August 14, 2016
I am fascinated by beginnings. I think this has always been the case, but it has certainly amplified since I began teaching. In part because they’re important, obviously; in part because they’re easy to teach. Middles, endings: those take context. It’s harder, if not impossible, to look at a large selection of endings, side-by-side, and analyze what works, and why. They work because of everything that came before. Conversely, beginnings work because of everything that comes after, but you don’t know that yet at their time of presentation. A good beginning should pique your interest, it should make you want to read more. It should make you start asking some questions—once your brain starts inventing questions, you’re involved, you have an interest, and now you want to keep reading, because questions need answers. A good beginning gives you all that and, too, in the parlance of creative writing classroom, it teaches you how to read the piece itself.¹
“The Body” (and, likewise, Stand By Me) starts with an adult, “present day” Gordon Lachance reflecting back on his life. “I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being,” he tells us. “It happened in 1960², a long time ago . . .”
The second chapter then flashes back, to Gordie and his two friends, Teddy and Chris, playing three-penny-scat (“the dullest card-game ever invented, but it was too hot to think about anything more complicated”) and telling jokes (“How do you know when a frenchman’s been in your back yard? Well, your garbage cans are empty and your dog is pregnant.”) in their treehouse.
That’s almost the entirety of the first two chapters, much of it simple scene-setting and description, and yet those details are littered with information that comes back all throughout the rest of the novella.
The roof of their treehouse was a corrugated tin sheet “hawked from the dump, looking over our shoulders all the time we were hustling it out of there, because the dump custodian’s dog was supposed to be a real kid-eating monster.”
Gordie kills time between hands reading detective/murder stories, and he also tells us Teddy was “the dumbest guy we hung around with, I guess, and he was crazy,” that his “big thing was what he called ‘truck-dodging.” We also learn Teddy’s dad stormed the beach at Normandy; held the sides of Teddy’s head down to the cast-iron burner plates, burning both ears; and was now at Togus, a VA hospital, “where you have to go if you’re section eight.”
We know that, a few months before, Gordie’s brother died in a Jeep accident, and his parents hadn’t recovered. “I’d been like the Invisible Boy that whole summer,” Gordie says.
We know that that whole summer had been “the driest and hottest since 1907,” possibly the least relevant among these pieces of information and foreshadowing, but a distinction that places “The Body” alongside other such great pieces of art set during the hottest summer on record or the hottest day of the year like The Great Gatsby, and Do the Right Thing.
At the end of the chapter, a fourth friend, Vern Tessio, enters, and now we’ve met all four main characters. We know one of those four kids, Gordon Lachance, is telling us this story from later in life, looking back, and we know a lot more about Gordie and his friends and the town they live in, Castle Rock, than we even think yet relevant.
Sweaty and panting, Vern brings with him a question. Or, a couple questions. First, “Can you guys camp out tonight?” And then, “You guys want to go see a dead body?”
* * *
We had a small house with a big yard, kind of on the outskirts of Lakewood, WA. Unincorporated through my elementary and middle school years, Lakewood was then still a part of Tacoma, though pretty large to technically be a piece of something else. It’s a city now, with everything “incorporation” brings with it—city government, its own police and fire departments. Progress. Growing up, it felt like both part of somewhere else and not, neither city nor suburb. There were a lot of lakes, with rich people living on and around them, and then lots of sketchy areas, with pawn shops and adult bookstores and occasionally you’d see an episode of Cops that had been filmed there. And in between, these pockets of neighborhoods where my friends and I grew up, these pockets that seemed like the perfect place to be growing up, idyllic even. Whether I actually thought or realized that then, or am only applying it now in retrospect, through the lens of distance and nostalgia, is hard to say. Maybe it didn’t feel like that at the time; maybe kids growing up there now still think it feels that way.
One of my memories of this growing up is the glut of movies we watched as a family. My dad was the head gardener for the Seattle Public Library system, and I remember him always bringing home copies of VHS tapes from one branch or another, and when he wasn’t bringing home whatever wasn’t checked out, he was stopping at the local video store, or we were all going together, family trip to pick out a movie. Walking up and down aisles of New Releases, Action, Comedy is another nostalgia-tinted memory of something I miss.
One of the few specific memories I have from all this family movie watching is of my dad sitting me down, telling me he and my mom wanted us to watch Stand By Me. They had watched it the night before, had loved it, and now wanted to watch it again, with me. I don’t know if that had been the plan all along—to “screen” it to make sure it was suitable for my age—or if the idea to let me watch it only occurred after their own viewing. I grew up relatively conservative Christian and “strict” would probably be too strong of a word for it, but we didn’t have free reign over what we were able to watch or listen to. Or, maybe we did have free reign, but certain landscapes of that reign were certainly discouraged. I have friends who were raised only slightly more conservative and so were not allowed to watch PG-13 movies until they were literally thirteen, R not until they were 17. That wasn’t my experience, but nor was I allowed to watch, say, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street³ or other movies deemed too scary or adult or otherwise unsuitable for me for one reason or another4. I remember my dad telling me that it was a little “mature”5 but he thought it was worth watching regardless. That it was about a group of kids who were my own age, give or take, and the themes were not only good and relevant, but important. I remember him saying that even though they all make fun of Vern, all throughout the movie, they don’t when it really matters. At one point, I remember him saying6, they cross a train track bridge and Vern is so scared he gets down on all fours and crawls his way across, but the other three kids, Vern’s friends, understand, they get it. You make fun of those closest to you for the little shit, not the stuff that matters.
And with that, we watched the movie.
And then…I don’t remember the movie itself. Not that first viewing of it anyway. I remember the movie, of course; I’ve seen it countless times over the years, but I don’t remember anything about it specific to that first viewing. I remember my dad’s introduction, his bequeathing on it not only his seal of approval, but his recommendation. His insinuation that there was something to be learned from it. His highlighting that it was about friendship, and friendships are one of the most important things in life. Maybe the most important?
1A footnote in an essay I sometimes teach, Matt Bell’s “Ken Sent Me,” about the video game Leisure Suit Larry, notes: “Like the gameplay it describes, this essay can be more than one thing, depending on the situation. This is essay as guide, as walkthrough, as reflection on personal experience.” That blurring not only of genre but of intention, of purpose, is itself the subgenre of nonfiction I have found myself most drawn to in recent memory, and that sentence makes clear my own goal for this book. It is appreciation and analysis of “The Body” and Stand By Me, but also memoir—my connections to, and thoughts on, this source material, as well as my own growing up, my coming of age stories as man, writer, teacher, husband. This is book as guide, as walkthrough, as reflection on personal experience.
21959, for some reason, in the movie. Also, “the first time I saw,” instead of “when I first saw.”
3 First confession: I still haven’t seen any of these.
4 Nor were my brother and I allowed (or, semantics notwithstanding, we were also discouraged) to listen to music with swearing or that was deemed “unsuitable” for other reasons that now escape me. Another of my small moments of vivid memory is an anecdote of trying to tell my dad that I had borrowed “a CD” from a friend, which he kept hearing as “AC/DC”—I am unsure if I’m more surprised by the fact that maybe AC/DC was “bad” or find more humor in the SNL-skit-like number of times we had to volley that misunderstanding back and forth.
5 I don’t remember him using that word specifically, but it feels most apt for the memory as it exists.
6 Either my memory here is slightly wrong, or, time-machine note to dad: um, spoiler alert.
Excerpted from Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch.
AARON BURCH is the author of Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked, a memoir about the King novella and Stand By Me. He is also the author of the short story collection, Backswing, and is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart.