Patrick sent this story to me almost 20 years ago, in 1998. It’s a bit of a disjointed, free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness kind of thing, autobiographical and focused on his childhood and his family members, but its tone turns regretful near the end. I haven’t edited out the typos and such yet.
Mother is Gin. Father is Paul. My brother is Jack, my sister Sue, and I am Pat.
I remember my father as a thin man with a widow’s peak, his fine black hair slicked back over his skull. He could see almost nothing without his spectacles, rimless, as thick as the bottom of a pop bottle. Gin always insisted that he was a master carpenter, and he built our house in East End from the ground up, in the middle of what had been Lee Rhodes’ watermelon patch. I was five at the time, and he let me try to drive in the first nail of the sub-flooring. I was not about to say no, and he gave it one lick to set it in the wood and handed me the hammer.
I held the hickory handle in both hands and hit it for all I was worth, bending the ten penny nail. I was very disappointed.
“That only means your pecker hasn’t stopped growing,” he told me, no doubt trying to make me feel better.
Now I am a father of a son, a son who is now as old as my father was when I bent the nail. Now I discover that although my sincerest wish growing up was to distance myself as much as possible from my hick background, my father being only a polished hick, a sort of Hollywood country boy with a bashful smile and a thirst for drink and women, although I wanted to evade forever more the roughneck miners and loggers of that place and that time. in fact I have come to think I am exactly like him. I have always loved chasing women, since I was 13 years old, and I’m sure Paul was the same. Work he was good at, too, but only because of certain cleverness and natural intelligence that got mean jobs done with the absolute minimum of effort, and got them done right so you wouldn’t have to do the same one ever again.
When it came to women, if one was available, he could not say no. It seemed stupid to say no. There was plenty of it to go around, none of them lost a bit of him. He wasn’t going to give anyone of them his full attention, anyway. When he was with any one of them, however, she was convinced he was 100% there, and that’s what we all want. To be 100% where we are in as near a state to ecstasy as we can manage is what’s it’s about, in my opinion, and for sure in his opinion, as well.
Once I had a photograph of him at about twelve years old. He was standing in the middle of a bed, his shoes on. He wore long socks and what corduroy kneepants. His mouth was set in that lop-sided grin he still wore as an adult, and his eyes were magnified by thick glasses. He was about as ugly as me, his son, at that age, and I hated the photograph. I can’t imagine why Gin thought I would want it.
She must have been cleaning out old storage; she also gave me a picture of myself in my band uniform, standing at attention in front of our screen door, the star on my shoulder announced I was captain of the band, and on my chest were several medals earned playing solos on the sousaphone at the county and state competitions. The most recent medal I had earned in Miami, and the oldest one I had received in Huntington, when we still lived in Oak Hill. I spent the entire night before the competition fucking a girl named Elaine, or Eleanor. We were under a picnic table in the park by the river.
his was the dream of my adolescent years come true. For three years I had been jerked off at least once a week by Patsy, and a couple of times we almost succeeded in making it, but she always somehow got me off before I could really dig in and enjoy myself.
Joanne, however – that was her name, now it comes to me. Joanne I picked up in the hall of the high school where the state competition was taking place. After I played my solo for the judges – Variations on Carry me back to Ole Virginny, for B-flat sousaphone and piano, I wandered the halls with a real operator named Mark. His plan was perfectly logical, if not socially acceptable. We wandered from classroom to classroom, looking in the doors while the teachers continued talking, not willing to give up the floor unless necessary. Mark’s theory was that if we waited until the break between classes we wouldn’t get a chance to have a gander at all the girls in the building. One the other hand, if we stuck our head in fifty doors, roughly one a minute, we could do a quick cull and station ourselves outside the room with the most likely candidate to be molested by us.
We were to close in on the girl of our choice, make her laugh and leave the building instead of continuing to her next class. Joanne and Betty were our choices. They seemed to know each other, and I had the feeling this was not the first time that they had skipped out fire doors and wandered off to the river bank.
