A Drive In Theater was erected across the street from the salvage yard in the Spring of 1948, the same year the Hapflik’s moved to Littlefield. In the early 1950’s, on warm nights Bill would walk the mile and half to the Drive In and slip through a fence in the far back corner. After walking to the crossroads he had to go through the corn field to the back row and slip through the fence. John would usually be there with his buddies Biffy and Staines, spotting each other smokes, talking to girls, scamming beers. Bill was more interested in the Film Noir movies than girls; movies like Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Stranger, and The Hitchhiker. Ava Gardner mesmerized him; she reminded him so much of Clara that he often masturbated looking at a picture of Ava Gardner and thinking about Clara and her long, strong but soft neck and her long, straight jet black hair.
For the Love of Fallen Angels
After Didi left her in a motel room in New Orleans Virgie’s color palette was considerably flattened by grays, and her brush strokes became more angular, influenced by the German painter Kirchner. She had learned brush strokes from the works of Van Gogh, and her color planes from Cezanne and Matisse, but now it was German Expressionists like Nolte who lent to her expression.
As the months went by, her palette brightened and she held Franz Marc as a goal. When she saw Marc’s animals she appropriated his palette. Spring wore on and summer neared. The woods sprung to life. She kept a flower garden, and chickens and rabbits – which she butchered herself to save Bill the embarrassment. Bill had a soft heart and she didn’t want to spoil that when it was just as well for her to do the killing. She was accustomed to butchering on her father’s farm; but Bill was different. Instead, she had him chop wood and keep the driveway and porch shoveled in the winter. He tilled the garden for her and hung up bird houses which he built with scrap boards. All while Virgie sketched him, occasionally telling Bill to hold a pose for a moment or two.
By 1955, Virgie was 39 years old. For three years she had worked at her painting, doing countless landscapes and drawing sketches. She wandered about the yard feeling things with her fingers and gripping the soil with her bare toes. She would hum as she walked about and occasionally stopped to lift her thumb at arm’s length to focus on an abandoned home foundation of brittle stones engulfed by brush, or a deer rubbing against a tree. She was trying to hone her skills through repetition toward something that was of a greater value. She just wasn’t sure what that was.
For three years she had an evening routine of combing her hair at her table by the bed and looking at her face and imagining how smooth her cheeks used to be. Her jowels were sagging along with her breasts. Because of her diet and activity she had a strong, thin body, but her blond hair was showing more and more gray, her eyes wore chicken feet and she had an abscessed tooth that ached constantly. She looked over her work of the past three years and was not impressed with the umbers, ochres and grays; for her, they reflected a retrograde of her life spirit. She had let her spirit be taken and she was taking it back. Aging was inevitable. It was just a matter of adapting. You had no choice, but the daily experiences of the aged are essentially the same as that of the child, only tempered by control and experience. She was taking her child back.
Bill noticed a change in her demeanor. She wasn’t as moody. She even asked him about his school work and his job. He still had to make his own meals but she didn’t ask him to make hers. She would smile at him as they left together in the morning, Bill for the bus stop and Virgie for her morning jog.
One week, she came back from Chicago with Benny, a small Chicano with a boyish mustache and confident air. Bill tried to spend as much time away from them as possible. He was 14 but he had a pretty good idea what was happening, especially in a small two bedroom cabin with a woman as vocal as Virgie. He would hear them at night through the door, sniff the marijuana smoke creeping through the living room, and then the cigarette smoke and the volume of the television being turned up.
One late night, Bill was awakened by the bedroom door opening and Benny standing in the doorway naked and staring at him. He gave his erect dick a few strokes, seemed to be calculating something, then turned away leaving the door open. Bill got up to close the door and Benny stared back at him as he shut the door to Virgie’s bedroom.
When the weekend came, Virgie left Benny home with Bill, saying she had to go to Detroit. She assured Benny that Bill would do anything he was told; and he did. It was a weekend of profound impact on Bill’s young psyche. After Clara, Didi was a shock, and a few of Virgie’s other friends, but what Didi said her uncles made of her, Benny made of Bill.
