“Wait for Me” by Katey Schultz
In “Wait for Me,” a finalist for the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in fiction, Katey Schultz gives us a sensitive narrator, hurt by a rupture in his family, and a bullying neighbor girl, whose own pain is harder to see. The importance of family, and the ways in which people we think we know sometimes act in startling ways are at the center of the story. Schultz writes about the inspiration for “Wait for Me” and its long genesis in her craft essay “When I Pulled Over on the Side of the Road.”
WAIT FOR ME
by Katey Schultz
Every day, I stepped off the school bus on Flat Run Road, and every day, on the other side of the fence, Judy Puckett sat astride a four-wheeler, gunning the engine. “Sarvis Morton, you’re dumber than a dummy!” she’d shout, then tear into the pasture, over the hill and through the coal chute. We lived in Pentress, seventeen miles from Morgantown, and even with the sock factory and a post office with Wi-Fi, Pentress was easy to miss. But Judy never missed the sad exhale of the school bus, or me, abandoned along the roadside after it wheeled away.
I had about fifteen seconds between insults while Judy took the four-wheeler through obstacles. I learned to walk fast. On a good day, I could be out of earshot after just four or five of her assaults. But sometimes the wind slowed me down. Or mud. The ditch along Flat Run Road was steep, and I’d fallen in once.
“Sarvis Morton, your brother’s a retard and so’re you!”
“Sarvis Morton, if you had another brain, it’d be lonely!”
I’d have settled for giving her a nasty look, but she already had one—pug nose that flared when she yelled, voice pitched like a pack of coyotes. Dirty brown hair like bitterroot vines slapping across her face, and a neon tube top paired with whatever jeans her older sisters had worn the year before. I couldn’t cross the road because Old Man Mooney’s pit bull lived on the other side. It doesn’t take being on honor roll to know a chain only puts the inevitable on hold. When a pit wants something, it’ll get it. If that means breaking a chain or breaking skin, that’s what it means.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” I’d shout back. “Earth is full. Go home!”
But rain, scalding sunshine, sideways wind—Judy came at me. She never could have gotten to me—not with that ten-foot pole fence between us, barbed wire rimming the top. Still, I felt more intimidated by her than by the punks at school. The way her biceps flexed when she steered, rounded and limber arms framing her rib-thin torso. The neon tube top unnerved me. Like she couldn’t be bothered to get dressed all the way, or like nobody she lived with cared. I guess that’s what it came down to. Nobody did care. Not as far as I could tell.
“Sarvis Morton. . . .”
“Sarvis Morton. . . .”
As the crow flies, my house wasn’t far from a wildlife management area. We just called it “the lake,” because that was the only reason anyone would ever go. The foothills boasted hundreds of acres of mixed hardwood, but all I’d ever seen of West Virginia was trees or the tops of mountains where trees used to live. More trees didn’t particularly excite me. A lake, however, was something special. Flush or poor—Morgantown or Pentress—everybody loved a good swim in summertime. Even Judy Puckett.
Judy had been giving me hell ever since I’d seen her at the lake, her older sisters ripping her tube top off and laughing. They had her outnumbered at the end of a dock that jutted into a deep, narrow finger of the water. I watched from the opposite shore just twenty feet away. The tube top came off fast—the tallest sister holding Judy in a full nelson while another pulled it down her waist and past her knees, throwing it into the water like a piece of trash. If that had been me, I’d have jumped into the water as soon as I got free. But when the tall one released her, Judy turned around and knuckle-punched her in the throat. The other sister got worked up then, and two more sisters came dashing down the dock, strutting in their bikinis and raising their fists, and it was only then—outnumbered by her own flesh and blood—that Judy finally got the idea to run.
Her tube top bobbed on the surface of the water, a bright pink stain against the dark green lake. Judy dove off the dock, her sisters punching the air and mocking her escape. Judy’s strokes triggered ripples across the lake, propelling her top to my side of the shore.
“I can throw it back to you,” I said, snatching it from my feet at the water’s edge.
“Get your hands off my clothes,” she shouted, a little breathless.
I set the top down on shore and backed away. I still hadn’t seen a real woman’s breasts up close, but Judy wasn’t grown, and besides, with her it was never like that. I’d watched my twin brother, Jimmy—autistic, whip-smart and sad-eyed—be misunderstood by everyone outside our immediate family for most of his life. I knew how hurt-turned-into-hatred could go.
I stepped back and let the woods swallow me. Judy reached for her tube top.
In the forest, the air turned syrupy, clinging. The last time Jimmy and I had been here, it took us forever to bushwhack over the rise, back to our property. But this time, Mom and Dad had ramped up their focus on Jimmy’s autism, and he was at some science sleepaway camp in DC. They had told me Jimmy was “special smart,” as if I hadn’t already figured that out. What they were really saying was that I—his twin brother, genetically the same yet somehow not—was only normal smart.
Shouldering my way through the bushes on the walk home, I missed Jimmy’s endless chatter—pointing out ginseng, meadow rue, cohosh. Reminding me that the bright red newts were technically called efts. That they’d already lost their gills in order to stay on land for up to four years in that form. He’d have talked about state law, too, quoting requirements for legal ginseng harvesting and explaining why regulation had been required in the first place. But if I’d asked him to play jungle with me, seeing how long we could wrangle through the rhodis without letting our feet touch the ground, or if I’d asked him to race me to the top of the rise—he would have given me that confused-kitten look. The one that meant he wasn’t sure whether to tuck in his claws or leave them out. For every emotion Jimmy couldn’t seem to express, he had twenty facts ranging from the circumference of the moon to the extraction process for pure quartz. Still, that he chose me to share with, more than anyone else in our lives, was a closeness I’d defended for years, distracting bullies in the hallways and shielding him from insults at the expense of my own social standing.
It was Jimmy, after all, who’d told me the meaning of my own name. A sarvisberry tree; mundane enough. But in these hills, everyone knew the blooming of the sarvis in early spring meant the ground had finally thawed enough to bury your winter’s dead. Horse, cattle, human. In the old days, nobody got laid six feet under during an Appalachian winter. You had to wait for me to do that. You had to wait till I bloomed.
Then one day, about two months into seventh grade, Judy wasn’t waiting for me. I stepped off the school bus, stealing myself for her litany, and after the bus’s diesel cough faded into the distance, the silence hit me hard. My family’s brick house sat a mile ahead at the end of Fry Pan Road. Behind me, the two-lane state highway ran a ribbon all the way to the interstate outside Morgantown, where Jimmy went to private school. That year was our first school year apart, and the change had come with a sense of grief I still couldn’t name. Judy’s threats had been a nuisance, no doubt. But without Jimmy next to me, and without Judy’s rage holding up the sky, the feeling of that much hillside, that much open space, reminded me of the first time Mom and Dad took Jimmy in for testing. We’d never been apart for that long, and even though it was only a few nights and we couldn’t have been much more than three years old, I felt unmoored without my twin, sleeping in a strange guest room at one of Dad’s colleagues’ houses, listening as they clanged around in the kitchen and made food I didn’t like.
There’d be many more tests for Jimmy, and even more time apart for the two of us, but that first time—the scary, silent, spaciousness of it—marked me. Mom, Dad, and Jimmy picked me up a few days later, and we drove home in our Volvo station wagon like normal. From my car seat, I saw Dad’s knuckles wrapped around the black, foamy steering wheel. I could smell Mom’s perfume—something like tulips and mulch that kept spring alive whenever she entered the room. Her hand rested on Dad’s leg, and she turned sideways to watch Jimmy as he slept beside me in the adjacent car seat.
“Momma,” I remember saying. “Tell.”
She must have thought I wanted to hear my favorite story at the time—Scuffy the Tugboat, which she’d nearly memorized—but I was trying to ask her what had happened, why they’d left me.
“I’m too tired, sweetie. We’ll read it when we get home. Can we just rest a bit?” Her voice sounded like cotton: warm and pilled. I missed it already, in a way I can only describe as nostalgia for something that hasn’t abandoned you completely yet. “Everything’s all right,” she said, then turned back in her seat and closed her eyes. But nothing felt all right to me. My parents and Jimmy had endured something, and when they picked me up, I immediately sensed that they’d been welded together anew. I spent the next ten years trying to find a way into that formation. Surely, if I stood up for Jimmy, they’d see I was doing my part—doing more, I believed, than any doctor could ever do.
I remembered doing that the last day of sixth grade, when Terry, the junior wrestling-team captain who’d been after Jimmy all year long had ambushed us after school before we got on the bus.
“Hey, knucklehead,” he’d said, pushing Jimmy from behind so that he tripped off the curb and ran into the side of the idling bus.
Tears came to Jimmy’s eyes immediately, and he began muttering to himself, pulling at his own hair. I’d fooled Terry before, getting him to shove me around instead of Jimmy—we truly looked identical—but he’d gotten wiser and knew our different hats and backpacks.
I approached from behind. “Back off, Terry,” I’d said, jerking his coat down his shoulders to tangle his arms. Terry flicked his coat off the rest of the way, faster than a fly lifts from a turd, and his punch came next. I dodged, stumbling up the knee-high steps onto the bus. The driver closed the doors.
“Late again, Sarvis,” he said. “Git in yer seat.”
The bus lurched forward, leaving Jimmy behind, and the driver turned his attention to a pair of eighth graders in the back row who were already making out. “Git a room!” he’d shouted. It would be years before I realized what that meant. But at the time, none of this registered because during those first fat seconds as the driver pulled down the straightaway and headed toward the highway, I couldn’t speak. I felt my limbs go numb. My heart squeezed into my throat. I could see Terry slugging Jimmy for a long time. First across the eye, then in the jaw. Jimmy slumped, turtle-shelled, clutching his backpack. Then Terry had struck the back of Jimmy’s ribs, the side of his head.
I don’t believe in melodrama. But believe me when I say I felt every blow, endured every cut. And though I’d shouted and begged the driver to turn around, my voice was only buried by those around me, jeering at my tears. After a few miles, I wasn’t crying for Jimmy anymore. I was crying for myself.
Walking along Flat Run Road that day, almost a full year later, Judy nowhere in sight, I tried to breathe into the quiet, calming my nerves. I longed to smell Mom’s perfume, hear the heavy rumble of our Volvo. But the hillsides were abandoned, the road an echo of failures.
To my right, the Pucketts’ property sat piled with trash and mounds of old tires, empty jugs, Styrofoam coolers, and yard debris. Across the street, Mooney’s pit bull lay chained at the base of a legacy oak, the kind we always talked about during West Virginia History Month in school. Mooney’s tree was one of the few left in the state, according to surveyors, and Pentress folks liked to joke that the fortune he’d made raising pit bulls wrong was buried so deep beneath that oak that even the state police could never get to it. I marveled at the pit’s thick, dirty-white shoulders. Its pink-rimmed eyes looked unnaturally tender, given the animal’s strength. A wide, dark brown patch of fur spread across one side of the dog’s ribcage and under its belly. Matching brown marked each paw, and there, as if the creature had an extra pair of feet, I saw Judy’s mud-coated sneakers poking from around the other side of the tree.
There are stories about perfectly well-behaved pit bulls who one day start attacking strangers. Jawing into a toddler’s guts. Popping finger joints like sticks. But what everyone remembers are the pits who turn against their owners. I couldn’t stop thinking about Judy’s sisters that way, how Judy had had to run from them. When I had asked Mom about the Pucketts not too many days after the tube-top incident, it occurred to me that the fence did more than keep people out. It kept the Puckett girls locked in.
“Maybe I should interview Bud for my research,” Dad had joked, referring to Judy’s father. Bud and Dad had worked together at the sock factory one summer during high school, and while Bud had faded into obscurity, Dad went on to chair the psychology department at West Virginia University, starting in 2001. He’d been researching what he called “the torture mindset” ever since.
“Judy?” I called. The space around me shrunk, vacuum sealed. “Hey, Judy, are you OK?” I pictured the worst—limbs akimbo, clothing torn—and even after I saw her unharmed, I couldn’t shake the gruesome image from my mind.
“He’s not all that bad,” she hollered.
I crossed the gravel road and stood at the edge of Mooney’s yard, fifteen feet from the tree, clear of the chain’s reach. “What’s his name?” I asked.
“Collar says Peanut Butter,” she said, then came around the tree and sat down in the dirt with her bare arm right next to the pit’s thick, flappy jaw.
“Think I can’t read?”
“Not the name. The dog. Are you’re sure he’s not all that bad? He’s always chained. There’s probably a reason. Judy, what’re you doing over here?”
“I ran away from home, dummy. What does it look like?”
I looked around and saw a small suitcase—clunky, pastel blue, something from the ’60s my mom would have said was only good for storing old linens. Next to it lay a plastic bag that I assumed held some food.
“Does anyone know you’re gone yet?”
She rolled her eyes, which was enough of an answer. I wasn’t sure what to do next; at first I thought she might try to pick a fight. I didn’t want one, but I would hit a girl if I had to.
The quiet around us filled with tiny sounds: the wet, hollow tock of Peanut Butter opening and closing his jaw as he shifted his head from one paw to the other; the small flocks of chickadee and titmouse flitting through oak branches above our heads; every few minutes, a jet plane. Eventually, I realized how silly it was to think Judy was trying to hurt me. Or Peanut Butter, for that matter.
“You could come over,” I finally said.
“I mean, you could hide at my house for a few hours. It’s boring, but if you just sit here, your sisters are going to find you.”
Judy squinted. She looked ready to punch me for talking about her sisters. Peanut Butter sighed and moved his head from one paw to the other again, and that seemed to bring her back. She picked up her suitcase and started walking down the road toward my house. It was the first time I’d seen her move with any sense of ease, and I couldn’t help but notice the determination. Her gray T-shirt was dirty, set crooked around her neck. Her jean cutoffs looked stained, too, one of the pockets flapping lightly at her backside with each step. But she walked like she was born in charge, not at all like someone who’d been bullied on the docks. I tugged on the straps of my backpack and kicked up a slow jog to catch up.
“You got any good food?” she asked.
“Goldfish,” I said. “Some other stuff, maybe.”
I stole a glance into the plastic bag she carried and saw a pair of cowgirl boots, several sizes too big. “Those yours?”
“What do you think?” she said, and in that moment, I knew I’d be on her side.
I unlocked our back door and walked into the house. My parents wouldn’t be home until after dark. I wondered what Judy might have heard about us. As far as I could tell, the prevailing rumor was that we were rich; Dad had tenure, after all. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Jimmy’s schooling was covered by scholarships. I’d figured out that much by watching the mail and snooping through awards paperwork on Mom’s desk. Most of our money went to Mom’s causes—she wasn’t from West Virginia but loved it, I sometimes thought even more than Dad. And if the money they earned wasn’t covering her passions, it went to Dad’s research during drought years when grants didn’t come through.
Judy asked if she was supposed to take off her shoes. I almost laughed. What was there to protect? Drab tiles in the kitchen. Dark hardwood floors beyond that, in the living room. A worn rope rug. The couch I’d known my entire life.
“No,” I said. “It’s no problem.”
She crossed the threshold and followed me into the kitchen. She set her suitcase and bag by the door.
“Here,” I said, angling for the cupboard of snacks.
She tore into a bag of Goldfish, and fake-cheese smell filled the space between us. I left her in the kitchen, which was mostly open to the rest of the house, and flopped onto the faded beige recliner. A row of cupboards hung between us, mounted to the ceiling, so that all I could see was Judy’s hand dipping in and out of the Goldfish bag at about waist-level. I grabbed the stereo remote and pressed a few buttons. Mom and Dad kept things pretty low-tech, but music was one area where they didn’t deprive themselves. Ad-free Pandora streamed Johnny Cash, my fave station. “I Walk the Line,” ballooned into the living room. I was supposed to be doing math homework, but Cash’s telltale voice hit me: a haunting comfort. It was an obsession I’d never thought I would share with the likes of Judy.
“Got a bathroom?” she asked. I nodded toward the hallway. “Light’s behind the door.”
She crossed the living room and disappeared into the dark hallway. I heard the door click. I wanted desperately to know what was inside her suitcase, but I didn’t dare peek. When Judy returned, her baggy cotton T-shirt was tucked into her cutoffs. She had splashed water on her face, I could tell, and it occurred to me then that the Pucketts might not have running water in their home. Their yard featured several outhouses, most of them toppling. Old. That was all I could see from the road. Their property extended much farther, a stretch of West Virginia hills I knew I’d never set foot on. Cash rambled on about watching his heart and keeping his eyes wide open.
Judy sat cross-legged on the couch. “Your daddy’s famous, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“I heard him once. On the radio. It was for a 9/11 anniversary. The ten-year, I think. Something about torture.”
“Oh. That.” I turned the music down a little. If Judy liked Cash, I couldn’t tell. Without Jimmy around, it hadn’t taken long for the stillness of our house to give me the creeps. Music helped. “No, not famous. I mean—maybe here, like, in our state. But famous isn’t the right word. He and Mom just do their thing, but they’re kind of intense about it. That’s probably why people remember them, to be honest.”
“But I heard him,” she said. “Got any more food?”
I scavenged a Dipps bar and an apple, which she took without thanks. What Judy had heard must have been the interview Dad had done on the low-fi station broadcast out of Morgantown—hardly anything that would make someone famous—but she was, in fact, referring to the little amount of PR he got the year his big grant came through. The one that would pay him and a small team to research the “ticking bomb” problem for five years. I remembered it because when the funding ran out, Dad didn’t have anything new to say. His hypothesis was that even the most virtuous people would eventually crack, endorsing torture if given a concrete set of contextual circumstances. Real life had already proven his thesis, though—no research or funding required—and whatever blip he might have made in the social sciences only came in the form of a joke. History, it turned out, had also already proven the thesis, rendering any of Dad’s pleas for future funding unsuccessful.
“What about your dad?” I asked.
She bit into the apple and shifted on the couch. “What about him?”
“I guess our dads used to work together. Back in high school.”
“I know that.”
“So is he why you’re here? I mean, is he why you packed that suitcase?”
Judy’s lips flattened into a hyphen. “I liked you a lot better about three seconds ago.”
For all the times she’d harassed me over the fence, I realized I’d never gotten a close look at her. Without the four-wheeler, her tough appearance became simple skin and bones beneath cheap, stained clothing. I might even have described her as vulnerable. I sensed I didn’t need to press any further about Bud Puckett.
“My parents’ll be home at like eight or something. They’ll bring dinner. They always do.”
“What’re you going to tell them?” She leaned into the armrest where I’d watched Mom lay newspaper clippings every weekend for as long as I could remember. While Dad studied obscure psychological theory, Mom spent hours tracking print-media coverage of her causes. Judy’s question was a good one. I had no idea how long she intended to stay, and even though we were in my house, it didn’t seem clear who was leading the way. Her presence charged the room with an energy I hadn’t felt in months. Very different than Jimmy’s vibe—which, until recently, felt like a parallel life I watched and sometimes coached or sheltered, as best I could.
“I don’t know,” I finally said. “What do you want me to tell them?”
Judy stared at her feet. Cash crooned, then blended into Pandora’s next track. Judy had taken her socks and shoes off, and I felt uncomfortable, but also curious. Somehow that simple gesture—the ease and ownership it suggested, her curved pinky toes and chipped purple toenail polish—won me over. “They don’t ask much. I’ll figure something out.”
But I didn’t have to figure anything out at all. As absent as I made my parents out to be, like Jimmy, they were also keenly observant. After a relatively normal dinner—Mom and Dad making small talk about the latest class-action mining lawsuit, me twitching my gaze from Judy’s face to the window to the pile of brussels sprouts on my plate—Judy and Mom disappeared into the den for almost an hour. When they emerged, it was clear that Judy would stay. In that efficient manner that only women, it seems, can call upon without effort, they made the sofa bed, closed the blinds, found some spare clothes, hung a wall calendar, put batteries in a small digital alarm clock found in our junk drawer, and that was that. Judy’s room was ready.
Only later, long past dark, did I hear my father speaking on the phone. The familiar B-flat hum of the refrigerator filled the house, its comfort seeming to hold the roof over our heads, as it did every night, while I tried to sleep. Dad’s voice pulled me from the bed to the edge of the darkness. A small stove light in the kitchen illuminated the threshold between the hallway and the rest of the house. I could see my father’s wide palm pressing the veneer countertop, his fingers effeminate-looking save for the hefty callus along his right middle finger, where his pencil always pressed.
“Yes, yes, I know that,” he said into the receiver. I heard him sigh, presumably listening to whoever spoke on the other end of the line. “But you see, Bud, if it’s all the same to you, and it’s all the same to us, then there’s no need to make any kind of phone call one way or the other. Laurie and I’ll get Judy set up at the school. They need anything more than a signature, they can call you. Otherwise, consider it handled. Consider it better for everyone this way.”
He spoke with a confidence I’d never associated with him before. It was different than the voice he used delivering lectures to graduate students at the university. Different, even, than the few times I’d heard him raise his voice at me or Jimmy. He spoke as though what he wanted was already so, as though the world would bend to him. Why he couldn’t ever stand up for me like that, I never knew. In that moment, all I knew was that my dad had lived entire lives before my brother and I were born, and whatever those experiences showed him then meant he had access to the tools of persuasion he needed now. He reasoned and lobbied for Bud’s blessing to house and care for Judy with a calmness and intelligence that made me long to be older, grown up. Though I assumed adulthood would be boring, that night, I could see it might have benefits. That night gave me hope.
