I’m thinking about Charlie Howard again. Although queer kids from Maine don’t really stop thinking about him.
If you’ve read Stephen King’s It (or watched the miniseries from the 90’s), you may be familiar with the scene where teenagers throw a gay man into the river.
But it’s not just a horrific scene. That actually happened in Bangor, Maine, on July 7, 1984. The victim’s name was Charlie Howard. His attackers chased him, yelled homophobic slurs. They threw him in the water even though he told them he couldn’t swim. He drowned.
As for the two people responsible? One spent 2 years in jail, the other 22 months.
I’m from Old Town, a small town near Bangor. I grew up there in the 80’s under the specter of what happened to Charlie.
When I was in junior high, my older sister held hands with her girlfriend at the fair. Some of my classmates saw them and later confronted me about it. When I refused to say it was wrong for my sister to do that, they called me a “stupid dyke.” Stole my lunches and threw them in the trash. Broke ink pens on my clothes so that I had to walk around with stains. I worried that next they’d stab me with the pens when the teacher wasn’t looking.
And worst of all, girls who had secretly been my lovers, a pair of best friends, sat there silent. Placid, even. With smirks on their faces. Watching the whole thing happen.
It was bad at the time. Yes, absolutely. It was bad.
But I also knew it could have been worse. Everyone had heard of what happened to Charlie Howard. And if you were a queer kid in the Bangor area in the 80s and 90s, you knew it could just as soon be you.
So I survived it as best I could, hoping they’d get bored of me and switch to the next target. And when they did, I looked for ways I could subtly undermine the bullies without drawing their direct line of fire.
It never worked as well as I wanted it to, but I had to do something.
But it was never enough. We all knew we could be the next Charlie Howard. So we stayed in our closets, terrified. Kept our heads down and our fucking mouths shut.
I ran into Stephen King a lot later, when I worked at the Borders Bookstore in Bangor. He would always come in the middle of the week, early morning when the store had just opened.
What was impressive about him was how much he treated us like people. You don’t get a lot of that in retail. And especially not from famous people.
I can’t tell you how many times I got a well-meaning,”What is someone as smart as you doing working here?” as a back-handed compliment from a customer. But of course never followed up with a job offer.
Those were hard years. I loved working with books, but my social anxiety often got the better of me. And when I worked there, we weren’t allowed to read on the job, only after hours. So I’d spend 9 hours on my feet surrounded by books and discussing them with people but unable to crack into one when things got slow, for fear of losing my job.
And it was especially hard when kids who had bullied me would come in as customers. Particularly if they had achieved more. Had a better job at a company out of state. Swinging back home to visit their parents.
But it was definitely better than housekeeping or telemarketing, the only jobs I’d been able to get until then, when I lived in the worst part of Bangor. I could get $7 an hour at Borders, and I didn’t have to worry about sex toys stuck to the ceiling (as in housekeeping) or strangers who told me things like “If my daughter did what you do, I’d kill her” (telemarketing).
So I dealt with it. And would sneak-read books when I could be reasonably sure my supervisor wasn’t looking.
I still got written up sometimes. And it was on one of those days that I rang up Stephen King at the register.
I’d just gotten done meeting with the general manager and his assistant.
“Your real strength,” the GM said, “is that you always aim to please.”
“But you’re not following store policy,” the assistant manager added.
“I’m not?” I said.
“If you don’t ask at least 10 customers an hour if you can help them find something, you’re not doing your job,” the GM said.
I frowned. “But what if the store’s empty? And what if they don’t look like they need help, like they want to be left alone?”
“It’s not your job to decide things like that,” the AM said, “who needs help and who doesn’t.”
The GM agreed. “This comes from Corporate.”
“There’s no need to get upset,” the AM said suddenly.
Huh? I wasn’t upset. Oh God, I thought, you fucking weirdo. Can’t you keep it together for two minutes in front of your goddamn bosses? If they find out how crazy you are, you’ll lose your job. And with that, I felt myself tearing up.
“I know,” I choked out.
The GM got up. “Time to open the store,” he said. “Ten customers an hour. This comes from the top. It’s nothing personal.” He headed for the door.
“And remember,” the assistant manager added, “push Cryptonomicon. We’re in the running for the regional sales contest.”
As soon as they were out of sight, I bolted for the bathroom. Dabbed my puffy eyes with a wet paper towel, trying to achieve some semblance of a normal appearance for my turn at the register. It’ll be okay, I reassured myself. You probably won’t have to ring anybody up for a while. Nobody comes in until at least 9:30.
But the front doors opened as soon as they were unlocked.
And having waited on them a few times already now, I knew what that meant: Stephen and Tabitha King were here.
Well fuck, I thought. Great timing for this.
I knew that they were fairly quick shoppers, too. Didn’t dawdle quite the way other folks did. So I didn’t have much time for my face to lose its redness.
I panicked when they came up to the counter. I looked like a mess.
But Stephen King looked right into my eyes, and even though I’m sure I looked terrible, he didn’t say a goddamn thing about it. No “What happened to you?” No “Are you okay?” Not even a dirty or confused look. Instead, he smiled at me and picked up a couple of Lindor truffles.
“Do you think these are any good?” he said.
“Which one is the best?”
I told him I personally liked the white chocolate ones. He grabbed a couple. Put them on the counter for me to ring up with the rest of what he was buying.
But as I tried to hand them to him, he shook his head and backed away, leaving them on the counter.
“Have a good day,” he said, turning to his wife and finishing the conversation they’d been having as they’d approached the register.
I Wasn’t Anyone Special
I think about King’s kindness later when my best friend from high school is back in town visiting from Boston. We walk out to the State Street Bridge, where the murder happened. We talk about Charlie Howard. And Pennywise.
“The scariest part,” she says, “is that things like that can happen anywhere.”
“To anyone,” she adds.
I know she’s right. Granted, I’m not anyone special. I’m neurotic and obsequious. And apologize constantly. But I’m forgettable.
She, on the other hand, is one of those people you remember your whole life. She speaks with purpose. Always knows the right thing to say. There’s a reason I pined after her for years. She’s magnetic, a natural lightning rod for attention.
But that doesn’t matter. Neither of us is really safe. This could happen to anyone.
“If only we just had to be afraid of clowns,” she says.
“You know,” I say, “that might just be the scariest part.”
“We’re the monsters,” I say.
She nods. “Anyone could be.”