JOEY

The story was in the paper with a photo I hardly recognized, but it was him all right.  I hadn’t seen or heard of him for many years but no day passed without me thinking of him.  It wasn’t obsessive, like he was something I couldn’t solve or something painful.   Just something would happen or I’d see something or even there might be a voice on the radio or TV and I’d just flash Joey for a minute.  A boyhood memory.

But sometimes it was really intense as though I’d teleported back in time to the old neighborhood.  There were maybe four of us guys who were about the same age.  It was the Fifties and Cub Scouts were the thing but that was only part of what we did together.  It wasn’t like today where everything was organized.  More or less we just went out exploring and found things to do.  Could have had a ball and played a little catch or something.  Maybe found a good place to make a cave in the side of a dry stream bed.  Or maybe there was an apple tree that wasn’t too green to eat — or if the apples were too green they still made good missiles to lob at each other.

Joey was the smallest of us but the boldest, which was kind of crazy because of his old man.  His old man was a beater.  We could hear Joey screaming and even the belt hitting him if it was summer and the windows were open.  All our dads gave us a licking now and then.  I’ve read about lots of famous men whose fathers beat them when they were kids.  But there was something really scary about these beatings, as though Joey’s dad were possessed or something.  He couldn’t seem to stop.  And we never really understood why.  What was so awful that Joey would have to be beaten like somebody in the movies tied to a wagon wheel?

But it didn’t have much effect on Joey anyway.  In fact, it seemed as though he just set his mind to defy his monster father and go on doing whatever it was double.  He could not be controlled by beatings.  We wondered why his mom didn’t stop them.  We’d sit out in the yard in a little huddle and listen, waiting for Joey to come out to prove he hadn’t died.  We never thought of calling the cops.  We never even thought of telling our folks.  What could they do either?  Families didn’t mess in each other’s business.  Anyway, the grownups in the neighborhood had to know.  If they didn’t do anything about it, then it must be acceptable, right?

One night I snuck out of my house.  No particular reason.  I just could so I did.  My folks didn’t keep track of me that close.  Anyway, they were having a big fight and wouldn’t have noticed if the house had caught on fire.  So I was wandering around the backyards along the street and then over towards the arboretum.  My dog came along.  Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have found Joey.

My dog liked Joey and went over to this bundle or something.  I could hear a little noise and then saw that it was Joey with his knees drawn up, hiding his face and not quite crying.  More like whimpering.  My dog licked his ears and he realized I was there.  I sat down beside him in the grass.  I didn’t say anything.  What was there to say?  I threw my arm over his shoulders and held him.

Pretty soon we lay back on the grass and there we were with our arms around each other like lovers with my dog lying alongside.  I kissed Joey’s face which was soft and hardly salty and I kissed his eyes.  I could tell he was beginning to smile and that made me happy.  We were so young we couldn’t even hardly develop a proper hard-on, but it felt so good to use my body to comfort someone — I mean, someone not a dog.  It was so naturally loving and human.

I wonder if I should contact him now?  We kept it sort of private.  The other guys weren’t part of the deal — it was just me and Joey.

Then when we were older we went to different high schools.  That first year Joey’s dad was still beating him and gave him a really bad black eye.  A senior boy, Dirk, saw that black eye behind the dark glasses Joey wore to school and he went over to where Joey’s dad worked and beat the shit out of him.  After that Dirk and Joey were always together.  I wished I’d been that brave.  I went to see that Marlon Brando movie where he was on a motorcycle and that’s what Dirk was like.  Pretty soon Joey started being like that, too.  Anyway, I was beginning to notice girls.  But I never forgot Joey.  I guess I’ll probably never contact him either.

JEM’S STORY

I was bouncing off an NPR story about a renegade LDS colony that the authorities have just invaded but now don’t know quite what to do with.  What struck me was that they said there were a LOT of these boys just hanging around Salt Lake City, wondering what to do.   They don’t have quite enough moxie to organize themselves into a construction company, evidently.  Or get overwhelmed anyway.  This is only a beginning.

