I was a runaway from a broken home. One of four, then five, who splintered off the straight beam. I was on the side. At the rim of the light, not fit for decent people. Not even wrong, or bad. Just gone. A mis-step, a broken stride, a stumble without recovery, and a young boy flees to the streets, again and again, looking for hippie shang-ri-la.
The street was too bright, revealed too much dirt, didn't conceal enough beardless cheek, so it was through the yards and alleys and back roads I walked and hitchhiked, begged and slid, into the cold winter of 1969.
I am in those alleys still, in the fading edge of heat and normal life. I am incomplete, forever denied, forever throwing away what will never be right. I find myself wanting to tell my children, to shake them up, to make them realize how temporary this is, and for no reason other than jealousy over what I mustered for them, the gifts I gave them of reliability and be-there, and love.
When I feel this come on I retreat into the shadows and write. It does no good but it uses up the bad time, sloughs off the perversity of working so hard to make sure they never fear what I feared. And wanting them -- so bad I want this -- to feel it all, the torn nails and cold legs and hunger. How every warm lamplit window was a dead hand in my heart, tramping the midwest so long ago.
I am still incomplete. I feel forever denied, and I have made a life of denial, giving my all to my children, every nerve and sinew I give to them. I don't take vacations or waste money on anything but books -- children grow up smarter in homes with books, studies show, and mine did -- and I gave to them the radiance of whole, the infrared of love, the ultraviolet of steadfast.
This is crap. All these words fail, yes? Melodrama, or else raw chalk on a cheap slate. No careful observation or rendered details will revive that boy or save him. No wordplay or wrenching theatrics will recover him and set him right, return him to better future. No lifting up, what's done is done and what's gone is gone, except it is not gone. I am not all here. I never left that alley. That moment lives in me: days gone on the latest escape, the grease congealed on the wax wrapper, my thin gloves between my knees, my tongue taking up the soggy bread and crusted mayonnaise and stiff lunch meat; both hands turning it, pulling the paper flat, to get everything, from every fold and wrinkle. I still feel it, inhabit it, how I make my glances at the battered metal door, and the sidewalk at alley's end, where dawn blessed the Washington University students, hurrying to early class. I am still afraid someone will look my way, some dishwasher will open the door.
I zoom in on that boy and I am that boy, uncombed, unwashed. I enter him again and again. I can't control it. Every year, into that hollow heart, that shameful hunger, I return.
I can't forget. I can't stop being in that moment. I will never be the student in a warm sweater, laughing with a girl, rushing to class, or the busy, wet-hands kitchen worker, surrounded by food and light. I was, am, always, the other guy, outside.
It comes to me late at night, during movies, while watching my kids. The alley, the cold Nebraska plains. The terror of being driven by speed freaks deep into the Ozarks, to an abandoned cabin. The limed memories of jail. The tragic hope I felt. I will never really get past those moments, and be a regular guy, whole and confident, in a main stream.
I fake it. I am almost done raising my three superb daughters, who are whole, and who think I am like them. I am not. When they go, when I no longer have them to be bright and upright for, what will become of me? Will I go back and finish? How is that done? How do I re-do?
I can't, I won't, recover. I just moved on. I did something else. I did not return to juvie or end up a junkie. But I am defined by those years, that alley, that trash can, that dark light, that days-old, half-eaten sandwich.
How could they have let that happen to me?
Don't tell me good things. Don't tell me I rose up and did alright. I know all the things I am and did and made right.
I succeeded because I return, always, to that place of strewn glass and broken plates and passers-by. I feel, because I must, what I am not, what I missed, what was proved in me: I am not lucky. I was not loved as you were loved, or wanted, as my own children, now and forever, are wanted. I was not protected or cherished or watched over or chased down, tackled before I got away. I have ash where you have birthday gifts.
I am always this way. I chose to turn myself inside out, to make for my children what no hand formed in me. But what is turned is still visible, from the inside, still felt, from the inside. Brick dust. Gasoline. Blisters. Hunger.
I fail at this. Again. So I pat myself. There, there. Let's all feel better now. We'll do what I always do: let it go. I go on, un-nerved. Real people have nerves and full hearts and good lives, can feel every part of what happened once upon a time. They have reunions and reminiscences. I stay a little numb. At a remove.
It's OK. I have enough to eat now, and my children? My children have everything.