It was about a week before my 13th birthday. Having come home from work unexpectedly, the Ogre---who was what passed for a masculine role model in my life---had decided to take one final stab at "making a man out of me" before writing me off forever as a hopeless little bitch...
"What the hell you cryin' for? You're a boy, nothing's gonna change that! What's that you're coverin' with your hand, huh? You think putting on a damn dress changes anything? Do you? Answer me, goddamn it!"
I stood there shivering, feeling horribly vulnerable. By now I didn't know what I was or what could change what. I was sobbing, trying to nod my head yes and shake it no at the same time.
"For God's sake Sam, that's enough! Let him get dressed."
"No, I want him to say it first! What are you?"
"I'm a boy," I blubbered.
"That's a start. Now put some damn trousers on and come with me."
In a drizzle of slushy snow I was marched across the yard to the shed, where I was forced to take part in a grotesque and humiliating ritual of destruction. This was the heart of darkness...
(a Jackie Kaiser story)
by Laika Pupkino
From humble origins, and from every corner of the planet Kapok they rose and gained influence to become the ten members of the Global Parliament. The Council of Ten ruled with wisdom and kindness, upholding the rights of all the citizens of Kapok regardless of the color of the fabric that covered them, what sort of stuffing they were filled with or what biological creatures they resembled. This was the Golden Age...
But when the ruthless purple paisley alligator General Volari and his gang of renegade Beanie Babies unleashed the dreaded junta virus and siezed power, the Council had to flee for their lives, taking off in search of a fabled world where a toy animal could supposedly change form at will. On Morfolo Prime they would grow themselves into beasts so formidable that they could return home and easily route the evil toys, restoring democracy and freedom to their planet.
But then their spaceship ran into a gravity storm and they crashed on a hostile world of flesh & blood creatures, where for some strange reason their ability to move on their own became extremely limited, and it did not seem they would survive long. Fortunately they were befriended and brought home by Jackie, a lonely Earth child with a terrible secret. Yes, that secret. The visitors dwelled in tentative safety on top of young Jackie's bed, their ship hidden out there in the hall closet, cleverly disguised as a vacuum cleaner; awaiting the day when they'd obtain the part they needed for it. But how would they ever find a positronic flux capacitor in THIS primitive corner of the galaxy?!
When I was about eight we had moved out of the little town of Hellebore, out to where the Badlands started.
Doesn't it seem like the very name "Badlands" would tell you something about a place? That maybe it was somewhere you wouldn't want to live? And while some parts of what is called the Badlands are actually kind of scenic, our little valley would never be appearing in any tourism brochures or travel magazines. Even back when I had so little to compare it to it seemed like the worst place in the world to me. Still does, in fact.
But our hundred acres of ugly was the largest parcel of land we could have bought with the chunk of money Grandpa Gerhardt had left us. And it had a tiny brook and a smattering of small game on it, which would be useful when the total collapse of civilization came. Or some such malarky...
But mostly I think my folks were just glad that we would be twelve miles from the nearest neighbors instead of twelve feet. That our weird and quarrelsome family would no longer be the topic of trailer park gossip.
Our school's bus driver would drive clear down Savoy Creek Road in the morning to pick up just one kid, me. But once or twice a month he either got warned by the dispatcher not to make the trip, or if my sick routine took me a bit longer to pull off, he would be waved on from the front steps of our single wide. And it was a crappy narrow dirt road that he had to drive (which in Spring and Fall would turn to trecherous sucking mud), but old Gunner never seemed to mind terribly when this happened. He'd just smile and wave and turn his bus around, like he did on that day...
I did sort of have the sniffles, but it wasn't anything that I would even consider missing work for nowadays. In fact it probably wasn't even bad enough that it would keep me from going out dancing. And come to think of it I actually had been dancing on that day---skating around on the kitchen floor in my socks to some ABBA song---when the Ogre walked in on us unexpectedly.
Oh, the Ogre? I'm not sure just how long before this I'd come up with the names "the Saint" and "the Ogre", but I know they'd been part of my private vocabulary for a while by then. And it was nothing I would ever say aloud to either my mom or my stepdad; just a pair of images I had in my head, taken from the only two hardbound books we had in the house- an ancient 1904 edition of GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES, full of gruesome woodcuts; and from 1959: THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS ILLUSTRATED, in which the saints---especially the lady ones---were portrayed as these beautiful ethereal creatures with glowing complexions and plump red lips, their eyes beaming out godliness, purity and compassion.
My real father had been killed when I was two, stalling his car out on the Interstate during a bad snowstorm and getting plowed into by a semi. In the one photograph I have of him he's holding me up against his chest like a bag of groceries with a huge smile on his face. He looks gentle and kind. My stepdad entered the scene before my fourth birthday, and all I can figure is that the dynamics of power in our family must've changed radically soon after that; going from what I imagine had been a reasonably democratic household to .......... well what we had now.
The new head of our household was never shy about finding fault with me, and as the years passed was becoming even more vocal about what a disappointment I was. When the other rock rats down at Thorensen's Quarry were bragging about their son's achievements in Pee Wee Football or the Junior Rodeo League, what boasts could Sam Kaiser make about me? That I was unbeatable in double-dutch jump rope? That my water color entitled THREE VERY CUTE PUPPIES!! had taken second prize at the statewide CYO art fair? Hardly.
It was 10 a.m. and we were baking Pfeffernussers. The kitchen was nice and toasty---the warmest part of the house---and full of the sweet spicy scent of the cookies plumping in the oven. I was wearing what had become "my" apron- the powder blue one with a dazzling starburst of wildflowers on it. On a day as cold and dreary as this, when a sheet of gray clouds hung over the mucky landscape like some sort of industrial roofing, it reminded me that somewhere in the world such exuberant colors actually existed.
I had this on over a black t-shirt that had belonged to an uncle of mine, who visited us between his stints at the prison work camp. Uncle Dean was 6'7" and skinny as a rail, and on me his shirt came clear down to my knobby knees. And after I ran it under our ancient Singer sewing machine, neatening up the edges where he'd ripped the sleeves off, it sort of looked like a dress on me.
