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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Into the Forest

Episode 1 of “Things Which, In Retrospect, I Should Not Have Done”

The Angry Man

In the first scene of the short film, an angry Austrian man sits at a table, speaking in an unpleasant and insistent tone about the vermin infesting his homeland, and the steps that must be taken. “Wannsea Conference,” explains my best friend as we watch the film together. Soon, the man’s speech devolves into a glottal cascade of what I assume to be Germanic profanity, which makes it hard for me to follow. He seems to be furious about something.

Squirrels, as it turns out.

In the next scene, the handheld camera follows the man into his immaculately groomed back yard, where he has been constructing some sort of cage or trap. He proudly describes the features of the trap, and demonstrates what will happen when the unsuspecting prey eats from the little bowl. The door of the cage slams shut, and the man turns to the camera and grins. He has steel-rimmed glasses, carefully combed silver hair, and perfect teeth.

At this point in the film, there is an abrupt cut to a later scene, with a flurry of confusing movement. Something has been caught in the cage, something that is, in fact, still in the cage, flailing and chattering with fury. The thing appears to be gigantic, grotesque… perhaps an anteater…? But no, it’s a squirrel; who knew they were that BIG? And the man is taking the cage and placing it in the back seat of his VW Bug, then the VW is driving away, and the film ends.

I’m watching the film with my best friend, Ed. The squirrel abductor is his father. “He claims he’s just relocating the squirrels,” notes Ed, as the film fades to black. “You know, down behind the junior high?”

Here are some other things I remember about Ed’s father:

He never drove anything but VW Bugs, which he maintained fastidiously, and they were always either black or white. He drove one for 15 years, and when it wore out, he flew to Germany to purchase a new one, with cash, direct from the factory.

He was exceedingly strict about finishing your meal before leaving the table. Ed’s mother made these “authentic” German dishes, pickled internal organs and whatnot, and I would do just about anything to avoid eating at his house. Once, when I had no choice but to eat dinner there, his mom served some sort of horrifying warm cole slaw topped, absurdly, with peeled grapes. The sauce oozing from the cole slaw engulfed every other item on my plate, including the main course, lamb’s pancreas in vinegar (or something; I couldn’t look directly at it without dry-heaving). There was simply no way I could eat this meal, so I didn’t even try. I was scared of Ed’s dad, but I was fairly certain that he wouldn’t actually hit me or anything. After half an hour of agonizing silence, I was excused from the table, having eaten nothing. Unfortunately, whatever frustration Ed’s dad felt at my non-compliance, he took out on his son, browbeating him for several hours until he had tearfully gagged down the last cold, greasy morsel. As a reward for his obedience, Ed was grounded for six months, and received a complimentary belt-whipping.

In addition to dinner etiquette, Ed’s father was a real stickler for promptness. One day, Ed was talking to me at church, when he realized that his dad had gone out to the car without him. Panicked, Ed sprinted to the car, but his exertion was in vain; his dad had already been waiting for at least three minutes. Ed was grounded for one year.

Ed’s dad had been in the military, but I was never clear about which side or which war. There was an old photograph, in which he was wearing army fatigues and holding a rifle, or at least that’s how I remember it. In my mind’s eye, it looks just like that famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald. In their basement, carefully stowed on the upper shelves, were several green steel boxes stenciled with army codes and Ed’s last name. One of these boxes contained some sort of small bomb or missile. We were not allowed to touch these boxes.

In fact, many areas in Ed’s house were off-limits to us. The living room, for example, though calling it the “living room” was a bit misleading, since it was not a room where any actual “living” took place, much less any relaxing or socializing, or throwing around a Nerf football, or eating frozen burritos off a TV tray, like we did in the “living room” at my house. Basically, the only way you were allowed to use the living room at Ed’s house was to admire the knick-knacks in the living room while standing in the adjacent hallway. Carpeted with pristinely white shag untouched by human feet, furnished with silk-upholstered couches encased in protective clear plastic, glass-and-chrome shelving displaying elaborate Japanese geisha dolls and delicately carved ivory fishing boats, the living room was unwelcoming to small boys in every conceivable way. Taking a short cut through the living room was strictly verboten, and could result in either a vigorous belt-whipping or several months of confinement to your bedroom, or both.

