It was 1982 and I was chubby. Forced to participate in a walkathon to raise money for the summer recreation program that my father ran, I plodded along behind my two cousins who seemed to be enjoying themselves extravagantly. I was not. It was hot for a Vermont summer and quite humid and I had gotten very thirsty around the five-mile mark, my Mom-sponsored apple juice long since emptied of its lukewarm contents and dropped by the roadside. My cousin Jody started another debate with his brother Tim about the '82 Superbowl and finally I could take no more. I announced to our little group I was getting a drink and detoured off into a stream that ran under the dirt road and into an adjacent cow pasture. I walked right into the shallow rushing water with my shoes still on.
"Ooo, this is nice!" I said as loudly as I could, reaching down and cupping my hands for a drink. The group had stopped to wait, politely like the good New Englanders they were, and at my pronouncement a few turned to begin walking towards me. Though a bit surprised anyone had paid attention -- much less followed my lead -- I kept my cool and wandered in further. Someone pointed out the cows, who had the right idea lying cross-legged in the shade at edge of the woods on the other side of the pasture. I observed them warily -- I didn't trust anything alive that large and painstakingly fenced in, but these looked lazy enough. An adult noted the leaves were already changing on some mountainside and someone complained about the weather: the usual Vermont topics. Personally, I was still hot; I hated my parents for making me do the walkathon; the water tasted weird; and I wanted a swim. I noticed some rusty barbwire strung between two maple trees on either side of the stream so I took off my shirt, flung it onto a barb to hook it, and let myself fall backwards into the deeper water, splashing just like the Nestea commercials.
The group heard the splash and looked over. I heartily waved back at them, knee deep in a sandy bowl at the bend in the stream, then stiffened my legs and fell back again, showing off a Nestea Plunge perfected from years spent befriending kids with pools. A few adults clapped, and most of the kids quickly followed suit, stripping to their shorts and wading in to cool off. Soon after, the shore was covered in shirts and shoes and ball caps as one by one adult and child alike was inspired to join me. A few of the kids I knew from school were even attempting the same splashdown that I had displayed. I was the only one who hung up my shirt up on the wire, and I looked up at it proudly from my impromptu swimming hole, watching it toss slowly in the humid breeze, hanging in space over the water. It was a Loverboy t-shirt, a beloved possession from my first concert the winter before, and I suddenly realized I was the coolest twelve-year-old on the planet, if chubby. I floated on my back in the lazy current in the deepest section with my feet sticking out like I had seen my father do so many times, and let my ears sink underwater. As I lay there half submerged I listened to the muffled joyous shouts of the other kids, and that endless prattle of adults talking about nothing -- underwater they really did sound like the adults on the Charlie Brown specials. The water was refreshing and I was in pure heaven.
It was at that point my cousin Tim, who had gotten in the water with his 49ers shirt still on, splashed me to get my attention. He noted in a hushed conspiratorial voice that if I put my shirt on and got it wet like him and his brother Jody, I would be cooler when we started walking again. Smart kid that Tim, and I was always up for impressing my cousins by being agreeable. So I got up, trudged through the rocky shallows to my shirt waving in the breeze, and grabbed the wire to pull it closer. Naturally, I was immediately electrocuted.
I had already been electrocuted four times by that time in my life, although none therapeutically induced, and I instinctively knew what was happening. Those broken lamps, old record player and the first poorly labeled electric fence I ever touched were no match for this mad cow deterrent. I was right to be wary of these cows. This farmer is trying very hard to ward them off, I thought fleetingly as this latest moment of electrocution made me scream in pain and surprise. The electric charge shot through my arm, down my body and into the water, and a split second later the group of swimmers and drinkers were all similarly shocked at exactly the same time. It was instant pandemonium. Most of the people had no idea why they were suddenly experiencing acute pain and shrieked and jumped around and scrambled for the shore. A porky lady tried to run but fell and began yelling for help as people hopped around her. What made it worse was that, for some reason, possibly because my hand muscles had locked in an electrified grip, I was unable to let go of the fence and I pulled and pulled on it trying to get away, screaming in pain, half-crying, half-gagging, and begging for help. But my pleas went unheeded as everyone else tried to get out of the water.
