Jack’s Naughty Bits: Keith Banner, The Life I Lead

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Jack's Naughty Bits

It must have been seventh grade when I was given the dubious honor of taking a class entitled Speech with a man whose teeth were small billboards advertising the deleterious effects of coffee and cigarettes. His breath, not benevolent, was itself an argument for having him speak to large audiences — if only to prevent the face to face. Yet it was in his classroom that I learned early and important lessons not only in oratory and argumentation, but in the harsh truths of Realpolitik — and of love. There was one Asian-American girl in the class, Josephine Moncrief, and my feelings toward her alternated between jealousy and infatuation. I wanted to be the best, most persuasive speaker in Speech class, yet I was not, and she most surely was. I still remember my reaction to her most triumphant speech — the topic eludes me, I believe it had something to do with the environment or global politics or some such — and as she concluded I blurted out: “But she’s too persuasive! Her facts are all wrong, but you’ll believe her anyway!” And the cess-mouthed teacher, though he remained silent, must have been thinking, Yes, Son, and ain’t it the way of the world.


Almost twenty years have passed, and these days I don’t put much stock in what are called facts. My personal politics reflect this epistemological crisis, and are based on trying not to tell anybody what I think they should believe (other than friends, lovers and family, of course). The truth is, I think I’m still smarting from the lesson of Josephine Moncrief’s speech, from watching someone twist what I held to be the truth into something that no one in their right mind would subscribe to.


The Greeks called verbal alacrity of this kind Rhetoric, and they took the discipline very seriously. In the Renaissance, people were terrified of the power of language, and feared that a good speaker could, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, get anybody to do anything he wanted. We think we are less gullible today — were it not for politics and advertising, it might even seem like Rhetoric was a dying art. But of course, it’s not, nor will it be as long as anybody cares about money or power or sex. Rhetoric and persuasion are manipulating us all the time, but we can’t always see the Josephine working us over without our being able to do anything about it.


That is one of the reasons why I was both fascinated and troubled by Keith Banner’s recently released, first novel, The Life I Lead. Its protagonist is a pedophile, yet I, like many readers, continually found myself sympathetic to him. To my continued horror, the understated rhetorical strength of Banner’s portrayal kept sucking me in, making me feel the full weight of this man’s humanity and his tragedy. Banner’s pedophile didn’t ask for his predilections, and, though you can close the book’s covers, if you keep reading, you can’t but feel for him. Banner captures the compassion behind the crime as he puts before your eyes the terrifying range of human possibility.

NB: The excerpt below is not an endorsement of sexual relations with minors. It is a fictionalization and is reprinted for the purpose of exploring a component of human sexuality.

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From The Life I Lead

by Keith Banner

The boy is walking toward the locker room, and there I am close to the front. He has got a cut on his foot. I am seeing him bleed. I thought that I was a ghost then, brought back into real life by the smell of his blood. But then again I was always with him, even when he did not know it. I was following him, walking through walls to get to him.


Me in church clothes standing there. He looks up at me. I stare down at his foot.


I say, “Oh my gosh. You’ve cut yourself, Bud. Oh no.” I was slowing down my voice to prove to him that he meant something to me.


“I know,” he says, slow-voiced too.


“What happened?” I say, people screaming and splashing in the background.


He looks at me and then gets it, that I really want to know. Nobody else wants to but me. So he takes me over to this broken bottle in the grass by the fence, on the other side of the pool.


“That’s what did it,” he says, all cute and serious.


Little thing just walking in the grass because the cement part was too hot and his feet were burning off. So he cut his foot on that glass bottle there, shining in the sun. Little drops of blood on the concrete.


“I’m going to take you and get that fixed up, Bud.”


Even though he seemed scared by me, the boy smiled and allowed me to lift him up. For all anybody knew at the pool, I was his dad. First I stop off in the locker room with him and put toilet paper on his foot. The blood glows through the white toilet paper. I carry him out to the car. This is the justice of stopping myself, for when I stop myself I can give up and get what I want: him, with a cut foot, in the car with me. This is why I tell myself to stop, so I can give in eventually.


The car starts, like it knows if it doesn’t I might crack wide open, my blood turning automatically into fire.


I go to the Super X drugstore and buy peroxide and cotton and bandages. I smile at the old guy cashier with a beard. I think he thinks of me as a sweet man buying clean things. Then there is the lady at the Motel 6, looking at me like I am a dope pusher or a sex fiend. She has a baseball cap on, spider legs for eyelashes. She takes my credit card, saying something about luggage. Any luggage? I don’t know what I say in return. But I leave with a key.


The boy waits in the car while I do all this, then I drive back to where the room is and then I carry him into the motel room in secret.


I take him into the green and white bathroom first off. Begin to wash his feet, especially the cut one. I wash the cut one very carefully. I wash the cut and his toes with soapy water in the white light, him standing on the sink, dipping his toes toward me. There we are in the mirror, it is not weird at all.


This is a painting of us in a museum. I think he likes what I am doing very much, in fact. I am just careful enough to let him like it. I realize too the Jesus aspect in this. I work the soap into a lather. The boy is quiet. Quieter than a cloud or than clothes-pins or a car dashboard in winter.


