It could have been the sun, blazing by that time, and beaming down in my face. It could have been my head, every beat of my heart was another nail driven into my alcohol soaked brain. It could have been my back, twisted and wrenched from the bed of the truck I was sleeping in. It could have been my father, standing beside the truck having a conversation with a police officer. All of these things could have awakened me that day, but it was the crinkling of the tarp I was covered with that hauled me from my slumber. It was a big blue construction tarp that belonged to my father; he had tossed it over me when he had laid me down in the bed of his truck.
As I sat up, I looked at my father and the police officer; they were in the middle of a conversation about me, but as they noticed me moving, they stopped and turned their attention to me.
“I would have guessed you’d sleep for a lot longer,” The officer stated with a measurable amount of indifference. “You know son, you came very close to dying last night. I don’t know if you remember what happened, but you drank so much we thought you were a goner.”
The fog that was sitting on my brain could hardly register the meaning of his words. I was struggling to piece together the night before. The memories were slow in coming, and I could only concentrate on one thing at a time. If he was waiting for a response, I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t have one. I could think of nothing to say, so I decided not to say anything.
Instead, I tried to get up, but my body revolted at the exertion it would require. The movement awakened a squeal of pain from my elbow. I had tried to push myself up with the side of the truck, but the pain caused me to sit back down. I moved to get a peek at my elbow; it wasn’t that seeing the cause of my pain could have dulled it, but it might have helped me to remember. Before I had the chance to look, I noticed that my shirt was gone; this revelation caused me to stop and really take notice. I soon realized that I was barefoot as well. I tossed the tarp aside and took inventory. My shoes and socks were indeed off, but I could see my shoes sitting next to one another beside me. Shirt, belt, wallet–all missing. The only thing I had on was a pair of ripped Levi’s, soiled and shabby from having been worn for ten days in a row.
I eventually looked at my elbow, and I could see a scrape there; fresh blood seeped from the virgin scab having its first stretch from my moving about. I felt a constant twinge of pain from beneath the waistband of my jeans. As I pulled the material down slightly to get a look, there was a fresh jolt of pain. The bleeding from the scrape I found there had dried to the fabric, and I tore it completely open when I peeled it back. I felt like I had been in a basketball game, as the ball.
“Hey!” My father barked. “Pay attention, you’re in trouble, Stupid.”
Apparently the officer had continued talking as I was taking an assessment of the damage I had received the night before.
“Son, I want you to think very carefully before you answer this next question. Like your father said, you’re in a lot of trouble; you have fourteen charges ranging from disorderly conduct to assault on a police officer. A lot of trouble, son. Now, who gave you the beer, or was it liquor?”
“Jack Daniel’s,” I said without thinking. I didn’t even know how I knew, but it started coming back then. In a flood of blurry images and half memories, I started to remember everything.
Seconds later, I was hit with a sledgehammer:
It’s my birthday.
This thought carried more pain with it than any scrape or bruise I could have found that morning. The last seven days had been some of the worst I could remember, and they had all led up to this confusing morning of my fifteenth birthday.
August 7th, 1989; it was a day that I will never forget. I had walked into my father’s house at 7 a.m., and I had been just getting home on that Monday morning from a weekend in which I hadn’t been home or called in days. My father had been standing in the kitchen, drinking his morning coffee. The house had never been a home to me; my Father had moved to that house while I was still away, living on a farm for troubled boys. My first times at that house were on weekends home from the farm. Weekends in which I had slept on the floor in the living room and had always felt like I was a stranger to my family. I had eventually left the farm just before my fourteenth birthday, but it didn’t take long to see that things between my father and me were going to be worse than ever.
I had learned little more on the farm than to be a criminal. Some of the other boys there were schooled in the arts of lying, stealing, bullying, breaking and entering, and even strong armed robbery if that was what it took to get what they wanted. The farm was—for all intents and purposes—a small prison, for children aged 5 to 18.
