Monday, November 3, 2014
Can't Stop Thinking Big: CriMemoir - Trey R. Barker
Down & Out Books - a St. Louis visits with Rob Brunet and Sandi Loper (whom it was great to catch up with again at N@B at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas) and then over the weekend caught up with Keith Gilman and Eric Campbell. (Not to mention they just published The Genuine Imitation Plastic Kidnapping by N@B alum Les Edgerton.) Sandi and Eric keep dropping the name Trey R. Barker on me, so I reached out to the man and hit him up for a guest piece. Immediately he shot me a half dozen ideas for the CriMemoir series. He selected one to write about and damned if it ain't a corker. I'm sure you'll want to check up on Trey after reading it, and you can do so right here, but first...
Can’t Stop Thinking Big by Trey R. Barker
It was tall – at least relative to that moment – and it looked impossibly heavy.
“…what are you doing?”
The place was, I thought at the time, a motel. There was an open reception area with a wraparound desk, dingy walls, and dirty light, all surrounded by rooms that emptied into the reception area. I know now it was a lawyer’s office. In fact, the cops called him Lawyer Jones with both a good bit of west Texas racism and dismissiveness; after all, he obviously wasn’t important enough for the cops to learn his real name.
He was the attorney for a man named James Oliver Green.
“…no. Can we just go?”
James Oliver Green was, on that warm evening in the middle of May, 1976, employed at Global Wholesale Pottery. He was a warehouse grunt who spent his days cleaning the warehouse, unpacking pottery, making deliveries. I’d been at the warehouse that day because Mom was the bookkeeper and often brought me along. I dug the place which meant there were no babysitting charges for any day I hung out at the warehouse.
“…no, I don’t want to….”
She was beautiful…at least to this young boy’s eyes. Dark hair, dark eyes. Jeans tight around curvy hips, breasts shyly asking for notice. She seemed much older than me and had an air of sophistication. I assumed she was a world traveler who had been everywhere and seen everything. I was smitten, as much as a 9-year old boy can be, and when James stopped and asked if she needed a ride, when she said yes, when she came to our car, I couldn’t breathe as I happily gave up my shotgun seat and climbed in the back.
“…damnit, stop. Just let me go, okay?”
I’d never heard a voice sound like that and even now I remember the splash of fear that landed hard in my gut, which now suddenly hurt, and spread in angry concentric rings throughout my body. My head pounded, my breath came fast and hard. My skin was alive with heat, my head with panic.
“…stop it, goddamnit. Let go of me, asshole.”
James didn’t answer me.
What I didn’t know in that moment, but at the same time absolutely knew in that moment, was that he was trying to rape her. He was trying to get into this girl and it scared me as completely and thoroughly as any moment in my life up until the night in 2014 when I faced a drunk, angry cop larger and by far stronger than me who told me, in a stone dead affect, that he could get my gun and put bullets in my head before I blinked.
I was utterly helpless. Defenseless and helpless. To the point that I wanted to cry because there was simply nothing else I could do.
That was when I saw it.
But James took the choice out of my hands.
For whatever reason, he stopped. God knows why, but he listened to her pleading and begging. Somewhere down the road, he gave her a few dollars, let her out, and took me home.
I told no one until the two detectives, one of them the father of a school chum, came to see me at school a few days later. Then I lied. Then I told them everything.
But regardless of the words that spilled outta my mouth, I still felt defenseless.
When I was growing up, Mom’s boyfriend was a cop. A hulking mountain of a man, both scary and comforting. He was there for huge swaths of my childhood. When I ran away, he was there. When I began to notice girls in a more serious way than the 9-year old boy had, he was there.
And when I heard Mom getting beaten up, he was there.
It was all familiar: the taste of fear in the back of my throat, the burning heat on my skin, the ache in my guts, the hyper awareness that I could do absolutely nothing for her.
The man was huge. He was drunk. He was violent.
