align=center>Just Pay Attention
I’ve been listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for a week, for some dark and out-of-the-way reason I can’t fathom, and so I have to listen to it on the plane too. That, or “To Sir With Love,” which is hilarious sixteen ways.
There’s a whole run-in with this monstrously rude motherfucker on the plane but I just keep my sunglasses on and let it go. He’s really fat and none too apologetic about it. There’s something they call a Technical and I can’t deal with that, the idea of that, that we’ve been in the air while technical things have been going on, so I have a glass of red wine on the first flight and a vodka on the second, but I’m still not drunk enough. The vodka is a double. The horrible man keeps drinking beers and crushing them on his tray table. He’s in my life to a degree with which I am not comfortable.
Daddy is the same as ever, at wheels down, which is like the father of the Beave plus a Democratic moderate senator. He’s just acting. He grabs my briefcase and gives me the supermodel/trophy wife hand-to-the-back that always tells me I’m home. On the escalator I see the rude guy and ask Daddy about him. He laughs explosively, as I suspected. He knows everyone in town.
He tells me the man’s name and firm, and laughs as heartily as it is possible for Daddy to laugh tonight (more heartily than you might think), when I tell him that this was the creepiest man on any flight in the twenty years I’ve been flying to see Daddy and the Boys. I try to explain about the science-defying volume of this man, in contradiction to his mass, how he seemed to be everywhere at once. Touching me everywhere. I tell him about the people on the plane, how grotesquely healthy they seemed, sweatshirts and jerseys and too much makeup. Like the makeup might be all that’s left; the illusion of health. I tell him about a couple of my friends who are getting married, and a couple who were recently married. He likes this kind of talking, because it means I’m growing up.
He grabs more than his share of my luggage and we go through the airport’s new revolving door. Outside by the car is Bo, the husband part of our friends-of-the-family friends, laughing hysterically about someone else’s parking misfortunes, a story he doesn’t tell well enough that the humor gets across.
There is a freaky and intense embrace from Bo, whom I’ve always liked well enough, although I don’t really know him that well. He’s a lot like Daddy. Daddy tells him how I’d asked first thing “Who’s the asshole in the suit?” and they laugh because they both know the guy, and then we are in my stepmother’s Mercedes, which is driven laissez-faire by my father all the way into town.
Daddy: So Doc and Mom [his parents] are coming into town in the morning with Uncle John, and Rhonda and their daughter. Basically right now it’s George and Bob [brother and father of the stepmother], the Boys [my stepmother’s four sons with Daddy, my brothers, my favorite people on earth], Linda and Lacey [Bo’s wife and daughter], and some other people.
Bo: There’s a lot of good food.
Daddy: The thing is people have been bringing food over all week and it is very good, but there is a lot of it. And it’s all there. Also wine. And people. Women. Who say “Bill, can I get you something to drink? Bill, can I get you something to eat?” It never ends. I think I’m going to ask one of them to sew some buttons on my shirts if they don’t leave me alone.
Bo: I think they like being needed.
Me: Are Granddad and Grandmother going to be scary? Specifically Granddad.
Daddy: It’s funny you should mention that because the Boys were just telling me that they were scared of him.
Bo: Why do they think he’s scary?
Me: [Nothing, because I know exactly why they think he’s scary.]
Daddy: It’s funny because he’s changed a lot since I was a kid. He used to not swear very much. Also he was not very vocal about other races. Now he swears, and makes statements.
Me: He’s become a huge racist. And he is physically affectionate to a sort of violent extreme.
Daddy: He squeezes.
Me: He squeezes.
Bo: I’ve never met your brother- and sister-in-law until now, really.
Bo: It’s funny because they kind of make Jamie [my father’s wife] seem … sane.
Daddy: That’s funny because I was talking to their pediatrician from when they were little today, and he said the same thing.
Bo: That she …
Daddy: — That when you met George and Julie [their sister] you realized that Jamie was the normal one.
Daddy: No kidding.
Me: [Nothing, because yikes.]
There’s a particularly tricky driving place on Andrews Highway which splits the street into more Andrews Highway on the right, and on the left there’s the street that goes to our house. There has been a traffic light installed since I was here last. Also, everything is different. There are stores where there were no stores, and places I remember fondly are no longer standing. We wait at the light and there is traffic coming from none of the six directions that are important at this intersection.
Bo finally says, “It’s funny because just last night we were at this intersection and Lacey was like, ‘Should I run it?’ and I was like ‘Hell yes … then you’ll be a Lawbreaker,’ but I think she didn’t run it.”
Daddy says, “I’m not going to run it either, even though it’s a stupid light, because there’s a bottle of wine in me.”
Later I will hear from the Boys that he poured a glass before the the airport. This is so far the only indication his wife has died.
I say discreetly I’ll be inside in a minute, meaning I am going to smoke and smoke in order to make up for the airtime. Daddy takes the bags in, and for about four seconds I watch through the kitchen window, all the people I don’t know, drunk and running around my house. There’s a sudden explosion on all sides, Uncle George and a woman I don’t know, converging on me like we’re reunited immigrant relatives and they’re welcoming me home.
The woman’s name is Lizzie. Apparently she and her friend Sammie used to drive me places, or something. My family history is such that this driving-around activity could have happened when I was twelve, or when I was nine, or when I was six, or when I was five, or when I was an infant, and I’m getting zero indication on whether or not I should know who the hell this woman is. She is excited like a golden retriever.
Uncle George is making drunk statements about how old I am, old like an old man, and actually runs across the driveway at one point to bash his head against the kitchen wall, all due to the fact that I am suddenly so old. Funny and satisfying, but also mysterious. The last time I saw this man was at his mother’s funeral the summer before college. I watched him cry, and I wanted to hold his hand. He looked the same as he does now. Around twenty-five. The time before that was my sixteenth birthday and he looked the same as he does now. He doesn’t age. He walked through our kitchen somehow even though he lived in Santa Monica, and I said Hello, it’s my birthday, one year left, which was my oblique way of saying I’d soon be legal, according to Texas law.
Now it’s March 2000, I’ve just turned twenty-two, and I’m being moshed by this man and this weird lady and I get it into my not-entirely-sober head that there is a possibility that it’s been so long since he’s seen me that he won’t think of me as a kid but in fact as an autonomous and possibly mysterious or alluring man, of intellectual superiority and attractive affect. He played the flute at their wedding, my parents’ wedding, like a beautiful Pied Piper, technically proficient, lint-free, pomaded. Fey. Good with his hands.
He’s too perverse not to go for it eventually.
The second thing I think about every time I think of him is about how R. Crumb’s brother at a very young age fixated on the little boy from Treasure Island, the movie, and how this ruined him for any other sexual relationships for all time and eventually he killed himself. This nearly happened to me when I saw Rebel Without A Cause for the first time, so I know it’s not uncommon. And I wonder if I’ve formed some weird kind of involuted sexual thing about my uncle who doesn’t age like Dorian Gray, and if I am doomed to live this out forever, which is the third thing I always think about, but then everything changes due to Sharon Tate.
“I can’t believe how old you’ve gotten,” he says again.
“George got in tonight from California,” burbles the coke lady. “George is a doctor.”
“I love California,” I say.
“You love dead celebrities.”
“It’s true,” he says, embarrassed. For a second I thought she was talking to me.
