That Time (11) We Aren’t Even at Weird Yet

Frankie’s death, in 1999, was the last occasion for my family to gather. I’ll never forget standing in the living room at Ethel’s (and Frankie’s) house after the memorial. I looked at the seven of us and thought, “Frankie was the first of us to die. I wonder who’ll be last.”

I just learned that Frankie and Woodcock were close for a few years before Frankie killed himself. Isn’t is odd that the son who was closest to his parents is the one that killed himself? Maybe not. Maybe that was the point? We can never know.

It was after his memorial service that I realized Frankie had, like Ethel, been living with OCD. I felt compelled to visit the scene of the crime so I stepped into his bedroom. Two walls were completely lined with bookshelves. On one of them was a complete set of every National Geographic Magazine published up to then. The other was filled with small glass jars containing mostly spiders, along with a few other kinds of insects. Also a shoe box containing every ticket stub from every movie he had ever seen.

Maybe that’s not full-blown OCD. Ethel’s symptoms at that time were also questionable. Maybe I was reading too much into the refrigerator full of cartons of soy milk, dozens of them, and little else. Maybe her constant repetition of stories and jokes was simply forgetfulness. Maybe both of their seeming inabilities to embrace any kind of change was just Yankee stubbornness.

Nah. In her declining years, I had her evaluated and the diagnosis was confirmed. Curiously, the condition enabled her to live on her own much longer than she might have otherwise. Her routines were so rigidly embedded that she was able to function despite losing her mind to dementia. When she finally moved into a nursing home, I cleared out her apartment.

She spent most of her waking hours in a single chair in her living room. In front of the chair was a coffee table. Across the room was a small TV on a stand. There was one floor lamp to the left of her chair. Several plastic boxes in a corner that were filled with every piece of mail she had received in the last several years.

On the coffee table were a pen and some stacks of Post-it note paper. The rest of the table was covered in handwritten notes. Things she wanted to remember. Things she wanted to ask about.

When we were still talking by phone, which wasn’t often, she would always repeat the same jokes and ask the same questions. I humored her for a while because, you know, dementia. But, as I eventually figured out, that wasn’t it. Yes, she had dementia and it was getting worse. But more than that, she had a ritualistic need to say these things. Over and over. Repeatedly. Non-stop. Again and again. She had a ritualistic need to repeat these things. Over and over. Redundantly. Non-stop. Again and again.

Back to her apartment. There were hundreds of notes. So many that they were dozens of notes deep. The TV was also covered with notes, not the screen but the rest of it. There were notes on the plastic boxes. Notes in the kitchen. On the refrigerator. Covering the countertops. All doors. In the bathroom, on the medicine cabinet. There were notes on the walls. We aren’t even at weird yet.

Weird was that the notes were illegible scribbles. I couldn’t read any of them. I doubt she could either. She once told me that she had to give up reading because it was making her eyes go bad and she didn’t want to have to wear glasses.

I never visited her in the nursing home but I was the primary contact for them so I got sporadic updates on her life. She liked being there and was well liked by her fellow inmates and the guards.

Woodock died within a few weeks of moving into such a place. His lawyer told us that was common. I expected that for Ethel but she lasted years.

I was the primary contact and I would get occasional phone updates. They always began like this,

“Hello, Eric? This is Nancy from The Home…”

Could this be it? The call I’ve been waiting for?

Your mother is fine. We just wanted to let you know that blah blah blah.”

Is it horrible that I wanted her to die? It is not. What I haven’t told you is that she got cancer of the face then had surgery for it that left her disfigured and in pain. After a second tumor appeared on the other half of her face, I decided not to subject her to another surgery and she eventually died.

I didn’t cry when the call finally came, nor when I threw her ashes into the ocean. I didn’t cry when my father died. Before any that I didn’t cry when Frankie died. Not initially.

I hadn’t known that Frankie had taken up pottery. In their cellar was another set of Frankie’s shelving, this time filled with hundreds of little ceramic pots. They weren’t identical but they were all a similar shape and size. They weren’t especially well crafted. They were just pots. I took one.

I wrapped it thoroughly with padding and carefully placed it in my carry-on bag, near the top, so that it wouldn’t break on the flight home. Then I forgot about it. You know what happened next.

It’d been more than a week since he died and I hadn’t shed a tear. But when I opened my backpack and discovered the little pot had shattered into dust, I just started bawling. I was overcome with grief. It didn’t make sense. I hadn’t felt sad at the memorial nor at his house afterwards. I wasn’t numb. I barely knew him anymore. We hadn’t spoken in a few years. We had almost no contact except for that letter he wrote. That stupid fucking letter…

That stupid fucking letter that read like an apology, almost like a confession. What the fuck was that about anyway?

And now we’re back at the beginning. The beginning of this story. The beginning of my recovery. His suicide was the first clue. His letter was the second, even though it came a few years earlier.

I cried so hard and so long that I crawled into bed exhausted. I was spent. I was also confused. Memories flooded back into my consciousness.: abandoned chicken coop; running; shouting; trying to get away; not being able to; a flash of white underpants; jack-knife; black; Frankie’s letter. This was the moment that all those disparate memories came together for the first time.

Something bad happened in that chicken coop. Something bad happened to me. Something I had been hiding. Something I had been hiding from. I was trapped. I was attacked. I was… sexually violated. And he was there.

Frankie was there. When it happened. When that happened. To me. His little brother. My big brother was there. My big brother brought me there. To that place. To that time.
No, he did not do it. I mean, yes, he brought me there but no, he did not attack me. He wasn’t part of it. It was the Williams brothers who did it. It was Carl who put the knife to my throat.

After the broken pot triggered this new memory, they still stopped there. At the knife. I didn’t recall what happened next for a few more years. But this time I remembered that Frankie was there. He probably didn’t know what was going to happen. But they were his friends and he introduced me to them. He brought me to ‘hang out’ with them that day.

I don’t remember where he was or what he was doing during the attack on me. I don’t know if he was or wasn’t also trapped. Attacked. But he was there. My big brother brought me to that dark place. My big brother, knowingly or not, delivered me to an act that would forever change me. That would change both of us. That would reverberate for decades and result in a life of pain for both and end in tragedy for one.

Today, I know that it wasn’t his fault. I know he wouldn’t have been capable of hurting me in that way. I know he must have been tricked, overpowered. Today, I know these things. Today I wonder if he, too, was sexually victimized. But back then, all I knew was that he was my big brother and he didn’t protect me.

I can’t know why Frankie killed himself. I can’t say it had anything to do with me, with what happened to me, with what may have happened to him, or anything else. He took those answers with him. What I do know, is that his suicide was the catalyst that allowed me to remember. Whatever his intention, whatever pain he may have caused others to go through, his death is what put me on the path to healing and liberation.

My tears and grief on that day were for me. For little Eric. My tears now, as I write this, are for Frankie. We will never know his pain.

I’m not done with this story. There is more. I did finally remember what happened after the knife. I will tell you about that. Not because you necessarily want to know. Not because I need you to know. I’m going to tell you because my story cannot be complete until I do. I’m going to tell you because the story of that time has been burning inside me since it happened. I’m going to tell you now because little Eric wasn’t able to tell anyone then. I’m doing this for him.

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
the other on the railroad
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
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
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
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
door cracked open
easy to pry
in the dirt
easy to dig
moist dirt
dried wood
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
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

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.