William Taylor Jr. lives and writes in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. His work has been published widely in journals across the...read more globe, including The New York Quarterly, The Chiron Review, and Poesy. An Age of Monsters, his first book of fiction, was published by Epic Rites Press in 2011. To Break the Heart of the Sun (Words Dance, 2016) is his latest collection of poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was a recipient of the 2013 Acker Award. He has a great and unironic love of both The Incredible Hulk and Olivia Newton-John
BASTARDS is what I called them. Not to their faces, mind you, but inside my head. The neighbors that surrounded my childhood home, each and every one of them.
To the left of us were Barney and Shirley. Barney served in Vietnam. He owned a lot of guns and shot neighborhood animals whenever the chance presented itself. He never wore a shirt and had a huge beer belly that made him look pregnant. He had a tattoo on each of his forearms. One was a hula maiden and the other was an anchor that always made me think of Popeye. Barney spent most of his time standing around in his garage drinking beer with the rest of the neighborhood bastards. His wife, Shirley, was nicer but always drunk. They had a little black poodle that they sometimes called Peanut, and sometimes called Poo Poo. I'm not sure if either one was its actual name, or if it even had one. The dog barked constantly and often ate its own feces. Years later after I moved away my mom called to tell me that Barney had shot himself in the chest with one of his shotguns. He didn't die, but was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, but otherwise went on pretty much as before, drinking beer and hanging out in his garage with the bastards. Shirley had to regularly soak his feet in hot water for some reason, and once when she was drunk she boiled them. Barney didn't know, at first, because he couldn't feel them. After that he caught gangrene, or something, I'm not sure. It's just how I remember my mother telling it to me.
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Across the street was Jerry. He was about forty years old and lived in a rundown and uncared for house after his parents died or moved away. You would think the place was abandoned if not for seeing the sad form of Jerry haunting it from time to time. Jerry also drank a lot of beer and never wore a shirt. None of the male bastards in the neighborhood ever seemed to wear shirts. Jerry somehow avoided having much of a beer belly, maybe because he didn't eat. He had shoulder length dirty blonde hair and looked like a stoner, though I'm pretty sure he only drank beer. He was arrested twice for riding his bicycle while drunk. He was very quiet, and actually nice enough, but the air of failure that hung about him was oppressive. He used to invite me and my little brother over to his place to watch porn. We sometimes went, but were more interested in reading his comic books. He had a crush on my sister and would wait for her to come home from parties and from the houses of friends. He would approach her shirtless, beer in hand and she would always ignore him and make her way into the house as quickly as possible. Sometimes when he got drunk and locked himself out of his home, Jerry would sleep in the clubhouse my father had built for us in the backyard. My brother would wake me up on Saturday mornings, saying, Jerry's in the clubhouse again.
In the house to the right of us lived the Hulsey family. They were all either overweight or sickly thin. They had bad haircuts and wore food stained, ill-fitting clothes and had names like Janey, Willard and Mickey. Mickey was about thirty five and lived in a little trailer parked in the driveway of their lot. Mickey enjoyed tormenting me with his ugly little dog. It was some kind of Dachshund mix named Sleepy. It was an old dog, sad and useless and probably couldn't have hurt me if it wanted to, but I was scared just the same. I was a sensitive child, afraid of dogs of all shapes and sizes, along with most other things in the world. I would make it a point to walk on the other side of the street whenever I passed the trailer, but Mickey would watch for me, I swear, because he had nothing else to do, and when he saw me he never failed to send the stupid little dog at me. Get 'em, Sleepy, get 'em, Mickey would yell with a pure and terrible joy. The thing would come yapping and snarling at me, and I would keep walking as casually as I could, doing my best to pretend I wasn't afraid, but we all knew otherwise. Me, the bastard and his horrible little dog.
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The neighborhood was full of other bastards of a similar nature, not worth describing in any particular detail. The children in the neighborhood were little bastards as well. With the exception of my brother and myself. My brother was an asshole at times, but never really a bastard as I defined the word. I'm not really sure what I was. The neighborhood children were, in general, cruel, ugly and dirty. Miniature versions of their bastard parents. Eventually they would grow into full sized bastards themselves and beget little bastards of their own, and the horrific cycle would repeat itself, endlessly.
My own parents weren't so bad. They weren't particularly good, as far as parents go, but they were more hapless than evil. They did what they could. My father seemed to be one of the few grown ups in the neighborhood who had a regular job. Everyone else would just sit in their garages all day drinking beer, bullshitting and listening to country music. Bad country music. The redneck kind. The weeks months and years passed without much happening. A general and ongoing stagnation. From time to time one of them would die, or be sent off to the county jail for a spell, but for every one that went away another would be there to take his place. The bastards were endless and eternal.
One summer I was sixteen or so. The bastards were in Barney's garage bullshitting like they always were. Despite the fear and hatred I harbored for them, I sometimes spent time in their midst, as there was most always a cooler full of beer sitting about in Barney's garage. I would go and stand around with them for a little while, pretending to listen to their conversations long enough to stuff as many beers in my pockets as I could manage before retreating back to the relative safety of my own bedroom or backyard.
