I know this story is a little early but what the hell. If you like it, or if you don’t, let me know. Maybe I’ll take a look at it some time and expand it and see if it can grow into a decent story.
I met him in a truck stop. He was climbing down from a big rig as I was getting out of my pickup. It was getting close to winter, the air cold enough to occasionally show your breath in the air. I shoved my hands in my jacket pockets and nodded as he came up beside me. “Nice rig,” I said.
He nodded back. “You a driver?”
“Nah,” I said, trying to think who he reminded me of. “My grandfather was, I used to ride with him when I wasn’t in school.” Suddenly it came to, he reminded me of Santa Clause. No, not the fat jolly guy whose belly shook like jelly. It was the old Santa Clause, the old European version, the pictures you see of a guy named Father Winter. He was a few inches under six foot and stocky but you got the impression that he was solid and not flab. A thick white beard was carefully trimmed and instead of red furs, he was wearing jeans and a leather jacket over a flannel shirt. Maybe it was the eyes. They seem to have a twinkle, especially when he smiled and his cheeks rose, as they did now.
“Ah, I used to ride with my grandfather when he hauled freight, but it wasn’t in a eighteen wheeler. Peterbilt man, your grandfather?”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t drive anything else.” I looked up into the sky; it was only seven o’clock but damn close to dark. The moon tried to shine through but clouds kept sliding in front of her. The cold had a bite but somehow it was a bite that felt refreshing. “Seems like snow is on the way.”
“Could be,” he said, opening the door and ushering me in. “I try not to guess to much, usually get it wrong.” It was one of those old fashioned places; a seating area split in half with one side marked for truckers. A sign said they were served first. There were also a handful of stools in front of the 50’s era counter. A woman pushed her way out of the kitchen with a tray in her hands and smiled as she passed. “Just grab a table, boys.”
The old man motioned for me to follow me so I pulled out a chair and sat across from him.
“Been a long time since I’ve been in a place like this. Name’s Jack, by the way.”
He shrugged out of his jacket before sitting down. “Just call me Poppa, its how all the drivers know me. Gets so you can barely remember your real name.”
“My grandpa was called Bull, but he never would tell me why”
Poppa started to laugh, one of those deep hearty laughs that would at least pull a grin out of you. “Knowing how some of these handles come about, I can see why he wouldn’t tell a young lad. Ah, hello dear. I’ll have the number seven with diet Coke.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Winter,” the waitress said. “And you, hon?”
“Burger and fries. Iced tea if you got it.” She nodded, stopping to take an order from another table on the way to the kitchen.
“What brings you here, Jack?”
Oddly enough, I found myself answering a question I hadn’t even been able to talk to my friends about. “Got divorced a few months ago and things just haven’t been the same. Big cities can turn out to be awfully small.”
“Too many memories and chance meetings, eh?”
“Yeah. Work going to shit too. I’m a writer but since we divorced, I just haven’t been to do anything. Thought maybe I’d get away, go back home. Maybe get recharged or reconnected or something.”
“It is important to feel connected to something, and to know where you come from. Might sound like something from a Hallmark card but if you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
“That sounds like something my grandfather would say.”
“Sometimes us old fellers know a thing or two. What do you write?”
“I’ve had a few pieces published in a few magazines. Working on a novel, but who isn’t?”
The waitress sat our plates on the table and we fell silent as we ate. Poppa tucked into his pork chop and mashed potatoes with the hunger of a workingman. Me, well I hadn’t been a working man in a while but I still knew how to eat. Set to and get to work, as Grandpa would say.
“So where is home then,” he asked sopping up gravy with a biscuit.
“Close by, actually. Bout an hour from here, maybe less with the new roads. I haven’t been around in ten years. My family has a farm over near Brownsville, been in the family couple hundred years.”
“Lot of roots then. My family’s land was lost many years ago but we were able to come over here. Not quite the same but we’ve managed to survive.” His eyes dimmed a little as he lifted his glass but twinkled again as he sat it down. “The holiday season is approaching, young Jack. Better not forget gifts for all the young in the family.”
“Damn, I hadn’t even thought about it. I just had to get away.”
He smiled, rosy cheeks lifting. “Ah well you picked a good time for it. Winter is a time for rebirth after all. Nothing like the cold to strip away what you thought was there and show you what really is. Make the most of it, my friend. Maybe you’ll get that novel out of you after all.”
“Winter will be a change. I’ve been down south for so long I barely remember what snow is.”
“Hope you brought your boots then.” He was standing up now, pulling cash out of his wallet as he looked out the windows. “I got a feeling we might see snow tonight.”
