The Inquisition of 1984 began sometime shortly after the new year, when school had begun anew. The excitement and anticipation of the holidays had given way to the ennui of the present. Nothing to look forward to, really, except for more dismal and cold days and monochromatic shades of grayness. Despite the shades of gray, we usually conceived of the world in black and white. The good and the bad. The true and the false. The noble and the compromised. The worthy and the fallen. Whether lack of ability or lack of will, we found it was easier to see more clearly when the world didn’t offer many choices.
The town of Afterlick (population 1024) was founded on its relationship to light — and putative darkness. The German spiritualists who founded the town thought they had found the Holy Land when they built their little settlement by the Light River. While the natives who came before them called it the Raccoon River, not surprisingly by the legions of coal-eyed and masked mammals who traversed its shores to forage for food, the German migrants, who first came to St. Louis, had no interest in maintaining indigenous traditions. They called raccoons “waschbär” (literally, “washing bear”, given raccoons’ reputation for dousing their food before they eat it), but “Washing Bear River” didn’t have the same spiritually-aspirational caché as the “River Light.” If one settles near the River of Light, so they thought, the followers are that much closer to Heaven. “Auf der Licht” — On the Light — seemed a suitable name for their newfound home. There is some confusion here, which must be noted. Was it “auf der Licht” — on the Light — or “auf der Lichtung” — on the clearing, like a meadow. Nobody really knew…or cared. By the river or in the meadow, our forbearers made a home. After generations of English-language bastardization and general linguistic laziness, “auf der Licht” became “Afterlick.” It stuck, for good or for bad. Afterlick, the name, hardly conveyed the divine fantasy of its founders, yet it also seemed appropriate for a place that cared little for the taste or delight of newness. If we were the town “on the clearing”, as linguistics might alternately suggest, we certainly were in an open space, without much resembling growth or flourishing.
When the Inquisition arrived, it brought us all to a new understanding, thanks to the tireless work of Mr. Lesley. Lesley was a former small-town-cop-turned-high-school-principal. We should not have been surprised that he brought his law-and-order sensibilities to his duties as school administrator. To Lesley, schools were not institutions of learning, but reformatories. Those who performed well and hewed to the code of conduct were usually given a pass, spared from sodomy in bathroom stalls and klieg-light inquisitions after school hours. Unlucky offenders were hauled in to Lesley’s office for the full interrogation. Nobody spoke of the forced fingernail extractions, the canings, the beatings, the near-asphyxiations. We never knew what happened.
Lesley was less of an educator and more like a warden. He cared whether your hair was too long — or too short. Did you wear too much black? Were your earrings too big, and was your eyeliner too dark? He even censored the lyrics to the songs of the show choir. “Learning” was a moral education, not an academic one.
The show choir tried to sing “If This Is It”, by Huey Lewis and the News. Whereas Huey sang “You’ve been thinking, and I’ve been drinking…”, Lesley changed it to “You’ve been thinking, and I’ve been thinking…”
According to Lesley, we were all just sitting around, doing a lot of thinking. And praying. And thinking about how to be better people.
In our little burg by The Light, we chose to shine light on the good things, instead.
Lesley caught wind of “The Party” on a Tuesday morning after it happened. With Javert-like zeal for prosecuting the smallest of offenses in the name of upholding the morality of the community, as well as his own particular penchant for watching teenagers squirm under his questioning, Lesley began The Inquisition.
The Party was a weekend-long affair, not unlike countless numbers of other beer-infused celebrations that took place in unsupervised rural houses in bleak snow-covered landscapes on gravel roads in the rural Midwest. Nobody went there willingly, unless they lived there, were lost, or went searching for out-of-the way places to kill themselves. At the very least, they might be able to contemplate the possibility in peace, amidst a suitable backdrop of despair.
If you ever wanted to be forgotten, go there.
Tommy Biddle, an ungainly yet affable senior with pigeon toes, a gap-toothed smile, big lips, and a predilection for dating little bitchy girls a quarter of his size, with whom he spent most of his time arguing and fighting, hosted the gathering. It began on a Friday night with a small coterie of senior guys, their girlfriends, and a smattering of other popular kids from other grades who had the good fortune of being part of the “in crowd.” The celebrated and vaunted of Afterlick High School were there. Chad McElroy was there. If memory serves me, he was the quarterback. His swagger and general arrogance gave him the air of the star quarterback, whether he played one or not. (I believe we ended with a winning season that year, barely.) Tim Schwimmer, just a sophomore but already Afterlick royalty on account of his good looks, quick wit, and athletic prowess, was there. He was from a long-standing and respected Afterlick family with genetic connections that spanned generations. Genetics were important in Afterlick. It’s not who you knew, but to whom you were related. With all the in-breeding, it’s a wonder that there weren’t more birth defects.
