I didn’t know what Louise had planned for yesterday when I decided to post this. It’s either a different slant on the matter or maudlin overkill or something else entirely—I’ll let you be the judge of that.
To borrow a phrase from Richard Ford: This is not a happy story, I warn you. More troubling than that, I’m not entirely sure it’s true, even though I remember it all vividly.
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. When I was four-to-five years old, I was one of the younger members of the neighborhood pack of kids, a collection of maybe a dozen brothers and sisters from five families in a residential part of town called Beechwold.
I was not just younger, but inward and awkward, relying heavily on my older brother John to help me navigate the social minefield that childhood so often becomes.
Normally, John was stellar, protecting me from embarrassment or harm. In the instance I’m about to describe, that excellence faltered. I don’t blame him. He was becoming aware of his own homosexuality at the time, and was plagued with his own fears of embarrassment and being found out. So in this case, I was on my own.
Two doors down from us lived the Lehman family, and they had a son named Gary who had Down Syndrome. We didn’t call it that back then. We called Gary retarded.
Gary would sometimes come out into his yard to play with the rest of us, and he had a fascination with the cartoon character Popeye. The other kids would goad him, saying, “Popeye, Gary! Popeye!” And Gary would mimic the cartoon, reach inside his shirt for his can of spinach — in truth, just slapping his chest — down the spinach in one gulp — he would lick his hand — then flex his muscles and, with his arms windmilling, charge whoever the instigators pointed out. More times than not, it was me. I was the designated Bluto.
I had nothing against Gary but I knew I couldn’t afford not to prevail in our encounters, or so I believed. I wonder about that now, wonder what would have really happened if I’d let him win, but the world that choice would have created was lost long ago. He was bigger and heavier and stronger than I was, but I could usually wrestle him to the ground and pin him without too much effort, at which point the others would cheer, the bout would be over, and things would eerily return to normal, as we knew it.
The shame of this was heightened by the fact I had a crush on Gary’s mom. Mrs. Lehman was young and far more attractive than the other mothers in the neighborhood, with short black hair cut in a pixie style so fashionable back then. She wore capri pants and men’s shirts with the sleeves rolled up, an arty look back then for the Midwest. She mesmerized me, haunted me. She at times watched as the kids crowded around Gary, lured him into the Popeye bit, then gently called him inside afterward. He would bound toward her, oblivious to being the butt of our jokes; she would not look at us, just let her son into the house, the door would close. I cannot envision her in my memory without an expression of helpless sorrow. And that sadness made my shame and guilt unbearable.
At some point Mrs. Lehman vanished, and another woman appeared in her place — older, frumpier, aproned, more conventionally maternal. She led Gary out among us one day and smothered him with kisses and hugs and told us all how much she adored him, called him her precious, her darling. The love was almost garish but sincere, there was no mistaking that. But who was this woman? Where did the other, mysteriously lovely Mrs. Lehman go? As ashamed as I felt, I missed her, even pined for her in the way young boys do for beautiful mothers, even when they’re not their own (perhaps especially then). How could I ever tell her how sorry I was, which would begin my rehabilitation in her eyes? How could I atone and so begin what, in my five-year-old heart, I perceived as our romance?
Sometime later, I don’t remember exactly when, the Lehmans moved away. And sometime after that — or so I recall — my brother told me that the beautiful Mrs. Lehman had committed suicide. No one knew why. Or if they did, they never said.
Again, I’m not entirely sure this beautiful woman really existed. Maybe the sweet, frumpy Mrs. Lehman had been there all along, and the arty woman in the black pixie who died so tragically was just a figment of my imagination, a false memory forged from loneliness and guilt. I’d ask my brother but he too is gone now, a victim of that first wave of AIDS that swept through San Francisco in the 1980s. And so I’m left with a hesitation where a memory should be, a silence in need of a ghost.
Are you unsure of a seemingly seminal memory? Does the past sometimes seem as hypothetical — or illusory — as the future? Is there an incident from your past that puts the lie to the myth of “normalcy.” Have you ever been goaded by others into an act that, for years afterward, stirred the deeper waters of your conscience? Has such a moment found a way into your fiction?
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I couldn’t leave you with such a troubling story and not try to pick you up, at least a little. Here’s one of my favorite love songs, a bit of poignant gentleness (with ukelele!) from a band not normally known for it, The Who — a tune that puts all the world’s wisdom in two simple lines:
The pleasure seems to balance out the pain
And so you see I’m completely crazy …