You will never forget the day you saw your house on the CBS Evening News.
There’s a difference between seeing your town on the national news and seeing it on the local. You grow up with a television containing no flyover states, nothing that represents where you are, where your family is. You are keenly aware that there are other places, bigger places, where words are uttered with quicker cadence. New York City. Suburbs of New York City. Bozo the Clown’s Chicago. Suburbs of Chicago. An outline is drawn of America with only a few bright points within; the rest is hazy, slightly sinister filler. It speaks very little to who you are, but volumes to who you want to be.
But you could expect a weird, second-rate familiarity on the local news. The accents of the weathermen and anchors, the muted on-set colors. Sometimes, you see things on the local that you have seen before with your own eye and not the vainglorious eye of TV. Interstate 64, Rupp Arena, a particular Wal-Mart in Grayson where you shop for school supplies. It seems less hazy than real TV, seems somehow to have cost less money, but you watch it anyway, and what follows after that, and after that. You are crazy at the idea that you might miss something important, even the pauses, the snow of outed channels, the stormtime screen-skipping. You love TV. You spend more time with TV than anyone. You fall asleep in front of TV and glean the same intimacy of knowledge you one day will from sleeping next to someone—the gurgles and clenches of their stomachs, their leg jerks, their mutters. You convince yourself that it needs your company, that despite all its noise and surprises, it would miss you. The machine takes a breath. You imagine you can hear it.
Already, you think and remember in images. Sound and feel are secondary to vision. You are this kind of artist. You must be some kind of artist. You draw every day, like you can’t help it, compulsively—it feels weird not to. And also, everyone hates you. And you are positive that’s what being an artist is all about.
What else are you going to do? Play with the other kids? The other kids hate you too. Your own sister loves to tell you this, loves to be the carrier of information: what is said about you by kids on the bus, who does a great impression of the way you walk, the names you are called, who wants to kick your ass. She never gives a reason as to why you are so disliked. “If you cain’t play with the big dogs stay off the porch,” is all she’ll yell when you ask—something she stole off a high schooler’s t-shirt. You already sense it: you’re smarter than her. But she’s older, bigger, meaner. Has more clout. You feel your parents like her more, a suspicion confirmed by nicknames, tones of voice. They are awed, but not made proud, by the test scores you bring home. They find the pictures you draw strange. You are different, the one slightly askew. There’s a forcefield around you, the distinct feeling that you aren’t welcome, that you have transgressed without knowing exactly how or when. You try to locate the source of this, but you never can.
You have one friend. His name is Teddy Caudill. He is also your first love, though you won’t know it for years. Yours is a weird, flat affection that does not yet occur to you physically. It has a body only in the way children handle each other when they do not yet know intimacy—closeness without the electrical current. In the summers, his arms and legs tan, the hairs turning to red gold. Once, when you two were pretending to be cats, you licked his face. Only later did you remember to be embarrassed: Wait. That was not a thing to do.
It is, in this way, unspoiled.
Teddy is your neighbor, a little strange himself, which is probably why you are friends. You spend time crossing each other’s yards, tracking kittens through the rotting woodpile, going to the creek to see how fast it takes the water to turn your feet orange. Your family just got a VCR, a Quasar. You make Teddy watch tapes and tapes of shows you record off TV: a cartoon program you adore called “Liquid Television.” “Count Duckula.” “Pinky and the Brain.” Your favorite music video by a band called Tool featuring stop-motion animation that both frightens and excites you. “But wait,” you keep saying, rewinding, pressing play. “Watch this. Watch it again.” And he does. He’s patient, a weird enough quality on its own; you’ve never met another kid with actual patience. He will listen to you jabber about Looney Tunes or Harriet the Spy or how stupid your sister is for an hour entire and maybe say one complete sentence throughout. But he is clearly paying attention, his eyes on you, soft, bright intelligence behind them. Once, when you skin your knee, Teddy slowly and carefully draws out the bits of gravel caught within with your mother’s tweezers. And you cry, and it hurts, but you trust him.