Being made to live like that, like a lion in a cage, changes a you. You have to find ways to free your mind and move beyond the walls and the rules; you have to get past the guards or allow them to twist you up and make into whatever they think you should be. Being that lion—being forced to mind, or it’s the whip—causes you to learn to hate authority, or the premise of it. Anything you can do to make your life easier, and theirs harder, becomes a game of us versus them. If you can get one over, if you can beat the lion tamer—and get away with it—you’ve won a small victory.
So I learned how to get by, how to steal and lie; I learned how to take what I wanted and fight when I needed to. I learned that violence can solve some of your problems, and usually a lot faster. When I left the farm, I had a new set of skills and was not afraid to use them. I had gone away a boy and come home a straight razor.
Another of the few things I learned on the farm was that there were worse things than my father. There were things that would hurt me worse than the rough hands of my old man, so I wasn’t afraid of him anymore. I had lived worse things than a quick backhand to the mouth; I had glimpsed real fear, and it no longer looked like him.
His parenting skills had always been centered on a solid fear base. Before, all he had had to do was yell or raise his hand to me. Once that was gone, I became impossible to control. Walking into my father’s house that early, that morning should have had me frozen in fear, but those days were gone.
I had walked past him with my head hung down; my hair was long and shaggy, hanging over my eyes so he couldn’t see them. I was worried he would notice they were bloodshot and know I had been smoking weed. I didn’t say a word, and neither did he. I went into the room I shared with my brother—who had apparently spent the night with a friend—I kicked off my shoes, tossed my shirt on the floor and crawled on top of my covers to sleep the day away.
Moments later I felt a dark cloud enter my room; I opened my eyes and my father was standing in the doorway. I could see an inferno in his eyes that I had seen many times before; it had sharpened in the few years since his last drink, and it would have terrified the child I had been in those days.
“I found the dope you had hid in your bottom drawer. I flushed it down the toilet, which is lucky for you because I called the police after. They said without the pot there was no evidence, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.” He was talking in measured bursts, trying to control himself. My heart was a galloping stallion in my chest, but I never gave him any clue that I was the least bit affected by his pronouncement. “Get out. You have ten minutes to get what you can take with you; the rest is mine. Don’t come back.”
With those words, he turned and walked away. I jumped up to argue, to tell him that the weed hadn’t been mine. My step-brother had come to me a few days before and asked me to split it for him so he could give half to a friend. I just hadn’t been there to give it back to him. I struggled to find the words as I rounded the corner of my doorway, but as I saw his back, headed to his room, I realized that it didn’t matter. He had been waiting for a reason; this was just that: a reason.
I couldn’t say I was surprised; I had been doing anything I could to make him prove, once and for all, that he didn’t care about me. I had a long list of memories of watching him walk away from me. What should make this any different? As I stood there, realizing that I was being cast out a little over a year after I had returned home from being sent away to live with criminals and hoodlums, rage swelled up inside me like a breached riverbank. I didn’t need him, fuck him–him and his new wife, him and his selective amnesia about the years he spent as a drunken monster. Fuck him and everything he did care about.
“Fuckin’ fine with me.”
He never bothered to acknowledge my words, and I never gave him the chance. I turned, headed back into my room to grab the things I wanted. I took a trash bag full of T-shirts, all of them black with a variety of different heavy metal band logos plastered on the fronts of them. I took the hundred or so cassette tapes I had collected over the years, all of them shoved into my backpack. I threw my sneakers on, grabbed all the things in this world that meant anything to me, and walked out the front door without another word–from either of us.
I took myself and everything I owned to a friend’s house; his mother had died of emphysema months before, and his stepfather, Rick, was never home. I was there all the time anyway and was just going to stay there, or so I thought. I did manage to sleep there for two days, but on the third, Rick came to me and told me I had to go.
“I like you Jason, I really do, but you can’t live here. I am having enough trouble with the two kids I got. I wish I could help you man, but you need to go home. Do you want me to talk to your father?”
“Umm, no, it’s ok, I’ll go. Is it cool if I leave my things here, only for a while?”
