THE KEEPER OF SECRETS

The boy had become the family Keeper of Secrets.  He was smart and listened well, so that seemed natural, but the family was large and had a lot of traditional women in it — that is, women who had things to say, but no one listened to them.  So they told the boy.  Also, these women were often rivalrous so they tended to see many little faults in each other, but particularly between the two branches of the family, the paternal and maternal.  He didn’t call them that.  He said, “City family, country family.”

His mom was country family now but she was city family before she married his dad.  It was hard for her to learn how to be country and her sisters could never understand why she married into such a situation, though they liked to visit now and then, if only to inform her how much better their lives were.  Then they’d get the boy off to the side and pump him for information about his mother and father.

He was a good secret keeper and learned early which ones were radioactive and which ones had such obvious and dull answers that they were safe, though he was careful to leave out details or add ones that meant nothing, just to disarm the information.  The trouble was that as a little boy, he really didn’t know the difference between dangerous and innocent and once in a long time he would trip up and hear things screamed at his mother.  Things like, “How can you neglect your hands like that?  When was the last time you had a decent manicure?”  He didn’t know what a manicure was.

The main secret he didn’t know himself was that being a little boy meant that he shouldn’t have been told many things.  Not until he was an adult did he understand that miscarriages, abortions, lovers, early menopause and a host of accusations like “mother always loved you best” were not for little boy’s ears, much less any expectation that he could figure out what they meant or what to do about them.  

Once he went to his father to ask what some of these things meant, but that was a mistake.  His father lost his temper easily and was likely to react violently.  Not that he didn’t slap, grab, and shove both he and his mother all the time anyway, sometimes hard enough to bruise and once or twice violently enough to break bones.  Even if he went to school with a black eye, it was evidently a secret not to be mentioned by his teachers or classmates.  He knew never to tell home things at school or school things at home.

The grandmothers hated each other.  His paternal grandmother dearly loved and praised his father, her cherished only son.  His maternal grandmother had no time for boys or men.  This may have been because his maternal grandfather had disappeared, taking the family dog, and left her to raise all the girls alone.  Most of them worked hard at school and jobs and were successes, but didn’t marry except for his mother. 

So he formed an alliance with his paternal grandfather and the two of them became prodigious fishermen.  Glam told him everything he knew about fish — which was a lot — but when the boy asked about his parents, the old man confided that he didn’t understand women and, frankly, he was afraid of his own belligerent son.  With reason.  His son had once actually punched him out.  He explained it was wrong to go to the police when your son knocks you down.  It was a city thing to do.

There were a few boys at school who had families that were similar.  It was the way of the world to push fathers into these roles, criticizing them if they were weak or talked too much or didn’t make enough money.  Love was a luxury or a material obligation like chocolates at Valentine’s Day.  

The country was rapidly developing as more housing was needed.  But there was still enough undeveloped land around the farms for the boys to find places to gather, even to build a little campfire and gather around it.  They didn’t roast marshmallows — these were boys who kept dried beef jerky sticks in their pockets to chew on when necessary.  The “hotter” the better.  Not that they wouldn’t accept cookies when they were offered, but they tried not to mention that or to ask for them.

They didn’t discuss their families much because it would be complaining, but sometimes a boy caught in a domestic war would spend some time cursing and imagining terrible retributions.  Then one day an uncle showed up, a not-quite-grownup who seemed very worldly.  One of the comforts of the boys was smoking, which was in the comfortably gray area of disapproved and risky but not really illegal, and easily broken down for sharing, one at a time from a pack or handed back and forth, with the little added element of being a kind of displaced kissing.  Nicotine was both arousing and calming.  It helped with the anxiety and the smoke was fun.

The uncle, who was quite a bit younger than their parents but older than the boys, asked them if they ever smoked pot.  The boys were still pretty young and they had not, but they knew what it was.  He had some with him.  Some say pot is a threshold drug and will lead up the primrose path to heroin and so on, but the real threshold drugs were the self-generated hormones of sex and worry.  And the real addiction was secrecy.

The uncle had been in the Navy and the reason he left was a secret.  One summer day he invited one of the boys to walk with him away from the group to a wooded place he knew because he “wanted to show him something.”  It was sexual and began as seduction but ended as force.  Rape, to give it the right name.  The boy yelled and the other boys came.  They weren’t in time but the uncle did not escape.