I finally managed to wrench myself loose and dropped down into the shallow rocky part of the stream while a ragged group of still surprised walkathon-ers observed me warily from shore. I sat there alone and cried for about ten minutes, hand plunged underwater in an attempt to cool the fierce burning sensation, arm throbbing and water gurgling over my legs. The kids in our group just took off, but a few adults paced the edge of the stream not daring to touch it for fear of being shocked again, braying at me to get out and asking me who my parents were. My cousins, already weary of my presence by this time in our lives, had also run off and would spend yet another summer aggressively avoiding me and my lack of interest in sports.
I got out of the water and pushed my way through the goldenrod and milkweed to the road. I was already hot again by the time my squishing sneakers found the packed dirt and gravel surface. I donned my sopping Loverboy shirt and instantly it felt too tight and itchy. Most of the people who had stopped with me had started walking towards the distant finish line again, and the few people that milled around talking, I didn't recognize. I was completely anonymous and friendless. Though feeling abandoned, I was not sure whether anonymity was worse in this case, so I pretended to ignore them and surveyed my surroundings.
Vermont, my parents constantly reminded me, is a beautiful place in which to find yourself. Surely had I had any sense of beauty, they often would say, I could have looked around and appreciated the hazy air sitting lazily on the dense green forests bordering lush pastures. Dad would remark on the waves of blooming goldenrod, no doubt -- something like "so many yellow whitecaps on a sea of verdant green" -- in a vain attempt to engage me. I should cherish the clean air, Mom would say, as well as the quaint ramshackle farm in the distance, the sound of the brook meandering over the rocks, the utter lack of motor vehicles. All I noticed was the sound of the late summer buzzing insects in the trees, the heavy smell of August, some reddish leaves that were turning early and the impending sense of doom they all gave me as they advertised the approaching school year. My parents' voices chided me with their delusions as I shuddered in loathing of Vermont and its leaves, its early school. The five-mile sign of the ten-mile walk squatted at the base of a long steep climb where the route continued uphill into farm country. It too taunted me, promising a long, lonely tortuous day ahead. The fundraiser ended at some field in the middle of nowhere where a barbecue picnic had been set up for the participants, and a herd of school buses waited patiently to take them back to town. The way we had come was downhill and much easier, and I felt humiliated and alone. So I abruptly pulled myself out of thought and turned back towards town, planning a visit to the local arcade and a guzzled grape soda before I faced inevitable punishment.
Not long after leaving the site of my electrocution I encountered my first group of other walkers. It was a group from my church.
"Hey there, yer goin the wrong way!" shouted the ever-emphatic Mrs. Meyer. She was pregnant with the fourth of what would end up being nine surviving children by the end of the 80s. Some other women from the church were walking with her, and her bearded husband huffed behind them in overalls. Since I had detached myself from the event, I had not considered I might have to explain what I was doing when I encountered people going the correct way. It made perfect sense to be walking home at this point. After all, I did live in town, not on some farm out here in rural nowheresville. Also, I had come to the realization that year that everyone in my parents' church was crazy and I felt uncomfortable around them. Being seen with them would be embarrassing because they were always infusing God or Lord or Jesus into every conversation.
"I know, Mrs. Meyer, but I'm going home." I imitated my Grandmother's polite dismissive smile.
"Does yer Mom know?"
"Yeh-ess!" I said it in two tones, half-sung. It seemed the friendliest way to rid myself of them. I kept walking.
A few minutes later, I encountered an old couple sitting in the shade, both holding walking sticks and taking a break.
"Yer going the wrong way!" shouted the old man.
"I know." This time I didn't explain and looked away and kept moving. It felt good to be dismissive of adults. He started muttering to his partner, "What's the matter with him? He's going the wrong way!"
"Maybe he dropped something," she said sensibly. Ladies could be so sensible. I liked that about ladies. I would tell everyone that. I kept walking. I had dropped something.
