Never assume you know which way a story is headed just like I shouldn’t have assumed that murder gets easier the next time and the next.
Sarah opened me up to new possibilities.
She included me in her family as if I was her long-lost brother, an uncle to her kids, and a brother in-law to her husband.
And that’s the way they treated me.
For a long time, Mikey and Shelly looked up to me as the perfect fount of knowledge — oftentimes, I knew the answers to their questions before they had a chance to look up information in their encyclopedias.
Mikey wanted to become a Boy Scout and was thrilled to have an Eagle Boy Scout who brought his collection of merit badges and council patches from the U.S. and around the world that I had collected at the 1977 National Boy Scout Jamboree. Mikey was sure there was no one in any local Boy Scout Troop who had as much Boy Scout experience as I did.
I gave him a duplicate council patch I had (from Oregon, if I remember correctly) and he gave me a miniature Rubik’s Cube on a chain in return.
Sometimes, Mike and Sarah would ask me to assist the kids with their homework over at the other house while they were busy with “stuff” at the main house (working out small details about the divorce).
All this while I was working out the connections of a drug network in east Tennessee, hoping I didn’t run into an angry redneck who figure out my connection to Sarah’s family before I exposed him to higher authorities (I avoided the local cops because, at the time, the Newport police department was more corrupt than the drug network I was shadowing).
I was introduced by none other than Sarah to the moonshine boys, the infamous suppliers of ‘Mason Jar Alley,’ who were some of the kindest but dangerous outlaws I’d ever met.
I knew about killing.
But for me, I was more like an advance/forward scout, sent to point out targets and let someone else pull the trigger, in case an arrest warrant or merely the threat of jailtime was not sufficient to reduce crime (or simply as a means for someone to gain mass media attention as ‘tough on crime,’ accidentally killing a target in the line of duty, like during a drug raid).
The moonshine boys killed for much lesser reasons…an argument about the cost of copper tubing, or prices or just because someone had called someone else a name they didn’t like.
They taught me about the collective value of human life.
But when you don’t expect to live past your 40s, dying at 25 or 30 is no big deal.
You probably got your first girl pregnant when you were both 15 or 16 and had a few kids by the time you were 20 — at 30 you’re a grandfather.
Hell, at 60 you’re a great-great grandfather, even younger sometimes (they joked but I never saw proof that one of them got a girl pregnant at 12).
It really is a different world up in the mountains, in this case the Appalachian Mountains.
Nuanced discussions in polite conversation about feminism, abortion clinics, racism and the like were never topics I encountered; in fact, there was a faded sign that Sarah drove me to see when I commented about such at the entrance to a community called St. Clair, if my memory holds up. It read: NIGGER DON’T LET THE SUN SHINE ON YOUR BLACK ASS.
I made it a point not to ever drive down that road, or thought I wouldn’t. But more on that later.
My goal was to keep my life with Sarah and her family separate from the life I led and couldn’t talk about.
You see, no one in politics really cared what went on in that part of Tennessee, let alone in that part of the country.
Just because you arrested or otherwise eliminated members of a drug network in that area scored you no points during my time there.
But time is meaningless to me. I did what I did because it’s what I was trained to do.
And because I knew that no one important was paying attention and no mass media was going to send reporters to cover minor news items, I got to feed my evil side.
Unfortunately, I know what it’s like to set up a living chess game and let the pawns do the dirty work for you.
You don’t have to be the informal leader of a crime syndicate or a cop on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to decide the fate of another person’s life.
You can, if you wish, set two people or two families or two supplier networks against each other, pile tinder, pour fuel and hand a match to the most volatile person in the bunch.
Is it really so wrong to give people who value life so little a reason to live by killing one another?
One evening, I sat with Shelly as she was studying a book about nature for a quiz the next day.
She had just read facts about a tree that grows over 300 feet tall and can live to be more than 1000 years old, a hundred times her age and 100 times her height.
She thought the book was wrong because it also said a redwood didn’t bear cones until it was 12, almost the same age as her.
She had heard her mother say that the kids were going to leave the nest at 18 (they didn’t know that Sarah planned to leave the kids with Mike after the divorce).
Shelly asked me if I thought it was right that a tree would have to live another 1000 years away from its mother.
What was I to say?
I had no answer about the tree but assured her that because the oldest humans were usually no more than 100 years old she wouldn’t be living away from her mother as long as a tree.
