Sex Education (Fiction from the Archives)

My father once said to me, “If everyone liked you, something would be wrong with you.” Very few people liked my father, and I often wondered if he'd embraced this otherwise random bit of wisdom to justify his own miserable social position in the neighbourhood and at his place of work.

By way of context, my father first imparted this precious wisdom on the night Jeff Beechum rejected my invitation to our high school’s Spring Freshman-Sophomore (Frosh) Turnabout Dance. At the time, I’d just ended a very brief phone conversation with Jeff Beechum, one that had ended (maybe predictably) with some saccharine comment about “how nice it had been for me to ask, though.” I was sunken into the corner of our family room couch, obsessively pulling on the ends of synthetic fibers sprouting from the cracks in the vinyl upholstery, and staring at the ceiling through a veil of tears. Only the sudden appearance of my father, carrying a hi-ball glass and glowing under a thin sheen of perspiration, forced a hasty gathering of my senses. In his typically gruff manner, my father demanded an explanation for my abject condition, and after evaluating its merits, tersely stated, “If everyone liked you, something would be wrong with you.”

As it was, I only wanted one person to like me, and that person was three weeks away from losing his virginity to Virginia Praise, an oppressively vapid cheerleader on the Basketball Pep Squad – some delicate sensibility type who later gave all her money to the 700 Club after a miserably failed romance with a Jewish guy at Amherst College. But that’s another story.

I guess my Dad was trying to toughen me up. That’s what I tell myself to put a positive spin on his reaction to my social failings, and on his heavy-handedness over the course of the next month, the last of my sophomore year, as well as the month that marked my brother’s quite unexpected graduation from fifth grade. After all, he had always been painfully exacting upon himself, and he was no less stringent with himself than he was with those who suffered his presence. In fact, his endless self-recrimination and torturous ruminations about his failings as a father and husband, as well as a lab technician, had always seemed to render the family’s silent judgements of him somewhat superfluous. In any case, he was a tyrant that month to all of us, including my sullen mother and the snarling dog he’d unexpectedly bought one afternoon the year before, on our way home from my brother’s miserably long little league game at the Park District.

The dog, I have to say, deserved much better than we ever gave it, in terms of that delicate balance of training and affection that shapes the characters of the best family pets. As it was, my father bought the dog on a whim and attended to it only as a rare afterthought to the endless speculations, reflections and contrivances that occupied his days. Early one evening, while cursing his way through suburban traffic, my father noticed a sign nailed crookedly to a tree at the end of a driveway. Upon its cardboard face, unevenly painted letters advertised the sale of “finely pure-bred German Sheperds.” With a twitch about his eyes and a synaptic burst of dull comprehension, my father skidded to a halt on the gravel shoulder at the end of the driveway, and with uncharacteristic determination, leapt out of the car. From the passenger seat, I watched him walking across the patchy yard leading up to an improvised chain-link kennel. Inside the kennel, a boundlessly energetic puppy was tossing thick ropes of drool in the air with each deep bark. As my father neared the kennel, a rare smile spread across his face. Before the puppy's owner had even stepped onto her weather-beaten porch to greet him, he had impetuously drawn his wallet from his back pocket.

The dog was already enormous on the first day it joined our family. It tore easily through makeshift leashes made from my brother’s first-communion tie and several belts belonging to my father. We succeeded in improvising a leash on our third attempt, using several pairs of my mother’s flesh-colored nylons, stockings “so sheer, no one will know they’re there,” but strong enough, if braided together, to restrain 30 lbs. of solid puppy muscle, propelled down the sidewalk on oversized paws and clicking nails. Hours after its first walk, my mother came home from work. When she saw the dog lolling about on the living room floor, she froze in the doorway, and a look of horror transformed her face. At the sight of my mom, the dog lifted its head slowly, its upper lip quivering ever so menacingly. My father's only reaction was to laugh and drop another OREO onto the red carpet between the dog’s splayed paws.

My mother and Duke, as the dog was named (after John Wayne, and not after a million other large dogs, my dad explained to his snickering co-workers at the blood lab), reached a strained accommodation over the next few weeks, once my father made it clear that he would, indeed, assume the responsibilities associated with dog ownership, or at least force my brother to do so.

