As a child, mother always warned me not to stare into the sun, lest I go blind. I wondered how something that felt so good could also be so frightening. Our first grade teacher warned us of the same as we gathered in the school playground to witness a solar eclipse. We could only look at it with our backs to the sun, holding a cardboard circular cutout over our shoulders with a blank piece of white construction paper in the other hand. I never saw the shadow of the moon, which was supposed to partially obscure the white-hot circle on the paper. Maybe it was because the eclipse was too shallow to even notice. Or maybe it was because, like I’d asked my teacher, “How can we see something if we don’t look at it?”
Years later, my grandfather took me outside of his ranch house to see a lunar eclipse. I saw the shadow of the earth creeping across the moons surface like a hand slowly covering my eyes. Grandpa said it was a warning from God for little boys like me to be good and I believed it. “Why didn’t God just say it, Grandpa?” I asked. He said that God doesn’t talk, he just listens. For many years, I believed that too.
As my boyfriend Adam and I sputter down the Texas highway, on the way to our friend Miranda’s funeral, he rolls a chub of a joint as blurred cars zoom past. Once finished, he holds it close to his face, stroking lightly and sniffing like it’s a fine cigar. Ahead, I see waves of heat unfurl on the horizon as the flat highway ends in what could be puddles of water or molten tar. “It’s just a highway mirage,” Adam says as he lights the joint with his prized Zippo. My father had said the same thing once on a trip to the Indian reservation, warning me not to stare, as we might drive into it and get stuck. It’s funny how I believed truisms from my father at that age. The more absurd they were, the more I needed to believe.
“Dude, don’t do that,” I bark at Adam. “Someone might see you.”
He laughs, blowing smoke into my face. “Don’t be such an old lady, Christopher. If we act like it’s a cigarette, no one will even know the difference. Besides people rarely see what’s in front of them.” Realizing he was probably right, I enjoy a long, hard hit.
Adam and I have been together for nearly twelve years now, having met when we both delivered food for Meals on Wheels to the old, sick and bedridden. The first time he brought home a bottle of Valium from one of our patients, we got high in his apartment, drawing flowers and unicorns on the walls with shredded crayons. Once we moved in together, the crafty way we talked our clients out of their medications became somewhat of an art form. We never took anything that wasn’t ours. We weren’t thieves, for crying out loud. But who could resist my charming smile or the adorable way Adam winked when he talked. Sometimes we’d have mounds of antidepressants, muscle relaxers, and bottles with names unknown to us, popping pills like jellybeans. After my second accidental overdose, passing out cold during liturgy at Ash Wednesday services, I awoke in the emergency room from a dream of angry penguins and incense. To this day, I can’t stand either. As a welcome back from the brink gift, Adam gave me a 1975 copy of The Essential Guide to Prescription Drugs to ceremoniously display on the coffee table. But the night he brought home a cancer patient’s vial of morphine, I knew I’d met my soul mate, destined to spend the rest of my life with, or at least serve five to ten.
“The funeral should be interesting,” Adam says as he searches for music in the mound of CD’s on the back seat. “You know, Miranda’s mother is more fucked up than she ever was.” I couldn’t agree more. After all, Lana was from the old school style of East Texas racism. On the night of high school prom, she held me as her captive audience while Miranda finished dressing. She spun a morose, though somewhat biblical tale, beginning with a story of Jesus baptizing the Village People in Israel, or something like that. “The black folk,” she began, “were in no obvious hurry, showing up when nearly all the water was gone. With only enough left to dip their hands and feet, it was only their soles and palms that were cleansed.” Holy shit! What a fucking loon. Although I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, having known Miranda’s family for as long as I had, it wasn’t entirely surprising. After Miranda’s grandmother died a few years earlier, tumbling from her mobile commode when the wheel fell off, I was convinced her family was nothing more than a dark comedy full of white trash.
