The Unbeatables; The Autobiography of Strongman
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No one is certain, but it’s been estimated that over 100 billion people have left their footprints on this earth. If every one of us wrote our autobiography, how many of those 100 billion stories would read the same? None. We are each priceless originals. We each have a unique story. This is mine. My name is Henry Fleming. But most of you know me simply as Strongman.
I was born and raised in a one-horse-town in rural Pennsylvania. My father's name was William Fleming. He was the mayor, and also the town’s only doctor. He was 31 years old when I made him a father. My mother was three years younger than my dad. I was the oldest of four children. We lived on a farm a few miles outside of town. The house we lived in was painted white and had a porch that when you ran around it, you ended up back where you started. When you entered the house, you walked into the parlor, which was just a room you stayed in until deciding which room you actually came to visit. Our living room was enormous. It fit a fifteen foot Christmas tree, plus the star. Every Christmas Eve we made popcorn balls, sang Christmas carols, and took inventory of the presents beneath the tree that we would be frantically unwrapping the following day. On Christmas morning, we gathered back in the living room, formed a circle, held hands, closed one eye, and thanked God for the birth of his Son. The other eye was focused on the fireplace mantle to make sure that the stockings hanging there contained candy canes, not coal.
There were pigs and cows on our farm. We gave them names. We played with them. They were our friends. And we eventually ate them. At the dinner table, we used to say things like “This meatloaf tastes a little like Wilbur and a little like Ferdinand.” And we’d laugh until some of Bessie’s unpasteurized milk flowed from our nostrils.
In our town, keys were used to start things like cars and tractors, not to unlock locked doors. We all knew one another. We said “good morning,” “please,” and “thank you.” We held doors open for others. If you needed something at a store on a Sunday, you were out of luck. They were closed. Regardless of which holiday it was, the town celebrated it with a parade down Main Street. And we all gathered at Memorial Park where we would play games and eat homemade food brought in bowls, Tupperware, casserole dishes, and dessert trays. And the town band played the same songs they played the year before to celebrate the same holiday.
It was a wonderful place to grow up. If there was a dark side, it was a secret well kept. I don’t remember evil living in, or even driving through our town.
The childhood I just described was not mine. I pretend it was. It is the childhood I would have chosen if given the opportunity to choose from a catalog. If such a listing existed, I am almost certain my real childhood would not be one of the offerings. I can’t say for certain, as I have almost no recollection of the first five years of my life. People ask me, “Why don’t you see a therapist who can help you unlock your childhood memories?” Why would I want to revisit memories I felt it necessary to build walls around? Besides, I've become rather attached to my fabricated childhood. I had my own bedroom with my own bed, my own nightstand, and a dog named Roscoe, who kept my face cleaner than Ivory soap. My room also had a crawlspace where I could hide when I realized I didn't deserve such an extraordinary childhood.
You may be wondering why I felt it necessary to include the crawlspace in the fabricated floor plan of my fabricated bedroom. Why was I not deserving of a life most other kids would consider ordinary?
A lone memory. I was standing. Everyone was looking down at me. Their faces were blurry like my eyes moved at the precise moment my mind snapped the picture. A woman’s voice said, “He was abandoned shortly after birth.” And then their conversation turned to hushes.
In the book, Hunchback of Notre Dame, written by Victor Hugo, Quasimodo was dumped at the entrance of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The book doesn’t describe the circumstances that led up to this event. Quasimodo was grotesquely disfigured. If you’ve never read the book, you may not be aware that when he was abandoned, he was not a baby, but a child three or four years old. Like Quasimodo, I was also discarded. To this day, I wonder what I could have possibly done to make my mother dump me so young when whoever abandoned Quasimodo took several years to arrive at that same decision.
Whoever assumed custody of me made sure that my early childhood remained a living hell. I have a dimple that starts from the right corner of my mouth and extends outward about an inch. On those rare occasions when I smile, the dimple makes my grin look cockeyed. The dimple is actually a scar. I have another one near my left eye and a tapestry of them across my back. What could I have possibly done to earn so many scars at such a young age? I must have been one evil little demon.
The fog of my memory lifts around the age of six when I was sent to live in a red brick building. In my bedroom, which I shared with two other boys, one long side of my bed, and one short side were against the brick wall. I was always as cold as the brick. Our room, which we called Brown Tile Country, was divided into three sections. We called them states. There was West Wall, East Wall, and Tiny Wall. The population of each state was one. State lines were not clearly delineated, but we instinctively knew when someone from another state crossed the border into our land. And if they entered illegally, they were punished. The penalty was always the same. A punch in the arm.
The downside to these territorial divisions was that the bedroom door was in the center of the inside wall, so statesmen of both West Wall and East Wall had to cross into the fine state of Tiny Wall to leave Brown Tile Country to eat, go to school, or go to the bathroom. My arms were in a constant state of bruising, thanks to the Governor of Tiny Wall. One time, the Governor refused to grant me safe passage to take a piss. I must have done the potty dance for ten minutes just inches from the state line. Finally, I couldn’t hold it any longer, so I dropped my pants and proceeded to give the State of Tiny Wall its first day of measurable precipitation on record.
I was the governor of West Wall. There were no signs that identified that. There was nothing that identified either me or the state in which I governed because no matter how much tape I used, nothing would stick to the cold brick wall. And the day I painted “West Wall Rules” on the West Wall, was immediately followed by several days of me scrubbing “West Wall Rules” off the West Wall.
