Fun Yum!" and a least a few people will like it. Someone might even comment.



Then there is the anxiety. How many of us have posted something in the throes of Facebook passion and then regretted it the next morning--possibly woke up in a full blown panic attack? Just me? Which brings me to some misgivings about blogging. Believe it or not, I'm a very private person. What I write--whether it's poems or Facebook updates aren't really me. Okay, they're a little bit me. They're me in one instant. What people don't see are all of the boring parts. Grading papers. Watching Different Strokes. Laying on the couch all day. So I write a poem about a night out at the bar or something when the shit hits the fan. Then people have this entire idea.



Wait. I'm not getting to what I'm trying to get to here. I'm gonna try again. When I was young, and published more, etc, my work was very sloppy. I was a kid. Of course it was sloppy. But the one thing it had going for it was total honesty. I thought. But like I said, there is no such thing as total honesty in writing. Oh Jesus, this is turning into some self-indulgent bullshit, I think.



The older you get, the harder it is to be honest. My poetry has kept me out of jobs, or so I've heard. Just Google me sometime, would you hire me? I think it's different with fiction maybe. Look, I'm going to try to be honest in this blog. I'm 38 years old and I can make a living as a cook. However, after every single blog post I'm sure to wake up with an anxiety attack. I knew that coming in, which is part of why it took so long to get started. I don't talk much about my feelings with my close friends and family. I have them. I have plenty of them. Normally, I just like to keep them buried deep down inside where they belong.



And then my 19 year old self talks to me from 20 years ago. He says, "If you're going to be a writer, a real writer, you have to be fearless."



Folks, I'm not fearless. I'm going to do my best, okay?



Here's a little essay I once wrote about anxiety.



Anxiety



“Is it almost done?”


I was making super-hot, a touch of ginger, chili. I make it so hot that it almost hurts to eat it, but it’s about the only time I get food that spicy, so my wife puts up with it. “Good, we have to leave soon, and I’m starving.”

My wife, Margaret, might have been starving, but she looked exhausted. Even her dark hair was limp and tired, resting against her left eye-brow. It was the Christmas season, however, and exhaustion is par for the course. Shopping, trying to make ends meet, more shopping, and then the worst, our children’s school. First, there are the “fund-raisers” that they send kids, snotty nosed and half-dead with wet-lung, home from school with--dragging them along in their Power-Puff Girls backpacks. It’s ridiculous. Twenty pages of “special items” that you can get at the Dollar Store for a third of the price. Stuff like Santa Bells, chocolate covered cherries for eight dollars (get yourself two boxes at Wal-Mart for a buck), wreaths handmade by some poor granny in Montana (more like some poor kids in Africa), etc. They actually want us to send our kids out in sub-zero temperatures door to door to sell this stuff. It’s for a good cause, they say. It’s for the school. I thought the taxes I paid were for the school. I didn’t know we had to raise a new generation of vacuum salesmen. My older daughter, Allie, usually went about this work with gusto. My youngest, Ashley, however dreaded it so badly I usually just threw her booklets in the trash when Margaret wasn’t looking.

But the topper is the annual Christmas pageant. This year our school district mercifully decided to forsake the traditional White Christmas and have a Christmas Cantina. A Mexican theme--there’s one Mexican family, three kids, in the school. My wife and their mother, Marcy, are good friends. They work together at the local alternative school. I hadn’t yet met Marcy, but our plan was to sit by her during the Cantina--apparently so we could talk about how cute our children looked all dressed up like little vacuum cleaner salespeople, and perhaps get the goods on whether or not the entire thing had any hint of authenticity.

“What am I supposed to say to her anyway?” I asked, half a mouth full of chili and my nose watering.

“Dan, don’t start.”

“What? I’m just wondering. You know I don’t understand stuff like that.”

“What?”

“Small talk. I mean, she’ll say ‘hi’ and I’ll say ‘hi.’ Then she’ll ask how I’m doing and I’ll say ‘fine.’ Then, I’ll ask her how she’s doing and she’ll say ‘fine.’ Then there will just be silence, for like ten minutes or something. Both of us staring at each other--Marcy waiting for me to say something, anything. And I won’t know what the hell to say. My forehead will start sweating, and she’ll think I’m on crack. Then she’ll probably rush home and call Family Services on me.”

