“We’ll have such a fine time, Harry!”
“Wanta bet? And please, Mother, I’ve told you repeatedly that calling me ‘Harry’ will not produce the conventional sonny-boy you want. It’s ‘Harold.’”
“I know how you enjoy being cantankerous, but the farm will work its magic on you, you’ll see. No need to respond with more sarcasm. I know just what you’ll say.”
“I’m pretty sure you don’t find me as predictable as you pretend. Let’s have a little test: what will I say?”
“You’ll say – let me see – you’ve been inoculated with anti-magic vaccine, something on that order.”
“You should’ve let it pass. You imagine I’m as witless as all that? I had in mind something the coarse lout Harry you want me to be would produce on bucolic discomfort, featuring yobbish imagery: beasts coupling, insects stinging, cows spraying, the ubiquitous chicken shit oozing up between toes. That’s the magic you meant, I know.”
“But Grandma wants. . . .”
“Oh don’t go hypocritical on me, Mother! Grandma does remember who I am, I grant you; but it’s only because she feels I am sent by the powers of darkness to appall.”
“Why, she thinks you are. . . .”
“She thinks I am a sucker of cocks, Mother, that’s what she thinks. Grannie’s mind is so constituted as to admit no class of being other than these two: manly sorts and suckers of cocks. Not a delicate observer of this our life.”
“When all is said and done, you’ll go, so why must we have this conversation?”
“Because, Mother, you cling to the illusion that you persuade, possess the gift of reason, treat me well, want to do what is best for me, and, all in all, know best.”
“That’s a lot of illusions, not one. And you’re going to Grannie’s, young man.”
“I’m going and I’m going to like it, that it?”
“I don’t give a shit if you like it or not, Harry. You’re going because I’m bigger than you. And you’re going to your room right now or I’ll beat you on the ass with that show-offy book you’re reading.”
Hands up, all who think Mother is a parent worthy of Harold, those who hope she carries through on her threat. Shame on you. Harold will turn out to be better than you suppose, more capable of acts of self-forgetfulness. He has no faults not attributable to youth and to feeling lost and friendless. He does what he can to survive, being obnoxious in order to give himself a reason for being disliked so thoroughly: “it’s not me they detest but this pose I’m adopting.” Feel for him, do. There but for a lot of luck go you. I’ll wager that there, luck or no, go many of you, differing only in being one quarter as smart and one-twentieth as articulate.
“Hey, there’s hairy Harry! You got any hair yet, Harry?
“Let’s see. Get him.”
And they did, his loving cousins, four of them, out behind the henhouse, where things were most vile. Threw him down into the beshitten grass, rolled him on his back. Cousin Louise sat on his face, her private parts, covered only by fiercely dirty undercloth, pressing straight into his nose. It would have been hard to breathe, even had the stench been less insufferable. That’s what he was thinking: not of what they were doing to him down below but of his insulted mouth and nose. He was hoping to keep alive, worried that he likely would not.
“What’d ya say, Harold, you prissy little faggot?”
“I think you’re suffocating him, Lou!”
To give her the credit she deserves (little), she did shift her bovine hindquarters enough so that Harold could allow into his mind not just fear but hatred. They were pulling up his shirt, ever so slowly. He’d had this happen before, “an Indian belly.” That was bad. But this was to be worse. He couldn’t move his head and see, but he felt them, as they got busy on his belt and his zipper.
“Haroldeen is wearing tighty-whities. Can you believe it?”
“Pull em down, his panties!”
And they did. He could feel the cold air and then rough hands as they cupped his testicles and jiggled them, meanwhile worrying his penis back and forth. Something wet was touching him there, and fingers were going back under his naked hips toward even more private parts.
He didn’t protest and he didn’t cry. He let them do what they wanted – he had precious little choice in the matter. But he could have registered protest and he didn’t, not even twisting about. True, his penis extended itself as they played with it and sucked on it. Only that moved.
You might suppose he was employing his silence as a weapon. But you’d be wrong. He kept still for no particular reason, hatching no plan, controlled completely by a steady and mastering rage.
The roistering abusers finally became ashamed, worried that they’d gone too far, put themselves in real peril.
“Don’t you say a fucking word, Harry.”
“We’ll pull your pecker off if you do.”
“Harry, I’m sorry. I don’t know why we did that. It was wrong and I’m really sorry. Please.”
“Yes, Harry. Please.”
Harold finally spoke: “That’s OK. I know you didn’t mean anything.”
They were ready to elect him class president, football captain. What a guy! They’d had him all wrong. Hell, they’d even be willing to call him “Harold.”
