It has been a half of a century since I have seen my campmates and even though I no longer provide the same youthful reflection as I did back then, my youth seems to have just come flooding back in the most overwhelming of ways. As much as I was hesitant to reconnect and relive the so-called glory days spent at Flint Ridge, my wife insisted that I attend my fiftieth anniversary as a way to let go of a lifelong burden. Even my three grown children- with whom I wouldn’t dare share half of the memories I had the displeasure of creating as a teenager- encouraged me to engage the people who were essential in my development. I hate to say it, but if it weren’t for the delinquents with whom I involuntarily spent that unfaithful summer, I don’t believe I would have had the perseverance to lead a life worth living.
It took me the better part of my formative years to come to the realization that an institutionalized life isn’t one of any value. The series of events that sculpted the same character my wife still finds to be adoring after many devoted years of marriage and my children learned to adore once they abandoned their teenage hatred for my basic existence. Without the trauma that resulted from an ill-advised upbringing, I might have remained oblivious to not only a well-adjusted lifestyle, but also to a fearfully privileged outlook on life. Granted it would be nice to have a reel filled with endless fond memories of endearing family trips, sacred conversations with a mother or father, or even an ambitious first day of school, I prefer to embrace the chaos that was my childhood and reflect on my younger self as nothing more than a disadvantaged kid. We were all disadvantaged in one way or another; most of us who were sent to Flint Ridge had already dedicated ourselves to a life outside the law, identifying as opportunists rather than conformists.
Therefore, you can imagine the discomfort I feel today as I straighten my navy blue polyester tie in preparation for my reunion. Not only would I have never allowed myself to be dressed in what I would have considered to be the uniform of a snob, I would have directed my disgust towards a man wearing such an accessory with the upmost disrespect. In fact, we would refer to the businessmen walking around downtown as polished pigs. It is amusing how the direction of one’s life shapes the way in which a person perceives what is appropriate and what is unbecoming. Even though the sensation of the fabric on my neck does evoke a discomfort, it could only be rationalized as a long since instilled desire to be an anarchist. Though the fire to question authority still smolders deep, urging me to march to the beat of my own off-beat drum, its blaze has been contained over years, dwindled down to a bed of embers as I began looking for some unfamiliar normalcy.
Once my tie was as straight as I could make it- never learning the proper way to fasten a Windsor knot- I leaned toward the closet door of my hotel room, inching my face closer to the vanity mirror that stood in front of me. As I had humbly mentioned, my reflection has not held up over the years, succumbing to the unforgettable stressors and celebrations I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Yet I still tried my best to see the seventeen-year-old version of me. The wrinkles were deep, the bags under each eye were darkened as if I had ritualistically smudged charcoal beneath my eye lids, and the little hair I had left had turned to an ashy grey. It appears I had aged- riddled with prominent visual indicators that I had supposedly gained much insight into the workings of daily life- but I noticed my eyes had softened. Compared to my younger, brooding self, it was like I had lost the stare that portrayed age-inappropriate experience. What concerned me was if my old friends would notice the same privileged stare. In case they had not had the opportunity to develop themselves and build a life of comfort, I desperately tried to reconnect with the foolishly confident, myopic boy who saw the world and the people in it as one giant obstacle standing in his way of being truly free. As much as I tried, it was futile- there was no way to recapture the unfortunate way in which I once saw the world, recognizing only the pitfalls and obstacles that prevented me from achieving greatness (or at least satisfaction). Knowing what I know now, I wish technology could provide me with the means to contact that boy and break the news to him that his outlook was so opaque because he wasn’t in a position to accept happiness as a lifestyle.
I wondered to myself as I allowed my inner monologue to steal the spotlight from the many other voices in my head sounding like the voices belonging to my estranged friends. As their voices condemned me for becoming such a dreadfully straight laced adult, I feared that revisiting my unsavory life would re-open an old wound. After so many years that wound must have by now turned into a scar, which is much harder to re-open as the tissue has hardened as time elapsed unforgivingly. However, if the events that transpired during my summer spent at Flint Ridge caused a lifetime wound that became irritated to the point of needing medical attention, I don’t know if I could tend to it as attentively as I once did. Having said that, it does not occur to me that I am not as vulnerable or as volatile as a once was, no longer presenting a need to protect myself from a relentless, cruel world.