Most people would find it hard to believe that’s how it started, but it really was that simple. Judy Puckett moved in, my parents too conscientious to turn away a girl who obviously needed help. I’m certain Dad and Bud came to peace about it; but what exactly they worked out, I never knew. Once, I heard Mom on the phone with the school district. In less than a week, she’d purchased Judy a few outfits from the co-op in Morgantown and set her up to attend school full time. The bus picked us up at the intersection of Fry Pan and the state highway. Judy always waited in Mooney’s yard, petting Peanut Butter. I waited across the road next to the ditch and the Puckett fence. For some reason, we held to an undiscussed agreement to pretend we were barely associated.
It’s hard to say what someone means to you when what you’re really missing is the wholeness you felt before everyone realized your twin was different. She’d never be my sibling. Never really be family—there was too much hardness in her for any of that. Over the years, she became a friend in a household where my parents were otherwise preoccupied, but even though we’d eventually graduate from high school in the same class, I still knew next to nothing about what her life had been like on the other side of that fence.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence Finalist recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.
“Chromie Thief” by Terrance Manning Jr.
Growing up poor is the subject of our new featured prose selection, Terrance Manning Jr.’s “Chromie Thief,” a nostalgic essay that delves into how we find strength through the things we hold on to. The essay first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of TMR.
Terrance Manning Jr.
We’d only just moved to our new house on Summit Street when Dad moved out. He left his toolbox in the basement—some faded Craftsman box filled with wrenches and crowbars. My brothers and I scrambled to claim it for ourselves, but my older brother, Chris, took it over, staking ownership by decorating it with the stickers he’d gotten from the vending machine at the movie theatre: Freak. Big Attitude. And, of course, the way he often did with my younger brother Jonny and me, proclaiming proudly, “This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.”
At the hobby shop on Lincoln Way, she pushed my treasure across the counter. “We found them,” she told the owner, this slinky-looking old man with tiny glasses. “Buried in the attic of our house.” She kept saying “we,” though it was I who had found the coins, which was frustrating. I wanted to speak up, explain to the owner that—of course—I would be the one receiving any payment. But before I could, he slid the book back.
“You got about a buck’s worth, kid. Want the money or the book?”
I chose the book.
On the way home, Mom walked slowly behind, as if more disappointed than I was. I kept fast-walking ahead and having to wait at the corners for her to catch up. Even disappointed, I still felt the excitement of filling the thing, adding to its value, stuffing a coin per year in every pre-cut slot. It was—along with my lucky, quarter-machine rabbit’s foot, my tin-toy Rusty Wallace car, and a yellow marble I’d found by the Monongahela—one of only a few items I kept in a shoebox by my bed. A box of worthless treasure that I was determined to make valuable, despite Mom’s moping.
Though later, as we got used to Dad’s absence, there was a certain lightheartedness about her. She didn’t have a driver’s license or a car; she just liked to walk. She walked all over our neighborhood, across Faucet and Lincoln Way. On sunny days, she’d come home with big overflowing Rite Aid bags weighed down to her knees. Because she, too, loved her things: her lipsticks and perfumes; her blow-dryers and sandy face soaps; her on-sale Point Break VHS and Richard Marx cassettes. She’d play music in the dining room, singing along with Marx and belting “Should’ve Known Better” and “Don’t Mean Nothing” so loud you could hear her from the front porch.
At night, she made spaghetti and we ate it for days, until the microwave couldn’t warm it without transforming the noodles into slushy piles of sauce and water. On special occasions, she made us sloppy joes, ham barbeque, macaroni and cheese. She bought groceries from the Schwan’s man—a guy who drove around the neighborhood in a military-looking truck, selling frozen food from side compartments. He’d stop by once a week, knock at the door, and my mother bought something every time—until, eventually, we ran out of money. Then, she’d close the blinds, too embarrassed to turn him away, say, “Shut your mouths,” and we’d hide behind the couch so he’d think no one was home.
I thought everyone ordered from the Schwan’s man. “Got them fish sticks from the Schwan’s man,” I’d tell my friends. “Got some French toast sticks, too!”
“French toast sticks?” they’d laugh.
The last thing left from the freezer was a triple box of frozen garlic bread. Mom called it “ice-box surprise,” and we ate every slice, stuffing more in our mouths before we were finished chewing. I was up all night puking garlic, the smell of it in the snot dripping from my nose, the taste of if it in my mouth for days—cursing my mother.
But she was twenty-nine and separated and single in a new house. On good days, she was energetic, even funny. I just never understood why she slept so much or why one day she’d be smiling, laughing, and the next screaming that we were starving little pigs. I remember how beautiful she looked happy—a transformation. She had the bluest eyes. A smile full of gray teeth from some pills she’d taken as a kid for her heart condition. I wonder now, older than she was then, what she dreamed of, if she imagined a different future or a different reality, one where she was a writer or a poet-millionaire, where she’d gone to college and never married. Though none of those dreams would have distracted her for long, not when money dwindled and food did too, and she was reminded suddenly of her sons—hungry, growing, uncontrollable boys.
She’d retreat into her bedroom, sleeping late with the blinds pulled shut, the only light the glimmering blue of her midafternoon television while she watched soap operas alone under a heat-rimmed blanket. And my brothers and I would crowd the stove, reaching our forks over the flame, burning hotdogs and salami and ham until we’d smoked out the house and eaten all that was left. Then we’d sneak out to find what we could at our friends’ or in the dim, unattended aisles of the Co Go’s or Jimmy Mart.
My brothers and I still shared the street-side bedroom, but we had an open basement and a garage. We cranked Dad’s wrenches to tighten wheels or change bars on our bikes. Then we rode wheelies up and down Summit Street. We built jumps behind St. Angela’s Church, the tanning salon, synagogue, and Taylor Neilson’s front yard. We bought twenty-five-cent donuts from Feig’s Bakery and ate them on the curb out front. It was ’94, when everyone’s biggest joke (or threat) was to “Lorena Bobbitt” you; when everyone, it seemed, rode a GT or a Diamondback; and everyone—really—had suddenly always loved and listened to Nirvana, using Kurt Cobain as a fill-in for those moments when they were feeling these complicated, unexplainable emotions: did-bad-in-school anger, lost-my-dog sadness, or fear of getting old. They’d cast their eyes to the street, assume a certain pensive look, and say, “Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain, man,” an act of which I am, unfortunately, many-times guilty.
My best friend was Dave Sheerer. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and chubby in the cheeks. He was quiet but prone to turning red and screaming, “Fuck you, dude” when pushed too far. I met him after he rode his bike into an open sewer grate. The next day he pedaled back up the street like it hadn’t happened, eleven stitches hanging from his face like a goatee. We were the same age, same grade, and he was, like us, an outcast. Kids called him “Dave Queer” because he was shy and wore glasses and the name rhymed. But after he split his chin, my brothers and I accepted him, told the story over and over, how the skin sagged, how he climbed out and didn’t even cry. Because that was how we measured toughness—if you cried or not.
When we weren’t riding bikes or marching through the woods to swing on the vines behind my mother’s house, I was helping Dave with his paper route. People used to invite us into their homes, offer us sandwiches. They paid Dave with thin envelopes and offers of Pepsi or milk. Here and there, he’d throw me a few bucks for helping out. But the real perk came with the trust of Dave’s customers.
I was happy at Dave’s.
I used to think his family was rich. Not in the size of their house, but in the things they had: two cars, a van, a fully packed refrigerator, snacks in the cabinets; a computer, two La-Z-Boy recliners, televisions in four different rooms; and unlike ours, their walls were decorated with family and school pictures. Anything we’d had hanging on our walls had burned up when the first house burned down. We didn’t have stuff stored in spare rooms, boxes filled with memories. We had a television, a radio; we had a glass-door chest where my mother carefully placed plastic plates; she called it the “china cabinet.”
Stuff, no matter how random, equaled class. I wouldn’t have said that then, or even thought it, but I must’ve felt it—that invisible connection between things and a better life, one with consistency, even happiness. That powerful feeling of claiming: This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.
I remember Dave’s dad had this penny jar at the top of their steps. It was a giant five-gallon jug spilling pennies from the mouth. The thing drove me crazy. I imagined them finding out that I was a coin collector and giving it to me.
“Well, T-bone,” they’d smile, “you’re a collector now. It’s time for you to take this jug and call it your own.”
This was the year my brothers and I, along with our friends from the neighborhood, became enchanted by the mesmerizing power of chromies.
All of us believed that with shiny things came big rewards. Like Vinny G’s thick, silver rope chain slapping off his chest as he boxed with his brother in their front yard, or the twenty-four-inch rims on Henry P’s eighteen-wheeler that he used to let us buff at five dollars apiece, paying always, when we finished, from this thick, unfolding wad of cash. We all wanted wads like that. We wanted chains and bracelets. So we scratched and scrambled for anything with value.
That summer, we were after “chromies”—chrome-plated valve-stem caps for tires.
We didn’t buy them; we “jacked” them; we wore them on our bikes. Some kids wore classic ones—shiny hexagons. Some had polished black aluminum ones. Some had dice or eight-balls or skulls with red-pin eyes. One kid glued nine-millimeter bullet shells over plastic stems and rode around as if untouchable as they flashed and glimmered between his spokes.
Like any collectibles, the more diverse and unique they were, the more valuable. There were brand-name chromies, for instance—Mercedes, BMW, Ford—that came with high trading value. This kid Ryan “the Weirdo” Turner had every set. He kept them in a giant pickle jar to show them off: the silver-winged, the gold-crowned, the half-moons and diamonds. We’d avoided him since the time he pulled his dad’s pistol out and held it to his head threatening to pull the trigger, but all of us knew he’d trade brand names for war chromies—guns, bullets, skulls, and grenades. He was so bent on building a war collection, you could get a couple pair from him for a single set of red-and-silver storm-trooper heads.
But we weren’t satisfied with stem caps. We started snapping hood ornaments, too. Same logic: the shinier, the more unique and expensive, the better. My brother Chris was the first to do it, and we followed in step. We stole them from the vehicles parked up and down our street.
Not every vehicle had them, only nice ones, the occasional Lincoln or Buick. “Dude,” we’d shout, cruising down some street. “Some sick-ass chromies back there.” We’d drop our bikes, sneak up, and take them before anyone could catch us. Then later, we’d sit around my garage comparing, trading, even exchanging them—sometimes—for money or food.
When we stripped all the streets, we moved to parking lots. Small ones in front of Big Ed’s or National City. Then church lots, where there were always nice cars, always a variety of brand names to take. We’d ride in on sunny days and scour the lot for any blinking signal of chrome. When we spotted them, we’d twist them free as church bells rang and the steeple glistened in the midafternoon sunlight, because, like a trip to the Weirdo’s, it was worth it. A few sets of caps might get a buck or two from guys who paid cash—older guys or guys too afraid to walk up and steal shit themselves. Here and there, someone might pay five or ten bucks for a hood ornament—a Pontiac or Mercedes—and that was free dinner.
I used to imagine extending my reach as my collection grew, taking the search into new neighborhoods, making bigger money in bigger cities. Just my brothers and me, “the boys.” Maybe friends we could trust. Chris would be our leader, since he stole without fear or hesitation. We’d become the most powerful chromie thieves in Pittsburgh, rich with every brand and design. People respected stealing because stealing was a kind of control—and we were all seeking that wonderful, maddening feeling of it.
I was so obsessed that one day, standing on the corner of Lincoln and Guise, I watched hungrily as a Corvette slowed for a red light, engine rattling and purring, with (not real) diamond-topped chromies shimmering from its tires.
I couldn’t help myself. I slipped around the back, started stripping them in the street. This old woman behind us started honking, and the Corvette driver opened his door, shouting. But I’d just stripped one cap, and chromies were only valuable in pairs. Nobody wanted one.
I went for the other—nearly had it, too—but the light turned and the driver slammed the gas and drove off, pulling my hand in a snapping turn that flung me off balance, sending me rolling in the road. My arms were brush-burned and bleeding from the tumble, and I yelled, “Fuck you” to the woman as she honked past.
“You all right?” Dave asked as he ran over, laughing.
“I’m fine,” I said. I dusted my knees.
“You got the one,” he said, grabbing my shoulder. But I shuddered him off and whipped the chromie as far as I could throw it.
Dave chuckled and shook his head, the way he always would when he figured whatever he had to say wasn’t worth saying anyway.
“Fuckin’ Kurt Cobain.”
My mother had a hole in her heart, and when she was nine, she’d had open-heart surgery to repair it. After the operation, the doctor told her there was a chance she wouldn’t live past twenty. The way my mother tells it, the doctor was less encouraging, an asshole, had made her cry: he said she’d be lucky to live to twenty. She says in high school, people teased her about the scar the surgery had left. Guys at the bus stop called her “worm chest.” She says my dad came down to the bus stop and beat them up—no words, no shouting. He just started fighting.
The story makes me laugh—picturing Dad in his early twenties, hair still long and black, thin dark mustache, walking to her bus stop, that face he makes when he’s mad.
My mom says, “Your father was crazy—always beating people up. He’s a violent man. He’s an abuser.” In that way they differed. He hardly talked about her. If he did, it was dismissively, some sarcastic comment about stealing his credit cards. But she took every opportunity to trash him. It made us uncomfortable—not the lengthy, teary-eyed proclamations of guilt, but the spotlight she was always shining, illuminating all the worst parts of us. We felt as anyone might feel: embarrassed, angry. Like all she had was the bad; the only memories she kept were her worst.
As a child, she’d had three fathers. All “abusers.” All “animals.” Her own father had been hard to live with. He used to beat her always, and my grandma, too.
Once, he beat Mom so bad she wet her pants. He dragged her up the steps by her hair and threw her in the tub with her clothes on, calling her a dirty pig. She was twelve. I was well into my teens, maybe sixteen, when Mom told me this story, and I felt an overwhelming anger, hate, and helplessness. I told her that if I ever met the guy, I’d punch his throat in, make him shit his pants, calling him a dirty fucking pig the whole time.
She said I was like my father. I told her, “Damn right I am,” but she shook her head. She wasn’t giving me a compliment.
The last year my brothers and I lived with her full-time, I was still a kid; I was eight. We didn’t know about her childhood. We only knew that she was either in the darkness of her room or somewhere alone, and that when it came time to eat and there was nothing in the fridge, she’d get overwhelmed and find reasons to scream or slam her bedroom door, or—early on—shell out half-hearted beatings to try to control us. But they only ever left us laughing.
Then, when we were down to a cabinet full of green beans and tomato sauce, my mother handed us food stamps and sent us to the gas station for frozen dinners and root beer. We loaded bags—filling them with candy, with Butterfingers and peach rings and Skittles—and bowed our heads at the counter as we handed over those big paper ones and fives. Getting outside was a victory, and we swallowed down the candy before we got back home.
I hated those trips. I used to linger around the magazine aisle pretending to read until that perfect time when the store went suddenly empty. I’d slide up to the register, quickly pay, and be out the door.
But one day, Mom gave me a twenty-dollar stamp and sent me for a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. “And bring me all my change,” she said, because we liked to snag a buck or two of the real cash you’d get back.
I waited outside the front doors with my hands in my pockets, whistling. I was waiting for the rush to pass.
When the parking lot was empty, I whipped inside, grabbed the milk, the eggs, a Reese’s cup, and a Coke, but as I darted to the counter, this tiny old lady tied me to it. We shared a glance, one that asked who would get the courtesy of checking out first, but cars were unloading in the parking lot, people already pumping gas, others walking in.
“Sorry,” I said, and pushed my stuff onto the counter.
The clerk wasn’t happy with this choice. He was a tall, skinny man with a fully gray ponytail. He was known for watching kids like a hawk, proclaiming often, “Two students at a time,” as it was printed on the glass. We called him “Ponytail.”
“Ladies first,” he said to me, scolding. He handed back my items. Then, as if to dismiss my childish decision, he said, “Anything else, ma’am?”
“Yes,” she said. “The lottery.”
People spilled into the store as the woman enunciated numbers, slowly. “Seven. Eight. Eight. Four. Five straight. The rest boxed.”
The bell on the door rang, and a girl from my school walked in with her mother. I saw her recognize me. I turned back to the counter. The little old woman had shimmied away, and in her place was Ponytail, glaring.
“Wake up,” he said. “Got a line behind you, Hoss.”
I put the milk and eggs on the counter. He rang them up. I handed him the bill. He stared at it a moment, then he held it above his head, high in the air, and examined it against the light in front of everyone. He shouted into the back room, to a guy reading papers and making marks in a log, “Jim? We give cash back for food stamps?”
“Yeah, Bob,” the guy said without looking. But I suspect Bob knew. He was teaching me a lesson. My body was so stiff, I could hardly collect the change. After that, when I needed something from the store, I didn’t pay for it; I stole it.
Though she’d never admit it, my mom was a thief, too. She wasn’t as blunt or reckless as we were, but she could scheme. Number one on her list of schemes was returning: taking things back after using them halfway.
She was the returning queen—a pair of shoes, a half-melted candle. She always had an explanation: it didn’t fit, or it smelled like shit. She even took lipstick back and claimed she was allergic. Then, when there was nothing left to take back, she bought dollar items with twenty-dollar food stamps and pocketed the cash.
She was brilliant at making small money last, which I didn’t think about then—how we’d be out of food, eating diced tomatoes and garlic bread, and she’d be buying lipsticks and George Michael cassettes. She had to know that my brothers and I were stealing. We’d bring home throwaway cameras or G. I. Joes or cap guns with extra caps. How could we have paid for these? She didn’t ask; she ignored. Chris used to keep cash in his wallet, money he got for chromies or for bike parts from a bike he might have taken, and my mother would sometimes find it on the dresser. She wouldn’t ask questions. Instead, she’d pluck a five from it. If he complained, she’d cry and say we took advantage of her, that she did our laundry and made us vanilla milkshakes and provided a heated house for us to sleep in, and by the way, Your piece-of-shit father hasn’t sent us money.
That was the only argument she needed. We’d go back outside to roam the neighborhood, and she’d go back to her bedroom with impunity, because, I think, we must’ve thought she understood what it meant to take, since so much had been taken from her. Besides, the more my mother ignored, the less she tried to control us, and were free because of it. Though I would’ve taken the warm bedrooms, video-game dens, and family dinners of my friends over the kind of freedom my brothers and I shared.
Over time, we kept getting into trouble, kept stealing. We were the first to be blamed for every crime in the neighborhood. A porch set fire, a house egged, a tire slashed, a windshield bricked, and the police showed up on Mom’s doorstep. She’d apologize. Then, later, she’d chase us through the house calling us “rotten,” screaming that we’d end up in prison. She’d break us off, catching us in a corner with a wooden spoon, a book. If it hurt, we refused to cry. Though mostly we laughed, like the time she chased Jonny through the house smacking his naked, pre-bath body with a belt, leaving welts all over him, and Chris and I laughed so hard it hurt, even when she started whipping us, too.
I don’t remember what was funny, except that Dad’s beatings were worse—a fist, a steel-toed boot. Maybe that’s why we laughed, like there was something funny in the difference, the innocence of my mom’s punishments compared to the brutality of my dad’s.
But there was resentment, too—growing since Dad had left. Mom didn’t work; she “rested.” She said Dad wouldn’t pay child support. He said he paid every month, that she was spending it on herself. She called him a deadbeat, a drunk. He called her lazy, a victim. She’d say he was lying, that he’d beaten her, was a monster. He’d tell us she’d taken money from him, called his work to threaten him; she was a schemer, a thief.
It wasn’t easy choosing which one to trust. It was easier to react, and we reacted to the shift in power at Mom’s.
Chris was the first to harden, to become bold. He was only nine when he started smoking weed, breaking into places, vandalizing. When confronted, he was vicious. He’d tell Mom to leave him the fuck alone, and though I wanted him to shut up, he was our leader. Jonny and I backed him. Mom’s innocent beatings started losing innocence. She’d use anything in reach to hit with, screaming so loud we couldn’t hear each other laughing anymore.
We didn’t know a family night, or domestic games, or dinners and prayers and smiles at the kitchen table like at Dave’s. We knew Mom’s bad days, her screaming, her blaming us for being like our father. We rarely saw her leave her room. Between Mom and Chris, the choice was easy. Chris took care of us. He stole sandwiches from the deli. He went out on his bike and came back with beef jerky and Pepsi. He stuck up for us. He fought for and protected us. Like those nights Dad used to come home smelling like whiskey and ground steel beneath his welding coat. He might wake us up and make us march into the kitchen, make us call him sir, stand about-face against the wall. Or he might play Mellencamp and Springsteen and lift us up to dance while he slurred the words to “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” and “Born to Run” and Mom shouted over the music to turn it down, to let us sleep, that he was drunk. But as the music switched, his mood tended to switch with it. When that happened, it was Chris who stole us away to our room and locked the door, so we could lie in bed and pretend to sleep, no matter how late the music blared in the kitchen.
