In the Garage
(Eliot Presses Play) Testing, testing, eins, zwei, drei. Ernesto Bornigno, can you hear me?
One would think that others would follow, but this place still crawls along, languishing on the outskirts of infinity, resisting the march of time, cloistered in a torrid menagerie. Reliving it is to remember how it feels to be baked by the sun while the rest of the world evolves and has the pleasure of watching us melt. I left as soon as I could and never looked back. Until the boomerang of death brought me back, that is. No escaping that one. Why anyone would want to live out here has long been a mystery to me. I knew the desert heat would be unbearable and I still made the mistake of wearing black jeans. This wouldn’t be a problem if I weren’t so vain. But I prefer not to wear shorts, and like the bohemian kids of Echo Park, I have been known to suffer for fashion. And suffer I will, underground, in this godforsaken bomb shelter. There isn’t any ventilation either, which concerns me, because I have an irrational fear of asbestos and insulation.
I was appointed by the executor of my grandfather’s will to clean out the house that I once lived in. Maybe this was his way of punishing me, and maybe I deserve it. I generally don’t like to overexert myself, which he knew quite well. It’s not the labor or the task that pains me though, it’s my back. I have never completely recovered from idiopathic scoliosis. My spine curves slightly to the left. I have recruited an old friend to help with the grunt work, but at the moment I’m alone in the garage. It’s like a sweat lodge in here. My grandfather would have said that I’m taking my sweet-ass time. I would say that I’m being deliberate. Warren, the aforementioned old friend, is upstairs folding cardboard boxes along perforated lines. Boxes I purchased at a highly inflated price from Pack ’n’ Sav. I was in a bind because the other do-it-yourself moving companies in this backwater had rented out all their trucks for the weekend. Pack ’n’ Sav is the epitome of corporate ineptitude; long queues, disrespectful and incompetent employees, and shameful policies that leave consumers empty-handed on moving day. They have a terrible rating with the Better Business Bureau and I shall never use them again.
Before I go on, I should clarify a few things. The term “old friend” may not be the best way to introduce Warren. When I think of old friends I think of Simon and Garfunkel. Warren was my closest friend. I don’t like the phrase best friend either, because at times he was my only friend. But over the years we’ve either grown apart or time and distance have tricked us into believing so. Warren never strayed from the Inland Empire, which isn’t really an empire at all. It’s actually a very misleading title. The Inland Empire has frequently been called “The Armpit of the Universe,” though there certainly are less desirable places to be stranded. We can settle on “The Armpit of Southern California.” Some will argue that it is bounded by Interstate 15, with the epicenter being San Bernardino proper, but I always imagined that it stretched out further and further east until reaching its nadir in Death Valley. In a way, Palm Desert is a world unto itself. Far enough from Los Angeles to make it an inconvenient road trip, yet close enough to acknowledge how it pales in comparison. Other than turbine-powered windmills and its proximity to the world’s largest concrete dinosaurs, there is nothing exciting about this dry and distant hamlet. It has pristine professional golf courses, climate-controlled indoor malls and one too many health spas. There’s also a desert museum, which is a popular destination for stoned teenagers.
As I said before, I am in this dank underground garage that belonged to my grandparents. The garage is an annex of the house that was added on in the seventies. It is also a basement. There’s a stairway leading into the kitchen and you drive downhill to enter; one of several architectural oddities in this little bungalow. Ownership should have been transferred into my name—though I have no desire to hold the property—but they went against my advice and refinanced. Then they refinanced the refinance. The house is now property of First Desert Financial, and will be sold at an auction on the first of July. I am the only living member of my immediate family that is able to perform these duties, as my younger brother is hiding out somewhere in the Amazon, and my father is unavoidably detained. Fortunately, the bank has no jurisdiction over our memories, which are presently strewn all over the basement-garage floor where I once spent an entire weekend watching a Vincent Price retrospective. I’m trying to organize our belongings into separate piles to keep, discard, and stow. It’s easy to get sidetracked while flipping through photo albums and searching for meaning. Practically everything from the seventies is in a sallow sepia tone. The prints, however, have maintained their composition, as the pages are covered and protected by a Mylar sheath. Most of the boxes haven’t been opened in this millennium. The box tops have thick layers of dust and mold from the leaking ceiling pipes. My allergies are killing me.
We all have talents and vices, and Warren is a good man to have around to get a job done. I hear his pounding footsteps and know that we will be out of here soon. It sounds like he’s carrying the boxes from the kitchen into the truck. I’m tempted to help him, as I don’t seem to be making any headway, but there is value in nostalgia, and lifting heavy objects has never been my métier. So I will stay down here until he is too weary to carry on alone. He can handle the labor and I will be wistful.
Now here is something I vividly remember. I have in my hands a manuscript, typewritten by the illustrious young talent, Eliot Sinclair—who happens to be, coincidentally, me. This was my initial writing assignment at a new school and the teacher was probably trying to keep me busy, but I saw it as an aptitude test. The teacher asked me to write an autobiography, a classic diversion. An essay by any normal child would have been prosaic and terse. I, on the other hand, was meticulous and verbose. What I remember most about this incident is how my miserable teacher did not believe that I had written such a well articulated piece over a single weekend. She marked the cover with a √ and left a discouraging comment:In the future, I expect to read your own work. Our school has a strict plagiarism policy. I am not exaggerating. She was a bitter harpy.
