Gus and Stan

There weren’t many friends in my childhood. Most of the other kids didn’t seem to see me, and the few who did didn’t like me, and that’s OK. The feeling was mutual.

For a few years when I was 8-10, I had a couple of friends in the neighborhood, though. Gus was my age, and we both liked building cities in the dust under the big pine tree, and having footraces around the block, and playing cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians and spacemen and aliens. His brother, Stan, was a few years younger, but he was OK too, for a little kid.

The three of us became friends on the same afternoon their family moved into the house across the fence from our back yard. Their parents were still bringing in boxes from the moving van, when Gus and Stan came over to the fence and said, “Hey.” We talked for a few minutes, and I invited them to play horse at our basketball hoop, but their parents hollered from the house, and Gus and Stan had to go inside.

After their family was settled in, the two brothers came over often. We played plenty of horse on the patio, and scrabble at the kitchen table, watched a lot of afternoon movies on channel 7, and they often ate dinner with my family. I didn’t spend any time at their house, but I didn’t even wonder why.

Back then a house had only one phone, so after a few too-long calls, Gus and Stan and I were booted off the phone forever. We devised a brilliant method of calling each other, though: Any of the three of us could go to the fence and scream as loud as he could. That was our bat-signal, and then we’d all meet at the fence and make our little-kid plans.

At my parents’ insistence, I invited Gus and Stan to come to church with us. My parents invited their parents, too. The parents always declined, but Gus and Stan rode to church in our station wagon on many Sunday mornings. When my dad took me and my brothers and sisters to ball games or to the movies, Gus and Stan were usually there. My mom said once, “It’s like having eight kids instead of just six,” but she said it with a smile.

After several months of this, Gus and Stan screamed at the fence one evening, and when I went out and met them there, they said their parents wanted me to come over. The brothers had been to my place so many times, I think their parents thought they needed to reciprocate, so I got my mom's permission, hopped over the fence, and knocked on my friends' door for the very first time — until then, the three of us had always played at my house, or gone places with my family, and it still hadn't occurred to me to wonder why.

The door opened, and I’d barely set foot in the house when Mr Gus-Stan said, "Hello, Doug, nice to meet you," and then he announced that we were all going to see a movie at the drive-in. I already loved movies, so that was a big and happy surprise.

My family didn't go to the movies often, but when we did it was almost always to a drive-in, because I had five brothers and sisters and the “carload price” was reasonable. Our family was very strict about ‘appropriate content’, though, so we only went when the drive-in showed Disney slop or something else "family-friendly."

Gus and Stan’s parents took us to a drive-in double feature, the likes of which I’d never seen or heard or maybe even imagined. The first feature was The Born Losers, a Billy Jack action flick with lots of bikinis, some brief nudity, and several rape scenes. The second feature was Common Law Cabin, from boobmeister Russ Meyer, with miles and miles of cleavage, though I don’t think any nipples were shown.

I had a great time! My pals’ parents said that the kids usually fell asleep at the movies, and indeed they did, but I didn’t. I was awake to the end, watching both movies wide-eyed from the back seat, and also watching as Gus and Stan’s dad and mom did some interesting squirming and squealing in the front seat. This was not at all like a night at the drive-in with my family, and I wanted to go again, so when my parents asked, I told them we’d seen Walt Disney’s The Gnome-Mobile.

The second — and last — time I was at Gus and Stan’s house, things weren’t quite so copacetic. I don’t remember what the event was, but my parents were doing something somewhere with all the kids, and I didn’t want to go to. I asked if I could spend the afternoon at my friends' house instead, and my parents relented, and called and asked Gus and Stan’s parents to look after me.

Happy to get out of whatever I’d gotten out of, I climbed over the fence and ran to Gus and Stan’s house. I’d known those neighbor kids for at least a year by then, but this was only the second time I’d been allowed in their house, and the first time during daylight. First thing I noticed when I knocked on the door and they let me in, wasn’t even the house. It was that Gus and Stan’s parents didn’t seem at all happy to be babysitting me.