Now, on Summit, Mom treated us like enemies—as if we were the dark, grizzly shadows of our dad, left behind to torture her, to taunt and remind her of a life she didn’t or couldn’t have.
“Your father is a violent man,” she was always saying.
She held—like no one I’ve ever known—deep, scarred grudges. I could hear it in her voice when she spoke to us. It was the darkness she returned to, in her bedroom, in her heart, where she was a woman filled with hatred and regret. Maybe there, she felt alive, even powerful in her anger. Or maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe she thought that if she hid away and slept, her life might be different when she woke.
By the end of summer, my shoebox overflowed with chromies and hood ornaments. I’d lock my bedroom door and dump it on the floor. I’d spread everything out neatly, looking over it, counting, logging. I had skulls and crosses, chrome and gold. I had arrowheads, spades, and bullets. A hundred hexagons, fifty rounds. I had ornaments wrapped in bandannas: jaguars, eagles, a Mercedes three-point star. Wrapped carefully in a white bandanna was a chrome angel with thin, sleek wings and a spine arched as if melting in the wind—my prized piece.
I’d open the blinds and let sunlight pour over everything, walking slowly around as it glimmered there.
I had my pennies—as many years as I’d pulled from wallet change or the give-a-penny at the BP. I had a 1909 VDB and an 1857 eagle’s head, rarer and more valuable than the others. I had all I’d taken from Dave’s customers (except the candy): fluffy pens, staplers, paperweights, and glass figurines. I still had the porcelain baby’s head, my favorite, with its tiny, pinpoint eyes and grinning lips.
I could stay for hours, drunk on value as I ran my fingers over all I’d collected, all I’d stolen. All mine. All me. All glowing in the middle of the floor, as if I’d opened up my chest and let my chromie soul melt onto the hardwood.
Down the hall, Mom’s television would play softly through the walls, a murmur. The muffled sound of soap-opera voices. Or a movie. Or, sometimes, only music—the sound of Restless Heart spilling through the house as I examined my treasure.
When autumn came, it stripped the neighborhood to a bare, windblown brown. It was chilly. The vines behind the house swung into the air and back again, as if the ghosts of ourselves were swinging without us.
I fist-fought Dave after school one day for a reason I don’t remember. He’d made fun of me or challenged me or wouldn’t let me come over for dinner—and we fought. I choked him. He pulled my hair. Neither of us wanted to punch, so we didn’t. I just called him a pussy and he turned red and told me “Fuck you,” before he stormed up Faucet Street.
At home, my brothers and I were in trouble. Chris had stayed home from school again. Jonny was mouthing off. I was leaving things around the house. Mom was tired, she told us, had a headache, and wasn’t in the mood for bullshit. No dinner. Get the fuck to bed. So we marched to our room.
“Can’t wait to live with Daddy,” Chris said loud enough for her to hear. “Least he feeds us there.” Then he threw his fist to his lips, smiling.
“Debbie cooks,” I said, because this is what we did. Partly to test my mom. Partly to pretend, among each other, that we didn’t care. I knew that mentioning Dad’s girlfriend, overtly comparing the two, might change our circumstances.
Mom hated Debbie. She hated her so much, in fact, that she refused to call our pajamas “pj’s” (which is what Debbie called them), and insisted on “jammies,” despite how ridiculous it sounded. Sometimes when we talked about Debbie, Mom attempted to be better, nicer, in a kind of competition.
“Wish we lived with Debbie,” I said. Those walls were paper thin.
We lay around making fart noises under our armpits, laughing, shelling out comments to the walls, until, finally, Mom burst into the bedroom with a belt and started whipping us with it, shouting again to go to sleep.
When we finally turned out the lights and Mom left, slamming the door, we lay in the darkness, breathing heavily.
It was impossible not to laugh.
Jonny farted, and we lost it again. I fell off the bed with a thump, holding my stomach. I don’t even know what was funny. But we were boys, each a year apart and hungry and used to sleepless nights.
When Mom came back in, she charged at Chris, who until then had been making more comments than any of us. She grabbed him by his hair and dragged him into the hall, smacking him in the mouth.
At first we laughed at him, but she wasn’t easing up. Jonny and I followed them out. We called lightly for her to stop, to let him go.
Chris had this long, dark hair that fell equally down the sides of his head into an early ’90s bowl cut. He used to stand in front of the mirror for so long soaking it with hairspray and mousse, combing it into perfect swoops in the front. In the hall now, my mother had handfuls of it. Her face was a terrible, screaming red. She smacked ceaselessly at him. Jonny and I pulled her wrists, tried peeling her fingers from his hair.
“Let him go,” we said, shoving. But she was strong—much stronger than we’d ever known her to be.
At the old house, she hadn’t punished us; my father did. When he came home, she’d tell on us for mouthing off or leaving the yard or breaking a dish, and he’d pull out a paddle, line us up in the kitchen, and beat us individually while she begged him, eventually, to stop. But Summit Street was a training period for my mother. She had figured out, I think, that we responded to pain—and it had to hurt. Unlike my father, she hadn’t learned to stop.
Jonny punched her first. He was seven. He hit her in the stomach. I shoved her. Chris stood up. She kept his hair but grabbed me, too. She threw her weight into me, smashing my head and shoulder through the hallway wall, stunning me. She dragged Chris through the living room to the front door and pushed him onto the porch.
“Stay the fuck outside,” she screamed.
She jammed the ironing board between the handle and the baseboard, told Jonny and me that she’d call the cops and have him arrested if we let him in. She said they’d come and take him away; we’d never see him again. She said to shut our fucking mouths. This time we listened. This time we went to bed. This time, we lay quietly in the dark.
That night, Chris slept on the front porch. It was cold, and he didn’t have anywhere to go, so he curled up inside his shirt and slept with his head on the stoop.
In the bedroom, I ached to go outside. My face was scratched; it burned a little where it was cut. I stared out the window, where streetlight shadows played off the side of the neighbors’ house. I kept looking for Chris, waiting for him to run down on the road and goof around or flip us the finger, but he never came. I could hear Jonny breathing in the dark. I knew he was awake, too, by the way he breathed, but neither of us was willing to make a sound.
I could’ve opened the bedroom window and called for Chris, but I was too scared that he’d be taken away. So I lay instead, imagining Chris outside—a rock—and feeling sad for him.
I tried thinking good things: of eating a giant bowl of pasta or ice cream; of rollerblading down Henderson Street or riding bikes behind the church; of Chris and his old guitar; how he’d gone to a few lessons, had learned some chords, how he stood on my uncle’s table once, in front of my family, and sang all of Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” and everyone clapped and cheered. When he finished, he smiled for them.
I remembered how, at night, Chris would strum the guitar to make Jonny and me jealous. We’d ask to play and he’d say no. Until, one night, Jonny tried grabbing at it and Chris knocked him over the head with it. It wasn’t even hard, a thump. But Jonny started crying. So Dad came in, took the guitar outside, and smashed it to pieces against a porch post.
I can see it still, the look on Chris’s face when he heard the guitar rattle and break outside the window.
Dad dragged the broken neck of the thing into the kitchen, whipped it against the wall, called us ungrateful assholes, and dealt his beatings. Mom begged him to settle down, but when Dad drank, he was either the most passionate man, whiskey-voiced and full of brokenhearted love, proclaiming always his deep loyalty and debt to us—“I love you boys,” he’d say. “My sons. I’d die for you”—or he was angry, with a darkness covering him, and he’d become a different man.
Mom taunted him the night he busted up the guitar, called him “Tough Guy” to draw him from us. She challenged him, pushed him. Then he smacked her. And she ran from him. And he chased her down the hall, punching her in the back.
My brothers and I lined up in the kitchen—about-face—the way Dad preferred, to show him that we had surrendered, that he had nothing to prove; we feared him.
The night Chris slept on the porch, I imagined him strumming his guitar again, singing Garth Brooks the way he used to sing it—reluctant and willing all at once, voice cracking at the end of the lines. It’s one of a few peaceful images I still have of him. I wanted so badly to be bigger then, to give him that at least—my braver self—and walk into the living room and open the door. But he didn’t need it. He understood having things taken from him. Besides, Mom didn’t hold anger the way Dad did. She fizzled out, felt sorry. I expected her to fold that night and let Chris in. But she didn’t.
I had underestimated her; we all had.
My only offer to my brother was to stay awake all night for him. I could rescue him that way. I imagined running away, emptying my treasure box, my coins and chromies and marbles and G. I. Joes, and selling it all for a hundred bucks. My brothers and I could live on our own, be chromie kings. We’d twist and snap every blinking speck of chrome from everywhere we went. We’d become rich. Maybe even famous—or feared. We’d be powerful then.
But at some point in the night, the quiet black sky turned to blue, only slightly, and I fell asleep. In the morning, Chris was gone. At first light, he’d walked a few blocks to a friend’s house and called my dad to come and get him.
After that, despite months of arguments, court battles, and the Allegheny Family Division maintaining Mom’s custody, all three of us went to live with Dad in Bethel Park.
We never became chromie kings, as I had wished for that night, but we continued to steal chromies from every back alley and driveway of the neighborhood until the summer ended and we went back to school, or eventually lost interest.
How could I let go? These things that meant so much. That I worked so hard to take. These small pieces of those older than me, those wealthier, those happier, those who had enough that they didn’t have to take from others. Those flickering, sharp-edged chromies that I chased down the street as I would a dream. That I chased as if to steal a better version of myself. Things that—as the good always did—ran forever from me, back to a nicer neighborhood with nicer people living a nicer life. A place I didn’t know how to get to, other than try and steal it.
Chromie thief: desperate and chasing.
My mother, too. Woman lost. Woman on her own and living with rage and haunted by her memories. I won’t say that we were too young or that she was struggling with depression, because it’s more than that. I realize now that I don’t know her. Not then. Not ever. She’s become a mother in glimpses: her dark hair piled in a bun; her face smiling. Her striking, sad blue eyes. On sunny days, walking back from the store, shifting grocery bags between her hands. Trying to cook and failing. Singing Marx in the kitchen. And I feel sorry for her. I wonder what she thought of us then. That we’d stolen from her? That we’d given? We could be beasts—starving, angry, and wishing we were better than we were.
I regret that.
But maybe everyone should be allowed to cling to those things that strengthen them—even if it hurts, or makes them worse. At least, for a moment, they can pretend to have fixed themselves.
Even now, when I pass a car in a parking lot or a church or walking into the bank, I glance down at the tires and look for chromies. I don’t even know why, or what I’d do with them. It’s a habit, a reflex, my eyes always seeking that flutter of light from something small and fleeting. Or maybe I’m waiting to kneel down on the road, knees bending in the sunlight, to strip away all the chromie caps from all the black tires, so I might breathe again that stagnant air—the same brutal smell it’s been for twenty years.
Meet the Author
This essay was the first thing I wrote out of graduate school, without the trusted eyes of an MFA workshop or thesis advisor—which was both frightening and freeing.
Originally, I had this memory of chromies, of stealing and collecting them as a kid, that I’d been playing with, trying to figure out why it had stuck with me so long. As I was writing into it, reliving the sight of a pair of chromies or their smell or the feeling of them in my hands, I found myself interested in the value we assign things, especially insignificant things, and the way that empowers us. Mostly, I wanted to know why. I knew I wouldn’t stop until I answered that question or at least came close to it. What I didn’t know was that this essay would become my mother’s as much as my own. Or that I’d save the document as “Mom’s Chap” for a year before finding a title that represents us both, for different reasons.
I still don’t know, fully, what this essay is about. Maybe dreams, or pain, or disappointment. Maybe it’s about escaping. But it’s also about holding on to things—whether valve stem caps or memories—to try and find strength from them. It’s also about my mother, who, despite our differences, was tougher and more complicated than I ever gave her credit for. I hope others can find connection here, a little bit of his or her own story. I’m just happy that someone (other than my wife) actually read this and enjoyed it. And I’m happy, now, to let it go.
Terrance Manning, Jr. is a graduate from Purdue’s MFA program in creative writing. Recent work has won the Narrative Spring Story Contest, the Iowa Review Award for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the Crazyhorse Prize in Nonfiction. Other work has appeared in Witness, Boulevard, Southwest Review, Ninth Letter, River Teeth, and the Normal School, among other magazines, and his fiction and nonfiction have received special mentions in the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. He lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Cafe Misfit” by Dave Zoby
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. The TMR staff wishes you a happy week. Dave Zoby’s 2013 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning essay “Cafe Misfit” is today’s piece, which evokes the insular community of workplace relationships with more than a touch of humor.
By Dave Zoby
Beauty is the sole ambition, the exclusive goal of Taste.
Suddenly one summer Joe and Oscar appeared in the Fan neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with the idea that they could open a bistro on the ground floor of the old Windsor Building, an aged apartment building situated mere yards from the humanities compound at Virginia Commonwealth University. Oscar and Joe believed they could attract wealthy academics, administrators with refined palates and deep pockets, visiting professors of modern art. They hired a fleet of waitresses and released colored balloons for their grand opening. They hired a chef of reputation and a passable sommelier fluent in Portuguese. They had thought of almost everything. But what they didn’t know was that professors are the worst kind of customers in the world, the very bottom. They don’t tip for squat, and they don’t socialize as much as you think.
They called their bistro Old Virginia Café. (Oscar, already betraying a vision conflicting with Joe’s, campaigned for Black Stocking Café, or Zingers.) But Joe had more money invested, and he insisted on the understated Old Virginia. They were Italians from Philly; there was no hiding it. They drove imposing black sedans with tinted windows. They wore the tight mustaches of card dealers and circus barkers. Even their shirts, silk and buttoned low enough to let their wiry chest hair escape, told a story of strange migration. One of the first things they did was to stroll with their lady friends along Monument Avenue to take pictures of the old Southern generals. I saw them halted under the gaze of Jefferson Davis, snapping photos like mad of a statue aged by passing traffic.
No one knew how they had decided on Richmond. They had run several lucrative businesses up north. There was mention of a limousine service, a dry cleaning supply business. Joe owned a Cessna and taught private lessons. Oscar co-owned a concrete outfit. Out of thin air, with no prior experience, they had decided to open a restaurant. Ripening in their late fifties, they said they had always wanted to have their own place. They loved to cook and drink, so the obvious next step was to open a restaurant. But they didn’t need a restaurant, and that would prove to be a problem. The only good restaurateur is a desperate one.
I kept my eye on Old Virginia for a year without going in. I locked my bike up to the rack across the street on my way to literature classes. Frequently, I spotted Joe placing menu boards on the sidewalk, advertising the daily specials: fried shad roe, calamari salad, ribeye sandwiches. His café was empty save for a few pairs of lunching ladies and a disquieting number of ferns he had spread around the windows for charm. Ferns like that, they won’t survive the winter, I wanted to say. And your prices are too high. No one is going to pay $10.95 for a stuffed flounder.
But I didn’t say anything; I just watched, expecting any day to see him close down like the ones before him.
The Fan, in 1993, was in ruins. Bricks were loose and falling from buildings. Roots buckled the sidewalks from underneath. Warehouses were shuttered. Over on Grace Street, where I lived, roofs were water-damaged and leavened. There was a handful of underemployed prostitutes who worked the corner of Broad Street and Boulevard. Rude bands played in some of the old bars that still thrummed with life. But on most nights, as I pedaled my bike back toward my rented room, the Fan seemed permanently vacant, a failed experiment, an apology.
How Joe and Oscar thought they could waltz down South and take our money I never fully grasped. I was infuriated to see Joe emerge one spring with his menu board: Virginia ham with peanut gravy; beer-battered rockfish nuggets, braised split quail and spring greens. I’d thought the last ice storm had cleared him out. I had not spied Oscar’s black Cadillac for months. I had just received the overwhelming good news that I had won a teaching assistantship. My tuition would be waived. And I would earn over three thousand dollars a semester, a staggering amount of money at the time. I swaggered into the café and sat at the huge horseshoe bar. Joe came out and offered me a menu. I ordered a German beer off the tap and settled on the burger, which was “hand-shaped” and came with fresh-cut “Virginia fries.”
Nearly thirty minutes later, Joe returned with my burger. He had spared no expense or labor. The roll it rested on had come from one of the local bakeries. He had even pounded out his own homemade horseradish as a bonus. The burger bled weakly on my plate while Joe poured himself a beer, leaned back against his beer coolers and asked me why I was studying literature.
“I love all of those guys—Shakespeare, Keats, Byron—but I don’t see how you can make a career of it,” he said.
“This is the best fucking burger I have ever eaten,” I said.
“I know it,” he said. “But how much does a professor make, anyways?”
My mind was elsewhere. I noticed that Joe’s dishwasher, Scott Black, had stepped onto the back porch, apparently, to smoke. But what he was really doing was looking for his dealer, Ramon. Joe’s chef, Freddy Macintyre, came in as I was finishing my meal. I had seen him many, many times in the grottoes of the Village Café, where he ran an all-men’s AA meeting. Freddy, a former chef for D.C. ambassadors and various diplomats, had lived the tumultuous life of a celebrity cook. These days he was clean, but he shook uncontrollably at the slightest crisis. He was distraught already because he had ordered crayfish and they had not been delivered. He was fretting and looking out the window for the deliveryman. I noticed things. And, most importantly, I noticed a gaping absence at the corner of the bar where Oscar used to lean.
Joe gave me my bill and went back to work on a cheesecake. He took a beer with him. With the bill in my hand, I rounded the horseshoe bar and looked into the kitchen through the tiny pane of glass. Joe stood at a huge stainless steel prep table. I pushed open the door and entered a cathedral of sunlight on metal. There was a nearly new Hobart dishwasher that belched and hummed through a cycle, its gills rows of fresh white plates. It breathed the sweet breath of bleach and steam. There was a rotisserie with ceramic bricks, two convection ovens, fryers large enough to bathe in, various pestles and their corresponding mortars and a grill to keep two chefs busy. Steel mixing bowls, iron stock pots, milky white ramekins, room-sized walk-in coolers, refrigerators that reflected my image like a fun house mirror: it was as if Joe and Oscar had imagined the most expensive kitchen they could think of and decided to improve upon it. Joe must be terribly underwater. Or, it occurred to me, he must have been rich to begin with.
Joe looked up from a dozen yolks he was whipping. He grinned.
“Do you need a bar manager?” I said.
We agreed on a small salary. I would work Thursday through Saturday nights and order the liquor for the restaurant. He gave me a key—I wouldn’t have given me a key. And then he said there would be no W2s; we would “work something else out.” Before I left, I refilled his beer and brought it to him.
“You’ll like it here,” he said. “We have all kinds of things planned for the menu.”
As I was leaving I bumped into his waitress, hurrying to make her shift. She had fresh bruises on the nape of her neck. Her blue eyes were wrecked with signs of alcohol poisoning. She had short red hair and deep charcoal stains on her fingertips: the telltale signs of an art student. “Joe is going to kill me,” she said—to me?—in a rough voice. But I had never spoken to her in my life, so she must have been talking to herself or to that arbitrator we all talk to when we are ashamed.
Why offer fried cod on your menu when you can go to pains to acquire blue catfish from a dealer near Yorktown and then drive out there to pick it up yourself, the white flesh in loaves, still smelling definitely of the river, of brackishness, a wet copy of The Richmond Times-Dispatch serving as a cover? Or maybe you don’t drive out there yourself, but you send one of your lackeys or Chef Freddy himself, with orders to stop by LaPrell Nursery for several trays of fresh herbs, chives and cilantro specifically. Freddy, if you forget the goddamn cilantro don’t even bother coming back. Just keep driving to Utah, Joe might say. And Freddy would fall apart with the shakes, not knowing whether it was a joke or not. Why serve your shad roe on toast when you can spend the morning driving around Richmond to the various bakeries until you settle on the white baguettes from Mechlers? And for God’s sake, don’t use store-bought bacon with your roe; call a farmer in Culpeper and have him slaughter a young hog for that purpose specifically. Go there and stand in the smokehouse, ruining your clothes forever. And your sauces: Are you going to make them all at once like some hack, or are you going to take down the copper saucepans which came from the French countryside of Flaubert and make each sauce upon order? Why would you do it any other way? These were some of the questions Joe sought to answer about the Old Virginia. The customers, confused by the length of time it took to get their orders of lamb meatloaf (he ground it himself) served in a red wine and rosemary reduction, looked at Joe with something related to pity. I served them a glass of wine on the house to apologize for the forty-five minutes they had sat there by the windows overlooking the skateboarders enjoying a session on the nearly vacant campus across the street. In June, I was giving away more booze than I was selling. Scott Black, the implacable dishwasher, would come out and sit at the bar and stare. He didn’t cringe at the long spans of time it took Joe and Freddy to serve a meal. Scott Black would ask for his shift drink—usually an expensive whiskey he liked to order just to say the name. The customers, meanwhile, looked at their watches and sighed.
“Joe,” I said one night as he was unwinding from a burst of late orders of cheese fries (a dish he loathed, a remnant of Oscar’s uninspired vision) “People are calling your place the ‘the old vagina.’ The food takes too long.”
He sighed heavily.
“I didn’t want to tell you, but it’s the truth. And Annie said she’s not coming back. She’s gone back to dancing.”
“Who is Annie?”