Miranda Lewis wasn’t exactly a choirgirl either. She’d been fascinated with unusual death since we were in high school. Especially fond of the Texas man who perished from a lethal enema of sherry given by his doting girlfriend, she had the woman’s newspaper quote of “I don’t know what happened cause it was only two bottles” pasted onto her bathroom door. Another of her heroes was Jimi Hendrix. Although not all that unusual, for Miranda, death by vomit was cool nonetheless. But her all time favorite was Lupe Velez, the 1930’s film siren also known as “The Mexican Spitfire” who was said to have drowned with her head in a toilet. Some called it suicide, but Miranda blamed that deadly combination of wine, sleeping pills and spicy Mexican food. That Miranda herself should ultimately die such an insincere death from a handful of sleeping pills, sure her angry boyfriend would return, seemed almost fitting. She’d gotten her life together, or so it seemed, getting a job as a beauty consultant and falling in love with husband of one of her clients. Even so, she was never able to shrug off her past.
Miranda spent her early years gliding from boyfriend to boyfriend with the grace of a figure skater, albeit with rusty skates. Once she decided on a catch, there was no stopping her. I once asked how she managed to sleep with any guy she set her eyes on. “Well, you can’t buy love,” she replied. “But if you stalk someone long enough, they just get tired and give in.”
The drive from New Orleans always whisks by in an instant, especially if there’s a mission in mind. This time, we get to bury poor Miranda. The time before, we visited my father at the Golden Care Living Facility where I prayed he would live out his last days. I’ve only recently begun to visit the old curmudgeon since Adam and I moved into a shitty, one room, New Orleans apartment the day after my own mother’s funeral. Leaving my half brother Marcus to care for him, I drop in to see dad only when I’m in town, mostly to avoid my brother’s judgmental gazes. Although I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen dad these last nine years, I can’t help feel a bit guilty. At least he’s in better hands, as I would probably have sought out a two for one special while putting down my dog.
“Maybe we should visit dad,” I say to Adam as he sits straight up.
“Aw shit,” he groans, burrowing into the seat. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Sure,” I reply, not altogether sure, “after Ms. Miranda is laid to rest, that is.” Today is family day at the facility, after all, which is dad’s favorite time of the week. At least it gives the staff a break, when he can turn his anger from the nurses and doctors to his visiting kin. Although dad loves to spar with whomever visits, calling them assholes or pricks, and flinging food like some ape at the local zoo, these last few years, he’s drifted closer and closer to the senility I somehow knew was always present. I’d like to think senility might have explained his ongoing lack of affection. After all, the only times I remember him showing he cared were those nights he would shake me awake, labeling me through gin soaked tears, as his fine son. My friends laugh when I say that I haven’t been able to stand gin since I was ten. Even so, I loved dad then. I’m sure my brother still does.
Pulling into the Stuckey’s just off the interstate, the locals who scurry about the combination truck stop, café and flea market make me feel like an unimportant traveler through their uneventful lives. Tank tops, dirty feet and tons of hairspray give it all a Norman Rockwell on Quaaludes feel. Still, I wonder why they stare at Adam and me. Maybe it’s from the aura of confidence we forcefully radiate. Adam and I never really gave a fuck who thought what about us. Other than the fact that we act like any other couple in the world, holding hands, kissing in public, etc., no one usually suspects we’re together, much less gay. For me, it wasn’t always that way. As a young child, I sometimes came home bruised and bloodied from the petty torments of my classmates. Mother called me sensitive and idealistic while dad warned that her coddling would continue to sap every ounce of masculinity left in his otherwise effeminate son. Eventually, I learned to fight back, but I also learned to run very fast.
My parents had me late in life, dad at forty-five and mom, thirty-nine. Growing up childhood sweethearts, my parents lived their entire lives a few houses from each other in a stagnant southern California town, marrying soon after dad joined the air force. After serving briefly in Korea, before his mysterious accident got him a medical discharge (he shot himself in the foot), my father packed up my mother and the rest of his belongings and moved to Houston. Mother became a housewife and dad worked as a roach undertaker for the local extermination company.
