There are eight million artist stories in the city. This is mine. This is “What If”.
This is not a happy story. Not my usual uplifting, positive message, keep on keepin’ on story. If you are looking for fun and levity in your reading today I advise you to click off out of here and find something else. This is a tale from the dark side. And unlike my other blogs, all the names in this story have been changed. To protect the innocent. Except mine. That is still me – the head dunce – playing myself.
I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts – we will call it Nowhereham – just off of Cape Cod, almost equi-distant from Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. Simon and Garfunkle once sang “there was nothing but the dead of night in my little town.” I used to say there was nothing to do in my little town. Nothing to do but drink. Once I passed through the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school I tried to be drinking whenever I could, and if there was some other activity planned, I tried to make drinking a part of it. Not falling down, passed out in the gutter drunk. But on that road. Of course other people, my friends and classmates, were doing other things, like sports and studying and dating and going up to Boston or something.. But I was living by my mantra: there’s nothing to do but…
Nowhereham was a real summer town. The winter population was under 10,000 for most of my childhood, but in the summers the population would swell near 40,000. There were little beach communities everywhere, and small cottages and summer homes and beach-side shacks in all of them, and those structures would be filled – sometimes for just two weeks on a rotating basis and sometimes all summer – by the summer people, people from western Mass and the suburbs south and west of Boston, even New York City. These people boosted the economy and caused hideous traffic jams and, best of all, brought their daughters. That’s what we used to say: “Tourists, leave you money and your daughters and get out.” I didn’t know any gay kids back then – or I didn’t know if I did – but it would have worked just as well for them; leave your money and your sons. The point being that we looked forward greatly to the summer and for more than just school being out. Plus there were all those great beaches to go drinking.
My fellow Nowhereham resident and friend Nate lived in one of those beach communities. We knew each other a little the first couple of years of high school, but got a lot friendlier when it turned out his parents were always working nights and we could go into his basement and play cards. And no one cared if we were drinking. We played a lot of cards and did a lot of drinking, usually anywhere from three to five of us, sometimes just me and Nate. We mostly played whist and it was great fun, though someone would occassionally fall sideways out of their chair. I know I did.
I do not remember if it was a Friday or a Saturday night, but Nate and me and our friend Brad, who was a year older and went to a Catholic High School and was good looking and more confident with the ladies, were out cruising. We were at Parktree Beach and we came upon some of the summer girls and we somehow managed – Brad – to talk them into following us back to Nate’s. We all went down in the basement and drank and played a little pool and generally goofed around, and an hour or so later I found myself upstairs in Nate’s bedroom with a girl named Jennie Harrison who was down for the summer from the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. Kissing occurred, and at one point I threw myself down onto the bed and stretched out in what I considered to be a very romantic, nearly irresistable pose. As I reached my arms back under the pillow I felt something, and a moment later I pulled out a handgun. Why Nate would have a gun under his pillow was way beyond me. But I didn’t really think about that. Instead, I pointed the gun directly at Jennie and said “Take off your clothes or else.” Buddy Cushman, sweet talker. And then I laughed and pointed the gun down at the floor and for kicks I pulled the trigger and almost dropped dead as the gun went off in a deafening roar and blew a hole in the floorboard. The gun I had just been pointing at Jennie, with my finger on the trigger. She began shrieking and crying and she ran out of the room just as Nate and Brad ran up the stairs and into the room. Brad started slapping me silly, Nate screaming at me, as the girls all ran out of the house and drove off. I deserved to be slapped and yelled at. I had ruined the party.
After a few moments I began yelling at Nate about what kind of an imbecile would keep a loaded gun under their pillow. I’m not sure if I ever got an answer, but it’s not the point. It’s not about personal choice, it’s not about gun rights, it’s not about underage drinking, or how summer people and their daughters come to Nowhereham every year, it’s not about high school, or cards games, or swimming in the dark, or friendship. Really. It’s only about – what if?
What if Buddy Cushman, more than half in the wrapper, had pulled the trigger of that gun when I was pointing it at Jennie Harrison from Jamaica Plain? What if the bullet hit Jennie and not the floorboard? What if her family had to live out their lives from that moment forward without her? And her friends, and her grandparents? What if my parents had to walk through the small everyone-knows-everyone streets of Nowhereham with their heads down from that night forward, shamed by the action of their 17 year old nothing-better-to-do in this little town son. What if I ended up in juvenile hall for four years, or Walpole or Concord prisons for longer? Would I be sitting in Portland writing this? Would I have a granddaughter in Alaska? Would my art hang in houses on both side of the country? Would I ever have picked up a paint brush? Would I be all about rage and remorse and resignation? And not hope, and joy?