If Jack's in Love
Every neighborhood has that house: The one with the broken down cars in the front yard; the one where the father is always out of work and starting fights with other dads;the one no one wants to go near. Twelve-year-old Jack Witcher lives in that house.
And that’s just where his problems begin.
It is 1967 and Jack’s father has lost his job, yet again. The war in Vietnam is perpetually on the news, and Jack is in love with a girl named Myra. But Myra’s family is the opposite of Jack’s. Her father is well dressed and well spoken. Her brother is the town’s golden boy. Jack schemes to win Myra’s love with the only person in town who will deign to be his friend, the town jeweler and sole Jew. But when Myra’s brother goes missing, Jack’s pot-smoking older brother becomes suspect number one...
I’ll never know for sure whether I’d have fought my brother or not. Maybe I might have killed him. The day came and I made the decision. But I will never know.
It was a fated day. Earlier Myra and I met where we always met, in the woods. The woods! There was something daring, even salacious, about the words. Back then, before childhood had grown menaced by television reports, the woods were where kids went to drink and smoke and cop feels. One said “the woods” with a knowing smile. The words could make a thirteen-year-old’s heart pump. Yet Myra and I met that day in tragedy. Can you believe it? I was thirteen and already tragic. What my brother did, what he might have done, was enough to start a blood feud between families; and when I left it was with the resolve to bring him down.
I stomped along the neighborhood streets with a pocketknife in my hand. I was going to do it for myself, for Myra, for my mother. The world would be a better place without him.
My family, my house, were falling apart, and it was because of him. Probably it was also because of Pop, but I was too young to grasp family dynamics. Then again, maybe my mother might have been less mealy-mouthed when dealing with us. But I didn’t want to factor in her responsibility, not just yet.
Rusty, the neighborhood dog, trotted along at my side, worriedly glancing up at my face. He had an instinct something big was about to go down.
I came around the curve and turned on Stanley Street and walked past the Coghill yard. The usual crowd was there, Witcher tormenters, haters, snobs, bigots, jerks, idiots. They lifted their eyes to watch as I passed. I held my head level, walked with dignity. A new day was arriving and I wanted them to know. No longer would they have Jack Witcher to kick around.
When I came to my street I saw the driveway was empty. (Earlier Pop had mentioned an afternoon job interview, which I took to mean he was visiting his bookie.) The Witcher house stood in shambles, overgrown, peeling, weedy, vandalized. A commode leaned against the side wall. A screen on one of the dormer windows had come unhinged and was hanging at the corner. Shingles were missing. The yard was parched. Dog shit formed punctuation marks on bare patches of earth. This was it, my very own Tobacco Road.
I gripped the pocketknife and went in the house.
“Stan!” I called.
I stomped to the bedroom (it fortified my resolve to stomp) and flung open the door.
The floor was littered with socks, with underwear, with paper and tissues, with balled-up wrappers. The drawers on the dresser gaped open.
And then I noticed: the stereo player was missing!
We had been robbed! What a development!
I threw open the door to Mom and Pop’s room, tiptoed up the hall, checked the bathroom. I held my breath and thrust open closet doors. At the doorway that led to the attic I paused, mounted the steps and climbed higher into the attic heat. When my eyes came level with the floor I gazed around.
No one was there.
The house was empty.
I came down and rested for a moment on the tattered carmine sofa; and then I went to the kitchen phone so I could call the police. But I put the phone in its cradle before I finished dialing.
What was I talking about? We hadn’t been robbed. Nothing even seemed to be missing outside of the stereo player.
My brother had flown the coop. That was it. He was gone: running from the law.
Realizing it did me in, and I sank down on the carmine sofa and cried.
Things had been building up so long. It started when Gaylord Joyner disappeared and everyone began to suspect my brother of having something to do with it; but maybe it started before that, like when I was born, or when Stan was born, or when my parents were born. On the other hand, I’m not sure I cried solely because Gaylord Joyner had disappeared, or even because his sister was blaming the Witchers. I’m not sure I actually cried. I had only recently shed tears with Myra and maybe that had drained me. Besides, what if my maligned brother had fled because he was innocent? Then to hell with them. No matter what, my brother’s bullying and vandalizing had made me who I was. Better loyalty to my brother than forget I’m a Witcher.
