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Read by Sean Patrick Flanery
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I believe there are only ever a handful of moments in a child’s life that truly shape who he is or who he is to become. There are plenty of moments for fine-tuning, but only a handful that mold the sharp, memorable features of the face…and also the soul. This is my handful.
So, here we are again. You know, most people check their mailbox to see what’s inside it, but I think you know that I check mine to see what’s not. I would tell you to stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, but I already know that you’ve heard it before. Bear with me. Sometimes I just need to hear myself say it again—to get it out.
* * *
I went home to try and touch the things I left behind, but they just weren’t there anymore. Other things were. I needed to go back to that place again. I just needed a return trip to my childhood to pack up rubble memories to take with me before someone else occupied that space. I had to. I wanted Texas to be more familiar than it was when I went back. I wanted everything to reflect my memories exactly. It seemed like an eternity since I’d gone back to the mileposts and cairns of my past. But, adults have slag lenses, and we all learn to breathe through filters. I wanted everything back the way it was. My Grandaddy always told me I’d come back home looking for my porch, and here I was, looking. I just didn’t want it to be too late.
I had a cab pick me up from the church and the cabbie asked me who got married, eyeballing my suit. “Nobody,” I said. As I rode in the taxi with that package next to me, I asked the driver to take a detour and stop on the farm road right outside my old junior high school. I just needed to see it again, to see if I could understand what I had missed. I told the driver that I’d only be a minute, and asked him if I could leave my things in the back. I could see he was staring at me in the rearview mirror before he asked me, “Nothing dangerous in that box, is there?” I remember looking at it and wondering the same thing, but then I just stepped out of the cab and started down the long gravel driveway to the front of the school, where it looped around and went right back out to the farm road. With every step I took, it grew and grew, until I found myself at its base, right in the center of that circular drive where kids are dropped off for school 180 days a year. There it was, the flagpole that gave me perspective, standing right where it left me. It wasn’t until I was stranded up there in the middle of a dewy school night that I had truly seen a crystal clear picture of all the puzzle pieces that were to become my life. And with a mixture of trepidation and desire, I longed to climb it once more, to see it all again.
You know, most memories have a sort of swelling effect. Just about everything from my youth that I see today is just a little bit smaller, or less important than my memories’ scale. I now know of only two things that defy this rule: that flagpole…and Jane.
* * *
I knew exactly whose sneakers they were. Those Vans, the new and impossibly rare 95s, belonged to a unicorn. There was a sixty-foot nautical-type flagpole dead center in the front of my new junior high school, and the sneakers dangled from the crossbar about fifteen feet from the top. Two weeks later, my Grandaddy was asking my part in all of it, closing in on the truth because he knew I’d lied to my parents about the shoes up there on that flagpole. He knew everything. The old, retired deputy sheriff sat on his rickety lawn chair on my front porch, staring out at the angry thunderhead accumulating on the Texas horizon, silently probing my truth. When he talked to me, he rarely ever looked me in the eyes. But when he did, it was something special. He was seeing something special. He was recognizing something in me.
This time, his not looking me in the eye hurt a little until it hurt more when he turned to me with gunmetal flinting out of his pupils—eyes that had drawn a confession from many a crook and lowlife. He said, “You can only ever assuage a mistake and benefit from it if you pull three lessons out it.” And even though my Grandaddy’s coon-ass bayou French made fix come out as ass-you-age, I knew exactly what he meant.
I had to tell him the truth about the sneakers.
When I arrived at school on that first day of sixth grade, I spotted her 95s through the cool wall of water gushing out of the furnace that was my Texas sky. Despite the blurring rain, I knew. I knew because every single day of that previous summer during swim team practice, I had seen her walk by the pool. With the discerning eye that only adoration can bring, I watched her glide across the parking lot every day clutching a Frisbee. So I knew, and I was immediately consumed with how I might get the 95s down and return them to their rightful owner. They were hers. She was the only person I knew with 95s, and they were almost as perfect as she was.
“Who threw the clown shoes up onto the flagpole?” vibrated out of the speakers during the morning announcements. Our principal’s voice paused for a moment afterward, as if Mr. Totter really expected an answer. I pictured him, his suit smelling of mothballs over the pilled-up gray wool vest, sticking his shiny head out of his office into the hallway awaiting an echoing confession. Obviously, one never came, so following a death-rattle cough, he finally concluded: “Lest you forget, this constitutes vandalism, and will be treated as such” and “No one defaces our wonderful school” and “I will have those shoes down immediately.”
