It was a pleasant bright September afternoon and she was having a good time in the small county library cruising through their archives when a boy plunked down across the table from her.
“Could you write a biography?” he demanded.
“Probably. Who did you have in mind?”
“Me.” His grin improved the impression made by his ragged clothes and gawky body. Backwards red baseball cap. He saw that she noticed the cap. “The librarian made me take it off, but she can’t see me back here behind all these bookcases.” Now she was noticing bruises, scrapes, a certain rime of dirt, but he ignored that. The whole thing.
“And what name?”
“You should meet my sister Turd.”
She didn’t believe he had any such sister and he knew that she wouldn’t. “Last name?”
“You don’t need to know. This will be impressionistic more than historical. There’s really no such thing as truth and accurate facts anyway.”
Her eyebrows were up. “Very sophisticated opinion.”
He twisted to the side and put his feet up on the chair next to him, creating two sharp peaks of scabby bare knees sticking out of his old jeans.
She smiled. “I thought school had started already.” He looked about fifteen or maybe fourteen, teetering on the threshold, so that one moment one saw a grown and rather sad man, but only for a flicker of a second. It might have been the mottled sunlight coming through the tree just outside the window. He might turn out to be quite handsome.
“Oh, I transcended school a long time ago.” He was either ditching or suspended. He didn’t seem hardened enough to have been entirely barred. He used the fancy word easily.
“What would be the point of this biography about a guy named Zit?”
Old-fashioned yellow canvas pull-shades flapped a bit at the open windows. The whole building was pretty much as it had been when erected decades ago, a solid — even unyielding — monument to the value of a certain view of learning that depended on a way of life just as solid, anchored in small town values with God-loving trust.
“Did you know that in the Great Depression dust bowl fathers took their families down in the basement and shot everyone, then himself? Because there was nothing to eat, no way to leave, no way to contact other people. In the end of despair is death.” He must have been reading all this somewhere. There had been a case of it in the newspaper a day or so earlier, except that this recent version was a family sunk in drugs, violence, and unwanted babies. The father was a grandfather. “My father did that. He killed everybody but me and then shot himself in the head.”
She shifted in her chair, put her hands flat on the table. She was a historian. She knew anything was possible. “Why didn’t your father shoot you?”
“He thought I was already dead. He beat me so much I had learned how to stay absolutely still. Most times it made him stop. So when he started shooting, I dropped and held still. Anyway, he mostly wanted to shoot my mom and little sisters. He hated women.”
“When was this?”
“You don’t need to know. This is not a biography about facts. I already told you.”
Her head swam. She gave it a shake and picked up her pen. By now she was so intrigued and half-shocked (the half that believed what he said) that she had accepted her part in the script he proposed. “Let me take notes. Just go ahead and tell me what this book is about.”
Turning back so he was facing straight front, he put his elbows on the table and his cheekbones on the heels of his hands. “There was this fuckin’ boy . . .” He stopped. “Are you offended by cussing?” She shook her head. “I didn’t think you would be. It helps me if I talk tough.”
The story was not memorable. It wandered along, full of impressionistic detail more from media stock advertising and journalism than from anything recognizable as small town life, though there was never any claim that it WAS about small town life. Nor was there much about the unfortunate family in their respective pools of blood.
Nevertheless, she wrote it all down — clichés, repetitious loops, flares of hyperbole, and tedious lists of aides a la memoire. The theme seemed to be survival in the face of the world’s determination to crush him. There was no time nor energy after that super-struggle to simply live.
Then the boy started to run down, to leave long pauses, wear out and stumble. She began to be concerned and wondered whether she ought to alert someone, even call an ambulance. “Zit, did you take anything before you came in here?”
“Naw, don’t worry. I get this way on warm afternoons. I’ll go find a place to take a nap.” He lifted off his cap, stuffed it in his back pocket and straightened up to pass the guardian librarian, then turned back to her. “Thanks for listening. I think you got enough for the biography.”
“Wait, Zit, I’ll come with you. I could buy you a hamburger and Coke.”
“Don’t want ‘em. I’m gone now.” And he was.
She sat wondering what had happened, but she was feeling a little strange herself. There was no question of doing any more work on this day, so she gathered her papers into her briefcase. Stopping at the librarian’s counter, she waited for the woman’s attention to come to her and then asked, “Who was that boy who left just a few minutes ago?”
“Oh, Zit? Pay no attention to him. We’re all used to his tall tales so I expect he was pleased to find someone from out of town who hadn’t heard them before. I hope he wasn’t bothering you. I should have chased him out.”
“Who does he live with, since his family is dead?”
“He’s got a perfectly good family. He’s the one who’s uncontrollable. Around here we’ve just sort of given up. He disrupts every classroom, disappears for days at a time. Some think his parents beat him too much, but it’s hard to blame them.”
“What about his sisters?”
“He has no sisters. There’s just the one boy and I expect they think that’s plenty enough.”
In the next week she never saw Zit again, though she drove slowly up and down the small town streets, not quite admitting to herself that she was looking for him. What would she do if she found him? She didn’t really know anything, certainly not enough to go ask questions of his parents. Intruding could get her in a lot of trouble with violent people — she DID believe the part about beatings because evidence had been right across the table from her. Once in a while she thought she saw a red baseball cap disappear around a corner, but not really. She was uncomfortable from the feeling that she was stalking a boy who had reasons of his own for being hard to find.
Even after she had gotten back home to the city and back into that headspace where she did her more conventional work, she couldn’t stop thinking about Zit. Then the newspaper ran a story about young male prostitutes. The photo was either Zit or a close relative. She couldn’t tell for sure without that red cap. But he was telling the reporter about his family and how his father had shot his little sisters and he alone had escaped to tell the story. The reporter, a woman, was avid to hear more. Seduced.