Each state had a nightstand next to their bed that had just enough room for a lamp and a framed picture. Most states have state birds and state flowers. We had state monsters. The framed picture in each state was a representation of its state monster. The state Monster for West Wall was called Gigantobot. The upper half of Gigantobot was a robot, and the lower half was an armored tank. There weren’t too many sleepless nights in West Wall, knowing Gigantobot was protecting the borders. As you have surmised, Red Brick was a boy’s home.
I was a big kid. I wasn't heavy. But that never stopped the other kids from teasing me about being fat. This never stopped me from pounding on the kids that called me fat. It was a vicious cycle, which usually ended up with me being punished for punching, as opposed to them being reprimanded for name calling.
Danny the Farter was the Governor of the toxic state of East Wall. The state’s monster was the Fartulator. Danny came to the home a few months before my arrival. He’d been bounced around from one relative to another, probably due to his incessant farting. Danny possessed few redeeming qualities. But two stood out. While most kids would go out of their way to squish and torture bugs, Danny went out of his way to save them. If a spider was crawling down a wall, before anyone could get their shoe off, Danny had the spider cupped in his hands, reassuring the arachnid that it was safe. Whatever creatures Danny rescued usually found sanctuary in East Wall. The other state governors granted asylum as well.
Sometime in Danny’s young life, he was introduced to God. Every night, before he turned off the state lamp, Danny's knees hit the cold brown tile, and he prayed. It wasn’t one of those canned prayers that you earned a gold star for memorizing. They were very personal conversations with the God who created the universe, but who still found time each night to talk with some kid who was cast aside by every living relative. The irony was that Danny prayed for each of those same relatives by name every night. He knew the circumstances that brought him to Red Brick. But instead of asking God to do some major smiting, Danny would ask God to heal Uncle Ted’s bad back, keep the rabbits out of Aunt Carol’s garden, and that cousin Tommy would get a baby brother, not a sister. The tragic part is that Danny never knew whether or not his prayers had been answered. In the five years Danny and I lived in the same one-room country; I don’t recall him ever hearing from Uncle Ted, Aunt Carol, Cousin Tommy, or any other relatives featured in his nightly prayers.
One day after school, I entered Brown Tile Country, and immediately knew something was wrong. It didn’t smell like rotten eggs. Danny was gone. No goodbyes. Later, we found out that he’d gone to live with a foster family. The first night after Danny left, I noticed there were two framed pictures on my crowded nightstand. The State of West Wall now had two State Monsters. Gigantobot, and now the Fartulator. I was way okay with that. If Gigantobot’s missiles and death rays couldn’t stop an intruder, I knew the Fartulator could.
One last thing about Danny. Every night, he also prayed for me. He prayed that I would find peace.
Kevin the Detonator was the governor of my neighboring state of Tiny Wall. Tiny Wall’s state monster was called Clang. Clang was a fusion word for Claw and Fang. Clang’s portrait on the nightstand showed a snarling beast with vicious fangs and razor-sharp claws. In some ways, it was a self-portrait of the governor himself. Kevin earned the nickname “detonator” because of his volatile temper. And Kevin had no “off” switch. Once he lost his temper the chances of him finding it was between slim and none, and Slim just hid in a corner and wet himself. And as his anger erupted, so would his use of profanity. Most of us learned in school that a sentence had to have a minimum of two words. A noun and a verb. In the state of Tiny Wall, a third-word requirement was added. An expletive. At Red Brick, swearing was forbidden. The punishment for such an offense was a bar of soap in your mouth for five minutes. Kevin went through more soap for swearing than he did bathing.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, a psychologist named Dr. Caterpillar visited Red Brick. As you might have guessed, that was not his real name. I can’t speak for kids nowadays, but back when I was a kid, we gave nicknames to just about every adult. Dr. Caterpillar received his nickname because his eyebrows were so hairy they looked like two furry caterpillars, one above each eye. You couldn’t stop staring at him because you didn’t want to miss the moment when one of those hairy eyebrows crawled off his face. Almost half of the kids at Red Brick had weekly sessions with Dr. Caterpillar. I had one session with him when I first arrived. He asked questions, took notes, and nodded his head a billion times. At the end of our session, he asked me if I had any questions. I was tempted to ask him what he fed his eyebrows, but I just shook my head sideways. That was my first/last session. I never knew whether that was because the initial meeting went so well, or so horribly wrong that any follow-on appointments were pointless.
Of all his patients, Dr. Caterpillar focused most of his attention on trying to turn Kevin into a normal kid. But Kevin was not normal. A few months before Kevin started serving time in Red Brick, he witnessed the brutal slaying of both his parents. I overheard two staff members discussing it one day. During the day, Kevin the Detonator would lash out, both verbally and physically at anything that rubbed him the wrong way. But at night, Kevin lived his own version of hell. Of all the years we shared a common border, I don’t remember Kevin ever making it through a single night without reliving the nightmare of his parent’s murder.
Of all the state monsters, Clang was the most helpless at protecting his ruler. Kevin’s enemies never left his head. Several nights a week I crossed into Tiny Wall territory, woke up its governor from his nightly terror, and held him as he sobbed. It was our secret. But deep down inside, he and I both knew there was only one way to get rid of the nightmares. I’m sure Dr. Caterpillar knew it as well.