To understand her, you must see for yourself. We must backpedal before we are free to run onward. Let me explain. When I was in the second grade I could outwit my parents with relative ease. I could checkmate the chess captain of the Royal Order of Dutiful Caribou in a matter of moves, armed with only my knight and queen. Of course, this was the Inland Empire, not St. Petersburg. Still, I was reading Tolstoy and Chekhov while my classmates were being put to sleep by their mother’s voice and the rhyming verse of Dr. Seuss. Suffice it to say, I was a dispossessed child prodigy, almost fifteen years ago.
The formative years were good to me, at least in establishing the groundwork of literature and mathematics. Oh, how I loved solving derivatives and utilizing the quadratic equation that my mother, my poor mother in her community college calculus class, without my assistance, could not. Everything was simpler when I wore dolphin shorts and striped tube socks. In fact, I was not the run-of-the-mill savant. I was quite the opposite, content with my station. Sometimes I was able to pretend that I was like the neighborhood kids. We played Laser Tag and hide ‘n’ seek until the sun went down–once or twice. In the summer months I slept in the shade with my brother at my side. That is how I would like to remember it anyway.
I will recount a usual autumn day for you to read and consider. I woke up around five to entertain my mother, who always drank Yuban coffee with plenty of low-fat milk and heaping tablespoons of sugar. I once tried it without adding any milk and asked my mother, “How can anyone be foolish enough to drink this?” To which she replied, “Some folks need a strong drink to send them on their way.” And I retorted, with my usual cynicism, “They just don’t understand the nutritional value of milk or juice to complement a healthy breakfast. It’s like you and Nana always say. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Black coffee is no substitute. Am I wrong?” “No, but it’s more complicated than that. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
When I was younger I believed that my parents did not expect a child of eight to understand the complexities of adult situations. However, I could comprehend rational explanations that were beyond the grasp of most children my age, and even many who were much older than me. Her response was an easy way of telling me to shut up. Being the obedient and well-behaved child that I was, I remained silent for a while, until a greater question came to mind.
I seem to have strayed from the topic at hand, dear reader, and should return to the pertinent details. After watching my mother drink two cups of coffee and prepare scrambled eggs and bacon, I would read for an hour or so. Although I was versed in the classics, I was especially intrigued by the sciences, or I should say, almost exclusively, astronomy. There was no man better to explain the nature of the universe than the brilliant Mr. Carl Sagan, who introduced me to physics and the cosmos. My mother was a fan as well, and while I believe that her mathematical shortcomings held her back in the pursuit of science, I lauded her in her attempts to understand the vast network of planets and star systems that he illustrated so clearly. It is also worth mentioning that she is the only one of my parents who could operate the VCR properly, and was responsible for videotaping all thirteen episodes of Mr. Sagan’s PBS miniseries.
After reading an excerpt from an astronomy text, I flipped on the television to watch Scooby Doo, followed by either The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera or The Jetsons, depending on the day. At the time, I felt it necessary to engage in normal childhood activities. That way I could converse with my classmates and reduce the number of hours being bullied for my intellect. Nobody in my class appreciated the finer things in life, like the performing arts or the physical sciences. I had a particular fondness for Tchaikovsky and Baryshnikov. Field trips and the school orchestra were the only times that the district introduced high culture to the masses. And on the rare occasions that we would leave the school grounds, the insolent noise of the troop would prevail. The troublemakers would rather scream and shoot spitballs –- often in my general direction –- than watch an Edward Albee play at the repertory. As I sat there quietly, tolerating their juvenile antics with every last ounce of my patience, I began to pity their shortsightedness.
[It should be noted that from the time I was in kindergarten I have been enrolled in public school. Only in the two years before elementary school was I privately educated. That was at the esteemed Montessori Learning Center in Bakersfield, where I was at the head of the class in reading comprehension and arithmetic. While the others monkeyed around on the playground, I was building model airplanes and testing their durability. Granted, I may have benefited from my early studies, and a foundation rooted in motherly support, but one should not overstate the importance of those factors.]
Yes, I am 11; and yes, I understand where we come from in a biologic and taxonomic sense. I was six when I first witnessed the act of mating. Freud would call this the “primal scene” and relate all of my problems to that encounter. I am skeptical about this theory. As you will soon find out, there are other accidents that have had a greater impact on my ego than seeing reproduction in action. Though I must say, at the time it was a strange sight and seemed deviant as I watched from behind the curtains of their bedroom window. The words that I heard are not to be repeated here, or at home, as I would be punished severely with my grandfather’s belt. When my mother gave me an offhanded lie about the origin of babies, I decided to find out for myself. On the fireplace mantle we kept a set of the 1987 World Book Encyclopedia. Unearthing the truth was not so easy. It required a study of anatomy and physiology. My research spanned “Volume 6: The Human Body” and “Volume 10: Reproduction.” I learned a great deal about molecular and cellular biology thumbing through those tomes. That lesson sparked an obsession with the study of living organisms that would consume me for the next year. Then I went back to the stars.
