Grandpa was a Pied Piper. He’d go for a stroll about his neighborhood and return home with kids following him by the dozen. He was a jolly, Santa-like man and was generous with his always well-stocked bowl of candy and great many stories. He’d make kids squeal with grossed out laughter as he showed them his maimed fingers. One of them was a nub with only a hint of a fingernail. He called it his “sausage finger” and would tell the kids the tale of his days helping his dad in the sausage factory and how he one day got into too much of a hurry while feeding pork into the machine. And then his punch line would follow after a brief pause for anticipation.
“The grocer thought that was the best tasting batch of sausage ever.”
Then he’d tuck that finger away into his palm and extend one even more hideous, his “saw finger.” That one had been sliced open long-ways by a table saw. It had healed imperfectly with one half of the finger protruding slightly farther than the other, resulting in a jagged fingernail. As a kid, he was helping his dad make a front door for their house and got into too much of a hurry (he was always in too much of a hurry as a kid) and it too had a punch line.
“We saved half a can of red paint on the door that day.”
I suspect he was just a rather precocious, careless, and dishonest kid who played with meat grinders and saws after being forbidden to do so. After all, he did raise his only son who, after being forbidden to drive their new car in the street, got a moving violation for driving it down a sidewalk. The ugly healing of his “saw finger” suggested that of a kid, knowing he was in trouble for playing with his dad’s saw, squeezing the bloody mess back together with a make-shift bandage and hoping for the best. (I could be wrong. If one’s to believe his stories about how poor his family was and how all they had to eat for years was two-day-old bread, stale crackers, and raw milk, his finger may have simply been healed as well as they could afford. And why shouldn’t I believe his stories? They would explain his strange adult habit of making a daily snack of milk poured over ice stirred together with crumpled up saltine crackers to give it the consistency of a milkshake.)
His stories also now seem curiously manufactured and self-serving, such as his alternate punch line about his sausage finger.
“It was all worth it when the nigger family across town got sick and threw up for days after eating that batch.”
Also strange was the locked trunk in his bedroom covered with a confederate flag. Every time I asked if I could look inside, he’d say, “Not today. We’ll save that for another day.”
It was during one of those candy munching, Pied Piper story filled gatherings of neighborhood kids on his back porch that I met Shelly. I don’t remember how many kids were there, or any of their faces or names, because only one mattered. It seemed I was all that was on her mind as well. I’d look over at her and get lost in her bright red lips and short dark brown hair as she folded and unfolded her hands in her lap listening to Grandpa. Then she’d make contact with me with her big green eyes and I’d look away embarrassed and start fumbling with my own hands. Then, when I thought it was safe to look again, I’d catch her looking at me and the whole meet cute game would begin again. What had happened to me though? When I was younger, I had wasted no time getting down to necking with my babysitter’s pretty little daughter. With Shelly, I couldn’t even look her in the eyes.
Later, it was just the two of us sitting on the back porch together, eating root beer floats that Grandpa seemed eager to make for us before leaving us alone again. Shelly was eleven, about three years younger than me, but she was miles ahead. She told me how cute I was and how she wished I could stay all summer. I just sat, blushed, smiled. I should’ve been returning her compliments, but I was paralyzed.
Eventually, time came for her to go home and I was doomed to spend the rest of my vacation daydreaming about her instead of my usual Tarzan and sweet Jane when she said goodbye by giving me an ever so slightly lingering kiss on the cheek before getting up and skipping away. How I avoided my own little Lolita complex, a Humbert Humbert pursuing her sexually precocious eleven-year-old that got away for the rest of my life, I’ll never know. I spent the entire evening, not packing, but composing a love letter to Shelly, saying everything I had been too shy to tell her—and a lot more—in purple prose worthy of a horny 14-year-old Vladimir Nabokov. I asked Grandpa to give her the letter after we left. “Please, not before.” I don’t know for sure if he ever did (maybe he read it first and thought better of it), but when I asked him about it almost a year later over the phone he said she’d been very excited to get my letter and couldn’t wait for us to visit again.
For reasons beyond my control, we never did return to Oklahoma. It didn’t much matter to me though. Simply writing that letter had the effect of freeing her from my thoughts and I’d only asked Grandpa about her reaction out of embarrassment over what I’d written, secretly hoping he’d admit he’d read it and thrown it away.
I have a theory as to why Shelly easily drifted out of my consciousness. I wanted her gone. It was the way she had laughed when Grandpa described how horrible the “nigger neighbors’” house smelled. Or, maybe I forgot about her so quickly because the rest of our vacation trip would give me plenty of other things to think about.
When I was in high school, I was in the band. As if being small and quiet didn’t get me punched in the gut enough, I also had to be a “band fag.” There were only two things worse than being a boy in the band, being a boy in theater or choir. If it had been legal, the “soch” football players would’ve duct-taped choir boys to the blocking sleds while the “soch” cheerleaders waved their pom-poms.
