I’m just home from the airport, and the living room where I grew up still smells of cigars and mildew. It’s not my home anymore, but fragments of my family still live here. Cousin Jacob regards me over the rim of his glasses without lifting his head from his bible. “Come on in, mug, take a load off.” Jacob calls everyone by the informal, “mug.” I think it’s a contraction of “man” and… I’m not sure. Possibly “thug.”
I don’t think I’m better than Jacob is. I don’t. But to be honest, I do suffer from the fear that I’ll think I’m better than he is. To some degree I’ve been plagued by this paranoid-superiority complex since I was was old enough to think I might be different from anyone I didn’t make up in my head. Under the burden of these thoughts I endure countless circular arguments with myself on the topic of superiority, particularly when I’m conversing with one of my rural-bred relatives.
You think you’re better than he is.
No I don’t.
Walking does not come naturally to me.
Many years ago I was that kid with the weird clothes. My attire was completely out of tune with that of my peers, owing to the fact that my mother refused to buy clothes from clothing stores. “A fancy logo got nothin’ to do with keeping your butt covered,” she’d tell me. But it has a lot to do with me getting my butt kicked, I thought. I wasn’t asking for much. I would have settled for jeans that didn’t feature a yarn and studs depiction of that weeping Indian from the “Keep America Beautiful” TV campaign. But try telling my mother that retirement home craft fairs were not bastions of haute couture.
I had no say in matters of wardrobe. I could only wait for my clothing to deteriorate and hope the replacement would be less of a fist magnet. Needless to say that I helped this process along where I could, scraping along the school’s cinderblock halls, or packing my pockets full of rocks until the seams were strained to the breaking point. But despite the cardiovascular benefits of hauling around ten extra pounds every day, my behavior was viewed as eccentric, and it won me no friends.
Neither was I safe in my own home. Money was tight, and we were living with my step-grandparents at the time, a cynical couple with whom I’d developed an adversarial relationship. My grandfather in particular was a balloon-bellied orangutan-like man with arms like the proverbial ten foot pole. One of his most cherished pastimes was cuffing me across the back of the head whenever I passed by his recliner on the way to my room. Regardless of my pace or bearing, his hand always seemed to land its mark. He could be in a gin stupor and fully reclined, and still catch me upside the head as I tried to sneak by.
Where apparel was concerned, shoes became a particularly touchy subject. With my mother perusing church flea markets every weekend there was simply no predicting what would end up on my feet–half the time I was lucky if I got a matching pair. For my birthday I got obligatory new shoes, logo-free as expected, which turned out to be moccasin / saddle-shoe hybrids with a “stars and stripes” bicentennial theme. They were straight out of a playground bully’s wet dream.