“Are you sure? You know your father and I used to be friends, and I can try to talk to him.”
I almost laughed; my father hated his friends from those days. They were all “bums” and “good for nuthin.” They were a reminder of the man he had been when the bottle was still his first thought. They had never seen the light or grown up; they had never admitted they had a problem. Even though I had never seen Rick take a drink—not since I was a small child anyway—he was still worthless to my old man. Rick wasn’t perfect–he had his faults, as we all do–but he had been a friend at one time. They had never been close, but even his closest friends from those days were still not welcome at our house. I guess it was easier for my father to forget his past, to shed himself of it, than it was to stare it in its ugly face and refuse it any strength over him.
“No, believe me, Rick, that isn’t going to work this time. I have an idea of someplace I can go. Don’t worry.”
“You know it’s still okay for you to come over here. You just can’t live here, okay?”
“Yeah, I get it. What about my stuff, can I leave it here for a little while?”
“Put it on the back porch; I’ll make sure nobody messes with it.”
I spent another couple of hours there, but left not long after dark. It would be my first night sleeping on the streets. I had told a lie when I had said I thought I had a place to go; I didn’t and wouldn’t. I walked over to the park across the street from my friend’s house; it sat in front of City Hall and next to the Public Library. It had been a place a bunch of us kids, and some of the older teens from our neighborhood, hung out a lot, but that night there was no-one there.
I walked to the far corner of the park and sat on a bench there; it was the darkest corner in the park, and I was hoping that if anyone went by, they wouldn’t see me there. I wanted to hide what I had become from the world; I was ashamed and would have gladly fallen off the planet, given the choice.
That night was the night I learned to walk. I couldn’t sleep, but I don’t remember being scared—not like you’d imagine—I was pissed, filled with rage at my father, God, myself, the world. Everything hated me, and I hated it back. What had I ever done to deserve being disposable? Why was it so easy to walk away from me? Was I broken, somehow flawed in a way that made loving me impossible? So I got up, without any idea where I was going or why, just going for the sake of the time it would burn to get there.
I walked–first to the grocery store; in those days they didn’t stay open all night, and the parking lot was empty. I had been here walking alone a lot in my time as a teenage lout. On my way home from working late nights, washing dishes for a hundred and a half a week, or from a party where I had drunk too much too fast and was weaving my way blindly towards home and bed. I had been in that parking lot numerous times—later than it had been when I got there that night—but for some reason, on that night it seemed somehow emptier. I felt like it would always be empty, like I was in purgatory, caught between the land of the living and the promised land of love and salvation.
I kept walking, but even if a car did ride past me—believe me when I say that there aren’t many late night cars in small town Maine—it still felt like I was invisible to them, and they would pass right through me if I were to stop in the middle of the road. I had become a ghost. So I kept moving, never staying in one place too long, but never really leaving my neighborhood. I walked in wide circles, changing my route around those circles constantly, but always returning to the park and sitting when I needed the rest.
Over the next couple of days, I would see my friend during the day and would eat something at his house, maybe spend an hour or two on the couch while Rick was at work or gone to his girlfriend’s house. There would be moments of normalcy. Moments in which it felt like I was just a kid enjoying his summer. But each night, my friend would get called inside, or I would be asked to leave, and I would be left alone again. Alone to the world, to the streets; alone to walk and find the rage that kept my feet moving.
On my third night outside, I was sitting on someone’s front porch, smoking the last of the cigarettes I had bummed from my friend that day, and as I tossed the butt into the street, I was suddenly overrun with sadness. I had a vision of myself walking to the trestle that crossed theAndroscogginRiverintoLewiston. I saw myself walking past the waterfall, walking to the middle of that trestle, and throwing myself in—finally ending the misery, the pain, and the loneliness. Just giving up and allowing the current to take me. Surely the waterfall would be enough to kill me, or at least hurt me enough to make it impossible to swim.
