NOTE: The name Dick Dicklee is obviously not real, but I’m not going to call out the person involved now. Most of the following occurred long ago, and, as I am a much different person now, I will generously assume that he is as well. It was the middle of October, my sophomore year at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with Dick Dicklee stepping on the backs of my shoes, that I was first possessed by the spirit of Jack Nicholson. I was that kid with the wounded eyes. There’s usually at least one of us in the high school crowd, standing out even while trying to scurry unseen about the furthest edges of juvenile society. While I believed that my greatest hope lie in invisibility, there was something inside of me that yearned to set itself apart from everyone else. Something that just wouldn’t give up. My wardrobe was strictly Salvation Army. Nonetheless, I tried to deny these impoverished roots with some kind of flourish: torn-up jeans with poetry scrawled in Magic Marker, a long scarf that always dragged on the ground, oversized suit jackets before Miami Vice made them popular a year later. Despite my teenage freakishness, I believed that if I just stayed to myself and was nice to everyone, I could still be myself and they would leave me alone. But who could resist? When teenagers see another kid who is clearly fucked-up, it inspires in them the animal-like instinct to fuck them up even more. This was not the first time I had been bullied. A scrawny, bookish lad with more head than body, I was the kind of kid that bullies laid awake dreaming about. Mostly it was the greasy behemoths who knew how to rebuild a transmission or throw a football, towering above me, flanked by their grunting herd of disciples, who did the taunting: Are you a boy or a girl? It was usually enough for them to humiliate someone like me, raising a fist just to see me cower. But sometimes I would go home with a new bruise, welt, scrape, sprain, or abysmal ache deep in the center of me. I usually managed to hide what had happened from my parents, and I never let them know how much I wanted to kill myself. Dick Dicklee was not the usual kind of tormentor. Maybe that’s why everything happened the way it did. He wasn’t a football player or a grease monkey, trying to prove his manhood with engine-scented, football-shaped fists. He wasn’t even a very big guy. What he had was the power of the Izod shirt and his parents’ address in the fancy Bronson Boulevard neighborhood. His family was connected to a profitable local establishment, with a name that anyone in Kalamazoo would have recognized, which carried a social weight greater than some gawky kid in Spuds Mackenzie sneakers with the laces removed. Dick had his own car before his Learner’s Permit even expired. He tried to pretend that he was just like everyone else, but he came from money and that was probably what made everyone want to be part of his troop. As I got older, I might have had enough insight to see him differently, possibly even feeling compassion for the pressures of his own unique social position. But then, all I felt was my own pain. I first passed through the crosshairs of Dick’s ridicule when we were still in middle school. Nothing specifically stands out in memory from those years, blending together into a broken-glass stew of awkward fumbling and the laughter of my peers. In the years that followed, however, it had elevated from casual sniper attacks to fully regimented assaults, complete with full-on spectator support. Those moments before the teacher returned to start class were the worst. He would take aim at me, wherever I sat (usually near the front, since the back of class, while best for avoiding any involvement with the class, was often populated by the more thuggish kind of bully). Dick’s attack usually began with a shot at my clothes, vociferously lobbed across several ranks of high school desks. “Hey, Meredith, my sister left those pants at the Good Will.” The classroom erupted in laughter. Head down, I busied myself with the folders of my Trapper Keeper, making like a deaf mute. But I could still see Stephanie at the corner desk near the window. Adorable Stephanie, and she was laughing too. As usual, Todd, one of Dick’s backslapping foot soldiers, followed with an air strike of his own. “Is that where you got that gay Trapper Keeper?” Another wave of hilarity. I glanced at the clock, equally mocking me from the wall. If only Miss Aardema would hurry up and get here. My hands clenched and unclenched. My face felt as if it had caught on fire. I didn’t want to start crying. Dick asked, “Did you get a pair of my sister’s underwear from the Good Will too?” The next surge of guffaws nearly dragged the tears from my eyes. I waited until the wave of anguish had crested, took a breath, then said, “No, she gave them to me afterwards.” Dick and his audience couldn’t have been more surprised than I was. As the laughter bounced across the room this time, it was because of me. I did not look up from my desk, plastic wood-grain etched with the initials