MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I was still in my white Junior Sea Cadet uniform and was marching stiff-legged like a windup toy across the golden carpet of scorched lawn behind our new rental house. Each splinter of dead grass had once been a soft green blade, but the summer heat had baked them into tanned quills that now crackled like trophy pelts beneath the hard rubber soles of my shoes.
I had one hand holding down my dog-bowl sailor cap, and in the other hand I held a red-and-white tin can of Gulf Lite charcoal lighter fluid. For Dad's birthday party it was my job to fire up the steel grill and I was rushing to get at it.
I would have been sprinting directly toward the grill, but I had outgrown my sailor pants and with each binding stride my thighs rubbed together and made a metallic slicing sound like a butcher sharpening a knife. I had to be careful, because one time I had been running too fast on a bone-dry day and the constant friction generated so much static electricity in my pants that when I accidentally touched my zipper I sent sparks leaping out from my crotch like an electric eel. I shrieked because that really shocked the pus out of me and even splintered a fingernail on one hand. But it was funny, too, because getting zapped between the legs was like some goofy Popeye cartoon moment and so I let out a nutty Popeye laugh, "Ah-guh-guh-guh." Dad's nickname for me was Popeye, because that's how I laughed at all his waterlogged navy jokes.
So I was marching out to the grill and hoping not to zap myself below the belt. Another thing about my pants was that they were too short and with each step I could look down and see the tortured leather toecaps of my cadet shoes. My left shoe looked like an aerial-recon photo of Hitler's bunker torn open after the war, and the other looked like a blown-out Tiger tank. "The Commodore"-that's what I called my dad-was always talking about the war and he had told me to put a Popeye spit-shine on my shoes before our morning cadet meeting, but that command went in one ear and out the other and instead I had killed time by drop-kicking chunky fists of white coral across our back canal.
I was trying to punt a hunk through a worn motorcycle tire that loosely swayed from a banyan tree like a black snake masquerading as a knotted noose. Kicking coral was just one of those brainless things I would rather do than do what I was told. A lot of times I found myself doing things where I didn't have to think. I guess it was because thinking always circled me around to dwelling on things that were lousy and painful and generally hateful within myself. For instance, little things-like when my dad said I was lazy or stupid or an idiot or just a knucklehead-got under my skin. I know I shouldn't have been annoyed with him calling me a numb-nut and I should have just shrugged it off, but even though he claimed that calling me names would toughen me up for the "man's world" facing me in the future, his words just eroded the little confidence I had that held the drifty me together.
I don't want you to think I was just being an overly sensitive and spineless kid, so I'll tell you this: one time he called me an ass-wipe and I snapped right back.
"Stop it, for Christ's sake!" I hollered into his face. "You sound like the kids I hate at school."
I don't know why, but my voice always sounded so girly to me when I lost my temper with him. Every time I complained, my voice climbed an octave higher than an Italian soprano's. Of course, that just got him juiced up.
"God, what a panty voice you have," he replied derisively, and he laughed in a mocking way at my feeble attempts to sound manly. I hated everything about that word manly and what it meant to him. It's like when I played Mitey-Mite football when I was younger and my dad and other dads liked it when we got into fights. They did nothing to stop us. We didn't get hurt because we were wearing so much padding. We'd just bear-hug each other until we twisted over onto the ground and growled into each other's face guard, "I'm going to murder you!"
The dads cheered us on and coached their kid fighters on how to curse other kids with words I won't repeat because most of the filthy ones you know already and don't need to hear them from me.
I didn't play football anymore, but I still had some protective padding left over, only now it defended my heart like a shield. Still, it was impossible to predict when one of Dad's sharp insults would find a chink in my armor. I could be sitting on the edge of my bed with a great book, reading line after line with pleasure, but if even for a second I lifted my eyes from the page and opened my heart to an entrancing passage where I saw myself being heroic, or loved, or brilliant, I was suddenly struck by the escaping memory of one of Dad's lame names for me, like shithead or brain-dead, and my imaginative world wilted away as the printed words bruised and darkened like fruit rotting on a vine.
That's why I was eager to get a blaze going in the grill because somehow, when I stared into the burning flames, it was like having my heart purified of all the ugly words that were lodged within. It was a relief to unlock the full chambers of my heart and feel that no cruel words in the world could harm me. I think some of you know what I mean by that-maybe all of you know what I mean.
