If you discount countless, forgettable chunks of time spent at school, home, and 7-Eleven, I passed most of my waking hours from ages ten through twelve playing baseball and goofing off with friends at the Point Loma Little League fields. Those two adjacent baseball fields were about a mile from my house, and twice a week my team, the San Diego Credit Union Padres, would gather there to practice.
“You should just be called the Padres, not all that bullshit about credit unions,” my dad said, as he drove me to the field on the opening day of the season when I was eleven years old.
“But the credit union pays for us to have a team,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I pay for you to do everything, and you don’t see me making you wear a shirt with my giant goddamned face on it.”
“That would be a weird shirt,” I said.
“Please. You wear all kinds of dopey shirts, and — what the fuck am I talking about right here? The shirt’s not real, I’m just making a point. You got your gear?” he asked, pulling up to the field.
Saturdays were filled with a full lineup of games, all of which the league’s players were required to attend, so my parents could drop me off bright and early and then do whatever they wanted all day until my game. The prospect of a morning to himself was very exciting for my dad.
“There’s a lot of good teams this year, I think,” I said, continuing our conversation as we arrived at the fields.
He reached over me and popped open my door.
“Fascinating. Now out of the car. Vamoose. Out! Out! Have fun and don’t screw with anyone bigger than you. I’ll be in the stands when your game starts,” he said.
I put my hand up for a high five, and he used that hand to push me out of the car. Then his Oldsmobile screeched away up the street, like he was fleeing the scene of a double homicide.
When we weren’t playing in a game, most of the Little Leaguers would keep busy playing tag in between the two fields or eating a spicy linguiça sausage made by the local Portuguese family that ran the snack shack above the field.
Every once in a while, someone would raise talk of venturing into the canyon that sat about fifty yards beyond the outfield fences. We were all scared of the canyon. It was packed with trees that grew so close together their branches became intertwined like a bundle of snakes. The canyon’s ground was muddy, and it emitted an odor that registered somewhere between “maple syrup” and “rest-stop bath room.” It was a group of cannibals short of being the perfect setting for an Indiana Jones film.
Every kid you ran into had a different theory about what lurked inside the canyon walls. “My brother found a pile of poo there that he said was too big to be dog poo or cat poo, but not big enough to be human poo. He said it’s probably wolf poo,” said my friend Steven as we waited for the game ahead of us to finish so we could take the field.
“Your brother’s an idiot,” said Michael, the chubby catcher on my team, who always wore his hat backward, so that the back of it came down right above his dark-green eyes. “A bunch of gays live in there. That’s where they butt-fuck each other.”
“What? Why wouldn’t they do that at their house?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I’m not a homo. But if you want to get butt-fucked, go into that canyon,” he responded, inhaling a bite of sausage that would have killed a lesser twelve-year-old.
At that point in my life, the only two things that scared me were the movie Arachnophobia and that canyon. I tried to never get too close to it, for fear that something might reach out of the forest and pull me in. If I absolutely had to go near to chase an errant throw, my neck would stiffen and my breath would quicken as my body prepared to flee. I decided to run the theories about its inhabitants past my father to see if he had a scientific opinion on the matter.
“Why would gay people screw each other in a canyon filled with wolves?” my dad asked me as he drove us home after my game, my mom sitting beside him in the passenger seat.
“No, that’s not what I said. One kid said there were wolves. It was a different kid who said the thing — ”
“Hey, look at me, I’m screwing. My pants are off. Oh shit, there’s an angry fucking wolf. Does that make any goddamn sense to you?”
“No. But that’s not — ”
“Plus,” my dad interrupted again, “I don’t even think wolves are indigenous to this area. Your school takes field trips. You ever heard them say shit to you about wolves? You gotta think about these things critically, son.”
“No, I do. I didn’t think that the wolves were — ”
My mom turned to face me in the backseat. “Also, Justy, you know that homosexuals have sex just like heterosexuals do: in the privacy of their homes. Not in the woods.”
“Although sometimes straight people do screw each other in the woods. Mostly when you’re in high school, though,” my dad added.
I decided to drop the conversation. But that week, on two consecutive nights, I had nightmares about the canyon. Each involved me finding something terrifying in a clearing at the center. In the first dream, I stumbled upon an aquarium that had a screaming Patrick Swayze trapped inside of it, begging me for help, but I was too scared to approach him. In the second, I was confronted by a large squid that had two or three sets of human legs. After that last dream I shot up out of bed, wide awake. I tried falling back to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I pictured the canyon, then Swayze, then Squidman.
