Here’s a splendid, gritty Texas “Childhood” essay from Brad Green in Denton. You all know what Denton, TX, is like because Brad also contributed a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” essay in December. Brad Green is a prolific author and editor, a uniquely rich, harsh, dry and despairing voice on NC, and he’s about to be a father again as dg types these words.
By Brad Green
Sloth and Envy
When I was twelve, I had the world’s meanest boil on my ass. Picture the swollen eye of a pissed-off bull, Aztec red and glaring. I’d run my palm with wonder over the furuncle’s tender heat and trace the rising, tight flesh to a pale tip that when brushed made my arms stiffen and toes clench. The day that boil popped was one of the worst of my life.
Hours were spent face down on my bed while the attic fan in our small elbow of a house droned, culling the scent of honeysuckle through my bedroom window. Those bushes were my favorite place in the world at that time. They’d inched up through the clay-cobbled dirt around our trailer in Argyle, Texas, and as they unfurled in the sun, I retreated to their shadow. That crosswork thatch of limbs laid sun-dappled shade under my window and I’d sit on the cool, damp earth, full of breath and light.
Butterflies flooded the air around the vines. The honeysuckle attracted clouds of them, each a fluttering thumbsmear of color. Flying in and around the bushes, the butterflies landed on my arms, tickled paths across my scalp. There was an immediacy to that experience that lifted one beyond the gravity of the skin.
But of course, my hidebound father tolerated none of that woolgathering. One day he thumped his Bible down on my bedside table, opened to Job, his mophandle finger stabbing at the verse. “Unlike him, I believe you done something wrong,” he said. Then he flicked his finger against the back of my thigh near the boil and I bucked on the bed. “You think about what sins brought this upon you.”
And I did. I thought about sin all the time. I thought about everything I did wrong: stealing books from the B. Dalton’s in the Golden Triangle mall in Denton, writing the word fuck in Elder Futhark on every sheet, back and front, of an eighty page notebook, how I once took shaving cream and squirted a penis onto the hood of my father’s Buick Riveria, letting him believe the neighborhood, worldly boys were at fault.
Boil treatment started with my mother’s dreaded knee. I’d see that knee approach, the moonlight bulb of its bending, then her thigh, then her wide hips arcing like parentheses as she kneeled down, lowering her frantic face to mine. “Time to doctor your butt,” she’d say. “We don’t want infection.” I’d close my eyes, turn my face away, and breathe in the honeysuckle through the window. My mother was always concerned with infection, with bringing in something unknown from the outside that would damage us. Both of my parents—and the entire congregation to which we belonged—were fearful of the world and sought to insulate us all from the horror and wonder of a worldly life. When I was diagnosed with diabetes, my mother began to tighten into herself, leaning in doorways like an exclamation point. I caught her narrowing her eyes at the illicit boil several times, sneering as if it were a thief.
She tried to be gentle as she worked my sweatpants down to my knees, of course, but the treatment still hurt. Often there was seepage and the gauze she removed tugged strings of drying pus till it felt like wasps had been let loose in my ass. Her trembling fingers worked a quarter-sized daub of honey over the boil and she kneaded the hot, red flesh till the sheets gathered white in my fists and sweat sprouted along my forehead.
Muscles contorted in his forearms as he pushed the mower. Limbs and stalks still glistened with dew and the ground wasn’t dry enough for mowing, but my father had his own schedule. Under wet-heavy grass, earth softened like pudding and I felt the dark coolness of the soil under my palms. I knew he couldn’t see me behind the bushes and that delighted me so much I imagined bubbles popping behind my eyes. A colorful snow of butterflies filled the air. There was a moment in that bush I felt divorced from the world and the porcine weight of its monumental inertia. I thought of stories, science-fiction dramas rife with battle where a vast nation of religious fanatics rose to power amid the blasted wasteland of a desert planet. In those bushes, I became aware of how imagery could be a balm for the brutal ubiety of things, how our beliefs are more primal than facts, how narrative compels and shapes our lives. I first read and coveted the mind of Schopenhauer while huddled in those bushes, that leaf and vine a good hiding spot for my books and other immoral interests. For Schopenhauer, misery arose when human desire was constantly thwarted and that concept resonated deeply with me. It was a bit of philosophy I could see being actualized. I learned, as well, that a sentence could both enlarge and focus my mind, that I could find satisfaction in signs more often than the signified, but in the tales I scribbled into notebooks behind that bush, satiation rarely occurred. Inertia scotched those desires. It always has.
