Brenda Hancock Stahler, the daughter of Elizabeth and Frank Stahler of Newfield, CT, was married at St. John’s Church yesterday to Matthew Kulick, a son of Deborah and Dr. Michael Kulick of Newfield, CT.
—Hartford Courant, 12 July 2002
What can I say, I was in love with Brenda Stahler. I loved her from the twelfth grade through my first year of college until I met my wife Marcy, whom I cherish. As I recall, it wasn’t easy loving Brenda. I imagine most boys loved her then, but I remember feeling at the time that I was the only one who understood her, the only one who could understand her.
I also may have told this to my then-casual-friend Josh Allen. I really don’t remember.
But congratulations to Matthew and Brenda, the beautiful couple. I wish you the happiest of lives, filled with healthy children and tranquil days, and years protected from tragedy.
Of course, Matthew, know that I would look after Brenda should tragedy call you away. We were once quite close, I think. Yes, here’s to happy lives, unless something like a meteor or a truck sweeps Matthew off to a better life somewhere else.
I met Brenda Stahler through the friend I mentioned, Josh, the son of my mother’s business partner. My mother and Mrs. Allen ran a jam-packing business together. One time too many they joked how they wished Josh and I would get stuck together and make a best-friend jam sandwich.
This was like suggesting I duct-tape a piece of shit to my face.
At the time Josh was an outcast and a frustrated Satanist, working after school as the Stahlers’ pool-skimmer. Brenda was a stranger to me. I knew that she was the school quarterback Matt Kulick’s girlfriend and was off-limits to anyone but his closest friends.
Josh invited me to the Stahlers one afternoon, ‘as his assistant,’ he explained, so I could see the woman he had sworn to marry when he turned 18.
‘Josh,’ I said, ‘She’s dating Matt Kulick.’
‘I know,’ Josh said, ‘Don’t be stupid.’
Brenda lay in a bikini by the pool, trying to tan under the cooling October sun. Josh and I watched her from the corner of the pool house. Brenda was not one of God’s little mistakes; she was the argument against the idea that God could make a mistake. I had never seen her so close-up, and like they say in the movies, I was in love.
I coughed. ‘You know, she licks Kulick’s knob for twenty-eight minutes before every football game.’
‘Of course I know that,’ Josh spat, ‘But when Kulick loses the Middleton game, she’ll dump him. She told the school paper, she won’t tolerate a loser. And that’s my chance.’
‘Right. Because you’re not a loser. No, all the really cool guys spend their Friday nights packing jam or burning candles in their basement.’
Josh fumed and shook his head. ‘Brenda understands me,’ he said, ‘and Satan. She’s not as shallow as you think.’
I actually felt sorry for him; he really believed in a world where skimmers and swimmers could marry. Josh slumped away to bag his leaves. I looked back at the pool and saw Brenda shield her eyes and laugh to herself, watching him retreat. I laughed too, but she didn’t see me. She would soon enough.
Once Josh was out of sight, I worked up the nerve to introduce myself. Brenda invited me to sit down and gradually we talked, about school, about college and field hockey. She let me put lotion on her back, even undoing her bikini top so she wouldn’t get tan lines.
Next we French-kissed for an hour and a half before she offered to lick my knob. I refused, because I am a gentleman.
Brenda and I started seeing each other every day after school, while Matt was at football practice. For twenty-eight minutes in my basement, we built our own world, disturbed only by the sounds of jam. She would whisper to me underneath the conveyor belts, as preserves shuttled overhead, ‘Rosecrans, you are my only love, you are my seasons, my earth—you are just like Josh Allen.’
This was our little joke, and we’d laugh until we cried. Me? Like Josh Allen? It was too rich.
Josh was fired from skimming-duty for sinning himself poolside. Brenda’s mother saw him from the living room window and dragged him to the street by his handle.
Days passed, Halloween arrived, and with it, The Pumpkin Bowl, the big Middleton/Newfield football game, an annual match that Newfield had lost since 1931. Kulick was starting quarterback and I made Brenda promise that if Matt lost the game, she was mine.
