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Getting out of my room was easy. On one summer night, I removed the screen from the window above my bed, climbed down from the sill and ran half-naked across the yard in the moonlight. Getting back in was more difficult, hauling myself gingerly against the brick and irritating the mosquito bites I’d accumulated on my jaunt. Though taller now, at fourteen and intending to run away, I would not need to climb back in if all went well. I had half of a bunk bed; the other half was in my little sister’s room. When I was four, the beds were bunked, but no one ever slept in the top. It was storage for my hats: fireman, policeman, cowboy, football player. Dad ran Jet Cleaners and brought home a white Marine dress hat for me. In first grade I asked the principal and all my friends to call me “General” after seeing George C. Scott in Patton at the Vernon Theater. Why didn’t that Marine pick up his cover? I never took up any of these roles. At eighty, after divorce and several moves, my mother was found dead in one of these beds—surrounded by paperbacks and baby dolls and with $10,000 in cash under the mattress.
When Mom got religion (even more religion than 11:30 mass) after her hysterectomy and after her hormones triggered a latent Paranoid Schizophrenia (A couple of decades later, it was renamed as Persecutory Delusional Disorder. “Everyone is after me.”), she got it in her head—a head increasingly prone to relentless obsessions and compulsions—that I should be sent off to a Catholic summer camp between Utica and Newark, Ohio.
This was intended as a trial run for the boarding school to which the camp was attached. Right. Priests. All boys. A remote country locale. The 1970s. What could go wrong? Don’t worry, nothing happened. I wasn’t raped or diddled by a priest. (My mother’s insanity provided enough excitement, enough fodder, for therapy and anti-anxiety drugs for a lifetime.) One would expect to be diddled at the very least. What constitutes a diddle anyway? As a little boy, I pretended to be a priest—a cardboard box my altar, Oreos and Kool-Aid the body and blood of Christ. I was an altar boy for two weeks at Saint Vincent de Paul, but it didn’t take. A year before the summer camp fiasco, but only for a short year, I was “saved” at a very protestant, very evangelical church. Mom was needlessly worried. But I suppose she thought boys’ Catholic summer camp would cure me of any inclination for speaking in tongues. Her timing was off; girls became much more interesting than Jesus that summer.
We visited the campus and all I remember is the dorm. Small beds were regimented close together with no privacy whatsoever. The priest/director, a young, thin, slightly balding, soft-spoken man, pitched soccer and hikes—and I don’t recall what else. He gave me the creeps. Keep in mind that this was a time when no boy would be caught dead playing soccer, especially when Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas were emulated, play-by-play every day after school in backyard football. And the paucity of privacy for a fourteen-year-old young man was not advisable when I was discovering what urges my body was inclined to manifest. Dad’s Playboys would be out of reach for two weeks. Entirely unacceptable.
All along I said, “Won’t go.” Mom was fixated. She paid the tuition—too expensive for us. Dad thought it wise to stay out of the way. That began my on-going resentment for his inaction—the nice guy with a dysfunction that complemented my mother’s in the most ideal way—paralysis. The morning before the day of departure, Mom and I argued. She concluded with a “because-I-say-so.” I was sent to my room and lumbered there dutifully and sullenly. I sat on the edge of my bed for a long while. As a little boy, Mom, not Dad, would perch beside me and insist upon advice regarding the world and how to get along in it. Even then I resented her, her presumption that she knew more about everything than I. Psychosis seems to rely upon the assumption of omniscience—I suppose in order to survive madness.
I looked around. I recently decided to be like Picasso in Life magazine. I actually looked in the mirror and dramatically stated to the reflection, “I will be an artist.” My room was in the process of a transformation: shelves of model airplanes, tanks and cars grew dusty, paint-by-number kits thrown out. My space was becoming a studio with sketchbook, pencils, paints, and books on artists. A poster of a Renoir hung beside my bed, a bather in hideously sweet pastel colors. Oddly, it was not a source of teenage excitation but a painting I admired for its unapologetic expression. Sure, I quickly grew out of Impressionism. In ninth grade I carried around a book on Cubism, my interests moving from the nineteen to twentieth centuries. My English teacher borrowed it, and was reluctant and slow to return it. She was known to have ten books opened, lying about her apartment at one time. In the art room, two of my Cubist paintings hung above the blackboard: distorted portraits of Nixon and JFK in Braque’s monochromatic analytical phase. In a few years de Kooning and Rauschenberg were my heroes. And Christo—Running Fence, Surrounded Islands in pink. He wrapped the Pont Neuf and the friggin’ Reichstag.