“She’s gonna want to talk to me, Dan, not you. Not everything’s about you.”

“I guess you’re right. So are they gonna be hitting us up for money tonight?”

“No, it’s free,” Margaret sighed and took another bite of chili.

“I know it’s free, but you know how they are. They’re always asking us for money, with the fund raisers and all. I’ll bet you that they pass around a jar tonight asking for contributions.”

“No they won’t.”

“I don’t know why I have to pay money to see my daughter sing Rudolph or something. We could stay home and sing it all night long for free.”

“They’re not asking for money.” Margaret put the rest of her chili into the sink. She thinks I’m cheap. I am cheap, but it was a testament to her desire for the night to go well that she didn’t mention it.

“I’m not gonna put money in their damn jar. When it gets passed to me, I’ll just pass it on along. I don’t care what people think. Let them think I’m cheap. I spent twenty-five dollars on a goddamn ceramic Miss Claus for the last year and the thing is ugly. Where’s that money going to anyway? Where’d my twenty-five dollars go?”

“A new playground.”

“What’s wrong with the playground they have now?”

“I don’t know, Dan. They want some more swings or something, I guess.”

“You guess. You’re letting our kids sell this stuff, and it’s probably scaring them for life by the way, and you don’t know exactly where the money’s going?”

“A new playground.”

“When I was in school our playground was nothing but dirt. That’s right, we just had this big dirt field we played in. We didn’t need swings or monkey bars because we had imagination. My friend Timmy and me, we used to take a couple of sticks and pound them on the ground for hours at a time, happy as a couple of clams. Just poundin’ sticks on the ground to beat the devil. The year after I left grade school, you know what they did?”

“What, dear?”

“They dumped a bunch of gravel over the dirt because parents were complaining about dirty pants. That was our new playground, gravel. You don’t need a fund raiser for gravel.”

“Times have changed.” Margaret knows that I’m going to rant when faced with any sort of social activity, and she puts up with it with patience and good humor. Later in my life, when the Anxiety would get so bad that it sometimes seemed impossible for me to leave the house, she’d be just as understanding.

“I guess so. And not for the better. I’ll tell you this much, if somebody asks me why I’m not putting any money in the jar, I’ll just say that it’s because I’m going back to a simpler time. A time of gravel and stick pounding.”




As it turned out, I didn’t even have to worry about meeting Marcy. For some reason or another, she couldn’t make it to the Cantina. So we had to pick up her son, Perry, and take him with us so he could sing Rudolph, or whatever they were doing. Perry is the in kindergarten with my youngest daughter, Ashley. Allie, my daughter in fourth grade, wasn’t performing--she was just going along for the ride, excited as could be. Allie, like her mother, is a social creature. She loves to be around people and if there's ever a lull in the conversation, you can count on Allie to fill it. Ashley, however, is more like me. She’s what used to simply be known as shy, but now has so many other connotations, like social anxiety disorder. When I was a kid, I was so painfully shy they wanted to put me in an LD class, but I did too well on the test. Margaret had made it a goal of hers to make sure that Ashley eventually came out of her shell, and overall it seemed to be working. Case in point—the Christmas Cantina. She was actually going to participate, and though more than a little nervous, she seemed to be looking forward to it.


We pulled up in front of Marcy’s house, and Margaret and the kids jumped out to get Perry. I sat in the car and listened to Tom Waits. They were back in no time, slamming the car doors and giggling.

“Dad,” Allie asked, “Did you fart?”

“Yes I did.”

“Dan!” Margaret slapped me on the thigh, as if I’d never farted before. I guess company makes all the difference, even if it is just a five year old kid.

“I can’t help it, the chili’s getting to me.”

“Well try, it’s rude.”

“Ashley and Perry think it’s funny.”

Sure enough, they were laughing their little butts off, holding their noses, and waving their l hands in front of their faces. Only Margaret and Allie seemed to think it disgusting. And I can remember, wistfully, a time not long ago when Allie would have been laughing as well instead of blushing. But something that I can’t put my finger on happened to her between third and fourth grade. Something that meant dad farting in mixed company wasn’t funny anymore.