Minutes later, with a crowd of students around him on the front lawn, Mr. Totter was holding a pellet gun, patiently pumping it and firing it up at the shoes, trying to tear the laces and bring down those 95s like big game. The flagpole was a solid chrome monolith of sixty feet, over a foot in diameter at its base, and with two opposing arms jutting out from each side about fifteen feet from the top, like a ship’s mast. Both arms had a chrome ball at the end, and the sneakers were about two feet from the end of the right arm, swaying in the sultry breeze. I remember preparing to viciously tackle Mr. Totter to the ground if he were to accidentally damage her shoes. I don’t know if he realized his idiocy, or if he just gave up, but after a few more volleys, Mr. Totter scurried back into the building gripping his rifle.
All summer long I had seen the flyers at the local Piggly Wiggly for Frisbee lessons at my junior high, so every day when I saw her pass the pool, I knew exactly where she was going. And every time I saw her pass again, going home, she would walk barefoot in the shallow creek that ran right next to the pool, letting her feet cool. Her 95s hung around her neck like a scarf, the same way I always wore the red scarf Mom made me for Halloween a few years earlier. Nothing changed the first half of her journey on that last day of summer, but on the way back she just ran through the pool parking lot barefoot. I didn’t see the 95s around her neck that evening, but I do remember that she did not stop to smile at me. Something had happened, and when I got to school that first day and saw those 95s dangling on the flagpole, my gut confirmed there was a new person on my hate list.
Houston, Texas, is about 1,700 miles from California, so things took a bit longer to arrive on our shores, and 95s were no different. I’d seen the icon Alva’s feet in skateboard magazines, though, so I was well aware of the 95’s hallowed significance. The fact that she not only knew what they were, but actually owned a pair was a testament to her unicorn-ness. I would have staked my life on the fact that I was the only person in school who knew exactly what was dangling on that chrome cross in the schoolyard. Not just 95s…but 95s that her feet had graced. Those shoes weren’t up there a week before someone drew a huge Wanted poster on the bathroom wall.
MISSING: ONE PAIR OF RED AND BLUE CLOWN SHOES! $500 REWARD!
Graffiti popped up everywhere referencing those shoes, with various rewards. Each taunted me for the safe return of the 95s. The doggerel lit a fire under the school’s ass, and there was rumbling that Mr. Totter had arranged to have the fire department come and extract the unpatriotic eyesore as soon as possible, though the colors matched the flag.
It didn’t take long before rumors spread that Jonathan was the culprit. He was in eighth grade that year, and widely regarded, at least by me, as a complete jack-wagon. One of those big-talking verbal bullies who had never actually been in a fight in his life. His brown-bodied, white-billed John Deere hat had never left his head in all the years I knew him. Jonathan had stolen her shoes while she was playing Frisbee barefoot on the field behind the gymnasium. Then, with the help of two of his idiot buddies, they slingshotted those sneakers up into the sky and onto that cross with a surgical-tubing water balloon launcher. Jonathan even bragged that he had yelled to all the Frisbee girls on the field until they each turned and stared at him holding up the sneakers, then saw a “weird little hippie girl in a yellow dress” react, shot her the bird, and sprinted away with “the stupidest-looking shoes I’d ever seen on a girl.”
I was in the restroom one day after word had spread, and I even heard Jonathan changing his story to say that he actually climbed up there and hung them, by hand. What a lying sack of shit! I knew that fat fuck couldn’t get four feet up that pole if his life depended on it. I just stood there at the urinal, pretending to pee, feeling the hatred rise up my entire body in a heat wave from my feet all the way into the root of every hair in my scalp.
Jonathan had to pay. There was no way around it.
“Lying faggit, tub of shit!” Oh, sweet baby Jesus, I couldn’t believe that I actually said that out loud, and that huge tile bathroom repeated me word for word. In all honesty, my indictment was intended for my enjoyment alone, but now it was for everyone’s.
“The fuck did you just call me, you little pussy?” Jonathan squealed in his fat-fuck little squeaky voice. I panicked, and rushed to zip up my jeans, realized that they were already zipped as I had finished minutes earlier, and just stayed at the urinal to hear that pig lie, then slowly turned around to face the giant. Jonathan was a good fifty pounds heavier than me, and I’ll be honest, I lost a bit more pee in the moment he hollered at me. I apologized to Jonathan for saying my thoughts out loud, but even when he backed me up against the urinal, I refused his request to “take it back!”
“You don’t think I could climb that fucking pole?”
The other boys awaited Jonathan’s rebuttal.