Through a slew of miscarriages and a sickly daughter who died at two, the birth of a son with no visible abnormalities was cause for celebration. Mother had been concerned about having a child so late in life, since thirty-nine was late for childbearing in 1970. She once told me she worried her decision would leave her with a malformed child. I said, “Nope, only gay.”
As Adam makes his usual dash to the restroom, I weave my way through the aisles, searching for a visitation gift for dad. I’m always astounded, in these sorts of places, by the shelves littered with clothed ceramic animals playing musical instruments, banjos, saxophones, washboards, or singing hymns from a bible. Over on the God shelf, a light up Virgin Mary statue catches my eye. Although dad had long ago ceased to be Catholic, he might enjoy this sort of present, especially if during one of his less than lucid moments he doesn’t remember he isn’t religious. I find it puzzling that old people tend to find God as they drift closer and closer to the inevitable, frantically scooping more and more water from a leaky life raft.
A smiling, well-fed churchwoman looms behind the register as I gather my items on the counter. As her ruby-red lipstick seeps into the creases around her paper-thin lips, she asks if I’m buying a gift for a special lady-friend.
“Just my father. He’s neither.”
“I see,” she says, scratching her head with long, glittering pink fingernails as the ratted beehive wig rocks to and fro. Pulling several sheets of tissue paper and spreading them flat on the counter, she gazes at the goat playing an accordion I’d selected in a way that convinces me she’s the artiste. After wrapping the gift tightly in the tissue, so well, in fact, it looked almost professional, she motions to the seemingly homemade concoctions stacked on the counter in that palm up, game show hostess sort of way. “Perhaps he might enjoy a Stuckey’s Pee-can Roll for just eighty nine cents.”
Oh dear God.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always hated goats. Those incessant little creatures forever tooled around my grandfather’s farm, nibbling at my toes, butting at me every time I turned my back. I’d kick them and kick them hard whenever given the chance, as hard as my tiny four-year-old legs would allow. On holidays, one of those little suckers was cooked up, decorated with tomatoes, bell peppers and red bows tied around its stiff cloven feet. At every one of these feasts, my father would say, “Christopher don’t be such a sissy and eat.” I never did. Not because I felt sorry for those little bastards, what with their constant bleats, reminding me of my aunt Matilda screaming at her “good for nothing” husband. But because they looked like bearded, grumpy old men, caramelized in a nutty goo. Even as granddad rounded them up for the slaughter, he called them “kids” but they looked like old fogies to me. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat an old person.
When I was in kindergarten, our principal came to my class to give us the somber news about our classmate Imelda. I didn’t really know her, but unlike the other kids who constantly sneered at my tie and vest that was mother’s favorite ensemble, she smiled at me once from across the room. Hers was a sweet smile, sugar and spice and all that crap. “Imelda died in a fire,” he’d said with the compassion of a straight razor. A family of eight tragically snuffed out, except the father who worked the graveyard shift at an all night diner, the fire started when their pet goats kicked over the heater Imelda’s family had placed on the porch to keep them warm. As I asked if the goats died too, hoping they’d gotten theirs, my teacher, Mrs. Uribe, glared at me from across the room. One of her false eyelashes danced loose. A pretty dance, a flutter really, it was like a stomped on caterpillar writhing in a charcoal stream. As the two adults gathered Imelda’s school supplies from the tote trays we all kept our stuff in, I remember the longest strand of black hair fell onto the floor near my feet. Out of sight of the adults, I dragged it towards me with my shoe, smuggling it home in my Scooby Doo lunch box so I could tie it around my favorite Muppet doll. Days later, my parents were called into to a parent/teacher conference to discuss something I’d drawn during art hour: a picture of a girl with black flowing hair, X’s for eyes, and flaming tears raining down on a house with hundreds of stick children screaming out of the windows. I didn’t see what the big deal was. The phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had, I suppose my parents wouldn’t have worried so much. For days, I stayed in my room, trying to cry, but never really succeeding. My father’s constant warning of “I’ll give you something to cry about,” rang through my ears as I stared at that Muppet doll with Imelda’s hair tied in a bow around its throat.