This portrait may be unfair to Ed’s dad; it’s not as if he was a physically abusive, rigidly authoritarian, joyless bastard. Or, he was, but that doesn’t mean he never did anything nice for us. I remember once he took us to the zoo, for instance. Ed and I brought pencils and small notebooks, thinking it would be fun to sketch the animals we saw. Excitedly, we perched on a bench near the reptile house, flipped open our sketchbooks, and set to work. Ed got part of the crocodile’s tail penciled in before his father became enraged and started screaming at us.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Stupid boys! You think I pay for zoo so you can waste the day DOODLING?” After snatching the sketchpad out of Ed’s hand, he delivered the final, crushing blow: “You can’t even DRAW!” Since we had clearly demonstrated our lack of appreciation, it was decreed that we were going home immediately. We silently bundled up our art supplies and headed back to the car; we knew well enough to keep our mouths shut. I had planned to spend the night, but instead, I was sent home as punishment for inciting Ed’s “Disrespect” and “Silliness.”

In fact, this was a fairly typical ending for a visit to Ed’s house. I was never sure if Ed’s dad hated me in particular or just children in general. I suppose he figured whatever problems he had with Ed couldn’t possibly be blamed on his own lack of parenting skills, so they must be the fault of the person Ed was always hanging around with, namely me. Because my parents conducted a Bible study with Ed’s parents, Ed and I were close friends literally since birth, and at least once a year, up through our teens, Ed would be restricted from associating with me. “Silliness” and “Disrespect” were always cited as the determining factors.

Upon reflection, the “Silliness” charge was probably a fair cop, although I maintain that a spanking and three months of house arrest are excessive punishment for a ten-year-old boy who laughs too loudly during a matinee of “Pete’s Dragon.”

Me and the Son of the Angry Man

Ed and I grew up breathing the same toxic fundamentalist air. With explicit rebellion not being an option, our need for self-differentiation manifested itself as a series of slightly bizarre, muffled explosions.

In the first grade, on the playground one winter day, I swung with glee across the monkey bars, clambered up and tumbled down the “big kids” slide, violently slapped a tetherball around its pole, then stood in the middle of the playground and cheerily shouted the word “FUCK!” once, at the top of my lungs. Not only did I not premeditate this blasphemy, I wasn’t even entirely sure what the word meant, apart from it being utterly forbidden and thoroughly, satanically evil and demonically filthy. Actually, earlier in the year, I had believed that I knew what the “f-bomb” signified, until another kid – even less informed than I – told me a story about a friend who had “fucked his pants,” which left me perplexed and afraid to ask any more questions.

My schoolyard sacrilege left me brooding for days. Finally, burdened with intolerable guilt and remorse, I confessed my sin to my dad. While I was at it, I threw in some other confessions that I’d been holding onto, like the fact that I had giggled at the sight of an aboriginal woman’s breasts in a National Geographic filmstrip. I felt much better after the ensuing spanking.

On another playground occasion, near the merry-go-round, Ed said something which I can’t remember now, but which, at the time, seemed dangerously irreverent. “I don’t think Jehovah would like to hear you saying that!” I warned Ed, though I was giggling and admittedly titillated. “Jehovah is STUPID!” replied Ed, close to hysteria. I was laughing so hard that I inhaled some saliva and nearly choked. “ED! You can’t SAY that!” I admonished him, wide-eyed in shock. Leaning in too close, a crazy twitch in his eye, lips curled in a leering parody of a smile, my friend delivered the ultimate refutation, a response which, in the searing white heat of its nihilistic reductionism, rendered all further conversation devoid of meaning, and all godly faith subject to doubt and mockery:

“WART-HEAD JEHOVAH!”

