On the occasions he had to baby-sit me when I was a child, my father would, instead of staying at home, take me to what he called the picture show. PG was not a part of his alphabet. Most of the time, I would immediately fall asleep at the start of the movie, but finally, around the age of eighteen months, I stayed awake through the whole thing. Afterwards, my dad supposedly asked me, “What’d you think of the show?”
“I loved it!”
From that day forward, my favorite movie was 48 Hours, starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, and whenever it aired on television, I was unable to resist its barrage of cuss words, gunplay, and bare breasts. The picture show became a family tradition.
Take this one time in Jackson. On a Saturday when I was twelve years old, my father dropped me off at Northpark Mall because, not unusual then, he had to attend some business. He said it would only take a couple hours. Once he was done with his business, my father promised me, we would continue with our usual Saturday routine on weekends spent in Jackson, namely, going to the picture show. Both of us were excited to see the new release starring Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, and Robert Redford, a movie whose subject of sex was one of our favorites.
Popular culture for me has always—even before what happened that day at the mall—been linked with the birds and bees. In second grade, a time when most boys thought themselves lotharios for sticking a finger of one hand through the thumb and index of another, I was the kid at the lunch table explaining to his classmates that blowjobs had nothing to do with exhaling air through pursed lips. The plastic bendy straw on my Ecto-Cooler Hi-C proved excellent for demonstration.
At Northpark, roughly four years after deflowering the minds of my fellow grade schoolers, I wandered past the boutiques that sold hair clips for girls, between the kiosks with their products as seen on television, and through the food court mostly empty at that time of day, until I came to B. Dalton Books. My father had given me twenty dollars. That time as this one, I could really put down stakes in a bookstore, wandering the aisles and browsing the titles for hours. My reading habits were, in equal parts, middle-aged housewife and retired businessman, with just a touch of sexually confused, goth teenager. I owned a deluxe edition of Crichton’s Jurassic Park and I’d been to five Anne Rice book signings and I could quote passages from Grisham’s The Firm. That day I spent my twenty dollars on the latest Stephen King.
My dad wasn’t supposed to show for another hour. I decided to wait outside the Ruby Tuesday located in the mall. The bench where I took a seat and began to read was empty until a man wandered past and sat down on the opposite end. I hardly gave him notice, my head was so in the book. During that part of the early nineties, King was in the midst of his womenfolk-get-their-comeuppance phase, writing novels about abusive and alcoholic husbands, their wives sadly complacent till they ran away or committed murder. Most twelve-year-old boys from Mississippi would have found it difficult to identify with sixty-year-old house servants from Maine. Guess I didn’t have much trouble with empathy. An interesting story can make anything possible.
“Dolores Claiborne,” said the man across from me on the bench, sliding an inch or two closer with each syllable. “How is it?”
“Don’t know. Just started.”
Despite the yellow cap drawn low on his brow, the man looked at me with eyes that seemed not blue but clear, such that his irises bled into his pupils and whites. His tapered jeans were too big for his skeletal frame. His short-sleeve button-up reminded me of a southern preacher. His manicured stubble had the blondish tint of too much sun exposure. Even though nothing about the man was particularly odd, all of his features, face and body and clothes and hair, did not seem to fit together. Here was somebody who did not make sense.
“I read all of Salem’s Lot in one sitting.”
“Really,” I said. “Wow.”
“You live around here?”
“In town for the weekend,” I said. “But I come here a lot.”
My entire life I had been told never talk to strangers. Another thing I’d been told was that I was too quiet. Back then, whenever people described me as some variation of shy, I would take it as a diagnosis of a defect in my personality, a trait that made me abnormal and therefore should be corrected. So, waiting on the bench in the mall for my father, I tried not to be quiet. I tried not to be shy. Why do the worst mistakes happen for the most innocent reasons?
“What do you do for pocket money?” the man said. I didn’t follow him. He said, “I mean do you do some kind of work?”
“I don’t have a job.”
“Know what I do? Work as an assistant at a real estate agency,” the man said. “But I’m really just a gopher. You know. Go for this, go for that.”
It was an old joke, but I gave it a smile. Although my intuition told me this situation was wrong, a grown man casually talking to a twelve-year-old, I chose to ignore it, taking note of all the people walking past us. Nothing bad can happen in a crowd. The man said, “Want to make twenty dollars?”
“My car’s right outside,” he said. “Easy twenty dollars.”
“Just come out to my car and look at some magazines.”
My shoelaces were untied. At that moment, all I could think was not, ‘I need to tie my shoes,’ but rather, ‘Why the hell did I let my shoelaces come untied?’ I remember it was my right foot. They were Reeboks, the kind that pump.
“Have you ever had a blowjob?” the man said. “I promise it feels pretty good.”