That bush world of shadow and branch was so unlike the world of belt snaps and sin beyond. There was no finger thumping my thigh, no verse, no narrowed eyes, no meaty fist pounding the table when I peed my pants. There was no sermon, no public airing of wrongdoing in front of the congregation for daring to kiss a girl, no scrubbing of the body to bloodrash in the cleansing of sin. Nor was there any shame, nor mandate, nor stricture other than that which the sun contained within its own shining, or the wind in its swell under a butterfly’s wing, or the law that a leaf casts in its own lozenge of shadow. Oh, I was a spy, a brigand, an orphan, someone liked, simply misplaced, born out of round to the wrong time and place. But that joy didn’t last. Nothing ever does.
As I watched my father lean against the mower, five butterflies lighted on his face and I bore witness to something I haven’t seen since: he screamed. Curt and autsched, the sound was more kin to yelp, but the frozen image of his horrible face etched in my mind. Such bald fear. A spasm rattled his body and then stopped. He scraped butterflies from his face and crushed them against his thighs. He grabbed them midflight and killed them in hard fists. With each butterfly that died, deeper furrows cragged his face. He revved the lawnmower to full screaming power and pushed it, running, toward the bushes. The mower collided with the vines, scattering butterflies like balloons. The hissing and chewing blades missed my feet by an inch. In my hand, I held a butterfly that had been exploring the terrain of my palm. When the mower crashed into the bushes, I jumped back, clenching my fists. Father turned off the mower, wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, and went inside. I opened my hand.
That afternoon, I launched into a campaign against butterflies. With thumbfulls of mud, I pinned their wings to the ground. I ripped wings from bodies and dumped the bodies into boiling beds of redhot ants. I glued butterflies together and charred them in the furious tongue of a Zippo. I killed and killed and my father never noticed.
Pride and Gluttony
After boil treatment one day, my father wanted to go to eat in Denton, so we did. In the restaurant, we sat down and I started squirming, trying to leverage my left ass cheek off the chair. I was in terrible pain. People from other tables stared at us and as I stood, because I could simply sit no longer, my father slapped his hand on my shoulder and forced me back down, hard. The boil popped. Some small squeak, a little girl noise he later called it, curled out of my throat. Heat flooded my cheeks. Warm blood and pus oozed and made a slow, cooling ribbon down my thigh. But I didn’t say a fucking word.
“Um,” the waitress said. “I think something’s wrong with your kid.”
My mother walked around the table, told me to stand, and slapped her right hand over her mouth. Everyone turned to stare at the odd warble that squirted from her. Oblivious, she pulled down my pants, grabbed all the napkins from the table, and started pressing them against my ass.
She screamed at the waitress. “Do you have an alcohol? He has the diabetes. This can’t get infected!”
The waitress scampered to the back with an amazed look on her face.
I stood in that fancy taco joint in front of everyone with my faded sweatpants wrinkled around my ankles, my little dick flapping in the air, my hot and bleeding ass getting shoved full of maroon cloth napkins.
My mother started explaining the situation to the nearest tables. It was diabetes this and diabetes that, as if she were apologizing for something I’d done. The waitress returned with a bottle of isopropyl. After a few moments of cleaning my ass with stinging napkins, recognition of where she was tightened her eyes and surprise loosened her grip on my arm. Was her belief pierced by fact at that moment? I don’t know. If it was, that knowledge didn’t persist; truth evaporates. People can’t survive without illusion. In the restaurant a few were aghast, others laughed. Some with kindness in their hearts looked at their hands or away into the parking lot full of sun-bright glass.
I pulled up my pants and glanced at my father, who smiled while crunching a bite of taco. “Perhaps that’ll teach you,” he said around a mouthful of lettuce and meat. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
I drove by the place where the restaurant had been a few days ago. I found a cracked concrete block, kicked a stub of charred wood. Nothing remained but an ache and the ambitus of that lends me some of my shape. My face burned as I stood in the rocks and wispy needlegrass where the restaurant had been and I chastised myself for being swayed by memory, but some moments are never overcome, they’re merely pushed away and recast. I waited in that empty lot for several breaths, hoping to encounter a butterfly, somehow expecting to see one flap through the breeze or land in my outstretched palm. That’s the better ending for a story, no? Isn’t that what our belief in narrative dictates? But then I closed my fist and turned away. Of course there was no butterfly.
(Post design by Gwen Mullins)