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One particular afternoon, as I was stuffing cans of Coors Light in the pockets of my denim jacket, the subject of the bastards' bullshitting was a cat; a plain, scruffy black and white stray that wandered about the neighborhood. Shirley, Barney's wife, was prone to leaving the screen door to their kitchen open when she was off drinking and bullshitting, thus allowing the cat to wander in their home. Shirley eventually would stumble into her bedroom, drunk, to find the cat curled up asleep on her bed or on a chair. She would screech and yell and throw household objects at the creature, usually managing to chase it back outside. This particular afternoon the unlucky feline made the mistake of crawling under the bed instead of escaping through the screen door. Shirley swore, she howled and cursed, but the cat stayed hunkered down within the darkness beneath her bed. She enlisted the aid of Jerry and some of the other neighborhood bastards, and they eventually got the frightened animal out of the house, but not before it had done a fair amount of fear induced spraying and pissing.
From that afternoon onwards the cat was declared a menace by the neighborhood bastards, and its eradication became their collective mission. Barney declared he would shoot the thing, but Shirley dissuaded him, fearing another unwelcome visit from the police. She borrowed a wire mesh rabbit trap from Mickey, put an open can of sardines inside and set it outside the screen door. The following morning she drew aside her shades to find, to her obscene pleasure, she had indeed managed to capture the luckless beast.
How the bastards reveled in their victory. The fact that they had managed to trap some half starved stray cat managed to give them a feeling of rare achievement. From the drunken celebration one would have imagined they had captured a dinosaur or a pack of wolverines.
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When I visited Barney's garage to investigate the commotion, all the bastards were standing around the little cage, the suffering cat inside. The prison was so small that the cat could hardly move, could do little but sit in its own piss and shit, spitting and hissing at its tormentors. Seeing it there like that, a feeling of disgust welled up within me. A little she bastard who lived down the street had filled a plastic beach pail with water. She was slowly making her way to the cage, saying, nice kitty kitty, nice kitty kitty. She stood in front of the cage, holding her pail of dirty water. I understood what she was going to do just a moment too late to stop her. She dumped the contents of the pail into the cage and onto the poor animal. The cat yowled and hissed, the bastards laughed, and the little she bastard ran back home with her empty plastic pail, screeching with glee.
Eventually the bastards grew bored with the spectacle of the caged animal and wandered off into the house to watch a boxing match. I was left alone with the cat. I spoke softly to it, trying to offer what little consolation I could. It spit and hissed when I drew close, as it couldn't tell me apart from the bastards. I wanted to tell the cat that I hated the bastards too, that I understood. At that moment, my hatred for the bastards had become complete. I made a silent promise to the cat, took a few beers from the cooler and went back to my house.
It was a Saturday when the bastards captured the cat, and they planned to let it sit in the cage until Monday, when people from the SPCA or somewhere were supposed to come and take it away. I lay on the bed in my room, drinking Coors Light, thinking about the cat, mocked and tortured, guilty of nothing, waiting for an all but certain death. Night came and I waited until I was fairly sure all the bastards were asleep. I quietly crept to where the cage still sat in Barney's yard.
The cat hissed at my approach. "Shh..." I whispered, "I'm gonna get you out of here, buddy." I picked up the cage and walked with it quickly to where my piss yellow Datsun sat in the driveway, the cat hissing and spitting all the while. "It's okay, buddy," I said over and over, "It's okay."
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I put the cage in the passenger seat and drove. The cat continued to howl. I did my best to soothe it, hoping somehow it would eventually understand I was on its side. Our destination was a field about a mile away from my house, across the street from the Jr. High School. I stopped the car and left the motor running. I took the cage to the middle of the field and tried to figure out how to open it without getting bitten or scratched too badly. When I finally managed to open the thing, the cat cowered in the corner and hissed, still not understanding that I was trying to do good. I finally picked up the cage and turned it sideways, dumping the cat out into the field. For a moment the cat stood motionless and dazed. It looked around the field and then at me and then it ran. It ran very fast. When it put a fair amount of distance between us it slowed to a trot and turned back to gaze in my direction, I imagine to see if I was giving chase. I'd like to think at that point it understood I was a friend. It continued to trot away and I stood and watched until it was gone. I threw the cage in a nearby trash bin and drove home, my car smelling of cat piss.
The next day when I woke and went outside, the bastards were all gathered in Barney's garage, heatedly discussing the disappearance of the animal. "Hey Billy," one of the bastards called as I walked to my car, "do you know what happened to the goddamned cat?"
I figured I would be first on their list of suspects, as they knew that I knew they were bastards, and they rarely spoke to me unless it was to accuse me of something. "I don't know," I said. The bastards stared, not believing it for a second. I kept walking.
"It was a mean cat," Jerry eventually said, "it pissed all over Shirley's bed."
"Yeah," I said, getting into my car, wishing the cat had pissed all over all their beds. I imagined them all in little cages wallowing in their own filth. I drove away, my car the color of piss and still smelling of it. Even at that age I didn't believe in any particular god, but I said a little prayer of sorts for the cat and wished it better luck with the rest of its time on earth. The bastards were everywhere and would endure, but we do what we can.