I can’t forget some things. The best I can do is to summon back the memory in all of its detail, examine its gears and mechanics, understand its lessons and wisdom, and know that it belongs to me.
“Follow him, Brent! See if you can rub your front tire on his back tire and make him crash. Troy and I will block him off on the other side and shove him towards you.”
It worked like a charm. Troy and I moved in on Shane’s left flank and forced him closer to the ditch on the right. Brent rode up right behind him, grazing the slender back tire of Shane’s ten-speed with the stout nubby front tire of Brent’s BMX. Shane’s bike lurched and wobbled until he finally lost control of it, tumbling tail over teakettle into the ditch, a twisted calamity of spokes, gears, and twig-like limbs.
Shane and I were friends — some of the time. We shot baskets sometimes, we went to the pool, we went trick or treating, we listened to music. He invited me to his birthday party, and I invited him to mine. I never beat him up myself. Troy and Brent did. I orchestrated it, and I gave the instructions. I liked Troy and Brent because they did what I said, and I liked having that control. They liked me because I had clever ideas. I gave them a sense of purpose and responsibility.
“Here! Here’s a dandelion! Put it in his nose!”
“Hey, hold him down so Troy can put snow down his pants!”
“Guys! I stole this squeeze bottle of mustard from the lunch room. Let’s squirt Shane with it!”
Once, for no apparent reason other than peeing outside was fun, Troy, Brent, and I peed in a plastic bucket. Not knowing what else to do with it, we filled up the rest of the bucket with water from the garden hose, which made it frothy and foamy. Just about that time, we spied Shane, again on his bike. We ambushed him with the piss bucket and soaked him with it. Don’t worry, we said. It’s just soapy water. We laughed sadistically, as only boys can.
Who knows why we picked on him? Maybe it’s because he was skinny. Maybe because he was pigeon-toed and wore special shoes. Maybe because he was oddly put together, as if his joints and bones were attached with rubber bands and bubble gum. His gait was sometimes bouncy, sometimes squishy. He lacked structure and, therefore, was easy to pick apart.
Shane was the eldest of four boys, and his mother was, for all practical purposes, a single mother. When we were in third grade, Shane’s father moved to Odessa, Texas for a job. Shane went there every summer for two weeks. When he came back, he always made sure to remind us that his dad was in the explosives business. Having a dad who blew shit up somehow compensated for the fact that for fifty weeks out of the year, Shane didn’t have a dad.
Picking on Shane Caldwell provided me with cover. Shoving dandelions in his nose, running him into a ditch, and dousing him with piss water took the pressure off of me and kept my secrets safe. I had a lot of secrets. Secrets that when held up to the light of day and aired out from the mustiness of their dank little enclosures would put me in danger. I would be finished. Afterlick, Iowa was enemy territory for little gay kids, and I knew it. Keeping Troy and Brent busy with the torment of Shane Caldwell meant that they weren’t paying very close attention to me. I knew I could very well find myself in Shane Caldwell’s special shoes, though his was a correctable condition. Mine was not. My strategy for survival became a combination of deflection, unrepentant bullying, occasional spasms of kindness and friendship, and a keen understanding of the particular machinations, hierarchies, and alliances of masculinity in Afterlick, Iowa, population 1,024, circa 1980.
Disco was all the rage in Afterlick in 1980. We had come to the party late, yes, but even rednecks, hicks, and hayseeds found the urge to strut and boogie. Rumor had it that Glenn Barfknecht, who was a senior in the spring of 1980 and looked somewhat like a walrus with glasses, had been taking disco lessons in Des Moines so that he could show off his new skills at the prom. Some of the kids claimed that Callie Carstensen was so taken with the Disco Walrus that she offered up her virginity to him right there on the dance floor.
Around that same time, Shane Caldwell and I enjoyed a brief détente. Whether it was my goodwill, a latent sense of guilt, or the patriotic afterglow from the US hockey team’s Miracle on Ice, Shane and I shared some good times together. We laid on our backs in the grass listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 on my transistor radio, occasionally letting a stray arm drift over another’s knee.
“Hello again and welcome to American Top 40. I’m Casey Kasem, and this is our weekly countdown of the most popular songs in America. The 40 biggest hits of the week, according to the official Billboard survey of radio stations and record stores across the USA…You know, there’s always a great deal of excitement when a new song hits Number 1. And that excitement is even greater when the song is the first hit record by a newcomer to the chart. With the brand new Number 1 song in America, here’s first-timer Lipps Inc. and Funkytown!”