All he wanted was to be left alone, to his own devices. As soon as they finally weren’t there, he went straight to his grandmother, telling her everything in great detail. He knew he had only to say “naked” or “abuse” to set her off. Sure nuff:
“They did what?”
“OK, Grandma, I’ll tell you. The four knocked me down and sat on me, holding me so I couldn’t move. Then they abused me.”
“Abused you how?”
“They undressed me and played with my testicles and manipulated my penis and sucked on it; and they stuck their fingers up my anus.”
“Oh my God in Heaven! I’ll skin each one of them alive. They’ll be sorry they ever were born into this family! Undressed you! Played with you! Was Louise there and Dora? And that damned Larry and that toadstool fatty Alfred?”
“Oh yes, Grandma. The girls seemed like they may have been in charge. I couldn’t be sure, though, to tell the truth and don’t want to lie.”
“It doesn’t matter. They did it. Made you naked, did they? Well, they’ll be naked themselves within three minutes and feeling some cowhide on their butts too! I won’t have it. I know they weren’t raised that way.”
“No, Grandma. It’s me they did this to. I’m asking you not to say anything to them, not even to let on you know.”
“You afraid they’ll get back at you, Harry? I promise you they won’t. Leave it to me. They so much as look at you cross-eyed, I’ll ruin em, and that isn’t just a way of speaking either.”
“It’s not that, Grandma. I just need to handle this my own way. I’m absolutely sure I can. I have to learn to take care of these bullies.”
“Well, Harry. I never would have thought. . . . But you’re right about that. Stand up to those morons! Hit em good. Hit em a lot. Hurt em. Don’t play fair. There’s those hay rakes out in the grain house. Give them a taste of those, some good scrapes across their own craniums, and then use the other end to whack them good and hard and in the head, in the face. Don’t worry about breaking the rake – or them.”
“Thanks, Grandma. I see what you’re saying. There’s another reason I have for handling this on my own.”
“Oh Harry, please! Even Jesus drove the moneylenders out of the temple with a whip. Don’t get sloppy. Kick their asses!”
“I’ll do as you say and shut up, but I’m keeping me a close eye out to make sure they’re toeing the line. My blood boils when I think of what they did – stripping you bare naked, invading you.”
Those who feel an itch to judge Harold for tattling will feel a trifle guilty: he’s a little boy who’s been brutally assaulted. He has no weapons that he can call on and has to appeal to some power for help. What’s he supposed to do? Take it? Actually fight back against four older and bigger kids, kids beyond the call of decency? That may be Grandma’s code, but Grandma is one of those women, unfortunately not few, who tie up their own gender with the vilest ideas of masculinity. Where is the little boy to turn? Don’t we owe it to Harold to sympathize with him, respect his reasons?
Nah. It’s one thing to sympathize with him and quite another to see his motives as sufficient. Whatever he’s planning, doesn’t it seem a little arctic? Mixed in with your compassion isn’t there at least a small amount of – I’m searching for the right word here – distaste? Do you detect something almost appalling in his readiness to turn on his cousins? Brutes they are, unthinking brutes, but there’s a measure of exoneration in the very brutality, the way they turned out of instinct on the weak and too-perfect goody-good. Harold, on the other hand, reminds one of Heathcliff or Heinrich Himmler or Charles Manson, all of whom bore insults calmly only to return the favor a billion times over.
But then, just imagine arguing that Harold was the villain here! What an odious position to take! What’s wrong with you?
Those who imagine they spot in Granny a certain pathology, a fixation on the image of the naked, abused Harold should consult a therapist.
Harold left Granny’s room without being observed. No matter. In the fullness of time all will be unfurled.
Granny could be counted on to apply indirect pressure, by glowering and letting fall little threats, bloody and unsubtle, as she moved about. Before two more days were out, the four offenders were trembling in their shit-kickers, unable to draw a secure breath. They didn’t know why their footsteps were dogged by misery, their wildest pleasures now hardly better than the deepest gloom. They were being flattened but had no idea of the source of the pressure or its terms, only that they were beginning to wish themselves anywhere on earth or in hell itself rather than here at Granny’s outpost.
“Harry, I just wanted to say how sorry I am, really sorry, you know? I really am.”
“Sorry about what?”
He had that conversation, not versions of it but that exact conversation, with all four of his hated cousins within the thirty-six hours following. He himself was brightening as they were drooping.
Even Mother noticed:
“I told you this would be a great vacation, hun.”
“Ah, you’re right there, Mumsy.”
