A Backward GlanceChapter 4
Turned out Frank had this bee in his bonnet that a good foster-father would know where I was at all times, and what I was doing. I just let him talk. I think he knew I wasn't planning on telling him anything, it just made him feel like he was doing what he was supposed to be doing.
His wife looked at it different. "I think you should make the boy tell you," Ruby said to her husband. "After all, who's in charge here, you or him?"
She wasn't really interested. She sounded bored. Looked that way, too.
"Tell us where you were, Wendell, while Frank was here, tearing his hair out." She looked in my direction, but she didn't really look at me. It was like I wasn't important enough to look at. Like I was…..just a nuisance. A bug. And she'd fan at me with her words, but it didn't matter much whether I answered or not, whether I stopped annoying her or not.
"It rained. I didn't wanna get wet. I stayed with a friend."
"A friend, huh?" She was looking through a stack of letters on the table. "You have friends?"
"Yeah. A couple."
"And you stayed with one of them? And what did you do all last night and today? While you were staying with your friend. I think Frank would like to know that. What you were doing."
Frank looked like he wasn't sure whether he wanted to know that or not.
"Wendell?" She looked at me over her shoulder. Not 'cause she cared what the answer was, just 'cause she'd decided I was gonna tell; and so she was gonna make me. But she still wasn't looking at me, just sorta in my direction.
Maybe that's partly why I said what I said. I coulda lied. I'm not a very good liar, but it wouldn'ta made any difference if they knew I was lying, as long as I didn't tell 'em the truth.
So I coulda made up something. I coulda said I slept the whole time. I coulda said anything.
But she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, and she thought I was nothing, a pest, a kid. She almost didn't know I was there.
"Well?" she said. "What were you doing all night? Playing cards? Stealing cars? What?"
I guess I wanted to get her attention. Wanted her to look at me like I was a man.
"Wendell? Cat got your tongue?"
I said, "I wasn't playin' cards, or stealin' cars. I was fuckin'."
It was easy. That one word was enough to get her attention.
I thought Frank was gonna have a stroke. He hustled me upstairs, but not before I saw Ruby give me the once-over with her eyes. Now I kinda wished I had something for her to see. You know?………………..
"Wendell!" Frank was real upset. "What the hell were you thinking? You can't talk like that to a woman! I haven't said anything up to now about your filthy language, I've been letting it pass, but this is too much. You absolutely cannot say those kinds of things to a lady! Never!"
"She asked me. I was just answering her question. You don't want me to lie, do ya?"
I sat down on my bed. Frank was pacing. I don't know if he was really listening to me. "You use that word in particular all the time, for everything. Do you even know what it means?"
He was serious.
"Yeah. Don't you?"
He stopped pacing for a minute. "Why would you even think of saying that to her?"
"She asked me what I was doing. I told her."
"I think now you're going to have to tell me what you were really doing. Since you went to the trouble of trying to shock my wife with your filthy mouth." He went back to pacing.
"Frank." I grabbed his arm as he went by, made him stand still. "Listen to me. I was with a girl."
"OK," he said. He took a deep breath. "What were you doing?"
"Fuckin'. That's what I was doing."
He stood there real still, and I could almost see the little wheels goin' around inside his head. Finally. He looked so confused, his forehead all wrinkled up, way up where his hair shoulda been.
"Oh." He sat down next to me. "Well……that's still not the kind of thing you discuss with someone of the opposite sex……..what did you think?"
He kinda gestured in the air. "You know, how was it?"
"I ain't telling you about it, Frank." It seemed like maybe we weren't talking about the same thing.
"No, I mean……you know, sometimes after your first time, if it didn't go quite like you thought it would, you might have some questions……."
I tried not to laugh. "It wasn't my first time." I couldn't help it. "Maybe you've got some questions. Besides how was it."
"Not your first time?"
I shook my head.
"But you…..you're just a kid."
I shrugged. "Maybe not."
"Yeah, you're a kid. A big kid." He made a big deal outta looking me up and down. Then he snickered. "A pretty damn big kid." He started laughing too.
Then we were both laughing for a minute. It was weird. OK, though.
"So how old were you your first time?" I asked.
He chuckled. "You'll laugh."
"I'm already laughing."
"You're shitting me." He was right, I laughed.
"Yeah, I was twenty-one. I don't think I even knew what it was at fifteen."
"I was thirteen."
His smile faded. I thought that musta been the wrong thing to say, but I didn't know why that'd make such a difference. I guess I got carried away. I figured it'd be OK to tell him when my first time was. Since we were talking about it.
He reached over and patted me on the knee; took a deep breath.
"Two years doesn't sound like a long time," he said. "But there's a big difference between 13 and 15." He looked down at the floor for a few minutes. "Can I ask you, Wendell……you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, I know it's a personal thing……but can I ask you who you were with your first time? If it was someone your own age, God forbid, or…..someone else?"
Suddenly the conversation wasn't fun anymore. I had a feeling kinda like that feeling you get when you realize you did something stupid, everybody thinks you did something stupid, but you don't know for sure what it was…….This was a little different. I knew what it was……I didn't know why. And there wasn't anything I could do about it, anyway.
So I said, "Are you gonna tell me all about your first fuck? Frank?" like I was pissed.
He nodded. "I can. That would only be fair."
I knew how it was gonna sound. I knew what he'd think.
I didn't care what he thought……did I?…….So there was no reason not to tell him the truth.
"I lived with a coupla hookers for a while. One time when I didn't have a place to stay."