My brother and I were close growing up, as he was only two years younger. When his mother dropped him at the house, unannounced, on my twelfth birthday, the shy little boy who always said “Sir” and “Ma’am” looked pitiful creeping up the drive, tiny suitcase in hand. My parents never bothered to explain his initial appearance or who the lady named Vivienne was, for that matter, arguing with my father. But from the screams in the middle of the street, I got the picture. For days, Marcus followed me around like a beaten puppy, desperate for attention. In the beginning, I wasn’t very nice to him, often pushing him around and locking him out of my room. But after a few months, he grew on me. Maybe it’s the way his voice sounded when he called me his big brother. Until that very moment, I’d always prayed for a brother to run around the house with, driving my parents crazy. I guess I never thought it would happen quite the way it did.
The day dad signed us up for little league baseball, he was more excited than either Marcus or me. I wasn’t very good. But Marcus, he was the athletic one. When the other kids made fun of my horrid play, my brother always stood up for me, challenging anyone and everyone. Sometimes I would scream at him for making me look even more pitiful, but his devotion to his big brother made me love him all the more.
When I was a teenager, I fast realized I wasn’t like other boys. I’d drifted further and further into my little cocoon, hoping to be transformed on the other side. But Marcus was always there, knocking on my shell, never letting me drift too far. I told him I was gay before I ever admitted it to anyone, especially my parents. At sixteen, the day I finally told them, Marcus stood next to me, silently daring our father to react. Mother cried for what seemed like months. Dad never mentioned it again.
My brother’s life wasn’t exactly ideal either. He rarely saw Vivienne, who’d married a lump of a truck driver named Tinker, then shipped her son off to live with a family he barely knew. She’d grown up in a Louisiana town not far from the Texas border, running away at sixteen from her family of church going, oil field workers. Abandoning her dreams of becoming a country and western singer, she traded the microphone for a bartending license, regularly serving my dad his usual twenty rounds. I never really knew if she and my mother had ever met, or if before that day, mother knew about Marcus. But mother always treated him as one of the family, much nicer than truck driver Tinker ever did. I once asked dad if Vivienne knew he was married with a kid. But dad said it wasn’t important, proving once more he was the antidote to sincerity.
Sitting at the table of the Stuckey’s café waiting for Adam, I gaze around at the old people gathered, chatting about old people stuff. The menu under the sheet of Plexiglas on the table offers the local specialty of chicken fried steak, claimed by the East Texas Register to be the best in town. Since it was Miranda’s favorite, I almost order in tribute. The locals gather at the salad bar, a large tin tub with huge bowls of iceberg lettuce and what seems like every type of Thousand Island dressing imaginable shoved into the ice. Offering a wink through gum smacks, the waitress asks for my order. As the rail of a line I’d done in the restroom makes my teeth chatter, I opt for coffee. I watch as the tight-bunned waitress glides away with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the heel of her size ten pumps, wondering if I should point it out.
Adam plops down with a bag of chips and two fully loaded, jumbo hot dogs he’d swiped from the counter. I’m always astounded by just how much that boy can eat, as coked up as he is. “Want a bite?” he asks, waving one of the dogs in front of my face. I shake my head as he shoves almost the entire thing into his mouth. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he points to the pictures on the south wall of the café. Fake autographed headshots, perfectly lined, almost hide the tattered silver and baby-shit green wallpaper that adorns the entire establishment. “Do you think all these people actually stopped here in no man’s land Texas?” he asks. As I smile, I look at the rows and rows of photos: Muhammad Ali, President Bush, Benny Goodman, Dolly Parton, and yes, Lupe Velez.