Whenever I had the house to myself for a few hours I would comb my hair down my forehead into bogus little bangs, and try to cover my ears with the bit I had on the sides, and accessorize my "little black dress" with my single pair of clip-on earrings and other items from my tiny stash of crummy costume jewelry, and maybe a pretty scarf around the middle to give it some shape, and then would cavort in front of the mirror, quite happy with how convincing I looked (Although in retrospect it seems unlikely that I actually did. In all my photos from back then I was a funny looking, jug-eared boy with a nose that seemed to change its mind about what shape it wanted to be halfway down; And the not-terribly-unattractive face I have today is ....... let's just say I've had some work done.)
And when I knew I had at least a half a day to devote to this clandestine pastime I would risk putting on my mascara, eye shadow, blusher and lipstick. I'd lucked into these cosmetics when one of my stepfather's lady friends had somehow left them in our bathroom, and he'd thrown them out lest Mom discover them (I'd been warned that there would be grave consequences to her ever finding out about these clandestine encounters...). The coral lipstick was getting close to the bottom of its tube and I wondered how the heck I was going to replace it.
But on days like today I had to content myself with being a female mostly just in my mind, in my plausibly-deniable pretend dress and this apron; as I secretly imagined myself to be a normal adolescent girl, being tutored in the domestic arts in the way that young women have been in every culture throughout the ages. And I liked to think that my secret dream was not actually so secret. That we were both engaged in some covert fantasy of being mother and daughter.
By now we'd accumulated quite a few dirty dishes. I grabbed the big mixing bowl and started toward the sink with it.
"No need to wash that, Jackie. We'll be using it for the next batch in about ten minutes."
"We're making more? Great! Can I bring a few to Sherrie and Janine at school tomorrow?"
"Of course, Pumpkin. I don't know Janine that well, but I sure like that Sherrie. She's sweet, and you two always have so much fun together. And- No don't bother sweeping that. I have to do the whole floor later. No, really. My God where'd you learn to be so neat? You sure didn't get it from yer messy ol' Mama- Wreeeeee, wreeeeee, g-r-rrrunt! Snoooork! Oink, oink!"
I'd been taking a sip of my cocoa when I started laughing and I barely managed to avoid spitting it everywhere! It felt so nice to simply be able to laugh, without any fear of it triggering some hateful sneered comment about how I "giggle like a goddamn girl"...
I couldn't help thinking how wonderful it would be if things could stay like they were right now. With just the two of us, and without the tension that always began to build as quitting time down at the quarry approached, and we each silently wondered exactly who would come walking in through that door an hour later- the grinning jokester who might scoop me up for a piggy back ride; or the caustic resentful maniac, cursing and bellowing and stumbling into things? Although in the last year or so we hadn't seen very much of the former.
And while I knew it was a terrible sin to wish someone dead, I did allow myself to hope that that next adventure in wacky sidewalk driving might result in an actual jail sentence instead of just another ride home from our overly-indulgent town sheriff.
But six p.m. was still a long ways off, and life---right here, right now---was good.
"I know what we need in here. What would you say to some music, Kiddo?"
"If you want," I shrugged. "But the radio around here isn't so great most of the time..."
"Ain't that the truth! Seems like every station you turn to there's some nutty old guy on there foaming at the mouth about something or other he doesn't like. But I didn't mean the radio. We might not have the stereo anymore but I do have my kitchen CD player."
"Really?" I asked. I hadn't seen the bulbous little yellow boom box around in ages.
And out it came from under the sink, wrapped in a heavy greenish brown trash bag. "I kind of keep it hid, so this one doesn't end up in the pawn shop too. Bernadette down at Hair Apparent burned me a disk of the New York production of MAMA MIA ON ICE. How does that sound?"
"You mean like the movie?" I asked.
"I guess it's the same, except it's on ice instead of on a Greek island. It has all the same Abba songs."
"Kew-ell!" I grinned.
I'd absolutely loved Mama Mia, even though we hadn't watched it under the most ideal circumstances. We'd rented the dvd at the little grocery store in town, but when it opened with the young bride-to-be and her two girlfriends carrying on so giddily, and then a minute later this movie revealled itself to be "a fucking musical", somebody had started carrying on like a drunken four year old, grousing about how stupid it was and telling grostesquely unfunny jokes about the characters and their large and overworked pussies (for some reason this had included Pierce Brosnan!), and had kept this up clear through the closing credits---insulting the location scouts and the foley artist and all the animals they had sex with---in a determined effort to keep us from enjoying the film either.
The timer dinged and we pulled the hot baking sheet full of Pfeffernussers out of the oven and laid it on the drainboard. Slid the second batch in to bake.
While the ice opera's female lead sang a haunting, sparse solo version of I Have A Dream we stood gazing out the gingham-curtained kitchen window at that flat ceiling of clouds, stretching off across the miles to fuse with the horizon...
"I wish it would snow," I said.
"You hoping for a no-school day tomorrow?"
"No," I hurriedly clarified, "I just meant the valley looks nice when there's snow on it. It makes everything look clean or something."
"It isn't too early at all for our first snow of the year. So you might just get your wish. And you're right, it is pretty here after it snows."
I knew I couldn't try to stay home like this very often, or these "colds" and "stomach aches" of mine would start to be evaluated far more critically. The trick was to act morose and listless until classes were well underway; that point at which---since we were currently a one vehicle household---getting me to school for just part of the day wouldn't seem worth the hassle. And then my miraculous recovery!
So after waving Gunner the bus driver on past us at 7:08 I went back to bed for a few hours. I slept some---which sort of surprised me---but most of that time I spent hanging out with the ten stuffed animals that lived up at the head of my bed, and who were always happy to scoot over for me when I needed in.
They were my dear friends, my adopted offspring, each with a detailed story about his or her origins and how they came to be living here on Earth with me. Sometimes my little plushie pals talked all night and kept me up, but they were a garrulous bunch and I couldn't begrudge them that. I loved them all. Although, for a bunch seasoned politicians and interstellar travellers they could be quite infantile. To avoid jealousies between them I methodically rotated which would get to sleep cuddled in my arms at night...
