the swing me peeps

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Willard Tappan is an autistic farmer living in the north central Pennsylvania mountains, tormented by abuses - and a disease only he seems to understand.

Submitted: July 06, 2019

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Submitted: July 06, 2019

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The Swing Me Peeps

By A.J. Alexander

 

An unusually large amount of aircraft was setting off in the skies above Cincinnati; Willard counted six as he passed Paul Brown Stadium amidst the heavy rush hour traffic of Cincinnati. They seemed dangerously close together.

His Volkswagen Jetta ran well, which made him smile. Willard always paid cash for the used cars and trucks he owned. Carrying a note was an abomination to him, much like full coverage insurance. So he was meticulous when it came to maintenance, and was particularly dutiful on long trips such as this one.

I can say with every ounce of certainty he was decidedly tense driving through the large city. Willard wasn’t accustomed to traffic, below or above. And he was sensitive to sounds in multitude. It reminded him of 1982 and the New Jersey Turnpike. That’s when Willard’s friend and high school sweetheart dropped him off at college. As they unloaded his things, his chest heaving with fear, they offered a string of banalities before driving away to make love on the beach - leaving Willard by his lonesome amidst his debilitating anxiety. He subsequently trashed his dorm room, screaming at the tops of his lungs until campus security came and took him away.

Thoughts like this occurred whenever he sat in traffic. And it was bumper to bumper on I-71S, even worse on the I-65 in Louisville, Kentucky, his destination. He took a deep breath as his knees knocked uncontrollably.

He longed for Sullivan County, Pa., and its quaint, mountainous expanse, where folks really know one another, and there’s not a reason in the world to fear a thing.  

As traffic subsided, people passed the slow moving car with raging horns and flipped fingers. Willard smiled weakly as they passed. He adjusted his cap in the rear view, acting as if their reactions meant nothing. He wanted to look important to these strangers who cursed him.  He slipped a Newport between his lips as he thought about Windy Hills, a suburb of Louisville where Father resided. He surmised he’d just enough gas to get to the Pilot Truck Stop that made those fantastic quarter pound hot dogs and still sold cd’s. He’d been restless and irritable for days, so franks and new music seemed a terrific panacea. And when the red black and orange sign came into view, with the indicator light on the dashboard flashing menacingly, he smiled knowingly. Willard laugh aloud, and people took notice.

Giant rainbows appeared over the horizon from a fierce storm which unnerved him; when it ended, he took out the phone and captured a stunning array of pictures. Good, he thought to himself. They’d enjoy these on Facebook. But then he remembered the ‘other’ rainbows - the ones in Atlanta. Willard was a manager for a Johnny Rocket’s after his stint at the college he never graduated from. That office had enormous rainbows on the walls. It used to be a day care center; he found it funny the place went from children to cheeseburgers. Willard had an underling there, a man who befriended Willard and helped him adjust. Who promised he’d help wherever he could. Instead, he embezzled money, and Willard was fired from a simple case of guilt by friendly association.

After that, Willard snuck out of the house with a bat and trashed the man’s car. He was arrested and sentenced to three months in jail, and ordered to pay restitution to the man who cost him his job.

We met at The Jolley Trolley the day before the trip, and Willard rambled on, quite proud of the packing he’d done. “You remember the Samsonite I got at Heritage Fest?” he asked. “I told you it would come in handy.”

I nodded and smiled. Then I noticed he hadn’t touched his food. I looked at him as he stared at the painted toilet seats hanging on the wall, mesmerized. “Nervous?” I asked him.

He vigorously shook his head. “Yes, Rob. Very much so. You know how Father is.”

I knew what I was told - which was how Father hated and bullied his oldest son. And for reasons I couldn’t understand, he didn’t trust him, either. Father would eavesdrop on Willard’s talks with others. He’d follow Willard to the backyard whenever he went out there, even if it was just to smoke. He’d stand there and say nothing, which made Willard panic. And he lambasted Willard for all sorts of imperceptible slights. Yet his countenance was different with the others; subtle, perhaps, but perceptible to anyone whose money Father didn’t control.