It was a wooded place because there was a spring and that kept the ground wet and soft.  They buried him there and his remains disappeared quicker than one might guess.  No one ever told the secret and because of the spring that land wasn’t built on for decades.  The uncle’s sister, who was the mother of one of the boys, grumbled, “I understand that men always leave, but he could have taken his worthless dog with him.”  The boy loved that dog.

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Two Versions of the Same Thing

William Schulz:  “Liberalism in Theory and Praxis”, the title of a speech, appears to be the source of the following notes in the pile of stuff I’m sorting, but when I googled, this is what I got:  https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/fileid/48374/13442   The content was Schulz’s vita.  Very mysterious and suggestive.  You don’t need his vita.  

He’s a UUA leader, quite charismatic, sometimes a bit Luciferan exp. around women.  Called me at 3AM once when I was circuit-riding in Montana to see whether Alan Deale was thinking of running for president of the UUA.  Luckily for him, it was the one day a week I slept in my apartment instead of my van.  Unluckily, I was not as much of a confidante of Deale as Schulz thought.  I didn’t know.

Anyway, wherever the notes came from, here they are:

The challenge of the 21st century will be to redefine liberalism and humanism in light of the discoveries of “new physics.”  We must accept the totality and the indivisibility of the universe, and abandon the demand of the human ego to somehow be special or separated from the rest of the cosmos.

5 new UU affirmations

1.The wonders of the cosmos outspill every category into which we try to fill them.

2.  The cosmos is all of one piece.

3.  The future is in human hands, but only a global consciousness will do.

4.  Only the earth itself deserves our loyalty.

5.  The gracious is available to every one of us disguised in the simple and mundane.

Instead of commenting, I’m going to summon up a little story.

_______________________

A small campfire burned on the high SW desert ridge.  An old man hunched on a camp stool.  His beard was trimmed but his white wavy hair was long and pulled back into something like a bun.  The fire sighed and shifted as though it were alive.  The two young men, old enough to drive but not to vote in some states, watched it almost suspiciously.  They were city boys, suspecting it would jump up and run away through the pinon and juniper.  

One boy was teaching himself how to play a kazoo, a plastic toy, really.  Some people might think it was a drug pipe of some kind, but it was innocent as paper wrapped around a comb.  The other boy was smoking Marlboros, thinking about cowboys, and the threat of cancer was minor compared to all the other dreads and dooms of his life.  Infections, traumas, and intermittent moments of ecstasy and glee, many of them sexual.  Sometimes monetary.

He addressed the old man, who often talked about death these days, maybe self-immolation, something dramatic that would make a point, take a stand in a meaningless world.  “You SAID this would be a remote place, but WTF!!”

They were looking from so high and far, through air so thin and cold, that they could see the horizon curve, just bending a little bit, gracefully.  All three were acutely aware — because they liked sand war movies — that satellites could focus in on them, pick up not just the light of the campfire but even the glow on the end of the cigarette.  They could at least be recorded but probably not bombed by a predator drone because the cost to benefit damage just wouldn’t compute.  Still, it made a nice edge to awareness.

In the dust near the fire the two dogs groaned and turned over a bit.  They loved the campfire heat.  And it had been an exciting day, a lot to dream out into sense memories — the smells alone. . .

“Are we all gonna sleep in the jeep tonight?” asked the kazoo man.

“I am,” said Mr. Marlboro.  “I’m afraid of snakes.”

“We’re too high for snakes,” murmured the old man.  “Might be visited by a cougar.”  He grinned.  The boys exchanged looks.  Then they relaxed a bit — the dogs.  

When they got closer to sleeping, the youngsters went to the edge of the ridge and made high amber arcs out into space for a surprisingly long time.  The old man didn’t join them.  He didn’t like comparisons, but the two young ‘uns were happy rivals to each other.  The acrid smell of male urine joined all the other pungencies of the smoke-laden air.  When they climbed into the jeep, the springs bounced for a while.