As you can probably imagine, I was speechless. Until I got home, that is, at which time I reported Ed’s heresy to my father.

I would feel pretty bad about being such a little snitch, except for the fact that Ed paid me back several years later, when we were in high school. I made the mistake of excitedly showing him a mash note that a girl had written to me. Ed seemed to be interested, and the class period was ending, so I let him keep the note until the next day. Instead of returning it to me, however, he handed it over to the elders in our church, which led to several private meetings in the back room (“These worldly girls only want one thing from a young Christian man, Jason, and I think you know what that is. Let’s turn to Leviticus…”). Later, in the church parking lot, I threatened to break Ed’s jaw.

Good times.

Ed and I both had the predilection for tattletale-ism (just like ALL of our JW friends, come to think of it), the burden of guilt over absurdly minor offences, the terror of getting caught, the strangled outbursts of ineffectual rebellion… but Ed’s dad taught him something even more useful: How to Disappear.

One wall of Ed’s bedroom was covered with “Student of the Week” and “Student of the Year” award certificates. By contrast, I had one award certificate, for taking second place in a water balloon toss. This “certificate gap,” while not being an accurate indicator of our comparative academic standing, was an EXCELLENT indicator of our comparative skill at disappearing. Whenever a “ruckus” or “hullabaloo” erupted in our elementary school classroom or on the playground, two outcomes were consistently predictable. One, when the dust settled, more likely than not, I would be found in the center of the mess, dazed and bleeding, with mud or paste and glitter smeared across my “good shirt.” Two, Ed would be found quietly reading a book at the other end of the school, probably in the library, maybe even down the street.

Cursed with thick glasses, monstrous orthodontia, painful eczema – and also being a wise-ass – I was physically assaulted by older, bigger, meaner kids almost every day of my junior high school career. Ed, however, was not. The bullies who appeared like a pack of wolves whenever I was out of a teacher’s line of sight, the thugs who seemed to be able to detect my presence anywhere on the school grounds… they never even saw Ed. Ed and I could be walking down the hall, deep in conversation, in the middle of a sentence, even, when suddenly, inexplicably, Ed would be gone. I learned to fear Ed’s vanishing act, because it invariably preceded the appearance of the goons, who would knock my books on the floor, smash my head into a nearby locker, and call me “cock-licker” and “fuckin’ college prep ass-pirate” and other things. When they had finished their courtesy call, and I was on the floor gathering my books and the pieces of my broken eyeglasses, Ed would magically reappear. “I was just over at the, uh, drinking fountain,” he’d mumble distractedly. “You know… getting a drink?”

The preceding is merely a lengthy and indirect way of saying, “I should have known better.” On the day in question, I should have said, “No thanks, Ed. You go on; I’ll just stay behind and play with your Legos until it’s time to leave.” Sadly, I did not say that. I did not stay behind. Throwing caution to the wind, I followed Ed into the forest, which, in retrospect, is a thing I should not have done.

Into the Forest

Ed and I were 11 years old, and we were at Ed’s house on a Saturday afternoon. A big church wedding of a family friend was scheduled for that evening. “Last-minute SILLINESS” had been explicitly prohibited by Ed’s dad, so we were already dressed in our polyester JC Penney suits – complete with matching vests – several hours in advance. For a while, we worked on Ed’s ambitious “Lego Monorail” project, but Ed was hogging all the curved pieces and I was tired of being in Ed’s tiny bedroom with its ostentatious display of award certificates, so we went down to the basement and tried to amuse ourselves there. Outside, it was a beautiful late summer day, perfect weather for riding our bikes to 7-11 and playing Pole Position, but we were in our dork uniforms, and there would be hell to pay if we got Cherry Slurpee on the vests or bicycle grease on the slacks. Instead, we tried playing ping-pong for a while, but the table was strewn with boxes and projects belonging to Ed’s dad, so we eventually gave that up. Frustrated, we shuffled around aimlessly in the basement, looking for something to do and growing increasingly restless.

