Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Biographical Writings (2015)


At the new school, beginning seventh grade, he felt a mix of excitement and apprehension. Excitement at the sense of freedom, of moving from class to class each period, of walking through the maze like atrium to find his locker, of memorizing the combination on the lock, and turning it just right to feel the gears fall into place and open. Apprehension also at the freedom, of navigating the sea of kids that poured out into the hallways and lingered between classes, of the possibility someone might want to talk to him, of the unknown rules and the attraction of endless rows of books on view as he walked by the glassed in windows of the library.
Lunchtime in the cafeteria faced him with the choice of going through the hot meal line or the hamburger line. Plopping down forty-five cents at the register, he tried the hamburger line the first day, but could not bring himself to eat the disgusting patty of dried meat covered in raw onions sitting next to soggy wet, half-cooked fries. Next time a kid named Ricky offered to trade him his homemade lunch for a hot meal, saying it was a "lamb sandwich". It sounded good. Making the trade, Ricky finished the line by saying, "Spam lamb". Played for the fool, but he laughed it off.
He quickly learned he could spend lunchtime at the bandhall, practicing and mastering the etudes, short repetitive tunes he played on cornet. During band practice, he would disappear into the music, feeling it wash over him in waves of sound, and forgetting about being self-conscious for a moment. He felt for Cathy, the clarinet player who contracted an incurable bout of hiccups when she was called on by the band director to play a solo part. That was really the worst thing of all, to be singled out from the anonymity of the crowd, and so he cultivated his invisibility.
Little things gave him comfort, like eating a tasty Zero candy bar at second period break, or walking home through the old cemetery after class. No one else wanted to go there, after all. The striking blonde English teacher, Ms. Schriver, introduced him to the writings of Don Marquis, and he disappeared into the stories of Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat, both of whom experienced humiliating incarnations after having once been human. And, just like that, he fell in love with reading, with the imaginary worlds a writer could conjure up out of thin air.
In music class one day, as they sang "This Land is Your Land", a girl fell to the ground, convulsing uncontrollably. Confused, he watched as the teacher held her, among the students crowding around trying to see what was going on. Teacher said the girl had "epilepsy", which seemed like something mystical, a secret esoteric power. Later in that same class, they put on a talent show, and he gained a small degree of self-confidence performing a simple card trick for the other kids.
His father had been gone that year, working out of state, and he spent his time after school at home alone, listening to the radio, drawing, or reading. The week before spring break, he overcame his fear and walked into the library, checking out "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" to read. As spring break dawned, he brought them along as he found himself on an overnight bus bound for Amarillo to visit his grandparents.
His mother had packed a box of pastries for he and his brother, and finishing one, he licked the moist sugar glaze from his fingertips and began reading. As the night progressed, lights flickering by on the highway, an older boy introduced himself from the shadows saying, "I'm Johnny, this is my sister Lisa", pointing to a younger girl in the next seat. He shook his head, continuing to stare out the window as the bus slowed down for a stop.
"Hey, you know what I like to do", Johnny said, winking as he motioned to the gasoline station outside. "Pump gas, I like to pump gas", making a quick back and forth motion with his hand down between his legs. He didn't really know what Johnny was talking about, but knew it was adult stuff. Like the feelings he got when he hid behind the couch looking at the underwear models in the Sears catalogue.
Spring arrived, and as he sat in the gym at the end of year school awards assembly, he heard himself being recognized as Best Band Member. Walking out on the gym floor to accept the award, hundreds of kids in the bleachers, it felt like a dream to be singled out like this. He liked that feeling even more than invisibility.
Just before school let out for the year, he went to the dentist and received an unwelcome gift, a mouthful of sharp metal braces. The pleasure of playing the cornet became painful, and he felt like a trick had been played on him. At the band hall on the last day of school, his mom picked him up, saying they would be moving to Amarillo for the summer. Looking back at the band director, he said, "I'll be back in the fall", feeling they would need him, and not yet realizing it was wishful thinking.
When they moved to the new town, his friends from back home came to visit once that summer, but that was it. No real friends, only an outlier here and there, one like himself who didn't have a crew to run with. There was Eddie the mixed race kid who would shoot hoops with him while the other students were off eating lunch and socializing. And Billy who liked boys and wore a big wrist watch that stood out on his pasty white arms. And Jack, who picked up dropped coins from the lunchroom floor and tried to hide the anger over his abusive stepfather behind his thick glasses. They would drop in and out of his day to day life, as he got moved around from class to class just trying to lay low and not be seen.
He always ate lunch alone, sitting as far away from the others as he could, watching the chaos of the lunchroom, people mingling in cliques, as the vice principal picked off the ones who stood out, hassling the brown kids with shaggy hair, reminding them of their place. Walking down the hallway to get his books from the locker, hoping the trouble makers wouldn't show up, but they always did, walking behind him, saying "hey dork, what'cha doin' dork?"
The end of school bell and walking home was a relief. He would duck around the gang of kids yelling "fight! fight!", as two particularly angry girls went at it out in the parking lot, and leave them behind, kicking the dust up on the gravel road as he let the day's anxiety roll off. Back home, he pulled out his pencil and stack of typing paper and went to work, drawing stories of his favorite comic book characters and their exploits.
When evening rolled around, he'd pull out a shiny record album and place it on the turntable, grooving to the music through his headphones. "I wish those days would... come back once more... why did those days ev... uh... have to go... 'cause I loved them so." Night would come, desolate and alone, and he knew that morning would come and he'd have to face school again.