“George was telling me before about how he and his friends always meet at this one bar where Sharon Tate used to hang out, see, because he lives right by that one house, the one where …”
Helter Skelter. For a second I can see her, in one of her middle-aged pure silk hand-embroidered shapeless dresses, dancing fairy circles around Charlie Manson.
I murmur, I think deliciously and under my breath, “I was going to own that house. Until Marilyn Manson bought it out from under me.”
“Then we would have been neighbors,” my uncle says. I imagine his breath tastes like Parliaments or cloves, five thousand year old scotch, clinking ice with a little freezer burn taste, ice from somebody’s grandparents’ refrigerator.
Then come the youngest brothers, George William and Lyle. Lyle is kind of like a Charles Wallace, likely autistic, developmentally retardando on stuff like physical coordination and hygiene, mathematics and capital letters, but with Harold Bloom’s rhetorical ability, Anais Nin’s attention to detail, Marie-Louise von Franz’s understanding of the human condition, the psychological and sociological impact of the relationships around him. A conundrum.
It is to Lyle, twelve, that we’ve always brought thorny ethical problems, our confusion, our sadness, to have it explained to us like Jesus with the patriarchal religious types in the temple. Like Clarissa. He’s an observer of people and their foibles. It’s hard to talk about Lyle without going to a place that looks a lot like hyperbole but rest assured, it’s not exaggeration. For a long time I assumed I was the only family member who engaged him for the fifty-minute hour, but I found out after high school that we’d all been doing it, all along.
Then came George William, the youngest, whom we all love secretly just a little bit more than each other. Geo. Wm., born loudly, red-faced, born swinging fists like Esau. This story is still told: preverbal Geo. Wm. is asked to stop crashing his fork against the table in anticipation of his meal, on the grounds that in this house, the house of our old friends-of-the-family friends, we did not make these noises. In this house, we practiced the piano for an hour before being allowed to eat or watch television. In this house there were rooms we didn’t enter, furniture we didn’t touch, toys we didn’t play with.
In this house we also learn that Geo. Wm. is a toddling mumblety-peg champion, as he smiles and throws the offending fork directly into the lovely face of the mistress of this house. Perhaps it is at that moment these old friends of the family begin to be replaced by our new friends of the family, Bo and Linda. Certainly it’s at this moment Geo. Wm. becomes my hero.
Geo. Wm. and Lyle appear now as automatons stalking through the hedge, wearing strange togas made of pilled blankets and alien masks twice as large as the heads inside them. They’re both wearing baseball gloves meant for grown men, so their fingers are long and creeping, Nosferatu fingers, wriggling in the air in an eldritch fashion. Their voices, changed and made strange by the masks, echo out robotically.
“Hello Jacob how was your flight.”
“Hello Jacob would you like a hug.”
I crush the boys in a mad embrace, desperate after learning from my meth-head uncle and the strange cokehead lady that the other Boys are not yet home, having had the grace and acuity, and the transportation, to get the hell out of there before the first bottle of wine was opened.
“Are the adults being … awfully weird?” I cock an eyebrow toward my uncle and Lizzie, who are doing a dance now.
These two aliens, my brothers, whose faces I still haven’t seen, stand and stare, bodies and voices stilled by the degree to which I’m right. The streetlights limn them from behind, making this a Close Encounter, making them children I would never recognize anywhere else. I light another cigarette, caught between two children obviously in mid-psychotic break and two adults near to alcohol poisoning and drugged up to the eyeballs, outside the house in which whirling men and women plan more mischief. From the grave itself she works her hurly-burly.
Eventually I have to go inside, as the robot aliens who bring up the rear of our identical stairstep siblinghood become bored, and the creepy and overexcited adults become bored, and I get less and less bored, and more and more overwhelmed.
The house was hers, but the yard was mine; I spent entire Christmas Eves on the swing, hidden in the boughs of its trees, swinging in a world of Christmas lights, in the cold. Even though I’m exhausted, this is only the beginning. Eventually I’ll have to go home.
Inside, it’s a maelstrom, a lollapalooza of excess, everyone’s children hiding in bedrooms and screaming in bathrooms and playing pool in the gallery, while all around them adults speak nonsensically and squirrel around and careen off each other. It’s a Bacchanal. How could it be less? I find myself humming the song of the oppressed, the ding-dong song they sing when Dorothy finally liquidates her enemy, and quickly feel horrible for it. I return to the song I listened all the way here: “Now the joy of my world is in Zion … Beautiful, beautiful Zion …”
It makes me think of proud mothers, loving mothers, everything she might have been to them, that I never saw. I wonder how they’d feel about this song. To them, to the boys I love, the boys she mothered, did she seem right, did she seem like a mother? Was she their enemy as well? Can I ever know for sure?
I am introduced to the children of the second tier, the ones with parents who don’t know better than to leave the wake when it gets ugly. I am introduced to important people, rich people, oil people, and their children. I am introduced to people I’ve known for ten years or longer, and mostly pretend we’ve never met. I am introduced to the Boys’ old teachers, their principals, their doctors. I am introduced to lawyers who came to the firm and left it again during the lost years, both of us confused and embarrassed not to know each other. I am introduced to a level of low class I had never even considered: someone brought their camera. To remember this event?
Bo and Daddy sit regally, tummily, fatherly, in the gallery, with an intimate coterie nursing beers and wine glasses and tumblers of scotch. In the gallery it’s always wicked bright, lights and sconces and a glass back wall, furniture scattered everywhere madly in her quest to own everything: Eames, Heywood-Wakefield, arts and crafts antiques. There is a coffee table by the fireplace made up of parts of a covered wagon, huge wheels cut in half for the legs, black steel bands holding it together, scattered with documents proving her family’s relation to Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee. There is a pool table, guitars and classic amps; Picasso prints and strange ugly asymmetrical tapestries line the walls, les armoires scattered thuddingly everywhere, holding music and afghans and the quilts she makes when she’s too drunk to drive.
Dominating one quadrant is a hideous Roman aquifer, built into the large red Mexican tiles beneath the skylight as if to catch the rain, like it’s thousands of years ago in that corner of the room. Now it’s a planter, filled with the plants she called Seuss Trees when they were young, when she loved gardening, its edges tabled off in purple marble veined with white.
Bo’s wife Linda, beautiful, eyes half-masted, stands propped against things: a pillar, a wall, the back of a sofa. She launches herself away from them with the arch of a hip, the cock of a shoulder, to utter glossolalia, sadness, despair, and then recline again to rest, half asleep, precarious wine in her limp hand, against something else that will support her. In the event that my father also dies, Bo and Linda are the next in line to parent us. Godparents. They’re good. He’s a dentist. He’s my dentist. In six months she’ll be dead too, another mother gone.
Tonight she’s a pale spirit, barely here, lost in a fog of pain and drink. I excuse myself to check the bedside table in my parents’ room, at the opposite end of the house. There are many bottles there, different shapes and sizes, different famous names for pain relief, but they are all empty now. Who knows where they’ve gone? I’m not the only one in need of a little helper. Perhaps they’ve been gone for weeks.
My young uncle, for whom my father has always played the straight man, starts a convoluted Stiller/Meara routine with him, while the father of the deceased lurks nearby, hating everyone and everything.