"Will it hurt?" I asked.
Roscoe thought a moment, and answered, "It doesn't hurt us when we use it, and I don't think it will hurt you. But there really isn't any choice. The only way to get you inside our ship is to use the shrink ray on you."
"Then I guess we'll find out. And you really think you can find this Planet Morpheus?"
"Yes, we had it on our long range sensors when we ran into that gravity storm."
"And I would be able to change myself into a girl when we get there?"
"No, not a girl like Janine or Sherrie. The magic of Morfolo Prime is toy magic. You'll become a toy. But you can be any kind of girl toy you want. I suggest a cute girl chimpanzee. Maybe in a nice lime green velveteen. Chimps are the most splendid animals in creation."
"No offense," I said to the little red bespectacled ape, "but I don't think so..."
"Maybe you're right. Green isn't really your color."
"Uh, I meant about being a chimp."
"Humpff! Well I suppose it is your choice. How about a lady hippo? Like those pink hippos in the tutus we saw at that Disney Store in Fargo?"
[It disturbed me slightly when my little friends reminded me that they knew what I was doing and seeing even when I was clear across the state line, and referred to my consciousness and theirs with a collective "we". But only slightly. I trusted them in the most secret parts of my mind...]
"Hee hee- Those were funny! But I was thinking of something more like a human girl ...... Could I be a doll maybe?"
"Great Bonzo's Ghost! Do you mean those horrible, uncuddly hard plastic things that can only move a little bit where their parts come together? Why in the deuces would you want to be one of those?"
" I meant a stuffed doll. Like you are, but a doll."
"Well we do have some baby dolls like that on Kapok."
"No, not a baby. I'd want to be able to go out and play, and do stuff. But like a..."
"A Raggedy Ann doll, perhaps?"
"Well sure, if there isn't another kind."
"Hmmmmm, I could see that. I'm sure you'll make a very pretty doll."
"Really?" I asked casually, trying not to let on how starved I was for this type of praise.
"The prettiest. After all the help you've given us, the Council and I will make sure of it! We can swing by the Mall of the Universe and pick up some catalogues for ideas..."
That concluded, all we needed now was that darn part for the spaceship. And after a few quick hops through hyperspace I could begin my new life. It would be weird being a toy, with nothing but polyester fiber where my insides were now, but all the other inhabitants of that crazy-quilt planet would be stuffed toys too, so I'd fit right in. And what was really important was that I would at least be a girl of some sort. Someone who would be treated like a girl, and who nobody would look at disgustedly or make hateful comments to just for being who she was...
Unless General Volari escaped from the Prison Moon of Orwan. And if he did, well we'd sure take care of him!
Yes, I was almost thirteen and I was still talking to my toys. Or I did whenever there was no one around. I was at that conflicted age; wanting the simple games and innocent pleasures of girlhood while at the same time casting a covetous eye at the mature bodies and confident lives of adult woman. And yet being a male I knew I would ultimately be allowed neither...
With the ever more vehement threats to haul these damned "babyish" toys of mine off to the dump with our next load, I basically knew that Roscoe and Bunny's, Scotty and Snorky's, Candy the Unicorn and Baby G.'s, Mr. Peanut's, Angel Bird's, Teddy and Teddy Too's days were numbered. But what I didn't know was at this point that number was less than one.
At a couple of minutes before ten that morning it seemed like it would be safe to head out into the living room and watch a little television, if I didn't act too energetic.
Leaving my room, my eyes fell on the secret hiding space that only I knew about, with my little cache of girl's things. I wondered when I would get the house to myself again. Maybe on Saturday they'd go to the swap meet at the Big Sky Drive In clear over in Suttcliff and-
Damn it, the swap meet was closed for the year! Oh well, there would be something. Eventually.
I had no idea why I loved to wear this stuff. Sometimes I would just get all dressed up and then sit and read ("Yep, I'm a girl and I'm reading this book"). It sure didn't seem to have anything do with those pictures I'd stumbled across on the internet that time, those men in ladies' underwear all tied up like that! But I did know that this was such a shameful things for a boy to want to do that I didn't dare bring it up, ever. Not even when I went to confession.
And yet for a compulsion that was no doubt putting my immortal soul in peril, somehow it just felt so right...
"Chiquitita tell me what's wrong? You're enchained by your own sorrow. In your eyes, there is no hope for tomorrow..."
I guess we did have the music up pretty loud. I was dancing, did not hear our truck pulling in. When the back door opened I froze in mid-step, knowing we were seriously busted.
"Hey Frannie. Any of that beer left?"
"EEP! Oh you startled me! Where'd you come from? Uh, I'm sure there's some in there. Whatever's left in that twelve pack."
. . . .-this said with a cautious smile, an implied prayer, that our pleasant morning might continue to be one. I suppose it's what kept them together; this persistent hope that defied all precedents and statistics and even reason itself. Myself, I had no such hopes. This was going to be awful.
Condiments rattled in their slots as the refrigerator door swung open. "Ahhhh Budweiser. Breakfast of Champions!" growled the Ogre in a surprisingly good impression of Jack Nicholson.
"What are you doing home so early? You're not in trouble at work, are you?"
"Now why the hell wouldja think that? No Dear, I'm not in trouble at work. They sent just about everyone home. Call them if you don't believe me!"
"No, I believe you. I just meant- I didn't mean anything really. It was just weird that you're home all of a sudden, is all."
"Well it's a weird home. So Q.E.D."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean, Sam?'
"Gee, I didn't mean anything really," smiled Sam's mouth innocently, while Sam's eyes beamed their coldblooded contempt at me.
"Chiquitita tell me the truth, I'm a shoulder you can cry on," sang the podgy yellow boombox. "Your best friend, I'm the one you must rely on..."
"So what happened at work?"
"That stupid prick Farley lost the keys to the explosives shed. Junior Thorensen has the other set, but he's down in Rugerton today. They used to just leave a set hanging on the wall, but those days are long gone. So I guess we can thank Mohammed Atta and his merry men for me losing a day of work! And yes I did stop off at the Wonderbar for a quick one, since it's on the way. So sue me..."
