by Mark Conkling
There are many paths to a full-blown narcissistic personality. Jeff’s journey was unique because it began at such an early age, on his second birthday. His morning featured a steady stream of poopy diapers, the sour smell of milk, and yet another bowl of lumpy oatmeal. In the late afternoon, Jeff’s one-month-old wailing sister was the only guest for his celebration. Mom tried to make the party nice, but after burying his hands in the cake, Jeff smeared pink frosting on his face and ears, licked his lips and hands, climbed down from the high chair, and tottered into his bedroom, clearly disinterested, aloof. He was already on his way to becoming a loner, an island in the mayhem. His little brother, Roy Junior, was born two years later, packing the house full of noisy, annoying people—his fussy mother, whom everyone called Mom; his nursing baby brother, who made wet, sucking noises; his two-year-old sister, Ida; and a gruff and tired father who came in after dark smelling of diesel fuel and wishing these raucous rug rats hadn’t arrived so close together.
At six years of age, Jeff Corley’s mind was in the throes of slipping away. His reveries dominated his time. He sought ways to be alone. After his chores, he would slip out the back door without being noticed, and that summer when school was out, he staked out a private place in an arroyo located two hundred yards from the house, where he dug a cave and could not be seen. The following summer, he sawed off an old lock from an abandoned well house that was near the arroyo, dragged out an old mattress from the machine shed, and filched one of his father’s used toolboxes for a treasure chest. He stole a new lock and key from his father’s parts drawer and claimed the well house as his domain. He kept the key in his shoe. There he hid out from the household mayhem and filled his toolbox with dimes and quarters from his mother’s purse, and occasional dollar bills from his father’s billfold. By the time he was seven, Jeff had created a different reality, a quiet place far away from noisy people, and a place where he could dream. His imagination planted the seeds of a new persona, a child with aspirations of control, self-satisfaction, and isolation away from the annoyance of his father, a little person focused on himself, his needs, and being liked. He was a good student, sought attention at school, and his teachers obliged. His quick responses, charming smile, and tendency to be entertaining without becoming rowdy, caught the eyes of teachers who were otherwise bored. He brought childish zest to humdrum places and turned work into surprise. He was an outwardly confident child who spent a lot of time admiring himself in mirrors and reflections in windows. The real Jeff Corley was on the way to becoming a shadow in the light of his new persona—the bright, handsome boy in the mirror.
Had it not been for Emmy Lou Ketchum, Jeff could have slipped away into the unending reverie of his own mind, and the new Jeff would’ve taken over. Joe Ketchum, Emmy Lou’s father, worked for Roy as a motor grader operator, and Margaret Ketchum, Emmy Lou’s mother, was a friend of Mom’s at church. Emmy Lou, Jeff’s age, became a playmate who appeared every day after school and on into the summer. Jeff and Emmy Lou were always together, odd indeed because of Emmy Lou’s bashful countenance. Emmy Lou had come into the world slowly—nearly a thirty-hour labor. When the nurse presented her to Margaret, she cuddled her to her breast and covered her head with a soft blanket, one of the only positions that made Emmy Lou comfortable. Even in infancy, she formed a habit of hunching her shoulders and tucking her head away from the activities around her, making her appear wary and timid. She didn’t start talking until she was three and seemed reticent to play with other children, preferring instead to occupy herself with coloring books. Yet here she was, chasing around and laughing with Jeff, climbing dirt piles, following him around buildings, hiding out in the well house, and sitting together in the shade, sharing secrets. Jeff was taller than she by several inches. His height, her blond pigtails with pink ribbons, and her small rounded face made them look a little like older brother and sister, but they were the same age. She had a lot of stamina and could run faster than Jeff; he couldn’t catch her no matter how hard he tried—unless she let him.
They had created trails, hiding places, and imaginary homes out by the well house and down the arroyos and their tributaries. They made up stories and acted them out. They sneaked food out of the house and made sandwiches for picnics. “They’re like two peas in a pod,” Mom would say, and Margaret was happy Emmy Lou had a friend, because she was otherwise quiet and withdrawn, a trait shared by three generations of women in Margaret’s family tree. In fact, had it not been for Jeff, Emmy Lou was on the path to a gloomy and introverted childhood.
