You are reading Fiddleblack #19
Listen, this isn’t a pissing match. Or doesn’t have to be. I want you all to know, when I accidentally burned our house down, we got hella insurance money. Paid my first two years of college tuition and it wasn’t a small time community college deal. We’re talking private Catholic school. And I’m not even Catholic.
And my dad, he’d used the rest of the cash to design and build a whole new house within two years. Good as new. Probably better. And unlike those commercials show, we were never homeless. I mean aside from that year we lived at our neighbor’s house, but it was their vacation house, and we didn’t even have to share a bathroom.
Only had to wear Walmart clothes for a couple days until the weekend when we could make the hour trip up to the city to find something less embarrassing, name brand at least.
It was a big house by the way. My friend called it a mansion. Though it wasn’t technically. My father built that one himself, too, and he’s not even an architect or even a construction manager. Just the type of thing he’d do. A challenge for himself.
He was an electrical engineer, designed office buildings to be energy efficient. He’s retired now, sort of. He went back to work a few days a week, ever since my mom retired and started asking about all those home projects he’d been putting off in the fifteen years since finishing the major construction on the current house, the post-fire house. How about that deck you’ve been promising? How about finishing the railings for the upstairs balcony so the grandkids don’t fall through and kill themselves?
Right now there is someone tweeting a link to a story. The headline something like: middle-class white cis-male had it real tough growing up. whaa, whaa. Maybe some crying-faced emoji.
Which isn’t entirely true, but isn’t untrue either. I do whine too much, make regular visits to a therapist, where sometimes I cry. Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me, that’s like my favorite song of all time.
Does it matter that I have touched a boy’s penis and had a boy touch my penis? Does it matter that we had our jeans on, that we were both boys, neither of us gay at the time, at least not out of the closet at the time so far as I know. Though I don’t remember if that was a term we used way back then: the closet, in or out.
Does it matter that we were punching each other? As hard as we could. Trying to inflict real damage.
After my brother killed himself when he was eighteen, ten years later a neighbor boy grew up and went to therapy just like me and eventually decided that my brother had molested him all those years back when we were all kids.
He wrote my parents a letter to say he was very very sorry to be writing us this letter, now, so long after everyone seemed to have finally moved on, but that he was having some major problems coming to terms with his sexuality and that his therapist thought this might give him some closure. This letter.
They did not burn it, by the way. My parents. Which I give them major credit for. Didn’t rip it up immediately and toss it in the trash. They actually read it, slowly and carefully, a few times even, I think. Did not get pissed off and write him a nasty letter back to say they were suing him for blasphemy. Is that a thing? Suing on grounds of blasphemy?
They did sit me down. Explain that Ray had had a lot of problems his whole life with expressing his emotions, and sometimes people took it the wrong way. That this neighbor boy had just confused Ray’s problems expressing himself with something else.
I think that’s what they wrote back to this guy, tried to explain all that without being dismissive, offensive. That’s what they told me, anyway. Apologized a lot for any troubles he might be going through now. Apologized over and over for all of Ray’s problems expressing himself. Yet, I can’t imagine they told this former neighbor, this childhood friend, that he was just confused. At that point, what would’ve been the point? Ray being dead, not being able to inflict more pain on anyone with all his problems expressing himself.
Made me mad as hell, though. My big brother wasn’t some homosexual pedophile. What I would’ve written. And I was there, too, just like you were, and I would’ve known if Ray had molested me. So I call bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
Thankfully I did not have the nerve to write the guy back myself. He had been my best friend after all. Brucey. We had touched each other’s penises after all, even if we’d both been wearing jeans and been punching each other and giggling, see who’d quit first, who was the tougher man.
For a long time, I kept waiting for Brucey to write me a letter and tell me that I molested him, too. That I was some sort of creepy homo-molester and he wanted me to pay for my sins. Waited for the cops to call me one day out of the blue, ask me to come in for questioning.
