It was years before I forgave my parents for dragging me to Jimmy’s funeral. It’s not like they had fond feeling for the boy, but they just kept saying something about “community” and “civic duty” and stuff like that.
You’ll notice, by the way, that I spelled his name out properly, even at fifteen I knew that that “Jimi” moniker he wanted us to use was just stupid. You’re not important enough to rebrand yourself like some Rock and Roll Hall of Greats inductee.
In Loving Memory of James “Jimi” Watson…
I remembering sitting in my pew, looking down at the obituary, and rolling my eyes on the very first line. I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands were shaking at the injustice of a revisionist history.
Friends remember James as a brave, yet tender boy. He was always so concerned about the smaller children at school, standing up for the underdog every day.
Perhaps you meant “standing them up” in their locker? Slamming their faces, spitting in their mouths, cornering the girls. He was starting to get old enough to be really scary, carrying a knife in his pocket and allegedly cutting someone on more than one occasion.
So, are we really all going to sit here and just pretend we don’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?
I guess so. I’m sure not going to stand up and rock the boat.
I remember sitting there, trying to not feel so relieved about my life’s biggest obstacle having been removed. To be clear, I never wanted the school’s biggest bully to die in a car crash, I never wished any such thing on him. I had always just imagined his family having to move, or him getting thrown into juvie. This was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I was. I sat there thinking all the rest of High School was going to be so much smoother.
And you know what? It really was.
I had always told my parents that Jimmy had some personal vendetta against me and they had always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they had been wrong. Because sure, there were still other bullies, and they still sucked, but life was noticeably better ever after his drunk step-dad got the both of them killed.
Sorry, that was cold.
I’m just not so used to expressing all my frustrations…. And really, now that I think about it, I lied earlier when I said I never wanted Jimmy to die. Sort of anyway. You see I did think those thoughts “I wish Jimmy would just die,” but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not a person. And ever since that accident I’ve been piece-by-piece appreciating that Jimmy really was a person.
Strangely enough I first started picking up on that fact one day when I was feeling particularly grateful to not have Jimmy around anymore. It was a couple years later in the back of the theater with Grace. I was still trying to work up the nerve to put my arm around her when she leaned her head down onto my shoulder. In that moment I was really, truly happy, and the thought occurred to me that the happiness was only complete because I wasn’t afraid of Jimmy being around to ruin it.
And then, out of the blue, the thought occurred to me that Jimmy wasn’t around to experience it either. I mean sure, he’d had his “honeys” as he called them, but he didn’t know what it meant to really want to care for someone else. For the first time in my life I actually felt older than Jimmy.
The next time I found myself thinking about Jimmy was a year later at graduation, while we stood in line for our diploma ceremony. With his last name being Watson, and mine being Watts, he would have been right in front of me in line, instead I now stared at the back of Berkley Warren’s head instead.
Would he have had plans for going to college? Would he have even made it to the end of High School? Quite possibly not. Jimmy certainly wasn’t the most gifted of students, he was already struggling even in the Freshman year. A fact that probably made him quite bitter.
Or maybe not. With all the other problems he had going on at home, his school performance probably didn’t even compare.
Those problems were ones we kids understood only on the surface at the time. We knew his dad had been abusive, had been taken away to jail, and that his new step-dad was abusive, too. But we didn’t have any clue what that term “abusive” really amounted to. It was just a word back then. We were all told that we were supposed to be nice, no matter what, so that meant Jimmy didn’t have any excuse. None but the kids who were actually facing that stuff knew what it meant to live with it. Not even all of them knew.
I guess I still don’t really know what it means, do I? And I certainly don’t know what it meant to Jimmy personally. All I really know is that it’s heavy stuff, and I respect the fact that Jimmy’s behavior towards me was driven by that weight he carried.
After High School I moved away from my childhood home and went to college. Life started coming fast and I didn’t spend much much time thinking about the people I had once known. By the time the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion showed up in my mailbox I got a job, married my wife, had a child, and bought a home.
It didn’t take too much encouraging from my wife to decide that I would go, ever since the birth of our son I had been thinking nostalgically about my old childhood home. The time was right for a pilgrimage.
For the most part I was amazed at how much everyone felt just the same to me. A little more weight, a little more facial hair, some bags under the eyes, but still the same people I had always known.
At least so it seemed until I started talking with Blake Johnson.
At first I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, he had been another of the bullies, after all, and I didn’t want to fake a smile and pretend that bygones were bygones. He came directly up to me, though, shook me firmly by the hand, and gave a very sincere apology. That was why he had come here, he explained, to try and make amends for being such a burden to others in school.
It caught me entirely off guard, and all my preconceptions began to melt. We stood there for another fifteen minutes, going over all the usual talking point of one another’s work and families. As we did, I found that he was indistinguishable from all the other people here. He had grown up, he had changed, he had become a healthy member of society.
We didn’t talk about Jimmy in that conversation, but still my thoughts turned to him as I sat in my car later that night. Rather than start my drive home I was wrestling with something inside, trying to understand something that I hadn’t before.
At last it came through and I realized that I had been allowing myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t ever considered that today he could have been someone different. And maybe he wouldn’t have changed, maybe today he would be a hardened criminal stewing in some jail cell. But that wasn’t the point. The point is he never got his chance to decide. Blake got his chance, but Jimmy never would.
All I would ever know of Jimmy was a fifteen-year-old kid who really didn’t know a thing in the world.
I thought about my own son waiting for me back home. He’s a pretty good kid, but not perfect. I would hate for anyone to write him off before he’s had a chance to come into his own.
I had thought several times about Jimmy over the years, but the first time ever I cried about him. I cried for a soul interrupted.
I mentioned that one of my problems in Harold and Caroline was that the criticism only flowed one way. Caroline was too passive of a character, and so their relationship lacked a back-and-forth to its give-and-take. The thing was, sometimes your character should be passive. In today’s example, the narrator was definitely the victim of Jimmy’s bullying, and that meant he had to hold a more submissive role.
My solution, though, was to write this from the narrator’s perspective, where the reader could hear the sharp barbs in his thoughts, without having to hear them coming out of his mouth. From this view we can tell that he is fighting back against Jimmy, just from a more passive-aggressive stance. Also the fact that this is written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past gives him a maturity that Jimmy never holds. Overall I feel a lot better about how I maintained an equal tension between the two while still allowing one to dominate over the other.
My other concern with Harold and Caroline was how it didn’t use sideplots effectively. It would introduce new characters and motivations, keep them around just long enough to push the main plot forward slightly, and then drop them without any sort of meaningful resolution.
In today’s piece I wanted to cover more than a decade in a very short span of time, so I knew that meant utilizing the same vignette-style separate scenes. This time, though, I toned them down to the point that they were just backdrops that the main narrative marched continuously in front of. My main technique in accomplishing this was in not having any of the other characters speak. We learn a couple names, Grace and Blake, but because we only hear of them second-hand we never mistake them for central characters and then have our expectations in that disappointed.
As a whole I liked this piece a good deal more than Harold and Caroline. There are still criticisms I could make of it, but for now I’d rather move on to something else.
This story and Harold and Caroline were some of my more grounded pieces, stories where nothing supernatural occurred whatsoever. Perhaps the way things work out for the characters might seem a little convenient or contrived, but that’s as strange as things get.
Softer, slice-of-life tales and rollicking power fantasies have more in common than you might think, though. More often then not, they both deal with the same basic themes, just they paint them with different colors. Come back on Monday where I will explore this concept even further.