Mark picked his spot with Betty, and I forgot about him. It turned out she liked to talk, mostly about her 25 year old boyfriend who never got it in before he shot his wad, he was that hot for her body.
The trouble is, her talking about Johnny did not do my ego any good, and once or twice we had to start again from scratch.
So it was that I had been pumping the same erection into Joanne all night and now it was nearly dawn. She had grabbed my penis on the roller-coaster, holding on as though for dear life. When the sun came up she was afraid someone would sooner or later notice us naked on the grass. I was at dawn on a high rise that could get somewhere if my attention and her attention both were on what was going on genitally. It would have been such a pleasure to have this orgasm, the first one in a real cunt, but it was no use. With the greatest reluctance I put on my jeans. It looked as though I carried a banana in my pocket. There was nothing to do about it except ignore it. There weren’t many people out at this early hour, and the ones we encountered looked away once we were close enough.
Her dress was grass-stained, and we both looked as though we had slept in our clothes. Actually we had slept on our clothes, clutching at each other in every possible handhold we could imagine. I had not yet performed orally on a woman, or man, for that matter, but Joanne knew all about handling and licking.
Again and again I rose up toward a pinnacle, but she would suddenly open so wide there was no friction, only a sodden swamp into which I vainly tried to show my spunk.
I got into my room just as my roommate, Tommy from Cherry Lane Farm was leaving for band practice. I brushed my teeth, changed shirts and went to the auditorium. By the time we were on the bus after playing our bit, I was ready to sack out. Tommy wouldn’t let me, though. He kept wisecracking about my getting in at dawn. He worked it over from all angles, in a loud whisper two rows back. When he got to the part about clap and syph, I lost my head.
It was an explosion, as unexpected to me as to the others who, until that moment were not paying any attention to what he was saying. First I was lying against the glass, eyes closed, trying to ignore his crude clowning, and then I was over him in the aisle. He fought to get up, but there was no elbow room between the seats, so I managed to hold him down. I failed to get a good punch, my forearm glancing off the metal armrest, and a flood of my tears poured onto his face.
He began kicking first, I would swear, but soon we both settled for kicking only, and that’s where we had reached when they finally pulled us apart. Mr Mackay made me sit in the front with him to avoid any more trouble. He wrinkled his nose a bit when I first sat down; it only then occurred to me that although I had brushed my teeth, I had not washed. The aura that rose from between my legs was pure juicy sex. I could see her face in that aroma, and suddenly I felt I might pass out. I turned my back to Mr. Williams and tried to dream without sleeping, to revive the state of tingling awareness and hang in there till I could get home, to my own bathroom.
I called her once after returning to my home town. I caught such hell for the phone bill when it came in. The funny thing was I had been thinking every night about her, jerking off with her in my mind, she had completely forgotten who I was. Either that , or she didn’t want her mother or boyfriend to give her hell.
The incident gave me a certain reputation. Nice girls avoided me, others I had been invisible to before now brushed up against me in the halls. One eleventh grade girl drove me crazy in study hall for a whole semester. She was door monitor, and you had to pass her if you got permission to go to the toilet. She stopped me just outside the door, her breasts brushing up against me, her fingers tracing designs on my chest. She clearly knew what she was doing, and other circumstances I would have loved it, , but this was a demonstration of cruelty, to my mind. It’s practically impossible to urinate if you’ve got an erection. There are other things you can do however, though it’s not recommended in a high school toilet.
fter Pearl Harbor, it was just a matter of time till Paul was drafted. With three kids, he was low on the list, but eventually they got to him, and he was sent off to the Great Lakes. In basic training his glasses held him back in Judo and other combative skills, if he told me right, son as a carpenter he was put in the Seabees. The Seebees he said were the rally tough guys. They went onto the beach ahead of everybody else to set up – I still think he was putting me on.