And it was the money that made Mother a greedy, self-centered, vacuous vessel of posture and pomp. It also bought off Willard’s siblings, who took checks on the condition they distance themselves from Willard as if he had a communicable disease. But it also bought Willard’s ex, who was as tethered to the wallet as a newborn kitten was to mama’s nipples. And with that sale came Willard’s only son, who went to live with grandma and grandpa – after all, only they were qualified to raise that child. The morons who made him hadn’t a clue.

 Willard remained fixated on the boy, however, scared to death for what his future would hold. It took time before they finally separated the two for good, which naturally was Willard’s fault; and those who didn’t believe that were punished and paid to think otherwise.  

Willard Tappan was the scapegoat child. Emotionally isolated from the rest of the family. Verbally admonished whenever Father found the need. Punished without cause, or for thoughts inconsistent with the lot. It was a vicious, diabolical terror I thankfully can only imagine. But his suffering was immense.

I often thought this was why Willard had such odd habits, like feverishly biting his toenails or pacing frantically about the room while mumbling aloud, rubbing his hands together as if he was washing them. He almost lost his soul trying to gain Father’s respect. And his search for refuge was endless and inconsequential.

But it’s also the reason Willard lives in Sullivan County, where things are tranquil and far less frightening. It’s where Willard can till the land. Grow his plants and vegetables. It’s where he can dress as he pleases, or talk in the manner God made him. And despite his obsessions and distinguishable habits, he seems reasonably happy.

Yet he can still hear Father’s voice as the crickets sing their evening lullaby. Willard says those screams drown out reality – to the eyes as well as the ears. It’s a haunting he felt might never leave. 

I well remember the cattle ranchers who abused Willard’s kindness some years ago. Had him doing hard labor for little to no money for hours on end. Willard said he was happy to do it, of course, for that’s what county folks do for each other. But these people lived in Wyoming County, not Sullivan; and when they tried burning it down for the insurance, Willard barely escaped with his life. He didn’t know it, but they had a policy on him, too. Willard got in a barfight later that evening, taking his anger out on some poor guy’s face before they pulled him off the guy.

But that’s how people treated Willard. I was thankful he found Sullivan County, for in so doing, he found a measure of safety, the incident with the ranchers notwithstanding. That, I assured him, was an anomaly. And it was.

But now, Father was dying. So it was his duty to make the arduous journey, despite the eventual consequences. Everyone was going to be there – brothers, uncles, siblings and cousins. Mother had it planned just as Father wished. And vacation with friends was her reward. She took it two weeks before this festive, living wake of his. Willard arrived, and things went as expected. The noticeable trace of anger. The jokes at his expense. The constant interruptions whenever he spoke. And the public reprimands for original thought. For eight days straight, and for no other reason than to honor the father who hated him, Willard Tappan took the triangulation, the crossing of boundaries, and the putrid indifference of his only child. And he didn’t get so much as a thank you as he pulled out the driveway and headed home.

That he flourished exponentially, despite this ongoing treatment, is a testament to his faith and integrity.

Two things about Willard everyone should know. One, he had Asperger’s, a mild form of autism which was dismissed as poppycock by the family when he was diagnosed as a child. It’s the reason why Willard gets discombobulated in crowds, and in places where noise and loud talk fuel the atmosphere. It’s also why his life is extremely ordered, neat and perfectly arranged so he could keep his mind clear. Clutter unnerved him, as did the unpredictability of people’s emotions.  

The second thing, of course, was his temper. Willard had a nasty one; his mouth was like a roaring lion, his fists like a matador’s spear. Though he was a loving, compassionate person, that demeanor was trumped whenever Willard lashed out. He said the things you’re not supposed say. Did the things you’re not supposed to do. Though I couldn’t condone it, I can’t say I blamed him, either. All bad things derive from something or someone. And so it was for Willard; the more sociable he was, the greater his risk for internal conflict. And ‘Kaboom’ was soon to follow.