But some good-boy part of me must have wished I did polish my shoes as Dad had ordered because I suddenly fixed my eyes so intently on the chalky, gouged-up leather that I had time to imagine my dad yanking one shoe off my foot and with a screw gun mounting it upright atop one of those cheap brassy-assed trophy columns you find lined up in high school corridors, only my trophy would be on display beneath a vitrine in our living room where a crisp white note card pinned to the wall would read JACK'S CRAPPY MILITARY DRESS SHOE, 1964. This trophy would mark just one more of the accomplishments lining the hallways of my imaginary Museum of Mockery and would remind me each day that I hadn't yet achieved anything my father thought was really "trophy-worthy." He loved that two-word phrase, and when it came out of his mouth it could be a buttery pat-on-the-back compliment for getting an A on an American history test, or it could be so sarcastic and belittling that I'd slink back to my room and curl up on the bed like a fishhook and cry until I was rusty.
He could be rough with his words, but he wasn't a hitting dad. Hitting dads are a menace, and that old black rubber noose hanging across the water was a reminder that some guys grow up to be meaner than their dads. A friend I didn't see anymore from my old South Miami neighborhood told me his dad was a hitter.
"It's not like I do anything too wrong," my friend had said with a shrug one day as we played catch with his dad's signed Mickey Mantle baseball. "He just gets pissed off at stupid little shit. I know when he's going to go mental because his lips turn purple and get as puckery as a dog's butt-hole, and then he whips around and hits me."
The kid and I got some small green scuff marks on the Mantle ball from where it hit the grass a few times. In his garage I watched as he nervously tried to fade them away with a Q-tip dipped in bleach, but his hand slipped and he blurred part of Mantle's autograph.
"Anyway, the signature is a fake," the kid revealed. "My dad bought it at a flea market and he shows it off like it's real. But I bet he kicks my ass anyway."
He reared back and fired the ball down the concrete driveway to the rough asphalt road.
"What the heck," he said as we watched the ball hit hard, then bounce a few times until it ticked off the raised lip of a sewer cover and veered into someone's front yard. He left it there.
A few days later his dad did kick his ass. I heard through his older brother that it was a nasty belt-buckle beating. I meant to go over and say something sympathetic to him because I was the one dropping the ball in the grass, but I never did and soon my dad's roof-whitening business fell apart as my mom predicted it would and we suddenly moved away and I never saw the kid again. I wasn't really worried about him, though. He was one of those guys who might pack a bag one day and walk out of his house and down to the train station and hop a freight and never be seen again. He was a pretty good kid, and real smart, and I think he knew he had to leave home if he wanted to stay that way. He read a lot and knew a lot of cool stuff, and I used to dream that maybe he could have lived with us-not as a brother but just as a good friend. We could have made each other better and avoided the dumb stuff by doing the right stuff.
But I never bothered asking my parents. They wouldn't ever have gone for something like that-especially now that we had the baby coming so no extra expenses were allowed, and kids were an expense. Even the dog I was promised was now crossed off the list as an extra expense.
Aside from being a "mouth bully" my dad was okay. He could control his hands if he got overheated. Besides, now that I imagined the nutty mocking shoe trophy, it put me in a silly mood, and in a goofy way I kind of liked the trophy idea and I decided I should make one for my room. I could use a golf shoe and make a crazy back-scratcher trophy, only in my case I'd use it to kick myself in the ass when I needed to get a move on-like right now-because I really had to get the charcoal grill started.
"Jesus, Jack, you are so frigging slow!" I muttered.
Sometimes I talked to myself in the same salty way my dad talked to me, and it did me some good because he was just trying to keep me on the straight and narrow. I figured people had to be tough on me because when they were too nice I didn't listen to them. I was an okay kid, but I cut corners on just about everything. You'll see.
Anyway, it was hard for me to respect people who thought I was a great kid just because I wore a sailor outfit. They were really missing the boat if they didn't see I was as two-faced as fire. With the flip of a coin I could cause pleasure or pain. If they knew what kind of mindless junk I was really thinking about all day long they'd change their opinions about me-especially if they knew what a snake I was with pretending I was someone I was not. I was really sort of a drifty kid who was lost at sea, you might say. "Easily led off course," was how my sister nicely put it. If I had to write an essay on the subject I'd put it this way: I was really good at faking I was cruel when it suited me to feel cold and unkind inside. I say faking because later on I felt incredibly sick and guilty about doing some of the awful things I'll tell you about, where a truly cruel person wouldn't give a shit about a sentiment as pussy as guilt.