Arranged in his bedding, he smiled.  The tracking satellites intercepted the single stars and the Milky Way and he thought back to other times he’d visited this place on some vision quest or need for whatever it was he found here.  The first time, it was he who was the boy, but he carried a harmonica in his pocket and had known how to play it since he was almost a baby.  He could chord and phrase in a way that made the ladies cry.  

As if he cared.  Ladies always find something to cry about.  But he always had a dog and the dog always liked the harmonica, sometimes sang along with it, sometimes between the two of them calling in the coyotes, but never a wolf.  He would have liked to have heard a wolf out there in the silver-lined darkness, but that early time he and his old man were on horseback, so it was just as well.

He wouldn’t sleep tonight, not use the flask of whiskey.  He’d doze rocking along in the back of the Jeep while the boys argued their way down off the ridge and on to the next destination, which was the Pacific Ocean.  They’d never seen it.  Poor deprived kids.  He’d show them he still knew how to body surf.

He’d been reading physics lately, different from the kind of physics he knew in university, which was so solid and clear.  Now it was practically religion, full of images of ambiguity, but somehow reassuring — always changing but never ending, even if you got impatient and gripped Time to tie a final knot in it.  The dogs, now that the fire had died down, came over to sleep against him, one on each side.  He turned onto his side so one could have his back and threw his arm gently over the other one.  Their tails wagged for a moment and then they went back to sleep.

WHIRLAWAY MAN

He was laughing wildly, so much so that she put down her dishtowel and went to the front room to see what was happening. She had expected him to be looking at one of his endless collection of electronic gizmos but he wasn’t. He was holding her book on Canadian literature which she had acquired up there a few years earlier in a doomed teaching job.

“What is it?” she asked.

He could hardly stop laughing. “It’s this quote from Stephen Leacock about jumping on a horse and riding off in all directions. It’s a perfect description of my family.”

“You’ll have to tell me. Let me finish the dishes first.”

But now he was sober. The laughing had drained off enough energy for him to feel that skeletons in his closet elbowing each other, jangling, knee-capping, even the baby who died so soon after birth, starting a wave of guilt and blame that could only be handled with total denial that it ever lived at all.

His main defense against the waves of misery had been super-rational analysis, dispassion. Becoming a distant critic unplugged from any of the emotional short-circuits. It wasn’t easy, partly because the main demand of the rest of the family was that he should be special, a famous man that the rest of them could claim like a badge because they could say, “Oh, I knew him when. . .” or “I changed his diapers.” Or “I encouraged him when no one else would.” None of this was true, of course, much less rational.

But he still had had secret delusions of being powerful, a genius, an artist of transformative skill. There was no focus, but that was the logical result of riding off in all directions. So he had thought maybe if he found a totally different community, made a new family out of those he had some affinity for — shared their loves, their skills, connecting into something larger than any individual. But it turned out that they rode off in all directions, too. No sooner did they begin to bond among them, immediately someone would challenge the group, start a fight, and have an excuse to leave.

He chose a partner — doesn’t matter whether it was a man or woman. Pretty soon they were shouting — or worse, hoarding bitter accusations and threatening to leave — or even worse, just disappearing so that he was tortured with fantasies of death or capture or just the idea that he had imagined the whole damn fiasco from the beginning.

What he attracted then, naturally, was naive young women (or men — gender doesn’t matter) who swore they would never leave, never betray, never even argue — though he saw in their eyes their desperate desire to escape.

Maybe he should offer to help finish the dishes.

“Too late. All done now.”

When they were in bed, she with her book and he with his thoughts, she put down the book and said, “Tell me now what all that laughter was about. Tell me about your family.” Too late. The door had closed.

For the rest of the night the phantoms rode through his head. His father, drunk but still powerful and in control, went through in one direction, his black stallion rearing so that the silver trappings of controlling a horse all jangled and flashed. Was that lightning among the rolling clouds?

His mother in a old-fashioned open sportscar with a long chiffon scarf around her neck that blew straight out in the wind she was making, until there was an eddy making the scarf whip too close to the wheels so that, like Isadora Duncan, it tangled, went taut and broke her neck.

The baby in a buggy, like the famous scene in the Russian (was it Russian?) movie rolling down the long stairs of some official building, bumping along straight ahead and never tipping to one side or another, so that the baby didn’t fall out but couldn’t be seen either, so maybe it wasn’t even there.