of scholastic lovers and a series of devilish sixes. But I was smiling, uneasily. Dick wasn’t used to being the one who was laughed at. His voice held a rising edge of anger. “Yeah, she usually takes pity on homosexuals who can’t afford real pants. Or shoes . . . ” Before the commotion began to rise again, the teacher entered. Guffaws faded to chuckles, then hushed sniggering. For the next hour I never so much as glanced back at Dick Dicklee or his fawning sycophants. But I could feel him lining up his sights. I traced nervous circles around the letters and numbers on my desk. The bell rang. As the class began herding into the hall, I knew that Dick was behind me. Then, just as I passed through the doorway, he stepped on the back of one of my shoes. And then again. I stumbled and turned to look back at him. Smiling at me with smug, piggish eyes. It loosed something in my head. Suddenly there was an image from The Shining. It was the scene where Scatman Crothers crept warily into the lobby of the Overlook Hotel . . . and Jack Nicholson was waiting there with an axe. My family was well-suited for our home in the woods of Comstock, Michigan. The surrounding area was a salvage-yard township of cracked paint and rotting hovels with car parts on every lawn. Blue-collar hooligans stalked Lake Street in polluted t-shirts, jobless, cigarettes dangling. They had little regard for the looming, grim monstrosity of the county jail, rising up from the dirt amidst the truck yards, oil-stained diners, and the ramshackle fairgrounds. Everyone stared at everyone else, hard and unblinking, hoping that someone might say the wrong thing or the wrong kind of look might pass across someone’s face. The growl of revving engines was always in the air, coming up from the ground, the futile sound of wanting to escape. The road on the opposite side of the fairgrounds curved past the pint-sized school where I had spent third grade. It was here that the torment had really begun. There was no way that the budding young bullies could have known the hellish childhood I faced at home. They could not know that my mother had been jamming a needle into her veins, or that one afternoon, fiending and driven crazy by the sound of my brother and I fighting, she came after me with a knife. Nor would they have cared. All that they had was an early instinct that I would react to them pushing me and calling me names. They knew that they could probably make another kid cry. What they didn’t expect was for that crying child to exclaim, through his tears, that he would go home to get a knife and then come back and stab them. But that was a long time ago now. The road continued to arc past dilapidated old farmhouses and faded cookie-cutter bungalows that tried to pretend they were in the suburbs. The trailer park that squatted just beyond them, farting the perpetual sounds of AC/DC and drunken marital brawls into the neighborhood air, made any such pretense impossible. Past the trailer park was a dismal brown facility, lurking in the trees, that was once a nursing home and then a halfway house for juvenile rehab, a low-security building from which both the restless old men with their walkers and the crack-addicted young women would frequently escape. The building crouched at the mouth of a long, dead-end corridor of dirt and trees whose small, bent sign meekly announced itself as Lester Road. The road had been carved into the woods by a man and his sons, using little more than a horse and plow and several handsaws, nearly a hundred years before. It had remained mostly unchanged. Every year or so the few residents who lived on the road would spray its nearly mile-long stretch with oil in a fleeting attempt to keep the dust down, but it still looked like an abandoned country road dropped in the middle of the city. Terracotta creatures darted and scuttled through the thick copse of trees that stalked the road on both sides. Insects buzzed incessantly in the shadow of the forest. Once, when my brother and I were halfway home, a massive bull from some nearby farm stepped into the road, horned and snorting loudly. He stared at us intently, pawing the dirt, until we finally ran for our lives back to the main road. There weren’t any meth labs hidden in the far edges of these woods yet in 1984, but there would be. For now, there were four houses, buried deep in the asylum of trees at the furthest end of the road. Ours was the furthest. It was only coincidence that we were related to the men who had carved the road from the woods so long ago; my great-grandparents were dead and Grandpa was spending his final stroke-silenced years in Allegan County when we came to live in the house in the woods. Here, despite the oceanic rush of traffic from both Sprinkle Road and the Interstate, just beyond the veil of trees, I could almost forget that the world existed. Our house, a squatty brick dwelling the color of soil, seemed to have sprung up from the ground itself. Inside, the same brown carpet that had always been there, scented of dog fur and a million anxious