His head was pointy, a Herblock cartoon of a nuclear nosecone. With his parents and little brother, Warren “Germ” Germond lived in a cramped two-bedroom clapboard ranch squatting on a quarter acre of suburban Rhode Island crabgrass and dandelions, facing a busy road, surrounded by woods to one side and the back.
When Germ was arrested that August night, caught red-handed spray painting a school bus fleet with lopsided swastikas and backwards hammer-and-sickles, tears of inchoate adolescent rage flooded his eyes as smirking cops led him away, the can of black Krylon on the parking lot tarmac, forgotten.
"C'mon, punk! Don't be a crybaby!" Then the officer directly behind Germ kicked him in the butt, solid on the tailbone, sending white razors up the teen's spine. "What's up with all that commie jazz? My boy’s in Vietnam,” the cop bellowed, landing with another well-placed kick. Touchdown!
They shoved Germ into the back of a patrol car, making sure his head bonked on the edge of the roof. The rooftop light sliced the night before the driver hit the siren, gunned it to headquarters. Germ wailed like an infant, the cops laughed heartily.
Roused from bed, Pop Germond barreled downtown, seeing red. In three quick strides he was up the steps and in the police station, saw Germ sitting stupidly on the oak bench staring at the floorboards, crying. Pop socked Germ in the mouth with two quick punches—a left, a right—to the delight of the cops.
"You little creep,” he barked at his son, eyes squinting in fury and humiliation.
Since dropping out of high school at the earliest opportunity last year, Germ wasted the days drinking grape soda, sniffing Testor’s cement, watching TV, thumbing through comic books, smoking the Salems he swiped from his mother’s purse. Some afternoons he’d build a model car, crudely glue parts together, and take the mess to the backyard and blow it up with a cherry bomb.
Nights offered something spicier. He’d sneak over to the posh end of the neighborhood, to young Kathleen McArthur's house, hide behind a tree, a sightline to her bedroom as she undressed before lights out. About seven feet away from him, she stripped nude, illuminated in stunning detail, night after night, all summer long. What a show! He couldn't believe his tremendous luck. Thank God for this big fat tree right here! It was his special tree, a friend of sorts. He gave it hugs.
Someday, someday soon, he'd marry her. Maybe her rich parents will fly to London or Paris, and their plane will crash, orphaning Kathleen? He'd step right up! Germ and Kathleen would drive to one of those hillbilly states where kids can tie the knot, all legal, a Dixie preacher man to officiate their wedding.
Or maybe, after he introduces himself, after she gets to know him a bit, he'd move into her bedroom? During the day he could hide in her closet or under the bed. Or something. At night? Heaven! Paradise on earth...
O! For that first night together, losing their virginity in complete communion. At 12, she was so beautiful, just like one of those magazine fashion models. Married to Kathleen McArthur... They'd dine in downtown Pawtucket, at Chez Pierre's, all fine and fancy. After dinner, a gentle rain falling, they'd walk, no need for an umbrella. "Let it rain!" They'd laugh, holding hands.
Germ was a loner. Even before dropping out, he'd been friendless. All he had were some distant gods, their photos tacked over his bed: Johnny Unitas, Richard Speck, Hef, Lee Harvey Oswald. And Jay & The Americans. Of course, Jay & The Americans. He'd shoplifted their 45s, danced and sang along to them. Germ fantasized about joining the group. In front of the bathroom mirror, he struck poses a la Jay, and practiced lines he’d use on Kathleen, acting smooth like Jay.
(Germ had no chance of getting a date with any girl, let alone Kathleen McArthur. That ice cream swirl of strawberry-blonde perfection on Olympus Parkway? A date? The pre-teen queen has her pick of the litter, on her Princess phone with the cute boys, no time for a mangy old mutt, let alone one burdened with a rap sheet.)
Seated, staring straight ahead, in the pale-blue Chevy Biscayne on the trek back home, father and son didn't speak. But every so often, without warning, Pop Germond struck out, socking his boy on the temple, on the ear, on the jaw. (Like Candid Camera, it was when least expected.) Germ detested his father, and he detested the Chevy. It had no class. Biscaynes rot. It didn't even have white walls. Germ was used to getting punched by Pop, but a Biscayne? That’s bush. No excuse.
They drove past the Shell station, the McDonald’s, the Stop & Shop, all closed, everything closed for the night in this loser town. The Chevy rolled into the dirt driveway, they got out and trudged into the house, wordlessly. Mrs. Germond sat on the plastic-covered chintz living-room sofa in a white bathrobe and pink fluffy slippers. The lights were off, the TV on, casting a ghastly bluish glow across the yellowing wallpaper.
Weeping, she said, ”How could you do this to us?" Her voice was tight and croaky. Germ hated that voice. He hated her voice in general, but really hated it when it got like that, like some hag scrubwoman. Why couldn't he have boss parents? Parents with a tuff house and a tuff car?
"What will the neighbors say!" She looked at him, then away, the corners of her mouth drawn down. “The neighbors? The stinkin’ neighbors can eat me raw!”
In a flash, Pop Germond moved in for the kill, all fists and feet, pummeling the kid, knocking him down, blindly punching and kicking, a cyclone unleashed. Germ clawed towards the front door, but his dad jumped ahead of him, like a giant tarantula, blocking the exit. “Don’t you dare speak to your mother like that! After all we’ve done for you? You little snot!”
