Southern Justice In The Summertime, etc.
It must have been Benjermin that cracked The Whale's windshield with a rock. He was a neighborhood kid, but never one of us. We three were seven and ten. Luke was the ten and Tim and I the sevens. Luke thought we were lucky, youngest, but I don't know whether it had anything to do with the number 7. It was the summer after their mother, Sandy, died of breast cancer. The fraternal cousins and I decided that Benjermin would be our all-purpose scapegoat - a panacea for we bereft and our blame game. I felt rather astute when Benjermin, Perp Eternal from then on, told me his name for the first time. Haughty, I quipped, "Benjermin? How long?"
"I'm gonna be six next week," he said, "and my Pa's bringin' me a new bike from California and…"
"And you threw the rock too, butthole," Tim added.
"What's your name?" I asked again.
"Benjermin," he said, unsuspecting.
This 'precocious' quip of mine was not. It was stolen. The wit came on the heels of something' I'd seen on the television. A Bengay pain-gel spot. (Been gay? How long, now?) The ad had been caulk between Matlock's senile follies (daughter involved, of course), and the money-shot segment. Every Matlock episode had one of these, and we brother-cousins got our cackles in the campy of it, even at that young age. You see, my mother is quite the ham, and droll. We were well-versed in camp. The Matlock Money Shot goes somethin' like this. The eponymous underdog attorney (following some tenable adversity and a deep sigh), out of nowhere blows the case wide open. We onlookers, predictably, love the ruling that follows and feel great relief that justice has been meted and well. This verdict concludes the climax, or the money-shot. After each verdict, we justice-lovers can thank Matlock's piecing together - folksy and flawless - of a flimsy and murderous conspiracy, typically among family members, or colluding captains of industry.
Cousin Luke's and Cousin Tim's mother died when I was six years-old. We did what all grade school kids do. We learned to play detective and impersonated superheroes. Play, cope. We'd been told that life isn't fair so deal with it. But I believed in God. And if there was a God, then by Him there was fairness in the world. I knew that fairness wins. But then my cousins lost their mother. My mother lost her sister, and my Maw Maw lost her daughter. Now tell me that's fair. Tell me that's fair and say something about God's plan. When Aunt Sandra died, sure we wanted her back. But more than that, I wanted justice in the world. And when The Whale knocked on our door, and we found ourselves a rock as evidence, and we found ourselves a younger lad to play the perfect scapegoat too - maybe then we found our vehicle for southern justice in the summertime. At the very least, being top dogs at the block agency was swell diversion. It was horrible, but there was only one thing we could do.
And play we did.
The Whale pounded our front door somethin' awful. She was fat, of course, and mean, and angry that her windshield had been cracked. She wanted answers. That's what I heard, I was at a piano lesson. I reckon she said somethin' like, "Do you have any idea how much this is gonna cost me?!" I've found that's somethin' adults say a lot. I got in trouble at my piano lesson for wearin' a still-dryin' bathin' suit on Sally Carter's nice, black piano bench. Sally Carter, the Suzuki instructor, had milky, spotted digits that smelled of fish, and I reckoned, at the time, that the scent came from years of her hands swimmin' up and down the eighty-eights of black and ivory. Those hands swam the keys so much they started smellin' piscine. The wet of me was, at that point, my only peccadillo in four whole years that had disgusted her. Then, years later, one of my final lessons, age 12, when I keyed out a Dr. Dre sample. She had me in a private lesson, so wasn't no audience at which to make ado of her values. I'd only wanted to demonstrate that hip-hop had become quite harmonic and more inclusive of melody, as the millennium drew to a close. Her reaction was one of typical, white growed-up dismissal. It was somewhat puritanical, a word I'd just learned amid my callow and prepubescent interest in leftist politics. No contest, my sullying of her black beauty bench with trousers dank and chlorinated got me in a heft more trouble than my bringin' the ghetto to her studio. Miss Sally hated rap music, especially G-Funk. But she also hated Mozart.
The only thing Sally Carter hated more than Mozart was G-Funk.
Here I am at age seven. I am plunking out "Claire de Lune [For Half-Wits]," and the damp of my bathers is ruinin' Miss Sally's piano bench. The danker I make it, the more sacred it seems. I know I am in trouble.
And then I got in trouble, almost, just for bein' a kid. But Mama soon realized I'd been busy with a chiding, guilty of playin', chlorine-damp, that dumbed-down Debussy. I'd not time to hurl rocks at sea mammals driving cars like the rest of us. It was an alibi that had to be respected. For no matter how special a kid she thought I was, Mama knew: not even I could be two places at once.