“Prove it, you little pussy.” Jonathan stuck his finger in my chest, and turned and started to head out of the bathroom as if he had just “shown me.” I remember thinking that out of all five words I let accidentally escape my lips that day, he had only contested the first. The only word that wasn’t absolutely subjective was the one that he found fault with. I couldn’t believe he didn’t swing on me. I certainly didn’t want to fight him, but I was surprised. How did he expect me to “prove” that he couldn’t do something? I stared at the ground while tucking in my shirt. And that’s when I saw it. Right where Jonathan had been standing. I saw it and it dawned on me. My answer lay on the floor in a puddle of pee.
* * *
I’ll have your shoes back by Monday.
* * *
My Grandaddy liked to say that a how was always tailgating a good why. He said that a real man always finds it harder to short-change others than he does himself, so I should make my dreams public—that way I’d be letting others down if I failed. And a real man doesn’t let others down.
That Wednesday, I excused myself from math class to go and use the restroom. My junior high had three separate lunches, one for each grade, and the eighth-grade lunch was during my math class. I saw Jonathan at his corner table surrounded by his platoon of dunces, and let go of my red scarf before they figured out I was wiping my sweaty palms on it.
I interrupted Jonathan’s mouthful of pizza to blurt out, “I’ll prove it to you by Monday.” Then, I turned around and walked off, my red scarf clenched in my fist to keep me calm. I remember waiting to be clocked in the back of the head with a fist, or food, or something, but the blow never came. A trail of questions and profanity faded out as I made my way back to math.
That Friday night was the first night I’d ever sneaked out of my house. I was petrified. Petrified of getting kidnapped. Petrified of getting attacked by drug addicts. Petrified my parents would find out I was a hoodlum on occasion. Petrified of someone else getting her 95s back to her before I could. My dog, Steve McQueen, slept on my bed with me, always had to be touching me ever since I was a toddler, and he would wake up if I left, so I had to take him with me. But in truth, I was just too scared to do it without my best friend. It took us almost two hours to get to the school that night, because we ducked from every pair of car headlights that approached, and I’m telling you a Weimaraner is not an easy dog to conceal. Big as a pony, his telltale gray coat reflected in headlights. In a town that small, there was a good probability we’d be picked up and forced to call my parents. About twenty times we had to hide behind broken-down cars on cinder blocks in neighbors’ yards or behind abandoned shacks where Steve McQueen tiptoed gingerly around broken glass.
We made it to the school around one a.m., and I stood in front of that monument of threat and promise for an eternity before attempting ascent. A long gravel driveway came off the main road, so the school was a good distance from any potential witnesses. Steve McQueen lay there, frog-style, with no idea what a naive pup his partner was. I hugged that pole hard. I hugged it as if my life depended on it, long before it actually did. I made it about twenty feet up before I was absolutely crushed with panic. I slid down The Pole much faster than I should have, my red scarf flaring up from the speed of it, and I collapsed on the ground in desperation. I was overwhelmed with fear from the height I’d attained, although it was less than halfway up to the arms, but I was absolutely devastated from the fear of the realization that what I had claimed I would do was completely impossible under the circumstances. I sat with my legs crossed next to Steve McQueen and just stared up at the mast, like a lost sailor, willing a true bearing to come with the prevailing westerly winds. And come to me it did.
I had simply arrived too late. My little Texas town was one of the most humid places on earth, and by one o’clock in the morning, everything was coated in a veil of dew. That pole was no exception. I must arrive no later than twelve thirty a.m. to have the needed friction to reach the top. I also realized I possessed another secret weapon for my next attempt. It occurred to me as Steve McQueen and I walked home. We took the back way to avoid traffic, crossing playing fields and the stand of trees with The Hole, and the football field under lights where we got to play one game per year, where I had scored my very first FUN Stadium touchdown. That’s where I remembered it.
A few years earlier, when I was about eight years old, I scored on an end-around pitchout that left me all alone in the end zone. I had eyeballed the stands for my family until I found them clustered together way up on the top bleacher bench, and I slowly raised both my hands to wave at my mom and dad and my whole clan; Grandaddy, Mamau, James, even Lilyth and Magda came to see me play. I had been elated to stand under the uprights, but shocked to see the ball still stuck to my chest as both my arms waved at my parents. Stickum, although outlawed by the NFL in 1981, was an aerosol spray that turned you into walking flypaper. Stickum prevented fumbles. Stickum increased receptions. Stickum would grant my ascent to her 95s.
