Authors: James Lee Burke
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To Deen Kogan, with thanks for all the support she has given to the arts over the years
HERE WAS A
time in my life when I woke every morning with fear and anxiety and did not know why. For me, fear was a given I factored into the events of the day, like a pebble that never leaves your shoe. In retrospect, an adult might call that a form of courage. If so, it wasn't much fun.
My tale begins on a Saturday at the close of spring term of my junior year in 1952, when my father let me use his car to join my high school buds on Galveston Beach, fifty miles south of Houston. Actually, the car was not his; it was lent to him by his company for business use, with the understanding that only he would drive it. That he would lend it to me was an act of enormous trust. My friends and I had a fine day playing touch football on the sand, and as they built a bonfire toward evening, I decided to swim out to the third sandbar south of the island, the last place your feet could still touch bottom. It was not only deep and cold, it was also hammerhead country. I had never done this by myself, and even when I once swam to the third sandbar with a group, most of us had been drunk.
I waded through the breakers, then inhaled deeply and dove into the first swell and kept stroking through the waves, crossing the first sandbar and then the second, never resting, turning my face sideways to breathe, until I saw the last sandbar, waves undulating across its crest, gulls dipping into the froth.
I stood erect, my back tingling with sunburn. The only sounds were the gulls and the water slapping against my loins. I could see a freighter towing a scow, then they both disappeared beyond the horizon. I dove headlong into a wave and saw the sandy bottom drop away into darkness. The water was suddenly frigid, the waves sliding over me as heavy as concrete. The hotels and palm trees and the amusement pier on the beach had become miniaturized. A triangular-shaped fin sliced through the swell and disappeared beneath a wave, a solitary string of bubbles curling behind it.
Then I felt my heart seize, and not because of a shark. I was surrounded by jellyfish, big ones with bluish-pink air sacs and gossamer tentacles that could wrap around your neck or thighs like swarms of wet yellow jackets.
My experience with the jellyfish seemed to characterize my life. No matter how sun-spangled the day might seem, I always felt a sense of danger. It wasn't imaginary, either. The guttural roar of Hollywood mufflers on a souped-up Ford coupe, a careless glance at the guys in ducktail haircuts and suede stomps and pegged pants called drapes, and in seconds you could be pounded into pulp. Ever watch a television portrayal of the fifties? What a laugh.
A psychiatrist would probably say my fears were an externalization of my problems at home. Maybe he would be right, although I have always wondered how many psychiatrists have gone up against five or six guys who carried chains and switchblades and barber razors, and didn't care if they lived or died, and ate their pain like ice cream. Or maybe I saw the world through a glass darkly and the real problem was me. The point is, I was always scared. Just like swimming through the jellyfish. Contact with just one of them was like touching an electric cable. My fear was so great I was urinating inside my swim trunks, the warmth draining along my thighs. Even after I had escaped the jellyfish and rejoined my high school chums by a bonfire, sparks twisting into a turquoise sky, a bottle of cold Jax in my hand, I could not rid myself of the abiding sense of terror that rested like hot coals in the pit of my stomach.
I never discussed my home life with my friends. My mother consulted fortune-tellers, listened in on the party line, and was always giving me enemas when I was a child. She locked doors and pulled down window shades and inveighed against alcohol and the effect it had on my father. Theatricality and depression and genuine sorrow seemed her constant companions. Sometimes I would see the cautionary look in the eyes of our neighbors when my parents were mentioned in a conversation, as though they needed to protect me from learning about my own home. In moments like these I'd feel shame and guilt and anger and not know why. I'd sit in my bedroom, wanting to hold something that was heavy and hard in my palm, I didn't know what. My uncle Cody was a business partner of Frankie Carbo of Murder, Inc. My uncle introduced me to Bugsy Siegel when he was staying at the Shamrock Hotel with Virginia Hill. Sometimes I would think about these gangsters and the confidence in their expression and the deadness in their eyes when they gazed at someone they didn't like, and I'd wonder what it would be like if I could step inside their skin and possess their power.
The day I swam through the jellyfish without being stung was the day that changed my life forever. I was about to enter a country that had no flag or boundaries, a place where you gave up your cares and your cautionary instincts and deposited your heart on a stone altar. I'm talking about the first time you fall joyously, sick-down-in-your-soul in love, and the prospect of heartbreak never crosses your mind.
Her name was Valerie Epstein. She was sitting in a long-bodied pink Cadillac convertible, what we used to call a boat, in a drive-in restaurant wrapped in neon, near the beach, her bare shoulders powdered with sunburn. Her hair wasn't just auburn; it was thick and freshly washed and had gold streaks in it, and she had tied it up on her head with a bandana, like one of the women who worked in defense plants during the war. She was eating french fries one at a time with her fingers and listening to a guy sitting behind the steering wheel like a tall drink of water. His hair was lightly oiled and sun-bleached, his skin pale and free of tattoos. He wore shades,
even though the sun was molten and low in the sky, the day starting to cool. With his left hand he kept working a quarter across the tops of his fingers, like a Las Vegas gambler or a guy with secret skills. His name was Grady Harrelson. He was two years older than I and had already graduated, which meant I knew who
was but he didn't know who
was. Grady had wide, thin shoulders, like a basketball player, and wore a faded purple T-shirt that on him somehow looked stylish. He had been voted the most handsome boy in the school not once but twice. A guy like me had no trouble hating a guy like Grady.