“Think so? Looks the same as when we came in.”
He grinned and winked. “Ah well, you know us old folks. Sometimes we feel it in our bones.” He put money down on the table and pulled his coat back on. “Don’t keep yourself apart from everything, Jack. I’ve seen people with everything in the world who felt poor as church mice. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that book,” he said with a little wave and walked out the door.
I had no reason to hang around so I finished my tea and shrugged into my own jacket, zipping it up and stepping out into the cold wind. Trudging over toward the parking lot, I saw his rig pulling out onto the road and soon roaring down the highway. The air seemed to have more of a bite then it did before and it just felt like snow. I watched Poppa’s rig, standing outside my truck enjoying the cold. Must have just been clouds or something, but I would have sworn I could see snow following behind it, swirling in the air. As he circled the ramp and hit the highway heading past the truckstop, flakes started falling in his wake.
Over the last couple weeks, six young gay men have committed suicide, thought to be due to anti-gay bullying. Asher Brown, 13; Seth Walsh, 13; Justin Aaberg, 15; Billy Lucas, 18; Raymond Chase, 19 and Tyler Clementi, 18 are all dead and by their own hand. A thirteen year old boy shot himself in the head and was found by his mother. An eighteen year old boy threw himself off a bridge because someone thought it would be funny to turn on a webcam and broadcast his actions across the internet. Two boys hanged themselves, one of which lingered on and ended up dying in the hospital. Six boys dead and all because of bullying.
Some people may say, well it was because they were weak, couldn’t handle it. And to some extent that may be true. But not everybody can be strong and stoic. And should not strong people help take care of those who are weaker then themselves? We do it in all other aspects of life. People left weak by illness are not left to fend for themselves. Cops put on a uniform and badge to protect people. And if you want to tell me that someone is weak just because they are gay, well I guess you should stop reading now. There are plenty of gay men who could quickly disprove that notion.
So what does it come down to? Well, in part it boils down to the fact these kids did not see life getting any better. Let’s face it, it’s hard to see a cheerful future when you have people telling you that you are doomed to hell because of your bed partners. Some may be thinking: I have to put up with this my entire life? Why bother? Because, as Dan Savage says, it gets better. Things will get better, you can make a happy successful life for yourself. So what if you don’t see any big shot gay movie stars? Or any famous gay football players or UFC fighters? Buck the trend if that’s your choice of career. Look at some of the men (and women) who have come out in Hollywood recently and are still going strong. If anyone tries to say that Neil Patrick Harris can’t play the womanizing Barney Stinson, no one is listening to them. And besides, there are plenty of successful men in this world who are not in the news. They are good husbands and good fathers and good friends.
Life gets better, folks. You can build the life you want, the career, the family. It may sound trite but the only person stopping you is you. Yes, I know it is hard, having someone belittle and call you names (and maybe worse) day in and day out. But the fact is, if you let them change you, if you pay attention to what they say, you’ve let them win. And the sad thing is, in five or ten years, they won’t be thinking about what went on back in the day. Think about this: the majority of the time, the bullied person who hangs in grows up to be successful and the bully, well they don’t.
This was started with my reaction to the deaths of those young men listed above, but upon seeing some other articles and people talking on television and reflecting upon my own past, I feel it has to expand beyond that. There’s really no difference between a kid being bullied for being gay or for wearing glasses and reading a book (but at least the geek kids can look forward to the day when they are the Bill Gates of their generation and pay the football jocks minimum wage to mow their yards). In most cases, the same person is bullying both kids. A bully doesn’t just pick on one type of kid (well they do but its any kid smaller and/or weaker then themselves). And its not just gay kids who have killed themselves after reaching a point where they can no longer handle any more. The sad thing is that people have to die before we want to talk about this and do anything.
Like what seems to be the common thread in recent discussions, I was also bullied as a child. It may not have lasted as long as it did for other people but its hard to deny that it did not have an impact upon me. I don’t remember it so much in the lower grades in elementary but it seemed to have kicked in around junior high. Why not until then I couldn’t tell you. Anyway, I have had to wear glasses since second grade and have been a huge reader since about the time I was big enough to open a book. Growing up in a small rural town where the idea of fantasy was that tobacco prices never go down, I guess you can tell where it goes from there. All the normal cracks; geek, nerd, four eyes, etc. You try to ignore it but it can get to you when someone would rather toss an insult then a hello your way. I had really only one friend during this time that I would hang out with and soon the gay jokes started. Oh and since I had to grow into my looks, of course I was butt ugly. You don’t care so much if a guy calls you ugly but when a girl agrees or gets this “ewww” look on her face when someone mentions you going out with her, well it bothers you. All through college, I might look at a girl in class, think about asking her and immediately think, why bother she’s not going to want you. If it wasn’t that I met my wife online, I might still be a girl-less bachelor.