Ray used to do it to me, too, if that’s what you’re talking about. But there wasn’t anything gay about it. That being part of the letter I would write to Brucey in my own head sometimes.
Ray’d sit on my chest, drop hammer fists on my dick until I’d start crying. Then he’d hawk a loogie down my throat. That’s just what he’d do to teach you a lesson about smarting off to him, making fun of him.
Calling him a stupid loser freak weirdo with no friends. Has to beat up his little brother and his friends just to make him feel like a big man, a real tough guy.
You better bet I learned my lesson. Eventually.
Doesn’t make him gay. Doesn’t make me gay. Or a molester. Does it make you gay? Brucey? You know you’re just as much at fault for this as him, as me. You were there laughing and teasing Ray same as me. You were there laughing at me getting pinned down and punched in the dick same as I was when you were getting pinned down and punched in the dick.
You touched my dick just the same as I touched yours. So there. It’s even, I figure. Get on with your life and stop trying to make things worse for me and my parents. Haven’t we all been through enough?
The types of things I wanted to tell him if I’d’ve ever written him back.
He never even tried to kiss me you know? Ray. Not even on the cheek. And I sure as hell never tried to kiss him back. Or say I love you. Nothing. Him neither. And now he’s dead, so we can all just learn our lessons and move on.
Am I here crying rape ten years after the fact? Blaming my intimacy issues on a troubled teen who killed himself, a dead son, big brother?
How about you, Brucey? Am I still here blaming you?
The types of conversations I’d often have with Brucey back then, after he’d written us that letter. Long after I’d stopped talking to him for good. At some point you realize that all your friends growing up were just the kids you lived by, went to school with. The ones that you hated less than the other ones.
And I’m older now. Have moved on pretty much. Past all this pettiness.
Raped or molested?
Is one worse than the other? I’m sure you probably have an immediate answer, and I’m sure I could guess it, and you’d be perfectly justified in your answer, but would one of these allow me the privilege to write this and have you not be offended? Not dismiss me immediately as another whiney misogynist? A trigger warning for the almighty Patriarchy, delusional as usual.
One of the most messed up things for me—though I’m very aware this is by no means the most messed up thing that has ever happened to anybody, let alone an overly whiney white cis-male like me—is that when the house burned down three years after Ray had killed himself, the only part of the house left standing had been the middle part, the part right where Ray’s bedroom had been.
The fires, there had been three, but they all really stemmed from the first one, all within a few weeks’ time. The first one, the biggie, it had started on the far end over by the garage, over by my room, and then for the second fire, that had started over there on the other end, my parents’ end, and then by the last fire, that’d started over in the attic, where my other brother’d stayed from high school until he’d gone to college.
I can still hear my mom on the phone with the fireman pleading them to come back a week later, trying to make it clear that there wasn’t any funny business going on.
Please, she’d kept saying on the neighbors’ phone, all my son’s clothes are still in there. His baptism gown. His letterman jacket. Everything. Boxes and boxes of all his earthly possessions. Why? Why would we do something like that? Every he had left, it’s still in there.
I imagine it must’ve been a weird thing for a woman to say to a firefighter. Like what’s the big deal? One kid’s stupid clothes over every other thing that might get lost in the fire. Why one son’s things over the other two kids’?
We got bigger problems, lady, I imagine they might’ve wanted to tell my mom. Lives to save.
But still, three fires, three weeks, and it wasn’t until my parents paid some guy to come and bulldoze it all, get rid of it, that they’d been able to fully get rid of Ray’s room.
Maybe not the most messed up part to anybody else, but for me, I’ll be honest, I was a little creeped out.
It’d been my room, after all, when I was a little kid and up until Ray’d gotten too old to be stuck sharing a room with Dickie, and this being before my dad had redone the attic above their room so Dickie could have a room for himself when he was too old to share with me.
For clear reasons, they’d decided against having Dickie move into the room where I’d grown up, the room where Ray’d splattered his brains all over the wall and ceiling.