He’d later say how happy that ‘Kaboom’ made Father; it justified the abhorrent treatment.

But he had a heart the size of the Grand Canyon, as I said; in this regard, he was as fine a friend as any. Willard was actually as harmless as a warm summer breeze as long as you understood his disability. And as I waved goodbye while he pulled away from Main Street, I mumbled a prayer under my breath - mumbling so God would hear, and watch over Willard as he drove.

Willard Tappan, age 44. Thinning hair and nimble, arthritic fingers. With one bad knee and even poorer feet. Looking older than his age. Riddled with Asperger’s.  Beaten down by abuse. He climbed into his car and took a deep breath as he drove away.

He was understandably exhausted after returning home, and phoned as soon as he arrived. “Can you come over?” he asked.

I told him I would, and hurried to his house. He was sitting on the steps as I pulled into the driveway. I could see tears in his eyes as I got out of the truck. He was chain smoking and shaking violently. “What’s the matter, Willard?” I asked him.

His response was frightening. “I’m going to kill myself,” he said.

“Why’s that, Willard?” I demanded to know.

“Hate.”

“Hate?” I repeated.

“Yes, hate.”

It must’ve been humiliating there. He likely needed a kind stroke or two after eight days of horror. “I think you’re a terrific friend, Willard,” I said affectionately. “The best I’ve ever had. Let the mother fuckers hate you. I know what you’re about…and so do a lot of other people in this town.”

“No!” he shouted at the tops of his lungs. His anger was boiling. He was ready to pop.

I put up my hands. “Okay, okay!” I said. “They don’t hate you…”

To which he laughed so hard, his tears dried up immediately. “No, you’re right about that!” he said. “Dad hates me like there’s no tomorrow. And the rest of them are who they are. I can live with that, Rob. They’re just another set of swing me peeps, like all the others. I know it sounds like I’m playing the victim…”

“You are the victim,” I reminded him. “It’s not playacting or self-pity. The man’s a vicious prick, Willard - and woe to those who sidle next to him. I think there’s a special place in hell for people like that. For all of ‘em, really. That you have the compassion to go when he’s sick, to help tend to things in their time of need – well, few possess that type of kindheartedness, Willard. And the fact you’re not a drunk, dope fiend, or picking off folks in a clocktower makes you a winner in my book, brother. Fuck those sons of bitches.”

Willard smiled and stuck another Newport between his lips while offering me one, forgetting I no longer smoke. And when he remembered that, he offered to have me come inside to fix me a drink - a proposal which I heartedly agreed to.

As he poured scotch on the rocks, I thought about the swing me peeps - those folks who took advantage of Willard at some point in the past. And they weren’t just family or friends; they were teachers, students, lovers, business associates – anyone whose relationship came with a requisite trust they’d eventually cross. Oh sure…his temper – which I’ve had privy to feel, incidentally – likely justified their actions. But these people lacked morality, and after witnessing the volatility upon which his life would careen soon after the trust was broken, anyone could associate causality.

And with parents complicit in this treatment, he never stood a chance.

He put the drink in my hand and sat on the recliner with his own, hoisting it in a kind of faraway toast as he remained hurting. But we drank and laughed the night through anyway. Willard passed out in mid speech on the sofa, and I wobbled down the hall to take the bed in the guest room. And as the morning sun peeked through the curtains, arousing my groggy state, there was Willard, standing over me in his bib overalls with a hot cup of coffee. He smiled as he placed it on the nightstand. The evening’s festivities did nothing to him; I, on the other hand, was hungover, and my head ached terribly. I pulled the blankets over me and went back to sleep as he bounded off to the fields.

Over lunch, I broached the subject of hate. Willard put down his sandwich as he answered. “It’s not their hate that bothers me,” he said. “It’s my own.”

“What do you mean?”

He sighed heavily. “I never defended myself, Rob…I never fought back. I never once remained true to my beliefs and innermost thoughts…”

“But you’re autistic,” I reminded him. “That type of emotional complexity is hard for people like you.”