There was a photo of him in a sailor outfit, crooked smile, on the chest just inside our front door, and another one in Gin’s bedroom of all of us together with him in uniform. Later, according to her, she was sorry he had gone off, because he came back as a drinker and a pussy hound.
He and Skeets Corker were a team in the building trade, and Skeets too was a drinker. In the beginning we had no car, but by ’48 we had a used maroon Ford, so Skeets rode to and from work with Paul. They used to walk, and went their separate ways, but now it was too easy to stop off for a beer.
For me it was good that Skeets and Paul were buddies. Skeets had a daughter named Patsy, and she became my first girl.
When the postwar building boom started running down in Oak Hill, Paul took the advice of a couple of brothers and checked out central Florida. The boom was steady and climbing. One brother had a thriving electrical business going, another was making some bucks in the plumbing business, and a third was building cement block houses on weekends, one by one, on lots he bought ten dollars down, ten dollars a month.
By the time we left, Paul was foreman for the OH Lumber Company, which meant he had to run around between jobs. His immediate boss was a guy named Shorty, who drove a yellow Chevy and was seldom seen with the same woman in it twice. His wife stayed at home, where she belonged, and when he wanted female company, he found it wherever he was.
Obviously, to Gin, he was a bad influence on Paul. On payday, they ran around to the different crews and paid them the week’s wages, stopping at different roadhouses along the way. By quitting time, they were both pretty soused, and supper went on without them. Friday was football night, and in the season basketball, so we kids had to get out whether or not.
Our house in Oak Hill was sold, a new one purchased on the border between Orlando and Winter Park. Gin was glad to get out of Oak Hill.
The trouble was, he went ahead of us, and took with him a girl he had picked up the a dive called the Wooden Shoe, a roadhouse between Oak Hill and Fayetteville.
I was sixteen at the time, and knew where the Dutch Inn was located. The reason I knew is that a certain Mr. Twiggs, another philanderer with a Chevy like Shorty’s, but green, was known to have died of a heart attack across the highway, in his car with a floozy, according to Gin.
Betty Twiggs and I had spent quite a few nights panting heavily together, up against the warm cookstove in their kitchen. So I knew Mr. Twiggs too, a mine boss from Whipple. He often left the house about the time I arrived. It was a five mile walk from my house to this one, and he always asked me if I was sure I didn’t want a ride home, though I had just arrived.
Like my father when he went out, Mr. Twiggs smelled of shaving lotion and his hair was slicked back. He wore a pin-stripe suit, something my old man never would have put on except for a funeral. On this occasion it turned out to be for his funeral. I’m not sure if it was on this occasion that my father met the girl, but it was about that time,
In Florida, Paul lucked into a general foreman’s job for Fletcher and Company. The b building boom was in full swing, and Fletcher was doing developments of middle and upper cost homes. Orange groves bit the dust for rows imitation Tudor homes on half acre plots around the numerous lakes.
There were more bars per capita than there had been in Fayette County, and package stores along 17-92 and highway 50. Before long he was drinking more than he ever had before. Gin had soon found out about the girl from the Dutch Shoe. She forced me to drive her to the lakeside cabin where Paul had set the girl up. She told me to keep the motor running while I waited at the wheel of the forty six Ford. She hadn’t been gone five minutes when she came in a flying leap off the front porch and into the passenger seat.
She never said what happened. Her only comment as we raced down the red brick street under the Spanish moss, torn muffler roaring was that the girl was a ugly little whore.
Whatever it was that happened, I figure the girl disappeared from the scene. Paul was now drunk more often. On weekends, he sometimes was soaked before noon. Gin kept turning up flat bottles of peach brandy in the clothes hamper, in the back of the linen closet, under the front seat of both cars, and I personally knew he had hiding places on many of the jobsites.
