This is Not a Smear Campaign

This is Not a Smear Campaign

Jeremy Wainwright’s political platform, which is getting really popular here in District 12, is super simple: honesty, perfect honesty. “What do you think about this tax?” you might ask. He’ll tell you, thumbs up, thumbs down. He’s the kind of guy who would tell his own wife she looked ugly in a new dress. That kind of thing. Jeremy is one for whom it might work, too. I admit it. He looks like one of those eighteen-year-old farm kids who is trying not to look like a farm kid — which, to be fair, he never actually was — a farm kid who believes in the sanctity of stuff. That sounds facetious but it isn’t. I agree that he seems exactly as he is. We were childhood friends, so I have no doubt that Jeremy Wainwright looks for mandates in the wind, a sunset — which is good.

But I want to share a little of his campaign language, something I heard firsthand when he came to my own door the other day, betraying, mind you, not even a hint that he might have recognized my face: “In Washington D.C., they’ll take one look at me and think they can eat me alive,” he said at my door, and maybe at yours, “but I have one thing they’ll underestimate: community.”

Our parents used to get together so the two of us could play, but they were very unalike, basically pretended to like each other for the sake of their boys, neither of whom had many friends. In fact, they had basically given up the charade by the time Jeremy showed me how to set up a profile or character or whatever you called it for a computer game called Second Life. By then we were twelve. I was interested in finding out if, once inside, there was a Third Life, a Fourth, One That Circled Back Around and Found You Sitting in Your Desk with Your Face Lit by Monitor Color, but he was more into helping me pick out a good name (I just wanted to use my own, but I was already taken), how to pick out the right avatar (they didn’t have a chubby kid with longish hair as an option), and how to list my interests (I was interested in knowing if anyone ever committed virtual suicide, which he translated as an interest in “getting to know people”).

That probably comes to me now because it was right about that time that my family was planning its vacation to Yellowstone, and that trip is really at the heart of why I am here at your doorstep today. My sister and I were allowed the company of one friend each. Joyce, my older sister, chose Tabitha. I, of course, picked Jeremy.

My thinking was fairly clear at the time: I thought that the fresh air, the beautiful mountain views, and the proliferation of wildlife might stir up something deep inside him. It always did that for me, so I thought it might do that ten times over for someone like him, who hadn’t seen such things in person, who had once called a deciduous tree in one of his video games a pine.

And our trip did stir up something deep inside him, something very deep, though it wasn’t quite what I, or anyone, expected.

Our family always visited parks at off-peak times, to avoid the crowds, the mad rush to noisy campgrounds, the tour busses, the people taking pictures of people taking pictures of a roadside bison. So this was the middle of May and the lodgepole pines were tipped on their ends with new growth and waterway willows bloomed in their million fresh points of green. So too were Courtney and Tabitha, fourteen and thirteen respectively, still light in life. They had reached that age when the giggling was broken about half the time by glances this way or that to see who might be watching. During the drive, it was Jeremy and me. We tried to make fun of the girls — okay, we flirted — but they were much better at it than us. It takes about five hours to get to Yellowstone from here, right? Well, that day it felt more like two.

At one point, Tabitha called me fat, or some version of it. I remember my dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror making contact with my own. Neither of us had to say anything. He had long ago told me that people — kids, of course, but also adults who were once kids themselves — expose a little piece of their inner selves every time they insult someone, the way flowers unfurl in the first morning sun and then close again in the shade.

I was recalling Dad’s metaphor then, which is why I remember so keenly Jeremy saying, in my defense, “So are you.”

The thing is, Tabitha wasn’t fat at all. I didn’t really know what that implied about him, but she did go red in the cheeks.