One hour before we were scheduled to leave, Chuck appeared outside the sliding-glass door of Ed’s basement. Chuck was a neighborhood friend of Ed’s, someone I didn’t know very well. To be honest, I was a little jealous of his friendship with Ed. I was supposed to be Ed’s “best friend,” but Chuck lived two houses away, so Ed actually saw him more often. Also, Chuck was a little smarter than I was about the Eddie Haskell routine required to keep adults happy. As a result, Chuck was almost never on the parental blacklist. I imagined conversations in which Ed’s dad would bellow, “Why should I drive you to the house of that troublemaker JASON, so full of SILLINESS, when your friend Chuck lives just down the street? Chuck is a good boy, very respectful, not like that JASON…”

“You guys wanna go play in the woods?” asked Chuck, and this is the moment at which I should have said “No thanks,” but Ed wanted to go, and I hated the thought of Ed and Chuck playing in the woods without me, and the basement was getting boring, and besides, I reasoned, what’s the worst that could happen? So I followed.

For a while, we were in heaven. We found sticks which could double as swords, and used them to demolish birds’ nests and delicate patches of ferns. We visited all of our favorite landmarks, like the ramshackle plywood fort where someone had hidden a stash of mildewed European porno magazines, the wide spot in the stream where you could catch translucent baby crawdads, and the tree with the branch you could bounce up and down on and then jump off into a pile of leaves. For the first time that day, we felt unfettered and alive. We ran on the dirt trails and laughed crazily and punched each other. We felt like we had been suffocating in a closet all day and had finally been released, drunkenly gulping in pure oxygen.

Without realizing it, we had ventured deep into the woods, so far that we were actually near the church on the other side of the woods, near the water processing plant. We weren’t exactly sure what this plant did, but we loved the mystery of the little locked concrete bunker and the profusion of pipes and valves that surrounded it.

There was also some sort of collection pond or cesspool there, its deep black water spanned by a single pipe. The pipe bisected the cesspool perfectly, approximately one foot above the surface of the water, and was just wide enough to walk on, if you were careful. As most parents and sixth-grade teachers can attest, an algae-filled pond and a just-barely-wide-enough pipe bridge are two of the three necessary ingredients for a full-blown disaster. The third ingredient being, of course, an eleven-year-old boy.

“Let’s cross the pond!” suggested Chuck. Ed agreed, and they nimbly pranced across the makeshift bridge like two gazelles, leaving me fuming.

“Come on, chicken!” they taunted me from the opposite side of the cesspool. “Whatsa matter? Are you afraid? It’s easy!”

“That pipe is covered with algae or something!” I shouted. “What if I slip?”

“It’s not slippery!” countered Chuck.

“Not slippery at all!” agreed Ed. “That slimy stuff is all dried up. If it was wet, it might be slippery, but it’s not. Come on! We have to get back to the house before my Dad realizes we’re not in the basement!”

Seeing no alternative, I ventured out onto the pipe. Reading this at the remove of almost thirty years, it’s easy to nitpick and question the judgment of someone who tries to cross a sewage pond by running across a six-inch wide, algae-covered pipe while wearing his best suit. In my defense, I made it almost two-thirds of the way across that pipe before slipping and falling into the foul-smelling and surprisingly cold sewage. So cold, in fact, that I gasped in shock just as my head went under, leaving me with a mouthful of bright green scum. Shivering at the sudden loss of body warmth, and gagging at the thought of pollywogs scampering around in my mouth, I crawled clumsily out of the pond, gagging violently, as my so-called friends laughed so hard I thought they might pee their pants.

“Dude,” Chuck noted helpfully, “you are SOAKED!”

“No SHIT, Sherlock!” I responded with fury. “I’ve got pond scum all over my suit, there are leeches or something crawling up inside my slacks, I smell like the inside of a septic tank, I think I’m getting hypothermia, and ED’S DAD IS GOING TO MURDER US!”