Here’s why I included Kevin in this book. Kevin didn’t ask for the nightmares that haunted him at night and caused him to detonate during the day. He had victim written all over him, but no one even tried to break the code. Why should they? He was mean. Abusive. Violent. But he was also fragile. Lost. Helpless. But unless you crossed the border into Tiny Wall at 2:00 AM you never got to meet that side of him.
The world is full of Kevins, who through no fault of their own, are beyond repair. We can’t heal them, and they know that. All they want from us is to understand them. And know that they’re not who they appear to be.
Red Brick building was situated several blocks from a train station. Other than hearing an occasional train whistle, I never gave much thought to trains. When I was nine years old, our school held a Career Week. Adults from diverse occupations set up booths in the school gymnasium. Students were introduced to a variety of fields and careers to get a jump start on what they might want to be when they grew up.
Late in the week I wandered into the gym to pick myself out a career. The first booth I happened upon was Careers in Railroading. When I was young, railroads were like airplanes are today. Whether you were a person, a box of Corn Flakes, or a sheet of plywood, you probably took the train when traveling from Point A to Point B. I don't recall what the number was back then, but even today there's enough railroad tracks in the United States to circle the Earth (at the equator) almost 10 times. Nowadays, if schools even held Career Week, there would not be a booth for railroading.
An older gentleman was manning the railroad booth. He was wearing a train conductor uniform. The name “Clarence” was embroidered on his uniform jacket. Clarence looked so old; he probably manned the "Careers in Stagecoaching" booth at Career Week back in the Old West. When I approached, Clarence greeted me with a "Hello there young whippersnapper," and placed a train engineer hat on my head. He went over all the career options in the railroad business. A slide projector showing photographs of trains, stations, and yards complimented his presentation.
First impressions make a huge difference whether you’re purchasing something, meeting someone, or looking at career options at nine years old. Clarence could have tossed a brochure my direction and gone back to reading his magazine. But he spent time with me. He answered all of my probing questions. “Yes, you get to ride on trains. Yes, you get to blow the train whistle. Yes, you get to wear uniforms like mine.” If you lived at Red Brick, your instinct was to trust no one. But at the same time, you desperately wanted to. You yearned to feel connected to someone who was genuinely interested in connecting with you. I felt that with Clarence.
Clarence informed me of an opportunity the following Saturday for students interested in getting a closer look at railroading by visiting the train station. I expressed casual interest by jumping up and down and screaming “yes, please” over and over again. He jotted my information down on a clipboard. He hesitated when I gave him the address. He apparently knew about Red Brick. I panicked, thinking that would disqualify me. Clarence must have sensed that, as he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and said he would call and make arrangements with someone at the home. Saturday morning, a Red Brick attendant dropped me off in front of the train station. Clarence was waiting for me. Just Clarence. Apparently, none of my schoolmates were interested in a railroad career. I was way okay with that.
That Saturday was the best day of my young life. I experienced many “firsts.” My first donut, which fortunately/unfortunately was the beginning of a very long, high caloric relationship. My first cup of coffee, which was dark, bitter, and strong – and still how I drink it today. My first train ride. And yes, I got to blow the train whistle. I also discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up. A railroad engineer. I wanted to drive trains.
What started out as a one-time field trip morphed into a regular Saturday activity. Clarence would pick me up from Red Brick, and we’d go to work at the train station. Sometimes I hung out with the train engineers, who possessed an even broader and colorful profanity palette than Kevin the Detonator. After Clarence and I put in a hard day of railroading, we would go to his house. His wife Anna would have supper waiting for us. We sat at the dining room table, said grace, and ate fabulous meals like fried chicken with potatoes and gravy, meatloaf with potatoes and gravy, and pot roast with potatoes and gravy. Clarence and Anna had been married 46 years. They held hands a lot and finished each other’s sentences. I looked forward to supper at Clarence and Anna’s, as much as I did the train station.
At Red Brick, staff members were assigned to every wing of the home. Each wing had four rooms with three boys per room. If the staff member's job description read, “Torment, ridicule, abuse, and neglect at every opportunity,” then Wally the Weasel exceeded those expectations. Wally was the staff attendee for our wing the final two years of my stay at Red Brick. His first order of business after he arrived was to find out what each of our weaknesses were so that he could exploit them. He would torture and kill insects in front of Danny. He overheard Kevin cry one night, and teased him incessantly until he detonated. A kid a few rooms down from ours would occasionally wet the bed. Wally would publicly threaten to make him wear diapers.
Wally was one of cruelest human beings ever to cross my path. And as you read deeper into this book, you’ll realize that’s saying a hell of a lot. Wally could not find a weakness in me that he could exploit. He teased me because of my size. Called me typical fat names. When kids my age called me those names, it stung. But hearing the Weasel call me names was just pathetic. And when his teasing didn’t elicit the desired response, he got physical. He would trip me or shove me against a wall
My body had been changing. The school nurse called it growing pains. But it was not just the pains. It was as if someone else was trying to move into my body. When Kevin punched me in the arm for crossing the border into Tiny Wall, it stopped hurting me and began hurting him. When I hit him in the arm for illegally entering West Wall, it hurt him. It never used to. It got to the point that neither Kevin nor Danny came within a foot of the border of West Wall. At that same time, both Tiny Wall and East Wall unexpectedly lifted the punishment for crossing into their territories. I could roam all over Brown Tile Country without repercussion.
