In a State of Sunshine
By Tony Robles
For reasons once illusive to me, I attracted the attention of a redneck in Orlando, Florida in the summer of 1977. I recall it vividly because that was the year our beloved king, Elvis Presley, died. I was about 13, undergoing the eruption of pimples and masturbation. Rubbing against a pillow—rubbing against anything—became my top priority in life. I’d sit in my bedroom, looking thru a bug screen waiting to catch a glimpse of the pretty blond girls walking or riding their bikes. The neighborhood was dominated by the color white. People wore white shirts, drove white cars, wiped their mouths with white napkins, ate white bread sandwiches and, of course, wiped their asses with white toilet paper. I remember putting on my white shirt those many mornings on my way to private school. I was the only Pilipino kid in a private Christian school—brown boy in a sea of white shirts. The official school uniform was red, white, and blue—the color of an Elvis jumpsuit. The slacks were polyester bellbottoms and I remember my sweaty crotch in the Florida heat. Everybody wore the polyester uniform—even the principal. He was a rigid looking guy who appeared oblivious to any discomfort. However, he did sometimes express joy when it came time to paddle a student for whatever infraction. I recall being paddled for throwing a small wad of paper, moistened with spit, at the head of a schoolmate. Unfortunately, the wad landed on the principal’s head whom unbeknownst to me, was standing nearby. He brought me into his office and told me his intention of lowering the paddle upon my brown ass. I followed him across the classroom—the eyes of the brown and blonde haired students glancing at me, some smiling, as they knew what lay ahead. We walked into the office—a somewhat sterile place. On his desk was a miniature American and Christian flag; next to it a picture of his wife—a middle aged, dark haired woman with antiseptic eyes—plain looking with zero chance of occupying any sexual fantasy I’d ever have. I grabbed the side of his desk almost out of instinct.
“I have to do this”, he said, licking his lips, lifting the paddle from his desk. “The reason”, he continued, “Is because I love you with the love of the lord”.
I wished he’d just shut up and spare me the sermon but he was the principal and felt the need for a speech before the deed—just to let me know he had compassion. I recall the blood rushing to my face as I waited for the principal’s first blow. My knees became steadily weaker and finally a gush of air and a hard WHACK! I recollect the initial blow making contact with my left ass cheek. My initial reaction was shock, fear and disbelief. One more time now…WHACK! This time the paddle struck both of my ass cheeks simultaneously. Shame made its way through my body in waves traveling down to my toes and then upward through my back. I tried to tighten my ass cheeks but that strategy proved futile. WHACK! The third stroke was the hardest, the force of which was similar to a perfectly executed forehand in tennis. I didn’t look back at the principal’s face, but I felt his joy (…and sorrow). He only managed the faintest of grunts in this most arduous of tasks. That third blow carried such force that the momentum knocked me forward and drove me head first into a pane glass window, shielded by a bug screen. My forehead hit the glass (or rather, the bug screen) solidly, while some beautiful trees and bushes waved at me freely outside. I cannot recall what happened afterwards with much clarity. All I remember was the principal telling me how he loved me, patting me on the head (and ass) and sending me back to my desk.
What I remember most was the intense heat—walking down those suburban streets feeling both oppressed and massaged by it. I wore black leather shoes—platforms with 3” heels—that felt as though I were walking on the sun. It was during one of my many walks home that I first encountered the neighborhood redneck up close. He lived in a blue and white house that hadn’t seen paint in years. The white portion of the house was covered in gray soot and the grass and weeds in the front yard were nearly 3 feet high. As I walked towards his house, taking the usual route, I noticed him—up close and in the flesh. He was about 5’ 9” with a belly that hung over his belt. He wore black pants with black cowboy boots—topped with a black cowboy hat. He looked as though a mid-sized pillow was stuffed inside his shirt—like Elvis. I walked closer towards him, trying to avoid eye contact. What I saw upon glancing at him made me fall down laughing inside. There he was, 250 plus pounds of belly, standing there twirling a pair of silver nunchuks. He twirled and, alternating between his left and right hand, whacked the black cowboy hat right off his head with a semi-mighty swing. The cowboy hat flew off as though yanked by the wind. The hat hit the ground and rolled towards me, stopping at my platform shoes with the 3” heels.