You like him. You suspect you love him. Nonetheless, you wonder sometimes what’s going on in Teddy’s head. He watches everything, moves deliberately. He seems to operate on the basis of caution, like he’s learned things that make him watch out. He washes his hands over and over until they are waxy, nasty-clean. He bites at the chapped part of his lips until they bleed. Teddy is what they call a nervous fella. You wonder what’s wrong with him.
Maybe his house is to blame. Teddy’s house is openly filthy; the carpet hasn’t been vacuumed in years and is sticky with ashes, pop spills, and in some places crisp, fragmented dog poop (courtesy of Teddy’s mother’s Pekinese, Coco, with whom she had left and not returned over a year prior). But again, there’s something strange there that you can sense, with the mind underneath your mind, a muffled, low-lying line of electricity you can’t see or argue over but nonetheless prickles your arm hairs whenever you’re alone with it. Your house is not exactly good—it is a fighting house you come from—but Teddy’s house scares the shit out of you. You make Teddy accompany you to the bathroom and turn around while you pee. It’s just the two of you, but you won’t go anywhere without him.
The only other person you’ve seen there is Teddy’s dad. Teddy’s dad is named Honus Caudill, like the antique baseball player Honus Wagner. Honus Caudill is big and red-faced and you can hear him when he breathes. His workboots are crumpled by the door, dark at the instep, and the length of his shoe is three times yours.
Sometimes you hear low noises coming from deep within the house. You ask Teddy about it. His mouth falls into a straight line and he says, “That’s my dad,” and that’s all.
Honus Caudill scares the shit out of you, too, but if asked, you wouldn’t be able to explain why.
Once, you see him cleaning out the van he drives, a rusting silver Dodge Caravan you can see limping up the side of the mountain when he’s coming home. It is so old, its rear opens with two doors splaying out instead of a hatch rising skyward. Teddy is walking slightly in front of you, and he leads you right past his father sitting there, the van interior dark, cleaning solution and a roll of paper towels at his feet.
Not long after this, you go to Teddy’s after your sister tries to lock you both in a closet. There is a new stain on the rug in the living room. It is gummy and milky, and unlike the rest of the spills, it looks like someone tried to rub it clean.
“That’s where Daddy came last night,” Teddy whispers.
You don’t know what he means. So you point to a dog poop stain nearby and say, “And that’s where he went. A ha ha.”
Teddy is quiet.
Finally, you confess sheepishly, “I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t know what coming is?”
“It’s when a man watches dirty stuff, and his wiener gets all hard and he rubs it against something or he slaps it against his hand, and then white stuff like shampoo comes out of it. That’s splooge. That’s where my dad splooged last night.”
You have no idea what to make of this. It sounds like a lie. Way too far out there to be something people actually do. But Teddy doesn’t lie. That, you do know. He’s not the kind of kid who lies because he thinks it’s funny, or because he’s bored. Teddy’s dad is not at home that afternoon. The house is still. No one has turned on the TV yet.
Finally, you say, “Ew.”
“Want to see where he keeps his dirty stuff?” Teddy asks you. And you don’t, you really don’t, but you nod anyway.
He goes to the bedroom door at the end of the hallway, opens it. You follow, hands in pockets, heavy with a feeling like someone’s watching you. You feel weird entering your own parents’ bedroom, uneasy at the stack of Redbooks on your mother’s nightstand, your dad’s fifth of Jack centralized in the bed headboard meant for books. The sight of your dad’s BVDs in the laundry causes you to feel actual shame.
Your stomach churns. You smell the air more sharply, notice a place where there’s a crack in the window, the sound of the mammoth air conditioner chugging on the wall, the color of a blanket jumbled on the low bed with clothing and a few dirty dishes in the folds. The pale stains dripping from ceiling to carpet. The five ashtrays scattered throughout, all full. You can’t explain it, would feel stupid if you tried to, but it feels like your body wants to take off without you, wants to leap out of your skin and run away.
There’s a stack of magazines by the bed. You crane your neck to look. A lady in a bikini, bottom hiked high in the air. She is not wearing a shirt, but her back is turned- all you see is a long, tan strip of side. Barely Legal College Daze: Hot and Horny Coeds of the SEC!
