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Authors: Josh Stallings

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BOOK: All the Wild Children
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The drunk old man looks at me out of the back of the police car as they drive away. 

He is handcuffed.  He is on his way to jail.  He is a wanted man.  He is a pedophile.

 

I am 50, and I wonder what those boys were doing alone in that house. 

I am 9, and I’m proud of myself and my brother.  The boogie man came a hunting and we sent him away in cuffs.  We survived.  Stallings boys 1, boogie man 0.

IF YOU CAN’T BE SAFE, BE FIERCE - PART TWO

 

1975, it is three in the morning, Lark and I have climbed a power line tower.  We are more than a hundred feet off the ground.  High voltage is crackling like black cat firecrackers over our heads.  Our hands are wrapped around steel beams.  Our feet dangle into space.  We are doing pull ups.  We are alive.

 

Lark and I are hooligans.

I am 9.  Lark is 11.  He thinks he is a badass.  So do I.

“Try an stick me with the knife.”

“No, I don’t wanna.”

“Do it dude, I’ve been practicing tae kwon do.”

“No.”

“Come on, just try.”  Lark has placed the knife in my hand.

“I don’t want to.”

“Do it.”

I do and the blade sinks a half inch into the fat over his heart. 

“Fuck dude!”

“You told me to.”

“Fuck!”  The babysitter opens the door.  She sees my brother, she sees the knife in his chest.  She starts to scream.  Lark pulls it out, barely any blood.  No biggy.  I’ve seen worse falling off a bike. 

“What is wrong with you boys?”  The babysitter is yelling.  We are laughing now.  She never comes back.

 

Forgetting the histrionics, hers was a valid question.  What was wrong with us?  Fucked if I know.  I stumble in the dark looking at symptoms and hope they will lead me to a root cause, name it and own it and let it go.  I’m no closer so I keep prospecting.

 

There is a picture of me at 5 years old, sitting on my father’s lap.  My strawberry blonde hair is wild and tousled around my face.  My brother is turned away, all you can see is his freshly shorn head.  Dad has a tight crew cut.  Once a month my mother rounds us up and clips our nails and runs a trimmer over our heads.  On haircut Saturday I would hide in the woods all day.  It wasn’t some deep desire to have long or short hair and nails.  No.  It was a need even then to have control over my body.

 

I am 11, my Mother sends me to an orthodontist.  I don’t want to go.  This battle with her and me goes all the way back to the womb. 

The orthodontist grinds my sharp canines down.  He doesn’t ask my opinion.  He doesn’t warn me he will grind them.  If he had I would have told him I liked my fangs, they made me look fierce.  He and my mother took that choice away.  To this day when my tongue slides across my teeth I feel a pang of anger and loss. 

Flash forward two months.  I hate my braces.  They hurt like hell.  Lark and I are hanging around the house.  He’s bored.  I’m bitching about the braces. 

“You want em off?”

“Huh, yes.”

“Cool.”  Lark gets up and leaves the room.  He comes back with a pair of pliers and a pair of wire cutters. 

“Open up.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“No.  You want them off or not?”  I open my mouth as an answer.  Big mistake.  The wire he cuts is sprung tight.  When it snaps, it springs open, and through my cheek.  I almost bite Lark’s finger off trying to get away.  I’m bleeding and screaming. 

“Shut the fuck up and let me look.”

“Naamph  phukkk!”

“Dude, we got to get some ice on the bitch.”

“Phuckkks Lummer!”

“Calm down you’re spitting blood all over the carpet.”  I don’t, not right away.  Three hours later when Mom comes in I’m perfectly calm.  Watching a Batman rerun. 

“JJ there’s a bag of books in my car, can you carry them in?” 

“Nogggth proggglen.”  She calmly walks over, tilts my cheek up into the light.

“Lark!”

“It was an accident!”  He is yelling from upstairs.  He hasn’t learned to lie to her face yet.  That will come.  For all of us.  “His braces snapped, I put ice on it.”

The next day the braces come off.  I am given a retainer.  By week’s end I have thrown it away.  I like my teeth crooked.  They look like me. 

