By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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— for Jessie Rice
I was a fragile child, and whenever my parents used a word I didn’t understand to describe me to friends and relatives or in a medical survey for my school, I felt compelled to look it up. I looked up asthma and myopia and somnambulance and nocturnal enuresis, which sounded innocuous enough until I discovered it meant that I wet the bed.
I couldn’t let my peers find out about my nocturnal enuresis. I was already getting shoved, slapped, pinned to the ground, noogied, and pestered on a regular basis for having asthma and wearing glasses, for being a bookworm, for taking violin and bowling lessons, and for having a Royal typewriter upon which I typed stories, poems, and funny letters to fictional people. It didn’t help that I had parents who took good care of me, whereas most of my peers did not.
To prevent the complete ruin of my reputation, I kept a lid on the rest of what was wrong with me: the piercing (F-sharp) whistle in my ears; the honky-tonk voices in my head that taunted me like a mad chorus, especially in the mornings as I walked to school; the African-sounding melodies that entwined themselves with the honky-tonk voices; the shivering attacks of hypoglycemia that would require me to chug a vanilla Carnation Instant Breakfast drink; my ability, in vulnerable moments, to read the colors of human souls; the phantom fruit-salad scent (heavy on the cherries) that flowed synesthetically across my senses; and the way that people’s words, when they spoke, appeared spelled out in crisp type across the top of my brain: H-o-w d-i-d y-o-u k-n-o-w m-y n-a-m-e w-a-s s-p-e-l-l-e-d t-h-a-t w-a-y?
The only thing I shared with most boys my age was an attraction to girls.
In the 1970s the Bumble Bee tuna company was a big employer in San Diego, where I lived, and one day all of us in the fourth grade got Bumble Bee coin banks made of empty, unopened tuna cans with slots in their tops. I dropped coins into that can bank until, after a year or so, I had enough to buy a blue four-foot plastic rowboat with red plastic oars that I had been eyeing at Unimart. It was a deep-breasted, tall-hulled, sturdy-looking craft, and I imagined I could navigate it on local lakes for fishing as well as exploration. Perhaps someday I would even take it out on the ocean.
But the boat capsized on its first voyage at Santee Lakes, almost drowning Boyd Johnson, who lived across the street and could not swim. The second time I took it out, it overturned while I was all by myself in deep water. (I could swim.) The boat floated great with no passengers, but whenever anyone tried to ride in it, over it went. After a third flip and dunk, I relegated my vessel to the front yard, where, shorn of its nautical fraudulence, it became by turns a whale-bone hut (such as the one built by the young female castaway in Island of the Blue Dolphins); a battlement behind which one could hide from enemy hordes; and a witch’s cauldron in which the girls would boil the boys, stirring us with the red oars until we were tender to our young bones.
One evening, after almost everyone but me had been called in to dinner, Daphne Poalua drifted dreamily toward my yard. She had just moved in down the block and was in the habit of going round the neighborhood barefoot in a bikini. She wore a yellow one that night. Daphne was twelve. So was I, but I was still far from puberty. My attraction to females was aesthetic, not carnal, and Daphne was long on aesthetics, with her sulky Polynesian eyes (her fireman father was a native Hawaiian); her long, straight gold hair; her skin the color of a caramel apple; her curves (more than a go-cart track); and the dimples when she smiled. She also ran a fifty-yard dash in 6.9 seconds, three-tenths of a second faster than me.
What are you doing? she wanted to know.
Yeah, cost me five bucks.
She pursed her plump, grape-colored lips and whistled in admiration.
But it won’t sail, I added. Just tips over.
She came close enough to inspect the upside-down craft, lifting it by the gunwale and peering underneath. Good place to hide from sharks, she said.
Yeah, I said. Sharks.
She crawled inside, then lifted the boat to peek out at me. You coming in?
Suddenly we were fathoms deep in a fizzing Kool-Aid–blue sea, surrounded by more man-eaters than we could count. Daphne gave them colors and names not traditionally assigned to sharks. There were watermelon leopard sharks and polka-dotted hippo sharks. We might be trapped for a while, she said.
I prayed that my mother would not call me in for dinner.
There was barely room enough for both of us under the boat. Daphne and I sat shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, beneath a magically air-locked tortoise shell encircled by killers of the deep. It was better than being boiled by witches. Every time I got up the courage to look over at her, my heart would skip like a rock across a pond, and my ears would melt down the sides of my head.
Since Daphne had moved into the neighborhood two months earlier, she had kept her distance, and I had admired her from afar. Now in fleshly propinquity, listening to her voice and touching her electric bare skin, I was pulled helplessly into her whirling magenta soul like a drunk driver into a tree.
She walked home just as the rest of the children were emerging for the beginning of evening games. A frenzy of moths made the streetlamp flicker. My mother had been calling my name for a while, her faint voice only now beginning to register.
The next Sunday at twilight Daphne appeared again, in a green bikini this time, and we spent another rapturous hour under my boat. After the tail of the last outlandish shark had shimmered off into a chimerical sea, I tried to walk her home. She let me trail, turning her head elegantly from time to time and saying incongruous things, such as “I don’t like Auggie McCandles, do you?” And of course I didn’t like Auggie McCandles, even though I had liked him only minutes before. She waved languidly to me from her driveway, and, hearing my mother’s voice, I returned home in the dark, looking down at my hands and trying to remember who I was.
I had always imagined that, once I moved out of my parents’ house, I would live the rest of my life alone, someplace I could not be harried or reviled: There I was in my late teens, walking along the beach at dusk in dungarees and cotton sneakers, a boat (remarkably similar to the one in my front yard) moored in the distance. There I was in my twenties with a typewriter, scissors, Flair pens, and glue, making satirical magazines in a little desert bungalow with a view of red bluffs from its big picture window. And there I was as a peaceful old man with a long beard heating up a can of ravioli and listening to the radio in a downtown hotel.
But now I had been drawn inexplicably into the glowing inner sanctum of human society, where three of its best-kept secrets had been revealed: (1) the brain was not the chief decision-making organ in the body, (2) free will was an illusion, and (3) love was life’s central purpose. At night I would kiss my pillow and long for marriage, or whatever might assuage these powerful desires, which felt like getting run over by a herd of cattle. There was no mightier dominion on heaven or earth than capital-L Love. I only wished that I could turn it down a notch so that I might properly breathe and hear what people were saying.
In the mornings my mother would say, What’s gotten into you, young man? Eat your breakfast. You’re going to be l-a-t-e f-o-r s-c-h-o-o-l. And I would trip on the sidewalk, choke on my saliva, and stare out the classroom window at the undulating hula-dancer trees while the teacher droned on about whole numbers or the capital of Venezuela. A good student up to this point, I no longer cared about grades. I wandered through the day as if I had been gassed repeatedly by a dentist. After school I would climb the pine tree in front of our house and conceal myself in its upper branches just to watch Daphne pass. After dinner and homework in the evenings I would sit moonstruck on the curb or in a redwood chair on the lawn in the hope that my Polynesian princess would appear. Or I’d join the children playing hiding and chasing games, prototypical mating and hunting behavior, irresistible to all, even the persecuted and the withdrawn. Whenever Daphne played, I would try to hide with her.
Real love might’ve been the sun in the solar system of human existence, but it was also unbearably hot, and there was no distance, no destination, no activity, including sleep, that gave me relief. I had to marry her, bond, become one — symbolically, of course, because I was a twelve-year-old who’d been raised by Victorians. Not knowing how to proceed, I sought the counsel of my best friend, Homer Ashmont, the only boy in the neighborhood who didn’t torture me or turn on me or follow the unwritten law “Thou shalt prey upon the weak and vulnerable.” Homer had moved in only a year or so before Daphne and had invited me to join his lip-sync band, Homer and the Surfers. The lineup was Boyd Johnson on tennis-racket guitar, Homer on piano (with empty album covers placed inside to prevent the keys from striking the strings), and me on papier-mâché saxophone. Homer was the most jovial, generous, and stouthearted boy I had ever known, although since his parents’ marriage had started to crumble, he’d shown a combative and sadistic side, tormenting his athletic younger sister, Betsy, so relentlessly that one day she had chased him with a hatchet; I felt certain she would’ve buried it between his shoulder blades had he not been so fleet and light on his feet.