Shelly seemed satisfied with the answer so we went over the redwood tree facts a few times to get her to memorise them. I made a fake quiz and had her fill in the blanks to answer the numerical facts about the redwood even though she told me the teacher always gave multiple choice quizzes. I explained that studying using the fill in the blank method meant she had to memorise the right answer as opposed to having a general idea what the right answer would be on a list of choices.
I am not a parent, never have been.
I’ve wanted to be a father but chose not to — I just have no desire for my past to catch up with me.
Meanwhile, Sarah kept wanting to experiment sexually with me and it was a bit weird sometimes.
For instance, Sarah told me that she sunbathed on her bedroom balcony in the warm months.
Once, when she was on her stomach, she glanced up at the house and noticed two pairs of eyes staring at her from her son’s window.
She had forgotten that Mikey had a friend over that afternoon.
The next day, when she pulled the sheets off the beds in the house to wash them, she noticed that Mikey has masturbated in his bedsheets.
She thought it was funny that Mikey had gotten a thrill with a friend looking at his mother’s naked body.
She wanted to know if boys naturally had sexual thoughts about their mothers. I have not but I remembered some of my friends’ mothers who every guy said was hot.
For that reason, she wanted to have sex on her son’s bed just so she could say to herself that he never knew that someone else had achieved a fantasy on his bed.
She wanted to have sex on her daughter’s bed because she knew it was wrong, wrong, wrong and got an extra thrill from it; in fact, for some reason, she wanted me to splash water on her while we were on her daughter’s bed (since I’m telling the whole story here, I’ll explain why — cold water made her really stand out and her husband didn’t like it when she poked out while wearing a shirt and no bra; she purposefully sat up in bed and let her upper body show out her daughter’s bedroom window for anyone who drove by).
To maintain my sanity, I learned a long time ago to compartmentalise my thought sets (or personality types, if you will).
I had not achieved an orgasm with Sarah during our first few weeks together and she hadn’t noticed because she was so happy my feeble attempts at pretending were enough to satisfy her that I was happy, too.
There were other close calls with her family.
We always parked my car somewhere else, except on the days I came to shoot hoops with Mike.
One time, the school let out early and the bus arrived two hours before we expected it to.
Sarah hid me in the hall bathroom downstairs while she convinced Mikey and Shelly to go to their rooms and take a shower, thus drowning out the sound of her hiding me in the trunk of her car (an Olds 88? Sarah liked big car) and drove me to my secluded parking place too far to walk to.
As long as I hadn’t climaxed with Sarah, the twisted reality of our relationship held up in my thoughts via an irrational circular logic that ultimately made no sense.
Sarah settled into the new house and opened our relationship further.
Mike didn’t seem to mind that I was spending more and more time over there because his business was picking up as the weather warmed and his household had found a quiet, daily calm he was comfortable with.
Like I said, I helped him with his business some but I hadn’t mentioned that the new house was indeed a great getaway for me. I had a spare key and could come and go as I pleased, sometimes to study by myself, sometimes to arrange meetings with people in the area but usually to see Sarah and not have to keep a second set of eyes looking out the back of my head.
Sarah had asked me to draw her a picture.
I took an old sneaker and drew a still life of image using sharp crayons.
She loved it and wanted to fix me a special dinner — pasta, wine and garlic bread.
During dinner, she teased me, taking off an article of clothing for each item she finished cooking.
By the time the food arrived on the table, she was wearing only an apron.
By this time in our relationship, I was no longer the innocent Puritan virgin boy.
Except for one thing…
The dinner was perfect, the wine was delicious and I chased Sarah up and down the two-story house.
I caught her upstairs, sans apron, where she had me explore her with multiple fingers in more than one place at once at the same time (use your imagination — it was another first for me).
I’m pretty sure it was the only time I was truly relaxed when I was alone with her.
Without boring you about the moment in question, we made it back to the bedroom and I found out what it was like for two people to find their happy place together at the same time.
Sarah didn’t know what had just happened between us, an event she had not expected.
My thoughts not only split apart as I forgot who I was and momentarily blended my cellular life force with her but my thoughts fell apart and a series of walls fell down.
I was naked to the universe in more ways than one.
She rolled out from underneath me and sat up on the bed, speechless.
I joined her, putting an arm around her shoulder.
She looked at me, both excited but also hurt, an anticipation of disappointment causing her neck muscles to tighten.
“Was that your first time?”
She smiled. “Good. I can accept that last answer.”
She stood up and looked down at the bedsheet. “And there’s the proof. Why had I not seen it before?”