Anyway, it stopped about the time I got to high school (maybe putting on some height and weight will do that). But the damage was done. I still tend to be a withdrawn person and have moments when I have very little confidence at all. I tended to internalize everything and never talked to anyone. Even now my wife has a bit of a struggle to get me to open up and talk about something. But, as mentioned, life gets better. Things improve. And as a smart woman once told me, the best revenge is a good life. You can live with the poison of anger or you can just get on with your life. trust me, the only time that childhood bully will remember what he done to you is if for some reason he’s seeking forgiveness. For them, it was mindless “fun” they forgot as soon as it was over. You won’t forget and the things that shaped your life will never go away. But you can live your life. Live it well. Become a lawyer, a doctor, an actor, whatever the hell it is you want. Go to bed with men, with women, with both or none. Follow whatever religion you want. It might not be how it was meant but as some old guy once said, “To thine own self be true.” Remember, the only people you have to please is yourself. If people truly care for you, they will care for who you are, not who they want you to be.
Parents, talk to your children. If you were bullied, or hell, even if you were a bully, tell them. Tell them why. Some people think it helps to realize that a person often bullies others because their own life is shit and its a way to take out their frustrations. Dad comes home drunk and whales on mom. Mom whacks junior for running his mouth. Junior comes to school and takes it out on everyone smaller then him. Whether or not that realization helps, depends on what kind of person you are, I guess. But let your kids know that they can come to you, that they can talk to you.
Kids, it happens to damn near everyone. Now, if your like me, that doesn’t do a thing for you. But you aren’t alone. Your parents likely put up with it. Just try not to get bogged down in the present and keep your eyes on the future. It’s ok to be yourself. It’s ok to read books, to play role playing games, to be gay, or whatever it is you are. Sure you may have to put up with someones crap if you are different from the norm. But normal doesn’t equal right. Tell people. Tell your teachers. If they don’t care, tell your parents. Tell them how horrible it makes you feel.
Bullying is not likely to ever be brought to a complete stop. It’s been going on since one caveboy pulled another caveboys furry undies over his head and stole his brontoburger. But maybe we can help keep it from being so prevalent and just so much of it that kids are killing themselves. Whether they are gay or nerdy, no one should feel they have no option but to end their life.
PS. For someone else’s thoughts (and put much better then my own) please read Single Dad Laughing.
There they go walking hand in hand
Walking slow to keep up with his little man
The day is warm the sun is bright
Time to play before the coming night
Jump off the swing and run to the slide
Crawl through the tunnel and stop to hide
Giggles on his way out and jumps in Daddy’s arms
Head on his shoulder where its safe and there can be no harm
Wiggles down and it starts all over again
A slip and stumble, a cry of pain
But it’s not long before Daddy makes it all right
Promise of ice cream helps chase away the fright
There they go, passed out in Daddy’s arms
Off for home and a bed all snug and warm.
I met him on Halloween, five years ago. Come to think of it, that was the only time I ever saw him, Halloween. Anyway, Billy was five then and too much a big boy to want to walk down the street holding Daddy’s hand. So I let him walk ahead a bit while I kept an eye on him and stood on the sidewalk while he went to ring doorbells. That’s where I was when Carter fell in beside me.
“New to the neighbourhood,” he asked me.
“Hm? Oh yeah, we moved in a few months ago. I’m George.”
“Carter,” he said. “This is a pretty good area for getting a bag full of candy.”
“Well, Billy will like that. Been getting some treats of your own?”
He looked down at himself. He was wearing dirty clothes with tears here and there and had what looked like dirt and wounds scattered over his face and hands. “Oh, no. Office party.”
“Ah,” I said. Billy came back to the sidewalk muttering about getting an apple and moved up to the next house without even stopping. Carter walked beside me as I made my way along. “So do you live around here?”
“Down the street,” he waved vaguely. “I like to take my time getting home. It’s nice to see kids enjoy something other then a computer screen.”
“I bet there are some who would love virtual trick or treating.”
“Guess so, he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. He continued to walk beside me as me and Billy made our way along the street, seemingly content to just enjoy the company without talking. “Well, George, this is as far as I go. Enjoy your evening.” I waved as we crossed the street at the intersection and went down the hill.
That was our first meeting and I did not see Carter any more. I had assumed he had met us walking in from the bus stop but never saw him there when I bussed to work. It worried me a bit, wondering if he had been spying on the kids but nothing happened to anyone. But then, a year later, it was Halloween again. I was once more waiting on the sidewalk for Billy when I heard someone step up beside me.
