Authors: Sean Patrick Flanery
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I believe there are only ever a handful of moments in a child's life that truly shape who he is or who he is to become. There are plenty of moments for fine-tuning, but only a handful that mold the sharp, memorable features of the faceâ¦and also the soul. This is my handful.
o, here we are again. You know, most people check their mailbox to see what's inside it, but I think you know that I check mine to see what's not. I would tell you to stop me if you think that you've heard this one before, but I already know that you've heard it before. Bear with me. Sometimes I just need to hear myself say it againâto get it out.
*Â Â *Â Â *
I went home to try and touch the things I left behind, but they just weren't there anymore. Other things were. I needed to go back to that place again. I just needed a return trip to my childhood to pack up rubble memories to take with me before someone else occupied that space. I had to. I wanted Texas to be more familiar than it was when I went back. I wanted everything to reflect my memories exactly. It seemed like an eternity since I'd gone back to the mileposts and cairns of my past. But, adults have slag lenses, and we all learn to breathe through filters. I wanted everything back the way it was. My Grandaddy always told me I'd come back home looking for my porch, and here I was, looking. I just didn't want it to be too late.
I had a cab pick me up from the church and the cabbie asked me who got married, eyeballing my suit. “Nobody,” I said. As I rode in the taxi with that package next to me, I asked the driver to take a detour and stop on the farm road right outside my old junior high school. I just needed to see it again, to see if I could understand what I had missed. I told the driver that I'd only be a minute, and asked him if I could leave my things in the back. I could see he was staring at me in the rearview mirror before he asked me, “Nothing dangerous in that box, is there?” I remember looking at it and wondering the same thing, but then I just stepped out of the cab and started down the long gravel driveway to the front of the school, where it looped around and went right back out to the farm road. With every step I took, it grew and grew, until I found myself at its base, right in the center of that circular drive where kids are dropped off for school 180 days a year. There it was, the flagpole that gave me perspective, standing right where it left me. It wasn't until I was stranded up there in the middle of a dewy school night that I had truly seen a crystal clear picture of all the puzzle pieces that were to become my life. And with a mixture of trepidation and desire, I longed to climb it once more, to see it all again.
You know, most memories have a sort of swelling effect. Just about everything from my youth that I see today is just a little bit smaller, or less important than my memories' scale. I now know of only two things that defy this rule: that flagpoleâ¦and Jane.
*Â Â *Â Â *
I knew exactly whose sneakers they were. Those Vans, the new and impossibly rare 95s, belonged to a unicorn. There was a sixty-foot nautical-type flagpole dead center in the front of my new junior high school, and the sneakers dangled from the crossbar about fifteen feet from the top. Two weeks later, my Grandaddy was asking my part in all of it, closing in on the truth because he knew I'd lied to my parents about the shoes up there on that flagpole. He knew everything. The old, retired deputy sheriff sat on his rickety lawn chair on my front porch, staring out at the angry thunderhead accumulating on the Texas horizon, silently probing my truth. When he talked to me, he rarely ever looked me in the eyes. But when he did, it was something special. He was seeing something special. He was recognizing something in me.
This time, his not looking me in the eye hurt a little until it hurt more when he turned to me with gunmetal flinting out of his pupilsâeyes that had drawn a confession from many a crook and lowlife. He said, “You can only ever assuage a mistake and benefit from it if you pull three lessons out it.” And even though my Grandaddy's coon-ass bayou French made
come out as
, I knew exactly what he meant.
I had to tell him the truth about the sneakers.
When I arrived at school on that first day of sixth grade, I spotted her 95s through the cool wall of water gushing out of the furnace that was my Texas sky. Despite the blurring rain, I knew. I knew because every single day of that previous summer during swim team practice, I had seen her walk by the pool. With the discerning eye that only adoration can bring, I watched her glide across the parking lot every day clutching a Frisbee. So I knew, and I was immediately consumed with how I might get the 95s down and return them to their rightful owner. They were hers. She was the only person I knew with 95s, and they were almost as perfect as she was.
