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Authors: Josh Stallings

All the Wild Children (3 page)

BOOK: All the Wild Children
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It is 1966.  Planeloads of body bags are coming home from Viet Nam.

It is 1966.  Peter and I meet in the dummy reading class.  No
Little House on the Prairie
for us.  We get to watch Spot run.

It is 1966 and Peter and I are eight, or almost, and we know this is the dummy class.

 

I am 50 and I laugh.  See, Peter went on to be an Earth Science teacher at University of New Mexico.  And I have been paid to write screenplays.  Run Dick run, Jane’s got a meat cleaver and she looks pissed.

 

Reading came slow.

Teachers and doctors and shrinks oh my.

They were going to fix little JJ.

They had no name for what he had.

I took test after test.

I heard my mother told I was just not ever going to be a bright kid.  That she should learn to be all right with that.  She wasn’t.  For all her failings, all her frailties, she was unrelenting in her belief that I was smart.  She would later tell me it was this that led her to believe the entire testing protocol was wrong and needed rethinking.  Then again she also told me she left my dad because he tried to kill me.  And that I was going to ruin my life just like he did when I told her at twenty-one, that my new wife was pregnant.

 

In 1966 my reading was a year below level but my comprehension was high.  I had a spoken vocabulary way beyond my years, but couldn’t spell to save my life.  This, Mom says, is what led her to Stanford and a PhD in early childhood development, out of our home and into the world.  We would stop having homemade bread.  We would fend for ourselves.  She would meet the President.  She would be the first woma
n
Dea
n
at Texas A&M.  She would fight to fix the world, in part because it was easier than fixing our family.

 

It is 1966 and Dyslexia is unknown.  I am the dummy.  The dummy lives inside me.

 

Barbara tutor
s
Dumm
y
101 after school.  Me and Peter are her only wards.  200 plus students at Peninsula and Peter and I are the only ones stupid enough for this.  We are a dirty secret.
 
A failing of the liberal hippy ethos
:
set them free to be creative and they will all become geniuses, it is the shackles of a ridged society that holds them back.

Both my parents are teachers, my mother by choice, she will spend her life as an educator.  My father is a teacher to pay the bills while he does art and writes poetry.

 

There are three Saints in my home: John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dylan Thomas.  All martyrs.  All dead before their time.  All smart men.  I live in a family of thirsty readers.  Books, books and more books.  To be a non-reader is unacceptable.

  I love movies.  Saturdays my mother drops us off at the Menlo or Varsity theater.  Childcare for fifty cents a ticket.  We saw
Mary Poppins,
man was that a fantasy I could dig into. 
Old Yeller,
it was the only film playing for six weeks running.  After five weeks my brother and I are yelling “Kill the dog already!” at the screen. 
Cat Ballou
was a western, with a smoking hot young Jane Fonda.  But
Dear Brigitte
was my all time favorite.  Billy Mummy is my age, seven or eight, and he falls in love and pursues Brigitte Bardot.  Who wouldn’t, right?  Even then I knew I could live happily in her cleavage. 

It is 1965 and only films made by Fellini, Dali, or Warhol have any merit.  My father takes me to see
Un Chien Andalou,
when the straight razor slices the eyeball, I walk out

I’m seven years old and I have already learned that adults have no idea what is best for kids.  I sit alone on the marble floor of the museum.  After the film and some arty chit-chat, Dad comes out.  He wants to explain the surrealist statement of the film.  Man, I’d seen Dick Van Dyke step into a sidewalk chalk painting.  And you want me to see a mule dragged around on a piano and be impressed?

 

It is 1966.  Peter is my best friend all through grammar school.  Watching Jane kick Dick’s ass has bonded us.  We go camping.  In dirt clod wars we are always on the same side.  He may be one of the few non-siblings I trust.  In hindsight he’s probably sorry he trusted me.  But in 1966 I was still a good bet as a friend. 