The game went quickly. Our beloved Newfield Rams lost after a linebacker tripped on his own feet. Middleton took the field and ripped down a goalpost. I have to say, I didn’t notice a thing; I had only two thoughts: Brenda was mine, Kulick was humiliated. I started cheering and noticed that Josh, beside me in the bleachers, was cheering too.
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry I’ve been such a jerk lately. I’m in love with Brenda. I’m going to propose to her.’
‘I know,’ said Josh, ‘I’ve known all along. You two are perfect for each other. Let’s go to the bonfire.’
We walked to his car and for a moment, I felt bad, having passed around my history class a picture of Josh screwing a cat. (It really was Josh, and it really was a cat, but still, I could have kept it to myself.)
By the time we reached the bonfire it was dark, and I told Josh I would meet him by the grills once I had proposed. The ring was in my coat pocket, buried in a jar of jam I packed the night before. Once the ring had belonged to my mother, that very morning in fact.
I saw Brenda standing alone by the fire, a sweater wrapped around her narrow shoulders. I knelt behind her and whispered her name. She turned and smiled.
‘Brenda, will you marry me?’ I gave her the jar. She held it as if she’d never seen jam before.
‘The ring’s in the jam. You have to find it.’ She gave me a funny look and opened the jar. She swished her fingers around in the jam and pulled them out, sticky but empty. I grabbed the jar from her and stuck my fingers deep in the preserves. The ring wasn’t there.
‘You put the ring in jam?’
‘I swear it’s in here—HHRRMRMRPH’
‘Oh, that’s…gross. You just ate an entire pot of jam.’
‘Yeah, and no ring. Weird. Anyway, listen, I’m sorry. I love you—’
Brenda closed her eyes. She took two breaths and clapped her hands. I’d seen her do this before, the clapping, just after the game that night when Kulick collapsed into his coach’s arms, sobbing.
‘No, it’s over. Only a loser would bury an engagement ring in jam. I’m sorry I ever thought you were anything else.’ She clapped again, drew her sweater tight, and walked away.
I couldn’t believe it. I ran up behind her.
‘What,’ I asked, ‘if I’d found the ring? Would you have said yes?’
Brenda thought for a moment. ‘Knowing what I know now, of course not,’ she said, ‘but then, if the past minute hadn’t happened, yes, I would have agreed to be your wife. Now, if you’ll excuse me…’
She smiled and walked past the fire, into the shadows, as I covered my shoes in vomit.
As I said before, I was in love with Brenda Stahler from the twelfth grade to my first year in college when I met this chick Marcy at a pig-pickin.’ And Brenda had loved me back, for two weeks—I still have some of our conversations on tape.
—Seriously, Brenda, what do you think of Josh Allen?
—Come on, just say it.
—Fine. Josh Allen is a creepy Satanist freak that tattoos the names of his victims on his chest. OK?
The night Brenda dumped me I was in a weak state: my heart was crushed, my mind was destroyed. Josh invited me to the Sugar Bowl for a grilled-cheese sandwich and I accepted; like I said, my mind was gone, and I certainly hadn’t put two and two together.
The sparkling jam-jar in the glove compartment of his car was my first clue. But I didn’t figure that out for years.
Everyone was there at the Sugar Bowl: Our history teacher, Dr. Falcone, the twins Johnny and Meatpie, even our valedictorian, Ivy Slauson Decuir. But I only had eyes for one woman, Brenda, wearing Kulick’s letter jacket as she shared his cheeseburger, not mine. Even with grease on her chin, she had never looked lovelier.
Josh, whom I figured at that point for a friend, stood up at the table and ripped off his shirt. The restaurant went silent. Even Dr. Falcone looked surprised, despite the picture with the cat he’d seen that morning. In the few seconds between Josh standing and his shirt buttons popping off, the rumors came quickly to people’s minds. Most people in high school are accused of Satanism at one point or another, but Josh was now confirmed: emblazoned on his hairless chest were the still-bleeding initials of his next casualty to the Great Lord Satan, Otherwise Known As EVA: Brenda Stahler.
