By Yarrott Benz
There was a two-volume set of books in my father’s study entitled World War II: A Pictorial History. The books stuck out from a shelf, oversized and teetering, so heavy you needed both hands to lift each one. I always felt a strange attraction to them, one book with a blue spine and the other green, because they held a mix of titillation and horror. On one page, there was a picture of naked American soldiers on a beach in Italy, hairy and wet, arm in arm, washing the war off themselves. On the next page, more men, injured in combat and denuded like burned trees, wheeled in a circle for the camera in the heat of the South Pacific. I wondered if all wars meant that men had to get naked, lock themselves in a sweaty embrace, and then have their bodies ruined. That kind of sacrifice seemed crazy to me.
At home, I watched with a child’s eyes as my older brothers, one at a time, grew pubic hair and developed muscles. I wondered when they, too, would be leaving to fight in a war. I looked at myself, tow-headed and androgynous, and hoped I could escape war by looking like an angel. I felt like I came from a different world than my brother Charley. He sensed it too. Perhaps it was as simple as being different that made him despise me so much when we were young. Being different—like being Communist is different from being American, Negro from White, Indian from cowboy, or girl from boy. Just being different. It was wrong to be different and that was that. “You stay on that side of the line, where your world is weird like you, and I’ll stay on my side, where the world is normal like me.” That might have been it. Now I realize that our differences would create war in our lives. He saw it as a crime not to be like him. And what had encouraged that notion? In the segregated American South in the middle of the twentieth century, what on earth had encouraged that notion?
We called our mother’s father Popo. He called us scallywags. In 1964, his Mercury Monterey was as sleek and modern as his birthplace at Pleasant Run, Kentucky was old and obsolete. His long, white car was heavy with fins and chrome trim, and its iconoclastic rear window slanted inward instead of outward. Popo lowered the window by pressing a button on his console, and I felt cool air on my neck. Smoke from his Lucky Strikes swirled over our heads and disappeared behind us. Tapping his handsome, gold pinkie ring on the huge steering wheel, he mouthed to himself, “Dang it, you scallywags, you city slickers, you need to see where I spent my childhood.”
In Popo’s car on Columbus Day in 1964, I sat miserably between my brothers in the backseat and twitched. Ever since a series of ear infections in the second grade, I had been beleaguered with tics. I flared my nostrils and jerked my head from side to side. I could not stop doing this to save my life, despite the humiliation it brought, particularly from my siblings. Eddy was older than I by eight years and Charley, older by three. Angela, my sister, was five years older and sat obediently in the front seat next to Popo. I was ten, so my siblings were thirteen, fifteen, and eighteen at the time. And Popo? This was just before his stroke, so he was eighty-two.
From my grandfather’s perspective in the front seat, we looked like we were behaving ourselves in the back, but Charley scowled and threatened me with a closed fist in his lap, “I’m not finished with you—you dip-shit, you dumb-ass.” He was always doing that, disapproving of me, and I was always throwing my hands up to defend myself. We were total opposites in every possible way. I think that’s what boiled his blood. We had radically different personalities, yes, but we also looked radically different. Except for having the same prickly crew cuts, you would never have thought we were brothers. Both he and Eddy were dark, as if they were Italian or Spanish or even American Indian. But I was fair, like Angela, like a little Nazi. Charley proudly called himself Geronimo, but derisively pointed to me and yelled, “White Cloud!” To him, dark was manly, like Tarzan, like Johnny Weissmuller. Blond was inferior, feminine, like Leslie Howard, or worse: Liberace.
You would never have guessed that just that week, back home in Nashville, in a back room in the basement, Charley had shown me how to masturbate. He was gawking at Jayne Mansfield’s bosoms slipping out of her dress in a magazine when he nudged me and said, “Look how big mine is. Something, huh? Look at yours. Don’t worry, it’ll get bigger one day.” He stroked up and down on his, and I jerked away on my little finger of flesh. I agreed that his was something. Then he finally rolled his eyes back, and some stuff I had never seen before poured all over the cot. I just looked straight ahead and thought we ought to clean up the mess he had just made. Suddenly nervous, suddenly disgusted, he jumped up, tossed the Playboy into a cedar trunk, and said, “If you tell anybody about this, I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
“Shoot, Charley, you’re the one who wanted to do it.”
“Dumb-ass.” He let the door slam in my face.
