Becoming Richard Pryor

Free Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul

Book: Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul Read Free Book Online
Authors: Scott Saul
dialogue was considerably different.
        BUCK [ deadpan ]: “Richard, you want me to kill you?”
        RICHARD : “No, sir.”
        BUCK : “Then go to sleep.”
    When other kids in the neighborhood said they never got spankings, Richard would chime in and say he never got a spanking, either. And he didn’t: he got beatings . His father would brag, “My son never cries when I whup him,” but there was a simple explanation for that: one punch from Buck, and Richard was out. Richard joked that there was no limit to how far Buck would go, but he may not have been simply joking. A Peoria police officer speculated that Richard could “never have gotten into real trouble. At the first sign of it, I’d just march him up to his father and he’d kill him.”
    Even when Buck was not disciplining Richard, he dispensed a brand of hard-edged wisdom that was difficult for a kid to swallow, especially one drawn to toying with his world. Once, Richard trapped a few rats by luring them with some cheese into his grandmother’s blue-speckled oven roaster and then clamping the lid down on them. He then threw the rats into a kitchen sink, full of water, to watch them swim around. (“I was weird,” he admitted when recounting this story to TV host Mike Douglas.) Buck walked in and cut his son to the quick: “Kill them. Take the broom and kill them.” Richard gulped: “I can’t kill them. Not like that.” “Then let them go. Don’t play with them.” And that, as so often happened when Buck got involved, was the end of the story.
    There may have been a deeper reason, beyond sheer perversity, forRichard wanting to see rats skittering in the sink, clutching for their lives; why he was so curious about the look of fear when a powerless creature faced its powerlessness. Around the age of six, he had been playing by himself in the alley behind North Washington Street, casting stones at trash cans to push rats out of their hiding places, when an older teenager named Hoss stepped into the alley. “Right away, I knew he was trouble,” Pryor recalled forty years later. “I saw it in his bloodshot eyes . . . I should’ve run. But I didn’t. Because he was right about me in that sense—I was a little chickenshit.” Hoss slammed Richard into a darkened corner where no one could see the two of them. He unzipped his pants and told Richard, “Suck it.” Richard did as he was told; Hoss walked off a happy man. He left Richard feeling dirty, humiliated, and ashamed.
    As with his parents’ divorce, Richard felt complicit in his misfortune. Whom would he tell? His grandmother, with her birch switches and vinegary douche bag? His father, with his KO fists? His mother, seventy miles and a universe away in Springfield? A few nights later, in the middle of dinner, his father started serenading the table with his personal version of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”: “I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air . . .” Richard “felt a shiver of embarrassment and mortification run up and down my spine like rats in a wall. What the fuck? Did he know, too?” Richard never asked his father why he chose the song or if he was aware of who had blown whom in the alley; he had never confided in his father, and wasn’t about to start with the story of Hoss and the darkened alley. Like other victims of abuse, Richard became warier, more suspicious of the motives of others, and kept his secret for five decades, until the writing of his memoir Pryor Convictions unlocked it.
    A t least his family let him repair to the movies, where he could fall into a dream life. His heroes tended to be orphans, like Tarzan, or rootless loners, like Lash LaRue or John Wayne, or comic fools lost in a world of their own, like Red Skelton. He initiated a lifelong fascination with cartoons, where violence was anarchic and acceptable and magically exaggerated into slapstick comedy; his favorite comedians,too, had more than a touch of the

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