Before Bobby Shane Grew a Mustache

August 12, 2018

Phillip Martin

Before Bobby Shane Grew a Mustache and Became Evil

Until he hurt himself, my father was an infielder. Not anyone whose name you would recognize, unless you really know your baseball. An infielder for Cleveland, back in the Sixties, back when they were a bad team. He hurt himself and he was done; a rag-armed burnout, a bit player who lost whatever especial gift made him valuable. I saw it happen. I think.

I say “I think” because I don’t know whether the episode I am remembering happened the way I remember it happening. If you ask my mother or my sister about it, they mightn’t remember the incident at all. They might have another version, another story. You can’t ask my father because he’s dead-when I was 16 he went up to the cabin he kept on the lake and he shot himself. Maybe it was an accident—I wasn’t there, I don’t know. Anyway that’s for sure another story.

I suspect that you can always tell when you’re misremembering something. You know you are misremembering when you flatter yourself, when you remember being stoic or unflustered or serene. But most of all you know you are misremembering, when you remember too clearly, when things aren’t jumbled up and inextricable and everything makes sense. That’s the way this memory is, that’s the way most memories are. Memory—at least my memory—is notoriously unreliable. I can still see the red orange tip of one of my uncles’ cigarettes, still smell the sweet sick tang of my grandmother’s dipping snuff. I remember it too clearly for it to have happened exactly as I believe it happened. I think that what I remember is not actually what occurred, but something more like a quasi-memory. Parts of it are true, parts confabulated. I don’t know which is which. My amnesiac mind fills in the details.

It was around Thanksgiving. It was the last time we would make the long drive from the Midwest down to Georgia, to visit my mother’s family in the red clay country outside of Savannah. My mother’s tobacco-planter father was already dead from lung cancer, but the big house was still intact, though it was crowded with my mother’s grown brothers—Kent and Ray and Trip—and beginning to fall into disrepair.

I was uncomfortable around the uncles, who were all beery breath and stubble to me. They laughed because I was afraid of the chickens in the dirt yard, and of the sows that lolled in their muddy pens and crushed cobs in their mouths. To some extent, I was afraid of my grandmother—she seemed not to realize that the boys she raised were no ‘counts without any talent for agriculture or keeping books. All they could do with money was spend it; “lay up drunk in a Savannah hotel room for a week,” I once heard my mother spit. Whatever promise any of them might have once had was dwindling by the time I was old enough to understand anything at all about the way people lived; even though I was a child of ten, it all seemed unbearably tawdry and shameful to me. For as long as I could remember, I had only pretended to want to go to Grandma’s house because it was expected, because it was what little boys did, because it would have hurt my mother if she’d known how I really felt.

My sister—younger than I was and less the snob—may have actually liked it; she liked the horses and the cows and the sweet fragrance of tobacco curing in the barns.

(I liked that smell too, but I hated the barns themselves; they were dark and cool and tall with doors so low that even at ten I had to stoop to enter. Someone told me once that snakes can get in there and twine around the sticks to which the bundles of leaves were tied and once when I was eight or so, Ray- who was my uncle but only nine years older and still in high school so I never called him “Uncle”—once locked me in one of the barns until I screamed. When he let me out I tried to fight him, but his browned arms were too long and powerful for me to push past. He laughed but my fury scared him, he spent the rest of our visit trying to make friends with me, offering to let me drive the old blue Ford tractor or to take me for a ride on the back of his red and chrome Honda motorcycle. He offered to let me shoot BB guns and even the little .22 rifle he kept in the trunk of his big Chevrolet.

Finally, he showed me how to mine the soft sandy roads that ran past the big house and beyond, by cupping out a basin in the khaki earth and making a cross of scrapwood. He would set one end of the lever down into the dirt and let the other protrude slightly. Then he would load the hole with pebbles and dash a slim layer of sand across the lowered rocks, and hide in the bushes until the unfortunate car—or more often pickup—would roll across the exposed lever, spring the trap and send a fusillade rattling upside its passenger door.) My sister loved my rough and erratic uncles unconditionally, in the completely natural way children have of loving members of their family—the way children are supposed to love their kin. She thought they were funny when they were drunk and bounced her on their knees and flipped her off their shoulders; I now think that I—the little prick professor—always thought they were doomed and scary.