Of course, I also had days when it suited me to be overly kind to some person in order to sway them into liking me. At those times I was pretty genuine about my friendship. I guess you could boil it down to saying I was just a kid who was nice around nice kids and cruel around cruel kids. My mom always advised me that it was better to always "be yourself," but if you didn't like yourself then, believe me, it was better to be someone else you could tolerate. No matter who I thought I was, good or bad, I aimed to please. Like I said, you'll see.
Anyway, despite my tight pants I figured out how to prance sideways across the crunchy grass like I was a pair of sewing scissors doing some kind of yodeling Alpine folk dance. Since it was Dad's birthday I was determined to help pull off something spectacular for him and give him a "trophy moment," as he called the few really perfect things that our family managed to put together for him.
Dad was working a new job selling concrete products. He had been in the navy during the war and was now the commander of our Sea Cadet chapter and had high standards of perfection on land and sea. If Noah had finally washed up on Fort Lauderdale Beach in his rudderless ark after a couple thousand years of bobbing around like a cork, Dad would have had him court-martialed and keel-hauled for his crummy seamanship. But that's how Dad was-his spit-shined years in the navy trained him to find the flaws in life. To be fair, he found the whole world flawed, but as they say, the greatest flaws are in your own backyard, and that is where I could be found cutting a dandy path across the dead splinters of grass as I snipped this way and that toward an unknown disaster.
Today I was determined to help give him the flawless gold standard of trophy moments so that he could brag about it to all his naval officer buddies.
At our morning cadet meeting I had taught new recruits how to read naval alphabet flags and spell out distress messages like CAPTAIN AHAB GONE MAD and BLACK PLAGUE ON BOARD and MUTINY ON THE MIDSHIP. Dad had taught me all the flags on signalman flash cards when I was younger and it had inspired me to make something very ego-polishing for him that I was sure he'd admire.
The moment we returned home from our meeting Mom was ready for him. Before Dad could shift our Rambler Classic into park she shuffled out of the house in her pink lounge shoes and sent him in reverse on some cooked-up pharmacy chore to buy us time to organize the final details of his surprise party. She was pregnant and showing pretty big now, but he was the one more puffed up with pride. Still, he was taking instructions from her on the double.
I quickly hopped out of the Rambler before I got trapped in it. As he zoomed off he tilted his head out the window and hollered back to her, "Your wish is my command!"
The Rambler's water-pump bearing was squealing at such a high pitch it was hard to hear his theatrical exit.
But she had heard it and she stood quietly with the fingers of her hand spread open like a starfish across her stomach and a bit-lip look on her face like when she was stumped on a crossword puzzle question. She was going to have to quit her job at the bank and she was probably trying to think up the word for the crossword clue that asked, "Who pays the bills?"
Maybe she was reviewing her secret wishful-thinking museum full of "things could be better" trophies. People always said she and I were alike. We didn't look alike, but somehow people saw in us the similarities we couldn't seem to share between ourselves. Scratch that last thought. She probably saw the similarities all too well and was appalled by them. I was the one who was blinded to them, seeing as I'm always so self-involved, as everyone is still quick to point out.
At that moment, while she stood there sorting out the crossword puzzle that was our family, I didn't have time to wonder what her wishes might be. I had work to do and that's when I had retrieved the charcoal lighter fluid from the garage shelf and stiffly marched toward the back of the house.
Mom had put me in charge of setting up the grill for the cookout because I was a pro at it, and as I now frolicked this way and that across our wide backyard in my crotch-shocking too-tight pants I put my whole body in motion. I felt good. Fire was in my future. I picked up speed, then more speed until I was skipping like a flat stone across the slick surface of the polished grass while my thoughts trailed behind me like a string of alphabet flags whipping sharply in the wind. Maybe those flags spelled out STORM WARNING and signaled me to slow down and consider the danger ahead, but I was in no mood to think about the perilous course I was setting.