Apparently, this was pretty fucking comical, because Ed and Chuck exploded in another round of knee-slapping hilarity. When they were able to catch their breath, they wiped the tears of mirth from their eyes, and we made our way hurriedly back to Ed’s house. Running awkwardly through the forest in my wet clothing, I tried to keep my legs apart, but the drenched polyester began to chafe against my thighs and crotch. My watering eyes, dry mouth, and burning/itching skin made me suspect that the pond had contained some sort of toxic chemical, and I wondered if hypothermia (or fear-induced adrenaline) might cause your pores to dilate or something, in which case the sewage poison might enter my bloodstream! Ed’s dad was right; our silliness would ultimately lead to my death. I started to cry.

When we got close to Ed’s backyard, Chuck split off and headed for his own home. Wisely, he didn’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity when Ed’s dad beat the holy crap out of us. “Good luck, dude!” shouted Chuck, by way of a farewell. “Man, your suit is RUINED!” he added cheerfully, before disappearing.

Ed crept in the back door first, to make sure the coast was clear. When he was satisfied that his dad was not in the basement, he beckoned to me, and I snuck in after him. The first order of business was to dispose of my filthy clothing, which I eagerly peeled from my shivering body. I wanted desperately to take a hot shower and scrub my skin vigorously – with Brillo pads, Comet cleanser, ANYTHING – but the only shower stall was upstairs. Going upstairs would open the door to certain interrogation and possible belt-whipping. Plus, Ed’s dad would never allow me to take a shower during the day. I could imagine him thundering, “You already take a shower YESTERDAY! Why you need shower TODAY? You stupid kids think water is FREE? I work hard to pay for water, and you run gallons all day long because of your SILLINESS!” Then the belt-whipping would begin. No, better to just put up with the flesh-consuming bacteria now swarming through my bathing-suit area. Better to just ignore the crawfish eggs now lodged in my ear canal, the fecal pond-stink clotting my hair. Better to not disturb Ed’s dad, whatever the cost.

So it was that I found myself wet, naked, and shivering in Ed’s basement, while Ed went upstairs to find me some dry, non-sewage-befouled clothing. I could hear him upstairs, opening drawers and closets, fending off questions from his dad. I couldn’t make out the actual words, but their argument was getting heated. Then I could hear Ed’s father coming down the stairs. Panicking, I scanned the basement for a hiding place. The only spot that afforded any kind of concealment was a little storage area under the stairs. It was almost completely full of boxes and hardware, but by contorting my body in a sort of “S”-shape, I was just able to squeeze into the remaining space.

Ed’s dad banged open the basement door, then he started looking around the basement, looking for evidence, looking for ME. Horrified, I saw that Ed had not taken my sewage-soaked clothing upstairs; it was lying in a wet pile in the middle of the floor, and Ed’s dad was standing over it, apoplectic with rage.

“EDMOND!” he roared, and Ed came running. “WHY ARE THESE WET, STINKING CLOTHES LYING HERE?”

“Uh… what clothes?” was the only reply Ed could muster, and I knew we were fucked.

“WHAT CLOTHES?” shrieked his father, in furious disbelief. “WHAT… CLOTHES?? THESE wet clothes, stinking up my basement, that’s what clothes! These filthy clothes making puddle on my floor, THAT’S what clothes, stupid boy! Out of my sight for TWO MINUTES and you ruin house! Always the silliness with you and your friends! The SILLINESS and the DISRESPECT!”

Ed’s dad pounded his fist on the ping-pong table to emphasize each key point in his argument, which made Ed flinch, and caused a ping-pong ball to bounce onto the floor and roll slowly toward my hiding place.

“This is JASON’S suit, isn’t it?” Ed’s dad demanded, but Ed apparently didn’t answer quickly enough, so he repeated the question, but louder this time: “ISN’T IT? Don’t you LIE to me! You think I’m stupid? You think you can play stupid games of SILLINESS, and I won’t know? You went into woods, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?”