Buying time to collect my thoughts and retain my composure, I slowly continued to dress myself. Taking frequent breaks to sip on a beautifully aged scotch befitting of its consumer, I delayed the inevitable by avoiding the final steps of slipping into my recently shined shoes. The longer I procrastinated, the longer I would have to convince myself to walk down the hotel corridor leading to the event room where the rest of the Flint Ridge gang would greet me in a multitude of ways. I believe they would react in one of two ways. The first scenario would involve them disregarding my manicured appearance and focus only on the times we spent together, recalling embarrassing anecdotes that took place over the summer before we were thrust into adulthood. The second- more likely- scenario would be the eruption of insults as every one of my insecurities resulting from growing organically into a senior was brought to light, clear enough to be identified, and subsequently berated by an entire lot of aged ne’er-do-wells.
The person I feared the most to reunite with was my closest childhood friend, Finn “Sparky” Thompson. Although our friendship would probably not have blossomed if not for us both being coerced into meeting each other, I could not have survived without him that summer. Each of us acted as a person on which the other could lean when the intensity of the experience got the best of us, while the rest of the free world seemed to have congregated on a distant planet. Consequently, as guardians for each other, we became inherently judgmental towards one other as a way to keep our hardened demeanor as unrelenting as possible. In an environment where displaying the slightest sign of weakness could result in a physical or verbal assault, I relied on Finn to recite one of his uninhibited, no-holds-barred speeches on the days I did not possess the gumption to appear brave. Therefore, I did not look forward to hearing my old friend criticize my subjectively weakened appearance due to an old habit of trying to keep me on my toes.
Against my better instinct and the fluttering of nerves in my stomach- feeling as I did in anticipation of spending time with a vivacious Flint Valley girl- I found myself walking out of my hotel room towards the gathering of my long-lost companions. Unable to restrain my feet from creating momentum as they acted more bravely than I felt, I had reached the entrance door to the event room. With my glass in hand, only containing one insufficient sip of single malt scotch that would not act as a magical elixir to instantly cure my unnerving anxiety, I stood in front of the exquisitely detailed doors, just as petrified as the wood itself. In a final attempt to postpone the inevitable, I took the time to admire the uniquely crafted door as I ran my hand over the many imperfect crevasses in the wood, feeling as though I was running my hand over my own wrinkled face. I continued to observe the mismatched pieces of wood that, if laid separately, would appear aesthetically displeasing, but combined assemble into a piece of art. I thought if my life were represented in a physical entity, it would be that door. Each memory and characteristic formed over the course of my life can tend to appear as undesirable- a fist fight with a foe, a developed tone of sarcasm in the face of fear, a hatred for authority- but collected as a whole, my unique identity is formed.
Giving in to a vivid sensory memory, the sight of this remarkable door and the subsequent transference I had placed on it brought me back to the spring of 2017 when I was well into my last year as a youth before turning the legal age of eighteen. As if I had been the first person in existence to discover a time portal, the door at the end of my fingertips morphed into the entrance of the city bank located in my hometown. An uncanny sensation rushed over me as I felt like I had the undesirable power to relive the biggest mistakes of my life, while being forced to watch myself go about that ill-fated day without the ability to prevent a veritable domino effect of poor decisions.
Frozen at the door of my reunion gathering, I no longer possessed the strength to push open the heavy wooden door, instead using my limited energy to drift away in reminiscence. Completely cast away in thought, I lost track of time and awareness as I could see my younger self in front of me; I was compelled to watch the movie of my own life, despite the fact I knew how the next scene transpired in great detail. Watching my younger self with a distorted type of empathy, I experienced the fear that had encapsulated my entire being that day, unable to stop myself from engaging in an act that would define a major part of my past.
