(excerpt from Looking for The Jersey State Trooper)
Yesterday was my fourteenth birthday. It was the worst day of my life.
Walter sat in his room on what should have been a great day for him, the day after his birthday and a Saturday. But it wasn’t. He looked at the note he had written and shuddered, then stuffed the piece of paper into a box hidden under his bed. Before he put it away, he took out other scraps.
Beginning tomorrow, I’m going to lose weight. No more eating after dinner. I’ll exercise every night.
This note was dated two weeks earlier.
I saw Arlene in the hall today. Now I know which way to walk so that I can run into her every day. I’m going to talk to her before the end of the week.
This was dated a month earlier.
There were dozens of notes like these. He had begun writing them just after school started. Walter found the beginning of the school year particularly difficult. It meant getting laughed at by a whole new group of kids.
He closed the box and slid it back under his bed, then walked towards the window. In the distance, he could see the basketball courts in Bayonne Park. Maybe he’d go over later, see if he could get into a game. If I could only lose some weight, I’d be an awesome player, he thought. Starting at point guard for the New York Knicks, Walter Barrett. Yeah! Yeah! he heard the crowd cheer. He smiled, and scanned the room, looking for his Converse high tops.
How could Dad have forgotten my birthday? I saw Mom nudge him when he came in late. I saw her give him the present for me. Then he lied, and tried to make a big deal out of it, like he remembered all along. What does he think, that I’m stupid as well as fat? He fell onto his bed and hugged his pillow. He could feel the tears welling up in his eyes.
And Frankie, my best friend, the only guy who doesn’t make fun of me, or at least when he does I know he’s only kidding. He forgot my birthday too. And after I had reminded him all last week. Again he felt about to cry, but stopped. No! I’m a man and men don’t cry. Or am I a man? What was that disease they told us about in school, where a man has a woman’s chromosomes and develops like a woman? Develops breasts. He looked down at the flabbiness of his own chest. His mind was racing now. I should have been a girl. A man doesn’t act like me.
I’m afraid, a wimp. ‘Afraid to talk to girls? What kind of a man is that?’ It was his father’s voice. What else did his father say? What else? ‘How did you do in school today?’ That’s something his father would say, although he never waited for an answer. ‘Don’t argue with your sister. Don’t eat so much. Don’t scratch my car! Don’t play here, don’t play there, don’t, don’t, don’t. ‘ Why couldn’t he stop the thoughts? They tortured him. He felt like screaming out, anything to relieve what was going on in his brain. It will pass, it will pass, he told himself. He tried to block out the voices, but the thoughts that were always with him.
Walter’s rumination was interrupted by the familiar thump, thump, thump of a basketball on the pavement coming closer to his house. He pulled his jeans up over his stomach as he made his way to the window.
“Candyman, come on down. It’s B-ball time at Bayonne Park,” called Frankie. Walter wiped his eyes. Candyman, he thought, smiling. I’ve become famous for finding a ten-dollar bill on the way to the movies, and using it to buy some candy. He opened the window and called out to his friend.
“I’ll be down in a second.”
He pulled on his Converse high-tops and headed down the stairs towards the door.
“Be home early. Your Dad and I are going out tonight,” said his mother as she hugged him at the door. Momma’s boy, he thought.
Frankie was standing on his front steps when Walter opened the door. He brought his hand from behind his back. It held a long cardboard tube.
“Happy birthday, Walt,” said Frankie. “It’s a poster,” Frankie could never keep a secret, even for a few minutes, “Of Willis Reed, the Knicks new franchise player.”
“Wow, thanks,” said Walter. “Look Mom,” he said opening the poster to it’s full length. “Can we hang it on my door?”
“Your father can do it later,” said his mother, rolling it back up and standing it in a corner.
“Get any good stuff for your birthday?” asked Frankie. As they headed down the street, taking turns dribbling the ball.
“Oh yeah. My Dad came home early from work, and we had a big party. I got a football and $10.00 to buy something for myself. Oh, and my Dad said we might go to a Knicks – Lakers game next week. If he can get off work.”
“Really,” said Frankie. “The Knicks, though, they’ll never beat the Lakers. I think Willis will really help the Knicks. But he’s not a match for Wilt. No one can stop Wilt – the -Stilt.” Walt was quiet but not really listening. He was trying to figure out what excuse he’d use when his father didn’t take him to the game the following week.
“Hey Dad, I scored the last four points in the game this afternoon.” Walter bit voraciously into the last piece of a hamburger, and began eyeing another on the platter. “It was a real Oscar Robertson shot, you know, a quick release fall away jump shot. This guy had set a beautiful pick,” Walt took another hamburger and a hand full of chips.