When I left for college, Gin was already pretty well fed up. A year or so later, my brother left for university as well, leaving only my sister, just about to finish up high school. Then she got married to a guy in the Air Force, though she stayed at home until he finished his overseas duty. Sue was the one who told me that Paul was now turning violent at home, and that she was pressing Gin to get a divorce. Sue was named Virginia, after my mother, but had always been called Sue, the name the doctor who had delivered us all wanted to call her. Gin on the other hand, had always been called Gin, so far as I knew, though Grandpa Toombs as the sole exception called her Ginny.
I had just driven Sue to her job at the Safeway where she was a checkout girl. On the way she told more things about her own private life than I needed or wanted to know, and filled me in on the latest. Gin had filed for legal separation, preparatory for a divorce, but Paul still came around from time to time and abused her.
arrived back at the house on Stanley Street to find his Dodge in the driveway.
The patches of dirty white sand were spreading, the St. Augustine grass separated into small colonies of rough , wide green blades; nobody would lie down on a lawn like that. Not of his own free will.
The aluminum screen door was designed to be opened with an inward thrust with the base of your thumb, but the apparatus had ceased to operate properly some time ago, so that the latch of the door was most often open. We must have oiled that handle a hundred times in the five years we had lived in this house, but still it would not work. The only way to keep the door closed against the wind and the cleverest of the stray cats was to lock the door from the inside. This meant that if someone else wanted in, you had to unlock it, even if you happened to be snockered on the couch; or your have to rouse half the neighbors trying to wake one of us up when you came in late and plastered. It also meant that all of us were out at once, that’s five, count ?m – trouble was brewing unless we could all get home in no more that two shifts, for that’s the number of keys we had for the front door. This door had to be locked by the last person leaving, which varied, causing a lot of squabbling, for there were only three keys between the lot of us.
A normal family would have had keys made, but even if all of us had keys there would have been problems. We were all so used to locking the screen door from the inside we would more than fifty per cent of the time by habit lock out whoever was still tomcatting around: me, my brother, or Paul.
The houses on Stanley Street were so close together that you could in some cases step from the right side of your car onto the porch of your neighbor, and out of the driver’s side on your own stoop. This meant that a little civic responsibility was necessary, and more or less self-imposed rules were established. You did not mow your lawn at 6:00 in the morning of a Sunday. You did not stare at the wife of the guy on the other side, even though you once saw, strictly by chance, the thirty-something husband sitting on the edge of the lavatory of his bathroom, masturbating while his amazingly endowed young wife sponged herself in the tub.
You did not play loud music after a certain hour, honorably agreed upon as within the hour after the 11:00 clock news was over. The guy next door, however, did not always honor this unspoken treaty. In addition to having the sexiest wife on the block, maybe in the whole town, he was himself totally obsessed by her body, and you could hear them well after the news, the radio set on a New Orleans station where they played dance music from the Roosevelt Room. It was hard enough to endure their cries and the racket of their cheap wooden bed, but when he had finally had enough, I heard him snoring, his face no doubt lying between those orbs I had so often admired through the bathroom window while she was hanging out the wash. Worse than the moans and the glottal serenade that followed was the dreary sound of all night radio, the endless stream of muffled word and more or less sleazy music came through into my ears. Nobody had air conditioning, nobody I knew, and the summer in Winter Park was a sweltering nightmare for sleeping.
I guess I flipped one night. I had already beaten away a flying cockroach the size of a boxcar, let my brother in, listened to my father fall through the screen yet another time – the unmistakable rip of aluminum netting giving way under an elbow. And now the slurpy saxophones from New Orleans. My own obsession happened to be at that time, other than sex, it goes without saying, musical harmony. I had spent the past 8 years fascinated by chord progressions, and how you could start anywhere and actually travel around in a little logical sequence. Much like walking through the woods, you could follow familiar pathways, diverging now and then into an adventurous sidetrack, finding a clear way back, often completing the tour by returning to the very beginning, the place where you started, but seen and heard now in a totally different light.
It is quite a different thing to enter a forest than to leave one behind you.