If you were a boy in the band, you were at the bottom of the food chain, for sure, but you did have some protection. All of the cutest girls (other than cheerleaders) played either flute or alto sax, and they were friendly with—though seldom attracted to—the guy trumpet players, percussionists, and the first chair flutist (who was actually a bit of a stud). So, as locker row politics went, a linebacker could despise a trumpet player on principle and could give him a frequent punch in the gut, but only when no alto sax or flute girls were watching. If one got caught, he’d risk having to use his hand for weeks.
I had a crush on an alto sax player, but instead of knowing what to do; I’d just be a trembling mess whenever I was in the same room with her, which was every weekday from 10:00 to 11:00. Her name was Sue and she was one of Sis’s friends.
I got a chance once, shortly after getting my driver’s license, to take Sue and Sis to the beach, and I couldn’t handle it. Just the sight of Sue walking out of her house toward my car in a bikini with a towel around her waist and wearing sunglasses and sipping a soda was overwhelming. I barely even remembered how to drive. I stalled my VW Bug while backing out of her driveway. While stopped at a red light on the way to the beach, I was so caught up in catching glimpses of her in the rearview mirror that I started to roll forward, ever so slowly, and would’ve rear-ended the car in front of us if Sis hadn’t yelled, “Scott! Watch out!”
While at the beach, I spread my towel a short distance away from the two girls and continued trying to look at Sue without being detected. I didn’t think of anything else for hours. I didn’t talk to her out of fear of vomiting. I didn’t relax. I enjoyed nothing about the beach that day. And when time came to pack up and go home, I really fucked up. There was a bit of a breeze and I failed to check its direction. I picked up my towel and shook it clean of the sand it had collected. Then Sue said the only words she spoke to me that day or ever before or ever after.
“What the hell are you doing!?!”
She frantically brushed the sand from her beautifully tanned, lotion-shiny, perfectly sexy body and then stomped away. On the way to my car, Sue spotted some guy friends my age with a car and nabbed a ride home with them. Other than out of the corner of my eye during band practice, the only time I saw her again before erasing her from my mind came a week later. I saw her making-out with a wide receiver in locker row.
The closest that Mom or Dad came to giving me “the sex talk” was Mom’s telling me that, if I didn’t take better care of my skin, no girls would ever date me. This, naturally, led to my being forbidden to eat chocolate and peanut butter, making countless visits to the dermatologist to get my zits zapped with liquid nitrogen, and washing my face endlessly with an assortment of funny looking and even funnier smelling bars of soap. Nothing worked. All I got out of it was redder, shinier, angrier zits. It was like the game “Whack a Mole.” When one zit would rear its ugly head, I’d slather it in ointment only to watch it wither away to be replaced by another zit from a different pore. There were plenty of days when I had to be dragged from my room and pushed out the door to go to school. It felt like Mom was saying, “No girl is going to want to look at you, but go out there and let them see you anyway. Oh, and hurry up and start asking girls out. I’m starting to worry about you.”
I almost threw up at the high school once. I’d parked my car and was walking toward the classrooms when I saw a gathering of students around a glass-encased bulletin board. There was chatter mingled with laughter. Curious, I worked my way through the crowd toward the subject of their amusement. When the last few students in my path parted, I saw a horrifying sight. Someone had torn pages from a magazine and had taped them inside the glass case. They showed an erect penis inside a woman’s mouth. To me, the images were stomach churning. It appeared the woman was eating the penis. It had never entered my consciousness—even by then at age 16—that oral sex existed, that it felt really good, or that people did it all the time. (I mean, my god, anyone who watches the opening shower scene in Carrie and thinks that it’s unbelievable that a teenage girl could be so naïve about her period that she’d freak out and think she’s dying at the sight of the blood has no idea. And I didn’t even have a particularly religious upbringing.) I felt a surge of nausea. I turned my head away and ran back to my car where I sat with my head between my knees, feeling dizzy.
It was especially strange that, after sheltering me from sexual images so completely, Mom, feeling desperate to boost my interest in girls, gave me a gift subscription to Playboy for my 18th birthday. (Without her knowing, Dad had already been giving me his used issues for years, accumulating under my mattress giving it a suspicious bulge.)
I had opportunities to—possibly—date girls during my teen years. Sis was a cheerleader (something most guys would’ve wasted no time leveraging to their advantage) and one day after school I had a golden opportunity. I was waiting in my car for Sis to arrive so we could drive home. When she appeared, she had two cheerleader friends with her and asked if I’d give them a ride. What I said both made no sense and perfect sense.
All sorts of panicked thoughts surged up within me.
“Oh god, this is going to go badly. It’s going to be another trip to the beach with Sue.”
“What if they expect me to talk with them or [gulp] ask them out?”
“What if they want to devour my—”
A rush of fearful, irrational thoughts overwhelmed me—and over two girls who were, well, just two girls like Sis who just wanted to get home.
When Sis asked if they could have a ride and I said, “No,” she was on the spot, I imagine realizing once and for all what a loser she had for a brother. The three of them talked for a bit, Sis apologizing while the pair kept giving me quizzical glances. Then, the two that got away, walked away, Sis got in the car, and we drove away.
