Friday, August 04, 2006


It was hot outside. A relentless sun generated the kind of heat that made you want to rip all your clothes off and lay down in the shade of a big bushy tree with your tongue hanging out. Such days made me wonder if I was glimpsing what hell was like, for after all it was a blistering summer day much like this so many years ago that I found out how quickly innocence can be burned away, leaving cold darkened ashes of fearful mistrust.
My childhood, while far from perfect, was quite enjoyable, even sheltered I guess you’d have to say. Born and raised on the outskirts of a medium sized mill town peacefully nestled among the rolling hills of the Mohawk Valley in upstate NY, we enjoyed the type of isolation that nurtures bliss – in other words I was ignorant as heck! Dad worked at what was the largest employer in the area at the time and Mom had a career in the health industry. Both were very diligent people, seldom missing any work, and helped instill a sense of pride in what you do that I and my siblings couldn’t help but emulate. They were also very caring, being active in local church activities and organizations which inspired a sense of community. We could leave our house unoccupied and unlocked for days with no problems, which of course resulted in our being a bit too trusting, but it was all part of the big picture being painted for me, that this was how everyone was.
So, imagine me, a bright, naive youth with boundless energy let loose into the world to explore with impunity – nothing could go wrong here! I became familiar with every inch of our modest little plot, from the small grove of apple trees on the right side (which later became our pool area) to the old dilapidated barn at the bottom of a small hill on the left. Inside the quaint structure we stored cord wood, a riding lawnmower with a cart, and my Dad’s turquoise colored motorcycle. Later on in my uh, let’s just say rebellious, years I used to siphon gas from the former to joyride on the latter, right before my parents eventually split up, but that’s another story.
Well as you can imagine I rapidly became bored being stuck on our property all the time, but once I had learned how to ride my bike – look out world! Where we lived there was very little traffic and it was so quiet that you could hear oncoming cars and vacate the road long before they got there, so my parents didn’t mind my travels. Of course the fact that they were at work a lot made it easy to disappear also, and I was getting older so they had much more confidence in me. At eight years old I was lean, tan, usually laughing, and always moving.
One extremely hot August day, I think it was a weekend because at least my mother was home, I jumped on my bike and started to ride hoping that the wind tickling my brush cut hair would cool me off. Pedaling as fast as my skinny legs would allow, I threw my hands out to the side and tilted my head back. The air was so hot and thick that it felt like I was riding through soup, but it helped. After covering about the equivalent of a couple city blocks I approached the house of one Ronny Hatford, an ancient looking man with white hair who always wore stained dark blue work clothes, a skewed baseball cap and walked with a limp. Across the road from his house were very rundown barns and a garage all connected, all sporting that weather worn red paint that is on 99.9% of the old barns from here to California.
As I slowly coasted past he suddenly appeared from inside the old garage where an early sixty-something baby blue convertible Cadillac was stored. The white top was frayed and cracked but the car was in decent shape with little rust. He squinted for the sun was intensely bright and looked at me with a big smile. I smiled back and rode over to where he was standing, just outside the open garage door.
“What’re ya doin’ out on a hot day like this? Yer mama know where ya are?” This query didn’t surprise me as everybody knew everybody in these parts.
“Yes of course she does” I said (though she didn’t), “What are doing in there? Are you gonna start up your car and take a ride with the top down to cool off?”
Ronny looked at the car, then at me. He seemed to be thinking but I could have cared less what about as my inquisitive eyes were scanning the walls of the shabby garage, fascinated with all the various old license plates and colorful oil cans. I got off my bike and started walking around inside the shed, asking all kinds of pointless questions and not really listening to the answers. My young mind was set on getting one of those bright yellow and blue pieces of numbered metal to secure to the front of my handle bars.
By this time Ronny had re-entered the garage and stood off to the side of the door. I continued my search of a small workbench on the back wall, picking up different tools and briefly ogling a calendar with a scantily clad girl on it. The air was so stifling that it was actually hard to breathe, but I was so excited at the prospect of getting one of these symbols of adulthood that I barely felt it. Finally I worked up the nerve to ask.
“Uh Ronny, um I see you have all these old plates around and um, well I was wondering if maybe um, I could have one?” I sheepishly said while moving a small pebble around with my foot and never looking up.
“Whatta ya want one of those things for? Ya can’t drive, what’re ya gonna do, put it on yer bike?” he said with a hoarse laugh while spitting a big squirt of dark juice from his white whiskered face. He always had a pouch of Redman hanging out of his pocket, his crooked teeth browner than old leaves.
“Well yeah, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do with it” I said, which prompted him to stop laughing, but he didn’t stop smiling and somehow his grin had changed into more of a smirk, though of course I didn’t realize what that meant at the time.