It is difficult for me to remember how I was then—I suppose I was a prissy, spoiled suburban kid used to chlorinated swimming pool water and Little League baseball with grandstands and flannel uniforms. I was used to my father being a kind of hero to my friends, to being singled out by teachers and coaches.

I suppose that I was exceedingly quiet, probably more than a bit pretentious for my age. I know that I was careful, that I read a lot—John R. Tunis’s baseball books and Robert Louis Stevenson and Boy’s Life and Joe Falls, Furman Bisher, and Leonard Koppett in The Sporting News. I know that I chose my words carefully and that I preferred listening and watching to performing. Even at ten, I was the most embarrassable person on the planet.

I always took books to Grandma’s house—I’d lie out on the front porch of that melting wedding cake of a house, propped up on my elbows with my hands clapped over my ears. I couldn’t hear anything that way. I’d disappear into one of Tunis’s stories about kid baseball—the one about the kid who was a very good shortstop despite being very small, who told his friends that when he needed to be bigger than he was to make a play he’d just “think” himself bigger.

And he’d leap and snag the line drive to save the game.

I had my own gift as a child. If I stayed still and did not look anyone in the face, I could disappear.

I had disappeared that night. I should have been in bed, it was that late, but I was reading. Not on the porch this time, but stretched out on the floor by the sofa in the room my Grandmother kept her television in. I was there to see it all, although I shouldn’t have been.

Ray was sitting on the sofa with Kent, a soft-faced, yellow-haired cracker of about twenty-five. They were watching wrestling. Trip—the oldest boy, he was probably forty or so—was across the room in a recliner. My father and mother and grandmother were in another part of the house, discussing something, maybe money. I remember I didn’t want to overhear that conversation; I knew that my father was “not rich” but that he “made a good living” and that every couple of years we moved into a better house in a better neighborhood. I had a vague idea that my grandmother was having some kind of difficulty, that there were things for them to discuss.

I should say that if there was tension between my father and my mother’s family I never saw it. My father tolerated these men-children, these unhygienic drunks. Sometimes he seemed amused by them, but he didn’t think himself any better, he didn’t condescend to them they way I imagine I must have. He would go fishing with them in the Black River, and work with them on their sorry, rust-spackled cars. I sensed that they looked up to him; none of them were especially good athletes but they had all played football in school and Trip had even walked on at the University of Georgia and started a couple of games at tight-end his senior year. At the very least, they liked hanging around my father; they enjoyed being seen with him in Savannah.

And, though I didn’t realize it then, the younger boys—Ray and Kent—were imminently draftable. Within a year, both would be gone overseas. Kent came home when he cut his big toe off with a shovel. It was said to be an accident. Ray didn’t come home.

I remember it this way: Ray and Kent were trading swallows from an amber bottle and feeding a mild, blue-hearted fire crackling in the fireplace of the tawny pine-paneled den. Professional wrestling blaring on the new Slyvania color television set—it wasn’t a week old, my father had bought it in Savannah a couple of days before—a lithe blond man called Bobby Shane was being strangled by a huge black man whose face was painted like a Zulu’s and who wore a leopard-skin toga, Flintstone-style. A necklace made of (no doubt plastic) animal teeth circled his thick, wadded, soot-black neck. (I remember he had a bone in his nose but at this distance that doesn’t seem terribly likely.)

I don’t know how I know but I know that Kent loved Bobby Shane. He was his favorite wrestler. Ray, who seemed to understand that the match was fixed, began to bait Kent—who was damn near feeble-minded and stupid drunk besides. “Looks like Bobby Shane is done for, Kent; that nigger gonna pop his head like a pimple.”