Like most children I was an excellent liar by this time in my life, and I instantly started conjuring a good story to tell the adults I might encounter. What had I lost? I thought of my stuffed animal Ducky that I had lost in Ohio a few years before we moved to Vermont. My heart sank. I don't know how I lost my treasured pet, he was just gone one day and I missed him dearly. It was still a great loss, though at age twelve I knew it must remain a private pain because it was deeply uncool to mourn a stuffed duck. I thought of my beloved blue ten-speed that had been stolen from our yard and never seen again, though probably the only actual crime that happened in our little town that summer. It too brought painful memories because I only got to help Dad put it together and ride it once before dinner and someone stole it from the driveway that night. Besides, this was not a bike-a-thon. I thought of other toys, but could not think of anything that would be passable for me to be carrying for a walkathon that I might have dropped. I thought of my parents, always losing their car keys, and screaming at each other several mornings a week as they rushed around the house desperately trying not to be late for work. Keys! I would tell everyone I had lost my keys. Keys were perfect, adults always had them and always lost them.
I had never owned a set. For one thing, we never locked the house. The greatest crimes in our town were fishing without a license or bagging deer from your car -- no one had thought of theft as a viable option, mostly because someone would know where you got the new furniture. Why do you suddenly have the Lanphear's couch? -- it just wasn't worth it. Besides, apart from a few VCRs and projection tvs, most people didn't have anything worth stealing except livestock, which you'd have to carve up and freeze pretty damn quick before anyone saw you. I always wished that while we were on vacation that we might come home to find everything stolen from our house and be forced to replace it with newer and nicer things. I had a list of everything we'd need, created from a lifetime of researching the Sears catalog. But unfortunately year after year our junk was still waiting for us when we got home.
Because I didn't need keys, I was unaware of the great value adults placed on them and what intense empathy and reaction lost keys could provoke. I didn't even wait for the next group to ask me what I was doing or tell me I was going the wrong way. When a young couple holding hands came within in earshot as we converged at the edge of an intersection, I simply announced, "I lost my keys!" in a cheery voice.
"What did you say? You lost your keys?" said the wiry guy. He brushed something off his running shorts and took off his Wayfarers to look at me. "Keys?"
"Yeah, I'm walking back to find them!" I tried to sound as enthusiastic as possible.
"D'ya want help?" he turned to his pursed-lipped female friend, overdressed in khakis, an Izod shirt with the collar flipped up, and what looked like painful shoes made of pink jelly. "Baby, we should help him!"
"Ahh, I think ... I think I know where they are ..." I stammered to ward them off.
"He says he knows where they are, Baby." She turned to face him, eyes blank and expressionless behind her black tinted frames. She was clearly uninterested in helping, hands on her hips and elbows daggering at him to Just Drop It.
"Yeah I-I do," I nodded. "Totally."
"Okay." He seemed unsure. His woman not only wore the pants but clearly owned the deeds to his soul at this point. "You be careful, kid. Come on, baby." She turned without a glance at either of us and started the way I had come; he hopped to catch up and grabbed her hand. I kept walking.
Two more small groups of well-meaning walkers tried to help me find my keys and I had to think quickly to get rid of them. I padded the story a little. "It's OK. My Mom's coming to get me ..." worked great on some teenage girls. And "I'll be OK, I'll just walk a little more, then turn back ..." worked on a lone elderly man. But generally, the other walkers were wasting a lot of my time and I had not gotten very far at all. I also started to realize why my parents seemed to freak out every time they could not find keys. Apparently keys were really important and anyone would instantly try to help you find them -- except for my parents who would just yell at each other. I had to come up with a new plan before another group of walkers came along because the arcade was going to close if I didn't hurry up. Walkathon-ers, I realized, were the type of people who would sacrifice their pride to ask their neighbors and coworkers for a few dollars for charity and think nothing of losing an entire day to walk aimlessly for no reason for hours when instead they could be watching TV or swimming. Thus they are definitely the type to drop everything and help a fat kid try to find his keys. I had to think of something else and I started walking faster in desperation. This was all so stupid.
My shirt still felt tight and itchy and I was sweating. This day was worse than any other day in my life so far. I wanted to be swimming in my friend Cindy's pool, drinking grape soda and listening to her big brother's Boston tapes on full blast. I wanted to be seven again, back in Ohio playing with my old friends at the town pool, running with our towels tied around our necks pretending we were Superman. I wanted to be anywhere but hot and itchy in the middle of nowhere in Vermont. I took off my shirt. The breeze was humid, but it felt good on my skin. I looked down at the shirt. It featured someone's ass in red leather pants, a hand with crossed fingers and the phrase "Get Lucky." It was the album cover of the same name and at that point it was the coolest article of clothing I owned. My parents disliked it of course, my father demanding that I change if I tried to wear it anywhere with the family. But even they knew Loverboy was harmless enough not to get too worked up about.