My father liked to toss us in the water when we were young; anytime we got near enough to any water and weren’t paying close attention to him, he would grab my brother or me and throw us in. Teaching us to swim was what he called it, but I never tried to swim anywhere near him. The old man had almost drowned my brother once when he was foolish enough to get into an inflatable raft with my father on a lake. I learned to be wary of water, and the thought of drowning had always been incredibly scary to me. So as I sat there and seriously contemplated suicide for the first time in my life, I tried to think of a better way to go.
In my fourteen year old imagination, I tossed about several ways to die, but without money or a car I was limited in the ways I could. I eventually came to blue suicide—a suicide method in which I would deliberately act in a threatening way, with the goal of provoking a lethal response from a law enforcement officer. In essence, make the cops shoot me. I quickly cast this idea aside, because if they didn’t kill me I would end up in prison.
Fuck that, at least out here I can go if I want to; this can get better.
That thought stopped me in my tracks.
Wait, why are you going to kill yourself if there are worse things than this, and “it can get better?”
I thought about it for a few minutes. I definitely thought prison would be worse, and I felt like suicide after three days of anything was a little early. I could endure worse, had endured worse.
I decided I wasn’t going to risk prison in order to die, and dying should wait, but if I was ever in a situation where I was definitely going to prison, I would make them kill me first. I made myself that promise, then and there at fourteen years old, that I would never go to prison; I would die first.
I got up and started walking; this time there was no circle or staying close. I needed to get away from the trestle—far away—I needed to move and stop thinking about death. I needed to give myself something better to do than drowning in theAndroscoggin. So I walked out toUnion Streetand turned left. I walked until that street turned intoWashington Street, and my feet kept going. Whatever it was I was looking for, I hadn’t yet found it. So I kept walking—on to a restaurant that I had worked in earlier that year, miles from town and where I had started, but I kept going. Just about six hours later, I found myself almost twenty miles away in a small town called Gray.
If you ever went to Gray in the dead of winter, you would think it was named perfectly. Small and nondescript, it is a place that you can blink and miss on a ride through. There were moments during that walk that I was actually sleeping as my feet carried me on my way. I would suddenly open my eyes and find myself in the middle of the road, feet still shuffling me ahead, on a path to nowhere.
When I got to Gray, my feet had had enough. The voracious need to keep moving turned into an almost instant need for sleep. I continued to move for a little while longer until I spotted a church. It was Friday morning, and there was no-one at the church, and I figured it would stay that way. So I went to an entrance on the side of the building and sat down, leaning against the wall in the shade.
I slept there for a few hours that day. I didn’t know what time it was when I woke up, but I wanted badly to go back to an area I knew and could better blend in. So I walked back to the road on stiff legs and feet that screamed with each step. The sun was still shining, and I decided for the return trip, I might be better off hitchhiking, so I stuck my thumb out. I walked a mile before someone stopped and gave me a ride back toAuburn.
When I made it back to town, I went to the park first; it was home to me by then, and I had missed the comfort that I felt when I was there. I also wanted to see if my friend was home and maybe catch him right enough to sneak me some food if Rick was around. He hadn’t been home though, and I stayed in the park long enough to get some rest before starting my walk. I spent that night sleeping fitfully on porches that were on my normal walking route. I would sleep for an hour or so before waking up with a start. I would move on until my eyes were closing once again, and I’d start looking for someplace else hidden enough to find sleep unnoticed.
Early the next evening, I was walking and feeling more alone than ever. The next day being my birthday had been weighing on my mind heavily; I was lost in thought and in need of a break. I had been away from my family for many a birthday, but there had always been someone there to make it at least slightly special.
I had become adapted to being invisible; I no longer looked at the cars that passed me as I walked down the road. I had been wearing the same clothes for a few days at that point and was showing visible signs of it. I looked like I was living in the town dump, fighting rats for food; the smell wasn’t much better. So I thought it was obvious to everyone that I was homeless, and if I did meet the eyes of someone as they passed, I never liked what I saw there: pity, disgust, or even worse, apathy. Real or imagined, those were all things I never wanted to see in the eyes of a stranger.