footfalls. For a while, a bucket in the shower, in lieu of a functioning toilet. Clothes were everywhere. Boxes with their contents spilling out, as if we were always getting ready to move. Stacks of books, papers, notepads. The space heater, kicking out noxious fumes from now until the middle of March. The ceiling, yellowed with piss from cats living in the attic, and the sky coming in through the cracks in the roof. The sound of Pink Floyd The Wall poured forever from the living room. “Hush now, baby, baby, don’t you cry, Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true, Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you . . .” Somewhere, my mother was sleeping. In the driveway, my father was stretched out on a long piece of cardboard under the rusted Chevelle, jacked up high with cement blocks behind the wheels. It looked like he was being eaten by the car. From the open garage door an old blues singer was going on about having trouble in mind. Inside the house, the dogs were barking, barking. I was watching my father, not sure how to talk to him. Dick Dicklee had not stepped on the backs of my shoes yet, but there was a furious red bruise rising from my cheekbone. One of the defensive linemen had not liked my oversized suit jacket that morning. By the time he was done, I wasn’t that fond of it myself. The worst part was that Kathleen Wilcox had just passed me in the hall when this thug started in on me. She was seated next to me in American Lit, a quiet and elusive brunette who smelled like burning cinnamon. Thus far I had not been humiliated in front of her. Lying in bed at night, I often dreamt that I would speak to her beyond asking if she had enjoyed the required reading. In my wildest fantasies, her eyes were closed and her full lips were pressed softly against mine. They would feel like the wings of a butterfly and taste like sweet-and-sour candy. In the yard, a stout grackle was terrorizing the other birds. He strutted and squawked, chasing them away from the mound of seeds that my mother put out every day. A little brown sparrow, either oblivious or unafraid of him, continued to peck silently at the outside of the bird food. When the grackle saw him, it unleashed all of its primitive fury on the smaller creature. Screeching and jabbing at the sparrow with its glistening black bill. The sparrow fell. The other bird continued to attack as if simply inflicting pain were not enough. “Hey,” I said, thumping the ground with my foot. The carnage continued. Finally, when I raced for the birds, the grackle swore at me and took flight. The sparrow shook himself. He sat for a moment, during which I began to think he had been mortally wounded, but then he leapt into the air. My father had climbed out from under the car. He stood just inside the garage, wiping grease from one of his wrenches, watching me. His t-shirt and jeans were smeared with it. “How’s it going?” I asked, indicating the broken automobile. “Alright,” he said, then nothing more. He disappeared into the garage and I heard the metallic clanking as he dug through his tools. “Did you see that stupid grackle?” I asked. A murmur from the garage. A moment later he emerged, carrying different tools. He stood there, squinting at me in the sun. Sometimes my father reminded me of Clint Eastwood and I wondered how he had gotten to be so tough. He nodded his head at the mark on my face. “How’s that doin’?” I shrugged, trying to be as laconic as him. My father had his own problems with the football team when he was in high school. We had heard the stories. It was the mid-1960s and he was a huge fan of the Rolling Stones. He was the first guy in the school to let his hair grow past the collar, emulating Mick Jagger. They cornered him in the locker room one afternoon and tried to play barber. According to the legend, Dad later singled out the one who seemed to be the main attacker, the biggest guy. Then he beat the shit out of him. “Looks like it hurts,” he said. I shrugged again, then nodded. My father was probably not as tough as he looked. A year before, one of his friends died. He was a big grizzly of a man named Harry who worked with him and sometimes came to our house for a few beers out in the yard. He was the same age as my father. When he heard that Harry had suffered a heart attack, Dad slumped down on the couch and cried right in front of us. He didn’t seem to feel any shame for his grief or his tears. But this was the same man who once slapped me like I was a girl. It was when my mother was in rehab, trying to kick the heroin. I don’t know what started it, but I was crying. Rambling and howling a line of nonsense. I was hysterical, like my mother before she went away. So he slapped me. A stinging crack like lightning. I never lost it that bad again, and he never raised another hand to me, both of us unable to forget the sharp sound of violence that filled up the room. “Remember when I used to have you and Nick put on the boxing gloves?” he asked. “Out in the living room, when we were fighting all the time.” “Yep,” he said. I nodded. He