The embarrassment, humiliation and confusion would gnaw at him the rest of his life. Why didn’t he fight harder? Why was he afraid? During the week Benny said little to Bill, but wasn’t menacing. He joked with Virgie, admired her paintings, gently stroked her arms and sat on the floor in front of her. Benny usually cooked for himself and Virgie, while Bill packed enough in a sack for two meals; one at school and one at Trenton’s. But when Bill arrived home on Friday and found Benny there alone the first thing Benny said to him was “damn, I’m hungry, boy. Why don’t you find something for us to eat?”
Virgie told Bill the day before that Benny would be there on the weekend and Bill brooded about it all day. The house to himself on the weekends was something he needed. After Bill made dinner he took a bath and went to bed. This time when he was awakened by the opening door and Benny standing there naked and stroking his dick he didn’t get up. It was as if part of him let it happen. He wanted to blame his mother for not keeping good company, he was just a kid, but it bothered him that he didn’t get away and that he did what he was told.
He decided not to tell Virgie. She already knew. He was sure of it. Bill wasn’t so sure that she hadn’t encouraged it. Virgie told him she sensed something was wrong, but wasn’t going to push him about it. She said Benny wouldn’t be coming back and Bill put his head on his mother’s shoulder. A tear came to his eye.
The next month she brought home a tall skinny Italian with a lisping high voice and a tendency to enunciate his remarks with a look of contempt. Again, Virgie left him alone with Bill for a weekend. But Bill was neither shocked or obsequious. He ignored the Italian man and didn’t do anything he asked, despite Virgie’s assurances that he would. The Italian slapped Bill on the chest and sputtered, but with one swift movement Bill caught the man’s hand and jammed it back into his chest, sending him over the back of the sofa. Bill finished rinsing off his plate and patted his hands on his pants. Then he reached around the side of the refrigerator and pulled out a 12 gauge shotgun, went to a drawer under the cupboard and took out two shotgun shells and loaded them into the gun. The speechless Italian stayed on his knees, horrified he was going to get his head blown off, but Bill stepped onto the porch and blasted two old bird houses hanging in a tree 100 feet away on the other side of the driveway.
When Bill returned from the Hapflik’s on Sunday, the Italian man turned out to be a chatty novelist who was for a Fascist Italy but a Socialist America. He was writing a novel about an Italian immigrant who becomes a union leader and struggles with loyalty to the old culture while trying to leave it behind.
Virgie often had friends stay during the week and Bill learned to entertain them. She was always meeting new friends from Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh; men and women of the arts; poets and writers, dancers, actors, painters and sculptors – all of whom talked incessantly about each other. These denizens of the arts were libertine, agnostic, atheist, spiritual, enlightened, existential, Jungian, Freudian. Some were short tempered, some were not; some did drugs, some did not. The common cause they all seemed to serve was Virgie. She was clearly in command of the entourage.
Bill was a houseboy who served them as their own personal attendant. He learned their points of view about Eisenhower, the Russians, the British and French leaving Egypt; the Soviets imposing themselves on the Hungarians. Most of them soured on Marx and Lenin, preferring to expound on Veblen, Sartre, or Camus. Bill had a way of making them feel like he hung on their every word, and even Virgie’s short tempered friends were deferential to Bill. A landscape artist from New Jersey, a short, thin and bald man who said he was an American History professor, corrected Bill’s technique, taught him about tone and contrast. He taught Bill by producing quick sketches for examples. He also taught Bill to draw expressive lines. After Virgie brought the professor back to Chicago she didn’t speak with Bill for a day. She had been trying to get the professor to teach her for two years but he kept telling her that she hadn’t produced anything that was ready to take her to the next level of creativity.
It seemed somebody different picked up Virgie every Friday, and usually in a Lincoln or a Cadillac. She didn’t usually tell Bill where she was going, but she disliked driving, and during the week Bill would drive her anywhere she needed to go. The figure of Bill holding the door for his mother was familiar in town in the mid 1950s, although most people looked the other way if she stood next to them. But by 1957, Virgie, like most people in Littlefield, used the small dealers on main street less, and began doing more of her shopping at the new mall built ten miles away near the expressway. The mall and the area around it brought with it national retail chains and fast food restaurants that the small, Main street merchants couldn’t compete with.
