It was the touch of a stranger’s hand that shook him free from his murderous thoughts. Before the soft, plump hand intervened, he’d been walking through the Super Kmart looking for, of all things, a battery charger.
Out of the blue, chilling images of brutality and violence began whirling in his head like frames on a spinning reel of film. Apparently he was muttering profanities, too, because, as he was coming out of that familiar dark void, he recognized the sound of his own angry voice.
Startled, he looked first down at his hands—they were balled into fists—and then into the face of a stranger.
The woman was middle-aged with sallow skin and dull, brown hair, spun with threads of gray. Her turned-down mouth gave her an air of sternness, but her eyes were soft and kind and she looked genuinely concerned.
“You all right, fella?” she asked.
Robert’s face was splotched red with embarrassment. People were gathered and he could hear their murmurs.
The guy’s crazy.
Is he alone?
Someone had better call security.
He locked eyes with the woman and held her probing gaze until he felt steady enough to move.
Perspiration dripped from his forehead and stung his eyes. When, he wondered, did his thinking turn from charging the dead battery in his van to revenge on some faceless adversary? He wasn’t sure.
But then Robert never knew when he was about to go into one of his trances, or why he had such wretched thoughts.
As an adolescent, Robert thought a demon was in him. For a long time he reassured himself that his evil fantasies would one day subside, yet the intervening decades had not brought peace of mind; indeed, the uncontrolled episodes had intensified and come more frequent with age.
This one was so public and so obvious that he caused a scene in the store. He was frightened and ashamed.
“Can I call someone?” the woman asked.
“I’m sorry,” Robert stuttered, his mouth twisting into a grimace.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m all right,” he said, turning and walking quickly toward the exit. “Sometimes I just . . . I’m all right now.”
Robert was not all right. He was nearly sixty years old and could not remember the last time he felt all right.
His hard luck began, he thought, when he was born, by cesarean section, to a mother who was prone to her own fits of rage. His mother was a piece of work, all right. She used to tell him stories about her days as a chorus girl and, over his pleas and protestations, insisted he learn tap dancing, saying his “girlie legs” were pretty enough to carry him all the way to a chorus line some day. She had said it so many times when he was small, Robert later told people, “It’s a wonder I didn’t grow up to be a flaming queen.”
Robert grew up on a tiny lake in rural central Florida. His parents had built their cinder-block house piecemeal, and although it never seemed whole, what was there was pristine and generously shaded by palmetto palm and oak trees. Rattlesnakes and sinkholes posed the biggest threat to the harmony of everyday life for most of the folks who lived on the lake. Robert had his mother to contend with. At least his father could get away.
Robert’s father was a burly man who could hold his own in a bar fight, but at home he was subject to the strict rules of his overbearing wife, and he always ceded to her. Raymond Straley looked like Roy Rogers, but with one eye. He had lost the other eye in 1945 when his tank was bombed during the Battle of Okinawa. As a younger man, he ran moonshine in West Virginia, but by the time Robert was old enough to know better, Raymond was making a legal living, hauling sides of beef for the Lykes Brothers Cattle Company in Tampa. He told Robert that he couldn’t explain it, but he loved the road more than almost anything else in his life. He worked more than he was home. It didn’t take much for Robert to figure out that the job was his father’s way of escaping from the captivity of his stifling marriage. Robert didn’t blame his father. He went to bed most nights wishing he could get away from his mother, too.
If only he had known then what would happen once he got his wish.
Robert’s mother was certainly peculiar. A shapely, raven-haired beauty, she fancied herself an entertainer. More than anything else, she told her little boy, she had wanted to be an actress, and even changed her name from Betty to Elisa because it sounded more dramatic. Her unexpected pregnancy had foiled her dreams of celebrity, though, and she seemed never to have gotten over it. “This is what kids do for you,” she used to tell Robert, lifting her blouse to expose the ropelike cesarean scar that spanned her middle.
Between cleaning compulsively and hounding her submissive husband, when he was home, and her diminutive only child, who was at her beck and call, Robert’s mother spent her days composing songs and writing plays. Robert’s role was to memorize the lyrics and scripts and perform them at her whim. Even though it made him feel like the sissy his classmates at Lake Magdalene Elementary School accused him of being, compliance was still easier than making a fuss and triggering his mother’s temper.
If Robert and his friends had any doubts as to whether the Straleys were the oddest family in their North Tampa community, they were erased the first time Robert invited a group of neighborhood kids to the house and his mother performed for them, singing and playing her bongo drums. By the following morning, everyone at school had heard about the impromptu recital, and Robert was a laughingstock. He was ten years old and never brought another friend home after that.
As entertaining as Robert’s mother could be, her moods swung wildly, and her wrath was fierce. He never knew what might set her off. A moved tchotchke on a shelf or a footprint on a freshly swept rug was all it took. Then there was hell to pay. The emotional mauling was agonizing, and Robert used to wish she would smack him rather than badger him relentlessly for days after some perceived transgression.
Robert had not yet experienced the excruciating pain of physical torture.
When Robert’s mother’s mood darkened, her eyes turned black and her mouth frothed as she spewed her hatred until his ears actually ached. As much as her angry words hurt him, it was her surreptitious attacks, the ones she had clearly planned and he never saw coming, that were most disturbing to him. When she invited Robert to watch a movie on television that he was dying to see, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. Then, just before the climax, she switched off the set and walked away with a satisfied grin. He went to bed and cried himself to sleep.
Even when Robert asked her, “Mother, what have I done to make you hate me so much?” she never backed down or comforted him or said she was sorry. Her seeming lack of remorse over anything she did had served her well at least once.
