“Don’t! Don’t do it!!!” I begged James as he raised the large, curved sewing needle to the tip of his index finger. But inside I was screaming for him to do it, to push it through just to see his reaction…to see what I knew would happen next. I wanted to see whether he had the courage, the balls to withstand the self-inflicted pain. In truth, I wanted to experience it myself but couldn’t breathe life into the thought. If James accomplished this feat of what I’d later come to realize as self mutilation (abnormal behavior), I knew I’d be in a world or trouble, simply envying his courageous insanity.James was different. I was different. But could I be like James?
James was indeed strange, as in more than slightly odd, weird. I picked this up immediately after our first encounter in the old neighborhood. When he moved, he always surged forward, leaning into his walk, stepping 100% of the time on his tip-toes. And that’s how we met. Him charging forward down my street, wild-eyed, with a hunger in his face like he was ready to cannibalize someone, anyone upon contact. As he passed me sitting in my steps, I knew he was the new kid so I introduced myself. His jet black wavy hair was disheveled. Face, teeth and mouth were the same, unkept. He had poor skin, that became a canvas for his deep scars and welts. Although we were the same age, he looked twice that which hinted his upbringing was less desirable.
James spoke an inaudible language. Yet I understood it perfectly. Most times he’d make quick gestures with the gibberish lango to emphasize himself and with it, his humor was born. James made me laugh, only me.
We began hanging out often…more often than I did the others. I wouldn’t say the others didn’t like James. They couldn’t befriend what they couldn’t understand. I knew this because after a few years of playing with the same friends, they’d barely knew or understood me. James and I, we had our similarities. James was being raised in a single parent home (his mother) as was I. He didn’t have the luxury of wearing name brand clothing or the latest toys. Our poverty only helped our imaginations expand when it came to neighborhood games and activities. So James and I were the odd couple, the outcast compadres.
Although the obvious peculiars repulsed the other kids, Jame’s friendship to me held a certain beautiful loyalty. I thought his strangeness, (and my acceptance) served as a force field from any physical or verbal harm from rivals. No one in their right mind would touch us, especially watching Jame’s behavior. James was the super villain! And to me villains were more real, much better than the superheroes. Villains are flawed beings who tapped into their strengths for vengeance. Villains were not always bad. Corrupt mankind normally turns a villain into what they become.
As for James, it didn’t take long for the abnormal behavior to reveal itself.
First, as I mentioned, was the needle through the finger. It bleed profusely. And all I can remember was him performing the act in one slow, swift motion, without once wincing in pain. The look on his face was sheer madness. His derelict laugh echoed through my head. I nearly lost my stomach, but was in awe. I quickly begged him to seek a medical kit which in those days was alcohol and paper towel, if that.
There were the times he’d chase squirrels, sometimes climbing the trees to throw rocks at them. He’d run along the porches from row house to row house, trying to flush rats out of bushes. Many times I’d watch him roll under parked cars for stray cats and rattle backyard fences in the driveways to stir our neighbors dogs into a frenzy or scare them. James performed the acts but it was always me, watching.
Can’t forget the tree branch he broke off which he fastened a rope at one end. He’d then tie a knot around a wedge of cheese and put that on the other end, dangling from the branch. “Rat-Fishing” is what he called it, as he dropped to his belly, lowering the branch and cheese bait into a street-side sewage drain.
And what he did to the dingy rodent after he miraculously caught one. “PB&J” is what he called the brain matter after the hammer he stole from a neighbors tool shed came down on the tiny head.
It would be the first time I’d hear the word “insane” come from one of the other city kids who witnessed the event.
Word spread around the neighborhood fast…to the parents. James was banned from friendship. Parents knew of the “off” kid that recently moved into the neighborhood. But I’d sneak to certain locations to further entertain his gibberish, the gestures and of course the insanity. In time, a move to live with my Aunt would separate us. We lost contact for some years.
Months later, I still heard what James was doing around the neighborhood. He’d get himself involved with narcotics as drug related crime escalated. Selling to having several bouts with addiction. Stints in juvenile delinquency got him “street cred”, something career criminals would require to legitimize their seedy resume’. I wasn’t surprised. James finally found a home among the feared ones of our neighborhood. His “no fear” mentality used as a tool for criminal profit.
Our paths would cross again briefly. High School. James was enrolled after making the tour of several city schools and managing to get expelled before the ink could dry on his registration. He was the new kid again, and quickly we picked up where we left off. But this time, I was more of a care-taker than a friend, trying to keep him from slipping. Sadly, he was sent back to juvenile detention after a locker raid. James was booked with possession with the intent to distribute. Police suspected his street profession had been the cause of a spike in addiction among students. Although our paths took a different direction, I still felt a loyalty to James.
Years would pass. In adulthood when our paths crossed once again. I’d heard and read a news article that James, in the fit of addiction, stabbed his mother several times then turned the knife on himself, cutting his throat. He missed his jugular. His mother barely survived. He did a long stretch institutionalize but was released, surging through the street again on his tip-toes.
I pulled my car over and yelled out to him. James never responded. He kept moving in that direction, his direction. I thought to myself. To spend one day in his head would generate a thousand nightmares. I got back into my car and prayed. Something I hadn’t done in a long time.