"Hookers. My God." He shook his head and took a deep breath.
"I guess that's the wrong way to do it, huh, Frank. Probably not how you did it. Hey, what can you expect? I'm just trash. That's the kinda thing trash does." I stood up, planning on finding someplace else to spend the night. Maybe take my clothes with me. Maybe not come back.
"Wendell, I don't think you're trash."
"I don't give a shit what you think."
"What I do think is, that it's wrong for adults to take advantage of children that way. And at thirteen, you were still a child, no matter how big you were."
"You don't know nothing about it. They were good to me. All the food I could eat, good food, Marlene was a good cook……clean clothes, a warm place to sleep….and plenty of company. It was the best place I ever lived." I felt a twinge of guilt, like I betrayed my mother saying that, but it was the truth. There was nobody taking after me with his belt at LaDonna's.
I went to the closet and got my bag.
"Kids shouldn't be put in situations----what are you doing?"
"I'm getting' outta here. This is bullshit. Next you're gonna be asking me how long my dick is." I opened the dresser drawer. It was empty. Opened the other drawer. It was empty, too.
Frank's clothes, the ones he bought, were in the sacks next to the desk. My clothes were gone.
"Don't do that, Wendell. I'm sorry if you feel I'm pushing you, but I really only have your best---"
Silence. At last.
"You didn't have the right to take my clothes." I didn't look at him, I was looking in that empty drawer……all I had left now was what I had on my back and in my pockets. "I know they weren't much, just trash, I suppose, like me…..but they weren't yours."
"Shut up." My eyes began to feel prickly. Jesus, I thought, I'm gonna cry. What the fuck.
I hadn't cried since my thirteenth birthday. Stupid to do it over a coupla pairs a' pants with holes in the knees, and a coupla faded shirts that were getting too small, just what I could grab from the fire, before I went out the window. Stupid.
I blinked real hard and wiped my nose on my sleeve. It didn't do any good. I was doing it anyway, no matter how stupid it was. Not sure why.
Frank didn't say anything. I couldn't turn around and look at him, not with tears running down my cheeks. After a minute or so, I heard him walking outta the room and toward the stairs. So then I sat down on the floor and kinda hid my face against my knees. I tried to quit, but the tears kept coming out and I couldn't seem to do anything about it.
He was gone a long time, maybe half an hour. When he came back in the room, I grabbed my bag and threw it at him. "Here, this is garbage, too."
He didn't try to keep it from hitting him. He walked over to the dresser and laid a bundle on top of it. "There's your clothes, Wendell. I'm sorry, we shouldn't have---"
"Fuck 'em." I got up off the floor. "I don't need 'em. I don't need anything. From you or anybody else." I wiped my face off with my sleeve.
"I didn't think-"
"Fuck you, too. OK? I don't need you, either. I can take care of myself." I headed for the door.
"I believe you," he said. "You wouldn't be standing here if you couldn't take care of yourself, would you?"
I turned around. "That's right." Walked backward out into the hall. "That's right."
"So fuck everybody and everything. You don't need anything." He followed me. "But don't you want something?"
I didn't understand what he meant.
I stopped at the head of the stairs.
"Isn't there something you want out of life? Anything?"
"I want everybody to leave me the fuck alone."
I shoulda turned around and gone on down the stairs, but I didn't. I watched him thinking.
"I can't believe you mean you never want to see or speak to another person again."
I don't know what it was that kept me standing there. Right at that moment, I hated him. If he'da touched me, I woulda decked him. I remember thinking what a stupid bald-headed shit he was.
"I suppose I won't ever really know, but I'm trying to understand how it feels to have somebody else tell you where you're going to live. Who you're going to live with. Somebody new all the time. And to never know, when you get there, whether you're going to have to share a room with a stranger. Or a bed. Whether you're going to be locked in a closet. Or have the house burn down around you." He stopped and swallowed hard. Looked real serious. "Never to be safe."
Out in the hall, that wonderful smell from the kitchen was strong. My stomach growled. I decided it was a ham in the oven.
"I've made a mess of this so far, I know that. I didn't mean to denigrate your life, or your experiences."
Whatever that meant. I was still standing there at the top of the stairs, he was still talking, but I was only half listening to him. I was thinking about what I was gonna eat if I left right then. No good place around here, I'd have to walk about thirty blocks, and I was already pretty hungry.I should probably have a good meal first. And maybe a bath, since if I left, there was no telling when I'd get another one.
When. There was no if. The only reason I came back here at all was to get my clothes. The guy was a geek, this place was a prison, and I'd be glad to be gone…….well, ok, it wasn't a prison, I could go whenever I wanted……
"I'm learning," he said. "Don't give up so easily. You'll be in school soon. If nothing else, I'm really good with homework."
Aw, crap, homework.
…….another really wonderful smell from the kitchen……hot homemade biscuits, maybe…..
…..and there was Ruby to take into account now, wasn't there?
I didn't have any ideas, you know, about her, not like that. She was Frank's wife. And she wasn't as old as Frank, but she was pretty old. Yeah, she was beautiful, but I already didn't like her much. Be interesting, though, to see what she thought of me now that she knew I wasn't just a kid……..
"And if you stay here, you'll be safe," he said. "I promise you that. You won't have to worry."
Safe, my ass. Ain't no such thing.
Maybe I could stay a couple days more, eat a lot……look at Ruby…..see how she looked at me…….the geek would probably do something else to piss me off again pretty soon. I could go then.