Fiction: Profile

By Paul Wilson

“The suburban kids are the worst.” Joe Bird stands with his hands on his hips, disconcertingly unperturbed by the repeated crashing behind him. “Kids” aged roughly 12 to 18 years, of both sexes, throw themselves violently into a chain link fence.

A fast freezing rain begins to fall. Joe looks into the sky, but makes no move to cover his head or find shelter. “Autumn in New York,” he says and laughs roughly, the laugh of a lifetime smoker, though he claims he has never and would never smoke. There is no pause in the crashing, if anything the rhythm picks up the harder it rains. Joe glances at his watch.

“They’ll keep it up all day if I let them. I actually have to tell them when the session is over.”

Joe Bird, a man in his mid fifties, with a deeply grooved face and rough gray skin, is difficult to upset. He doesn’t seem calm so much as carefully controlled. He holds himself in a rigid posture, and evinces very few expressions. Those he does display are painstakingly appropriate. They seem to direct a situation rather than provide a reaction. His eyes are sharp and gray and metallic, and though at times he appears oblivious, I notice that he watches everything, constantly.

I ask him if the number of kids in today’s session is typical. He frowns and shakes his head. “This is a pretty small group. A number of people are out today. The group has been getting larger and larger, lately. I’ve got to split it up. Something like this, if it gets too big, can get out of control.”

I look at the faces of the kids, seconds before they make impact with the fence, stricken and frenzied and deadly serious, and I can well imagine what he is talking about. They remind me of faces I’ve seen in paintings of hell—wild hair, huge eyes, no thought of tomorrow.

I ask him if any of the kids get hurt and he pauses and gives me a razor glance before he answers. “Only if they need to,” he says slowly, “nothing they can’t handle, nothing they don’t do to themselves.” He turns his back to me and walks over to the fence. He is a stocky man with a sturdy gait. In the back of his head, covered with close-cropped graying hair, I can see the veins pulsing with determination.

He doesn’t yell, but his tone is unmistakable. The crashing stops suddenly, and the kids stand facing him in a dripping silence, flushed and breathing heavily, attentive to his every word. I cannot hear what he says to them, but they turn away from him, and, without talking to each other, they file unsteadily into a low brick building.

He turns back to me. “We can go into my office now, if you want, we can talk more comfortably there.” He flashes me a smile, but the expression in his eyes does not change. I have trouble imagining him comfortable anywhere.

Joe Bird runs what he calls an “alternative AA program for teens.” The “AA” stands for anger and aggression, two emotions he cites as causing most of the ills in today’s society. The list is long, and as he speaks he becomes—for Joe Bird—almost heated. “Alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, suicide, violence…”

The “clinic” is an old gym—cinder block walls and windows of clouded greenish glass with veins of chicken wire. His office is small, with a flickering yellowed fluorescent glow, and his desk is that of a high school gym teacher, a sturdy metal structure with few papers and no decoration.

Joe hands me a brochure for the clinic. This is a tri-fold piece of paper that could have been typed on an electric typewriter and Xeroxed by hand. A list of prices appears on the last page, and they are, frankly, shockingly high. A full-day session costs more than an hour or an afternoon, and individual attention—private lessons—costs nearly twice as much as the group sessions.

I ask him where most of the kids come from, and he answers immediately. Originally they came from the neighborhood—wealthy city kids whose parents needed to account for them after school. But the program has caught on— almost without any effort on the part of Joe Bird. And now kids came from all over the city, from upstate, from Long Island, from Jersey, from Connecticut. He’d even had inquiries from Boston, and he was considering expansion to include boarders.

Joe’s history is mysterious and vague. Stories of his past are confused and difficult to reconcile with one another. One “friend” told me he had been in a punk rock band in the late seventies. Another said he’d known Joe in the army— that they’d done active service together. Another friend described him as a “hippy,” and yet another said he’d had a phenomenal career as an advertising executive—rising like a rocket and falling like a meteor.

Joe himself won’t discuss any of these things—but he will deny that he’s ever had friends. I mention specific people, the sources of my stories, and he claims not to recognize the names. The past is not important, he says, in a flinty voice, the future does not matter, what counts is the present moment, living through it, surviving.

When I tell Lorraine Gambio why I want to speak to her, she nearly hangs up the phone. It takes some time to persuade her to grant me an interview, and she makes me promise to change her name in the story.