I got home. I was off the hook. Free to learn the facts and find the culprit and to bring the punk to justice. The cousins and I, we needed witnesses. So we flagged down cars a passin' by our street, so long as they were passin' slow-like. The ones that did, they must a slowed down because the folks inside were thinkin' we had us a lemonade stand that was just outta sight. Boy were they wrong. Fabulously wrong. We were men of the law. Protectors of the neighborhood, from scum like Benjermin The Perp Eternal. By God, we were protectors of Lafayette Street motorists, and of their innocent windshields. It did at one point cross my mind, though, that for the annual snow, I'd each year found myself as ringleader in fort-buildin' and in snowball-chuckin'. The cars, of course, were our only targets. 'Oh no!' my heart plumbummed. 'A windshield is a windshield is a windshield and what have I done!' To make things worse, Papa had recently taught me the word hypocrite because back then, when Clinton was president, you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing' the word. I reckon I got sick of not known' what everybody was talkin' about. So I'm a hypocrite, I thought. But as the moral tremors came to me tangible, I conjured some cover-your-ass narrative about turning over a new leaf. We would form a posse of kin, put this Benjermin twerp through the wringer unto confession…and it would all make up for my wayward past as a grade school hooligan, and hypocrite, come winter.
But before I could fully savor the coming redemption, something really shitty happened.
Tim had brought a rock with him, as evidence I reckon, to the interrogation showdown in Benjermin's backyard. I could see the rock had really scared our suspect. And then Benjermin uttered those words you never want to hear as a kid. And you certainly don't want to hear them when the crux of your whole detective-themed summer is that you have a scapegoat you can count on when you need someone to blame.
The words you never want to hear?
"I'm not playing with y'all anymore."
And with these words, the Summer of the Sleuth was over.
We'll never know who really cracked the windshield of The Whale. Not even that whale of a woman herself will ever know. By now The Whale is either dead of preventable disease, or has totally forgotten the incident. Maybe our scapegoat has too. It baffles me that anyone could forget such important goings down. Or worse yet, let them go. My, my: these folks have so much to learn about the virtues of southern justice in the summertime.
Today, some two decades later, it all seems rather fascist of us. At least our scapegoating of poor Benjermin does. Our Perp Eternal, Benjermin, he turned out pretty well despite it. Occasionally - he's Ben now - Ben and I happen to visit our parents at our adjacent childhood homes, at the same time. He's always got somethin' earthy and enlightening to say about the sounds my car makes, or what our fall azalea colors say about the soil underneath, or that my "art-fag jeans must be 'fraid ta fall, 'cause they sure hold on tight." He says this with a shake of the head, and a chortle. This gesture, short of digust; this disarming sign of amusement - these say the Benjermin who's Ben now ain't the victim of crooked cops no more. These say he holds no grudge. Ben knows more than me about more blue-collar, papabear matters; he openly critiques my "gay" fashion. We would use this neighbor kid to fill our nemesis void, I reckon because cancer's a lot harder to chase down the street, cuff, and interrogate all before dinner starts. But with wounds better healed, Ben doesn't make a very good nemesis. To accuse his crass fashion commentary as cruel, or mean spirited to boot, would not be just. If I had to guess based on his narcissism quotient, I'd say Ben's a fella who knows God's the only judge. So even if he don't like skinny jeans, ain't no way he's gonna conflate that with my character. Because Benjermin, now Ben, has not held a grudge. Now the strong, silent type, our neighborhood scapegoat is hands-down the best dressed and least apologetic cowboy I've ever been neighbors with. Like I said, he's doin' pretty well as a free man.
'Well if I can't beat injustice, misfortune,' I imagine a Luke say, astoundingly literate for just 9 or 10 years old, 'and if I can't wail on this death that took my Mama, which was undeserved and too soon, I'll beat. The. Hell out of my little brother.'
And wallop he did, the Top Dog Eternal.
Heber Springs, Arkansas. Where Luke, Tim, and I spent countless summer portions, mostly just beatin' the hell out of each other under monikers we'd found in books, or come up with our very selves. These cousins were brothers who suffered from an age gap most volatile. They were born into a three year difference, which unfortunately for Tim, was a difference in both wit and grit. I on the other hand was born into a seven-year-deep crevasse. To put things in perspective, my "brother" (different dads, but what are you gonna do?) was getting me to memorize G-Funk verses (Tupac was his favorite). I was born into a circumstance of arroyo or perhaps caesura, one of 'em at least lyin' between me and my brother. My cousins were born into a flyweight bout called 'Chaos: The Guarantee.' Inevitable with them were the rasslin's, crushin's, poundin's. Spikes in hubris (winner). Flaccid resentment (loser.) The outcome was always the same. Luke, the more-man. Luke, the Top Dog Eternal.