Peninsula School was a hippy school for wealthy progressives.  It had dirt and trees instead of cement.  It had teachers called Woody and Stu and Steve, not
a
Mr. or Mrs
.
in the group.  It had pottery kilns, weaving looms, painting class, wood shop.  It had kids whose families had more money than God.  It had a few middle class scholarship kids like Peter.  It had poor kids who got in free because their parents were teachers.  We didn’t have Adidas or cords or OP surfer shirts.  We had Levis and rubber boots and Keds.  Mostly we had hand-me-downs. 

We went barefoot year round. 

We wore our jeans low on our hips. 

We wore our long hair tangled. 

We were the cool kids. 

Hang the rich.  Mess with one Stallings, you got the pack on your ass.  We ran hard.  We ran fast.  We had a contest to see who had the dirtiest feet.  We took our poverty and made it a badge of cool.  We convinced ourselves that to be a Stallings meant something.  We believed it hard enough that so did those around us.  We were those kids.  The ones you wanted to hang with.  The ones your parents kept an eye on.  An
d
wheneve
r
he wanted, Peter was one of us.  Crew cut and clean sneakers be damned.  I was his passport into the clan.

1966 I am a badass.  I take lawn clippings and sell them to rich kids as pot. 

“Oh man this is good shit.”  They say between coughing fits.  Then they act all loopy.  I laugh my ass off behind their backs.  Hang the rich.

Hank joins our class in the fourth grade.  His mother is a raging alcoholic.  His father is long gone.  The family fortune is near empty.  They are running on the fumes of old money.  Hank is a trouble case.  Hank is a badass.  Hank and I are as thick as thieves.  Peter fades a bit.  But he is still my best friend.  Hank and I smoke stolen cigarettes.  Peter is just smart enough to stay away when trouble is brewing. 

On a class campout in Big Sur we play spin the bottle.  I hope it lands on Mary Reilly, not her twin Francy.  Francy is a Tomboy.  We climb trees together.  We are good friends.  Kissing her would be weird.  Hank gets to kiss Martha Agulara.  He uses his tongue.  Other kids gack.  Martha blushes, but doesn’t pull away.  Hank is a badass.  I spin the bottle.  It lands on Francy.  We kiss lightning fast.  Both relieved when it’s done. 

It’s 1969 and we are older but no wiser.  We cook up a plan to bring booze to school.  By we I mean Hank and me.  Martha and Peter and Francy and Sarah all go along.  But it is our plan.  Each of us will steal liquor from our parents and bring it in to school in our thermoses.  Friday is D-day.  Drunk-day.  Thursday night I panic.  The whole deal is out of control.  The wheels are going to come off, I can feel it.  I don’t sleep.  In the morning I feign sick, put the thermometer on the lamp.  Hold my stomach, moan ever so slightly.  Act brave.  My family leaves me home alone.  Alone with my fear.  Hank goes to the hospital with alcohol poisoning.  The other four are suspended for a week.  No one rats me out.  I skate.  I hate myself.  I should have been there.  I should have stopped Hank from going too far.  I should have gone too far with him.

The next year Hank is gone. 

Peter is still my best friend. 

We graduate together. 

We go to the ghetto high school together.  We don’t last as friends.  He wears Pendleton shirts and hiking boots.  He is a target.  I wear platforms and leather jackets.  I am a badass.  To quiet my roiling fear I’m stoned every day by 9 AM. 

I am 15, my brother shoots dope with Tanner.  We creep houses.  We creep Peter’s house.  My brother is passed out in the Ford while Tanner and I rifle the house.  We break a window in the back.  We steal all the whiskey in the house.  We steal their TV set.  We steal their Navaho rug.  We steal Peter’s mother’s jewelry box.  I hate Peter, he is a White boy wimp.  He is just asking to be robbed.  I hate Peter.  I hate his hope and possibility.  I hate his university plans.  I hate his mother for being home every night.  I hate his normalcy.  And as we drive away, loot in tow, I hate myself.