She walked out of the bedroom and walked to the kitchen.
I slipped on my underwear and followed her.
She had both hands on the edge of the sink, bent over.
I stepped up behind her and massaged her neck as I had many times before.
We didn’t speak for what seemed like half an hour.
Sarah’s neck and shoulders finally softened in my hands and she turned around to face me, sitting up on the counter.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You never asked.”
“I know. Don’t dodge my question. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?'”
“I…I don’t know why.”
She walked back to the bedroom and put on her clothes, returning to the kitchen table, sitting down and pouring herself a glass of wine.
“Don’t just stand there. Come join me.”
I wasn’t sure I was invited but I did, anyway.
We sat in silence as she stared at the wineglass in her hand, taking small sips.
“All this time?”
“Almost, when we were in the van off the freeway exit in Johnson City. But then a cop car drove by and slowed down. I didn’t say anything.”
“Do I not excite you, either?”
“What?” I got up from the chair and went to her, taking the glass from her and kissing her hand. “Of course you do. More than I knew how before I met you. I just didn’t know how to let go until tonight.”
“But all this time, I thought it was me who was getting you to let go more and more and more… Not once?”
She started crying, the first time I had seen her cry like this.
Out of nowhere, a streak of anger welled up in me. I lifted her up and hugged her, hoping the anger would subside.
She didn’t hug me back. She was like a ragdoll in my arms, bawling and wailing but not moving.
I set her back down in the chair and carried the dishes to the sink.
I cleaned out the stovetop pan of pasta sauce, pouring the remainder down the sink and washed off the stove.
Sarah finished the bottle of wine as she stopped crying.
I returned to the table and sat down next to her, the room completely dark.
Sarah found my arm and squeezed.
“I’m all right. I just thought I was something extra special to you.”
“Have I done something wrong?”
“Why was tonight different?”
“Was it the wine?”
“No. Well, maybe.”
“You mean you have to get tipsy for me to excite you?”
“No, no, that’s not what I mean.”
My thoughts were out of control by now. I had never told Sarah that every time we made love, I thought about my girlfriend, Karen, who had just moved to Huntsville and broken up with me when I told her I had met someone and wanted an open relationship for a while.
“But that’s what you just said.”
“No, I mean yes. I did. What I meant was…”
“No, you said it. You didn’t mean anything else.”
“You know who I am. I think a thousand different thoughts at once.”
“Yes, but not one time did those thoughts lead you to making it with me.”
“Oh, Sarah. I feel confused right now.”
“You feel confused? What about me?”
“Don’t you know that tonight is special to me. It’s the first time I let my guard down with someone else like this.”
“Well, how else have you let your guard down?”
“In ways you said you didn’t.” Sarah never touched any of the substances I carried with me.
“Were they better than being with me?”
I let out a loud huffing down, frustrated that I couldn’t find the right words.
“You know, you’re scaring me. Mike used to get this way with me, too, when I couldn’t get him to finish.”
I stood up, waved my hands in the air above my head and laughed. “That’s the thing. You did get me to finish. You were there. You felt what happened. Isn’t that the most wonderful feeling you ever had? It was for me!”
Sarah got up and turned on the kitchen light.
“It was, wasn’t it?” She smiled and wiped a tear streaking down her face.
“Yes. I’m a new man.”
She put her hands on her hips and spun around.
She lost her footing and fell to the floor.
I picked her up and leaned us both against the counter.
Our kisses were more passionate than ever.
However, a toothpick-sized splinter had been wedged into our relationship.
They say that some people are more in tune with their environment than others, especially native Americans.
Sarah and I had meditated in the woods and could almost read each other’s thoughts sometimes, knowing when the other was nearby without knowing that we were supposed to be in the area.
I didn’t know then that our relationship was a kind of beacon of hope for many people in the community, and that when we started to drift apart, the repercussions spread from her family to other families, eventually reaching a network I was tracking.
Next thing I knew, the Newport police and the moonshine boys were butting heads over profits and home turf, and the people I had playfully set against each other in my mental chess game were killing each other just as I had planned but before I was ready.
I had to give the names and network connections I knew to the guy who had followed me to Walters State.
Intuition told me that if I didn’t, then Sarah would be in trouble.
I keep telling myself I don’t have a heart.
But if I can’t lie to myself, who can I lie to?
What did D. Everett say? “Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow.”
I had thrown pebbles in the pond. Time to watch the waves interact, see which ones cancelled each other out, which ones amplified situations out of my control.