Homer lived right across the street from Daphne and was already having preliminary coital relations with a redhead named Roxanne Conejo on the next street over, though he would not describe any of it to me, and my requests for details seemed to cause him distress. He had also gone steady with two girls, one of them the notorious Lorena Germaine, who, legend had it, would take it all off for five dollars. So he had experience with love. I asked him what kind of jewelry was best to give a woman. Diamonds, he said. Second best, I said. Gold, he replied. Third best, then. A Saint Christopher medal.
Saint Christopher, my father explained, was the patron saint of travelers — an unlikely symbol for eternal love and devotion, but I took Homer’s word on it. After finding out that Daphne’s favorite color was blue (same color as my boat), I raised enough money mowing lawns to buy a blue Saint Christopher medal on a silver chain from the drugstore.
I was working up the nerve to present it to her and ask her to go steady — I had to think up the right words and prepare for rejection or even laughter — when, a week before the beginning of summer vacation, Daphne strolled up in an orange bikini and announced that her family was moving back to Oahu. She seemed stunned and sad. (She might also have been relieved if she’d known about the question I wanted to ask and the jewelry I’d been poised to present.) The air around me grew as cold and barren as a castle with a shriveling old king inside. Countless times that night I walked around the block, staring at the Poalua house and invoking lukewarm Lutheran prayers and juvenile hoodoo chants to try to make her parents change their minds.
I saw Daphne twice more before she left: once by chance at the Montgomery Ward with her father, and the other time when I got up the courage to knock on her door two days prior to her departure. Her mother answered. She didn’t look Hawaiian; she was white, like my mother, but considerably taller and less friendly. She gazed down upon me for a moment, then called Daphne from her room. Daphne was dressed somberly in a high-collared blouse, Levi’s, and leather sandals. We climbed her carrotwood tree out front, scrambling to the ends of opposite branches and swaying like pirates in mastheads over a purple Arabian sea. When we finally jumped down to the grass, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and told me she had to give up Barney, her beagle. Unable to reply in any meaningful way, I said for once what was in my heart: that I was sorry.
After she was finally gone, I stood in disbelief in front of her barn-red house. A ring-nosed iron bull, too heavy to ship to Hawaii, sat on its stoop. What is breathing, I thought, and why do we do it? What are people, and why do we need each other? What is time, and why does it always leave us behind?
It was a long, bleak summer, and I tried to sleep through as much of it as possible. I diligently worked on my made-up magazines with the fake advertisements and funny letters to the editor and Flair-pen-illustrated stories featuring the heroic Jim Greysuit, the evil Dr. Flush, and the unctuous chinchilla salesman Fancy Dan Fandango. Though I pretended with all my might that everything was all right, I think my mother and father intuited my misery, because they were especially nice to me, taking me to Sir George’s Smorgasbord, the miniature-golf course, the Astroslide, Mission Beach, and the Pine Valley motel with the stone ping-pong table out back. My father, a teacher (the only white-collar father on the block), paid me to help correct his summer-school students’ papers, and my mother made all my favorite dishes, including chicken with yellow rice, which called for Spanish saffron at $1.59 a pinch.
My parents were strict about bedtime, but my good reading habits entitled me to certain privileges: I could stay up until midnight as long as I was in bed and had a book in my hands. They also allowed me to take the bus downtown by myself to visit the public library at 8th and E, where I bivouacked in the decaying-wood-scented science section, amid the towering, fortress-like shelves. At lunchtime I’d head for the sandwich shops around Horton Plaza, peeking into the porno palaces and secondhand-book stores along the way, soaking up the carnival flavors and the ladies of the evening with their wagging rumps wrapped like roasts in bright greens and tangerines, their heels ticktocking down the sidewalks. A classmate had once told me I walked like an ostrich, so I practiced walking like an Indian, heel to toe, soft footed, studying my reflection in the storefront windows.
