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 Matthew Ulland
 Matthew Ulland
by Matthew Ulland  FollowFollow
I've been reading and writing as long as I can remember. There are a few better things in life, but not many. Right now, I'm pretending to more a writer full-time, having abandoned the city and the corporate machine. My first novel, "The Broken World", came out last year and I've had poems, essays, and stories published in journals sporadically. When I'm not reading and writing, I'm chilling with my dogs in our little cabin in the woods and trying not to worry about the bills, the bills, the bills.
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THE LAST TIME I saw Joe was the day before my family moved to Florida. It was March 1979. I was eight. Joe was ten. In the small Wisconsin town we lived in and were leaving, the snow was still three feet deep or more. The whole world was white, dead looking when the sky was gray, sparkling and blindingly bright when the sky was clear blue.

I wanted it to be gray that day. We were leaving, after all. But everywhere I looked the white lawns and icy trees sparkled like cutlery. It was beautiful, and as quiet as held breath, waiting for an old story to end and a new one to begin.

Everyone was busy inside the house with final preparations. I was the youngest and had nothing to do but get ready to jump in the van with my sisters, brother, and parents for the two-day drive from Wisconsin to Florida.

I was standing outside in the middle of our rarely traveled street, just looking at everything. Even that young, the moment meant something. It was between-worlds time, highly charged with sentiment and expectation. But children think more deeply than we imagine once we grow up and forget.

So there I was, feeling all solemn and melancholy, watching, perhaps, a crow skitter among the bare elm branches and caw, sounding like a loud, rusty hinge screeching. No one else was outside all up and down the block—it was too cold and bleak. Everything looked emptied out. It looked more like the world was leaving us than that we were leaving it. It was as if we were the last family to leave a town that now would be nothing but a ghost town, all the wells run dry.

The street was iced over. There were patches of bare blacktop but most of the street was coated in thick ice that must have been treacherous for anyone driving. The road had been iced over for months. No one bothered to clear rural roads back then, beyond a sprinkling of salt and dirt, and all you could do was drive slowly and put chains on your tires.

But for an eight-year-old boy, the icy street was a skating rink. I slipped around the surface in my pudgy black snow boots as if I were skating. Or not quite skating, but slipping, letting myself glide over the dangerous and beautiful ice.

That’s when Joe came up behind me. He lived in the house directly across the street from ours. Our houses faced each other like two kids endlessly committed to a staring contest. I was facing our house, saying goodbye to the house and my little world in the only way that seemed right—trying to take it in one last time, to be fully part of that world before I left it.

Joe must have known I was a little sad. He didn’t startle me or play any jokes on me like kids normally do. He said, “Hey,” and asked me when we were going and if I was going to miss the neighborhood. His questions were quiet and honest. He didn’t suggest we go sledding, didn’t try to say something smart-alecky. We were adults for a moment, in a way, trying to find the words to say goodbye without overdoing it. Besides, we weren’t best friends. He was closer to my brother’s age, more his friend than mine.

It was very cold and no one else came out. We didn’t stay out long. He was the last person I said goodbye to, the one who came out to wish me well.

One summer before we moved, Joe was rushed to the hospital. He’d been swimming in an above-ground pool at a friend’s house, not in our neighborhood. We—my brother and me and the Luchenbach boys (Lee and Larry)—were excited to see him, or, really, to see his wound.

He’d swum up under the lip of the pool and hit an exposed nail that tore into his flesh, requiring stitches. The doctors had shaved a patch of hair on the side of his head where the wound was and stitched it up with black thread. He covered it up with a cap adorned in bubble gum logos. The hat looked more ridiculous than the stitches but he was self-conscious, more of the shaved hair than the wound.

I thought he looked like Frankenstein’s monster, which is what we all called him that summer until the scar healed and his hair grew back. The name fit, not only because of the stitches, but because we knew he was slower, dimmer, than the rest of us, like the monster in the movie, all grunts and groans, with a temper but little reason.

I was two years younger than Joe but even I knew I was smarter than him. Everyone was smarter than him. He knew it. Even the Luchenbach boys, who were no geniuses themselves, were smarter than Joe. He always seemed a little dazed by the conversation, a little slow on the uptake.

I don’t think I felt sorry for him, though. Maybe I should have, but kids are mean. He was bigger and stronger than me, and if I felt anything it was more jealousy of his body than pity for his mind. Grades in school, it was obvious, were something you could work at but only to a limit. Intelligence was handed down. It had little to do with effort. In a town that was nearly all white and middle class, intelligence was the most obvious distinguishing difference between one kid and another.

Joe, we all knew, was in the slow group. I could convince him to follow along with my younger schemes any time. But he was almost always kind, which I should have respected, though I didn’t.

All of our fathers listened to country music stations while outside working on their cars or barbecuing or working on their lawns. And they all had a particular fondness for Dolly Parton. This was before her Kenny Rogers phase, before the crossover pop hits, the era of “Coat of Many Colors” and “Jolene.”