"At least they're paying you for half a day, right?"
"They'd fuckin' better."
" Chiquitita you and I know, how the heartache dominates all when you stop believing. You'll be dancing once again, and the pain will end. You will have no time for grieving..."
If the edge of our property had been one mile farther from town it would have fallen outside of the school district, and I wouldn't have been any of their concern. I was really glad that we weren't outside it. I mean sure I wouldn't have had Ramon and Skippy and Paul Zeltner trying to make my days hell, but I wouldn't get to see my friends Sherri and Janine either. Without this daily change of scenery I would've been isolated- trapped out there on that barren landscape. And all good intentions aside, I don't believe I could have received quite the early education from home schooling that I did under Mr. Peters and then Miss Kellerman, who both had a knack for digging up books that they knew would interest me, and who let me do research on the schoolhouse's computer during recess.
I also enjoyed my daily bus rides with Gunner Gundersen. I was the first kid on in the morning and the last one off on the return trip. Gunner was nice. As we drove that first long stretch of road he would entertain me with stories about his life and with these Japanese parables that were like strange jokes. And I loved that he called me Flower Child, which I thought was a name he'd made up just for me.
Later when we studied the 1960's I realized he had simply been kidding me about the tie-dye shirt I always wore, that Sherrie's mom had showed Sherrie and me how to make. Although I could sense that he really did seem to think I was okay. That this grizzled old Vietnam vet (who had later fought as a mercenary in Africa...) thought it was fine for me to be soft and feminine in a world where too many people were hard and mean...
It had caught me by surprise when we'd moved out here four years earlier. When suddenly the corrugated fiberglass skirting was being removed from around the base of our single-wide, the blocks yanked out from under it, and the Ogreous One was inviting old Irma Schnotz next door (who actually was pretty unpleasant...) to "Kiss my ass, bitch!"; and I realized that we really were gonna be living out to the boonies. Because before this there had always been some funky scheme or other in the works and all they'd ever turned out to be was talk. But this plan actually panned out.
Or sort of. We got the acreage, and were going to live in the old Kourt King trailer until our new home went up. Those amateur floor plans had looked great on paper. As a normal 3-bedroom house the sheer size of it seemed staggering to me, promising that we wouldn't all have to hear it every time one of us farted. But somehow it never got built before the money ran out.
There had been some timid recriminations about this: "You know Sam, It seems like this could've been planned a little better. Did you really need to buy all those fancy power tools right off the bat like that?"
"Would you quit running your mouth? I'm tryin' to watch TV here!"
"And it seems weird you got that branch shredder when there's not even any trees on our land."
"Hey! What'd I just get done saying?"
That hadn't been a good time to discuss family matters. There was an important rerun of Knight Rider on. The "good" time to do this always seemed to be whenever it was most inconvenient for anyone else. Like at two in the morning ("Wake up dammit, this is important!") after a long night at The Wonderbar. Arguments that I couldn't help hearing every word of, through the thin wall seperating their room from mine. And while these fights never became physical, they got so ugly and loud that I'd have the sickening feeling they were about to.
I was standing there in the kitchen in my flowered apron and long black t-shirt, wondering if I could slink off somehow without being noticed, when the hand clutching the sweating red and white can pointed a grimy-nailed finger at me.
"And what the hell is he doin' out of school?"
"He seemed like he was coming down with something. I decided I'd better keep him home."
"He don't look sick to me! And you're baking cookies?! He can't go to school but he can hang around and stuff himself with cookies? Hell, I went to school one time with two busted ribs! I keep telling you, you can't let him play you like that! He wouldn't want to go at all, if you let him."
"Could you blame him? The way those bullies treat him?"
"Hell yes I blame him! I tried to teach him that all he's gotta do is stand up to them."
"As small as he is? They'd kill him, Sam!"
"Don't be so melodramatic. He wouldn't have to win, just make it so it's work for them. Take care of it right at the source, right where it happens. But you think if you can just call up the school and find somebody high-up enough to complain to, that'll take care of it. I swear, we're turning into a nation of finks."
"Finks? That's their job! This school district has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. That flyer they sent home with him about it last month, if you would've bothered to read it ......... Well there it is up on the fridge, look at it."
"Whoop-de-fucking-do, a flyer. That'll sure take care of everything. They can print all the damn flyers they want, the world don't work that way and never will. These 'bullies', you call 'em, you're making out like they're criminals or something. Like he's the first kid ever came home with a bloody nose! But hell Frannie, those are just normal boys. That's what boys do when they come across one who's such a fucking- Oh hell, you know what I'm saying."
Big Sam wasn't drunk enough to want to say anything too vicious right now, but seemed to be working to remedy this situation. The bottle of Old Crow, the jumbo shot glass, the 16 ounce can of Bud and the heavy pewter stein with a pattern of thorny brambles and rearing stags on it were all carefully lined up on the kitchen counter. Boilermaker materials...
As it became clearer that my repellent condition wasn't likely to be some phase that I might just snap out of, thing were starting to turn desperate. Something had to be done here to fix me and make me normal! But God only knew what this could be, since effete solutions like counselling were dismissed out of hand.
Especially after that one disasterous attempt to find me professional help a year or so earlier. Dr. Taylor ("Call me Maggie...") had seemed really nice, but I was yanked out of "that crazy woman's" office ten minutes into our first consultation.
So it seems that badgering and berating me had become the last best solution to The Jackie Problem. Everything about me---how I sat, how I talked, what I said or even what I avoided saying---was now being minutely scrutinized and analyzed, and usually wrongly. Like all the sneering innuendos about my sexual orientation, when I don't know that I really even had one yet...
From the steady way that first boilermaker was being downed, sunken eyes peering balefully out across the brim of the pewter tankard, I knew this was going to turn very bad, very quickly.
"Ah, that hit the spot! So I guess all of us are havin' a party today, huh? Cookies, hot cocoa, that missing stereo turning up all of a sudden ....... It looks like I've been missing out on all the fun, going to work every day! So this is what's been going on around here? You just keeping him home now, safe from all them big bad bullies?"
