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Authors: Jack Gantos

The Trouble in Me

BOOK: The Trouble in Me
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For Anne and Mabel


I must not look on reality as being like myself.

—Paul Éluard

… infancy's unconscious spell, boyhood's thoughtless faith, adolescence' doubt (the common doom), then skepticism, then disbelief, then …

—Herman Melville,



When I think back on my young-adult years as a drug smuggler, which I wrote about in
Hole in My Life
, I can never say for certain what caused me to abandon my “better self” and impulsively gamble my freedom on a chancy crime that led to my imprisonment. The easy answer is, “I was led astray by the drugs and money.” Surely part of that is true. And yet it has to be something deeper than that. Some character flaw that was invisible to me. A small weakness that grew larger as I became a little older.

I was always a liar. But one thing I failed to realize about being a liar is that you know when you are deceiving someone else, but when you deceive yourself you believe you are telling the truth. This is a common deception, and so I grew worse while telling myself I was getting better.

Then two things happened at once, and those two things were like two dry sticks rubbing together to make a flame. I had already gone to five schools in seven grades and had done the best I could at keeping myself on a straight and narrow path. It wasn't easy, but I was toeing the line and I vowed that I would read more books and write more in my journal and this time be ready for eighth grade.

But that summer we suddenly moved again. Maybe this move was just one too many, and at the new house I let myself drift further and further from my books and writing until I gave up on all the smart things I had planned on achieving before school started. Still, I told myself I might get lucky and make a great new friend over the summer—he'd be a popular kid, and he'd help me fit in at my new school. That plan almost worked because for a few summer weeks I did make a great new friend, Gary Pagoda.

Afterward I tried my best to forget him and for a time I had, but then the embers of that summer blazed up inside me. I know I have changed names and other details, but this story is what remains inside of me.

Just by chance Gary was my next-door neighbor and he was everything I had never been. He took me under his wing for only a short time, but he had a powerful effect over me. He showed me how to be his double and learn to love trouble while being cruel and crushing my true self. And that's how I prepared for a different life to begin, by becoming everything I'd never been before.

I told myself that being Gary Pagoda was exactly what I needed. Not fitting in at school was going to be the secret to my success. And that was the truth as I told it to myself, and this is how it played out.



I was still in my white Junior Sea Cadet uniform and was marching stiff-legged like a windup toy across the golden carpet of scorched lawn behind our new rental house. Each splinter of dead grass had once been a soft green blade, but the summer heat had baked them into tanned quills that now crackled like trophy pelts beneath the hard rubber soles of my shoes.

I had one hand holding down my dog-bowl sailor cap, and in the other hand I held a red-and-white tin can of Gulf Lite charcoal lighter fluid. For Dad's birthday party it was my job to fire up the steel grill and I was rushing to get at it.

I would have been sprinting directly toward the grill, but I had outgrown my sailor pants and with each binding stride my thighs rubbed together and made a metallic slicing sound like a butcher sharpening a knife. I had to be careful, because one time I had been running too fast on a bone-dry day and the constant friction generated so much static electricity in my pants that when I accidentally touched my zipper I sent sparks leaping out from my crotch like an electric eel. I shrieked because that really shocked the pus out of me and even splintered a fingernail on one hand. But it was funny, too, because getting zapped between the legs was like some goofy
cartoon moment and so I let out a nutty Popeye laugh, “Ah-guh-guh-guh.” Dad's nickname for me was Popeye, because that's how I laughed at all his waterlogged navy jokes.

So I was marching out to the grill and hoping not to zap myself below the belt. Another thing about my pants was that they were too short and with each step I could look down and see the tortured leather toecaps of my cadet shoes. My left shoe looked like an aerial-recon photo of Hitler's bunker torn open after the war, and the other looked like a blown-out Tiger tank. “The Commodore”—that's what I called my dad—was always talking about the war and he had told me to put a Popeye spit-shine on my shoes before our morning cadet meeting, but that command went in one ear and out the other and instead I had killed time by drop-kicking chunky fists of white coral across our back canal.