 

Lark is growing up.  He has hit that wonderful madness called puberty.  I haven’t.  He pulls away from me and goes to Lilly’s side of the age divide.  They are continually ditching me.  Leaving me with Shaun.  I watch them walk away and I so want to be them.  They are the big kids.  They hitchhike and smoke Marlboros.  They come home giggling with red eyes.  They have a secret language.  They listen to secret bands.  They are cool.  I’m not.  My brother grows his hair out and dresses like a working hippy gypsy cowboy.  He wears a felt hat with a floral scarf for a hat band.  He plays bass in a band.  He has a girlfriend.  I hate myself for not being cool enough for him to bring along.

Lark is having a party at the house.  Scott Thomson is trouble.  He and another kid are going off into the woods.  I know they are doing something they shouldn’t.  Something cool.

“We’re just going off to cut some wood.”  He’s smirking.

“Yeah, cut.  Some.  Wood.”

“Let me come.”

“Naaa, I don’t think you’re old enough to cut wood.”

“I’ve been chopping wood since I was eight, dip shit.”

“Oooow, Scott he called you a dip shit.  You takin that?”

Scott looks at me, hardening his eyes.  He throws a punch, stopping inches in front of my eyes.

“Made you flinch!”

“Did not.”

“So did.”

“Fuck you fucker.  Big fat fucking fucker.”  My face is growing red. 

“Whoa JJ, cool it down.  I was kidding.  Kidding.”  My temper is known by those in the inner circle.  They know the signs.  They know it will lead to something that will generally bring adult attention to bear.
               

“You’re still a fucker.”

“OK.  Wanna go cut some wood with a couple of fuckers?”  He’s grinning.  I’m grinning. 

I cough the first toke out.  Scott has to tell me to hold it in.  By the time the joint is a brown oily roach I am flying.  It feels fantastic.  I am free of my mind.  I am safe from myself and the boogie men in the shadows.  People say pot makes them paranoid.  It made me invincible.

“Asshole, you got my brother stoned?”

“Naaa, come on.”

“Fuck you.  Look at him.”  I giggle at Lark.

“OK, maybe, but he asked me to.”

“Hehehe... The trees are alive.”

“Yeah, they are, time for bed.”

“I don’t wanna.  Look up. Where’s Orion?”

“Not in that tree, now come on dude.”

He sneaks me into the house and into my room without Mom catching us.  I have to bite on my fist to keep from giggling.  Ironically the year before I had been pissed off because my mother made pot brownies for my birthday party.  She was trying to impress some mustache wearing man she wanted to sleep with.  This was during her sexual freedom phase.  I didn’t eat the brownies then.  I probably should have.  I could have blocked out the dying moose sound my mother made when fucking Andy, the mustache man.

 

A few years later I will find my brother’s rig, he will yell at me, tell me he’d kill me if he ever catches me shooting dope.  I guess I’m glad I listen this time.  Two junkies in the house were plenty.  That is the next time he and Lilly pulled away from me.  But that is years in the future.  At twelve he teaches me to play poker and drink whiskey.  I will never become good at poker, I care too much about not losing.  I do become good at drinking whiskey, a skill that serves me well for many years.  From that moment on booze flows through my youth like a river.  I can’t remember an important event that didn’t have some drinking involved. 

 

I am 21, and it’s my wedding day.  I’m nursing a hangover.  “God I could use a scotch.”

“You’re not a drinking man are you, Josh?”  My father in law doesn't know me well yet.

“No, just kidding.”  I was a drinking man, and I wasn’t kidding.

 

I am 15, and have just gotten my wisdom teeth removed.  I am chipmunked and high as a kite on Percodan when my mother brings me and my girlfriend Kahlua smoothies.  Because nothing says I love you like mixing prescription drugs with booze.  Not like I probably wouldn’t have done the same thing if she wasn’t home.  So I guess I can cut her some slack.  Like all parents, she just wants to be cool.  She lets us drink and fuck in the house. 