In my ninth year I made two great discoveries. One was related to the work of the honorable Charles Darwin. As brilliant and methodical as he was, it seems that he was not revered by all people. Father Leary called me a heretic for believing his “unsubstantiated theories.” To which I replied, “But Father, is there anything wrong in recognizing natural selection as a hereditary process? Genetic mutations are clearly represented in humans as well as first order primates.” “You have either been possessed by some dark magic or been told outrageous half-truths,” he said. “I am merely reciting what I have gathered from my deep love of science.” “You are easily fooled, my young lad. It is well known that Mr. Darwin was driven by the occult, and made it his life’s work to slander the church. Religious scholars have proven time and time again that his findings were doctored and fabricated. He, like you, had a very fanciful imagination.” “I find this hard to believe, Father. My encyclopedia states otherwise. In the biography section…” “You read too much. It is not healthy for a boy your age to stay indoors for such long periods of time. I presume you are going stir-crazy. I suggest you go outside and play with the Stanley twins.” “But Father, I get the recommended amount of sunlight and physical activity every day.” “Run along, son, I have services to attend to. Tell your father that I must speak with him after mass on Sunday.” “Yes, Father.” I knew this meant I had once again overstepped my bounds and feared the worst.
My father was an usher at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, where I attended Sunday school every week, and sometimes the parish priest joined us for dinner. If I were to offend the venerable priest in any way I expected to feel and hear about it from our family patriarch. On Sunday mornings, this same man would dress us up in penny loafers and blue sport coats –- the ones with brass buttons on the sleeve — because in his words, “a respectful family wears respectable clothes on the Sabbath.” We wore name tags on our lapels, emblazoned with the crest of our church so new parishioners would know who we were. My father stood under the enormous entryway, greeting people and handing out the day’s readings. He also passed around the engraved silver collection plate. I was sent with my brother upstairs to the parochial classrooms. They were decorated with cutouts of the apostles and friendly shepherds, herding the gentle sheep with their goldenrod canes. While I knew the adornments were there to create an atmosphere of calmness, I found them distracting and kitschy. As for the teachings, I am familiar with the fabled stories of the old and new testaments, but I was bored with the group readings, and the demeaning nun who monitored our class. In retrospect, I think she was jealous of my shrewd deductions of the holy writ. What was simple and obvious to me could not be seen by her or the other children, as she was rather dull and they were only acting their age. It was not a rare morning when she would nearly boil over with frustration and say, “Go downstairs and sit with your parents! You’re purposely ruining our discussion with your blasphemy.” Each time I walked out, the same wondering faces gaped at me, and the mischievous boys stuck out their tongues.
I apologize for that extended digression. I wanted to say something about Sunday mornings that was completely unrelated to my daily routine. On the usual morning that I was describing earlier I would awaken well before my younger brother, Carter. He would either come into the kitchen (unwashed and smelling of body odor) to steal a roll from the bread basket or our mother would wake him with a gentle smack on the behind. He would whimper and, frequently, protest with flailing arms and legs. Our mother responded by dragging him into the bathroom by the ear. With one hand on the shower knob and the other in a chokehold, she would fling him into the tub. He squirmed like a fish out of water, trying to wriggle his way out of her clutch. But she always had a tight grip on his neck, because she was very conditioned from regular aerobic workouts and tussles with our father. It looked like a professional wrestling match gone awry. Neither of the contestants wanted to give up, though my brother was certain to lose. She would grind her teeth and pull his hair –- dirty tactics — while he wrapped his arms around the toilet seat, maintaining his position for as long as possible, his feet and the bath mat sliding on the wet floor, until finally he was lying on the ground, which meant he had surrendered for the time being.
Standing in the shower, he would refuse to wash himself, bringing her nearly to tears. “Carter, if you don’t clean and scrub all of that muck from your filthy body, I’ll wake your father and tell him that you refuse to follow my directions.” “I hate you,” he would always say. And I would unfailingly respond, “He doesn’t mean it, mother.” I would often stand in the doorway to watch their clash. “This doesn’t concern you, Eliot. Go back to the TV room.” Obedient, I would march right back into the family room and plop down on the shag carpet to watch the remainder of my show. Sometimes Carter would come in dressed and other times he was dripping wet, naked, or even back in his pajamas. I won’t speak of the times that he came in naked, when my father would wake up early to our mother’s shouting.
If Carter was feeling right, he would come in dressed appropriately, and my mother would drive us to school in the boxy maroon minivan. On a good day we were out the door and on our way before our father could be heard milling about the bedroom. In the van we would listen to my mother’s cassette tapes. She had a fondness for folkies, singer-songwriters like Carole King and James Taylor. I knew the words to every song on Tapestry and Sweet Baby James. An interesting side note is that Carole King, who is a magnificent songwriter, originally penned the lyrics and music for “You’ve Got a Friend,” which was also a hit single for James Taylor. I believe that I am the only 11-year-old in America who knows this fact, which I learned from reading the liner notes. When our father was in the car, he would try and subvert her influence by putting in Twisted Sister or Ratt. That would last until she heard profanity, and she would immediately hit eject. Then she would pull the tape out and wave it in his face. She would say something like, “Don’t ever become rock stars, boys,” and eye us in the rear view mirror.