“Who threw the clown shoes up onto the flagpole?” vibrated out of the speakers during the morning announcements. Our principal's voice paused for a moment afterward, as if Mr. Totter really expected an answer. I pictured him, his suit smelling of mothballs over the pilled-up gray wool vest, sticking his shiny head out of his office into the hallway awaiting an echoing confession. Obviously, one never came, so following a death-rattle cough, he finally concluded: “Lest you forget, this constitutes vandalism, and will be treated as such” and “No one defaces our wonderful school” and “I will have those shoes down immediately.”
Minutes later, with a crowd of students around him on the front lawn, Mr. Totter was holding a pellet gun, patiently pumping it and firing it up at the shoes, trying to tear the laces and bring down those 95s like big game. The flagpole was a solid chrome monolith of sixty feet, over a foot in diameter at its base, and with two opposing arms jutting out from each side about fifteen feet from the top, like a ship's mast. Both arms had a chrome ball at the end, and the sneakers were about two feet from the end of the right arm, swaying in the sultry breeze. I remember preparing to viciously tackle Mr. Totter to the ground if he were to accidentally damage her shoes. I don't know if he realized his idiocy, or if he just gave up, but after a few more volleys, Mr. Totter scurried back into the building gripping his rifle.
All summer long I had seen the flyers at the local Piggly Wiggly for Frisbee lessons at my junior high, so every day when I saw her pass the pool, I knew exactly where she was going. And every time I saw her pass again, going home, she would walk barefoot in the shallow creek that ran right next to the pool, letting her feet cool. Her 95s hung around her neck like a scarf, the same way I always wore the red scarf Mom made me for Halloween a few years earlier. Nothing changed the first half of her journey on that last day of summer, but on the way back she just ran through the pool parking lot barefoot. I didn't see the 95s around her neck that evening, but I do remember that she did not stop to smile at me. Something had happened, and when I got to school that first day and saw those 95s dangling on the flagpole, my gut confirmed there was a new person on my hate list.
Houston, Texas, is about 1,700 miles from California, so things took a bit longer to arrive on our shores, and 95s were no different. I'd seen the icon Alva's feet in skateboard magazines, though, so I was well aware of the 95's hallowed significance. The fact that she not only knew what they were, but actually owned a pair was a testament to her unicorn-ness. I would have staked my life on the fact that I was the only person in school who knew exactly what was dangling on that chrome cross in the schoolyard. Not just 95sâ¦but 95s that her feet had graced. Those shoes weren't up there a week before someone drew a huge Wanted poster on the bathroom wall.
MISSING: ONE PAIR OF RED AND BLUE CLOWN SHOES! $500 REWARD!
Graffiti popped up everywhere referencing those shoes, with various rewards. Each taunted me for the safe return of the 95s. The doggerel lit a fire under the school's ass, and there was rumbling that Mr. Totter had arranged to have the fire department come and extract the unpatriotic eyesore as soon as possible, though the colors matched the flag.
It didn't take long before rumors spread that Jonathan was the culprit. He was in eighth grade that year, and widely regarded, at least by me, as a complete jack-wagon. One of those big-talking verbal bullies who had never actually been in a fight in his life. His brown-bodied, white-billed John Deere hat had never left his head in all the years I knew him. Jonathan had stolen her shoes while she was playing Frisbee barefoot on the field behind the gymnasium. Then, with the help of two of his idiot buddies, they slingshotted those sneakers up into the sky and onto that cross with a surgical-tubing water balloon launcher. Jonathan even bragged that he had yelled to all the Frisbee girls on the field until they each turned and stared at him holding up the sneakers, then saw a “weird little hippie girl in a yellow dress” react, shot her the bird, and sprinted away with “the stupidest-looking shoes I'd ever seen on a girl.”
I was in the restroom one day after word had spread, and I even heard Jonathan changing his story to say that he actually climbed up there and hung them, by hand. What a lying sack of shit! I knew that fat fuck couldn't get four feet up that pole if his life depended on it. I just stood there at the urinal, pretending to pee, feeling the hatred rise up my entire body in a heat wave from my feet all the way into the root of every hair in my scalp.
Jonathan had to pay. There was no way around it.