It happened on a Friday night. Most kids had already gone to bed. I was about to hit the sack myself, but I remembered I needed to remind someone in administration that Clarence was going to pick me up the next morning. On my way back to Brown Tile Country, Wally the Weasel tripped me and laughed as my body smacked the cold tiled floor in the hallway. Before I could stop them, a stream of profanity poured out of my mouth. Kevin the Detonator and the train engineers I hung out with would have been shocked, and proud. The Weasel was also shocked. But rather than compliment me on my ability to craft a single sentence incorporating every swear word ever created, he walked towards me wearing an evil grin on his weasel face.
"Normally, I’d just report you, but this can’t wait until morning. Stand up.” I stayed down. “Stand up you goddamn chubby shit."
Those last few words pissed me off. I was about to be punished for saying those same words. Who was going to administer his punishment? As I got to my feet, he reached out and grabbed me around my neck. In an instant, we both realized the same thing. He saw the absence of fear in my expression, and I felt it. As he drew his hand back to slap me, I threw a quick punch to his stomach. I don't know who was more shocked by the impact of that punch. I certainly did not expect Wally to fly backwards and crash into the wall. And it certainly wasn’t something Wally was expecting.
First Kiss. First car. First job. All of these are "coming of age" events most of us have had the pleasure of experiencing. And regardless of how far back in our rear view mirror they happened, we still remember them as if they happened yesterday. First punch. I can't think of a more deserving person that I would have wanted to be my first. Wally missed several weeks of work. No one knew what happened. Someone found the Weasel lying in the hallway. He was unconscious. He had several broken ribs. And when he fell to the floor, that empty coconut shell of a head hit the cold, hard tile floor and cracked.
When Wally returned to Red Brick, he never bothered another kid again. Kept his nose clean and just did his job - which come to find out was to make sure kids didn't cause problems, help them resolve conflict, and teach them to be clean and respectful. The Weasel never made eye contact with me after that. The only difference between bullies and cowards is the spelling.
When I started getting stronger, I thought perhaps the God that Danny the Farter and Clarence and Anna prayed to, realized he needed to compensate me for the shitty hand of cards I had been dealt. And rather than wealth (which would have been my obvious choice), he came up with the “I think I'll make him strong” reparation. The incident with Wally scared the hell out of me. Ask any kid at Red Brick what he would rather be; normal or different, he'd immediately respond with, "I'd like to know what normal feels like." Being strong just made me that much more different than the other different kids. So I kept my God-given blessing (or curse) to myself. It would be my secret. Well, Wally's and mine. But I was certain Wally would carry that secret to his grave.
Red Brick had a large recreation room next to the dining hall. It was where most of us hung out after dinner. There were games to play, books to read, and television to watch. The walls were covered with pictures of places in the world we all figured we’d never see in real life. My favorite picture was of a train cutting through a pristine valley with rolling hills and dense forest in the background.
Every kid in Red Brick dreamed of being someplace else. Danny the Farter wanted to go to New York and fart off the top of the Empire State Building. Kevin the Detonator wanted to go to Hawaii and swim with sea turtles. Me? I would sit in the closest chair to the train picture, and for a few minutes each night I would escape from Red Brick by transporting myself into the train’s locomotive.
The first week of December, the staff at Red Brick decorated the Rec Room for Christmas. They put up a freshly cut tree and decorated it with bright colored lights, ornaments, tinsel, and an angel with gold wings on the top branch. And for the next three weeks, they played Christmas music. On Christmas Day, we'd gather in the rec room to open presents. Gifts came from various sources; relatives of kids, charities, and compassionate citizens. We all sat on the floor while one of the staff members dressed like Santa picked up gifts from beneath the tree, and called out the name of the kid whose name appeared on the tag. Some kids heard their name called several times. Other kids, only once. I was one of the latter. I usually received a generic gift meant for a kid who otherwise would not receive one.
In what turned out to be my last Christmas at Red Brick, my luck changed. I received a Christmas gift that Santa clearly had me in mind when he delivered it. The tag said, “Merry Christmas to the greatest Junior Engineer. Much Love, Santa.” I tore the wrapping paper off, revealing a Lionel Train Set. The following Saturday, when Clarence picked me up to go to work, he asked if Santa had been good to me. We both just grinned.
In the middle of February the following year, Clarence the Conductor retired from the railroad business. He and Anna had purchased a travel trailer and were going to spend their retirement years visiting all of our country’s National Parks. The last night I was with them, they gave me a card, but told me not to open it until I got back to Red Brick. When I did, a twenty-dollar bill fell out. I don’t remember what the sentiment in the card said, but it was signed, “Much Love, Clarence, and Anna.” I will never know why Clarence put that train engineer’s hat on me at career week. I will never understand why he took an interest in me. I will never know why Clarence and Anna welcomed me into their home every Saturday evening, fed me amazing food, and treated me like I was special. But if I were to take a guess, I would say the answer was hidden somewhere within how they signed that card.
Whenever I think back on my transition from Red Brick to my new home, I always envision a ball player in a locker room after a game. A coach approaches and informs him he's just been traded, and to pack his bags and catch the next plane (or train) out of town. The ball player stands there frozen with shock. I don’t know if that actually happens, but I saw it in a movie once. Apparently Dennis the Nostril, an administrator at Red Brick saw that same film. I was in West Wall changing into my pajamas when Dennis stuck his enormous nostrils into Brown Tile Country and essentially told me I had just been traded to a foster family, and I was to catch a train the following morning.