“It’s about what I anticipated, insofar as one can anticipate the joys of being buried up to the neck and chewed on by red-neck ants.”
“Redneck ants? That seems beneath you, Harry.”
“It is, isn’t it? It sounded good as it formed itself, but then soured on the wind. Thank you for pointing it out, Mother.”
“But it is better than you anticipated, the summer and not the phrase?”
“The pleasures it offers are all in anticipation, Mother; but you are right and I wrong: those pleasures are immense.”
“I told you.”
“You told me.”
And now our narrator, secure in your admiration for our hero, drops his flimsy disguise.
The next day, one Larry, short for Larry, accosted me as I was walking beyond the barn, seeking a spot sufficiently idyllic or at least sufficiently devoid of droppings and grunts so that I might plan what it was I had to plan. Planning was, after all, the core of all this. Rush in and risk bungling. I never bungle, and the truth is that the delights of plotting were, as I admitted to my Mother, oh so intense.
“Harry, can I talk with you?”
“My time is your time, Larry. What were you ruminating on?”
“Can I give you some advice, cousin? Don’t take this the wrong way, please. I’m trying to help.”
“Don’t say things like ‘ruminating’ when you’re shitting on people. It makes the offense even more fucking awful.”
“Of course you were. And everybody – this is another point – already knows you’re real smart. You lose almost all the advantage that could gain you by piddling it away being sarcastic. You’re better than that.”
Where was Larry getting this from? He read a teen magazine? It wasn’t off the mark, though, and I knew it. I looked at my cousin with what I hoped was a simulation of a new and deep respect, saying nothing.
“Please understand, Harold, that I’m not trying to exonerate us. We didn’t do what we did BECAUSE OF anything you did; we did it because we turned ourselves into a mini-mob, possessed by wild sadism. I know you don’t want to hear this, but I was the one who first pulled down your underpants and then later stuck a finger up your ass.”
“I already said that was OK. Don’t think a thing about it.”
“Harold, it isn’t OK; and I’m sure you don’t think it was.”
I tried to be noncommittal, interested in where this all might go: “unh-huh.”
“I’ve always liked you, Harold. I think you sense that. I’m way older than you, but I always knew you were superhero smart, interesting and. . . .”
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever said to anybody, Harold; but I think if I say it and you let me and let yourself understand, we could be great friends, great friends.”
“I know now that I’ve been attracted to you. Don’t be scared. Please. I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, not again. I don’t even think I’m gay, generally. I’m not attracted to anybody else, only you. I don’t know about the other three, but I did what I did because I hated myself so. And I was the ringleader, really I was.”
He was rolling now. Let him go on – or, rather, just try and stop him – an eighteen-wheeler going downhill, no brakes.
“I want to be your friend so bad. I know that’s a hell of a way to inaugurate a friendship. And I know that a worse way would be to admit I’m hot after you. But just because I’m attracted doesn’t mean I’m going to attack you. I’d do anything to be friends, but that doesn’t mean sex. Not like I have sex with all my friends, not by a million times over. That’s a stupid way to put it; but you’re smart and know what I mean.”
I knew: Larry was dying to fuck me and somehow figured the assault was a come-on, inaugurating a lasting friendship with a complete and rounded profile, spiritual and emotional and straight-up-the-butt.
“Larry, this is all so new. Can we talk while I do a chore Grandma asked of me?”
This chore, which Larry eagerly pledged himself ready to share, was actually part of a plan Granny had set up. Seems that her breeding boar was now old and remarkably vicious, scaring even leathery old Grams. She had suggested that I lure one of my human tormentors into the pen with Old Horace and then “give them one hell of a scare; that’d show em, the little bastard; let them face Horace. Now Horace would love to eat one of you kids, but he’s slower than shit and is leery of the cattle prod. So I’ll give you the prod, see, and the little plan unfolds. It’s up to you to lure one of these bullying morons into the pen, though. I figure you can, genius boy like you.”
“Genius boy?” Was Granny losing her interest in helping me? Here were signs of a fraying affection that was never more than a grain of pity and a lot of her own cruelty. I was little more than the vehicle whereby she could run in her head graphic images of violence, tales of terror. She’d never much liked me – putting it mildly – and the length of time I could hold this position of her trusted hit-boy was limited.
So I made Larry believe that Granny had asked me to rub some salve on Old Horace’s back, first distracting him with a bucket of garbage (sure to hold his attention after having been starved for two days). The salve could thus be safely and quickly daubed on the massive hairy hump behind Horace’s head, Larry being the applier. Myself, as a backup, would hold onto the juiced-up prod and be ready to protect, should the plan show itself in some minor way defective.