The first time my name was called, it didn’t register right away; I heard it but couldn’t suppose someone would call to me. Then I heard it again and stopped walking to look around. I saw one of my older friends waving to me.
“Jason, hey man, come here,” he called.
I walked over to where they were standing, hoping I had just found a place to sleep, maybe even shower.
“Hey man, I got a half gallon of J.D. today and don’t want to drink it alone. You wanna drink it with me?”
I had never drunk any liquor before that night, but all I knew for sure was it was a place to be for a while. There would be human interaction; I would have drunk motor oil to have someone to talk to.
“Okay, we’ll sit on my front porch.”
I needed it, needed the company, the normalcy of conversation—outside of my own head; I needed the escape the alcohol promised. I needed to get away from myself more than anything.
Out came the biggest bottle of liquor I had ever seen. My father had always drunk beer, and liquor had been a rare sight for me, but this was a monstrous bottle of whiskey. The first drinks were mixed sparingly in a glass with Coke and ice, but as we poured the next few, the ratio grew exponentially.
The conversation was light and jovial; I never offered my story, and it was never asked. If my friend knew I was homeless, they never said, but I was too proud to lay it in their lap. The drinks tasted better and better as the world started to grow dim around the edges, but as I started to loosen up and enjoy the quiet inside my head, I made the mistake of forgetting. I let it get too far away, and as I laughed and joked on my friend’s front stoop, I went further and further from reality.
I stumbled to a corner of my friend’s yard to unload some of the liquid sloshing around in my empty stomach, and as I stood there, I realized that soon my friend might get tired; they might decide to go to sleep. I thought about the chance that maybe I couldn’t sleep there. He lived with their mother after all, and maybe she didn’t want me stinkin’ up the place. How could I keep myself safe in this condition? How could I rely on my wits to keep me alive on the street until the liquor had worn off?
Who cares? It’s your birthday tomorrow; you deserve this.
Instead of calming me, this realization swept over me, and I was suddenly thrust into my first drunken rage. I became furious at the world, at my father. I turned and walked back towards my friend, almost falling down and having to visibly concentrate on where I was going and how to make my legs get me there. My friend laughed at me and said something about how drunk I was, but I couldn’t hear the words over the raging maniac in my mind. I sat on the steps picking up an empty glass.
“Where’s the coke?”
“Whoa, man, you need to slow down a little. I think you should take a break for a while. You’re trashed.”
“Fuck that, Imma not thrashed.”
“Just chill for a while.”
I stood up saying, “Imma not thrashed mummafucker.”
I turned around and saw the bottle of Jack sitting just inside the door, off to the side. I reached down and snatched it up saying, “I don nee no fuckin’ Cokes anyways.”
My friend made a grab for his bottle, but I was faster and spun the cap into the dirt before turning it up. I remember one glug, two, three. I remember the bottle being snatched from my hands as whiskey poured down my shirt. I remember angry faces and screams of rage, but the memories fade after that. The world begins to dim and memories turn to visions.
There are images that flash like photographs in my mind when I try to recall anything after that, images of myself falling over the chain link fence at the edge of my friend’s yard as I tried to climb over it. I see pictures of myself standing outside a convenience store, of a cop grabbing me by my arm. Of me tearing away from that officer and elbowing him in the face as I did. I see him tackling me as his partner hits me in the legs with his nightstick. The world sways in and out, but nothing has any meaning or sense; the rest of that night is lost to me until I wake up in my father’s truck early on the morning of my birthday.
The memories slammed into me, and I lived them again in an instant. I looked from the officer to my father and back again.
“I don’t remember.”
“Listen, Jason, things will go a lot better for you if you tell us who gave you the liquor.”
“I don’t remember.”
The officer looked at my father, and I saw a slight shrug of his shoulders as if to say, “What do you want me to do?”
The officer looked back to me. “Okay, you have to report to a juvenile probation officer first thing Monday morning. If you don’t show up, we’re gonna haul you in and you won’t be getting back out. Got it?”
