The List and the Story:

All You Need to Know

 

In 1979 V.C. Andrews wrote Flowers in the Attic, which started a series of books that became a blockbuster hit in the Eighties. Laced with incest, switched parents, and warped family secrets, the series sold millions while establishing Olivia Foxworth as the quintessential evil grandmother, who held her grandchildren hostage in the attic while their weak-willed mother caroused with other men. In 1987 a prequel to the series, Garden of Shadows, was published, which told Olivia’s backstory from her point of view. This served two main purposes: first, it deepened the story’s narrative arc by showing how the flawed parents became who they were; and second, it showed that everyone has a story, or perhaps it’s all one story, told from an infinity of possible perspectives.


Ian MacKaye, founding member of Eighties hardcore group Minor Threat and Nineties alternative group Fugazi and a child of the Seventies, has said this of the adults in his life then: “I was wrapped up with it as a kid. I never understood what happened to these people who were starting their own farm, these people who were fighting the government. What happened? Everyone was getting high. That was it, all anyone wanted to do. The late Seventies, all everybody wanted to do was get high.”


In 1970, in an act that would define him for generations to come, Milton Metfesser, with a crowd of fellow teenage boys swarmed around him, drank a glass of milk with a piece of shit in it. Tripping on acid, the whole group had just gotten in a bidding war about the gross things each of them would do for money after reading in High Times that Jimi Hendrix had sucked a slushie out of Grace Slick’s crotch on a dare. The things each of them would do got grosser while the price for which they would do them shrank, until Milton sat back and said, “Hell, I’d eat a piece of shit for five dollars!” Wayne Martin, the leader of the crowd by virtue of being the supplier of their drugs, took him up on that bet, and Buster Wisdom said he would supply the shit. Milton Metfesser left Lawrence shortly thereafter, and when he’s mentioned now it’s usually as The Shit-Eater. The Milton Metfesser Story has been told and retold to me by Wayne Martin and Buster Wisdom so many times that I can tell it as well as they can. Now, when our Chihuahua eats its own shit to prevent us from finding it, I think of Milton Metfesser. Milton Metfesser is not his real name.


Steve Palmer died in the mid-Seventies when, while bending down to pick up a joint he dropped while driving a truck for Garrett’s Produce, he swerved into the middle of the road and ran head-on into a school bus. I never knew him, but my parents knew him intimately. Wayne Martin still talks about the heists they would pull off local businesses after he got out of prison. My mother was obviously in love with him, though they never to my knowledge dated. She still speaks of riding with him on his motorcycle as late as 1974, as if imagining riding off with him away from her family, her addictions, her life. His death marked a certain loss of hope for her. Palmer is one of the two links I can find remaining between my mother and my father after he left us. The other is Palmer’s half-brother, Buster Wisdom. Buster is still Wayne Martin’s best friend. I call him Uncle Buster. After my mother divorced in 1990, she dated Buster. After my mother’s sister Marti’s husband died in 2005, Marti dated Buster. In 2008, in the month I was married, Buster was almost killed in a single-car accident. Wayne Martin took a call from him while walking with me along the Hudson River the day after my wedding reception. I sat next to him on a bench as Buster confided that he wished he’d died in that accident, that he’d lost hope that life held anything for him. Looking at my father—who had existed to me in the Eighties only as a phantom, in the Nineties as an enigma, and in the Aughts as a periodic phone call—as he talked his oldest friend down from the ledge, I thought of Steve Palmer, and the burden he was spared dying young.


Perspective changes with the passage of time. A story, or a life, is in essence a list of events. The greater the distance between the event and the telling, the more it’s cloaked in narrative, clothed in myth, retold, hardened into memory. At some point—adulthood, perhaps—all one person knows is backstory.