Anyway, this obsession had made it all but impossible to ignore musical harmonies which came within earshot. Every little ditty except one or two has at least three chords, sometimes four or five, but they are distressingly similar in their limitations. If you’re of a certain nature, when something like that gets to you, you do something about it.
I was bug-eyed in the darkness, hating the guy next door. Sweating, gritting my teeth, covering my ears with a pillow around my neck like a life-preserver, I finally snapped. The soggy sheets into which I had been sunken as into a hammock seemed to toss me over the side, as if gravity had abruptly changed the direction of its pull. I flung myself onto the battered upright piano Gin had bought for forty dollars when I had broken my neck diving. Banging back the lid like a gunshot, I flailed with both hands at the keys. Stravinsky and Bartok would have picked up their ears, as far as the harmony goes. Everyone else probably thought Gabriel had arrived for the final reckoning. Paul appeared at the doorway dressed like a pale Saint, blind without his spectacles. The converted garage which was our room, Jack’s and mine, was two steps down from the kitchen, and I could have sworn he did not touch either step. He seemed more or less to fly like Mercury toward me. My face must have reflected a Frankenstein madness, but he, of course, could see none of that, which maybe explains why he grabbed me from the round stool, setting it spinning. We struggled in the darkness, me sobbing out my hatred for the creep next door, why couldn’t he move his bedroom to the other side of the house, what right did he have to fall asleep listening to music and force me to hear it for the rest of the night.
Meanwhile Paul was quietly doing his best to hold me down, his voice a low growl you could not hear farther away than my ear, into which he was threatening to cripple me for life. I knew he was absolutely right, that I must be mad, that for sure there was something wrong with me, it couldn’t possibly be as bad for any of the other guys I knew, I felt as though I could kill. Not necessarily Paul, or Johnny the guy next door, or Tommy who tormented me with his impish grin letting slithering obscenities fly as we pissed in the toilet or showered at gym. He looked at my penis, snapped his wet towel in that direction, and pointed. He has a Horse’s dick, he shouted. I knew it, he yelled. Lookitat.
No, I felt I could kill anyone, including myself.
The temptation to give in to sudden rages had to be fought down. You could not survive long in a world where there is always someone who feels the same way, but has already reached that point you still only fear. Not only that, he will be bigger, meaner, more desperate the older he gets, and the more skilled at hurting others. It made no sense to fight anyone outside the immediate family. You might get seriously hurt.
n this particular occasion when I returned from college to find his Dodge in the driveway, and he was supposed to be keeping his distance from Gin, Paul was lying back on the sofa, the tilted grin on his face a dead giveaway that he was drunk. He was chuckling as he watched the TV. Some extremist was gassing about how the government had been infiltrated by commies, Jews, and niggers, and that we had better do something about it or kiss our country goodbye.
Paul seemed to find the pejorative words as funny as the dirty jokes he used to tell on the job, and I guess I must have made some wise crack, because before I could turn toward him he had hurled himself from the couch and wrestled me through the doorway into the kitchen. His teeth were bared and he drew a fist of skint knuckles, preparing to smash in into my face.
He suddenly changed his mind and banged my head once against the floor before straightening up. Fucking commie, he snarled.
n his mind, college professors were the source of an ever replenished supply of corrupted youth, beatniks who wanted to undermine the morals of the nation. This also freed him from any responsibility for our education. Not that I expected that. It never occurred to me until I was a graduating senior that I would go to school any more. I had hated the last six years of it. It was something to do, and Korea was breathing down my neck. Besides, they offered me a scholarship on the sousaphone, and why not.
It did give Paul and me something to talk about anyhow. I tried to show off how much smarter the professors were than he was, and he tried to show me how you didn’t need four years of college to teach you what you already knew, that you had to work for a living, sooner or later, and you might as well get on with it while your potential competition was off drinking at football games and screwing the cheerleaders.