Our town was a safe middle-class community, reminiscent of Bedford Falls or Mayberry, and we could stay out until dark without fear of being kidnapped. When I looked through the window of the minivan on a cool autumn morning, past the strawberry fields that ran along the highway, everything in sight was calm and wide open. I remember the faces of the boys and girls of the school safety patrol, wearing red polyester jackets with whistles slung around their neck as they guided the young ones at the crosswalk. Our mother dropped us off curbside, gave us a kiss on the cheek and pulled away, waving through the driver’s side window. We walked together over the cracking cement grounds of the schoolyard until we reached a point where the paths to our classrooms diverged and Carter’s eyes met mine with their usual hopelessness, and they said to me, “Please don’t go.” And I answered with my silent eyes, “Everything will be all right.”
As I mentioned earlier, I was an astute pupil, and far ahead of my classmates. Despite my pleas, my father refused to have me promoted to high school, so I was given purportedly advanced exercises and sent to the dimly lit back room to study behind closed doors like a disavowed stepchild. Once or twice a day they let me out of my cage for a rudimentary lesson in life science or physical education. At the end of said break I would ask to return to my studies and the teacher would give an obligatory nod. The only redeeming features were the Apple IIe’s where I spent many hours playing Oregon Trail and Math Blaster.
During recess, some of the boys in my grade would verbally and physically abuse those who they perceived to be weak, especially yours truly. Out on the hot blacktop, their fists were matched by my encyclopedias, and many times I sent them home crying. But I cannot tell a lie. They stole an average of four dollars a week from my pockets and threatened me with torture were I to report their thuggery. I found refuge far off the playground under a fir tree, where I was always joined by Carter. We would spend the quarter hour playing Gin Rummy or planning an elaborate treehouse. Freedom only lasted until the bell rang, however. At the second toll of the bell Carter would ask me not to leave again and I would tell him that we would meet during lunch, and then I trotted back, so as not to be late and rebuked. As I walked away I could see Carter, trudging and slowly making his way across the yard. “Hey, Carter. Don’t be late. You can’t afford another call home,” I would call. But he would just shrug and carry on at the same pace.
School went on regularly after that. I spent most of my hours alone in the back room, the teacher not knowing what else to do with me. Our mother picked us up where she dropped us off, under the watchful eyes of the crossing guards and bus drivers. We drove across the plains and as the rows of crops whizzed by their angles appeared to shift –- vertical, diagonal, horizontal — over and over again. That illusion always fascinated me, but my imagination halted when we pulled into the driveway on Fuller Street. On some days, Carter would resist leaving the van and my mother would have to forcibly remove him. I am not sure why he was so disobedient.
A Winnebago was parked on blocks in the side yard of our humble home, covered by a tarpaulin. When our parents were out, Carter and I would pull back the big blue sheet and we would pretend to go on a family vacation, playing dual roles of ourselves and our parents. Our father never wanted to leave Bakersfield anymore, and saw no use for the languishing motor-home and its flat tires; the Winnie never left the yard after Carter was born. Fortunately for us, he was too lazy and stone drunk to find the time to sell it. His general malaise was like an inadvertent gift to us.
On the hull of the RV there was a tall and narrow screen door with a springy hinge for those who vacation in the mountains, to ward off the swarms of wasps and gnats. They were attracted to the kitchenette, which was equipped with two electric burners, a microwave, and an icebox. There was even a portable black and white television set that my father had won in a raffle. He used to hang out in the Winnie, watching television and drinking Hamm’s. All of these amenities were useless to us, however, because without the key to the ignition we could not turn on the electricity.
The Winnie was a sanctuary when our father came home late, after a bad day at work. Bad days, and I use the phrase as a euphemism, seemed to be attuned to the lunar cycle. He would come home once a month, step on a haphazardly placed toy truck and shout obscenities. Whoever was in the closest range of his fury was the one who would be subjected to his wrath. If I were the one to hear the tires roll in late I would dash into the kitchen and tell Carter to hide. On cue, he would duck out the back door and flee to a friend’s house down the street. I would try to outsmart or reason with my father. Reasoning never worked, but I did have a knack for convincing him that I had retreated to my bedroom, when in actuality I had the presence of mind to close the door, sneak out a window, and hide underneath a foldout loveseat. One time I stayed under there for five hours as my father sat above me guzzling Hamm’s without the faintest idea that I was suffocating beneath him. We didn’t dare share our secrets, everything stayed in the house, between the four of us. That is, until the events that landed me here, which I will recount in due time.
I have many stories that I could tell, but limited time. I will have to edit this draft if I am to submit this for a grade. One of the quintessential Sinclair stories, which also revolved around the RV, took place on my seventh birthday. Our parents went all out that year. Streamers, kazoos, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, a piñata, trick candles, and above all else, a clown. Not just any clown, Phantom Phil. Phil was legendary in Kern County. He was the former apprentice of a renowned illusionist, but his career never took off. His left leg was noticeably shorter than his right and he refused to wear a high-heeled orthopedic boot to offset the limp. Audiences would never accept a disfigured magician yet he would not compromise.
