The time before that was with Cousin Hans. That was more fun, for sure. Hans was too mild to be bossing anyone around. He just wanted to show off some new and awesome parts of his physique, and, I have to admit, it did take my breath away. He was thirteen and I was twelve, and his bag-of-tricks had blossomed in a most fascinating way, with a few plums down there and a banana or so over here, everything overlaid with the most gorgeous blue-black bouquet garni. It was a treat.
To our mutual regret, we didn't get to fiddle around because shortly after the pants dropped, someone slammed a door downstairs and we were both of us dressed and out in the hall and outside in a trice. Turned out it was only the wind.
Cousin Hans and I had a chance to meet later under less auspicious circumstances. It was at an Easter party for the family. He and I talked of this and that, and I was toying with the idea of bringing up a few memories, but there was much family milling about. Part of the problem was that in the interim (three decades) Hans had been called to the service of the cloth, and was now doctoring to the spiritual needs of a small Episcopalian congregation just outside Bushnell, Florida.
Hans had overcome his past shyness, both in talk and gesture --- and, in the process, had taken on a bride. She was already heavy with child. Upon meeting me, she gave me the requisite cousin-in-law kiss, and told me, small black burning eyes fixed just above my brow, that Hans had told her a lot about me. "Not too much, I hope," I said, with a pleasantly faked laugh.
It was one of those festive family gatherings, filled with too much food, drink, and strained camaraderie. Hans --- or I should say Reverend Hans --- was wearing a high white collar that seemed about to choke him, making his face unseasonably red, and his eyes started out of his head like a ferret, what little I could see of them (he affected some brown-gray tinted, rimless glasses). In addition, the black uniform (clerical shirt, black leather belt, black pants, black shoes, black socks) tended to emphasize his considerable girth, so I felt myself to be conversing with a double-decker Easter egg, red-on-black. All this did not lend itself to an easy exchange of confidence, especially some misty past intimacy.
Rev. Hans told me that he had a sermon on Communism which was quite popular with his congregation. He asked if he could send me a tape of his sermon, and I said I would be delighted.
He went on ahead, during dinner, to give me a blow-by-blow precis of the sermon. Between eight (eight!) chicken thighs, fried in lard, and four helpings of mashed potatoes (butter gravy) and three servings of black-eyed peas, he described in some detail the Communist Menace. Dessert found us with Reds all over the Brown Betty I mean the library system, knee-deep in Marxist hard sauce I mean teachers. He turned down the sweet liqueur, perhaps because he didn't want to seem unwatchful, for even a moment. He said it was bad for his heart.
Cousin Hans' spectacles did something funny to my heart, I can tell you. The last time I had seen brown-tinted glasses, the bottoms rounded like tear-drops, was on the face of Cousin Hans' father, the man we called, appropriately enough, Big Hans.
Big Hans and Aunt Irma and Cousin Hans live ten blocks up from our house, on Talbot Avenue, just off Kraft Circle. It is 1939, just before we are to embark on the last of our great series of World Wars. The house is a three-bedroom stucco variety, very white and pretty outside, very dark and moveless inside. All the curtains are drawn, and the blinds are down, and all the doors are shut. This is to keep out the summer heat and any small boys with mud on their shoes. Cousin Hans is an only child: he is seven and I --- his constant and faithful companion --- am six.
Aunt Irma, the one who keeps all the doors shut, uses a great deal of face powder, so that her coal-dark eyes seem to be peering at us from behind a child's mask of pink-and-white. Her front teeth are angled at a partial ell, giving her the mouth of a chipmunk. When she laughs, she rolls her eyes upwards as if to check with the Divine for her levity.
Cousin Hans is called "Buddy" to distinguish him from the man thirty years and two-hundred-and-fifty pounds his senior. Big Hans' eyes, as I have said, never seem to change as he peers at me, at Buddy, at the world, with that tint of steel. His hands are large but his fingers are strangely tiny, making them look like the doctor's rubber gloves when we blew them up to make balloons.
There is a picture of Buddy in the living room. It is a photograph taken shortly after some religious rite which formally inducted him into Episcopalian Church. In his white jacket and shorts, with the halo bleached-out effect surrounding his whole body, he seems to be floating in a cloud of divinity. Since we were so seldom permitted in "the front room," his picture takes on added stature as some religious icon, the picture of The Perfect Buddy, the Holy Child, my friend at a rare time of perfection.
Given his angelic appearance, you would think that Buddy couldn't be a problem to anyone. Evidently, however, something is amiss. This is attested to by the sheer number of times that Big Hans works over Buddy with his leather belt. When he is beaten, Cousin Hans howls out "wowwow-wow." Even now, so many years later, I can hear the swish of belt through air, the whack on Buddy's bare behind (Uncle Hans made him drop his pants and underpants --- and bend over and grab his ankles) and Buddy howling "wow-wowWOW-WOW."