When he woke, he was exhausted and she was gone. Pulling on jeans, he went down the stairs bare-chested and smelled coffee, followed it into the kitchen with its long sweep of windows above the drainboard and counter. It was quite English, this way of making a kitchen merge with a garden by keeping out the rain with glass but calling the sunlight to pattern the floor and walls.

She was out there with her book, her inevitable book, sitting with one leg hooked over the arm of the yard chair, the sun making her hair into an aureole. He felt he loved her and then instantly was jealous of her ability to be where she was. That book — wasn’t it an evasion of him? Or was it an anchor, a safe place for her to return when his need of her was over — a book that was a book mark.

“What is there to eat?” he called. He loved to interrupt her, to claim her back from that world that was only in her head, to check where he was on her priority list, to see how many “bars” of power on this little gizmo that was their relationship. By the time she came, smiling, with the cat twining around her bare feet, barely avoiding being stepped on, he was in his chair in the front room reading the online NYTimes on his new tablet.

Or pretending to. The ghosts of his dreams were still fighting it out in his head. Sometimes he had fantasies of some brain surgeon drilling a hole in his skull so they could all fly out like cartoon characters, blobs that trail off into a point at the bottom like dialogue balloons. His mother slammed the front door as hard as she could as she raced for the car before his father could stop her. His father went out the back with a six-pack of beer and got onto his riding mower. He would stay out there in the big field behind the house, roaring back and forth, getting besotted.

What could he do? The pattern was deep inside him, riding off in all directions. There was no cure, no respite.

She knew that, accepted it, put down cat food in a saucer, picked up her book which she had left face down on the table, wiped off the page a spot of blood-red jam that she hadn’t seen was on the table from her own breakfast.

THREE SUICIDE ATTEMPTS

As an old woman she reflected quite a bit on her three suicide attempts. They were far in the past now, when she was young and drastic and not quite in control because she never thought about what her options were.

The first one was intended to be a kind of magic. Before she married, she had been in love with her future husband’s sister and if she had been a lesbian, she would rather have married her than him, but same-sex marriage wasn’t done in those days no matter how she “self-identified.” Peg and Putt were twins, fraternal obviously, but very much alike. Except that since Putt’s DNA had a Y and Peg’s had an X, she always felt that Putt was Peg with something missing. Of course, Peg had no male appendage, but the relationship was not about penetration. It was about sharing and understanding.

They met when they were all taking the introductory English class together at university — not the bonehead class, but the one meant to sort of orient everyone and explain the focus of the department, which was very heavy on myth, both Greek and the derivatives like Jung and Joe Campbell. They each picked some version of that terrain to work out. Putt leaned towards the psychological which was nice and fuzzy so that he couldn’t be pinned down. It was his life strategy and didn’t succeed very well. The two women were sharper and more contemporary. They liked the Imagists.

But when Peg developed fatal cancer, the old woman had succumbed to a half-unconscious idea that if she herself died, Peg would not. Fate would take her in Peg’s place. By this time much had changed. Peg had married a college professor and produced three babies, one after the other, all of them dear and sweet but undistinguished otherwise. The father was developing a strong career in administration, so there was plenty of money.

Putt had found a teaching job, mostly by staying where he was and making himself useful, so they remained on the little farm just outside town where the twins had grown up and sadly buried their parents, who died too young in a car crash. The old woman had settled at the kitchen table to write, expecting to produce a novel that would pay some bills. When they modernized the kitchen, they had kept the old wood stove and she was grateful for that, loving the sound and the intermittent interruptions to add more wood. But she never tried to cook or bake on it. Much of what she wrote was letters to Peg, counting on the dependable responses by return mail.

But Peg told her nothing about the cancer until it was too late. Then the husband called to say there would be one last attempt at surgery, but she might not survive. If they wanted to talk to her one last time, they would have to come and quickly.

The old woman and Putt had a terrible battle that night. He didn’t want to go, it would break his heart, the only way to get there quickly enough was by driving and he was convinced they would be killed in a crash on the way like his parents. What good would that do?