I was not expecting such a grand affair. I was a birthday party minimalist, and would have been content with my family, a smörgåsbord, and an ice cream cake. But I admit that I was curious about this erstwhile illusionist, the MARVELOUS MAGUS, as his case denoted in stenciled block letters. Carter, however, was terrified of clowns, not because they were particularly frightening, but because he had an acute aversion to loud noises. The sound of a cap gun or a popping balloon would bring him to tears instantly. My mother and father knew this, we all knew this. His cry was a piercing scream, akin to Gunter Grass’s Oskar losing his tin drum.
When Phantom Phil arrived my mother warned him about the balloons and asked him to leave them out of the magic show. Evidently Phil thought he was above taking anyone’s stage directions. Thirty minutes into the party, before the performance began, he surprised one of the children with a neat balloon animal, a giraffe. When I saw Phil stretching the balloons I knew it spelled trouble. The giraffe didn’t last long, as one child gripped its head and another its legs. Though the whip and snap of the rubber was not deafening, Carter was within earshot. He immediately bolted out of the room, swiped the keys to the RV and locked himself in. Everyone could hear him weep as we stood outside the door, begging him to come out, but it was useless. Eventually we left him alone and the party resumed, though I could not enjoy it. My father was furious with Phantom Phil, of course, and the ordeal became a spectacle. Enraged, he grabbed Phil by the clown suit and practically threw him out the door, and I had the misfortune of seeing him hobble back to his hatchback. It goes without saying that we did not get a chance to see if Phil could really perform magic. But if we had, I would have wished to see him make my father disappear.
Alas, the most memorable story is not a pleasant one either. I guess that’s par for the course as they say. At one time there were family vacations and Sunday dinners and when spring came around my father would attend Carter’s Little League contests. I never understood their shared interest in sports. They would go to minor league baseball games and watch “Showtime” with the Lakers whenever they had a chance. I gave baseball a sporting try. I sat on the bench with my teammates and attempted to engage them in the marvels of celestial bodies. In return, they spat sunflower seeds at me when the coach wasn’t looking. When I offered the coach advice on techniques that I had gathered in Ted Williams’ seminal The Science of Hitting, he said, “I’m the manager of this team. I played junior varsity ball in high school. I know the fundamentals that you need to be a winner.” This was not altogether true, as we won two games in my only foray into organized sports. I suppose Carter and my father enjoyed the camaraderie of the game, or the simplicity of the pitch-hit-catch structure. I preferred to spend time helping my mother prepare tuna casserole. She would dart around the kitchen and listen as I sat on the counter and recited passages from A Brief History of Time. She could divide her attention six ways and never seem distracted.
My mother was strong, graceful, and decidedly quick-witted. She didn’t have to say more than a sentence and everything could be expressed. She was a crusader for social justice and an outspoken advocate of gender equality. In the late sixties she published a number of articles on the state of women’s correctional facilities and several pieces of literary criticism in existentialist fiction, which had seen a sudden resurgence; and as a mother, she still found time to write an occasional book review for Bakersfield’s newspaper. Upon being introduced to my father, she told her closest friends that she was immediately drawn to their differences. He was working class, from a small mining town called Virginia City. Our mother had graduated magna cum laude from Harvey Mudd, while my father said he was born to be a construction worker. She wanted to start a family and he was a smooth talker. I believe that my mother was attracted to the idea of falling in love with someone from a completely dissimilar background, and he fulfilled that fantasy. In fact, he proposed to her in the most unlikely of places –- a bowling alley. Now that you know how they started, it would make logical sense to explain how it ended. I expect that the school counselor is aware of my story, and you have been at least briefly informed. This will clarify any rumors that may be circulating.
Before I moved to Palm Desert, the four of us were living comfortably in Rosedale, a suburb of northwestern Bakersfield. In 1988 it was voted as one of the ten most desirable places to live in the nation by a notable real estate magazine. There was virtually no crime and public schools had standardized test scores that ranked among the highest in the state. The Neighborhood Watch program was advertised everywhere, with orange and black warnings posted on streetlamps and stop signs — a shadowy man’s profile with jagged features and a trenchcoat. In our conservative hamlet it was reasonable to believe that criminals always wore overcoats and low brims to hide their shifty eyes. The true offender looks nothing like this. He can easily be passed over as a reclusive neighbor or the seemingly harmless husband.
In the afternoon of the ides of January, while I was shelving books as a volunteer for the library, my father came home with the news that he had been laid off. He didn’t give a reason in his testimony, but that was irrelevant. He was already three sheets to the wind when he arrived. In the living room, he found my mother sitting beside our neighbor, Mr. Salisbury. My parents’ marriage was never stable from my perspective. She had repeatedly asked him to attend family counseling and he fervently refused, calling psychotherapy, “hogwash.” I do believe that his anger could have been helped by insight therapy, even if I never told him.