I meet her in a small apartment where it seems time has not passed in forty years. It looks like the set for a Tennessee Williams play set in the city. Lonely, spinsterish, but with an attempt at glamour. She offers me tea in pastel china teacups. She offers me something stronger, “because its cold outside.” I decline, but she pours herself a large teacupful. She sips it like lady, leaving streaks of bright red lipstick on cracked iridescent china.

Lorraine Gambio is what used to be called “a fine-looking lady.” She has bouncing white-blonde hair and a figure carefully trained into an hourglass. She wears heels. Her lips, wide and brightly colored are mobile and expressive. Her eyes behind a heavy fringe are sad and suspicious. She has dusted her tight shiny skin with glitter, as the teenagers do.

I mention the name “Joe Bird.” She startles and takes a hasty sip. She becomes very chatty on other subjects. I feel that she is flirting with me. I remind her that I am there to talk about Joe Bird; that I had told her so on the phone.

She says, “We dated briefly, it ended…abruptly. That is all I choose to say.” I tell her she seems nervous, I ask her if she is scared of Joe Bird. She laughs unneasily and says, “of course not.” But she will not return to the subject.

I meet Joe Bird in his office very early the next morning before the sessions start. I ask him if he remembers Lorraine Gambio. He squints and says, “Redhead?” She may have been, I reply, she’s blonde now. He shakes his head. The conversation is over.

This is Saturday, Joe’s busiest day. Kids come and go all day to various sessions. Some stay all day. He says I’m welcome to stay and watch. The smell of the gym, full of teenagers, brings me back to painful scenes of my boyhood. The smell—of industrial cleaner, of sweat, of dust—is to me the smell of fear.

I sit on the rickety bleachers. Of course they’re smaller than I remembered. I feel distracted and dislocated. Sitting in a gym, by myself, watching others is not a new experience for me, nor is it a comfortable one. I have to remind myself why I am there.

I look around at the various stations. I expect to see punching bags— when I was a boy we had punching bags. There is nothing like that here. In one group kids are hitting their heads against the wall—literally hitting their heads against the wall. The wall is padded, but still, my head begins to ache as I watch them. In another area, kids flail wildly at a moving beam of light, trying to catch it, trying to punch it, trying to destroy it. Perhaps the most disturbing is a group of kids in a corner, with clubs, pounding small inflatable rubber balls that are thrown at them—beating them against the floor until they are flat and torn.

One girl, with stringy dark hair and a pinched face, stands a little to the side. She seems uncertain, uncommitted. She’s wearing baggy blue shorts and a white T-shirt. Her body, at once frail and sturdy, as only a teenager’s can be, is heartbreakingly unformed. She’s one of the few kids to notice me, and she glances, often, in my direction.

I see that Joe notices her looking at me, notices, perhaps, that she is not flinging herself into the action. He steps up to her and says a few words. She nods, seriously, and when her turn comes is as passionate as any in the gym.

This exchange reminds me of something I had asked Joe earlier in his office. Are there kids that come to him that just don’t seem angry? Surely every child has a different level of aggression. Particularly the demographic he caters to—wealthy, mostly white kids—they can’t all be seething with rage.

“You have to discover the anger within them,” he replies, “You have to help them discover it within themselves. Believe me. It’s there. Sometimes the one that seems the least angry is the one that needs the most treatment.”

What about the kids that need to work things out that can’t afford Joe’s clinic? He shrugs.

When the group sessions end and Joe is spending time with a private pupil, I walk out into the parking lot where parents pick up their kids, hoping to talk to one about their child’s participation in the program. I meet Paige Jones, a well-preserved woman in her fifties wearing brown leather pants, a yellow sweater, and a lot of gold jewelry. She’s excited about talking to me. She calls me “a reporter.”

She tells me, in the first rush of words, that she thinks Joe Bird is a “genius.” She heard about the program through some of the other mothers in her social circle. She says it has become quite “the thing.” She describes it as “exclusive” and “invaluable.” She motions to her son, William, a pale kid with dark circles, who stands behind her, sweating and exhausted, and says the difference in him is remarkable. I ask her if she worries about him getting hurt. “When you have kids, you’ll see,” she replies. “From the moment they’re born you worry about them getting hurt. They fall down, they hit their heads, usually they’re fine. Sometimes it’s good for them.” Paige and William climb into a white Mercedes with Connecticut plates and she waves cheerfully as she pulls away.