Although it was clear how an event like robbing a bank would affect my life in an obviously negative fashion, it is much more difficult to explain how a negative upbringing could lead to committing a felony. When I say that my upbringing was at the very best negative, I must admit that I did not actually have the luxury of a typical upbringing. Without the dedication of even one out of two biological parents, I was shared amongst family members like a bad habit- except I was the only habit any one of them could kick. Once my mother had left me in the pediatric wing of St. Jude’s Hospital to pursue whatever endeavor she felt would bring meaning to her drab, self-destructive lifestyle, I had basically begun my solitary journey into life. Introduced into the world as an abandoned organism needing social assistance, rather than a miraculous addition to a family, which most families would describe a birth, I had become involuntarily institutionalized as of my first breath.
Lacking the warmth of a close-knit family, there were no family members in attendance to welcome me into existence, only unattached doctors, nurses, and subsequent social workers. Therefore, I was first shipped to my grandfather’s house, where he initially accepted responsibility for me without the forethought to consider his proven inability to raise a child without severe repercussions. You would think a man in his position would consider his three dysfunctional daughters- accepting some responsibility for the unfortunate way they turned out, all plagued by addiction, low self-worth, and criminality- before making the impromptu decision to disappoint another family member. Luckily, I was not in his care long enough to be impacted by his horrible parenting style. In fact, I was in his care for such a small period of my life, I still do not know to this day what his name was. For some illogical reason, I believe I’ve retained a memory from infancy pertaining to his preference to be called “Paps”; but he was likely just ordering a cheap beer of the similar sounding name.
Following my short stint with my enthusiastically inept grandfather, I was removed from his squalor by child protective services and relocated at an equally unfit household run by one of my aunts. In fact, Aunt Beth was the eldest of all three children, chronologically outranking the middle child of the family, Aunt Eleanor, and the youngest daughter being my mother, whom I’ve been told was nicknamed Christie. My mother’s nickname- which is short not for Christina, but for Christian (picked by my delusional, booze hound of a grandfather who inexplicably believed it to be a unisex name)- was given to her by her mother, who insensitively coined the name due to my mother’s protruding belly, resulting from too many name brand cookies.
Although a nickname that makes light of childhood obesity- especially one that is bestowed onto a child by her own parent- is tasteless at best, it was much more flattering that the one my Aunt Beth earned by the age of fifteen. Bethany, also known as Crystal Beth by the insensitive community, was given her nickname after she had developed an affinity for methamphetamine while still enrolled in the ninth grade. Her highest level of education was actually quite the academic accomplishment in the Cherub clan. That name had followed her into her adult years and ultimate narcotic fueled death shortly after receiving me as a houseguest and legal dependent for a total of four grueling months. Thankful for not having to legally identify with the tainted Cherub surname, I instead took my Uncle Perry’s last name, Gnibb. Granted there was far from any prestige associated with the Gnibb family, I mentally unfastened myself from any ties to him since we were not of blood relation. However, for my maternal aunts, they had to live their lives knowing that their blood relation and surname were that of the Cherubs- a name said only with scorn when whispered on the streets of my old neighborhood.
I am indebted to the notion that an infant cannot remember downright abusive and traumatic living conditions, because I thankfully cannot recollect the few months I had been put under the care of Aunt Beth. Only hearing stories of the uninhabitable environment in which I vulnerably lived for a portion of my infancy, I was made aware of my eldest Aunt’s unfit parenting styles and the socially deviant company she kept on a regular basis via my next guardian in line, Aunt Eleanor. Aunt Eleanor, who peculiarly preferred that I call her “Mum” rather than by her rightful title of “Aunt”, made little to no sense in my eyes, especially because I knew very well she was not my mother and our wilting family tree would support my claim. Nevertheless, I was legally bound to Eleanor for much of my unstable childhood, all the while being subjected to her delusion that I was in fact her child. Grateful of my distanced genealogy from Eleanor, I believe that if I had been her child, my life might have been taken an even worse direction as Aunt Beth once reciprocated a story to a number of gossip queens in the neighborhood that shined an unflattering light on her sister’s tumultuous life. Although the anecdote involving Eleanor and her teenage pregnancy had been one that should not have been relayed to a child in any circumstance, it was nevertheless irresponsibly told to me. This story- either based on vindictive fiction or tragic truth- still haunts me to this day and I wonder if Eleanor’s immoral character would have been as severe as to discard her own baby as mindlessly as throwing out a carton of spoiled milk.
