Atonement


I was rude.
This terrible sin haunted me more than any of the other deplorable sins I committed out of sheer malice. The sin of rudeness is so deplorable because it is oblique, as a bump on the shoulder, jarring seemingly innocent, leaving destruction everywhere. It is true I was hurting in those days and as people who are troubled are driven to take down the world into their pit of pain, I was driven to do precisely that. I knew what I was doing as someone in a hypnotic trance. I would go to the brink of saying something hurtful and then jump off a cliff against my better judgment and blurt out something that would wound and confuse. But people wouldn't be fooled so much as they affected to be. It all came back in spades. My life was a martyrdom.
Looking back on things, I realized Dave Davis was my closest friend. He was short with a pug nose that seemed to point slightly upwards along with a pale, plain complexion that bespoke bitterness. He had his demons as I had mine and we formed a bond with the subconscious knowledge we were in the same boat. We were downtrodden. I recall now that we did many things together in sports, socially and attended basic training with an infamous organization known as the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, one of those military organizations for high school students. We found out that a certain Commander Perry would be recruiting in the auditorium during lunch. We could not get there fast enough.
Though we were friends, there was friction between us from some source I could not put my finger on. Perhaps because he was short, Dave would insist on fighting me to prove he was "equal."
"People who fight become friends," he would say with a tone of urgency. Looking back on things, I think there was something else going on. I'll give him one thing. Dave was no coward. He would take on any comer, root hog or die. He probably considered me a coward because I would not fight him. Hence he could not respect me. This did not break my heart because I wasn't looking for any respect from him really because he wanted to fight me for some stupid reason. There was always this dark side of the moon aspect to our relationship. He was a friend that wasn't.
I recall calling Dave when I was leaving the neighborhood for far horizons. I told him, "I'm getting out of here."
"I think that's great," he said in a tone that suggested "good riddance" along with the sentiment that it would do me good to leave.
I left and was able to put the whole damn childhood behind me with all the repressed Catholic boys of our "gang" doing stupid things in a fog of delusion. They were all so typical, hiding skin books under their mattresses, checking out the flesh in the bushes. Gerry let his Johnson out of the corral once in the bushes and showed off his enormous veined rod. I thought mine was bigger but let it go. Gerry was one of the downtrodden as well. There were sleep overs in back yards and the conversations went round and round into the wee hours, rationalizing our pathetic failure to get a grip on life. They were typical and I was typical and rude. I was able to put them all behind me and emerge from a cocoon to spread my wings.
But I would recall my rudeness time to time as years passed. It was so pointless and so transparent. Dave called me out on it once and asked if I was going to keep my mouth shut. I said, "yes" since a fight was looming. He was placated. This was the answer he was looking for. The matter was resolved in his literal mind according to a strict code of honor. I had no honor then. It was much later that I came to know something about the subject and acted in defense of my honor. I was able to put settled matters out of mind.
Now I received notice of the fifty year reunion of my high school class. Recollections germinated in all their peacock colors of clarity. I made up my mind that if I spoke to Dave again I would atone for the past through speech and manners -- through example and action as opposed to apology. I would be different this time around. Suddenly I had my chance. I received an email from an addressee listed as Dave Davis, of all people. What do you know. Davy got a hold of me. That's what he used to be called -- Davy, since he was short after all.
His note was terse in the style of people broaching subjects in our sophisticated culture.
"Hello, I just want to know if you are the Paul Howard who was with me in Sea Cadets."
"Yes, sure enough, " I responded, "What are you up to these days sailor?"
He got back to me talking about his employment contracting with the Navy inspecting welding. He had no plans to retire.
"Great!" I responded. "Retirement is bad for your health. I'm not retiring either."
I sent Davy a picture of myself steering a sailboat. I went on about how I ended up going to sea with the Merchant Marine and assorted sailing vessels. This should be interesting conversation with Davy.
He sent me a picture of himself. He appeared embittered as he did in high school with a half smile that bespoke defiance and smoldering resentment. His arms were well developed. Seems he kept up the body building we were involved with in the old days according to the Charles Atlas program.
So there he was, Davy Davis, a fit old man looking not a day over fifty though he was sixty-eight like me. I came up with more episodes of our lives. The more I thought about the past, the more Davy revealed himself as being one of those rare true friends I had but for the fact he wanted to fight me. Now was my chance to come across as a gentleman as opposed to a high school jerk. This would be my atonement.
"I wonder if I could trouble you for something," I wrote. "I burned our graduation picture from boot camp during the Viet Nam years. I wonder if you could scan me a copy of our picture."