“No man, Bobby Shane gonna come back and whip his black ass. Watch and see.”

“Not this time, Kent. Bobby Shane done fucked up and pissed the nigger off.”

“Fuck you, Ray; just watch the damn match.”

Bobby Shane pulled himself up on the ropes and kicked the black wrestler square in the chest with both boots. The black man stumbled and stomped around the ring for a moment, then clamped his hands tight around Bobby Shane’s neck.

“You just love Bobby Shane, don’t you. Kent?”

“I ain’t no goddamn queer.”

“I ain’t saying your a queer, Kent, I’m saying you got a thing for that

little blond boy.”

“I ain’t no goddamn queer.”

“You’re the one talking about queers, Kent. I’m just having a sociable drink here and watching the show. Just being peaceable. Looks like Bobby Shane gonna get his ass whupped good.”

Wanzuzi—that was the black wrestler’s name, I suddenly remember—still had Bobby Shane by the throat. Now the white boy seemed to go limp, and the Zulu chief—or whatever—military pressed the pale body above his head and began to spin. Ray took a long pull off the amber bottle and hooted.

“Lookit, Kent, he’s going piledrive your lover boy!”

Kent paused and licked his lips before answering.

“He ain’t my lover boy; maybe he’s your lover boy.”

Ray leaned back—when I remember him, I remember him looking a bit like the actor Brad Pitt, with butter bland features and a shock of hair the color of muddy water. His next question seemed almost thoughtful, it was posed softly, like Dick Cavett interrogating John Lennon. For a second I thought Ray really wanted to known the answer.

“Kent, are you a goddamn queer?”

The screen was now a blizzard of waving limbs. Men in tuxedos with metal chairs, women in swimsuits (swimsuits!?) with their hands clapped to their mouths. A buzzing cacophony.

“I ain’t no gwaddem queer.”

Kent’s ears flushed. Wanzuzi emerged from the thicket of humanity, carrying Bobby Shane’s limp body across his shoulders. He bent his great Negro head and with a sudden surge of effort he rolled Bobby Shane off his back and over the top rope, spilling him on the concrete floor.

The body bounced. Kent looked stricken. Ray whooped.

“Maybe the nigger killed him, Kent.”

Now Ray was cracking open his Zippo to light the cigarette that had appeared in his mouth. He was getting mean-drunk. He sneered at his older brother, a feral show of tobacco-yellowed teeth.

Kent looked at him with something like shameful hate.

“Fuck you, Ray. Suck my dick.”

“Thought you said you weren’t no queer, Kent.”

“Fuck you, Ray, shut up.”

Kent stared at the sizzling screen as Bobby Shane somehow willed himself to his feet and wobbled for a second before crawling heroically under the bottom rope. He staggered into the center of the ring as Wanzuzi prepared to jump from the turnbuckle onto his back.

“You’re so fuckin’ ignorant, Kent; you think this shit is real.”

“I ain’t ignorant! Suck my dick, Ray!”

Kent was shouting. Trip started to get up, then slid back down.

Kent, while he truly did love Bobby Shane—in fact ached blue for him—had no confidence in his ability as a wrestler. The nigger was damn big and sneaky besides. Kent cursed the colored atoms bouncing off the inside of the screen.

My mistake was looking up. I broke the spell. I was suddenly visible.

Ray spoke first.

“Hey, Billy, come sit over here by your Uncle Ray. Come watch this, Bobby Shane getting beat by a fat nigger from Africa.”

I was too polite to refuse. I obediently moved to the very place I didn’t want to be. I nestled in on the greenish-orange velour sofa between my smelly relatives. I spoke, softly.

“You’re supposed to say `colored man’ or `Negro.’ That other word is ugly.” It hurts me to remember how earnest I was.

Now Bobby Shane broke the Zulu’s hold, spun around and drove a forearm into the big man’s chest. Kent whooped again and I could smell his naked underarms, nastily exposed above the his sleeveless ribbed undershirt. The fire raged on, red and gold and unnecessary.

