The Meek Shall Inherit
Robert Crumb was born on the east-side of Bacatta, Michigan; a city once plagued by gangs, corruption, and economic depression and desperation. His life began during the worst of it, during what some had begun referring to as “The Fall”– not the autumn kind, the hitting-your-ass-on-the-ground kind. Bacatta had done so famously, and stayed that way for many years. For most of those years, Robert attended school in the central, downtown district that was later abandoned and overrun with the destitute and criminal. It was during these years that he met the future of humanity that would eventually form those aforementioned societal slack-jaws.
Robert’s troubles began at Levin Elementary school, long ago established by a family of farmers whom hoped to help the blossoming city find its feet. For Robert, all it did was cause him grief, especially in the form of Phillip O’Dell.
Robert was a small, geek-ish sort, whom followed the rules to a T, but understandably, lacked the formal press-and-dress of his more-fortunate peers. Even before the nicknames rubby-crumbs, crummy-rubbert, and bread-boy, Robert’s old, hand-me-down clothing doomed him. His mother was a seamstress by trade, and his clothes were old, tattered, and worn. The few that weren’t, had been out of style for decades.
By contrast, Phillip was a brick-wall of a boy; nice hair, new clothes, and lots of friends. Robert learned these things quickly, as Phil flaunt them in his face whilst singling him out. Even despite the obvious downturn for Bacatta, Phillip’s Dad made a killing at BPD. Robert didn’t mind; the divide between them was cosmetic, skin-deep. But Phillip did mind, and he took great pleasure in making everyone else mind it too. Crummy-rubbert stuck, lasted all the way through middle-school.
The few friends Robert found poked fun at him, however lovingly, but ever a pacifist, he took it in stride. Phillip despised it. He lashed out, bigger and meaner than ever. He beat Robert regularly, his words broken through fists of adolescent fury, “Crummy rubbert… poor family…. too broke to care…. about their broke son.”
Phillip reveled in the glory of others’ suffering.
Despite these routine “meetings of the minds” Robert trudged onward. He sank deeper into school-work, his few, minor friendships, then eventually, depression. All the while Phillip’s family grew richer, defended his worst troubles, and ignored the lesser-ones.
As high-school approached, Robert and Bacatta were worse than ever, but something changed in them both. Roberts’ father, an accountant for the city on a dismal salary, took a high-paying position at a company called Bio-something– Robert never really cared, he was just happy for dad. It was only after Bacatta began to pick-up, and thus its inhabitants, that Robert saw the true shift: Phillip, an ever-present threat and nuisance, suddenly shrank into the background. What were once daily encounters became weekly, then monthly. Soon enough, Phillip O’Dell descended into obscurity altogether, taking crummy-rubbert with him.
Twenty years after “The Fall,” and near half-a-decade since Robert had thought of O’Dell, he’d become a man. Without constant torment, he’d made it through High-school with high-grades, and even a girlfriend or two. He garnered promising scholarships from both in and out of state colleges, left home to attend Oakton State University’s Bachelor of Sciences program to study Computer Science; for there were few things Robert always loved more than computers, games, and math.
As he stepped from a cab along a side-street, a voice at-once both sparked his memory and chilled his spine. He glanced sideways to see a homeless man, haggard, emaciated, and begging for a few paces down the road. Even beneath countless layers of dirt, grime, and mottled head and facial hair, Phillip was unmistakable.
For a moment, Robert stood transfixed by the shell of a man that had once been his bully, his tormentor. For most, this would be a moment of triumph. For Robert, ever-the-pacifist, it was one of sorrowful epiphany.
During high-school Robert learned of Bacatta’s true underbelly, its true history. What had once been a high-grade metropolis had been forced to poverty from the loss of a major company and supporter of its economy. Robert’s own father had been part of this company– pharma-something, he’d never bothered to remember– and it went down in flames after a major scandal with its Board of Directors.
Even now, the city was still picking itself up. Part of the revitalization also included cleaning up the police-force’s corruption, but only now– as a college-going man bound for a nearby-cafe– did Robert remember Officer O’Dell, Phillip’s father. The connection wasn’t difficult; Officer O’Dell was a corrupt cop, the kind that took kick-backs for anything he could to keep his family glitzed and glamoured in otherwise dire times. Phillip’s own disappearance even made sense now. But to see him slouched against a brick-wall in Oakton, ragged, torn, and destitute, broke Robert’s heart.
Robert weaved through the crowd toward Phil, his feet compelled forward through the stream of noon-day passersby that flowed around him. He stood before the broken, homeless.
He raised a hand, rasped a word, “Change?”
Robert’s eyes filled with a melange of emotion that Phil must have missed.“Ph-Phillip? Phillip O’Dell?”
The broken man’s eyes rose, widened, “Robert?”
He gave a single, slow nod, “What’re you doing here, man?”
Phillip’s lower lip trembled. He slid up the wall, shaking his head. Tears edged into his eyes, “Are– Are you–”
“Real?” Robert asked with a step toward him. “Yeah, Phil, it’s me.”
His withered, husk of a body heaved a sob, “My god!”
Robert’s heart split in two, “Hey man, it’s alright.” He put an arm around him, “You hungry? C’mon, my apartment’s just down the street. I’ll fix you something.”
Phillip sobbed the two blocks to the apartment building, his clouded mind wracked, and his body directed solely by Robert’s firm grip. The stink of an adolescent life on the street permeated the otherwise smoggy air and filled the hallway to the apartment door. It only subsided long enough for the meal that Robert cooked in silence, his movements slow, thoughtful. Phillip’s tears followed their tempo with a pervasive trickle, ceasing as the two sat to eat.