Another memory popped up. Boot camp was with the Naval Reserve for two weeks. We were in high school, all gung ho to be doing something important for the country at that. I had pajamas in my locker which were striped red, white and blue. On a Sunday, Davy and I thought we'd throw the senior chiefs for a loop. The Senior Chief Petty Officers sat in their office looking grim and competent. They were veterans of desperate battles in the Pacific and not easily humored. Davy put on the red white and blue shirt and I put on the red white and blue pants. We walked to the CPO office and stood there out of uniform. A weathered old chief cracked a ghost of a smile. He nodded.
"Doin' what you can with what you got. Okay boys," he said seriously in his slow speech. These people were always very serious.
Boot camp ended with a pass in review parade in front of the base admiral. Before the parade the Honor Man awards were announced. When the admiral came to Company Alpha 003 he announced the name David Maynard Davis into the microphone in front of four companies of men. Davy marched alone front and center to the admiral to receive his award. I heard Davy's mother crying in the bleachers.
Davy responded to my request saying he would look for the picture. Hope springs eternal. I never knew Davy to be troubled to do much for anybody. It occurred to me that was probably the source of tension between us in the old days. There was a force field that separated Davy from the world. Favors were not asked, favors were not given. I was polite. Perhaps I resonated.
The memories kept coming. We were at YMCA summer camp where he took to calling me "slob." I had a hard time concentrating on trimming my nails and washing my ears out for "inspection." Of course Davy was trying to provoke a fight. I was taking things with a grain of salt. Davy and I teamed up to execute a traditional prank of stealing this large wooden fork that hung over the chow hall door. Every year somebody managed to abscond with the fork. We crept up to the hall at night when there was a meeting going on inside the hall. I attempted to become a cat burglar and slithered up the porch and very slowly managed to unhook the fork. Then we were caught.
"Nice try guys," the camp director said.
Davy and I shuffled off after our nice try. Davy kept trying to get into a fight with me.
"People become friends after they fight," he said again.
There was some wistful hope in his tone as if he was desperate to have one true friend in the world and this was the ticket. I thought he was right. I thought Davy had some inside track on psycho analysis -- some deep seated knowledge of the way the world worked. He seemed to be locked into the workings of the dark world as a bird in a cage.
I got a new note from Davy. There was no mention of the graduation photograph in a message that was strangely confessional. He revealed that he was at a low point in his life during his senior year in high school and tried to join the Marines. His father would not sign the release papers however. I remembered having a high regard for his father. His father seemed to have a high regard for me. We were in the car once and there was some talk of me tangling with Davy.
"Paul can take Davy," his father said.
There was a long silence and we moved on to another subject. Pointedly, I was silent. I was sure Davy appreciated my silence in his own silence. This was the day we were to be the color guard in the Veteran's Day parade. I was in command of the guard and Davy addressed me as "sir" without resentment or condescension. Respect was given when due according to the balance sheet he kept in his conscience and heart.
We marched in step to the drums and music of Souza with that pride that comes from desperation. I was right side rifleman, Davy was left side rifleman. We were on the same page, soulmates flags apart. We did our duty then marched back to the car in formation to put away the flags and rifles. Some girls scampered out of our way. After all we were holding M1 carbines and looking straight ahead. Davy probably chalked up the parade in his mind as another reason to think of me as an okay guy.
There was another act of redemption on my part. One of our acquaintances got a bottle of whiskey from his father's liquor store for the boys to consume in the hills. Davy and I joined the bunch but abstained from consuming alcohol. Davy and I were not fools. We just suffered fools and unwittingly became the "designated drivers" in a time when the term did not exist.
For some reason Davy assigned me to drive his family car. Davy was putting his life in my hands as he handed me the keys to his 1960 red and white Chevrolet Impala with fins. I drove the winged whale without a driver's license through traffic and past a few cops to the rendezvous point. There was Davy meeting me with that mask of a face that revealed nothing. I dimmed my lights to signal "mission accomplished."
I handed the keys to Davy who accepted them without gratitude since "mission accomplished" was a foregone conclusion in his mind. No pats on the back required. I recall being impressed with Davy who just seemed to know things and acted.
These are the memories where I saw myself in a good light, and I dwelled on them to soften the pill I had to swallow.
I was rude.
We were taking a trip with Davy's mother to a summer cabin Davy's parents owned in the country for a week long retreat. We stopped at a fast food restaurant for a chicken lunch and I had one of my "off the cliff" Eddie Haskell moments. The "imp of the perverse" took over my mind and I had to say something hurtful and rude so as to insult my host's financial probity which I suspected as being shaky. I had to say something that would paint the "class" of my host as being painfully "middle." At the time, Davy's home reminded me of the Alamo after taking a barrage of artillery from Santa Anna.
As we walked into the restaurant I whispered to Davy in an affected urgent tone within earshot of his mother.
"I don't have any money!"
"DAVY, WILL YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN TO PAUL THAT WE ARE BUYING LUNCH!" His mother exploded.