“Are you really going to have another hamburger?” “ snapped his father.
“Oh leave him alone,” said his mother.
“Why don’t you stay out of this,” said his father. “If he wants to be an athlete he’s got to lose some weight. I don’t see why you can’t lose 15 pounds, Walt. That’s all 15 pounds. You know, you’d be a better ball player and maybe some girl would like you,” said his father.
Walt put the hamburger back and stared into his plate. He knew he’d make himself a sandwich later that night after they’d gone.
Later in his room Walter tore off a piece of paper from a pad on his desk.
I’ll never take my shirt off in a basketball game again, I’ll say I have a cold and can’t take my shirt off. He folded the paper and put it in the box. Then he flopped on his bed. His hands instinctively slid down below his belt and felt the soft flesh of his belly.
“I’ve got this kid, you take his friend. We’re skins, and we’ll take it out.” The game had begun that quickly. Walt and Frankie had gone down to the courts and found some older guys shooting around. They needed two more to go full court so it was perfect. Frankie ran down to the other end of the court and Walter cautiously took his shirt off. He threw it to the side and turned back towards his teammates. He felt they were all looking at him, but then convinced himself that wasn’t so. He had his arms crossed self-consciously on his chest, as he trotted onto the court.
“I’m Roger,” said the tall blond haired guy who had chosen him.
“Walt,” he answered nervously.
“O.K. Walt, you play a guard position on offense and take your friend on ‘D’.” Walter nodded and headed up court, trying to get free for a shot. When he saw Roger dribbling towards the foul line, Walt moved out as if to take a pass, but then stopped abruptly and froze a few feet from Roger. Roger saw the pick and dribbled behind Walter, running his defender into him, then went up for a jump-shot. Swish! They were ahead by a basket.
“Great pick,” said Roger, slapping Walt’s hand. “I see you’ve played this game before.” He smiled at Walter as they went up court to play defense. Walt’s spirit soared and he became completely lost in the game; maybe he could be a prospect, a future Oscar Robertson. But a few plays later, a long pass got by Walter and rolled out of bounds. He dropped his head. He had made a rookie mistake of breaking towards the basket before catching the ball.
“Hey Tits, wake up! We want to win this game you know,” shouted one of his teammates.
Walter ran up court, pretending it didn’t matter, pretending he hadn’t heard those words, pretending that even if he had, he could take it. ‘Sticks and stones…’. And in his mind he never stopped running. He ran down the court, across the end line, and out onto the grassy fields, over the fence and down the hill through the side streets of Bayonne, up Kennedy Boulevard and into the Holland tunnel. He kept running through the tunnel towards the city. And as he ran, the fat magically melted from him so that when he left the tunnel he was sweating and slender and there was no fat anywhere on him. His chest was firm and muscular, manly. He raised his arms triumphantly over his head. Now he was on the court at 4th and Waverly, jumping as high as the black guys from uptown, the future pros. He, Walter Barrett, White “O”, they’d call him!
But that was this afternoon, and that mind journey had lasted only the moment it had taken to run back up court. He had played the rest of the game in terror of being made fun of again, and when it was over, managed to say goodbye to Frankie and in the shelter of his oversized shirt, and with his chin resting on his neck headed for home, preparing a story of heroics he could tell his father.
Now as he lay in bed, the events of the day swam in front of him. He knew it would be difficult to sleep. He could kid himself all day; his mind was capable of the most outlandish fantasies. But there were no illusions in those moments before sleep. His brain was wired so that sleep was not permitted until all of the day’s humiliations had been relived. And lately, not even then could he sleep. He knew how to beat it. But it was too early for that, and he didn’t want to do it too often. His father would say he should control himself, have some willpower. The priest in confession would tell him to pray to Jesus for strength to overcome this temptation. Walter knew too that if he lay there much longer, it would be out of his control. His answer was a salami and cheese hero. He got out of bed and headed for the kitchen.
By the time his parents returned home, Walter had cleaned up the mess from the sandwich – his mother would still know but at least his father wouldn’t find out – and was back in bed listening to the Knicks game.
“Yes,” called out the announcer as Guerin hit a jumper from the corner.
“Yes,” yelled Walt as he pictured Willis setting a screen on the base line.
“What?” asked his mother.
“Mom, the Knicks beat the Celtics. Guerin hit a jumper with five seconds left!”
“You better get to sleep, darling. It’s getting late,” said his mom, smiling.
“Hey Mom, maybe I’ll take my birthday money and go down to the Garden and get some tickets for Dad and me. The Knicks play the Lakers next week.”
“Yes that’s a good idea. Now sleep, honey,” she leaned over and kissed him.
