As one year ends and another begins, one invariably, inevitably waxes nostalgic, particularly with regard to those he has lost, they being the most important people to him. My parents, Emory and Doris McMillan, and my paternal grandmother, Jessie Whitley McMillan, are the most persistent ghosts haunting my dreams night after night, and to some extent so are my wife and son, although neither of them is dead but estranged from me (my wife for my ongoing emotional inertia, my son for refusing to give up the belief that Donald Trump is the Beast of the Apocalypse and that the Fox “News” Channel has set back clear American thinking a least a couple of centuries).
This New Year’s Eve, however, as I sit alone in the dark of my own home with a scotch and water and a CD of Beethoven’s Ninth trembling behind me, I think of someone else other than kin, an old schoolmate this time, Tonya Gay Dobbin, whom I’d not seen since high school nearly thirty-seven years ago and who died in another town before she was even thirty-years old.
She had gone to Broadusville Middle School in the northern part of Compton County, and I had not, so we did not get to know each other until seventh grade at Moody Junior High. She had a heavy sort of presence, even though she wasn’t fat; “hulking” or “big boned” would not have been correct descriptions either, although there might have been a bit of truth in the latter. I thought she was pretty in an offbeat way. She was short and had brown, slightly stringy hair which she wore down to her shoulders and a wide, frequent smile. Any oddness in her appearance came from the slight stoop with which she walked; she bent a bit at the waist, as though suffering spinal curvature or as though her torso were a burden to her legs.
She was good-natured and laughed a lot, as peculiar people often are and often do, so Gay, the name by which she went the first year I knew her, and in its old-fashioned denotation, was an appropriate name for her. What’s more, and what’s better, she laughed at my jokes, regardless of their lameness; she laughed hard too, very noticeably, until her face turned scarlet and I worried she might lose her breath or go into a choking fit. But she didn’t. She recovered in time to laugh at something else I said or something someone else said, and therefore earned a reputation among the decent people in our class for cheerfulness. And for brains as well. She made good grades consistently and got into the Beta Club, the pinnacle of academic performance at Moody J. She was especially good at math, which I envied her, having never been good at it. She was so cheerful she even found my inadequacies in that area laughable. (So, I guess, did my math teachers.)
The problem with Gay Dobbin, at least in 1976, a time when it would still be a problem and a most grievous one, was her first name, which I thought was lovely and fit her to a tee as much as anyone else’s name did. “Gay,” of course, had denotations and connotations other than happiness or the state of being carefree, all so obvious in the twenty-first century as not to need definition. It began to be trouble for her when Mr. Taylor, a hotshot history teacher at Moody J. (and future husband of a distant cousin, I am loathe to report) whom many of the girls found positively magnetic, asked her point-blank once in class, “So is it true you’re Gay?” He knew what he was doing, and it worked. One can just imagine the effect this faux-query had on her classmates. Those who didn’t laugh out loud snickered into the palms of their hands or looked politely away to enjoy the irony. Gay, I am told, for I was not in the class, turned her customary red, not from a shared hilarity in Taylor’s little quip but from great embarrassment and humiliation, for in 1976 Compton, South Carolina, especially among the teen set, there was no more insidious an implication than that of homosexuality, although the stigma had up to then applied mainly to men. (Kudos to the scum Taylor for breaking the gender barrier of common decency.)
It did not have to do much with religious strictures, this violent prejudice against homosexuality, as it did with the idea of effeminateness, otherness, the failure to conform, the same as left-handedness, obesity, or the need for glasses, except in this case the signifying characteristic was sex and sex acts that were supposed to be performed by a man and a woman, if performed at all.