* * *
Popo’s white-and-chrome sedan sailed across the rolling hills and one-lane roads, aiming for Pleasant Run. In his lifetime Popo had seen the shift from kerosene to bulbs and from horses to cars. He pointed to a big house with six white columns his father had built in 1858. Its current owners now had a TV antenna on the roof and an air conditioner in a window. The car purred to a stop at the intersection of a gravel road, and I could see a tiny, brick church standing primly across the field in front of us. It had once been fancy and proud, showing off the prosperity of its Scots-Irish parishioners. We drove straight across the grass to a yew tree in the middle of the churchyard. A marble obelisk stood over the grave of Popo’s father, the first Yarrott. Popo was the second. His son, my mother’s brother, was the third. And I was fourth. Not everyone thought the name for me was such a good thing. When I was an infant and baptized in Nashville, my father’s big-knuckled, Germanic aunt complained, “Such a big name for a little baby.”
“Well, it’s all that’s left of Pleasant Run,” answered my mother.
In Eddy’s snapshot of us in the graveyard on that October afternoon in 1964, Charley glared at me across the grave while I smiled faintly into the camera, trying to figure out what I had done to make him so mad. Angela smiled too, but obligingly, like she was hostage. I knew she would rather have been throwing the football with my brothers in the fields. Instead, her rugged little hands were neatly clasped in front of her the way Mother instructed. Even her tomboy hair was rolled into a formal and wavy permanent, suggesting a scrappy little version of Queen Elizabeth.
Orbiting all around us in the photograph were gravestones and other obelisks and, beyond the stone wall, the cattle dotting the fields, the very same fields the first Yarrott had ranched a century before, at the time of the Civil War.
The graveyard reminded me of my father’s World War II books. I wondered how many men had fallen down and died in those fields during the Civil War, bloody and naked. As I stood there, I twitched my head, desperate for psychic relief. Eddy moved around the graves with the Nikon in his hand while Popo remained at his father’s grave, his hat off and his head lowered. I looked at Angela, standing ladylike and obedient, waiting patiently for us to return to the car. Then I heard Charley behind me, pulling on the branch of the yew tree and stripping the needles with his thumb. I turned around and there he was, again, glaring at me.
* * *
Four inches of snow fell in Nashville on Christmas Eve, 1968. The slope of the hill at 1120 Tyne Boulevard was pristine except for a few manic zigzags left by Hansel and Gretel, our two black dachshunds. A giant wreath hung from the second floor, and our big home looked solid, gracious, and warm. The holidays meant an escape from academics and athletics at the boys’ school, Montgomery Bell Academy. In the ninth grade, Algebra was one of many big obstacles that I could not overcome. Since I could not see the mathematical problems in front of me or even imagine them in my head, I could get nowhere in figuring out their solutions. Everyone seemed to be standing around me tapping their feet impatiently and insinuating, Why can’t you get it?
Early in the semester I noticed that the teacher, Mr. Albright, who loved math and normally spoke in a breathy, excited-about-numbers tone, had started lowering his voice when he called on me. It was clear that I was disappointing him. I was making an F for the quarter and probably for the semester too. The narrative reports Albright and others had sent home from the school were humiliating, all saying the same thing: “Yarrott does not live up to his promise. Is he happy?” Most recently, he had stopped calling on me at altogether. He had given up and I was relieved. I could now hide behind the huge head of the red-haired guy sitting in front of me.
It didn’t help that the math teacher was a live version of Dudley Do-Right. With his perfect teeth, cleft chin, and sexy tuft of chest hair escaping from his collar, he was an impossibly masculine model of a man. I was about to fail the model of man’s Algebra class. Along with my crooked teeth, skinny face, and hairlessness, I was a pathetic misfire at a school whose brass seals on the yearbooks promised Gentlemen, Athletes, and Scholars. Well, maybe I could still learn how to become a gentleman, despite my stupidity and ineptness.
Angela had come home for the holidays from Centre College in Kentucky all fired up about her psychology class. She, Mother, and I stood around the kitchen one evening chopping carrots and pouring Jell-O when Angela stopped and watched me for several moments and then exclaimed, “I read in Psychology Today that facial tics often accompany latent homosexuality.” Turning bright red, I concentrated with all of my being on keeping my head still.
Mother looked at Angela with a surprised expression. “Why on earth do you have to bring up such a subject?”
Angela continued to stare at me. I held my breath. Finally I blurted, “I think the toilet’s running, I better go shake the handle,” and ran upstairs to the bathroom. Locking the door, I sat on the edge of the tub with my head twitching angrily in my hands.
My habits, as Mother scornfully called the tics, seemed to haunt me most insidiously when I was under pressure, which in ninth grade was all the time, asleep and awake. The question asked that winter by the teachers, “Is Yarrott happy?” was one I could not have answered because the concept of happiness was beyond me. What does that mean to a ninth-grader who is failing mathematics, who cannot concentrate, who feels awful about liking the hairy nakedness in the locker room, whose own body feels paralyzed in sports, who sees the handsomeness of the other boys but feels invisible with plainness? The question of pressure, however, was one I probably could have answered. “Yes, I feel pressure. Pressure in my head, pressure in my school, pressure in my home. Everywhere pressure.”
