I was born in the mid-fifties with fists for hands, so Johnny went home and put a bullet in his head. I didn’t intend to come out looking for a fight, but I came by it honestly. Johnny was my dad and before he put the bullet through his skull, he rode the roller coaster at Excelsior. He was too afraid to let go and let God, so they say, but guns were always something he was comfortable twirling in the air. Aunt Jack said Johnny wasn’t ready to have an angry offspring and to this day she blames me for the blowout.
In 1963, I went to live with Aunt Jack permanently after my mother left town. I was just a babe in the woods, only seven years old to be exact. Mother tried to confuse my fists with a bad case of arthritis, but Aunt Jack and I knew the truth. My fists were no source of deformity; they were a message from my heart that something was internally wrong with me.
I was denied so many things as a result of the fists. I couldn’t be a Cub Scout because I couldn’t straighten out my fingers to offer up a proper salute. I couldn’t hold my pencil in school, therefore I never learned to write cursive. But one thing I could do, I could throw a mean punch in any direction and this made kids run for cover.
One spring evening in St. Paul, my Aunt Jack was determined to take me to the Billy Graham tent revival at Midway stadium. Aunt Jack served coffee and cookies every Sunday after the 9:30 church service at Calvary Baptist Church on Fern Street. Aunt Jack was a large woman, with kinky red hair and a face full of freckles. During the sermon I often would play imaginary connect-the-dots with the side of her face I was forced to sit next to. One time I found a parfait glass that ran the length of her left temple, down past her ear, then jutted out towards her jaw line. I envisioned it full of tapioca pudding topped with whipped cream and just as I was about to take a bite out of her chin, she grabbed hold of my fists and tore open my defense. She extended my fingers straight and the pain was unbearable. I screamed, “Jesus Christ, are you nuts?” That’s when she confirmed it with Reverend Larsen that I was one of the devil’s darlings.
This was one of the reasons Aunt Jack was so insistent on getting to that revival. She thought Billy Graham could scare the devil’s hell out of me, like he did with crazy Mrs. Larsen before she took over the church.
Revivals are like county fairs, everyone from the neighborhood attends, even the town drunks like George and Charlotte. Geo and Char, as they were known in the community, used to be married to one another. They had gotten divorced and remarried other people. Char married Theo Larsen, the minister at Calgary Baptist Church and Geo married Larry Minor’s widow. Larry left Mrs. Minor a storage business in Little Canada where she and Geo stayed drunk. Char, or Mrs. D.D., as she insisted being called, raised quite a scandal in the neighborhood with a crusty past that tired of shaking loose from her scrawny body. Before Reverend Larsen would marry her, he had Billy Graham lay healing hands on her at the revival in ’57. Then Reverend Larsen baptized her in the privacy of their bathtub just three days after they were married. Why Aunt Jack told me the marriage wasn’t constipated until after that baptism, I to this day can’t figure out. That was too much information for me; something Aunt Jack always did was offer up too much confusing information for me to hold inside.
The revival evening came and stayed way too long for my comfort level. Aunt Jack made me go with her to help set up metal chairs inside the tent before 8:00 a.m. By 10:00 a.m., my hands were swollen and throbbing from the repetitive movement so I thought I’d take a seat in one of the chairs close to the back of the tent and catch a breeze. No sooner did I sit my rear down, and Aunt Jack came running through the tent screaming, “Barclay, your damn mother’s downtown and wants a ticket to the revival.” My hands felt a burning that shot up my arms, straight through to my heart. My mother was downtown. Because I had no memory of her, I wouldn’t know it if she stood next to me in an empty coliseum. “What’s she come here for?” I asked Aunt Jack, then wadded a ball of spit out the front of my mouth. It landed just to the right of my Aunt’s foot. “She’s come to watch you get the cure,” Aunt Jack said.
That was the problem with being a freak of nature. People always expected you to find a miracle or have a miracle find you. “If only Barclay didn’t have those knots for hands,” meant “Barclay the freak.” There was no escaping it. The only good thing about my life was my promising future with sideshow attractions. Then again, would the fists be enough to sell tickets for fifty cents apiece? Maybe I needed some other contortion, like bound feet, to really draw a crowd.
The bus arrived with Billy Graham’s crew and Billy himself. Aunt Jack was the official greeter and slipped Billy a note while she forced a bouquet of plastic roses in the arms of Mrs. Graham. Aunt Jack was in her glory. She was introducing people left and right to the Grahams. In her fury of nervousness, she introduced Mrs. D.D. as Dee Dee Larsen, followed up by “Oh my, I can be such a wiener schnitzel, of course you remember Dee Dee; you saved her soul back in ’57!”
I stood off to the right of the stage and looked at every woman with suspecting eyes as they entered the tent. One of these women could be my mother. In spite of the heat, I wore what remained of my dad, his deerskin gloves, to conceal my fists. My thoughts were wild, my throat was dry and my stomach felt like heaving up balls of mangled intestines but I concealed my maniacal thoughts by stopping everyone in mid-sentence, mid-stride and holding everyone accountable for where they stood at that moment in time. Dee Dee Larsen was center stage, wearing a sneer that pierced into my Aunt’s head like a bullet never put to rest. Reverend and Mrs. Graham were caught in a trance. Aunt Jack looked spiteful and relentless while the rest of the crowd that was gathering looked captured in a frame of whimsy.
There was a faint movement coming from the heavens that grew into arched railways, dipping and diving, turning into inclines. I thought at first it was God’s stairway that he was releasing, but there were no gentle steps, rather mountains and valleys. Some of the declines looked like the devil himself inspired their drops. The clouds formed an encasement with two young lovers. Their heads were blown back and the smiles on their faces were permanent, little parenthese on either side held them both in place. Yes, they were young lovers. I could tell by how their hair flew together, like the mane of a great unicorn that was determined to find its mate.
The sight was beyond magical, beyond illusion. And there I was, a young enamored child, held in between the young lovers going up and up and up the incline, reaching the top and letting go, letting god read my aunt’s plea on that little piece of paper she so delicately passed off to Mr. Graham. The three of us were one. As we let go, my fingers stretched wide open, across the vast world and I was free.