Sorry, maybe that’s a little confusing. It still is to me, too. Just try and write some story to have all that make sense somehow. To try and figure out what it all means for who you are and where you come from, all the issues you still can’t get through in weekly therapy sessions.
You know what’s most messed up, though? All the stories I’ve written about growing up, all the stories I’m still writing about growing up some twenty years later no matter how many times my parents write me letters expressing how happy they are for me, how proud they are, how much they hope I’ll finally be able to move on, finally find a new story to tell—well, I still always blame it all on the dead one.
Ray being the dead one, still to this day, as I write this right now. The one with all the problems expressing himself. What I tell myself: nobody’ll think twice when I tell them how he used to grab me by one leg and dangle me over the balcony of the attic until I apologized for calling him a dickweed.
How he used to chase me around the house with the Aquanet I used to use to spike my hair. Then he’d pull out his lighter. This is your hair, he’d say and giggle. This is your hair on fire. The flame thrower edging closer to me, me trapped in the corner of the garage in the process of pissing my pants.
Or how about that time he knocked me out while we were playing tetherball, me with my hands, him with a Louisville slugger?
Or how about that time we came back from Mount Rushmore and we were trying to make our own rock sculptures? How he’d told me that I wasn’t doing it right, I wasn’t making any headway with my little baby hammering. How I’d told him, No, stop, when he’d started hitting my rock with his hammer. How I’d covered my rock with both hands. No, stop, Ray, this is mine. How that hadn’t stopped him. How those were the first of many stitches that I’d get over the years, broken bones, many if not most at the hands of my own brother.
It’s always better to blame the dead one, I’d think. It explains it better. He was troubled. He didn’t always know how to express himself, how to handle his emotions.
But what if I told you that most of these things, most of my childhood torment, aside from a few lessons in dick-punching, that these things’d mostly been at the hands of Dickie actually. The middle brother, the normal one, the still living one.
That Dickie used to throw my cat out the side of the hayloft just for fun. To see if it’d land on its feet, to see if it was true, the nine lives they get.
That he used to take all the tree-stumps, the ant hills, the sink holes at full speed on our three-wheeler, try to knock me off the back. That I’d usually fall off.
That one time, when I refused to get back on, when I refused to get up, dust myself off, and stop crying for mommy, that he’d gone ahead and ran me over with the three-wheeler, backed up, ran me over again. Teach me a lesson about being tougher, about bouncing back up and dusting yourself off and getting back on that bucking bronco called life.
Or how about the time that he told all his friends at school that he had caught me trying to have sex with his Playboy. That he’d literally caught me with my undies around my ankles and humping the centerfold of the month on top of my bed, no sheets to cover up with or anything. My bare ass pointed straight up in the air, pumping for anybody to walk in on. That his friends had not kept the secret, if he’d asked them to.
That by the time I got to seventh grade every kid in our school—every girl—knew all too well that I didn’t fully understand the mechanics of whacking off, that I’d never been taught the right way, didn’t understand that you were supposed to touch yourself. Didn’t understand that touching your own penis didn’t make you gay for yourself.
Does it worry you that Dickie is still alive, perfectly well-adjusted from all outside appearances, and teaching high school and middle school gym somewhere (though I won’t tell you where)? Does it worry you that he has three boys? That despite all outside appearances, the cycle might be repeating itself behind closed doors.
It’s not, by the way. Let me just reassure you of that right now. My middle brother Dickie is the miracle of our family, immune to all the problems that killed Ray, all the problems that keep me in therapy this many years after. His kids, they clearly take after him. Full of smiles every time I see them.
But these being just some of the reasons that I usually find it safer to blame Ray.
But I know, I know, I know what you’re thinking. This all being just kid stuff, right? First world problems. White people problems. These are the hashtags people use nowadays to bitch about petty things. I know, I see them all the time, and I laugh and shake my head just like you. I’ve probably said them myself trying to be self-aware, trying to make people laugh.
