Thomm Quackenbush, author

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08.24.07 1:33 a.m.

Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life, and when it comes, hold your head high. Look it squarely in the eye, and say, "I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me."  

-Ann Landers

 


Who Is Caleb Potter

One cannot travel a mile in Cape Cods without seeing hand painted signs reading "All yer mateys arrr rootin' fer ye Yellowbeard" or "Pray for Caleb" . The interiors of locally run stores are nearly wallpapered with well wishes for Caleb Potter. When Emily asks me who I imagine Caleb Potter to be, I glibly answer, "The Boy Who Lived," which is hardly the worst title to be given to one in apparent dire need of prayer. In truth, I initially imagine a bald waif aggrieved with one of the more virulent cancers, withering away on some hospital bed and barely living on borrowed time. Yet this mental painting feels insufficient. While Cancer Boys are good for a degree of localized sympathy, the outpouring goes far beyond, stretching from the conservative antique stores of Wellfleet to the drag clubs of Provincetown where no Cancer Boy should dwell. Whoever he is, this Caleb had reach and appeal. And what of the pirate jargon we keep seeing, the references to Yellowbeard? No one prior to nineteen or so should have the hormonal fortitude to earn that nickname. These factors conspire to suggest to us that Caleb Potter had to be at the youngest eighteen but likely not too far into his unworthy-of-sympathy middle years (but "The Late Teen to Forty-Year-Old Who Lived" tastes a bit cumbersome), either of which should significantly decrease the outpouring a broad community should have for him were he merely afflicted with some devastating disease. While I feel Emily and I are fairly decent and likeable people, I cannot imagine strangers decorating highway overpasses with "Send Love to Emily!" or putting out coffee cans by their registers to collect spare change to get me a new spleen. This implied to us that Caleb had an accident and a rather major one, preferably one that had been witnessed by a gathering of horrified and guilty people. But what could it be and was it piratical in any way? A radical keelhauling?
Emily  
Uncertain Emily is uncertain

Wandering through these tourist towns, spending half hours in beach traffic to go five miles, Emily and I try to deduce the truth from what little we know. We both silently agree that we cannot simply ask someone. While they have made Caleb Potter a public figure, he is also their public figure and I would no more disturb their pain than I would go to their twice a week drum circles/prayer meetings for Caleb in front of the town hall in Wellfleet. I am a tourist and, while my money is welcome, my curiosity is not. Emily speculates that Caleb had been a local children's show host. That would certainly give him significant exposure and sympathy, along with explaining why he is referred to as Yellowbeard. I began to accept this possible theory until we pass a Xeroxed flier for a community yard sale to benefit his hospital stay. Despite the quality of the picture, it is easy to see that he is in his early twenties, fit, and - most importantly - on a public street dressed as a pirate. He looks like someone with whom I would get along well, but I have no room for that until I can solve this mystery. Perhaps he was simply a local eccentric, though I don't believe I would hold twice-weekly meetings for any but the most charming of eccentrics. This gives us no real handle on what tragedy so publicly afflicted him, though we begin to foment the opinion that he acted as a pirate in parades and was run down by a wild float. That would wrap up most of the threads left hanging and satisfy us enough that we could begin feeling sorry for, rather than intrigued by, him.

It is not until I get home, to a solid internet connection, that I can finally put my speculation about Caleb Potter to rest. Through blogs and the obvious news reports, I begin to piece our theories together and find where they match with reality. It was a public accident just after the Fourth of July (possibly during a parade), Caleb grabbed onto the back of his friends truck while riding his skateboard, holding on as long as he could and enjoying the mechanical speed. The driver and he did this sort of thing often, interchanging roles, never remotely cognizant of their mortality or the danger in such acceleration. I couldn't find what was different this time but, having ridden a skateboard, I know that interference the size of a pebble can be more than enough to stop the board but not touch the momentum of one's body. I always wear pads and a helmet, and I suspect Caleb did not, perhaps preferring his pirate garb. He fell to the pavement, splitting his skull and knocking him unconscious. As of my last check, he still remains largely unresponsive, though the optimistic doctors seemed to initially believe he stood a poor chance of surviving this long. I do not know if they have much improved their opinion much, though his family is endlessly hopeful. The driver, guilt-wracked and suddenly deeply aware of his own mortality, is not fighting the charges against him. The same cannot be said for the rest of the community, who promise to attend his every hearing. The driver wants all of the attention of Caleb and his recovery, though there persists in being no lack of that.