I nodded with great understanding which must have come across as condescension. I just had to be a bastard during what was supposed to be a happy occasion where Davy and his mother had it in their hearts to take me along to their cabin. I felt this need to step on Davy along with everybody else walking all over him. But Davy didn't take it hard. His mental balance sheet probably registered my behavior as being "honest."
Honesty was a billboard you wore on your sleeve in those days. There was this need to appear that everything was on the "up and up" and perhaps I was affected by this cultural tide. We were brought up by the World War II generation that made the ultimate sacrifices to defeat Hitler. Our dads were these great silent men who bore whatever pain was necessary to father all those kids, pay all those mortgages, buy all those cars. They were quick to let you know if something was not on the "up and up" with a hard stare. Those gay days breezed by for me as our dads lived the happiness they fought for. Us kids wondered frequently, "What's the object?"
A few days after the restaurant scene Davy approached me and asked me to apologize to his mother for my rudeness. I put on a show of self righteous indignation.
"I didn't do anything wrong!" I said this as a face saving gesture.
"My mother complained about your rudeness. These people are funny that way. Go and apologize to her."
I apologized sincerely.
"Mrs. Davis, I apologize to you for my rudeness."
I was overcome with remorse. We spent an enjoyable week in the country. Davy and I went on some adventures hitch hiking around and breaking into the public pool at midnight to swim in the moonlight. We had our boyhood conversations about life in general. But my account took on a negative balance in that ledger that Davy kept in his mind.
We did not see each other for a few years. I entered the university and he went to junior college. At some point I had a chance to renew contact with the old neighborhood when another acquaintance from the old days told me of a party going on. The gang was there, all the Catholic boys. They were all abstaining from alcohol this time around. There was cola and chips. We played cards and then sat in the living room. A conversation blossomed around current events.
Peace came to Viet Nam just as the Watergate hearings were in full swing and the President who brought us peace was going to be impeached. This was a double whammy that was hard for the Catholic boys to handle. The party was a pow wow where we were throwing verbal life lines to each other to make some sense out of everything and come to some redemption.
"I don't think our government is corrupt."
"You don't?"
"Well, I think the government is corrupt but that's just the way things work."
"At least the war is over."
"We lost."
"It's over."
We swirled the ice in our glasses and took a swig of cola.
Acceptance. Life would go on with baseball, lawn sprinklers, pay checks, marriage, kids. We wanted to move on to normalcy and faith in our country. Really, it was the only sane approach. With all the hideous current events going on around us, we came out unscathed. We picked our way through the gamut avoiding drugs and avoiding going to war. The Catholic Church pulled us through. Everything was going to be just fine for us in America. That's just the way it had to be.
Those were the days when there was an obsession with embracing something natural in what one ate and how one behaved. Davy grew his hair long which was a bold move and was determined to engage in things "natural" as opposed to things "plastic." There was a choice then, as in our time there is a choice when we are asked, "Paper or plastic?"
Davy asked me at our party whether or not I thought this movement toward what is natural was a positive development in our society.
"I don't support anything that is not natural," I stated with powerful conviction.
"Ahh, a naturalist."
I had to smile.
Years passed and I stopped by Davy's house to say hello when I was done with the university. I was out on my own and Davy still lived with mom and dad in the Alamo. We got on some weighty subjects about the state of the world. Our futures were nebulous to say the least and we discussed what it was we were going to do with ourselves. I expressed the opinion to the effect that Davy should become a psychologist.
"I'm not interested in psychology. People bore me. I'm not interested in people at all."
It was a matter of fact statement he made with utter conviction and looked at me with that marble face of his. He moved around on his bed and lifted a blanket, revealing a bed sheet covered with semen stains that looked like nebulae of the Milky Way galaxy.
"Oh," I said, taken aback.
"What do you intended to do?" He asked.
"I want to write novels, you know, those paperback books you see in the supermarkets."
"Paul, the people who do that are very smart."
"Well, I'm smart."
Davy was quiet for a while then put forth his pronouncement.
"Yeah, but the people who do that are very smart."
Davy studied me for some moments again and spoke.
"I always thought of you as being a priest."
"What?" I exclaimed in utter shock.
"Yes, a man of the cloth." Davy was smiling.
"Whoa, that's a mouthful. But I'll hold the thought." I said and did some thinking.
It was getting to be dinner time and I got up to leave. Davy's dad noticed me leaving and asked his wife, "Why doesn't Paul stay for dinner?"
"No!" Davy exclaimed. "Let's go Paul!"
Now the ledger was square.
Davy's dad shook my hand and said, "See ya later big boy."
"Okay, Mr. Davis."
That was the last I saw of Davy. Looks like things turned out well with him and he's marching on -- the best friend that never was. I reviewed the emails we exchanged and was struck by the subject line of his barren writing.
"Friend from Lincoln High School."
Atonement.




Short story by Peter J. Kautsky
Read 69 times
Written on 2018-08-05 at 17:34

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