At unexpected times, I shiver, like an actual jolting chill, from a moment when I was seven years old—I forced another kid to eat mud, actual mud, real mud pie mud, scooped right from the ground with my little cupped hands and then shoveled into the mouth of another seven-year-old, who really didn’t deserve it but at the time, I felt, was begging for it; but, of course, when I play it all again in my mind, as I do, uncontrollably, from time to time, what he was really doing, as most kids do at that age (or any age), but one-upping me over and over: his Hot Wheels cars were better than my Matchbox cars, I had a Shazam action figure, but he had Superman, I had Lone Ranger pistols, whose gleaming had long since dulled from having been left out in the rain, and he had cap pistols (I mean C’mon–they even made little puffs of smoke that bloomed from the barrels when he shot them at imaginary masked marauders); yet the straw that broke the second grader’s back was when he arrived at our gathering spot along the trail that connected his neighborhood and mine one day, with an actual policeman’s badge in hand, its nickel and brass glinting in the afternoon sun, and proceeded to slowly strut past each and every one of us, his bony arm extended with the talisman dripping from his thumb and forefinger inches from our little, nonplussed faces, his high voice goading us, “I betcha don’t got one of these,” and he seemed to pause with a little extra delay before my face as he flexed the badge up and down, practically under my nose, when, from nowhere I knew, like a tube of Mentos dropped into a Coke bottle, I erupted into blind action and cast his frail body to the ground, dishing up clumps of nearby mud, and stuffing it into his mouth; and that is the image that bubbles up and replays in my head, at the oddest times, driving down the road on a sunny afternoon—suddenly, there he is; a year later opening a jar of peanut butter—that boy; two years following, walking into a record shop—that frightened face before mine, slapping my consciousness like a bad song whose melody I can’t quite erase from my memory, capable of spoiling any instance; but that just opens the door to what I’m really haunted by—the moments that followed, those minutes I never witnessed but am certain that took place: explaining what happened to his parents, the humiliation he must’ve felt, the violation his parents felt, and the boy recognizing that hurt in their faces, carrying that hurt with all of them for how long–what they all must have presumed about me, I can only imagine, a savage child unleashed on an unsuspecting innocent, who was merely going about his uncomplicated, promise-filled day until I came along and spoiled more than just his moment in the sun, but for what, revenge–no, lobbing back a once-and-for-all one-up, which is just what my seven-year-old self would argue–no, because somehow I had allowed myself, as children do, to be jealous of this kid and the things he had, and even the smugness he oozed—well, yes; yet across the decades that followed, I am the one left with such a bitter taste in my mouth, which could only be washed clean by an entreated absolution from a nameless man who I don’t even know whether or not is still alive, but who is ever present, nonetheless, and perhaps, I now suspect, is even conducting me, whether he knows it or not, in thought, in conscience, and perhaps with my own parenting, which is likely to be the surest path to purgation, as when on one recent ride home from my school, my son was grumbling about a fellow classmate, a small boy, smaller than the rest, who, too often, seems to clumsily weave into conversation his perceived prowess with whatever his latest undertaking may be—artist, musician, historian…even though he has yet to finish middle school—and, my son ending with, “And EVERYONE thinks he’s annoying;” to which I replied, to his annoyance, I’m sure, “Y’know, next time he does it, just say, ‘Hey, man, that’s great. Good for you,’ because,” I tried to explain (in my best Hey, son? Yeah, Dad? voice), “that maybe that’s just what that boy really needs at that moment—and when you really think about it, what does it cost you?”
© Doug Lambdin
Doug Lambdin teaches English at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, Maryland. His work has been published in The Baltimore Review, Bay to Ocean, Smile, Hon! You’re in Baltimore, Urbanite, The Baltimore Anthology and The Baltimore Sun, among others. “Life Sentence” is an exploration of something that still gnaws at the author, decades later, and is written in one long sentence.