From what I understand, my father staggered into the house and knocked over a potted fern. Having seen the look in his eyes countless times, I can imagine what his reaction would have been if Mr. Salisbury’s hand had been on my mother’s hand lap. The whole episode only lasted a few minutes. Our next-door neighbors heard raised voices followed a minute later by a piercing scream and four loud pops. When my father walked into the house and saw Mr. Salisbury with my mother, he assumed that they were having extramarital affairs. I cannot say why he came to this conclusion, but he admitted to doing so at the trial. He told the jury about the loaded Colt revolver in the bedstand and recreated the scene of the crime from the time that he walked into the house, entered and exited the bedroom, paced down the hallway into the living room, and fired two bullets into my mother’s chest, then one into Mr. Salisbury’s abdomen and one at a mirror above the couch. Within ten minutes the police and an ambulance arrived. They pronounced my mother dead after attempting resuscitation. Mr. Salisbury was rushed to the hospital and survived, only because of the rapid response and the way that the bullet entered his body. It missed his vital organs. My mother, on the other hand, was struck in the heart and a lung. The lung collapsed and cut off the oxygen to her brain. I spoke to the coroner about this after the trial. He was one of the witnesses called to the stand. When the police arrived, my father was sitting on the front porch and didn’t say anything other than, “They’re inside,” before being handcuffed and escorted to the squad car. The revolver was on the living room floor where my father had dropped it. I did not see the room, and frankly, am relieved that I was safe in the aisles and aisles of bookshelves. When the detectives inspected the house they discovered Carter, cowering underneath our bunkbed. He was curled up and shivering and would not speak. Upon further investigation they surmised that he had been in the kitchen when my father came home and was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was clear-cut evidence — a sweaty glass of low-fat milk and purple bread crumbs.
When the bus dropped me off three blocks from our house, I walked without stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk as I did every other day. I stopped before turning into the cul-de-sac because there were police cars blocking the driveway. The red and blue lights were spinning in the evening sky as I stood there wondering what had happened. I did not want to explain who I was to the police officer, so I stayed on the corner by the yellow yield sign and opened a book about the French Revolution. After a short while, a neighbor with a blind beagle asked me to come into their house because it was getting late. I complied and we ate dinner. Then she briefly told me what happened. As the story unfolded I became more and more anxious, because she paused and looked at her husband. The rising tension only made it worse when she finally cupped my shoulder and told me that my mother was dead. I began sobbing instantly, immediately realizing that the one person who understood me was gone forever. I couldn’t stop quivering and asked to be excused when she tried to console me. Like an automaton, I scraped my plate into the garbage, rinsed it off and went to the first bedroom that I saw. I crawled into the bed, pulled the covers over my head and closed my eyes, but I could still hear them whispering.
The next morning I woke up in a king-size bed and asked where I was, and for a second I thought I was dreaming. The neighbor, who was not much older than my mother, told me that she was waiting for my grandmother to arrive. Soon after that I saw my grandfather’s clunker parked on the sidewalk. Nana came over to me, gave me a long hug, and told me that I was going to live with her and Papa in Palm Desert for a while.
I was out of school for six weeks and thinking of my mother everyday. We went to the trial, which lasted three days. My father plead guilty and told the truth. I didn’t have to speak at the trial, because I didn’t know what really happened. We asked the judge not to give my father the death penalty, for my mother believed that it was inhumane. He was given a sentence of life in the California State Prison for first degree murder and the attempted murder of Mr. Salisbury, who was also at the trial, and sat in a wheelchair.
The court granted custody to my mother’s parents, who are retired and have a one-story house on Chicory Street. My grandmother was the one who said we could go back to school. I don’t know how I feel about a new school. I’ve also never been in a different school than Carter, so I’m a little nervous for him. It’s almost midnight and I’ve been writing since morning with only breaks for lunch and dinner. I know that I’ve left out some important details, but this is what my memory has recalled today, so it will have to do.
A fine example of my endowment, I must say. It is definitely the work of someone far ahead of his peers. I think my elementary school teachers were jealous of my prowess. When did educators become interrogators? Kids in my class were eating erasers and I was being chastised for correcting the teacher’s grammar. For god’s sake, I had just been through something more traumatic than most people experience in their lifetime and she had the audacity to accuse me of plagiarism. I was too concerned with doing what was right to incriminate myself like that. I can admit now that I was a self-aggrandizing boy, a haughty child. But can you blame me? Children of that age don’t know humility. They know show-and-tell. I was telling you that I could write in complete sentences by exhibiting a subject (I), verb (wrote), and direct object (the assignment). And what do argumentative nerds get? They get taunted by the popular students and occasionally smacked by their elders. I can thank my grandfather for that. He slapped me out of love, whereas my father was just a deadbeat. My grandfather gave the teachers permission to slap the back of my teeth-sucking head if I was out of line. They had to remind him that corporal punishment wasn’t used in the classroom anymore. Traditional techniques that would adjust one’s attitude had been reformed and replaced by Behavior Modification and Positive Reinforcement and other refined approaches from the era of self-esteem psychobabble. My grandfather assured them that this was not the case at home, and I seconded his motion. In dredging up the past, it’s so easy to recall the painful moments, especially when they came with such regularity.