The room stinks. Mushrooms sprouting, bleach and rocksalt and rot. “What’s that smell,” you ask Teddy.
He turns. “That’s what splooge smells like.”
“Ew,” you repeat. “What makes it smell like that.”
“I dunno.” And for the first time since you’ve known him—which has been your whole life, or nearly—Teddy slips. You watch his face fill with something dark, whatever is behind the eyes going flat. He is pale below his hair. You’ve never seen a face fall in like this before. You might call it sad, but it seems bigger than just being sad. There’s no one right word for it. It’s filled with all the things he knows that you don’t. It occurs to you that he brought you in here because he can’t be in here alone with whatever this is. And it scares you. You don’t want to know what Teddy knows.
You would make a grab for his hand—that’s what girls do when something scares them, they hold hands—but your sister’s voice tears through your head: “That’s so gay, Sharon.” So you don’t. But you step closer, pressing your arm to his.
Teddy makes his way to the bed, shifts the covers. At the foot, a big oak trunk, the kind your mother uses to store quilts. Reaches his hand underneath, pulls out a key. He slips it into the lock and turns, once twice. It opens. More magazines. But they’re different, printed on rougher paper. Some are mimeographs. Some are in paper bags. There’s one called BANANAS; on the cover, a lady crouches, her legs wide open, so wide you can see her privates, and in her what do you call it, not the place you pee from, the other place—you don’t know the word for it—she’s got a banana stuck in there, and she’s smiling like there’s supposed to be a banana in there. On the next page, a man and a lady. The man’s mouth is on the lady’s breast. She’s got his thing in her hand. Her head is tilted back. It’s dirty, but it’s exciting, too. It would be better if you could look at these things somewhere that wasn’t Teddy’s dad’s bedroom. You feel the beginnings of heartbeat, something pulsing between your legs.
Teddy picks up another. Dangerous Girlz. Sexxxy Girlz Getting the Punishment They Deserve. The girl on the cover is in a bra and teeny skirt. She’s tied up, her wrists and legs roped together, a rag stuffed in her mouth. A trickle of blood comes from her nose. She looks scared. It does not look like something that should be on a magazine cover.
Whatever was beating between your legs slows, then dies. Teddy lays the magazine facedown on the floor.
He pulls out something in a moldy plastic baggie, tells you that it’s weed. Produces a glass fish with a hole in its tail, tells you it’s a pipe his dad smokes the weed from. He puts the pipe to his lips and demonstrates, pretending to draw in. You take the pipe and do it, too. It stinks, but the fish is pretty.
There’s one more package in the trunk.
Teddy looks down in his lap. “We should stop.”
“I wanna see,” you say, and you don’t, but this is your impulse, cradled in your stomach like a snake. You cannot stand for a closed door.
“Are you sure?”
You stare at Teddy. He’s still looking down. You see his front teeth worry over his lip.
“You can’t tell anybody,” he says. “I mean it.”
“I mean it, Sharon.” His voice goes up a little. “Really this time.”
“I promise. I really do.”
He sighs. Draws up the bag. Hands it to you. Inside, a stack of Polaroids, the kind that are already becoming old-fashioned. You hold up the first one.
A little girl. It takes a minute to register what you’re seeing. She’s not wearing any clothes. She’s laying on her side, like she’s asleep. In the second picture, she has been turned over. You can see how skinny she is—if not for the long hair, if not for the lack of penis, she might have been a boy. It must have been summer; there is a line of sun on her hip where her bathing suit has been. This is something you will remember later, when the rest of this has fallen away. The sight of a tan line will send an ice blue spark up your spine.
What is this? You don’t know. But it looks real. And it’s on Polaroid. The kind used to take pictures of your family at Christmas and on birthdays and in the snow. That makes it realer. Something tears and falls in your middle.
But your fingers keep going, flipping through the pictures on their own. Another little girl. She’s asleep, too, sprawled on her back, arms and legs thrown out, an interior behind her—carpet on the floor, dim, almost like a shed or maybe a car. This one, her face looks familiar. Is this someone you know? You’re not sure. But you know that face. There’s a hand in this picture, coming from the edge of the photograph, reaching for the girl’s form, and that terrible feeling in your middle heats and stretches and you’re afraid you’re going to need the bathroom.