She accused him of being afraid to die because he had never lived, which was partly true. She claimed she was NOT afraid to die, then went quietly into the bathroom, drew a hot bath, and slashed her wrist. She cut it crosswise, since the smart aleck cop procedurals had not yet explained that one must go wrist-to-elbow. She dozed, then woke in pink water, and decided Putt was right. She never knew where he was all that time, but they went to Peg. Most of the way, she drove.

When they got to Peg, she was barely alive, withered and incoherent, her babies confused. They went to their father’s aunt who raised them with no trauma. She and Putt never saw them, but the administrator moved to a job near them and provided support. There was no funeral because Peg hadn’t wanted one.

The old woman’s name was Lillian, but people called her “Lil” and she liked the kind of Old West saloon sound of that. She developed a reputation for a newspaper column that was considered very funny, though a little bitter or maybe salty. Lil and Putt were popular at cocktail parties and on panels. They grew close together in an habitual way, because what choice did they have? Lil took a new interest in the little farm, which was being engulfed by the university town. She had a horse but not many places left to ride.

The second suicide attempt was almost performance art. There was another fight between them, but it was the first in a long time and it got totally out of control. She was drinking, which made her over-dramatic. Because she had leaked the fact of her first suicide attempt to her friends and they had taken him aside to rebuke him harshly for not intervening, this time he was determined not to let her out of his sight.

So she ran from him, at first around the yard, but he was keeping up better than she expected, so she darted through the door into the little barn and climbed to the haymow with him right behind her. A rope dangled from the rafters. There was a loop in the end of it. She put the loop around her neck. It was a rough thick rope and the whole barn smelled of hay and her horse, which was kicking his stall and neighing. She had never felt so alive.

Even Putt looked alive with his eyes wide open, suddenly eloquent about loving her and wanting her to stay with him because what else did he have to live for? He made all sorts of promises, all the things he thought she would want. She didn’t want any of them. But she wanted her horse. In the end that was enough.

Not much changed. Things went along predictably until they were nearly old. Then Putt died of a heart attack. She sold the little farm to a developer and moved to the nearest big city where she bought a little studio-condo on a high floor of a tall building. By now computers had been invented and the world opened out before her, quite literally, from first light when she made excellent coffee and sat by the east window. All day she wrote and her agent said it was all good. It all sold. She was bored.

The third suicide attempt was not even with the intention of dying. It was NOT suicide. She just wanted a rest. She told her agent she couldn’t sleep and with her help accumulated enough nembutal pills to keep herself unconscious for a couple of days, waking now and then to pee and brush her teeth. But then her agent got suspicious and used a copy of the condo key to come find her and get her to the hospital where they scolded her and watched her through the possible aftermath, though there was none. (There could have been convulsions.)

They made her talk to a shrink but he didn’t understand that she hadn’t tried to kill herself. He signed off. Her agent had kept her plants watered and brought her a cat. It was almost as good as a horse. She had a few good scribbling years left in her. She began to consider whether she might be a lesbian after all. It might be fun to go dancing with another woman.

HOSTILE REALITY

“Maybe it was coming to consciousness in a world war, but I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand what it is to be seized by a reality that is hostile, that tries constantly to destroy you, that keeps you alive but only barely, and prevents you from understanding how to get out. Because first you have to think of getting out and then you have to imagine what “out” might be and then devise a way to make the change.  If you have the guts.  Because then you won’t be the same anymore, so how can you go back if it’s all a mistake?”

In the SW “Four Corners” open country she was writing on a laptop while sitting at a picnic table — the kind with attached benches on either side. It was alongside a “trading post” where there was enough overhang to make shade. A nearby juniper tree was pungent in the midday sun. On the other side of the cement walkway around the building was a tall old hedge of caraghanas, hot enough to be bursting its pods, scattering tiny peas that bounced on the cement.

She stopped her typing long enough to take a sip of her latte and ask herself whether her paragraph were really true. Standing on the other side of the table, waiting for her to look up, was a man about her age. He had a beer and a big spiral-bound pad of artist’s paper. “May I sit here?” he asked politely. “I need a surface for this while I draw.” He gestured with the pad.

Momentarily she was disconcerted and then became polite. “Oh, sure.” He was a nice-looking sun-toasted man in khaki shorts and shirt, worn loose and unbuttoned with no undershirt but a necklace of turquoise, nothing fancy, just beads. “Are you an anthropologist?” Anthropologists always wear khaki. But he didn’t have a Tilley hat. Instead he was topped with a battered straw vaguely cowboy hat.

He understood her inquiry. “My father was. These are his clothes. He died last year and instead of throwing them out, I’m using them up.”

She thought about what it might mean to have an anthropologist father. Then she was grateful that he didn’t ask what she was writing because it was so internal. But he did ask, “Your outfit?”, and gestured with his lips towards her battered van. She realized that he was pretty much Native American, with enough white genes to have a neat little beard. She nodded. “Yeah. Mattress and cooler. I travel cheap.” Her train of thought had gone off the rails.

Seated, he began to draw and saw her curiosity about his pen. “Sakura Pigma Micron drawing pen.” He held it up. “You draw?” She shook her head. He added, “I only use one line width.” He didn’t seem to mind that she watched while he drew, not sketching composition or lines across the paper, but drawing a little shape in one place, then another different one in another part of the paper. “I’m just drawing what I already see, but it comes in spots.”

She went back to her keyboard. Before her stroke, she had a much stronger ability to focus. Afterwards, it was not as though something was missing, like a room closed off, but as though some capacity to suppress irrelevance was missing. Everything seemed significant. It was easier with that old sanity filter keeping out so much, because now she had to struggle to cope with the torrent of impressions and patterns, almost too much and too fast to be written down. A lot of technical knowledge about sentence construction was missing but after a while she stopped worrying about that as a waste of energy. It gave her a receptiveness to other people, an empathy.

He rose. “I’m gonna get a beer. Want one?” She smiled and pointed to her latte. While he was gone she leaned over to see those creatures he had drawn. Returning, he caught her at it and turned the pad so she could see them right-side-up. They weren’t manga. More like what she saw on the website called “deviant art”: fantasy, schematic, sci-fi, inventive as the illustrations for storybooks of her childhood.

When she looked back at his face, she saw that he was mostly in that world. “I blog on a fantasy website network. You ever write about such things?”

“I have enough trouble keeping my sanity in this world without borrowing complications from another one.” She wasn’t being snarky or funny. That was her honest feeling about it. Living in this dangerous “reality” took all her resources. Just thinking about that made her adrenaline level rise. He saw — she knew he saw and recognized it but didn’t try to do anything about it. Just let her be what she was where she was.

A big ginger cat came out of the store and leapt up onto the table. After all, it was where he lived and he didn’t care whether he were welcome or not. She’d admired him in the store and the owner explained to her that he was a little overweight, which didn’t turn out to be a problem when he hunted unwanted rodents. Not so much mice, but he was a good packrat hunter. A packrat is a nuisance because it is named for its practice of carrying off small objects, but leaving something else in their place. Why or how the animal made decisions about his process was not known — no empathy for packrats, just annoyance that one’s things were not where they were left and that the replacement was not of equal value or the same function. Objects had to be put away.

The cat did not look into their faces. It did not care. It had a “theory of mind,” meaning it could predict what a packrat would do next, but no empathy and no interest in much of anything else. Briefly it regarded the man’s tiny movements as he drew, but then closed its eyes and its mind went off wherever cats go when they doze. The tip of its tail twitched and once or twice its ears reoriented direction. Neither person tried to pet the cat, though she greeted it politely. “Hello, cat.”

As the man drew, his paper filled up with creatures and their strange habitats. Once or twice she imagined that they moved, like the cat — just tiny flicks and twitches. But then she got hold of her line of thought again and began to write quickly. The two creatives in an environment adjunct to shelter but actually open space, became synchronized in some subtle way. Not so much in gestures or words as in a rhythm of tension/relaxation, feeling their way along wave-lengths only felt, almost like sunlight. But reciprocating to sunlight moving, the shade withdrew and the spell broke.

The man’s page was filled densely with some story only he knew. The woman’s words had washed images through her mind that could be reconstituted by reading. The people smiled at each other, folded up their instruments and parted. Maybe they would meet again. Maybe not. It was afternoon, not yet evening, not yet dark. The cat yawned. Night was for hunting. Even the humans knew that.

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.