Bozo

13duck-jumbo

Jack’s earliest memory is from kindergarten. Everyone he knows can remember back to age two or three or maybe four, but he has nothing before school. And he was a December baby – one of the oldest in his class – so that means he doesn’t recall earlier than age six.

What he remembers from kindergarten is the Bozo record. It must have been a class favorite; they listened to it over and over until he was thoroughly sick of it. He couldn’t take it any more. He complained to the teacher, but she told him they really didn’t listen to Bozo “all the time,” and insisted the other children liked it. Bozo remained on the play list.

One day Jack lingered behind the rest of the kids when they filed out the door for recess. The way he recollects, it wasn’t premeditated. He didn’t wake up that morning and say to himself “This is the day of reckoning for Bozo. That classroom is too small for him and me.” No, he was last out of class because of a loose shoelace, and when the door shut and he realized he was alone, he was dazzled with inspiration.

In a flash he was at the record pile and upon the Bozo album. He grabbed a crayon as he tipped the vinyl from its sleeve. The crayon happened to be green but that didn’t matter. It was the material Jack needed – not the color. He gripped the green crayon like it was an ice pick, and he pressed hard as he obliterated the tracks. His motions were radial slashes from center to circumference and back.

Jack destroyed that record and everyone knew it. His teacher talked to him about it and also called his parents. There were consequences. He didn’t get to go outside for recess for the rest of that week. His parents took away TV time.

Jack always remembered the incident, but not because of the punishments. And not because of the attempted humiliation of him in front of his peers (he picked up a little admiration for his destructive behavior), or the tiresome lectures he was forced to undergo (really boring, and extended by any facial expression that could be interpreted as insolent or cocky, so there was the aggravation of needing to maintain a straight face). Those weren’t the qualities that made his outburst memorable. The fact was, the record was ruined and didn’t get replaced; Jack never had to hear it again. And the truth was, he felt better after he wrecked the record. The act of fouling the tracks with drawing wax felt good.

That experience wasn’t enough to make him a monster. People are not that simple. Most of the time Jack was agreeable and cooperative. He tended to make a few friends wherever he went. His parents were quiet folks. His father was overweight and sedentary; after dinner and on weekends he liked to sit in his easy chair and watch sports while solving crossword puzzles. Jack’s mother read craft ideas in magazines and then made decorations out of Styrofoam and spray paint. His parents seemed to regard Jack with quiet approval as long as he behaved with courtesy and got decent grades. They were never extravagant in their praise or their criticism.

When asked for childhood memories, Jack describes the Bozo incident first. He tells other anger episodes too. He has some sweet circum-Christmas recollections – private plane trips from Casper to Denver, to shop; dozens of wrapped presents under the big, decorated tree (Jack’s mother tried to coordinate ornaments with room colors – once she even selected a two-tone station wagon to match the house). Jack’s favorite childhood food was the fried shrimp at Stapleton International (until he tried the dish again, on a nostalgia tour with Isabel, when they were 29).

But his most vivid memories involve anger. He was a pole-vaulter when he entered high school. Casper was a decade away from converting to fiberglass poles then, and Jack told family and friends he was too big for the old bamboo and switched his sport to diving. What he never divulged was how his frustration sometimes led him to abuse his pole in the locker room after practice. Yes the pole snapped one Thursday, and indeed he sprained his wrist and ultimately shifted his sport. But it may have been more than his weight that weakened that pole.

He’ll never forget the morning he and Isabel tried to leave their Marin high school to attend a vigil at San Quentin. Jack made it to his Corvair before the administration formed its little cordon around the school entrance, but Isabel didn’t. When Jack saw the Dean of Boys place his palm on Isabel’s shoulder and push her body backward, he was out of his car and on the man before he found words. He didn’t punch but he shoved. He got suspended, but he felt alive and strong that day. The episode didn’t hurt his relationship with Isabel either.

She evaluated his actions as protective. Powerful. Sexy. The event strengthened their friendship. She never forgot it. She’s sure it was one of the incidents that attracted her to him.

The episode with the jitney bus was protective and a little sexy, too, at the time it occurred, but afterward Jack’s behavior seemed extreme to her.

By then they were enjoying their first year of marriage. They lived in the Richmond district of San Francisco and commuted to the financial district most days by bicycle. They had low-level jobs they treated as episodes between college and the grad school they’d each enter the following fall (which school turned out to be unsatisfying to each of them, and prompted both to return to the City jobs and let them proceed to careers).

When they had time in the morning, they liked to take what they considered the water route: into the Presidio to the marina to the wharf, around the embarcadero and then west on Mission, to where they locked their bikes at Jack’s building. At the time (1970s), Mission Street hosted cars, Muni buses, and also little jitney buses. On the day in question, and unbeknownst to Jack and Isabel, a car had fallen through weak asphalt at the corner of Mission and First, creating a big hole and a bigger traffic jam.

Traffic was so slow on Mission that Jack and Isabel could hardly maintain bike balance. Then a jitney driver, immediately behind Isabel, sat on his horn. The blare made Isabel turn to look. The jam made Isabel run her bike into the car ahead of her.

She and her bike were okay. Jack wasn’t. Before Isabel could wobble her machine to the curb, Jack had ripped the driver-side windshield wiper off the jitney. He was screaming at the driver when the guy decided to try to run him down. Jack yanked himself and his bike onto the sidewalk and behind a parking meter before the bus climbed the curb.

The incident didn’t end there. The driver and Jack took their argument to the next corner, site of the sink hole and a number of cops. One police officer detached himself from the traffic mess to tell the antagonists that yes, the driver could press charges of vandalism against Jack, but then again Jack could charge the driver with felony assault.