I had then, I have now, a record of Alice in Wonderland, the 1935 movie out of Hollywood. The record doubles as a round photograph of the production and I can see the duchess, wearing what appears to be a chasuble. She scowls out at me, peering from under an elaborate headdress, with double points --- as if it were hiding two horns. When she spins around in a blur on the wind-up Victrola, I hear the song:
It was a time, that time when I was growing up in the South, when the land was so washed in the light of the summer sun that it seems, as I look back on it now, that all shadows had been banished. The sun would come each day to blast the landscape, and at noon, the very birds would fall quiet in the manzanita oaks, as if the effort of singing were just too much.
Whenever I listen to that record, my mind's eye fills up with that image of me a child in the land of the blasted sun, and I hear the words of Lewis Carroll and I catch myself thinking of my friend Cousin Hans, aged seven, my friend Buddy who once stood so straight, my good kind funny rambunctious friend, the child-friend of mine, who would never hurt anyone, who never harmed leaf nor flower nor bug, who certainly would never ever harm me. I think on him, and I wondered then, as I do now, on him getting beaten, getting beaten so very much, with that heavy, black, shiny black belt that hangs on the hook on the inside of the door to the closet in his father's bedroom. My child's logic tries to explain the regular, never-ending beatings with, say, the sneezes, because, maybe, Big Hans does not want him to sneeze, because it annoys. But then my child's mind tells me that Cousin Hans doesn't sneeze any more than I do, and I don't get beaten, not at all. It must have something to do with Alice in Wonderland because I have another vision of Buddy, back in his father's bedroom, holding onto his ankles, already beginning to shake at the anticipated whipping (which seems to take forever to commence) and I have this picture in my mind of Big Hans pulling from the back of his closet this black wimple, with the two projections on the top, and a mask, with the face of the duchess painted on it, with the great dewlaps and the big jutting chin and the furrows across the brow. I see Big Hans dressing up in that costume before he goes to work with such painful force on Buddy's backside.
After the whippings (they always call it a "whipping" as in Buddy, you're gonna get a whipping) they come out, Buddy with red eyes, Uncle Hans with red face, and we would sit down for lunch of peanut butter and guava jelly sandwiches and big glasses of cold milk, and Big Hans tries to grab my hand under the table with his big meaty hands. He pretends to be a snake, and hisses through his teeth, and snatches at my legs under the table, and nods and winks at me behind those darkened specs. Buddy laughs through his tears, laughing at the way his father plays with me under the table.
One day Buddy and I decide to burn the house down. We get underneath it, under the kitchen, in the crawl space, with the dirt below and the unfinished floor above. There is the acrid sharp smell of rat droppings, and the spiders spin out their days in corners of the joists. We bring in our matches and pine kindling and newspaper, and we set a regular First Class Boy Scout's bonfire. Carrie, the maid, who comes Tuesdays and Fridays to do the laundry, figures out something is wrong. She's slapping around the kitchen in her old shoes, the ones with the leather split at the sides to let the brown beetles, her toes, out at the sides, and as she comes to stand before the ironing board, she can feel the floor getting warmer and warmer under her feet.
She knows the furnace isn't on, it being 100-degree Florida summer outside, and as our flower of fire grows more and more grand, spewing out a great gray smoke, we start to cough and we can see, through our tears, Carrie's black legs striding back-and-forth in the yard, with the hem of her skirt jumping about, and then her face, upside-down, mooney eyes peering, straining to see into the cloudy darkness, and she's saying, "Buddy! What you doin' in there? Buddy! BUDDY!"
Buddy begs her not to tell, I beg her not to tell, we beg and beg. After all, our lives are at stake. We beg with great fervor, but she won't listen. Carrie is usually on our side, and will hide small misdeeds, but she evidently figures that this one is out of her domain, and she says, "Ah'm gonna have to tell Miz Milam . . ." and she does. When Aunt Irma comes home, we are sent out of the kitchen, and we sit on the back stairs. We have that caving feeling, that feeling in the stomach, of a dark and horrible thing awaiting us at the edge of the day, and nothing will make it go away. It is as inevitable to us as the move of the sun, and the rising tide of cicada songs that begin each evening, at five or so, and carries on into the evening. We huddle apart on the back steps, not wanting to think, or talk, and certainly not to play, what with this angry spiralling wrath of the gods awaiting us, this terrible thing which will rise about our heads, as surely as the sparks fly upwards, to consume us in its wrath.