Back in the gym, Joe is just wrapping up a session with a private client. I catch Nick as he’s heading out the door. He’s tall and gangly with maybe a quarter inch of dark hair. Unlike some of the other kids, he seems elated. As we talk he seems to be coming down from the session, coming off a high.

He’s been going to Joe’s for about half a year. He started out doing one group session a week, but he increased gradually. Now, he says, he comes to Joe’s nearly every day. Does it help him? “Oh, yeah.” With what? “Everything.” I ask him if he’s formed friendships with the other kids. “Its not about that. It’s about me. I’m concentrating on myself.”

Nick started coming to Joe’s, he says, because he had some problems. He lists the canon of teenage woes, “loneliness, trouble concentrating, doubts of his self-worth.” He went to a “doctor” who suggested he try Joe’s, and he’s been coming ever since. “My skin has really cleared up. You wouldn’t believe.”

As I stand in the small parking lot waiting for Joe to emerge, I recognize the girl Joe had spoken to in the gym. Despite the coldness of the day, she is still wearing the blue shorts and white t-shirt, though now she wears a yellow raincoat as well. Seen this close she might be all of sixteen years old. She stops when she sees me and stares questioningly at me, with none of the wavering awkwardness of a teenager.

I cannot account for my reaction. My heart races, I can feel the blood rushing to my face. I would speak, but my mind is suddenly blank. I had planned to talk to her, to ask her what Joe said to her in the gym, but I cannot move. She turns and walks away. I am spent by physical manifestations of emotions I have not felt in years. I feel suddenly exhausted.

I catch up with Joe later at a restaurant of his choice—a small bistro that continues to be popular despite the fact that everyone knows the food costs more than it is worth. I am surprised to see that Joe has changed his clothes. At our previous meetings he had worn dark jeans, a white t-shirt, and heavy black boots. He arrives tonight in a flawlessly pressed charcoal grey silk shirt and tailored black pants. He wears trim patent leather shoes that make his feet seem oddly proportioned to his stocky frame.

The waiter offers us a drink. I order a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Joe says loudly—not to me, not to the waiter—an announcement, “drinking is sloppy.” He orders a steak with no sauce and potatoes with no butter, and eats quickly but carefully. Joe Bird is a man of few words. I have a million questions— about his past, about his clinic, about his hopes for the future. He answers as succinctly as possible—short phrases, single words. At times he ignores my questions entirely.

I cannot shake the surreal feeling that I am having dinner with my gym teacher. I’m trying to remain impartial and aloof, to remind myself that I am a grown man. I detect myself starting to feel something like anger. I am angry that Joe is taciturn and dismissive. I am angry with myself for letting the ghosts of my insecurity rear their hungry heads. As I watch Joe Bird, stoic and self-satisfied, bent over his steak as if dining alone, I find myself wondering what it would take to make him angry, what questions I could ask that would slow the rhythm of his dinner, make him shed his controlled composure.

Earlier in the gym I had formed a picture in my head of Joe’s clinic as some sort of “extreme” gym class. I may smile as I mention this to Joe. He does not seem amused. “I hate the word ‘extreme.’”

How does he feel about the drugs prescribed to help kids handle their emotions? To deal, perhaps, with pent up anger and aggression? “Waste of time and money. Better to work that anger out of the kid then to stop the kid up like you’re corking a bottle. Just frustrates them.”

What about the idea that anger is an energy that can be turned to some positive use, rather than squandered on a chain link fence? “Load of crap. No good comes from anger.”

Does he think it helps to talk things over, discover the root of the anger, try to make it go away? “Kids this age, they have an unlimited supply. It never goes away. Better to help them discover it again and again. Anything else—they just get frustrated.”

Helping them discover anger—does that ever involve making them angry—pissing them off? He looks up from his steak. “It’s very complicated.”

What about emotions that are related to anger—fear, guilt, desire. “Those aren’t emotions, those are weaknesses—personality flaws. Those you conquer.”

I notice that the word “frustration” comes up a lot in our conversations. I tell him frustration makes me think about sex. I think, good lord, I sound like a teenager. I ask him if it makes him think about sex. I ask him if there’s any relation between sex, anger, aggression, and his therapy.

The progress of Joe’s fork to his mouth does slow for a moment, but he does not look up. “Sex is sloppy.”