I loved the songs, too. When I thumbed through the few dozen vinyl records my parents stored in the big wooden cabinet of their “hi-fi,” I came across my dad’s Dolly Parton records and saw that there were a couple other reasons he liked her.

It had been a few years since “Jolene” was a hit, but the local stations still played it in regular rotation between Tanya Tucker and Charlie Pride songs. One day, we were all outside in our back yard. The Luchenbach boys must have started it, most likely Larry, who was usually the instigator, the one with the streak of rebel in him I could sense was developing into more than just the “cool kid on the block.” Years later, drunk, he hit an old lady with his car in a church parking lot and killed her. That was still a decade or more later, though.

Let’s say Larry got us started. But it hardly matters. We all gleefully joined in and started circling Joe, who was sitting on the bench of the picnic table on our patio behind the house. He looked dumbfounded, unable to do anything but grumble and glower (silly Frankenstein) as we pranced around him like we were dancing in a ring, chanting off-key the refrain to “Jolene.”

“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jo-leeeeene,” we mock-sang. We didn’t add, “Please don’t take him just because you can.” That would have made us sound like sissies and ruined the taunt. We only sang the name. We thought it was funny because it was a girl’s name that sounded like his. It’s the stupidest of young boys’ jokes—call a boy a girl, the epithets of “queer” or “fag” lingering unsaid behind the taunt.

What was strange was that we didn’t mean it. It was just an accident of culture that the song was in the air and sounded like his name. Plus, he was easy to intimidate, being slow-witted. But he was anything but girly. He was the bulkiest and strongest of any of us. He played pygmy football and little league baseball and could beat any of us in a fight.

Also, it should have been me we were mocking, but I didn’t know it yet. I was the only “queer-in-training” in the group, but you couldn’t tell unless you looked closely and saw I had no interest in sports and had friends in school that were girls more often than boys. Still, it was my good luck that Dolly Parton hadn’t recorded a song about a girl named “Jeanie,” since my name was Gene.

Joe growled and told us to stop, red-faced and furious. Soon, we did. It was only a joke. We went on to other adventures, roaming the woods behind our house or playing catch.

I didn’t feel any remorse. I didn’t feel badly for Joe. I thought it was funny. And I felt like part of the gang, one of they guys, so I relished the moment. I would have thrown rocks at Joe if that were what everyone else was doing, as if I were one of the little Brits in Lord of the Flies eager to maul, to kill, Simon.

Later that summer, Joe’s family and mine spent a week together in cabins by a lake in northern Wisconsin. There wasn’t much to do besides fish, swim, or canoe, unless you were an adult and could waste the nights drinking weak beer the color of piss. One night, our parents were at one cabin, probably drinking, while the kids were all at another cabin. My older sister and Joe’s older sister were both teenagers and were responsible for “baby-sitting” us.

My brother, Joe, and I were sitting around in one room, our sisters in another room. I don’t remember what we were talking about, what we were doing, or evil sparked flared up in me and got me to start mock-singing “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jo-leeeeene,” again. But this time, I was the only one singing.

Joe snapped. He jumped up from where he was sitting and grabbed me by the throat with both hands. He pushed me against the wall, telling me to shut up and never say that again. His grip pushed into my windpipe, cutting off my air. But he let go quickly.

I was stunned and confused, startled by knowing I was a jerk as much as I was scared by his swift attack. I ran into the bathroom and shut the door, gasping for air. I couldn’t help it—I started crying in jagged outbursts.

My sister and Joe’s sister knocked and came in. They asked what Joe had done. I couldn’t say anything because it wasn’t really his fault, or not entirely, and it was too complicated to explain and I didn’t understand what or why I’d acted the way I had anyway. It just came out of me. But they defended me. I was the youngest. I was much smaller than Joe. He shouldn’t have attacked me. Yes, but also no.

The incident ruined the vacation. The next morning was gray and cool. I had the beach to myself. My father had woken my brother and sisters early to go fishing. Later, they said I was too young and there weren’t enough seats. I didn’t buy it. But I let it go—I didn’t really want to go fishing anyway, didn’t feel like sitting in a boat in the pre-dawn gloom, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to get yanked out of the lake, wildly flapping in the bottom of the boat, red gills straining for oxygen.

I walked over to the lake and threw stones at it, trying to skip them on the surface at first and then just hurtling them into the water like I was trying to hurt it. When I turned around, I saw that the owner of the resort, a middle-aged man, was watching me from the hill above the lake. He turned away when I looked back.

I walked around the resort aimlessly. Soon, I found Joe out on another part of the beach sitting by himself, looking as downcast as I felt. I knew what I had to do though I didn’t want to do it.

I went over to him and apologized. I was nervous to say anything to him, but our sisters had told us both the night before that we had to make up or they’d tell our parents the next day and we’d both be in much worse trouble. There was nothing I could do but do as they said. I knew that I was wrong and that it was going to eat away at me until I admitted it. I told Joe I was sorry. He didn’t look at me, but he said he was sorry, too.