We had clearly reached the tipping point, and something dramatic had to happen. Either Ed would rat me out to save his own skin (understandable), and his dad’s fury would be shifted onto me… or Ed would be chased around the house, having his ass kicked from room to room (it wouldn’t be the first time), or Ed’s mom might come home and intervene, or – in an admittedly unlikely scenario – Ed and I might rise up against our oppressor and administer a well-deserved smackdown to his dad. Okay, that would never happen. But SOMETHING was definitely about to happen, and it was starting to look like it might involve Ed getting chased around the house, and that was hardly fair, and I was too cold and uncomfortable to stay crouched under the stairs, so I stepped out of my hiding place.

It makes my heart ache when I think of my eleven-year-old self, standing naked on the cold cement floor, humiliated, wet, teeth chattering, frightened, enduring a screaming tirade from Ed’s bully of a dad. And then there was Ed himself, red-faced, eyes to the floor, just waiting for this whole episode to be over, probably wondering why he ever invited me to his house, since it always ended this way. We were eleven-year-old boys, and we were both being shaped by this day, and others like it, and it really wasn’t fair. We were so small and so easily intimidated… and so fucking harmless.

Personal Note to Ed’s dad, if you’re still out there: You were a real asshole to a couple of little kids.

Of course, that scene in the basement did have its humorous side. For one thing, never in my life have I heard the words “Silliness” and “Disrespect” invoked so many times within a fifteen-minute span. Despite my discomfort and fear, I was grudgingly impressed by the sheer lunatic single-minded self-reinforcing internal logic of Ed’s dad’s vision. From what I could gather, my dip in the sewage pond was only one facet of a long-term, wide-ranging conspiracy, planned and executed by me and Ed. The ultimate goal of this conspiracy (according to Ed’s dad), was nothing less than the willful destruction of the God-ordained parent-child hierarchy, not to mention the calculated dismantling of civilization itself. Or something. I mean, he was kinda all over the place, so I’m paraphrasing.

In the end, I think he started sounding crazy even to himself, and I was released. I scrubbed myself vigorously in a hot shower, just like that scene in Silkwood when they think Meryl Streep has been irradiated. (Despite the higher cost of hot water during the afternoon, I was ultimately allowed to take a shower because I smelled so bad.) Ed loaned me a clean suit, and we all went to the wedding that evening.

At the wedding, an older kid, blonde and handsome in an Aryan way, chased me around and snapped my skull with some sort of finger-flicking technique he had developed. After each painful snap was administered, he would cackle gleefully and proclaim to passerby that I had been “tagged.”

The next day, I found out that I was banned from Ed’s house for one year.

Epilogue

Over 20 years later, my dad and I paid a visit to Ed’s dad. He had recently suffered a heart attack, spent some time in the hospital, and had stopped attending church services. I was still a JW at the time, but I did not attend the same congregation as Ed’s dad. I hadn’t seen him in person for several years, and didn’t know what to expect.

When he answered the door, I was shocked. For starters, he seemed to be about two feet shorter than I remembered. His skin was pale, even slightly translucent. His eyes were glassy behind his too-large bifocals. He wore a baseball cap in the style of older men, brim flat, several sizes too big, pulled down so far on his head that it looked like it would be painful on his ears. He spoke softly, and seemed to have trouble organizing his thoughts.

We tried to engage him in conversation about the Bible, about his responsibility to God, about the impending apocalypse and who might or might not be saved – pretty much your standard JW “encouragement” routine – but he either wasn’t interested or couldn’t track. Instead, he brought out some photo albums he had been organizing, and explained in excruciating, laborious detail how he had processed each photo. My attention wandered around the room, and I realized with a start that we were actually SITTING and VISITING in the hallowed and forbidden “living room.” The geisha dolls, the steel-and-glass shelving, the deep white shag, were all there, exactly as I remembered them.

Soon, we could find nothing else to talk about, and said our farewells. As we left, Ed’s dad shook my hand firmly and smiled at me, in a friendly way.

“I miss having you and Ed around the house,” he told me. “I always liked you, Jason. You were such a good boy.”

And then it was time to leave.

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