Gotta make a move to a town that’s right for me
Town to keep me movin’
Keep me groovin’ with some energy
Well, I talk about it, talk about it
Talk about it, talk about it
Talk about, talk about
Talk about movin’
Gotta move on
Gotta move on
Gotta move on
Won’t you take me to
“I love Funkytown! It’s number one this week!”
“It’s so cool!”
“What makes their voice sound like that?”
“I think it’s a synthesizer.”
“It’s so cool.”
Sometimes we sang together. Sometimes we let ourselves be uninhibited. Sometimes we were friends.
Regardless of the season in Afterlick, the climate was oppressive. Frozen solid in the winter, we grew stunted and twisted with the heat and humidity of the summer. The days were long and languorous, one as unremarkable as the next. The air was still and thick with pig shit, dust, and nostalgia. We breathed it in deeply, thinking it was fresh air.
We were completely unaware, for a while, that disco was declared dead at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12, 1979. A disc jockey and a White Sox promoter — self-professed fans of rock-n-roll and the music of real men — invited fans to bring disco albums to the game in exchange for a 98-cent admission to the game. The enthusiastic turnout for the game was unexpected. During a break between innings, the reviled disco albums, numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands, were piled up in the outfield. In a dramatic display, the albums and tapes were blown up with fireworks, right there on the field. After the explosion, thousands of the anti-disco fans poured onto the field, ripping up sod, tossing albums, and causing other acts of mayhem. The music that had found its cultural and spiritual soul in clubs favored by gays and African-Americans had been declared music non grata. Whereas the stunt was purely promotional, the hostility was real and palpable.
Once the news finally arrived in Afterlick that disco had been dismembered in Chicago, it didn’t take long for The Backlash to take hold. The purge resulting from this cultural revolution was something that any good Maoist would appreciate. Glenn Barfknecht, the Disco Walrus, had to leave town. Donna Summer and Kool and the Gang albums were disposed of under the cover of darkness. KTEL Disco Hits albums mysteriously disappeared, only to be found again alongside the garbage bins in the fields behind houses — maimed, melted, and warped. “Disco” became an epithet, an insult, a condemnation. Worse than “pussy.” About as bad as “faggot.” For boys, having disco music in one’s possession was akin to saying to the world, “I kiss my mother on the mouth and I jerk off to reruns of ‘The Brady Bunch.’”
I kept a low profile. I didn’t quite understand the confusing and sometimes-contradictory Code of Acceptable Music. What was in and what was out. As with any iron-fisted imposition of martial law, the security apparatchiks and henchmen were less concerned with the specific platform of the regime than with the spirit of it.
Shane Caldwell felt its wrath in the fall of 1980, shortly after the school year began. I wasn’t the instigator. He was pummeled down by the railroad tracks while walking home from school. Not only were Troy and Brent there, operating independently of me this time, but Gary Winterson, John Nordholm, two or three of the many Gerlin brothers, and Matt Grieves were there, too.
“Fucking Disco! You’re a fucking Disco! Get ‘im. Get the fucking disco faggot!”
Matt, who was older than the rest of us, held him down while the others ransacked Shane’s backpack. Gary Winterson, stupid but unmerciful, ground his knuckles into Shane’s sternum — a form of torture euphemistically called “heart massage.” John Nordholm, stout and ugly as a Norwegian kitchen troll, with sprawling nostrils, bulging eyes, and a blond flat-top haircut, rubbed his hands together gleefully and grunted, “Aw, yeah. Fuuuuuck, yeah.”
I’m not sure if anyone noticed that I had approached. I stood off to the side for a minute before joining the circle. I never beat Shane up. Sometimes, I orchestrated it. This time, I watched.
Shane Caldwell never gave me up. He never talked about listening to Funkytown with me in the grass back in May. He never revealed the presence of the Donna Summer and Michael Jackson albums at my house (even though they were my sister’s.) As he was being flayed on the ground down near the railroad tracks, he never pointed a bony finger in my direction and screamed, “Him! What about HIM?!”