I remember my legs suddenly giving out, and I dropped onto my bed. I should have done cartwheels down the cold tiled hallway. Instead, I sat there on my bed wishing Dennis had stuck his nostrils into some other boy's doorway. I wanted to leave Red Brick as much as I wanted to stay.
The day I left Red Brick, the Fartulator and Gigantobot joined forces with Clang in Tiny Wall. But sometimes even three state monsters aren’t enough protection. A few months after I left, Kevin the Detonator put a permanent end to his nightmares. He hung himself. And Brown Tile Country disappeared off the face of the earth.
My Foster family met me as I stepped off the train. I remember the rain was torrential. I had left my coat behind in Brown Tile Country for Kevin, because the sleeves on his jacket didn’t reach the end of his arm, and his teeth were always chattering. Their names were Carl and Doris Harper. They had a 7-year-old daughter named Penny. Our inaugural conversation went like this:
“Are you the kid from the boy’s home?” This from Carl.
“I’m Mr. Harper. This is Mrs. Harper. This is our daughter Penny. Where’s your coat?”
That was the extent of the conversation until we reached their house, which I would guess was an hour’s drive. The moment I first saw Mr. Harper, I knew what his name would be. Mister Unibrow. I have no idea what value eyebrows have, but I assume they serve a purpose. Notice I pluralized “eyebrow” because until I saw Mr. Harper, I had never seen a person with an eyebrow (singular). It went from one side of his head to the other, without the obligatory break between the eyes. I thought of Dr. Caterpillar with his furry eyebrows. If Mr. Harper’s unibrow were hairy like Dr. Caterpillar’s, it would have taken a good ten minutes for it to crawl off his face.
Mrs. Harper’s first name was Doris. I have no idea what compelled Doris to accept a marriage proposal from a man with one continuous eyebrow. The apparent absence of love would also have been a good reason to decline the offer. But not all was as it seemed. I learned that from Kevin the Detonator. We draw conclusions based on what we observe in people. What we don’t know is what drives their behavior. I would soon learn the awful truth about why the Harpers rarely talked, smiled, or laughed.
Doris Harper always smelled like flowers. I never knew the name of the perfume she wore, but over the years, I recognized that same fragrance worn by other women. Doris tried to be a mother to me. Some might claim she could have done a better job, but since I had no one else to compare her to, it was pointless to find fault. Doris had long auburn hair. I used to watch her as she brushed it. She’d close her eyes, and I could see from her expression that it brought her pleasure. At ten years old, I possessed the perceptive skills of a dull pencil. Yet even in its rudimentary stage, it told me that Doris Harper was tormented by something that she might never recover from.
The first thing that caught my eye when I entered the house was an enormous ornate grandfather clock. I used to make sure I was standing near it whenever it hit the hour mark. The chime was so deep; I could feel the vibration throughout my body. Many years later, I purchased a grandfather clock that had a similar deep chime. Childhood memories are what keep antique stores in business.
Most of the furniture in the Harper’s house had no manufacturer’s label. They were all crafted by Mr. Unibrow. Mr. Unibrow was a carpenter. He built furniture in a barn-like shop behind the house. Although he had his shortcomings, carpentry wasn’t one of them. His furniture was some of the most sought after in the region. While I was living there, the state commissioned him to build furniture for the governor’s office.
The Harper house had three floors. The upper floor had three bedrooms. Mr. Unibrow and Doris slept in one. Penny occupied the second. I didn’t know who occupied the third. My bedroom was in the basement. I followed Mr. Unibrow down the creaky wooden stairs and shown to my room. The walls on one side of the room had paneling. The other walls were still waiting for theirs. The floor was concrete, but there was the carcass of an old bathroom rug about the size of a doormat at the foot of the twin bed. There was a dresser, which was obviously built by a less competent carpenter than the one that lived upstairs on the third floor. There was no nightstand, so I was glad I left Gigantobot behind at Red Brick. There were two electrical outlets, one of which would be the power source for my electric train. Mr. Unibrow set my suitcase on the bed, told me to unpack, and join the family upstairs for supper. I sat on my cold bed in my cold room in the cold basement trying to convince myself that life in the Harper house would be an upgrade from Red Brick.
My first supper at the Harpers was pork chops, scalloped potatoes, and green beans. In Red Brick, we had pork chops every Tuesday. The similarity was in name only. The Red Brick cooks had the uncanny ability to drain all moisture and flavor from every food they overcooked. If it wasn’t dry and bland, someone didn’t follow the recipe. At Red Brick, many of us lost dessert privileges before we even knew what dessert was going to be. My first night at the Harper’s I was treated to what is still one of my favorite desserts. Peach Cobbler. Each night at the Harper’s ended with a delicious dessert. And I made it my goal never to lose dessert privileges during my stay there.
Early the next morning I was woken up by Mr. Unibrow stomping down the basement stairs calling my name and telling me to come upstairs for breakfast. Breakfast was typically hot cereal, homemade bread and jelly, and juice. Doris was packing a school lunch. But whose lunch was it? Mine or Penny’s? Mealtimes at the Harper’s were awkward and uncomfortable. No one spoke. Most families took advantage of the time around the table to catch up on the day’s events. A free flow of dialogue among family members, some with, and some without food in their mouth. It was as if the Harpers had forgotten how to be a family.