 

It is 1999, I am nine years sober.  I have put off making my amends to Peter long enough. 
I
Googl
e
him.  He is a professor at the University of New Mexico.  He is a
n
Eart
h
scientist.  Not bad for a kid from the dummy class.  I find his email.

 

Dear Peter, I’m sure you never expected to hear from me.  Robbing your house was a low point in my life, I know you can never forgive, but I hope there is some way I can make amends.  I leave it in your hands.  - Josh

 

Dear Josh, man it’s great to hear from you.  I have followed your career by way of the internet, you made a real go of it in film.  I’m proud of what you’ve done.  I have a lovely wife and amazing kids.  As for your transgression, man let it go.  I have.  Hell, we all do stupid shit when we’re kids.

Don’t stay away so long this time. - Peter

 

I am 50.  I am eighteen years sober.  The shame has left me.  I may always be the dummy at some level, but I don’t have to be liar a cheat or a thief.

DRIVING NOWHERE FAST

 

Ground fog clings to the cracked and patched asphalt.  A pale blue Mustang pulls to a stop at the intersection of Pagemill and Skyline.  Pagemill runs from Palo Alto on the bay side to the sea on the western side of the mountains.  Skyline Boulevard ribbons the ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains, north to south, from South San Francisco to Boulder Creek. 

Black Mountain commune sits 100 feet from the crossroads.  In a tee-pee a fourteen year old runaway lives with her old man.  Next to them a family of four live in a gutted school bus.  The commune’s population dips and swells from twenty-two to forty, depending on food stamps and pot availability.               

My family’s eighteen acres back up against the Black Mountain commune’s land. 

I am 7.  The Mustang at the crossroads is my father’s.  I am in the passenger seat thinking hard, trying to intuit the correct direction.  My father has dark bags under his red-rimmed eyes, their fighting lasted late into the night.  Not that I heard their strangled voices, but violence and anger have a way of seeping through walls, bringing night terrors to little boys. 

The nightmare is always the same, I’m being chased by evil mayors in crooked top hats.  They never catch me.  I never get away.  It is an angry limbo.

“North,” I finally say.

“You know that’s south you’re pointing at JJ.”

“I know” I stand my ground.  My dad smiles, a rare thing lately.

“So do I listen to your hand or your mouth?”

I stab my hand south, my face heating with embarrassment.

“Hand it is.”  He turns left down Skyline. 

Five miles later at another crossroad I lead us west.  With every mile his face softens.  Rolling under the canopy of oak and bay, dappled light dances over the hood.
 
The sun i
s
fully up, and the fog burned off by the time we hit the Pacific Coast Highway.  Waves crashed on the stony beach.  Beyond the breakers a green sea roils.  There is no such thing as calm water on this stretch of coast. 

My father is laughing when I lead us to a small restaurant in Half Moon Bay.  “Where did you learn to navigate like that JJ?”

“Dunno.” 

“You must have a homing device for bacon.”

“Maybe.  Can I get waffles?”

“Why not.  Shoot the works.”  My father strikes his zippo and fires a Camel.  He drinks coffee and flirts with the waitress.  He is skinny.  He doesn’t eat. 


Ma
n
, my boy can eat, that’s what happens when you only feed them once a month.”

I laugh and keep shoveling waffles in. 

             

I am 50, I remember being skinny, always cold.  I remember how happy my father was that day.  How the whole world was brighter when he was happy.  If I could just keep navigating for him we could make it.  Our rambles weren’t on a schedule.  They would always come after a night of anger and bad dreams.  They are my happiest memory of my father.  They are the rare times I felt in control.  If we could just keep driving we would leave the evil mayors in our dust trails.

 

“Dad?”  We are pulling out of the parking lot back onto the highway.

“Yeah JJ?”

“Why don’t you love Mom?”  His hands go white as they grip on the wheel.

“I don’t know... It’s complicated... I love her but...” he keeps talking. 

BOOK: All the Wild Children
8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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