Jessica Wilder was there. Pretty, athletic, smart, and hedonistic, she was the kind of girl that boys dreamed about with her senior picture pinned to the corkboard by their bedsides. Jessica dressed up for school, curled her hair, wore makeup, and was the leading scorer on the basketball team until she broke her thumb while skiing. She was also the school superintendent’s daughter. She was the picture of virtue while also possessing the spirit of a rebel. If Jessica Wilder was there, things weren’t so bad, right?
Jessica Wilder was also my older sister.
Unlike my older sister, I wasn’t part of the celebrity klatsch. Only a freshman, I was geeky, nerdy, pimple-pocked, and already pegged as a “nelly boy.” Had my dad not been the superintendent of schools and had my sisters not established themselves as the society girls of The Village On The Light, I shudder to think of the fate that might have befallen me. I didn’t get my ass kicked. I faced the gauntlet of torture, as did many other kids, and I heard the whispers of ridicule and the off-handed contemptuous comments. I didn’t get hurt, physically, though. I played my saxophone, mastering chromatic scales and strengthening my embouchure, not knowing that such mouth control might come in handy later in life. I labored on the second-string of the basketball team and watched in the locker room as guys my age seemed to mature right before my eyes. I went out for track, hoping that I’d break 60 seconds in the 400 meters. I usually ended up with the dry heaves, hating every minute of it. I tried to fit in. I knew where I stood, and I spent my waking hours dreaming of my escape.
In between dry heaves and holding my breath, I waited for my reprieve.
Word got out about The Party by the second night. Tommy Biddle’s parents were still away, and news of the bacchanal spread like liquid shit on a tile floor. Even in 1984, before the internet, social media, or texting, the network caught on fire.
“Are you going to Tommy Biddle’s party?”
“I hear they had a keg last night, and they have another one for tonight!”
“I can steal some Jack Daniels from my parents’ liquor cabinet.”
“Can I hitch a ride? It’s out in the country!”
“As long as I’m home by midnight, I’ll be fine.”
“Just tell your parents that you’re going to a movie in Des Moines.”
Something fun and exciting rarely happened in Afterlick. Friday night athletic contests were the biggest attractions in town. Even with the post-game beefburger feed (beefburger=loose meat hamburger cooked in a roaster with tomato soup, ketchup, and mustard and plopped onto a bun with an ice cream scoop), everything in Afterlick pretty much closed up after 10 pm. Some of the hardier folks might have continued up at the Wooden Nickel, the local bar, but those who conducted themselves with decency preferred to drink at home and then beat their wives, girlfriends, and assorted others who might be in the way.
On occasion, some of the beaten would appear on our doorstep, naked and afraid, asking for refuge and a spare set of clothes. They didn’t want to go back home. Sometimes, the clothes we had to give were way too small, and still, they were grateful. They asked for help, and they asked us not to tell.
A good number of the Methodists might have taken time on a Friday evening to gossip, over coffee and some cake, about the issues of the day, like the first-grade teacher who had had a child out of wedlock. (She wasn’t fired for her impropriety and went after the divorced Methodist minister the very next year with a hunger and zeal that even surprised the town slut.) Drinking alcohol would have been gauche and out of good character. It’s better to gossip with a clear wit and unmuddled conscience.
Between sips of coffee, they also dissected Deborah Kratschmer, with the big feet and long dark hair bound up on her head, who baked beautiful cakes and famously buried her placenta in her garden and beat her children senseless in the church pews while everyone watched with amusement and alarm. She was weird, but she also had the best tomatoes and provided the most sumptuous recipes to the Methodist Ladies’ cookbook.
Meanwhile, the Catholics went to the bar in Dugger, a nearby town, and partied all night on Friday and Saturday. They sanctimoniously plucked the vomit out of their mustaches in the rear view mirror before they went to Mass on Sunday. They would have gossiped, like the Methodists, but they were too drunk and kept indicting themselves and their cousins, which included everybody.
