Warren Garbo’s greatest error

by dm gillis

Prisoner Narrative Project
Kent Maximum Security Institution

 
May 11, 1978
Project Manage: Dr W.A. Armstrong
Prisoner: David H. Serving 4 to 7 years for manslaughter
Affiliation with Prisoner: Prisoner is a participant in the Prisoner Narrative Project, and has committed to providing a written narrative of his crime and the events leading up to it. We have spoken together three times as doctor/patient.

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Warren Garbo

He was gifted with a way of reading a child’s mind, and he enjoyed telling stories. In fact Warren Garbo was a prodigy, a successful author by the time he’d hit twenty years old. And it was his storytelling that drew me in.

He wasn’t born evil. That evolved along the way. At first, he didn’t condescend or tell stories in an immature or tattle-tale way, the way my third grade cohorts did. He would launch into a story with ease, and made an effort to include aspects of his audience’s lives, mysteriously acquired and ingeniously conveyed.

Later, I recognised myself as the model for all of the victims in his published work. And I knew then that Warren Garbo would look back fondly on that summer when everything worked in his favour. It was before the idea of a neighbourhood pedophile crept into the minds of parents. And before it had occurred to anyone that a pedophile could be a youthful, brilliant and trusted member of the community .

I was never aware of his actual age, only that he was much older than me; nearly ancient by comparison. What he did to me took place in the late 1960s, at which time, if I had to guess, I’d say he was about twenty years old. I was seven. By then, he was already on his way to becoming an accomplished author of science fiction and fantasy novels, and a popular writer of children’s fiction. We’d meet again a decade late, in what would be less innocent times.

The Lusitania

I would never learned to play pool the way my friends had. It was never on my to-do list. Besides, each of my friends at the time ran on the agitated energy that came from being an adolescent male perceived by the world as objectionable. These were single parent raised teenagers, housing project inmates with nothing to lose but the intangible. Pool was of great importance in their philosophy. I, on the other, lived in a secure family home owned by my parents. The fact that I desperately yearned to be a ghettoised, criminal white trash pariah like my friends was never enough to in inspire me to take up the cue, except when it was required as a weapon.

The shit my pals had learned to pull off with a stick on the green was pure Cool Hand Luke/Colour of Money/sweaty, fat-ass Jackie Gleason/Hustler fuck-a-cide. From age fifteen on, they routinely separated the family grocery money from the family man down at the Lusitania Pool & Billiards Hall at Broadway and Commercial in the east end of Vancouver. Here was where Joey, Mac, Sock and The Fabulous Lagoona strutted the boards as I sat by, whacked on acid, reading Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger and drinking Italian coffee. This was where you could find us when we weren’t involved in some petty larceny or at the Marr strip pub watching peelers.

Watching strippers was something I really never got into, either. But I ran with a crowd that followed the Vegas circuit, of which Vancouver was a part at the time, like some guys follow racehorses or the NHL. Without being able to say why, and embarrassed to talk about it in detail, I was always embarrassed watching strippers. But since Joe, my best friend, had always assured me that all of the girls were working to pay their way through university, and that supporting their efforts was therefore a noble thing, I was content to sit back, drink draft beer and watch them parade across the dais.

ten years before

What happened that summer when I was seven and he was twenty went like this. Warren Garbo drew me in and treated me like a friend, an equal. I the archetypal geek-child and outcast, equipped with only an endearing and inquisitive nature with which to defend myself from the monsters of the world. Garbo showed me where he wrote his stories in the house on Eighth Avenue he stilled shared with his mother, the desk in his bedroom placed beneath a north facing window surrounded by cherry trees with a typewriter and grownup bric-a-brac on it, copies of magazines and paperback anthologies in which his stories were published and his stacks of notebooks dating from nearly a decade previous. When we spoke, he looked me in the eye, but in a gentle, constant fashion. He listened, accused me of nothing, congratulated me on my childish successes, encouraged me to pursue my interests and asked me for my opinion on matters I thought were strictly the domain of adults.

My parents saw this in bits and pieces. The full story would come out later.  They were happy for me for finding such a unique friend. They, like all of the other adults around me, were too naïve and swimming in the ambient joyous ignorance that prevailed at the time to conceive of what was about to happen. I was being sized up for the kill. The predator stalking me had lethal intelligence, but he lacked the insight to recognise the depravity of his plan. When he finally attacked, he would rip me to shreds, and, in an effort to fend off accusation, he would vilify and humiliate me. When he visualised this, he could only stand paralysed by the ecstasy of it, shaking with his face angled to the sky, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, there on the periphery of human existence, alone.