The Loverboy concert had been part of a brief two months of happiness in which I was allowed to join a different church youth group instead of the fire and brimstone one featured at ours. My friend Stefan's dad was the minister at a local Methodist church, and since our parents had become friends, it was deemed okay that I could join their youth group since our church's group was six miles away and I got to hang out with some friends who attended a church with normal-seeming people in it for awhile. Stefan's parents were actually cool. His dad seemed to take the ministry very casually, and his mom was funny and gregarious. We got to play dodgeball, watch good-deed themed movies, and eat homemade cookies to our hearts' content. We had a Fast-a-Thon, where we didn't eat for 24 hours, to raise money to go to the concert, but the extent of the Christian teachings that were involved was that someone had to lead a prayer over the cookies every week and we were told that God had a sense of humor and that Jesus, all in all, was a pretty cool dude. That was it. It kept me from becoming an atheist for at least another six months.
The older kids in the youth group picked Loverboy, the most rock and roll of all our approved choices, which included the Eagles, REO Speedwagon and Kenny Rogers, and we drove in the church van all the way to Montreal to see them. Loverboy was much more popular in Canada than they were in the US, and they were playing to a capacity crowd at the Olympic Stadium. It was very exciting, although extremely loud and confusing. I couldn't understand anything anyone was saying, didn't know any of the songs except the last one, and could barely see the band they were so far away from us. But I got chills I had never experienced when 70,000 French Canadians and my youth group all sung the words in unison to "Turn Me Loose" at the top of their lungs. I spent my food money and some other money I had brought to buy the shirt and was left with a mooched piece of pizza, a cup of water and a vending machine Mallow Bar for dinner. It was totally worth it.
In sudden epiphany, I threw the shirt into the waving grass at the side of the road. I would have to come back and get it, but for now it was what I had lost and I would tell everyone that and it would be obviously true. I kept walking.
I didn't see any more walkers and I must have walked two miles before I came across one of the water stops at the edge of town. A parked and running Ford Granada was being packed up by one of the Walk volunteers. A broad-shouldered woman in a denim skirt and a Walkathon t-shirt with rolled up sleeves was bent over, trying to fold table legs back into their restraints. Upon seeing me, she stood up and shook her considerable mane of rocker chick hair out of her eyes. She had a cigarette in her lips and talked through it.
"Hey, where are you going? You're going the wrong way, kid!"
"I'm going back, I lost my shirt."
She looked at me strangely. "Come over and help me with this table. I got plenty of those shirts in the car."
As I held the card table down while she struggled to get a bent leg back into its clamp, I told her, "It wasn't a walkathon shirt. It was a Loverboy shirt."
"Loverboy shirt? What the hell is a loverboy shirt? How come I never had one of those? Hahahaha!" She laughed at a joke I didn't understand. "How come you weren't wearing a Walk shirt, huh? This goddamn table! You too good for it? I bet." She shoved the leg in as far as it would go.
"I didn't want one."
"Too bad, that's what you're gonna wear now, kid. Here, you're gonna help me clean this up and then we're gonna go back. It's getting late."
It was clear I did not have any choice so I abandoned my notion of walking the last mile into town. I was so close I could taste the Welch's soda and smell the smoky grime of the arcade hall. But I was exhausted and sitting in the car seemed like a decent option, even if it was blasting country music. The Granada was nicer than our cars, so I would enjoy it. It had carpeting, for one thing.
"I'm Tracy, kid, what's your name?" she lit another long white cigarette with the car lighter, and looked down at me.
"Ummm." I hesitated, hoping she would not associate me with my father, whom she probably knew, and tell him how she found me.
"Umm? Well, OK, Umm, long as we straightened that out! Hahahaha!" she put the car in reverse and nailed the gas, spinning up some gravel and dust, and we took off at top speed towards the end of the walk. The Granada engine roared, and cold air blasted out of the vents. Tracy had air conditioning and all the windows rolled down too. Dad would not approve. The wind tossed a piece of plastic wrapping around the car while it buffeted our hair.
