That Time (02) Playing With Fire

stories about our childhood
known to be true
even if we don’t believe
memory is ours
or not
the way memory works

killing black
snakes from a boat
in the pond behind
art’s corner store
yellow green
dill pickles
crisp tart and perfect
thirty three cent smokes
mars bar under our belt
he caught us the first time
wouldn’t be the last

tell the stories
couldn’t be true
couldn’t not be

anything that could burn
went into the bag
cigarettes cigars matches
pipe tobacco
(for our pipes)
highway flares in our pants
pouring lighter fluid
on the chair in the woods
sitting it out
lighting our arms on fire
the smell of burnt hair
and grass
from that time
we blackened
the baseball field
ran barry’s tighty whiteys
up the flagpole

caught at
the five and dime
by the two-way mirror
the smug old bastard
waiting for our parents
who fucking cares
we’ll jump the train

heads rolled
one from a rolling car
crash
the other on the railroad
track
who fucking cares
not our head
not that time

the older kid with tin foil
wrapped around his head
we didn’t know about
alien lizards
but they are perfect
we woulda
made them up if not

is it a coincidence
that our childhood
was full of tropes
moments of apocryphy

true crime stories
sheriff killed someone
with a shotgun
then himself
deputy caught fucking
(raping)
in the back seat
fucking fourteen!

which came first
the chicken
or the coop?

tell the stories
not that one
not yet

that time our best friend
got the best of us in a fight
pinned us down
“if you don’t get off
we’ll kill you”
it worked
we beat his ass because
it was expected it was
our turn
felt bad about it
later in the penny candy store
across the street from the movie
theatre where we watched
to sir with the mark of the devil
said we was sorry but
the hurt in his eye
said more

stolen candles from the altar
we couldn’t find the wine
why should we tell the priest our sins
ok we lied so fucking what
old bastard
shit on the pew

code word: pencils
”let’s go buy us some pencils”
two quarters was all it took
for a pack of pencils
but why not take four
they stack so neatly
easily lifted
from her purse

parents don’t know anything
can’t see anything
can’t be found
parents are strangers
we were forced to abide
worse than that

that time we burned
down the barn
don’t worry the horses
weren’t in it
but if you put a fireplace in
a tack room under
a loft full of hay
someone has to light a fire
before the end of the act

our first paper tits
were behind that barn

we smoked it all
”oregano”
laced with dirt
palm leaves on easter sunday
banana skins any other saturday
seven kinds of liquor
in a peanut butter jar

sugar in the gas tank
run like hell

we put that firecracker
in the frogs mouth
blam!
cut the snakes head
off with a folding knife
we all had one
we were boy scouts
(torture camp)

frog egg fights
good old fashioned
fun with flaming plastic
cars speeding
down the driveway

crypt in the woods
or was it a tomb
I CAN NEVER REMEMBER
door cracked open
easy to pry
in the dirt
easy to dig
moist dirt
dried wood
bones
vertebra
vertebrae
whoa check it out
jaw bone with teeth
gold fuck yeah
take it home
made to put it back but
we didn’t

meet Frances
hiya kid hand out
for a shake
feeling cool until
down on the snow bank
boot against our head
please to meet ya
ha ha have some
whiskey
it burns so good
it helps to
ease the pain

the first time
talking to fred flintstone
from a nickel bag laced
with ashes
then it was all smiley button
and steak knife
by the pool

(we ended up finding
the cat’s body
in the storage room
under a pile of
garbage)

smoke bombs down the aisle
here kid wanna drag
ducks ass for you
plastic baggie of
various pills
various shapes
various purposes
various sizes
various colors
oops busted again
so fucking what
what does that do?

we didn’t flinch
when the Mr. Asshole punched
the locker right
next to our head
he got a pair of frog eyes
in a candy wrapper
for that one

another use for pencils
broken in half
at the right angle
scratched her name into our arm
bloody “linda”
we made out but
got in trouble
for not doing more
than that

running across the gym floor
legs moving in time
to the rhythm of the band
against our will
the first time we
realized the body
doesn’t always cooperate
whose body is it?
we did not want that to happen
the body does what
the body is made
to do

smoke bombs were
store bought
but the cannons and the
stink bombs were
home made
bunch of match heads
bobby pin rubber band
pen cap and copper tube
scientifically assembled

in the abandoned chicken
coop, where…

our other brother
heard we could get high
if we lick the skin of a toad
let’s find us some toad

we were all
American boys

That Time (01)

(Some names in this story have been changed, some have not.)

I was taking a break in a writing class when I decided to google my childhood rapists. I was 60 years old and it had never occurred to me to do that before. I found Frances’ obituary. Technically, it was his older brother who raped me but Francis held my face against the dirt with his boot. The obituary was about Frances but it mentioned Carl as surviving his brother. Who said irony is dead?

I’ve been trying to write this story for years and this is not what I usually start with. I didn’t know I was raped for most of my life. I lived in fear of a big, bad, dark secret that I never could get close to without feeling like it would kill me. I mean that literally. Every time I approached the memory I thought I had to die if I dared to remember it. I thought someone had to kill me. With a knife. I also very much wanted to remember.

This is all I knew: abandoned chicken coop; running; shouting; trying to get away; not being able to; a flash of white underpants; jack knife; black. This makes it sound obvious but it was always vague and blurred. In soft focus. I couldn’t really see any of it. I just had a sense. These weren’t memories. They were impressions received while in a fugue state. Look away.