“God, Harold, that pig’s a killer.”
“OK, I understand.”
“No, no, I can do it. He can’t barely move, that waddler, no matter how homicidal his bent. You be at the gate with the prod, I’ll slap on the salve while he’s eating, and you slam the gate as I run through, giving him a zap if he’s close, which he won’t be.”
But he was and the zap I gave was not to the pig, of course, but to Larry. I can still see the disbelief written on the panicked face of my boyfriend as he clawed the air, slopping through the pig-pen mud to the very point of safety, only to be jolted back into the path of Horace, actually on top of Horace, a position which seemed further to madden the beast and cause him to rend away more savagely, rooting at Larry’s chest, neck, and stomach to his heart’s content.
I would have liked more, but the first screams drew help from farmhands, distressing close at hand. There were only the first screams, though: Larry had no voice box left after a few seconds with Horace, not to mention very little of a liver or stomach or pancreas. His face was virtually unmarked.
“Come up with me to the hay mow, Lou?”
“Oh Harold, after what just happened to Larry?”
“I was there, Lou, I know. I was hoping you’d help. Somehow if I could talk to you about it, I don’t know, it’d just. . . . But I understand. Not like I was trying to come on to you, nothin like that. I know you’re popular and I’m not——–just hoping we could, you know, maybe talk?”
“Oh, how selfish of me, Harold. I owe you a lot and this isn’t like paying back something I owe anyhow. It’s more like something I’d like to do, really.”
She looked at me with the eyes of a practiced, if routinely unsuccessful seductress. All the better! I’ve seen Pittsburgh, I’ve seen France, I’ve seen (and smelled) Louise’s underpants. And now. . . .
Once inside and up the ladder into the mounds of animal food, I put on my best forlorn face, drawing bulky Louise slowly over toward the open mow gate, where the huge iron hook floated in the air.
“Lou, I feel so upset, I don’t know if . . . .”
“I can keep going. I know you understand. Sometimes this life just isn’t worth anything at all, doesn’t mean a thing. Lou, there is no God.”
“Oh, don’t say that, Harold.”
“How can there be a God when a friend like Larry. . . .”
“Oh have faith, poor Harold.”
I had advanced toward the hook, trying to make it obvious that I was about to attach myself. Lou, dimmer by far than Larry, seemed oblivious even to my miming, so I finally just grabbed the thing and made as if to slip it into my gullet. Finally she caught on, made her galumphing move toward me, allowing me to sidestep, catch her as she went by, through the top of her jeans and grubby panties. Then I pulled on the rope’s other end, yanking up floppy Lou and sending her spinning just above my head. Tying the rope to a nearby barrel, I seized a pitchfork and started jabbing at her, getting in some great punctures and moving her with some speed toward the cement block walls on either side, faster and faster. Now using the fork only as a pushing device, as in a game on the playground swings, I soon had her smashing hard into one side and then the other, speeding up the spins so she’d have less chance to shield her face and skull.
Finally her screams stopped. Not before alerting and calling to the scene her two smaller cousins.
“Oh Dora and Alfred. The most awful thing. We have to help. First we need to get to the creek. Right now. We got to have water. Water. If we delay –don’t be scared now – Lou might be in terrible trouble. Might die.”
They both started to cry.
“We gotta move fast, kids. Do as I tell you. I know you’re courageous and real good kids. Lou needs you. Her life depends on you.”
“Take these buckets and get to the creek. You go by the grain house, Dora, and Alfred, cut right through the south field.”
“But the south field’s where the bull is.”
“And I’m not allowed by the creek. I can’t swim and Momma says. . . .”
“Do you want Lou to die?”
They looked like they were weighing the options, so I raised the ante:
“Do what I tell you or I’ll tell Granny what you did to me.”
So, Dora took off to the forbidden creek and Alfred through the bull’s field.
Later that day, that day soaked in tragedy, I put up small opposition to my mother’s insistence that we leave. I knew she was trying to protect me. Ordinarily, I would have resented such condescension, but I knew that while a mother can never really be a boy’s best friend – Norman was wrong there – she can be useful.
“Mother, I hate to say this, but our trip was indeed magic. I know now you have to take the rough with the smooth. I see that I don’t know everything, not by a long shot. Granny has shown me that you need help in this our life. I want to thank you for the chance to reconnect with dear Granny.”
“Harry – OK, Harold – you’re so full of shit. Let’s get the hell out of here.”