looked at me for a long time, like that was the lesson. Then, as if forgetting all about Mick Jagger and the football team, he said, “You do dress kinda strange.” He must have seen the hurt in my bruised face. For a moment, he looked like he was going to reach out for me. To put his arms around me. But he looked down at the grease and motor oil splattered over his clothes, then stretched out his arm to squeeze my shoulder. “Go for the ringleader,” he said. It was a couple years earlier, during one of the parties my parents used to have, that I first saw Jack. With the moon lapping brightly at the window, I crept from under the blankets. My brother was snoring gently in his own bed on the other side of the room. From the living room, I heard music and voices, but none of my family. The door creaked as I slipped into the hall. Images on the television, nurses doling out medication for a bunch of peculiar men. In the front yard, a cigarette lighter fireflied, illuminating my father’s face. The sound of laughter and spirited voices drifted through the screen door. Some of my aunts and uncles were there. My father’s friend Harry. They were all chattering away in lawn chairs, beer bottles raised high. No one realized that I was there. On the television, a man was being brought to the hospital. The police got him out of a car and walked him through the front doors. He was wearing a black leather jacket and a dark woolen cap. He looked dangerous. When they released his hands from the cuffs, he laughed crazily and kissed one of the cops on the cheek. As the stern-looking Nurse Ratched checked him in, the man approached a silent and massive Indian, who seemed to be a patient as well. The man said, “Goddam, boy, you’re about as big as a mountain!” I glanced back toward the yard, then sat down in front of the television. As the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest unspooled, my thirteen-year-old mind opened to take it all in. I knew something about institutions and people trying to get better. I thought that was what everyone was supposed to do when they weren’t thinking right. But here was this man with the swaggering eyes, pretending to be crazy to get out of jail. “I don’t think it’s crazy at all,” he said, “And I don’t think you do either. No man alive can resist that. That’s why I got in the jail to begin with, and now they’re tellin’ me that I’m crazy over here ‘cuz I don’t sit there like a goddam vegetable. Don’t make a bit of sense to me. If that’s what bein’ crazy is, then I’m senseless, out of it, gone-down-the-road wacko, no more, no less.” Outside, the laughter and alcohol flowed. Inside, I entered the bold and perilous world of Randle P. McMurphy. I remained until the final credits rolled, flashing the name Jack Nicholson across the television screen. My eyes were still wet, horrified at the lifeless husk that had been returned to the hospital bed. Trying to make sense of the Chief holding a pillow over the man’s face, then running triumphantly into the night. It was like the spirit of McMurphy had been cast into the silent Indian. Understanding hovered just out of my reach. A sudden sound, my mother’s voice at the screen door. I scampered back to the bedroom, climbing beneath my blankets, pulling my stuffed animals close. My mother’s face appeared in the doorway, then the door closed. The moon continued to press against the window while I laid there, eyes opened. Thinking about Jack Nicholson and the massive Indian. In a hushed voice, I started to recite some of the dialogue that had stayed with me from the movie. “Well, I tried, didn’t I? Goddam it, at least I did that.” I was standing at the top of the stairs in Loy Norrix High School’s glass tower, looking down as the last students left. Strutting home after a rewarding day of making life hell for the weakest among them. They had no idea what their casual cruelty could do. But I would show them. Kathleen Wilcox had passed me in the hall that morning. She looked right at me, then through me. It was as if she didn’t even recognize me. Me, the guy who sat next to her for an hour every day. Even the day when she came to class late, crying. She was no more than a foot away from me, her gentle weeping tearing a cleft in my soul. I could feel the heat of her. I could smell the cinnamon of her skin. I could almost reach out and touch her, stroking her hair, telling her that everything would be okay now. But she walked past me, to the football player, probably the same son-of-a-bitch who had put the tears in her eyes. And then one of the grease monkeys pushed me in the lunch room. Called me a faggot. I laid there in macaroni and cheese and green beans. The laughter pooled around me, like the studio audience from a television sitcom. But I was the joke that everyone was laughing at. While I held back the tears, I watched the shoes of the bully standing in my lunch. Thick and imposing steel-toed boots. Now, my foot was on the rail, Spuds Mackenzie sneakers without the shoelaces. The distance was not so great from the staircase to the