The black and white facts are there, in addition to some expected local color. What I cannot find on the surface is the why. His accident was horrid and I feel for his family. Still dealing with Orien Rose's head injury (which feels far more extreme, though apparently more easily recoverable), I have witnessed what such a tragedy can do to people close to the afflicted. Yet, beyond some press coverage and several private rituals, Orien Rose is low profile. She is a devastatingly cute and precocious little girl, but I have yet to enter a store to see her picture taped to a coffee can. No one is papering her town with fliers planning yard sales to her benefit. I search for discussions of Caleb before the accident, to know that he was a public figure, that he was adored before he was grieved for and pitied. Is it different because Orien Rose didn't stop speaking on the way to the hospital and it seems that Caleb has yet to begin again? Is it so much easier to rally around a figure unable to ask you not to? One who looks more like some Michelangelo angel against the white of the hospital bed, insensate and serene?

It is not morbidity that draws me to ask these questions, but curiosity and fear, tinged sickly green by jealousy. I want him to have always been a minor celebrity among the permanent residents of these island towns, for him to have such raw charisma and personality that each mother felt he was an errant son to them, each girl reaching puberty to attach to him their first crush. Because it is hard and cold to only to loved because you cling to being lost forever. I want all of their fervor and compassion to be as genuine and altruistic as it seems for my completely selfish reasons. I want to know one can be loved so utterly as to be further elevated to near deification wrapped in a shroud of mint green hospital linen - yet another Christ figure awaiting resurrection - because it is a far better world where that happens than the one where he is only special and loved because he very nearly died of critical head injuries from adventurous carelessness. It may seem an arbitrary distinction - I doubt his family cares why a fundraiser is held just so long as it is - but it feels crucial. Nearly two month later, are these drum circles still about Caleb or have they become an end in themselves? Does it matter who Caleb Potter was or only who he has become?

I acknowledge that some people would make a better or at least less morbid use of a trip to the Cape. Aside from passing through on the way to one destination or another, I had not been here since visiting with Kate's parents eight years ago. They were the sort that felt vacations should be spent primarily outdoors or, failing that, in their camper. We spend a week at a campground, nibbling the remains of Kate's high school graduation feast and walking a half-mile to get showers. It was hardly roughing it, but I recall being something of a pain in the ass about it anyway. (While I am far from a psychopharmacologist, it might not be a terrible idea to inject traveling teenagers with mood stabilizers every few hours to keep the peace.) I am somewhat surprised to find that some of these memories still linger around the edges of Cape Cod - or at least ostentations of memories based on how I imagine everyone involved would have reacted according to stereotypes I still have lodged in my brain. Emily and I walk by a very gay-friendly store in Provincetown and I flash to my adolescent shadow worrying if Kate's mother's uppercase Catholicism would contraindicate my entering to get a souvenir for my mom. I'm not wholly sure it happened the way I recall. The problem with memory is how utterly fallible it is, how simple it is to fill in the cracks with psychic fluff rather than allowing a moment drift into mental oblivion.