“I’ve composed an aria about your marriage,” my uncle says brightly to my father. The thing with Uncle George is that you know he really did, or could compose this alleged aria on the fly, without anyone ever knowing the difference. He’s objectively amazing. He’s a geneticist and a brain surgeon, with a DWI on his California ID. These are the only words he’s spoken in English since he came inside, after finishing my cigarettes with Lizzie. He came in speaking Spanish, amusing my father and Bo, but only annoying his own father more.
There were moments of my childhood she took great interest in, knowing that some abuses have parental asylum, times I thought it couldn’t get any worse, times she’d force me to drink bottle after bottle of water for my asthma, times she forced me to smoke whole packs of cigarettes until I fainted as she watched, times I was left until midnight staring down bowls of indescribable poison while the Boys went to bed, threatened that I’d not eat again until the bowl was clean, and later vomited up on my bedroom floor, times I was left to wander the streets, lost, trying to find the municipal swimming pool or summer seminar or motherfucking Tae Kwan Do, on the grounds that certain things have to be done, by parents. These are not the reasons I hated her, but their motivation might be.
What if you could do something horrible, something really bad, to a child you hated? A child that by his very existence, loud and selfish and made of brass, ruined everything you spent your days working toward? Imagine anarchy, imagine being set free, and ask yourself what you might do. What might I do, for that matter? Imagine you could do anything you wanted. To be set free in a garden of earthly terrors. Just to see what would happen. Just to express your power, their powerlessness, knowing that whatever you did, while it might be frowned upon, would never be stopped. Because you are a mother.
“Bill, I composed an aria,” he says again, still in English. This is because he loves my father. He wants to look my father in the eye and tell him he’ll sing for his sister, because he loves my father.
I watch Grandfather Bob watch his son and I think about parental anarchy, the senseless wars waged against a fat queer asthmatic kid’s spirit, and I understand for the first time maybe where it all came from. The water, the cigarettes, the humiliation of swimming lessons for a born swimmer instead of piano lessons. These things I remember also as curiosities visited upon George by their father, stories told as they were visited upon me.
But maybe it was love. Back then with George, and then down to me from her, after I’d disappointed her. That’s the thing I’ve come to see, too late: I am coming home to a spirit, a demon, to ask her if she loved me, if Bob loves George, and this is just how they show it. If it’s true, it will make it better. A year and a half later I’ll tell my friends the worst part: no matter how successful, how charming and erudite and slim and rich and famous, how loved I am, the worst part of her death is the fact that I’ll never get her approval for any of it.
“Is it rock opera?”
“It’s in Spanish.” Uncle George begins to sing, soaring runs and trills, in Spanish and Italian intermixed. It’s beautiful. It makes no sense. He serenades my father, El Multo Regazzo, alerting him melismatically to the color of his camisa, asking the way to the carniceria, I think at one point I recognize a line from Dante as he goes on forever, framing nonsense subjunctive actions for the second and third persons, blending familiar and respectful until no one is sure anymore.
“So can I sing the song tomorrow?”
Grandfather Bob snorts hatefully. Daddy cocks an eyebrow.
“…But you can play your flute.” He says this with a derisive snort, but with love too.
I fall to sit on the edge of the Roman bath planter, laughing hysterically, as they leave.
I’ve known her as long as I’ve lived. My first memory, that first house in the snow, includes her. (She looked like Anjelica Huston but lovelier; which is funny in a transdiscipline kind of way because Daddy looks and acts like James Gandolfini, and his parents look and act exactly like Gandolfini’s mother and uncle, on that show, only bigger and more Aryan. When I watch that show I feel like I’m watching home videos, plus the Mafia.) I once made the mistake of telling my biological mother, Victoria (Gandolfini’s sister on the show), that in a certain ugly Shiva kind of Jungian sense this other woman, the dead woman, was as much my mother as anyone else. Maybe I meant to hurt Victoria, maybe I wanted her to disown me so we could be friends, maybe it was just because it was a breakthrough I wanted to share.
Whatever the case, Mother Victoria took the news, that she shared the throne in my head, somewhat badly. Although not, I comforted myself at the time, as badly as Jamie, the stepmother, would have. She would have spit to hear it, and laughed from deep in the belly, and asked me sharply and slyly if I were seeing anyone. To hear me call her “mother” might have killed her on the spot, and saved everyone three years and pain and grief. I don’t think the party would’ve gotten so wild, if she’d died more suddenly.
But it was true. Which I don’t want, for my own sake and hers, because it makes her trespasses all the more terrible, but it’s true. I never told anyone; I wrote it in a diary, but it’s true. What I am. What she made. And no one would believe me if I told, and now I’m embarrassed to even think it, because I don’t want to hog the misery, because I don’t have any misery: I’m glad. Don’t think I’m ambivalent. I’m glad the bitch is dead. Her influence over my brothers is gone, and maybe they’ll grow past it. (As I have. Clearly.) But if I did somehow express it, this filial intuition, with all due respect to the Boys, her family, Daddy; if I did this no one in this town would believe me anyway. They’d assume I must hate her as much as I should. As much as they do.
They’d assume her campaign, to evict me from her family as cleanly and well as the human immune system, must have worked. Because I left her so far behind, refused to see her before she got sick, because I refused to come home until she was dead. Because I stayed gone so long that now I am surprised by the Boys, their strength and speed and brilliance and beauty, grown five years in an instant. They’d assume I did these things because I couldn’t bear the things she said when drunk, not the way she drunkenly teased me with the psychotic German Shepherd that hated me so much. (“Come say Hi to Ted. Say Hi to Ted. Don’t be afraid. Ted loves you. Come in here and say Hi to Ted. You’re being rude.”) The way she intervened in my college fund, the way it was never going to be enough, the way I failed consistently in the real world just to spite her, but never just because she was a bitch.
She gave me a twenty-dollar bill the first and last time I came home for the holidays, pushed it into my hand and shook her head disapprovingly, saying I’d spend it on something stupid, or cigarettes, instead of keeping it for an emergency. In case I got into trouble. I saw back-room blowjobs, HIV, porn star violence in her eyes, the kind of trouble she knew I’d get in, the kind her children would never get into, and I thanked her, and she smiled, drunk, feet on Ted, and I rose from the couch, and I went into the front yard, and I lit a cigarette with it. Because she was a bitch.
But here is the epiphany, such as it is: Out in the real world she claimed to fear on my behalf, I’d learned nothing was going to be enough, for her. I wasn’t waiting for her to die so I could come and raise those children right. I was training to be good enough, so when I came back she couldn’t knock me down again.
The older Boys come home eventually, once I’m finally disengaged from the throng and have locked myself in the pantry to think. On the floor near the garbage can lie eight bottles of wine, mostly red, all empty. First is John-John, who drifts through on the way to phone and alerts me to the presence of the wine bottles, then David, drunk, who pulls me gently from the pantry in order to point out again the camera on the kitchen counter.
“What the fuck is this?”
David is gigantic, big and tall and wide, a wall of man. At sixteen he’s easily 6’3”, probably 245 pounds, all shaven head and bulky grace. He’s outgrown me in height and width some time in those lost ages I’ve been gone, and to see him, so large and startling, makes me sad. I’ve missed so much. I’ve always been close to David, although not in a pleasant or recognizable way: we’re soldiers, nothing in common but the trenches, all that same spotty, terrible love and hate focused on him in reverse. We were taught always to hate and distrust each other, like fighting pit bulls, or roosters. I played Ishmael to his Isaac, the boy in the iron mask, in her little scenes; the extra part, the unwanted son, unaesthetic, cold, ungrateful.