Then came junior high and its spectacular transmutations of puberty, strict teachers, ruffians funneled in from other schools, fights, drugs, gorgeous girls in short skirts not giving me a passing thought, and everyone savaging and gouging each other to gain the highest possible spot on the social ladder. Many who had learned about my feelings for Daphne belittled me or offered sardonic apologies or told crude stories I refused to believe about her permissiveness, including one in which she took Auggie McCandles into a bedroom closet and showed him life’s central purpose.
Under duress by a teacher, I attended an after-school dance and was humiliated by Ted Nibbs, a churlish blond lunk who insisted I dance with Homer’s notorious ex-girlfriend, Lorena Germaine. Even if I had wanted to dance, I didn’t know how, and I liked neither Ted nor Lorena, both of whom grinned evilly at me until I stomped out so embarrassed I nearly burst into flames. At home I went straight to bed — my final answer to junior high. My mother confronted me and asked if I was taking pills. Illegal drugs had invaded our neighborhood by then, but they had not touched me yet, and I took umbrage and refused to eat dinner that night, staying in my room to draw with my felt pens and listen to records.
I was back where I belonged, alone in a boat that wouldn’t capsize, the lonely horizon fixed squarely in my sextant. I had books and music and TV; I had my self-publishing empire; and I had the richly furnished and impregnable keep of my imagination. I did not need girls or love or romance or the frightening, alluring mystery of sex, which I knew little about but of which I had nevertheless constructed highly inaccurate analytical models. I got my hazy ideas from the frank and baffling talk of my contemporaries, from eavesdropping on adults (a memory here of going into a store with my dad and hearing a man say to his friends, “I’d sure like to get into her pants,” and me thinking, Well, you sure will look ridiculous if you do), and from the glimpses I’d caught through the open porno-shop doors. I became newly aware of licentious behavior everywhere I looked. I heard rumors of a neighborhood girl sabotaged by incest, and of arguing, cheating, divorcing parents who slithered into bed with baby sitters and sleazy boyfriends. Legions of celebrities were pilloried in tabloids over sex scandals, all on view in the grocery-store racks. While my contemporaries wailed in the throes of romantic and copulatory obsession, I suspected that every form of adult intimacy, sex especially, was less like the delivery of a vital and sophisticated pleasure than it was a sleek torpedo you never really saw coming until you were struck broadside and blown to smithereens.
Having no desire to be torn asunder by torpedoes d’amour, I remained within the sensible and unassailable asylum of solitude, taking the bus downtown to the library on weekends and reading for hours and also writing my own stories. I created Edmundo Smutgoggles, a skinny kid with glasses who walked like an ostrich and had many adventures in the city. In one he learned that gold was formed not on earth (terrestrial temperatures were not high enough) but in exploding stars, whose primordial atoms had migrated through the universe for millions of years. No one knew exactly why the gold had wound up on earth — possibly, I thought, because of all the jewelry stores. Edmundo learned that not just gold but almost all metals are extraterrestrial. In fact, many of the elements that comprise our bodies can be traced to exploding stars. In the end Edmundo found a gold ring in a gutter and gave it to his mom.
One afternoon downtown I found an old German magazine with nude photos in the dusty upstairs loft of a used-book store, and I got distracted and missed my bus. When I arrived home two hours late, my mother fretted over me and reheated my dinner and clucked gratefully that I hadn’t been kidnapped.
You’ll never guess what, she said with a big smile as she split open my baked potato and laid in a slice of butter: The Poaluas are moving back into their old house.
The Poaluas? I asked.
You remember Daphne?
About three days later my mother knocked on my bedroom door and said, Daphne Poalua is here to see you; you won’t believe how b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l s-h-e i-s.
I cranked open my louvered window to peer out. My room had been added on between the garage and the main house. Beside it was a thick patch of tropical plants: hibiscus and fiddlehead and elephant ear. And standing there behind them was Daphne, looking like Eve in the Garden. Though we were both fourteen, she was clearly a woman, and I was still a boy.
Hi, she said.
Hi, I replied, glad she could see only my silhouette and not my jaw hanging down.
Can I borrow your bike?
Sure. Go ahead. It’s in the garage.
You’re not coming out?
Can’t right now, I lied, my Adam’s apple stuck somewhere near my chin. Kind of busy.
OK, she said, looking hurt and puzzled. She left without my bike.