Mr. Taylor, who strode about campus like a movie star, with his athletic physique and his rich blond hair parted in the middle, had let the smelly genie out of the bottle with his try at humor at Gay Dobbin’s expense. He had given his students permission to let loose their capacity for hatefulness against someone who had done none of them any harm; this hatefulness proved to be great, even for so small a student body. I was never witness to any of the verbal assaults against Gay Dobbin. For one reason, I preferred to stay in during recess, either in the library or a teacher’s classroom, and read, and I didn’t eat lunch at the Moody J. cafeteria, choosing to wait till I got home to down one of Mother’s sandwiches with a glass of ice tea. But I knew from the accounts of others that people, boys mainly but also some low-class females, had begun making fun of Gay for her name, making suggestions about her affectional preferences and habits, as though, at the age of thirteen, she had any clear idea herself whom she loved or found attractive. Crude suggestions appeared in ink and in chalk on the girls’ bathroom walls and stalls soliciting certain activities on her behalf. She became the most ridiculed girl on campus, all because of a name she had not chosen for herself and because these were people so unhappy and filled with such self-loathing that they must make the life of an innocent girl entirely miserable.
She wasn’t the only person on campus, of course, to receive such treatment for a perceived sexual aberration. There were others. Most conspicuous was Richie Hinson, a skinny youth from Beaslap who stuttered badly and suffered from a dreadful case of eczema that made his face look as though his head had been shoved into a boiling pot of water and held there long enough to leave a myriad of scars on his cheeks, chin, and forehead. He lived with his grandparents because his single alcoholic mother thought he was too ugly to be alive and couldn’t stand the sight of him. Stories implicated him in offering his sexual favors to indigent men in Compton for free and for money, and these included black men, which in Compton thinking at the time made his alleged actions all the more heinous, all the more unforgivable. I had been somewhat friendly with Richie before learning of his extracurricular activities and even after hearing about them, because I had been taught to be kind to everyone, regardless of who or what he was. I was told, however, in no uncertain terms by classmates, that a continued association with Richie would eventually brand me with the same unfortunate label: “Queer!” In the end it didn’t really matter, for Richie dropped out of school after seventh grade and seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth itself. There was a faculty member, too, widely made fun of, Mr. Freddie Wyatt, balding and theatrically effeminate, who taught English at Moody J., although people were more discreet and clandestine in making fun of him; he was, after all, a teacher, and could cause hell to one’s grade point average. Still he was enough a target of derision to be called “Miss Wyatt,” among other names, behind his back.
I mention these two other people because of my acquaintance with them as well as with Gay Dobbin and because to a great degree I drew the company of folks like these. I was a regular flame to ill-formed moths, oddballs, and outcasts. Obese at the time and bespectacled, with a strong penchant for fantasy and irregular pursuits such as folk music and foreign movies, I was myself a weirdo, maybe, in my own estimation at least, the king of all Moody J. weirdos, or so I like to think now. In any event, these people came to me, sensing kinship, for solace and an open, unprejudiced ear. These included Gay Dobbin, about whose abuse I had heard.
I found her one afternoon behind a stairwell in tears.
“Gay?” I called. “What in the world is the matter? You all right?” (When obviously she wasn’t.)
She came reluctantly from the shadows, and it was a shock to see her so unhappy, when normally she was the sweet girl-harlequin, always laughing, always cheerful. She looked haggard for someone so young and sleep-deprived; which indeed she had been. It was obvious as well that she had lost weight.
“That’s not my name,” she said, wiping away her tears.
“No. Not anymore. From now on it’s Tonya. I answer only to Tonya and to nothing else.”
“Oh okay, Tonya,” I replied, pretending ignorance, as though I knew nothing of the trouble her middle name had been giving her.
“Yes,” she said and sniffed. Then, as though I had invited her, she came into my arms with an embrace I attempted to return, but awkwardly. She spoke moistly into my right shoulder. “Sometimes I hate people so much I could kill ‘em!”
At about the same time a pair of girls appeared at the bottom of the stairwell with the intention of climbing it. They saw us thus conjoined and smiled, and I was sure I heard one of them whisper to the other, “And I thought she liked other girls.” This made me flinch but not enough, apparently, for Gay, now Tonya, to notice.
Redubbing herself seemed to ease things for Tonya, at least to some degree. At least when we crossed paths at Moody J. she did not appear as worn as before and was even able to emit her old laugh, if not to the same volume or the same degree that previously shook and reddened her. Our two years at Moody J. closed quickly enough, and soon we moved over to Compton High School for the final leg of our secondary education. Of course the student population was greater there, and a sighting of Tonya became rare, but once I came upon her in what was called the school’s “smoking area,” a designated place on campus for student nicotine fiends to find their relief between classes. One had to pass this smelly patch of ground in order to take the concrete path from one classroom building to another. Tonya stood out among the crowd. She had “hooched” herself up, teased her hair, lost some weight, taken to heavy makeup application, and had begun to dress more revealingly (at least as much as school regulations would allow). We spotted each other; I threw up my hand, she kind of smiled back, and I went on my way.