window. Standing on the edge, I would be strong enough to breach the gap. There were holes in the glass from BB guns and the birds that had smashed into the tower. Surely the weight of a human body would be enough to shatter it. To smash through it, shards of jagged glass entering the flesh. The body’s weight, pulling down, down. If nothing else, I would slam into it and fall to the cement below. It must have been at least thirty feet. The impact might be enough to break open my skull. Let them find this when the school opened in the morning. I lifted my other foot to the rail. (But it’s Friday.) Friday. It wouldn’t be them who found me. It would be the police or the principal or some poor janitor who deserved better than having to clean up some loser’s blood on a Monday morning. They would have it all cleaned up before the bastards even got here. They would only see the broken glass, maybe some blood. If the school even opened that day. They wouldn’t see who had died, or know why. They might not even recognize my name when they heard it. To them, I was probably just another scared and awkward kid. Just another target. The scene from Cuckoo’s Nest flashed through my head. The one where Ratched returns to the hospital the next morning, finding Billy, naked, in bed with that girl. She berates him, asking, “Aren’t you ashamed?” She threatens to tell his mother. Billy is terrified, screaming as the guards haul him away. McMurphy is looking at the open window and the girls waiting outside, his chance for freedom. Then a scream rings out through the ward. He takes a final glance at his escape, but dashes back inside the hospital. He knows that it’s Billy. We all know that it’s Billy, and there he is. He’s cut himself. His blood is everywhere. Someone shakes their head, it’s no good. He’s gone. McMurphy is silent for the first time. He sees what he has done. Then Ratched says, “The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine”, and McMurphy goes for her throat. I put one foot back on the ground. Then the other. Why should I give them an anonymous death? Why should I give them my death at all? Fists, letting go of the rail. I stood there a moment more, looking at the glass and at the stairs. Feeling my heart thud in my chest. Hearing the flag in front of the school, snapping in the wind. Then I walked out of the building. I was born in 1969, the same year that Jack Nicholson made his cinematic breakthrough. It was as George Hanson, the jailed drunken lawyer who joins Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on the road in Easy Rider. Nicholson had been around for over ten years and the public didn’t seem to have any interest in him. He started as a gofer for Hanna-Barbera, the studio responsible for a slew of the Saturday morning cartoons that I watched as a child. They offered him a job as an animation artist, but Jack had other ideas. Starting with The Cry Baby Killer in 1958, he acted in endless low-budget movies, most of them forgettable westerns or biker flicks. He even starred opposite screen legend Boris Karloff, the man who was Frankenstein, in a couple of horror movies in 1963. No one cared. He was on the verge of giving it all up, following the meager success he had found in 1968 as the writer of The Trip and the Monkee’s film Head. But then Dennis Hopper got ahold of him, offering the role that was originally meant for Rip Torn. Jack earned his first Oscar nomination that year and would be one of the only actors to be nominated in every decade that followed. As George Hanson, one of the men brave enough to embrace life as he wanted to in Easy Rider, Jack said, “They’ll talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.” Jack was born in 1937, the son of a showgirl who was probably unfit to be a mother. She was never entirely sure who his father was. He was raised by his grandparents, brought up believing that they were his mother and father. His mother, June, was passed off as an older sister. He didn’t know the truth until a journalist for Time magazine informed him of it in 1974. By this time, both his mother and his grandmother were dead. When I was younger, I often dreamt of learning that I was adopted. As I got older, I frequently returned to the image of Jack as he was portrayed on the screen. It was a way of latching onto an attitude that I hadn’t earned but felt that I deserved. Here was the spirit of Jack Nicholson as I saw it: I don’t have to give a fuck. It felt safe to be crazy, and, if his most memorable screen roles were any indication, insanity could be a helluva lot of fun. Jack Torrance and The Joker were monsters, but it didn’t look like that bothered them at all. No one was going to bully someone with that dangerous gleam in their eyes. Jake Gittes was wounded by seeing Evelyn Mulray gunned down in Chinatown, but he survived to make it through another movie. Frank Chambers (from The Postman Always Rings Twice) was a schemer with a weakness for manipulative women, but he had little problem nailing Jessica Lange to that kitchen table. In moments of