Remembering the Ashtray Kid of Olympia

Weird, Nasty Olympia, Washington

My wife and I lived in downtown Olympia Washington for one long, very weird year. She was on assignment from a federal health agency working with public health people at the state level in Olympia. That was the only reason we were living there.

I’ve written about Olympia before. We didn’t like it much. The scenery was wonderful, the weather better than average (for that wretchedly rainy part of the world), but we found the people around us dismal and dreary, humorless, and in the case of our landlords, scheming and conniving. We met a few people who could’ve become friends, but they too turned out to be scoundrels.

OlyPix014Our boat Smilla, and source of escape. We had our yard sale here and met Billy.

So we entertained ourselves with music and touring and going to the Farmer’s Market and taking our little boat out in Puget Sound and having one fairly momentous yard sale.

I had then been collecting old toasters for several years. Toasters. Pop-ups and flap-downs, all pre-1950, all gleaming with deco designs and polished chrome. I forget why I kept doing this because they were filling up the basement. So in time I decided to unload many of them, along with other stuff we had moved too many times from house to house, and so one bright sunny Saturday in late spring we held a yard sale in our driveway.

It went okay. We met some drippy grumpy neighbors offering a dollar on a ten dollar item. We all know those people, but I’ve believed their gene pool originated in Olympia.

Toward the end of the sale, in the late morning, a kid came by on his bicycle, saw all the toasters (none had sold by then), and got all excited. He was 11 or 12, I guessed, a bit chubby, and for some reason he stank. He cruised through all the toasters, marveling at them and keeping up a lively patter about how cool they are and how he’d love to buy one. My wife came out to greet him, she got his name (since forgotten, but let’s call him Billy), smelled him, and when she had a chance to talk to me privately remarked on his strangely pungent, sickly odor. “He’s not well,” she ventured. “Something’s wrong.” I need to add that Billy wore a tee shirt and shorts and dirty socks, so his skin was readily visible.

DSC_0226What’s left of my toaster collection. None of these works quite right. They just sit there.

We talked about toasters, his bike, he asked about us — he was obviously very at ease with adults and could keep up a lively friendly conversation – and we learned he lived just two blocks away, toward the water. He bought a toaster for $5 and I gave him another one as a bonus. We both told him, hey, come on by anytime, we’re here. We got his last name, too, but I’ve since forgotten it. He lived with his Mom. His father was long gone.

He did come back, in his shorts and tee shirt and still smelling badly, and I presented him with a third toaster while my wife gave him the once over. Looking at her eyes, I did the same. The kid’s arms and legs were dotted with dozens of small brown circular scars.

Cigarette burns. My wife was furious (me too). “Someone’s using him as an ashtray.”

The next day we hopped in the car and cruised along the street he said he lived on, and I spotted his bike outside a little bungalow in serious disrepair. Junk scattered around outside. Curtains drawn in the windows. It told me, poverty, fear, isolation.

At some point we called the house, got the mother, told her Billy had been by acquiring old toasters from us, and said he was welcome to visit anytime because we thought he was very nice kid. Words to that effect. She seemed indifferent, quickly ended the conversation, and that was the end of that.

We debated calling the state’s Child Protective Services. Maybe it was the father who used him as an ashtray, not the mother. We had no way of knowing. But we did call CPS and had that kind of vague, awkward conversation where you mention multiple cigarette burns and how bad he smelled, but you don’t know how old the burns are or if the kid is really sick or if the mother’s now treating him well. We gave CPS the kid’s full name and his street address. They said, thanks for calling.

That was it. I have no idea if they followed up on this or not, or if Billy has survived his “childhood.” He’d be in his mid-20s now, if he’s still among us. What was most impressive about this young man, and why he is now in my catalogue of “terrific people,” is that in spite of the pain and terror he experienced at the hands of some adult, he was so infectiously cheerful and positive. He had a great smile; he looked us in the eye. It’s clear to me now he was reaching out to us in some modest way. We reached out right back to him, and then his mother slammed the door. And a short time later we moved out of Olympia, headed for Atlanta. Good luck, kid.

How some people can be this cruel is beyond my capacity to understand. I’m sure my readers know of similar stories of horrific child abuse, or abuse of any other human being, and so the story of The Ashtray Kid is just one more of the same. But it shook me (and my wife), and some of what I saw and learned those few days gave me some guidance and a dose of shock for a new novel I was about to start writing the next year, Calling Out Your Name, which is still my best-seller.

Calling - Cover Design - Final.indd

There you have it.


Next time: the progressive surge in Maine. Where’s it headed? And maybe some food.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.