January 7th, 2007
|12:49 am - Early Years in Michigan 3|
You can say "Shit," "Piss," "Bitch," "Damn," and "Hell," around my parents. That's enough to work with, I think. Although "Shit, piss on that bitch, dammit. She can go to hell," might be pushing it. One word that, to this day, has never been accepted around the house, though, is "retard."
I remember using it once in the kitchen. I said "Bill Bonds is retarded-drunk," and caught hell for it. Two years later, one Friday night, I watched an episode of 20/20 with my parents. I must've been six or seven. Dad made popcorn, I was playing with Legos, in front of the television set. My sister slept at the far end of the couch. 20/20 was all about children who'd sustained heavy brain damage due to a dentist's misadministration of nitrous oxide that night.
The correspondent introduced a montage showing a series of pictures. Subject was a healthy, smiling boy; posing with a baseball bat, sitting amidst dunes of wrapping paper, hugging the family's goldie. Snapshots from a life that appeared more normal than my own, in a way.
Then came the interview with the parents a few months after they'd taken their boy in for a filling. He sat next to them on his couch, his ear resting on his shoulder, his wrist to his chest. Another cut, this one to the breakfast table. The mother sets a bowl of cereal down in front of this kid: he's got a bib on, mumbles and squeals, reaches out and grasps for stuff that isn't there.
I watched absolute horror, marveling that I was but one trip to the dentist away from having to take my meals with a bib. The line was pretty damn thin.
One day in December, me and some other kid from my class pissed off the playground mothers. One of them caught me and this kid swearing. This must have been third grade. We were throwing the word "shithead" around a bit too loudly. Most kids were thrilled to hear other kids swear. They'd laugh at any other kid's refusal to censor himself. As for the kid, I'm certain I taught him the word "shithead." I picked that word up from the red farmhouse, over the hill, back home. The thing was, the word "shithead" wasn't to be used. Only recited, pronounced, in as many different ways possible. "Shi-hih-hit heh-heh-heh-head!"
Obviously, we needed to be taken away from the more impressionable kids. The playground mothers weren't too keen on having that one catch on, I guess. While the other kids enjoyed a snowball fight near the treeline, the one facing the lead refinery, we hung around some yellow concrete posts a few yards off from the basketball court. Near the dumpsters and loading docks. And the nursery school's playground.
This kid and I are standing around, snickering at the very thought of the word "shithead," when Chuck walks up to us. Pudgy kid. Round shoulders, fat face. Smiling. The kid was always smiling. He drew breath through his smile. Looking us right in the eye. He wore mittens, we had gloves. His hat was topped off by a small firework of yarn.
I never called him retarded, but I'd laugh whenever kids tried shouting "RETARD!" in his face. He just studied them, his head would bob up and down if one of the kids was jumping. I never once saw it get to him, the smile never left his face, he never cried. I wasn't laughing with them.
So the little kid and I stare at him. We'd never seen anyone play with Chucky.
I introduced myself. I knew who he was. But none of us were really acquainted. He just said "Hi," and just stood there. For whatever reason, the next thing I said to him was, "You're the AIDS monster."
He then raised up his hands and roared. The three of us run around this slick plot of land with posts sticking up out of it. "I'm the AIDS monster!" Chuck's shouting, over and over. He's chasing us. The little kid, I guess, wanted to see what happened if he got caught, and Chuck roared and hugged him. He let the kid go, he raised his arms, and went about chasing me.
That same woman with the whistle and clipboard tells us not to play with Chuck like that. Over on the blacktop, some kid slipped and fell on his ass, commenced with tears, and drew that red-haired playground mother away.
The kid raised his arm, curled his fingertips in toward his palms. "I'm the AIDS monster!" he whispered. Chuck and I went "AH!" really quiet like and the game started over, quietly.
She caught us yet again. Chuck pointed at the kid, with his mitten, his left arm hung limp against his side. "He's the shithead monster."
We were sent inside. We were threatened with phonecalls home, and told not to use the words "Shithead," or "AIDS," ever again. All three of us.
That was in 1984.