By the time I was fourteen, my family was accustomed to my absences—wandering the woods, sleeping in town, eating at other people's homes. What mattered to my parents were academic grades. I maintained all A's, an easy task in Appalachia during the sixties and seventies. Of equal importance was granting utter obedience to Dad, and never causing my mother public embarrassment. With this veneer of civility thus attended to, I was free.
I don't remember how I met the fatman. I assume he approached me. He lived in town on the second floor of a small building, where he rented a single room with a bathroom in the hall. He was nice. He bought me candy bars and bottles of pop, which my parents never allowed me to have. I told him about my life and girls I liked. At four feet eleven inches, I was the shortest kid in high school with the longest hair, reputed to be the smartest but lousy at sports. The fatman listened to me. He offered a kind of sympathy and attentiveness that I needed. He accepted that I wanted to be an actor or a comic book artist when I grew up, and he believed such aspirations weren't ridiculous. He didn't talk about himself but implied that he'd experienced life beyond the [End Page 41] confines of Rowan County, and that I would like it out there when I finally left.
I was vulnerable, I suppose, although not a dire misfit. I was open and friendly, having gone through eight years of grade school with the same small group of kids, then riding the bus ten miles to high school. One by one, my classmates began losing the habit of attending school. It was not expected but certainly accepted, and of little concern. After all, we were from Haldeman, the community farthest from town, site of the main bootlegger, weekly drag strips, occasional shootings and arson. We were at the bottom of a pecking order that didn't start very high. Bussed into town, we became aware of our status. Some of us responded by staying at home, changing our style of dress, or becoming withdrawn. I explored town.
The fatman's room was small, with no chair, and we both had to sit on the bed. The whole time I pretended it was happening to someone else. Afterwards, the fatman said he liked me. He gave me money. I left the room and walked to the drugstore, where my mother picked me up after shopping for groceries. I bought a lot of comic books at the drugstore. She didn't ask where I got the money.
I don't remember his name or what he looked like. I don't recall the print on the wallpaper or the color of the bedspread. What I do remember is the overhead light fixture, a plain bisected globe in a ceramic setting that emitted a dim yellowish light. Surrounding the globe and painted over many times were plaster rosettes with narrow leaves. I remember the light because I spent all my time staring at it and waiting until I could leave.
When I returned, I climbed the steps very slowly, trying not to make any noise because I didn't want to get the fatman in trouble. A clot of tension rose along my spine, vibrating like an embedded blade. I felt hollow—my heart pounding, sweat trickling down my sides, mouth dry, my stomach congealed to stone. The fatman opened the door and ushered me in. The bed sagged when he sat down. The money lay in sight on the bedside table. Time stopped as I slid away from my body to rove the air, imagining a life beyond the hills. I would be a movie actor. Beautiful women would throw themselves at me as I [End Page 42] left French cafés. I was the mayor's son, the governor's nephew. I was secretly adopted. I inherited a Lexington horse farm. I was anyone but a lonely kid feeling the dampness of fat fingers.
Click for larger view