There are kids in [insert third world country here] right now that would kill to be able to eat that delicious broccoli on your plate. That’s what all our parents told us, right?
How many millions, maybe billions of people are out there across the world who’ve had it way worse? Still continue to have it worse? How many people out there would kill themselves for the privilege of having the right to choose to kill themselves? Some control in the matter at least.
If only a little dick-punching had been the worst of it. If only the worst had been burning our family’s house down by accident and getting to replace it with a new and improved house, new and improved everything. And never getting yelled at for it, let alone thrown in jail for arson.
I know. I do. Honest, I think about this all the time. I try to imagine how much it’d mess you up to have your whole family killed in war. Or what it’d be like to be a soldier over on the front lines and have to shoot a bunch of people. To kill or be killed and all that. Try imagine what’d be like to watch all your friends die around you and then have to think if only I’d’ve killed more of the bad guys first. If only I hadn’t been such a bleeding heart pussy about it all.
Or to have your oldest brother, before he kills himself, go and kill your whole family. Or worse: kill the whole family, then go unleash his real pain on an entire school full of innocent teachers and kids. I’ve read about these stories. I’m not making this up.
And all I do these days it seems is read stories like these in the news and shake my head. The next unimaginable tragedy. What the fuck. Or WTF, I guess is what you’re supposed to write now that everything’s online. It’s all I ever want to post, tweet, text, whatever you’re supposed to do these days to express your emotions on a screen.
Just some of what I talk to my therapist every week. How lucky am I and I just can’t get over myself? Sometimes I’m crying, shouting when I say. Blubbering. Why can’t I just move on with my life? Who am I to still be thinking about being picked on when I was five years old?
Who am I to still be thinking about my brother killing himself twenty years ago now, or whether or not he may have molested me and my best friend ten years before that?
Who am I? All the people who die horrible, tragic deaths on an everyday basis? Every minute basis? Who am I? Seriously who the fuck am I?
It isn’t a pissing match, you know. That’s what my wife’ll tell me. You win, she’ll say.
Her parents getting divorced when she was eighteen, her first year in college. Her brother being gay, and coming out of the closet a few years afterword, but otherwise, outwardly a highly successful and well-adjusted surgeon, well-adjusted family.
No one close to her dying before their time, nobody killing themselves over whether or not they might be gay or just a molester, nobody burning house down by accident, three times, and only three years after the suicide.
Three fires, she’ll sometimes correct me. A house can’t burn down three times, it wouldn’t be the same house.
She has a nasty little habit of being a literalist, of calling me on my bullshit, which is maybe why I’m with her, how sometimes she can look at me like I’m the most self-involved, most melodramatic ten-year-old the world over.
I want you to know that I’m no small man. Over three hundred pounds these days. Thirty-six years old and still rock a mohawk. See, Ray? I’m still spiking my hair, still haven’t learned my lesson. Or was that Dickie?
Anyway, she kicked me in the nuts once. So hard I would’ve cried if I could’ve stopped wheezing. And I want you to know she’s smacked me across the face a more than a few times. Hard. Nothing sexual or playful about it. But mostly I want you to know that I’ve never laid a hand on her, never even imagined it. In fact it might even make me love her more, the way sometimes she’ll lay the wood to me when I’m being a real whiney little shit about something. That she knows right where to hit me so it hurts.
But also why she’ll never know the dirty little details of my brother and me, my brother and my former best friend. How for years after Brucey’d written his letter, come out of the closet, I’d worried if I might be gay myself. How many times I’d humped my brother’s nudie mags when I was a kid and pretended to be doing it doggie style. Always in the butt. It had to have some implications.
What if being a molester runs in the family?
How I can’t be sure the way she might look at me after that. The way I might look back at her. That is, if there are any actual details to know. Maybe this all being nothing, just another thing I’ve exaggerated, or completely made up in my head, which in some ways makes it all seem worse to me somehow.
Like what if I’m this messed up and annoying over a big bunch of nothing? Normal kid stuff? Misunderstanding? One dead brother.