We made it just in time for the show. Perry and Ashley were hoarded off into the music room to get ready. The rest of us followed the crowd into the gymnasium, it was like trying to get through a department store on December 23rd. Haughty old ladies, smelling of Vicks, Spearmint Gum and Church, shaking their fleshy hips to and fro trying to knock all competitors to the side.

Sure enough there were four or five donkey shaped piñatas floating around in the over crowded gym/cafeteria-- the floors in these double duty rooms are always linoleum and they make the kids play basketball on this. There were also about twenty round tables in the front covered with white table clothes and decorated arrangements of poinsettias sitting in the middle. New playground my ass.

However, all of those tables were full. We, and the rest of the late comers, were regulated to the typical long rectangular lunch room tables in the back. Margaret and Allie sat down by some long-haired fellow and his plump, sour faced wife whose salt and pepper hair looked like and afro that had been cut in half clean at the top. I could have set a beer and an ashtray up there, used it as a table, and felt a lot better. If only I’d had a beer, that is. And although there were some cold ones in the fridge at home, I wasn’t going to drink before my daughter’s big show. I’d just have to experience this, the good and the bad, sober.

“Have a seat, Dan.” Margaret said.

There was just enough room between the hippie and Margaret for me to sit down.

“I’ll stand. I’m fine.”

“Sit down.” My wife jabbed her finger toward the seat, her lips pursed together.

“I’ll stand, thank you.”

I can’t sit down by people I don’t know. It’s just another thing of mine. I usually only go to unpopular movies, or wait until a good movie is near the end of its run, because there’s less of a chance of having to sit by a stranger. I saw Battlefield Earth while my wife was watching American Beauty, or something similarly interesting, in the next theater over. But I had an entire row of seats to myself. Actually, this old lady that smelled like peppermint sat down in the same row as me, but I pretended to go to the bathroom--I even announced to her that I had to use the bathroom so that she wouldn’t suspect anything--then I waited outside until the previews started and I snuck back in and sat in a row by myself.


We still had a few minutes before the Christmas Cantina started, so I played count the mullets. I was at thirty four and still counting when some lady waddled out onto the stage. This is one of the things I do when I’m nervous, especially in crowds, I start picking out things that I can exaggerate enough to seem funny, at least to me, and I get a little more comfortable. It’s probably not the nicest way to deal with anxiety, but it helps to some extent.

The lady who had walked out on state was go be our announcer for the evening. “Hello, and thank you for coming to our Christmas Cantina!” The poor thing, she was trying her best to enunciate, but she sounded like she’d had a half a bottle of Valium for supper and washed it down with a pint of vodka--perhaps she had, teaching grade-school is a notoriously hard profession, and the numbers of prescription drug addicts within the field are staggering. They don’t tell you that at the PTA meetings I assure you. And like most elementary school teachers, she’d developed “the voice.” You know, the “I’m talking to a bunch of little kids” voice. The first thing she did was spend twenty minutes giving us tips on how to get our kids to read better. Read to them, she said, ask them questions, she said. I was indignant for no good reason. First of all, I was about to earn my Master’s in English, so I figured I didn’t need tips on how to get my children to read. Secondly, I was reading before I ever entered kindergarten and my parents hardly ever spoke to me. As a matter of fact, I attribute my early literacy skills to my parents’ silence.

After the reading tips, the lady said the principal, Dr. Cole, was going to come out and demonstrate for us how to read to our children. Great. At least they brought out the kindergartners, and we finally got to see Ashley up on stage--She was wearing a skirt and Margaret had warned her earlier not to cross her legs because her underwear showed, she looked a little uncomfortable up on stage and sitting on her knees, but like most kids she’s fairly limber. I don’t think there’s any bias in this when I say that Ashley was the best looking kid up on stage. I was a good looking guy until my mid-twenties and she took her curly black hair and round brown eyes with long lashes from me. The rest of the kids had that sort of half-starved, blank eyed, small town kid look about them. I mean, there were just as many mullets up on stage as off. There was this fat little girl that already had boobs. I’m not kidding, she looked like a sixth grader. There was this other kid that looked like a half-drowned rat--wide eyed and greasy. And these two were two of the best of the lot.