Virgie was always getting books from her friends and Bill would read the ones he liked: philosophy, literature, art, history. But for all of Virgie’s taste in books, much to Bill’s exasperation, she had a love for the sound of country music and would play it from morning until night on the radio. For Bill, who was reading Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and Rimbaud, the folksy lyrics of country music were a symbol for everything he hated about getting along with people. Country music said it was okay to be a boob. Just be a boob and everybody will like you. Virgie would tell him to lighten up. It was positive energy and she wouldn’t have him moping around being disgusted with things.
One day in the Fall after Bill turned 17, he was looking at an oak leaf he was holding; kneading its surface, feeling its texture, when a Lincoln Continental came up the driveway and parked behind the cabin. It was Bennie.
Virgie was on the back porch watering her hanging plants and saw the car come in. Bill saw from a distance his mother’s jaw stiffen. Bennie went inside with Virgie and then a moment later opened the door and yelled at Bill “hey, boy, getcher ass in here!” Bill didn’t see that he had a choice. His body was shaking and his neck twitching uncontrollably as he staggered toward the back door. When Bill came through the door Virgie and Bennie glanced at him, then Bennie grabbed Virgie by the hair and there was a quick smile on her face as she clutched at Bennie’s hand around her throat. “Where’s the money, bitch!” Bennie shouted. Virgie started laughing, and Bennie started to threaten her again, but started laughing with her. Bennie let her go and then they both took deep breaths.
“Well,” said Bennie, “if you don’t have the money maybe you have something of equal value,” then he turned and looked at Bill, no longer laughing. He turned back to Virgie who said, “maybe later, if you’re good. You and I have some things to discuss.“ And then to Bill she said, “you come when I call you; not when he does. Go on back outside.” As Bill was closing the door behind him he saw Virgie grab Bennie’s ear and lead him into her bedroom and shut the door.
Bill went to the library for a few hours before going to Trenton’s to milk cows later in the afternoon. He went to a Drive-In for a hamburger and a shake and told himself he didn’t want to think about it while he milked the cows with Trenton. He even surprised the old farmer by asking him about his childhood. For a moment, Trenton saw Rupert as he looked at Bill, and he told Bill about his childhood with Rupert, how they both kind of hung together as kids in school because all the other kids seemed different.
Bill’s father and Trenton thought alike in some ways. “Why, if your father was still around, these kids around here would have someone to look up to, I’ll tellya that, son. You can’t go wrong working as hard as your father did. And he understood the importance of getting into a routine and not letting anything shake you from it.”
Trenton smiled fondly and then took a long drag from a cigarette before tossing the butt down. “Well,” he stammered, “I got to be getting’ in. Gettin’ a little hungry,” he said, tapping his ribs. See you again on Monday,” he said, and turned and walked into the house.
Bill got into his car and drove past the cabin. The lamp was on in the living room. When he got to the bridge he had to stay over so another car could pass. It was six teenagers, three girls in the front seat and three boys in the back. They recognized Bill and jeered and taunted but kept on going. He drove up to the crossroads across from the Drive-In theater. The feature was The Sun Also Rises along with Curse of the Demon. Bill was thinking he wished he had friends, but he didn’t.
After buying the hamburger and shake earlier he couldn’t afford to spend anymore money, so he wadded up the bills and shoved them into his boot. He pulled up around back and Bennie’s car was gone, but the lamp in the living room wasn’t usually on when Bill got home on Fridays. Virgie was always gone by the time Bill came home and she never left any lights on.
Bill lit a cigarette and slowly walked up to the house and looked in through the back door. He didn’t see or hear anyone so he slowly turned the door knob and crept through the door, closed it and turned his cheek to a stinging slap, making him cower.
“Whatchew doin’ sneakin’ around like that, boy? Doncha know I heard ya when you drove up? Go on. I ain’t gonna smack ya again; just wanted to teach you something is all.”
Bill didn’t know, exactly, what he was being taught, but it was a lesson he could do without. Bennie went back over to the sofa in the open area of the cabin which Virgie and Bill referred to as “the living room.” Bill walked toward his room.
“Don’t be long,” said Bennie, “you gotta fix us something to eat.” Bill turned the knob to his room. “And then you gotta take a bath,” Bennie added. Bill was 17, but he did what he was told. He only had one mother.