Prairie Mary
Jem, short for Jeremy, was a well-loved boy.  After all, he had five mothers.  Only one father.   This was one of the non-conforming LDS families you read about.  Polygamous.  Most men thought that was pretty neat, having sexual access to that many women, but that meant five families to feed, five women to keep happy.  You’d think that would mean he was kind of an Alpha Dog, a big strong tough guy, but what outsiders didn’t understand was that the whole community was really run by the only Alpha Dog, the dictator, who had the power to reassign a man’s families if they weren’t happy.

If he wanted to reassign a family — maybe to punish the man or maybe the wife or even the kids, but always to punish — it wouldn’t matter if the family said they didn’t WANT reassignment, that they wanted to work things out, or even if there really was NO problem.  He could only do this because religiously they were all part of a fantasy about God being the Ultimate Patriach, the guy in the sky who ran everything through this single earthly representative.

Another part of it was the the complex of families were so tightly woven and so divided from the outside world — no education beyond elementary reading and arithmetic, no media, no contact with outsiders — that they had no way to know they were living in a box.  The men, except for the patriarch and his close friends and henchmen, became cowed and even worried that their wives would complain about them.  Some wives used that.

Jem knew which mother was his biological mother but he wasn’t as close to her as he was to one of the younger wives and a couple of the daughters who were near his age.  When he was little and the others were also little, they sometimes noticed that older boys were missing.  The little girls especially would be attached to the kinder boys, since their fathers were far to busy to talk to them or teach them things.  It was just part of the order of things.

Then one day a boy came back, quietly, secretly, and briefly.  One of his sisters talked to him.   He left her a little cheap transistor radio.  She and Jem began to rendezvous in the secret places they knew and to listen to that little radio until the batteries died.  They had no new batteries nor did they know where to get any.  But what they heard was for them the equivalent of taking a rocket into outer space.

They had assumed that they went off to be missionaries or to work at some other colony.  Boys were trained in construction, not just framing and roofing, but also plumbing and electrical.  They often went on a crew to build either for another group or even to fulfill a construction contract that the patriarch had made.  The bids he would make would be far lower than anyone else’s because the labor was so low-cost.  The young men were paid only enough to be fed and sheltered, though not in a public way.  Maybe by one of the related churches.  If any of these young men got notions about the outside world while on one of these excursions, he’d be smart to keep it to himself.

The boy who came back had hidden his great-grandfather’s handmade wood plane, a beautiful but old-fashioned instrument, to keep it from becoming community property and he came back to retrieve it.

Jem was a thoughtful boy.  One day he left, not knowing anything except to start walking in the direction the girl said the boy had come from and returned to.  It was north.  He made it to Salt Lake City.  There was the older boy.  There were more than a few of the older boys who had gone missing.

They couldn’t fit into the system.  They didn’t understand what to do.  They spoke English but didn’t mean the same things.

Salt Lake City authorities called them “the Lost Boys.”  They didn’t know what to do with them either.  The drug cartels knew.  The Lost Boys had never been taught what drugs can do to a person or how they would eat their hearts out.

And that’s how Jem became a hollow boy.

ORIENTALISM IN A YOUNG MAN

“Madly Anointed, Kissed, Bowed Down Before” — oh, yes.  I’ve seen it before my very eyes.  “Oooooh, Mr. Saddle, I just loooove your work!”   But she’s not looking at the work.  She’s looking at him.  Or more specifically, his zipper.  He is well-packed, but she doesn’t know how good a shooter yet.  She badly wants to find out.  Wants to get astride the saddle, so to speak.

He’s not even young: rather grizzled.  Okay, very grizzled  Not very tall.  Pretty strong, though.  Sculptors do develop shoulders.   But she’s thinking too much about Rodin, Picasso, Pollock — boasting cocksmen.  Some guys do get old and tired, even if they are famous and the toast of the country.