“Well I suppose” he slowly said, eyes furtively darting out towards the road, “but ya don’t just take stuff from people for nothin’ ya know, didn’t yer folks ever teach ya that?”
“Yeah of course but I don’t have any money” by now I had the one I wanted in my hand and was staring at it intently, “so I guess I’ll just leave it here.” and I started to reluctantly put it back on the bench.
“Well hold on, you can have one if ya want, I don’t want money from ya, all ya gotta do is shake.”
“Yeah shake, didn’t yer daddy ever show ya how?”
By now I figured that he meant shake hands and I said “Sure he did” while sticking out my right hand and holding the plate in my left.
“First ya gotta close yer eyes” Ronny said. Now as trusting as I was, somewhere way in the back of my uncorrupted mind an alarm went off, but having no true experience with people I complied. In my head I wondered what extra treat he may have for me. Maybe a pen knife or a hood ornament, who knew, this place was a cornucopia of delights for any curious child.
“OK give me your hand.” I leaned towards his voice and felt his leathery hand grasp my wrist and plunk something warm into my palm. It was at this point that my view of the world changed forever, for there in my prepubescent hand was his thick wrinkled manhood, I knew without even looking. My first reaction was actually revulsion; I literally wanted to be sick. Immediately I released his member and simultaneously handed him the plate as I looked him right in the eye. I couldn’t bring myself to look down, but I wouldn’t look away and let him know how freaked out I was.
“Sorry I changed my mind, I gotta go now, I think I hear my mother.” As soon as the words left my mouth I realized why he had asked if she knew where I was before and I felt even sicker.
“Wait a minute” he said, panic clouding his impish face immediately. “I don’t hear her, come here and you can have whatever ya want.”
By now I had backed out into the sunlight and was stammering about my Mom; I kept saying that word because I felt it would protect me somehow, forming an indestructible shield that he could not penetrate. I jumped on my bike while he said something else and pedaled like a madman. Only one thought was in my head – escape!
I can’t tell you exactly how fast I made it back to my house but it seemed like a blink. I still felt nauseous and ran upstairs as fast as I could to wash my hand. I scrubbed it until I thought the skin had come off and then I scrubbed it some more. All the while incredulous that another human being could do something so sick, so vile; I didn’t even know what sex was yet but I knew what had just happened was wrong. I kept picturing his leering face and hearing those words “Ya gotta shake, didn’t your daddy ever show ya how?” until I thought I was going to scream. The worst part, who could I tell? How could I approach my church going parents and tell them some lecherous old man had just violated me physically and spiritually? I resolved to keep it to myself, avoiding any contact with Ronny whatsoever, but a darkness had cast its pall over my once radiant soul and it didn’t take but a couple of days for my perceptive mother to sense something was very wrong with her usually joyful little boy. It had been building ever since the incident to consume my thoughts. “All ya gotta do is shake.”
I had just started walking upstairs, the word shake ringing in my ears, when my mom called from the bottom. As I turned I felt hot tears start to burn my flushed cheeks and as soon as she saw them she ran to me.
“What is it, what’s wrong? I could tell something was bothering you, now tell me what is the matter?”
So of course there on the stairs, in the warm comforting cocoon of my mother’s arms, I bared my newly scarred insides and instantly felt a modicum of release. My mother was, to put it mildly, incensed and immediately called my father at work and then the local authorities, which in our rural location was the county sheriff.
The sheriff showed up and sat in the kitchen with my parents and me, and proceeded to tell us how he had spoken with Ronny and Ronny said that was certainly not how it happened. He had just extended his hand to me to shake and I jumped on my bike and left. He surely didn’t understand what all the commotion was about. Then the officer started grilling me as though I were the one that did something wrong. Why would I make something like this up, for what possible reason? I was so flabbergasted by this that I quickly clammed up and let the adults finish their conversation. This of course was my first true taste of ‘the system’ and to this day I still foster a resentment of authority because of it.
After deputy dog got done and left, my father assured me that he had had a ‘talk’ with Ronny on his way home and that I didn’t have to worry about any more funny business. My father is a good sized man and I knew how much he intimidated me when upset, I hoped Ronny felt that too. I was instructed to stay away from this sicko and to inform my parents forthwith if anything at all happened from here on in.
So, on with life right? Wrong. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the truth I had been shown, about the depravity that one human being could commit against another. They talked about sinners in church but those were just faceless characters in stories told to instill fear, the true nature of evil, I knew now, was the abhorrent thoughts and desires that bubbled like white-hot lava beneath the stony exterior of fake smiles. My young mind was inundated with thoughts an eight year old should never have to contemplate, and it was changing me. For the first time in my fledgling existence I felt rage, not the childish pangs of unfulfilled desires, but the deep malevolent churning in my gut that wouldn’t let me sleep or grant me a moment’s peace. “All ya gotta do is shake.”
