John Thomas and Lady Jane

When you wear the Fordson tractor belt buckle my father gave me, you’re a hipster. When I wear it, I’m a redneck.

That word: “wifebeater.” It means an A-shirt or tank-top undershirt.

It also means this:

In 1994, I was 19 years old. I’d dropped out of college. I had a job parking cars at a hospital in downtown Louisville. I lived in a one-room apartment and my neighbor beat on his wife. He beat her pretty loud.

One night I called the cops. The switchboard operator said: Is he still whipping her? If he’s not whipping her when we get there, we can’t just take him in. Unless she files a complaint. And she won’t do that.

No ma’am.

That’s right. Now you wait until he’s beating her real good and you’re sure he’s going to keep on her for some ten or fifteen minutes. That way when we get there we can haul his ass to jail. Otherwise we leave him. He’s going to think she called us. And he’s going to kill her. I mean to death. And that’s on you. You understand that?

Later that week, I was trying to get some sleep. His wife was crying. The children were crying. Something, maybe a lamp, broke against the wall. I’d gotten hammered on red wine. I don’t know what I was thinking when I stumbled through the backyard and around our building to their apartment, and I didn’t have to find out: a thin man I’d never seen before was already standing there, knocking on their door with his left hand. His right hand held a gigantic revolver.

He looked at me and smiled. You’re a good boy, he said, but go on, now.

I went back to my apartment and I turned up the record player as loud as it would go. Pharoah Sanders and Roy Haynes. Pretty loud.

Once I bought a pack of those A-shirts. My wife found them in the wash and made me throw them out. She didn’t like the conclusions she felt they encouraged other people to draw.

I don’t have much firsthand experience with wife-beating. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I took a girl home from the movies—we’d gone to the Stonybrook Cinema Ten to watch Val Kilmer chew his way through The Doors—and her parents weren’t back yet. We necked on the living room floor and she asked me to strangle her. I made a choice not to do so that I’ve rarely regretted.

I was still in grade school when our neighbor kicked his girlfriend down the basement stairs and broke her left arm in two places. It’s not like I saw him do it or anything.

A lot of my domestic abuse experience has been with women hitting men. It’s less unusual than you might think. I knew a girl who pushed my friend through a closed window out onto his roof. Jesus, help me, somebody call the fucking cops, he said. My other friend’s ex-wife had an artificial leg, and she would get drunk and take it off and hit him with it, hard, before he knew what was happening. What are you going to do, jerk, punch a cripple? And there was that old girl at System Parking who jumped the front desk and started to hit her man in the face with his own stapler. I stood there, watching.

These women wore: a pretty sundress, a black halter top, a cafeteria apron. There is no apparent style consensus on husband-beating outfits.

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