That first morning, Mr. Unibrow broke the silence, scaring the hell out of everyone at the table.
“You won’t be going to school while you’re living here. You’re going to learn a valuable trade. Carpentry. You’re going to be my apprentice. You’ll have a skill that will benefit you the rest of your life. When you’re done eating, clear your dishes and meet me in the shop out back.”
I was tempted to ask Mr. Unibrow what value carpentry skills would have for a future train engineer. But before I could speak, Mr. Unibrow had slipped back into a coma like the rest of the Harpers.
The shop was larger than it looked from the outside. The combination of woods and stains created a very pleasant odor. The shop was filled with large electric tools like table saws, sanders, lathes, and drills. Furniture pieces hung from the rafters, waiting to be called up for active duty. Walls held up hammers, planes, screwdrivers, hand saws. Shelves were stocked with cans of stains and paints, sandpaper, rags, and paint brushes. A light dusting of sawdust covered the floor. To be quite honest, if I had not already committed myself to a railroad career, I could have easily been swayed by carpentry.
Mr. Unibrow was a perfectionist. Not a single piece of furniture left that shop until he thoroughly inspected it to make sure there were no blemishes, marks, or scratches. Like most perfectionists, Mr. Unibrow placed the same high level of expectation on everyone else. And almost always, I fell short. He’d point out the flaws in me that led to flaws in my work. I was lazy. I cut corners (not literally). I compromised. I lacked pride. The times I applied myself, the finished products were always superior to the sub-par work I had done before. I hated that. It proved his point. But it was also worth it to see his reaction to something I had done well. Mr. Unibrow was an expert at pointing out your faults, but equally proficient at pointing out the times you defeated them. It took a long time for that life application to absorb beneath my skin. Never let anyone set your bar higher than what you set it for yourself.
The night that Dennis the Nostril dropped the bomb that I was leaving Red Brick, I snuck into the rec room for one final look at the train picture. I sat in my usual chair and did what I always did – dreamt of being on that train. I had no idea where I was going, but I was quite certain there would not be a picture like this for me to hide in. So while the rest of the Red Brick population slept, I got up from that chair, slid it directly beneath the picture, stood on it, removed four thumbtacks, and took the train picture. I rolled it as tight as I could, and placed it in the old suitcase I was given to pack my belongings. The next morning, as I walked down the cold tiled hallway for the final time; I was terrified that I would get caught for stealing.
Every night, in my basement dungeon, I would stare at the train picture. It was the only picture on the wall. I never asked permission to put it up. I was afraid Mr. Unibrow would say no. Not that he would ever know. I could have plastered every square inch of wall space with nudie pictures, and I would have enjoyed them the entire duration of my stay. No one ever came into the dungeon. Ever.
It drove me crazy. I was forced to live in the freezing, dark basement while there was a perfectly warm and bright (currently unoccupied) bedroom on the third floor. I never saw anyone enter the room. Once, Doris walked by the room, turned to go in, saw me, then turned back around and walked the opposite direction. It would have been nice if someone in the Harper house would have clued me in on what was obviously a well-kept secret. But why would they? I wasn’t family. Finally, someone in the Harper house revealed the family secret, and when they did, I regretted being so nosey.
Three weeks into my carpentry apprenticeship, I managed to get a wood splinter lodged between my thumb and thumbnail. It hurt like hell, and I unleashed a string of expletives that we train engineers would mutter when we would accidentally run into one of the four or five million pieces of protruding metal in a locomotive. Mr. Unibrow immediately rushed over and slapped my face, and warned me that if he ever heard those words come out of my mouth again, he’d ship me back to the home. I regretted not delivering an immediate witty comeback like, “Fine, at least I had a nightstand in my bedroom at Red Brick.” Isn’t it a shame you never think of zingers like that until too much time has passed for them actually to zing.
Mr. Unibrow sent me into the house to have Mrs. Harper remove the splinter and bandage the wound. I couldn’t find Doris anywhere. The only place I didn’t look was in the third bedroom on the upper floor. I decided I’d just open the door, pop my head in, and see if she was in there. After all, it was a medical emergency. I stood at the doorway with my hand on the doorknob for what seemed like five minutes. And then I slowly turned the doorknob and lightly pushed open the door. I was half expecting some vicious snarling beast to break free from its chains and devour me. Instead, all I saw was a bedroom. A carpeted bedroom. With Harper-built furniture. The bed looked like it had just been slept in.There were clothes and shoes on the floor. Clothes and shoes that looked like they could fit me. There was a stuffed bear sitting in the desk chair. It was missing one of its button eyes. I tiptoed over to the desk. There was a Boy Scout handbook opened to the section for tying knots. Several pieces of knotted rope were nearby.
“You’re not allowed in here.”
I nearly soiled myself. Penny was standing in the doorway.
“Don’t touch anything. Everything is supposed to stay where it was.”
She walked into the room, grabbed the sleeve of my shirt, and towed me out. She did a quick perimeter check to make sure the coast was clear. She was about to reveal the family secret to someone who lived two floors below her.
“That was my brother’s room. His name was Luke. He died last year.”