Enough! I knew the only way this would be resolved for me was if I went and talked to Ronny myself. I let a few weeks go by, school started and my parents had a million things to worry about. The craziness of the summer slowly morphed into the routine of normal life and all was well. Plus it gave me enough time to get ready.
I waited until both my parents were at work one day then told my older sister that I was going for a bike ride. She said OK and off I went. As I pedaled towards the barn my heart was beating so hard I had to stop for a minute for fear it would leap right out of my chest. Ronny had his tractor out in front of the garage and seemed to be working on the back end of it. I slowly rolled up to him and as soon as he spied me a scowl hardened his weathered face.
“What’re you doin’ here? I don’t want no trouble so get on home and don’t come round my property no more, ya hear?”
Even though I had rehearsed my little speech I found my self suddenly talking like someone else, like I was listening to a movie. I wasn’t sure what I was even saying but I just kept going. “You think you got in trouble, I got spanked and sent to my room. The whole thing was a big mistake; I should’ve just kept my mouth shut.”
Ronny’s sullen expression deepened, “Yeah well I don’t ‘preciate no cops comin’ to my door so just get along and don’t be comin’ back.” Satisfied that he had set me straight, he hunkered back down and continued his tinkering.
“OK but I just wanted to let you know that if you want me to shake I will and I won’t tell nobody.”
Instantly I could see that strange light come into his eyes which looked up and down the road before he said, “Didya like that? It wasn’t nothin’ bad now was it?” His tongue wiped a bit of tobacco off the corner of his mouth and then he squirted a big gob of juice over his shoulder.
“I guess not if that’s all it was, I just don’t want you to be mad at me.”
He looked at me for a long moment and finally decided to say what he wanted, after all who would believe me over him. “Well there’s more ya have to do, ya hardly shook it at all. Why don’t we go in the barn and ya can try again and then you can take whatever ya want from the garage.”
So I followed him into the barn behind the garage, bringing my bike, for we entered through the huge side door that slid open on a rail. He only had a few cows for he mostly grew hay and sold it to other farmers, but the stench of manure was heavy in the air. Walking behind Ronny though, I was awash with the stink of beer, tobacco juice and stale sweat, my gorge was rising but I couldn’t stop myself. Once well inside and away from the door, where I had left my bike, Ronny turned and looked at me with that same impish smile he had sported a few weeks ago.
“Well ya ready ta try again?” and before I even said anything his zipper was down and his age speckled hand had fished out that fat wrinkled thing, “Well go on boy, take it in yer hand, nice and gentle now.”
Watching my body from above I saw my small hand reach up and cup his lengthening shaft. When I did he shuddered and closed his eyes. When he opened them again there was the unmistakable glint of terror, for while he wasn’t aware I had reached behind myself and taken out my father’s six inch hunting knife and was now holding the blade right to the mottled skin of his ancient mariner. It was a wicked looking instrument, finely honed for a quick gutting or skinning, and it was ready for business. I had kept it hidden in my back pocket with my shirt (bought a little big because I’d grow into it) untucked and hanging over it. I had always faced him so he never knew. And I had practiced, oh how I had practiced, up in my room, taking the blade out from its leather sheath over and over to make sure I could do it smoothly.
Now, with a ferocity that surprised me, I was going to make the cut. My eight year old mind wasn’t ready for such an influx of adrenaline and angst. I wanted this guy to suffer like I had suffered. Innocence should be slowly dissipated like a puddle in the sunlight, not like a drop of gas in a flame. This crud had robbed me of something precious, and he had to pay!
“H-h-hold on th-th-there, don’t do nothin’ stupid now. I was just playin’ with ya.” He sputtered, barely able to even speak.
This brief moment was enough to restore my equilibrium and I spoke in a voice that was frightening, it was the cold dead voice of someone who has been to the dark side and come back a different person. “What you did was wrong. I should just cut this thing off.” I paused to look at his face and let him know how deadly serious I was. “If you ever come near me or my brothers I will.” This made him jump but I had already started to back away, the knife in front of me at the ready. We stared at each other for a minute, then when he started inspecting himself for damage I turned and ran as fast as I possibly could, grabbed my bike, and rode like a rocket to my house. I ran inside, put the knife back, washed my hands a thousand times, and waited for the sheriff. I was pretty sure Ronny wouldn’t call, but I got ready just the same.
By the next day I knew I was safe. I went on to grow up out there relatively happy and even eventually went to work for Ronny when I was big enough to lift hay bales. He always paid me well and never said or did anything untoward after that day in the barn; I guess he liked to pee standing up. I look back now and try to discern what lesson I was supposed to learn, maybe it was just toughening me up for the ultimate battering that is life, I don’t know, but I’m pleased to say while that wiry eight year old boy with wonder in his eyes was scarred for life, he didn’t go completely. He’s still in there somewhere running through the open fields of my imagination. And occasionally he pops up to scold this person I’ve become, the cynic who is maybe a little too quick to put himself down and who, on some sweltering days, sits with the corners of his mouth turned up in grim satisfaction remembering that day… you should’ve seen him shake.


