Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean. ~ Dag Hammarskjold
I’ve repressed any memories I may have had of my graduation from high school. Although, I do recall the highly awkward “project graduation” experiment, for which they locked us all in a large gymnasium complex for the entire night so that we wouldn’t go kill ourselves. The idea for this was apparently based on research showing that, upon graduation, a statistically significant percentage of kids get drunk, drive that way, and end up dead. So, the logic was to lock everyone up (voluntarily, of course) in a building full of ping-pong tables, basketball courts, and other forms of boringly torturous entertainment.
Most kids participated, for some reason. However, the moment the event was over the next morning — immediately after — we all went out and got pissed out of our minds at someone’s house. We then packed our bags and headed to Florida for the senior class trip — a week of fun in the sun, largely unchaperoned.
Midwesterners aren’t “ocean people,” if you know what I mean. So, I’m not sure why they chose Florida. Sure, we had Red Lobster in the Midwest. But, that was pretty much the extent of our love affair with the ocean.
Anyway, I missed the form for selecting a roommate for the week, and was placed with the “suicidal guy.” There seems to be one in every group these days. Either someone freaks out and is going to kill himself, or someone gets killed in a drunken accident. (The latter happened a few years later, by the way, which marked the end of the senior class trip tradition at my school.) But, I got through it okay. I saw the ocean for the first time, did the Shamu thing, lit the hotel walls on fire with hair spray, drank my way through every last cent I’d brought, successfully convinced my suicidal roommate that life would go on without the girl who had left him, had my wallet stolen, had my grandparents wire me an extra fifty bucks, and finally returned in one piece.
By the time I’d gotten home, my parents had already left town — permanently. Dad got his wish — no more hoosiers. Even though the house was no longer ours, I went there one last time to walked through the property and see if they’d forgotten anything. The house was certainly empty, except for the memories, of course.
I left through the garage, hit the automatic door button and ran out. Before the door closed, I threw my house key into the garage to lock myself out. I walked the property once more, noting all of my mother’s landscaping through the years. Most of the small trees she’d planted were well on their way. The cedars she’d painstakingly lined one side of the property with seemed to be finally forming the natural fence she’d envisioned six years earlier. The sapling pines she’d planted along the back stretch had become strong, viable trees, each one perhaps ten feet tall.
The six year game, or ride, or ordeal, or whatever I should call it, was finally over. Surprisingly, leaving the place invoked a rather forgiving state of mind. Perhaps that’s why I responded to a bit of laughter I’d heard in my neighbor’s driveway across the street. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call the guy Stephen Baldwin. He was a true stoner, about four or five years older than me. He was there with Sean Penn (a typical Jeff Spicoli-type from my class). I hadn’t spoken five words to either of them in six years, though we certainly knew each other. I offered an indifferent wave, and Stephen called loudly, “We saw your family leave, earlier. Where y’all moving?”
I walked down to them. “Back to the big city,” I said. “What’s in store for you guys?”
Sean said, “Nothin’. Just get a job, I guess.” (As I’ve said many times, that town absolutely sucked any and all ambition from its residents. Believe me, I wasn’t trailing too far from Sean’s state of apathy.)
“Well,” I said. “I just figured I’d say ‘take care,’ neighbor.”
“Yeah, you guys stayed a while,” Stephen said. “You had a good run. Do you have any regrets?”
I mulled that over for a minute. At first, I simply wondered how in the world some backwoods hick like Stephen Baldwin could come up with a question like that. I mean, this was truly astounding. Here was a guy who could hardly spell his own name unexpectedly pulling a semi-deep question out of his ass — and seeming to mean it! A strange answer came to mind, though — and, as I was experiencing a similarly strange mood at the time, I blurted out the answer rather matter-of-factly. But first, a flashback.
I’m not sure why one particular memory would jump into my head after Stephen asked me his question, but suddenly I was twelve again, standing on the grounds of the high school one day during my first week of 6th grade. That was the year we’d moved into this god-forsaken hellhole of a town — 1980, maybe 81.
The sixth grade was a stand-alone school, a recently converted industrial slaughterhouse that never quite rid itself of the stench associated with such places. The halls still had built-in sewers, which must have been installed to easily hose away all of the blood and guts produced during the manufacture of sausage.
Around back, in the old receiving dock, was the vo-tech area. The “vo” in vo-tech was short for “vocational”; the “tech” part was a euphemism for car engines. These were basically seventeen and eighteen year old kids who had pretty much dropped out of high school but were going for some kind of certificate in auto service — which, here again, often represents a unique mix of (1) lack of brains and yet (2) a semblance of ambition. In other words, hoosiers.