I kept watching the fire. I could feel Trip watching me. I did not look at either Ray or Kent. One of them—probably Ray—grabbed me under my arms and lifted me up then swung me down on the hooked rug. He started to demonstrate a wrestling hold. I tried not to cry.

Now Kent’s hard hands slapped my smooth boy’s belly. “Indian burn! Indian burn!” The friction hurt. I was full of hot child fury, leaking tears of unspecific abashment. It was all I could do not to call out. Ray—I’m sure it was Ray—lifted me again, dropped me back on the sofa face first.

“Bobby Shane! Bobby Shane!” Kent again, rubbing my forearms, reddening my skin. My breath rushed out, I gulped air that reeked of lighter fluid mixed with sweat and strong alcohol. All was warm. My crying came in jerky gasps.

My father was there, sudden, silent, and calm. In one motion he pulled Ray up and struck him full and awful in the mouth. Blood squirted out like the juice from a grapefruit. It flecked my face. It was warm and tasted electric—like when I’d put my tongue across both poles of a transistor radio battery. I watched it all.

Ray staggered back a step then came at my father awkwardly, bringing his fist from behind his head—a crying schoolboy’s punch. My father blocked it with his left forearm and threw two brief piston-like punches into Ray’s soft gut, lifting him up and then sending him sagging to the floor. His head hit the sharp edge of the coffee table. Webs of black blood. Kent came screaming, with the Southern Comfort bottle in his hand—I can remember the brand now. My father sidestepped him and cracked him on the back of the neck with his elbow. The drunken retard went down whimpering like a puppy.

Trip looked at the mess from across the room and sighed. On the television, the referee raised Bobby Shane’s arm in victory.

My father seemed unexcited, but an artery bulged in his neck. His eyes were cold and gray as he checked me out. His voice was soft.

“You all right, son?”

I nodded, ashamed of myself and instantly afraid for my father. There were shotguns and rifles and long knives in my grandmother’s house. I felt that my father had made bad enemies.

My father genuflected—an altar boy at the rail—beside the busted-up Ray, who was sobbing, his brown gobby spittle mixing with blood. He spoke quietly, precisely. He clipped off each sentence. He was breathing deeply but easily. Of all that happened that night, I am most confident in my memory of his exact words to Ray.

“If you ever touch my boy again I will kill you. With my bare hands. You will die. It will not be pleasant. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I am serious. I am not angry with you, I know you don’t think you were doing anything wrong. That’s why I’m warning you. I will kill you.”

Ray gurgled, wordlessly, his will to fight dissolved. Kent wept like a little girl.

My father picked me up and held me.

“It was my fault -”

“Hush, it wasn’t your fault. We’re going away from here.”

I nodded. Radiant with shame. I clung like a monkey.

Somehow we all got in the car. My mother had my sister by the hand. My father carried me. Someone asked my grandmother to come with us, but she wouldn’t. I now imagine she and Trip ended up driving her other boys to the emergency room that night.

My mother, looking like Mary Tyler Moore, wordless took the wheel and drove us all deep into the dark, mosquito-thick Georgia night. Into Savannah. We stopped at a Travelodge, beneath the orange sign with the sleepy bear in a nightcap.

My mother checked us in, my father sat with us in the car, clutching his right arm. Years later he told me the doctors told him his biceps had pulled off the bone and snapped up like a window shade. He could never completely straighten his elbow again.

We got up early the next day and drove straight through to home, stopping only once, at a Krispy Kreme donut shop somewhere in Alabama with the “Hot” sign flashing. I ate two glazed, and a custard-filled Long John. My father drank coffee and stared hard out the window.

I heard the train; I watched my father watch it as it clattered past; orange and bone and rust, one boxcar after another, for minutes that seemed like hours, until, without warning, without even the red spectacle of a caboose, it was gone.

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