My little brother and I are sitting in the audience of our high school auditorium watching our mother play a lush in the local theatre production of "Bessemer's Follies." Bessemer is our hometown, and I laugh now at the idea that anyone could capture the town's follies in a two-hour stage production. Back then, our mayor had been in power for 20 years and had just been quoted in a national news magazine as saying that the McGovern delegation to the '72 Democratic National Convention was a bunch of "damn queers."
In another few years, a bomb will go off at Bessemer City Hall, killing a policeman and wounding many others. No one will ever be arrested; no one will know for certain who did it, but a former high-ranking city official—a self-avowed "practicing Christian" —will self-publish a book claiming to "shed new light on the subject," although this writer will be considered by many to be the bomber himself. The book will be sold at the local BBQ joint, alongside various sauces and t-shirts. Waitresses will offer their own half-formed theories about the crime which patrons like me will listen to and half-believe.
In years past, Bessemer had been proclaimed a Klan-friendly town, or at least it kept a sign from the Klan on the outskirts of the city welcoming everyone, right next to Lions and Kiwanis Club greetings.
But now, in this auditorium where high school plays like "The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch" compete with talent shows and graduation exercises, we're entering a more private world of "follies."
My brother is nine, and he's sitting next to another friend his age who, with a beat-up looking, half-gnawed pencil, has been flipping the hair of the guy sitting in front of them. A guy I know well. A guy whose date this evening was my first girlfriend though our affair was strictly chaste, the way all of my affairs with girls were until I turned nineteen.
This friend keeps turning around looking first at my brother, then at his friend, trying to catch the culprit in the act. He's mad now, and he's showing off for his date, and I keep thinking that it's all in fun, that nothing will come of this, because he knows me and my brother.
Because we're friends.
And then suddenly, he reaches back and grabs my brother by the throat:
"I'm going to beat the shit out of you if you do that one more time!"
His eyes are bulging. My ex-girlfriend continues staring straight ahead at the follies onstage, at the tiny Shriner's car that a grown man with a fez drives in maddening circles while honking a freakishly high-pitched horn.
My brother turns red; his friend races out of the hall, and I sit stunned, still chaste, as the guy in front of us squeezes.
It's over in a flash. My brother sits back, not making a sound. No tears streak his face, and I'm amazed and proud of him for that. My friend relaxes now; his large head returns to its normal setting as he puts his arm around my ex-girlfriend. He's all done now.
Soon my mother appears onstage. She's too good, weaving in and out of the patrons at the staged bar and grille and waving to the made-up attractive men. I can't figure where in Bessemer this is supposed to be.
Or what I'm supposed to do.
When my brother brought this memory up, I knew what he was going to say before he said it. We're like that together even though we haven't been especially close these past thirty years.
"Yeah, but that guy didn't end well," I say, attempting to cover my shame for all I failed to do. "He's divorced now and he used to run around on his wife."
"How do you know," my brother asks.
"He told me all about it," I say. "I run into him occasionally back home, and every time I see him, he's with a different woman. One was even a psychologist. I keep thinking I should warn them. But then, I don't."
Both of us pause.
"He was always wild," I continue, "and bad. Even Bill, who's not afraid of anyone, says this guy scares him."
There's so much to tell. Where do I start?
"He never did anything to me, unless you count the time he stole the girl I liked in tenth grade while we were all in that play together. You know, Harvey? About the invisible white rabbit? He knew I liked her, too, but as she and I were sitting close together during a read-through onstage, he walked right over, sat between us, and began his moves. I moved over and that was the end. But I know worse stories. At the very least, he'd pick a fight with anyone who got in his way. He was just crazy."
"I guess I egged that craziness on," my brother says, "by getting him to make those prank phone calls, the ones where he'd pretend to be from Southern Bell and get people to tear up their phones looking for a loose wire."
"Yeah," I say. "But don't worry. You think you caused Russell Chapman to yank a chunk of hair right out of his head during that fight in junior high? You think you caused him to climb the water tower next to the high school and spray paint "Peterson's Perverts" in honor of the principal?"
"I don't guess so."
We move on to other talk then, and so I don't tell my brother the rest.
Like the time in ninth grade when this friend spent the night with me, and he snuck out of our house to meet a girl.
"Leave the door unlocked," he commanded.
He came slinking back in a couple of hours later, got in the bed we had to share, stuck his hand in my face, and said, "Sniff my finger."
I couldn't turn away fast enough. He laughed, turned over, and soon was snoring loudly. I lay there for the rest of the night wondering who we both were.
Or like a party later that year: while I was shooting pool with a friend, "he" tossed all the balls out of the way, grabbed my ex-girlfriend, bent her over the table, climbed on top of her, and kissed and groped her "passionately." I watched for a moment as she returned his embrace. Then I left.
Still, maybe that doesn't sound too bad. Maybe it just sounds like what an adolescent boy would do.
Back when I was in high school, my father used to say, "I don't like that guy. He's a loudmouth like his father."
Being a loudmouth, though, was only the edge of what he was.
At my father's funeral, he showed up almost out of nowhere and began hawking his new country CDs. When I looked at him aghast, he just tossed a few in my car, laughed, and disappeared again.
Once, a girl he dated in high school confessed to me that she had "given in" to him. I don't know why she told me this. She was so gorgeous. I hated him then. It seemed that he could have any girl he wanted, but I couldn't understand what they saw in him. My best and oldest friend called it that "animal magnetism."