“I don’t want to look anymore.” You say it louder than you mean to. You look down. Your hands still grasp pictures.
Teddy reaches out and gently takes them from you, dropping them into the bag. You are both pale, sweating. “I’m sorry, Sharon,” he says. He sounds like he means it. And you don’t care what your sister would say about it, you take Teddy’s hand in yours.
You can’t eat or sleep for days after this. Your mother will take you to Dr. Donoughy and he will press on your belly, listening. For days, whenever you close your eyes, you’ll see those pictures, and it will be your first taste of undiluted hell, your entire self constipated. It will be a long time before your convince yourself that the afternoon never happened.
You refuse to enter the Caudill house ever again. As much hell as you two will collectively catch from your sister, you have Teddy to your house to eat, spend the night, jump on the trampoline. You keep him with you for as long as you can.
The next school year, Teddy’s mother comes for him. Suddenly, Teddy is gone. He moves to Louisville and grows up there. When he moves, the memory fades into nothing, leaving you with a feeling that you’ve been marked but you don’t know by what, or how. Nothing is left but the dark place in your head where the memory once sat.
You grow up too. You leave home for good. Your exit is a foregone conclusion, and you pursue your life as if it is the loose end of something you abandoned at birth and, at eighteen, set out to reclaim. You settle in the alien northeast. The roots of your life become brittle, wicked out.
You become an artist to see the things you’ve forgotten. You struggle. You’re afraid you’re not very good. You’re jealous and lonely. You sit at your drafting table at night and you practice and practice, and you let the “CBS Evening News” play out behind you on a small TV you bought at a yard sale in New Hampshire because the prefab antennae and the channel dial—the kind that goes tok tok tok—reminds you of the old set your family had when you were a kid. You are sketching something particularly dumb, a series of demented dogs for a cartoon strip you’ll never finish called Small Potatoes, when Dan Rather mentions a child pornography bust in East Kentucky, where the supplier of illicit materials, a napper of small girls, appraiser of unspeakable photographs, has been arrested by the FBI. And on the tiny screen you see the old hollow, hear the name “Caudill” pronounced by the onsite reporter as “Cowdihl,” and you see the very edge of the house in which you grew up at the screen’s corner. See the window to the living room in which you sat and watched and watched, and you realize the name of your hometown has not crossed your mind in an astounding number of days, but you hear it now and it’s enough to make you drop your pencil. You are transported to days when you slept alongside TV, glowing in your house’s sullen dark. And that was your first real relationship, not Teddy. Because when TV drops this nasty surprise on you, you feel betrayed. It rips open in you the type of rivet caused when someone you love deceives you and you are positive that you will never be loved in the way you need.
And then you see yourself with Teddy crouched beside that trunk, you see his hand dip into the dark. You make it to the wastebasket just in time to vomit. The memory is intact, as if it had never faded, as is the sinking in your center, everything flaking away to a crazy black.
You’re left with the impossible desire to see things that are terrible for you to see. You favor a website that features the violent and abnormal—photos of crash fatalities, clandestine iPhone shots taken by orderlies of what it looks like when someone falls fifteen stories or is sliced in half by a malfunctioning industrial mixer. Celebrity deaths sneak in—the famous comedian who overdosed in his penthouse while a hooker looked on, his bloated blue face, eyes wide in fear at the ceiling, foam rising from lips still since the last words he spoke before the hooker snapped a photo of his body, called the ambulance, and left: Please don’t leave me.
In this new world of internet, you keep clicking, your restless finger forever on the button, and you find those pictures that kept you up at night and made your stomach pinch. Evidence from the seized porn ring finds its way online, censored for public view, eyes and genitals of victims blocked. You seek them out before you’re ready, examining them one by one, sweating, close to tears. You gaze at one for a very long time. You think you spot a prom queen in her face, a country clubber, or maybe a girl who spent time cutting class with her friends, smoking behind the ag-tech building in her boyfriend’s Carhartt jacket. Graduates of your county high school from anywhere between 1997 and 2004. Women with your history, your life. You think you pin it down, but you can never be sure.