heartbreak, I could turn to Jack’s cinematically-inspired anger as some kind of savior. When a girlfriend would come home from seeing another man, a supposed friend, her hair still wet from his shower, or I would wake one morning in November to find my pregnant wife and two-year-old son gone, I could call upon Daryl Van Horne: “Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created women? Huh? No shit, I really wanna know. . . Women, a mistake, or did He do it to us on purpose?” When feeling more charitable to the fairer sex, I could invoke Melvin Udall: “You make me want to be a better man.” Needing a warning about the deep well of antagonism that rumbled inside of me in later years, I could consult with Dr. Buddy Rydell: “There are two kinds of angry people, explosive and implosive. Explosive is the type of individual you see screaming at the cashier for not taking his coupon. Implosive is the cashier, who remains quiet day after day, and then finally shoots everyone in the store. You’re the cashier.” In those times when I have questioned my own strength to push on, I could cite the Joker again. “I’ve been dead once already, it’s very liberating,” he said, with a very sober-evil grin, “You should think of it as therapy.” It’s entirely okay to find in derangement a kind of spiritual balm. Such as the words of Randle P. McMurphy: “What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or something? Well, you’re not. You’re not. You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets, and that’s it.” Despite his flamboyant public persona, Jack has always been a very private person when it comes to his true self. He has claimed that he doesn’t want anyone to know what he’s actually like. It’s not good for an actor, he says. We know that his love for the Los Angeles Lakers is nearly as great as his love for the many women who have been on his arm. He has been a season ticket holder since 1970 and is not beyond dashing onto the court to argue with officials when he believes they are wrong. He is a passionate man and, he says, not afraid of intimacy (which is a rarity among the rich and famous). He says that the moment we stop learning, we are dead. I still believe there are few truer words than those. Jack has possibly laid out the blueprint for my entire life: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” As I spun to face Dick Dicklee, with his preppy Izod shirt and the piggish gleam in his eyes, images of Jack Torrance and his axe were leaping through my mind. It all happened in a matter of milliseconds. My shoe was hanging half-off of my foot. He was standing there with the self-assured knowledge that I wouldn’t do anything. I never did anything. Not against the hulking football players or the brawny grease monkeys. Not even against a scrawny, grinning punk like him. Some of his posse was there, on the periphery. The hall was jammed with bodies, racing to their next class. The world around me rushed backward, like lightspeed. All that there was, was him. This smirking son-of-a-bitch with a stupid-ass name like Dicklee. My veins filled up with a gale of arctic fire. My heart thudded crazily in my chest. Wump, wump, wump. And then I lost my mind. Later, when I was sitting in the nurse’s station, I was told that it took five people to pull me off of him. Two of them were teachers. In my mind there was blinding light. There was a raging wind howling up from somewhere in the center of everything. A fist came from nowhere, smearing the grin across his face. Then another, from the other side. Smashing into his neck. I was surprised to find that the fists were mine. And again. His eyes were squeezed shut, his face burning bright red. There were fists, feet. One of them Spuds Mackenzie, one of them bare. And fingers extended like claws. Hands, reaching. And they all belonged to me. All of them with a single, simple desire: I’m going to kill this fucker. Someone told me that when it all began, in that first sudden movement of attack, my hands came together in the air beside my head. Then they arced in a downward sweeping blow. As if I were swinging an axe. The familiar litany of words in my head: “I’m not gonna hurt ya, I’m just gonna bash your brains in. Gonna bash ’em right the fuck in!” When I realized that they had dragged me away from him, I was screeching. At first, I did not recognize my own inarticulate howl of rage. It must have come from one of the animals that scurried through the woods of Lester Road. It could not have been me. But there was Dick. Cowering, bloodied, in the corner beside the doorway. He was trembling and his face was flushed. Shocked, in pain. His shirt was violently crumpled from where my hands had been. There was a wisp of discoloration on the alligator emblem of his Izod shirt. I could only hope that it was his blood. And I could only hope that I had done everyone proud: my father, myself, and all of those characters from the big screen which had all worn the same face, the face of Jack Nicholson. – j. meredith Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.