I have ample opportunity to watch Joe through the course of the meal; he concentrates on his plate and is not likely to catch me looking at him. As I watch him, any anger or resentment I had felt changes to an emotion bordering on pity. I smile to myself, imagining how he would react if I told him this. Something about Joe Bird, hunched over the table, drinking water through a straw, is pathetic to me.

That night, I dream I am in high school again, but the corridors and stairways are long and twisted and escheresc. I move impossibly slowly and do not know the way to my next class. I arrive late for a math class I have forgotten to attend all year long, and all the other students are taking the final exam. The dark-haired girl from Joe’s clinic stares seriously up at me.

Joe shows up somewhere, in some unlikely place, and tells me I can’t write for shit, I could never write. I will never be a writer. Stale, stolid, clichéd. He says. Safe, sorry, stupid writing. You’re writing a bad article, he says, a bad story. I wake to wet sheets. My fists are clenched so tight that they hurt; I can barely move them. For the rest of the day they’re so stiff I can barely hold a pen.

I find myself dressing with unusual care, subconsciously thinking about what outfit would make me younger. I find myself wondering whom I might run into at the gym.

By the time I arrive, the clinic is a flurry of activity. Joe stands outside, hands on hips in a familiar pose, examining the work of a group of painters executing a billboard on the side of the building.

I flash Joe my most affable smile, but he does not look happy to see me. “What’s this?” I ask, waving my hand at the billboard. “Nike ad.” responds Joe. And indeed, I can see, shaping up before my very eyes, the image of a beautiful teenage boy, clad in Nikes, throwing himself with wild abandon into a chain link fence. Joe glances at me, “I didn’t contact them, you know. They sought me out.”

We stand in silence for a while, watching the progress of the painting.

Kids start to arrive for the Sunday sessions, dropped off in Volvos, BMWs and SUVs or marching in on foot. They seem unnaturally quiet. Each time a client steps up my heart races uneasily and unaccountably.

Joe shifts uncomfortably and glances at me again. “We may as well go into my office.”

I stammer awkwardly that I would rather stay outside and observe the workings. If that’s alright with Joe.


I ask Joe about his plans for the future. He looks relieved, sounds comfortable, rehearsed. “Well, first of all—and you should know this for your article—my consultant advised me to change the name. Yeah. Apparently ‘AA’ has negative connotations. It’s gonna be called ‘The Anger Emporium.’” I didn’t know Joe had a consultant. I find it hard to imagine. “And the space has been booked for a fashion shoot.” I can picture wan models with vacant faces slouching in an area of such passionate activity, and I’m not sure weather to feel sad or amused. “Oh, yeah, and I was thinking of expanding to take in younger kids. Have you seen some of these kids in grade school, preschool even? Raw emotion. Gotta get to them early. I mean, look at the toys they’re selling to little kids—the video games. Very violent. Those things sell big. I want a piece of that market.”

I feel suddenly very low, and I don’t want to examine the cause.

“Well,” Joe barely glances at me. “We’d better be getting into the gym before they take things into their own hands. That is, if you’re coming?”

I take him by surprise. I haul back and my fist flies through the air into his face. It meets his nose with a sickening satisfying crunch. Blood and snot stream down his face, soaking in a widening arc through his crisp white t-shirt. I’m not done yet, I fly at him again, and my fist shatters his jaw, knocking teeth and spit and blood in every direction. He stares at me, slack and sore and bewildered.

Do I hit him? No. I don’t. Of course I don’t. I imagine it, for a second, but even in my imagination my arms are weak, my aim is poor. Even in my imagination nothing I can do will touch this man in any way.

“Well,” he says, “Are you coming?”

I say, why not. Joe frowns almost imperceptibly. As he’s walking away he throws back, “this is your last day here.” He’s not asking, he’s telling.

“That’s right.” I agree, feeling like a wise-ass kid.

I take my seat on the bleachers and watch kids launch into their frenzy of activity. I notice an absence of the sluggish reluctance usually attendant on early morning activity amongst teenagers. I don’t want to be here, I don’t have to be here, and yet I cannot tear myself away.

I cannot take my eyes off the kids, wild and vacant phantoms, thrashing frantically about me. And in the center of it all—Joe—solid, grey, unmoving and unmoved.

Paul Wilson is a freelance writer, avid beekeeper and native plant grower, and father of three soon-to-be teenagers. He recently relocated from New York City to rural Georgia, and no, thanks for asking, he doesn’t regret it a bit.

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