Given such a lackluster set of options, Tommy Biddle’s party was bound to be a hit. The kids of Afterlick changed their plans, if they had any at all. They begged rides from “friends” they didn’t really have. As they ate Sugar Pops on Saturday morning in front of the TV, they contemplated the lies they’d tell their parents about where they were going that night. Tommy Biddle had beer. His parents weren’t home.
“If I can get a ride, maybe I’ll be one of the cool kids!”
The second night of The Party was much bigger than the first. Tommy Biddle and his friends woke up hungover, found someone to get two more kegs, and were plastered by 5 pm. The hordes began arriving at 7. Since the Biddles lived out in the country, there were no neighbors disturbed by the noise. Plenty of parking. Plenty of beer. Jim Ruhlman, a boorish senior who sported the pathetic beginnings of a mustache and who later grew up to be abusive to his girlfriends and threatened one of them with a gun, brought a bottle of Dickel to share only with…well, himself.
Jim went on to become the esteemed water commissioner of Afterlick. People need something to drink.
There wasn’t any way to keep out the underclassmen and the undesirables. Now that the word was out, there was some concern among Tommy Biddle and his friends that they would have to share their beer with people they’d rather not share it with. They thought about charging admission. They thought about having a bouncer. Chad McElroy came up with the ingenious solution: only people who were there on the first night could invite people for the second night. If you didn’t have a “sponsor”, you would be denied beer. No lists were kept…but it would be clear who the sponsors were.
Jessica and her boyfriend — a suave, handsome, and sophisticated young man from the much bigger town of 5,000 about 8 miles from Afterlick — went to the opening night and were going back for the second. Why would you go to the Golden Globes if you weren’t planning to go to the Oscars? Of course, they would be welcome. Jessica, the sparkling senior in the angora sweater, and Todd, her dashing escort from the much-bigger town. They were Hepburn and Tracy, Taylor and Burton, Aniston and Pitt, Jolie and Pitt…You know the type.
It was my mother’s idea for Jessica and Todd to take me to the party. Whether or not she admitted it out loud, my mother saw that I was, indeed, the geeky, nerdy, still-working-my-way-through-the-onset-of-teenage-acne, faggy boy. She wasn’t even aware of the “invitation only” policy at the party. She knew, though, that my being seen at a keg party, attended mostly by upperclassmen and the “in crowd” of Afterlick High School, might do wonders for my reputation, if not also for my self-esteem. In short, my own mother was more keen about the intricacies of high school social capital and networking than I was. She knew I needed an invitation, and Jessica was it.
As the wife of the superintendent of schools, there was risk. What if the party got busted? What if there was an accident? What if I got completely wasted? My mother took a gamble. Did she support the party? Did she support her constituents? My mother decided to act on behalf of her constituents, geeky and nerdy though he was.
“Just take him!” she pleaded with Jessica. “You don’t even have to talk to him. He’s your brother, though. Don’t you want him to meet people? Have a good time! He’s just a freshman. Be a good sister. Take him.”
Jessica rolled her eyes, as was her custom. She didn’t object to taking me to the party, necessarily. She objected, by habit, to being told what to do by her mother. Taking me to the party was more of a curiosity.
Who is this person, anyway? I’m sorry, what is your name, again? Wear a different shirt.
It was rather interesting, watching my mother goading my sister into taking me to a keg party. I’m not sure any of us were quite prepared for it. I was just about to settle in for a night of watching “Diff’rent Strokes”, “Silver Spoons”, and “The Love Boat.” My mother handed me my coat, wished me a good time, and told Jessica and Todd to be safe.
I had changed my shirt.
“Watch the roads. I’m sure it will be a nice party,” she said.
My dad, the superintendent of schools, sat in the family room in the basement watching “Benny Hill” on PBS, laughing his ass off. I didn’t blame him for not knowing what was going on. I didn’t even know what was going on — and I was going.
Todd drove. I sat in the back of his Plymouth Champ while he and Jessica canoodled in the front, singing along to a band called “The Kings” who I’d never heard of. That Todd had a cassette tape in his car earned him a point or two of respect. Tape decks were cool. I was not. I was in a car with a tape deck to a beer party I didn’t even ask to go to. I smiled a little as I shivered in the backseat, smug with my newfound coolness that I had seemingly gained by osmosis.
I have lots of friends that I can ding at any time
Can mobilize some laughs with just one call
Like a bunch of lunatics, we’ll act till way past dawn
Sure we’ll be rockin’ till our strength is gone
Yeah, this beat goes on
And on, and on, and on
Though the ride was all of fifteen minutes, it seemed like an adventure. Maybe we were going to an initiation ceremony for a witches’ coven, or a secret hazing for a fraternity to which I was about to pledge. My mind was reeling. A beer party.
