A Natural History: Ed Pavlic18/11/2009
A Natural History of My Thanks
By Ed Pavlic
If I turn my right arm up, on the inside, beneath the bicep you’ll find the upside down smile Keith’s older cousin Damon cut into it in 1979. Faded, but it’s there. At the time, it was almost worth it. Like Keith, Damon lived with their grandparents. Damon worked nights at the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, Wisconsin. He said he boned hams. Damon always spoke low, it sounded to me like he was speaking to a person too hopelessly far away to talk to anyway and so what’s the point. He left the house in his pea-green Impala at nine dressed in what looked like a suit of fresh butcher paper. But, here’s the thing. He had cable radio in his room. All the Chicago stations. And, he had a neat row of glossy, Stacey Adams wing tips in his closet. When he was safely gone, Keith and I would sneak into his room to listen to his radio, the needle in the dial of his stereo glowed the perfect, pale orange in Alicia Meyers’s voice, “I know it couldn’t have happened without You,” singing to the far off color of the Chicago night sky.
We laid on our backs on Damon’s bed. We tried to dance with his leather-soled, oversized shoes on our feet. Skyy’s “Here’s my number and a dime.” We’d lay on our bellies and squirm slowly against the bed and wonder what that feeling was. GCI and BMX moved in our veins and, when the dj would say it, I could feel the thick slow jam spread all on my face. The song said, “Listen to my heart beat.” Falsetto summers. Heaven. That is, as long as no one knew we’d been in there. Damon was evil. Keith’s grandmama said so, said he’d been taken by the Devil. Way she said his name, like she was sucking on a hot pickle straight from Jew Town, we damned near believed her. She’d half say half hiss his name, shake her finger at us, and spit-hiss the rest of some ‘you bet not be’ phrase thru puckered lips at the floor in front of our feet. Keith’s granddaddy seemed to agree, but we didn’t exactly know because none of us could understand what he said. He talked without opening his mouth or moving his lips : sesu-mussu-e-say-say, hum. We’d nod. Yes. Ses, weum? Yes, Grandaddy. A language with its eyes shut. Words came out like sand you try to hold in your fist. Whatever he said, if we agreed, he was usually good for a dollar each and a twitch of his head that seemed to tell us to get the hell out of his wife’s house.
Damon was evil. One night, he trapped us against the railing on the front porch, flicked his chrome lighter and rolled his hand slowly in the flame. Palm down, we watched from above, the bright twist glowed red thru bones in his thin hand. His long nails with clear polish. He’d part his fingers, twist his wrist, and let the flame spill thru. Said : thing about fire. You don’t get burned if you know how to move.
Keith’s Grand Ps slept like stones you throw in the lake and wonder what kind of forever they sink into. And, of course, Damon came home early one night to find us asleep on his bed with all his shoes thrown out in the floor. I woke up when the door to the room locked. There he stood. Radio on. Ray Parker Junior. Keith’s out. Wouldn’t wake up til Damon slapped him hard and sat us on his bed next to each other. Eyes ablaze. He asked where we wanted it and he didn’t sound so far off anymore. We figured he was going to punch us so we pointed to our shoulders. He : take off yourn shirts. He took out his flick-lock pocketknife and said he was going to teach us to be in his room and I thought he meant not to be in his room. Who wants it first? The glow from the radio was dark green on his face and revealed deep trenches around his mouth. Cigarette lit below his chin. One eye closed against the smoke, his other one on us made me think of when I’d hooked a fish thru its eyeball. The song, “you’re the only one I love, and you can’t. change. that.” Damon took out the lighter and moved the knife blade in the flame til it smoked and the edge turned black. He wiped a smudge and its twin on his white sleeve and Keith said he’d go first and I said that’s fine with me.
Damon squeezed my arm in his hand and cut me first. Slow. A short, shallow, upside down arc appeared in blood on my arm and I didn’t bleed much and didn’t feel anything except warmth that spread across my lap. I told Keith it don’t hurt at all it don’t hurt at all. Keith’s was almost a smile. I sat there in my soaked underwear and thanked Damon over and over and, somehow, I meant it. I don’t remember thanking anyone and meaning it as much as that and I don’t know why I needed to thank him and mean it like that but I can still feel how much I meant it same as I can squeeze my arm, now, like Damon did and turn it up and smile down at the frown. And, I can see his face and stare again at the wingtips toppled all over the floor. I thanked him and Damon said : never mind all that, just do whatever you got to do. Keith, in a voice I’d never heard before, asked the floor, why? Damon : cause if I ever see you in here again, or if anyone sees those cuts, I’ll go to jail. I’ll go to jail for cutting you’se little niggers’ throats.
Ed Pavlić’s recent books are But Here Are Small Clear Refractions (Achebe Center, 2009) Winners Have Yet to be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway (UGAP, 2008) and Labors Lost Left Unfinished (UPNE,2006). He teaches at the University of Georgia and lives with Stacey, Milan, Sunčana, Mzée and I Am Pozzo in Athens, Georgia.
“A Natural History of My Thanks” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>