“That’s my hat”, he said, the nunchuks dangling at his side.
I looked down at the hat and looked up at him. We both waited for each other to make a move. With heavy steps he walked over, bent down with ease and picked up his hat.
“You live around here?” he asked.
His face was puffy with small pimples on his chin. His teeth were a light shade of brown.
“I live down the street” I replied.
He put the hat back on and twirled the nunchuks in a figure 8-motion, which looked more like a figure 3 motion. He squinted as he whipped the nunchuks around and around, trying not to knock his hat off.
“This is hard to learn”, he said, twirling. “I saw Bruce Lee do it in a movie so I bought these nunchuks at the flea market”.
The nunchuks were silver and heavy. Bruce Lee was dead but there were other Bruce’s to take his place, and they all seemed to be making movies. There was Bruce Ly, Bruce Lye, Bruce Li, Bruce Lie, Bruce Lei and Bruce Lyi and Bruce Eel. There were lots of Lies calling themselves Lee and lot’s of Lee’s calling themselves Lie. But this fellow and his nunchuks were touched by a Lee or a Lie and went about his twirling with genuine gusto. He stopped twirling having become somewhat winded.
“My name’s Mark…”
“I’ve seen you around”
This was true. We had seen each other in passing. My mother drove a Mercedes Benz and, not knowing the politics of it, caught the attention of people on the street. It wasn’t attention in the sense that people observe cars to make sure a collision is avoided, but rather, it was attention accompanied by the unsaid question, “How did those dark people get a Mercedes?”
One day my mother drove her Mercedes. I was in the back seat. We drove past houses lined with beautiful orange trees for blocks. We came upon a dirty house in the middle of the block. A fat guy in a cowboy hat stood in the driveway. I put my face close to the window and we caught each other’s eyes. He spit something dark on the pavement. It wasn’t a sloppy type of spit, but a well-timed, well-aimed spit that hit the cement with precision. I was in the well-insulated confines of my mother’s car so I gave the guy the finger as we drove by, his big gut and cowboy hat getting smaller in the distance.
“Where ya go to school?” he asked, spitting on the ground, sizzling and evaporating within seconds.
“Agape’ School” I replied, beads of sweat forming on my back, slowly trickling down.
“Agape’? What’s that?”
“It means God’s love, or something like that…”
I thought that Agape’ could quite possibly mean “Principal paddling my ass”.
The sun continued to burn, it seemed that it would burn anything in its way, any kind of matter—concrete, metal, human flesh. I looked at Mark with his cowboy hat, boots and jacket. How did a guy who wore so many clothes in burning hot weather not fall down and die? He dug into his pants pocket, which required some effort and pulled out a plastic sandwich bag.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Steak fat…you want some?”
Mark pulled out a piece of steak fat between his thumb and index finger. He popped it into his mouth and chewed as though it was tobacco—only this time, he didn’t spit.
“You like animals?” he asked through lips shiny with grease.
“Yeah, I guess” I replied
“What about snakes?”
Mark took off his cowboy hat. His black hair was oily and shined in the sun. He wiped his forehead and stuck the hat back on his head.
“You wanna see my snake…?”
Mark put the metallic nunchuks around his neck. I followed him to the front door of his house. I looked at the lawn. It was a combination of crab grass, dead grass, weeds, a deflated miniature swimming pool and a few empty candy wrappers.
“This is my house”, Mark said as he opened the door.
We walked in. The air was heavy—a smothering blanket of heat that rested on your shoulders until you couldn’t move. The house smelled of maple syrup. The walls seemed to sweat. On the floor a fan spun, creating more hot air.
“You want something to eat?”, Mark asked.
Mark went into the kitchen, which was near the bedroom. In the kitchen doorway hung colorful beads, the kind you find at the flea market. In the living room sat an old couch made of green leather—which was, in comparison with the rest of the furnishings in the house—in perfect condition. On the wall just above the couch was a large Ameican flag, held down by thumbtacks. Just below the flag, on the wall were dozens of pictures of Elvis Presley. I looked closely at the pictures. There he was–Elvis, the king—middle aged and fat, a ring on every finger, striking karate poses and ripping the back of his pants. It looked like a religious shrine.