The next night I went to sleep early with a “headache,” so Steve McQueen and I were at the school by midnight with two full cans of Stickum. As we took the shortcut across the field of diamonds, the raw gash in the earth that so terrified me there drew a sharp snarl from Steve, but I raced on past The Hole, and urged him not to stop. When we finally reached The Pole, I caught my breath and unloaded my cargo. If I sprayed my T-shirt, it would just get pulled out of my jeans when I climbed, so I took off my red scarf, shirt, shoes, and pants and sprayed my entire bare chest, arms, hands, inner thighs, calves, and feet. I intended to attempt the ascent in my underwear. I had to let each coat of Stickum dry before reapplying, so it was twelve thirty before I was ready to climb. I had already collected about ten mosquitos on my body, guests who had checked in for a quick drink and realized too late that they could never leave.
I gave Mr. McQueen a good-luck pat on the head and came away with a palm full of short hairs, so I had to respray my right hand a final time, losing precious moments. I stuffed what I needed to stuff in the back of my underwear, and I was ready. I could feel the dew in the air, so I knew I had to hurry. I had to hurry to do what is arguably one of the stupidest things I have ever attempted in my life.
When I first stepped up to that flagpole, I gave it a big hug, rested my chin on it, and looked straight up the long chrome tube that penetrated the sky. Her shoes seemed a mile up. The clear view made me absolutely paralytic with fear, so I decided to focus solely into the distance and use my peripheral vision to guide me. My periphery was always just a little bit blurry, and tended to help me hide life’s horrible realities. I wouldn’t look down. I wouldn’t look up. I looked for my Grandaddy’s horizon, straight out into that nothing, lit up by a Texas butter moon, until I felt the crossbar.
I must have been about halfway up when I realized that as much as the Stickum was keeping me on The Pole, it was making it extremely difficult to pull my limbs off and up once they were stuck. Just as I was starting to realize my exhaustion, my head hit a metal arm. It was at the peak of an up-pull, so my head hit hard. I had made the climb so much more difficult in my mind that I was only mentally halfway up when my skull cracked the crossbar. Blood dripped into my eye from what I knew must be a pretty big gash right at my hairline. You couldn’t see it from the ground, but there were little steel supports under each arm right at the point where they connected with The Pole, and my head had collided with a little steel burr on that support bar, causing it to sink straight into my scalp and rip it open. Steve McQueen sensed that something was very wrong and barked up at me. I looked down to shush him.
It wasn’t until I looked down that I realized that I hadn’t made the climb more difficult in my mind at all. It was difficult. It was high. It was far higher up than I had estimated from the ground. If I fell, I would die. I knew it. Steve McQueen smelled it. And the blood obscuring my vision was magnifying the probability of me falling. I wouldn’t allow myself access to any mature logic at all, and went instead with my abundance of youthful idiocy to calculate the risk-to-reward ratio of retrieving her 95s. I must’ve spent about four one-thousandths of a second on this estimation.
Yeah, she’s worth it.
Now, everything up to this point was nothing but an athletic endeavor. But what happened next was one of the most surreal, hyper-focused adrenal experiences of my life. Time, and every one of my senses, seemed to slow way down. The pain at my hairline was gone, my lungs no longer burned, and my blood droplets seemed to float to the ground, peppering the concrete all around Steve, who was still smiling up at me, his barking muted, flickering in time lapse.
I would get her shoes.
I’d climbed this mast a thousand times in my head, and knew exactly how I would navigate every millimeter. So, I set out across the steel arm for her shoes, fifty feet up, going backwards, hand over hand, hanging with only my arms, my legs dangling into nothing, until I was about four feet out. I swung back and forth until I could snake my legs around the horizontal bar right where it joined the vertical. I hung upside down, and felt the vertical with my foot. I managed to hook their intersection with my right foot, just as I had in my mind’s rehearsals, and slowly I inched myself to right-side up. Creeping all the way out across that steel arm, I touched my very first pair of 95s. I touched her 95s. They were double-looped around the end of the spar, so I had to fling them around twice until they were freely draped over the arm, one shoe on each side. Both sneakers were suspended in a perfect balance for a moment, defying gravity, until one shoe dragged the other higher and higher and it leapt over the arm, set free. They landed about five feet from Steve McQueen with a clunk, but Steve never took his hunting-dog eyes off me.
Once her shoes were free and I was out at the end near that big chrome ball, I realized that the top of the horizontal metal bar was coated in fine Texas clay dust. And, as a result, my adhesion was gone. The Stickum had picked up every molecule of debris. I could feel the boom swaying. I could feel myself rotate just a bit with every sway. I could feel my heart throbbing. I could hear the blood leaving through the hole in my scalp. I could see the Dairy Queen in the distance. I could see the Shakey’s Pizza. I could see FUN Stadium by The Hole. I saw my entire life as a child concentrated into one singularity. I reached in my underwear and I pulled out the hat—the hat that had fallen off that fat tub of shit’s head in the bathroom as he jammed his finger in my chest, the hat that I saw on the floor in a puddle of pee as I stared at the ground—the hat that I had tied a length of my mom’s thread to with a noose on the other end.