Emmy Lou was conceived in a dark cloud of fear and oppression just before dawn on a Friday morning. Joe had bragged to a friend on Thursday night that being married was great because you could just roll over anytime you wanted and tap right into it. Wives were compliant—that’s why men got married. Margaret had always been a little frightened of Joe, and she slept with her back to him, not because he ever hurt her, but because she somehow knew that he could. When she ventured to look into his eyes, she felt a shiver run up her spine. Her gut told her that he carried something deep within him that she did not want to uncover. He drank often, laughed a lot, and worked hard; she could see that he might erupt if she crossed him or took charge of anything except the household. He was horribly pushy that morning when he woke her up and rolled her over. Margaret’s first waking feeling was a yearning to pee, and she was dry. Though unnerved and uncomfortable, she soldiered on, spread her legs, winced, and accommodated his heavy-handed poking, moving herself this way and that so he would be done as soon as possible, feeling chafed and used. She washed and did not expect to get pregnant, just like her mother Louise had not expected to get pregnant with Margaret. They adapted, settled into their compliant natures, and became dutiful mothers, busying themselves with household tasks, mothering activities, and other chores that kept them at a safe distance from any overly intimate relationships with either of their husbands. Both Louise and Margaret developed quiet lives on the sidelines of their marriages, like silent spectators, rarely getting up on the stage. It was as though a generational memory had been passed on from mother to daughter, and now it would probably settle on Emmy Lou as well.
The tragedy happened on a Saturday morning in August. They were down in the arroyo, out of sight. Jeff and Emmy Lou had made up a game of “Indians,” and Emmy Lou had painted Jeff’s face with lipstick and mascara she took from her mother’s bathroom. She laughed as she rubbed his cheek. “You look a little scary, but I like it.”
“I look scary? Good, let’s make it better. Put some dark streaks on my forehead, above my eyes, then under my eyes, okay?” He stooped down so she could reach. “Let’s use the ashes.”
She and Jeff had built a small fire, and Jeff had scraped up ashes on an arrowhead in preparation for painting their faces. They had found that arrowhead three days ago far from the house. They cherished it because it was real and because they found it together. Jeff fashioned an arrow from a straight branch and tied on the flint arrowhead with fishing line from Roy’s shop.
Emmy Lou held the arrow close to the arrowhead. “Now hold still.” She made four streaks with the ashes under Jeff’s eyes, two on each side, and then two above each eye. “That looks really good. My turn.”
Jeff scooped out some dirt from the side of the arroyo and made a step for Emmy Lou. Jeff dipped the arrowhead into the ashes, waited for it to cool, and then made two straight lines on her upper right cheek. He took a small signal mirror out of his pocket. “Do you like that?”
Emmy Lou tipped her head and giggled. “That’s great. Now the other side.”
Jeff held her head with one hand and carefully spread ashes high on her left cheek. Suddenly the dirt step gave way, and she slipped and tumbled forward. The arrowhead plunged deep into her eye. For a moment, they both froze, and then as blood started rushing out, Jeff laid her down on the dirt, pulled the arrowhead out, turned, and ran as fast as he could, screaming for help. By the time Mom had called 911 and the ambulance had arrived, Emmy Lou had passed out in a pool of her own blood. The paramedics made Jeff get out of the way and go back to the house. When she got to the hospital, the doctor said the damage was too great to save her eye. Jeff came to dinner that night shaking and wiping his eyes. Mom handed him tissues, and Roy glared at him. “Idiot, I’ve raised a freakin’ idiot. What in the hell were you thinking? You blinded her. You’re going to pay for this.”
“Is…is she blind?”
Mom put her hand on his. “Yes, in one eye. She’ll have a glass eye after her surgery. I’m so sorry, Jeff.”
The next day, in the waiting room at the hospital, Mom and Roy offered to pay Emmy Lou’s medical expenses since the Ketchum’s did not have any medical insurance—Roy didn’t include insurance in Joe’s wages. Although the estimate for costs was fifteen thousand dollars, Joe and Margaret did not think it was enough—they also wanted twenty-five thousand for Emmy Lou’s pain and suffering.
Mom put her hand on Margaret’s shoulder. “Just let us take care of the expenses here, and we’ll think about other ways we might help.”
“I don’t know what to say except she’s going to have a glass eye. Her life is changed forever. You should pay more. It’s your stupid son’s fault.”
“Let’s talk later,” Mom said. “Give us a chance to think about it.”
Joe didn’t show up for work the next morning, and the motor grader was gone. Roy found it a half mile away in a ditch with two flat tires, cut by the culvert Joe ran over. Joe had painted on the grader with red spray paint, “I quit. Fuck the Corleys.”
Margaret sent a letter to the church e-mail and resigned her volunteer job in the kitchen. Mom was the kitchen manager, so that left her in the lurch for an upcoming wedding rehearsal dinner. Her letter said, “We are moving. We can’t stay here after what has happened to Emmy Lou. Watch out for the Corley’s. They’re snakes.”
Mom and Roy argued most of that first night about Jeff’s punishment.
“Roy, you know it was an accident. Let’s have him write letters of apology to Emmy Lou and to Margaret and Joe. Then he can come to church and pull weeds.”