We promise Aunt Irma especial fealty if she won't tell Big Hans. We dangle in front of her promises of eternal goodness, a goodness that, like a great heavenly stairway, will rise eternally into the future. Such angels we will be, sitting so quietly every day, she won't even know the two of us, we wrapped in white goodness, thanking everyone for every favor, being so polite and thoughtful.
We don't have a chance. She calls up Uncle Hans at the office, and there seems to be a long silence after she tells him about the fire, and the smoke, under the house, under the house she says over again, and in the silence I look at Buddy and he is looking as pale and drawn and hopeless as I have ever seen him. Since Uncle Hans works in the same office as my father, we know that we are doubly damned, it's going to be all over town, everyone and his brother will know about our Nero act. I tell Buddy that I really didn't want to do it, that it was his fault, that I told him we shouldn't do it, but he doesn't seem to hear me, doesn't even seem to know that I exist, his face so drawn, his hand up over his mouth holding his head up. With his hand he rocks his head back and forth, and his eyes are lost, distant, gone....
Buddy and I meet somewhat shamefacedly the next weekend, and when we are alone in his room, he drops his pants and shorts and shows me his backside. It's not just his buttocks, but, as well, the backs of his legs all the way down to knee-level, and up his back, half-way up to his shoulders. The whole area is a brilliant blue-black color with intermixed reds and purples. "Wow," I say. I had never seen such a coloring of the human body before. When Buddy sits --- he seems to prefer standing much of the time --- he would tend to favor one cheek or the other. His eyes are what have changed the most, though. They are, what?... more distant, more watery, less clearly focused. He seems preoccupied, as if he has something new or important to think about, and as we play, he seems listless, disinterested. There is none of the old gusto of run and catch and play and laugh. Rather, there is a strange distance from his self and being.
After that, Buddy seems to get punished more often. Uncle Hans and Aunt Irma are good church-going folk, going to the Ebing Court Episcopal Church. Buddy goes with them, of course, but they seem to feel that he has gotten a touch of the devil that they must physically evict from his body. He comes to be beaten for a strange variety of reasons. There is the time that someone drops a milk bottle on the sidewalk, in front of the house, where it shatters. Big Hans asks Buddy if he had done it, and I can remember Buddy, his voice rising in hysteria, saying he didn't, saying he didn't, saying please believe me, I didn't, please believe, I didn't.... But it is too late, and I remember sitting alone on the steps, hearing my seven-year-old friend crying out, begging his father to stop, please to stop, please, it hurts so.
I remember thinking that Buddy is caught in some maze spaghetti trap. He can do nothing, nothing at all, without violating some complex rule which none of us can quite figure out. We never know when we go down the stairs and play in the mud at the back of the house or pull each other about in the REO SpeedWagon --- we are never sure that this simple act of playing might be violating some arcane rule in Big Hans' system which will bring down another painful series of retributions, the weight of which is so tremendous that Buddy has to cry out with all the force in his seven-year-old body, trying to get his father to believe that he has done nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all; and in this act of trying to convince him that he is not wrong, he is wrong, and must get punished for that. One day, I am out on Talbot Avenue, Buddy is somewhere behind me, and I lift up the cover to a water meter, to see what's down there in the darkness, and a hundred or so fire ants come bubbling forth, and I think that I had better put the cover back down, at once, because I think that if Uncle Hans finds out, he will beat Buddy yet again, for something that I did.
The last punishment I can remember is the one for Buddy's "attitude." It seems that Aunt Irma complained to Big Hans that Cousin Hans is talking to her with a tone of voice that doesn't seem respectful enough. As he is led into the backroom, Buddy is deathly silent. It is as if the charge is so monstrous that there is no defense, no defense at all for the way he talks, or speaks...for the way he talks, for the way he speaks..
After it is over, and we are eating our sandwiches and Famous Chocolate Wafer Cookies, Uncle Hans reaches for my leg under the table, and I try to get away from it, but I can't: there is no escaping from that big meaty hand with the tiny fingers, getting at me like some animal, with its large animal force.
Within a month after I got back from the crowded and food-filled Easter Vacation at home, I got a small, three-inch reel of tape from The Bushnell Episcopalian Church. I auditioned it to check on the quality, and what I heard was a great deal of communal coughing and scratching and shuffling, with a low voice droning on in the distance somewhere. I could hear an occasional snatch of a word or two, and a thunderstorm of sound as the congregation rose to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers." I surmised that Reverend Hans had placed the microphone back at the back somewhere, say in the Baptismal Font.
I didn't have the heart to tell him, and I filed the tape in the desk drawer marked "Yesterday's Mashed Potatoes," and for all I know, it is still there, to this day, resting quietly and darkly along with the other secrets of our life which might well be better to leave in the quiet darkness, out of reach of the light and sun of memory which --- after all --- might only stain and fade them and make them totally unrecognizable.