How’d she look at me then?
But if you could’ve been there to watch my dad watch it burn, I’ll tell her. The house he’d built with his bare hands, the year I was born, the house that Ray and Dickie’d both helped him build.
I was born in a trailer, I sometimes say. A joke. Like look at me, Mr. White Trash tough guy, don’t I know what the other side is like.
Or talk about how we had to live in that cabin for a year after our house burned down. Leave out the part about that cabin having three bathrooms, a big screen television, a dish.
Emphasize the part about my brother’s room still standing through it all. How it’d been the room right next to mine, right on the other side of the closet next to my bed. How I’d left the space heaters going that morning from where they sat atop the shag carpeting in the back of that closet.
How cold it’d get sometimes right up above the garage like that, the drafts. How I’d learned my lesson about looking at nudie mags out in the open for somebody to walk in on. How I’d learned my lesson about exposing myself.
How after three fires they never would determine the origins of the fire that started it all, the first of the three. Or at least if they did, my parents had always sheltered me from it. The embarrassment of it all.
But please believe me, I was only the first one. The other two, seriously I just don’t know, have no idea, have nothing to tell you.
Or the way I always remember the day after Ray’d done it, how my best friend’d come over and we got to skip school, go outside and make snow forts all day. Have snowball fights. Play war.
How after about an hour of pelting each other into oblivion with packed now, I finally called cease fire. Hey, I said, you think I should go be inside with my family now? Help my parents cope with all of it, I mean.
I remember how he didn’t blink, didn’t miss a beat.
Nah, man, he said, shaking his head. We’re just kids still. They don’t expect us to understand all this big stuff.
Probably one of the only conversations I can still clearly remember from Brucey, from that day. How everything else’s been so blurred over by twenty years of obsessing about it all the time, twenty years of telling my stories.
There was a joke I heard one time from George Carlin. Everything’s gotten so politically correct, he was saying. So boring. Everybody takes themselves so seriously now.
Rape, no, no, you can’t tell a joke about rape, he was saying, putting on this high-pitched old lady’s voice of moral authority. Rape is not funny, he was saying in that old woman’s voice, waving his finger at the crowd.
It’s not? Well just imagine Bugs Bunny trying to rape old Elmer Fudd? Shit. Now that’s funny. What-what-what’s up Doc?
I told that to a bunch of our friends one night. There’d been a big to-do about some jackass hack comedian making a rape joke half way through his act. Some woman in the audience immediately standing up, holding back tears, and in an unsteady voice yells, Rape is not funny, sir. Shakes her fist at him real accusingly. I will not sit here and listen to it. Walks out. Of course, the comedian’d had to make a joke about it. Reassert his power over the crowd.
Something like, If I was you, I wouldn’t think it’s funny either. Then again, I wouldn’t have anybody wanting to rape me in the first place.
Real despicable stuff.
It’d gone viral. Social media going batshit crazy about it. Everybody having to put their two cents in. A real nuanced debate ensuing, about humor and political correctness, victims and boundaries. The way it always goes down in 140 characters across little blue screens.
Well what about if Bugs Bunny raped Elmer Fudd? I asked all our friends. That’d be pretty funny, huh?
Nobody really laughing, even smiling. Nobody even wanting to make eye contact with me except my wife, who’s giving me quite a glare.
What? I said. People can make priest jokes, prison jokes, everybody laughs their ass off.
And how about suicide?
How many people make jokes about killing themselves all the time? Half the time not even joking. Ah Christ, another cis-white male making a rape joke, they’ll say. Shoot me now. Shoot a finger-gun at their temples. P’eew, p’eew. Bang, dead.
Back in college, my wife and her friends used to even have a code word whenever other students were saying something stupid in work shop: SMITH.
Ah Smith, they’d say and roll their eyes at each other.
Ah Smith, they’d say. You’re killing me, Smith. Killing me.
Shoot me in the head, that’s what it stood for.