Years earlier, as Miranda sat on the sofa, pregnant with her first child, I remember wondering how I’d gotten to that place, ready to raise another man’s son at the tender age of nineteen. My parents had given up on the idea of a grandchild, at least from me. But after Miranda asked me to be her Lamaze coach, I soon fell in love with a child I’d never even seen. I knew I’d probably never have kids of my own. Unlike today, when gay people have more kids than Catholics, it was almost unheard of in 1989. But it was a chance to finally prove my father wrong and raise the child we both thought I would never have. I watched as Miranda wrestled beneath her bloated stomach, wrapped in her grandmother’s sea foam afghan like a lovely sea nymph. She cast intermittent gazes while reading the book of nursery rhymes I’d bought for soon to be little Zachary, quietly assuring I’d be a good father. Motioning to me and smiling like a young girl with a new doll, she said, “He’s kicking. Come see.”
Placing my hand to her exposed belly, I felt his little feet pushing hard against my palm. I remember feeling as if he knew I was on the other side, waiting to hold him and sing the silly songs my grandmother sang to me. “He’s strong,” I said. “He’ll probably be a soccer player, or a dancer.” As we both laughed, I could see little Zach taking his first steps, teetering with an uncertain look in his eyes and gripping my pinky, sure I’ll not let him fall. Years later, through the cheers of his friends, he’ll blow out the three candles on his Mickey Mouse cake. I’ll help with that last stubborn one. My father will finally say, “I’m so proud of you, Christopher. What a fine son.” Zach will bring home a first place ribbon from the science fair for the house of ice cream sticks we’d finished. Left with stomachaches from all the Dreamsicles, Fudgesicles and Popsicles we’d eaten, we’ll laugh anyway, both proud of his accomplishment. His uncle Adam will be just as proud. He’ll show me a picture of a girl, Mary Ellen somebody, he’ll say he’s in love with and will marry someday. “Silly boy,” I’ll say. “You’re only eleven.” Laying his head on my knee, he’ll ask, “Will I ever see my real daddy?” Richard, far too young and unable to care for himself, couldn’t possibly have cared for a child. For that, I’ll love him and hate him. I’ll simply tell Zach I’m the only father he’ll ever need.
Before Richard swaggered into our lives, he worked in his family’s Beaumont based shrimping business, living in a crate filled apartment with his girlfriend Molly, a stripper at the Pink Pussycat. It was a shitty life, he’d said, but it provided what he needed at the time: Money, booze and lots of acid. But the local scene had begun to wear on his nerves, especially the nights he’d come home to find Molly fucking some sweaty asshole she’d picked up from the Pussycat. After ten or twenty times (he said he lost count), he changed the locks, left the apartment and piled Molly’s shit in the parking lot with a note that simply read, “Whore.” But after meeting Miranda, he’d finally found someone to provide what Molly never could: an escape from a family he hated.
Miranda, content with Richard’s absence, brushed the hair from my eyes as she smiled. “I wonder what Zach will be like as a teenager?” she asked. At sixteen, I’ll tell him I’m gay, but still the same father he’s always had. He’ll call me a pervert. This time I’ll cry. At twenty-one, he’ll marry a beautiful girl with hazel eyes and golden hair he’d met in college. I’ll watch from a tree outside the church as Richard sits in the first pew, smiling my smile.
I jerked my hand away as I turned my back, afraid to look at Miranda. “What’s wrong?” she asked, placing her hand on my shoulder.
“He’ll hate me.”
As I finish the last drops of the tepid coffee in my thermos, I pull to the side of the road as the purplish sky opens up. Raining cats and rats, as dad used to say. Back in New Orleans, Adam and I had been celebrating my birthday when we got the call about Miranda. I have to say I’m surprised to have made it to the big 3-0, always joking that I had my mid life crisis at thirteen when I began to suspect I was gay.
