Joyland

The Midwest |

Berkowitz

by Joseph G. Peterson

My father was fond of telling me I didn't have what it takes to get by in this world. Who knows, perhaps he’s right. “You'll never amount to anything,” he would say, with disappointment. I was his third son, and as far back as I can remember, he thought I was a failure. He blamed it on my mother. “You've inherited her genes,” he liked to tell me and then he would add, without humor: “You certainly haven’t inherited any of mine.”

However, if it's any consolation—and I'm sure it was to my father—my two brothers went into the family business and they have been very successful. I followed the second son by six years. There was a ten year difference between the oldest and I. Because I was so much younger than they, we never really hit it off as brothers. I was treated, from the first, as a second class citizen. The fact that my mother was the only one in the house who had any hope for me didn't help matters. It was a household run by men, and her views were definitely subordinate to my father's and my brothers' views.

I was never very active as a child. I'd lay around all day not doing much of anything and it used to drive my father furious. “Why don't you go out and play. Surely you must have some friends to play with.”

Fact is, I had very few friends growing up. I wish, retrospectively, that I had had more. But I didn't. Actually, part of the problem was asthma, so I never liked to go outside and play. Another problem was there just weren't many kids in my neighborhood. The friends I chose tended to be sedentary like me. Unfortunately I was so sedentary that finding other sedentary friends was rather a bit of a challenge. Now that I look back, letting memory do the sorting, I see that most of my childhood friends barely made an impression on me one way or the other. I recall that after a certain point I just gave up on birthday parties (both going to and throwing them). Birthday parties forced me to play with a mix of kids whom I invariably didn't like. I felt trapped in crowds, misunderstood. I didn't fit in. On the other hand, I didn't care to fit in. I was a nervous, self-conscious boy. I was gangly, uncoordinated. I laughed at inappropriate times, and openly cried when moved by evidence of strong emotion in others. Great human endeavor, for instance, tended to make cry. I could watch a sprinter on the track team, and there I'd be at the finish line moved to tears by the emotion of such great human effort. Other kids didn't like me or understand me or they thought I was a bit off. OK. That was just fine as far as I was concerned. But when my mother who, like me, was also awkward in social situations, asked me to do my best and get along with others, I would say “Why?”. It was a rather insolent thing to say, but I didn't see the point back then, even as a kid, of killing myself trying to fit in.

“What's the point?” I would ask my mom, who, despite her pretenses to the contrary felt similarly. She, like me, had very few friends.

“Oh there is a point—to fitting in. Believe me. You will win more friends.”

“I don't want more friends.”

“You must want more friends. Everybody wants more friends.”

“I don't.” I said, defiantly. “And I don't think you do either, else you would have more.”

It was a cruel thing to say, but I couldn't help myself. She stood there stunned, not knowing what to do or say. After a moment, she resorted to bewildered pity: “Oh, poor boy,” she said, patting my head. “We are all doomed.”

Not completely doomed, but nearly. I had one childhood friend: Hal Berkowitz was a great pal. Unfortunately he was prone to abusing cats and other living creatures. I was friends with him for two years—between the ages of ten and twelve. I should have taken his abuse of animals for a bad omen and avoided him, but I didn't (take it for a bad omen or avoid him). Looking back I don't see why I was so attracted to him. We had nothing in common. He was a violent, modestly insane dolt. What's more, I happened to like animals, and felt devastated every time he decided to torture one of his cats. He'd swing them around his head like a lasso and let them fly off into the yard squealing. Once, he accidentally let one fly off into a brick wall, and when the cat didn't move (was it paralyzed? dead?) Hal took his big black boot and squashed it just like that under foot. It was horrible. I was horrified. Hal, however, didn't think much about it. He merely scraped the animal up and threw him in the garbage. “So much for nine lives,” he said.