Finally, I agreed with him. But I wanted to be there for the party, and lo and behold I liked learning for the first time. Better the cheerleaders, I thought, than the dropouts he picked up along Highway 50 on a Saturday.
I must have been thirteen or so. For some reason, I was spending the night in Dick’n’Doug’s house.
Dick’n’Doug were inseparable, scrapping brothers of the Smith family.
The Smiths to me were fascinating neighbors. The father, fired or laid off from the mines, repaired radios in his garage, a trade he learned by correspondence courses. He never finished the course, for lack of money, I reckon; his garage overflowed with radios of all types that he had not yet learned how to fix. Ours was a green plastic box with a sickening yellow dial light. From time to time he brought it to us, but within a couple of days it would always go back to his work bench.
His wife was named Jim, the first woman I ever knew with a man’s name. She was the wide-mouthed sluttish mother of Dick’n’Doug. She dressed like a sexy teenager, and drank like a career sergeant in the infantry. She was foul-tongued and always ripe for a fight or a party. He voice was throaty and harsh, she was a heavy smoker of Luckies, the red label no brighter than her lipstick.
At thirteen I was already actively trying to fuck, and had made some pretty crude attempts to get my hands on several different girls. With Ona, who delivered papers on foot, I hauled her around all over East End on my bicycle, in exchange for an hour in the bushes by the creek.
It was in the creek that I first laid eyes on her. We had just finished using the horse-shovel to deepen part of the creek to make a summer swimming hole. One scorching afternoon I took the short cut through Refiner’s farm to take a dip. In the cupola of branches we had come to use as a place to strip and leave our clothes, I was surprised to see articles of clothing I had previously seen only in the Sears Roebuck catalog in our outdoor loo, and occasionally hanging to dry in our bathroom.
Crouching slightly for some weird reason, I undressed and edged through the underbrush, blood rushing in my ears with a sound like cicadas in August.
She was wearing a T-shirt, which showed her tits, a magnificent pair of boobs standing straight out at you. I wondered if they felt as good to her as they made me feel, just to look.
So when Dick’n’Doug’s mother Jim sat on the arm of Helen’s sofa one afternoon, took my head in her arms and pulled my face up to where she could plant her ruby lips on mine, tasting like tobacco and whiskey, I was ready to do anything she asked me for. Unfortunately, Dick’n’Doug saw it all, and snickered,; they had not yet entered puberty, I knew, and wondered if one day they would be attracted by my mother, or my sister. I suddenly froze, and Jim patted my crotch with her carmine nails flashing.
Now I remember the hole in the wall in their living room, and how it got there, and my chest heaves in relief that nothing further happened with Jim, or any other adult, until, of course, I myself was adult.
Dick’n’Doug told me the story the night I stayed with them. We all slept in one bed, including their little sister, who seemed to have been sewn into her long underwear. There were only two buttons, both of them on her butt. I hadn’t yet figured out how to become more familiar with female anatomy down there, when Dick’n’Doug started a pillow fight which became a knockdown dragout slugging session which did not confine itself to the bed. Without the layers of blankets they quickly felt the cold and raced each other back to bed to claim the outside place. Nobody wanted to sleep in the middle except sister, and the wall was confining on the other side. That was my place, the only inconvenience being that my investigations of the sleeping Sally were with my left hand.
See that hole in the wall, Dick’r’Doug said. I couldn’t see anything and said so. He stretched out across the others and grabbed my hand and pushed it up against the wall.
That there, he said, Feel it?
It was a deep indentation the sheetrock. Spreading my hand to its widest, I could touch all the edges.
Daddy did that with his fist, Dick’r’Doug said. Uncle Junior was messing around.
Uncle Junior I had seen around more than once. He had curly blond hair, blue eyes, he sang, and he played the guitar. He also liked to drink beer from long-neck brown bottles. He and Jim couldn’t have been brother and sister; in contrast to his almost seraphic appearance, Jim had the black hair of an Indian, though her skin was pale as an Easter egg before it’s painted.