A beer party — as a freshman!
We parked by the barn, and as our footsteps crunched through the snow, I caught a whiff of Todd’s cologne in the frigid night air. The Baron. It came in a little silver barrel. Watching him cuddle my sister as they walked through the snow, enveloped in a cloud of The Baron, heightened my sense of romance about the moment. My sister kissed Todd before we walked in the house. I wanted to kiss him, too. I wanted to kiss somebody. This was high school. I giddily anticipated my induction.
The scent of The Baron was quickly eclipsed by the stench of stale beer and the odor of high school boys who had been cooped up drinking beer in a house for way too long. Something akin to locker room meets beer hall meets men’s bathroom at a college football game. As the mélange of sweat, beer, and farts attempted to strike harmony in my nostrils, Jessica and Todd got lost in the crowd. They were greeted with hugs, handshakes, and high fives.
I stood there on the back porch, where the keg was. Where it was cold.
Someone offered me a red plastic cup.
“You wanna beer?”
I was in, whether it was by entrance with Jessica and Todd, or by virtue of standing there with my coat still on and my thumb up my ass.
“Sure, why not?” I said, indifferently, a bit confused and undazzled by “The Party.”
As I drank my first sip, the foam tickling my upper lip, Curt Burch came up and said hello.
Curt was in jazz band, as was I. A friendly, unassuming, and jovial guy. We had hung out a little before, to the extent that I really “hung out” with anybody. He had a cool car and liked to play oldies from the 50s and 60s on his car stereo. Chantilly Lace, The Wanderer, that kind of stuff. It had FM, but he still opted for the AM station. Curt was the kind of guy you would choose as “class friend” if classes chose friends. He was approachable. Nice. Short. Energetic.
“Hey, you having fun?” he asked amiably.
“Yeah, yeah. I just got here,” I replied, scanning the room for any signs of belonging.
“Well, cheers!” he said, with gusto, lifting his red plastic cup to bump with mine. “Happy New Year, or whatever the fuck this is.”
Curt was the last person with whom I spoke before I got into the Champ with Jessica and Todd a few hours later.
Nothing happened. Nothing. Happened.
I didn’t even take my coat off. I had one beer. I watched Tommy Biddle and Jim Ruhlman lip sync, badly, to Def Leppard. Nick Colman, a skinny junior with a concave chest and an enormous mouth, did shots every time someone yelled “Hey, Nick!” He ended up in a corner in a pool of his own vomit. His brother, Shawn, just the opposite of Nick with a precocious potbelly and a face that was reminiscent of a Cabbage Patch Kid, made the rounds of the room, yelling, “Heyyyyy — oohhhhhhh!” and making lewd gestures with his flicking tongue at all the girls in attendance. He stormed — or stumbled — out after someone mentioned the smallness of his dick. Through the window, I watched him pace around his truck a few times before he peeled out into the darkness. The homecoming queen was there, squealing, “But I don’t DRINK alcohol!” as she took another sip from a red plastic cup. The cheerleaders were there, too, directing drunken boys on the mechanics and art of building a pyramid.
Jessica and Todd kept mostly to themselves, sharing a cup and occasionally watching the festival, but not without making profligate googly eyes at each other and laughing at jokes none of the rest of us heard.
“You ready?” Jessica asked, as she put on her coat.
“Yes, I was. Or am,” I replied.
We crunched out to the Champ and listened to The Kings back to Afterlick.
Nothing matters but the weekend
From a Tuesday point of view
Like a kettle in the kitchen
I feel the steam begin to brew
Switchin’ to Glide, switchin’ to Glide
Switchin’ to Glide, switchin’ to Glide
Jessica and Todd made out in the Champ while I went inside and went to bed. It was before midnight.
It was a Wednesday when I was sitting in my freshman literature and composition class. Beulah, the high school secretary, called me by name over the intercom.
“Please come to the principal’s office.”
Mrs. O’Malley, the English teacher with the permanently-cocked eyebrow, the perverse interest in high school gossip, and a husband (also a teacher) who had a peculiarly-acceptable habit of dating students and then bringing them home to live with his family by calling them “special needs”, waved me out of class with a quizzical expression on her face. My fellow freshmen watched me collect my things and walk out. Someone said, “Ooooooooooohhhhhh, baaaaadddddddd” quietly as I departed.