He gave me a card with an address and a phone number on it and told me one last time to make sure I went or else. I said I would be there and stuffed the card in my pocket. My father walked around the truck and got in; he started it up and drove off, leaving the officer standing there watching me as I sat in the back of the truck.
My father’s house wasn’t far from the police station and he drove straight there. When he pulled into the driveway and parked the truck, I was unsure of what I was supposed to do, so I sat there in the truck and waited for him to get out. When he did, he stepped to the driver’s side of the truck and stood there looking at me through his aviator glasses that he always wore when he drove. He seemed to be measuring me up.
“Come on,” he said as he turned and walked towards the house.
I climbed over the side of his truck, grabbed my shoes and followed him into the house. There was no-one else home, and he held the door to wait for me to walk in.
“Sit on the couch.”
I did as I was told, slumping down on the couch and crossing my arms over my bare chest. My father walked to the doorway of the living room and leaned his shoulder against one side of the casing. He stood there looking at me for a few minutes; I didn’t dare say a word.
“You know, Jay, things will be a lot easier for you if tell them who gave you the booze.”
“I don’t remember.” There was no way I could tell. I had fucked up, not my friend. I had been the one that had been stupid and got arrested, it wouldn’t be right to make him pay for those mistakes.
“Was it John?”
“No,” I said, but quickly amended it to, “I don’t think so.”
My father started naming off people he knew that I hung around with, asking name after name; he wasn’t trying to jar my memory as much as he was trying to see if he could read the truth on my face when he got it right. We went back and forth for a few minutes, and I said, I don’t think so, over and over again.
Finally, my father ran out of names, and I was glad to be done with the interrogation. He got up and walked into his bedroom. When he came back, he handed me a birthday card that had come in the mail from my grandmother. I opened it and was glad to see a crisp five inside. I took the time to read the message scrawled in Nana’s penmanship as my father walked back to the room that was now solely my brother’s. When he returned, he had a t-shirt that I had left behind; he tossed it to me along with a pair of socks and my wallet that the police must have given him when he gotten to the station to pick me up.
“The next time the police call here, I am going to tell them they have the wrong number. I suggest you go to that meeting on Monday and do as that man tells you if you don’t want to go to jail. Now, get your shoes on and leave. Don’t come back this time.”
This time when he told me to leave, there was no anger—no fury swept over me as I watched him walk into the kitchen so he wouldn’t have to look at me anymore. Tears welled up in my eyes as I started pulling the socks over my feet and putting my shoes on. I wouldn’t have let him see them if he had tried to come back for another look, but they stung my eyes and made me feel ashamed to let him hurt me again. I wiped the tears away with the shirt he had tossed to me before pulling it over my head. I grabbed the rest of my things and walked out of the house without another word to my father.
As I walked out the front door and down the steps, I felt the reality hit me in my face with a hard right. I was homeless, nowhere to go and no-one to see. I was a fifteen year old birthday-boy that didn’t have a place to sleep off my hangover, shower, read, watch T.V., or anything else that a normal boy that age should be doing.
I turned and walked down the path beside the house; it led to the parking lot behind it. I kept walking a few blocks past the park and across the street to a convenience store there—the same convenience store that I had been arrested in front of not many hours before.
I bought a pack of cheap cigarettes and a slice of pepperoni pizza with the five my grandmother had given me for my birthday. I took my goodies and went to my corner bench in the park, my park. After eating the pizza, I smoked a cigarette and wondered what was next. Where could I go? Who would help me? I didn’t have answers to those questions and couldn’t linger too long on that fact or I would find myself crying again. So instead, I leaned back and closed my eyes. The sun beamed down on my face, and I tried not to think about my aches, or where my next meal was coming from; I tried not to think about where I would sleep that night. I didn’t worry that someone would see me sitting there, a bum in a park, with filth on my clothes and face, unwanted and alone. I sat there with the sun in my eyes and drifted off to sleep.