At the advent of the Seventies, Wayne Martin followed his father from Chicago with his brother Butch to Lawrence, Kansas. Drug connections with his old friends in Chicago, the mystery and allure of coming from a big city, and his own rapscallious charisma spawned him an almost-instant following among the disaffected local youth that would eventually become my extended family. He specialized in LSD, cocaine, and amphetamines. More than 25 years later, sitting with me at an Italian bakery in Brooklyn, he told me with a smirk how everyone in Kansas thought he had mafia connections. “I think it was because I was from Chicago.” “Maybe it was because you went to prison for selling drugs, and served a twenty-year sentence in nine months,” I replied. “Oh, yeah,” he said, feigning surprise.


In the winter of 1973, shortly after getting my mom pregnant and while living with his girlfriend Donna who would the next year bear him the first of two boys, Wayne Martin began seeing a woman named Candy. They got to know each other after she’d approached him for drugs. She seemed aloof at first, but soon became as sucked in by his charm as my mother, Donna, and all the others. Then, after a couple of months, Candy disappeared. One warm spring evening while making a routine sale of 50 LSD tabs and a pound of marijuana, Wayne Martin was picked up in an organized sting. At his first hearing he saw Candy in court, preparing her testimony against him. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation had made her get to know him as part of the sting that resulted in 23 arrests that spring. She approached him outside the courtroom and apologized, saying she loved him but if she didn’t do it they’d take her child. That summer, two months before I was born, Wayne Martin was sentenced to twenty years at Hutchinson State Penitentiary.


Wayne Martin didn’t tell me how he went to prison until I was almost forty years old. Part of me was afraid of actually knowing rather than trusting the mythology I’d built up around him, but a bigger part was afraid he wouldn’t tell me, that it would remain forever a part of him I couldn’t know. After he told me I immediately called my mother, ready to surprise her with this new bit of information I’d gathered. “Oh, yeah,” she said, giggling. “I remember Candy.” My mother had kept meticulous track of all of Wayne Martin’s girlfriends after he’d gotten her pregnant, and the winter after he’d gone to prison she and my Aunt Marti ran into Candy at a bar. Candy didn’t know who my mother was, and my mother and Marti bought her drinks until she was thoroughly soused. They then offered her a ride home. On the ride home, with Candy passed out in the backseat, they took a detour and drove ten miles outside of town. They steered off the road, into a frozen field, and parked. Then they pulled Candy out of the backseat, laid her down in the middle of the field between broken cornrows, and drove back to town. “That,” my mother said, “was the last I heard of Candy.”


On the week I was born, “Brother Louie,” a one-hit wonder by Stories that was quite racy in 1973 for documenting an interracial romance between a white man and a black woman, was #1 on the Billboard singles charts. I’ve always found this vaguely ironic, as my mother was the only white woman to my knowledge that had a child with Wayne Martin. When I was sixteen years old and first met Wayne Martin, my Uncle Buster asked me if I was also into black girls.


For two years of the early Aughts I thought I had an older sister. R. had been given up for adoption by her mother, one of the female addicts who ran in Wayne Martin’s pack in the Seventies. After a series of state and federal legislative changes in the Nineties extended the rights of adoptees, R. sought the papers she hoped would determine her origins. She contacted her mother, the only parent listed on her birth certificate. This woman, now a deeply religious mother of four somewhere in Colorado, didn’t want any contact with R., and told her to seek out Wayne Martin, her father. When I came home for my ten-year high school reunion, Wayne Martin asked me if I would accompany him to dinner with R., to keep things from getting awkward. "She works on an organic farm," he confided. At dinner, R. mentioned casually that she considered all people bisexual. “The way I see it,” Wayne Martin replied jovially, “you either suck dick or you don’t.” Noticing the waiter’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm for our table and my new sister in particular, he asked what one does to get such good service. “Sleep with the waiter,” R. replied. Over the ensuing months he began wondering if R. was really his daughter, but never asked for a paternity test. Two years later, his wife did. When the answer came most of my family ceased contact with R., including all of my uncles who shared a roughly equal possibility of being her father. But I refused to let go of this person who is more like me than any of my paternal siblings, and we agreed that we are still brother and sister. I share a deep bond with this sister-not-my-sister: of an eternal hope, a fractured past, and an earned distrust of parental authority. Unlike me, she’ll never get the chance to speculate on her father’s true nature, because she’ll never know who her father is.