I can still recall how painfully sick I felt when Penny told me that. Luke and a few friends were swimming in the river not too far from their house. They were warned to stay clear of the river on account of an earlier storm that turned the usually lazy river into an angry one. Luke swam too far out, and the current swept him away. Penny had me promise that I wouldn’t tell anyone what she told me. I made it downstairs to the kitchen when Doris Harper came through the front door. She had been visiting an elderly neighbor. While she was repairing my thumb, I tried not to look at her. There was absolutely nothing I could do to ease even a tiny measure of her pain. Every person has a process they go through to deal with something tragic. We each grieve in our own time, in our own way. One day Doris would enter the third bedroom upstairs with a bunch of empty boxes, and start packing away her son. And then life at the Harper’s would resume. Or so I thought.
Some people are pet people. The Harper’s were not. But I believe Luke Harper was. One of the casualties of Luke’s drowning was a dog named Charlie. Charlie lived in the backyard in a dog house that was in desperate need of some carpentry work. I think Charlie used to be an indoor member of the Harper family. But after Luke died, he was a painful reminder. And they couldn’t just leave him in the third bedroom on the upper floor with the rest of Luke’s belongings. I don’t know what breed of dog Charlie was, but he was large, hairy, and lonely. When I wasn’t honing my carpentry skills, I was spending time with Charlie. Up until then, the only dog I had ever played with was Clarence and Anna’s dog. But she was the size of a small loaf of bread, and I was always afraid I would break her.
Charlie and I would go for walks. One day we went down to the lazy river. It made me sad. I never knew Luke, but from what I could tell from his room, he seemed like a great kid. Just went too far out one day. Danny the Farter believed that all kids went to heaven when they died. I don’t know what chapter of which book of the Bible Danny based that on, but he had to be right. I wondered if the Harper’s were aware of that same scripture verse. I wondered if it brought them comfort.
There was a wicked storm one night. I laid awake in bed worried for Charlie. Before I could talk some sense into myself, I opened the basement door and whispered loudly for Charlie. He bolted into the basement, into the dungeon, and onto my bed. I was about to tell him to get off, but I mistakenly made eye contact with him. The next day, during work, Mr. Unibrow approached me and said, “Charlie is now your responsibility. You feed him. You bath him. And he can stay in the basement with you at night. Just don’t let Mrs. Harper find out.” I wondered how Doris Harper would ever find out. I wasn’t even sure she was aware that the house had a basement.
After almost a year of my apprenticeship, Mr. Unibrow announced that he and I were going fishing. Up to that point, the relationship between the two of us was strictly work related. There is usually a clear delineation between your work life and your non-work life. In your worklife, you have co-workers. So here we were, two co-workers, going on a non-work related fishing trip. We pulled up to a general store where we bought fishing supplies. Across the street was a diner. A sign on the window advertised coffee and donuts. The sign caught Mr. Unibrow’s attention. He stood perfectly still just staring at the sign for several awkward minutes as if facing a major life decision, which in retrospect, I believe he was.
“Do you like donuts?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I replied using my polite voice.
Mr. Unibrow walked across the street and into the diner. A few minutes later, he returned with a white bag and two paper cups. Once we reached the lake, we parked, rented a boat, loaded up our gear, and started rowing. When we got far enough to where we could barely see the car, Mr. Unibrow stopped rowing and secured the oars. Donut time. There was coffee in one of the cups, and hot chocolate in the other. How was Mr. Unibrow supposed to know that train engineers preferred coffee? We sat in the middle of that lake, eating our donuts, and listening to absolute quietness.
“Have you ever been fishing?” Mr. Unibrow asked, breaking the silence.
I’d never been to a lake before. I’d never been on a boat before. But he didn’t ask those questions. And then for some reason, after a year of complete silence on the subject, Mr. Unibrow opened up to his co-worker about his son.
“I used to take my son fishing. He was a few years older than you.”
Mr. Unibrow took a reflective sip of coffee. I sat there wondering whether I should say anything or just wait. I waited.
“His name was Luke. He drowned in the river by the house two years ago. I miss him so much. But I miss fishing. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting.”
Mr. Unibrow looked at me as if needing reassurance that what he said made sense. It did to me. So I gave him a head nod. He smiled. But it was an upside-down smile.
It was quite the day of firsts. I put a worm on a hook for the first time. I caught my first fish, which was a 14-inch Rainbow Trout. I learned to clean my first fish, which was a first I could have done without. I got to row the boat. For supper, Doris Harper cooked up some of the fish. They were delicious. At Red Brick, they served fish sticks. They were not delicious.
On the way home from fishing, Mr. Unibrow told me about his past fishing experiences, clear back to when he went fishing with his grandfather. He told me about how he became a carpenter. Whenever we drove past different species of tree, he identified them to me.
The Mr. Unibrow that drove to the lake that morning to go fishing was not the same Mr. Unibrow who drove home from the lake later that afternoon. I think he just decided he wanted to start living again.
We went fishing several times after that. I never knew what it felt like to have a father, but if this was anything close to it, I wanted more. That would forever remain an ungranted wish.