“People like me?” he repeated.

“People with Asperger’s,” I told him.

For a moment, I thought the temper was about to surface. Instead, he smiled. “Don’t worry – I’m not offended. And you’re right. I should make another concession or two. But to tell you the truth, I let the bullies bully. I let the robbers rob. I always felt it was coming, but I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it, let alone try and stop it. I was afraid to; so, in a very real sense, I think I got what I deserved.”

I looked around the fine country setting. “But you came out on top,” I told him. “I mean – this place is fantastic! And your farm is profitable. People come from miles around to buy your produce and plants. You’ve great corn and potatoes, your winter wheat is suburb, and you’ve the finest tulips and sunflowers in the county. Not bad for a guy with such a distinct disability. And no matter what you suffered before the people here love you. And they respect you, too.”

He stood from the table and nodded as he poured another glass of tea. Then he turned, staring at me hard as he said, “I can’t stop it, you know.”

“Can’t stop what?”

“The race mind,” he said. “The temperment which boils inside me. It’s the reason I drink myself to sleep sometimes, and the reason I avoid folks. I’ve tried everything, buddy – pills, therapy, meditation…nothing works. It’s like I have demons running inside me or something. Yes – the early abuse’s a mitigating factor. But I’m not punished by their abuse as much as I’m punished by my inability to stop it. To simply walk away. Instead, I internalize it, rationalize it…then ultimately justify it. So you see, my friend, I’m not punished by their anger. I’m punished by being angry.”

As I opened my mouth to speak, he got that faraway look in his eyes and started pacing the room, clasping his hands together as he mumbled, his feet covering every square inch of the kitchen until he walked over every tile. Willard was lost in thought again, recalling an event I’d likely not wanna hear about. And when it was over, he went back to the fields, happily playing in the dirt as he left me alone to finish my lunch. I’m not even sure he remembered me being there.

It didn’t matter. I understood. I washed the dishes as a courtesy, then drove home.

Father died on the fourth of July surrounded by those who coveted his hard work and earnings, as a cache of fireworks blanketed the Louisville skyline. His remains were interned at a cemetery in Windy Hills. Willard did not attend the service.

Surprisingly, he left the bulk of his estate to him, after Mother got her due. All told, it was nearly thirty five million dollars. Willard was astounded. So was I. Everyone else got a tax free million, much of which they frivoled away. And suddenly, as if by proxy, Willard Tappan became the patriarch of the family. I could only imagine his joy and comeuppance at finally getting his just desserts as they came out of the woodwork begging for money, their warm smiles and affectionate embraces a notorious rouse inside the large country house he called home.

I wanted to be there when they came. I wanted to hear Willard turn them down. And above all else, I wanted to listen to that vicious temper of his. This time, its atrocity would be justified.

But instead of that, he politely honored their requests, the condition being they’d have to relocate to Sullivan County. They couldn’t understand why, and neither did I. But Willard explained he was the patriarch now. They’d have to honor his requests much like they did Father.

“But you’re retarded,” they pointed out to him. “Besides, we have lives – roots in our own communities. We live in the South. And we’re educated people, not farmers or plant rats. We can’t just pull up stakes and relocate on your say so, Willard.”

“And yet you’ll have to if you want the money,” he told them. As they mumbled and cajoled, stumbling about Tappan Farms like zombies, I placed my arm around him and smiled. What a fantastic twist of fate, I said, especially after all the grief they gave him. But he waved me off. “They’ve got to learn order and routine,” he said emphatically. “They’ve spent most of their lives orbiting the bankroll and working on these agreeable, complicit images of theirs. Now, they’re going to learn about substance. Faith. Community spirit. They’ll learn the beauty and value of Sullivan County, and comply with its ways.”