The execution of his plan would initiate my severance with the real world, resulting in my absence throughout the remainder of my childhood, adolescence and most of my adult life. Moments of clarity became ghastly visits to a past of excruciating emotional and physical agony. My psyche tried desperately to insulate me. There were huge vaults of time and remembrance made unavailable. I became an addict. Relationships with others routinely failed. I sabotaged opportunities for personal happiness. And though I could never really fully recall the events that had lead to any of this, I lived fully aware that relief could only come with my own death.

It all began with a black and white photograph, one of a little boy about my age.

Warren and I sat in his bedroom on his neatly made bed. We’d been reading comic books. Warren produced the photo out of a back issue of Green Lantern. The boy in the photo was lying naked on his back on a bed of rumpled linen, sucking his thumb. He stared blankly into space, and his legs were spread. There was a dark spot coming out from under his ass, as though he were bleeding.

“See that?” Warren said to me.

I nodded.

“See the little baby suck his thumb?”

I nodded again.

“You suck your thumb like a little baby, David?”

I shake my head knowing, even at seven years old, that ‘no’ can be the only answer to such a question.

“He’s pretty, though, isn’t he?”

I don’t respond. Instead I look at Warren, hoping there’s something more that he’s going to say. Something humorous, perhaps, that will rescue me from the impossibleness of the photograph. He says nothing, but we’ve established a strange and intense eye contact I haven’t shared with him before.

“Like looking at his puny little dick, David?” Warren says. “You do don’t you? You’re a little homo like him, aren’t you?”

“No,” I say. Homo is still a mostly alien word to me; I learned it on the playground. Older boys like to call younger boys homos. All I really knew was that it was bad to be one. I didn’t know why.

“Wanna touch his cock, don’t you? You wanna kiss him like a girl, admit it.”

“No,” I say. I look down at the floor. The pristine floor, dusted and scrubbed by his mother twice a week. Then I feel his hand on my thigh. I jump to my feet, not sure why I’m so frightened. Running to the door, I stop, turn and look back at him sitting on his bed. He’s smiling. I’ve wet myself. I’m struck by a wave of shame. He throws his head back, claps his hands and laughs. I run out of his house, across Eight Avenue and take the shortcut through Mr and Mrs Smith’s yard. When I get home, I undress and hide my wet jeans and underpants. I go find my mother who’s hanging out clothes. I ask her if I can have a snack. Then I take a rare three hour long nap. After that I avoided Warren Garbo for a week. It was a long time for me to be away from him. I didn’t have any friends to fill the space.

His mother was one of my mother’s first choices for babysitter. Mrs Garbo collected a pension and worked part-time at a Salvation Army Thrift Shop. She was always in need of extra income. One Friday night, my mother and father went to a movie and left us at the Garbo house for the evening.

When we arrived, I heard Warren using his typewriter. I was relieved, knowing that if he was working, I may avoid seeing him. Mrs Garbo sat us all down in front of the TV for the evening. We watched Bonanza, and then Mrs Garbo brought out popcorn and Coke. High Chaparral was about to come on when Warren came into the living room.

“I’ve got the new Superman if you wanna see it,” he said to me.

I don’t look at him, just at the TV and say, “No.”

“C’mon, David,” Warren says. “It’s really cool.”

“Go on, David,” Mrs Garbo says.

“Sssshhh!” says my older sister.

I get up and follow Warren into his bedroom. After I enter, he shuts the door. I’m scared. He’s no longer behaving like a friend. He’s become sinister. He stares at me as he sits on the bed.

“Come here,” he says.

“No,” I say. “Where’s the Superman comic.”

“Fuck that. Come here.”

“No,” I say again and go for the door.

He moves fast and grabs my collar, pulling me back to the bed with a hand over my mouth. I scream, but it sounds like nothing. I struggle, but it’s pointless. He throws me onto the bed. I’m on my stomach when he climbs on top. His hands are sweaty; his breath moist and smelling of cigarettes and onions. He whispers into my ear. It’s a string of obscenities. He’s telling me what he wants to do me. He tells me how I’m going to hate every second of it. I scream again, this time a little louder. Mrs Garbo taps on the door and asks if we’re okay. Warren says we are, and Mrs Garbo goes away.