Dr. Cole read Twas the Night Before Christmas. Boy, I really felt sorry for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Well, they probably weren’t there anyway. Which made me feel even more sorry for them. I felt sorry for more than just the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though. I felt sorry for all of us. Dr. Cole sounded like a cross between Tom Petty, a four year old girl, and a young Carol Channing. And every once in awhile, she would stop and ask the kids a question. “Do you know anyone with a fat belly like Santa Claus?” Or “What’s a Sugar Plum?” Then, some kid would stop picking his nose long enough to raise his hand, and Dr. Cole would continue on with the poem before he even had a chance to answer. I tried to distract myself by watching the parent’s pointing at their kids, or waving both of their arms over their heads so they could get their kid’s attention long enough to take a picture.

After Dr. Cole’s reading, the librarian came out to read The Cajun Night Before Christmas.

“Watch out now,” Valium lady said. “She’ll read it just like a real Cajun. She’s got one of those kind of voices.”

Now, I’ve heard real Cajuns on the cooking channel--and this lady did not have a Cajun accent, she sounded more like a New Englander to me. Maybe she was from Massachusetts or something.

This entire time my ass cheeks were clenched tighter than a drum. To put it plainly, I had more gas than Iran. Somehow, however, I managed to keep it to myself. But my stomach rumbled with discontent, and I could feel the crowd pressing in on me. It’s a tough feeling to explain to people who don’t mind crowds, but it’s like being crushed. This was before I had, or had even considered, medication for anxiety. I’m not sure I even understood a lot of it, I just knew that if I didn’t watch it, and if I kept thinking about the crown pushing in on me, I’d start to have trouble breathing.

I couldn’t blame Margaret for wanting to push Ashley out of her shell a little. Shyness can sometimes be impossible to live with. It’s not that it’s that bad, all the time, for the person who is shy, it’s often worse for the people around them. Otherwise great people get the feeling that you’re standoffish, or that you just don’t like them, when you actually do. You’re just not going to talk a lot to them until you are more comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very difficult for a shy person. You might be forced to read out loud in school, or worse, stand in front of the class to read. People will make assumptions based on your shyness that range from them thinking you are stupid, or the old cliché that still waters run deep. None of that really cuts it though, like everyone else, shy people come in a wide variety of personalities.



Finally, after almost forty five minutes, we got to see what we came for. Our kids were actually going to get to sing. However, Valium lady had an announcement to make first.

“I’d like to thank the PTA for sponsoring our last fund-raiser. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to afford our new state of the art stage. A stage like this, with rails for the steps and everything, doesn’t come cheap you know.”

Playground my ass.

Ashley was squirming on stage like a worm on a June sidewalk. Finally, she just had to cross her legs. She looked down to see if her underwear was showing, and there was a faint splash of blue. She tried unsuccessfully to push her skirt down enough to cover it and then looked to me as if to say Daddy, what do I do now? I gave her a thumbs up and smiled. Who cares if you show a little underwear, dear, you’re only five and being comfortable is much more important that saving face at your age, take advantage of it while you can. Margaret pursed her lips next to the hippie.

Fortunately, Ashley didn’t have to show her unmentionables for long. It was time for the kids to sing. The first song they sang was, of course, Rudolph. Then, they did Frosty the Snowman. For this, they brought out some adult dressed in a snowman outfit. The thing is, the snowman outfit was just loose fitting cloth. Frosty looked like he was half-melted, sort of like a hairless bulldog. And the lady under the suit had to be half-drunk because she was grinding her hips like a cheap stripper--her hands hooked behind her head. The kids had their mouths wide open--looks of horror on their faces.

I bet, however, that that lady—I’m assuming it was a lady under the suit, based on body shape—didn’t have one panic attack about her exploits. Were she the type to have panic attacks, she’d have found a way out of it, or at the very least, she’d have not danced, costume or not, with such abandon. I, on the other hand, were I forced to do such a thing, would have trouble sleeping for weeks. I’d obsess over it, even knowing that it was forgotten by everyone else.

It was time for the last song. That’s it, we were there for an hour and we’d only gotten to see our kids sing three songs. The whole thing, if they’d have just gotten down to it, could have lasted fifteen minutes and we’d of all been a lot happier. Well, I would have been happier.

