When the stories we create become true.

I rolled the mud into a shit log the way a child might roll out a Play-Doh snake.  I curled it around itself, taking inspiration from rubber doggy poo, and then I set it down gingerly on my English teacher’s front porch.  I soiled some Kleenex and arranged it dirt-side-up next to the little mud snake.  At 1:00AM, in the yellow sodium glow of a distant street light, the turd looked convincing.  I wiped my hands on my jeans and returned to the getaway car, where Joel and Russ were waiting.

“The deed is done.”

“No fucking way!”

“I did it.  You can look for yourself.”

“Well I will.”

“Go ahead then.”

“But why should I bother?”

“You don’t think I did it?”

“Well did you?”

“I said I did.”

“Well did you??”

“Do you think I’m a liar?”

“If there is no shit on that porch you’re a liar.”

“Well you’re a pussy if you don’t go look.”

Quiet man Russ was now laughing his ass off in the back seat.  Russ had the paper route between Joel’s and mine.  We saw each other in the mornings before sunrise.  We would all be delivering papers in five hours.

“I’ll kick your ass if you’re wasting my time.”

“LOOK!”

Joel was a behemoth alpha male football star who started playing varsity ball in his freshman year and went on to become team captain in his senior year.  This was all in a region where high school football was the biggest show in town.  He was also a smart dude who introduced me to Chuck Bukowski as a high school sophomore.  He had always dwarfed everyone in size, and so he had an annoying social crutch where he would continually intimidate his friends.  He meant it when he said he would kick my ass.  At the very least I could expect bruising cramp-punches to the arms and thighs if my creative work failed to pass muster.

“Russ, come with me.  Let’s see what this liar did.”

They slinked on tip toe to the porch.

————————–

That summer a ragtag mix of honor roll students had decided to make this high school English teacher’s life an absurdist existential nightmare.  In the weeks prior, we had run over her mailbox, spun donuts in her front lawn, and started a fire in her garbage can.  The craziest thing about all of this is that we really liked this teacher.  She was a school favorite who gave extra credit for writing poetry.  Every conspirator was a better person for having taken her classes.  Then why the abuse?  I blame it on Camus.  No students had ever taken The Stranger more to heart.  We were redneck Dadaists with a violent streak.

Minutes earlier, parked in front of the house, we schemed what mayhem would follow.  Peeling out on the grass was not an option in The Rattle and Hum, the apt name Joel had bequeathed his ancient hatchback.  The week before, a different driver, the boyfriend of this English teacher’s daughter (who was a friend in our same grade), had almost been caught when his spinning tires got buried up to the axle in the teacher’s lawn.  He had to rock the car back and forth to get it out.  Lights came on before the wheels finally gripped a root (or the sprinkler system?) and the car lurched up and out of the yard.  We wouldn’t repeat that stunt without 4-wheel drive.  Then what could we do?

“Someone should just go shit on her porch and we can call it a night,” I said.

“That’s crazy talk,” said Joel.

What was crazy about it?  Compared to the parallel ruts scarring the sod, a shit on the porch seemed like child’s play.  I grabbed some tissues out of the glove compartment and volunteered.

“I’ll do it.”

“Swear you will!” demanded Joel.  Where he dominated everyone physically on the gridiron, he enjoyed playing the role of instigator in these secret combinations.  He never did the actual shitting, or fire lighting, or spray painting, or improvised explosive taping, or aggressive driving, or running over of anything, but he witnessed most of it.

“I said I’ll do it.”

I hopped out of the passenger’s seat and approached the dark porch, wondering if I had it in me.  What courage I had summoned in the car didn’t follow me up to the steps.  I kept imagining the porch light popping on and my teacher stepping out to find me squatting bare-assed and growing a monkey tail, unable to stop.  What could I do?  I had to figure out something.  Then it came to me.  I reached down and touched the earth in the flower garden next to the porch.  It was wet and pliant.  I squeezed it in my hand and it held the shape of the inside of my fist.  I could work with this.