I need a back brace or I’ll risk a herniated disc. Exercise always was my weakness. There were award ceremonies at my school for the Presidential Fitness Award (endorsed by Arnold Schwarzenegger) yet I can’t ever remember being honored for my scholastic achievements. Thank you, George Bush. I’m glad you were able to reinforce the distorted values our great nation places on athletics. Excuse me for ranting, I must get back to work. There are boxes on top of boxes in this place. An old refrigerator that is too heavy to move sits in the corner. I’m afraid to open it because I have a feeling there may be a radioactive eggplant or a colony of yeast that has been incubating since the last supper.
In sifting through the remains of a warm and thoughtfully preserved basement-garage you will readily rediscover treasures that you thought were lost before the turn of the millennium. A spring-loaded He-Man action figure, family portraits from Olan Mills, yearbooks with loopy autographs, virtually anything can survive the shuffling entropy of many years of habitation. Why do we store our memories in crates and corrugated boxes that we will only chance upon in circumstances such as these? I had no intention of finding a complete set of 1987 Donruss baseball cards, yet here they are. And what do I do with them now? Do I sell them, as I had planned to when their value inflated to some unknown and arbitrary price? I’ll put them aside for now. I will file them under “objects that have no practical value yet fetch considerable sums at trade conventions.” Although, I am afraid that the thousands of dollars my grandparents invested in these collectibles will ultimately be abandoned at the estate sale. My childhood dream of selling such prized commodities for top dollar, as advertised by Beckett Monthly, will forever be dashed. I used to believe that one day in my distant adulthood I would walk into a hobby store, unload, and reap a fortune. My father told me to stand my ground, so I envisioned our negotiations as though I were bartering for a rug at a Moroccan bazaar. He said I should reject their offer if they lowballed me, then make them grovel. But what did he know? Still, his words seeped into my unconscious. I listened to everything, heard more than I was supposed to, and learned at a phenomenal rate. I was beyond retention at an early age, comprehending systems that were easier to explain with algebraic notation. When my father told me how to sell I took it as fact, and would mimic every word and intonation. I realized early that socialization and mathematics were quite discrete concepts. One I had mastered and the other was a work in progress. I tried acting in the manner of adults before grasping that I was not an adult.
That transition came gradually, amidst the turmoil of my family’s dissolution. Carter took my grandmother’s varicose hand and I walked on the other side of her with my hands digging in the trenches of my pockets as we descended the courthouse steps. It was our choice not to talk to him on the day of his sentence. I furtively glanced over my shoulder as we walked between the aisles of mahogany pews. He, in his orange scrubs, watched us as we left, and I could see the pity in his eyes. But he was a common criminal. My grandparents appealed to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to have my father transferred upstate and the petition was granted. In a surprising case of bureaucratic efficiency and humanity they sent him to San Quentin where he would keep long company with real convicts. Lifers. He would have plenty of time to become expert at whittling, shooting-the-moon, weightlifting. After that lingering glimpse in the courthouse neither of us saw him again.
– – –
In the days and then weeks between the arrival in Palm Desert and our return to school, my grandmother Alberta—affectionately known as Nana—nurtured us and found novel ways to pass the grueling days. In aging, I guess you learn how to fill the vacancies. She drove me to the public library so I could continue stuffing myself with facts and spoiled us with banana splits from Coolbert’s, an ice cream franchise that was owned by a retired lineman nicknamed The Lumberjack (for apparent reasons). She practically pushed us out the door to splash around with all the unfamiliar swimmers and sunbathers at the recreation center’s pool. With grandmotherly verbiage and conviction she said, and I quote, “a little freedom never hurt anyone.” I knew that could not possibly be true, but I kept my mouth shut. It was the beginning of a transformative period that some call puberty. Not to cheapen Dickens, but it was mostly the worst of times. I had read about it in letter H of the encyclopedia: Human Development. Of course, my entrée into adolescence coincided with a catastrophic life event, which greatly complicated aspects of my psychosocial growth. I will give you an example.
I was urged by the school counselor to recreate my family with colored pencils. In the week after I started at the new school, the teacher thought it necessary to make a referral to the counseling office. The hallway walls were jack-o’-lantern orange and the industrial-grade carpet was in dire need of steam cleaning. In contrast, the counselor’s office was brightly painted, well-lit, and inviting. It was completely devoid of the depressing air that emanated from the rest of the school’s dismal décor. It was a memorable morning and I can recall our first conversation almost verbatim.
“Good morning, Eliot. I’m glad you came,” the counselor said.
“The teacher told me to come and see you,” I replied.
“Yes, I know. My name is Ms. Allen.”
“Hello, Ms. Allen. Can you tell me why I’m here?”
“Your teacher thought it would be a good idea for you to come and talk to me. I understand you’re new at the school and you’ve been through a lot lately.”
“Are you referring to the fact that my father killed my mother?”
“Well, yes, partly.”
“Then you are correct, although I think you’re understating the gravity of my situation.”
“You are a precocious one. I don’t believe I’ve met a child your age with such a strong vocabulary.”
“I’m probably smarter than you are, actually. I hope that doesn’t hurt your feelings.”