Right out of the gate, I ran into regular trouble with these much-older kids, with whom I had to share a daily ride to the high school to switch buses. For example, during my first week on the bus, one such idiot had already emptied an entire salt shaker onto my head.
But, this day was different. I was walking around the high school looking for my bus and one of those guys — again, a real farm-jockey at least seventeen or eighteen years old — decided to continue tormenting me. So, the guy picks me up and flips me so that I’m upside down. He grabs my head in between his knees and asks me in his awful drawl (sounding like a character right out of Deliverance ), “Do you know what a pile driver is?”
Well, I had no idea what a pile driver was, but it sure sounded painful. As I braced for the inevitable moment, a teacher happened by and broke up the situation.
I think that moment was the beginning of a new strategy for me: Avoid hoosiers at all costs. So, I invested quite a lot of time over my tenure in the Midwest in avoiding physical confrontations. That’s not to say I didn’t have plenty of close calls (some of which have been described herein, for example).
End of flashback… After six years of avoidance, I guess it finally got to me. I became strangely angry about my whole stay in this part of the world. So, I came out with a rather unexpected answer when my dirtbag neighbor asked me, “Do you have any regrets?”
“Actually,” I said, “yeah, I do. I never learned … how to fight.”
“You mean fighting like…” and Sean threw a fist toward me. I flinched, and they laughed.
“Yeah,” I said.
Stephen said, “Man, you should have just asked us. We’d have taught you to fight, right Sean?”
“Yeah,” Sean said. “Fighting’s easy. You just have to learn some moves. Lemme show you one of my favorites.” He began moving around, warming up a bit. “See, I like to use the other guy’s momentum against him. So, if he’s coming at me, I grab him and pull him to me even harder. Go ahead, throw a punch at me.”
“No, Sean,” I said. “You know, I just took a shower and all…”
“Alright,” he said, “then you just watch. Stephen, throw a punch at me and I’ll show him this move.”
So, Stephen went to punch him and Sean threw Stephen to the ground. Then he jumped on top of Stephen and paused to look up at me. He said, “Now, when I get the guy down, I recommend jumping on top of him like this, and then start pounding his face like this.” He then began to act as though Stephen’s face were a punching bag.
After a few seconds of that, Stephen jumped up and brushed himself off. “Yeah, that was good, but when you know someone like him is going to do that, you just have to do this in response.”
He went at Sean again, only this time he more or less tackled him, and managed to get him onto the ground, nearly running into a large tree. The whole thing looked a bit painful to me, but they both laughed. Stephen got up, smiling as though he’d gotten the better of Sean.
Sean gathered himself up off the ground and said, “Yeah, but that doesn’t work on me because I know you’re thinking that I’m going to do one thing, but I do another instead.”
“That’s bullshit,” Stephen said. “I could take you down anytime.” Then Stephen shoved Sean, a little playfully.
Sean shoved back, a little less playfully. And, in no time, a fullfledged fist fight had broken out right before my eyes. They punched, kicked, and clawed at each other fiercely, as though they hated each other with every fiber of their being.
I don’t remember who won, but both were covered in grass, dirt, and even a little blood within a few minutes, having rather violently beat each other up solely for my amusement. As things started to calm down a bit, Sean stood there bent over catching his breath, his hands on his knees. He said, “So, did that help you understand?”
Another thought provoking question. “Yeah,” I said. “I think I’ll be able to put that to some use.” I shook their hands and walked back to the empty house, considering how my final evening in the small town had included yet another example of the utter absurdity that had pervaded the preceding six years. This neighborhood and town never let me down in that regard, at least.
On my way out, I noticed a small (but extremely heavy) slab of red granite I’d liberated from a state park in the Ozarks. I couldn’t leave that be hind — not after all the trouble I’d gone to sneaking it past the park office (the one with the “DON’T remove red granite from the park” sign). I hoisted it into the passenger-side floor of the Horizon and slowly drove away, nodding at the stoners on my way.
Crossing the tracks, I sensed nothing would change, really. This generation would leave and a different, much younger kid would move in to my old room. He’d forge great friendships and would also develop archenemies; he’d slowly discover the many secret shortcuts in the neighborhood’s topography; he’d familiarize himself with the wonders of the railroad tracks; he’d stare in amazement out over the large expanse of nearby fields during a hailstorm; he’d often gaze into the brilliant Milky Way on summer nights; and the forests would slowly yield their many hidden treasures. And, if the stars align themselves just so, the little bastard will get away with a thing or two.
✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog, “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He also contributes to various Medium.com publications. Find him at JPDbooks.com, his Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or via email at Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest novel, CHROO, is available on Amazon.com. If you enjoy humorous literary tales, please grab a copy!