Joe got up from his chair and came behind the bar where I was refilling the sink with hot, sudsy water. He poured himself a shot of Basil Hayden and dropped in an ice cube. There was a thunderstorm swaying the trees along the avenue. He seemed dazed by the rain coming in sheets.
“Why don’t the professors come over? I always thought we’d get more business from those fucks. I don’t understand it.”
Joe sat and began to tell me some of the challenges he was facing with the restaurant. “Oscar’s loopy. He’s crazy as hell,” said Joe. “To tell you the truth, I am glad he’s gone. All he did was drive the waitresses away.” Then there was a problem, in Joe’s mind, with getting quality meat in Virginia. He wanted to age it himself, and nothing he could find was quite right. He had been flying his Cessna back and forth between Philly and Richmond with loads of prime beef, sausages, pork butts, which Freddy would drape obscenely in the walk-in. He was outraged at what passed for charcuterie in Richmond. And there was another issue: the Cessna needed an inspection, and no one out at Byrd Airport could do it. He didn’t want to fly it down to Atlanta just for an inspection, but he would if push came to shove. And good help was hard to get in Richmond, Joe complained. But what vexed Joe the most was the cold shoulder he was getting from the faculty at VCU.
“Is there some way I could get my place reviewed? Could you get someone from the English Department to come over?” he whined.
“Joe, you don’t want that.”
He poured another drink.
“I went to a place in South Richmond called Red’s this weekend, and they were eating goddamn gravy with coffee in it. The blueberries were artificial. The syrup was fake. And the place was full, packed with well-dressed people, the kind of people I want in here.”
Finally, Joe was learning something about the South.
My tenure as the bar manager at the Old Virginia Café was an innocent one. Perhaps I was not experienced enough to face the world. I was shocked when one of the waitresses took me to her apartment and popped in a sex tape before she poured me a glass of wine. Money was always a problem for me, even with the teaching position. I worked nights while my fellow students went to readings and art shows. I reveled in the unfairness of it all. Depressed for days when I learned the dean of Humanities was sleeping with one of my fellow grad students, I went into the Carriage House Book Store and approached the clerk with a copy of Baudelaire. “Kid, you don’t really want that,” he said. And it was true. So I put it back on the shelves. Riding my bike along Monument Avenue, the odor of hot pavement thick in the air, I marveled at the white statues of Civil War generals and a culture that revered their swords, their bad shoulders, their bladders cast in stone. I would often sit on the stoop beside the restaurant reading my graduate-school texts, and between the scurrying pigeons and the strolling pairs of academics, I would be approached by the same drug dealer day after day. He wore a navy blue skullcap through the blaze of summer.
“Need anything?” he’d say.
Was it that obvious?
“Get yourself laid,” Joe would hiss, and he’d give me a fifty under the table. But that was the problem with Joe: he was too invested in the visceral pleasures, the petty venalities of the world. He roared too much about “free-market capitalism.” He had no intellectual ambitions, as I had, unless you counted his desire to impress college faculty with his tricky cuisine. He went on and on about making love to various women. Dipping his Cessna over the fall foliage, he once told me, was like an extended orgasm. He never invited me along. He took waitresses up for short flights, and they would come back red-faced, giddy, as if they had witnessed a rare bird. He took them all up as a sort of application process.
Meanwhile, I plodded along with my bar rag in my pocket and a poem in my head. Late nights, I would try to tell Joe about the existential pitfalls of being midtwenties and studying literature. He didn’t want to hear it. “You’re doing it all wrong,” he’d say when he discovered me reading Leaves of Grass. “Why don’t you go out and fuck someone?” When I told him I wanted to write, he frowned a bit, shook his head. “Jesus Christ, can’t you do both?” Then he went back into the kitchen to check on his cheesecakes.
Joe, over the late summer, spent a great deal of time with his friends at the bar. Buzzed, they wandered down to the farmer’s market. Outside of town, the crops were ripening and the outdoor markets were resplendent with obscene eggplants, carrots the hue of sunsets, huge heads of white cauliflower and broad-leaved cabbages stacked like cannon balls. Joe, stumbling along the stalls of sweet corn, stood no chance. He bought everything in reach and let his lackeys tote it along, especially bags of sweet onions with clods of Spotsylvania County dirt still clinging to the roots. Fish mongers offered fat flounders from Knott’s Island. Tilefish? Littlenecks? Are you serious? The oystermen shucked their huge shellfish into Joe’s cupped hands, allowing great flows of milt to overflow and spill upon the ground. Joe stood no chance. When he returned to the restaurant, he was woozy, accompanied by a troop of new friends, each carrying a sack of food. They would all enter the kitchen, a dozen men, and within minutes, Chef Freddy, pissed off and intruded upon, would clock out and leave. Patrons at the bar would take note of the incredible volumes of beer and liquor and, always, laughter flowing from the kitchen and the outbursts that rose up from there. I discouraged paying customers from wandering back there, for once they met Joe, they became one of his friends and never paid for another drink, though their lives improved radically.
Around this same time Joe traded in his black sedan for a pickup. He bought one with an extended cab, so he could sleep there when he came back from his adventures in the countryside. I often saw him silhouetted in the truck, his neck cranked back, his mouth sadly agape, and I would feel sorry for him. I brought him cups of water and aspirin. But he was out of it, unable to say much. Hours later he would startle awake, start the truck, allow it to idle for twenty minutes while he regained his bearings and drive away, back into the Virginia countryside in search of adventure, or something related to it.
Joe kept land notices around the bar, and I often found him reading about upcoming auctions. He and the beer distributor would go out on Smith Mountain Lake to fish a bass tournament, or he would go to the cheese monger’s Blue Ridge cabin to throw hatchets and drink homemade whiskey that landed him in the hospital for three days. He’d flirt with the true nature of Southernness, then scare himself and buzz back to his wife and daughter in Pennsylvania. And the more he left, the more I found myself running the Old Virginia Café. The key burned in my hand, and I sometimes found myself there in the dark restaurant with nothing but the ferns to keep me company and the sound of the walk-in freezer doing its thing.
On one of Joe’s prolonged absences I fired Scott Black. He was two hours late and stoned. I said, “My only regret is that I can’t fire you twice.”
“Joe will hire me back,” said Scott, and he shook off his apron and flung it at me. It was incredibly clean, dry, hardly used. He pounded the Hobart with his small fists on his way out; the dishwashing machine seemed his only friend, yet he had punched it in the face.
With one phone call I hired a fellow poet and grad student supreme, John Venable, and within hours he was pumping the Hobart, steaming his hair into a pile of fibers. His skin turned pink, and I could see by his expression that he would not last long. He brought with him a radio/tape player, and he played rude Lou Reed concerts, bootlegged editions no one else could get or wanted. Immediately, he asked about vacations and sick leave. “I do bring a lot of experience to this position,” he said. He even had the nerve to ask about his shift drink, this within hours of being hired. I wanted to fire him, too, but I was already shorthanded. And in the restaurant business no one fucks with the dishwasher, or at least they begin with a certain patina of holiness, and it erodes from there. Besides, Chef Freddy was in another one of his moods, complaining about late orders and trying to close the kitchen at 9:00 PM.
“Freddy, goddamn it, you know we serve a late menu.”
But with Joe gone, the chef felt he could do as he wanted. He walked out. Luckily, one of Joe’s new friends, Gary, was seated at the bar. He was pretending to read a three-day-old copy of the Times-Dispatch, a crumpled pane of it in one hand. His bar tab was already becoming symbolic in nature.
“Sheeeet, I could do that man’s job twice as well,” said Gary. I was slightly disappointed that Joe was missing this display of outward Southern confidence, a fault of ours. Joe could learn a lot from Gary.
“Gary, tell me what do you know about cooking,” I said, playing along.
“After Vietnam I lived in Paris for five years, walking distance to the Bastille. I worked them tiny kitchens. I can cook like a motherfucker, stocks, breads, cassoulets. Shit, man, I can show you some stuff round here,” he said, and he stood, wobbly. I saw this as a grand opportunity to recover some of his outstanding debts. He was hired on the spot. But I had to pay him cash out of the register, one hundred bucks a night, because he didn’t want his old lady to know he had a job.
Gary fell into his duties and began to crank out homestyle Southern food with a touch of French. He baked Cornish hens and served them with a bed of mustard greens and collards. He made little pizzas christened with dollops of barbecued beef. He made a cassoulet of white beans and pork butt. He said, “People don’t want to be confused by the food they eat; the world is confusing enough for damn sure,” and he drank prodigious amounts of beer. You must remember that this was back in the early ’90s, before the proliferation of food shows—whole channels devoted to people stuffing their pie holes and making culinary postulations, before the widespread celebrity of Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and the rest of them. One day, as I was wiping the bar, I heard Gary order a new keg of Miller. “That German stuff ain’t selling for shit,” he said to Arnie, the distributor. He poured himself an inaugural glass of Miller and took it in like smoke; here was a doer, a leader, the assistant manager I had longed for. I had a key made for him immediately, and when Scott Black came around looking for Joe, I told him to talk to Gary.
“This place still owes me a shift drink,” he said on his way out.
Of course Joe, upon returning with a crate of Maine lobsters and cases of white burgundy, immediately undid all my moves. Freddy came back, sanguine and aloof as always. He had discovered photography in his brief romance with unemployment and asked Joe for an eight-hundred-dollar cash advance to buy a lens. And Scott Black, in the dusty, wee hours of the previous night, had snuck in and regained his old position at the Hobart. There were not enough dishes for one dishwasher on most nights, but both John and Scott stood around in the steam and took frequent breaks where they drank Miller on the stoop and spoke with the drug dealers and history professors who wandered by. They began to drink so much keg beer that I offered to run a line back to the kitchen so they could pour it themselves. Joe, not knowing I was joking, said he would call Arnie and look into it.
Freddy was smug when I tried to apologize. I found him one September afternoon playing with two live river eels he was going to cook in a strawberry and champagne sauce, Joe’s dinner. He was tormenting the pair of fish, grabbing them so that they panicked and wrapped their jade-colored bodies around his forearm like bracelets. I told him that I had only fired him because he had done the unforgivable—walked out on a shift. This is the rule in restaurants from Baltimore to Shanghai: if you walk out on a shift, keep walking, man, and don’t even look back.
“It’s the rules,” I said to Freddy. He held a cleaver in his hand, and he cudgeled the first eel but only stunned it.
“I’ve been in kitchens longer than you’ve been alive,” he said. He struck again. This time he killed the eel, and it spewed a shock of orange roe onto the cutting table. “Don’t tell me about rules.”
A flat of soft-shelled crabs arrived the next morning, alive and weakly protesting. They were in neat rows like soldiers, and they were strung with wet seaweed to keep them alive. Gary breaded one and fried it for Joe’s breakfast. The two men were terribly hung over. Seafood seemed to pick them up some. Venable wandered in with love bruises on his neck. Gary fried him a crab too, its legs kicking as it went into the butter.
“Joe, why don’t you just fire Freddy?” I asked.
“Fire Freddy? Have you ever tasted his bouillabaisse? The man’s a genius, a saint!”
“Well, seems like people like what Gary cooks—”
Gary seemed embarrassed.
“So I will keep them both. What’s it to you?”
“Well you gave him eight hundred bucks for a lens. I don’t see how he’ll ever pay you back.”
“When you get your own place, you can do whatever you goddamn well please.”
I was hurt by Joe’s directness. He was right; the Old Virginia was his place, not mine. I went back out to the bar and wiped the bottles down, the odd liquors that nobody ever orders, the Pernod, the Drambuie, the Galliano. A few minutes later, Scott Black came in and punched his time card. And why did I care? In one year I was going to graduate and move to Colorado or some other mountain state.
But I was hurt. I avoided Joe for weeks. Finally one night, he sat at the bar as I closed the place. He told me that he trusted me.
“Well, you should back me up when I get rid of these folks.”
“But where would they go? Freddy is a mess. Scott—he’s a child.”
“Even if they cost you money?”
“It’s all they have,” he said. He finished his drink and went back into the office to count the drawers.
I had never thought about it before, but it was true. The Old Virginia was not a restaurant but a place for lost souls who needed the dignity of a job, even a symbolic job, to tether them to the world. I pedaled my bike over wet leaves toward my apartment on Grace Street and thought about this revelation. There was a new waitress, Stephanie, a single mother, who told her customers all the details of her ugly divorce. There was Venable, who was so distraught over a recent breakup that I wondered if one day he would not show up at all and I would have to go downtown to identify his body. And the men who sat around the horseshoe bar, they were all destroyed and broken in various ways: window salesmen, realtors, plumbers with six-pack-an-hour habits. They were cheats and scoundrels, braggarts and bastards. And what about me? If Joe was in the business of collecting the truly miserable and giving them jobs, wasn’t I cast among them? Joe had come to Virginia to gather and study us losers.
Recently, I had been snooping in the books. I had discovered that there were names of people on the payroll who did not exist, folks I had never met. Oscar was still being paid a ridiculous sum. There were inflated salaries (47K for Freddy and 45K for Gary). I saw lists of cases of wine and booze that never arrived at the café. Fuel costs and maintenance for the Cessna were included in Joe’s accounting. And there, in the bottom columns of the ledger, I saw that the expenses far exceeded the profits. The Old Virginia Café, I realized, was meant to lose money. Sometime, I am not sure when, the restaurant had become something intended to fail. I had a suspicion that there was a twin restaurant in Philly where the cases of wine and liquor were going. There were parties there that I would never attend. The Old Virginia was a ruse and always had been, an illusion like Joe’s oddball reflection in the refrigerator doors, like my kiss-ass overtures toward high-minded literature and the balding, old professors of English who seemed permanently out of breath.
I pedaled down Grace Street and stopped at Annie’s apartment. She was home, fresh from a shift at the Red Light. She was washing the ridiculous makeup from her face. One of her roommates was watching movies, so we went into Annie’s room. It was cluttered with canvasses and frames, squirts of paint on her bureau. She said she was disappointed with her portfolio, that she was thinking of moving back to Virginia Beach and working at her father’s car dealership. She asked about the café, if things had gotten better for me there. We crawled into bed with little fanfare. She said to be careful with her knees because they were bruised.
“You know,” she said afterward, “those same guys who come into the Old Virginia also come into the Red Light. Joe tips like a fool.”
She showed me some of her charcoal drawings. There was Chef Freddy with a venison sauerbraten, Gary smoking one of his cigarillos, Joe standing by his Cessna (I realized he must have taken her for a flight, which probably meant she had screwed him.) and a few of me behind the bar. I was dark, brooding, and she had captured something about me that was unsettling. There were too many of me.
“I look so unhappy,” I said.
For a few weeks after our rendezvous, Annie came in and sat at the bar by herself. She drank the same thing, expensive tequila on the rocks. I never charged her. “She’s a good girl,” Joe said, “you should go with her.” I stayed as far away from her as possible and spent my time cleaning bottle necks and scooping buckets of ice. And after her one drink she’d say, “Stop by after work,” but I never did because I was working feverishly on a backpacking memoir, a real piece of shit that would never see the light of day. Joe and Gary were out looking at land. They had been AWOL for weeks, and the spring was becoming possible, and after that, graduation, and the rest of my life, whatever that meant. The old professors loved my latest work and said it was “illuminating and moving.” They told me that I was at the height of my power. Gary bought me a book about Colorado from the Carriage House and left it behind the bar wrapped in simple brown paper.
One day, just as Annie was leaving, John Venable came out of the kitchen and watched her go. He poured himself his shift drink and popped a cigarette in his mouth. I was days away from leaving Virginia forever. I asked him if all the dishes were done and the silverware sorted. He looked at me in surprise.
“What happened to you, man?” he said, and he kept looking at me until I had to turn away. See, John had bought the Baudelaire.
I have lost all of them. Only John takes it upon himself to call me and inform me of the relevant tragedies. He called recently from Pittsburgh to tell me that Joe was dead, that the Old Virginia had become academic offices. Stomach cancer is what got Joe. When they buried him, Venable says, there was virtually no one from the café there, none of the old buddies, and the food at the reception was nothing Joe would have accepted. But Oscar was there, tall and gray-headed, stoic in a long black jacket.
We cried on the phone for a few minutes. Then we hung up.
And all I could think about was that time in the spring when Joe had asked me to come and look at some land. He had never taken me along before. I drove Gary’s truck with a john boat in the bed. I drove all night through southern Virginia, past battlefields and bights of dark, abandoned land and arrived just in time to pick up Joe and Gary at a rural airstrip. We drove through stands of timber to a small lake where Gary sculled us along all day and we caught tremendous large-mouthed bass.
“I think I will buy this place,” said Joe, threading a fish on the stringer, “Or I won’t. What’s the fucking difference?”
Joe and I left in the Cessna. Gary waved to us from the tarmac. And then we were up above the blue tree line, and I could soon see Richmond rising in the distant haze, the Blue Ridge to the west. As we flew over the city, I could see the Fan, water trapped on the tops of apartment buildings in pools, the James River brown with spring rains. It was too loud to talk in the cockpit. Still, I tried to get Joe’s attention to show him the huge amount of water tumbling over the falls. But he had something else on his mind. He drove the throttle down and pointed the small plane toward the trees. The Cessna began to tremble, and the trees were roaring up at us, blurring from the vibration. Papers began to stir and float around our faces. The bass slid around at my feet. We were seconds from death. We both smiled wickedly as the plane fell from the sky. But I wasn’t afraid. I had a shift that night. There were bottles of white wine specifically for this occasion, and the sea salt and spices stood in cones, ready for the touch of a chef’s hands.
Dave Zoby was born in Norfolk, Virginia. At VCU he earned an MFA in poetry. Dave has published poems in 64 Magazine, the Southern Poetry Review, Georgia State Review, Blackbird, the South Dakota Review and others. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Ninth Letter, the Sun Magazine, Gray’s and the Missouri Review. Fire on the Beach (2001) was published by Scribner. This work of nonfiction tells the previously untold story of Richard Etheridge, an African-American coastal hero who led daring rescues of shipwrecked mariners along North Carolina’s storm-swept coast. His latest book is an essay collection, Fish Like You Mean It.
“Ronaldo” by Andrew D. Cohen
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Andrew D. Cohen’s essay “Ronaldo”, which won the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, is today’s selection. In this piece, Cohen profiles his relationship with his eccentric father-in-law, exploring the complicated endeavor of loving the “black sheep” of the family.
By Andrew D. Cohen
My wife and I have this running joke about my father-in-law, Ron, a blind-in-one-eye, seventy-nine-year-old retired golf pro with a penchant for canines, Carl Jung and awful stock picks—about how he might have survived the Holocaust if he’d been there. In one version he’s waiting in line for the gas chamber, working on his golf swing, shifting his hips, talking to himself as he tends to, when he draws the attention of an SS guard and his trusty German shepherd. “Vat do you sink you are doink, vermin?” screams the guard, who happens to be a long-suffering golf fanatic, over the barking, lunging dog. Before long, Ron is critiquing his swing (“No legs! You gotta move the legs!”), analyzing his psyche (“You’re afraid. That’s why you’re not bringing the club head back.”), even offering up a casual analysis of the Führer himself (“A few issues there, wouldn’t you say?”), all the while cozying up to Oskar, his new favorite dog.
In another version, “Ronaldo,” as I’ve called him for years, is standing naked in the showers, everyone around him dropping dead from the Zyklon B pumping in through the vents, enjoying the warm steam, when he realizes that his perennially clogged sinuses are miraculously clearing out. When the Nazis finally open the door, he walks out, breathes deeply and shakes his head in disbelief. “First decent breath I’ve taken in forty years,” he announces, making a mental note to find out the stock symbol for the company that makes the stuff. “It’s going to be big,” he tells the dumbfounded guard.
In yet another version, Ronaldo, whose remaining teeth look like they’ve been through a stump grinder, gets brought in by none other than the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele, who immediately gets to work, pulling, prying, ripping up his gums and teeth, causing Ronaldo, famously stoic, to groan as his head is yanked to and fro. When the procedure is over, Ronaldo slowly stands, turns his head right then left, works his tongue around his mouth, puckers his lips a few times and shrugs. “You did for me in five minutes what those crooks in Beverly Hills couldn’t do in fifty years,” he says, shaking Mengele’s hand. “And for free!”
They’re tasteless jokes, I know, especially because Ronaldo actually lost some of his family in the Holocaust. But they make my wife and me absolutely keel over with laughter, partly because of just how over-the-top they are and, too, because, as my Polish grandmother, who sustained her own losses in the Holocaust, would say, “Every joke has a little truth.” But mostly, I suspect, we laugh because, as the Yiddish proverb notes, “Better to laugh than to cry.”
Which is to say, if we weren’t laughing so hard, we’d probably weep.