Hoping it would relax me, I tiptoed out of my bedroom to grab some water from the kitchen. I was still shaken from the dream, and the shapes of the shadows on the hallway wall looked ominous. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something move, and I froze in place. It’s just a shadow that looks like a person, I told myself. It’s not a person.
“What in the hell are you doing?”
I shrieked like a frightened monkey and jumped back, crashing into the bookcase behind me. As my eyes adjusted I realized that the shadow was my dad, sitting in total darkness in the La-Z-Boy chair that faced the windows to our backyard.
“Jesus H. Christ. Calm down, son. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I had a freaky dream,” I said, trying to catch my breath. “What are you doing?”
“I’m sitting in the dark drinking a hot toddy. What the hell does it look like?”
“Why are you doing that right now? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Well, contrary to popular fucking belief, I enjoy a little time to myself, so I wake up early so I can have it. Clearly I’m going to have to start waking up earlier.”
“Oh. Well, sorry. Didn’t mean to bother you,” I said, turning to head back to bed, glass of water forgotten.
“No apologies necessary,” he said.
Maybe it was the bourbon in the hot toddy, or the serenity of the darkness all around him, but at that moment my dad seemed uncharacteristically at ease.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said, turning to face him again.
“If something’s freaking you out, what do you do to not freak out about it?”
“Is this about that Arachnophobia movie, again? I told you, a spider that large couldn’t sustain itself in an urban environment. The ecosystem is too delicate. Not fucking plausible.”
“It’s not about Arachnophobia. It’s just — if something’s freaking you out, how do you get it to not freak you out?”
He raised his mug of hot toddy to his lips and took a big slurp.
“Well, scientifically speaking, human beings fear the unknown. So, whatever’s freaking you out, grab it by the balls and say hello,” he said.
I had no idea what that meant, and even in the dimly lit living room he could tell.
“I’m saying, if something’s scaring you out, don’t run from it. Find out everything you can about it. Then it ain’t the unknown anymore and it ain’t scary.” He paused. “Or I guess it could be a shitload scarier. Mostly the former, though.”
As I padded down the hallway back to my room, I knew what had to be done: I had to enter the canyon. There was just no way I was going it alone.
The next day I sat in my sixth-grade class watching the clock as the hour hand inched closer to 3:00. Michael was also in my class. He sat at the desk in front of mine, which meant that every day I spent eight hours face-to-face with whatever slogan was on the No Fear T-shirt he chose to wear that day. The inspirational messages printed on the backs of No Fear T-shirts all sounded like they’d been written by the president of a fraternity moments after he pounded his sixth beer. And the message on Michael’s shirt that day was no exception: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS. NO FEAR.
I tapped him on the shoulder. “Michael,” I whispered.
Without looking behind him, he reached up with his left hand and grabbed my index and middle fingers, twisting them till I winced in pain.
“I just learned that in karate,” he said, turning around, then letting go of my fingers. “I’m probably a year away from black belt.”
I opened and closed my hand to get the feeling back in my fingertips.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“You’re going to baseball practice after school today, right?”
“Duh. I just got a new bat. It’s part ceramic. It’s awesome. You can touch it if you want,” he said, pulling a bag from under his desk and unzipping it to show the blue-and-white bat inside.
He stared at me, then at the bat, then back at me, and I realized that his offer to let me touch it was more of a demand. We stared at each other for a moment, then I quickly poked it with my index finger.
He put the bat away. “Fucking awesome, right?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s cool. So anyway, I was thinking, since we both just go straight to practice after school, we could get there early today and go into the canyon.”
Michael and I weren’t friends, not exactly. He was a tough kid, the kind who spent most of his free time with older kids who had mustaches and were always throwing things at cars after school. But Michael was always willing to share with us what he’d learned from the older kids, and that was a real benefit to all of us.
I owed pretty much everything I knew about women at that point to Michael. During recess one day he pulled us into a corner of the yard behind the library and took out a folded-up picture. It was a page from a medical journal, featuring a photo of a forty-five-year-old naked woman, with possible postmenopausal cancerous areas highlighted on her body. Except for my mother, it was the first naked woman I’d ever seen. Michael pointed at the woman’s crotch with his stubby finger. “That’s where you stick your dick. They also pee out of that, and sometimes shit out of it if their butt’s clogged.”
It was this very wisdom and worldliness that inspired me to ask Michael to explore the canyon with me. I was, admittedly, a kid who was easily shaken. I wished I could be as fearless as my dad, but I seemed to have a different biological makeup when it came to courage. Michael was the only kid I knew who wasn’t afraid of that canyon.