In his bed she slept, every night, until he grew old enough, abusive enough to scream her out and back into her husband’s. Not to claim his own space, not to draw a line, but only to hurt, to strike out, to hit back. He was worse off than me, I’d realized young, because I’d rather she hate me the way she did than love me the way she loved him. I’d rather be denied everything I needed than be given everything I wanted, at her price. As bright as he was, and he was, and is, he’d never be as smart as me; as well-bred, he’d never charm people like I did. Because he didn’t have to, and because it gave her one more weapon against his spirit.
With televisions in every room and video games and computerized entertainment and territory lines drawn, he needn’t ever develop his own interests, needn’t find a passion, and he never did. But he did find me, somewhere along the way, looking forward each week to my weekend overnights, always bringing me some book or television show or pop star or, most often, some movie, some bright appeal, always impressive and always something I should have found on my own, when we could make our pacts in secret, and call ourselves brothers where no one could hear.
I, of course, was not allowed to babysit the Boys (through high school graduation I wasn’t trusted with a knife, in that house; I stood by as a girl one year my junior cut my own sixteenth birthday cake), and often spent those Saturday nights in the company of my brothers and one to three girls of my own age, gossiping about our school friends and cooking outrageous desserts. She thought of babysitters the way the nouveau riche think of bridesmaids.
I think even then I was trying to be a second mother, although whether to take her part in their hearts or my father’s, I don’t know. It was me that stood up to David when no one else could withstand his rage; me that talked him through and around and down from his first sexual confusions; me that explained the ins and outs of my atheism when he asked and asked until I finally broke down; me that tried to allay the pain of his slow realization that his genetic legacy would soon make his body type, if uncorrected, the picture of my own, and our father’s; me that explained that no matter what happened, the rest of us would always be there to take care of Lyle, if need be. And it was me to whom he would come, tonight, later and after drinking, to discuss her, our shared ambivalence toward her, toward each other.
“We should do something with this camera. Use it. Make something cool.”
Classic David: joy and creativity clothed in selfishness and eminent domain. We look at each other, at the pyramid of wine bottles on the pantry floor, grin, and without speaking he gets the camera ready while I arrange the bottles artfully on the counter, labeling it carefully with a 3×5 card, “Thursday.”
It’s time to press some pants. Originally bought to keep up with the Bergmans across the street, the pants press had fallen into instant disfavor with every domestic our home had seen, and I alone demonstrate any skill with it. Get my father or stepmothers drunk enough and they’ll speak of my eerie harmony with the pants press, the way I make it obey my every command, how like a fractious wild horse in some teenage girl wish-fulfillment story it listens only to me. I slip my trousers in and it’s like coming home, the Dickensian burning smell and whistling steam hiss.
I fold somebody’s socks while my pants are pressing, try to feel tired, exhausted, ready for bed. Before shuffling off to sleep my father explained that he’d certainly understand if I was wound up after my trip and the death of my mother, but urged me to keep in mind that our day was going to be starting very early. That I will be expected to perform. It put the fear in me, and I’m looking forward to going to sleep when it became possible.
John-John drifts back into the kitchen, laughing at the wine bottle art on the counter, and rolls his eyes at me in the laundry room, asking if I need anything. I say sleep, and he pulls me by the hand back into the kitchen, seating me near the wine bottles and opening the kitchen counters with one hand while telling me an expressive story with the other.
John is perfect. Tall, thin and muscled, blonde, fifteen, with clear skin and one thousand friends and a secret, unexplained relationship with God. In movies we find these perfect young men, athletic and with a head for numbers, in anti-Semitic preparatory schools and internships at Wall Street firms, always exquisitely dressed and clean, the kind of boy West Texas mothers dream about for their daughters, for themselves. West Point, F. Scott Fitzgerald, MTV perfect. I’d grown up thinking that these boys were fantasies, terrified by their intrusion in my life outside the movies, comforted by neurotic and grudge-holding writers who held firm that beneath the rep ties and the natural highlights and height/weight proportion rested nothing at all, self-hatred, dangerous sociopathic tendencies.
It has been one of the true stories of my life, to watch this young man grow each day into perfection. From a child who would not speak but only looked at me silently, unsure and suspicious of my motives, to a toddler already in high demand for playdates and preschooler already winning academic awards, to a youth seemingly only at home once every few days, always receiving or making calls, to a teenager marching people back and forth through the house. As though according to some secret plan, some backroom deal in the eighties coming closer each day to fruition, he seemed a sure thing for President of the U.S. of A. beginning at eight years of age, and more with each passing year.
Was it for approval, the way this life conducted itself? Was it for her approval, like the rest of it? Or would he have grown into this regardless of her influence? My stepmother’s naive and bourgeois ideas, her one thousand etiquette books from the sixties (I still collect them, when I read them I hear her voice), her thoughts on proper behavior and the kind of friends her children should have, the kind of friends she herself craved, namely the children of the rich, the legitimate, found their expression in different ways through us all. For her own part, she went through friends like she went through cars, which is to say quickly and messily. Now they rise as one, all the strata of her friendship history, coming out of the woodwork full of honest apologies for me, and shrugged shoulders.
My father, having no interest in public office of any kind, managed to win Presidentship of the local country club due to his charm and her machinations, and none of us could have cared less. I can make friends easily, once I learned to ignore her advice and began enjoying my own company. Her golden calf, David, seeks out the roughest, most ignorant and violent elements he can. Lyle is the neighborhood weird kid, his best friend a delicately nervous and wonderful lily named Will who often complains that Lyle is “neglecting” him when Lyle’s attention is distracted. Geo. Wm. uses his cleverness and popularity only ever in the service of his outrages. We all learned, but not from her example.
John-John looks me in the eye, perfect posture and disarming grin inviting me to hilarity, and asks what kind of thing exactly I’m looking for. Do I want to float, half-awake, or sleep deeply? Do I have any allergies, any contraindications? Am I familiar with night-time formulae and their effects? Do I want to fall asleep immediately, or drift away? Have I been drinking? How much, and how long ago? What does it normally take to put me to sleep?
I answer his questions, bewildered and honest. He looks at me for a few minutes and begins to pull down bottles, tablets and gelcaps and liquids, shaking out their contents into his hand and eyeballing my body mass index. He lays out a buffet upon the counter before me, explaining the reasons for his decisions and their indications. I scoop them up and chase them with two small cups of cough syrup he’s prepared, according to his strict instructions.
“You’ve got about an hour. Do you need anything? Cigarettes? We should go now. Do you want to go for a walk?”
I pour myself a glass of water and he goes to find David.
We three walk through the neighborhood, avoiding the main streets due to a municipal curfew. The city sleeps around us; David continually shushes John, thinking him too loud, giving full sway to his nightly paranoia. John, still young enough just to delight in the fact of this midnight trip, skips and dances around us as we walk. There’s a full moon coming that makes it seem more like a movie. This trip is the same as the over-the-counter cocktail at home: something innocuous that feels illicit. John would never do anything wrong, anything illegal, if he felt that it was unbecoming, but he loves pretending to crime; it’s one of our common traits.
