(Inspired by WordPress Daily Prompt, 4.14.2013: The Satisfaction of a List)
©2013 1100 words
1. Apopka, Florida 1950-something: I never know how to begin, so I just blurt it out—say that I want to plant flowers. My aunt smirks at this, says little boys plant corn and sugarcane. Maybe cucumbers n’tomatoes. Manly things.
She says, Flowers is sissy. So I’m surprised when Daddy says he will help.
It’s your birthday. Five years old, he says.
In the backyard, he uses a stick to draw shallow lines in the silver-black Florida soil. The lines spell out my name in great-big letters. We drop zinnia seeds in, brush the dirt back over.
Daddy says when my flowers bloom, people flying in airplanes will look down and know that A–N–D–Y lives here.
But the flowers don’t thrive. Weeds and sandspurs choke them out. Only a few zinnias ever bloom.
Doesn’t matter. I remember what my Daddy said—about those people in airplanes.
2. Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania: I am fourteen years old and so shy that I rarely speak at school; so tall and skinny that it invariably hurts to be noticed. Which is why I don’t like sitting at the front of the class, exactly where the art teacher has placed me. This is especially difficult today because a popular tenth-grader is modeling for us. He is movie star handsome, all quarterback shoulders and track-star legs; a flop of ginger-brown hair curtains his brow, and there isn’t a pimple in sight.
When the teacher leaves the room, the model steps down from his pedestal, approaches me, bends close to examine my charcoal sketch. His eyes are teardrop shaped, golden, sharded with green splinters. It is easy to believe him when he says that I have artistic hands, such long eyelashes—when he says, maybe you should be the model.
But all that is nothing—because he wants my sketch.
I keep hearing how talented you are, he says, smiling, placing a coin on my easel. Here. This should cover it.
For a moment I imagine how it will be—having a celebrity best friend. I picture the two of us strolling the school halls together, and how that will feel—like living in a Technicolor movie—the being known, the being close.
But then he steps away, declares loudly for the benefit of the class: twenty-five cents is a lot to pay for a blowjob, but I hear he’s pretty good! And the movie goes dark, everything back to black and white.
Never mind that I’m not sure what a blowjob is. I just want the movie to end.
3. Plymouth, Florida: I am maybe 9 years old. My Daddy has just finished polishing our Bel Air station wagon.
He sits on the front stoop smoking a cigarette while my brother and I play tag with Walter McCafferty on the front lawn.
Storm’s blowin’ up any minute, Daddy calls to us kids; and right on cue, a crackle of lightning, a roll of thunder speak truth to power.
You boys come on in now. It’s dangerous out’n weather like this, he hollers. And lo and behold, my brother—usually a blond bundle of squalling disobedience—complies. Lickety-split, he makes for the front stoop where our Daddy is lighting up another smoke.
But not me; not Mister good little born-again Baptist boy.
Today I’m feeling the devil. Today I’ll show my ass—make a big deal of keeping up the chase, running after Walter McCafferty through the hedgerows and azalea beds. Until a deafening crash, a stench—like the nose-pinching fumes that come when a TV tube blows—strikes me stock-still.
In a twinkling, blue-white stars are dancing ‘round me in a close orbit, a glittering tutu of constellations; fiery comets too—their bright tales dazzling, fritzing out sparkles.
In a flash it’s over and I make a beeline for my Daddy, who surprises me with a hard slap across the face.
You damn fool! he blurts. And right away I think about the Bible—how it says in Matthew “whosoever says, ‘Thou fool,’ is in danger of hell fire,” and I wonder if Daddy will get burnt to a crisp by another bolt of lightning.
But here is another shock—my Daddy grabbing me even harder, crushing me against his chest this time. I don’t know what will happen next, so I concentrate on the smells in his shirt, the one he wears to work. I make out Argo Starch, sweat, tobacco, and something else. Something metallic and flinty—like the flux-coated welding rods Daddy uses at work to spark his machines to life.
It is the way I think fear must smell.
Later, splashing around in the bathtub, my brother gives me an Indian burn, says I wasn’t ever struck by lightning. Claims there weren’t any stars making pirouettes around me, no sparkling comets either. You always ‘zaggerate, he tells me. Daddy thinks you’re a damn fool.
But I know better.
4. Apopka, Florida: I am maybe twelve, worried what it will be like when the family moves to a different state come summertime. So I do what I always do when I’m afraid. I read.
This time it’s Hawaii, by James A. Michener.
My mother isn’t happy that I’m reading this book. That is because she knows there are a lot of people doing racy things on way too many pages—so I wait till everyone is asleep at night, pull the chenille bedspread over my head, read with a flashlight.
My mother is right about how sexy Hawaii is. There are lots of characters doing things I don’t understand, like prissy Reverend Abner Hale, whom I hate. But there are also the sailors on Captain Rafer Hoxworth’s ship—sailors who take giggling, Hawaiian native girls to their beds, two and three of them at a time. I try to imagine what they do tussling under the sheets. Because Mister Michener isn’t saying—or at least not in ways that make sense to my mind.
What’s scandalous is that my body seems to understand.
But there’s other stuff—stuff that’s more unsettling. There’s the few pages describing sailormen who do something different; the one or two of them who would rather frolic with the half-naked Hawaiian boys and men who row out to greet the tall ships that come sailing into the Sun-Swept Lagoon. There’s the sailormen who frolic all night long with their native boyfriends. And though I’m not sure what they do together, I know that it’s supposed to be—Queer. Which is why I read into the wee hours hoping to understand.
The next morning, groggy and frightened, I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and think about James A. Michener’s Hawaii. And those sailormen. And their native boyfriends. And I think to myself: You are like them. Queer. That’s what you are.
Decades will pass before that fear abates. Before I can handle those words. Before I can speak them. Out loud.