And I’m not offended by that, I say. Later. When we’re back at our place, my wife and I alone, and I’m trying to explain how she should’ve stood up for me, laughed at least. This being her duty as the one who knows me, knows what kind of man I am and almost everything I’ve been through.
But that’s not the point, she says. The point’s not whether you could be offended, the point is whether you are offended.
No, she corrects herself, getting louder and pointing her lovely finger at me, the point is whether you are more than offended. The point is whether this is a traumatic and scary thing and now you have another cis-white male making an unfunny joke about it just to get shock value, just to get people to laugh at it, and because he isn’t that funny to begin with. Because we don’t have enough cis-white males making jokes about rape in this world.
Have you any idea what it’s like to be a woman these days? she asks.
Do you know how many times I walk down to my car after I get done teaching and see some guy walking through the parking lot, and I think, what if this is the guy? What if this is my time?
What would you say then? If it were me? Do you even know what the statistics say? Have you seen the types of things these trolls put on the Internet?
It wasn’t even my joke, I say. It was George Carlin’s joke. And everybody in the crowd seemed to think it was pretty frickin hilarious, I tell her. You didn’t see any women getting up and yelling at him. So goddamned politically correct now, shit.
Honey, she says, touches my thigh, I don’t know if you know this or not, but you’re not exactly George Carlin.
But that’s just the point, I say.
What’s the point, honey? Please do explain it to me. As a big white dude with a Mohawk, please tell me exactly what to think about humor and getting raped and anything else you can mansplain?
If we all get to pick and choose who to be offended by and when to be offended, isn’t that everything that’s wrong with this goddamn world these days? How do we even go on living then and not have everybody want to shoot themselves?
What if that comedian had been raped?
Clearly he’s traumatized.
It’s not like any of our friends’ve been raped.
Because of course everybody who’s been raped talks about it all the time. Wears a little badge, eh?
Well it’s not like you’ve been raped. You’ve never even been close to raped. You’ve told me.
Thanks, honey, she says. Thank you sincerely for pointing that out to me. She’s getting up now. I’m done, she says, yawns. I’m not listening to this. I’m not getting into this fight with you tonight, okay?
I’m in the danger zone, now, and I know it. I might as well get comfy on the couch, might as well get started writing out my apology note for my empty pillow in the morning.
But that’s just the bull shit about it, I say. Somebody makes a stupid joke about rape and it’s only the women who get to be offended. Like women own rape.
She’s putting her hands up in the air, arching her back. Yawning. Smiling. Saying, I’m going to bed now, is that okay with you?
What about me? I say. Everything I’ve been through in my life. What if I were raped, molested, what-have-you? How about that, baby? That’s all I’m saying. What about that?
Shouldn’t I get to be offended by that joke? I ask. I’m yelling down an empty hallway.
She pops her head back out, stands from inside the bedroom door. Smiles a bit too big, too much cheeks, not enough teeth. Well, maybe that’s just it, honey, she says. You weren’t raped. So maybe for this one thing you don’t get to have an opinion. Maybe you just have to sit this one out.
Closes the door quietly after that. I hear the overhead lights get flipped off, the reading lamp get flipped on, the fan.
But what if I were molested as a little child and all this time I’ve kept it to myself because of all my shame? And maybe this whole time I’ve been secretly gay because of how traumatized I was? And this whole time I haven’t been able to tell you because I thought you couldn’t understand it? Because I worried about how you’d look at me? How all women would look at me?
You ever thought about that?
Listen, this isn’t a pissing match. You hear me? What I’m just trying to say is… I mean, Christ, what about me for once? What about my feelings?
Benjamin Drevlow was the winner of the 2006 Many Voices Project and the author of a collection of short stories, Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice From My Father (New Rivers Press, 2008). His fiction has also appeared in the Fiction Southeast, Revolution John,and Passages North. He is the fiction editor at BULL: Men’s Fiction, teaches writing at Georgia Southern University, and lives in Statesboro, Georgia.