The conversation turns suddenly to death, and I think for a moment that I’m out of my league, that regardless of their seeming maturity they’re going to come to me for explanations, comfort, and I have no idea what I can say. I know John’s relationship with her was no less complicated than any of ours, but I’ve never really understood it.
He’s the only one she could make cry, and she did, but he was also the only one of the three of us older Boys who loved her as simply as the younger ones did. There was something adversarial between them, but as far as I can tell it had always had less to do with personal slights and more with his innate morality. They were adults together, and met on that field. John is nothing like judgmental, but he does feel pain when implicated in anything he cannot emotionally support. I think that was the heart of it, that her actions disturbed him not because they were evil but because she was his mother, someone with whom he had an emotional understanding, doing things that made no sense to him, and by virtue of his loyalty necessitating his approval. Her emotional effect on him was restricted to these philosophical contretemps.
But John-John doesn’t want to talk about his mother’s death, and does not want to talk about the generic truths or metaphysical implications of death itself. He wants to talk about the practical applications.
John: So if you killed someone. And you didn’t want anyone to know about it. [I think that’s how it starts. My medication is beginning to take effect.]
David: Oh my God. [David makes it a point of procedure to judge everything John says and does with extreme prejudice, because John stole his life, got all the beauty and luck and charm and social skills promised over him in his crib by our mother, and no one has bothered to keep this a secret, least of all our mother, when she lived.]
John: If you were to cut up their body, and eat it. Not all at once, but say over a period of several weeks.
Me: Yeah? [I look at David for confirmation that this is happening, but he just spits with disgust, already upset that I’m talking to John at all, that John is with us, that John lives in the house, that John is alive, that his life is effortless.]
John: So my question is, could they analyze your … I don’t want to be crude.
David: Oh, fuck.
Me: You’ve put some considerable thought into this.
David: It’s because he’s a fucking sick bastard, is why.
John: Whatever, dude. I just want to know. It’s interesting to think about.
Me: Yeah, it is. Well, the human liver and kidneys filter a lot, and the digestive juices of the, um, digestive tract are very powerful … acids …
John: But with a DNA test they could tell that you ate this person.
Me: I assume so.
John: So I guess you would get caught.
David: And they’d lock your sick ass up faster than a bitch.
John: But if the digestive juices are so powerful … could you maybe, like, filter that back through? Like feedback?
Me: So to speak. Well …
David: — Are you fucking high? You are talking about killing a person and eating their flesh, their bones, their skin, the fucking brain and eyeballs and all that shit? And that’s not enough for you so now you’re going to be eating your own feces? Like numerous times? To evade punishment?
John: Eventually, there wouldn’t be enough DNA to get a conviction.
Me: Okay, if I killed a person I would deserve the punishments our legal system saw fit to level at me. But regardless, I would rather go to jail for a thousand years and do hard manual labor than have to eat a human body, much less my own feces. Am I wrong here? Do you have another perspective?
David: You’re talking about eating shit! Actual shit that you are putting in your mouth!
Me: This conversation is making my tummy a little … wiggly.
John: A little rumbly?
Me: Yeah, dude.
David: You’re fucking making Jacob sick! Cut that shit out! Jacob, I’m sorry he’s such a fucking deviant. John, he was just on a plane and now you are going to make him vomit. You need to shut the fuck up. God!
Me: So, like, why are you asking this stuff?
John: I thought you could handle it. I can’t exactly talk to anybody else about this. It’s interesting. But like my teachers? Would be surprised. And they’d be all, why are you talking about this?
Me: I certainly understand that you think they would have this reaction. And you are right, they would probably become concerned. But don’t worry, I can handle it. I just thought maybe you saw a movie or something and it, like, upset you?
John: No, this was actually a while back and I was thinking about how people get killed and … sometimes the people aren’t found, who did these things. And that’s not okay. And I was trying to imagine the ways that you might commit murder without getting caught. And so you have to get rid of the evidence. The deceased. But I thought you would still get caught.
Me: You’ve just been sitting on this for months? Waiting for me to come home?
John: [Wordlessly points to our brother, David who is standing in the middle of someone’s driveway, pissing into the cold, still night air. Point taken.]
Me: I get it. And yeah, I think that eventually there’s nothing science could do about proving that you killed and ate a person. Providing you paid attention, of course. If you were vigilant, and stayed with it for good long time.
David: Case closed.
John: Okay, but like, how long do you think it would take? Like … how many times would you need to do this?
Me: I think you would get spongiform encephalitis or e. coli long before the authorities became a factor. I’m not completely sure about the facts but I’m pretty sure that one of those two things would get you.
Back home, the five of us recoup, in the secret of the front yard’s darkness, the younger Boys wrapped in blankets, their heads exposed at last. During a lull in the conversation, the cherries of David’s and my cigarettes glowing in the dark, I quietly offer that perhaps we would all do well to prepare mentally for the coming days.
“There are going to be a lot of grownups. And they are going to be acting like that, like they were tonight.”
“Oh yeah, well, they’re still in there,” mumbles John, leaning against my shoulder.
“Yeah, and tomorrow is going to be worse. Like, old ladies talking about my how you’ve grown and goodness don’t you all look alike and where are you living these days and what colleges are you thinking about applying to and getting in your personal space and telling weird pointless stories about Mom or their French teachers or fucking the Depression or something.”
“We have to stick together,” rumbles David.
“That’s just what I was thinking. We’ll stay together, and like I can say something like John-John will you come outside with me to get some air and we’ll all leave and disappear together for a while whenever we need to. But we have to pay attention and be sure we don’t leave anybody behind, because that’s how they get you.”
John giggles. “It’s like, you can break one stick with just like your hand, but a whole bundle of sticks is stronger …”
“Bundle of sticks,” murmurs Lyle, from where he wriggles.
“Like a faggot?”
The younger Boys chortle nastily, and I sigh, grinning in the dark.
“…Yeah. We’ll be a faggot, David.”
Geo. Wm. Chuckles, his voice so high.
“We’ll be like … the Clifton Faggot.”
“That sounds good.”
The next morning is lovely and misty. David’s excited about the limousine but it just smells like old, old cigarette smoke just like every other stupid limousine. I think about how sad it actually is when you get old enough so snow and airplanes stop being magical adventures and start being a bitch and a half and I hope he doesn’t understand how shitty limousines actually are yet.
The driver is named Quanah and he’s about a thousand years old, white guy with white hair that reminds me of Charon, or that creepy preacher guy from Poltergeist II. I want to help him into the car, not the other way around. He looks like he weighs about sixteen pounds. I wonder if he’s a volunteer or something. Maybe all death-adjacent people get like this, like the undertakers of your nightmares.
We drive to the cemetery that’s on the road out of town that always means Lubbock, where Daddy’s parents live, and walk out across the lawn. Everybody takes their time getting to the tent and once we’re there everybody bustles around like they’re trying to help people find seats, but really nobody wants to sit down. I want to sit down in the very back, but I stand at the back instead because it seems more respectful.
My father’s mother, Jamie — the deceased was also named Jamie, which led to a lot of queasy Freudian shorthand about “Jamie Sr.” and “Jamie Jr.” — is on a walker these days, and abruptly strikes out from the path and down a shallow hill toward us, breaking away from the group. It looks deranged.
“Uh oh,” whispers David, “She’s off-roading.”