Carefully, I slid that noose over the chrome-plated ball that glittered in the moonlight. I cinched it tight. I watched it dangle. It was the first time I actually read what that hat said. Nothing Runs Like a Deere twirled in the breeze. I was about forty-five feet off the ground, and I remember thinking, Well some things probably do, but certainly not a fat fuck like Jonathan.
I was hugging that chrome beam with my arms and legs like a little tree monkey, but the chrome spar’s sway grew more and more severe, like a snap reverberation of my passion to survive. I could see my moonlit Weimaraner moving to and fro underneath me as I clung to that arm, but Steve McQueen sat perfectly still, staring up at his errant protégé. The motion was mine. The top of The Pole probably wasn’t moving any more than a foot in either direction, but when it would stop and snap back in the other direction, the acceleration was enough to make me slip and rotate on the steel arm. I clasped my hands together around the horizontal arm of The Pole and tried to cross my feet, but as gravity pulled me down and I rotated completely upside down, my feet came apart and I hung by my prayer-clasped hands, swinging by the sheer force of inertia from side to side.
Not a single fiber of my being doubted that I was going to die in the next thrust of that pole’s torque. I would die because I knew I would have to separate my hands on the horizontal in order to hand-walk back to the vertical pole. And I knew that if I did, my hands would no longer hold. In that moment, I wondered if Steve would stay by my body all night like those World War II army dogs. I wondered if she would think that I had stolen her shoes, and had just died trying to get them so I could brag about my thievery. I wanted her to know that I was trying to save her 95s. I wanted her to know that I saw her every day by the pool. I wanted her to know that every single time we crossed paths, she had embossed an indelible image on the back side of my eyelids. I wanted her to know that I thought about her more than I thought about race cars or fighter planes or sports. And that I thought about her through every piece of music I cherished. But really, in that moment there on The Pole, swaying out of control, I just wanted my mom and dad. I wanted them more than I had ever wanted anything in my life. I was embarrassed to end my life this way. I did not want to die an idiot’s death.
I threw my legs up to try and regrab the horizontal, but the debris that had collected on my body made my feet too slippery to hold. Slick from Stickum coated with dust, my hands were too slippery to unclasp in order to walk them hand over hand, and I knew in that instant that the Stickum that had assisted me in my ascent would now most certainly cause my death. I had to try to keep my knuckles squeezed together in prayer-lock in order to maintain my slowly faltering grip. But, in my failed attempt to swing my legs up, the sheer momentum of my kick had slid my clasped hands about an inch closer to that pole. What I thought was going to kill me might actually save my life.
It must have taken me fifty kicks to come within reaching distance of that pole of life, but when I got close enough, I flung my lower body around the vertical like a newborn to his mother. I got my legs wrapped around The Pole while my hands still kept me up, prayer-gripping that metal arm. I knew how slippery I was, and that as soon as I let go of the horizontal bar I would slide much too quickly straight to the ground no matter how hard I hugged. I knew it would hurt, but I also knew that I would not die. I looked out at the city in front of me, and this was the most reassuring sight that my memory provides to this day. It was the view that no one else has ever seen of my Dairy Queen, my Shakey’s, my stadium, my church, her house, and my life.
- "Sean Patrick Flanery's coming-of-age story, like the land he hails from, has a quiet, giant, unpredictable heart."—Todd Field
- "Flanery writes with such clarity and truth that the places and people jump off the page."—Jon Cassar, Director of 24
- "JANE TWO has the dreamy authority of an elusive memory and the poetic whimsy that only comes with distance."—Ken Sanzel, Writer/Executive Producer of Numb3rs
- "An unexpected gem. Flanery is the poet warrior."—Jim Crabbe, Producer of Bad Country
- "This authentic coming-of-age story is told through the wholly masculine, first-person perspective of Mickey, who looks back at his formative years in Houston, Tex., when he was tucked inside the cocoon of small-town family life, tumultuous schoolyard bullies and friends, and also captivated by first love...Flanery brings the 1970s to robust life, with Pontiac Firebirds, Converse sneakers, and eight-track players blasting Lynyrd Snynyrd in this tearjerker."—Kathleen Gerard, Shelf Awareness
"Jane Two [is] so addictive, so utterly un-put-downable."
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2016
- Hachette Audio