“But they’re transplants,” I reminded him. “Big city folk. People here are leery about those types. And you can’t expect them to simply fit in, Willard. Look at ‘em!” I shouted, pointing out the window. “They’re misfits! Greedy mother fuckers! As lost as people can be. They don’t belong here. Besides – do you really wanna be surrounded by folks who care so little for you? And what’s gonna happen when you go off again? Where’s your self- respect?”

“It’ll be okay,” he assured me. “I need this. So do they. And when’s the last time you saw me lose my cool, anyway?”  

He was right. It had been awhile. But I was uneasy; I couldn’t see the big picture Willard’s mind had painted for him.

The family took a long walk down Dutch Mountain Road, staring at the expansive acreage of potatoes and corn as the sun shone brightly above them. Walking in their khaki’s, designer t’s and soft shoes. Talking loudly as they went. Some of them fumed silently, others openly. But most of all, they wondered whether they could bow to the whims of the new ‘master’ of the family, even if it meant the big payday.

Willard ordered sandwiches from Mary Beth’s Deli while he steamed large, fresh ears of Pennsylvania corn on the stove. He extended the dining room table, then went to the basement to fetch extra chairs. As they gathered for supper, I watched as their knees banged nervously underneath the table. Halfway through dinner, they informed Willard they wouldn’t be relocating, but demanded the money anyway. “Father obviously expects you to take up his mantle,” they told him. “So maybe it’s you – not us – who should consider relocating. And it’s only right you give us the money and help out. We have children, after all – and they need it more than we do.”

“But your children are teenagers,” he responded, “and should be leaving the nest soon. And as for you, my son,” he continued, looking at him closely, “you’re a man. It’s time you start acting like one. The days of wine and roses are over. The same goes for the rest of you. Stop orbiting yourselves around the wallet. Quit living above your means. Stop jockeying for position and find a semblance of order and self-respect. It really isn’t the sizzle - it’s the goddamn steak! There’s more to life than what you know. Much more.”

“But ‘orbiting’s’ what you’re asking us to do,” they proffered aloud. “You’re telling us we’ll get the money as long as we do what you say…”

“No!” was his defiant answer. “True, you’ll get another million. But I’m setting it up in trusts, where you’ll each have enough to pay your living expenses. And your kids will have college tuition, too. But as for the rest…well, you’re going to have to learn to budget and make decisions. You’re going to have to work harder, be on your own as I have. Believe me, guys, you’ll wind up thanking me when it’s all said and done. A new era has begun for the Tappan’s! One that’ll last longer than any of us can imagine!”

“We won’t do it!” they screamed.

But Willard, to my astonishment, remained calm. “If that’s your decision, then I respect it.” They finished the meal in silence and returned to their rooms, leaving early the next day amidst a torrential rain that slowed their attempts out of town, which I’m certain they blamed Willard for as well.

Of course, he knew they’d be back. Not now, maybe – but when their resources were exhausted, as the misery which Willard knew so well congressed upon them, they’d be back. It was the true heritage of the Tappan clan. Misery and co-dependence. He knew it all too well. So did Father. And his father before him. But they just couldn’t turn the page like autistic Willard, for he possessed what they did not – true, unabashed self-honesty. It saved him, and likely might save them all.

Five years passed without so much as a word. I told him to give up this fantasy of his, to take a wife and start his own family. I told him to start living the way he was supposed to – whatever that meant to him. His farm was good. So was the house and his passive temperament. Any woman would be happy to have him.  But he was adamant, and said they’d get here one of these days. And he paced the room, mumbling to himself as he thought about them.

He was right. The following year, they contacted him.

And soon, a dialogue amongst them began. Mother was the first to arrive, followed by Son. Willard built her a tiny home a few yards from the main house, so she’d have privacy. He bought a house for the boy on Kramer Road, and found him a job at a processing plant in neighboring Colley. The boy found it more pleasing than he expected.

And over the years, as the life they so coveted disintegrated, the swing me peeps returned, one by one with hat in hand. Miserable at first, they soon discovered what Willard found so long ago. Peace. Happiness. A true sense of being in Spirit. They could see it in the eyes of Mother. In Son. And finally, in Willard himself.