There was another item on my mother’s agenda. She was horrified by the thought that I would become not only a protestant but a farmer. The occupation of her father, an abusive, ignorant, and repulsive man, she clawed her way away from the farm and out of his orbit as soon as she was capable. My father’s parents were farmers, but these grandparents, though equally ignorant and poor, were loving folks. And Grandma doted on me. We spent many Sunday dinners and every holiday around Grandma’s kitchen table. I gave up a good portion of my summers gathering eggs, feeding chickens and motherless lambs, shoveling corn to the hogs, scooping grain for the cows at milking, passing tools to Grandpa in his perpetual greasing and repairing of broken-down tractors and implements.
I loved all of it, but mostly I loved baling hay. I rode the wagon, legs bent, balancing upon the slick polished boards hooking and stacking the bales as they were pushed out the machine. It lurched on dry-rotted tires and wheels still sporting rusted Studebaker hubcaps. I unloaded the bales at the barn, sending them up to uncles in the hayloft. Not Dad. He rarely pitched in, after business school wanting only distance from the farm—while I was magnetically drawn to it. I loved the sweet smell of clover and timothy, gulping down lemonade in the shade in a distant field, the homemade, hand-churned ice cream after a long day—the sweat, my arms pricked red raw from lugging the big rectangles. The feeling of hard work and a day well-spent in tangible accomplishment. Mom was terrified of this. Had she asked, she would have learned that I had no intention of pursuing the profession. I saw the farm as a living, breathing canvas or sculpture. There was a depth of meaning, everywhere a richness of weathered metaphor. It was exquisite. That’s all. Catholic summer camp was meant to mitigate any notions of a career in agriculture.
I stuffed my backpack. Stepped up on the bed. Out the window I went. I hitched to Columbus. Caught a Greyhound to New York City. Lived on the streets. Sold myself. Whatever it took. Saved up for a room. Began painting. Got discovered. My work was shown in a SoHo gallery and sold out before the opening. Famous of course. I was a fixture at Andy’s factory, though Warhol eyed me suspiciously—some whispered, jealously. There were profiles in Interview and Art Forum. A curator from the Museum of Modern Art came calling. At cocktail parties I embellished stories about my country bumpkin past, about my flirtations with farming and the priesthood, much the same as Pollock brandished his so-called cowboy upbringing. Drugs and rehab after the customary Studio 54 debauchery. Even a brief entourage. Forgotten. Magically rediscovered ten years later.
No, not really. There was a fleeting moment when this scenario was possible, but I was not so daring. I was a rule-follower. I sought structure and predictability, not additional chaos. Being even a lackluster runaway was quite a stretch for me.
It was a beautiful day which didn’t make sense—incongruent with the circumstances. The sky was a Cerulean Blue with the perfect ratio of clouds in Titanium White (I just bought some oil colors). Viridian Green everywhere, all was lush at the outset of summer. I started walking. Retrieving my bike would give me away. It was only about five miles by country roads to the farm. I just might get there in time. I crossed the field with the tall grass where my little sister, unsupervised (meaning my mother had no idea where she was or that she even left the house and “little” meaning five years old), ran with a gang of neighborhood dogs. Every morning they waited for her at our door, Gabe, a tall Irish setter, her lieutenant. She always found her way home at lunch with ticks in her ears and hair, and our mother, stupidly astonished, complained about the critters at bath time. As I set out, I ordered our own Smokey to stay. Stay! Go home! He never listened but lost interest and turned around after a mile, not wanting to be too far from his supper.
Taking the same route as the school bus, I trekked through our little suburbia composed primarily of families whose parents taught at or staffed the local Christian college (an excessively sanctimonious, stick-up-the-butt, anti-papal, Catholicism-as-a-cult ilk). Past my friends’ houses, boys with whom I spent hours playing wiffle ball, football, basketball, and building forts and playing at army—imitating the soldiers of World War II television shows—not the poor boys not much older than us in Vietnam. Past Joel’s house who, when we were nine, I took into my mouth just once for a few seconds to see what it was like. I enjoyed it (immensely) but knew I would never desire to repeat the scene.
Past the Rockwell girl’s house. I thought, if I could love a girl, it would be her. She had long dark hair and pale blue eyes, Cerulean Blue, exactly like my mother, but she was gentle around all her edges, not ruined by abuse and poverty. She had a cute but diffident mouth and a voice I wanted to hear every day—which made any day brighter. My mother’s was increasingly a shriek, rising in shrillness, shredding the walls of the house with bizarre commandments.
Past Sam and Chris’s house whose mother died of cancer. Three-pack-a-day chain smoker. Unfiltered Cools. Whose death we heard about first-thing-in-the-morning on the bus. The boys were experts at trying on new swear words but had no idea how to comfort our pals. Past the dentist’s spectacular new home. His wife, so-very-nice. His kids, terrors. He killed himself when it was discovered he was also a major drug dealer in the county—cocaine it was rumored. Past the Glenn Road Orchard where we got our apples and peaches. Past Donny Doup’s lane. In second grade Mrs. Beck, the lunch monitor at Elmwood Elementary, forced me to watch as she washed his mouth out with soap for bringing chewing tobacco to school. I spent a Saturday afternoon at his trailer. He endured a little sister like me, and his mother fried up wild mushrooms from their woods. They were delicious.