————————–

Joel and Russ skipped back to the car.  Russ had tears in his eyes and Joel was positively giddy.

“You did it!  You sick-ass-mother-fucker, you did it!”

“It was nothing.”

“I dub you sir, The King of Shit.  Am I right Russ?  Am I right?”  Joel was the only one who could grant titles.  He would punch you in the arm if you tried it.

“Yeah, the KING OF SHIT!”

Russ was belly laughing through streaming tears.

I found this title more than a little off putting.  Then the adulation hit my brain, and I accepted the title.  “Gentlemen, I am indeed the King of Shit.  Now let’s go home.”

The wind was blowing when we drove away.  By morning the tissues would be in the bushes, and the clumps of black wet mud would be dry, gray and crumbled.  The teacher would come to the door, pick up her paper, and brush the bit of dirt back into the flowers.

Tromp l’oeil, to trick the eye – there might be better reasons to make art than to make others see a version of reality that isn’t there, but up to that moment in life no other reason had been so satisfying.  I had reached into the mud, harvested my own materials, and become a creator of something where before there was nothing.  My work inspired my friends.  It had earned me a title!  Not since expertly rendering panels of Garfield the cat as a grade school student to the applause of my classmates had my artistic ability felt like such a gift.  The die was cast.  Still, I left this formative experience out of my personal essay when I later applied to art school.  Instead I told them what I thought they would like to hear, and it worked… just like it worked that night when I became The King of Shit.

26 responses to “When the stories we create become true.”

  1. Demosthenes says:

    My English teacher just gave me The Stranger to read. Maybe I’ll go shit on her porch too.

  2. There is but one crown, and as I have thus confessed, I am an impostor to the throne. Go forth, Demosthenes, and assume the rightful title.

  3. julietheppqueen says:

    I really loved reading this Rogan. You told it so well. Actually you really inspired me to come up with a post for TGW. But I am curious as to why if you liked this teacher would you target her. I’m sure you will say its just the strange logic of teenagers but even her daughter’s boyfriend?

  4. Cynthia says:

    I agree with Julie, why would you target the teacher. Anyway great post

  5. There is no good reason. I think we were all just giving evil a chance. We saw ourselves as a malevolent wind, performing random acts of pure evil. The teacher was picked, if for no other reason, because we would have been the very last people she would have suspected.

    The evil, all of it, was limited to serious property damage. We were violent, but never to people (though a few close calls nearly led to serious altercations). I remember one time when I was rolling with a friend, I will call him Greg (because that is his name), who dumped the entire contents of a 40 oz. cherry coke with ice into the passenger’s seat of a convertible idling next to us at a red light. The driver got out and began to punch Greg’s window, trying to break through with his bare fist. His knuckles split open wider with each punch, leaving bloody fist marks all over the window. The light turned green and we sped off. It was thrilling.

    And that is about it. The evil was thrilling. Hell, even the stories of evil are still a little thrilling (though perhaps this is a kind of a moral barometer, and the correct response should be ‘sickening.’) These aren’t proud stories, but I think they are interesting.

  6. Scotty says:

    I thought my friends and I were nuts because we used to like to get chased by the cops, but you guys were like the characters from River’s Edge.

    Please tell me that you didn’t hurt any animals in all of this.

  7. 6. No animals were ever hurt. It was all about property damage. Massive amounts of property damage. The disconnect for most of us (though technically I can only speak for myself) was that we never imagined the full consequences of our behavior. We could imagine a cartoonish old man raising his fist, complaining about “Those god-damn teenagers, if they mess with my mailbox one more time I’m going to…” and that was comically acceptable. What we never imagined was how getting a mailbox run over, three times in three months (repeated targeting was part of the MO), could create a depressing sense of powerlessness and despair. Or how an assault against property can be interpreted as a threat against the person. It is like that cliche about teenagers feeling immortal — we just didn’t have the perspective to see how bad we were.

  8. Tim says:

    Wow, what an ingenious way to resolve your dilemma. Did you ever confess to Russ and Joel (and all the rest) that yours were feet of clay? What if they found out now, by the wonders of the internets?