Although the folklore revolving her teenage abomination never was clarified, it was known that Aunt Eleanor had been unable to conceive a child with her husband- my Uncle Perry- due to his participation in a retrospectively shortsighted, yet financially lucrative scientific study as a young man. Although at the time he saw little harm in ingesting a newly fabricated fertility drug over the span of a three-week trial for a sum of two thousand dollars, the lifelong ramifications of the medication had the reverse effect of sterility than the anticipated fertility. Consequently, Uncle Perry had been unable to give Aunt Eleanor the family of which she had always dreamt. Acting as a blessing in disguise, their inability to duplicate their DNA proved to be ideal in the eyes of fellow family members, acquaintances, and law enforcement agents since their reputation was nothing less than criminally deviant.
As I had mentioned, my Aunt Beth’s unflattering yet accurate nickname had been stuck to her like a tattoo since she developed a substance abuse problem as a teenager. This may not have been the case if it wasn’t for the bad influence of her younger sister, Eleanor. Even though Eleanor did not consume drugs herself, she never missed an opportunity to use her influence as a cherished younger sister to peer pressure Beth into buying various pills and powders she had acquired from shady older men. Acting as the campus drug kingpin for their high school, Eleanor utilized the accommodating facilities to market and subsequently sell an array of stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens to her fellow under age classmates. Even the faculty turned a blind eye by giving her the freedom she needed in the schoolyard and forgiving her pathological truancy in exchange for a monthly protection fee.
Using her innate talent of entrepreneurial opportunism, Eleanor developed quite a devoted consumer base and just like a resourceful business owner, she began expanding her marketplace by introducing new up and coming synthetic drugs as they invaded the drug trade. It was at this time when Eleanor met Perry after looking for an experienced local manufacturer who could provide her with an inexpensive form of methamphetamines. She had been looking for a business partner, but also found a love interest who shared her passion for the business of illicit drugs. Having learned a rudimentary way to cook crystal meth from trial and error, using a few over the counter items found at the pharmacy and a child’s chemistry set, Perry could fill Eleanor’s overwhelming demand for the product. In short time, the two aspiring drug lords combined their compatible talents and flooded the teenage demographic with enough poisonous powder to warrant an investigation from federal agents. However, it was before law enforcement could build a substantial case against the couple that Perry’s lack of education and knowhow regarding the mixing of dangerously combustible chemicals led to an explosion that left him with a permanent brain injury and subsequent mental deficiencies.
As a result of his traumatic brain injury, Perry was prone to spontaneous fits of rage, which were usually directed at Eleanor since she was typically the closest to him- both physically and intimately. She inexplicably stayed by his side for years, even after he was unable to supply the narcotics she needed to make a comfortable illegal living. Assuming she felt partially responsible for the accident and took the blame for her partner’s ailment, Eleanor allowed herself to become the target on which Perry would lash out. By the time I had arrived in their lives, my aunt and uncle settled into a routine of unprovoked hostility and subsequent physical attacks. Unfortunately, nothing really changed when their orphaned nephew was thrown into the mix of their wildly unhealthy marriage.
Although my memory regarding the first few years spent with Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Perry is unreliable after the accumulation of over five decades of much more vivid and recent memories, I assume that our living arrangement had started off as uncomfortable and violent as it ended. Remembering as far back as five years old, even my underdeveloped intuition had been able to detect the abuse that regularly took place between my caretakers. Oddly enough, my uncle’s resting demeanor was quite catatonic, never really saying or doing much, instead just staring blankly at the television as he watched the same daytime gameshows- I suspected he never understood how the games were played or even the value of the prizes won by the contestants, but I gathered the incessant cheering and flashing lights somehow put his stunned mind at ease.