"Well no, that's not- I mean ....... I mean we only-"
"Yap, blap, blap- I HATE IT when you do that! If you're gonna say something, fucking say it!"
"He goes to school."
"Then who's this standing here? Martha Stewart? You can't be coddling him like this, damn it!"
A party of wedding guests skated briskly around the hockey field at Madison Square Gardens, singing: "Mama Mia, here I go again! My my, how can I resist her? Mama Mia, does it show again-"
"And what is this crap you're listening to?!"
The music fell silent as the plug was yanked violently from the wall.
"So he misses one day, what does it hurt, Sam? He gets better grades than most of those kids."
"That's not the point! It's a mean ol' world out there, but he's got to learn to suck it up and face it, or that world's gonna eat him alive. A man acts like a punk, he's gonna get treated like a punk!"
"He faces what he has to."
"THE HELL YOU SAY! The little punk-ass is so scared he can't even look at me."
"To tell you the truth, I'm scared of you too right now. You're shouting like a maniac!"
"Hell, somebody's got to. Shout, raise a stink, do something! Wake you up to what you're .......... I mean ya got him in that flowery apron, playing Suzy Homemaker with no damn britches on; You know that thing he's in looks like a dress, don't you? Jesus Christ, are you trying to make a little bitch out of him?!"
"You're crazy! That's a shirt. Your brother Dean's shirt. And I don't appreciate that kind of talk..."
"You mean the truth? Is that the kind of talk you talkin' about?"
"You know what I meant. That word."
The Ogre took a long drink straight from the whiskey bottle, "Sure, let's make this all about me, like I'm the bad guy! Nevermind how I bust my ass for this family, working down in The Hole eight, ten hours a day. If my language is all you can focus on I'd say your priorities are seriously screwed up. How long we gonna keep dancing around the fact that the boy ain't right?!"
"Not everybody's the same, you know. What's right for one boy doesn't have to be right for all of them. What kind of world would it be if everyone was just like everyone else?"
"Oh boy here we go! I've been waiting for this lecture. Like that crackpot shrink we took Jack to, saying we'd have to 'support' him in being a little pillow biter, if that's what those tests of hers said he was. What a total waste of two hundred dollars!"
"It was only wasted because you wouldn't listen to her. Dr. Taylor barely even got a chance to talk to him---let alone test him---before you went flying off the deep end. It was embarrassing the way you were carrying on! God knows what she must've thought of this family."
"Who cares what she thinks?! She's a KOOK! She hates men, and the less men there are in the world the happier a kook like her is gonna be. You can bet your sweet ass those tests she gives would be rigged to come out saying any kid who took them had that gender disco...... fucko..... Whatever that crap was she was peddling! Hell, the damn kook was even hinting like I might have some kind of problem like that."
I had been standing there, trying to be invisible. But with their eyes now locked on each other's I decided it was safe to sit down at the kitchen table. I sat staring at the silent face if the CD player, as if I was raptly listening to it. ("Chiquitita you and I cry, but the sun is still in the sky and shining above you. Let me hear you sing once more, like you did before; Sing a new song Chiquitita...")
"Well gee, then I'm thankful that you were there to rescue us from the kook, with all those kooky degrees hanging on her wall. I'm so glad you know more than an MD with a Ph.D."
"As a matter of fact I do, Babe. Or at least more than that one! I know that we need to fix this mess, not nurture it."
"But what if it turns like the doctor said, that sometimes there's just is no fixing it?"
"I don't believe that."
"And anything that'd look like a cure would just be teaching the child to lie, to bury everything they feel, and they wind up paying the cost of making the parents happy? And sometimes the cost is ........... it'd be a nightmare you'd never be able to wake up from! And for what? I mean, what if he is never is going to turn out like you want, like that bunch you work with? What would be so terrible about that?"
"If you don't know that, you're nuttier than I thought!"
"There's nothing wrong with him. He's a good kid! He's polite, he's kind, helpful-"
"I can see how he's been helping you. I'm sure he'll make someone a good wife some day."
"Better a good wife that a self-pitying drunken immature hateful ASSHOLE!"
"So now the truth comes out. You'd love that, wouldn't you? You'd be right there, crying at the wedding. All I can say is, if that's your plan he's off to a great start. And I'm going to ignore that spiteful crack you made about me, my darling, because you don't know fuck! About the world, or even what's going on in your own home..."
"Hey, where you going?! I hope you don't plan on driving like that."
The backdoor slamming, boots clumping down the porch steps. Then instead of hearing the truck pulling out screeching like I had hoped we'd hear, there was the dull clatter of one of the rusty old oil drums we had for a trash barrel being overturned, emptied onto the bare dirt of our yard. Then the Ogre was dragging it thumpity-thump up the steps, then across the kitchen floor, unconcerned about the gouges it was leaving in the linoleum. Stopping to take another hard pull from the bottle.
"You're acting crazy, Sam! Why is that thing in the house?"
Suddenly I remembered a weird but pretty good movie that Sherrie's mom had talked her and me into watching with her one summer night, in which this normal suburban father---under the influence of some kind of alien telepathy---went nutso and filled his living room with dirt and garbage, so he could make this big messy replica of Devil's Tower over in Wyoming; muttering and babbling to himself while his family and the neighbors all looked on in dumbstruck horror. I had a sudden fit of nervous laughter at the idea of something like that happening here.
"You want to see something? Huh, Frannie? What Princess Giggles here does when we're not around?"
Oh God no!
The trash can was pulled into my room. I heard the sound of a drawer being yanked clean out of my dresser. The bottom drawer, with that space underneath.
At eleven it had seemed like such a perfect hiding place, that no one but me had ever thought of or ever would. How could I have been so stupid?!
"Come here, both of you!"
The whole trailer seemed to be spinning around me. I wanted to run. To disappear into the Badlands where I would learn to live somehow, never having to see another human being. Or maybe the aliens from that movie would take me away in their humungous flying chandelier.
"I said get in here, Goddamn it!"