He began collecting the NFL pencils at school, hoping to get all 26 teams to have a complete set. One day in class, Louis Johnson, football player, tough, asked to borrow his pencil. When class was over, Louis kept the pencil, walking out of class. He was afraid to ask Louis for the pencil back, but wanted it, needed it for his collection. Walking up to Louis at his open locker, and looking up into his towering eyes, and said, "hey, I need my pencil back".
Louis looked down at him, baffled and said "huh?" This was the moment of truth, but he wanted that pencil back. Cocking his hand back, he delivered a hard frap with the middle finger to Louis' chest. "I want my pencil back." Louis stared down at him for what seemed like days, then slightly irritated, pulled out the pencil and handed it back to him.
The weekend rolled around and he breathed a sigh of relief at not having school for a couple of days. That was when he would take his two dogs, out for long walks, hours on end, out into the rolling plains, nothing but barbed wire, scrub cactus and occasional herds of cattle roaming the land. His dogs would take off after jackrabbits and run for miles, showing up an hour or so later foaming at the mouth. He loved the solitude, the expansive emptiness and could feel its correspondence to his own heart. Walking across the desolate land, he knew he would make it, that among the conflict, there was always refuge in that interior stillness.
Fourteen (Love, Alienation, Lust)
Alone in the new town, he walked the dirt roads to school, and learning to avoid the lunchtime bullies, would walk home to eat, then back to school just in time for fifth period. In ninth grade now, he still played the trumpet, but the braces he got a couple of years back added an element of pain onto the pleasure he found in practicing the scales and jazz licks.
There really were no friends in this desolate place, no one to let into his world, so he constructed his own, a fantasy place of love, and lust too. For the fall semester it came in the form of Teena, known as "Boom Boom", the olive-skinned, doe eyed girl with luscious lips who played in the woodwind section of band. Seconds turned into hours when he watched her assemble her clarinet and warm up for rehearsal.
And when the band took an end of semester trip to the city to watch the movie King Kong on the big screen, he fantasized that he was sitting next to her in the darkened theater, instead of her boyfriend Johnny, his arm around her miming the tragic ape on screen seeking romance and connection. On the bus ride back, to take his mind off of her he watched the other boys passing around and taking sips from a flask. When he got home, he drank a little mouthwash to see what it was like. The alcohol irritated his throat, as he shook his head, but felt a little more grown up anyway.
At the cafeteria after church one Sunday, the server looked right past him to the next person in line to take their order. It was then he realized he was invisible. And so he decided to work with that, to develop it as a mystical power. He cultivated this power at school to disappear from the bullies in the hallway, and at home, holding two mirrors together in the bathroom he looked into the tunnel they created and imagined himself disappearing into it.
On the weekend he walked over to the university across town, and spent hours in the library looking at the books on human sexuality. Whole new worlds of the imagination opened up. Delving into the Masters and Johnson studies, feeling flushed and the heat of excitement down below reading the clinical studies of guy on girl, guy on guy, girl on girl, girl on guy on girl, and all the exciting variety of expressive forms that all felt very new and adult to him.
He imagined himself taking part in these games, but really couldn't see doing any of that with anyone in real life. Although, he could certainly fantasize about it. At church staring at the lady with long curls in the choir loft, the mother of one of the kids in Sunday School, he imagined undressing her from the choir robe to see what lay beneath. And musing on imaginary sexual encounters while the preacher at Soul's Harbor, his grandmother's church, stood there on the stage railing on about how Jesus was coming back to judge them all for their sins. Maybe even coming back today to find him out as he sat there indulging the fantasies and trying to manage the uncontrollable tightening inside his polyester suit.
Sometimes he would take his trumpet to church, playing on stage with the rock band, following the lead of the electric guitar and drummer, as the singer banged along on the tambourine, singing, "can't nobody do me like Jesus, can't nobody do me like the lord". Then back home at night, on his trumpet practicing the songs they played, as fantasies of all manner of sexual couplings would crowd into his head, thoughts of getting it on with man and beast alike, heated scenes giving way to visionary nightmares from the preacher man, dreams of the end of the world, of Jesus coming back, angry and violent, of everything slipping into chaos around him.
And that's where the music came in to save him, the soothing sounds of the stereo and his new found love of records. Slipping on the headphones and singing along, "try not to get worried, try not to hold onto problems that upset you now". Now that felt right on the inside, and he really couldn't understand why Jesus wouldn't be down with getting it on too. And his thoughts moved to Jesus and Mary Magdalene making it, passion rising from where he laid his head on her bosom.
Spring came and he got the courage to sign up for track, but since he hadn't played on the football team in the fall, he had to practice running sprints by himself on the dirt track during PE class. Somehow his confidence grew, and he begin to stand up to the bullies when they messed with him. In art class, working on an ink drawing, Wayne, the kid at the desk next to him, knocked ink across his drawing. Feeling the anger rise, he dipped his ink pen in the well and threw it onto the other boy's work.
And pushing back from the desk, they went head to head as the teacher came to the back of the classroom and pulled them apart. She called the assistant principal, but he didn't care. He hated the mediocrity and hated them for ruining his artwork, and vowed to never give in, to never fit in to their world. It didn’t matter anyway, he told himself, he had a whole world inside his own head. And it came spilling out in sound and color on the pages of his artworks, the expression of his music.

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