It helped that Uncle Perry did not physically appear to be intimidating, instead looking as though he had suffered from muscle atrophy- his limbs were half the width of Eleanor’s and the only meat he had on his entire body was a perfectly spherical bulge of fat protruding from his lower abdomen. I guess he drew his strength from that specific area, as the rest of his frame looked weak and fragile. Especially his upper torso, where his bones would poke at the oversized white t-shirts he would wear on a daily basis- creating the illusion that his chest was a topographical map. As I got older, I tended to underestimate his power by imprudently egging him on with threats of retaliation if he were to strike my aunt once more. As if I suffered from some sort of persistent trauma induced amnesia, I immediately regretted standing up for my battered aunt when my ill-advised taunting acted a catalyst, turning Perry’s stable lethargy into an explosion of aggression.
I have heard some victims of domestic violence state that they happily accepted the consequences of their spouse’s hostility if it meant a child would be safe from harm, but Eleanor was no martyr. Perry was surprisingly resourceful when thrown into a frenzy of exaggerated anger and used to beat me with any object at his disposal, depending on which area of the house I had aggravated him. In the bathroom, he would use the shower head as a strangulation tool, whereas in the kitchen he preferred to grab a sturdy hold of the steel tea kettle and use it as oversized brass knuckle rings. Whenever he struck me with the tea kettle, Eleanor would look frustrated that I had once again dented it, but would never lash out at me until after I received my penance for talking out of turn. In fact, the first time I felt the hot steel of the recently boiled kettle bash against the back of my head at the unsuspecting age of nine, it did not hurt as much as the subsequent, more painful blows, as its shape had become mangled, creating many blunt edges to inflict a severe amount of pain to my skull.
Feeling a phantom pain on the back of my skull, reminiscent of the last time Perry struck me with a kitchen appliance, I removed my hand from the beautifully crafted hotel door and rubbed the scar. Guiding my fingers over the healed wound, like I was reading a riveting book written in braille, it told the story of the final act of child abuse that led to my decision to leave a dangerous house. Once I awoke from the final inflicted blackout many years later, the dried blood that had collected on the stubble of my shaved head indicated that I had been unconscious for quite some time. Feeling queasy from the apparent concussion I had received, I staggered as I brought myself to my feet and stealthily tried to muffle each movement in case Perry was waiting in the shadows for a one-sided round two. Reaching the door frame that connected the kitchen to the living room in the small, one bedroom inner city home, I peeked timidly around the corner to identify Perry’s presence, acting like a police officer trying to apprehend an armed perpetrator.
My heart skipped a beat as my first glance caught Perry standing in the middle of the room, but then began beating to a normal rhythm once I noticed that the television had been turned on, which meant that he was back in a state of passive incapacitation. I watched as he sat down in the moss colored tweed armchair, waiting for his head to droop down to his chest, signaling that he was no longer a threat. Meanwhile, Eleanor sat on the adjacent couch with a lit cigarette, oblivious to the recent attack on her only nephew; choosing not to acknowledge my presence as I walked across the living room floor, where the linoleum flooring might as well have been made out of hundreds of fragile eggshells. Passing in front of the television, Perry’s head lifted slightly as I obstructed the view of whatever pseudo entertainment he had apparently been enjoying, but then returned to its resting state as I cleared past his narrow field of vision and walked out the door.
Before I could leave, my aunt’s shrill voice raised the blonde hairs on the back of my neck as she demanded at an unnecessarily loud tone that I go to the store to purchase her another carton of cigarettes to last her the remainder of the evening. Insincerely obliging what sounded not even slightly like a request, I then led her to believe that I would return from the corner store shortly. Never returning to that house, I instead chose a path that would soon lead to a summer at Flint Ridge and much later bringing me to this very hotel, where I still stood too nervous to partake in this dreaded reunion. Granted it was becoming ridiculous that I was using unsavory memories as an effective way of stalling myself from joining the party, I prefer to relive some of the most unforgettably disheartening moments of my life instead of interacting with the supporting characters that helped facilitate the plot revolving around a painful summer.