Lickskillet Preview: Declin Ostrander

1

Declin Ostrander

I need to shave, I thought, rubbing my chin as I leaned into the rearview mirror. Sparse hairs covered my neck, encroaching on the soft edges of my jaw, looking more like a hand-knitted scarf than a beard. But maybe I could grew a beard out, the facial hair making me look older, more mature —girls liked guys who were more mature, that’s why they went gaga for hunks on motorcycles. Or maybe they preferred boy band aesthetics: shaved legs, faces, and chests, astronomically high-pitched voices. My expertise for what attracted or did not attract teenage girls matched my knowledge of interplanetary astrophysics.

Nil.

Exhaling firmly, I pushed the mirror askew and settled into the passenger’s seat. “Stop touching the mirror. I’m trying to drive.” My father glanced at me, beating his palms against the steering wheel to a static-garbled hip-hop station I knew he hated. “When was the last time you shaved?” Insert dramatic sigh and eye-rolling here—I couldn’t let him know he had caught on to this insecurity.

At a new school, you had to make a good impression, both for the teachers and the students. The first secret: arrive early, talk to the teacher—no one did that, not any kid at a new school. But if you arrived before the other kids showed up, you wouldn’t look like such a loser and the teacher might favor you for however long you stay in that town. When you move to a new city every six months, you tend to adopt a short-term mindset. You need not make a lasting impression, but you could score a few easy A-minus grades.

Once the hordes of students enter the classroom, assume the role of passive zombie. Years of firsthand research has concluded that participating in lessons did not lend good fortune to your social life. Become an actor, a liar.

Chew your pencil, nails; crack your knuckles; doodle meaningless designs, nothing too outlandish; text underneath your desk to all the friends you pretend exist; cross, then uncross your legs, then cross them again; stare out the window; if you have glasses, clean them every few minutes with the collar of your shirt.

Don’t question this advice. I was a champion liar once, a professional “new kid.”

At one school in Mississippi, I wore an eye patch and spoke with a Spanish accent. Told everyone I had been training to be a bullfighter all my life, until the tragic accident during my first match. Bull tore right through my eye, I told them. A miracle I even lived, actually. Before I fought, I had held such promise. They called me “the cyclone” once, but now they only called me “the Cyclops.” I moved to America for the shame of suffering such a loss.

We arrived in Lickskillet after the fact, as we arrived in every town. Always the outsiders, arriving in the wake of tragedy, and people looked at us as if we were carpetbaggers. Whether it’s a lynching or a gay suicide or a burning cross, we came. Summer almost over, downtown brimmed with people, a mix of teens and retired couples.

To lie so spectacularly you needed rules.

I could not lie outlandishly, unless I never needed to prove myself. For example, you should not attempt to convince the natives of Miami that you are a talented surfer; in rural West Virginia, this lie would be permissible.

I created lies to make myself seem more interesting because even being a new face in a small southern town became boring. How could you expect to make any friends?

As the radio station fizzled and crackled and finally my father turned the radio off, I remembered the past few years. A flaw in the system: something I needed to refine. Though lying made me often interesting, it did not necessarily make me attractive. Already a senior in high school, I had never even kissed a girl.

In Tulsa, you’ve seen a mob murder and have been relocated by the Witness Protection Program.

In Columbus, you’ve lived in the Australian Outback with the aborigines.

If you only ever stay in one place for a few months—the length of a hate crime trial—it was easy to be someone new.

In Lickskillet, I was nobody. For now, driving through town, I was only Declin Ostrander, son of a lawyer who worked for the Knights of Southern Heritage.

If no one knew who you were, you could be anyone.

A week before we arrived on a muggy August morning, a jogger took the running trail in Golden Oaks, zipped inside her nylon warm-up suit, plodding along with new running shoes. These health nuts, the retiree runners, they’re going to be pretty disappointed to outlive all their friends. I was too young to care about immortality. I planned on dying long before I was old enough that people would shrug and say, “It was his time.”

Running with an iPod in one hand, this old lady didn’t even see the body dangling there. Tied up in a tree that stood at the end of someone’s backyard, he hung from a noose and swayed. Five thirty in the morning, this woman was fiddling with the play menu so she could listen to a Sir Mix-a-lot remix. Her head bumped into a pair of heavy shoes.