A couple days after the beating, Shane boarded the school bus in the morning. The seat beside me was empty. He didn’t say anything but just gave me a brief nod. He looked tormented and hollow. Dazed. Broken.
Shane was silent, occasionally zipping and unzipping his backpack. It was still dusty from the shakedown at the railroad tracks.
“I’m — I’m sorry about the other day. I should have…”
Shane shook his head.
“Gary is a dick. They all are.”
Shane still didn’t say anything.
“Maybe just wait a while before you walk home from school today. That way, they can’t…”
I let my voice trail off. I knew I didn’t have much credibility as an ally.
“Did you tell your mom what happened?”
Shane shook his head again.
“My mom is sick.” The words were matter-of-fact but grave.
“Sick? Like puking?”
“No. She got sick in the middle of the night.”
“Maybe she has the flu.”
“The police came. She was real sick.”
“The police came?? Wow.”
“I woke up and went downstairs. The police were there. They said my mom was sick. My mom told me to go back up to bed.”
“She was crying.”
We sat for a while in silence.
“I’m going to stay with my grandma for a few days.”
“Until my mom gets better.”
Afterlick had a newspaper. A flimsy little rag, not even the size of a regular newspaper. Just a few pages, usually lots of ads, wedding announcements, and reports of social calls.
“Bonnie Beckworth was a dinner guest at the home of Lou and Sally Harbaugh on Friday evening. A good time was had by all.”
“Billy Johnson, son of Will and Connie Johnson, turned six on Sunday. He celebrated his birthday Sunday afternoon with many relatives and friends. They enjoyed cake, ice cream, punch, and games.”
“Marv and Patty Hecker accompanied Patty’s mother Helen to the Christian Church supper on Saturday evening. They had ham balls, green beans, a dinner roll, apple pie, and coffee. Helen is a resident at the Sunny Meadows Home for the Elderly.”
And so it went. The usual “news” in Afterlick. Except for the following Thursday, when the following news item ran.
Headline: Local Woman Attacked in Home; No Suspect
An Afterlick woman was attacked in her home late last Tuesday evening. At approximately 11:00 PM, an unknown man knocked on the door and pretended to ask for directions before forcing his way into the home. The intruder assaulted the woman before leaving. No weapons were used in the assault, and no items were taken from the home. A lamp was upset and slightly damaged during the attack. The man is assumed to have fled on foot and is still at large.
The woman’s identity is withheld at this time. Police Chief Ronny Weems said that an investigation is ongoing. No suspects have been questioned.
Everybody knew who the woman was. Nothing happened in Afterlick without becoming public knowledge, sooner or later. The Methodist Ladies’ Auxiliary — the unofficial news source in town — chattered about “the incident.” They brought casseroles to Shane’s mother’s house, and then they later speculated about her virtue. I knew who the woman was. She wasn’t sick. She was raped. In her own home. As Shane and his brothers slept upstairs. A day after Shane was attacked himself for being “a disco.” As I watched.
For all the good that it would or wouldn’t have done, I didn’t even bother to give Shane a hug. I didn’t touch him on the arm with reassurance. I didn’t do anything. Because of everything and because of how it was, I didn’t know how.
Sometimes, in my dreams, I’m the hero of this story. I hold Shane and let him cry and tell him that I’m here. All the kids are watching. Some might scoff and laugh and poke fun and call names. I’m undeterred. This is what friends do. This is what boys do. This is what men do. This is what brave people do. Because we know how.
I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, and I hope that my own mother is okay. What is it like to come down the stairs, see my mother crying, with the police there, a lamp overturned? She is “sick”? She’s not sick. She’s hurt. Shane is hurt. Maybe we all hurt. I wish that he had stayed home, clinging to her all day. Hugging her. I can’t imagine going to school the next day. I can’t imagine…What do we do when someone else is hurting? Do we protect ourselves? Are we afraid of what others might think about our willingness to touch? Do we just sit still?
I sat still…and I still feel sick and ashamed. I don’t want to ever not know how.
To show compassion.
Maybe those of us with the long memories are cursed with them as a form of penance. I can’t forget some things. The brain remembers, as does the heart. The best I can do is to summon back the memory in all of its detail, examine its gears and mechanics, understand its lessons and wisdom, and know that it belongs to me.
Anthony Weeks is a writer, public listener, and storyteller based in San Francisco. The story here is true, but some of the names have been changed.