It wasn’t a hell of a lot for sentiment to thrive on, but that is what I had: this crummy house, a redneck father, a psycho brother. And now I tried to conjure up a picture of Stan, worried I had seen him for the last time. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited until an image floated before me. And slowly it came.
Let me tell you about Gaylord.
Years ago, Pop would take me and Stan to a wooded area fifty miles north of the city where Civil War battles once raged. History enthusiasts would come out on weekends looking for canteens and minié balls dropped by Johnny Reb some hundred years before, and every now and then you’d come upon them prowling through the woods and the fields with metal detectors. There was a river nearby and the air was swarming with mosquitoes and horseflies and when you were standing by your car that’s all you would hear, the insects. Pop liked to go there because he had read, or someone had told him, that UFOs had been sighted in those parts. That had always been one of Pop’s dearest dreams, to spot a UFO. Truth is, the Pentagon and the CIA were active in that part of the state, and I think the military might have been testing new spy planes.
Imagine two boys about the same age as me and my brother in that infested air and their pop is waiting by the car and they’re walking along the edge of the trees and they come to a swarming field and fight their way into the undergrowth because one of them (the older one) thinks they might find some valuable relics down there. The horseflies are batting their faces, the mosquitoes are sucking their blood, the ticks are biting their legs. And when the smell hits their noses it comes with a stab of fear. But they soldier on because of the occult property of smell that turns vicious odors into seductive perfumes that draw us closer to what by rights should repel us. Wild animals were constantly digging up CSA belt buckles and other metal objects around there, and sometimes we’d hear stories about artifacts unearthed and later sold at auction. No doubt a hundred years ago during the skirmishing some Reb or Yank had lain and died and perfumed the air with his decay, like now. And as the boys drew closer they noticed a discarded shovel (it was stolen from a nearby farmer’s porch) and then a shoe and then a hand coming out of the earth and resting there like the root of a tree. Before the younger kid knew what was happening the older brother was hauling ass out of there. And then the younger boy took off after the brother and the two of them ran in a line to the car fifty feet apart, hollering for their pop to come see. As soon as they got there they grabbed their pop and led him along the line of trees to the field and yanked him into the undergrowth with the horseflies and the mosquitoes and the ticks. And as they drew nearer to the smell they pushed their pop forward and he put a handkerchief to his nose and scanned underfoot ’til he saw what they had seen. And out he tumbled, away from the smell, and retched in the brush while his kids looked on and marveled that he wasn’t being a man about this. Then he hustled them to the car and drove a hundred miles an hour to the nearest state police office.
We heard about it on the TV that night, me and Pop. We knew Gaylord Joyner was missing and we knew my brother was a suspect, and now we cast a furtive glance at each other. Mom wasn’t in the room and Pop was glad of it, because she’d have put it together right away. She was perfectly aware of where he took us to scout for UFOs and she knew exactly how familiar with the area my brother would be. Anyway, we figured she’d find out soon enough.
The headlines were gravely sensationalistic. Don’t forget, the victim was a boy who had won a scholarship to Duke University. What an unlucky waste of scholarship. That’s all you saw on the front page: “Gaylord Joyner, who was awarded a scholarship to Duke University in the fall . . .” How many times do you have to mention such a mighty accomplishment before the full force of the tragedy sinks in? A young Duke scholar bludgeoned and strangled and buried in a shallow grave! They even made it the caption to his photograph:
“Gaylord Joyner, Awarded Scholarship to Duke U.”
Shortly after that, the police issued a warrant for the arrest of my brother, Stanley Kirby Witcher.