But if you were to ask what most characterized the conversation of that drive, I could sum it up in one word: bears. Are there bears? What kinds? Had we ever seen a grizzly? Where? Did we get any pictures? How big was it? Did we have a gun? What was bear spray? Did it work? Would we get to see bears? It got pretty tedious, even for me, who was afflicted with a little of the same interest. It might not have struck me, even, if it weren’t for the fact that, at one point, as he was asking his questions, my father pulled over on a narrow shoulder as a pair of foxes came trotting by one after the other up through a still meadow toward a rock outcropping and probably their den. Jeremy was straining forward against his seatbelt, firing away, asking if it was true that a bear could get in your car, or knock over a car. My parents didn’t respond. I pointed at the fox so maybe he would see.

He leaned back for a moment and looked, nodding impatiently.

“Cool,” he said. “Would a bear eat a fox?”

Hiking wasn’t my favorite way to see things — I had preferred the time we rented the raft to float a slow-moving stretch of river — but, after all the sweating and huffing, after my cramps had subsided, I always felt rewarded by whatever thing we had come to see, a geyser (not Old Faithful), that one live tree in the middle of a field of black sticks that had somehow survived the fire. Our main goal for this weekend was to make our way to a particularly nice glacial lake and I believed my mother when she reminded all of us kids — though I knew this was mainly for my sake — that it would be worth it in the end.

“Do you think we’ll see a bear?”

“Keep talking like you do and we won’t,” my father mumbled.

“Actually,” my mother said, giving Jeremy a sympathetic look, “on this trail it’s probably better if we don’t.”

She explained that one never wants to surprise a bear, especially at this time of year when so many have cubs. She pointed out the high brush and wild grass on either side of the trail and then made us wait while she went over a little hill and told us to walk toward her and note at what point we could see the top of her head. Of course we couldn’t until we were almost upon her.

“A bear’s taller than you,” Jeremy protested.

My dad frowned: “Have you ever seen a bear that isn’t standing up — or one that wasn’t mounted?”

I don’t want to give the impression that my parents were natural mountaineers or anything. They were just a couple of people who liked the mountains, people who slipped and fell sometimes, just like anyone does. Their eyes were always up a tree or down a coolie, in the trickle of a stream. Not much needed to be said between them except with their hands or a tilt of the head. They kept reminding us to talk loudly as we walked, but we already were, so it was probably just their way of talking loudly.

Joyce and Tabitha commented on everything. If a tree was green, one of them was going to say so, if only to get the other to agree. I’m not making fun of them. This, I have come to find, is just how kids of a certain age really begin to calibrate that system between the senses and their evocation, whatever it’s called. The adjustments start right about the same time a person starts wondering if everyone sees colors the same way. In fact, this very subject came up between the girls that night around the campfire. There were a lot of what-if questions that made my parents smile and Jeremy dig at the embers, almost angrily, with his curved stick.

The next morning, a Friday, we set out early after a small breakfast, hoping to reach the lake by about mid-day. We saw two young couples with a dog each. The dog that belonged to the second pair, some kind of border collie mix, came sniffing around, its tail wagging. The girls went too far in their adulations, almost as if they were trying to outdo each other in high-pitched coos. The dog politely, with a kind of patronizing look on his face, moved on to Jeremy.

There is no way to say this next part without it seeming overly suggestive, so I will just say it: the dog turned, went back to the cooing girls.

I know it sounds like I’m building a case here, giving all my examples of things he did, of things I noticed, things that might suggest something about his character, but the truth of the matter is that I liked all of these things about him. I liked that he irritated my father and that that made my mother pity him. I liked that dogs avoided him. I liked that he didn’t feel like he could be part of a fireside conversation on a subject that couldn’t be summed up in a word like bears. There was a cloud of mystery about his future self, I guess. When, as an adult, I would later plant the Engelmann spruce in my front yard, the thing that most interested me was comparing the form of the young tree to the grown tree, and my friendship with Jeremy was something like that, not an experiment, but a kind of waiting-and-seeing, with just a sliver of predicting.

Okay, so I imagined that one day he would become an umpire.

I didn’t know then why I felt that way, but it did make me a little sad when he reached out his hand to that dog and it turned away.

Of course, this was probably the day I first realized my eye for human nature had a lot of maturing yet to do.

