The woman looked into my baby black eyes and posed her question. "Why do you act that way?"
"What way is that?" I parried.
She shifted her feet, not for an instant taking her eyes' point of view from mine. "At two in the morning, I holler up the stairs at you. Some weird sound or other comes screaming down the street. I freak out. I call for you to investigate, right?"
I felt a smile blowing in the breeze across my face. "Sure," I said. "Happens at least every other night."
My smile was not reciprocated. "Whatever. You stagger down the stairs in your underwear, throw the door open to the world, march out onto the patio, and you tell whoever might be lurking around out there that your dick is bigger than his head so if he knows what's good for him he'll break into somebody else's house. Then you slam shut the door, kiss me on the cheek, climb the stairs and go back to your snoring."
"I don't really do any of that, do I?"
"Yes, yes you do. And what I want to know, sir, is what is it about you that allows you to act that way when I on the other hand am terrified of this creepy house and the ghetto birds hovering overhead and the psycho killers and all that, so I hide behind my hands and arms and wonder why the freaking dogs have to bark all night long and the people who own the dogs don't even notice!"
That was a mighty good question so I gave it some thought. I sipped some cold coffee, scratched the crown of my noggin, inspected my belly button, and at last responded thus:
"I used to really dislike my parents. When I was a kid, maybe eleven or so, I noticed that everybody on my mother's side of the family was psychotic. That includes my mom. On dad's side of the fence, everyone was just the opposite, to the extent they were so stoic that they were just as insane, only in a much quieter way. It used to be a genuine torture to me being caught up in between these diametrically opposed forms of madness."
"And this explains what exactly?"
"I'm getting there. Don't crowd me. Jeez. So, when I was, as I say, around eleven or so--somewhere out of the cute as a dickens phase but a long ways from the imaginary studly manliness of my early adulthood--my parents put me in the hospital."
"You mean like a nuthouse?"
"First of all, I prefer the term loony bin. Second of all, that wasn't what it was. It was a children's hospital, up in Columbus, Ohio. I was in there for about two weeks and probably would have been horribly disfigured had it not been for an old crippled black guy. He was Dr. Sherrod. He wasn't even my doctor. My doctor was named Adams. Dr. Adams saw something on a brain scan of mine that he thought was a tumor. Dr. Sherrod came rolling by in his wheelchair and just happened to look in the room. He said, 'You idiot! That's a thumb print! You planned to cut that boy's head open to remove a thumbprint from the X-ray! Who the hell are you, Adams, the Marquis de Sade?'
"This Dr. Sherrod, he was quite a character. He chained smoked like a fiend, except he would only puff once per cigarette, just enough to get the stick lit. Then he'd leave the ciggie in the ashtray and when it burned out, he'd light up another and repeat the process."
"He did this right in the hospital?"
"Sure! In those days people smoked wherever they wanted. In fact, a lot of people who didn't necessarily even want to smoke could be found puffing away night and day, in police stations, cemeteries, elevators, stereo stores, day care waiting rooms, portrait studios, even if they didn't want to smoke. It was like a law or something. Anyway, so this guy, Sherrod, I'm pretty sure he lit up just to aggravate people like my original physician, which is cool by me."
"So why were you in the hospital?"
"I was there because my mom swore on a stack that I was complaining of debilitating headaches and that I was blacking out fairly often."
"Why do you ask it that way?"
"It sounds as if you're skeptical."
"Funny you'd say that because I am skeptical now just as I was back then. I absolutely have no recollection at all of any headaches and of course I don't remember blacking out. The only thing I remember is that my reflexes on the left half of me weren't responsive from time to time."
"What did they decide was wrong with you?"
"This is the real point of the story. Dr. Sherrod said my problem was that my parents were turning me into a weakling."
She took a step back in order to have a more appraising look at me. "How did he decide on that? That's not a typical diagnosis."
"Maybe not, but he was right. I don't think it was necessarily deliberate, but it was right on the money. It had started back when I was a toddler. Mom had decided that I had allergies, so sure enough I developed allergies. She cleaned our house about seven times a day, to the point where a speck of dust would have killed itself from social alienation, that's how clean the joint was. She was afraid that some pollutants or particulates would poison the sinuses of her only son. As a result, you can imagine what happened."
"You weren't prepared for the outside world."
"Exactly. If I wanted to play with some kid who had horses, I would end up in the stable wheezing for oxygen. If I wanted to go running through the woods with some other kids, look out, because the dried leaves would wound me in some way."
"God, they really can create a lot of problems, huh?"
"Indeed. All with the best of motives, of course."
"Sherrod told my parents--especially my mother--that unless they wanted me to end up a cripple like himself--they'd better damned well let me scrape my knees and breathe pollutants, fall out of tree houses, that kind of thing, otherwise I'd be a vegetable. My mom's family, they always magnified weaknesses. Always. So if my aunt didn't want to go to church, she'd get a headache, or tell people she had a headache. After a while, she'd actually get genuine migraines, even when she didn't want to get out of something. Eventually a whole industry built up around these people to cater to them and to keep them happy with their medications. Now in my mom's situation, she was pretty clever about being sick, so she reached the point where even taking the pain pills to stop the pain--the pain pills themselves supposedly made her sick too. Things descended to the point where she was always sick with some ailment or other, and of course, economically it was necessary for her to work outside the home, which she did without complaint. But it also was a psychological reward to her because she was suffering from pneumonia, arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, you name it, all while putting in forty hours a week as a salesperson at the department store. Well, Sherrod told mom that my future was going to end up the same way. Naturally, that bit of insight was met with resistance by everyone in the family except me."
"You knew the doctor was onto something."
"Exactly! I wasn't completely stupid. I saw how the other kids' families acted. I knew all the other parents let their kids do all kinds of things that mine protected me from. So one day I woke up good and early and started riding my bicycle wherever I wanted and getting into all kinds of fun, including some things that were probably genuinely very dangerous."
"Your folks adjust to that?"
"Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I used to get a lot of lectures about how they didn't want me to make the same mistakes they had made. Why couldn't I understand that and learn from their mistakes? Sound familiar?"
I stopped walking around, something I suddenly realized I'd been doing since my little diatribe had begun. I looked at her and saw that my words were falling on receptive ears. I said, "A major turning point in my life, which I think I've mentioned to you already, was about a year later, it was winter time, and I had gone off with a friend of mine from school to explore the secret garbage dump a couple miles from our housing complex. We got into all kinds of trouble out there. Everything worked out, of course, but I got home kind of late and mom was going bananas about how a sick kid like me shouldn't be out in the snow, or out with my friends, and especially not horsing around in a frozen mountain of refuse."
"You became a rebel."
"For all the wrong reasons, though. I mean, a good reason would have been that I had some sort of visceral reaction to the boring suburban lifestyle that people's parents were enduring, or the political monotony, or whatever it might have been. Instead, I was just aggravated by the attack on my own sanity. It took me a long time to get over that."
"You never got over it."
"Maybe not completely. I mean, we are having this conversation, aren't we? But I eventually realized they weren't trying to poison my mind. They were just unaware--I hope--of the damage they were doing. Later on, I think they maybe even respected me a little."
"Sure they did. I never met them, but--"
I wondered then and wonder this instant just how much culpability any of us have. I tuned her out and thought about it again. You beat a kid every day, you can expect that kid to beat other people when he grows up, or else he learns to like being beaten. You make him weak, he learns to overcompensate or learns to survive as a weakling.
Ultimately I think we raise ourselves when we're kids. At around the age of eleven or twelve, we look around us and recognize that we are responsible for the adult we will presumably become. That's a hell of a responsibility for people who can't even vote or drive a car legally.