One of Robert’s early memories is of his mother shaking him awake in the middle of the night to say an intruder was trying to break into the house. She was as cool as a cucumber. “Don’t make any noise,” she said, aiming her .38-caliber police special at the front door. Robert heard the door squeak open and then what sounded like a cannon exploding in his ear. He looked up just in time to see the silhouette of a black man falling backward out of the door. His mother pulled the door in, tied it shut with a piece of clothesline, and went back to bed. The next morning, the police found the man dead on the side of a road near their house. When they came to the door to question Robert’s mother, she explained that the stranger had tried to break in, in the middle of the night, so she shot him. The case was closed and his mother never mentioned the incident again.
It wasn’t long afterward that Robert started running away. The police always found him and brought him back home. The last time, when Robert was thirteen, he hooked up with two boys who were joyriding in a car they had taken from a relative. One of the boys had decided that running away to Miami Beach to be beach bums sounded like a good idea, but they didn’t even make it out of Tampa before they were caught.
That time, when the police brought Robert home, his mother refused to take him back.
“I don’t care what you do with him,” she had told the officers. “But he’s not coming back here. I don’t want him.”
As a minor, with a history of running away, Robert was shipped off to reform school. There he would learn what evil really was. That was the beginning of a long descent into a madness from which he had never recovered.
Robert stewed about the scene in Kmart for days after it happened, in that fall of 2006. The spell had been his worst yet and he was afraid to leave the house for fear of another public humiliation. Maybe, he thought, the trance had been brought on by exhaustion from spending so many weeks on the road. Robert had only been back home in Clearwater for two days when the battery in his van died and he went shopping for the charger. Before that, he had been working twenty-hour days, and when he wasn’t working, he was driving, sometimes as much as eight hundred miles in a day to get to his next show.
As unlucky as Robert had been in so many areas of his life, he was fortunate in business. After his marriage ended in 1993, when his wife Teresa had told him, “I love you, Robert, but you have so many dark corners,” he spent almost all of his time building up the company he founded twenty years earlier. Robert sold carnival novelties for a living. It wasn’t the most romantic career, but it provided him with a more than comfortable living and an escape from his loveless life. Glow sticks and flashing necklaces were all the rage at festivals from Little Rock to Oshkosh to Oswego, and Robert cashed in on them big time. The cheap trinkets had paid for houses in two states, exotic vacations, and pretty much anything else that caught his eye. One show could easily reap ten thousand dollars, but the kind of cash that Robert made required spending the entire summer on the road, traveling the national festival circuit.
Tour schedules were punishing, with seven-day workweeks and days that began at sunup and ended well past midnight in cheap motels. Sometimes Robert lost track of which city he was in until it was time to pack up the van and map a route to the next festival. Each stop meant unloading a truckload of merchandise, interviewing and hiring a crew to sell the goods, job training—Don’t be afraid to sell. Don’t stand in front of a booth. Don’t block the sidewalks. Seven-hour shifts. No breaks. No alcoholic beverages. No absconding with the profits. The standard was three to eight days in a city, and then the process began all over again. Even a young man would be challenged by the work Robert did. The last tour had lasted nearly six months and seemed especially grueling, perhaps, he thought, because his age was finally catching up with him.
If he wanted to avoid another humiliating scene like the one in Kmart, he needed to take it easy for a while.
Six weeks passed before Robert could go a day without dwelling on the dreadful incident. Fall had given way to winter. Florida’s early December sky was the color of blue lapis, and a clean breeze blew off the Gulf of Mexico.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Robert scanned the morning newspaper. As he buttered his toast, his attention was drawn to a photograph of a boy whose eyes sparkled with the innocence of youth. He stared at the picture for a long time.
It was the oddest feeling. Something drew him in, he wasn’t sure what, but he felt as if he was looking at a picture of himself at a young age.
Emotion choked in Robert’s throat and tears spilled down his cheeks. Bewildered, he wiped his face, thinking that it felt odd to cry. The last time he did was probably ten years earlier, when he learned that his daughter, his only child, with whom he had reconciled after a long estrangement, had taken her own life. Before that, he didn’t know.
The story in the Miami Herald said the boy in the picture died at a Florida boot camp the previous January. The local sheriff claimed that fourteen-year-old Martin Lee Anderson collapsed and died during a mandatory run. But a surveillance film showed a team of drill instructors pushing the boy to keep running after he collapsed in the dirt. When he didn’t obey their orders, the men piled on top of him, and one covered his mouth with a cloth until his writhing body went limp. It had taken the state months to charge the guards, but the case against them was finally headed to trial.
“Tinged with racial overtones and the clash of cultures as new Florida meets old, the trial of seven boot camp guards and a nurse in the death of fourteen-year-old Martin Lee Anderson will be watched throughout the nation,” the Herald wrote.
“The likelihood of conviction, some observers say, may be dim in this close-knit, God-fearing, law-and-order community where residents are more likely to speak with a drawl than an accent.
“ ‘That prosecutor has one heck of a job on his hands,’ said Miami lawyer Edward Carhart, a former chief Miami-Dade prosecutor who defended a police officer charged with covering up the death of Miami motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie. ‘If he has to try these people in the Panhandle, I give the odds as 10-1 against him.’ ”
Robert finished reading and felt that terrible, black curtain fall over his consciousness, and the rage begin to seethe inside him.
For a long time, he sat trancelike with the newspaper spread out in front of him.
The sound of the silence was broken when his clenched fist slammed the table.
Excerpted from The Boys of the Dark by Robin Gaby Fisher with Michael O'McCarthy and Robert Straley.
Copyright © 2010 by Robin Gaby Fisher with Michael O'McCarthy and Robert Straley.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.