…and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream…

I tend to justify, even romanticize drug use as a gateway to both community and artistic expression, which I think is a by-product of being an American in the Twentieth Century. Fitzgerald and Exley both traded their families, their dignity, and their faith in the benevolence of the American Dream for the alcoholic visions of The Crack-Up and A Fan’s Notes. Burroughs and the Beats framed a counterculture around sex, drugs, and social critique that’s now so entrenched in our national identity that it’s a running trope of many of our movies, music, and ad campaigns. And even Fleetwood Mac—on a five-year cocaine bender in the second half of the Seventies that left Mick Fleetwood bankrupt, Christine and John McVie divorced, Lindsay Buckingham certifiably insane, and Stevie Nicks a diva who was too out-of-it to even comprehend her own influence—left behind two pop albums that realized perhaps most fully the reality of the American family in the Seventies. But my own family’s addictions led only to a community characterized by early deaths and old ghosts, and its sole artistic expression is a wide swath of disillusioned, fractured children searching for home.


Jesus Christ, Pecos Bill, Frankenstein’s monster—everyone has a birth story. Some are sealed in myth and legend, others recorded on blogs and personal web pages, but they’re all important. They tell us from where we come, and in many cases foreshadow the rest of our lives.  My mother tells mine thus: 60 hours of labor, with the doctor urging her the whole time to give me up for adoption, that she was ruining her life. Wayne Martin being led in shackles to see me, and looking happy to see her for the first time since she got pregnant, then leaving for the last time back to prison. Handing me over to my grandmother, not knowing if she would give me to another family, and sobbing. Getting back to 80 pounds by the time I was a month old.


When I think of Sara Goldfarb, the good-hearted, desperate mother who becomes addicted to amphetamines after her doctor prescribes them for her as an appetite suppressant in the book and movie Requiem for a Dream, set in the Seventies, I think of my mother sleepwalking from dirty couch to halfway house until she emerged from her own addiction and decided to become my mother before I was two years old. She doesn’t remember much about that time, except fondly bringing up how skinny she was.


One birth story about my mother is heavily contested. In fact, nobody in our family subscribed to it except my Great-Aunt Isabel. In Isabel’s story, she had an affair with my grandfather; gave birth to my mother, their love child; and then gave her to my grandmother and vowed never to tell. As far as I know she told no one but my mother, sending my mother monthly letters until she died in the late Nineties in either a convalescent home or a mental hospital. She had no insurance so each of her siblings, my grandmother included, had to pay for her funeral expenses. My grandmother was convinced she did this on purpose, as one final jab at her. I didn’t meet Isabel until two years before her death, when she showed up at a family reunion in Arkansas and hugged me like I hadn’t just met her. I remember she had two black children with her, whom she said she’d recently adopted. They both had runny noses. That was when my mother told me her birth story.


After serving nine months at Hutch, Wayne Martin came up for his first parole hearing. He’d gotten his GED in prison, and told his parole board that he was ready to put it to use and become a contributing member of society. With that he was released after serving the equivalent of a full-term pregnancy, and went back to Lawrence to begin his new life assisting Steve Palmer in local robberies. He moved in with Donna, ignoring my mother’s continual phone calls. After a couple of years, when Donna had two boys and a full-scale cocaine addiction, Wayne tired of Lawrence and moved back to Chicago to start fresh. Before he left, on my second birthday, he called my mother at 3:00am, drunk or high, saying he wanted to talk to me. My mother, fresh out of her final rehab and ready to be my mother, told him not to call again and hung up.


John & Grandma.jpg

My mother’s parents raised me until I was two years old. My grandmother thought of me as her child even after my mother regained possession of me, taking me to K-Mart for family photos with her and taking pictures of me for every season outside her trailer to mark my toddling growth. She periodically kidnapped me when she thought my mother was neglecting me, taking me across state lines to Arkansas, where we stayed with her sister Joyce. Her sister Isabel wasn’t allowed near me.