Our classmates continued to excoriate her. Stories got around that she had “loosened” herself considerably, taken up with a most dubious crowd, and, like the now-missing Richie Hinson, had gave herself up to the embraces of town lowlifes. Her appearance in the “smoking area” seemed a confirmation of at least one of these rumors.
“She’s a whore,” one girl put it to me plainly. The most scabrous rumor had her impregnated by a black millworker from Broadusville; if she was, she managed to conceal the evidence quite adeptly, so I chalked that one up to mere spite.
Tonya was one of those youngsters who could not wait to clean the Compton dirt off their feet. When we graduated in the spring of 1982, she left town almost immediately. From what I had heard, she passed through various places without settling down till she ended up in Florence, South Carolina, in the eastern part of the state, married with babies. She did not attend our ten-year class reunion, which surprised no one. I left Compton too, for Columbia, for New York, for Washington, D.C., before returning permanently to South Carolina. I took a job teaching at Compton’s local liberal arts college, and given the size of Compton, it was inevitable I would teach at least a handful of people with whom I’d gone to school myself; these were folks whose jobs promised pay increases if they had some sort of college degree and other people who genuinely longed for a career change.
One of these was a woman named Kathy. She was some distant kin to me. Her husband, also a classmate, had been deployed overseas by the military. Kathy was taking courses basically to get out of the house and be less lonely. One day she remained behind after class while her younger colleagues had streamed out of the room before I had the words “Class dismissed” completely out of my mouth. I was putting things into my leather satchel.
“You heard about Gay Dobbin, didn’t you?” she asked from her seat.
The name stopped me in motion. I had to stop and think. She meant “Tonya,” didn’t she? Gay had become Tonya, years ago.
“No. What about her?”
“She got killed over in Florence County crossing the road.”
“Do what?” I asked, sitting back down at my desk and staring at her.
Kathy nodded. “Her and one of her younguns was walking down the sidewalk of a busy street in town. Somehow the baby got loose from Gay and went out into the road. A car was coming right for it. Gay ran out into the road and thowed herself on top of the child. The baby made it. Gay didn’t.”
I sat and thought about this, and what occurred to me most was the old Gay, the husky Gay with the whiplash-inducing laugh and the slumped posture.
I looked up at Kathy and said, “She didn’t stand a chance, did she? It’s like she had all the cards stacked against her from the very first.”
Kathy licked her lips. “Well, a lot of it she brought on herself with the way she acted.”
That observation astonished me with its cruelty.
“But not much,” I wanted to reply. “She acted the way she acted because of people like you, with your filthy minds and loose tongues. You stood in judgment of her when you had no right to. You abandoned her when you should have reached out a hand to take her in. She wasn’t that bad. She was all right if you got to know her. But you didn’t. There were a lot worse. A lot worse!”
I wanted to say those things but didn’t. Instead, upset, shocked but not surprised, I stood and left the room without another word to Kathy Kitchin.
Now, as one year passes and a new one begins, I think again of Tonya Gay Dobbin and how certain people are marked out from day one for cruelty, confusion, and disappointment. They have the mark upon them as soon as they leave the womb. Nothing will go right for them regardless of all their efforts. God will give them the tests of Job without the subsequent martyrdom or places in the mouths of Sunday school teachers. They will know misery early. They will die young in some cases. They will be forgotten except by a very few.
Tonya Gay Dobbin was one of the cursed. So was Richie Hinson. So was Freddie Wyatt. To some extent so am I, Will McMillan, but to dwell on my own disappointments at this point, when I am still alive and capable of some fight, would be a colossal act of self-pity. So I demur.
Michele Parker Randall is the author of Museum of Everyday Life (Kelsay Books 2015) and A Future Unmappable, chapbook (Finishing Line Press 2021). Her work can be found in Nimrod International Journal, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere.