I believe in doctors the way Mom believes in Jesus. I believe in chivalry and affronted dignity as much as Jack seems not to anymore. I believe in a great many things, but I do not believe in umbrellas. They do not exist to me, and I cannot fathom ever assenting to their existence. In that way, I suppose, umbrellas are like stepmothers. They are something for other people, not me. Not. Me.
The day I accept the existence of That Woman is the day I spit in my mother’s face and tell her Jack was right. Then she will be Candy and he will be Daddy and…No, I can’t ever see that –
I have one mother. One brother. One grandfather. Three grandmothers. Two aunts. Two uncles. I lost my father to insanity last June. He was fine in January. Just fine. Maybe lonely. But he is the one that left and moved upstairs and across the hall from the apartment we all lived in when he ran off to storm the desert in ninety-one. Fuck small towns.
Everywhere—fucking everywhere—there is a memory hiding. At the end of this hallway and out the window I can see the place we first moved to when we came to Richmond in ninety. It is a parking lot now, and the cemetery is closer, but it smells the same as always. Behind me and up the hill is my middle school. From the roof, you can see my high school. Across the street is where I spent the latter part of elementary, drawing pictures of Hitler for book reports on Mein Kampf and feeling some darkly perverse pleasure from scrawling the forbidden swastika. As I try to draw it now the thrill is gone. Nothing. I hollowed out that lode a long time ago.
From Jack’s vacant window you can see brick apartments filled with poor, young newlyweds and broke college students housing five people in a two-bedroom. I remember when they poured those foundations.
Like all children, I was inexplicably drawn to construction sites. We played for hours in the unborn basements and dry-wall labyrinths. We rode boogie boards down Dirt Hill and flung rocks at our enemies from atop Rock Hill. I saved my brother’s bike when the foundation’s water broke and it filled up with amniotic quicksand. Not too far from there, he threw sand in my face. Right around there, that place where I screamed and clutched my eyes, is where we had our first fight.
My brother and I were friends with those boys, and I cannot even remember what started the argument. I took the older boy, and he took his little brother. I think we threw empty cans of Squirt and stones and any other thing we could find. Our bunkers were cinderblocks and mounds of trash. His little brother broke the rules with a broken bottle, and I carried my boy, bleeding from his leg, into the apartment downstairs and across the hall from where Jack moved in and out.
That same apartment that he walked home to across those long winter miles that separated the apartment complex from the rubber plant. We only had one car and he indulged our disdain for riding the bus. Our school wasn’t too far away then, on his way to work. The work that made him a black man, back then. The carbon fused to him like tar that took the molten core of the earth itself to remove. He smelled of sulfur. Of sulfur and those other toxic chemicals he showed me one summer’s day as we walked through the empty factory back to our little garden. We grew carrots the thickness of pencil lead, but so sweet. I cannot remember now if it was impatience or poor soil.
That same summer I rode on his back as he crawled along the bottom of the community pool. I was always jealous of his eyes. They say I have his eyes, but I cannot spot sand dollars at the bottom of the gulf. His were impervious to saltwater and I never saw any come either way. And now I am flying into the air, squealing, as he launches himself up and out of the water. He is laughing as I come down in an improvised cannonball. We do it again and again until it hurts to move.
But the air coiling down my neck reminds me it’s not summer and the coffee steaming in front of me lets me know I’m not a little boy anymore. The wind whispers treachery. Listen, it says, that is childhood awe and wonderment. I am real. You can feel me in your bones. Those memories are nothing but fancy. And I’m inclined to agree. But Freddy comes and sings with Bowie and they beseech me to love again and I grit my teeth to stave off the quaking. I press the button and The Mars Volta shut up that bleeding heart. I am their suicide. I am the man with those sixth-sense scars defecting from his fatherland. Their lake is metaphorical mind and this pencil is the dredger –
Two weeks ago there was an antiseptic wind deviling its way around the emergency waiting room. I was there with my stooped girlfriend, praying for a miracle, and suddenly I was five again being protected against the other children. I was baptized with needles. My arm aches now as it did then in sympathetic memory and my hindbrain keeps reeling back more and more.
There is my father clutching his arm, blood flowing so redly. You would never know I was not there. He was working at dividing up those black expanses when he tore his flesh open with a knife that caught on a strip of rubber before bounding into his arm. So deep. So many stitches. He has destroyed the nerves in both of his hands. When it came to drawing baths, they were always too red. He did not know and we forgave him.
He is there again for breathing too much smoke while he tried to put out a brush fire beside the cave we wintered in during the ice storm of ninety-four.
He is there again for nicotine poisoning from cutting too much tobacco and sweating too goddamned hard, trying to make ends meet so we could stay another month, another week…so we could live another day in that rusty old farmhouse full of ghosts and skunk and old age.
I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to make it all go away, but they stay there, hovering just inside the realm of sanity, forcing me to look again and again and forcing me to look again and again and the record is broken. There is dust on the needle. I have never seen him bleed.
I have seen him leave before. I have seen him pack up his things and move away from the family he founded back in nineteen and eighty-one. I have seen him sitting alone in a dank basement in a dank chair smoking dank cigars and, I can only assume, wondering what went awry in his plan. Nobody grows up wanting to work in a factory and barely get by on debt and beholding. Nobody grows up wanting to leave their wife of twenty-three years and their children of twenty and eighteen.
Nobody grows up expecting to want for his father, either. And here is similarity. Grandpa Jim left home when Jack was younger than I am now by about eight years or so. Left him with his mother and sister. Jack grew up in spite of Jim. Jack grew up to spite Jim. They made nice, before he died, and if Jack doesn’t stop it sometime soon he’ll be dead at fifty-five too. He’ll be dead and there won’t be anymore Disneylands and Seaworlds for grandchildren to excitedly sleep away their unremembered youths to.
When Jim left home, he married Dora-call-me-Dodie. When Jack left home, he married Patricia-call-me-Trish. Dodie sends me birthday cards. Patricia sends me into fits. It could be because she does not exist. Honestly, who believes in stepmothers at twenty-one?
Back when I was seven and you were blowing holes in the desert with your Confederated tanks I walked around the Dirt Hill and sang patriotic songs that made me cry and wish that you were home. The Boy ran away from home and tried to walk to Saudi Arabia. We prayed for you. We cried for you. We hurt for you.
I remember the day I took off school for an improvised fieldtrip with you. We walked around the Gorge and took pictures, taking in the serenity of the absence of civilized life. We ate undercooked black beans and rice under the canopy of a rock overhang. We pissed off cliffs. Those virtues, those lessons of Walden, of grassy leaves, all these you instilled in me. We talked at length about school, and work, and our plans for the future. But mostly we enjoyed one another in the space of four hours of light trail and quiet solitude. That is how it has always been. It is always that one day in the heat of May, playing hooky.
You took me fishing when I was four. I left the day-care and you left guarding La Grange, and we went and bought some mealworms. I cannot remember much, but I know it was chilly. The water, it looked like it went on forever and ever and threatened to swallow me up if I were to trip. We didn’t catch fish. We gave up and caught a duck instead, whiling away those worms from the bait shop that I’m not sure even exists anymore. I guess it turned into a stepmother too.
We have had gardens, you and I. We ate fresh peas and puttered around in upturned earth, exploring the intricacies of halved earthworms and stinging wasps. We have grown watermelons and cucumbers. We have grown squash, peppers, and potatoes that people would not leave Ireland for. We have grown an awful lot of things, Jack. We have grown apart.
The last time I really talked to Jack, I mean really let those feelings pour out in a concussive blast of honesty and fear, was the day I learned he was remarrying. I hadn’t been in this apartment a month and he hadn’t been in his for seven, when the news was broken to the remnants of this family by a shared friend. He wasn’t man enough to tell me himself, face to face. I had to find out from the rumor mill he so disdained on those evenings when he talked of work.
I bought a card, wasted twenty dollars, and called him and proceeded to scream for a good hour. And he didn’t do anything. I threw every insult, every hateful thing I could think of at him. I offered him compromises. I’m not saying don’t marry her. I’m saying don’t marry her right now. But that man gives out rings like a Geat.
You’re a son of a bitch. I screamed at him. You’re a son of a bitch. No one that was raised right would act like this. I attacked his mother. My grandmother. He took it like a Methodist-cum-Buddhist. His voice never cracked while mine burst apart at the seams and spilled forth months of pent-up anger and post-partum depression in the compressed space of a mouthpiece. And Jack just stood there on the other line, silent. His last words to me were “I love you.” I replied in kind and hung up. And then I raged and screamed and cried. But my passions burn hot and fierce, and then stop altogether. So for now seething gets me by. Seething and the knowledge that I am never going to have a Cat’s-in-the-cradle moment.
So help me, you long-abandoned gods. So help me.
And I’m done here, staring at this phone when suddenly the miles collapse in on themselves and he is so near…so near and close and locked up in memory…so near that I can smell his unwashed hair, his unkempt beard, those menthols That damn Woman smokes. All I have to do is call. All I have to do is call. I turn up the music.
I have wasted hundreds of pounds on displaced Russian whores. I have lied to lovers. I have plagiarized papers and I have cheated on exams. I am a terrible person. I am a horrible person. But I have never, and will never, be more than a Half-Jack.