  9. Most of us were also deeply religious, so it is also curious for me to reflect on how it was that the moral teaching of our various faiths so utterly failed to compel us toward the good life, even while we were all accepting the outward ceremonial commitments (priesthoods, confirmations, sacraments, tithes and offerings, etc).

    Some of our wickedness was actually pretty awesome… for example we conducted a campaign to change all of the speed limit signs to ’69’ with white and black spray paint.

  10. 8. I DID confess to Joel, at our ten-year reunion. He refused to believe me. To him, I will forever be The King of Shit, even though I know in my heart that I am only the king of bull-shit.

    As for the other possibilities, that this post might be discovered some how by that teacher, or her daughter, after nearly twenty years, I am sort of ready for that. I’m not quite ready to send either of them a link, but that time might come.

  11. LP says:

    Not to throw cold water on the memory of teenage ebullience, but “The evil, all of it, was limited to serious property damage” is not totally true. I can’t imagine what that teacher, who obviously threw herself into her work, cared about educating, and was loved by her students, must have felt, seeing how she was specifically and repeatedly targeted by unknown aggressors. I feel sad for her. Sorry.

  12. 11. No worries LP. I think that is what I meant when I wrote (in comment #7):

    What we never imagined was how getting a mailbox run over, three times in three months (repeated targeting was part of the MO), could create a depressing sense of powerlessness and despair. Or how an assault against property can be interpreted as a threat against the person.

    This isn’t supposed to be a celebration of teenage ebullience. I was the ‘King of Shit’, and I accept that title with all of its many different meanings.

  13. LP says:

    Sorry, I just reread your comment #7 and see that you addressed this. On first quick reading, though, the angle and tenor of the story and comments seems mostly to celebrate what was probably a frightening and distressing ordeal for a very good teacher.

  14. LP says:

    Posted 13 before I saw 12, fyi.

  15. swells says:

    The meanness for the sake of meanness is pretty disheartening, I have to say. I think if I (an English teacher) were repeatedly targeted by students I might be scared enough to find a new profession.

  16. 13. In telling the story I tried not to get too far away from the mindset we had at the time. So when I’m on the porch, it is fear rather than a conscience that prevents me from performing. Again, we can’t ruin the lawn again because of fear, but just wait ’til we get 4WD! And the victory is won by deceiving friends. This is a Neil Labute-esque story, told straight, like the rape story told by the Jason Patric character in Your Friends and Neighbors It was a stylistic choice.

    Your response is totally appropriate, and I appreciate hearing it. You make me ask myself more questions, for example, in comment #10 I write that I’m not quite ready to send this teacher a link to this post. I’ve wanted to talk to her about these things for ages, but there is no way that it would be appropriate to use a story like this as the vehicle for an apology.. I’ve even gone to her house several times to visit, but was never able to summon the courage to talk about it. Now I’m not even sure if I should. But I just wrote this story, so I’m obviously willing to continue benefiting from the experience. Is it ever ethical to benefit from past bad behavior? Can I do that? On the other hand, if you can’t make creative work about your own experience, what else is there?

    So there you go. I appreciate everyone’s comments.

  17. Jeremy says:

    This is a completely riveting story (well told, super interesting), but I kind of reacted similarly to swells (and I knew she’d feel the same way); as someone who has been tormented by a student as well, I can’t help but feel for this poor woman, especially since the torment seems completely unjust.

    I still really enjoyed reading, though I found myself wanting it to be fiction.

  18. LP says:

    Well, the focus here is on whether YOU can benefit, whether YOU can use these experiences to make creative work. The entire angle of both the post and your comments is how this experience affected you — which, as the writer, is of course perfectly legitimate. But as a reader, I am completely drawn to how it affected HER. It’s hard for me to feel at all engaged with, as you describe it, how “thrilling” the evil was. It doesn’t feel thrilling to me so much as incredibly uncomfortable. And yes, it is Neil LaBute-esque in that way.