In fact, thinking ahead never helped me much. Thinking on my feet worked best. Things happened and I reacted. That perfectly describes my version of thinking, which was not thinking insomuch as it was just stimulus-response instincts. I should have a knee-jerk trophy for that. It would look like a tiny squirrel brain mounted on the tip of a vibrating stick.
I was going full speed ahead across the yard and directly in my path was a hip-high concrete planter of stoic-faced Chief Osceola. I could have altered my course and navigated around the great-leader-turned-planter, but instead I leaped over him like a lighthearted singing sailor. The chief was holding a pot of wilted hibiscus and when the slick rubber sole of my back shoe slipped on the dry grass, my front shoe came down short and I cracked my ankle against Osceola's rock-hard shoulder.
I tumbled over just once, then sprang neatly back up onto my feet as if my fall were a stunt I was practicing for the coming Olympics. I was fine. As I adjusted the dog bowl on my head I looked toward our back porch to see if my mother or sister might have caught that act. No one had. Perfection always struck me when no one was paying attention.
Still, my mom would figure out that something had happened because now I was covered with brittle needles of dried-up grass that had pierced my swabbie outfit, and as I plucked out each sharp blade a thin red dot of blood pooled up on the white cotton uniform. I sort of looked like a game bird that had been winged here and there with a load of miniature birdshot. But I was alive.
My ankle throbbed and I lifted my foot and rubbed the sore spot while I stood on my other foot like a dizzy flamingo. I was twitching about and hopping side to side from shifting my weight around to maintain my balance. Sweat pooled between my shoulders and a salty stream slipped like a zipper down my back. At that moment I seemed to step out of my own skin as if stepping out of a costume.
Overhead the glowing face of the Florida sun hovered like a stopped clock. I squinted upward and as I did so the thick, honeyed rays of light began to drape down around me like a slowly descending bell jar until I felt like a captive specimen under that airless amber glass. I looked down at my shadow as if I were my own sundial. I guessed it was sometime after two o'clock but not quite three-the hottest time of the day. The "blast-furnace" time of the day, the weatherman called it, because the scorching heat thinned the rising air. Old people stayed indoors breathing in and out of their oxygen tubes and then switching off to drink cold Key lime daiquiris through plastic straws. On especially hot days jets were grounded at Fort Lauderdale Airport because the air wasn't dense enough for liftoff. After blast-furnace days like this there were always extra columns of obituaries listed in the newspaper of the old folks who didn't survive the asphyxiating atmosphere.
Sometimes my mother and I read the obits out loud to each other. So many of the old people had been born in Europe.
One day, in the middle of reading about a woman from Warsaw, she closed her eyes and lowered the paper. "It's just awful," she said grimly. "This state is a graveyard for concentration camp survivors. God knows, after what they've been through they deserve better than this ... this..."
She pawed her hand over the tabletop as if paging through a dictionary for the right word. "This ... crematorium," she said, settling regretfully on the word she both wanted and didn't want.
I didn't know what to say. The cruelty was unbearable to imagine. How fair was a life where you escaped Hitler's fires but died of heatstroke?
My mother looked directly into my eyes. Her sadness entered me in a glance and pinned me down.
My eyes watered over and I lowered my chin and silently cried. I was no match for the depth of her grief and crumbled beneath it.
But now I had to get a move on. I needed that grill fire to heal me within. My heart was aching for it. I put one hand on Chief Osceola to steady myself as I lowered my sore foot onto the grass. I bent over at the waist with my hands on my wobbly knees. I could breathe easier that way. Maybe I had hurt myself more than I realized. Maybe I had hit my head when I took a tumble, or maybe the heat was getting to me.
I could probably use a glass of water. The ocean breeze had brought the humidity that was so thick the flies slowly circled around my face like winded swimmers. I reached up and plucked them out of the air as if they were blackberries on a bush. I slowly closed my hands. I didn't crush them. They buzzed until they didn't. I lumbered down to the brackish edge of the canal we lived on. The water was so sluggish and thick with some invasive African algae it smelled like steaming muck. Or maybe the canal had died long ago and the foul, gelatinous muck was the stranded carcass of the living water that had once thrived there. Now only the most toxic fish survived in it. Actually, they didn't swim as much as they tunneled their way forward like spoons in chocolate pudding.
