Just When We Think There Isn’t Anything We Can’t Make A Joke About…
It is no exaggeration to say that I sometimes feel blessed in that I can see the humor in just about anything. In times of great sadness and loss, this trait has often enabled me to remain standing when it seemed as though the whole of the world was arrayed against me. There are few events in my life–some sad, and a great many more happy–that I can’t to some degree view through a humorous lens. However, the story that follows is from that dark bag of memory from which there can come no laughter. It is not intended to be funny.
Warning: This Post Contains Scenes Of A Graphic Nature, And May Contain Themes Upsetting To Some Readers
Friends, this is the first–and I hope only–Promethean Times piece to come with a warning to readers about potentially disturbing content. Those of you who frequent this site are most likely already aware that we think nothing of from time to time exposing our readers to salty or risqué language and suggestive themes, and that we have been known to blithely utter staggeringly irresponsible and patently false statements
The following story is one which I’ve seldom told, and typically only to good friends. I recently put this unsettling memory “to paper” for the first time about a month ago in an email. I found myself moved once again in the retelling of this story. In so many ways it is the symbolic representation of a period in my life in which I was more terrified than I ever hope to be again, but a time in my history which I have come to discover served as the anvil upon which was forged the man I would later become. It sometimes seems like a fading photograph of someone else’s life. I’m not the frightened, bewildered young man who witnessed this terrible scene; I haven’t been him in a long time.
I can’t say precisely why it’s important for me to tell you this story or what it is exactly that I expect you to draw from it. To the former I can only say that I’m no closer to understanding my reaction to this long ago event than I was in the numb shock of its aftermath, and I suspect I will wrestle with this question just as long as I draw breath.
And to the latter? I leave that to you. Let’s get to it.
When I was seventeen years old, I watched two teen criminals sexually assault an eleven-year-old boy in the shower of a boys’ prison. What I was doing there is a story for another time.
Moving from maximum security to minimum security was supposed to be a good thing–you weren’t confined to a windowless Navajo-white concrete box that stunk of piss and disinfectant, where your combination sink-toilet stood in full view of the tiny, scored plexiglass window in which the eyes of a guard (they had the fucking temerity to call themselves ‘counsellors’) would appear every three minutes to combat the twin dangers of furtive masturbation and the occasional suicide attempt. Minimum security accommodations were like dorms, and the bulk of the inmate’s day was spent in a large multi-purpose room, with pool tables, a basketball half-court, an ailing television (and anything remotely interesting was blocked) and the company of about fifty of your fellows. I initially refused the transfer to minimum security (I had quite a collection of books and magazines, whose necessary loss in a move to minimum security I judged to be heavier than any benefit from association with the other inmates), but relented after it was suggested that my refusal would make me appear anti-social, which could have a detrimental effect on the outcome of my upcoming trial.
The assault took place in the communal showers shortly after my transfer, in the minutes leading up to lights out. Four of us stood around the metal pipe which ran from floor to ceiling, shower heads evenly spaced around it. In addition to myself were two guys, maybe fifteen or sixteen. They knew each other on the outside, I think. I don’t remember what they did to end up in there, if I ever knew. But the other person was an eleven-year-old boy. I don’t remember his name, but I remember that he was there for stealing a car. I guess he probably must’ve, but he had no business being in a facility with so many aggressive–and without exception, larger–boys. The boy had shoulder-length brown hair, and a soft, unmarked face that spoke of an intelligence not at all academic. He was thin and fragile, and his hairless body looked wrong and out-of-place here in a world of aggressive, well-muscled boys.
The kid was quiet as the rest of us talked, the other boys playing a spirited game of grab-ass with one another. It was perfectly normal (you would be amazed at how quickly you adapt to institutional life; you think you won’t, but you will) until that awful, inescapable moment when it wasn’t.
One of the bigger boys blew me a kiss; I blew him a kiss in return. As bizarre as it might sound, such displays were the norm, and even though calamity was less than ten seconds away, there was still not even a hint of the paroxysm of ghastly ferocity which would soon pervade the room. Of the four of us, I think only the boy saw it coming, and he had been feeling it creep up on him for as long as he had been in the place. He was waiting for it, and in his own way, invited it like a hated but inevitable guest.
When the grab-ass kid turned and blew a kiss to the boy, there was wild animal terror in those soft, clear eyes that now looked too big for the boy’s face.
“Don’t do that!” he practically screamed, and then it was on.
The bigger kids were on the boy in less time than it takes to write it. One of them stood behind the boy and wrapped his arms around the boy’s naked waist, lifting him from the ground. The boy began to scream, his bare feet kicking uselessly at the air. The air was thick with his inarticulate pleas.
And what do you suppose I did, readers? Do you imagine that I waded into the knot of naked flesh and pulled the boy free, perhaps throwing a righteous punch or two? Or maybe I shouted at the top of my lungs, “STOP!”? Or if not that, surely I called out for the guards? Right?
Here’s what I did: I put my head under the spray, and with one or two quick, vigorous strokes, splashed the soap from my head and body. I turned off the spigot and threw my towel over my shoulder. For just a moment I made eye contact with one of the attackers, and then I looked away. I didn’t look at the boy at all, and a second later, when I stepped from the tumult and terror of the shower room into the placid and innocuous hallway the boy was eclipsed from me forever. I toweled off as I walked back to my room, moving aside for the guards rushing to the scene.
And at last we’re getting to the thing I wanted to write about, the thing which, to me anyway, makes this something more than just the ugliest thing I ever saw. In reading this story, you probably are asking yourself what you would have done in this situation. You may believe you would have acted differently. Perhaps you would have.
But for you, this question is an academic exercise, and your answer doesn’t have the power to fundamentally change who you are. Although this question is for me now moot, it can never be academic. I don’t have to ask myself this question–daily, it demands an answer from me.
I am a lifetime removed from the young man who experienced this episode, and now, I have three young boys of my own. I’m married to a lovely woman and live in a lovely house in a lovely town. I have a lovely life. These perhaps-undeserved bounties are what I see when I answer the question: Would I have done anything differently?
And this is the thing I expect to be most troubling for anyone who has bothered to stick with me this far: if I were given the chance to do it again, I would change nothing. For the sake of my own children and of my efforts to live as a righteous man, for the sake of the life I have created from the ashes of an old one–I would once again walk out that fucking door and not look back.
I don’t expect you to understand, but I do hope that this was of some value to you. Thanks for reading.