The last song rocked. They sang “Feliz Navidad.” The kids got to get down from the stage, clap their hands, dance and basically have a good time. I guess all the Baptists on the school board somehow let this slide. At least I didn’t see anyone complaining. Ashley clapped her hands and stomped her feet and wiggled her butt with the best of them. Where as before, it was breaking my heart watching her stiff and nervous up on stage (it was all I could do to keep from rushing up there, sweeping her up in my arms, and getting her the hell out of there), it was now making my heart glad. I wanted, with all of my soul, to join them. To shake my head and smack my butt and sing Feliz Navidad at the top of my lungs. I realize that I probably project my own personality on Ashley more than I should, maybe all parents do this to an extent. Sure, she’s shy, but she’s not me. Maybe she’s been made to feel a bit more comfortable in her skin by me and her mother. My parents, who I love dearly, weren’t very talkative or socially active themselves, and once when I feigned sick so I didn’t have to say one line (What will we do now, Santa) in a school play my mom didn’t bat an eye. She let me stay home without question.

“I like this.” I said to Margaret.

“Shhhhh!” It was the hippie’s wife--her index finger rigid and flushed vertical against her upper lip. The hippie looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I nodded.

When the song ended, people actually applauded--and it wasn’t polite applause, every mullet-head, soccer mom, and hippie was genuinely pleased. But it couldn’t be left at that. Valium lady had another announcement.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming. Please sign out guest book before you leave and vouch for the fact that we taught you how to read to your child. That way we can get more grants and buy more needed equipment like our hi-tech stage here. Thank you. Oh, and don’t forget about our Valentines day fund-raiser. We’ll be sending a brochure home with your children on Monday.” That’s not word for word, of course, but that’s the gist of what she said and nobody applauded her. She looked around, flustered.

“Oh, we’re going to serve soda, cookies and tamales!”

Applause, although they were school cafeteria tamales--which are basically generic beans (last thing I needed) wrapped up in a piece of white bread and sprinkled with government cheese.

“Can we go?”

“Just a minute,” Margaret said. “The kids want to eat.”

“Eat? We had chili.” And boy was my stomach feeling it.

“Yes, I know, dear, but the kids didn’t eat any of it. It was too spicy for them, remember.”

“When I was a kid I ate what was put in front of me, or else I got the strap.” That’s not true, of course, but I’m not above making up stories about my childhood to get a point across to my wife.

“I know, dear. Things were so much better back then.”

“Can you get me a Diet Pepsi?”

“Where are they?”

“On that cart over there.”

“They’ll bring them around.”

“What if they run out before they get to us. There are a lot of people here, and we are in the cheap seats, you know.” I really wanted that Diet Pepsi. I couldn’t smoke, and having something in my hand, something to do, makes me feel a lot better in crowds. If I can focus my attention on something as simple drinking a soda, then I feel less like I’m being rude to people who try to talk to me. Not only that, just the physical interaction with something relaxes me a bit.

“They won’t run out.”

“How do you know that? How can you possibly know that?”

“Just wait here and you’ll get one. Me and Allie are going to go find Ashley and Perry. She’s probably still back in the music room.”

I was left alone. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there, by myself, looking at my feet. It wasn’t long, however, until Ashley--Margaret, Allie and Perry nowhere in sight—found me.

“Hi Dad.” She was smiling, looking around at bit suspiciously at the crowd herself.

“Hello. Where’s your mother?”

“I dunno.”

“Me either. Want a cookie?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, see that cart over there?” I pointed to the cart, loaded down with soda.

“Yeah.”

“Grab me three Diet Pepsis, and you can have a cookie.”

“OK.”

Ashley walked right over, as if the earth wouldn’t collapse if she snatched three soda’s of the “school’s cart” (probably bought with fund raiser money). She got the sodas, carried them the best she could cradled in her arms, and brought them to me. Some young girl with a nose ring that was walking around with a tray asked me if I wanted a cookie and I took four--all of them shaped like Christmas trees and gave them to Ashley.

“Dad?”

“Yes, honey.”

“Did I do good?”

“You were excellent.” I leaned down and kissed her on top of the head. “You were the best.”

“I had to fart.”

“Me too, dear."