The story of Ronald Irving Weiner begins in an apartment in Northwest Chicago in 1934, but the first time I met him, the place our story begins, is West Los Angeles in 1991, when, as a college sophomore, I ventured across the country with my first-ever girlfriend to meet her parents over spring break. Back then Ronaldo was still head pro at the city’s largest public course, giving lessons, overseeing the other pros, managing the driving range, organizing fundraisers and running the shop; for a while he also ran the restaurant, but after a few months of real chaos, with employees doing drugs in the kitchen and cooks sending out burgers without meat on the buns, he wisely called it quits. The shop’s handwritten posterboard sale signs and florescent lights reminded me of those stuffed bargain-basement stores on the Lower East Side my mother schlepped us to as kids. Only instead of gray and navy Bar Mitzvah suits and winter coats, it was crammed with boldly patterned Polo shirts (“Two For One This Week!”); obscenely colored pants and shorts; sweaters, pullovers; caps etched with logos for Dunlop, Titleist, Ashworth, Ping; racks of Foot Joy socks; stacked boxes of spiked shoes (“20% off Last Year’s Styles!”) in an array of hideous color combinations; display cases filled with balls, tees, gloves, grips; and, of course, lots of clubs, club-head covers and bags. In the back, past the register and repair counter, where you could have your club regripped for a few bucks, down a hallway and beside a gated emergency exit, stood a beige, windowless cell with two wooden desks scarcely visible beneath the cascade of receipts, invoices, newspapers—any filing cabinet in that office surely stood as some sort of ironic statement—as well as a money counter, several leather briefcases, half-a-dozen adding machines and a warehouse worth of office supplies that Ronaldo shared with his mother, Mildred, an irascible septuagenarian who’d managed his books for twenty-five years.
All of this was both disorienting and a little exhilarating for a young man from New York City who’d never set foot on a golf course or, for that matter, been to Los Angeles—a young man accustomed to visiting his own father in a polished office high above Wall Street. Also disorienting was the small, tunnel-like building out front, just past a busted fountain, where the automated ball-dispensing and washing machines that had replaced Ronaldo’s father after his heart attack during the 1978 Sunstar Classic clinked and clattered like something out of an old sci-fi movie. And, just beyond, the range itself, a bustling double-decker affair with forty-six stalls teetering over a few hundred yards of mesh-enclosed grass across which a white, caged ball cart rumbled.
But what you really had to see was the cast of characters: the outcasts, misfits, perverts, criminals, ex-criminals, future criminals, schemers, crackpots, Hollywood castoffs, depressives, loonies, loners, oddballs, drunks and recovering drunks and miscellaneous hangers-on milling about, teeing off, ducking in and out of the shop, making small talk, fast talk, any kind of talk, virtually all of whom would eventually borrow and/or steal money or other material goods from Ronaldo (if they hadn’t already), including Saul, an addled Jewish man who wore a wide-brimmed hat on which someone had stuck a “Chief Advisor” pin as a prank too many years ago to remember; Tito, the shop manager, for whom Ronaldo had recently posted bail after he’d been caught “carrying a huge gun”; pros like Rich Johnson, who wanted to take over the place and to that end had secretly gotten the city to audit Ronaldo; Bill Knoll, a chronic gambler whom Ronaldo twice caught stealing gloves from him and who would eventually kill himself because of all the money he owed the syndicate; and Ed Roberts, AKA “the lover,” who slept with the older ladies at the local Jewish club until the husband of one saw Ed driving his own Mercedes down Wilshire Boulevard. There were also a few families of Hispanic gang bangers who worked in various capacities when they weren’t serving jail time. Did I mention the homeless guy living under the range? I mean, there should have been a sign over the front door that read, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses . . . The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . .” For a while I figured that harboring the “huddled masses” was just a function of a public course in a city teeming with personality.
Only later did I realize it was mostly because Ronaldo always loved a loser.
Ronaldo’s populist roots were established in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, a Jewish enclave where his German forbears started arriving back in the 1880s. A small, handsome, coordinated kid who allegedly didn’t talk till he was five, he lived with Mildred, widely known for her temper (“They heard her screaming down the block.”); his father Jacob, or Jules, an overweight, semipro ball player-turned-insurance salesman, a gambler who was the primary object of his wife’s fury; and his sister Joane. Much of his extended, lower-middle-class, very unobservant (they kept a Christmas tree) Jewish family lived on the same street. They organized informal get-togethers involving music and cards—gin rummy for the women, poker for the men—and “official” family meetings where they’d decide, among other things, which charities to donate money to (“Five bucks here, five there. We were broke.”) For the adults, there were golf outings at the public course, where Ronaldo showed up after his baseball game was canceled one Sunday in his sixteenth year.
Even now Ronaldo can’t say what he liked about the game, though it was more than the fact that, a natural athlete, he “could hit the ball pretty good.” There was something else, something “interesting,” something that in its very elusiveness compelled him. And over the following months, while his friends were going to parties, Ronaldo spent his evenings sneaking into Edgewater Country Club, a goyish club six blocks from the apartment, where the fence had a tear wide enough for him to squeeze through with a shag-bag and some clubs. But he admits that had it not been for Jules winning a few hundred bucks on a game show that spring and Millie giving an executive decree that they were moving to Los Angeles, nothing might have come of it. “It was probably the worst thing she ever did,” Ronaldo says about his mother’s decision. “If we’d stayed, I might have had friends, maybe gone to college. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have had the golf.”
That winter, with no friends, no direction at school (“No one encouraged me.”) and no rain or snow to interfere, Ronaldo would sneak into Wilshire Country Club, where the lights from the parking lot cast enough light to see one of the greens, and hit balls. Though he joined the track team in the spring, once he realized that the coach only showed up for Friday meets, he’d skip practice and take the bus to the public course to make a few bucks caddying and practice his game. Two years later he enrolled at L.A. City College, where he played on the team for five terms before realizing that academically he “didn’t know what the hell he was doing.” To avoid the draft, he enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington. A few days before he shipped out to Alaska, his sergeant set him up to play a round of golf with the general. He came up one stroke shy of the course record. “You’re not going to Alaska,” said the general, who kept Ronaldo around for two years as his teacher.
Ronaldo still likes to talk about how the general would pull up with his chauffer in his Cadillac each morning, flags blowing, everyone standing at attention except Ronaldo, who would be leaning against a jeep smoking a cigarette. “Let’s get to work,” he’d tell the general.
Ronaldo is the rarest of rarities: a Jewish golf professional with a blue-collar sensibility. He has the sort of deep faith in work of people who have worked since they were old enough to earn money. And not just any work, but hard, physical work. Ronaldo prides himself on his ability to get his hands dirty, do the heavy lifting. To listen to him talk about his postmilitary life—taking the bus seven days a week from his parents’ apartment to caddy and, once he turned pro, to teach; and later, after winning the contract for the range and golf shop from the city in 1965, not just teaching and managing the shop but cleaning machinery, unloading inventory, digging up the range—is to listen to someone who understands his experiences first and foremost as a laborer. In his telling, the reason he quit drinking in the ’70s was not, God forbid, because it was affecting his home life with his wife and young children but because he couldn’t function at work. Even when I came to know him in his late fifties, Ronaldo was on the range at 5 AM after a storm, ankle deep in mud, digging out balls.
It’s not that Ronaldo has anything against having money or, for that matter, being a successful businessman. He just can’t stand the pretense and entitlement that usually come with it. You should see him walking around the country club that he and his wife joined a year before I arrived, a concession to his desire to play somewhere people wouldn’t hock him for lessons. All these well-heeled men approach him, saying, “Ron, so nice to see you” and, “Hey, how ya doing, Ron?” and Ronaldo shakes their hand and mutters, “Prick.” “Jerk.” “Cheat.” “Fake.” “Phony.”
I mean, if there’s one thing Ronaldo hates it’s the know-it-alls, the self-satisfied, the smug, the neat or otherwise put-together. “Ego,” he’ll say about such people. “All ego.” When Ronaldo says this about you, you might as well have been condemned to the lowest level of hell.
Nor is it just successful people he doesn’t like. The only companies Ronaldo will even consider investing in are those so beaten down by the markets, so inundated by lawsuits, that it will be a genuine miracle if they ever recover. And while he has by most counts a deep, even profound love of all things canine, the truth is, his feelings for them only extend to mutts, mongrels and crossbreeds: the scrappy, the abused, the borderline demented. He’d sooner let a purebred walk off a cliff than let it into his embrace.
In many ways, I was just the type of person Ronaldo loves to hate. My parents were lawyers. I’d gone to private schools; I’d hardly worked a job in my life. And I could tell he was studying me when he took me to hit balls soon after we arrived—that it was a test, not about whether I was good enough for his daughter but about whether I was good enough period. But he must have sensed my own distaste for pretense because later that evening, his wife, Pat, told me, “Ron says you have a high level of being.”
I didn’t know what the hell he meant. But we got along pretty well after that.
Ronaldo has always been a befuddling conglomeration of Eastern philosophy, mysticism New-Age hucksterism and psychobabble, most of which he’s picked up over the years from the frantic, peripatetic reading of someone trying to make up for a missed education. I mean, his bookshelves are filled with psychological texts, philosophical tracts, spiritual and metaphysical manuscripts, most of which are so dense, so impervious, that my eyes glaze over any time I attempt to read them. And while his mastery of the ideas in them might be considered a work-in-progress, his assimilation of their language is complete. You can’t get through a conversation with Ronaldo without being peppered with words like “psyche,” “being,” “awareness,” “soul,” “unconscious,” “persona” “spirit,” “false self” and “human potential.” And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a Caesar salad, or the Lakers, or the latest scandal in Washington, either. He’s a sort of maddening mosaic of ideas whose pieces at first glance seem orderly, comprehensible, even appealing, yet, upon closer inspection, don’t quite come together.
The closest thing to an anchor in this raucously fluid universe of his knowledge is the work of Carl Jung, which he stumbled upon not long after he sobered up, a few years after my wife was born. He was by then already knee-deep in the ideas of Krishnamurti, whose skepticism of knowledge confirmed Ronaldo’s distrust of know-it-alls, and Gurdjieff, whose faith in the power of work to transform the individual more or less approximated his own. But it was Jung’s idea of “the shadow”—that beneath our egos lies this dark, insidious underbelly—that really struck a nerve, not just validating something Ronaldo had long sensed about the world but also giving him the language to speak to it. Moreover, Jung wasn’t some highflying academic: bullied as a kid, depressed as an adult, he’d dived into the mess of his psyche, battled his demons and come out, the archetypal hero, transformed.
It’s difficult to overstate how profoundly Jung’s ideas have influenced Ronaldo: they’re the closest thing to a belief system, a personal mythology, he’s ever had. They inform every aspect of his life, and he is constantly analyzing people in their context. And while he seems open to the possibility that people can, like the Swiss psychiatrist, transform themselves, he takes palpable pleasure in their missteps and failings, those moments when they reveal just how fucked up they really are. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” he will intone at these moments in an ironic nod to the radio show of his youth.
And then he’ll growl, with something approaching glee, “The Shadow knows.”
There’s always been something of the cave man about Ronaldo, and by that I don’t mean he’s barbaric, violent or emotionally primitive, let alone crudely shaped or unattractive—he’s a very handsome guy. Rather, it’s his way of moving through the world. He grunts and he groans and doesn’t always speak in coherent sentences. He’s disinclined to wash his hands after using the bathroom. His jaw, chronically clenched, has reasonably been compared to a pit bull’s, and his shoulders and back are a tangle of muscles that befuddles the most experienced masseuse. His physical strength is as remarkable as it is unassuming—his handshake can bring a large man to his knees—and he is capable of startling bursts of athleticism. And then there is what I want to call his stunning tolerance for pain, though to refer to it that way suggests he actually feels.
I mean, there’s something quite literally sense-less about Ronaldo: he can’t register smells or, thanks to a botched root canal, feel his chin or bottom lip, let alone taste much of anything. He won’t hear you unless you shout, and a minor stroke has left him all but blind in his left eye. On those occasions when he does feel something, he feels in the extreme: a debilitating reaction to dust, a feverish reaction to beef, a frantic fear of the cold. Even his attempts at self-care have a distinctly prehistoric flavor: he dutifully takes vitamins but swallows them by the handful; he eats a healthy, high-fiber cereal each morning but devours half a box per sitting; his first course of action for a boil on his abdomen is to grab the closest needle; and his daily fitness routine consists of limping around the block after his dog, intermittently pedaling his stationary bike while reading the paper, doing a dozen sitting-arm push-ups on the diving board, pumping a couple of rusted dumbbells, and squeezing those hand-grips that came of age in the’60s.
Then there was the incident years ago when his daughter had a fledgling skin-care line and she walked in on him dipping his morning bagel in a bottle of her hand cream.
When she told him, he shrugged and kept right on chewing.
That year the city put out a formal request for proposals for the golf range and shop concession.The winner would be awarded a new five-year contract. This wasn’t the first time Ronaldo had faced this situation since he and his then partner, Jimmy “the Scotsman” Fairburn, beat out thirty-five other bidders in 1963. But for most of the previous decade, Ronaldo had had a steady if informal month-to-month arrangement with the city, so the announcement caught him off guard. Still, he was successful and, to his knowledge, well-liked among the powers-that-be, and he had no reason to think this was anything but a formality.
So he put in his bid and did what he usually did: grunted and got back to work.
I’d be putting it mildly if I told you Ronaldo has a long history of atrocious investments. If there were some kind of lifetime record or Olympic event for bad investments, he’d have won it ages ago. It’s always the same, too: he becomes infatuated with some oddball company; he studies its reports, talks to its reps, listens to conference calls; he does a thorough psychological analysis of its senior officers—and then he invests every last penny he can find. Over the following weeks, he watches the stock’s every tick, devours every headline and message-board posting; he becomes nearly prophetic in his conviction about the company’s future. Even when the stock falters, he maintains it’s just the “shorts” screwing around, and when allegations emerge against the CEO, causing the price to tumble, he insists they’re baseless. Just to prove his point, he doubles-down on his investment. Only when the company files for bankruptcy and the CEO is safely behind bars—only when he’s lost everything—does he entertain the possibility that he made a mistake.
I shiver to think about the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars Ronaldo has lost in stocks over the years. Which is to say nothing of the money he’s poured into pockets of corrupt consultants, fink lawyers, shady contractors, crooked handymen, fast-talking salesmen, scheming employees or former-employees, freeloading relations, losing causes of one sort or another. “They all want my money,” Ronaldo will say. To which a fair reply would be: “That’s because they know you’ll give it to them.”
I mean, for someone who considers himself such an expert on the human psyche, Ronaldo has exercised some exceptionally poor judgment when choosing whom or what to get involved with. So when he hired a flamboyant civil rights lawyer, radio personality and aspiring golfer—let’s call him Calvin—to help sue the city for underhandedly awarding the previously mentioned contract to a large, Asian corporation, we braced for the worst.
By then I’d known Ronaldo for a decade. I was engaged to his daughter but liked him in his own right. Though I didn’t want him to lose the range, I was concerned: “He’s a civil rights lawyer, Ronaldo: What does he know about this?” But Ronaldo insisted he was “sharp” and had “no ego,” and they got to work, filing motions, subpoenaing files, generally gumming up the works at City Hall. They talked constantly, plotting their next moves but also wading into personal matters. Calvin, with no family of his own, became a de facto life coach for Ronaldo. “Buy your wife flowers,” he’d say. They also played golf, at Calvin’s insistence, for money, which, due to Ronaldo’s huge skill advantage and Calvin’s huge personality, resulted in more than one flare-up. Before long, however, they’d patch things up and pick up where they’d left off.
It was by most standards a curious relationship—more so, I suspect, because no one could remember the last time Ronaldo had had a friend. More than once I worried aloud to my soon-to-be-wife about where it might lead. But Ronaldo really seemed to like Calvin, in whom he had found something of a kindred spirit, a partner in fighting the world’s “evils.” And whatever they were doing vis-à-vis the city seemed to be working: that spring the courts made the city throw out the contract and restart the process, giving Ronaldo at least a couple of more years on the job.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it would end badly.
One of the many lost souls who showed up at the range over the years was an eighteen-year-old kid I’ll call Jeff, who came in looking for a job in the early ’70s. Handsome, just out of high school, he seemed honest and eager to work, so Ronaldo hired him, first as a range worker, later as a salesman and, eventually, as store manager, a position Jeff kept for several years before heading off, with Ronaldo’s blessings, to find his fortune. Now and then Ronaldo would hear about some new business Jeff was trying and failing at until the day, five years later, when Jeff called to say he was opening a massage parlor and needed fifty grand to complete construction.
This was 1984, when for most people the words “massage parlor” still brought to mind AIDS, prostitutes, seedy affairs of one kind or another. But Jeff said it would be high-end, nothing illegal, and Ronaldo liked him, had practically raised him, so he gave him the money. “I didn’t think about it,” Ronaldo recalls. “He needed the money. I had it.” He figured he’d never see it again.
As it turned out, the business took off. There was nothing like it at the time. The economy was great, and the locals had plenty of disposable income. Over the next decade, Jeff expanded services, hired more people, opened half-a-dozen more locations. Somewhere along the line, thankful for Ronaldo’s support, he made him a general partner.
After a lifetime of disastrous investments, Ronaldo had finally picked a winner.
And this softened the blow when, after three years of court appearances and who knows how much paperwork, Ronaldo, just shy of his seventieth birthday, learned that he and Calvin had lost the fight to the city. Sure, he was being screwed by a bunch of money-grubbing politicians. Sure, his life’s work was being co-opted by a multinational corporation. Sure, he’d been given thirty days to pack his stuff and leave. But at least he wouldn’t be broke.
So he did what he had to: he sold off the carts, the ball cleaners, the buckets, all the tools and machines and as much inventory—pants, shirts, sweaters, shoes, caps, bags, clubs, grips, socks—as he could; he stuffed the rest, along with the vast contents of his office, into his three-car garage. He attended a surprise party at which every living misfit, loony and hanger-on who’d ever showed his face at the range appeared to give their thanks and make an impromptu speech. He gave who knows how much money to his now former employees. And then, forty years after he’d started, he walked out.
And for a while it went okay. I worried he might fall into a depression or even keel over like his father, but whenever I called, he was in his office watching television, screwing around in the market, seemingly unperturbed. Each day he’d meet old Saul and his former manager, Tito, for lunch and then visit Millie in the nursing home; afternoons he played golf with Calvin who, out of a love of irony or out of sheer idiocy, invited Ronaldo to be the “Stock Guru” on his radio show. One night, while out walking old Zaharias, he even found and took in an abandoned mutt he named “Lucky.”
For a guy who’d just lost the organizing principle of his life, it could have been worse.
What went wrong with Jeff is hard to say. Maybe he started skimming off the top or doctoring the books. Maybe he felt sick of sharing his profits with someone who didn’t do the work. Whatever the case, soon after our wedding, Ronaldo concluded that Jeff was stealing from him and, with Calvin’s help, sued him. A protracted legal battle ensued, which in the short term deprived Ronaldo of most of his income and in the long term ruined his peace of mind. Occasionally, because I hated to see him spending his retirement like this, I suggested he try and talk things out with Jeff. “No, no, I’ll get him,” he’d say. “You’ll see.”
By then Millie was dead, Saul was in a nursing home and blind Zaharias had walked into the pool and drowned. Ronaldo’s sister, Joane, was dying of emphysema, and Tito was smoking crack again. Ronaldo was spending his time studying legal documents, devising ways to reduce his household budget and generally counting the days till justice would be served. To add insult to injury, it became readily apparent that the Asian corporation that had taken over the range had no plans to do what it had promised in its bid. “They’re so bad,” he’d say when the subject came up, though to be honest I was beginning to wonder who “they” referred to.
Then one day Calvin borrowed fifty grand and promptly stopped answering his phone.
It wasn’t the money that upset Ronaldo; he’d lost plenty of that before. It was the shame, the disappointment, the deep sense of betrayal. He’d trusted Calvin, given himself over to him, not just financially but emotionally and psychologically. And the betrayal, along with everything else he’d recently been through, seemed to confirm what he’d always believed about the world: it was a bad place filled with fucked-up people, and he was a fool for believing otherwise. “It was my fault,” he said. “I misjudged him. I was dumb.”
My eight-year-old son, Ezra, who, in addition to being crazy for his grandfather, is an astute observer of human behavior, once noted, “Grandpoppy just sits wherever you put him.”
It’s true: set Ronaldo down in a coffee shop, on a park bench or living room couch, and he’ll usually keep sitting there until someone tells him to get up. On those occasions when he moves of his own accord, it’s not at all clear why. Watching him is a bit like watching my dog, who, after hours of lying around, will for no obvious reason get up and move to another room.
This has always been the case. Ronaldo’s wife, Pat, admits they’d never have started dating (she approached him in the elevator of their building), gotten married (she got pregnant) or bought a house (Pat insisted he put in an offer, so Ronaldo lowballed it, assuming the offer would never be accepted) had his hand not been forced. It’s reasonable to assume he’d never have put in a bid for the range in 1963 had his mentor, Jimmy Fairburn, not taken the lead. And it’s a safe bet that had the city not screwed him, Ronaldo would have died running his shop.
Sometimes you really have to wonder how Ronaldo has accomplished anything in his life. To say he is a creature of habit is a gross understatement: left to his own, he’d keep doing whatever he is doing for all time to come. He has an almost pathological fear of change and quickly becomes enraged in the face of new or unforeseen situations. And I’m not exaggerating much when I say he hasn’t thrown anything away in fifty years. If you don’t believe me, check his office, packed with yellowed golf magazines, decaying files and dust-covered, broken desk supplies. Or his garage, still filled with everything—hundreds of used clubs, balls, rusted tools, shoes, shirts, caps—that he couldn’t sell from the shop; or his medicine cabinet, a recent inventory of which revealed a dozen tubes of Ben Gay, half-a-dozen bottles of Bayer, ten tubes of Preparation H, a split, leaking tube of Prell, several bottles of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, too many tubes of toothpaste to count, four bottles of Pepto Bismol, God knows how many packages of single-blade razors, five canisters of Colgate shaving cream, half-used and rusting, an array of partially used Dr. Scholl’s products, hundreds of golf tees, piles of discolored change.
I didn’t realize just how stuck Ronaldo was until a few summers ago when my wife and I spent several days trying to clean out his clutter. By then Ronaldo had found another lawyer, a young Jewish guy (“Very bright,” Ronaldo said, which meant he didn’t charge too much), who helped him negotiate a staged though pitiful buyout—thanks to the recession—from Jeff. He insisted he never thought about Calvin anymore. But you could tell it was all still eating him up: the mere mention of Jeff or Calvin or the golf course was invariably followed by a rant about the “evils” of the world and wild vows to expose their corruption. “The things I’ve got on Jeff,” he’d say, shaking his head. “I’ll sue him again when he’s done paying me.”
Sometimes, I confess, I felt embarrassed listening to him. He sounded like a crazy man. I even began wondering whether he’d somehow concocted all this “corruption,” whether the dramas with the City, Jeff, Calvin, were just the paranoid fabrications of his fucked-up psyche—whether on some level he wanted to lose, to be betrayed, stolen from, left alone. “Ever wonder why you’ve been ripped off so often?” I asked him once. “I mean, don’t you think it’s strange?”
Ronaldo, predictably tone-deaf, shrugged: “Maybe they know a dummy when they see one.”
Which might explain my reaction that summer when, after spending the better part of two days loading up his driveway with junk from his garage, we returned from lunch to find him moving it back inside. “What the hell are you doing, Ronaldo?” I said to him.
“Good stuff,” he said. “I’ll use it.”
“Use it?” I said. “You haven’t used it in forty years!”
As I watched him heave a busted dresser back into the garage, I wanted to scream at him, tell him how stubborn, small-minded, pathetic he was—how he deserved everything he got and worse. But I knew I’d regret it. So I just said, “You’re fucked up, you know that, Ronaldo?”
He didn’t object. He just kept dragging stuff back inside as though he hadn’t heard a thing.
The case against Ronaldo as reliable father, trustworthy husband, responsible member of the adult community, is both long and well-documented. Catch a family member for a moment and he or she will tell you about his irresponsible investments, his emotional absence, his inability to remember family milestones, his habit of turning on people, his stubborn attempts to negotiate by himself situations he’s ill-equipped for, his generally messed-up priorities. With more time, they’ll regale you with colorful tales of how he once dropped his oldest son off at the wrong preschool, or how he had his teenage son welding without eye protection, almost blinding him in the process, or how he used to send his sons out to collect balls on the range with mattresses tied to their backs while the golfers used them for target practice. And while everyone agrees that Ronaldo isn’t so bad anymore, no one is rushing to put anything of value into his hands.
Over the years I have had ample opportunity to observe his shortcomings and to develop my own case against him—for leaving my eight-year-old at a public putting green in L.A. while he went to browse the local Jung Library; for playing chase with my sons with no regard for the street; for clomping around our house in his muddy shoes and knocking up the walls with his suitcase; for convincing me to invest in a biotech company that promptly went bankrupt. Yet no matter how compelling the evidence seems, no matter how furious I get, something about all the criticisms and judgments feels misguided. Even, at times, dishonest.
I mean, in a lot of ways, Ronaldo is as reliable as they come: he ran a successful business for forty years; he put his kids through private schools; and his irresponsible investing notwithstanding, he’s paid all his bills on time, all the while bailing out many people who needed help because they couldn’t put their lives in order. And while he can turn on people abruptly, he’s shown the ability to come around to a more considered perspective over time.
Even on the domestic front, Ronaldo has, in his own, idiosyncratic way, proven himself to be quite capable. As, for instance, when he set my wife straight when she was depressed back in college and thought she was losing her mind. “Nothing wrong with you,” he said. “I feel like that all the time.” Or when he showed up at the last minute to extricate his younger son from a doomed wedding; or when he walked in on his forty-fifth wedding anniversary with flowers for his wife and a card in which he’d scrawled, “It’s been wonderful”; or when, after lots of hemming and hawing and only because the baby was asleep, my wife left him in charge while she ran errands. Predictably, the baby awoke and Ronaldo, unable to find baby food, took out a jar of jelly, tied the baby in the booster seat (he couldn’t figure out the clips) and fed him.
Sometimes I think the reason Ronaldo gets such a bad rap is because he just won’t stand up for himself. On the contrary, he seems perfectly willing to absorb all the judgments, accusations and rebukes anyone wants to heap on him. “Go ahead,” he seems to say. “I don’t mind. I’ll bear my failures and disappointments and all yours too.” He’s up to the task: hang around with Ronaldo long enough, and you get the sense he’ll endure just about anything. And rather than diminishing him, it seems to be a source of real strength—a well-spring of patience, even compassion that those around him actually rely on even as we continue to dump on him. “The truth is, I wouldn’t know what to do without him,” his wife confesses. “I’m the one who needs him. He’d be fine without me.”
Ronaldo hangs on to his stuff and we hang on to him.
A few years ago, tired of stuffing my younger son into a bike seat he’d mostly outgrown, I rigged him up a piece of wood on the rack on the back of my bike. At one point as we were out cruising along, the bike hitched and slowed, and then my son screamed. When I looked down, I saw his foot wrenched in the spokes of my wheel.
I went into a sort of shock: I couldn’t believe what I’d done. How stupid! How reckless! How completely irresponsible! Even after I learned it was a relatively “good” fracture, that he’d fully recover, I couldn’t talk to anyone, not even my wife. Then I remembered Ronaldo and picked up the phone: “I really fucked up, Ronaldo,” I told him, gushing with shame.
“We’ve all done that,” he said. Then he laughed. “Some of us more than others.”
I took the first decent breath I’d had in days.
Four or five days a week I call Ronaldo on my way to work. I talk to him more than I talk to anyone except my wife. He’s always in his office, his dog Lucky at his side, watching his stocks, reading the news, “organizing” his stacks of files and papers and magazines. One day he comes across Millie’s love letters to his father; another day he finds the minutes to the family meetings in Chicago; still another day he stumbles on an article about him nearly breaking the course record at Fort Lewis. We talk briefly about my sons, two uncommonly bright rays of light in his world (“They are good!”), before digging into the latest scandal in Washington (“Bunch of egomaniacs.”), the opera his wife dragged him to (“Makes her feel rich to go.”), the Jung book he recently dusted off (“Very deep.”), the old range worker who called him recently (“Needs money.”), the theories of his old mentor, Gene Andrews (“Lost the 1959 North/South Tournament to the Jack Nicklaus.”). For a guy who seems so completely out of touch—for a guy who starts singing Purim songs during Hanukah—Ronaldo has an uncanny ability to recall miscellaneous information; sometimes, just for fun, I’ll quiz him: “Who starred in the 1932 All Quiet on the Western Front?”
“Who won the first Masters Tournament?”
“Probably Horton Smith.”
“What’s the speed of light?”
“One hundred eighty-nine—no, 186,000 miles per second.”
“Who was the twenty-fifth president?”
“McKinley? Not sure.”
At moments like these, I realize Ronaldo’s mind is a lot like his office: everything is in there; it’s just a matter of finding it.
Invariably he tells me about his latest stock—a two-dollar Chinese coal stock that was trading at sixteen a few years ago. “You’re going to lose your shirt again, Ronaldo,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Not this time.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“This one is different,” he says without irony. “You’ll see. A little more time.”
“A little more time,” he says about organizing his office.
“A little more time,” he says about figuring out his psyche.
“A little more time,” Ronaldo says about nailing Jeff to the wall.
In this regard you could say Ronaldo is one of the great optimists: he really seems to believe that, given enough time, he’ll eventually get everything sorted out, fixed up, organized, accounted for. Yet I can’t help wondering how much of this is fueled by a fundamental sense of failure—a basic refusal to accept himself for who he really is.
Sometimes I want to tell him: “Ronaldo, you did good, you know that? You really did.” But I have the sense he wouldn’t quite believe it, that to acknowledge as much would be to undermine most of what he understands himself to be.
It’s as though he’s dedicated himself to a lifetime in the land of failure.
It’s a beautiful summer evening in Los Angeles, and I’m standing with Ronaldo at the local pitch-and-putt where he hits balls when he doesn’t feel like putting up with the schmucks at the club. He hardly plays anymore—he just hits balls, two, three hundred a day, as many as his stiff legs will allow. Whenever we’re down for a visit, I go along, not because I have aspirations as a golfer but because I enjoy the time with Ronaldo.
For the better part of an hour he puts in a determined effort, giving me pointers (“Your wrists! You broke ‘em!”), psychological insights (“You think too much.”), and mostly unmerited encouragement (“You could be a player.”). Before long, however, my back begins to ache, my hands blister, and I find my way to the nearby bench.
“I’m working on something new,” Ronaldo calls, tossing a few balls onto the grass. “Something I never quite thought about and very few teachers even know about, and if they do, it’s unconscious, so they don’t teach it.”
As I watch him loft one ball after another into the air, I realize it’s been almost twenty-five years since I first went out with him during my spring break. His hair is white now; he’s smaller, somehow, but in his cap and khakis and collared shirt, he cuts much the same figure he did all those years ago.
“Nice shot, Ronaldo,” I call as a ball rolls just past the pin.
“Still going left,” he mutters like he can’t figure it out.
The park lights snap on; we’re the only ones out here now. But Ronaldo continues to talk to himself, debating, grunting, moving his weight like he’s banging up against life’s great mysteries. Then he shrugs, lines up his next shot, and swings again.
Andrew D. Cohen teaches English at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two sons. His essays have appeared in Confrontation, Under the Sun, the Saint Ann’s Review and elsewhere. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, he received the 2007 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Award. 
Awakening to Jake
“Awakening to Jake” by Jillian Weiss is a nonfiction piece that portrays the relationship between a brother and sister, and how each of their lives is affected by societal issues of autism and race. This piece was a runner-up in the essay category of our 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize competition, and it appears in issue 41:4 of The Missouri Review. You can read an interview with Jillian here.
Awakening to Jake
by Jillian Weiss
Jake has made a nest on the back porch. He scavenged a futon, sleeping bag, duvet, and many pillows. There’s a hammock in case he feels the need to be wrapped. The porch is screened in to block summer’s mosquitos, but Jake uses the nest mostly in the winter, and he keeps the two ceiling fans churning to create an arctic breeze. Beyond the porch is a large backyard the shape of a twin bed; tall trees surround its perimeter. Two of the thickest trees used to be connected by a zip line that Jake accidentally snapped midslide, the wire whipping his back as he fell, which left him with a large red stroke running parallel to his spine.
Jake’s nest is always askew and is covered in dog hair and dirt from his bare feet and the nights he forced the new puppy to sleep beside him. Jake picked out the black Lab and named him Buddy, but Buddy is skittish and passionately fears him. If Jake is on the porch with the family, Buddy will not go outside but will cower and whine from the double kitchen doors, unable to approach my tall, black, dreadlocked little brother.
My parents didn’t seriously wonder about Jake’s atypical behavior until he stopped sleeping in his childhood bed, preferring the floor of his closet. He seemed to like how the sleeves of his jackets stroked him and the closeness of the four walls. My parents also noticed how he enjoyed the sound of repetitive banging and couldn’t look strangers or acquaintances in the eye. Though unaccomplished in reading and writing, Jake could solve handheld spatial-related puzzles with expert speed. The sort of challenges that to me were evil trickery: two intertwined metal shapes that must be separated. His obsessiveness, too, was another common characteristic. Finally, what tipped the scale was the utter blankness on Jake’s face when he looked upon his brand-new pool table, a birthday present he’d been asking for all year. My mother compiled the evidence and took Jake to a specialist, who confirmed that he had autism spectrum disorder.
Now he is twenty-two years old and nests on my parents’ back porch in suburban North Carolina after a decade of moving from foster care to in-care to group homes to weeks in the psych ward to yearlong stays in behavioral correctional facilities. Their house echoes with bangs, threats, and fuck-yous. Their piano bench is speckled with the imprint of screwdriver heads. Walls have been punched through and resealed. My parents have called the police for protection from Jake many times. The flashing lights have parked in the rim of the wooded cul-de-sac, a patch of concrete as round as a large magnifying glass. They are that neighborhood family with the wayward child.
But the police have not been called for a while. Jake has a full-time job where he shapes and saws pieces of plastic. He has a few long-term friends. Now he soothes his mind by smoking copious amounts of marijuana and electronic cigarettes. He walks with heavy eyes and heavy feet that scare the dog. He no longer runs, climb trees, or laughs. While my parents hope the peak of his violent and aggressive behavior has passed, they still often treat him like a time bomb, treading carefully around him, counting down the days to an explosion. Every night that he’s home, their precious bomb lies in his nest, cocooned in many layers of fabric to protect him from the cold winds. He doesn’t care to listen to the whirring crickets but watches movies on his phone until he falls asleep.
At first, when black men being shot to death by police across North America started making headlines, I did not think of Jake. For me, this period started in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown because that’s when many of my white friends awakened and because I had a friend who lived near Ferguson, Missouri.
I did not think of Jake because I was away at graduate school. I also knew that my parents and Jake did not live in the sort of neighborhood where people got shot and that my brother was no longer unleashing daily tides of fury but daily scented marijuana trails. Most significant, however, was that the rest of my family is white. Jake is adopted.
I must have felt so intrinsically that Jake was protected by a white bullet-proof blanket that I did not fear for him. At least not when it came to his interactions with police. But then I started to wonder: How would the police officers know, when they pulled him over for speeding or found him smoking dope on the trail up a nearby mountain, that his family was white? That his family was not only white but former Christian missionaries? That Jake was covered in a bullet-proof white blanket but also a blanket of prayer? These are facts that should not matter, but I assumed that this information would make the police less fearful of my brother’s black body.
In general, the police do not have the time to see more than people’s bodies, which is unfortunate because Jake’s black body is visible, but his autism is not. When friends meet him, they notice his quietness and his lack of expression, but never has anyone wondered if he’s on the spectrum. My mother worries: “When you’re not smiley, when you don’t talk a lot, that could be looked at as I’m angry, I’m mad, yes, I’ve done something wrong.” About one in every four people killed in police shootings suffers from a mental illness.
One incident that I’ve had the misfortune of reimagining in many ways: Jake pointing a knife at my father. This was the first time the cops were called, which was a few years before black men being shot and killed by police started making headlines. I wasn’t there; I heard this story over the phone. My father and brother circled in the garage. It was the afternoon. Jake’s hand was on the dirty handle; his mouth was spitting fury.
My father knew Jake would win in a physical fight. My father is a tall man, but Jake is nearly as tall and a little wider. He has muscles without trying to have muscles. He wears baggy, stained pants and a silver chain. His fingernails are frayed and filled with dirt. Inside this body is a person who loves fireworks and bacon, watching movies and drawing. He sketches beautiful pictures of tigers and draws on the walls of his room. He used to love the movie Legally Blonde and listening to swing music. He has asthma and is obsessed with things that go Bang! When I was in graduate school, Jake would call me when he was bored:
“Jilly,” he said.
“Jake,” I replied.
“Willy,” he said.
“There’s a movie you’ll like,” he said. “Online. I’ll send you the link.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s it called?”
“Can’t remember. Let me look.”
He breathed noisily.
“Got it yet?”
“It’s okay if you can’t remember.”
“Just wait,” he said.
“What are you going to get me for Christmas?” I asked.
“Nuffing. What’re you going to get me?”
“Why should I get you anything?”
“What do you want?”
He coughed out words like bits of food he’d been choking on.
I said, “Oh, the nice ones, really big ones. I think they’re too expensive.”
As I listened to him breathe, I googled Beats. Yes, too expensive.
“How I live now,” he said.
“That’s its name,” he said. “The movie.”
In the garage, Jake threw the knife at my father. It missed, and Jake ran away. While yelling for a neighbor to call the police, my father followed Jake into the front yard, and Jake fell onto the grass that surrounds the cul-de-sac. My father sat on top of him, his tense back leaned forward like a mousetrap’s metal hammer. A few neighborhood fathers rushed out of their houses to help my father pin Jake down, and Jake kept writhing.
By the time police arrived, Jake had tired. My father got off him. Jake lay still for five minutes, his cheek in the grass. Eventually he stood up and walked around without expression. My parents thought he might be experiencing repentance. Perhaps he should regret throwing the knife, but he should not desire forgiveness. He was full of feelings that he couldn’t explain. He was trying to show us. He needed money for cigarettes, perhaps. He didn’t have any, and he didn’t have the means to make money on his own, and my parents wouldn’t give any more to him. But he needed the cigarettes. He needed them because he wanted them, and he needed his parents to take his wants seriously. When he asked for a deer stand for hunting, his siblings rolled their eyes. When he asked for a BB gun or a motorcycle helmet. Everything he desired was expensive. He knew they would give money and gifts to his three white siblings. All of them were educated females, and their gift requests were more reasonable because they could reason. He knew how his parents sat together and discussed what to do with him, sometimes when he was in the house, in listening range: they sitting at the kitchen table, Jake walking up the stairs. They made behavior plans. They cried a lot.
My father and Jake sat in the back of our family Honda waiting for the police to propose a plan: the hospital’s psych ward, the police station, or home. My mother told me that inside the silent car, Jake said to my father, “I love you.” But I think my mother must have invented this dialogue in a fervent bout of wishful thinking. The sound of Jake speaking words of feeling does not exist in this world.
Of the 995 people shot dead by police in 2015, as reported by the Washington Post, 257 had shown signs of mental illness. In June of 2017, Joshua Barre, a twenty-nine-year old black man with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, was shot outside a convenience store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was barefoot, shirtless, and armed with two butcher knives. He had not been taking his medication. His family called for help, and he walked a mile from home trailed by Tulsa’s trained mental crisis unit. This unit allowed him to walk the mile, and only after he approached the convenience store did officers made a failed stun-gun effort and then fatally shoot him before he could endanger any customers.
A year after black men being shot and killed by police started making headlines, I went to work for a psychiatric residential treatment facility for children aged five through twelve. These happenings were unrelated. In my training weeks, I learned how to restrain small to medium-sized bodies, how to assess a situation and help children feel calm, how to eliminate triggers, how to avoid escalation. I took the physical and written tests to pass a Therapeutic Crisis Intervention Course and proudly achieved a score of 100 percent.
I was good at staying calm in the face of crisis, at never getting angry at the children, but I was scared to touch them. I wasn’t physically weak; restraining them was more difficult for my mind than my body. I didn’t want to touch them, but I learned. I was pushed, kicked, and spat on. I put children’s arms behind their backs and slid them onto the floor, trapped them in an empty seclusion room, watched them stomp and growl from a small window in the door. I followed two children a mile down the road, the distance police had trailed Joshua Barre.
We were reminded over and over that we should use physical restraints only when a child was in imminent danger. Our trainers made me repeat the word “imminent.” I tried to abide by this policy, but the longer I worked there, the more the word “imminent” seemed to me to cover a longer span of time than I’d first thought. As I watched my coworkers perform restraints with practiced ease, I felt that “imminent” implied the foreseeable future, not the next few seconds. We were certainly stopping escalation and keeping things controlled and calm, but staff seemed to operate according to the idea that once something was imminent, it was too late. They must not let anything become imminent, lest they hurt themselves, the other children, or the other staff. We must defend. We must strike while we were able.
When black men being shot and killed by police began making headlines, I might not have been fearing for my brother, but my parents were. They recognized his mentally ill blackness. They went to a police-run seminar at the iCan house in Winston-Salem, a nonprofit that aims to support, educate, and enhance the lives of those with autism or other social disorders. There, the officers talked about what people with social disorders can do to quickly identify themselves to police. They can have a sticker on their vehicle window alerting officers to their diagnosis in case they get pulled over. They can carry a small card that could be handed to an officer if they would not like to or cannot speak. This is the official advice from the Autism Speaks organization on how to disclose your disorder to an officer. In Alabama, you can download such a card from the department of health for a $10 fee. The card reads: I have been medically diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. My medical condition impairs my ability to communicate with others. . . . I also may become physically agitated if you touch me. . . . Please do not interpret my behavior as refusal to cooperate. My parents created a card for my brother but doubt that he carries it.
Through a personal connection, my mother was able to speak with a policewoman who had an autistic child of her own. My mother sent the officer documents about Jake’s diagnosis so that this information would appear when police interacted with Jake. The officer assured her that the information would be made available to the police. At the next incident with the police, however, her assurances were proved incorrect.
The problem is that for officers to be alerted to a mental diagnosis, they would have to pause long enough to get Jake to tell them his name, first and last. Probably, he’d have to spell it. Also, they would have to not overreact when Jake’s black arm reached into his sweatshirt pocket to get the card from his wallet.
He could very well have a knife in one of his big pockets. Jake does not have a gun that we know of, but he’s had BB guns and an intimidating collection of knives. The first time he pointed a kitchen knife in my direction, when I was a teenager, my parents did not allow him to hold any knives for a month. That meant no knife for buttering bread or cutting chicken. In the years that followed, my parents made occasional sweeps of his room to get rid of the knives and then waited nervously for him to come home and detect the raid. Jake was obsessed with knives for a long time, and then with guns, and then with dirt bikes. Right now it’s weed.
“Remember I sent you a link for a movie,” he said. “Don’t use that site cuz it gave me a virus.”
Every word Jake speaks is dragged out like it’s being pulled from a deep hole.
“Too late,” I said.
“What’s up?” he said.
“I’m going on a trip in a yurt.”
“What’s a yurt?”
“Like a big sturdy tent.”
“Will there be boys?”
“There will be one boy.”
“Imma beat him up!”
“You always say that but never do anything.”
“You aren’t allowed to be with boys.”
“I’m a little older than I used to be,” I said.
Jake quieted. I wondered what questions I could ask that would interest him.
“I can make a bong,” he said.
“A BAHng. I can also make a bomb. A phone bomb.”
These were topics I didn’t know about. His latest obsessions.
“Please don’t put a bomb in my phone,” I said.
“Someone calls it and it explodes.”
Police officers are often forced to act when they believe danger is imminent.
One afternoon, the Napa, Florida, police were called because a man—Philip Conley—was wielding a knife in front of a shopping center and threw a beer bottle at a car. Once on the scene, police noted that Conley also had a gun in his waistband. They asked him to put down his weapons, but instead he advanced upon the police, and they shot him. As they approached his injured body, they saw that the gun was a toy gun. They also claimed that Conley had written a note of apology to the police for having been forced to kill him, but the note has been kept in police custody. His brother does not believe Conley would want to die via police. If you choose to believe in the note’s existence, however, it seems that to commit suicide by cop all you need is a toy gun.
Of the 257 people with a mental illness shot dead by police in 2015, 100 were reported by friends, family, or police, to be suicidal. Four of them had suicide notes hidden on their persons or in their vehicles. One, supposedly addressed to police, read “You did nothing wrong.”
On a Sunday morning in 2012, the year that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by police—an event of which I was unaware—I drove to church with Jake, my mother, and my younger sister. Church was the tradition that in our family would never die. This church was only a two-minute drive from our house on the cul-de-sac and was located inside a school gym. There were fewer than a dozen nonwhite people in attendance. Most of the men wore button-downs. Most of the women showed no skin above their knees. My father had driven over on his own to prepare for Sunday school, and he met us in the gym. He inquired about Jake; my mother replied that he’d decided to stay in the car and fluff up his Afro with a comb.
After the service began, my father slunk out of our row of plastic chairs. Fifteen minutes later, when my mother received a phone call, he had still not returned. My mother exited the building to hear the caller while my sister and I continued our under-our-breath singing. We both enjoyed the act of singing but no longer wanted to be heard. We were faithful, sometimes, but aware of our being a cliché: of our churchgoing, middle-class whiteness. While waiting for my mother to return, I suspected an incident with Jake had occurred and became distracted. But to worry while in a sanctuary made this usually fruitless use of my time feel like prayer.
My mother returned five minutes later looking serious but not flustered. We had moved on to a different worship song. She bent over and whispered to us that Jake had sat in the middle of the road outside of church, presumably waiting for a car to hit him. My little sister started shuddering, breathing out in shots—a bang! of breath that Jake would have liked. My mother rubbed circles into her back and whispered, “Do you want to leave?” She nodded yes into her chest, and I followed them quietly out of the church, back to where my worries were just worries.
Outside, my mother finished the story.
When my father left the sanctuary at the beginning of the service, he saw Jake banging on our car. Worried about an “imminent” danger, my father drove away in our family’s second car. He wanted to remove the vehicle from possible damage but also to take a moment to let his anger simmer down before approaching his son, whom he loved. It was during these minutes my father took to calm and restore himself that Jake walked into the road.
An old woman in a house across from the church pulled back lace curtains, looked out her window, saw a boy sitting in the road, and called the police. Though the street had a considerable amount of traffic on weekdays, this was Sunday morning. We don’t believe Jake was truly suicidal, but we still don’t know what happened exactly. Precisely how long was he in the road? What was he feeling? Did any cars swerve to miss him? Were his eyes closed? Did he immediately get up when the police arrived?
When black men being shot and killed by police began making headlines, I often compared America to England. For ten years, my parents worked as missionaries in West London. Jake lived there from age four to fourteen. His childhood was religious and English. He did not know what it was like to have a black body in North America. Because there were so many different races in West London, I was unaware of any one race being thought of as superior. There were also no constant reminders of slavery. There were other black-skinned people in our West London neighborhood, but they were not “black.” They were Ghanaian, Jamaican, Somalian, and Barbadian.
Jake’s hair was cropped short back then, in tiny spirals. He was thinner, and lithe. He climbed trees and was on trampolining and rugby teams. He was great at flipping in midair. He struggled to read, though. He went to a tutor while I went sheepishly to my piano lessons in a nice English row house with small rooms and lace curtains. At home, he played video games with his three sisters. He let us paint his fingernails and told everyone that his favorite color was pink. When he had opinions, he stood by them.
My father believes there is a major difference in the English and American police systems. The UK banned handguns in 1997. Citizens can own only rifles and shotguns, but with a license which must be acquired through interviews, a background check, and a visit to the applicant’s home. During my decade in London, I never saw a gun, and I very rarely heard conversations about them. Police did not respond to calls with so much fear because they did not expect a gun to be pointed at them.
In the year ending in March 2016, police in England and Wales only fired seven bullets. In 2015, cops in North America shot enough bullets to kill 995 people. In 2015, the population of the United States was only roughly five times the population of the United Kingdom.
I have never experienced such fear for my life and the lives of my family members as I have since black men being shot and killed by police started making headlines. I avoid walking near policemen in the street. I tread tentatively through houses that I know harbor guns. When I spy a gun wedged in someone’s belt, my heart beats faster. The police officers are scared for their lives because the public has guns, the people are scared for their lives because the police have guns, and I’m scared for Jake’s life because he or the police could have a gun, or Jake could have a fake gun, a BB gun, a water gun, a banana stuffed in his pocket, a knife, or just a handful of Skittles.
One of the last times I saw my brother was at my wedding in North Carolina. The week before the ceremony, my family, including uncles, cousins, and brothers and sisters-in-law, all stayed in a beach house that my grandfather rented. From the porch, you could see the ocean stroke the shore.
They spent their days at the beach and their evenings at nearby seafood restaurants. Jake was never a deep-sea swimmer, but he used to enjoy skimboarding over the shallowest waves: running with the board, slamming it down on the shore, and then jumping on top of it, body glittering with flecks of water. In his manhood, he has stopped running. That week, he would sometimes sit with my father and build a drip sandcastle, or spend an hour digging a hole, but nothing more. He preferred to spend the days with my grandfather, who was always on errands, shopping for dinner supplies or wedding decorations.
Jake had missed my older sister’s wedding three years before because we’d been too nervous to bring him back to London, his recent behavior having been particularly explosive. He could run away and we would never find him, or he would distract us from the wedding planning and my sister’s big day. In the days before our flight, my father drove him up north to spend a week with an old London friend so that Jake could have his own slice of English past.
The year of my wedding, because the beach house was so full, Jake did not talk very much. He was a mute but helpful presence. When I spoke to him, he hardly responded. Admittedly I was so overwhelmed with joy and planning that I did not attempt to speak to him much. On the day of the wedding, he helped set up, he put on a black suit, he did his groomsman duty of standing up front throughout the ceremony, and he smiled in family photos. Guests on my husband’s side assumed he was one of my husband’s friends because his color didn’t match mine. At the end of the night, I went home with my new husband, disposable foil trays tied to the back of our car, and he went home with Mom and Dad.
One day in mid-2017, five years after the death of Trayvon Martin and the beginning of Black Lives Matter, the white bulletproof blanket of my family lifted, and I became aware of Jake’s mentally ill blackness as if for the first time. I was on a hike near the Oregon coast, an hour and a half from where my husband and I lived in Portland. We were hiking the perimeter of a lake with another couple, tall trees and dragonflies everywhere. It was the perfect, slightly cool temperature for a hike. We walked over a small bridge, spied logs peeking out of the water to sunbathe, and as we followed the narrow trail, there was a bee that kept following my friend and a fly in my ear. My husband and our friends were talking about Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Though I’d been in many such conversations, I stayed quiet, and maybe because of our introspective, peaceful surroundings, I finally understood that my brother had a black body, that he was living in the American South with a black body.
Soon after, Jake called me. I had not spoken to him since the wedding and imagined him lying on his nest on the back porch.
“Jake!” I said.
“Jill,” he said.
“I have a question.”
“My friend’s mom is a flight attendant for American Airlines and says she could get me a job. I need a résumé.”
“You want to be a flight attendant?”
“You know your job would mean being nice to people all the time.”
“It would require a lot of smiling.”
I paused to imagine this alternate Jake: broad shoulders in a crisp attendant’s uniform, dreads pulled into a ponytail, unruly beard gone. Clean clothes, clean hands. Saying, “Excuse me,” as he reaches over a passenger to pass a drink.
“You want me to make you a résumé?”
“I can make you a template, but you have to add in the information. Ask Dad for help.”
“I’ll e-mail you.”
Maybe this was good, I thought. Maybe he would be safer in the air. I would like him to fly, to be carried across the sea. In my memory, I had only carried his body once, when I was twenty-three and Jake was eighteen. We were in my grandfather’s pool, and Jake swam up to me, his large body making waves behind him. He said, “Hold me, Jilly,” and I cradled him easily in my arms while he grinned, his eyes disappearing behind his lids, water pooling in his stomach, his knees like icebergs, each of his dreadlocks dripping like a leaky faucet.
After the white blanket of my family was lifted, I started researching incidents of mentally ill black men being shot and killed by the police. I came across Jeffrey Lanahan, a thirty-four-year-old white man with autism, who was killed by police in March 2016. Friends and acquaintances described him as a shy and quiet person. In the weeks leading up to his death, Lanahan’s father had passed away while the family was on vacation in Hawaii, and due to money woes, his stepmother was forced to sell their home. Lanahan lived with his father and stepmother, and on the afternoon of the incident, he exited their house wielding a twelve-inch knife and charged at the officer who had just arrived, and the officer shot him. He died in the hospital later that day. His obituary requested that donations in his name be made to the Autism Society of America.
I fear many things: earthquakes, illness, guns, spiders, and, recently, Jake’s untimely death by police. I need to be better at living within frightening possibilities. But how to stop being scared for my life? To begin, I must be scared for someone else’s.
Perhaps my fear for Jake’s life is fueled by presumption and pessimism, but he’s been fighting for his life since before he was born. His birth mother put him up for adoption, fighting for his life. As a child, he bit his siblings, fighting for his life. As a teenager, he pined for guns and pulled a knife on my father, fighting for his life. He sat on the curb and told me that he wanted to die, but he’s alive. He has sat in the middle of a two-lane road. He has wrecked many different types of vehicles, and yet he lives. He’s had a nail through his foot, stitches in his groin, a metal disc stuck around his finger, pseudo-Parkinsonism from too much medication, and yet he lives. He runs away, but always comes back to his family, who live in a world that whispers that Jake’s body is dangerous. Even in his own house, in his small physical territory, the idea solidifies: the dog cowers in his presence and will not sleep in his nest. Though my parents have been frightened of him too, their biggest fears come from knowing that my brother’s home country—his place of birth and culture—is not fighting for his life.
I fear that I too am not fighting for his life. I have certainly been slow to acknowledge that some people find his life less valuable. Perhaps this is an unforgiveable failure.
While black men are getting shot and killed by police, Jake is at his friend’s house, chilling. Or he is waking up, getting dressed, and smoking a joint. He is taking long baths. He is pulling back his dreadlocks with an elastic band. He is going to work. He is walking to get Chinese takeout or frying bacon in my parents’ kitchen, flipping the individual pieces and laying them on a paper towel. While wearing the shirts his grandparents bought him for his birthday, he goes to Harry and Mary’s house at the mouth of the cul-de-sac to wrestle with their dogs.
This time, I call him. It’s August 2017. Jake is twenty-two years old.
“Hey, Jake. What are you doing?”
“Have you applied to be a flight attendant?”
“Haven’t done my résumé.”
“Did you just wake up?”
“You sound sleepy.”
“Hey, Jake, have you heard of Black Lives Matter?”
“Have you heard about black men getting shot by police?”
“Anyone in particular?”
“Do you ever think about that when you talk to police officers?”
“I know Mom and Dad worry about you. They’ve talked to some officers. But do you ever feel scared?”
It seems obvious now that Jake may never be fully aware of the extra danger his body could attract, but maybe this unawareness is good for his peace of mind. And I see that I, with my white body, can also never be fully aware, but that my ignorance is potentially harmful.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m going to see you this Christmas. Actually, after Christmas. The twenty-eighth.”
“When you going to bring me some bud?”
“I think that’s illegal.”
“So? Pack some weed brownies with some regular brownies.”
“I don’t think Mom and Dad would like that very much.”
“Is there anything you want for Christmas that’s not smoking related?”
“Get me some lollipops.”
“Some regular lollipops?”
“No!” he says, and then I think there’s a premonition of a laugh, like a chuckle is calling out from the depths of his throat. “Weed lollipops!”
“Yeah, I’m going to get you a big bag of lollipops for Christmas.”
I tell him that I’m hungry and need to make lunch. He says okay.
“I’ll see you in December, yeah?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.
After an adolescence in London, England, Jillian Weiss received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She won the North Carolina Writers’ Network Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest, and her essays can be found in Reed Magazine, the Pinch, Sycamore Review, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a memoir about her missionary upbringing and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and cat.
“A Shapeless Thief” by Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy’s debut memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, about mental illness and her family, was published by Penguin/Random House in May, 2019. “A Shapeless Thief,” which is taken from the memoir, first appeared in TMR 37:2. The essay was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2015.
A Shapeless Thief
By Marin Sardy
My mother knows the earth’s surface is composed of tectonic plates, and that these plates move hundreds of miles with ease. They arrange and rearrange themselves, very quickly sometimes, creating natural phenomena when they shift. There is one place, the Shear, where the plates have fallen away, leaving a bare, scraped expanse extending for hundreds of miles. In another place, near Monterey, California, a plate dropping into the ocean has created a series of horizontal shelves at the continent’s underwater edge. On one of these, she says, a city thrives beneath the waves.
Sometimes plates duplicate themselves or multiply, resulting in two or more that are nearly identical and seem to contain the same location. For this reason, she says, it’s important to pay attention to details when you travel, to make sure you stay on the right plate—in the correct Roswell; in the Anchorage where you grew up. Each Roswell, each Anchorage, is a distinct colony. And if you accidentally end up in the wrong colony, you won’t find the people you know, because they’re not there. This is why flying is tricky. You go up in the air, and when you come down, there’s no real way of knowing if you’ve landed on the right plate or another by the same name. You fly to Santa Fe to see your sister, but when you go looking for her, you may not be able to find her.
So check the sky. See if it looks different today. Strange. See if it looks like a different sky than the sky you remember seeing over Santa Fe. And if you go to your sister’s house and she’s not there, look at the pillows. They might be the wrong color. These are the little things that help us know where we are.
In bits and pieces over many years, my mother has described to me this earth, the one she inhabits, expansively elaborating on the details of plates and colonies, as well as the Assay, a natural force that continually sorts us according to where we belong. It’s more than a single fantasy. It’s a whole system of rules and perceptions that constitute an alternate world—a foundational delusion that emerged slowly in her mind when I was in high school and developed into a full-scale paracosm by the time I finished college.
I’ve been told that when I was very young and my mother was still sane, she sometimes spoke of the universe as existing in two streams. First Stream was our tangible, everyday reality. Second Stream was a separate, inner place, the realm of the imagination and spirit. Then the boundary between realities became so porous that she lost track of the differences between imagery, metaphor and physical fact. The two streams ran together.
Now she doesn’t bother to explain much, because she knows I understand the basics. She’ll bring up the topic only if there are new developments, usually as a prelude to offering important advice: “Stay away from California for a little while.” Or, “Make sure you have plenty of gas!” This isn’t overprotectiveness on her part; it’s reasonable concern. Her world is one that is capable of shifting beneath her feet. The houses she has lived in, the cities they were built in, the very rock they stand on—all can be yanked out from under her.
This may explain why she moves regularly through several states, never living in the same place for longer than a year but instead looping back to visit the same spots again and again. She never flies anymore. She’ll take the train from New Mexico to Monterey. She’ll work her way by bus up to Bellingham and maybe take the ferry to Anchorage, sleeping in hostels and befriending the twenty-somethings she meets there. Sometimes she gives me a name and a number. “Hang on to that,” she says. “If you find yourself in a bad situation, this is someone you can contact for help.” Or: “Remember this name. If you meet someone by this name, you could take her home and give her a place to sleep for the night. She might become your roommate!”
My mother’s travel habit began in the grip of her descent into psychosis, twenty-seven years ago, when she was nearly forty and I was eleven. She spun into a manic six-month round-the-world romp that stretched from Hawaii to North Africa to Australia and then returned periodically to many of those places over the next several years. This was spurred by a belief that someone was after her, and it may have started because my grandparents were trying to have her hospitalized. After a few months in and out of clinics in Alaska, she went along with their plan to try one in Dallas. There the effort reached an unexpected climax when she bolted across a parking lot, jumped into a cab, and disappeared into the night. She resurfaced with a phone call, two weeks later, from the other side of the world.
I was offered few explanations for my mother’s behavior beyond being told by my father that she was “ill” and it was not her fault. At some point the word “schizophrenia” reached my ears, but it meant little to me. In place of understanding I took hold of the tokens of my mother’s travels, as if they were crumbs forming a trail I could follow to this new place inside her. Whenever she returned from a trip, she would bring back such wonders for my sisters and brother and me to pore over—embroidered housedress-like garments from Tangiers; all kinds of currencies. The Australian coins were our favorites: kangaroo, platypus. Once, my older sister organized the coins into a booklet and labeled them. Although we were savvy enough to sort out where the various European currencies came from, there were a number whose origins we couldn’t decipher from the script. My sister labeled those “Arabic Nation.” We asked our mother, but she didn’t know. She had gone missing in more ways than one.
To this day, my mother has never accepted the idea that she has a mental illness, and she has never taken medication for it. She has not been specifically diagnosed with schizophrenia, either, but she knows it is what people say about her. At least two doctors have said they believe she has some form of it. And it runs in our family—my brother began to show similar symptoms about a decade ago and eventually received the same diagnosis. (He, too, resisted the idea and ultimately abandoned treatment.) But official diagnosis for my mother would require a doctor’s observation that her symptoms have lasted longer than one month, and none have examined her repeatedly over such a period of time. For nearly a quarter century, she wouldn’t allow any doctor to examine her at all. My sisters and I, on the other hand, have observed that her symptoms have lasted for twenty-seven years.
Even as a child, the word schizophrenia struck me with its frightening poetry. Its exotic and convoluted array of letters captured the sense I had of the illness—confusing and bizarre, mysterious, infamously inscrutable. During the first few years of my mother’s illness, I witnessed what I can only describe as a disintegration. She went from leading a healthy, engaged life to being a mistrustful recluse who lived off cigarettes and screwdrivers. For a while she nearly imprisoned us in our own house, barring the door with heavy pieces of furniture and having lengths of wood fit to the windows so they could not be slid open. She was so afraid of assassins that her fear seeped into me, too. I did as she asked for a long time. After a while, though, I rebelled, and eventually I just gave up, choosing instead to detach myself by playing video games all afternoon while she fitted the TV antennae with balls of foil or simply sat very still for hours on end.
I rarely found words for what I saw my mother do, what I heard her say, so her illness seemed always to live in the shadows. In the closet, under the bed. As a child I felt schizophrenia to be a dark, shapeless thief. What other image could fit what I had seen? How does a child articulate the absence of what is necessary? The absence of sanity. The absence of the mother I had known. To my eye it appeared that, more than anything, she had been stolen.
Now, grown and far more educated, I feel nearly the same. Schizophrenia still defies the most fundamental question about it: What is it? I can tell you it is a brain disorder that causes distortions in perception, thought, and emotion. I can explain that it arises by way of chemical and physical processes inside the brain. But if I reach much further, I soon arrive at the edge of human knowledge. We have not yet grasped how the brain creates perception, thought and emotion to begin with, let alone how it produces such spectacular distortions. One important study compared contemporary researchers’ various hypotheses to the fable of the three blind men of Hindustan: each, when asked what an elephant looked like, felt a different part of the beast and described it. One, feeling its trunk, said it looked like a snake. Another, feeling a leg, proclaimed that it looked like a tree. . . .
I have only what I have seen. For instance, that the inherited wealth that paid for my mother’s globe-trotting is now long gone. In recent years, needing an allowance from my grandmother, my mother began living near the epicenter of her family, New Mexico, hopping once or twice a year between Roswell, Santa Fe, Denver, Colorado Springs and Tucson, where her six brothers and sisters and various other relatives live. This was for her a fairly circumscribed and blessedly consistent movement pattern, although she still ranges farther from time to time. Right now she is in southeast Alaska.