Everybody jumps to her aid, which was the point, and she’s assisted to front and center. We’re having the graveside service first, before the main event. My mother sits on white cloth stretched across the hole where she’ll be spending the rest of eternity, in a seamless steel bullet a little smaller than a football. It looks like a bomb. No one would really be shocked if it exploded at some meaningful point in the service.
Across the cemetery I glimpse something strange in the fog, a little boy standing at attention. There are wooden and metal windchimes clinking gorgeously out of sight, from all directions. It’s so beautiful I wonder for a second how she managed the weather so perfectly.
Daddy’s in two bands: one a funk and rock band made up of poor people and musicians, and the other a cover band made up of lawyers and dentists. Jamie was never invited back to Daddy’s band practice after the night she rearranged all of the living room furniture in Junior’s house when nobody was looking. It wasn’t insulting, it didn’t cause any fights; it was just too weird. Uncle George stands with his father, near me, crying silently. I wish I could hold his hand.
The preacher doesn’t take too long, but it seems vastly too long once I see Geo. Wm. crying in the front row. He’s never cried before, that I’ve seen. He does it like a tiny man, blinking back tears angrily.
At some unseen signal, the boy far away starts playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, hidden behind a tall stone. Telling it later, this is the weirdest detail, but it was completely incredible at the time: the fog and the icy clinking of the windchimes and this haunting, sad melody floating across to us, unmoving. She arranged for it, asked for the ghostly bagpipes, but she couldn’t have known about the mist. Everybody stands and sits quietly and nobody wants to move, because it’s a legitimately awesome experience for a second. It makes it better.
Everybody finally gets back into their cars and it’s like after a really overwhelming movie, when nobody looks around or talks as they’re filing out of the theater.
The church parking lot is pandemonium; they’ve had to set up video screens in the Fellowship Hall and the kitchens because there are so many attendees. This isn’t for her, this turnout, it’s for my father. She wouldn’t know the difference anyhow. We’re ushered through a side door and into a small room off the main chapel. We can hear them out there.
We sit on metal chairs for what seems like hours, uncomfortable, while the preacher tells us exactly what to expect. I’m sitting with my father’s brother and his wife. His wife hasn’t liked me since I was about ten and went for a week’s visit, and I don’t really know their daughter, but he’s always been my favorite, Uncle John. He and Victoria were friends, before I was born, and she often told me a story about how he was watching me play one day — he was probably twenty-three, the same age as I am now — and spontaneously burst into tears because he loved me so much. I went through a whole thing in childhood about how I liked him more than Daddy, and thought I should be punished for it. Victoria, of course, suggested that I talk to Daddy about it, but I never did.
Everybody still feels weird about looking at each other, like we’re suddenly at a nudist colony, and then Daddy’s father, Grandaddy Doc, squeezer and profaner, stands up. Somebody grabs my hands, I think Uncle John on one side and Lyle on the other. Everybody holds their breath, because Doc is nuts.
“I’ve always found it nice that my wife’s name is Jamie, and my son’s wife’s name is Jamie.”
That’s when the giggles start.
“And they got married in Clifton, Texas, and Clifton is our name.”
Nobody’s looking at each other now, but for a whole new reason: you don’t laugh in church. Even the part of church that you never get to see except today, where there are piles of old brochures and donation slips and hymnals leaning against every surface, where inspirational posters about footsteps in the sand are tacked onto the walls next to blotter calendars marking off Bell Choir rehearsals.
They didn’t even get married in Clifton, Texas, they got married in some other town. He’s imagining these correspondences and everybody knows it but him. Grandmother looks at me tiredly, archly, looks up at him, and tells him to sit down.
Later on, Daddy will tell me about how they’ve finally put the long-promised highway through Doc’s veterinary offices, how he’s been driving her nuts; how in a recent discussion she’d suggested he volunteer as a golf pro at the club, or possibly become a Wal-Mart greeter. She’d eventually given up, knowing that his charming and unstoppable romantic advances would scare away any customers. He’s a flirter, in addition to the squeezing and racism. He’s still a giant of a man, broad Marine shoulders and piercing eyes, but he’s getting smaller. He is still beautiful; I don’t know where Jamie’s father is.
Eventually we head in, shuffling straight from the transept to the reserved front rows. Trinity Episcopal is the largest of the non-insane Protestant congregations in Midland, I think, and the chapel and grounds are gigantic and beautiful. I’ve never seen a third of this many people in the church, the few times I’ve been here, but every seat is taken, packed tight. I can’t look back at the crowd as we take our seats, but I can hear them. I wonder how many people I’d even recognize: all the drugs and years since I left town have made it harder than you’d think. As intended.
The man talking, the preacher or whatever, I suddenly notice how he sounds exactly like that teacher on South Park, the one with the hand puppet. It’s really distracting, once you notice. He goes on and on, having developed quite a strong relationship with Jamie in the last year or so, when she figured out that church is about more than networking — she’d only settled on Trinity after getting bored with the social prospects of first the Lutheran and then the Methodist congregations. I’d never cared, and frankly I’d loved Trinity the most, because if you have to go, it might as well be High Church.
I’d gotten stuck with her one Sunday, where she’d been obligated to teach a Sunday school class. I think they were four or five, these kids. I was a teenager. She was always volunteering, Jaycees and Young Lawyers’ Wives and whatever church groups she could, but they only ever put her on committees by herself. She pulled out an activity booklet, having corralled all the kids into a half-circle, and began to read. It was the story of the Nativity, with these weird call-and-response moments all through it, like:
“But there was no room at the Inn.”
“No room, no room, no room at the Inn.”
Like that. And that’s about how far she got. The kids were bored, I was dying, and finally she looked at me.
“This is completely stupid, Jacob. I can’t do this.”
We laughed together, and got out the crayons.
The guy goes on and on about how there are many mansions in my Father’s house, and how he can picture her right now redecorating hers in Late Modern. It’s kind of gag-worthy but, if you make the logical leap that she went to Heaven, on target.
Her father is somewhere. Little kids flirt, when they have no other options, and I remember the first time I met her father, seven years old and out of my depth with a whole new family to deal with, at my favorite Mexican restaurant in Odessa, Manuel’s, how he stole everyone’s swizzle sticks, even from my Shirley Temple, for his personal collection. I needled him about it, and he needled back, and we were friends, for a while, until David was born. I remember later, meeting Uncle George, noticing how much they looked alike, like George was her father, grown suddenly young. I nicknamed him Pickle for the swizzle stick offense — I was a magpie, I had nothing but my things — and the name continued until David was born and it fell into disuse.
There’s lots of gerrymandering around deathbed conversions, church-hopping, her general lack of popularity. He remembers to mention me about half the time whenever he talks about her sons, which is damned sporting. It’s only on the really goopy parts, about how her family will survive without her, how they’d kept her alive as long as they did, that I’m left out. It’s a lovely sermon. It only takes me about ten minutes to realize she’d written it herself.
Suddenly a song rings out from the organ, the player hidden by the rood screens just off the main altar, glorious and full and beautiful, and I can’t be the only one jerked back to full consciousness. It takes me a minute to place it: “Here Comes The Sun.” I make it to the second verse, “Little darlin’…” before I find myself crying. She was somebody’s little darlin’ once, no matter what else she was. She was somebody’s sister, and somebody’s mother. She was my father’s wife. There are sniffles all over, echoing through the place. Total show-stopper. The preacher tells us we’re going to be doing a full Mass, in accordance with Jamie’s wishes, to conclude the service. It takes an hour and a half.