“So are you cool with going into the canyon with me?” I asked.
“I guess. If you buy me a Slurpee. Don’t try and touch my dick, though.”
One seventy-nine-cent stop at 7-Eleven later and we were walking toward the Little League field. The closer we got, the more I could feel the pit of nerves in my stomach tightening.
“So you’ve never gone really far into the canyon before?” I asked, trying to calm myself.
“Why are you so gay for the canyon?” Michael asked.
“I’m not. I just want to go in, look around, then come back out before practice.”
“Are you retarded? You can’t just go into the canyon and not know where the coach is,” he said. “What if he gets to practice early, then sees us coming out of the canyon?”
“So what do we do?” Michael quickly laid out a plan that seemed foolproof and tossed his thirty-two-ounce Slurpee container into a bush as we arrived at the empty field.
Sure enough, he was right about Coach. He’d arrived early for practice, and would surely have caught us sneaking out of the canyon if we’d opted for my plan. The rest of the team straggled in soon after. My friend Steven, who I always warmed up with, grabbed a ball and walked up to me.
“Ready to warm up?” he asked, popping a ball in and out of his glove.
“Not today. Go warm up with a big dick,” Michael said to Steven, grabbing my arm and dragging me to the far end of the field. I glanced back at Steven and winked, assuming he’d understand that something was up and he shouldn’t take it personally.
Michael and I started playing catch in the outfield. At any moment, Michael was going to say the code words and it would be go time. The anticipation was unbearable. I could barely hold on to the ball, my hands were trembling so badly with excitement. Suddenly, Michael’s face hardened. He looked at the coach who was helping another kid about fifty feet away, then looked back at me and uttered the code words: “My dog peed in the house yesterday.”
I took a deep breath, reached my arm back, and hurled the ball at least ten feet above Michael’s head. It shot well past him and deep into the darkness of the canyon behind him.
“Coach!” Michael yelled. Coach looked up from the lesson he was giving to another kid. “Our ball went into the canyon. We’re gonna go look for it, okay?”
“Fine. But if you can’t find it quickly, come back up,” Coach replied.
We nodded and jogged through the outfield and down the twenty-foot grass embankment that led to the canyon. At the bottom of the embankment we looked up. It was impossible for anyone on the field above to see us.
“Okay,” said Michael.
“Okay,” I replied.
“Okay what? This is your thing, shithead. What do you want to do?” he asked impatiently.
I looked into the canyon, now just ten feet or so away. I could see past the first layer or two of tree branches and bushes, but beyond that it dropped off into darkness. I took a deep breath. There is no Patrick Swayze in an aquarium, I thought to myself. There’s no Squidman.
“Okay. Let’s go in through that part right there,” I said, pointing to a small path that crawled through two trees.
Michael took the lead, and within twenty seconds we were deep enough into the canyon that when I turned to look back in the direction we had come from, all I could see were trees. The floor of the canyon was covered with dead leaves and some garbage: a few candy wrappers, a few empty 7-Eleven cups, which I strongly suspected had been hurled there by my comrade. My nerves were slowly subsiding. The farther we went, the less there was to look at. Just more trees, dead branches, and bushes. The unknown was quickly becoming known.
Michael was about ten feet to my right when he waved me over. “Whoa. Check this out,” he said.
I hopped over a fallen tree and made my way over to him.
Michael moved aside, pulled back a couple branches, and pointed to what lay behind them. As he stood there holding it open for me, my mind started racing. I do not want to look inside that hole, I thought. Yes, I do. I should look inside the hole. There’s nothing there.
“Hey. I’m not your branch-pulling guy, asshole. You gonna check this out or not?” Michael sniped, still holding back the brush as he waited for me to make a move.
I leaned forward and stuck my face into the opening Michael had created for me. Just past those branches lay a clearing, much like the ones I had seen in my dreams. Except this time there was no Patrick Swayze. In his place was a dirty sleeping bag and several blankets surrounded by garbage.
“I think somebody lives here,” Michael said.
I could hear myself breathing in and out as my hands began to tremble once again, this time in fear.
“We should go back to practice. Coach is probably wondering — ”
“Coach can suck a dick,” Michael snapped.
He nudged me out of the way, pulled the branches farther open, stepped on the trunk of a fallen tree below him, and in one motion hopped through the small hole he’d created for himself. The branches snapped closed as I stood on the other side of the clearing. I could hear Michael walking around but couldn’t see him. I stood motionless, hating myself for being frightened. Then the small window of branches reopened and Michael popped his head back through. “Are you seriously going to be a bitch?”