“Hello, George,” he said, as if we were neighbours who spoke over the fence every day. He looked the same as he did last year, same sort of dead-man zombie costume. I suppose it was fairly easy to put together and didn’t need much imagination.
“Um, hi Carter.”
“That’s Billy in the ninja costume? He’s really getting big. So, was I right about him getting a good haul?”
“Yeah, he was quite happy.” We trailed along behind my son and a few of his friends. He had started kindergarten this fall and was ecstatic to have buddies to run around with. “Office party go well?”
“What? Oh, yeah yeah. I always drink to much and have to bus home.”
“That’s the purpose, I guess. I do the same thing when the kids asleep.”
“Just be careful. They say drinking alone will make you an alcoholic.”
I grunted, not sure what to say to that. We continued walking along silently until we reached the cross walk. Billy and his friends crossed over and once more Carter took his leave. I turned around once I had crossed the street but Carter was all ready out of sight. It was a T intersection, and directly across the leg of the T a walking trail led up the hill to connect to another street. I knew the people in the houses on either side of the trail and could see no one walking up the hill. I shook my head and continued on, not wanting Billy to get to far ahead of me.
It continued for the next three years. He would just come up beside me, as if from thin air. And would always leave at the same place, right before the crosswalk. And each year, his costume was a little bit better, looked a little more…dead. Finally I decided to look into it, to try and find out who this man was.
Billy was with his mother this year, leaving old Dad alone (and taking a few more nips from the bottle). I wonder sometimes if today’s children realize how much the internet has changed, even just in my lifetime. Newspapers and their archives available online when it used to require a trip to a library and a stroll through microfiche. Would my son even know what microfiche was? And then there’s the countless websites with tons of information with more or less dubious quality. Break for dinner, cold pizza and warm beer (something seemed wrong there) then back to the computer. Finally I turned off the computer and made it outside at just the normal time we would be starting our trick or treating.
“Carter, how’s life?” He didn’t look so good (unless you were a costumer, I suppose), it looked as if holes were in his flesh, and an ear had fallen off. People’s eyes seemed to slide right off him and those that looked seem to think it was just a really good costume.
“As well as can be expected.” He looked around. “Where’s Billy?”
“With his mother. Her new husband is going to take them to some party his law firm puts on. He’s been really excited so how could I say no?”
“That must be tough. But at least you know he will be back. We lost a child once, he was stillborn.”
“Damn, I’m sorry to hear that.” With no need to wait for Billy, we walked on down the sidewalk, reaching the crosswalk sooner then normal. I turned to face him. “I think I’d go crazy. I lost Billy I don’t think I’ve ever be able to crawl out of the bottle.”
He frowned, looking at me. “It is quite difficult.” He paused, looking around. Perhaps it threw him, me not having to keep on walking after Billy. “I, this is where I turn in.”
“Carter, she doesn’t live here any more,” I said, as gently as I could.
“Wha-what do you mean?”
“Your wife, Carter. Lydia. She’s moved back to Toronto.”
“But…don’t you think I know where my wife is?”
“Not when you’ve been dead for seven years.”
“This is just a costume.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s not, Carter. You are only here on Halloween, walking this stretch of street, from where you were hit by a car to your old house.”
His eyes were wide, darting around wildly. “I, god I just want to make sure she’s ok. This is the only time I can make it here but I can never find her.”
“We call it Halloween and think it’s about costumes and candy but it’s a very old holiday, Carter. Some know it as Samhain and as a day when spirits can walk the earth. That’s why you are here tonight and every Halloween night. Your wife is ok, Carter, she has remarried in Toronto and has a baby boy.”
“Really? God, she really wanted to have children. You say she’s happy?”
“Yeah. I spoke to her this afternoon. I could tell she missed you but she has a good life.”
“Did…did she know why you were calling?”
I shook my head. “No. I told her I was writing some articles about the area and wanted to talk to some of the people who were here when the neighbourhood was first built.”
He cleared his throat and ran a hand over his face. His form was fading. “I…thank you George. You didn’t have to do this but…thank you.” Carter took a few steps up the hillside trail and then was gone. Me, I walked back to my own house and slumped in my chair, staring at the bottle of scotch on the table beside it. It was amazing, a man loving a woman so much he came back after death to see how she was. I doubted I would ever have that. I reached for the bottle, started to pour a glass but then sat it back down and screwed the top on. I stood up and grabbed my jacket and headed back out. No, I sure as hell wouldn’t if all I did was sit at home with a bottle for company.