Taking out the special birthday baggie of coke Adam had bought from this kid in the quarter, I’ve never understood why we buy this shit from an east Texas white boy who calls himself Gandhi. Always someone who bastardized the English language, he uttered phrases like, “Jesus Japanese-us,” and “Gay as three dollar bill,” in ways the good lord never intended. Adding a “t” sound to the end of any word that ended in
“i-c-e,” was something I could never get used to. He was the only person I knew that could change the word “nice” into past tense. “That mother fucking Gandhi,” Adam muttered as I flick at the baggie with my forefinger, sure the amount doesn’t nearly equal the price he’d paid. In a way, Adam’s become my own personal buffer, insulating me from outside threats, something I hadn’t enjoyed from anyone since high school. So I just smile, content with his devotion to our fucked up lives.
Johnny was the first boy I was ever fell in love with. Our first day in Mr. Oren’s algebra class, he shuffled in late, giving what would be his standard excuse of missing the bus. As he was one of the tallest boys in the ninth grade I’d ever seen, I was sure he’d be a basketball player someday. The first time he showed me the stretch marks on his knees from a seventh grade growth spurt, he said it was kind of gross, but I thought it was cool. While borrowing a pencil (I gave him the only one I had), he introduced himself as Jonathan K. Mathes. That’s Mathes with an –es, not an –is, he’d always tell people. He was a bit touchy about that. From his wide grin and chipped front tooth, a bit scraggly but pretty damn cute, I imagined he was plotting something like skipping school or getting stoned. “I’m Christopher,” I replied shaking his hand, hoping to be invited along with whichever was the case. His hand felt like a warm biscuit, buttered and straight from the oven. I remember thinking I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.
The oldest in a big family, Johnny had two brothers and three sisters. His stepfather worked at a barber shop, buzzing hundreds of flat tops while his mother answered phones at a local used car lot containing rows and rows of Chevy Impalas in every shade of white imaginable: Ivory, eggshell, smoker’s tooth…you name it, they had it. Johnny always called his mother and stepfather by their first names, but Rick and Peggy didn’t seem to mind. He once told me that he didn’t know his real father, as if Rick was somehow make believe.
Later in the year, Johnny talked me into trying out for the school play, West Side Story. I wasn’t very good, but I got the part of an understudy to the understudy of a minor character. But Johnny, he got the lead. Each day, we’d walk home, practicing our lines, as if we might receive some sort of Academy Award or something. I remember the football players who had necks the size of watermelons, made jokes about us “homo drama fags.” I didn’t have the heart or the balls to point out that the phrase was redundant. We mostly practiced Johnny’s lines though, because I only had one: “Well if it isn’t Bernardo’s girl.” But it was a line I knew would get me a standing ovation from the audience because I would say it with such bravado.
Johnny and I spent most of ninth grade together, whether it was rehearsing for the play, studying or simply hanging out. Sometimes we’d spend hours in my bedroom talking about music, movies and the different girls we thought were hot (I’d become a pretty good liar by then). Sometimes we’d take off our shirts, tickling each other’s backs, each trying to make the other laugh. The night we kissed, nearly knocking out each other’s front teeth in that clumsy, teenage way, we professed our love for each other, saying we didn’t care what anyone thought. Ok, that last part’s a lie, but it’s a lie I choose to tell. Reality is not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.
My father once remarked that we’d been spending a lot of time together, asking if we were boyfriends. We were horrified, wondering if he’d been spying on us. But looking back, it was just dad’s fucked up humor. I’d like to feed the melodramatic, angst filled part of my youth and say that Johnny quit talking to me because he was afraid of the feelings we had for each other. But it was because his family moved away the following year. I saw Johnny at a street fair many years later. He introduced me to his wife, a lovely young girl with unnaturally white teeth. Handing me his phone number on a stained paper napkin, he asked me to keep in touch. I never saw Johnny again, but I still have the napkin, tucked safely away in a book somewhere.
Shit happens. I hate that phrase. It was everywhere when I was growing up. People said it; I thought it; there was even a song about it. I hate it, not because it was turned into a cliché of a cliché, on every poster, t-shirt and bumper sticker in the goddamn eighties, but because it’s true. Why are hundreds of innocent people trampled to death at a religious concert? Why did nearly a thousand men, women and children follow their leader and drink the punch in some South American temple? Why do children die? Shit happens. God I hate that fucking phrase.