“You like Moon pies?” a voice asked.
I turned around and saw Mark chewing something again. Melted chocolate stained the corners of his mouth. I took the moon pie and ripped through the plastic. It melted before I got it into my mouth. We stood there for some time. The air got heavier and I felt like sitting down but I didn’t because he didn’t.
I glanced at the Elvis pictures again.
“You like Elvis?” Mark asked, crumbling the plastic moon pie wrapper, placing it in his pocket.
“He’s ok I guess”
“My dad likes him. He went to the funeral…”
Mark walked over to a record player, underneath a collection of records. He pulled out a record and handed it to me.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“It’s Jim Croce”.
“You know…Bad Bad Leroy Brown”. He died too. But not like Elvis.
He flipped the album over and looked at Jim Croce’s picture, getting melted moon pie on it in the process.
“I have something in the back I want to show you…”
Mark hobbled across the living room over to a door in the back of the house. I followed with half a moon pie in my hand and a smile on my face.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
I followed Mark’s wobbly steps. The heels of his cowboy boots were worn. We reached a back porch, and walked through another door. The sun hit us full frontal as we made our way outside.
“Watch your step” Mark said as we walked over a pile of empty beer cans and TV Dinner boxes. We came upon a swimming pool that was the deep color of jade. I walked along the edge. Green hairs seemed to sprout from the sides.
“Watch out!” Mark blurted as he pushed me slightly.
I laughed nervously.
“I got an alligator in that pool”, said Mark, a curled lip smile forming on his face.
“Yeah, but he’ll only come up when I tell him to…”
I looked around and the backyard looked worse than the front. Weeds shot from the ground, which seemed to grow by the minute. A few feet away were a stack of empty milk cartons.
“Come here”, said Mark, squatting—the crack of his ass showing clear as day.
I walked over and saw a small aquarium where a snake sat, coiled.
“Is it poisonous?” I asked.
“Nah, it’s harmless”.
Mark reached into the aquarium. The snake recoiled but Mark grabbed it by the head and held it at eye level.
“It’s a baby black racer…”
The snake slithered between Mark’s fingers.
“Here, you hold it…”
Mark gave me the snake and it slithered and wrapped itself around my fingers. It felt like cold leather but it felt good. Mark took off his hat and looked up into the sky. His eyes fell on me for a while.
“What?” I asked.
“Did you give me the finger?” he asked.
“What?” I asked again.
Did you give me the finger?”
Mark stuck his middle finger underneath my nose to illustrate what he meant.
“No I didn’t” I replied as the snake sat still in my hand.
Mark spit on the grass.
“I saw you that day in the car with your mom”
I scratched my back, reaching uncomfortably for the spot, while taking my eyes off Mark.
“I didn’t do it. You must’ve seen someone else…”
“What kind of car does your mother drive?”
“Don’t lie to me you little fucker!”
“I swear to God, it wasn’t me!”
Mark didn’t reply. He walked over to a wooden box. On the end was mesh wiring.
“Come and take a look at this”, Mark said, standing above the box.
I walked past the algae infested swimming pool and came to the box.
“Take a look” Mark said, pointing downward.
I bent down and saw the face of a monkey. It could have been a baboon. Its face was pink and he looked at me with the saddest eyes in the world. It looked defeated, as though it had never known freedom. We were face to face. I looked and knew what it was feeling. He seemed to look into me, knowing my thoughts, knowing that I would come. The question was would I set him free?
Mark grabbed the handle of the wooden box and set it alongside the house. I thought about the monkey’s eyes but didn’t want to see them ever again. I wanted to get out of there at that moment but politeness kept me there. We went back into the house and Mark offered me another moon pie, which I refused. I walked past the Elvis shrine and looked into the King’s sad eyes. As I walked out the door, I felt a little cooler. The sun was melting into another part of the world. The fragrance of orange trees filled my nostrils as Mark’s eyes followed me walking towards my house.
“Hey!” a voice called.
I looked back. It was Mark giving me the finger, a big smile on his face. He spit and walked back to his house. I kept walking toward home feeling the last bit of sunlight falling on my back.
© 2005 Tony Robles