“I’d rather them do it here than in some dark alleyway.”  She actually said that to the irate mother of a girl Lark was sleeping with.  We are a family of great justifiers.  We swim in fast moving rivers of denial and addiction.

When Ian Dury sings “Sex and drugs and rock n roll is all my body needs.”  I think he is singing my theme song.  White Punks On Dope?  Fuck yeah, why not.

Sure Lark has pulled away, but I am running real fast by fourteen.  I am coming on strong and gaining.

IF YOU CAN’T BE SAFE, BE FIERCE - PART THREE

 

(In which we learn to strut and stroll in platforms, and sing ‘diamond in the back sunroof top…’) 

 

1975, 3:55 in the morning.  Lark and I sit on a park bench.  We are the only people awake.  We own this town.  We are free.

 

1972, I blow-dry my shag.  I’m a freshman.  I’m listening to Don Mclean’s
American Pie
on the clock radio.  “What the fuck is that?”  Larkin spins the dial, finds KSOL and smiles as Al Green sings
Lets Stay Together
.               

“You’re not wearing that shirt,” Lark says.

“What’s wrong with it?” 

“Are you a fucking lumber jack?”

“No.”

“Do you want to get your ass kicked?”

“No.  I don’t think I do.  Although a good ass kicking does have a way of motivating a lad.”

“Shut up wise ass, put this on.”  He tosses me a faded Marilyn Monroe T-shirt.  I put it on.  It looks boss.

“And don’t say ‘boss’.  You’re not in Peninsula any more.”

Peninsula school was making art and weaving and going barefooted through mud puddles.  Today is the first day of high school.  Today I go to Ravenswood.  Today I discover that high school in East Palo Alto is scary.  Today I get in my brother’s hotrod ’56 Fairlane with my heart racing.  “Man, crank that, I love this song.  That’s the O’Jay’s right there, that’s the shit.”  Larkin sings along to
Back Stabbers

My mother is coming up in the world.  She has rented us a faux-Tudor house on the good side of town.  We are driving on University Avenue headed east.  Past the gracious sprawling homes with park like gardens.  Round the bend towards the Bayshore freeway - Whiskey Gulch is just before the overpass. 

Neon liquor store signs sing siren songs to the boat deck walking drunks.

East Palo Alto is a world away.  And just across the interstate.  Eight concrete lanes from one of the nicest cities in America is one of its most notorious ghettos.  By 1977 it will beat out Detroit for the title of Murder Capitol, USA.  In the fall of 1973 it is just the place my big brother chose to go to school.

Through the windshield Black faces stare out of all the other cars.  Black faces stare from the sidewalks.  Why did I agree to go to Ravenswood?  Who’s great plan was that?              

Reverse integration, that’s what they call it.  Take the best teachers from the district, give them synthesizers and scuba diving equipment.  Ship a bunch of White kids in and see what happens.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this plan has a few major flaws.  The most glaring being that in 1973 there are no good jobs waiting across the freeway for young Black men, and they know it.  They know it every time a cop rousts them for crossing the bridge.  They can see it in every old lady who clutches her purse to her chest when they move down University Avenue.  They can see it, and it pisses them off.  They know being White is a free pass.  That pisses them off too.  Now toss a bunch of White kids into their school, who do you think just might become the target of all that justified rage?  Yeah, great fucking plan.  Send the kids to integrate a world the adults are unwilling to. 

1973, it all sounds good when the counselor pitches it.  Best equipment, best teachers.  I am in.  Truth is, if they had said it was hell I still would go.  Lark is there. 

“I’ll pick you up at three.”

“Aren’t you…”

“First day’s bullshit.  I’ll see you at three.”

“You’re cutting?”

“No, no.  Field trip.  Get your ass in there.”  And he’s gone.  Kids swirl around the entrance.  Slapping five.  Shouting.  Shoving.  I’m the only White face in a sea of shades of brown.  KSOL flows from parked cars and ghetto blasters.  Curtis Mayfield i
s
singing Little Child for the whole town to hear.  No need to turn it down, Bayshore freeway drowns the music out before it reache
s
the rich banks of University Avenue.

BOOK: All the Wild Children
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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