His first memory of life was a church spire seeming to pierce the clouds. He was a small boy in his mother’s arms, gazing at it over her shoulder while she chatted with some friends from their congregation. She then said goodbye, carried him off along the sidewalk, and the steeple shrunk from view.
They reached a nearby store; she set him down, took his hand and led him in. He stared up at the surroundings while she picked out a few items. She then brought him to the counter, and while she was occupied with the cashier girl, he took a piece of candy and tucked it under his shirt. The girl saw him do it, and when his mother tugged him outside, she followed.
“Mrs. Sleezer,” she said, then having her attention, spoke in her ear.
His mother looked down and said: “Richard, what is inside your shirt?”
He remained mute and still. She removed the candy from hiding, and lightly scolded: “”This does not belong to you, it belongs to the store until you pay for it with money, then it’s yours.”
“But I want it,” he answered.
She handed the candy back to the girl, saying: “I’m sorry, and thank you.”
The following Sunday morning in church, while everyone around him sang and preached and listened and prayed, Richard’s thoughts drifted to daydreams about candy. He wanted to be outside, and hoped they would go to the store again after the service. Then he noticed the alms plate coming down the pew, and when his mother dropped in then passed it over his lap to the man on Richard’s other side, and the man and his mother looked in each other’s eyes and smiled, he deftly snatched a nickel from the plate and clutched it tight. He even made certain to keep it in his right hand, as his mother always held him by the left.
She did indeed carry him to the store, set him down and take him inside again. When they were at the counter Richard deftly reached out, and in one motion left the nickel on the shelf and took a piece of candy and placed it in his shirt. He had picked an invisible moment, and went unnoticed. His mother carried him back to the church, strapped him into the backseat of her jalopy, and they headed home.
He couldn’t resist, and upon reaching their house his lips and hands were smeared with chocolate.
“Where did you get that?” she sternly asked.
“I bought it, mommy,” he answered.
“Where did you get a dollar to buy that?” she asked.
“I didn’t. I paid a nickel. I left it in the store. You said I had to pay for it, you didn’t say how much.”
Richard’s father was a drunken redneck hillbilly who hated negroes, and japs, and chinks and gooks and ruskies and wops and spics and pollacks—everyone who wasn’t a fellow drunken redneck hillbilly. His name was Evert Sleezer, and he lived just a couple miles away from his family, out in the woods, in the three room shack where he was born and raised and had lived his fifty years of life but for the decade he’d been married to Richard’s mother, Bethany. They divorced shortly after Richard’s birth, when Evert, in a whisky-laced haze, nonchalantly twirled a loaded gun while Richard sat on his lap. Bethany had the police take him away, and phoned a lawyer first thing the next morning.
Evert and Bethany produced three children. The twin sisters, Melinda and Belinda, were eight years older. After the divorce they spent a lot of time looking after their little brother, so that their mother could work long hours as a hospital nurse. While each a perfect likeness of the other, there was a clear dichotomy between the twins. Belinda was more drawn to and from their mother, while Melinda had more of their father. Belinda was more thoughtful, and soft; Melinda was rougher and more reactionary.
The children lived with Bethany, but when the time came to visit their father, Belinda hedged while Melinda had to prod her sister; and when it came time to return home to their mother Belinda was by the door while Melinda dawdled and stalled. They did have more freedoms and fun staying in the woods with their father, and spent many weekends there while Bethany looked after Richard.
Richard grew to be isolated and introverted. The vast majority of his time was spent in the company of the three females in his life, and on the rare occasions when he was alone with his father, he felt more awkward and confused rather than any feelings of bonding. Evert did take his son out hunting once when Richard was five. They never encountered anything to kill, but Evert did stop and teach the boy to fire the rifle. The recoil knocked Richard off his feet. He left the gun on the ground, picked himself up and dusted him off. The explosive sensation had been awesome, but he remained in awe the power. Evert reloaded the weapon and offered it to his boy; Richard declined.
Bethany was an avowed bibliophile, and began teaching her son to read from the earliest age he could comprehend. When he could still barely talk she would prop him up on her lap open a book on his and read. She surrounded him with an expansive library, they read together, sometimes for hours. It came to him like second nature—like swimming to a fish, or flying to a bird—and when Bethany began teaching his Sunday School class, he was reading to his classmates from the Bible before most of them had even learned the alphabet. While not anti social, neither was Richard seek out friends. He was always perfectly content to avoid human contact by disappearing into another book.