He grabbed my shirt and yanked me into the clearing. As I stumbled onto the other side of the branches, I realized that more than one person might be living here. There were piles of clothes caked with dirt, and empty cans of beer were strewn everywhere. Michael approached the sleeping bag surrounded by the trash pile.
“I think this is a bum cave,” he said, nudging a couple of empty cans with his foot. Then something in the pile of trash next to the sleeping bag caught his attention. He knelt down beside it. Suddenly his head whipped.
“HOLY FUCKING SHIT.”
“It’s the mother lode! Look at all this porno!” he shouted, shoving his hands into the pile like a pirate who’d found a trunk full of gold doubloons. With a look of pure ecstasy, he held up two handfuls of the dirtiest porn I could have imagined. There must have been a hundred more pages at his feet. I picked a few up and fanned them out in my hand. I had never seen so many pictures of beautiful women, let alone naked ones. I pumped my fist in the air like I’d just hit the game winning shot in the NBA Finals. This was my greatest accomplishment. The adolescent equivalent of landing on the moon.
At the time, porn magazines were like Lamborghinis: You knew they existed, and though you’d never seen one in person, you were sure you’d have one when you got older.
“I can’t believe this. I just — man, we did it. We did it!” he screamed.
There was only one problem: What were we going to do with it all? Leaving it behind was not an option. After a few minutes of brainstorming, the best option we came up with was shoving the pages into our pants and keeping them there till we were through with practice. Michael shoved a trial page in his pants, then took a step forward and backward, as if he was trying out a new pair of sneakers.
“It’s too itchy,” he declared. “New plan.”
Eventually we decided the only option was to carry as much of the porn as we could out of the canyon and hide it beneath some leaves at the bottom of the embankment next to the field. After practice we could come back and get it. We started sorting through the loot, trying to decide which pages were must-takes.
Suddenly I heard a crack of a branch, as if caused by the weight of a foot. I jumped back, ready to run. We both looked around, but saw nothing. The silence was eerie.
“What if we just came back and got it later, or tomorrow, or next practice or something?” I said, fear creeping into my voice.
“Man, I like you pretty okay, but you’re sort of a pussy. Just go wait outside the canyon and yell the code words if you see Coach. You remember the words, right?”
“My dog peed in the house yesterday,” I muttered.
As I walked out of the clearing, I was overwhelmed with shame.
I had gone into the canyon to defeat my fears, but here I was, leaving the canyon because I was too afraid to stay. I stood there thinking, eyes downcast, till I heard Coach’s voice.
“Justin. What are you doing?”
I looked up and saw him standing at the top of the embankment.
“I told you guys: Don’t spend all day down there.”
I froze for a split second, but then recovered.
“MY DOG PEED IN THE HOUSE!” I yelled.
“What?” Coach said.
Then, from behind me, I heard the rustle of bushes and the sound of heavy breathing. Oh no, it’s Michael, I thought.
“MY DOG PEED IN THE HOUSE!” I yelled in that direction, terrified that Michael was about to walk out carrying a huge stack of pornography.
“What are you talking — ”
Coach never got the chance to finish his sentence. In a flash, Michael burst through the bushes, running full speed ahead and clutching the porn to his chest like a woman holding her infant as she fled an explosion.
“RUNNNNNNN!!!!” he screamed in terror.
He ran right past me, and without giving it another thought I sprang into a full sprint, hot on his heels.
“What in the heck is going on?!” Coach yelled as we rushed up the embankment toward him.
I turned to look behind me.
There, hightailing it out of the canyon, came two bearded homeless men, each of whom looked like Nick Nolte rendered in beef jerky. I had never seen homeless guys move so fast and with such a sense of purpose. The last thing I saw on Coach’s face as we blew past him was the look of a man who had no idea how the next fifteen seconds of his life were going to transpire.
The other players on the field turned to watch, mouths agape, as Michael and I sprinted by them, followed by Coach and the two homeless guys. Michael slowed down just a touch so that I could catch up.
“Take some!” he shouted, shoving a handful of pages at my chest.
“Go right! I’ll go left. They can’t catch both of us,” he said between breaths, gearing back up to a full sprint.
I could hear a chorus of shouts behind us. I’m guessing it was one of the homeless guys and not Coach who hollered “Gimmie back my titties!” but I was too scared to look back and confirm. When I reached third base, I took a hard right turn and ran off the field and across the street. I didn’t look back until one mile later, when I rounded the corner of my street and headed down the hill to my house. My legs were on fire and sweat poured down my face.