The family’s up first, and I find that my usual “no thanks” signal at the railing, hands folded and head bowed deep in prayer, isn’t working on the new guy. I actually have to look him in the eye and shake my head, scared of having to take Communion, for the first time, right now. The second celebrant, a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, follows up behind him with the wine, and places her hand on my head, to bless me without any awkwardness.
We watch the Mass from our pews, watch the kneeling backsides of everybody in Midland and Odessa to speak of. There are people in flip-flops and sandals, girls in denim shorts and t-shirts, boys in ratty jeans, but mostly there’s appropriate apparel. I’m still kind of thrown by the Beatles cover, but by the end of the first hour of Mass I’m over it and thinking about excusing myself. Doc squeezes Geo. Wm.’s shoulder over the pew and he looks over at me, his eyes still red from the cemetery. I stay put.
Back in the limo, David’s babbling about the turnout, about the television screens in the other parts of the church, bitching good-naturedly about the gruesome clothing. Daddy rolls his eyes in agreement but tells him to shut up.
I ask about the song and Daddy grins, sly and a little proud.
“That was her idea. I told them not to put it in the program so it would be more of a shock.”
“And the two-hour Mass?”
“Her idea, again. I think that part was just being vindictive.”
“And now we have the reception at the house?”
“I said no drinking, because it’s only eleven, but I know Grandmother will find the liquor, and it’ll all be over.”
“I think you should have a drink.”
“I wasn’t going to tell anybody, but yeah.”
“How long is this going to go on?”
“Till late, I imagine. I think it said until two PM on the program, so probably like eight. I bet there’s seventeen casseroles on the front porch when we get back.”
“But everybody in the world was at the church with us.”
“I don’t even think people are bringing them anymore. I think they’re just showing up on their own.”
Back at the house, Grandmother’s piqued. She never liked her namesake anyway, but she’s especially irritated to find that the kitchen is now at the other end of the house from where it used to be. It’s actually in the same place as always, and I take her there, where she instantly finds the scotch. Doc’s already filled a glass. I’ve never seen my Grandmother eat a Cheeto before. It’s unsettling.
The apologies start in earnest almost the second we arrive, women and men in ones and threes taking me aside to say that they always knew what she was doing, but didn’t see how they could step in, how they could have done anything to help, how they could have comforted me, but that they were always rooting for me, and happy I’ve done so well for myself. It’s oddly comforting. I imagine it’s the greatest comfort on earth, actually, hearing that your abuse wasn’t so much a persecution complex or feeling sorry for yourself, that it’s instead been upgraded to ugly neighborhood secret. At least I wasn’t making it up.
I start to wonder what I might have gotten out of these liars if I’d been willing to complain or speak up about it. I wonder what would happen if I made a scene, regaled them with her deeds like I’m doing now, screamed “Too little, too late, bitches!” But it’s not like it ever occurred to me to question it, when I was a kid, much less do anything so déclassé as take it to the authorities. Even Daddy didn’t know about a lot of it. I would have felt like I was betraying somebody, or risking ridicule.
I mean. Abuse. That’s a hardcore word and I don’t think it’s the one I mean, but I can’t think of a better one. I can’t have been a pleasant child, wordy and judgmental and unattractive, fat and effeminate, displacing David as the eldest whenever I came to town, getting in the way. I can’t have been an easy target to avoid. But I will tell you this, and maybe it will help:
When I was eight years old, Jamie took me with her on her errands, to demonstrate that I was incompetent and not worth leaving alone in the house. Mention was made of the time a tornado warning — the first one I’d ever known about — had been broadcast on TV, and I’d run out into the street crying with John-John in my arms, several years before. That kind of thing.
She’d stopped her car outside MARC, the Midland Association of Retarded Citizens, to drop off some of her volunteering paperwork, and hesitated before getting out. She looked right into my eyes, smiling brightly.
Jamie: Okay, grab your book and come with me.
Me: How come?
Jamie: Don’t worry, they’re very nice here.
Me: I’d prefer to stay in the car. [Hospitals and MARC smell like day care, the worst smell in the world.]
Jamie: There’s no sense in arguing with me. I’ve talked it over with your Dad, and we agreed you’ll be happier here, with these guys.
Jamie: It’s just for a little while, to see how it works out. They’re very nice people. Come meet them.
Me: What? [Bursting into tears.]
Jamie: Come on, Jacob. You know we just want what’s best. Now stop crying and come inside with me. I’ll bring your things later this afternoon.
Me: [Incomprehensible sobbing.]
Jamie: Stop crying. Jesus Christ.
Me: I’m not going anywhere until I talk to my Dad.
Jamie: Oh, Jeez. I’m just kidding. You always start crying. It’s disgusting.
Especially hilarious about this particular joke was how my biological mother, Victoria, with whom I lived most of the time, had just checked herself into another mental hospital in Phoenix a few months previous, leaving me and my half-brother Matthew with Mormons for a week before Dad and Jamie could come get me and bring me home with them. Making Dad’s house the fourth house I’d lived in that year, the fourth family I’d intruded upon. They’d turned the trip into a spa weekend, checking into The Pointe in Scottsdale and sending me out of the suite for tennis lessons and sunrise horse rides until it was time to go back to Texas.
That was the year she called me “retarded” a lot, which added to the comedy. My greatest fear as a child was that adults wouldn’t recognize my brilliance, which was all I had, that they’d lump me in with the rest of the dull, cloddish pack, sit me down with an age-appropriate workbook and wonder why I was going crazy. “Flowers For Algernon” was to me what Nightmare On Elm Street was to other kids. She said it so often I began to wonder if I was actually wrong, not brilliant at all, maybe actually retarded, the victim of a cruel joke and the overstated praise of my biological mother. Victoria had a Master’s in Child Development, and no doubt simply assumed her children were geniuses.
The year before that it was “louse.” I refused to look it up until I was back home with Victoria, and I’m still not sure I get it. A visiting Grandmother had snuck my asparagus and broccoli into the kitchen garbage one tiny handful at a time so I could say I was finished and go to my room, the year I was a louse.
There’s a woman, Libbie Schwartz, whose husband cheated and left her the store, an upscale boutique that specializes in labels and fur. Lizzie is back, but I can’t find Uncle George. Everyone from Dad’s firm is there, and even I am impressed that I remember so much about them. I wander, shaking hands and updating people — living in Houston, working for a commodities firm, involved in the music scene, writing in my spare time — or introducing myself if they’ve never heard of me, which is more often than I expected, and hugging the impotent and apologetic women who’d failed to save me. I’m not a svelte young man, but my love of rock shows and dance clubs has taught me to move as though I am. You can get through crowds without touching anybody, if you just pay attention.
The women go crazy setting up the large round kitchen table for the extra food, everyone gone giddy and strange. Daddy starts to drink. Grandmother sits alone in the den with her scotch, thinking her confused, bitter thoughts. Doc is glad-handing everybody he can see, squeezing like he knows them. People keep calling David “Davy” and John-John “John” or “Johnny” and Geo. Wm. simply “George.” I can’t decide if I’m out of date, or if calling them the old names proves that I belong here.