Mother had already called me to her room before Christmas vacation. She was propped up on the bed with a book in her hands. She had the same scowl familiar to me in the photographs of her own family. A fold of skin in the shape of a keystone was wedged between her eyes, the unmistakable sign that she was not pleased. “Yarrott, I want to talk to you…about something I’ve noticed since you’ve been at Montgomery Bell.”
My heart stopped. She now knew what I was afraid of all along: that I was stupid. That my grades were terrible. That I was not sports worthy. That I failed at making friends. I did not have a thing I could hide behind. “Yes, ma’am?”
She slapped hard at the bed. “Look at the way you’re standing there, Yarrott. One foot askew. Favoring one hip. See that? This is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. You have suddenly become so…so effeminate. Since you’ve been going to Montgomery Bell. It’s appalling. Tell me what that’s all about.”
I said nothing. I was shocked. Mother had splashed that word on me like it was battery acid and I was feeling a strange new burn, one that was so deep it left me feeling dizzy. With a sigh of impatience, she returned to her book and I squared up my shoulders and quietly disappeared.
To me, Charley was the embodiment of the boys who know how to fit in, and I was their opposite. In 1968, he and I loathed each other with ferocity. He was attending a different school, Battle Ground Academy, a less polished private school but, equally conservative. I had seen how happy he was with his many friends there. I had sat in the bleachers during many of his games and watched the tight camaraderie among the team players and their families. During his senior year, he lettered in three varsity sports: football, basketball, and baseball. Meanwhile, I had left all of my lifelong friends the year before at Burton, a public school, to attend the exclusive Montgomery Bell Academy and had not made any significant new friends. I enrolled at MBA because my parents had believed it would be better for Charley and me, given our profound differences, not to be in the same school. That would have created, they said, a combination ripe for explosion.
To compound our dislike for each other, during Charley’s senior year, his football team had suffered a particularly bad season, and my school had won the state championship. Not that it mattered a blade of grass to me. To Charley, however, it was a crushing humiliation. It didn’t help that the group of three boys I shared a ride with every day to and from Montgomery Bell Academy got particular pleasure in reporting on each and every mistake Charley’s team made in the playoffs, repeating them slowly in my ear, and then gleefully trumpeting our own school’s graceful wins. The boys—single-syllabic Matt, Hal, and Fred—strutted around in a men’s club unity. They came from vastly different economic strata. From my dogpaddling viewpoint down in the water, however, they were all princes, safely on board a boat going somewhere.
Their ridicule of my brother’s team was stifled on the days when my mother drove the carpool. These boys, after all, were not stupid. One day, however, Hal forgot just who was in the driver’s seat, and he let slip a sarcastic reenactment of a bad play by BGA during a game the night before. I saw my mother’s jaw tighten, and she swerved to the shoulder of the road. She twisted slowly around, put one arm over the back of the seat, and jabbed her finger at Hal’s chest. “I want you to shut your mouth this instant. You’re talking about my son and Yarrott’s brother.”
We called her Mother and she was nobody’s fool. She was beautiful but she was tough. When she was fourteen, she became crippled by leg injuries, but this never stopped her from becoming a nurse, driving a car, having a family, or climbing up ladders into places most people would consider scary. She was fearless despite her crutches, and I was enormously proud of her, this handsomely dressed, silver-haired lady with a backbone, a doctor’s wife who matched her husband in brains and guts. But, when she defended Charley with a jab of her finger right toward Hal’s sternum, I was just as stunned as the rest of the carpool. The truth is I never felt the loyalty to defend Charley or his BGA football team at the time. I was detached from his accomplishments and his failures. I had no brotherly proprietary interest in him. We had nothing in common, did not enjoy each other’s company, felt no support from the other. Simply put, Charley and I did not give a shit about each other. Therefore, the slurs from the carpool did not register with me very deeply. I just remember looking out the window at Nashville’s billboards thinking, Why bother trying to piss me off by insulting my brother and his football team? Who the hell cares?
* * *
The snow during the Christmas vacation had been exciting on December 24th, but after forty-eight hours the sparks began to fly in the house. Sure, it was great to be away from my demeaning school life for two weeks, but it was no pleasure being trapped under the same roof with my family. If I had only known my father then, I might have felt at home on Tyne Boulevard. He was, in many ways, kinder to me than my mother, but he was most often absent. As a surgeon each day consisted of rising at five o’clock, disappearing to the hospital by half past six, and not returning home until seven at night. I grew close to my father at about the time I turned thirty, but in my childhood he was something of a shadow, constantly slipping out of the room.