I don’t remember the rest very well. Apparently I stood up and challenged Josh to blows, or perhaps we traded blows, or kicks, I can’t quite say. I still have a scar on my right hand from one of his ribs. Later in jail I recall being asked to testify to Mr. Allen’s character, whether or not he truly was a Satanist, capable of killing that poor woman.
What was I supposed to say?
‘Yes,’ I told them, ‘But I think I can say this with certainty: A man is capable of anything when he’s in love.’
When I skimmed past her name in the paper, I figured she was dead—car accident, chemical incident—since that’s usually what gets your name in the paper. And I’ll admit it: I felt a quick moment of happiness. Good, I thought, or maybe, Right on. And then: You know what, I bet she killed herself because how could she be happy living her life without the upstanding and sterling yours truly?
So when I saw it was a wedding announcement, fury frantically coupled with humiliation. And when I saw she was marrying Matthew C. Kulick, the second-worst man I have ever known, I howled until my eyes ran with blood and I tore my shirt from my body in one smooth stroke. I held an unwound paperclip over a lighter and then went at the tattoo there on my chest, gouging it into a rough Celtic knot.
And after years of lukewarm emptiness, it was so nice to feel something again. The intervening years collapsed into a kind of sulfuric dust and I was back in Newfield, October 28, the annual Halloween game against the thugs at Middleton, screaming myself hoarse, a bottle of malt liquor stashed in the baggy crotch of my white slacks. And did I sense something even then? Was there a moribund sweetness to the moment, as if my eternal soul knew that this exuberance was all just about to end? Yeah, maybe.
Everyone packed into our bleachers was there to see Middleton lose, but I was there to see our star quarterback, Mr. Matthew C. Kulick himself (though in those days he hadn’t picked up all the lofty paraphernalia—he was still just Matty, and, to me, who’d known him since his pre-jock days, he would forever be Matty the Big Fat Fatty), fall on his face. A dislocated shoulder, a twisted ankle, a shattered jaw, anything that would uglify that gorgeous face or interrupt that cocky stride or dampen those razor-keen motor skills.
And I wasn’t alone. Cheering next to me was the worst man I have ever known, Rosecrans Baldwin (the Third!), my old jam-packing buddy (and you can rest assured that he used those jars of jam for any number of unsanctioned purposes, usually involving what he liked to call his knob, appropriate considering a knob is a stubby, rounded protuberance). I knew he was just as eager for Fatty Matt to suffer from a brain hemorrhage or sucking chest wound or pneumothorax. You could smell his feverish desperation, even through the pint of Wal-Mart cologne.
But nothing happened. I don’t think Matt even got a grass stain. Still, Newfield lost, Matt was a bona-fide loser, and Brenda had gone on record saying she ‘didn’t cotton to no losers.’ Still, being generous of heart, she ran to his arms and pretended to enjoy rubbing up against him, kissing his sweat-soaked lips with an almost convincing simulation of erotic heat. But I would expect nothing less from the young woman who stole the show as Old Man Warner in last year’s performance of The Lottery.
Afterward, we all piled into my station wagon and headed for the bonfire, which turned out to be two modest campfires situated near each other. Nothing like the previous year’s inferno that seared a hole in the sky and sent a dozen revelers to the hospital, shaking bottles and spraying the interns with beer. These fires were smoky and awkward. They smelled like gasoline. Someone had the gall to bring an acoustic guitar.
Rosecrans took me to one side, looking effete and sickly in his letter jacket (badminton). He brandished his lucky jar of jam—or rather my lucky jar of jam since his had been safely stowed in a top-secret location—and chattered away in his nasal whine. I tuned him out as usual and took in the splendor of Brenda by firelight, arms wrapped around herself (still not fully recovered from the nipple incident back during a debate in junior year), head down, tilted, looking at nothing, one side of her mouth curled up, not a smile or smirk or anything, just the way her lips turned when in neutral. So lovely, her sinuous motions meant just for me since Matt was off to look for some duct tape to repair his beer bong, and Rosecr—
Rosecrans was making his move! He was hovering next to her like a ghoul, rubbing jam all over his face, forcing her fingers into the jar, leering and giggling. A shard of pity entered my heart then, because I knew how strong Rosecrans’s feelings were for Brenda, and I knew that jam was the only way he could think to express them, and I knew that the look of absolute horror on Brenda’s face would haunt him for the rest of his opium-numbed days, but none of this stopped me from laughing with delight and glowing with the knowledge that I would be the one.