We got in there.
Mine was the smallest room in our home, and with the three of us and that 55 gallon barrel crowded in there it was positively claustrophobic. There was no room in here for even a desk, I did my homework at the dinette table with my Ipod clamped to my head. But it had my Kim Possible poster, and one of a herd of beautiful wild horses running free across a western plain. It had the wall sized-collage showing a magical land of my own creation- all rainbows & waterfalls, castles, fields of flowers, cute baby animals and svelte, pretty women in really nice outfits cut carefully from the fashion magazines that someone's mom had donated to our art class...
There was my twin-size bed, the bedspread on it another of me and Sherrie's tie-dye projects; a lush vortex of purples, reds, blues and pinks. And all my plushie friends---the government in exile of Planet Kapok---communing sociably on top of it, totally unaware of the peril they were in! And there was my dresser with an old wooden cigar box on top of it holding pamphlets from the State Fair and other valuable crap; and a big pink and white conch shell that my friend Janine got me when she and her folks went to Tahiti (her family was pretty wealthy by local standards), and a descending series of colorful egg-shaped wooden Russian dolls, little geometrically painted grannies smiling contentedly.
Suddenly seeing my big collage as if through someone else's eyes, I realized I hadn't been very prudent in putting it up there. While I was just trying to make something that I could look at and feel happy---a glorious visual sundae full of all the things I loved---this mural would have been hard for to anyone walking into my room to ignore, and its message about impossible to misinterpret. In its own way it must have been as shocking for a parent to see as the sort of artwork (skulls, flaming eyeballs, demonic clowns wielding bloody chainsaws...) that some boys relish because they're trying to shock people. I might as well have been wearing a giant sign around my neck that said: I WANT TO BE A GIRL!!! But it was a bit late to worry about this now.
The Ogre squatted down in front of that horrible dark gap where the dresser's bottom drawer had been removed, and pulled out the three velvetty Crown Royal bags I'd hidden down there and started dumping their contents out onto the galactic spiral of my bedspread, "A boy his age should be hiding dirty magazines down here. Even reefer, you could just take it away from him, give him the dope lecture. It's something kids will try. But this..."
Out of the first bag came all my makeup. And from the next bag came jewelry; silver plated bangle bracelets, and one that was clumps of red plastic like candy. An ivory cameo brooch that I had repaired by crazy-gluing a safety pin to the back of it, and which may have actually been worth something. And my favorite ("You keep looking at this. Do you want it?" ..... "No! Why would I that, Sherrie?" ..... "I think I know why. Come on, you're my best friend. Take it! I won't tell anyone...")- a necklace that spelled out the word PRINCESS.
"Here. Read it!"
"Yes I see it. There are people like this. Like I was saying, sometimes it's just how some of us are. It's not a sin, it's like a medical condition."
I felt myself being embraced from behind. Held. Loved...
"Goddamn it don't hug him! What the hell's the matter with you?"
"Nothing! You're making this into some-"
"Oh there's plenty the matter with you. It's like you're rewarding this crap. Maybe Jack is just a kid, maybe confused or some shit ....... But you, you're the sick one! And you've infected him with your sickness. I mean do you honestly think this is okay?"
The contents of the third bag: A pair of lavender rayon panties and a little B-cup brassiere (these both markers of that terrible day I crossed the line and became a thief. Which I had hated myself for, but at the time I'd been in some sort of mesmeric thrall and had to have them!) ...... And the two little pairs of rolled socks that had served as my breasts.
"Let's say I have made him sick somehow, that I'm this horrible perverted parent. Wouldn't he need help instead of you shaming him?"
"Just look at this shit. He damn well should be ashamed! I don't care what they do out in California, or what you or that fruitcase doctor or anybody says! THIS SHIT STOPS RIGHT HERE! RIGHT NOW!"
And then came the frenzy of destruction. All my stuffed animals were dragged from the head of my bed to the center of the bedspread, which was stuffed into the trash can. The wooden Russian dolls were swept from my dresser and tossed in there as well. My Kim Possible and Appaloosa posters were torn from the wall and stuffed into it. I couldn't figure what girly crime the horses were guilty of, but there was so much blind unreasoning rage being unleashed I didn't dare say anything. Nor did my mobile of the solar system seem to warrant being yanked down and mangled before being shitcanned...
The big collage I'd made was ripped at, but since all of its pieces were glued straight to the wall they didn't come off neatly. Grunting in frustration, the Ogre began to focus mainly on the pictures of women, knowing that they were role models to me. Grunting and swearing about "skinny blonde bimbos" and "Miss Fussy Britches", this tantrum seemed strangely and frighteningly misogynistic.
And finally, when my room was thoroughly demolished and crammed into the barrel, I was commanded- "Now give me that damn apron."
"Oh for God's sake! Is this really necessary?"
"Yes, Frannie. it's 'really necessary'. We've done doing things your way around here. Somebody's got to wear the pants in this family. Now give it up, Boy!"
I slipped it off and handed it over.
"And that. That other shit you're wearing."
The only other shit I was wearing was the super long t-shirt. I hesitated.
"Don't be stupid, I seen you naked before. Unless you grew somethin' or lost somethin' that I don't wanna know about."
Glad that I hadn't decided to wear my girl's panties under my fake Little Black Dress like I sometimes did, I obediently pulled it off over my head and donated it to the barrel. Stood there bare ass naked, feeling horribly vulnerable.
"You see that? What's that you're covering up there?"
The tears started. "My...."
"My ....... my willie."
"That's your dick. You got a dick. You're a boy. Boys got a dick. Do you understand that?"
"What the hell you crying for? You're a boy. Nothing's gonna change that! Do think putting on a dress or a pair of panties is gonna change anything?"
Right then I didn't know what I was, or what would change what. I was sobbing, trying to nod my head yes and shake it no at the same time.
"For God's sake Sam, that's enough! Let him get dressed..."
"No, I want him to say it first. What are you?"
"I'm a boy," I blubbered.
"Good, that's a start. Now put some damn trousers on."