“I don’t doubt that you are. And you can speak freely here. Whatever you feel like saying is fine. Everything you say in this room will stay between you and I.”
“What was that?”
“You said, ‘everything you say in this room will stay between you and I.’ You should have ended the sentence with ‘you and me.’”
“Thank you for noticing. I stand corrected.”
“It’s okay, many people make that mistake.”
“Well, now that we’re done with the grammar lesson, why don’t you tell me about yourself? What sorts of activities do you enjoy?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m curious and I want to get to know you better.”
“I like to read. And I used to help my mother cook. I’m an amateur astronomer.”
Ms. Allen scooted forward in the chair and interjected, “I also enjoy stargazing. What’s your favorite constellation?”
“I especially like Hercules and Perseus,” I glowed, hearing her take interest.
“Those are both difficult to spy. You must have a very keen eye.”
“I have twenty-twenty vision, and an excellent telescope.” I paused and cleared my throat. “Ms. Allen?”
“You don’t have to talk to me like an 11-year-old.” She looked at me quizzically. “I would prefer to be spoken to like an adult.”
Smoothing out the creases in her knee-length skirt, she gathered her thoughts and then spoke to me with an even tone.
“I understand. I know you’re extremely intelligent, but I also know that you’re not an adult. Would you agree?” I sensed that she was being careful with her words, and tender. Though she was only a few years out of social work school, she was adept.
“Yes, that is true.”
“While I agree that you are incredibly brainy, I can’t treat you like an adult, because you’re still a child. However, I can make a compromise. Would you like to hear it?”
I thought about it for a moment. When I was that age, and sometimes to this day, I considered responses while turning my head and digging my chin into my clavicle. “Yes, I would.”
“I will try my best to talk to you in a tone that does not belittle your intelligence. In return, I would hope that you come and talk to me when you’re feeling lonely, confused or just want to talk.”
“I accept your proposition.” We shook hands—hers ringed and fragile, mine stubby and pink.
“Great! Now, I have an exercise for you.” She reached behind her desk and withdrew art supplies and construction paper. “I want you to draw me a picture of your family. There are no rules other than to show me what your family looks like.”
I splayed the utensils she had given me to choose from and selected the slender colored pencils instead of the markers or crayons.
“Ms. Allen, I’m not a very talented artist. I prefer theater and photography.”
“That’s good for me to know. I have some other projects that we can work on together in the future. But I would like to start with drawing. Next time you can select the activity. Can we agree on that?”
“Okay, but remember that this is my weak point. Don’t expect a Rembrandt.”
“I promise I won’t judge the quality. I’m more interested in how you depict your family.”
I was taken with her tenderness. The protest was only to protect my fractured ego. I accepted the gentle assurance that she would withhold the harsh criticism. Then I went about sketching my family. On the left side of the paper, turned lengthwise, the Gangly Brothers stand next to my grandmother, who has her arm around us. She is beside my grandfather whose arms are folded, because he was constantly sullen. In the drawing we’re outside of my grandparents’ house, on the front lawn. The grass is a lime green line that stretches across the lower third of the paper. We aren’t exactly stick figures as I may have implied. Our frames have the semblance of a body without the depth. And all our legs and feet are, for the most part, forked outward. Evidently I drew our caricatures with some sort of genetic malformation that forced us to stand bow-legged, resembling a family of penguins. Carter stands furthest to the left, his arms partially akimbo. He is the little teapot, I guess. Following the lime green line to the right of the paper is my mother’s headstone. I should have drawn flowers to give it a warmer feel (although it must be warm outside, as there are no clouds and a blazing sun is creeping into the corner of the page. Yes, the picture is chock full of kid-art clichés. And yes, I was and still am a feeble artist, though Carter can draw quite well. On the far right is my father, grimacing behind the bars of a jail cell, which is clearly not drawn to scale. There is liberal spacing between my father and the headstone, and if I could have drawn him off the page, I would have. But that would have been an inaccurate depiction of my family, and I was exacting to a fault.
“Have you finished your drawing?” she asked.
“Almost,” I answered, still shading the trees.
“It’s nearly lunchtime and you’ve got to get back to class. Do you want to finish the drawing at home and tell me about it next week?”
“If I must,” I sighed, though I was secretly grateful.
“Then I will see you next Wednesday, same time.” She wrote the appointment in her book and escorted me out of the office.
Being there was a reprieve from the stultified classroom. I would meander afterwards, scuffling along the hallway ramps until one of the other teachers caught me and led me back. I expected to be welcomed with a rash of abuses from the fat, flat-headed Billys and Brads of the middle school world. The borderline cases paraded around school with minimal oversight. I found refuge with my books in a supply closet and became friendly with Kurt the custodian who smelled of turpentine and coughed compulsively. My initiation at the school, as I unfortunately recall, was miserable. And repeated requests to educate myself via the public library’s catalog were vetoed unconditionally. I had no friends and Carter was elsewhere, a recurring theme I suppose. I walked a dry and barren mile under the scorching afternoon sun to reach the inverted driveway. The slant lent the yard its only shade. I often rested there, on the cement with my back against the garage door, reading bar-coded books. I needed the relief, because after my mother’s death, coming home would always be a letdown.