“Lying faggit, tub of shit!” Oh, sweet baby Jesus, I couldn't believe that I actually said that out loud, and that huge tile bathroom repeated me word for word. In all honesty, my indictment was intended for my enjoyment alone, but now it was for everyone's.
“The fuck did you just call me, you little pussy?” Jonathan squealed in his fat-fuck little squeaky voice. I panicked, and rushed to zip up my jeans, realized that they were already zipped as I had finished minutes earlier, and just stayed at the urinal to hear that pig lie, then slowly turned around to face the giant. Jonathan was a good fifty pounds heavier than me, and I'll be honest, I lost a bit more pee in the moment he hollered at me. I apologized to Jonathan for saying my thoughts out loud, but even when he backed me up against the urinal, I refused his request to “take it back!”
“You don't think I could climb that fucking pole?”
The other boys awaited Jonathan's rebuttal.
“Prove it, you little pussy.” Jonathan stuck his finger in my chest, and turned and started to head out of the bathroom as if he had just “shown me.” I remember thinking that out of all five words I let accidentally escape my lips that day, he had only contested the first. The only word that wasn't absolutely subjective was the one that he found fault with. I couldn't believe he didn't swing on me. I certainly didn't want to fight him, but I was surprised. How did he expect me to “prove” that he couldn't do something? I stared at the ground while tucking in my shirt. And that's when I saw it. Right where Jonathan had been standing. I saw it and it dawned on me. My answer lay on the floor in a puddle of pee.
*Â Â *Â Â *
I'll have your shoes back by Monday.
*Â Â *Â Â *
My Grandaddy liked to say that a
was always tailgating a good
. He said that a real man always finds it harder to short-change others than he does himself, so I should make my dreams publicâthat way I'd be letting others down if I failed. And a real man doesn't let others down.
That Wednesday, I excused myself from math class to go and use the restroom. My junior high had three separate lunches, one for each grade, and the eighth-grade lunch was during my math class. I saw Jonathan at his corner table surrounded by his platoon of dunces, and let go of my red scarf before they figured out I was wiping my sweaty palms on it.
I interrupted Jonathan's mouthful of pizza to blurt out, “I'll prove it to you by Monday.” Then, I turned around and walked off, my red scarf clenched in my fist to keep me calm. I remember waiting to be clocked in the back of the head with a fist, or food, or something, but the blow never came. A trail of questions and profanity faded out as I made my way back to math.
That Friday night was the first night I'd ever sneaked out of my house. I was petrified. Petrified of getting kidnapped. Petrified of getting attacked by drug addicts. Petrified my parents would find out I was a hoodlum on occasion. Petrified of someone else getting her 95s back to her before I could. My dog, Steve McQueen, slept on my bed with me, always had to be touching me ever since I was a toddler, and he would wake up if I left, so I had to take him with me. But in truth, I was just too scared to do it without my best friend. It took us almost two hours to get to the school that night, because we ducked from every pair of car headlights that approached, and I'm telling you a Weimaraner is not an easy dog to conceal. Big as a pony, his telltale gray coat reflected in headlights. In a town that small, there was a good probability we'd be picked up and forced to call my parents. About twenty times we had to hide behind broken-down cars on cinder blocks in neighbors' yards or behind abandoned shacks where Steve McQueen tiptoed gingerly around broken glass.
We made it to the school around one a.m., and I stood in front of that monument of threat and promise for an eternity before attempting ascent. A long gravel driveway came off the main road, so the school was a good distance from any potential witnesses. Steve McQueen lay there, frog-style, with no idea what a naive pup his partner was. I hugged that pole hard. I hugged it as if my life depended on it, long before it actually did. I made it about twenty feet up before I was absolutely crushed with panic. I slid down The Pole much faster than I should have, my red scarf flaring up from the speed of it, and I collapsed on the ground in desperation. I was overwhelmed with fear from the height I'd attained, although it was less than halfway up to the arms, but I was absolutely devastated from the fear of the realization that what I had claimed I would do was completely impossible under the circumstances. I sat with my legs crossed next to Steve McQueen and just stared up at the mast, like a lost sailor, willing a true bearing to come with the prevailing westerly winds. And come to me it did.