As Miranda and I waited patiently in the hospital during her final stages of labor, the doctor gave the dreadful news: She’d heard no heartbeat. Most likely, the child is dead, she’d said. The child? As if he was a battery or some goddamn phone call. The nurses whisked me out of the room, explaining that as the father, I would need to hold it together to help Miranda get through the birth. Jesus Christ, she still had to deliver the baby. How fucking cruel is that? One nurse brought a chair and another, a cup of water. They were so gentle and caring, assuring me that I’d get through this with faith in God and his love and protection. I don’t know why I chose then and there to tell the truth to those ladies: I wasn’t the natural father. I guess they reminded me of my mother. But just like that, the nurses were done with me. Because I wasn’t the one who got Miranda pregnant and washed my hands of her; because I wasn’t the one whose sperm created that beautiful boy; because I wasn’t the one. Fucking bitches, just like that.
Friends and family gathered around as I held little Zach in my arms. “He’s beautiful,” I said to Miranda who’d drifted off to that place she went when she was unable to cry. Staring at his face, memorizing every curve and every strand of hair, I prayed the doctors were wrong and he would open his eyes. But as I held him close, humming a song I barely knew, his warmth was a fleeting one, like the embers of a fire burning out.
A few hours later, Adam took me to see Richard and helped me break the news. “Wake up you shit,” I cried, kicking at his mattress. As Richard roused himself and gazed at me with a “What the fuck” look in his eyes, he said nothing. One on one, I was sure I’d lose an altercation with him, but he didn’t fight me. Kicking his mattress again, I shoved my size eleven combat boot just inches from his face.
“What the hell are you doing here, Christopher?” Richard asked, as Adam pulled me away.
What am I doing here? Why do you care? You’ve never acted like a father these last nine months. What did the ultrasound look like, Richard? What was it like to feel your son’s feet kicking beneath Miranda’s swollen belly? I was the one who first heard his heartbeat and I was the one who put his crib together. I helped deliver your lifeless, beautiful boy. Where the fuck were you?
“Your son’s dead, Richard.”
Sitting in the second to the last pew staring at Miranda’s gunmetal gray casket, I wonder what she would think of her own death. To the right in the benches reserved for the “loved ones,” what’s left of Miranda’s family huddles and comforts each other. Lana, or as Miranda liked to call her, Mrs. Lewis Morgan Polenski Frank, lays crumpled in the arms of husband number four, breast feeding child number three. I half expected Miranda to sit up and say, “Jesus, mother, would you please keep your tit in your dress at my goddamn funeral?”
As Adam squirms next to me, he leans close and rests his head on my shoulder. “Would you look at Lana? How disrespectful,” he says, blowing a bubble the size of his face with his gum.
Perched next to his mother, Miranda’s brother Willard nervously fingers the buttons of his oversized blazer. Only nine when a mint green Gremlin slammed into his bicycle and hurled him out of his socks and shoes, he never fully recovered. I remember at nineteen, he’d been terribly proud of finally landing a job as a gift wrapper at the local Macy’s, attending their gift-wrapping school. “I’m Willard Morgan, professional gift wrapper.” That’s how he would greet anyone he met, handing out the business cards Lana had cut with pinking shears. Although Miranda was appalled by it all, I thought it was charming. I can’t help but think how Willard is so like my little brother, nibbling at his peanut butter and jelly sandwich that first night at our dining room table. Marcus, too, had a nervous habit: toying with his shoelaces while watching television. The more interesting the show, the more tangled the laces became. As I smile at Willard from across the church, he smiles back, waving just a tad, like it’s a secret meant only for me.
