Mannish Boy/Boyish Man
Years prior I only perturbed a separate person. I was a collection of associations from my family, tics and thoughts passed down, in essence projections. Political parties, tastes in movies and TV. 16 that broke. I joined a band with two older boys. We practiced an anarchic garage folk in a Methodist Church high in the hills of Norton, Virginia, above decrepit houses. I put a Libertarian Party sticker on my guitar case and began a lifelong obsession with Wu-Tang Clan, but I was a singer-songwriter who put words to chords to strain for meanings of things I didn’t know yet, the wisdoms passed on from Simon Joyner and Ryan Adams and Townes Van Zandt, whose “To Live Is To Fly” would grace my shoulder in black ink hidden from my grandmother. My crush soon girlfriend was 18 and she was lending me a panoply of movies I treated as holy writ, only blaspheming and casting American Psycho from my canon. My head was full of Henry Miller gobbing in the face of art to create art; I threw my against the wall of the Louvre to leave an imprint against the blades and walls of any established windmill, including the Christian one. I argued for the Revelation of St. John’s Revelation and the addition of St. Peter’s, where sinners would be forgiven, that the fires of hell a misunderstood of purgatory. The real hell was Gehenna, a void separate from everything including God.
These were small stabs at establish an autonomy, a personhood. And I was going to get that, with my stepbrother being slowly baptized into that privilege. While my dad and stepmother went out to see the Avett Brothers, me and my stepbrother were going to stay in a fancy Asheville hotel.
We were in the Bristol Mall, which is a hell of a place to be ever let alone Christmas, buying last minute gifts. I put a bag down and rambled to stepbrother about my friends back home, about the girl, about her prior boyfriend, how much of a mark he was. My stepbrother seemed impressed. When dad asked me where I put the bag, I scrambled and found it from where I was trying on Polo coats. He grumbled.
After that we went to the Books-A-Million. I bought everyone a book. My dad got The Federalist, my stepmother got Catch-22, my stepbrother got On the Road with the inscription “may this inspire you to great adventure” because I was 16. Coming over that night we had my grandmother, a plump lady who claimed the End Times were on their way due to the fluctuations of the weather, my aunt, who seemed bossy and sarcastic, putting me in the mind of Roseanne, my cousins, one three years younger than me, one closer to ten. I winged it for those four. I took my Christmas money to the front and handed it over. I had three classic tomes from the world as I saw it and some calendars and an Uno set.
My grandmother and the aunt and the cousins came over. Everyone was sweatered and jolly.
What happened next I lost. We took the grandmother out to go pick up some holiday thing. I remember her noticing my dad’s white Jeep Cherokee lacked antifreeze. Maybe it wasn’t important but when we get home, she figured out my dad didn’t have a driver’s license. He owed somewhere above five grand in child support arrearages. An argument started
I saw a moment I could stake a claim as the first man raised by the unit. “Why is it everytime we get together there’s a fight?”
My grandmother went into conniptions. She said she didn’t have to put up with this. She started trying to leave. My dad grabbed her to keep her from leaving. He was standing in front of the door. I was 5’10, he was 5’9 and 300 some pounds, she was 5’4 in boots. She kept trying to get him to get out of the way. She was hitting him.
I sat down and I started crying, “I fucked up.” My stepmother came over rubbed my back and calmed me down.
All the kids went up stairs. Me and my cousin were with my cousin and stepbrother. There was fighting going on downstairs and there we were comforting the kids, all old enough to understand what was going on. My cousin and I were tasked with damage control.
When it calmed down we sat to dinner. During a chance moment my grandmother asked, “Where’d he learn to talk like that?”
After the panoply of drama at that Christmas I had something to look forward to: the Asheville trip. I walked around the house talking about what vinyl I was looking for (Velvet Underground and Nico, specifically).
That night somebody scraggly came in; they were the picture of ridden hard and put up wet. My stepmother’s things started getting packed up. I asked. “Are we still gonna go to Asheville? Are you still coming with us?”
I want to say she said we’d wait and see. They packed up. A year ago she threatened to jump out of the car if we didn’t stop at the IHOP the Avett Brothers were at, when we on the highway. Her interest wasn’t academic and she couldn’t fake it anymore.
Once they had my dad put the lights out and lit a fire and we sat and he was dejected. What followed was a confession, of how this family was what he wanted, of how he had never loved anyone the way he loved my stepmother, of the hurt. He couldn’t cry, he was just broke on Christmas Day in a room with no tree and a mannish boy who put his childish optimism away to sit with his dad in loneliness.
We went to Asheville the next day. My dad spoiled me at one of the record stores, bought me a biography of Tom Waits I read in the hotel room.
I went home to my mom and stepdad’s house and didn’t talk about it. There I was a boy but my eyes stayed on what was in the fire and the room it warmed. The secret I held was from that minute forward the boy in me was burning and along with it felt like my stepmother, stepbrother, father all went. I didn’t talk to my stepmother ever again after she left night. My stepbrother disappeared to Florida and at one point was a runaway. I learned he ran away because of a TV report. I deleted him from Facebook at that moment. Angry he never asked for my help, angry knowing he couldn’t.
My grandmother went last. She hadn’t gotten in contact with me until one Christmas season she felt it was time my dad and I made up. I shouted her down and told her to not try me. I hung up on her the second she started crying over the phone.
She died in 2015. I skipped the funeral. I refuse to be cast into that overlap of heat and blankness and that line between being a boy and a man. I will not burn the man for the sake of a gone boy.