One-Horse Prophecy: Tragic Predestination Disguised as Small Town Americana
One of the best men I know buried his son today.
A few days ago, the news of the son’s death was splattered across Facebook. It traveled on slurred speech across bar tops and on the semi-whispered tones of small-town gossip from behind newspapers and over steaming cups of harshly strong coffee.
And it landed flatly on the ears of the unsurprised.
Those who knew Ricky Clay knew that he had been in trouble his entire life. Those who weren’t aware of his personal misadventures were aware of those of his three brothers. And those who weren’t specifically aware of any of those could still readily accept any dirt associated with that long-sullied family name.
Every small town in America has a family like the Clays. For generations, the males in that family have been at odds with local law enforcement. As young boys, they struggled in school. As teenagers, they missed a lot of school and spent a lot of time expelled before barely making it through or dropping out all together.
They all ended up in jail, usually more than once. Some of the more persistent ones spent time in prison. That was the story more often than not. And no one was ever surprised. They are Clays, and everyone knows the Clay boys are bad.
“It’s in their blood,” the people around town will say with alarming certainty and finality. Just because they know that’s not medically factual doesn’t mean that they don’t believe it to some extent. Honestly, I think that’s a big part of the problem.
From the moment salacious word spreads through town that some unlucky young woman in town has allowed herself to become pregnant with a Clay child, there is nearly unanimous speculation that the potential son she carries will be a hellion.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that this is the result of actively poor or at least neglectful parenting. It’s the easy explanation. It makes sense that the young Clays learn to behave badly because the elder Clays model poor behavior for them.
But I know Richard Clay, Ricky’s father, and he’s a good man.
Like all Clays, he was a little wild in his youth. At one time, he drank a little too much and a little too often. The scrapes and bruises on his knuckles weren’t always from a day’s hard work. There were some nights years ago when he didn’t make it home, and what he considered “pranks” could easily be identified as “misdemeanors” at the very least.
Richard Clay has been sober for years, though. He never touched another drop, threw another punch, or stayed out another night after his first son was born. He stayed faithfully married to and doted on the same woman for decades, and he sat a long and tearful vigil beside her bed as her disease stole her piece by piece from his life.
I wouldn’t wish the years that widowed Richard Clay on my worst enemy. If one man could pay the karmic debt for his family’s entire history of misdeeds, Richard Clay would have been square with the house and then some. What he and his wife endured in her final years was enough to break any man.
It would have been easy for Richard to live up to his family’s name after that. He could have gone back to drinking and raising hell. He had the name and tragedy to blame. But it only strengthened his resolve to be a good man and a better father.
I can’t believe, then, that the reason three out of four of Richard’s sons eventually ended up in prison was because they were poorly raised or because of some genetic inheritance. Richard’s sons didn’t grow up to be what he raised them to be at all; they grew up to be what the town expected from the name they carried.
For generations, young boys in town were discouraged from making friends with the presumably rowdy boys. Teenage girls dated them often out of rebellion against their families’ wishes. Teachers and principals hovered over them like hawks and positioned the Clay name at the tops of their “usual suspects” lists.
Having difficulty making friends with the most well-behaved children and being constantly doubted and suspected by the educational staff, the boys quickly and easily grew discouraged with school. Richard tried hard to change their perspectives, to repaint that bleak atmosphere for them, but between working to support the whole family and tending to his wife’s failing health, he simply could not compete with the days full of negative reinforcement to which the boys were exposed at school and in town.
With no one to turn to but each other, the boys fell in with the same bad crowd with which they’d always been associated. One followed the other, who followed the other, into trouble and into prison. They came out men — men who could no longer hear their father’s well-intentioned voice.
Ricky was in his mid-40s when he died, a few years older than me. Like two of his brothers, he still bounced from hard, low-paying labor job to hard, low-paying labor job. Bills were hard to pay, running vehicles hard to retain, and the escapism of a darker life hard to resist. He never had any money, but when he did, it went toward making him forget for awhile that he had no money.
The last time I really spent any time with him, he was doing an odd job for my parents. He was barely hanging on to a job and looking for a new one. I promised to help him out if and when I could. He worked hard and well that day, but when he left, I wondered what he’d do with his pay.
It’s months later now,and I’ve left town. Right after I left, Ricky got a steady, full-time job at a local factory based on my recommendation. He must have worked there at least a few months. I suspect it was enough time that he’d gotten half a dozen paychecks. I suspect it was enough time that he got some debts squared away and began to improve his living situation in those ways that we always take for granted.
I suspect Ricky felt like things were coming together. Even the smallest hint of comfort can mean a decrease in necessary pressure for some, though, and Ricky did what everyone in town expects a Clay to do; he took a step over the line in the wrong direction one more time.
One of the best men I know buried his son today.
Lives are fleeting in small-town rural America, but names are almost eternal. As strong as he tried to swim against the current of his family name, Richard Clay wasn’t able to keep both himself and his sons afloat. Just when it seemed his son Ricky might be able to kick his way to shore, Ricky faltered, and the waters swept him away for good. And no one in town was the least bit surprised.