In a normal family, brothers are said to fight and fight often. The same can be said for mine, as Marcus and I took out our gentle derrangements on each other. Mother never took sides, always even handed, doling out fair punishments. Dad was never as objective, often taking Marcus’ side without even waiting to hear mine. Even for graduation, I got the short end of the stick. While dad gave Marcus a vintage, 1974 Mustang, buying the heap and restoring it to near perfection, I got a wood paneled, ‘78 Pacer. Tooling around and embarrassed as hell to be seen, I protested regularly. But dad swore it’d be a classic someday. It’s no wonder my resentment of my brother festered like an oozing wound. I came to blame him for just about everything, whether it was having to share my parents or the rain soaked sneakers I’d left on the back porch.
Growing up, our arguments never amounted to much. That all changed when mother died. For months, she’d been in and out of the hospital, after suffering a major heart attack. The doctors said she’d had several mild ones before, as if heart attacks were divided into strengths like hot sauce. But as Marcus, Adam and I stood guard in her hospital room, hoping she’d get better, it soon became evident mother wasn’t giving much to the effort of survival. Marcus sat next to me, head on my shoulder while Adam paced in the corner, giving me the space he knew I needed. As I held her frail hand in mine, silently tracing the collapsed veins and the purplish tint ringing her fingernails, a doting, caramel-colored, Jamaican nurse wiped the bile from mother’s chin, whispering, “There, there sweet lady. I’ve got you.”
A few days later at the cemetery, I stood staring at the bulldozer, waiting for it to complete its final task. I was determined to see mother’s casket safely into the ground and that last muddy lily to its proper resting place. As everyone had left the gravesite, except me, it somehow felt like the last scene of a tragic movie, like I was waiting for my cue to cry. Dad, he didn’t stay long. He left after pulling me into his arms, sobbing on my shoulder, and calling me his fine son. At least this time, gin wasn’t involved.
As Marcus hugged me from behind, I quietly blamed everyone for her death: my father, the doctors, the angry bill collectors, but especially my brother. “Don’t touch me,” I screamed, breaking his hold. “This is all your fucking fault. If you hadn’t been dumped on us…if your mother had stayed away from my father, she’d be just fine.”
“Chris, I loved her too…” Marcus began.
“You don’t have the right to love her,” I cried. “What do you think the constant reminder of where you came from did to her Marcus? And those nights when Vivienne came to our house, pounding on the door at three in the morning, demanding you, screaming for you, taking you. Why couldn’t you have just stayed away? God I fucking hate you.” Before Marcus could set his jaw and will his mouth to obey, I knew I’d crossed the line we’d tiptoed around for many years. For some reason, as he turned away, his deafening silence struck me harder than any of those kids in elementary school.
Once Adam and I arrive at the nursing home with the half eaten pecan roll tucked safely in my jacket pocket, the smell of pine and old people makes me wish I hadn’t had so much coffee. I see Marcus perched on a sofa reading a Time magazine that features the fifty worst cars of all time (the Pacer is number thirty). Adam kisses me on the forehead and meanders towards my brother as I watch as the two embrace, straining to hear their conversation. They’ve always gotten along, even though Marcus and I barely spoke. As Marcus looks at me, waving with his thumb and forefinger in a gun shape that was always his signature salute, I realize I miss the goofy kid who stood up to anyone and everyone, including our father, who dared confront me. Even though we’d both been the collateral damage of our dad’s peccadilloes, at least we always had each other. I smile and nod, staring for a while. For all these years, it seems we’ve been carrying around baggage for someone else’s trip. Finally turning towards dad’s room, with his gift wedged under my arm, I lightly tap on his door. As I peek in, spying him sleeping, I remember as a child, watching him nap on the sofa. Sometimes I’d steal into his room while he was still in bed, just to watch him snore. I suppose it’s because he looked so peaceful while he slept. Or perhaps it was because it was the only time he wasn’t yelling. Careful not to wake him, I unwrap that tiny goat, playing his little accordion, singing his silly songs, and leave it on the nightstand to keep a watchful eye on dad.
David Gonzales graduated with Honors in Creative Writing at the University of Houston, and is the recipient of the 2009 Robertson Prize in Fiction. David hopes his credentials as an ordained minister are still up to date, as he is moving to California to write The Great American Novel, but will need employment in-between bouts of genius.