My parents had invited to dinner a room full of relatives for the day after Christmas. To me that meant an evening of patriotic talk by the men supporting the Vietnam War, of hand wringing about the church’s loss of influence in our drifting society, and of negative innuendoes about black people. Charley and I looked for other things to do. We promised Mother that we would get along and see a movie together. Bullitt was playing at a nearby theater. I could not, for the life of me, in the ninth grade at least, understand Charley’s fascination with Steve McQueen. Except for the ruggedly sexy face, I thought of McQueen as having the same anti-charisma as John Wayne, another star whose public appeal I did not get. Listening to them act was like watching golf on TV: slow, deliberate, and monotonous. But Charley wanted to see the car-chase scene through the hills of San Francisco, and there was not much else playing. The only other choice that night was The Lion in Winter. For my brother that was out of the question.
On the night of December 26th, the roads leading to Hundred Oaks Shopping Center were covered in a half-frozen gray mush. Driving was reduced to a crawl. Charley was an excellent driver, even as a teenager. He was confident and smart in his decisions on the road.
You would think that he and I had lots to talk about. He, too, had been having an awful year at school. This was his senior year, and his grades were not much better than mine. Even his varsity prowess, of which he had been proud for three years, was stumbling, and in a publicly humiliating way. I don’t remember much in Bullitt. What I remember was the car ride home. Charley was hyped up by the chase scene in the movie and gunned the engine a few times to make us slide and skid down Franklin Road. I yelled at him to slow down and he dismissed me, disgusted. “Look at you. A fucking scared pussy.”
“Look who’s the loser, asshole. If your driving’s as good as the way you play football, we’re as good as dead.”
He pulled the car over and stopped. He stared straight ahead, and for a second, I was afraid that I had really hurt him. Instead he turned his head and looked at me with contempt. In a burst, he grabbed the collar of my coat and yanked me closer to him. He raised his fist slowly and then let loose on my face. I felt his knuckles pummel my cheekbone and pound at the side of my head. I pushed back from him and curled up against the car door, trying to block his attack with my hands and legs, but his rage kept flying. I swung the door open and fell backwards into the wet snow. He jumped on top of me and continued slugging. I could feel the dirty slush on the side of the road coming through my cap, my heavy coat, and into my shirt. This was not a jealous brother beating me up. This was not roughhousing. This was years of pent-up anger, disgust, embarrassment, and disappointment let out in a single flash of honesty. It proved that I, the entity of me, was something that he utterly hated. My lips and teeth hurt, and I tasted blood in my mouth. But the rest of me was numb.
I hadn’t hit him. Not a single time.
I curled up in a ball on the seat, sniffing back a bloody nose, as he drove us home. The cars of relatives lined the driveway. The house was filled with company.
“Oh, shit.” Charley realized how embarrassing this would be for Mother and Dad.
“Open the garage door,” I demanded. “I want to go to Ida’s bathroom. I’m staying in the basement.”
I locked the slatted door of the maid’s room behind me and collapsed on the toilet in the dark. I wept uncontrollably, rocking back and forth on the toilet. This went on for a while. When I stopped, I could hear the muffled talking of adults. From the heating vent, I could make out what they were saying. They had heard me crying. I had let loose all the hurt and anger, and all of them — my parents and aunts and uncles—had heard it in the dining room.
“We should go check on what’s happened, Ed.” My parents excused themselves from the table, more concerned than embarrassed. I felt relieved that they read the incident as serious. After they left the room, I could hear the relatives’ cautious laughter, trying to play the dramatic moment down with “boys will be boys.” I don’t recall now what my parents said to me by myself or what they might have said to Charley. I only remember what my mother said to both of us together. “You two have to find a way to get along or something much worse than this is going to happen, and then you’ll have to live with it for the rest of your lives.” I dismissed it as church talk. God will punish you if you don’t behave. God will punish you if you don’t get along. You are brothers and you must love each other.
Instead of church talk, I wanted my parents to prevent another of Charley’s outbursts, so I wouldn’t have to fear for my life anymore. I wanted them to have him arrested and taken away, so I could sleep at night. I wanted them to take my side, to see that I had done nothing wrong, and that I had not caused this. They did no such thing.
The snow melted the next day, December 27th, and the air turned warm enough for Charley and me to wash off the thick blanket of gray dirt from the car in which we had driven to see Bullitt. Without speaking, we hosed down the white Impala in the driveway. I yanked the hose around the front of the car and suddenly stopped in my tracks, shocked by what I saw. Then I quickly soaped up the sponge with detergent and wiped my own brown blood off the door from the night before, a handprint smeared in a wide, desperate arc.