The first nightmare was about dinosaurs. I wake up in my upstairs bedroom to see an ape man sitting in the tree outside my window, looking at me. I run downstairs, through the kitchen, then down more stairs to the basement. One of those dinosaurs with the long neck was down there. I run outside and the the front yard opens up and more dinosaurs come out from the ground. I had that dream a bunch of times. It was always exactly the same and I never remembered the ending. It was terrifying.

Every other time I tried writing about this I started by keeping you in the dark. I figured since I had to live with the mystery of what happened to me, you should, too. I started with the biggest clue, my brother’s suicide, and then slowly fed you more clues in preparation for a big reveal at the end. Because that’s how it went for me. My life was one long literary technique. Well, here we are: I Just gave away the ending.

Or did I?

The other nightmares, and there have been a lot of them, were also recurring but less exactly so. The gist was the same. A dark figure appears. Has a knife. Is going to kill me. I run away. I wake up, sometimes with a scream. He appeared so frequently I gave him a name: The Prince of Darkness. I wrote about him so often I dubbed him, “The P of D.”

I met him in real life a few times but I always managed to get away. I usually had to humiliate myself by running away in front of everybody but a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do. To stay alive.

Wondering about that suicide? It was the cataclysmic event that put me on the path to finally remembering everything. His name was Frankie. He was older by a couple years and we were best friends for a few years as kids. Some of my best memories were of me and him on various adventures. Riding bikes. Fishing. Skinny dipping. Stealing shit. Firecrackers. Exploring the burnt down drug store. Digging up bones in that crypt we found in the middle of the woods.

Hey, remember that time we rode our bikes 20 miles from Franklin to Sherborn? We were gonna spend the night at Nana’s house but as we finally turned onto her street I got this funny feeling and I slowed down and let you get ahead of me. Your turned into her driveway and I started pumping the pedals hard past the driveway. I just took off and never looked back. I never understood how or why but you didn’t come after me and I got lost. I spent hours riding who knows where but I miraculously ended up home again by nightfall. Everybody was worried, then relieved, but also amazed that I managed to get home. Ever since I have always trusted my innate sense of direction.

That story was always going to be one of the clues but the truth is I never solved it. Why was I so afraid that I chose to get lost instead of spend the night there at her house? What was I really running away from? I still don’t know.

I found out much later that she had sexually abused my father when he was little. I certainly couldn’t have known about that then. Could I?

Frankie and I eventually grew apart. By the time we were teenagers we avoided each other as much as possible. He seemed to think I was trying to follow in his footsteps and it was as if resented me for it. First, he went to the alternative high school program, Omnibus. Then, as soon as he graduated, I did too. Then, when he was living in that half-way house I lost my virginity to his girlfriend, Sheryl. After that, while he was hitch-hiking out west I had sex with his next girlfriend, Julie. Yeah, he resented me.

I’m going to make a big leap here to his suicide while we were in our forties. I came home one day to a message on the answering machine. “Hello Eric, this is your brother Tom. Call me as soon as you get this. And you better be sitting down.”

In all my other attempts to tell this story, that’s where I start. With Tom’s not subtle message. It seemed weird that he would say, “it’s your brother Tom” instead of just “it’s Tom” but that’s just Tom. And at the time we probably hadn’t spoken in a couple years so maybe he thought I’d forgotten about him? Nah. That’s just Tom. So was, “and you better be sitting down.” Tom doesn’t prevaricate. I knew immediately that someone (in the family) was dead. But who?

There were eight of us. Two parents, six kids. Now there were seven. None of us were close. Tom and I have had periods of being close, and since this call we’ve become closer. But he gave me nothing to indicate who had died.

I knew it was Frankie.

A few years prior I was in therapy. Well, actually, I had been in therapy for most of my life, but a few years prior I was specifically examining my relationship with my parents and I had decided that I wanted a break in contact with them. I wrote both of them (they were divorced) a brief note saying so. I put it in the simple context of “I’m going through a difficult time, emotionally.”

My father responded with a postcard (he always wrote postcards, never letters) saying, “I got your note. Ha, ha.” My mother responded with a letter of apology for my shitty childhood. I had gotten a lot of those so I “filed it” with the rest. I was expecting those responses. I wasn’t expecting the letter from Frankie, with whom I hadn’t communicated in a very long time.

He knew about my request because he lived with our mother. He was 44 at the time. I think he only lived apart from her for about 10 years of his life. That’s not a relationship I care to contemplate. But she showed him my note. Or told him what it said.

So, Frankie wrote me a letter. It was handwritten, five pages, both sides, in tiny cursive. In short, it was long. I almost didn’t read it out of spite. I couldn’t fathom why he would do such a thing after I specifically said I didn’t want to be contacted.

It began, “I hate myself so much and everyone else would hate me, too, if they knew who I really am.” Just like that, as if I would know what he meant. We hadn’t spoken in years and I rarely thought of him. He had become a stranger to me. The entire letter just kept saying the same thing over and over in different ways.

He was a wretch. He hated himself. He was a fake and a phony. Pretending to be like everyone else. His life was a lie. He thought about killing himself all the time. He was such a horrible human he probably should kill himself. Five fucking pages without any context or background. A hate letter to himself. Addressed to me.

I was stunned. I was pissed. I was mystified. Not just with the content but with the timing. He didn’t write me a letter. He wrote me a confession. It was almost as if he was apologizing. Was he unburdening himself of something? Was I expected to respond? My anger grew.

I tore up the letter, threw it away, and didn’t think about it again.

Until a few years later. Until the phone call. From my brother Tom. It was Frankie. Frankie had killed himself.