“After all, the boy’s gotta’ have a dog,” my father would say before reminiscing aloud about his own childhood pet, a boxer named Boxer, a “damned amazing dog” that had lapped up an entire can of latex paint without digestive mishap.

“The boy’s gonna’ have several dogs if you don’t take him to the vet and get him fixed,” my mother would answer wearily.

“It’s genital mutilation, Marge, pure and simple, and we’re not gonna do that to the dog.”

My mother would frown deeply, light up a cigarette – KOOLs until she switched from menthol – and silently shake her head.

My mother turned out to be right, in terms of the numbers of dogs that soon entered my brother’s life. Eleven months after the dog entered our home, the Byrd’s spaniel gave birth to a large set of incongruously featured puppies, the paternity of which could have belonged to none other than the massive Shepherd that had, in one year, shredded several nylon leashes, slipped out of dozens of chain collars, and eaten his way through two screen doors. I guess certain types of love can’t be restrained, and in the end, who could blame the dog? In fact, my father assumed most of the blame, and even if he shifted the public penance onto my brother, he was deeply embarrassed, and I would even say profoundly troubled, by what our dog had done. He might as well have been attending a funeral by the way he marched down our street to the Byrd’s house, his hand resting solemnly on my brother’s hunched shoulder, one unusually warm afternoon in late April.

“Taking responsibility is the right thing to do in this situation. They’re mad now, but we can still keep our respect. At the end of the day, you can never lose your self-respect,” my father said, squeezing the tender flesh on either side of my brother’s shoulder blade, so that my brother nearly dropped the 60 lb. bag of puppy chow encircled by his trembling arms.

“Can’t we just give them money,” my brother asked, tilting his head to wipe the sweat from his cheek on his on the sleeve of his shirt.

“This is more symbolic of our willingness to be involved. Besides, that son-of-a-bitch Byrd would probably just keep our money and feed the damn things dirt. Just look at his kids.”

“They’re not so bad. Jimmy Byrd is on the team at…”

“Keep quiet, and give the bell a ring.”

When the screen door of the Byrd’s house squeaked open, my
brother’s downcast eyes fell upon a set of leathery legs rising into the loose folds of a pastel print housefrock. For the next few minutes, twisting under the distracted gaze of Mrs. Byrd, my brother mumbled vague apologies, promised to contribute his lawn mowing money to vet bills, and cast nervous glances at the cardboard box emitting soft whimpers at the far end of the porch.

“We f’d up, but we did the right thing in coming over here,” my dad whispered quickly as he and my brother walked back down the Byrd’s potholed driveway. “And to hell with that bastard Byrd and his god-damn lectures about fences. This is just another case in point. Not everyone is going to like you all of the time.”

His words certainly rang true for my brother over the next few weeks, as he completed the humiliating tasks of hauling bags of puppy chow down the street, taking six mutts for daily walks, and contributing his lawn mowing income to a fund established by my father to “cover legal fees in the event of an ugly paternity suit.”

From the driveway, where he spent inexplicably long hours waxing his Buick, my father never knew that my brother was daily facing a hail of stones, countless mocking gestures, and worst of all, the silent and hateful stares of a scabby-kneed Mirabelle Byrd and her coterie of eight-year-old friends who were, for the first and last time in their lives, enjoying an unquestioned sense of moral superiority and entitlement and revelling in unadulterated condescension. I truly felt sorry for my brother, who bore the ritual humiliation with admirable grace and dignity. I’m almost tempted to say that, during those long walks from our house to the Byrd’s, he was transformed from a nervously malicious kid into a compassionate human being ready to assume the cloak of manhood.

My father was, at the same time, undergoing a transformation of
his own, growing more distant and spending more time puttering in the garage whenever he was at home. By early May, he was coming home late from work, having taken extra shifts, he said, to meet any veterinary costs “that bastard Byrd might dump on us if he starts getting too comfortable with this little charitable arrangement.”

“Those puppies must almost be grown by now,” my mother would say, staring intently at my father as he climbed into his perfectly polished Buick each morning.

