Monday, August 29, 2016

THE BEATING

William Luvaas is a distinguished novelist and short story writer, whose work has appeared in numerous prestigious literary magazines over the years. I reviewed his remarkable novel, Ashes Rain Down, on my earlier blog, The Buddha Diaries, back in December, 2014. "Boyhood Memories" is lucky to have his permission to publish this short story, in which he experiences an outbreak of sudden, irrational and violent terror in the rural area around his native Eugene, Oregon. In one sense, it's a "loss of innocence" story; in another, a personal memory of a moment in which a young boy is forced to confront his own vulnerability and fear, and to come out of it with the courage he suspected he might not have. It's also a story of loyalty and friendship, and of the adult's response in the form of a desire for vengeance. In short, a powerful and complex insight into the essence of boyhood experience.

Bill's new novel, Beneath the Coyote Hills, is out this fall. For Los Angeles area readers, there's a book launch and an opportunity to meet the author at Skylight Books on Sunday, September the 18th at 5:00PM.


THE BEATING

William Luvaas


            As boys growing up in Oregon, we often rode our bikes several miles to the McKenzie River or to the gravel pits, a mysterious, vaguely ominous place to thirteen year old boys, where older boys, high school hoods, staged ritualistic fist fights, forming a cheering ring around the bloodied combatants.  But Eugene was mostly benign in the late Fifties.  No danger of child abductions or sexual predators.  We roamed far and wide on back roads through orchards and blackberry patches, feeling safe, except for that once when my friend Kim and I rode into a barnyard and were surrounded by snarling hounds that pursued us, nipping at our heels.
            However, the afternoon we came upon an old Mercury in the gravel pits–hood raised and two older boys peering down at the engine–was a scene right out of In Cold Blood, an altogether alien zone for us Oregon boys.
             Kim, stopped his bike and looked into the engine with them.  “Car problems?” he asked.The boys–men, really, hair slicked back, jeans filthy–straightened up and looked him over, poker faced, then at me as if they had been expecting us.  Instinctively, I had stopped behind the car, sensing something off.
            “We could ride into town and get help,” Kim offered.
            The wiry man with a pack of cigarettes rolled into his T-shirt sleeve nodded at his buddy, who seized Kim’s arm.  Kim broke free, shouting, “We got to go,” and raced away.  The wiry man knocked him off his bike and straddled him, pummeling him with his fists, while the tall man stood over them, looking back at me.
            I was frozen in fear and disbelief.  Kim’s eyes beseeched me for help, but what could I do?  I was no brawler.  Besides, these were grown men, more malicious than those dogs.  The tall one stood, legs wide apart, aiming a pistol at my friend.  Did they plan to kill us?  Violate us?  Do things I couldn’t imagine?  I faced the first hard decision of my life: whether to flee and save myself, abandoning my friend to these psychopaths, or stay and share his fate.  My decision wasn’t a conscious one, but simple instinct.  I knew that abandoning him was out of the question.  So I rode forlornly back, begging them to stop, knowing inchoately that I was offering myself in Kim’s stead.
            They knew it, too, and turned their fury on me.  The tall one ground the gun muzzle into my temple, while the wiry man, whose face and slicked-back hair were vaguely familiar, punched me in the face, shoulders pumping, fists coming at me like missiles, sparking red flashes behind my eyes.  He sneered and goaded, “Around here we fight back.”  I stood still, arms locked at my sides, uncertain whether the tall man was more likely to shoot me if I fought back or if I didn’t.
            Finally, they grew bored with their game and let me slump to my knees, got in the Merc and drove away.  No car trouble after all.
            Bruised and bleeding, we made it back to Coburg Road, thence to Kim’s house, too ashamed to speak or even look at each other.  Ashamed of what?  Our vulnerability?  Our fear?  Our helplessness?  The loss of innocence?
            Kim’s father–I will never forget it–was enraged.  Exactly how I wanted my father to react.  He got his hunting rifle and drove around with us until dark, cursing and trolling back roads in search of them.  I believe he would have killed them.  But they were gone. 
            Kim’s parents called the police, and they questioned us accusatorially, wondering what we were doing roaming about in the gravel pits. 

            My father asked me the same thing after Kim’s dad drove me home, when I explained why my face was bruised and swollen.  He found it hard to look at me.  He seemed vaguely ashamed, even disappointed in me.  For what I couldn’t imagine, and still can’t today, more than fifty years later.

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