I think I belonged to the last generation of kids that could play outside. There were woods near our house with a livid creek, and at the end of Livingstone was a dry drainage pipe where kids would light cigarettes and use them to lure in girls. My father was unemployed and my mother was known for being ugly. Kids in the neighborhood spat my name rather than said it. They didn’t even grant me the compliment of a rude nickname.
One of the first things newcomers learned when they moved in was, “It’s a nice neighborhood, too bad the Witchers live here.” We didn’t live in the neighborhood proper. Our house stood on a piece of macadam that connected one homey drive to another. Ours was the only house on the road.
My father was irregular in his unemployment, although there were times when he made genuine efforts to thwart the luckless demons that attended him. I remember one period when he was employed for a long while, maybe two years: my happiest stretch of childhood. My parents didn’t argue as much. My father was at peace with himself. Then one night, just as school was ending, he came home in a rage. He had argued with a man who lived on the tidy street to our right, after nearly driving his battered Ford over the man’s dog. The man’s name was Kellner.
“I’m gonna fight the son of a bitch,” my father said, coming in the kitchen. He had groceries in a bag: six cans of Schlitz and some lettuce and mayonnaise for the burgers hardening in the pan.
“Who?” my mother asked.
“Kellner. Son of a bitch thinks I tried to kill his dog on purpose. I challenged him to a fight and he backed down.”
“You’re too old to be fighting.”
That made me uneasy, hearing my pop talk about fighting. My mother had ushered Pop beyond the rowdiness of his early years, and here he was forty-five and still prepared to defend what I’d already spent my born years defending (I was twelve). I had to slug it out with kids all the time, because of my name, because of my house, because my mother looked like a trout. How I longed for adulthood, when I would be surrounded by civilized people who would inquire, “How are you today, Mr. Witcher?” And now my father had picked a fight with pipe-smoking Mr. Kellner.
He grabbed the phone on the wall and dialed Kellner’s number.
“Kellner, you son of a bitch, fight like a man!”
During the pause that followed we could imagine Kellner’s reasoned response. “I am not going to fight you, Witcher, and if you keep threatening me I’ll report you to the police.”
“No one accuses me of trying to kill a dog,” Pop said. His tone was indignant, affronted, worn-out.
For me the enmity between Kellner and Pop was of a part with nature and history. Pop had a habit of bringing home stuff he found in garbage cans and abandoned lots—car parts, broken bicycles, tossed-out toilets—and dumping it all at the side of the house. He said he had the intention of “getting to it” someday, but he never did. The junk in our yard drove Kellner crazy. He would cruise past the house in his car just to enjoy the loathing it filled him with. He’d circle the block over and over, nursing his disbelief and outrage. One day he composed a petition demanding that we clean our yard and took it to the neighbors to sign. Pop never forgave him for that (nor did he clean the yard). Kellner wore an ascot and listened to Dave Brubeck records, and in our neighborhood this was enough to give him the reputation for being an intellectual.
“I’m gonna be at the drainage pipe at the end of Livingstone tonight at seven. Be there.”
My father slammed down the phone.
“Are you really going to fight Mr. Kellner?” I asked.
“If he shows up.”
“You are not going to fight Paul Kellner,” my mother said. “Good Lord, how old are you?”
“Old enough to kick Kellner’s ass.”
“Great. In front of Jack. Some example you’re setting.”
Pop slumped on the sofa with his arms embracing his shoulders. He was watching footage on the TV of a lugubrious Lyndon Johnson explaining why American boys were being jetted off to the jungles of Asia. My mother pulled my head against her dress, sparing me that male darkness. But I didn’t want to be spared. I knew damn well Kellner wasn’t going to show up at the drainage pipe, which in itself was a source of shame. Mr. Kellner was a fully developed grown-up and Pop was a schoolyard bully.
In Pop’s defense, he’d have veered his car into a tree rather than run over a dog. He loved dogs, always fed them scraps when they came a-begging. Dogs sunned in our yard, fought in our yard, frolicked in our yard, rutted in our yard. Dogs were always hanging around our house. Rusty, Kellner’s dog, enjoyed the distinction of being the neighborhood mascot. He and Pop were very good friends.