In the background, the TV prepared to go off-air for the night, the nation's anthem played, a B&W flag waved. Then the test pattern. "I gotta go to work in a few hours! When the guys at the plant hear about this, I’ll be a laughing stock!"
The torrential assault on Germ continued. His face a grotesque grimace, Pop Germond was in an eternal night on Iwo Jima, out of ammo, only a bayoneted rifle stabbing at the dark, occasionally hitting paydirt, bloody paydirt, as a Nip grunted and fell.
A rib cracked. Even with the door shut, little brother Zeke, now wide awake, could hear it clearly. He covered his head with the pillow, shut his eyes with all the might the eight-year-old could muster, wished he were in Hollywood, in the arms of June Lockhart.
"Steven! Stop it! You’re murdering him!”
Pop Germond paused, back of his hand to sweaty forehead, gulping for air like a fish on land. Not a word was uttered until Germ, prostrate on the foyer linoleum, whimpered, "I'm... I'm sorry..." Germ's face was to the doormat, hiding his tears, but convulsing shoulders betrayed him.
"All right... Get up... Act like a man… not a crybaby..."
"Okay..." Germ sobbed, trying to collect his thoughts as emotions raged in his chest like a racing pack of rabid hyenas. A minute or two later, on his feet, wobbly, he leaned against the wall with an outstretched hand, stared down at the umbrella stand, nearly vomiting into it. His other hand gingerly tested his ribcage. He winced in pain, almost fainted. Taking a deep breath, he winced again.
"But just one thing..." he said.
"What's that?" Pop Germond said, still panting, hands hanging limply at his sides, a sliver of mercy, even a trace of humor, entering the steely voice. The slightest hint of a smile crossed his lips. There was a long and parched silence, the clock on the wall tick-tocked time away... Pop and Mrs. Germond stood stock still, Germ breathed huskily.
Finally the teenager cleared his throat, twice, took a breath, then screeched, "You’re a loser, that’s what! Screw you! And screw your stupid job, too! Why didn’t you get a good job? Like Mr. McArthur! He’s an architect, not some lousy factory slob!”
With that, Germ ducked past his stunned parents, dashed into the dingy kitchen, Keds skidding on beat linoleum. He banged into the Formica-topped table, yelped, knocked over a chair, and dodged out the back door, tears streaming down his face, into the yard, then the woods. His parting words were, "Get bent!”
It was a starless night, as dark as Germ's heart. But he'd grown up here, had spent countless hours in these thickets and backyards and forest, knew his way, didn't stumble, didn't fall. No way Pop could follow him in the pitch black, the old bastard. Making tracks, he circled around, across the Wilsons’ front yard, behind Old Man Roberts' tool shed, up the hill, trotting a quarter-mile until he came to Olympus Parkway where he slowed to a walk.
His ribcage burned, but his breathing was even. He was quiet as a ghost approaching the McArthur’s. The air was thick with humidity and crescendos of chorusing crickets. Their sound, that August harbinger of autumn school days, depressed him, even now. Just the thought of school put him in a funk. Horribly dyslexic, Germ never stood a chance at anything scholastic. A spaz, he nearly flunked gym, only passed because Mr. Gagliardi took pity on him.
School… Gym class… Limping along, stabbing rib pain, Germ remembered another time of acute agony: Stepping out of the school gym shower, toweling off, when he was grabbed from behind by some boys intent on mischief. They wrapped his towel around his head, blinding him, as they picked up his naked wet body, each boy grabbing a limb, and ran with him out of the locker room, across the basketball court, over to the girls’ locker room, opened the door, snatched the towel off his head, and tossed him in. Screams erupted, hit a shrill and deafening pitch as Germ cried like a newborn, pounding at the door to get out, but the faceless boys held that door shut tight, as they cackled on its other side.
Set back from the road, protected from view by weeping willows, the McArthur home was modern and chic, like something on the cover of Architectural Digest, its driveway sealed, silken. Inside the attached two-car garage sat a Lincoln and a Thunderbird. The property was a dollop of Beverly Hills in suburban Rhode Island.
Mr. McArthur, a weekend jazz musician, kept a set of vibes in his basement studio. He could improvise cogent and swinging choruses of standards. As a college student in Boston he'd been a denizen of the bop scene, sat in with visiting luminaries like Stan Getz and Fats Navarro without disgracing himself—still a cocktail party conversation point-of-pride for him. But that was some time ago, the early-1950s. It amused him that today he could hear Stan on his daughter’s transistor radio. Ending a long day, he brushed his teeth, turned off the bathroom light on his way out.
Beside his special tree, Germ pulled back a large rock and grabbed a six-inch hunting knife, the kind with a serrated edge, removing it from its leather sheath. He'd stashed it there weeks ago, after nicking it from Anderson's Hardware. For the first time that night, the clouds cleared, revealing a full moon, the stars shining bright, the lawn silvery. Crouching, Germ slunk to the house, his shadow sharp, the blade glinting.
At Kathleen’s screen window, Germ peered in, watched her sleeping, the sheet kicked back. Blonde hair spilled, obscured those limpid green eyes. His breath caught as he stared at the girl for a spell, left hand clutching the knife, right hand on her window sill. Through the screen he could smell her room, could smell her. She was so very close, but he had to get closer, next to her, on top of her, inside her, her moaning in ecstasy, begging for more... Unconsciously, his hips began to gyrate, hump...
Dizzied by her moonlit beauty, so perfect in every way, Germ began to cry. He whispered something. Then, hearing the sharp metallic click of a pistol cocked right behind him, he swung around, his knife slashing into the night.