Numbly, I opened my closet. Saw a pair of bib overalls hanging there. These seemed like the quickest way to get dressed, so I slipped into them.
"That's better. Alright son, come with me."
I followed the sliding trash can across the hall and through the kitchen, where the air was thick with the screeching of the smoke alarm, and with the fumes from our second batch of pfeffernussers, which by now were just charred little lumps. The alarm was knocked from the wall with a broom and smashed like some kind of robot piá±ata. It seemed like it would have been smarter and less wasteful to just switch the thing off, but I knew better than to say anything.
I was pulled out the door and down the steps by my arm, and marched across the yard to stand in front of our tool shed. This prefab steel structure had almost as much floor space as our single-wide, and it was certainly taller. There was an overhead winch on a heavy steel track that was supposed to be used for freelance work on truck engines, or something, which never materialized...
It was now what should have been the warmest part of the day, but the temperature had dropped since morning. Not wanting to get shouted at for dawdling, I had come outside barefoot and shirtless, and the clouds above us were spitting out wet drops of something that wasn't rain but wasn't quite snow either, and felt colder than either as it slid down my bare back and shoulders. Whatever torture was in store for me out here, I hoped it would be over with soon.
The shed was unlocked, its big sliding door pushed open. After some banging around in there a big boxlike thing on lawn tractor tires with a hefty gasoline engine and large flaring metal mouth on top was wheeled out. The tree grinder. It looked like it would be put to some use after all...
My fingers had begun to ache from the cold and I stuck them into my pockets.
"Take your damn hands out of your pockets! That's something you never want anyone to see you doing on the job. If a fellah's got his hands in his pockets he ain't working."
Were we "on the job" here? I'd thought this was punishment. From the stern way this had been delivered in I knew this was one of those lesson that I was supposed to take as my own personal credo. And like most "guy rules" this seemed like a dumb and arbitrary stricture, more concerned with cartoonish posturing than with anything sensible. Couldn't hands be stuck in pockets and pulled out quick enough when they were needed? Or was there some virtue in having cold fingers, that I would understand if I was a real man? I did what I generally did in these situations, putting on a thoughtful expression and nodding like this made perfect sense while wishing I was anywhere else.
The tree grinder hadn't been started in a while, if ever; and it took quite a few pulls with the starter cord and much swearing to get it running. Big Sam pointed first at the barrel, then at the maw of the tree grinder---this dizzying whir of steel blades---and grinned tightly. "Alright Boy, get to it!"
Which was when I realized that it wasn't going to be enough for me to give up Bunny, Baby G. and all my other little friends that day; I had to be their executioner too. I had to throw them in there.
How exactly was this going to be good for me? I couldn't imagine what this ritual was intended to teach me, unless it was that being a man was all about callousness and cruelty and ugliness for the sake of ugliness. The goopy snow continued to pelt down on my bare shoulders.
I destroyed the posters, the bedspread, the mobile, the wooden babuska dolls and other niknaks first; and then the more shameful items- the cosmetics, the jewelry, the girl's underclothes. While these treasures had a profound meaning for me, I didn't love them in the same way I did my toy animal friends, who I had imbued with personalities and feelings, and whose deaths I wanted to postpone as long as possible.
I guess I won't have to worry about this lipstick running out now, I thought as I chucked it in there. There was a dark satisfaction in watching these clothes and jewelry and makeup ground up and shat out by the mechanical monster. Having been dragged out of their secret space and shoved under my nose, they were the most damning evidence of my wrongness, of the thing about me that had been causing my folks to fight so horribly at weird hours of the night.
These sinful items' crossing over into oblivion felt good somehow, and made me want to do anything else that might lessen the immense shame I felt. I would sign any confession that was pushed my way, or stamp on fashion magazines, would profess my allegiance to some great idolatrous statue of a cock and balls, anything that might appease him.
Him, her, whoever. I was confused. Maybe I should just jump into the machine myself. I wanted to be nothing...
And now the barrel only had nine items left in it. They looked frightened down there in that big steel space. On some level I knew they weren't alive, didn't talk to me, and weren't citizens of any silly made up planet; that they were just insensate lumps of fabric and fake fur and rayon stuffing. But my heart said otherwise...
My two Teddies, with their age old rivalry, who cared for each other far more than they let on. Roscoe the chimp, loveable for all his self-importance and pedantry. My pink floppy eared Bunny, the shy one with her artistic soul and hidden depths. Baby G, the little long-lashed Giraffe from the family of TOYS Ð¯ US giraffes, but who had given a much more heroic and interesting past by me. Snorky the dolphin, who didn't like to get wet. Mr. Peanut the vaudevillian song-and-dance man with his monacle, top hat and cane, his endless store of corny jokes. And Scotty, the little simpleminded grinning tartan octapus, who I had never beem able to determine the sex of---maybe a boy, maybe a girl, maybe neither---but who was always chipper, always singing out some encouragement to me or the other Kapokians...
The Ogre glowered at me. Quit fuckin' around and do it!
I wasn't going to be allowed to hug them goodbye either. I had to treat them like they were trash. Why was she doing this to me? What was so terrible about my wanting things like this? She of all people should have understood that sometimes people aren't the same gender as their body...
I groped for one of them with my eyes shut, threw it in without daring to even see who it was- "I'm sorry!"
"Give me a fucking break already!" groaned my mother.
A plaintive cry rang out from the porch, "Don't Samantha, please! Those are his friends."
"Well gee, maybe if he wasn't such a goddamn little pansy he'd make some human friends."
"He had human friends."
"Yeah, girly little girlfriend who help him pretend he's a girl. Kind of like your friends, Francis! You don't think I know about that Ellie Witherspoon coming over here to drink coffee and watch The View with you? That lipstick on the guest coffee cup, it isn't your shade. And that Bernadette from the salon, doing your nails? You're pathetic!"
"It's clear polish. A lot of men get manicures."
"Well look at how your standing. That apron you got on, you had to pick the frilliest one they had, didn't you? I'm really glad we're living out here! I'd be embarrassed to have the neighbors seeing a sissy like you!"
My stepfather shook his head. "Why do you stay with me then, if I'm so horrible?"