“When I get off of you,” Garbo says. “You just lay still and be quiet, or I’m going hurt you really bad.” As he says this, he twists my ear hard. It’s a dull and unbearable pain. I scream again and he twists harder. “Stop squealing like a sissy,” he says. “I have another picture to show you.”

He gets off of me. I remain on my stomach, trembling. I hear him shuffling around behind me. My eyes are open wide in horror. I scan the room over and over. The line-dried sheets smell like fresh air and laundry detergent. I begin to think about the door and the possibility of escape, but he sits back down on the bed and rolls me over with a shove. He sits over me with another photograph in his hand. He shows it to me.

“Not exactly Superman,” he says.

It a black and white photo of a young black boy, naked except for his underpants, performing oral sex on a man.

“No,” I yell and squirm to get off the bed.

“Fuck,” Warren says. “Shut the hell up or I’ll cut your fucking ears off. You understand me?”

I can only stare back wide eyed.

“What are you two up to in there,” Mrs Garbo hollers.

“Never mind, mom,” Warren says. “Go watch TV. And you,” he says to me. “Get on the floor, on yer knees.” He shoves me off the bed and I fall onto the floor. I hit with a thud. “C’mon, c’mon,” he says pulling me up so that I am kneeling in front of him.

For the first time, I begin to experience a separation between consciousness and physical being. The old and familiar recede and are replaced by the bizarre and unfamiliar. I’m floating in the air above the catastrophe below me. My floating self wants to intervene, but is powerless to do anything but observe. It’s weird. My stomach is sinking into itself. Can this be death? My floating self sees Warren grab a handful of my hair. A burning pain comes from a body I no longer occupy.

“Don’t worry, faggot,” Warren says. “It’s considered good luck to suck dick in India. Now open wide and keep your teeth to yourself.”

Later, he sodomizes me for the first time. It is my introduction to a world of blood and misery, humiliation and powerlessness. No one comes to rescue me like in a comic book. Mrs Garbo, my floating self sees, is seated in front of the TV eating obsessively from a box of drugstore chocolates. Warren wads toilet paper between the cheeks of my ass to staunch the bleeding.

“Soak in the tub before bed,” he says as though he cares for me again. “But lock the bathroom door. Don’t let yer mother see, understand?”

I nod vacantly.

Then his tone changes, “You tell any one about this,” he hisses. “And I swear to God I will murder your whole fucking family, understand? I will come in the night with a knife and cut their throats, and I’ll only spare you so that you’re who everyone blames. You hear me?”

I nod again.

ten years after

It was the autumn of 1976. My friends and I had two tables at the Lusitania Pool and Billiards Hall. On this rare occasion, I was actually playing rather than watching from the side. Joe had me beat almost from the start. But there were one or two opportunities for me to sink a ball. During one of those opportunities, as I moved round the table looking for a shot, I recognised someone bent over an adjacent table, lining up a shot. It was Warren Garbo. I recognised the face. I gripped my pool cue.

He played alone, sinking entire racks without a miss. Shark, I thought. When it finally came down to the eight ball, he sank it and looked up. “Hey faggot,” Warren Garbo said. He’d known I was there all along.

“What was that?” said Joe, looking up from his next shot.

I stood paralysed. I began to feel the familiar separation of mind and body. Part of me was looking down on the meeting from above.

Joe said, “That prick just called you a faggot, David. Do something.”

“Yeah,” said Garbo. “Do something, cock sucker.”

“Watch you mouth,” Joe said. “If he won’t do anything, I will.”

“Kiss my ass,” Garbo said.

Out of body, I watched as I turned the pool cue up side down in my hands and gripped it like a baseball bat.

Garbo saw this and dismissively said, “Oh, fuck off.”

This was the greatest error in Warren Garbo’s short life. He turned his back to me. He was unaware, in the way that many who occupy the wrong end of a power differential are unaware, that his actions a decade before had changed the trajectory of my life. I’d become callous and confused about my place in the world, a world where the vulnerable endure the transgressions of the powerful without recourse. A world where victims are forced to take justice into their own hands, when they’re able.

I don’t remember how many times I struck him with the cue. Court records say between five and ten. I only recall that, after the cue broke, I stuck the resulting spear-like shard into his back multiple times as he lay prone on his pool table.

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