“That bastard Byrd is capable of anything, Marge. You should see his kids.”

My mother would nod quietly, noting his increasingly erratic behaviour, and then retreat into the house.

My father’s sudden withdrawal from the intimate discourse of family life was matched by my own retreat, one facilitated by my friend Michele’s purchase of a $250.00 used Toyota, a powder blue car colored and patterned like a sky rent asunder by gaping holes of rust. It was a tiny but menacing car, rocking on bad suspension and screeching on a set of worn brakes that made every encounter with an intersection a terrifying ordeal.

Suffused with perspiration from the closeness within the small car and the rising temperatures outside, we spent most of our late afternoons and evenings driving around town. At night, we’d roll down Ogden Avenue with the windows open, revelling in our new mobility. At red-lighted intersections, we’d stop alongside seniors from the local Catholic college prep school, accepting from their outstretched hands, anything from half-consumed cans of Budweiser to lit cigarettes, and if we pulled over into Jameison Park, the most rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. At the end of the night, some sweaty and overeager guy from “the Academy” would end up with the promise of another meeting and a bogus phone number, usually one belonging to our beleaguered Algebra teacher. Without too much hassle, we wanted to get everything we could out of those guys before they went onto an assortment of respectably ranked universities. Even then, we sensed that they were quickly slipping out of reach, and that when they departed, they’d leave us with little more than gnawing self-doubt and shapeless resentments.

There was another element to our excursions in the car. For my part, it was connected to a different sort of resentment generated by my father’s increasingly strange and dictatorial behaviour around the house. Not even my mother could entirely ignore its effects on my brother, who had been pushed into a precocious state of morbid self-reflection during endlessly demoralizing trips to a cardboard box filled with whimpering, attention-starved German-Spaniels. It was resentment connected, in Michele’s mind, to her father’s recent “death by misadventure” in a situation involving several grams of cocaine, a hottub, and a desk clerk who worked at the Starlight Motel next to the Burger King.

In the slowly unfolding weeks before graduation, we used to drive
down to the strip mall at Belmont and 75th. In the parking lot, we’d methodically wind around the corner of White Castle, pick up speed near the discount outlet where they sold defective greeting cards (“Let Your Heart Sore This Valentines Day,” one from my mother once read), and then shift into high gear as we approached some unsuspecting couple. The couple would usually be a pair of forty or fifty-something year olds amorously brushing shoulders as they gazed past their own reflections at the sale items in Radio Shack’s window display or indulged in a shared mint-chip ice cream cones from Baskin Robins. As we picked up speed in the traffic lane running past storefronts, I’d hang out of the passenger window and, in my most plaintive voice, scream some variation of “Hey Dad, you can come home, now. Mom said it’s OK,” or “Hey Dad, can you send Mom the check this month?”

The expressions on their faces usually told us everything we wanted to know about the nature of their relationship. The best reactions, or at least the most entertaining, were those of florid men chasing us down the sidewalk, waving their fists at Michele’s car in a deadly combination of confusion and rage. Sometimes, a woman would register complete shock, and we’d feel momentarily sorry for her as all of the things she’d begun to suspect over the past few months found confirmation in the glimpsed features of some young girl who, yes, could have been an unmentioned daughter. Sometimes, both members of the couple would quickly hang their heads or, more tellingly, turn their backs from the street and face into the shop windows, their faces forced by panic and shame into expressions of feigned concentration. We figured that, at worse, we were creating productive tension within relationships, the resolution of which would foster new forms of intimacy and trust between our victims. At best, we were morally grandstanding on behalf of abandoned spouses and children. I would even say that we were on a crusade, smug and satisfied in our moral service to the community. If we’d been more determined, we might have frequented the parking lots of obscure restaurants and low-budget motels, but Michele was still a little shaky about the Starlight and places of that sort.

To some degree, we were just assholes, but for all our underlying bitterness, we had a lot of fun. That is, until one afternoon, two weeks before graduation. We’d just rolled a cigarette, and after a long drag, I handed it back to Michele, who let it rest an inordinately long and wasteful time, I thought, between her skinny fingers and the steering wheel.