“Not enough. I’m going to whip his bare butt with my belt every day for a week.”
“What good will that do? You’re angry and embarrassed. For heaven’s sake, it was an accident.”
Mom stood up, gritted her teeth, and put her hands on her hips. “You leave him alone. Let’s wait until this has cooled down. You should sleep on the couch tonight.”
The next weekend Mom and Roy sat down with Jeff. All week long he had lived in fear, unable to sleep, awaiting his fate in a swirl of childhood confusion. He knew he didn’t mean to do anything bad, but because of him, Emmy Lou was blind in one eye. Finally, it was settled. Jeff would weed at the church, and he would work at home for Roy until he had worked off the cost of new tires for the grader. Roy whipped him one time with his belt. “You’ve got to learn to think. I won’t have a stupid son,” Roy said. “Now pull up your pants and quit sniveling.” He made Jeff shovel and rake gravel along the long driveway every day after school for a week. Jeff hung his head and worked, his seven-year-old body slowing to a snail’s pace until Roy shouted, “Hey, pick it up over there. You’re slacking.”
That week Jeff tried to help Mom with the beehives. She dressed Jeff in a suit with a hat and net. She taped the oversize pants around his ankles with duct tape, gave him a pair of heavy leather gloves, and tightened his collar with twine. Jeff looked like a miniature beekeeper swimming in a wrinkled and baggy suit. “Just stay calm,” Mom said. “They won’t sting you if you’re quiet. Move slowly.” Somehow a bee or two managed to get inside his collar in the back, and one got up one of his sleeves. They stung him at the same time, and he shouted and flapped around, which stirred all the bees in the hives. He and Mom had to run to the house. Each time he tried to help, he was stung—three weekends in a row. Jeff hated those bees. When no one was looking, he would throw rocks at the hives and then run to the old well house and hide before the bees came after him. Beestings felt like punishment for his stupidity—they hurt deep into his little heart, the pain becoming a kind of justice for blinding Emmy Lou. The sound of bees and the agony of beestings swirled and buzzed in his psyche, creating a cocoon for his guilt, closing his open wound.
Emmy Lou and her parents moved away before Jeff had a chance to apologize. Mom made him mail her a letter, but it was returned. For months, in his dreams, Emmy Lou’s eye would swoop up close and look at him through tears and blood, the arrowhead still imbedded. He never told anyone. After repeated nightmares, Jeff took on heavy shame, and his posture changed ever so slightly, as if he were carrying a rucksack on his shoulders. He became a frightened loner, and his active imagination continued to shape an alternate person, a boy who was smart, well-liked, confident, and who could control most everything around him, a boy who would take care of himself in all circumstances, a quiet boy who could be charming, devious, selfish, and detached from other people’s feelings and who was not afraid to take chances. He often lay on the quilts in the well house and imagined that he was someone else and lived somewhere else and didn’t have a sister or brother or mother or father. He thought of all the things he could be and all the ways he could be, and he nurtured his imagination until it became his best friend. Sometimes he lost himself in reverie, a hypnagogic state of mind where he found comfort in drifting away from the real world. Maybe he would be famous. Maybe everyone would really like him. Maybe he would have everything he wanted and even live with a different family. Maybe he would never again feel ashamed. Maybe he should always come first. He’d be brought back to the moment when he heard his mother ringing the dinner bell on the front porch. Jeff would hustle himself back through his arroyo trails and wander into the mudroom, wash his hands, and appear in the kitchen a few minutes before his father came in from the workshop. He kept his head down while eating and muttered short answers when asked questions. A fog seemed to hang over his father, a gray mist through which he often looked askance at Jeff because Roy lived with the continuing fear that Jeff, deep down, was a pussy. That fear became a wall that neither Jeff nor Roy could climb. After dinner, after a bath and brushing his teeth, he went to bed with a flashlight and read comic books under the covers—Captain Marvel, Superman, the Green Hornet, Batman—imagining that he had superpowers, that he could, at will, escape the dreams of Emmy Lou’s eye and shape-shift into his alternate person—that charming boy who stood tall while a shroud of shame closed off the child he left behind. Over a few short years, Jeff Corley transformed into a different child, a little person built upon the shame-based remnants of his former self, a selfish boy remade for the coming of tomorrow, the tomorrow of a broken man haunted by his shadow.
Mark Conkling has published three novels: Dog Shelter Blues, which was a finalist in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards; Killer Whale Blues, which was a 2014 finalist; and Prairie Dog Blues. His short work has appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Legendary, The Minnetonka Review, The Monarch Review, and Swamp Ape Review. Mark also has published several academic articles in existential philosophy and psychology.