“Yeah,” I keep saying. “Oh yeah. We’ll get you fixed up.”


The peroxide, after I pour a little on, bubbles around his cut, bubbles and bubbles. I am so hard I feel like I could cut myself off from it and it would land soft on a pillow, its own dreamy thing. I cannot let him touch it.


I call him honey several times. Once inside the motel room, I start calling him that, instead of Bud. It just comes out natural. Honey this and honey that. Out in the bedroom, the TV happens to be on. Something on HBO with Sylvester Stallone. I keep the room dark, but it is not hellish, no.


I bandage his cut, and he is still in his swim trunks. One last time I look at him in the mirror after I dry off his feet. His face is serene, his black hair still a little damp, his skin glowing half red and half brown from being out in the sun.


Me and him walk out, and we sit together on the edge of the bed.


“My name is Dave,” I whisper, as we watch people get shot.


“Nathan,” he says.


“Nathan,” I say. “Now that is a name.”


I am not touching him. At all. Nathan is the sweetest name. It’s almost the same when spelled backwards, and this goes through my head several times: “Nathan” and “Nahtan.” It is so easy just sitting in the AC, hanging out with him, quiet, the movie going, me re-spelling his name until it spells my name in a way, like “Nathan” spelled backwards is my name spelled forwards. We sit there and watch explosions. I think of how me and Troy used to sit and watch TV all the time.


“What did you buy with the ten?” I say.


“I got an Uzi water gun,” he says, not taking his eyes away from the screen.


“Wow,” I say, laughing a little and crying. “You shoot people with that?”


“Just water,” he says.


“How’s your foot, honey?” I ask.


“Fine,” he tells me. He keeps it propped up kind of cute.


The credits are rolling, right after a big building blows up. Standing, I am crying but smiling. The crying scares him a little. Adults only cry on TV in his world. It reminds him, I bet, how serious situations like this totally are. But again, “serious” isn’t something this is about. This is supposed to be fun, supposed to be about him and me getting to know each other, the end.


I say, standing there in front of him, “Honey, I want you to stand up on the bed like a big boy.”


Seeing him, his ribs glowing through his skin, sitting there like he is in a library with no lights on, so well behaved, his foot Band-Aided, it is perfect. Even though I cry silent like that, my voice is still low-pitched. I think I was pretending to be a veteran baseball player. I don’t know. But then as soon as I ask, he moves. Just like my puppet. He stands up on the bed.


“Yes,” I say, like an exhale of breath that I had kept in all day.


The room goes all dark as I have reached backward and shut the TV down. I stand back and ask him nice if he would not mind pulling down his swim trunks.


Nathan says, “Why?” His face does not change. He just wants a straight answer on that.


This sends something through me. My heart shrinks up into a very small stone. I look at him in the dark, his face glowing, like cobwebs lit by a flashlight.


“I don’t know,” I say. And I didn’t know why, I did not, or I did but it could not at that time be put into real words. So I look at Nathan’s face, and he looks at mine. My crying stops. He has a small nose and thick eyebrows and he seems not to like being here anymore.


I laugh, to take away from the seriousness.


“Don’t do it,” I say.


I start laughing harder and harder. Get a hold of yourself, Dave. But I feel like the voice in my head is only joking with me and that kind of joking hurts me, like I am tricking myself over and over, endless: torturing myself with my own voice. Can you keep mocking yourself this way and stay sane?


“Don’t you dare do it,” I say.


What did my laughing do to him? I don’t know. I guess it scared him, I guess it made him think of how laughing and crying can often go together in a crazy world. I remember how Troy used to not cry in front of me out in the garage, but sort of hum, on his knees, like he was praying to the god of bees, and the humming turned gut-sounding after a while, like the sound of his voice was actually the sound of the blood going through his veins.


I pick Nathan up then and hold him up like a little baby, my arms sort of hurting.


“You,” I say, laughing more.


Then I put him down on his feet on the floor. He looks up at me.


“I wanna go,” he says.


“Well, I don’t blame you for that,” I say. “Not at all, honey.”


I go over and smooth the bedspread from where he had been standing up on it. Smooth it with both my hands, closing my eyes. The material is like satin, but has many snags from hangnails. He goes and turns the TV back on, sits down on the other side of the bed. I open my eyes then and stop smoothing out the spread, looking at the silhouette of Nathan’s face in the TV light. I think of what is inside that head, and how I am some man in the dark of his mind walking around smoothing out his footprints behind him. It is like he’ll never know where he has been because I am doing that.


“Well, honey, you just wanna stay and watch some TV?”


I laugh then. Softer. Sit down beside him. He looks up at me, his lips parting slowly.


“No,” he says, but also it is like he is trying to be nice, ’cause he does not move. I slowly take his hand in mine. We hold hands for a short while, watching HBO.


Soon after that, I take him out of the room. On the way back, we are both very quiet. Nathan just sits next to me, and then this is when I have the realization that I can do whatever I want to this little kid. Anything I please. It scares me deep down knowing how much power I could have, scares me where you have the fear of rats and snakes and high places and drowning in deepest water.

© Keith Banner