I flicked the flies onto the surface. Instantly the red mouth of a black snakehead took them under. Snakeheads were evil fish from Korea that seemingly had chewed their way through the center of the earth and had taken over the Florida canals. Swarms of them would attack and eat small alligators. They could even live on land. At night they slithered out of the muddy sludge and flopped around like spastic zombie fish searching the neighborhood for prey. In the morning you had to be careful when walking by the damp shrubs because they hid under the low hibiscus leaves and could spring forward and attack your feet or the mushroom-soft nose of a sniffing dog. I asked Dad for a speargun so I could shoot them, but he said I'd just hurt myself. Maybe.
I stood by the canal and wiped the fly bits from my hands onto my pants. I was a believer that every living thing was an important link in the chain of life, but I hated those snakeheads. Humans were supposed to be on a higher rung than others, but at the moment I didn't feel like a shining example of a half-boy, half-man. I was fourteen but closer to being thirteen than fifteen. Or that's how my mother put it. She gave me the late-bloomer trophy, which in her mind probably looked like a big peanut that would never be mature enough to outgrow its own shell.
Whatever. I really had to get a move on. My father wouldn't be gone that long. The new pharmacy was in a strip mall about a half mile away next to the army-navy surplus store I liked to visit. So many kids had stolen stuff from the store that if you weren't with a parent you had to get permission from the reluctant owner before you could come in and shop. He'd pat you down with his hard hands on the way out. Who could blame him? The kids in this sketchy neighborhood were known as thieves.
Anyway, I'd go there to shop for rare stuff like bravery-under-fire medals that I hadn't earned. But mostly I liked to slowly patrol the aisles and smell all the useless stuff like rubberized gas masks, moth-eaten flight jackets, and boxes of broken chocolate bars covered in powdery white sugar bloom. All the military hardware had been lightly sprayed with machine oil to keep it from rotting. When I breathed through my mouth I could faintly taste the merchandise-flavored oil on the shelf in front of me. The distinctive flavor gave each object a realistic purpose and I could easily pretend I was in the war.
One time when shopping in the enemy-army surplus section, I had closed my eyes and when I breathed deeply I inhaled the horsey odor of Wehrmacht leather and imagined that was my final smell while kneeling before the polished boots of a German officer. He aimed a Luger at my head. He clicked off the safety and pulled the trigger. I tried to make myself pass out in the store from the imaginary pain. Instead, I lost my balance and tilted face-first into the metal edge of a display shelf. I cut a notch out of my forehead that produced a trickle of blood. It was like the bullet had bounced off my thick skull.
I loved playing in that warehouse museum of war supplies, and was just thinking about it when a squealing car turned onto my street. I thought it was my dad, but it wasn't. Broken water pumps were common in Ramblers.
My banged-up ankle felt a little better. I limped over to the grill and dragged it, and a bag of charcoal, from our side of the galvanized chain-link fence that separated us from the Pagoda family next door.
I set everything along the narrow streak of shade between two coconut palms. I filled the metal bowl of the grill until I had a rough pyramid of briquettes. Then I went back to the planter and picked up the can of lighter fluid. It had slipped out of my grip when I fell because the palms of my hands were sweating. I picked it up again. It slipped out a second time. So I used two hands this time. That's called thinking.
I doubled back to the grill and squirted the entire can of lighter fluid onto the coals. That can had annoyed me, and with my two hands I squeezed out every wheezing last drop until I had flattened the sides together as if I had crushed its flimsy neck. The coals were so saturated with lighter fluid they began to look like huge, winking black jewels dripping with oily rainbows along their waxy edges. I wondered if they might spontaneously combust because of the heat. That was sort of a brain-dead question, but stepping out from the shadow of that dumb question was the untested notion that if I did something theatrical I might just jolt myself from the stupor of my lousy mood and get back into the birthday-party spirit.
So I took the theatrical test I had in mind. I leaned back from the grill, and with one hand tossed the empty can end over end into the canal. With my other hand I tugged a pack of wooden matches from the back pocket of my uniform. In one motion I struck a match and flicked it lazily toward the grill. The match arced through the air like a tiny toy torch thrown by a tiny toy soldier at a tiny toy castle, and then before it reached the grill it vaporized as the whoosh of an Old Testament fireball hit me full on.
Text copyright © 2015 Jack Gantos