The Memorabilia Which Shape Me
When JP cold-cocked me in the temple, I was introduced to a loneliness which has not been satiated.
At Christmas of 1988, Dad, in his wisdom, moved the family from the Gulf Coast to Central Illinois. I spent those last days in the warmth of the Gulf sun roaming the streets and boardwalks on my skateboard with my friends, saying goodbye with all the anxiety of moving away, and generally opening up a void between me and those to whom I was endeared. I even had a date for my sixteenth birthday, which was just on the other side of Christmas 1988 in 1989, with my girlfriend. I was to get my driver license, and we’d go out to eat, no chaperone. She was very pretty. Her hair hung in curls over one eye, hiding a shy smile that just turned my bones to wax every time she let me see it. A week later, I slipped on ice on the stairs coming out of my new home, and I fell and hurt my back.
I established a habit of standing at the window of my algebra class after lunch hour, staring at my house, which was across the street from the school building, waiting for the moving truck to arrive. Dad had chosen the discounted route, and the mover proved that he got what he paid for, arriving two or three weeks after we had, many of our personal items in disarray and broken. In my own wisdom, I had spirited most of my favorite cassettes into my luggage. In the meantime, I wrote all my friends, handing the letters to Dad, and I never heard from them afterward.
JP had befriended me, in an odd sort of way. When he discovered that I was a pastor’s kid, he sidled up to me in the gymnasium bleachers, regaling me with tales of his lord, Satan, even deigning to teach me the secret hand signs, and introducing me to his lord’s prophets, certain death metal bands, but I found them inferior to my punk rock giants. He had a reputation of being a little odd, so everyone who knew him in this community of just over 700 souls shrugged off his Satanism as eccentricity. Day after day he evangelized me, but I never expressed interest in abandoning my own lord for his. One day he excused himself and disappeared from view. He had gone off campus.
I was putting on socks, practically naked, in shorts and a light t-shirt, there, on a bench in the boys’ locker room, poised in that precarious position with my knee on my chest, my hands below my foot, and my toes pointed toward the tube of the sock, when JP returned, delivering without a word a blindside punch to my head, just above my upper jawline. In that moment, while I was falling to the ground, I knew from the depths of the darkest corners of the universe, that, though I was surrounded by men and boys, I was all alone. He was shouting, and my memory tells me what he was shouting was unintelligible, but the witnesses assured me he was shouting that he was going to kill me.
My soul agrees with them, for I remember that I was terrified in seeing him reaching into his pocket for a knife, which he was actually saying he was doing, so I rose to intercept him.
He did not know that in the lawless South, where I grew up in Appalachia for a while and on the Gulf Coast after that, fist fighting is as natural as jubilees on Mobile Bay or shouts of “Moon Pie!” on Mardi Gras. Even though I was a few inches shorter than he was, as he towered over me in acid-washed jeans and a black leather jacket covered in chains and rivets, and even though I was maybe even a few pounds lighter, I knew from experience how to interrupt him from his purpose of acquisitioning that knife from his jeans pocket. From that place on the ground, I propelled myself up with a punch to his mouth.
It goes fast from there, like the tape winding forward while tangled on the capstan. His mouth was bloodied as I struck again and again, all the while trying to control his arm to keep him from reaching into his pocket. I couldn’t understand why no one intervened. My previous experiences, both as a participant and as an observer, taught me that, especially when it involved a known crank, and considering what he was saying, and that he was going for a knife, someone would have given the word for several mates to dive on him, and dive on me, to make the horror stop. Instead, they were all standing there, entertained.
Nevertheless, I dinged him in the head enough times that he couldn’t go on, so I took the opportunity to run. I wasn’t feeling too well at this point, and I was unfamiliar with the layout of the school building, so I made haste, in my gym shorts, t-shirt, and one sock, toward where I spied concentrated adult activity, where the school office must be, declaring to the school secretary that I had been in a fight. She didn’t recognize me, and my announcement also must have driven against certain expectations how her day might progress, so with a confused and annoyed look from behind her typewriter, she pointed to the principal’s office and bade me wait there. I sat, trying to gather my thoughts. With hindsight, I see I must have been slightly concussed. That first punch to the head may have done it, or perhaps the one moment of terror when JP managed to throw me off and onto the ground later in the fight. The adrenaline may have contributed, as well.
A few minutes later, there was a commotion outside the door, and JP spotted me. He rushed through the secretary’s office and attacked me in the principal’s office, delivering a few punches and knees to the face, obstreperously declaring his intention to kill me, but I just curled up and trusted that Principal Fat Guy would figure out a way to remove the threat, and he did, and they escorted him from the building, and JP was never allowed back on campus. I think that was his goal.
I was quizzed, and I told the truth. I asked for a cup of water, and they gave it to me. I told them I hated it there, and they said they understood. Pastor Dad asked me, when I got home, whether I started it, and I told him JP was a Satanist and was in the process of trying to kill me. He cocked his head, kind-of wondering. I think he made a few phone calls to inquire. There was some delight, though, I assure you, not much delight, in recounting the story a thousand times in the following days.
A lifelong friend of mine from that high school, who was not a witness to the fight, asked me last week, after over thirty years, to recall it, and I did, and he was gobsmacked. Immediately afterwards, I told another friend the story, and he also was gobsmacked. I asked him, “So, you didn’t experience anything like this in your life?” “No!” he said. I shrugged. This fight was certainly a rather memorable occasion for me, but it belongs in a closet full of memorabilia, events just like that, all crowding forward, most of them what must surely be considered violence or life-threatening or traumatic or whatever, one after another in time since I can remember.
My own evaluation of it is that it’s all just happenstance: the dice came up craps just about every time I had a few chips in my corner. Thus it happens to some; it does not happen to others. Still, it built in my own deepest regions a loneliness which shapes the way I see the world, how I interpret events in it, and what I want from it.
“You should write it down,” my friends say, when I mention one or two of these episodes. I suppose I will, and I have, here, but the memory of that fight took some prompting. It wasn’t pressed way down or lying dormant, but it is dominated by other memorabilia. Whenever one like that falls out of the armoire, so to speak, it falls among others which are always active, always moving, and growing. They are the keystones shaping my world, while the others are hewn stones to hold the world back, in a way. Here is one of those keystones, a little chunk of memorabilia, a very tightly-wound little gem, and it turns out that the fight with JP is pinned against it. This is the main thing I think about after I’m reminded of that lonely moment when JP cold-cocked me in the side of the head, a moment from a year before Dad moved us to the Midwest.
Between Gadsden, Alabama and Cedartown, Georgia there is a break in the hills. When you’re up before dawn to get to the Antebellum family graveyard before noon, there’s nothing to intrude on the loneliness until the rising of those wonderful high-in-the-sky black-on-gold lighted square-lettered boxes right there in that hollow where two U.S. Routes meet: WAFFLE HOUSE. Inside is that Texas-Irishman on the radio, Waylon Jennings, helping people eat their eggs and pancakes and drink their coffee, and even though he’s a little older, he’s still Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean, albeit with that puckish smile. Dad is telling me how, back in the day, you could order your eggs coddled, and the cook would hover over the eggs with a cigarette in her mouth, flipping grease over the eggs with a spatula until they were just done. The waitress sets my eggs-over-medium before me. I ask for the pepper shaker and tabasco sauce. Dad smiles. After a while we’re back on the road, driving into the sun, watching the sublimation of frost from the pines into the drifting fog of many nameless hollows, and after winding through hill and hardwood forest, we arrive at the graveyard.