The locals began calling Kramer Road Tappan’s Row. They called it that so much, they eventually changed its name to reflect it. Each were gifted houses there, and each home would pass from one generation to the next. They learned self-sufficiency and true family values, along with a sense of community and spiritual balance.

The Tappan’s flourished - and Willard never again showed the temper he was so famous for. It died when Father did. I couldn’t understand it then. But I do now.

He really was battered by his hatred, not by the family’s. He understood their anger; but he could never understand his own. I suppose God kept it instilled so Willard never second guessed what he was doing. I imagine He heaped this suffering upon him because He knew he could endure. And He knew Willard Tappan, unlike everyone else, saw the bigger picture.

It’s been years since ‘The Tappan Migration’, as those in the community like to call it. Still, no one but me knew of their wealth. That was a secret, though rumors did abound. Money can change things, Willard said. So they agreed to keep it a secret.

Eventually, Willard met a woman online, and though she was much younger than he, they fell in love and got married. I was happy for him; she seemed such a congenial, quiet and understanding sort. Exactly what Willard needed. The wedding was the largest ever seen in Sullivan County, which did little to dissuade talk of the family’s wealth and influence.

I lost touch with him for a while, until one wintry day when he called me over, explaining there was a large rafter in the fields, and that he’d like to bag a good Tom for the holidays. “You and yours come over, too,” he told me enthusiastically. “After all, it’s been a while since we hunted…or hung out…or had a meal together.”

“Yeah…what a family!” I joked to him. And we laughed so loud they could hear us for miles. But I agreed to come, and quickly made my way to the house. All of the swing me peeps were there, and I could see the extraordinarily large amount of turkeys Willard spoke of as I pulled into the driveway. Though they’re everywhere here, this group was larger than normal. Three or four times as big, in fact. It seemed odd there’d be so many. Just dumb luck, I thought. It made the hunting was too good to pass up.

“You ready?” he said as he answered the door. I told him I was, and off we went.

We perched atop some trees, dressed in camouflage as we eyed our prize. I shot first, spraying buckshot across the field as one fell, and the others scattered in every direction. Willard smiled and went for his Tom. But when he pulled the trigger, his Marlin XT-22 backfired and blew up in his face. The hole in his head was the size of an orange as he fell from the perch. He was dead before he hit the ground.

As I shimmied down, turning towards the house to call an ambulance, I could see the family huddled together by the bay window, the looks on their faces sending chills up my spine. It scared me to death to walk into that house alone.

After the funeral, I heard the troopers investigating his death discovered huge amounts of feed scattered across the field, explaining the large rafter. And his cartridge was fused with candlewax to make the buckshot deadlier. So the misfire killed him as opposed to wounding him. But Willard wouldn’t have done that to the cartridges or field. He was a purest in every sense of the word. Still, his death was ruled an accident, and the case was closed. The wife took over his estate, auctioning off the farm while the rest of the family left town, selling their homes from the comfortable southern environs they knew so well. Mother said Willard would’ve wanted it that way. It sickened me to no end.

Years later, widow and son were married. And shortly after that, she died under mysterious circumstances in a traffic accident on the I-65 Willard loathed to traverse. Son took over the money, and soon everyone returned to what they knew, which was orbiting the wallet and posturing, socializing with their pristine images in southern circles with their designer shirts and soft shoes while Willard’s corpse lay rotting in the Sullivan County soil he loved so dearly, and wished to share with them all. As I pulled the weeds away from the sunflowers and tulips surrounding his tombstone, I closed my eyes and imagined him on his tractor, lost in thought as he plowed the fields. Walking across the kitchen with his hands clasped together as he mumbled. Biting his toenails as he lay in bed. And finally, sitting at the head of the table with the swing me peeps he loved so much.

I could find no solace, no poetic justice in his death, and was left only with the thought that, one day, they’d reap the rewards of what they’d sewn.

I knew it would happen, too.

It simply had to.


© Copyright 2020 AJ Alexander. All rights reserved.

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