"Please don't do it again," I begged her.
"I won't," she whispered, as she drove us home from our neighborhood pool in a summertime that seems so innocent and far away now.
But he humped many girls in that neighborhood pool. In the daylight, with adults sitting nearby, thinking what? That he was a good boy from a "right" family?
He told me of going to another guy's house when his parents were gone and participating in sex with multiple girls. That was when we were in tenth grade. I wasn't sure I believed him. I had barely kissed a girl then.
And then there was the time in high school when he had sex with my oldest childhood friend. "It was just being horny," my childhood friend, who came out of the closet soon after, said.
Even when we went our separate ways after high school, he wouldn't let go. He showed up at my college dorm one weekend, driving all the way from the big university that he attended to the rural liberal arts school I loved, demanding "some fun." So we went to some mutual friends' apartment and got more than sufficiently stoned. When I went back to the dorm, he stayed, spending the night in the room of my ex-girlfriend's little sister. All night he tried to force her to have sex. He's a big guy and lay on top of her for hours. Her roommates, in the living room watching TV, didn't hear her cries because she didn't cry out. She was too scared and embarrassed. They say she fought him off, and I don't know if that's true or not. But I never doubted that he tried.
And this: after my ex-girlfriend got married to another guy we all knew and liked, he kept appearing at their apartment, when the husband was gone. I know because he told me about it the next time he saw me:
"I'm gonna be her back-door man."
Once, he had to hide under her bed for hours when her husband came home early. He escaped when they went out for the night. He was so proud of himself. I never asked my ex whether this was true or not, but in my heart, I'm sure it is.
For I witnessed too much.
When I was in grad school, he and his wife would visit me occasionally. Once, when she was pregnant and had gone to bed early, he insisted that we go to a strip club. He danced on a table himself and tried to grope all the strippers until we were politely asked to leave. On the way home, he told me of a recent encounter he had in a hot tub while he was on a business trip. He didn't have sex with the woman, he said, "But she did let me feel her up."
Years later he appeared at the door of another married "friend" and proceeded to hit on that friend's wife until she threatened to call the police. He knew she'd be alone, of course, so he took his chance. That was when he was still married, too.
You might ask why I stood by, why I still considered him my friend. I wish I had a good reason. Any reason. In the beginning, I considered him my "wild friend," and thought he would help me escape the sugary world where I tried to please everyone who was older than me. I'd be lying if I said I didn't marvel at, and often envy, some of the stories he'd tell, the conquests he'd make. I knew I never wanted to be him, but that didn't stop me from wanting, at least once in a while, to share a night with him.
And particularly, to have a girl want me as so many did him.
I don't know the moment when my envy and stunned admiration of his brash body turned to a wiser apprehension and, eventually, an even darker fear of him. But, I'm ashamed to say, that turning came after, long after in the seeming timelessness of late adolescence, he grabbed my brother by the throat. After, even, the time he stole my high school crush. And after, of course, the days and nights when he corrupted my first girlfriend.
And even after that point, though I didn't initiate most of our contact, I still never turned him away. We had been friends most of our lives. Our mothers ran in the same bridge and garden clubs. We even went to church together back in Bessemer—back when anyone who was your same race and class was acceptable as a friend. And still, that's no excuse. I wasn't like him. But I couldn't say no to him. So what does that make me?
"Why is Bill afraid of him," I keep hearing my brother ask. Bill is my ex-girlfriend's older brother. His sister and I were two months apart in age and we all grew up right across the street from each other. She was so pretty, and I dreamed of her every night. We were both so shy, too, about each other, even after we exchanged the note in fifth grade that declared that we were boy and girlfriend. I carried her books home from school then, and we danced the Virginia Reel together every Friday in gym class. But that's all we did. Though once, she rode her bike under a tree full of mistletoe, so close to mine that we almost wrecked. And after, when all I wanted was to make sure my bike was okay and to keep riding in that late January mid-Alabama wind, she didn't hold it against me that I was too naive to know that all she wanted was to kiss me. We were, after all, only ten. A year later, she broke up with me in another note exchanged under the desks of our sixth grade science class.
However, and this should have told me something good about myself then, I didn't give up on us. In seventh grade, I asked her and she agreed to go to the WVOK Shower of Stars concert with me where we heard Neil Diamond sing "Sweet Caroline" ("Good times never seemed so good"). I held her hand as we left the show that night, but even then we didn't kiss. It didn't feel right, and I wasn't "that guy," the guy she began dating when she turned fifteen.
So why is Bill afraid?
Once, when this guy was very drunk, he turned to Bill in the ending stage of some minor squabble and whispered, "I fucked your sister, and if you don't shut up, I'll keep doing it."
As Bill said to me, "Who tells another guy that he's slept with your sister? What kind of guy does that? Yeah, he scares me."
That was after she was married, after we all had supposedly grown up. After we had graduated from high school and could no longer cling to the excuse that we just couldn't control our hormones.
But back in those high school days—when we were mainly appreciated and identified by our hormone levels—everyone knew who this guy was, as everyone usually does. And not only did they know his name, but—and he made very sure of this—they knew the name of his penis, too.
He called it "Corky."
Terry Barr teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College in Upstate South Carolina, and is a regular contributor to culturemass.com. His work has also appeared in The Museum of Americana, The Montreal Review, Orange Quarterly, Squalorly Journal and Elohi Gadugi Journal. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters.