In high school, before another story came along, this one more loaded than the first, I had a weakness for daydreams wherein I inflicted some serious hurt upon villainous boys or men who had it coming. Shoot them? Sometimes, if I happened to be outnumbered as I rescued the class beauty from deranged terrorists. There was the bloody tarmac shoot-out scenario, which usually involved me taking at least one non life- or love-threatening bullet, all this playing out on national television, live. A Guns N’ Roses anthem playing. The more common fantasy, though, didn’t involve guns, but beating. How can you experience real victory and triumph—righteous retribution—without taking someone down with your bare hands? For example, maybe a lovely, exotic flatlander would need me to pummel a bull-brained brute who was trying to forcibly untie her bikini top on a late-night pontoon boat ride? Only to be followed by sweet lakeside kisses as she iced heroic contusions suffered in battle. In my daydreams and fantasies, I was quite the blood-bespattered victor.
In real life, however, I was a bit of schizoid, swinging from clowning around in class to melancholic introversion to punching trees and cutting symbols into my chest. In general, all felt like anarchy (yes, the A in a circle was one of the symbols). In addition to the free-for-all hormonal brain-shocks of being a teen that I was already going through, Mom had separated from Dad in 1985, about two years after our return to Big Bear, insisting he move out. She was now dating a cocky tree-cutter who thought marinated steak on the BBQ was pretty much the greatest thing in the world, something you labored at for days to get just right. He was also a mechanic who specialized in refurbishing vintage muscle cars, including a 1969 Dodge Charger that Mom would later own. I didn’t like him at all. And Dad, brokenhearted and indulging in self-pity and self-destruction, reverted to his worst Topanga hermit-mode habits: he was living in a tent in someone’s trash-strewn backyard, drinking and using heroin again, making grim suicidal threats to “blow my fucking brains out.” Anyhow, Dad had always spoken of suicide, so it wasn’t exactly fresh material, though he usually did it with more verve and in the context of joking around. Obviously, with his condition, getting back on the feel-good substances was suicidal enough.
Around this time I began to acutely feel my class status. Aside from the basic inconvenience of not being able to afford what my friends could afford, it was the primary source of taunting among my more fortunate peers. And, in turn, it generated increasingly acrimonious arguments with Mom: we had yelling matches about spending money, buying nice clothes, getting cable TV (buying a VCR was a pipe dream!), using the car, or my having to babysit Trina while Mom was working. She did, however, move for me. When Mom had demanded that Dad leave—she just no longer loved him—we were living in one of the poorest sections of Big Bear, called Sugarloaf, which was at the far edge of the mountain valley, about seven miles from the Village. It consisted mostly of uneven dirt roads riddled with rocks and pits. Sugarloaf had cheap vacation homes, which gave the area the weird feeling of somewhat crowded but vacant. I’d guess about two-thirds of the homes were often uninhabited. It was an hour ride on my bicycle to the Village, where I worked at the valley’s only movie theater. So when Dad moved out and Mom couldn’t afford our current house any longer (she worked mornings as a waitress at the Teddy Bear Restaurant, a diner-style joint not far from the theater), I tenaciously lobbied Mom to move out of Sugarloaf. Ideally I wanted to live in Big Bear Lake proper, but we had to settle on a tiny place in more-affordable Big Bear City (simply called Bear City by the locals), just past the far edge of the lake and where most of the year-round locals lived. Now it was only a half-hour bike ride to the Village, plus I had friends nearby with cars. In exchange for the move, I had to accept sharing a room with my sister. We had bunk beds. Not a good situation for a teenage boy, but it was better than living at the edge of the valley, where the main social activity was to get high and watch TV.