Doris Harper cut my hair. I didn’t have a hairstyle. At Red Brick, they brought in a barber, and we’d all stand in line to get what would be the equivalent of taking a weed whacker to blackberry bramble. I looked forward to my haircuts with Doris. For the first ten years of my life, I never felt the touch of a mother. A mother never held me. When I had nightmares, I faced them alone. When I fell and hurt myself, a Red Brick attendant rubbed medicine on the hurt which hurt more than the original hurt. I never felt a goodnight kiss from a mother. I never heard a mother tell me she loved me. Doris Harper was my foster mom, which was the closest thing to a real mom that I would ever know. Unfortunately, for her to treat me like a son would require her to come to terms with the fact that her real son had left her. And the third bedroom memorial upstairs clearly showed she had not reached that point. So I would take whatever tenderness she gave me. A warm smile. A quiet laugh. A soft touch on my shoulder. A hair cut.
My body was getting stronger. One day Charlie and I wandered into a junkyard. There were cars, trailers, appliances, and just about everything else a person could discard. Everything was in some stage of rust or decay. I decided to see what I could lift. I checked to make sure no one else was in the yard. I lifted a car bumper, an old porcelain bathtub, a refrigerator, a car that was missing an engine, and an engine that was missing a car. I noticed that when I was lifting these things, my body turned solid, like a rock. But that only happened when I flipped the switch. It was like an internal on/off switch. When the switch was in the off position, my strength was normal, and I was soft to the touch. When I turned the switch on, I became powerful and rock solid. But visually, my body never changed. I didn’t suddenly have bulging muscles.
It was on a Sunday afternoon in late summer that I saved Mr. Unibrow’s life. He was working on the undercarriage of his Pontiac. Something to do with the exhaust system. A car bumper jack was used to keep the vehicle elevated so Mr. Unibrow could work underneath it. My job was to aim the flashlight at whatever part of the undercarriage Mr. Unibrow’s greasy hands were wrapped around. Mr. Unibrow was locked in a fierce battle with a stubborn bolt. I could tell the bolt was getting the upper hand based on the increased number of cuss words firing out of Mr. Unibrow’s mouth. Finally, in desperation, Mr. Unibrow gave the wrench one final thrust. The bolt didn’t budge, but the car attached to it started to wobble, then pitch. And then everything happened in slow motion. I saw the jack buckle. I felt my hands grab the bumper. I felt the weight of the car pulling me down. Then suddenly the momentum slowed. Then the car stopped.
I couldn’t see underneath the car. “Mr. Harper,” I shouted. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him slide out from under the car and get to his feet. I slowly lowered the car to the ground. I was hoping that with all the excitement of nearly getting squished, he would have missed the insignificant detail of the car mysteriously disobeying the laws of gravity. I glanced over in his direction but avoided eye contact. I saw the expression on his face. Absolute disbelief. We stood there for at least 5 minutes, neither one of us knowing what to say. I have relived that event in my mind a thousand times since, and I still can’t figure out what either of us could have said. Sometimes not speaking is the most appropriate form of communication. And that is where we both left it.
A year before I arrived at the Harpers, Luke Harper went down to the river to swim with his friends. I think about that morning at the Harper breakfast table. They were probably all talking and joking around like typical families do. It was a morning like every morning before. And in one twist of unexplainable, incomprehensible fate, the current of a river changed the current of the Harper family forever. The accident didn’t just claim Luke. No one in the Harper family survived his drowning.
Mr. Unibrow left the Harper house in the fall. Several moving trucks drove away with the contents of the shop out back. My carpentry apprenticeship came to an abrupt end. Before he left, Mr. Unibrow made the journey all the way down the basement stairs and into my dungeon. He stood there trying to say what couldn’t be said. He reached around the doorway, grabbed something, and walked towards me. He was holding a fishing reel and rod. Luke’s. He handed it to me, touched me on the shoulder, and walked out of the room.
There were times early on that I hated Mr. Unibrow. I hated the fact that I was brought there, not to be a member of the family, but rather an indentured servant under the guise of a carpentry apprentice, forced to live in a cold, unfinished basement room. My first fishing trip with Mr. Unibrow altered my perspective, at least the edges of it. As we sat in the rented boat in the middle of the lake, he was visibly conflicted. I’m sure he wished more than anything that when he looked over at me, it was his son looking back. That fact wasn’t lost on me. It was as if there were two competing forces inside him. One pushing him forward, the other pulling him back.
I witnessed Mr. Unibrow’s victory over the guilt and betrayal that first time we went fishing. I’m sure Luke’s memory was putting up another good fight. But there in the middle of a quiet, peaceful lake, Mr. Unibrow told Luke the same thing we tell our departed pets, friends, and family members. “Time to move on.” How did I know this happened? I saw two tears, one from each eye, roll down his face. He made no attempt to hide them or wipe them away. The morning breeze slowly took them away. That was when he began telling me about his son and fishing. And he was different after that. Not that he would have won, or even been in the running for “Foster Father of the Year.” But he did deserve serious consideration for “Most Improved.”
Two weeks after Mr. Unibrow moved out of the Harper house, I left. I don’t know what became of Mr. Unibrow, Doris, or Penny. My hope is that they were able to find peace.
The day before I left the Harpers, I had to say goodbye to Charlie. Mr. Unibrow had made arrangements with a family a few blocks down the road, to take Charlie. As I helped Charlie into the car of his new family, I tried to be brave. I tried to be a man. But I failed miserably and bawled. Charlie responded like he always did when he knew I was struggling with something. He lacquered my face with a thick coat of dog slobber. And my heart ached a little less.