Nevertheless, no memory - real or contrived - exists as my baseline for flamboyance in Provincetown. I am aware that it is one of the bastions for open homosexuality on the East Coast, ergo its main appeal and justification for $10 parking. Still, I can't believe it could have been quite as extreme as I experience with Emily and her mother, both hip enough to accept drag queens without batting a natural eyelash (though the latter inclined to throw crockery at the former for getting new tattoos and piercings). Still, drag queens are a sight different than rollerbladers spinning every five feet clad only in speedoes, handing out fliers for a group called Naked Boys Singing that promise to live up to the name. I believe I can explain exactly the climate in three anecdotes that happen in the course of an hour. One, men threw plastic beads from the balcony of their hotel to passersby who earned them. A woman, following the Mardi Gras tradition, lifted her shirt to get her beads. One of the men exclaimed, "She flashed her boobs! Ew!" Two, we three were making our way through the tightly packed crowd and I saw someone with an awesome pair of legs standing in front of a restaurant. Before my eyes travelled from ankle to knee, my brain kicked in a warning that the legs were frankly a little too nice and I should abort my ogling. The person, a hostess for the restaurant, turned and "her" five o'clock shadow attested to the fact that she spent more time shaving her legs than face. No self-respecting woman works that hard on her legs. Third, I rather violently sneezed while waiting for Emily and her mother. A man said, "Bless you," and I thanked him. Before turn back from thanking him, he adds, "Find yourself a man, honey." Baffled for the correct response, I shrugged and tried to find Emily, as her presence seemed to act as a talisman against misunderstanding. Even if it lets them know I am one of those damned breeders, at least I am a breeder beneath interest.
Sir Quacks  
Sir Quacks serves the drag queen, milord.

At the outset, I find the prevalence of caressing gay couples disarming, though not because it is two people of the same gender holding hands and kissing. That seems natural to me and I wouldn't notice it more than I would were I surrounded by snogging straight couples. What is disarming is that their affection seems ostentatious, with the clear message of "look what we can do because we are in love!" Having grown up around homosexuality, some part of me squirms that they feel their love needs to be a political act. But then I intellectualize that, for many of them, it still is an act of sedition. Provincetown affords them a rare opportunity to express the freedom of love they believe straight people have without fear of reprisal or disgust. Even when the visual is as aesthetically pleasing as one's grandparents rounding second base together, to suggest the affectionate party might want to get a room becomes tantamount to a hate crime. It does not matter that one would be just as inclined to say this to a straight couple, such unsolicited remarks are forbidden here because this is one of the few places they feel free to express their natural love. Curtailment thereof seems a sin. Why waste a second?

I try to put myself in their place, though I can hold the hand of my lover in public and ignore if it bothers anyone. The closest to wholly sympathizing I can get is that I am a member of a oft-misunderstood subculture, being a Pagan (and even among the Pagans, Discordians are afforded little accord), but I do not recall feeling the need to over express that part of my personality when I am ostensibly liberated from restrictive forces at Free Spirit. Then again, I can quietly and silently practice my religion. In fact, I'm doing it right now. I can feel the divine and no one much cares. If one of these demonstrative people is noted checking out the wrong person, he or she could meet the same fate as Matthew Shepard. I truly cannot imagine operating under such weight and knowing daily how much the government of my country despised me and legalized my marginalization.

I regret, however, that I wasn't terribly interested in taking photographs for posterity. I felt either that I would make the subjects of my photographs uncomfortable or out myself as an incredibly gauche tourist, which I am of course. Most of the doughty heterosexual couples - and toned and oiled gay ones - around me seemed to be outsiders. I envision that a pilgrim long ago founded Provincetown and proclaimed, "I, Julian Lance Province, declare this Provincetown, an enclave for visiting shirtless men and women in comfortable shoes!" Emily does not seem amused when I inform her of this. Provincetown is a land of tourists and I struggle to imagine the native fauna. Once the temperatures cool, does this main street become a ghost town? Is this seaside escape left to the gulls and their deviant cloacae, building nests of Caleb Potter fliers?

Soon in Xenology: Counting Crows.

last watched: The Simpsons Movie
reading: Reality Is What You Can Get Away With
listening: Avenue Q

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Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

Anthologies

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You by Thomm Quackenbush
Pagan Standard Times: Essays on the Craft by Thomm Quackenbush
A Creature Was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Thomm Quackenbush
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