For part of the way I got a ride from a neighbor who made a few concerned inquiries but seemed reassured when I explained my destination. I lied. Wednesday Confession with the rotund Father Fortkamp, a distant cousin, would be eventful. Purgatory loomed. Worse, many Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I expected Mom pulling up behind me in the car at any moment, but it didn’t happen. As I carried on, my resolve and confidence grew. Did she forget about me—more importantly, misplace her obsession? Not likely. Did she as usual retreat to her bedroom for the afternoon to sleep off her daily depression? More likely. Was it a test of wills: “He won’t come out of his room? Well, he can stay there.” I imagined a rare conciliatory knock on my door, the discovery, the fury.
Past the house with the girl with breasts in the fourth grade. Past the church that was converted into a home. I wondered if their house was a little luckier than most as it had the ghosts of so many prayers saturating their walls. I thought it grand that they had a working belfry. Past the farm where chickens always ran in the road and dogs, a new mongrel at each passing, either barked baring teeth or wagged a tail. Past the house where Dad and I dug up a Christmas tree one year—a muddy, cold, miserable, and unnecessary day. Past the fence row where I found that many cows were half buried there long ago. I collected the best bleached vertebrae and admire them on occasion in my studio fifty years later.
Over the rickety, rusting bridge that spanned the Kokosing River, the bridge that everyone expected to fall into the water at any minute. We all held our breath on the bus as we crossed, wondering, “Will we die today?” Up the hill to Gambier and Kenyon College, past the ivy-covered gothic revival buildings filled with books and weird, long-haired students from out East. Past Pierce Hall where my grandmother was a cook, Bexley Hall where I would take life drawing classes a few years later, and the Church of the Holy Spirit where I would be married another fourteen years later. Past Wiggins Street school where I attended fifth grade and where Dad went to high school. And past the candy store across the street. I remember watching a fighter jet streak across the sky above the tiny shop and how thrilled and terrified, how small I felt when the sonic boom rattled my body. I trudged along Quarry Chapel Road past Tomahawk Golf and past the pond near where Uncle Dale wrecked his sleek 1960 Chevy Impala—electric green with the widest tail fins of the era. Past the little Quarry Chapel, built with warm sienna and ochre sandstone blocks also used for Old Kenyon and cut from the farm in the 1820s.
And then, rounding the bend, I saw my grandfather’s barn, the machinery shed, granary, milkhouse, corn cribs, chicken coop, and the fragile, broken-down fences radiating from it. Here alongside me was something mended by him. I picked up my pace and from the road I saw Grandpa driving the tractor and Grandma on the wagon, in atypical shorts, one of Grandpa’s old shirts, and a floppy straw hat, doing my job. This was my responsibility. This was my place, my purpose, my religion, my fun. I dropped my backpack and walked over the pasture to the hay field. We all smiled generous, silent smiles. Grandma was a bit puzzled but gladly climbed down, happy to return to her kitchen and to a flowered summer dress. I climbed up and got to work. You see, I was useful, wanted, perhaps even essential in my role. My grandfather was grateful for my being there. He pushed the tractor throttle, it coughed and sputtered, the baling machine began clacking, the wagon groaned, and we were off again.
Inevitably, there was a phone call. Grandma, not knowing about my journey, admonished me—somewhat. Through the receiver Dad said to stay put for a while. His voice was kind, apologetic, and oddly conspiratorial. I remember this moment as a tipping point, all the relationships in our family realigned. But mistakenly I assumed this was the end of it, not the beginning of several hard years. On the fourth of July, Mom and Dad picked me up in the wide, maroon Ford Galaxy 500, its big-ass chrome grill grinning at me. Mom sat glued to Dad like a teenager. (This was a time when most cars had one continuous bench from door to door which facilitated making out while driving.) Mom was all lovey-dovey. God, I loathed lovey-dovey. Dad’s expression seemed skeptical. Landmarks were reversed. Across the Kokosing bridge. I was surely doomed. Chickens and mongrels. And there was Julia Rockwell leaning back on her bike. She offered a little wave as we passed. If I could hold her small hand for a while, I thought everything might be fine. We all went to Memorial Park to watch fireworks and fireflies that evening. Nothing was said about my runaway manifesto or Catholic summer camp. Nothing, but Mom refused to look at me. Her manic attention seemed all for Dad. Years later, after cops, psych wards, separation and divorce, bankruptcy, court, custody battles, and sad Christmases, I learned that before I could come home that summer, Dad endured several days of rage—of coffee cups and jelly jars launched at his head. I always wondered, why the jam? I spent many June mornings sweltering, pricked, picking wild raspberries just for her.