Then I noticed that their house was a mess, but before continuing I ought to mention that my own house was a mess. My mom was a housewife who never worked outside the home, but she also never got the hang of housework, and never really tried. In our house, the hamper was often overflowing, clothes were piled in a corner of the living room, yesterday’s dishes were usually still on the table, and so on. Sorry about the stereotype here, but when me and my brothers and sisters went to school, Mom turned on the TV and watched soap operas and game shows all day.

So when I say that Gus and Stan’s house was a mess, I mean it was a mess even compared to my family’s house. Food wrappers and boxes and dishes and more beer cans were everywhere, there was a bra on the sofa, something smelled bad, and there were flies, lots of flies. There were empty beer cans on the kitchen floor, and of course I'd been taught that beer was consumed only by louts and losers and people condemned to burn in hell.

I said What the hell, but only to myself. I figured I could stand it, and lunch had been promised, and I was hoping that after lunch, me and Gus and Stan could go outside and play.

Lunch was bologna sandwiches on white bread, and by my standards then and now, that’s a perfectly fine lunch. It was offered without plates, though. Their mother made a sandwich for each of us, and simply plopped it on the table, and the table had crusty slop on it — spilled and dried soup or beer, and not a lot, but it was sticky, there were flies, and I was grossed out. 

I didn’t say anything, but I must’ve made a face, because Mrs Gus-Stan started shouting at me. What I remember through the years is just her opening line, “Oh, you don’t approve of our house, huh?” but she went on and on, louder and louder, with profanities that sure as fuck were never allowed in my family’s house. I cringed and continued not saying anything, and she raised her arm as if to smack me in the face. Her husband grabbed her hand and said, “No, honey, no,” but I knew I’d come close to being whomped.

Gus tried to apologize for his mother’s yelling, and she said, “You don’t fuckin’ apologize for me, you little worm,” and she whomped him, full force across his face. He screamed and cried, and she slapped him again. Stan was nowhere to be seen; he knew it was a good time for hiding.

I heard Gus crying as I ran out the door, and his parents were yelling at each other, and I think I heard several more slaps as I ran to the fence. I climbed over, and looked back to be sure no-one was chasing me. When I decided I’d escaped, I took a deep breath and let out our bat-signal scream, maybe the loudest I’d ever sounded that alarm. Then I let myself into my own home, safe and silent and alone, and made myself a bologna sandwich on white bread, and ate it off a plate, and cried.

Never said a word to my parents about any of it. Always thought I should've done something, instead of just running home, but there's not a lot a 9-year-old can do. I couldn't have fought an adult, or two. 9-1-1 didn't exist, and neither did the concept of reporting child abuse, at least for me.

Several months later, Gus and Stan's family moved away, “back to Oklahoma,” Gus told me, and he didn’t sound happy when he said it. Last thing I remember of Gus and Stan, they and their parents were waving at me and my family, big smiles as they got into their station wagon, and my mom's hand was on my shoulder, as my friends and their family rolled away.

Actually, that was the memory — Mom's hand on my shoulder — that sparked my piece a few days ago, Good Luck, where I mentioned that I’m fortunate as fuck to have had parents who loved me. 

Right now I’m trying not to make the judgmental face that almost got me smacked at Gus and Stan’s table, because what the hell do I know about what their family was going through or dealing with? Maybe Mrs Gus-Stan was a happy woman and a marvelous mother, who had just one bad afternoon, coincidentally on the day I visited. 

I don’t think so, though. More likely that was a normal day at their house, and the only unusual thing was me being there.

Best of luck to you, Gus and Stan in Oklahoma. Or wherever they ended up. I don’t even remember their family’s last name, but I hope those kids fought back when they could. 



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  1. Unexpectedly dark. Everything in life is so random and can turn cruel in a heartbeat and all we can do is love and protect our children and help one another.

    1. > Unexpectedly dark.

      It's life. Always carry a flashlight.

    2. You crack me up.


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