There were no cars in the driveway, so I made my way to the side of the house, unlocked the gate to our backyard, entered, then slammed it behind me, and for the first time in about ten minutes I stopped moving. I took the stack of porn, some of it now stuck to my chest with sweat, and placed it on the ground. I leaned over, put my hands on my knees, and gasped for air. I looked down at the bounty that lay at my feet, but my joy was soon displaced by fear. What the heck am I going to do with all this? I thought.
Then it hit me: like thousands of thieves before me, I would bury my loot. I ducked into my house, grabbed some newspaper, grabbed a shovel from our shed, and started digging in the corner of our backyard. After I’d dug a hole about a foot deep, I gathered every scrap of porn and placed the pile gently in the ground, as if I were planting a seed whose fruits I needed to feed my family. I placed newspaper over the pages and then filled in the hole.
Hours later I sat in front of the TV, wondering what had happened at practice, whether Coach had called my dad, and, most of all, what awaited me in those buried pages. I had gotten a quick look, but I wanted to pore over those pictures like they were evidence in a crime I was investigating. Eventually my dad got home from work and set his briefcase down.
“So. How was practice?” he asked.
“It was good. Why? Did you hear it wasn’t?” I said, trying to keep my cool.
“Son, no offense, but you play Little League. It’s not the Yankees. I don’t get daily reports about who’s hitting the shit out of the ball.”
When I went to bed that night, all I could think about was those buried pages. I had worked hard for them, and I was determined to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I woke up in the middle of the night, and before I even opened my eyes, I thought, The porno! I hopped out of my bed, still in my underwear, and snuck out into the living room, through the back door, and into the backyard. I went to the shed, grabbed the shovel, found the spot with the freshly turned earth, jammed the nose of the shovel’s blade into the ground, and started digging in the moonlight. My shoulders burned, but I kept digging.
“Son. What in the fuck are you doing?”
I shrieked, dropped the shovel, and turned to see my dad standing behind me in his robe, holding a hot toddy.
“Oh my God, you scared me,” I said, completely forgetting that I should offer up some kind of excuse for what I was doing.
He clicked on the flashlight he was holding and shined it in my eyes, then down over the rest of my body.
“Please explain to me right now why you’re in your underwear digging a fucking hole in my backyard at three-thirty in the goddamn morning.”
There was no way out of this. I exhaled in defeat, then told him everything: about going into the canyon, finding the porn, running away from the homeless guys, then burying my loot.
He waited for a moment, processing everything, then quietly said, “All right, here’s the deal.”
Calmly but firmly, he instructed me to take all that porn out of his backyard and fill in the hole pronto. The next day, he explained, I would carry the magazine pages back to the entrance of the canyon and leave them there.
“Why can’t I just throw them out? I don’t want to go back to the canyon,” I said.
“Bullshit. Someone spent time collecting this shit. What if I threw out your baseball card collection? That wouldn’t be right.”
I nodded. His analogy made sense to me, and suddenly I felt a twinge of remorse, having deprived those men of one of their few — and probably most prized — worldly possessions. I bent down and lifted the big wad of dirt-covered porno out of the hole.
“Are you mad?” I asked, as I picked up the shovel.
“Nah. I don’t think this even cracks your greatest hits of stupid. But there’s one important thing I need you to know.”
I stopped shoveling and looked at him. He pointed at the pile of loose, grimy magazine pages on the ground.
“You will never screw a woman who looks like that. Understand?”
“Okay, good,” he said. He turned back and walked toward the house, then quickly turned back around.
“And women aren’t going to screw you in all those crazy ways, either. You got it? They don’t look like that and they don’t screw crazy. That’s what you’re taking away from this, okay?”
“Come inside and fill in that hole tomorrow. I don’t want the neighbors thinking you’re batshit.”
I put down the shovel and followed him inside. He sat down in his chair and turned on the small lamp next to him. “The canyon was what I was freaked out about. That’s why I went down there, so I wouldn’t be freaked out about it,” I confessed after a moment of silence.
“Son, you’re a little on the jittery side. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it. It don’t mean you don’t have a pair of balls, it just means you’re more choosy when you use them. That’s not always a bad thing.”
He took a big sip from his hot toddy.
“Are you going to bed now?” I asked.
“No, but you are,” he said, turning off the lamp and filling the room with darkness. “I’m trying to get a damned minute to myself here.”
This is an excerpt from I Suck at Girls, which goes on sale today. Justin Halpern is also the author of the no. 1 New York Times best seller Sh*t My Dad Says, as well as partially responsible for the TV show of the same name, which you probably hated.