Dick’r’Doug wouldn’t tell me exactly what messing around meant, but it seems it involved some kissing between Junior and Jim. Frank Smith put his fist through the sheetrock; whether as a pure gesture of anger or because he threw a punch and missed they did not say.
It only occurs to me now that they were perhaps giving me a friendly warning.
By Christmas that year, I was sure that Ma and Pa would not hold it against me if I let it be known that I no longer believed in Santa Claus. I searched the closet for hidden presents, breaking the glass top of the coffee table in the process. I stayed awaked on Christmas Eve and watched the placing of gifts beneath the tree though a parting in the curtain between the bedrooms and the rest of the house.
I was surprised to see Jim and Frank there. Jim sat on the couch showing as much of her leg as she could manage without taking off her skirt. Frank sat glowering in the corner of Mrs. Refiner’s discarded blue brocade couch, scowling at my Pa who couldn’t keep his eye off Jim’s knees. Ma, in the meantime, chewed gum and tossed her size four shoe back and forth in a nervous gesture I recognized as a buildup for a show of temper.
Lying in bed with a hard-on, next to my little sister and, on the other side of her my brother, I became curious about the goings-on in the other room. I had never heard my father laugh just exactly like that, sort of low and friendly. Mostly all he ever said to me and the others was a nod or a grunt. Raucous laughter, as when hearing Can You Top This on the radio, consisted to two or three grunts in a row. Mother snapped her gum and swung her shoe. The shoe stopped dead or suddenly doubled its pace as her moods struck her.
Right now the mood that was poised there was one of the vixen deciding she had to protect her brood. Not only had her show stopped at the zenith of its arch, her jaw was frozen mid -chew. She did not like Jim making a spectacle of herself.
Jim’s husband Frank didn’t seem to like the atmosphere all that much, either. He stared at the floor and lifted his bulky head only to knock back another ounce of whiskey.
Franks big knuckles were red from the clenching of his fists. Frank and Gin -Ma’s nickname, were drinking very little from the glasses, but Pa and Jim were tossing the shots down one after the other, and I had never seen such a silly grin on Pa’s face.
Before Mom had caught sight of my pimpled face in the crack in the curtain, I had begun to feel pretty much like Pa. My grin grew wider, and my little dick got harder. Jim had on thick red lipstick, and the top buttons of her blouse were undone. You could see the rise of her breasts through the opening, and the top of her black bra.
She was laughing in a juicy contralto, her voice thickened by cigarettes and whiskey. She threw her head back when she laughed, thrusting her breasts forward against her sweater. The pulsing in my groin was agonizingly sweet. At thirteen, when I felt good I smiled. My teeth must have been gleaming like a Watusi under a bluelight.
Mom’s foot stopped kicking, her toes pointed at her own shin. She stopped chewing the gum, her chin at the bottom of its arc. I’m not absolutely sure, but I think she said, “Well, I declare.” It might have been, “Well, I never.” Or “For goodness’ sake.”
Then she cried out “Paul! See what you’ve done now.”
To this day I think Mom might have used the excuse of spotting me grinning in the space between the curtains to throw a crying fit and break up the party before things got worse.
I met John Patrick at the 42nd street bus station. The bus pulled into the bay designated for the trailways from South Carolina, and I saw my son for the first time in three years. At first we had trouble finding each other, and then his foot locker seemed to have gone astray, but eventually we were in my Dauphine heading uptown to Mrs. Rice’s rooming house on 92nd street.
Mrs. Rice allowed no children in her rooms, a fact I explained to John Patrick before asking him to climb into a duvay cover and curl up as small as he could. It was two in the morning, and highly unlikely that Mrs. Rice would be up and about, but I wanted to take no chances, as she had occasionally surprised me. JP thought it was an interesting adventure, and I’m sure he also understood we would have to exercise extreme caution if we were to have more than few hours to visit.