"How much money did you raise?" she shouted over the din, as we roared past the place I had left my Loverboy shirt, "You're gonna have to give it all back you know, you ain't walkin' no more, so that's not right. Hahahaha!"
"Fifty dollars." Fifty dollars was the minimum amount you could do. No matter what, you had to give the Walk-a-thon fifty dollars whether you got people to sponsor you or not. I looked forlornly out the window hoping to spot my shirt and not think about the money I still had to collect.
"Fifty? Ha!" She laughed and threw her cigarette out the window then pointed at the foot well in the passenger side where I sat. "Hand me them cigs, Mr. Fifty Dollars." I glanced down at the carton that was sliding around my feet, then picked it up and held out to her.
"No, stupid, get a pack out for me. Here," she grabbed a pack out of the box, "open that for me and get me a smoke out of it." She reached over and finger-punched a button on the radio. The music switched to rock. The only rock and roll station you could get in Vermont was from Montreal -- CHOM-FM, pronounced "shome effemme" by the French Canadian deejays. In deference to the Canadian laws, they played a lot of Canadian artists, which explains why Loverboy was so popular in Vermont. We Vermonters also knew a lot of Bryan Adams, April Wine, Guess Who and Neil Young songs by heart. But CHOM FM segued from whatever was playing into the opening riff of "Jessie's Girl" and Tracy slammed on the brakes.
"Oh my gawd! I fuckin' love this fuckin' song!" She stopped the car, spun the volume dial up as far as it would go and jumped out of the car into the road and started dancing like she had just won the lottery. Dust that had been trailing behind us was drifting through the car and in the windows and passed around her like dun-colored ghosts. The radio was so loud it was distorting the speakers, and I could just make out the buzzer indicating the keys were in the ignition with a door open.
"Come on, Fifty Dollars! Don't you know how to dance?" She beckoned to me. I did not know how to dance. I'd never been to a dance and preferred to listen to my records at home with my headphones on. But I climbed slowly out of the car and made my way to her impromptu stage. I watched her, tried snapping my fingers to the rhythm and began shuffling my feet back and forth in the dirt. Then I flailed my arms as best I could to the beat, flapping like an unfledged seagull. As I had suspected for some time, dancing did not come naturally to me. I was moving more like a cow than like Michael Jackson but Tracy didn't seem to care. She hit the chorus at full tilt belt and closed her eyes in ecstasy while she sang. She wiggled her shoulders hard and went "Wooooooooo!" wagging her boobs at me and laughing. I laughed back. I had never seen anyone act like this, and no one had ever wagged their boobs at me. I felt a familiar reddening in my cheeks. I had never felt attracted to anyone, much less a tall, broadly built woman dancing around on a dirt road. But her joking come-ons made me feel like I was watching an illicit late night program without permission and it was strangely enticing.
Tracy lit another cigarette as the anthemic chorus ended for the second time and dropped into the bridge, and she took a huge long drag. Decidedly more subdued at this point in the song, she swayed her hips a little bit while I continued my frenzied attempts to keep pace with the song, awkwardly dancing in the dirt. She watched me for a second, then rolled her eyes, dragging off her smoke and staring into the distance as the story in the song unfolded.
"And I'm lookin' in the mirror all the time,
Wondering what she don't see in me
I've been funny, I've been cool with the lines
Ain't that the way love supposed to be?"
The melodic, soothing bridge made my heart soar but Tracy seemed caught up in some place in her mind. She stopped dancing altogether and suddenly seemed very sad, leaning on the hood of the car as my dancing decayed into tentative, self-conscious jerking. When the song hit the opening guitar riff again, I too had stopped. She threw down her cigarette, got back in the car and snapped the radio off.
"Fuck that song," she said savagely. I got back in too, unsure of what was happening, but still following her lead. She floored it. We spun up gravel and dust and tore towards the stream where I had been electrocuted earlier in the day. As we flew past, I looked down. The cows were standing in the water now on the other side of the fence and they looked up at the sound of Tracy flogging her car. We stopped at the base of the hill I never made it up, and she threw the five-mile sign into the trunk.
"You want a shirt while I got this open?" I was still shirtless, so I nodded. She threw one at me as she got back in the car. It was huge.