When he was ten there came a momentous event in his life. Seized by a growing urge to emerge from his shell, he decided it was time to come out before the peers he was with for the large part of most days. He came home from school one afternoon and announced to his mother that he was running for president of his fifth grade class.
She was both surprised and pleased, but also a little wary, for if he had even one friend in school, she was unaware. But she encouraged him. He, on the other hand, had a plan. One Saturday afternoon, when he knew that Belinda and Melinda were off with their father at a fair, he rode his bike out to his father’s house and stealthily made his way through the trees. A couple years earlier he had seen his father bury a strong box containing cash, and memorized its location. He quickly dug it up from the earth—it contained about two thousand dollars. He took a twenty then buried it again and smoothed the ground over with twigs and leaves.
From there he went to a store and had the bill broken into twenty singles. His class was comprised of seventeen children. The election was the coming Tuesday, and his opponent was the very popular Martin Cawler, who was friends with just about everyone in the class, excepting Richard. On Monday after school, Richard surreptitiously slipped one dollar bills to thirteen of his classmates—every one but Martin and his three best friends—with a polite request for their vote the next day.
The following morning Martin confronted him first thing, saying: “So, you think you can buy an election? The only vote you’ll get is your own, and I’ll bet even you’re considering voting for me.”
“I’ll probably get a few votes,” Richard replied.
When they were tallied, Martin squeaked out a nine to eight victory. Richard never forgot how close he’d come to winning, and how he had reached that brink. He overcame his fear of human interaction, and confidently resolved to win any future elections he might enter.
His junior high school career was uneventful, although during those years he began committing an act of thievery that he repeated frequently throughout his life. Whenever he was in a store, and felt an impulse, or found a convenient moment, he would steal his desire and leave a nickel in its place. Anything from toys and food, to books and clothes was fair game—and had he paid a nickel apiece for many of his possessions. This led to a fondness for the actual coin, and he saved them, and always kept a few jingling in his pocket.
At the end of the summer before entering high school, several sudden changes turned his life topsy turvy. His sisters were married in a double wedding. It was a delightful outdoor ceremony in which Belinda wed Stan, an aspiring pastor, and Melinda wed Warren, a soldier. Within a week both girls were gone with their husbands, to a military base in Florida and a mission in the Philippines. A few days after that, Bethany passed away suddenly. Richard found her in her bed; she was gone, and he was alone.
Evert came to the memorial, and they spoke, but it was clear that neither wanted to live with the other, nor would. They agreed that Richard would stay in the house for the time being, and that Evert would avail his presence whenever needed. They put on a show that placated authorities and school officials, and afterward only saw each other occasionally. Then Richard asked and was granted emancipated minor status, and it became irrelevant.
Rather than become despondent, Richard was driven. He focused entirely on his studies, with the goal of graduating in three years, or sooner. He wanted to be away from that place as quickly as possible, so he stacked the school books on a desk and methodically digested them.
In the autumn of his junior year, Richard decided to run again for class president, which pitted him against Martin Cawler, in a rematch of the fifth grade race six years earlier. Richard had thought about it for all that time, and concluded that the large problem was that he simply hadn’t spent enough money.
Knowing that his father would be gone for the day one Sunday, Richard rode his bike out to the woods. He fetched a small shovel from the cellar and dug up the strong box. It was empty. His pounding heart sank. He left box open there on the ground and went into the house. He looked about and pondered, then recalled the luger. It was a World War two handgun that had been stolen from a German and used to kill him and six others. It was very valuable, and his father treasured it. He took it straight to a guy he knew who traded in pawn, and who gave him five hundred dollars for it.
The following morning on his way to school he stopped by the bank and had the cash changed into one hundred five dollar bills, which he went to school and handed out. That night he started sorting through his things, and packing them neatly. The next day he easily defeated Martin by fifteen points. That night he battened down the house and carefully organized a backpack. The next morning he slung it on his back, stopped by the school to submit his presidential resignation, and the papers to prove he’d completed the requirements for his degree. Everything was in order, and after promising to soon provide an address where they could mail his diploma, he left. Two days later he turned seventeen.