Walter lay quietly in the dark and waited. He knew that all of the demons that had visited him earlier in the night would be back. They would claw and gnaw at him till he was convinced that he was never going to lose this fat, that people would laugh at his flabby chest for his whole life. They would convince him that ‘no girl could ever like anyone as fat as you’, as one of the guys in school had said to him last week.
Doesn’t anyone care? his mind screamed. The demons were relentless. He had tried fighting them before. He tried to force them out of his mind with sports fantasies. This worked during the day, but never at night. There was only one hope, one escape. Her name was Lucy.
Lucy was a girl in his homeroom class who was the best developed girl in school. He had heard some of the guys talking about her. If you went to the closet in the back of the room when she did, you could feel her up. One guy had even gotten her to go behind his garage and give him a hand job. Lucy. His right hand went beneath the covers and found his already erect penis. And now his hand was moving up and down the shaft and Lucy was kissing him. He felt her lips on his and his hand moved faster beneath the covers. Lucy. ‘What kind of a guy are you? Got to jack-off. Why don’t you go out and find a real girl, not this pitiful crutch’, said the voice. Walter stopped. The voice never left him alone. At times it was his father’s voice, at times it was the priest who heard his confessions. Other times it was just a voice.
But he knew he couldn’t sleep without this. He couldn’t let the voice take this from him. Lucy was back and now she was slipping her blouse down her shoulder, showing the white flesh spilling over her bra. He could almost see the nipple, his right hand went back onto his penis as she slipped out of her blouse and released her breast. He took her breast in his mouth and sucked and as he did he could feel the sensation in his groin change. The pace of his strokes quickened and he hastened his fantasy to match his sensations and Lucy, yes Lucy was opening his fly and now his own hands were Lucy’s and the pace quickened even more. His penis was now a cock, a prick, a rod and now his hand was Lucy’s hand and then Lucy’s lips and now she sucked and she loved his cock and Lucy would do anything for him. That is how perfect he was, and now he felt his mind fogging and he knew it was near and now he could feel the sensation reaching its peak. At last, he ejaculated with a mind clearing spasm, that wiped away all the hurt and humiliation, all being drained in that precious liquid, being sucked from him by the very lips of Lucy, the girl in the cloak room. Now, now at last the voices were silent. Now he could sleep.
The following Saturday, Walter took the bus from Bayonne to Jersey City and then the train to Madison Square Garden. He had enough money for round trip bus fare, two tickets for the game, two hot dogs and an orange drink at Nedick’s. Walter stood in line at the Garden, anxious but elated. There were still seats left and he was going to see the ultimate match-up of the Lakers against the Knicks, Wilt vs. Willis.
“Two for Wednesday night,” he said handing the ticket agent his money. The agent slid the tickets and change across the counter, and quickly called, “Next!”
Walter felt the pressure of the line behind him and hurried to scoop the coins out of the way. But he had been given a lot of change and as he tried to gather the coins into his pocket, they slid from his grip and splattered to the floor. When he bent over to pick up his change, his glasses fell to the ground. As Walter scrambled after his things, he felt people watching him and almost panicked. But it was hard to break his mood this morning and he calmly gathered his belongings from the floor, stuffed them and his tickets into his hip pocket, replaced his glasses on his nose and looked around. Now, where was that Nedicks?
He clutched the Knicks tickets in his hand as the bus headed back to Jersey. They entered the Lincoln Tunnel and he began to form pictures of the game. He saw Guerin, the Knick’s guard casually bring the ball up, then pull up quickly at the head of the key and swish! He heard the cheers, saw people jumping up from their seats. He was completely unaware of the other passengers on the bus. At one point he leaped from his seat and screamed “Yes!” as his mind pictured the winning basket. When he came back to reality, he blushed and self-consciously lowered himself back into his seat.
Moments later he was lost again in his fantasies. But this time it was not a Knick guard who brought the ball up. It was him, Walter Barrett, who was playing against an aging Oscar. ‘The rookie, Candyman Barrett, brings the ball across mid court. Say,’ says the announcer, ‘where did he ever get that nickname?’
‘Oh,’ the color commentator says, ‘I understand it started when he was a kid. Can you believe it? This kid used to be famous in his neighborhood for all the candy he could eat. This kid used to be fat.’
‘You’d never know it now,’ says the announcer. ‘You know, they’re already calling him ‘White O.’ Yes, he’s got a great future in front of him.’ Walter smiled broadly. He pictured his father in the stands cheering, elbowing the guy next to him, bragging about his son. ‘Walt, that’s my son, Walter. Some kid, huh?’
Just then a flash of light struck his eyes. At first, he had envisioned it as a spotlight on him, rookie of the year. But then he realized it was only the light coming in on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.