We moved on. Because fighting fucking hurts. The glory wasn't worth the carpet burns anymore, nor all of Maw Maw's hollerin’. So we shucked the beatin's and gave ourselves promotions.
“From now on we are pranksters and comic book executives!”
In 1997, e-mail seemed to mean I could say whatever I wanted, and get away with it. This meant getting away with whatever I wanted. My fantasy was to use naughty language anonymously, and consequence-free. In this regard, the internet seemed my grand provider. When I saw my brother do it worry-free, I decided it was my calling to write up some nasty bits of my own, informing people of how faggoty they were. I chose my gym teacher, Christopher Webb. I told cousins Luke and Tim we were going to do something really risky (and therefore a blast and a half!). There was no way one could get in trouble for something like this, I reassured. I picked my target based on my brother's own. "Gym teacher! Perfect, am I right?" So the process began. I convinced them, since it would give us anonymity, to use their screen name. It was TWYBoys. It stood for 'The Wonder Years Boys.' Writing the letter to Mr. Webb, my Physical Education teacher in the fourth grade at Washington Elementary in Fayetteville, Arkansas go wildcats, I wrote using, probably, no name at all. I am reckoning now that it was in fact anonymous until I made a stupid mistake. Now, this comes into play in a very rapey way a tad later. I wrote something like this:
"Chris, I know [my name] as a friend and I know that you are a faggit. You like to touch butts. I know what you do to little boys when no one is watching you when you are with the little boys. You touch each other's butts. I like killing faggits like you."
Hateful, accusatory. I got caught. Mother sat me down with Webb, who was red of face and shakin’ the tremors. I saw angry. Little did I know the ruby shake said afeared.
We found out some years after I had left Washington Elementary that Webb was arrested for serial, sexual molestation of young boys. My mother was sick with news. I wondered why I hadn't seen him for the rapey sod that he was. He’d invited me into the office to eat donuts. Invited me into a safe rape-haven to eat donuts. Into the glazed haven of buttrape to choose which Savage Garden tracks to play for everyone else running laps in the gym.
It turns out my gym teacher was the insult I pulled out of my fourth-grade ass. Christopher Webb touched little boy’s butts. He touched their butts when no one could see them. He took this kid named Peterson to the mall on weekends. Mama Peterson had no rapey-gaydar like Mama o' mine. She told me to stay away, even before she knew.
Today, I’m not the neighborhood gumshoe, nor a freelance hate-mailer, or a comic book executive. Today, while I’m no butt-touching gym teacher, I do specialize in authoring novels of a genre I created, called Junior Erotica.
A morsel from my debut, Changes:
She decoded that a mysterious woody was in store for her. Some Billy Badass, she figured, who was probably on the squad. Billy R. Badass had in fact mustered her deliverance, while he sat like a total stud. Studly, too, was Billy Badass in his graphic pondering of developing breasts, and sore became his hand and part as he passed the time, bored as shit in Social Studies class. Social studies was so god damned boring. When she spotted his protruding mystery, Billy Badass gave it to her right then and there, no questions asked - he gave her the whole story of how Social Studies was soooooo fucking boring today. As he gazed deeply into her eyes (because her breasts were not yet visible), Billy Badass, like a hoss, invited her over to his house after school. His mother had plans to go grocery shopping and his father was a douche, about whom no shits were ever given. Her body filled with excitement as her brain filled with chanted instructions, explicit diagrams - all confusing, all kind of, like, gross - and in her lewd and callow brain-ish thing, this question lingered: "You can't get pregnant the first time, can you?"
My fraternal cousins, too, have enlisted themselves in the industry, a rapidly expanding one in fact. We work well together, and I attribute our success to the bonding we achieved as we left their Mama at the hospital. I attribute our success to the lesson we learned when we left their her, most of all, to uncertainty.
Papa pulled the Buick up alongside the exit booth. My father had questions. Do we get a parking discount because she died? Or, as I thought, maybe it came down to the classic American problem of 'To what am I entitled?'
No, it was as simple as 'What comes next?'
"She died," Papa told the boothcat, "so I don't know…" which says it all.
We love someone and they die.
And then, well, we just don’t know.