"Thanks." I struggled to hold my head up while we hurtled up the hill into the woods. She drove a lot faster than my Dad, the sensation more akin to racing around in my uncle's homemade dune buggy than being in a real car. I wished Dad drove like this. Dad bought cars that did not have air conditioning, preferred to keep the windows rolled up to save gas, and had never once allowed the radio to be played. He also drove slowly and meandered sickeningly as his attention waned from the road and he whistled random tunes. Being in Tracy's Ford was more like flying and it was wonderful.
"You got a girlfriend, Fifty Dollars?" her eyes stayed focused on the road, but her voice was urgent.
"No." I'd never even considered this. I had a few friends that were girls, but mostly I liked them because they had pools or were good at Ms. Pac Man.
"Well you better be fuckin' good to her." Tracy's voice had a level of threat I understood. It was the same tone our pastor's voice had when he warned us about Hell. But I was confused.
"Good to who?"
"Shut up!" she barked at me viciously and I sucked in my breath. No problem, I thought, and vowed not to say another word. I was dying to ask her why Rick Springfield had made her so sad, but I guessed it was just one of the stupid things adults always did.
Tracy began actively ignoring me for the rest of the trip. But she eventually turned the radio back on and we sped through the Vermont countryside in the fading sunlight, silently helping each other pick up and store the remaining signs and water kegs. I'd been in the presence of the taciturn men in my family, forced into assisting them in their tedious chores, and was comfortable in the role of invisible child. Tracy was no different to me at this point except she smelled like lavender instead of turpentine and sweat. By the time we got to the picnic, it was already over and the remaining volunteers were packing tables and chairs onto a grizzled flatbed truck.
I spotted our orange Chevelle wagon next to the one remaining school bus, my mother and aunt talking to each other behind it. My cousins were sitting in the back seat. Tracy drove right up to the truck and slammed on the brakes, the Granada skidding and lurching in the grass.
"There's my mom -- thanks for the ride!" I said to her, climbing out.
"Hey, you gotta give that shirt back," she snorted, "they ain't free, Mr. Fifty Dollars. Then you can go find your Mommy and Daddy." She seemed to have gotten a little bit of her humor back, but turned away from me and started chatting up some bearded guy who was loading chairs.
"OK." I took it off and threw it back unnoticed into her car. "Thanks again for the ride, Tracy." I walked shirtless towards my family.
"Hey, Mom!" I was actually happy to see my mother and started to run towards her, eager to tell about my adventure.
She jumped around at the sound of my voice and immediately shrieked at me, "WHERE WERE YOU? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?" My cousins' heads whipped around and stared at me from the car. My aunt was shaking her head in disapproval. "YOUR FATHER WAS WORRIED SICK! HE ALMOST WENT TO THE POLICE!"
"I ... I ... I lost my shirt!" I stammered out a reply, surprised at her intensity. Mom rarely got mad at me and her anger was enough to stop me in my tracks. I must have looked pathetic because that and my obviously shirtless state softened her and she switched to babying mode in a heartbeat.
"Ohhhh, honey, your favorite shirt?" she grabbed me and gave me a crushing hug, "I was so worried you had been hurt. Jody told me you got shocked again and I thought maybe you ran away."
I looked for Dad behind Mom's soothing hug, making sure he was not coming my way to inflict punishment. I sniffed a little to indicate I too was upset and hugged my murmuring mother back to shore her up as a possible defense against Dad, but he was nowhere to be seen.
"I'm hungry, Mom." I said into her shoulder as I noticed the barbecue trailer being hitched up to Tracy's Granada. Tracy was still talking to the bearded guy who was now following her to her car and smoking one of her ubiquitous cigarettes. I heard her cackle loudly as he opened the door for her with a mocking flourish and exaggerated bow, then she started the engine with a roar. Her radio came on instantly, blaring Loverboy's "Working For the Weekend" and my heart jumped. I winced for my lost shirt.
"Well we will get you some dinner as soon as we get home." Mom let me go and began scanning the field carefully, looking for something or someone. "Did you see your father when you were with that girl in the car?"
"No ..." I watched Tracy tear out of the field with her new companion, spinning up dirt as she turned off the field onto the road and out into the world beyond. The sounds of Loverboy faded as she sped away.
"Well, dammit, your father lost his keys again. We might all have to walk home."