During this time I had a profound inability to stick up for myself. I played football, and that was certainly violent—I was primarily a defensive end/outside linebacker, so my job on most plays was to hit someone, hard—but it was contained and orderly, and, besides, football players enjoy belittling and insulting other football players, especially ones a class or two below them. A locker room can be a miserable place if you’re poor, unpopular, and you don’t sock an older, bigger guy who’s mocking your need to get free lunch tickets. But I just couldn’t punch people. Underlying this was a fear of Dad, though of course he encouraged me to kick someone’s ass (including Mom’s new boyfriend). He had taught me how to fight over the years, but to no avail: if you think a fight is imminent, always hit first; go for the nose or throat; the solar plexus is a highly vulnerable area; also, avoid bones (skulls, especially, though jawbones can give) because that’ll mess up your knuckles; don’t be afraid to give your adversary a good whack in the shins with your boots; and, above all, be creative. It was a bit of brain-squeeze, the very force that had made it difficult to lash out—Dad was much larger than I’d ever be, so the fundamental boy-becomes-man rite of passage to at least feel like you could fight your Dad and win was always absurdly implausible—encourages you to lash out. And the anger I felt was something much deeper than I could understand or control. So, instead of hitting people, I hit things: trees, walls, doors, streets slick with black ice. After a bit of this, my knuckles were damaged, so that even a mild whack would make them swell instantly. Then I started cutting myself with shaving razors, always while drunk. I was fond of symbols.
It was around this time, with Dad moved to the other side of town and more suicidal than usual, and keenly feeling the social limits of my lack of money and opportunity (which started to feel like deprivation), all this perversely stoking my broader inability to express a smoldering anger and at least attempt to beat down some mean, muscle-bound boys, when I began to imagine scenarios related to Paul, my biological father. Couldn’t there be more? Sure, I more fantasized about gallant acts of rescue and revenge, of grateful damsels who appreciated a good unicorn drawing (seriously, I drew a picture of a unicorn and gave it to a very attractive, though puzzled, classmate), but the gaps in my knowledge about Paul Allen Hayes started to wield great power over my imagination. These fantasies almost always involved conspiracies and/or lies, so they weren’t the healthiest creative explorations.
First off, the most fertile core premise was that my father was still alive—obviously—and he would return at some point to take up his rightful place and connect the lineage that had been broken, a sign of difference you begin to resent as you grow into a young man. Certainly a stepfather is important, but lineage is something more serious, the stuff of history and how you support a larger sense of place and belonging. The only proof of his death I had was a laminated memorial card sent to us by his relatives years before. This wasn’t proof. How hard could it be to just fabricate such a thing? While I had difficulty imagining that Mom would willingly engage in such devious subterfuge—I couldn’t rule it out completely—I could easily imagine that she did so to protect me. But I didn’t need to be protected any longer. I was nearly a man and ready for the naked truth.
This idea then sprouts into two basic fantasies: positive transformation or violent revenge. The first is hopeful. Someday he’ll show up at my doorstep. He’ll be wealthy and my life will change. I will meet rad relatives and be brought into a whole new world, far from my narrow small-town existence in Big Bear. There will be opportunities I can barely imagine. He’ll buy me a cool car! Or, even better, I’ll be whisked away into exciting Harrison Ford–style adventures, becoming a man in a world with consequences more serious than whether or not the imitation butter poured on a customer’s tub of popcorn is hot enough. And then there’s the darker flip side. He won’t find me because he doesn’t give a shit about me, whether I’m alive or dead. He turns out to be some mobster or crime boss—or, worse, a plumber. So I find him. I patiently track him down. Maybe I don’t even tell him who I am, just allow him to think I’m somebody who wants to work for him. Then, when he starts to trust me, I reveal my identity. I beat him for what he did. Please forgive me, he begs, and I tell him there is no forgiveness for a man who turns his back on his son.
The other main narrative was that Paul wasn’t my father at all. Maybe he was just some patsy, a fall guy for a much more amazing fact, something that had to be hidden for good but unknown reasons, or hidden until the time was right to reveal the shocking truth. I mean, where was Elvis during the holidays in 1970? Maybe Mom moved to L.A. before I was born and my father is really some Hollywood star! (Mom had many male admirers when I was a kid, so it was plausible.) Or maybe it was something to do with the government: he was CIA, or an FBI informant. Or, worse, a serial killer or Public Enemy #1, a bona fide Dark Lord of the Sith. (Like most boys of my generation I became obsessed with Star Wars at a young age. And for me it had a real-life resonance. Like Luke Skywalker, I didn’t know my father. I can still vividly remember exiting the theater after The Empire Strikes Back, dazed: “I’m your father, Luke.”) Maybe that’s why Mom was so evasive. At one point I looked up Charles Manson’s trial year to see if that was a possibility. Nope, I wasn’t some kind of Manson Family spawn. Back before the Internet, our imagination could be fed by false premises for a while.
