Thomas Wictor

How things got better

How things got better

I had a love-hate relationship with Howard Jones’s song “Things Can Only Get Better.” Though I wanted to believe, I just didn’t. There was no evidence that Howard was right. Loved the music, though. The bass line of this live version is one of my favorites. Carmen loved it too, the reason I never listened to it after she drove me away.

Today a friend told me what I think is a truly horrific story about an incident that happened when he was listening to a certain song. He’s forever associated the song with what occurred. Since he’d told me something so personal, I reciprocated. Tim won’t mind. This has bothered him for ages.

When we lived in Texas, we were all insane. The change from Venezuela to the American South was simply too much. Our classmates bullied, harassed, and tormented us relentlessly. Since our parents were locked in their own danse macabre, they didn’t have time for our problems. It didn’t occur to us to complain anyway. Complaining was a mortal sin—but only when children did it.

To cope, we all did really demented things. Exxon required that its employees attend frequent social gatherings; when Mom and Dad were out all night, Tim would take over and force us to…clean. We had to vacuum, mop, scrub, dust, and wash the windows. While we cleaned at fistpoint, Tim played Dad’s Mitch Miller records as loudly as possible. Like the rest of us, he loathed Mitch Miller.

For whatever reason the song “Black Bottom” was the worst. Being eleven I thought it meant an ass black with soot. Why was a chorus of male voices singing about that? It was like a tune piped straight up from the bowels of hell.

So today, as an experiment, I listened to Mitch Miller’s “Black Bottom” for the first time in forty years. Instantly I was transported back to that house in Texas, mopping and crying as Tim raced from sibling to sibling, shouting, “You’re not doing it right! Do it better!

A year or so before Mom died, one of her relatives was diagnosed with lung and prostate cancer. She didn’t go to see him in the hospital. I thought at the time that it was just her aversion to unpleasant things; I realize now that she was afraid to die herself, so she couldn’t bear to see this man before he died.

I didn’t like him. He was extremely cruel to me. We’d visited his family multiple times from when I was about five to when I was in my early twenties, and he always “teased” me. Mom told me he was like that to everybody. I saw with my own eyes that he wasn’t. He’d mimic me, saying, “How’d it go, Tommy? Like this?” And he’d copy my gestures or repeat the sound I’d made to describe an explosion or whatever. He knew exactly how to make me feel the maximum jackass-edness.

When his children took me out to meet their friends, they’d say, “This is Tom. He lives in France, or somewhere,” like I was a conehead. I lived in the Netherlands, which my relatives knew. I was just really fun to make fun of. Everyone would laugh, and that would be the only acknowledgement of my presence. I’d sit quietly, trying to disassociate.

The first time I gathered my courage enough to take off my shirt and go swimming in the family pool, they started calling me “Peeled Potato,” a creepy echo of what Texans called me in seventh and eighth grade: “Potato Bug.” It had something to do with the size of my head. Soon everyone in the school called me “Bug.”

Ooh, I’ve got Google now! I’ve literally never done this before. Let’s see…

Bingo! A potato bug is a Jerusalem cricket. “Its large, humanlike head has inspired both Native American and Spanish names.”

There’s the answer. A forty-year-old mystery is solved. To Texans I looked like a Jerusalem cricket. I should be thankful they didn’t call me c’ic’in lici’ I coh, which means “big red-skull” in Navajo.

One summer I had to stay with my teasing relative because Mom was in another state dealing with a family emergency. He took me out drinking, even though I was only seventeen. We sat on stools at the bar, and he got really drunk. His usual demeanor was jolly; he had a famous machine-gun laugh. This night he was sour and belligerent. I think it was his real personality, since I’d always thought he had very cold eyes. He pulled a .357 magnum pistol from his waistband and showed it to me.

“In case anyone fucks with us,” he explained.

After he put away the pistol, he held out his right hand, lifted the middle finger, and waggled it under my nose.

“This is my pussy finger,” he said with a bitter, challenging squint. I didn’t know how to respond. He snorted, shook his head, and went back to his drink.

Later that summer his daughter and one of his sons took me camping. The daughter brought along a friend, who was an achondroplastic dwarf, meaning her head and body were of near-average size but her arms, legs, and fingers were very short. A campfire was built, and the friend began chugging beers until she was utterly hammered. She and my male relative had a fight over an open pocketknife, which the boy yanked out of the girl’s hand, slashing her fingers.

She shrieked, then she laughed and charged through the campfire. As we ducked the explosion of embers, she rubbed her bleeding fingers on the mouth of my relative.

He looked at me with blood all over his lips and said, “So gross. So gross.”

Watching a drunken dwarf, a fight over a knife, splashes of flame headed right for my eyes, and a bloody mouth on a kid whose father showed me his .357 magnum and pussy finger, I thought, This is how my whole life is going to be.

I was wrong. My life got much worse than that camping trip.

And yet…

Tim and I became very close. I was able to see both my parents through their awful deaths, and as hard as that was, I didn’t crack. Several people have told me that they had no hint whatsoever that the past nine months have been ghastly beyond my ability to describe. I sat with my dying mother—who was so afraid of death that she couldn’t visit her relative in the hospital two years ago—and I made her laugh. It was clear that she wouldn’t make it; even worse there was no reason for her to die. She did it to herself.

But I held it together for her sake, and when it was time to leave her, I did so casually and with humor. The last time I saw her, she was smiling. Though her death pains and saddens me, it didn’t destroy me. She wouldn’t have wanted that.

Today, as I bought gas, a kid named Josh asked if he could give me a demonstration of a spray-on wax that protects all the surfaces of your car. Normally I would’ve said no, since I hate salesmen, but I inexplicably agreed. It seemed important to do so. I let him show me how the wax worked, and then I bought two cans. As we completed the sale, he asked me what I did, and I told him I’m a writer. I asked him if he was a reader.

“My favorite writer is Edgar Allan Poe,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong: Shakespeare is great too, but Poe is where it’s at.”

Now, I could fearlessly offer anybody a million dollars to come to my city and find a kid who reads Poe and Shakespeare. I could give you a month to do it. There’s absolutely no chance that I’d have to pay out.

So I asked Josh how long he was going to be there; he said until seven or eight. I told him I’d like to give him a couple of my books. He was stunned. I went home, got a copy each of Ghosts and Ballyhoo and Chasing the Last Whale, went back to the gas station, signed them, and handed them over to Josh.

By the way: Turns out he’s a bassist. He’s been playing electric and acoustic bass since he was six. When he told me that, I flipped over Ghosts and showed him the photo of Scott Thunes. His eyes widened and he said, “Oh my God!

What are the odds? Somebody calculate them for me.

When I left, Josh was sort of numbly walking across the parking lot, examining the books. As Tim said, “You made somebody really happy today.”

Another thing I did today was listen to “Things Can Only Get Better” for the first time since 1993, and now I love it. In the past I heard only the chorus. “How come things never got better?” I’d ask Howard.

Well, I completely misunderstood the song. It’s quite eerie how it totally parallels the careening journey I made to my present worldview. Howard Jones has several caveats for how things will get better. Can you spot them?

We’re not scared to lose it all
Security thrown through the wall
Future dreams we have to realize
A thousand skeptic hands
Won’t keep us from the things we plan
Unless we’re clinging to the things we prize

And do you feel scared; I do
But I won’t stop and falter
And if we threw it all away
Things can only get better

Treating today as though it was
The last, the final show
Get to sixty and feel no regret
It may take a little time
A lonely path, an uphill climb
Success or failure will not alter it

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