Lesley was waiting for me in his office, appropriately located under ground level where the window wells of his bunker barely saw any daylight. He slouched back in his chair. He wore a brown suit, rust-colored shirt, and an olive-green tie with beige stripes. He could have been an advertisement for “how to dress like a 1970s living room.” He crossed his brown cowboy boots under his desk.
Lesley hardly smiled. When he did, it was like a Dick Cheney smile: more of a sneer, less of a smile.
At his side was the government and psychology teacher, Mr. Shedd. Shedd was slippery and untrustworthy. He had an “aw-shucks-I’m-just-your-friend-not-your-teacher” demeanor, but he betrayed students routinely. For his psychology and human behavior classes, Shedd had a practice of telling students to keep journals, which he read, and then he would use that personal information against them in nefarious ways. He had a mustache worthy of a porn star, with impeccably-groomed hair to match. By the time students were on to him, he had already fucked them over. Like any good porn star. For some reason, as we were sitting there and Shedd flashed his cum-eating grin, I imagined him, also the assistant basketball coach, in tight-fitting shorts with white tube socks up to his knees. Like any good porn star.
Lesley had a hunch that Shedd would know how authoritarian governments worked. He enlisted him as part of his personal Gestapo.
“So, I’ve interviewed a bunch of kids, and they all tell me you were at ‘The Party.’”
I played dumb at first, though I was a novice at these kinds of interrogations.
Lesley cleared his throat.
“I’ve interviewed dozens of kids over the last couple days, and your name came up as one of the students who was drinking at ‘The Party.’ As you know, the Afterlick High School code of conduct specifically states that any student involved in any extracurricular activities may not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or take drugs of any kind. If you are found to be in violation, you will be expelled from all of your extracurricular activities for a period of time.”
“What, um, what is the question?”
Lesley shifted in his chair and then leaned forward.
“Were you at ‘The Party’? And did you drink any alcohol?!”
A thousand thoughts raced through my head. What do I say? Do I incriminate myself? Do I incriminate Jessica? What about Curt Burch? He talked to me. Was that the crime? I hadn’t yet read George Orwell’s “I984” though I wish I would have. It might have given me some insight about how we turn against each other. (Ironic that this was, indeed, 1984.) Do we rat out each other — or do we resist Big Brother? What do I do as a “prole”?
Do it, Julia! I am not a thought criminal — or even a drinking one!
“I was at ‘The Party’,” I said quietly and humbly.
Shedd grinned. Lesley leaned back in his chair and crossed his boots the other way.
Lesley brought his fingertips together near his lips.
“And did you have any alcohol to drink?”
Again, I paused. Lying requires a lot of work.
“I did,” I declared. “One beer. I didn’t even finish it.”
“Who else was there?” Lesley inquired, a slight sneer curling at his lips.
I am a prole. I am a prole. Do not succumb to the Thought Police.
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember? Well, how did you get to the party?”
My mother told me to go. My sister brought me. My sister and her boyfriend brought me. He wears The Baron. And drives a Champ. We listened to The Kings. I know all the words now.
“I don’t know. I-I-I hitched a ride. I don’t know with whom. I just went.”
“You hitched a ride? C’mon. How did you get there?”
There’s an alleged River of Light that runs near Afterlick. That’s how the town got its name. Actually, the river is a good two miles out of town. Saying “auf der Licht” is a bit of a stretch. The name makes for good mythology. When we say we are “people of the Light”, you expect things from us, don’t you? We are good and upright. Sometimes.
I missed the last half of literature and composition class. I went on to algebra, and then I got dressed for basketball practice. Practice for a game that I would soon be kicked off from playing. That was the punishment for drinking one beer in 1984 in Afterlick. Jazz band, too. I’d have to rest my sneakers and embouchure for the time being, wondering if the price of being popular was worth it.
When basketball practice was over, it was already dark. There was no light, from the river or anywhere else. It was just cold and dark.
Coach Shedd saw me as I was about to leave the building.
“Put your hat on! Remember, ten line drills after practice if you don’t wear a hat outside. You don’t want to get sick.”
“Sure, Coach,” I said, as I pulled my stocking hat over my head.
I thought of turning around and telling him to fuck off. Telling him he was a dickhead. You are an asshole. You betrayed me. You’re just part of the system.
In Afterlick — auf der Licht — it was important to illuminate what was true. Or so we thought.
While I usually would have called home for a ride from practice, I decided to walk this time. In the dark and cold.