The silence had its fill between them, gorging itself on the profundity of the moment. Phillip’s mouth trembled. His hand failed the weight of the soup spoon. It clamored with a perilous ring that gave way to Phillip’s rasping voice.
“Wh-why… why would you…”
He trailed off. Robert knew where he was headed, “What happened to you, Phil?”
His head shook, flung tears across his cheeks, “I don’t even… I don’t remember.”
“Don’t you have family? Someone you can stay with or– what happened Phil?”
Phillip O’Dell swallowed hard, choked on the bits and pieces of his life that he could recall. His voice split into occasional, hacking coughs. “Dad was … one of the cops they busted. They put him in jail– he’s … still there. Mom, couldn’t handle the pressure of work, ‘n me, ‘n… dad. She…. she showed herself out not long after.”
“You’ve be alone all this time?” He nodded. “Then how’d you end up in Oakton? Your family were locals.”
Phillip gave a wracking cough into his hand, his withered figure still trembling afterward, “I ran away… just ended up here. I’m … not sure how anymore.”
“Didn’t you ever try to … get help, or find work? I mean, have you always been—”
“No. I … I was an angry kid, Rob, you know that,” he replied, avoiding Robert’s gaze. “I hated people… lower than me, how could I… react to being lower than myself?”
“So all this time you’ve been living like this?”
He nodded. “I stole for a long time. Got caught. Ended up worse-off.”
Phillip descended into a heavy fit of coughing that shook Robert’s chest, frayed his nerves. He tried to word his sympathy, his tone shaky, “Phil, I’ve gotta’ admit.” He wrung his hands. “You were a mean kid, but… some kids are like that. I’d’ve never thought– this isn’t right, man, you need some help.”
Phillip’s coughing fit ended with sobs, “So many things I did… I deserved this. I’ve… regretted everything I said and done for so many years. I took out my own self-hate on you.”
He choked back a sob, “I was never happy. Dad was a drunk. Mom was… always cheating or fighting with Dad. When it came down, I wasn’t sad. I was angry. That’s when I was at my worst. I saw you so happy, even with all the struggle you– I-I couldn’t break your spirit. And It broke mine.”
Robert shook his head, “Phil, it wasn’t like that–”
“Yes it was, Rob,” he interrupted respectfully. “I know I hurt your feelings, but it wasn’t nearly what it could have been. I’ve seen that on the streets; kids who didn’t… have what you had. They let guys like me get to them, force them down. I’ve never regretted anything more than what I’ve done to you. I’ve beaten myself up the last half-decade for it– if I’d stopped, thought about it for even a second, I’d’ve had to recognize it was me that was the problem. And I wouldn’t’ve– wouldn’t’ve ended up… like this!”
Phil sobbed again. His chest heaved. He coughed phlegm into a frail, shaky hand. Robert watched, lost for words, searched for someway to calm the mass of sorrow across the table.
“Phil… Phil, listen man. If you were given the chance, I mean really given the chance to change things, would you?”
Phil’s face wavered, “Rob, I’ve got felonies ‘n I haven’t–”
“No, Phil, that’s not what I’m asking,” he interjected. “I’m asking, would you accept help?”
He seemed to consider the question for a long moment. His tears stilled, though his chest rose and fell with piercing wheezes. “Yeah. Yeah, I would Rob, but … I can never forgive myself for.”
Rob interrupted, “Look man, sometimes, we can’t forgive ourselves because that’s not where we need it from. Sometimes, we need it from the people we’ve wronged.”
Phil’s eyes glistened he struggled to follow, “What’re you talkin’ about Rob?”
Robert explained with a slow, rhythmic tongue, “Look Phil, like you said, I’ve had a lot behind me to help hold me up all these years. I can’t be angry with you now. And I was never really angry then. But I do understand now. I can forgive you, but I can’t just do it. Otherwise, it won’t mean as much to either of us.”
Phil’s face was blank, a result of confusion, “What’re you saying? That you forgive me?”
Robert’s head tilted sideways, “Kind of. Look man, if you’re willing to work for it, I can forgive you. But there’s a lot there, and the only way it seems worth it’s if you agree to make it worth it.”
“Get yourself together man, I’ll help, but… well, think of it this way: You agree, and at the end of that road, you’re forgiven. In the meantime, you’ll clean up, maybe find some work– something you wanna’ do with your life.”
Phil’s tears returned, a visible thirst on his lips, “You wanna’ help me?”
He grimaced, “Phil man, I hate seeing you like this, but I gotta’ know you’re really different– inside I mean, you know? What’s the point if you might turn ’round and be the same way again.”
Phil understood at last, “You can forgive me, ‘n you wanna’ help, but you wanna know I won’t end up the same.”
Robert nodded, gave a half smile, “Yeah.” He stood from the table, Phil in front of him, “It won’t be easy, but… well, neither was what happened. It was a lotta’ years, man.”
Phil nodded, hope gleaming in his eyes. Robert gave him a tight hug, lingered to foster hope. He pulled away, hands on Phil’s shoulders, and gave a sideways tilt of his head, “Go shower up, there’s a trimmer under the sink. I’ll find you some clothes and we’ll go get’chu a haircut. You had enough to eat right?”
Phil’s mouth quivered with a smile, “Rob, I don’t know what to say…”
“Just go shower up, man. You don’t need to say anything.”
Phil half-turned, hesitated, “I think I understand why they say meek’ll inherit the Earth, Rob.” Robert’s brow pinched with confusion. Phil smiled, “No matter what you do to ’em– no matter how bad you are, they never lose their compassion.”
Robert’s face sketched agreement as the boy, Phillip O’Dell– his one time bully– disappeared into the man Phil O’Dell.