Somebody tells me the little boy with the bagpipes was a friend of Lyle’s, who stayed to play the bagpipes at a funeral even though he had an All-State competition out of town this weekend. Somebody starts singing Jackson Browne, her favorite; somebody else gushes about how she finally got to see Bruce Springsteen in concert, in the last year of her illness. I sneak behind the house to smoke and John-John, then David, then Lyle and Geo. Wm. join me, but we don’t speak.
At one point the Jaycees and her closer friends decide to head down to the Sonic and get a Route 44 Diet Coke (one of her only hobbies) in tribute, and out the window I can see them dancing down the cul-de-sac, wearing a variety of colorful hats. I wasn’t there for the chemo, so I don’t recognize the significance until I catch Geo. Wm. staring out the window, a look of horror on his face. I pull him out of the room and into the backyard, engaging him in a game where he hits me over and over with whatever spongy pool toy we can find. He hits really hard, laughing all the time. I’ll still have bruises a week later.
As the party dies down, I meet Daddy in the kitchen. He points out the camera, still on the counter.
“Like somebody wants to remember this event?”
I nod. “I saw Lizzie taking pictures earlier.”
“How are you doing with all this? It’s a lot.”
“It’s a big house. It fills up. They’re leaving.”
Back in the gallery, he and Bo and Linda have huddled up again, telling stories about Jamie and laughing about their shared history. People, Lizzie, keep trying to get in on it, but they’re too drunk to be friendly. Libbie Schwartz, rumored to be on the prowl, sweeps into the circle and looks searchingly into my father’s eyes, sitting down directly across from him on one of the random couches, her knees touching his. I put my arms around his neck from behind, glaring sweetly at her.
“Daddy, do you need anything? I know there’s a lot of people here, but I can try to do something if you’re getting tired. I know I am.”
Libbie leaves soon after.
That night I find myself, drunk again in the shadows of the front lawn, with David and Uncle George. We have two bottles of wine and all the cigarettes in the world. George waxes poetic and I’m surprised, as always, by his love for her. It is fierce.
They were always two parts of one thing, alike as twins, as close as me and John-John. Artemis and Apollo. I always imagined him alone, of course, but when he came into town, there was always a day or so quarantine, reserved for just the two of them, shopping and dinner and movies, before the rest of us could see him. I think she loved him best.
“She was a Bene Gesserit.”
“Like in Dune?”
“She had powers. My sister. David, you don’t know this, but your Mom was a witch. She had powers.”
“Like a Satanist?”
George and I laugh.
“No. Like — she could make things happen. She was just witchy.”
David’s assent is quick in coming.
“Oh, yeah. She was. She was also a huge pothead.”
“Seriously. Toward the end, we were smoking pot together.”
I can tell this is of no small import to him, almost religious in its scope. I’ve never been a pot smoker but I think I know what it means to him. A breakdown in the rules. John-John couldn’t bear to see her drunk, but it was a rite of manhood for David, to see her stoned.
“She always was. She gave me my first joint, actually.”
Uncle George’s dissipation being legendary, salutary, this is somehow a big deal too. Some kind of brotherhood of people that will miss her, will miss smoking pot with her. And then there is me.
George compares her to Elphaba, to the kids in Escape To Witch Mountain, to Susie from the Manson Gang. David rolls his cigarette between his fingers, with a heavy look.
David: “I hate her for what she did to you, Jacob.”
David: “She’s my Mom and I love her, but I hate what she did.”
Me: “First of all, don’t say that tonight. Not yet. And second… It was a long time ago, and I survived. I’m happy about it in a lot of ways. It made me strong. She … have you ever heard of Procrustus?”
George: [Snorts into his wine; that same “how you’ve grown” sound.]
Me: “It’s ancient Greek stuff. He would put you on this table, and anything that hung over the edge, he’d cut off. Chop, just cut it off. Arms, legs, whatever.”
David: “Uh huh?”
Me: “That’s what she did. Cut off what didn’t work. Burnt it out.”
George: [Mumbles something about Jean Grey.]
David: “You mean like making you dress a certain way and …”
Me: “Yep, and act a certain way, and how to read people …”
George: “You mean use people. Manipulate people.”
Me: “What’s the difference?”
George: “She didn’t teach you that part, huh?”
Me: “Point is, she was way too complicated to just be one thing. To any of us. She was immensely complex and interesting, and brilliant, and that counts for something.”
George: “Complicated and screwed up and brilliant and beautiful. A genius.”
Me: “She was beautiful. And a genius.”
David: “I’m still going to be mad about it.”
Me: “Me too.”
George: “Bill [Daddy] said that she really, like, repented or whatever. About you. At the end.”
Me: “That means nothing to me, but I bet he feels a hell of a lot better.”
David: “I want pot.”
We cross the street to the park, and George starts getting worried about drinking with a minor, citing his DWI. I reassure him. Way across the park, a football field’s length, we see strange figures in black cloaks rushing around, four or five of them, Wiccan high school dorks possibly, but I love it, under the full moon. A witches’ rave, a Black Mass for their fallen sister. I want to catch up with them, share our wine and make them listen to stories about her, but they’re gone when we get there. We huddle and climb and lean against the willows, feeling witchy and magical, like she’s all around us. We talk about LA and Houston, gossip about Libbie and poor coked-up Lizzie and Sharon Tate.
I tell George about how much she’d hated the old Fleischer and Warner Bros. cartoons we always watched with Daddy, how her favorite one had a black-faced, fat-lipped minstrel show character singing gibberish and slumping lazily down the road, because it showed how far we’ve come. I tell him about her forays into African-American racist kitsch cookie jars, and I lie that she eventually thought better of them, but died before she could sell them off.
I tell George about how Jamie taught me to read upside down, citing inordinate usefulness if you work in the oil business, because you can read other people’s maps in the common room at the library secretly, and get the jump on them. How people might have a problem with you doing that, but you should never base your professional behavior on the minds of the small and weak. About how I helped her track down Lyle’s teacher’s biological parents as a birthday surprise.
I give George and David every happy or funny or good memory I have, as an apology, a eulogy. It doesn’t take long. George apologizes to me too, under the willows.
My dreams that night are confused: Quanah the driver reveals himself as some kind of secret Freemason, revealing that he had to drive us because the Freemasons always assist in the burial of fallen Templar warriors.
Later, I’m driving with Daddy and we pass a McDonald’s whose playground reaches into the sky, and Daddy tells me how he had them build entire new rooms into it, just for me. It gets all mixed up with how far things went with George, once David went to bed and we made it back to the front yard. I wake up feeling accomplished.
The next day we’re driving to Odessa, to Manuel’s, the one she always took me to when I was little: a grandiose place with delicious corn tortillas, elaborate fountains in the middle of its six rooms, a huge blue marlin on one wall. This is where we went when they were dating, after the divorce from Victoria. When we were all pretending to be a family, before David was born. On the drive Daddy keeps pointing out Jamie-specific landmarks:
Daddy: That’s where she worked when you two lived together, right, George?
Daddy: That’s where she taught pre-school, right?
Daddy: That’s the office she worked in before we got married, I think.
Daddy: That’s where she went for undergrad.
George: [Blows a short raspberry.]
Daddy: What? She graduated from Northwest, but she went there, right?
George: Bill. Come on.
George: She never went to college.
John-John immediately looks over at me, grinning, and grabs my hand. Uncle George smiles at us back over the seat, and David lays a hand on my shoulder. Daddy shakes his head slowly like Elmer Fudd, fooled again. And we laugh.