I went to Pop and said, “How come Kellner thinks you tried to kill his dog?”
“Damn thing ran in front of my car. He says I steered the car towards it.”
“Rusty,” I said. “Good dog.”
“Hell, I ain’t got a problem with his dog.”
I stared at the worn carmine fabric on the sofa. The antennas on our TV set had been mended with masking tape. One of our front windows was missing a screen.
Mom came to the room and sent me to the back yard. I went outside and perched on the swing and listened to their voices rising and falling. My brother came home about that time, and when he heard them shouting he elected not to go inside.
“What is it this time?”
“Pop wants to fight Mr. Kellner. He just called him up and challenged him to a fight.”
“He almost hit Rusty. Mr. Kellner thinks he did it on purpose.”
“Rusty the dog? What’s Mom shouting about?”
“She doesn’t want ’em to fight. Pop told Mr. Kellner to meet him at the drainage pipe.”
“No kidding? Is he gonna show?”
My brother grinned. He liked it.
We ate our burgers as a family, in silence. I was sad for the Witchers. Only recently I had visited the Pendleton house and one of the Pendleton boys, Johnny, had afterwards made a point of cleaning the front porch with a hose because I’d been sitting there. Tanya Browning, Susie Kellner, the three Coghill daughters—the very belles of our neighborhood—had all been present (so my informant, Dickie Pudding, later related), and they were giggling and laughing and shrieking encouragingly, “God, Johnny, you’re so cruel!”
What was so bad about the Witchers? We didn’t listen to country music. We didn’t eat chitterlings; we didn’t wear overalls. My mother read books by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen. She could play show tunes on piano.
It was Pop, he was the one who made the trouble.
After supper he headed to the bedroom and put on his T-shirt and jeans. When he finally left to go beat up Mr. Kellner, my mother called out that my brother and I should stay behind. But we ignored her, and Pop didn’t send us back. He wanted us to see that Kellner would be a no-show.
We went to the end of the street, turned left and circled around to Stanley Street, which ran between the end of Livingstone and the field with the drainage pipe. (There was a worn path that debouched on Livingstone about a hundred yards from our destination, but we didn’t take it. Shortcuts, for some reason, were taboo to grown-ups.) As we approached the field we saw Kellner standing next to well-dressed Mr. Joyner, his next-door neighbor and father to Myra, who had learned by now, or would learn shortly, that Mr. Witcher had picked a fight with one of the community’s more esteemed dwellers, a man who smoked a pipe and listened to Dave Brubeck. I was confused by shame and pride, feelings intensified by my secret passion for Myra, who was kind when no one else was around.
My brother and I, flanking Pop, stood on the side of the street where it verged on the field. Mr. Joyner strode briskly forward. I was worried Pop wouldn’t recognize his role as emissary and would punch him instead of Kellner.
“Look here, Witcher,” Joyner said.
Look here! What a civilized sound it had to my ears. It’s what decent men in movies said when forced to reason with desperadoes and thugs.
“There are other ways to iron out your differences.”
This was no longer a world of Kellners and Witchers. Mr. Joyner might have been Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper. (I guess Pop was Richard Widmark.)
“Stand aside, Joyner,” Pop said.
I almost burst out laughing. Mr. Joyner noticed.
“What did you bring your kids for?”
“To show ’em Witchers look out for themselves. Kellner, you ready? ” he called.
“I’m ready,” Kellner feebly responded. You had to feel a little sorry for the man. He was making a stand, he was going to take my pop’s pounding. Pop was from the mountains, a hillbilly.
I tugged on Pop’s sleeve and jerked my eyes in the direction of home. But Kellner was distracting him. He had removed his navy blazer and folded it neatly across his arm. Now he was placing it on the ground and carefully setting his pipe beside it. He rolled up his sleeves.
My father brushed past Mr. Joyner.
“Witcher!” Joyner called.
“Mister Witcher,” my brother said. “Kick his ass, Pop.”
