A haunting personal essay
Whether it’s in their genes or in their stars, some people are born to be bastards — a cut or two above evil.
I’ve given up on divining the how or why. I just accept that they are.
The sadistic bastard and tormenter of my old neighborhood was a universally despised kid named Paul, who loved to pull the wings off of butterflies and relished in the suffering of others, whether he caused it or not.
He just couldn’t seem to help himself. It was in his nature.
Like most bastards Paul was an insufferable bully, but with a low tolerance for pain. I can remember back to the day that he ran bawling to my mom begging for help when a swarm of yellow jackets decided to use his hand as target practice. It was his own fault, really, deliberately having ransacked their nest which lay hidden under rotten plywood in our back yard.
My mother, moved by Paul’s agony, went dashing for her home medicine cabinet from which she drew a box of baking soda and vinegar to treat Paul’s red, swollen fingers. The fizzing action of this volatile mix was meant to cleanse and draw out the bee venom. The problem was it burned like hell — worse than the bee sting itself.
Paul flew off in a tearful rage.
The irony complicating the true nature of Paul was that he came from a good middle-class, observant Catholic family. He was the rotten apple that had fallen far from the tree. A violent force to be reckoned with, yet difficult to reign in.
As he was a couple of years older than me, bigger, heavier, a few inches taller, naturally, I was afraid of him. Though I tried I could never really comprehend the source of Paul’s seething ire or fathom his arbitrary cruelty; how it came to him so swiftly and easily, like his vicious, sardonic laughter. It was the stuff serial killers are made of.
In a merciful and just world, how can such a person exist?
Oh, but they do.
Paul, to me, was darkness personified, the monster with the prickly blond flat-top and black plastic glasses giggling under the bed when the lights are turned off. It was that same half past midnight darkness in Paul that inspired him to pick up a rock and hurl it smashing against the soft feathered head of a robin nesting in a tree. Paul had no reason to kill the bird other than the sheer enjoyment of it.
Craving attention, he proudly showed off his brutal handiwork to the other kids who lived in my neighborhood. They were all gathered in a close circle around Paul, cackling with interest and glee. The sight of this beautiful creature nestled lifeless in Paul’s hands — the wanton display of his spontaneous aggression, with deadly results — left me speechless.
Most days, though, were bright and good when Paul wasn’t running around in the neighborhood wreaking havoc in some small or large way. On those blessed days I liked to go out catching insects in a big open field and take them home as pets. I would give each of them a name, and if they happened to be specimens of my favorite banded woolly bear caterpillar, I would feed them lettuce and slices of apple, and grieve their bittersweet transition to moth-hood as I would a death in the family.
I loved insects, as much as a dog or cat, even if they couldn’t love me back.
Paul and I eventually crossed paths in that open field as a group of adults were burning rubbish in a fire pit. His big four eyes were focused intently on the enormous flying grasshopper that I had just caught and held clenched in my left hand.
Calmly, he took me by the arm and pulled me over by the fire. I was too afraid to resist.
Standing shoulder to shoulder beside the fire for what seemed hours, we watched the flames dancing hysterically as though we were in a trance.
After a long silence, Paul looked at me, and in a low voice he said firmly, “Throw the grasshopper into the fire.”
Hearing his command, it was as if Paul had reached into my head and pulled a lever. For a split second, I had no will of my own.
I tossed the grasshopper into the fire.
The helpless insect didn’t even struggle or try to take flight. As if resigned to its fate, it went passively into the inferno and ignited, turning a bright red as it vanished amid the pile of glowing embers.
I was both fascinated and terrified by what I had just seen and done. The unblemished innocence of my youth suddenly had been consumed and negated — like the grasshopper — by this one thoughtless act of cruelty.
And in that brief moment I felt reborn — in the image of Paul — an impulsive little bastard, lured by the darkness.
I imagine there is a little bastard in all of us, in varying shades of gray, waiting to be unleashed to do mischief upon the world. In moments of weakness the little bastard whispers subtle temptation in our private thoughts, at times when we are most susceptible to listen and follow.
I listened and I followed, and I destroyed the grasshopper.