“Slow down. These two are perfect,” I said as we approached a couple moving slowly across the mall parking lot, towards the Dollar Movie Theatre.

I struggled into position, balancing my weight in the frame of the passenger-side window.

“Hey Dad,” I yelled, letting wind and sun spill over my upturned face, twisted in a simulation of longing and anxiety. My voice rose to a desperate wail as I added, “We all want you to come home. Mom’s not mad anymore.”

I slid back into the car and collapsed into my seat, laughing uncontrollably. Before we turned into an aisle of parked cars, I glanced into the rearview mirror. In its vibrating glass, I saw the unmistakable image of my ashen-faced father slowly releasing the hand of a horrified Mrs. Byrd.

“That lady was pretty freaked out,” said Michele. “I didn’t catch the look on that dude, though.”

I didn’t say anything. I just took the cigarette from Michele’s fingers and inhaled deeply. When I got home that night, the dog was lazing on the living room couch and staring at the flickering screen of a muted television set. I sat down beside it and gently stroked its face. Its whiskers bristled, and its ears turned like finely tuned antennae to my voice.

“Good dog,” I cood. “You’re just like a little baby, sometimes.”

I stood up, and the dog followed me up the stairs and down the second-floor hallway to my brother's room. My brother was lying in defeat on his bed and staring at the scuff marks on his ceiling. When I sat down on the edge of his mattress, the dog clambered awkwardly onto the bed and stretched with a sigh across my brother’s legs. My brother’s eyes rolled upwards as I reached out to brush wisps of hair from his damp forehead. Beneath my fingertips were fresh scratches and tender bruises left by the chunks of stony dirt thrown by Mirabelle Byrd and her delinquent friends.

“You OK?” I asked.

My brother nodded silently. Humiliation, perhaps permanently, had twisted his young features.

“Fifth grade is almost over,” I said. “It’s always a hard year.”

Paul, Aug 1 2005 1:26PM

WOW!!! Great Story!!! Is this memoirs for your book because if you're not putting a book together, you should be!

Alice, Aug 2 2005 2:17PM

Thanks, Paul! Actually, the thought has crossed my mind. I'll keep you posted.

sandie, Aug 2 2005 6:41PM

Hey Alice,
Great story about man's best friend. My favorite passage is about Boxer, the boxer "that had lapped up an entire can of latex paint without digestive mishap." My Grandpa had a boxer who died before I was born, but the dog was legendary at family get-togethers. My Grandpa never tired of talking about him.

mark, Aug 2 2005 6:51PM

this story reminds me of a tale of horror and mystery from my pre-adolescent childhood. we had a female black lab (judy) who we planned to breed just once. a suitable stud had been found and we were just waiting for the right time.

well, that time came a little quicker than my family anticipated. looking out the window one day we saw the neighbor's sheepdog attached to our fair judy. in a panic my mom bolted out the door shouting and holding a sneaker in hand. it seems in the thrill and/or terror of the moment the two dogs were stuck in their embrace. so what does my mom do after a couple whacks with a tennis shoe? she goes for the hose.

after leaving them alone for a bit their act was finished. i wish the shortness of their romance would translate into a short term memory of the experience. it's not a simple image to shake.

Alice Marie, Aug 3 2005 2:23PM

Hey Mark, Your response (which should be right on the main page), along with Pete's essay, makes me think we should put together a collection of short stories, maybe along the lines that Paul might have had in mind. We could market it in a number of different ways and tailor it to fit all sorts of keyword/subject categories used by Borders and Amazon (pet care, sexuality, child psych, parenting, etc.). By the way, is "attached" what you kids are calling it these days?

mark, Aug 3 2005 3:07PM

alice - trying to keep a sense of dignity on the pages of GUTSY hence language like "attached." i'd be more explicit if i felt warranted.

as for a collection, one of the ideas we have thought about pursuing is publishing a semi annual journal of highlights from GUTSY. would be a zine format and printed. trying to find time to develop the idea further, though.

sandie, Aug 3 2005 4:05PM

or the idea could be developed into a GUTSY t-shirt!