That night Walter crept up behind his father as he read the newspaper, the tickets clutched behind his back.
“Hi Dad,” he said inches from his father’s ear. His father jumped.
“What the hell are you doing? You trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Sorry. Look, Dad,” he produced the tickets and handed them to his father. His dad looked at them for a moment. Walter said, “They’re for you and me. I thought we could go this Wednesday night.” His father still looked angry. He always looked angry. He wanted the tickets back. He felt his spirits plummet.
“Thanks,” his father mumbled, “I’ll see if I can get off early.” He handed the tickets back to Walt. His father couldn’t look him in the eye. Was he so disappointed in him, his son? What did he see? This boy, his boy, his fat boy, his embarrassment. Walt stuffed the tickets back into his pocket. He went out the screen door and sat on his front steps. He heard Frankie throwing a ball against his own stoop across the street, but he didn’t want to see Frankie. He could go up to his room, lock his door. No, he’d hate himself for the weakness. He thought he might cry. But there were no tears. He was numb.
Walter managed to fall asleep around ten but woke in the middle of a terrible nightmare. He looked at the clock, 3:00 A.M. He couldn’t remember the details of the dream but felt like he was suffocating, that the walls of his room were collapsing on him. He was sweating. Now he was not the least bit tired. He lay on his bed and listened for night noises. There were none. The household slept soundly. The neighborhood, his family, his friends all slept so peacefully. Life seemed so easy for them. He got up and walked across the room to his dresser. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror. His eyes were puffy from crying earlier in the night, his face was swollen. He turned away quickly. He couldn’t stand to look. He pulled the tin box from beneath his bed and began to read the notes. He read four before he quit.
What was there to look forward to? His mind screamed.
Nothing, came back the answer, the voices, again.
School? No, he couldn’t face it. They were all laughing at him. The other kids, Arlene, she knew he liked her, but he could feel her laughing behind his back. Lucy? No, she was kept for his late night fantasy. He was afraid, afraid of everything. He was afraid of facing his tormentors in school. He was afraid of the older tough guys who once had stolen food from his tray and now eyed him every time he went by. He was afraid of being called on in class. He never knew the answers. He always felt the fool. He couldn’t stand up in front of people. He was afraid of gym. He would be told to climb the ropes and he couldn’t. They’d all laugh at him. He had cut several times last week, and now he was afraid his father would find out. He felt himself shaking. Oh no, I can’t go through that. Please, someone, help me! He fell on his bed still shaking and curled into a ball, holding his knees, trying to stop the shaking.
Who will help me? His mind screamed out.
‘No one.’ The demons said. He was coming under their spell. He fought back.
‘Don’t let it get to you. It will get better. These times always pass’, coaxed his mind.
‘It’s only gotten worse,’ said the demons.
‘No,’ he screamed silently.
‘Yes,’ the voice said back to him.
‘I can’t take it. I hate my life, I hate this body,’ his mind called out.
‘Do something about it,’ said the voices.
Then suddenly they stopped; the voices, the demons, all the screaming stopped. He lay on his bed perspiring, panting. What was he to do? He picked up the tin box and brought it by the window. He gathered the notes and read them one by on, convincing himself. Then he placed them back in the box. He took matches from his desk drawer and was about to light them when he stopped. There was something missing. The Knicks tickets were sticking out of his wallet. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he placed the tickets on top of the notes, then, hand shaking, put a match to the pile. He opened the window allowing the smoke to escape into the black night and for a moment he dreamed that he was riding on the smoke.
But then, the papers now reduced to ashes, the smoke gone, he found himself heading towards the closet.
He took down his jeans. His hands shook and his mind clouded as he removed the belt and fitted that belt with another. Who was moving him? Was it the demons or his mind? Was there any difference? Where were the voices? They were silent. They no longer argued. He was acting. His movements were like those of a puppet under a master’s control as he threw the belts up over the wooden beam that spanned his ceiling. He pulled a chair under the belts, stood on it, and formed a loop with the lower belt. He got off the chair and watched the loop dangle in front of him. He stared at it for a moment then went over to his desk. He tore off a piece of paper and scribbled a note, another note. He held it firmly in his hand as he got back up onto the chair. He was numb as he slid the loop around his neck and stood precariously on the edge of the chair.
‘It’s the only way’, whispered the voice, and this time Walter Barrett listened. And, now Walter Barrett kicked the chair away so that his heavy body, which was not too heavy for the belts, dropped quickly, his feet dangling inches above the floor. Soon his horror was over and his body hung limp. His last note fell to the floor.
“Sorry Mom, just can’t stand being fat anymore.”
about 4,100 words