On an earlier occasion, Sis threw a party at our house for her friends, all 8th graders, and I was there too, pretty much by default, living there and all. I never went to parties and was mostly irritated that her friends were in our house making all sorts of noise while I just wanted to read or watch television. At one point, I wandered into the kitchen to get something to drink and I got trapped.
One of her friends, a very pretty girl named Sue, was intrigued by the presence of an older, high school boy and sent one of the other girls, the only girl at the party I actually liked and could sort of talk to, over to ask me to dance. My initial hope that the girl doing the asking, Janie, wanted to dance quickly evaporated as I realized that it was the unfamiliar girl, standing across the room in a group of other equally terrifyingly pretty and unfamiliar girls, who wanted to dance. And I’m sure you already know my response.
I didn’t know how to dance, I had never even tried to dance, and being made a fool in front of a bunch of 8th graders wasn’t something I wanted to do that evening, although, of course, I had just made myself more of a fool than an entire evening of bad dancing ever would have.
I retreated back to my bedroom and was followed shortly thereafter by, of all people, Janie. She hung out with me and we talked small talk for a while as she, a gymnast, repeatedly twirled about on the chin-up bar in my bedroom door frame. Why did I never ask her out? Or better yet, seize the opportunity for another upside-down kiss? She may as well have had the words “Ask Me Out” printed on her t-shirt that night.
I always looked forward to Fridays during high school. It wasn’t that the weekend was just around the corner that made Friday a special day, it was the anticipation of lunchtime. I remember Fridays as being hamburger day. A greasy patty that seemed to be made out of something like meat, smothered in Thousand Island dressing, and wrapped in aluminum foil that made the bun mashed and soggy. It didn’t matter though. I would’ve eaten almost anything because Friday was also rock band day.
Several of my classmates, mostly either surfers or “loadies,” would drift about forming and reforming various rock bands and my high school during the wonderful seventies—they even had an English class devoted to The Lord of the Rings—would allow them to perform half hour sets for our lunchtime entertainment. It was the time of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin and the bands would always cover their latest hits. It was their covers of Van Halen though that really got me. One of those cheerleader girls I’d had a chance to almost drive home had once remarked, just loudly enough for me to overhear, that she thought David Lee Roth was “so fucking sexy.”
I’d go home after school on Fridays and drop Van Halen’s first album onto my turntable, sit back, close my eyes, and imagine myself on that concrete amphitheater stage during lunch singing like Lee Roth. Everything out of my pipes from “You Really Got Me” to “Ice Cream Man” had every girl in school I’d ever wanted from cheerleaders to every Sue in the yearbook swooning and poised to rush the stage and tear my clothes off.
Reality would always gradually seep into my fantasy though. I longed to be a rock star because being one would be like the anti-Scott. It’d be like Peter Parker donning his spidey-suit and becoming someone else entirely. Inevitably though, I’d become the guitarist, standing behind the front man, playing killer licks. Soon I’d be the drummer. Before long, I’d be a roadie standing off to the side and getting yelled at to turn up the microphone. Then I’d snap out of my dream—brought back to the reality of a Friday night alone in my bedroom reading The Chessmen of Mars—by the sound of a needle scratching and popping back and forth at the center of side two of Van Halen One.
During college, I worked at a snack shop at a golf course with two girls, both, of course, named Sue. (Well, one was actually Suzie. So, so many Sues have tormented me.) Both would casually flirt with me, until one typically “me” moment one day. I was under the spell of having seen my first art films—Bergman, Fellini, Tarkovsky. I had been daydreaming as I stocked the beer cooler and cleaned the grill about a scene I wanted to write for a movie. It involved setting up a formal dinner with cultured guests and servants and four elaborate courses—all taking place on a windy, rainy, rocky beach like something out of a surrealist dream.
“Can I ask you something?” I said to Suzie.
“Yes,” she said, perking up.
I then described to her the scene in my head.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked.
She never flirted with me after that. It’s amazing that I ever managed to father children.
I was a teenage boy though, and wasn’t without my needs. I was quite accomplished at bed humping while leering at a spread open Playboy. I was prone to carelessness though.
One day, Mom walked in on me and made a hasty retreat, never opening my closed door ever again, with or without knocking. I could’ve started growing pot in my room for all she would’ve known. On another occasion, I was deeply involved with Miss September when I heard laughter outside my bedroom window. I hadn’t closed my blinds fully and a group of teenagers walked by, headed toward the nearby secluded beach, a girl and two boys. I poked my head up and looked out the window. They looked back and saw me watching and one of the guys pulled down the girl’s bikini bottom while the other guy slapped her bare ass and grinned. They continued walking; not looking back again as if I no longer existed. I stretched out on my bed again, tossed aside Miss September, and instead fantasized about what the trio was about to do on that secluded beach.
When Mom came home from work that day, I said, “I’ll never have a girlfriend. I may as well kill myself.”