As he leaned against the side of the bathtub, Bill recalled a recent conversation at the Hapflik dinner table.
“It’s a sin,” said Rita.
Bill wasn’t sure why she brought it up. She gave Bill an extra long glance. Hiram said he didn’t think it was a sin so much as it was just a difference in nature.
Rita said, “and who created human nature?” expecting John to fill in, “the devil.” Hiram did instead, in a tired and mocking voice.
“Well, don’t you think it’s wrong?” she demanded. “I can see a couple of girls acting out their emotions and getting carried away but two men; it just seems wicked!”
“If two girls can do it, so can two men” said Hiram.
“I didn’t say it was alright for two girls to do it. I just meant it was more likely.”
“And more forgivable.”
“Well, it’s different with girls. A man has no idea what it takes to really satisfy a woman,” she said.
Hiram gave her a solid stare. “Don’t you go startin’, Rita.”
She left it alone but Bill didn’t. He felt ashamed after the first time with Benny. He wasn’t supposed to like it the second time it happened. Still, it was his choice. If he really meant to, he could’ve fended off Benny but he lacked the will.
Bill fell asleep in the tub and woke around 5AM when Virgie came home. He heard Benny ask if she had a good time and she replied that she had. He told her he had to get back to Chicago and asked if she left any gas in the car. She hadn’t. “Of course,” he said, and left after Virgie gave him a kiss.
Bill toweled himself, put on some clothes, went into the kitchen and gingerly sat down at the table. Virgie was making herself some eggs and sausage. She asked Bill if he was ok. He didn’t look so good. He looked faint. She looked at the seat cushion beneath him and it was bloody. He thought the bleeding had stopped but it hadn’t.
Virgie took him to the hospital, and when the doctor asked what happened he said he slipped while turning around on a tractor and fell against the shift stick. The doctor didn’t believe him but didn’t say anything. He dressed the wound and gave him a prescription. After Bill and Virgie left, the doctor made a joke about Bill and his story to Dr. Steinkey, the local doctor in Littlefield, who was visiting a patient at the hospital. He passed it on to Deacon Haskins at the Lutheran church, who told his wife, who told the ladies in the kitchen making refreshments, including Rita Hapflik.
Rita had made the comment at the dinner table a few months earlier about homosexuals because she wondered about her son, the baseball star, being friends with this strange kid who didn’t go to school and had no other friends that she could see. She didn’t want her son hanging around people who, as she put it, “would drag him down.” He was young and had potential, and he would make some lucky girl happy one day. He would have a two story house with four kids and a dog but no farm animals. He would wear a suit to church and his wife would dress elegantly, though not too fashionably.
John was a junior and a starting quarterback on the varsity football team. He was dating a cheerleader, Connie Van Innern, the daughter of the banker, but he didn’t seem much enthused with dating her. He told his mother it was like he had to in order to be accepted by the herd. He didn’t even like her much. She was bossy and rude, and she practically made him be her boyfriend, whether he wanted to be or not. His mother told him he was lucky to have a girl like the Van Innern girl pay so much attention to him. “Just don’t offend her and everything will be alright,” she said.
But John didn’t want it to be alright. He was already thinking about his military service. He didn’t like the thought of being drafted. He didn’t want to end up in Indochina as military fodder. He knew enough of world affairs to conclude that it was inevitable he was going to end up fighting in jungles in far away lands for principles that somehow transcended man, but for which his country needed to claim his sacrifice. John betrayed Bill to his mother one night, saying, “I wish I had a club foot like Bill and had to take care of my mother so the army would leave me alone.”
“What’s wrong with him?,” Rita said with heavy mockery. “Why doesn’t he have to serve his country? He seems perfectly fine to me.”
“He has a club foot, ma. It bothers him but he doesn’t tell anybody.”
“I thought the doctors corrected that sort of thing.”
“They do. It’s just that he isn’t supposed to do everything. He can’t run, let alone march.”
“Well, how much running do they do in the army? Don’t they just sit in bunkers and shoot at each other?”
“Oh, brother,” Hiram interjected.
“Seriously, Ma?” John shakes his head.
“Don’t you shake your head at me, young man, or you won’t be going anywhere Friday night!”