    This reminds me of an earlier post by Literacy. It examined the difference between those who can enjoy true-life snippets of random cruelty / pain, and those who find them too distressing. Similarly, I remember a comments thread about aggressive driving on the highway, in which one commenter revealed that he (can’t remember who it was) drives like an a-hole on purpose, because he can and because it offers relief, while swells countered that it creates untold stress for others. Both of these instances involve people taking points of view that either take into account others’ experiences or don’t. I’m fascinated with the point of view that allows ordinarily nice people to perpetrate random acts of aggression / cruelty while somehow getting excitement out of it. It’s a notion that is completely foreign to me.

  19. LP says:

    Aha, I see now that the comments thread I’m referring to is actually in that same post. It was “TC” who was the aggressive driver.

  20. 15. I think that meanness for the sake of meanness is fairly common. What I find disheartening is that we hadn’t gotten beyond that point by that time in our lives. Fortunately for you and Susan (also a teacher), I don’t think there is anything about that profession in particular that would make it a magnet for this kind of sociopathic behavior.

  21. LP, that is a great post with some awesome discussion to follow. Thanks for the link. And thanks for you thoughts in #18.

    One of the things that I see now from writing this and then reading these comments is how differently distanced we all are from the story. I have almost twenty years, which is a bloody long time (by my standards). That kind of time and emotional distance grants me the space to describe things dispassionately, or event enthusiastically trying to evoke the way I was thinking at the time. I have the space to aestheticize the events because the story has long ceased to shock me. But for the others on TGW the story is less than a day old, and it really happened, and it was terrible! I hadn’t fully thought through how that would impact the reader.

    Another thing I hadn’t fully thought through is what it would mean if this teacher were to find this story. I mean I had come to the conclusion that in broad vague sweeping terms I would like to be open about my history, with everything about it, both the good and bad. But could finding this story and reading it in a forum like this cause her harm that I would never intend? The story itself is about our failure of empathy. I would hate to repeat that failure by posting the story without considering the full potential impact on the subjects.

    Have I crossed a line by telling Joel and Russ’s story without discussing it with them?

    This was something I had wanted to write about for some time. Not necessarily for TGW, but I have been finding that participating here helps get me to write all kinds of things that I might otherwise procrastinate. So here it is, but should it be here? I’m glad to have shared this with you all, but is it okay to keep it up? (I would like to keep it up, but should I?)

  22. swells says:

    Actually, I think on some level the teacher might be relieved to read this–to learn she wasn’t the target of truly dangerous hatred, to know you really were just showing off for each other, to know you feel bad about it now (you do, right?), and to know you all actually liked her. It might destroy her previously high opinion of you, if she still remembers you and has it, but in her big picture it might relax her about the whole series of events, if she’s been made uneasy on and off by it all these years (as I probably would be, even years after it was over).

    I know I’m completely projecting about a person I know nothing about. I just can’t help identifying with her. I practically want to call her myself and reassure her.

  23. LP says:

    These are all great questions, and deserve careful consideration on your part. Personally, I’m a fan of the pseudonym — Literacy H. Dogfight or otherwise — so you can write about tricky topics without fear of inadvertent injury to yourself or others. I tend to err on the side of caution with this, though I know others have persuasive arguments for posting under one’s own name.

  24. LP says:

    oops, just saw swells’ post after mine went up. I agree, it would probably be a relief to her to learn, even years later, that the acts were more benign than they seemed. But who knows? Especially since you’ve visited with her in the years since, it might seem weird to her that you kept it secret for so long.

  25. Dave says:

    I really appreciated Rogan’s honest depiction of teenage malevolence, or rather amorality. I remember doing less destructive but still harmful stuff myself at that age; this post brought back memories of the strange power you feel as a teenager (“I can do things that affect the world! That rile up the cops!”) and the lack of responsibility, placing more importance on what a few other guys think about you than on the feelings and well being of others, or even of yourself. I’m glad you posted this, Rogan.

  26. Marleyfan says:

    BEST POST THIS YEAR!!! I wish I could vote today!