Anonymous said...

..and the journey begins. The bridge over troubled waters washes away and the water cleanses the soul. This feels like the first chapter and makes me want to read the book. The mother in me felt her pain that someone had hurt her child. The child in me felt your disgust and misplaced guilt and the woman in me felt the pride and strength of character in the beautiful soul that you have always displayed in your poetry. Thank you for sharing this. Shirl

Billy Jones said...

Wow, what a beginning... fact, fiction, I don't care it's still great writing.

Billy Jones said...

Wow, what a beginning... fact, fiction, I don't care it's still great writing.

Yasmin Waring said...

This had a nice build to the climax.
And you totally caught me off guard with the first plot twist. Which I think is good. I was lolling in that summer haze.

I like too the sense of forgiveness and redemption for the darkest sides of us.

I look forward to the next installment!

rch said...

Hey Shirl, I'm glad it moved you. While peppered with a lot of factual things this a work of fiction, maybe the first of many, thanks a lot.

Hi Billy, thank you, that means a lot to me.

Hello scheherazade, good I was trying not to give too much away. I'm working on it ;^D Thanks!

Crunchy Weta said...

I'm still a bit out there on painkillers(earache) to give this a proper go yet.. will return with interest thouigh.

Mark Koopmans said...

Hey RCH,

Finally got the chance to read SHAKE and wow is all I can say...

If it's true, you were some brave eight-year-old to go back there... if its mainly fiction, it's fantastic writing...and if it's a bit of both... it's great to see you've been able to get past the loss of innocence.

THANKS for sharing....