I never could guess what he told his parents when they asked him where the cat went to. Nevertheless, I kept hanging out with him. I found him extremely beguiling. He had courage of a sort which attracted and repelled me at the same time. When he wasn't torturing animals, he was actually a pretty nice guy. We usually talked girls. Our tastes in them diverged considerably. He was an ass man, and preferred blondes. I, on the other hand, hadn't yet formulated an opinion on what I liked. Besides girls, we also shared an interest in the Steve Miller Band. We loved his sound, and his lyrics spoke to us where we live: I really like your peaches want to shake your tree. It was a music that was surreal, low key, and cool all at once. We'd play Steve Miller tapes, and hang out in his garage where his father had a device for making shot-gun shells. We spent hours hand making twelve gauge shot gun shells. There we would work with highly dangerous explosives, absorbed in our task, talking about things that adolescent boys invariably talk about when they don't realize they are even talking. We'd insert the primer into the base of the shell, add gun powder, then we'd tamp down the wad and fill it to the top with six shot. We'd put the shell into the device, which was like a lemon juicer, and we'd pull down on the handle. Presto—just like that—we'd have a shot-gun shell. We'd make piles of them, store them in old green and yellow Remington boxes, and his dad would go off and shoot them when he had a chance at the local gun club.

His parents were odd—unpredicatable—people to say the least. His father worked the day shift at a factory that made fire extinguishers, and his mom worked the night shift at the same factory. We never saw much of either of them, and when I did see one or the other of them, I was always startled by their age: they seemed run down, their skin brittle. They were old as grandparents, and not very nice ones at that.

One episode I'll never forget: Hal had been complaining of a toothache for weeks—and nothing had been done about it. One afternoon I was at his house, and I was surprised to see his dad home. It was one of the few occasions I ever saw Hal's old man. “Daddy, I want to go to the dentist, my tooth hurts.”

“Which one, show me.”

“This,” he said, pointing with his finger.

“Go get me a piece of string.”

“No,” Hal said. “I want the dentist to do it.”

“Get me a string. We're not going to the dentist.”

When Hal refused to get a string, his father disappeared and returned a moment later with some kite string, and the end looped off in a slip knot. “Come here,” his father said.

Hal refused to come.

“Get over here.”

Hal looked over at me then at his dad. “I want the dentist to do it.”

“Forget it,” his father said. “A dentist is out of the question.” With alarming speed and force, he snatched Hal, got him in a headlock and proceeded to strangle Hal until he turned blue. He pinned Hal's head to his knee, forced his jaw open by driving his thumb and forefinger into Hal's jaw muscle. He slipped the string over the tooth, muttered: “We're not going to a dentists over this,” then yanked the string with tremendous ferocity. The tooth flew across the room, hit the window where you could hear it go ‘ping’ and got lost behind a seat cushion. Hal started screaming: “You asshole, dad! I'm going to kill you for this.” There was blood all over the place. I felt invisible as a ghost all of a sudden and like a ghost, I got up quietly from where I sat in astonishment, and slipped out of their house, undetected. I remember saying to myself on the way home, “So much for nine lives.”

It's because of Hal that I have a tattoo on my forearm. He had read a book on how to self tattoo, and we tattooed each other with ink cartridges. I attempted to make a tattoo of an eagle gripping a branch with its powerful claws, but the illustration was poorly executed by Hal and the tattoo turned out to look like a big inky lump on my forearm. It's disgusting, and I hate to look at it even now, but Hal and I were caught in the moment and what else can I say. He was also the guy who tempted me to do drugs. We'd sit in the rafters of his garage on a piece of plywood. Spread out before us would be a large Turkish hookah and other implements of smoking paraphernalia which he’d obtained at a head shop. He'd pack the bowl full of marijuana—which he obtained from a baggie in his mother's top dresser drawer. He'd light up, and encourage me to smoke, but I always declined, which was just fine with him. He thought peer pressure was generally a “real drag.” I got high, nevertheless, on the second hand smoke. We'd sit around in his funky little attic in the garage telling stupid jokes, laughing like idiots while the Steve Miller band played on his portable tape recorder: I'm a joker, I'm a toker, I'm a midnight smoker. Retrospectively, I can say this: it was fun hanging out with Hal, and those were the days. Eventually he'd pull out a stack of his father's Playboys. It was the first time I had seen pictures of naked ladies, and believe me, it was more potent than any drug. Hal was the guy who misinformed me (I believed him at the time) that the large breasted women of Playboy all eventually killed their husbands by suffocating them with their breasts. He called them, Black Widows, and he argued it would be the ideal way to go. “If only to have them in bed once. . . I'd sacrifice my life for that!” I supposed at the time, that I would have too.