I don't know why I got out of my car. I was tired, and my back felt stiff and dry and peppered with salt and sand under my shirt, and I had to drive fifty miles back to Houston and return the car to my father before dark. The evening star was already winking inside a blue band of light on the horizon. I had seen Valerie Epstein twice from a distance but never up close. Maybe the fact that I'd swum safely through a school of jellyfish was an omen. Valerie Epstein was a junior at Reagan High School, on the north side of Houston, and known for her smile and singing voice and straight A's. Even the greaseballs who carried chains under their car seats and stilettos in their drapes treated her as royalty.
Get back in the car and finish your crab burger and go home,
a voice said.
For me, low self-esteem was not a step down but a step up. I was alone, yet I didn't want to go home. It was Saturday, and I knew that before dark my father would walk unsteadily back from the icehouse, the neighbors looking the other way while they watered their yards. I had friends, but most of them didn't know the real me, nor in reality did I know them. I lived in an envelope of time and space that I wanted to mail to another planet.
I headed for the restroom, on a path between the passenger side of the convertible and a silver-painted metal stanchion with a speaker on it that was playing “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Then I realized Valerie Epstein was having an argument with Grady and on the brink of crying.
“Anything wrong?” I said.
Grady turned around, his neck stretching, his eyelids fluttering. “Say again?”
“I thought maybe something was wrong and y'all needed help.”
“Get lost, snarf.”
“What's a snarf?”
“Are you deaf?”
“I just want to know what a snarf is.”
“A guy who gets off on sniffing girls' bicycle seats. Now beat it.”
The music speaker went silent. My ears were popping. I could see people's lips moving in the other cars, but I couldn't hear any sound. Then I said, “I don't feel like it.”
“I don't think I heard you right.”
“It's a free country.”
“Not for nosy frumps, it isn't.”
“Leave him alone, Grady,” Valerie said.
“What's a frump?” I said.
“A guy who farts in the bathtub and bites the bubbles. Somebody put you up to this?”
“I was going to the restroom.”
This time I didn't reply. Somebody, probably one of Grady's friends, flicked a hot cigarette at my back. Grady opened his car door so he could turn around and speak without getting a crick in his neck. “What's your name, pencil dick?”
“Aaron Holland Broussard.”
“I'm about to walk you into the restroom and unscrew your head and stuff it in the commode, Aaron Holland Broussard. Then I'm going to piss on it before I flush. What do you think of that?”
The popping sound in my ears started again. The parking lot and the canvas canopy above the cars seemed to tilt sideways; the red and yellow neon on the restaurant became a blur, like licorice melting, running down the windows.
“Nothing to say?” Grady asked.
“A girl told me the only reason you won âmost handsome' is that
all the girls thought you were queer-bait and felt sorry for you. Some of the jocks told me the same thing. They said you used to chug pole under the seats at the football stadium.”
I didn't know where the words came from. I felt like the wiring between my thoughts and my words had been severed. Cracking wise to an older guy just didn't happen at my high school, particularly if the older guy lived in River Oaks and his father owned six rice mills and an independent drilling company. But something even more horrible was occurring as I stood next to Grady's convertible. I was looking into the eyes of Valerie Epstein as though hypnotized. They were the most beautiful and mysterious eyes I had ever seen; they were deep-set, luminous, the color of violets. They were also doing something to me I didn't think possible: In the middle of the drive-in, my twanger had gone on autopilot. I put my hand in my pocket and tried to knock down the tent forming in my fly.
“You got a boner?” Grady said, incredulous.
“It's my car keys. They punched a hole in my pocket.”
“Right,” he said, his face contorting with laughter. “Hey, everybody, dig this guy! He's flying the flag. Anyone got a camera? When's the last time you got your ashes hauled, Snarfus?”
My face was burning. I felt I was in one of those dreams in which you wet your pants at the front of the classroom. Then Valerie Epstein did something I would never be able to repay her for, short of opening my veins. She flung her carton of french fries, ketchup and all, into Grady's face. At first he was too stunned to believe what she had done; he began picking fries from his skin and shirt like bloody leeches and flicking them on the asphalt. “I'm letting this pass. You're not yourself. Settle down. You want me to apologize to this kid? Hey, buddy, I'm sorry. Yeah, you, fuckface. Here, you want some fries? I'll stick a couple up your nose.”
She got out of the car and slammed the door. “You're pathetic,” she said, jerking a graduation ring and its chain from her neck, hurling it on the convertible seat. “Don't call. Don't come by the house. Don't write. Don't send your friends to make excuses for you, either.”