Then there were the simpler fantasies: there’d been some big inheritance left to me that was recently discovered; I’d meet my aunts and uncles and they would be famous or fabulously wealthy and all would change; giant boxes of mysterious or revealing clues about my father’s fate would arrive. These outcomes were more mundane, though practically feasible. I seriously half-expected, half-hoped that on my eighteenth birthday some lawyer with a southern accent would seek me out and hand me a thick envelope that would change my life.
Instead, however, I would just get more loaded guns.
I remember one day at the Rose Avenue house in Venice when I was drinking out on the front porch. It was hot enough to fry eggs on the hood of a car. These two black guys come down the street, high as fucking kites. I mean, they could barely walk straight. A Buick damn near ran them over, but they didn’t care. Then they just plopped down on our sad excuse for a front lawn and started sniffing glue. No shit. And those niggers weren’t even kids or anything. They were my age at the time. So they start talking shit to me, “honky this, cracker that,” and I said, “You ain’t got the brains god gave a pile of shit, so why you killing what you’ve got left?” Yeah, they didn’t like that much, but they couldn’t stop from laughing. They started coming over to me and I yelled into the house. One-nut Charlie was inside watching TV. “Hey man, someone’s fucking with your Harley.” Man, he fucking bolted out of the house so fast he tripped and fell right on his face, swearing, trying to pull out his belt—Charlie had kind of a short fuse. By then the blacks realized they might be in trouble. Charlie might’ve had only one testicle but he had plenty everywhere else. He was a bartender up at the Old P.O. and that’s were I met him. So we just started kicking the shit out of the two guys, them laughing the whole time. We fucked them up pretty good, and they had no idea what hit them. It was wild, their shit-eating grins while we were punching them. We joked about it later: they probably thought they’d gotten into a car wreck or something when they came to. But it was too easy a beating. I almost felt kinda bad. That was right around the time I had a little “vacation” at L.A. County Jail. I was working this construction job over in Hollywood right near the freeway and a couple of the guys I was working with invited me to a party after work. It was a Friday night and I had been laying low for a while, so I said sure, what the fuck. When I got to the party, it turned out to be quite the drug party, and it was right near Sunset. I was kind of nervous. Something about the scene bothered me, so I didn’t really get into it, just had a couple of beers. It’s weird, of all the parties I’ve been to—and I’ve been to many louder, much weirder parties that lasted days, and in the cop-heavy locales—this was the only one where I felt uneasy. And sure as shit, not more than a couple hours after I got there, the cops raided the place, busting us for a bag of pot on the table. There were several of us there, but the cops only busted us men, letting the women go. And since the amount was only split between the men, it was over the minimum needed to send us to jail. They also saw the scars on my arms from doing junk in New York and weren’t too “friendly” with me. They didn’t believe my story that I had just tagged along, and one pig, while frisking me, whacked me hard in the balls with his billy club as he was going up my legs. Nice, huh? Fucking cowardly cocksuckers hiding behind their badges—they always did shit like that to me when they had the upper hand because they knew I could kick their ass one-on-one. So I was taken to the county jail over in downtown L.A. to await my interview with the judge. Of course I didn’t have any money, so I had to accept the court-appointed public defender to handle my case, who wasn’t too hot at keeping his “appointments.” He was a real work of sheer fucking incompetence. I never even saw him once and when my case was scheduled for the judge, he never showed up. So then the judge rescheduled, and he didn’t show up the second time. I spent three weeks in lockup just because this little golf fucker couldn’t pull his head out of his ass long enough to come and do what he was fucking paid for. In any event, I remember Manson was still all the talk when I was there. Rumor had it he was being brought down from San Quentin to face some other charges or something like that. I don’t know if it was true or not, but everyone inside believed it. The other prisoners talked big about killing Manson and getting famous, especially the ones that were about to serve their own life terms in prison. Everyone wanted a piece of that guy. Manson was like Elvis or something in jail, only people didn’t want to fuck him or get his autograph. They wanted to kill him. Finally, after nearly a month at L.A. County, the charges ended up getting dropped when the lawyer didn’t show up for the third time. I guess he was doing me a favor, really. They were putting away people for little shit back then, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if I’d had to do some real time.