For the last few weeks of school and into the start of summer I managed to bolt wildly away every time I saw Daphne. But I was forced to talk to her when my mother invited her to come with us on a fishing trip. The grunion — silvery, tide-borne fish that once or twice a year hit the California shores by the glittering millions — were supposed to run that night. Some other friends were coming, too. We were going to stay late and have a fire on the beach.
Daphne and I sat stiffly in the back of my parents’ station wagon. I resented the conspiracy afoot to bring us together and kept my finger on the switch that controlled the electric rear window, which I could lower to let in the roar of interstate traffic and perhaps allow for the possibility of tumbling out to my death on the pavement.
I stared at the passing cars, my face bunched up, probably looking like Old Man Johnson, the crankiest guy in our neighborhood. Daphne, in turn, wore a stricken, imploring expression. A sweet and decent girl, she had no idea why I was acting like such an ass.
So, how was Hawaii? I finally asked her.
Boring, she replied with a gush of relief.
See any volcanoes?
Her velvety eyes crinkled in amusement. That’s all they’ve got in Hawaii, silly.
Course. I knew that. Ever been on a grunion hunt?
Sometimes they don’t run.
I don’t care, she said. I don’t want to eat them anyway.
There was a trucker behind us. I reached up and pulled an imaginary chain to signal him to honk, and he did. For a few miles we made the truck-horn pantomime and were delighted whenever a driver responded. To make Daphne laugh, I became chinchilla salesman Fancy Dan Fandango, falling so convincingly into the role I could feel the thin, oily mustache under my nose and the hoodwinking lust of an unscrupulous rogue. She giggled, and her eyes shone. By the time we arrived at Mission Beach and began to unload the car, we were old friends again.
Homer was with us, along with his sister, Betsy, who had tried to kill him with a hatchet, and her friend Elaine, who had eyes like a bullfrog and wore white go-go boots with her bathing suit. They all kept winking and leering at me.
I asked Daphne if she wanted to take a stroll down to the jetty. The ocean was the one place where I felt equal to the others. I swam well and surfed and was not deterred by big waves or the possibility of sharks, stingrays, or riptides.
Let’s go in for a swim, Daphne whispered after we were about five hundred yards down the shore.
The water was cold, and the waves were small. I pretended to fall into a hole and stayed under for a full minute before emerging bog-monster-style behind Daphne to touch her waist. She squealed and splashed me with her feet, then dashed up the sand, swinging her hips in front of me as if trying to warn children that a train was coming.
When we returned from the jetty, Betsy and Elaine were digging a hole, and my mom and Homer were building the fire over which we would soon be roasting weenies, then possibly the grunion, if they ran. I suddenly did not care whether they ran or not.
I never did ask Daphne to go steady. I asked Homer to do it for me. She said yes, and all summer she wore the blue Saint Christopher medal around her neck while we held hands and talked about our futures. She was going to become a radiologist and get a convertible MGB like her sister’s and save enough money to get her ears fixed (they stuck out slightly), and I was going to end up somehow in the world of publishing, very likely magazines.
One night tough, redheaded Roxanne Conejo, thumbs hanging in her jean pockets, boasted graphically to Daphne and me about her nascent sexual relations with Homer. Unsure how to respond, I said nothing, and Roxanne smiled a mean grin and accused me of not being able to perform such adult acts with Daphne. I knew this to be true, and though Daphne told Roxanne to hush, I think she knew it, too.
Daphne broke up with me a week later. Actually she sent Roxanne to my house to do it. I was playing checkers on the floor of my living room with Boyd Johnson — who, like me, was dragging his feet on the road to manhood — when we heard a knock on the door. My mother let Roxanne in, and she sashayed across the room and made an elaborate display of returning to me the blue Saint Christopher medal, which felt as cold in my hand as the millions of light-years of space through which its atoms had traveled to get here.
I hadn’t seen this disaster coming — not on the day it hit, nor the week before, as Roxanne had strutted away in triumph, and certainly not on that cool, overcast night at the beach, when I’d sat wrapped in a towel by the fire with a shivering Daphne, conscious only of her whirling magenta soul and the far-off pinging of submarines, their torpedoes armed and ready.