"It crept up on me, the way you changed."
"I told you about me and my ....... my issues when we met. You've changed more than I have Samantha."
"Well like I said, somebody's got to wear the pants in this family, since you refuse to." She slapped me on the top of my head, "Did I tell you you could stop? Get to it, Boy!"
I grabbed two and tossed them into the machine. Accidently opened my eyes to see poor little Scotty flailing his tentacles, his expression one of uncomprehending horror before he was yanked into that vortex of death!
"You think this is helping him? He's going to hate you, you'll end up losing him, your own child!"
"That's a risk I'm willing to take. Jack needs to get woke up. What did you ever do for him except suck the manhood out of him with your pampering and your bedtime stories... "
"I give him love. I let him know he's worth something."
"You're smothering him with that kind of love. There's no just automatically being worth something. People are as worthy as they act. You're turning him into a sissy like you."
"You're insane! The way you talk about women, pussy this and bitch that, you hate women. And you hate yourself for being a female, and you can't even see it, so you take it out on everyone else."
"You been watching way too much daytime television!"
"You're a drunk and a bully. I'm taking Jackie and we're leaving."
"You've said that before, I'm not too worried. You gonna get a job? Doing what? Who'd hire a freak like you? "
Everything in the barrel had been destroyed. This was supposed to change me? Turn me into somebody new? So far it wasn't working. It made me hate being a boy even more...
Finally I was allowed to go back into to the warmth of the house. My Mom went to the Wonderbar to hang out with the rest of the guys from work, and stayed away until nearly midnight.
Looking back, it seems horribly hypocritical of her, to be so judgemental of my stepdad and me when she herself was hardly the model of gender conformity; the way she went around cracking her knuckles and spitting on the floor, with her short hair slicked back and that unfiltered Camel wedged behind the top of her ear, wearing the same jeans, flannel shirt and mukluks day in and day out. But back then I didn't have many friends whose families I could compare ours to (Sherrie's mom was a single parent), and I didn't realize just how unorthodox this role reversal was. Or I pretended that I didn't.
It was weird the way Sam Kaiser fit in there down at the quarry. Men invariably took her for a bull dyke when they met her, but then she would mention her son and her husband, so they decided she was alright, "just sort of mannish". Sometimes when people are really determined to, they can minimize and shrug off incredibly gender variant behavior, so long as you meet certain other criteria and never say words like transgender. The main thing was that she was an okay worker and---by their standards anyway---good company, somebody they'd want to go out drinking with after work. No one could tell a filthy joke like my mother.
She got along far less well with people of the female persuasion, but sinced we'd left the trailer park she no longer had to come into contact with many...
My stepdad came in and sat on the bed next to me. Held me.
I thought about the things my mother had said about him and me. So much contempt...
"Are we really freaks, Daddy?"
"Don't you ever believe that, Honey! You're a beautiful, kind sweet-"
"If that's what you want. What you feel like."
I nodded, was hugged tighter. Asked the question that I had always wanted to ask this gentle soul who was like a mother to me: "Are you a girl?"
"Sometimes. Most of the time, I guess. And sometimes I feel like I'm a boy. But even when I feel like a boy I'm not the kind of boy I think your Mom wants to be. I don't know what the name would be for what I am."
"The Ogre- uh, I mean Mother called you a sissy."
"I know, and I don't like that word. It's like saying I'm something bad or wrong. But I know I'm not."
"I don't think you are either."
"You have no idea how much that means to me. I know I'm not perfect, I do wrong things sometimes like anyone. And maybe the worst thing I do is not standing up for myself---and for you---when I should. I'm afraid more than I'd like to be, I don't like that about me. But I'm not bad like I'm a mistake and I shouldn't be here. And you're not either. Don't let anyone ever tell you that. Do you hear me?"
His hands holding the sides of my face, his eyes searching mine, like for damage maybe. He's worried about me. It feels good. I returned his smile.
Since my bedspread was destroyed my stepdad found another one for me, a comforter actually. But it was getting into the season for heavier bedding.
After he/she left I took stock of my demolished room. The one toy left was a model kit she'd bought me of a land speed record setting jet car called called the Red Demon. Then I remember the paint.
Opening the box, I saw it was still in there. A little square bottle of bright red TESTORS model paint, that I had added white to, then a little yellow and finally just a drop of brown, to come with a color I liked for my nails. I had painted them once and removed it with the little bottle of thinner. I still had that. It felt like a victory, finding something had been overlooked in the purge. I would throw the stupid model out and keep the pretty nail polish.
And then as I made my bed I heard someone calling to me from underneath it.
It was Angel Bird, my most unusual plushie. She was either an angel with a bird's head or a bird with a pair of arms as well as her wings. I don't remember when I got her, and the writing on the little tag inside her thigh was all in Japanese, so I didn't know what her story is, and neither did Angel Bird. Like me, she didn't quite seem to be one thing or another, but this didn't seem to bother her. She told me it was okay to not be like everybody else. She was beautiful, with fake plastic jewels on her body and one on her forehead that she told me she suspected would give her magic powers when she figured out what those powers were and how to access them...
It was a real relief to find her alive and well. She told me how she had been on the very edge of the bed at the start of the Ogre's rampage, and though she couldn't move very much on her own, had managed to scoot over the edge and to a place of safety. We spoke about the massacre out in the yard, which---in the mysterious manner of plushies---she had witnessed perfectly well from under the bed, and all my mom and then my dad had said to me. She knew how much I missed my other babies, and did her best to comfort me, talking to me long into the night, until I finally got sleepy. She had a beautiful voice, and sang me to sleep:
"I have a dream. A song to sing. To help me cope with anything. If you see the wonder of a fairy tale, you can take the future even if you fail ........ I have a dream. A fantasy. To help me through reality. And my destination, makes it worth the while. Pushing through the darkness, still another mile .......... I believe in angels, something good in everything I see. I believe in angels, when I know the time is right for me, I'll cross the stream; I have a dream..."
WHICH ALSO FEATURES JACKIE KAISER, AND IS A BIT LIGHTER...
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.