My mother was a prodigious hitchhiker in the Seventies. I found this out in the Nineties when she went to college and for her Freshman Composition class wrote a personal essay about hitchhiking to Arkansas to pick me up from my Aunt Joyce’s house after one of the times my grandmother kidnapped me. She spent most of the trip with a guy who’d picked her up outside of Garnett. They camped out under a bridge somewhere near Oswego, smoking pot and talking about the meaning of life. When they arrived at my Aunt Joyce’s house in Fort Smith, he walked her to the door to provide a witness. My grandmother wouldn’t let him in. Explaining the significance of that trip in her essay, my mom defines that as the moment she determined to find a man who would help her raise me, and stand up to her mother.


Greg Proctor hated Wayne Martin. I’ve always thought it stemmed simply from the naturally codependent relationship between addict and dealer, compounded by one’s  self-centered charisma and the other’s misanthropy. But to hear both of them tell it, their whole issue was over a pair of boots. Greg Proctor used to always tell my mother that Wayne Martin snuck into his house one night and stole his favorite pair of boots, then went around wearing them in front of him. Wayne Martin tells it differently. He says he simply went up to Greg Proctor one night and said, “Gimme your boots,” and Greg Proctor gave them to him without hesitating. He does say he wore them around in front of Greg Proctor whenever he knew he’d see him. “I was a rogue back then, Johnny,” he says, with not that much apology. I think Greg Proctor, when he married my mother, saw her as those boots. It was almost like he was taking them back, taking Wayne Martin’s woman and child and making them his.


“As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. As are we ourselves.” Dostoyevski wrote this in The Brothers Karamazov about Fyodor Karamazov, the unrepentantly disgusting father based on Dostoyevski's own brutish father, who is prone to acts of extreme violence against every person who loves him, particularly his sons. When he is murdered every son is a suspect, because every son had a motive to kill him. But this father, when he’s not acting out his misanthropic impulses, feels intensely and morosely sorry for himself, and is terribly sentimental. He doesn’t understand why the world seems so intent on destroying him, and he wants only for those he loves to love him. He’s a drunk, even when he’s not drinking. And if he’s evil then the world, this unforgiving world that’s given him every reason to hate it when all he wanted was to be loved, is the reason.


Before he met my mother, Greg Proctor was engaged to a woman named Angie, who miscarried two of his children. He told me numerous times while raising me that he wished he’d married Angie.


I don’t remember the first time I met Greg Proctor, but I remember the first thing I said about him to my mother: “I hate him.” My mother told him I said that and then broke up with him. She tells me I cried that night. Within a month, she accepted his marriage proposal. Now, decades after divorcing Greg Proctor, she says marrying him was the worst decision she ever made, but she did it because she wanted so desperately for me to have a father. I think she also wanted me to have only one mother.


One’s conception of time is perhaps the most defining characteristic of one’s worldview. It’s also the primary method by which one decides how to organize a list or tell a story. For some, perhaps most, time is a linear progression of events leading to an inevitable end; however we feel about the end, it’s final, and there is a definite sense of satisfaction in this. If a story doesn’t have an end, it might not even be a story. For others, time is a fragmented, endless and random series of occurrences that one can hope not to make sense of, but only to live through. And still others equate time with organic life—a cyclic progression and return, where there are no beginnings or endings, only markers. How we arrange these markers is how we construct meaning.


I was the ring bearer at my mother’s wedding to Greg Proctor in 1978. I wore a turquoise leisure suit with a ruffled shirt. In the pictures I look happy. My mother looks harried, her smiles fake. Thirty years later, while helping my wife shop for wedding dresses in a discount boutique in midtown New York City, she reminisced about this day. The night before, her future husband had gone to a bachelor party and never came home. Someone, perhaps multiple people, had told her that Greg Proctor had received a blowjob from a stripper while the rest of the party watched. My mother told my future wife how she almost called off the wedding that morning, almost just took me up in her arms and ran. “But I wanted him and me to be a family, to be whole,” she confided. “And I never wanted to give him up again. That’s all you really need to know.”