It made for a tellable anecdote. It probably should have raised attention to Jack’s temper. But this was still year one of the marriage. The only personality quirk Isabel was noticing involved Jack’s insecurity. They were young, carefree, in love, and yet he seemed uncertain about them. He told her he loved her too many times a day. He blew air kisses at her more often than she wanted to acknowledge. The little love notes were nice, but she noticed that when he looked into her face, it was like he was trying to see something there or figure something out.

They were halfway to their first anniversary when Jack said it. “I love you so much,” he murmured. They were embracing in the hallway of their apartment, their faces inches from each other. “But I worry that you’ll figure out what a Bozo I am.”

She was startled. His words made no sense to her. She reassured him and thought no more about it. Until it happened again. And again.

WTF, she would have wondered, if that acronym was then in play. Why was Jack talking like that? Didn’t he realize it wasn’t attractive? Did it have something to do with their arguments? For Isabel came from a bickering family; she was accustomed to airing whatever her feelings were and then getting over them. Jack’s family subscribed to silent anger. When his parents disagreed they grumped around and stopped talking to each other. As far as Isabel could assess, she and Jack disagreed often about little things and then quickly resolved their difference.

Long afterwards, Isabel concluded that Jack should have kept those words to himself. She’s a proponent of honesty and openness, but she thinks some negative emotions don’t deserve words. Jack’s stated fear was like a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more he voiced it, the more he acted it.

Sometimes he’d vary his statement. Like when he said, “My big fear is you’ll find out what a duck I really am.” She thinks that was around their first anniversary, when they moved from the City back to Berkeley for school. Shortly after that, they encountered a classic little rubber duck at a local toy store, and bought it. They named it Lucky of course, and treated Lucky Duck like some sort of pet. They took the toy with them on vacations. They made a little roost for him on their bedroom dresser. Jack stopped referring to himself as a duck but still occasionally used the Bozo statement. Maybe they should have bought a clown toy too.

They bought a house two years after the return to Berkeley. By then they’d dropped out of grad school and returned to City jobs in earnest. They could afford real estate.

It was a classic two-story box of a house, almost filling its lot. It had a small front yard, edged by a picket fence. The pickets were affixed behind the horizontal wood pieces: in other words, backwards. That meant that any pedestrian could easily kick a picket off the frame and into the yard. The street was a direct route to the local elementary school, so kids passed the place daily. Jack and Isabel were distressed at how often they returned home to find one or more pickets off the fence and on the ground.

One Saturday, Jack and Isabel hosted a visit from Isabel’s folks and her New York aunt and uncle. All six were in the living room when a couple of kids started to pass the house outside. Through the bay window they all saw one of the boys kick a picket out. Without a pause, Jack was up and out the front door. He grabbed the culprit by the shirt collar, hauled him across his lap, and began to spank the child with the detached picket.

The other adults were floored. Isabel was aghast. “Jack!” she yelled from the open doorway.

It was like he came out of a trance. He released the boy and walked inside. He seemed flustered and embarrassed. Isabel felt humiliated. To this day she’s not sure how that visit ended. She assumes everyone behaved and got through it – she’s never heard a word about it from her mother, and her mother doesn’t stuff her opinions – but she was so distracted by what she saw that she’s not sure.

Of course there were other episodes between then and their divorce, and after, and Isabel was always surprised but never astounded. She wasn’t present when he punched out the side window of a bus, in anger at a rude driver. She was when he kicked in the passenger door of a pickup truck that had nearly bumped Isabel – she admitted that it was kind of funny, how the driver leapt out and complained that the truck was his brother-in-law’s, and demanded proof of (pedestrian?) insurance, but still, it was extreme.

The one time Jack hit her, she really did feel she deserved it. She knows that’s a standard response of an abused spouse, but she was hassling him that evening, raging at him about something and insisting he stay to hear more, warning him when he offered to leave that he’d better not, grabbing the back of his shirt when he tried to open the front door. She did all that, and he spun around one hundred eighty degrees toward her, left arm extended, and his palm smacked her against the right side of her nose. Her contact lens flew out of her eye, and that more than the impact made her call a time out. But her nose bled for an hour after, and by the next day she had a shiner.

Isabel didn’t know how often Jack was hitting their son Max, until she witnessed it. This was long after their divorce. Max was ten and getting into regular trouble in day camp. One Wednesday he had to be picked up early and because it was dinner night with Dad, he got to deal with both parents immediately after bad behavior. Jack smacked Max on the top of his head and Isabel leaped between them before her mind even registered the action. She got Jack out of the house, returned to Max, and handed him one tissue after another while he cried till he could talk. That’s when she learned how often Max angered Jack. And what Jack did when angered.

It wasn’t okay. Isabel didn’t let Max spend time with Jack again until both Max and Isabel were sure Max would be safe. Jack modified his behavior. Father and son never stopped seeing one another but the visits became less frequent and shorter.

Max is now 35. He’s happily married and besotted with his infant son. It’s obvious that Max’s son will have a better father than Max did.

Isabel hasn’t had to deal with Jack’s anger in 20 years. That’s Joy’s job now. But having seen Jack and Joy in the last year, around the celebratory events in Max’s life, Isabel can tell he hasn’t prospered. He seems to seethe. He appears joyless and pessimistic. He makes her think of words like grump and curmudgeon.

It’s obvious that Jack is still angry. But maybe he’s just angry at Isabel. Perhaps he still blames her. Maybe his darkness is from his failure to forgive and his disease is all bottled frustration. No, she thinks. Jack is too stooped, too infirm, too spent for it all to be about her.

If he were vigorous, Jack could be an angry clown. As it is, he’s just a sad one.

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