These sorts of incidents—they always occurred just before we arrived. Suicides, murders, lynching, arson—in a Southern town like Lickskillet, there was really only one sort of people to blame. You couldn’t have a cross burning without referring back to the Ku Klux Klan—you knew them best as the racist organization that killed black men in the Reconstruction South and rebelled against the Civil Rights Movement.

My father knew them as clients. He worked all sorts of cases, for any groups that were blamed “with prejudice.” The Ku Klux Klan. Confederate American Pride. Neo-nazis. The Confederate Hammerskins.

The Knights of the Southern Heritage often hired my father, claiming that their group supported American values, not racism. That whole pack of bullshit. Like deep down inside they weren’t ignorant bigots, afraid of the big bad modern world.

Whenever something like this happened, there was bound to be a court case. My dad drove around to these small southern towns, representing their better interests. This time, we landed in Lickskillet.

We lived off the litigation of tragedy, drove town to town paying for gas with a sack of silver coins, nourishing our lives with strange fruit.

The people on the street walked with the tenseness of Atlas’ lower back. They kept flashing peace signs as a form of hello. Imagine everyone’s grandmothers gathering for the Sunday bridge game and trading recipes for kale and tofu wraps . Jeans rolled up past  ankles.  Politeness strutted the streets like a Western gunslinger.

In a town where a sinister and likely race-related crime had just occurred, Lickskilletans were trying too hard. Just for the record, I could hear people outside referring to neighbors as African Americans and Latinos. “Why, Gonzalo, my great Latino friend—you’re Dominican— how about dinner with my family tonight, after we finish the lawn of course.” Chuckling.

In the midst of a murder, Lickskillet was trying to reinvent itself. The Knights of Southern Heritage also tried to reinvent itself, to become a protector of Protestant values, as if a new slogan could fool anybody. But that was the idea—everyone was constantly becoming someone or something new, and so what if my way tended to be more direct?

“It’s all about marketing,” my father would say. “Whatever you market yourself as, you can be.”

Accents helped and so did good stories. Read plenty of books.

Be ready with a story if someone asks you why your parents made you live in Africa throughout your childhood without making you learn English. Just say, click-cluck-cluck.

Someone will ask about what your father does for a living: tell the truth, because in a few weeks, it will be in the papers about what people suspect. If anyone asks about your mother, don’t feel obliged to answer.

Make it something interesting if you choose to lie—don’t just say that she’s not around anymore. Tell people she died in a skydiving accident or was devoured by rabid sharks. Anything but the truth.

You’d actually be surprised how easily I could convince the people of Boise that I grew up in Africa—just click your tongue a lot.

What’s your name?

Click.

Where’d you come from?

Click-cluck.

Do you speak English?

Clackety-click.

The truth was, people around America didn’t know enough about each other to call me out and certainly not enough about the world.

If you started to hate yourself, it didn’t matter. It was not as if you needed to continue to be yourself. You could always be reborn the next time some teenage lesbian was murdered by a hate group that may or may not have been the Ku Klux Klan. In a few months, I would be a brand new person.

A new racism. A new city. A new house. A new you.

*

I scrunched up my face and pressed my cheek to the window.

“You hungry?”

“Sure..”

No matter where we traveled in America, there were greasy burger joints. Any town in the South, we could order sweet tea. Always some restaurant boasting “Kuntry Kookin’” and any in place, the same chain restaurants charging roughly the same prices. Across states, you’d be surprised how everything seemed exactly the same. Every new adventure just another old memory. There were minor differences, yes, but we could remind ourselves where we lived because in every town (no matter where we traveled) was a McDonald’s.

We ordered simple burgers and sat in silence. This kid across from us, he was maybe eight years old—sitting with his father, iPod ear buds drooping from the sides of his head. They sat eating, but not really talking. This kid just listened to his music, staring placidly out into space while the father read the sports section of the newspaper. And I kept thinking, “So, that’s a family.”