Kellner positioned one leg slightly in front of the other, raised his arms and began to revolve his fists in the air like a turn-of-the-century pugilist demonstrating fisticuffs.
Pop’s eyes bugged out. He gave me a wink and said, “Sheeit,” playing the rube, a mortifying tendency whenever he got around civilized types like Kellner and Joyner.
Joyner came between the two men. “I’m warning you, Wit cher,” he said, like a sheriff.
“Am I gonna have to fight both of you?”
“I’ll back you up,” my brother said.
“You go home, boy,” Joyner said. My brother was eighteen and soon to begin classes at the cracker college downtown so he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. He’d long harbored murderous feelings for Mr. Joyner’s son, Gaylord, because Gaylord had stolen his girl, Courtney Blankenship. Possibly this made the tone of Mr. Joyner’s voice sound more imperious and disdainful than it was. To me his tone was moralistic; he was saying, “Go home, this is no place for a young man.” To my brother it was more like “Go, villain. Leave.”
Suddenly Joyner said in amazement, “This young man is threatening me.”
Sure enough, my brother was pounding his fist against his palm and staring aggressively into Joyner’s eyes. Which didn’t surprise me. My brother had inherited Pop’s feeling for the clan.
“Keep him covered,” Pop said, moving towards Mr. Kellner.
“You’re encouraging him!”
Joyner blustered in the direction of the crowd gathering on the side of the field, mainly kids who lived on local streets. He was playing to them, gleaning support in a propaganda campaign he’d already won.
“Beat him up, Mr. Kellner!” a pipsqueak hollered from the sidelines.
Kellner desperately charged. He flung himself in the air, putting all his weight into a fist that he sent sailing into Pop’s jaw. It staggered Pop for a second. He wasn’t expecting it. No one expected it, a sucker punch from Kellner. A shout of “Oh!” came from the sidelines.
Pop rubbed his jaw and grinned. Then he came in swinging. Pow pow pow!
Mr. Kellner flopped to the ground like a tumble of clothes.
The kids on the side couldn’t believe their eyes. A grown-up from the neighborhood had just pummeled another grown-up. The entire world had just observed the barbaric effects of a mountain upbringing.
Mr. Joyner seemed appalled, but not exactly eager to press the matter.
“You okay, Paul?” he asked Kellner.
A mumble came from within the sack of clothing.
Pop was staring at a cut on his knuckle.
“Do you need an ambulance?” Joyner asked.
A monosyllable came from Kellner, without the close front rounded sound that might have signified a yes.
Joyner turned sternly to my pop.
“Are you happy now?”
Pop stomped his foot, Joyner leapt back.
We followed him off the field. My brother swiveled his head, grinning in the faces of the stunned onlookers. We marched back to our house, victorious but unpopular, like Wehrmacht infantrymen goose-stepping into Prague.
“Terrific…you should read this wonderfully written marvel of a book: a work both gripping and hilarious, joyous and heartbreakingly bittersweet.” —The Wall Street Journal
“It took Stephen Wetta fifty-five years to write his promising first novel … I only hope Mr. Wetta writes a little faster next time so I’ll be around to say I told you so.” —Pete Dexter
“This is a lovely, passionate, and compelling … a book you won’t want to put down.” —Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump
“At turns unsparing, tender, and disturbing….intelligently, wonderfully conceived.” —Publisher’s Weekly, starred review
“Heartfelt, heartbreaking, suspenseful, and riveting… The novel, full of beautifully realized characters and predicaments, gets everything exactly right.” —Timothy Schaffert, award-winning author of The Coffins of Little Hope
“I loved this novel! Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Whistling in the Dark… Jack Witcher will charm you, break your heart . . . surprise you on nearly every page … [and] stay with you long after the final satisfying page.” —Katrina Kittle, author of The Blessings of the Animals
"A powerful story … Wetta captures with great charm and grit the joys and aches of a first love complicated by social boundaries and familial expectations…. a fast-moving tale.” —Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever and Break the Skin
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