Bobby was a groomer. He was a master groomer. You wouldn’t think so to look at him from the outside. Powerful tanned arms from working in the lumber yard. Tight white t-shirt. Work pants. Scuffed work shoes. Brown hair always looked like he just got out of a barber chair. Piercing blue-gray eyes with long eyelashes. With high cheekbones and full lips, Bobby was soft-spoken with a disarming smile. He never moved quickly or spoke quickly, but he was never satiated. Marriage wasn’t enough. Slight beer belly. Noticeable beer breath. More so on the weekends as they closed earlier. For over four years, every time Bobby said come, Alan went with him.
It started when Alan was eight. Alan knew Bobby’s eyes, smile, and desires first hand. If they were evil, Alan didn’t know it. He just went along with it. And with it came a mixture of feelings. Pain and pleasure he couldn’t understand or explain.
Customers seldom noticed the home-made door to the worker’s latrine below the old lumber warehouse. A little shorter than a regular door. Black lift-latch. No lock. Long springs to snap the door shut. Bobby called. Alan came to him. Bobby put his arm around Alan’s shoulder. They disappeared down the narrow stairway into the latrine. Alan jumped every time the door slammed shut behind them. He looked at the cinder block walls and stood in the middle of the cement floor. He didn’t like to stand near the big floor drain. Alan waited. Then it came. The sound of the latch. Alan could hear the noise of the door springs stretching. And he heard the footsteps coming down the stairs. Then the door slammed shut. That would be Ernie’s footsteps. Alan didn’t like Ernie because his hands were rough, always dirty, and smelled of cigarettes.
There were a urinal and two commodes on one wall. Across from there, two sinks with mirrors mounted on the cinder block wall. A single light bulb with a round shade hung in the center of the room. There were two rectangular casement windows at street level on the outside wall. The blurred glass let some light in and faced the dirt road that ran past the storefront and office down to the lumber yard entrance gate.
It was cold in the winter. It was hot in the summer. And it didn’t matter. Bobby and Ernie sexually abused Alan here almost every weekend in any season. Alan would gag, choke, feel horrible pain, and do unmentionable things for hours. That wasn’t all.
The plumbing to this latrine also serviced the small bathroom in his father’s office directly above. That is where his dad kept piles of pornographic magazines and showed him black and white movies. One of a woman dressed as a French nun walking along a seashore. There were horses in the film, too.
He went to work with his dad almost every weekend. Years of abuse went by and the time came for Alan’s bar mitzvah. Alan was nervous about it. You might think Alan didn’t change very much from when he started going to work with his dad. But he did. His wavy black hair was thicker, longer. Same olive skin tone like his mom. A little taller but still skinny for his height. But there were complex differences on the inside. Not the type you see quickly. He was more introverted, more cautious. Quiet as a cat. Or could talk on and on like a magpie. He could make himself invisible or visible at will.
On a quiet-as-a-cat day, he was waiting in the synagogue for his lesson. The heavy door was partly open. He could hear the rabbi and his wife talking. The rabbi’s wife asked, “Why are you wasting time on that boy?” Alan didn’t wait to hear the answer. His mind drifted. He was at peace here in the synagogue, but maybe God wasn’t interested in him either.
His dad started the lumber business after he came back from World War II. It didn’t matter to Bobby that Alan’s father was the owner. Bobby taunted his father because the master groomer knew the owner’s secrets. His dad never did anything to help Alan. How could he not know?
Few could see what body and mind numbing pain did to this child. For the few that could see, they mostly ignored it or thought there was something wrong with him. His fault whatever it was.
When Alan was in 8th grade, the Montclair Academy head counselor couldn’t understand why Alan wasn’t doing well in school, wasn’t doing well at anything. The imperial “They,” the powers that be, decided he had to repeat the 8th grade. They had no idea what this meant to Alan. Staying back meant Alan had to read “Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott twice. He didn’t enjoy the thick paperback the first time. Worse, the few kids Alan knew since elementary school would go on without him. He’d go from almost two friends to none. Children don’t always understand that when things go wrong, it wasn’t their fault.
Like the time, Roger, a classmate all through elementary school, had a birthday party at their family estate in Montclair. Even though the birthday boy wanted Alan to come, Roger never invited Alan. Maybe you had to have relatives who came over on the Mayflower to get invited. Wasn’t Roger’s fault either. Roger and Alan were kids. They were too young to know anything about “No Jews allowed” parents, neighbors, or coworkers.
Alan was alone before, but now he was more alone and felt ashamed. With no understanding of shame. But embarrassed nonetheless. Should’ve known. His parents humiliated him all the time.
The book you are about to read begins years later. Abuse was an invisible cloak, like a spider’s web, which shrouded every area of Alan’s life, every thought, every action. He didn’t know why he didn’t have friends. He played alone. He read a lot. Once in a while, he took the bus into NYC and spent the day alone. He went to Brentano’s bookstore because he loved books and wanted to be a writer. And he visited the NY public library with the lions out front. Schirmer’s music store was a favorite where he looked at sheet music because he thought he’d be a good singer or actor. He loved watching people and looking at things. The crowds and the noise, the hustle and bustle of the city were like friends to him.
He was an observer of life, not a trusting or joyful participant.
Circumstances were such that in 1965, Alan joined the Army to beat the draft. If someone asked him what he did as a kid, he told them stories about being at work with his dad. Alan filled hundreds of bags of sand and gravel with a shovel, tied them off, and piled them on pallets so that he could drive the forklift. He’d laugh. They’d laugh.
Alan was an example of classic textbook child sexual abuse; it was all blocked out. What happened to him in his father’s office above and the employee latrine below was pure hell. He lived in hell, played in hell, grew up in hell, and never felt a thing. Or so he thought.
But now, at this reading, you know Alan’s big secret that he didn’t know. You know why Alan was the way he was. Why he was a loner. Why he thought and acted the way he did. Alan didn’t know why anything was the way it was. His normal wasn’t your normal. He saw life and lived life differently than most.
He saw Vietnam, her people, and the Vietnam war differently than most.