Maybe a couple of years ago, we were like that. After we lost my mother. Driving from town to town, silent at the dinner table.  Perhaps we were still like that.

Before he worked for racist organizations, my father worked for a drug company, repping for pills. We lived in Virginia, in a house with a wrap-around porch. In a town like that or in a town like Lickskillet, people never forgot who you were. After we became mom-less, my father decided we needed to move.

Maybe that was how it worked with grief, that change healed things. If you altered your entire life, got a nice shift in scenery, you would be living a new life. Your past may have never happened.

As I ate, I studied the brand new LED-lit screens, milk cascading into fancy coffee cups, mountains of whipped cream forming from nothingness. The way the menu looked, McDonald’s could have been a classy place. Exactly what I meant by, change was going on. Everyone could rehabilitate their image: from fast food company to snazzy coffee shop, from racist hillbillies to Protestant white knights. Everyone was trying to become something new.

Eyes clung to us from the other tables. Outsiders, the faces said. The yuppie dad and yuppie son, come to protect the rights of some racists who allegedly lynched a man who once was mayor. A man who had stabbed Francis Jameson and then hung his body from a tree in an upscale neighborhood. All of this happened; then the Knights called us.

After we finished eating, we drove to our new house. This time the house was a suburban cookie-cutter stand-up. With two windows, white trimmings, like every other house on the street. I had already seen it in the brochure, and believe me, it would be your dream house. Mine too. Everyone’s little dream home, packaged and shipped in pieces for you to assemble. Straight from your nearest IKEA.

The moving truck had already come and gone; the movers had unloaded our boxes of clothes and belongings in the foyer and left. What we owned totaled to ten cardboard liquor boxes. Moving around so much, we didn’t have time to accumulate junk, to let old toys pile up in the attic, old clothes sit in dank trash bags in the garage. Whatever seemed too old, too unused, we threw it away or donated. My father and I, we did not value many possessions beyond the essentials.

We were puppets with our strings cut.

As I trudged upstairs to unpack, my father answered his phone. “Burned down? Last night? Shit, I didn’t even—of course, I can be there in about ten. We just got to the house and—an emergency? Yes, I understand. I’ll see you soon, Mr. Rutgers.” He closed his phone and called, “Declin, I have to run downtown. Just make yourself at home. Remember, school starts in two days here. We might be staying all year, so—anyways, I have to go.”

Just like that, he was already gone. I walked through the empty house, trying out the appliances. Flushing the toilet over and over again. Washing my hands in the sink. Everything worked fine.

In my room, I unpacked the fin off a surfboard which I had crashed upon the beach. The eye patch which had covered my “bad eye.” We had only stayed two weeks there, so I never had to show them the hole underneath where my eye supposedly wasn’t. I laughed at that story, to myself: The Cyclops.

A few months, my father had said. We never knew how long we would stay anywhere. When we left, it was sudden. We arrived and departed in flurries of wind, on the whims of men I had never met before.

The television turned on, but it was pointless to watch, since we hadn’t had our cable hooked in yet. Instead, I walked outside into the small patch of corn-yellow grass that we called a yard. Up and down the street, the houses were identical. Anywhere in America, in any town or city, in any little suburb, that’s where I was. Everywhere and anywhere.

To reach downtown, I’d have to walk for only ten minutes. Locking up the house, I started off. In such a maze of sameness, I might have gotten lost.

A story, I needed a story. Not a surfer, not a bullfighter, certainly not someone who spoke no English. Something simple, enticing. Popular, certainly, with many old friends I could pretend to miss. From California, but not too far north– in the Bible Belt, “Yankee” was the worst name you could call someone.

Charismatic, funny, and well-known. I had a girlfriend named Meredith who was very attractive, though not the most attractive girl in the school. Still, so attractive and kind-hearted, it broke me up inside to end things when I moved. No one could console me. But if some girl tried, I was not exactly going to stop her. Or tell I was still a virgin at eighteen– that’d be a death sentence.

As I kept walking, I smiled to think of this version of myself, this wonderful, vibrant derivative of Declin Ostrander. Keep it simple, I remembered, and  pretty soon I would be on my way.

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©2015 PRA Publishing

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