Hal almost sacrificed his life for a lot less. It was during the last spring of our friendship, when, inexplicably, he attempted to commit suicide by taking a bunch of heart pills. I didn't know what heart pills were at the time, though I imagined they were red and heart shaped—like those Brach's red-hots. When I heard the news of his attempted suicide, I hopped on my bike and pedaled in the roadside gravel nearly ten miles to Sisters of Mercy where he had a room (Number Nine) in the psychiatric ward. I was shocked, when I entered the room, that he was all alone, no visitors. There weren't any flowers, or get well cards, or balloons, or other items of cheer and sympathy. I sat on the chair across from him, and we started telling stupid jokes, back and forth. He said, though it looked like suicide, he was really just experimenting with drugs. He told me how his stomach had been pumped, and how his dad had lost it when he came and saw what state his son, Hal, was in. He started screaming at Hal—berating him for doing such a stupid thing. It was so bad, the nurses had to calm his father down or kick him out and when his father wouldn't be calmed down, they kicked him out, and he'd subsequently been banned from the hospital which is why he had no visitors. Because when his dad had been banned by the hospital, his mother had been banned by his dad. “It's an evil cycle,” Hal said, placidly. “Hold one side down, and all sides are held down in turn.” I had smuggled a tape recorder into his room, and I put on a Steve Miller tape. I want to fly like an eagle until I'm free, fly like an eagle let my spirit carry me. I asked what it was like when he was dying, and he told me it made him feel free. “You know, how, when you go down a sledding hill, and you feel a rush?”

“Yeah.”

“Well something like that. Time keeps on slipping slipping, into the future. Like you're going down the sled. First you feel the rush, then everything slows down, and then for a while you don't know what's happening because you forget that part, and then after that, a white light. When I opened my eyes I was in the hospital with an oxygen mask on my face and a tube in my throat, and I didn't know what was going on.”

“Did you feel like you were being suffocated like the Black Widows.”

“Yes, it was very similar to what a Black Widow would do to you.”

“By the way,” I said, trying to cheer him up. “I think I saw a Black Widow yesterday,”

“Where?”

“I saw her at the 7-11. She was wearing this mink so it was hard to tell what her breasts looked like. But one thing, I don't think she was wearing any clothes, underneath the mink.”

“Cool,” he shouted, nearly out of his mind.

“Yeah, she was sexy.”

“I don't believe it.”

“I didn't either. But there I was in the 7-11 and in she walks off the street.”

“How did you know she was a Black Widow?”

“There was something about her,” I said. “I mean the mink, and no clothes underneath. Who else could it have been?”

“Did you go up to her and say anything—I mean you could have seen her breasts.”

“No.”

“You fool, Anderson” he said, sitting up in bed—then, echoing my father, he shook his head with disappointment. “You know, your problem, Anderson, is you don't have what it takes. You need courage. Hell, I would have gone up to her and asked her to marry me. What would I have to lose? She might have gone to bed with me.”

“She might have,” I said.

“But look, courage is what got me here. Which 7-11 was it?”

“The one down the street.”

“And did she have a nice ass?”

“Yeah, it was nice.”

While we sat there talking, the phone never rang once, nor were there any other visitors. At the end of the afternoon, I got up to go.

“Well,” I said, “I should be going.”

“Thanks, Anderson,” Hal said. “Thanks for visiting. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. We're friends.”

“Well, if you want to forget you know me after this incident, I wouldn't blame you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I wouldn't blame you if you stopped seeing me. You probably think I'm crazy.”

“I don't,” I said.

“But if you did, I wouldn't blame you. I would never blame you.”

“Don't worry, we're pals.”

“All right, but remember, if that should change, no hard feelings.”

There was an uncomfortable silence and then he said, “Bye,”

“Bye Hal,” I said.

“Bye Anderson.”

We shook hands and then I stepped outside the hospital. It was dark and raining. Against my better judgement, I rode my bike all the way home sloshing through the roadside gravel and splashed by cars.

I lost track of Hal after eighth grade. He was right. I just naturally wanted to stop hanging out with him and I couldn't explain why that was. Incidentally, I also lost an interest in the Steve Miller band, though when I occasionally hear one of his songs on the radio, they invariably put me in mind of all those lost hours Hal and I spent in his garage making so many shot-gun shells, and theorizing on the lifestyles of Black Widows. To this day, I don't know what's become of Hal, but I wouldn't be surprised if a) he were dead, b) he were in jail for serial killing, c) he were homeless, wandering the streets in a drug addled haze, or d) he were superintendent of the local school system.