The second exception is the heater. We had a wall unit that stuck out about six inches from the wall. It was dark gray and old and directly across a very narrow hallway from the bathroom. The next day, when the violence was over and he was sleeping it off, I stared at that huge dent in the panel. That was where Mom’s shoulder had gone.
As with James and his attempting to rape what turned out to be a 15-year old girl, I was defenseless.
But also humiliated because I couldn’t even find the balls to call out to Mom, to at least try to put the brakes on the violence.
But I know I questioned all of it. Why had she let this happen? Why couldn’t she do anything to stop it? Why had he chosen her to do this to? Why was someone this monstrous even in our lives?
What the fuck did I know? I was a scared kid hearing his mommy get hurt. I had no idea about the dynamics of relationships. I had no idea about the dynamics of violence or his cowardice. I had no idea that later in that relationship, Mom would toe right up to him and dare him to hit her again. I had no idea that the violence and drinking was a symptom of something else.
And if I had known? Fuck it. I wouldn’t have given a shit. I wasn’t interested in interpersonal relationship dynamics. I wanted to stop her hurt. In that moment, she was as defenseless as me and I wanted to stop the hurt.
But more to the point…I wanted to hurt him back.
Later, I don’t know when exactly, she wasn’t defenseless.
Later, she was the defender.
I don’t know the woman’s name. I don’t know how Mom knew her. All I knew for sure was that one Sunday morning, a lady was at our house. She was crying. She was hurt. She’d been beaten.
She was where my mother had been.
But Mom was not.
Mom was in the living room, almost daring her asswipe of a husband to come in, toeing up to him as she had her boyfriend.
Mom was also carrying a steak knife.
She looked at me, her eyes full of determination rather than anger, though I suspect she was quite angry, and said, “Sure as hell will if I stick it in his gut.”
I’ll remember that as long as I live.
What I understood at that moment was that the defenseless are not always defenseless. Sometimes, the defenseless are just as capable of defending themselves as are the biggest and meanest amongst us.
Both of those things, the defenseless and the momentarily defenseless, have worked their way through my life and literature in surprising ways. I discovered, when I became a deputy sheriff late in life, that part of what drove me was to protect the defenseless, however that might be defined: the young, the elderly, those who suffered mental disorders, those who fought emotional disorders, the politically disconnected, the socially disaffected.
In law enforcement, that usually means someone is getting over on someone else, either by force or force of will. Be it battery or fraud, it leaves victims in its wake, as angry and humiliated as it did the kid version of me.
In that story, a defenseless child saves his own life by killing the one person who had, repeatedly, gotten over on him; who had used him as a tool for her own ends. The story was as simple and complicated as that. At the end, I dedicated the story to ‘Batman,’ aka Andrew Vachss. A dear friend of mine, writer Ed Bryant, had once wondered to me if Vachss ever thought of himself as Batman, a superhero for children. Everything of Vachss, his law practice that represents exclusively children, his writing, his speeches and presentations, his very essence, has gone into protecting children and I am, and always will be, in awe of what he’s done.
In Hostage, a brand new short novel, I allow the grown up child to protect herself from her own past. In doing so, she gets over on the man against whom she felt defenseless…and as an added, nasty bonus, takes along two other children the same man has molested, and allows them to get over on him, too.
What I’m doing, I think, is rewriting how it worked out with James and Mom. Maybe trying to create better endings to those incidents so that I don’t feel humiliated or defenseless or that something bigger is running me down. And just maybe I’m trying to emulate my mother on the day of the knife. There’s a great line in a recent Rush song, “In a world where I feel so small, I can’t stop thinking big.” In the song, thinking big is about a boy’s dreams of the outside world. In my fiction, it’s about dreaming that you are bigger than whoever is hurting you.
Yeah, all that sounds pompous as hell, but I do realize I can only change my tiny part of the world, both in reality and in fiction. That’s good enough. If I can change that tiny part, then I can slip outta my mortal coil, in another twenty or thirty years, and be perfectly happy.
Well, mostly perfectly happy because, after all…this is me we’re talking about and have I ever been perfectly happy?
Hah! Hell, no.