The Observer has been thinking a lot about guilt and innocence recently, a cerebral by-product of a story I’m working on about a guy who spent a lot of years in the Concrete Hotel for a crime he may well have not committed in the first place, put there partially on the word of a cop who later resigned after admitting he cooked up evidence in a very similar case. Stay tuned for that one in the Arkansas Times soon. I am, in general, a guilty sort. A confession then, after all these long years:
When I was 6 years old, already a scribbler, Santa brought me a diary with a lock. You cannot imagine, dear friend, how thrilled I was with the prospect of having a place to write things beyond the grasping, ammunition-gathering eyes of my older brother. The Lad Observer wrote little snippets of my day in that diary for two weeks — all my secret fears, unspoken slights and desires, which ain’t much when you’re 6 years old. If The Observer had a second birth as a writer, it was there. Writing, writing, writing, sometimes long after supposed lights out, by the yellow glow of Pa’s tar-spattered G.I. flashlight. I learned the delicious feeling of words curling out of my brain and through the Mercury dime-sized spot all writers have in the middle of their foreheads; of seeing thoughts manifest themselves. I learned of the power of revealing the truth. I learned to trust the truth to see me through.
Then, I lost the key.
Lost? Filched by my asshat brother? Who knows, but it was gone. Oh, I could have pried open the lock with one of the old, nicked screwdrivers that lurked in the bottom of Pa’s toolbox. But what use is a locking diary with a broken lock? So, sadly, I put it away for awhile, in that world before step-by-step YouTube videos on how to pick diary clasps.
A few days later, while accompanying Ma and Pa on their weekly jaunt to the Safeway store, The Boy Observer was wandering the aisles, no doubt sucking on a root beer barrel bought from the honor system nickel candy bins, when I saw a stack of diaries just like mine, this being surely the same place Santa had purchased mine. I moved in closer and saw that to each, strung to the clasp by a hair of white twine, was a key. Under the covers at night before lights out for real, I had studied every groove of that key, concealer of all my mysteries. These were exactly the same.
My allowance was gone by then, spent on root beer barrels and slushies at Markrum’s store and who knows what, and I knew Ma would never buy me another when the other wasn’t even half full yet. Just break the lock, she’d say, not understanding what that lock meant to me — which was, of course, everything.
Before I could think, I did the unthinkable. The twine broke with a “tik” and then the key was in my pocket, heavy, so hot on my leg that I thrust a sweaty hand in after it and crushed it in my fist. I found my parents and walked with them, guilty hand in shameful pocket, silent and tormented as they paid for the groceries. I was sure a klaxon would sound as we walked out, searchlights raking the aisles like in the old black-and-white prison break movies Pa watched on TV. But none did.
I almost made it home before I ratted myself out, Pa pulling Ma’s pea green Pontiac onto the shoulder near a stony rock quarry as I tearfully confessed my crime. I tried to explain and failed. Finally, I produced the key, which lay damnably on my varnished palm. Everybody in the car stared at it in silence but me, weeping inconsolably, entombed in the green vinyl hell of a mile-deep Bonneville backseat.
After dropping off Ma, siblings and the groceries at home, Pa drove me back to the Safeway, not angry but quietly disappointed, which is worse. There, I was gently marched inside and made to apologize and return the key to a balding assistant store manager who looked like he was sent over from a Norman Rockwell painting called “Guilty Little Shit Returns What He Stole.”
Thirty-four years later, and the shame of that moment has never left me. It has obliterated the fate of the diary altogether, whether I went ahead and jimmied the lock or just cast it into the burn barrel out back with the trash. The key is everything now, and still haloed in neon guilt. The Observer has never, for instance, told that story to anyone, not even my wife. But now I have told it to you.