We didn’t go back to normal, but we didn’t bother each other either. My father and siblings motored into the dock soon after. When my brother jumped out, Joe went over to him. They walked away, talking and laughing. My sisters headed back to the cabins. I followed my father, who was headed to a small hut on the lake’s shore. I walked a safe distance behind him so he wouldn’t know I was following.

When I got to the screen door to the hut, I saw through the mesh my father standing by a sink and counter, his back toward me. He placed a foot-long silvery fish on the counter then slammed down a hammer on its head. Its body flopped once. Then he held the fish up and stuck a thin serrated knife under its jaw. He pulled the knife down the center of the fish’s white belly. He reached his hand into the slit stomach and pulled out slimy pink and white guts. The innards made a wet plopping sound on the wooden cutting board. I turned and walked away.

Joe hung out with my brother the rest of the time we were there at the lake. I swam alone or read the “choose your own adventure” stories I’d brought with me. I tried not to say anything to anyone.

It was the first time I hurt anyone. It was the first time I felt really lonely.

The summer before the incident at the lake was the summer everyone was naked. A neighbor none of us liked would constantly “streak” through his house when we were over. We would go down into the cow pasture at the end of the block and skinny dip in the creek there. We would dare each other to run around naked in front of the neighborhood girls. “Streaking” was a fad in the late 70’s. I don’t know why we did it, but we were all taking our clothes off all the time.

And I had discovered something else I could get friends to do: play doctor.

While my brother and Larry Luchenbach were off getting into trouble, I went into the woods behind our house with Lee Luchenbach (Larry’s younger brother) and Joe. I was younger than both of them but I played the role of doctor. They both bent over and dropped their pants. I spread each one’s butt cheeks and stuck a twig inside, as if it were a thermometer.

I didn’t have the words for it yet, didn’t really understand what I was doing, but we weren’t just playing. I was drawn to their bodies and wanted to explore. They played along. Everyone had heard of “playing doctor” before and knew it was a little taboo, which meant it had to be fun. Besides, we’d all spent half the summer naked. It didn’t go any further. We didn’t play doctor for long until we got bored and left the woods to do something else.

I didn’t know then that my brother and Larry Luchenbach had come looking for us and saw what we were doing. My brother told me about it years later when we were both adults. He said he knew then that I was queer.

For my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, my siblings, their families, and I and my boyfriend returned to Wisconsin, to a resort on a lake. It wasn’t the cheap fishing camp we’d stayed at back in the 70’s. It was a fancy resort with all the comforts and attractions.

For lunch one day, Joe’s parents stopped by. They still lived in the old neighborhood. His father looked nearly the same as I remembered. His mother was white-haired now but still as feisty as she had been, though hard of hearing now.

My parents wanted me to come say hello. I felt odd about it. I didn’t really know them, hadn’t seen them in more than 30 years. I was balding now with a graying beard. Partly, I wondered if it would be unsettling for them to see a man they remembered as a tow-headed kid now middle-aged. How old they would walk away feeling. But also, it meant coming out, even if not in words, and I was tired of that.

I came to the restaurant where Joe’s parents were eating with my parents, reminiscing about what they remembered from the old days. They were talking about skiing and partying, and drinking too much beer. The days they were remembering were days when they were younger than I was now. It felt disorienting to think about it.

I brought my boyfriend and introduced him. They greeted him as if he were no news at all, but just another old acquaintance. No one mentioned Joe and I didn’t ask. I was too caught up in watching how they would react to me and to my boyfriend.

Nothing happened. We chatted politely and then they went back to reminiscing with my parents. How fast time seemed, as if the intervening years had passed in a flash, had disappeared like something we’d all misplaced but couldn’t remember where. They say you can’t go home again because when you go back you find the places you once knew have changed, and so have you. It’s the same with people you haven’t seen in years. Part of you feels like you go back in time, except those aren’t the people who were there, and neither are you. You smile but you don’t mean it because, partly, the whole thing feels like a funeral.

Before I said goodbye, Joe’s mother took a picture of my boyfriend and me. She posted it on Facebook as a picture of “Gene and his friend.” She was building a closet for me, which was strange and unnecessary now, though sort of touching—as if she were protecting me from unwanted discovery, though more likely she simply felt awkward about writing “boyfriend” or “partner.”

I never heard what ever happened to Joe: If he was still alive, married or single, where he was living, if he was happy. I didn’t think about him until I came home from my parents’ anniversary trip and started reminiscing about Joe’s family with my boyfriend, started trying to piece the old stories together, wondering what meaning might still be hidden there. The guilt of how I’d treated him echoed distantly in my mind like the refrain of an old song I could never quite forget.



  5 months ago
Love it! I'm doing similar memoirish stuff.
  5 months ago
Fascinating STORY!!!
  5 months ago
Bittersweet. Really enjoyed this. Thanks for writing it!

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