Because when that dog snubbed him, Jeremy didn’t pout. His eyes didn’t droop. His lip didn’t curl up meanly. Nothing in his face or body language suggested what he was about to do. He might have had no feeling whatsoever on the subject. Someone might have just reported that the brook off to our left was still babbling, that the sky was still blue. Which is why it was so surprising when Jeremy took a step forward, reached out, and pulled the dog’s tail.

It’s worth noting here that the dog’s name, by sheerest coincidence, was Bear. He was black and white and looked nothing like a bear, but that was the name his owners used. I don’t think it’s necessary to ponder aloud the subconscious workings of that child’s mind, that child who was bored with our hike toward the lake, who had made it abundantly clear to everyone through his near-constant musings on the subject that he wouldn’t be satisfied with the idea of the wilderness until he saw a bear, who wouldn’t even believe it was the wilderness — the real live wilderness — until he did.

Maybe I could even leave-off here, with just a wisp of the old suggestion that we’re all still the same kids we once were, just a little more self-conscious, a little less vague in our habits.

You could then go on to debate whether or not a person can change, or whether or not it even matters here that a would-be congressman might have been the kind of boy who pulled dogs’ tails.

One could make a sign to that effect.

Jeremy Wainwrong Pulled Dogs Tails!

It isn’t even libelous. Some people would be swayed. Guaranteed, some would be swayed.

But like I said, this is not a smear campaign.

Plus, you probably want to hear about the fistfight.

Remember, there was a couple coming up the trail behind Bear, both of them dressed like nouveau hippies — khaki hiking pants rolled up to the knees, thin polypropylene shirts, wide-brimmed hats, walking sticks. They were in their late thirties, maybe early forties, and the lines in their tanned faces suggested that they smiled a lot, as they were doing now, convivially.

But when his dog yelped, the man threw down his walking stick, ran over, took his dog by the harness, and then did what no one would have expected: that is, slapped Jeremy in the back of the head.

I don’t know how you feel about that, but, then, it doesn’t really matter.

What did matter is how my father felt about it.

My wife and I have four dogs, all ex-strays. Two of them sleep in the bed with us at night — only the two because one goes under the bed and the other sleeps curled up against the cool porcelain of the toilet — so, to us, it is very understandable why the man hit Jeremy. It’s a good lesson: just because you’re feelings are hurt doesn’t give you license to be mean. My father agreed with that sentiment, wholeheartedly, and I think if the man hadn’t struck Jeremy, my father might have considered doing the same. Considered. He would have come to a different conclusion, of course, because he also believed, as I do now, that you don’t hit kids to teach them not to hit.

Because what happens is, well, what happened.

When the man struck Jeremy, my father looked to my mother as if for permission, got it somehow from her blank, unbelieving gaze, and charged in.

I had never seen my father in a fight. I had never even thought such a thing possible. He had strictly forbade violence except as a last resort. And yet here he was scruffing this smaller man like a cat — my father, like me, was built like a Jeep — tossing him into the trunk of a pine. He swarmed in and grabbed him again with one hand and punched him in the stomach with the other, wild hair and spit flying as he alternately struck the man and lectured.

That’s right, lectured.

Because as he was fighting, my father was also trying to assign blame, punch, assign, punch, assign, first to the boy, then to the man, and finally to himself — “the hypocrite,” he grunted as he thrust a knee into the flailing man’s stomach, “the unapologetic hypocrite.”

And the dog, the dog was right in there, too, snarling like a badger, biting at my father’s calf, his Achilles tendon, his shoe. Maybe twenty seconds of this passed before the women waded fearlessly into the fray, pulling them apart. Then they were all screaming, threatening litigation, insulting one another’s intelligence, vying for their own versions of the truth. The girls were crying with their hands to their faces.

I was just so over-stimulated I couldn’t move.

It’s a proven fact that you remember things more vividly if a real, deep-seated emotion is tied to it, and I remember what happened next with so much clarity even now that I feel like a twelve-year-old kid just telling you about it.