I’m his model, his beautiful young Native American brave who hunts the buffalo in only a breechclout.  Sometimes the customers come on to me, but not this one.  To her I am invisible.  Indians are used to being invisible.  She must have a father complex.  Of course, she’s no young chick herself.  She leeeeans on his shoulder, draaaaging her dangling boobs along his denim shirt.  So innocently.  He pretends he doesn’t notice.  That will set the hook better than responding would.  He’s not thinking about her body — he’s thinking about her checkbook.  But later.  It’s time to close and he’s NOT inviting her to dinner.  There ARE limits.

We eat out.  Neither one of us wants to cook or wash dishes.  He’s always after me to eat salads, but I stick to pizza and beer.  I’m always after him for his smoking, but he pays me no mind.  He likes to pretend he’s in an old noir film, blowing smoke.  Blowing smoke, all right.

When we get back, he goes to the shower.  “Bean?  Bean!  Come wash my back.”  I got my name by announcing when I was little that I was a “human being.”  My family teased me by pretending I was saying “human bean.”  People here don’t like little boys who put on airs.  They didn’t take me seriously.  Sometimes not even seriously enough to make sure I had enough to eat or a warm place to sleep.  I don’t always want to wash anyone’s back, but I do it.  I’m not stupid.

Anyway, he’s cute when he’s all wet.  He’s so hairy he’s like a teddy bear and I like to dry him off the way you’d dry a little boy — getting into all the crevices, like, well, between his toes.  When he’s dry and tousled and pink-cheeked, I can hardly resist him and kiss him on the mouth.  He responds.

The doorbell.  I hope it’s not that woman.  No, it’s Sad’s agent.  Yeah, I call him “Sad” and there IS something sad about him.  Like all white men.  Especially the ones who long for the 19th century.  “Why gone those times?” they sigh.  But — the doorbell.

The agent, Sid, has been on a kick for quite a while.  Someone explained Orientalism to him and he got it into his head that the American Indian is the new Oriental, the jeweled exotic with the clever tongue and substances of magic effect.  It’s a 19th century idea really, to be so in love with desert people on horseback.  But it does fit, doesn’t it?

In a Seven of Swords way — do you like Tarot?  Sad LOVES Tarot and I’ve learned to tell the cards for him.  (A woman I knew in college taught me.)  It’s not that he’s superstitious, he’s just so narcissistic that he wants everything to be about him.  The Seven of Swords is a two-edged card about secrecy and trickery.  It’s really my card and I make it come up in almost every reading.  I never really tell him which card is his.  Best for him to keep wondering and considering.
“Read this!” insists Sid, and pushes a computer download into my hands.  “Orientalism is the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists. . . . Orientalism was more widely used in art history referring mostly to the works of French artists in the 19th century, whose subject matter, color and style used elements from their travel to the Mediterranean countries of North Africa and Western Asia.

“These meanings were given a new twist by 20th century scholar Edward Said in his controversial book Orientalism, in which he uses the term to describe a pervasive Western tradition, both academic and artistic, of hostile and deprecatory views of the East, shaped by the attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. When used in this sense, Orientalism implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples. Said was critical of this scholarly tradition.”

Sounds like Sioux to me.  But Sad has an idea for a new bronze and he and Sid go off to make little mockup miniatures on the kitchen table with toothpicks for spears.   I take my iPhone to bed to watch vids for a while.  I’m getting a little tired of all this mercantilism, all this narcissism, all this . . . what is it?  Orientalism.
In the morning when I wake up that woman is back.  I walk down the street for ice cream.  Hey, that’s a good breakfast!  Dairy, isn’t it?  I’m lactose tolerant.  I can handle it.  I love vanilla white.

But when I come out of the shop with my triple-dip cone, I almost run into a guy coming towards me, almost smoosh my ice cream on his silk shirt.  While I’m watching the ice cream and desperately juggling to keep it from going on the sidewalk, a hand comes out to steady mine.  A black hand.  A very BIG black hand.

He lifts my hand up to his beautiful ebony face and he swallows the whole top of my vanilla cone — takes it in his mouth and puuuuulls it slowly between his red velvet lips.

I lift my gaze to his smiling eyes.

It’s a few days before I get back to the issue of Orientalism.