I was trying to punt a hunk through a worn motorcycle tire that loosely swayed from a banyan tree like a black snake masquerading as a knotted noose. Kicking coral was just one of those brainless things I would rather do than do what I was told. A lot of times I found myself doing things where I didn't have to think. I guess it was because thinking always circled me around to dwelling on things that were lousy and painful and generally hateful within myself. For instance, little things—like when my dad said I was lazy or stupid or an idiot or just a knucklehead—got under my skin. I know I shouldn't have been annoyed with him calling me a numb-nut and I should have just shrugged it off, but even though he claimed that calling me names would toughen me up for the “man's world” facing me in the future, his words just eroded the little confidence I had that held the drifty me together.

I don't want you to think I was just being an overly sensitive and spineless kid, so I'll tell you this: one time he called me an ass-wipe and I snapped right back.

“Stop it, for Christ's sake!” I hollered into his face. “You sound like the kids I hate at school.”

I don't know why, but my voice always sounded so girly to me when I lost my temper with him. Every time I complained, my voice climbed an octave higher than an Italian soprano's. Of course, that just got him juiced up.

“God, what a
voice you have,” he replied derisively, and he laughed in a mocking way at my feeble attempts to sound manly. I hated everything about that word
and what it meant to him. It's like when I played Mitey-Mite football when I was younger and my dad and other dads liked it when we got into fights. They did nothing to stop us. We didn't get hurt because we were wearing so much padding. We'd just bear-hug each other until we twisted over onto the ground and growled into each other's face guard, “I'm going to murder you!”

The dads cheered us on and coached their kid fighters on how to curse other kids with words I won't repeat because most of the filthy ones you know already and don't need to hear them from me.

I didn't play football anymore, but I still had some protective padding left over, only now it defended my heart like a shield. Still, it was impossible to predict when one of Dad's sharp insults would find a chink in my armor. I could be sitting on the edge of my bed with a great book, reading line after line with pleasure, but if even for a second I lifted my eyes from the page and opened my heart to an entrancing passage where I saw myself being heroic, or loved, or brilliant, I was suddenly struck by the escaping memory of one of Dad's lame names for me, like shithead or brain-dead, and my imaginative world wilted away as the printed words bruised and darkened like fruit rotting on a vine.

That's why I was eager to get a blaze going in the grill because somehow, when I stared into the burning flames, it was like having my heart purified of all the ugly words that were lodged within. It was a relief to unlock the full chambers of my heart and feel that no cruel words in the world could harm me. I think some of you know what I mean by that—maybe all of you know what I mean.

But some good-boy part of me must have wished I did polish my shoes as Dad had ordered because I suddenly fixed my eyes so intently on the chalky, gouged-up leather that I had time to imagine my dad yanking one shoe off my foot and with a screw gun mounting it upright atop one of those cheap brassy-assed trophy columns you find lined up in high school corridors, only my trophy would be on display beneath a vitrine in our living room where a crisp white note card pinned to the wall would read J
, 1964. This trophy would mark just one more of the accomplishments lining the hallways of my imaginary Museum of Mockery and would remind me each day that I hadn't yet achieved anything my father thought was
“trophy-worthy.” He loved that two-word phrase, and when it came out of his mouth it could be a buttery pat-on-the-back compliment for getting an A on an American history test, or it could be so sarcastic and belittling that I'd slink back to my room and curl up on the bed like a fishhook and cry until I was rusty.

He could be rough with his words, but he wasn't a hitting dad. Hitting dads are a menace, and that old black rubber noose hanging across the water was a reminder that some guys grow up to be meaner than their dads. A friend I didn't see anymore from my old South Miami neighborhood told me his dad was a

“It's not like I do anything too wrong,” my friend had said with a shrug one day as we played catch with his dad's signed Mickey Mantle baseball. “He just gets pissed off at stupid little shit. I know when he's going to go mental because his lips turn purple and get as puckery as a dog's butt-hole, and then he whips around and hits me.”

The kid and I got some small green scuff marks on the Mantle ball from where it hit the grass a few times. In his garage I watched as he nervously tried to fade them away with a Q-tip dipped in bleach, but his hand slipped and he blurred part of Mantle's autograph.

BOOK: The Trouble in Me
11.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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