And, I might add, the fact that it has stuck with me so over the years probably says something about me the same way Jeremy Wainwright’s not-remembering says something about him.

Just as the adults began to calm down, just as the men began to deflate and the women’s voices softened, just as one of them, or all of them, realized how bizarre this whole situation had become, and just as one of them made a reluctant, halfhearted joke to diffuse the tension — “did anyone see where that bear went?” — I saw something in my periphery that to this day buoys almost metaphysical wonder.

Here was twelve-year-old Jeremy Wainwright, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling again, intentionally trying to hyperventilate himself, it seemed, inhaling deeper, and deeper, and deeper. Light was filtering down through the trees in just such a way that I can still see the dust, only it isn’t dust to me, but all that tension releasing in these curt little exhalations, from my parents, and this gaunt tattered stranger, and his partner, even from the dog, like a stream of ghosts, which Jeremy, red-faced, was drawing in like the last breath before diving deep down. He was swelling up, up, up, a hundred and fifty percent his normal size. I thought to ask if he was okay, if he was going to vomit, but then he was charging in, jaw set, arms awhirl.

The stranger actually laughed before Jeremy caught him with the first fist, but soon the whole scene had replayed in some conflated version of itself, this time with the woman slapping Jeremy in the head, Bear biting his leg, and my poor mother in a compromising position, trying to drag the protective dog away by his tail.

Maybe that’s not enough for you. Maybe you want me to say Jeremy ran away crying, that he was mauled by an actual bear that smelled the blood on his leg, that his candidateship is therefore a vendetta against nature.

Well, none of that happened.

But a few days later, Jeremy’s parents were forcing their hand.

They wanted that dog euthanized, dead.

I heard my dad on the phone with his dad, pleading for them to be reasonable.

“I don’t care that he swore to god,” he eventually shouted, “your boy attacked that man. And he pulled that dog’s tail. There are seven witnesses, Jim, seven. Yes. Absolutely. Of course we’re going to take the dog’s side. He’s got better principles.”

Nothing happened to the dog, but my parents became good friends with his keepers, Mike and Terry, and still are to this day.

Jeremy and I, on the other hand, weren’t friends after that.

“In Washington D.C., they’ll take one look at me and think they can eat me alive,” he said the other day at my door, and maybe at yours, “but I have one thing they’ll underestimate: community.”

After he said it, he stood there as if waiting for my reaction. And I was just waiting to see if he remembered me, if he could make out that one kid’s face from a long time ago, something familiar from his past peering out from behind sun-damaged skin, behind a beard. Well, I don’t blame him. Years have this effect. And there are thousands of faces I’m sure I don’t remember, so many that sometimes it seems like we might all have one face, always with this same uncertainty about it, the furrowed brow, a name on the tip of the tongue.

But the thing is I had seen his ads on TV, had almost hoped this day would come, and so, as surprised as I was to see him actually standing there in his jeans and his white button-up with the sleeves rolled to the elbows for business, I already knew what I wanted to know.

“As a kid,” I asked the honest, the perfectly honest candidate, “did you almost get a dog euthanized because you wouldn’t admit punching his owner?”

He cocked his head to one side like I had just invented the strangest fiction imaginable.

“Absolutely not.”

But listen, I’m not challenging his honesty. Not at all. I doubt, seriously doubt that he even remembered any of it on the car ride home. While we were making our way out of the park that day, choosing, as my parents had, not to continue on toward that bottomless glacial lake, I just kept looking at him, wondering why he’d attacked an already defeated man, and, moreover, why he’d chosen that particular moment to do so. But something told me not to ask. I don’t know what it was for sure, but I think it had something to do with the intense way he was straining against the seatbelt, leaning forward like he was trying to sit between my parents, who had quit trying to answer questions, questions he didn’t really want to know the answers to.

I told you this isn’t a smear campaign. And it isn’t.

Anyway, not against a man.

Read more about Shane here.

Read more about Shannon here.

1 Comment

  1. Joan Statkus says:

    I want to read more.

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