I was on Easter vacation from my teaching job, and broke as usual. We sneaked in and out of the house at all hours of the day to visit the zoo, see the planetarium, and throw a Frisbee in Central Park. The week went by without incident, and I put him back on the bus the following Sunday. He seemed fearless as he pulled his hat down on his head and climbed the step, his ticket ready to be punched by the driver. He looked at me once when he took his seat, but then he leaned back and I didn’t see him again before the bus back out and turned into the traffic.
He had been five when I left his mother. When he was eight, he and his two sisters spent the summer holiday with me and my second wife. Now he was eleven, and I was three months from leaving for Europe, forever, as far as I knew.
Since leaving the family, I had accumulated very little. A trunk full of books, records and winter clothes. Mari had a footlocker of her things, mostly clothes, and our two suitcases for the Icelandic Air flight to Luxembourg. The flight cost two hundred dollars each, and we had four hundred dollars in traveler’s checks when we landed 18 hours later.
Two years and thousands of kilometers later, Mari and I returned to New York, on a ship this time sailing out of Rotterdam.
The story of those two years will have to be told somewhere else. It takes me too far afield from what I am trying to tell right now. It is enough to say that the two years in Europe had not been at all good for the mental health of Mari. In fact, the reason we returned by ship is that they would not let her on the plane in her state. To my way of thinking it was far more dangerous to have a person suspected of being dangerous to herself or others on a nine day transatlantic liner than on a 12 hour flight.
We had little choice but to return to Missouri, to the farm where she had grown up, to the very house she had lived in until she left for college. We brought my children out for a summer, but her family had been led to believe that I had not been married before, and they could only pretend to ignore their existence.
Soon after that summer, JP’s grandfather adopted him and took him to Hawaii, where he had retired with his third wife a few years back. JP attended school there, and took his grandfather’s last name, lucky to have such a warm man as a father.
The next time I saw JP was in Phoenix, Arizona. In the intervening eight years, JP had graduated from high school in Hawaii, attended college in California for a while, and was still trying to get his degree. In the meantime he was doing various kinds of work. Manager of a movie house. Taco Bell.
He was working in the Love Motel.
In the revolving bookrack by the reception desk, I recognized three of the books I had written while working for the Liverpool Library Press, or LLP, as it was known to pornographers around the world.
Last night I kept seeing the faces of my children in the orphanage. Each time I was about to fall off to sleep, a child’s face appeared to me, sunken into a pillow, eyes open looking at the wall. She could hear the other children breathing in the room, and remembered the events of the day. Inevitably she would turn her thoughts to her father and mother, somewhere out there in the rest of the world, outside the walls housing two or three hundred children and twenty adults. She would imagine one of them coming to pick her up in a white car (she seemed to remember a white car, though she was only three when the family split up). She pictured herself saying goodbye to her one friend in the place, lifting her suitcase, mostly empty except for a few homemade cotton dresses, and walking out the big double doors forever. She imagined the windows of the institution filled with the faces of the boys and girls she was leaving behind, some of whom had tormented her during the past two years, some of whom were seen to be weeping in a corner somewhere most of the time, lost creatures with no hope of ever leaving until they were old enough to walk out alone to look for a job or some distant relative who would help them get set up in life.
Once he had picked up the two girls for a long weekend in a motel with the woman he was planning to take as a third wife. To think of those three days now made him groan and turn over in the bed. Stupid, when you think of it. Thirty years had passed since then, the wife was long since divorced, taking with her their own child – his fourth, their first.
But that weekend in South Carolina, he was hopeful that he could make a new home and in it a place for these ragamuffins he had seeded in his rash college days with his first wife, first jobs, first sorrows of adulthood.
I notice that when I think of the distant parts of my life I think of myself as “he”. It is as though I cannot believe that the person I am today could have committed those acts of abandonment and foolhardiness which so marked his life from the age of 16 to 40.