This glow dimmed a little when I saw Brenda retreat into the meaty arms of Matt, who proceeded to give her a noogie. I quickly intervened, gathering everyone up and escorting them to the Sugar Bowl for grilled-cheese sandwiches. I operated best in artificial light, which would clearly illuminate my secret weapon.
Rosecrans was quiet (for once), trying to clean his face with a dozen pre-moistened towelettes, and Matt had no idea what was going on. He stuck french fries under his lip and pretended to be Dracula. He chewed ice. He wound up his straw and made Brenda snap it. He said the first fifth of the alphabet while belching. He hung a spoon off his nose. He sang a few verses of the bananafana name song. He summoned the waitress by name. He pointed out how his sprig of parsley looked like a miniature tree. He dropped Sprite on his scrunched-up straw wrapper and watched it writhe and expand. He made a hand-puppet out of his napkin. He nose-whistled.
With my longtime rivals in weakened states, I knew I had to strike. The heavens were crying out for it. When Brenda ‘accidentally’ brushed against my hand while reaching for the ketchup, I took the hint. Now was the time.
I slowly unbuttoned my shirt, prolonging the moment as instructed by the numerous seduction manuals I’d checked out from the library. I wet my lips with my tongue, nodded (‘Always nod,’ said the manuals, ‘always be saying yes yes yes’), raised an eyebrow, and then, finally, when the intensity there in the booth had reached a fever pitch, I opened my shirt all the way and showed her the brand-new tattoo there on my chest, still red and scabby, the letters JGA+B?S 4-EVA surrounded by a winged heart.
‘Forever,’ I said, as decided a week earlier. ‘You,’ pointing at her, ‘and me,’ crossing my hands over my heart, making the universal gesture of I cherish you where it counts, sweet angel.
‘Is that some sort of code?’ Rosecrans asked. ‘What the hell is that question mark?’
‘I…I couldn’t remember her middle name,’ I said, my soul turning black with fear and rage. ‘Um, I don’t think I ever knew it, but I think someday…someday, Brenda, we’ll be close enough for you to share that special, secret information with me and only me, and that is a day I eagerly await.’
‘Um, what?’ Brenda said.
‘It’s Hancock, you retard,’ Rosecrans said. ‘Don’t you remember saying like, ‘Oh man, I wish she’d handle my cock.’’
‘Oh yeah,’ I said, then: ‘Shut up! I never said that!’ And I lurched across the table, grabbed him by his Izod lapels and repeatedly jabbed my spoon into his face. His shriek, girlish and atonal, sounded sweet to my ringing ears.
By the time he managed to throw me to the floor, Brenda and Matt were out the door, arms linked like they were on the way to some fucking square dance, laughing. I got up and tried to flip over the table in a blind fury but it was bolted to the floor. I called Rosecrans a churl or perhaps a freaking jackanape and then went chasing after my love only to be knocked down again by our history teacher Dr. Falcone. He shoved his knee against my throat, pinning me, then pressed a crucifix deep into my forehead. ‘E pluribus unum!’ he howled. ‘Canis est in via!’ Then I blacked out from lack of oxygen.
And I didn’t come to until today, not really. The years have passed in darkness, silence, my heart cold and dead, my sinuses choked with the stench of boiling pectin. But somewhere inside me, all this time, were two deadly shards of hope. Hope that one day Brenda would realize her mistake and come running back to me, and hope that Rosecrans would get pushed down a set of stairs and land face-first on a poisonous eel. And even though that first hope died today with the arrival of the morning news, I think my friend Slitherin’ Sam, whom I’ve been training for months, will make sure the second hope will, at long last, become a reality.