Because I lived in Santa Fe for several years in my early thirties, I could see her regularly. She also called often, which was important to me, since she had no telephone for most of that time, so I couldn’t call her. She was too paranoid to keep a phone of her own, but she would use pay phones and relatives’ phones. She just wouldn’t leave a message, ever, and while on the phone, she wouldn’t refer to people she knew by name, and if you lingered without speaking for more than a couple of beats, she’d hang up on you. If behind this paranoia there was a delusion, however—some belief that would make sense of this—she has never explained it to me.
A new pattern emerged when I moved to New York, and she stopped calling me. Before moving I reiterated several times that I wanted her to call me regularly, but she skirted the issue, and it was only after I left that I realized there was something in her mind getting in the way.
When I visited Santa Fe a few months later, I tried again, although I didn’t think it would make a difference. “Mom,” I said. “Call me.”
“Oh, well, you’re over there now,” she said. “So far away! I think it’s better to—to stay close.”
“Yeah but, Mom. Why does that matter? It’s a phone.”
“Hmmm. I try to call Sadie,” she said, referring to my younger sister, who lived in Santa Fe too. “I’ve been trying to call Sadie! She never answers.”
“Sadie has to turn her phone off when she’s at work. So call me.”
“Well. I think I’m just going to stay focused on what’s nearby. I just think that’s a good idea right now.”
Our conversations are riddled with these inexplicable refusals—inflexible positions she won’t relinquish and won’t, or can’t, explain. They emerge from nowhere and stick like cement. A decade ago, when I lived in New Hampshire, she called me often. But in New York it is as if I have fallen off the edge of the world. Recently she got a phone again. Now I can call her, and she’s delighted when I do, but she still won’t call me herself.
Certain places, it seems, must be avoided. When my older sister got married in Bozeman, Montana, my mother missed the wedding. I cajoled and then harassed her about it as the date approached, but she was evasive. Every time I brought it up, she shifted the focus to the lovely wedding gift she had bought.
At first I thought she didn’t like the idea of attending a crowded event, so I tried bargaining. “You don’t have to go to the reception,” I told her. “You can just go to the ceremony.” When that failed, I went all the way. “You don’t even have to go to the ceremony,” I said. “You can just see her beforehand, on that day. Or the day before that.”
I got nowhere. She wouldn’t relent and wouldn’t say why. I have since racked my brain trying to understand what it is about Bozeman. If it is about Bozeman at all. But her whole world is a cipher, and in it there are codes I can’t break.
In her youth my mother was one of those people who seemed to catch everyone’s eye. “Like a sprite,” my aunts say. “Like an elf.” Petite and pale, with a heart-shaped face and a delicate smile, she was beautiful and alluring and had a distinctive, distant charm. Now approaching seventy, thick around the middle, with her once dark hair a peppery gray, she still seems somehow like a pixie. Her eyes dart about her, and her hands flit with precision as she speaks. When quiet, she turns inward, and it is almost as if I am watching her curl her head under a wing. She isn’t beautiful anymore. Jowls hang low on her face, and when she smiles she reveals teeth weathered and crooked from malnutrition. But her blue eyes seem to have intensified in color, and her bony fingers are as articulate as ever.
These days my mother has a very clear sense of what kind of information upsets others—things “people don’t like to hear about.” So she has been in the habit, for nearly two decades, of reserving discussion of certain topics for my sisters and me.
“Marin, I’m glad you’re here because there are some important things I need to tell you about,” she says, peering at me with wide eyes, her hands clasped politely in her lap. “I’ve learned about a few things that I think you might want to do. I have found out—I’ve found out that now is a good time to move to Pluto.”
Despite her refusal to accept her illness, she knows that the world reaches her in a different form than it reaches others, and I am almost certain she knows that something about this cripples her. But she still fights for the validity of her thoughts, as anyone else would.
“Pluto?” I ask. “Like, the planet?”
“There are some exciting developments happening there right now, and you can buy a home at a good price. Right now, before it really catches on. They’re setting up a colony there. Homes for young people, and you’re at the age that you could go there and really get started on your life.”
“Mom,” I say, “I have a life.”
“Oh, but this is such a great opportunity! It’s so affordable! You could really find a nice house there and have a nice place to live.”
There is no point in arguing with delusions, but I hate to play along with them, either. Usually I engage just a little, to show I care. I offer something like, “So, how do you know they’re colonizing Pluto?” But I’m not very good at hiding my impatience.
“I’ve seen it! I’ve seen—I know this, Marin. I’ve—I understand this.” She pauses, her eyes searching. I can practically see the wheels turning as she sorts through her mind looking for a response solid enough that I won’t silently reject it. As much as she’s shared the material of her delusions with me, she’s almost never let slip anything about where they come from or how they’re formed. And she knows I’m a skeptical listener.
“Such a beautiful place! Do you know the oceans there have waves that are capped with fire? Can you imagine? Fire-capped waves?”
“That’s a beautiful image, Mom,” I say, genuinely, picturing it. “It kind of takes your breath away.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? And there are all these condos for sale there now! You might want to do that!”
“Mom,” I say gently, “I just really want to be here right now, okay?”
“Well, think about it and see if you don’t change your mind. Also, there’s something else I want to explain to you, too. Your uncle Robert has been staying in the condo in Santa Fe, and I want you to know that the condo belongs to me. It’s mine, and he—somebody—took it away from me. Now, while I don’t have a home at all, Robert goes and stays in that place and acts like it belongs to him.”
I’m annoyed now, inevitably. I rub my forehead. I say something like, “As far as I know, the condo has always been Robert’s.” I say it wearily, not to convince her but just because it’s a reasonable response that is neither condescending nor untrue. The condo does belong to Robert, but I qualify the statement because I recognize that I’ve never actually seen the deed.
“Well, it wasn’t always his. He went and got the papers from where they were filed, and the people at City Hall didn’t notice, and now he’s told everyone it’s his, and there are no papers, so everybody thinks it is his. But maybe one of these days, Marin—this is why I’m telling you this—those papers might turn up. So if you see, at some point, some papers that look like they have to do with a house, if you find them lying around somewhere, I want you to take them and keep them someplace safe. Because then I might be able to get my house back.”
“I don’t think they would leave those kinds of papers just lying around.”
“Well, you never know. You never know!”
Sometimes I just stare at her and remind myself that she’s on her own trip and it’s not my job to fix the unfixable. But she tends to persist until I say something like, “If I happen to come across some papers that look like the deed to Robert’s condo, I’ll do that.”
“Good,” she’ll say. “Now, what are you up to today?”
Other times, though, her voice might turn sad. As in dreams, much of the symbolism in her delusions expresses her own feelings about her life as she struggles to understand it. But this is a dream she can’t wake up from.
“All these homes I’ve had, that people have taken away from me!” she once said plaintively. She lifted her chin and gazed into the distance with innocent eyes. “It’s almost too much for a person.”
And that was too much for me. Although I know that nobody has ever taken a home from her or even claimed any property that was rightly hers, I wanted to tell her I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her. But I could never say that, really. I’ve never been able to protect her from anything.
For a decade or more, since my mother sold her last residence, she has been wondering how she lost her home. She keeps searching for a place where she can live and be safe for the rest of her life. But she’s too erratic and irrational. She has spent all the money that bought her former houses—a trust fund from my once wealthy grandfather, a divorce settlement, her own sporadic earnings. Now she rents small apartments, one after another, rarely committing to a lease longer than six months.
To explain this, I have only a theory: when she arrives at a place, it is new, unsignified, a clean slate. Then her visions and voices begin interacting with this physical environment, and, slowly, over the course of months, meanings accrue. All the powers of the universe work their way into the smallest details. Here is where a bright light visited me one night. I stayed quiet for it, and watched. Loaded with emotional import, the details often turn ominous or antagonistic. Someone has been burying horses in the backyard. I’ve seen the teeth coming up out of the ground! Eventually, every detail of the place seethes and echoes so resoundingly with the influence of powers only she can see—everything pointing back to her, for her, about her—that the only way to keep it under control is to flee.
This is, I think, why she wouldn’t live at her mother’s house in Roswell, her hometown, despite being welcome to live there for free until my grandmother passed away last year. The dozens of paintings on my grandmother’s walls made her uncomfortable. She started moving things around, hiding things. It baffled my aunts and uncles and frustrated my grandmother. I could only guess what my mother wouldn’t say outright: the paintings were looking at her, talking to her, and when they upset or frightened her too much, she had to escape. She put them away in corners to sap them of their power, and when my aunts and uncles tried to convince or force her to stop doing this, she moved out. Nowadays she rents an apartment for a few months or a year, buys a white comforter, and keeps nothing on the walls but a small cross and an image of whatever saint has recently caught her attention.
I think if she had a house of her own, she would still leave it periodically for months at a time. But she wants that house, her house. She wants to see the return of at least one of the many homes she has lost in her lifetime, which she believes were stolen. And the weird truth is that, in a way, they were stolen. Schizophrenia stole them, by taking away her capacity for long-term planning and remembering. The ability to keep track of time is a prerequisite for virtually everything a person can have or do in life. In the timeline of the universe, my mother lives in a bubble that disintegrates into chaos two weeks in either direction. That’s about the extent to which she can pin down reality well enough to manage her life within it. Beyond that it becomes too warped to be of use.
She can manage a weekly budget but not a yearly budget. She can sublet a room, but she can’t get through the paperwork required to qualify for low-income housing. In her paranoia, she often refuses to sign her name on official-looking documents. She hasn’t worked in over a decade. For several years she has lived on Social Security benefits and an allowance from the family. She can do fairly complex tasks like shopping, cooking, or balancing a checkbook, but she has trouble maintaining the relationships required to keep a job. Momentary concerns overwhelm the bigger picture, which dissipates into mist.
Trying to help my mother is a frustrating and usually useless effort. She won’t often accept help, preferring, she says, to take care of things herself. The harder we push, the more she resists. I try to be as cooperative as possible, hoping she’ll go along with my plans if I act optimistic. But mostly, my hands are tied. Over the years, we in her family have sometimes tried to maneuver around her to get her finances under control, but we couldn’t legally do much without her permission. No one could have forcefully intervened. She functions far too well to be declared incompetent. This is how it happened that she spent and wasted all she had, spending more to live than she could earn, buying and selling a long series of houses, condos, apartments, and cars, each time losing money on the deal until she had nothing left.
When people first meet my mother, she peers up at them expectantly, immediately asks how their day has been, and often says something disarmingly cute. She’s fond of giving gifts, doling them out almost as offerings to the gods: a coupon for a latte at Starbucks, a brochure for a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. “Look at this,” she’ll tell my friends, holding up the photo of a jewel-blue seascape. “You may be interested in doing something like this in the future. Maybe this will give you ideas.”
She may or may not decide to say something risky. And if she does, it may or may not be apparent that it’s a delusion. Often it’s necessary to know the people she mentions in order to know whether what she’s saying is true. Relating to my mother involves a delicate interplay between realities, one that few people are prepared to learn. So my role is to be her translator. When she speaks to friends of mine, I try to stand slightly behind her so I can signal—a sharp nod or a quick shake of the head—to indicate whether they should interpret a given story as fact or fantasy.
When my mother first met my husband (then a new boyfriend), in a Santa Fe bookstore, she pulled a book on Italian cooking off the nearest shelf and asked if he liked Italian food. She concentrated hard for a moment, and as she continued I could see her working her way toward a thought. It was clear from her manner that she was seeking, not scheming—listening, perhaps, to the ruler of her strange, secret world. Then she announced that T.J., my father, was a friend of the book’s celebrity-chef author, Giada De Laurentiis. Only after we left could I tell Will that my dad had never met Giada De Laurentiis—though my father does make great Italian food. The delusion apparently sprang up as my mother was speaking.
Other things my father has done, according to my mother, include being swept away in a tsunami in Hawaii in the mid-’80s. As she tells it, he drowned, and in the confusion, another man appeared and took his place. This man was very helpful and began taking care of us, and after a while nobody noticed anymore that he wasn’t T.J. He let everyone call him by that name, and for a while my mother believed that he was the real T.J. But a few years later she caught on, and when I was about twelve she explained to me that the man I called Dad was not actually my father but a replacement. “I call him Mr. Ree,” she said. I didn’t catch the significance of the name until my older sister sardonically spelled it out for me: “Myster-ry.”
As the rest of us experienced it, my mother divorced my father in 1984, when I was nine, in a period of sustained and probably paranoia-based rage, after nearly a dozen years of marriage and the birth of us four children. My dad, stunned and horrified by her descent into madness, moved into the house next door, and we settled into a joint custody arrangement. Years later, when I asked him why he hadn’t fought for sole custody, he said, “I just couldn’t do that to your mother.” For the rest of my childhood, my father was in that same house and my mother stayed within the neighborhood. We moved back and forth between the two homes about once a week.
For years my mother would refer to my father only as “Ree.” “How is Ree?” she would say when I was at her house. “Are things okay over there at his house?”
At some point in my teens, I dryly asked her if it bothered her that her children were being raised by a stranger.
“Well,” she said, “he seems to be a nice enough man, and he has really, truly accepted this work of taking care of you kids. So I guess it’s worked out okay.”
Her mind is forever another country, a long-lost homeland that only she has seen. And I am her bridge, even when I can’t see one side from the other.
Nowadays my mother’s delusions fade in and out, and with these shifts, her memory changes. Sometimes she still calls my dad Ree, other times by his real name. He first became Mr. Ree not long after their divorce—not long after he, in a last-ditch effort to get help for her, had her briefly committed at the state psychiatric hospital. During the next two or three years, her rage and paranoia toward him were so thick that she couldn’t speak to him without shouting, and for a while she wouldn’t allow him to see her face. She kept her head shrouded in a scarf when she drove up his driveway to drop us off. Now, when her stolen-house delusions turn toward a cabin he owns and when she tells me why it rightfully belongs to her, he is Ree. But when, maybe, she hasn’t thought about him for a while and isn’t upset about anything relating to him, Ree slips away, and he is T.J. once again.
The hardest losses for me to witness are this kind—not of home or fortune but of the relationships her illness has made so difficult. Or impossible, as for anyone she comes to fear through her paranoid beliefs. I know she feels these losses as much as any. The inevitable by-product is her own loneliness.
Even for my sisters and me, loving our mother is never simple. My younger sister, Adrienne, is an ongoing point of confusion because she usually goes by her nickname, Sadie. My mother seems to assume that Adrienne and Sadie are different people, but she doesn’t take issue with it. I didn’t even realize that this was the case until one of my aunts mentioned a conversation she had had with my mother while Adrienne was traveling in Asia. “Is Adrienne still in India?” my aunt asked. “Yes,” my mom answered, “and I think Sadie is, too.”
For a few years she also thought there were two of my older sister. I may be the only one who remains singular, and I admit this has always been a relief for me—although I know my doppelgänger could emerge at any time.
“Mom,” I once asked her, “don’t you think it’s strange that I’m the only one there has never been two of?”
“Oh, I know!” she said. “Isn’t that remarkable? It’s amazing how things can happen sometimes. Everyone but you!”
For many years, my mother was sure that my brother had, like my father, been swept away in a tidal wave in Hawaii and that this little boy who called her Mom was another child. This boy, this false son, was just as sweet as her son, however, so she embraced him as her own. But she worried that her real son was still out there, lost and alone. She only hoped someone kind and loving had taken him in.
She finds lost children everywhere she goes. They’re always young people, often travelers, and when she speaks of them to me, it is to ask for my help in keeping an eye out in case they might need shelter or a surrogate family. “You can adopt each other!” she says sometimes. One of her more elaborate delusions involves an actual organization, the Arc of Anchorage, which in reality provides support for people with disabilities but which she says facilitates the process by which people can adopt each other. Because there are so many of these orphans wandering around, she explained to me, somebody decided to help them take care of each other.
She has often suggested that I adopt my brother, whom she hasn’t seen in about ten years. She knows, because I have told her, that he is in Anchorage but that on any given day I don’t know where he is. I don’t know what she makes of that. But I can tell that she knows, from her own observations and intuition, that her son is struggling and isolated.
“Any news from up north?” she asks me every time we talk. This is her way of saying, “Have you heard from your brother?”
“Not lately,” I almost always answer.
“Why don’t you give the house a call?” she suggests next.
“You mean Dad’s house?”
“I can’t reach Tom by calling Dad’s house, Mom. He doesn’t like to go to Dad’s house.” For a long time I used this reply to evade what I never had the heart, or the guts, to truly explain. But when Adrienne told me she had already tried to explain that Tom is mentally ill, with unclear results, I thought I should give it a try too. During a visit to Santa Fe, my mother asked for news from Alaska. I looked at her squarely. “I can’t call him because I don’t know where he is, Mom,” I said. I took a breath. “He’s homeless. He lives on the street.”
She looked down, her face furrowed in annoyance, and began picking a cuticle.
“Tom has schizophrenia, Mom,” I said.
“Oh, don’t say that!” she said, pulling her hands back close to her body, still looking down and picking at her fingers.
“Mom, that’s why I can’t call him.” She wouldn’t look at me.
“Come on, now, Marin! Let’s not talk about that today.”
My words sounded cruel in my ears as they grated across her. But I hate to hide the truth from her. Her mind does that so brutally well already.
“Tom is going to deal with his life,” she said sternly, “the way he decides to. Now, let’s not talk about this.” I realized she had already thought this through. And she got it right—for years my brother has refused help from anyone, even help to get off the street. My mother understands, perhaps better than anyone, that his troubles are ultimately his to overcome.
The balm for these rough times comes in the small moments with my mother, the easy ones. Moments when nothing can be gained or lost, when one of us notices something lovely in the world: she sees a bird outside the window and remarks at the brilliance of its red wing. She bends to pet my dog and comments on how daintily she lifts her paw! For all the confusion and fear induced by her ever-reconfiguring world, it also grants her the full richness of its magic.
Driving down the road in Santa Fe one spring morning, when a gust of wind picked up a spray of fallen pink petals and swirled them over the road in front of my car, I wished she were there to see it. I knew she would feel its beauty and for a moment be filled by it. I miss her whenever I have these moments alone. One day in Central Park, I walked past a shadowy grove of leafless trees after a morning rain had left their branches laden with drops of water, clinging so densely that they seemed like pearls strung along the undersides of the limbs. “Mom!” I wanted to say. “Look at the droplets of water shining on the trees!”
“Oh!” she would say. “Isn’t that lovely!” Her voice would be high, captivated. She would pause. Her bubble in space-time would encompass us both, and for a moment I would feel as if the entire world began and ended there.
Marin Sardy’s essays and criticism have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, the Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Missouri Review, ARTnews, and Art Ltd., as well as in two award-winning photography books, Landscape Dreams and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby. She has also been the arts editor in chief at Santa Fe’s Santa Fean magazine.
Questions We Don't Ask, Stories We Should Tell
I don’t come from a family of natural-born storytellers. That is, we don’t have Irish ancestry, and we aren’t fishermen. During holiday get-togethers we sometimes share somewhat exaggerated memories of childhood hijinks (like the time my brother hog-tied my sister and locked her in a closet because she wouldn’t play hand-hockey with him) but these stories are usually fleeting. On the average night, we like to argue about politics until my mom gently changes the subject by offering us more food. Overall, we keep our big stories to ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s simply a different manner of communication. But because I’m the only writer in my family, I care about our stories.
This past summer my family made a trip to Casper, Wyoming for a reunion with my dad’s side of the family. My dad is one of seven kids and I’m one of sixteen grandchildren, which made for a chaotic week of catch-up and drinking in the backyard while swatting flies. During this week, I hit a storytelling goldmine. With help from photo albums, beer, and nostalgia, my grandparents, aunts, uncle and dad swapped stories about growing up in Casper in the same small house where all of us stood. Meanwhile, I sat on the sidelines scribbling quotes word-for-word into my notebook or squeezing shorthand versions of local legends into the margins. I acted as a scavenger of sorts, gathering up scraps of stories from my family’s lives for my own devices, to color my fiction with real-life details. I listened, but it was as a bystander, not as a niece or daughter or granddaughter. I think about this often, and wish I could take back. It turned out, this week in Wyoming was the last time I would see my grandpa alive.
In the week before he passed away, he had been hospitalized for what seemed like a minor infection, and I wasn’t worried. This was my tough-as-nails, mountain man grandpa. Three years ago, he had two incredibly painful knee replacement surgeries done at the same time “just to get it over with.” Five years ago, he was kicked out of a hardware store for being “unruly.” The man was a force to be reckoned with at any age, and I knew he wouldn’t go out without a fight. I was right about that, at least. My grandpa died on a Friday in January, surrounded by his children and some of his grandchildren.
By 5 a.m. Sunday morning, we were on the road from Kansas City to Casper. That night when we arrived at the hotel, my dad pulled me aside to ask if I would write something about my grandpa. He wanted a “narrative” of my grandpa’s life that we could print up and pass out at his funeral. “Not an obituary,” my dad told me. “Something longer, that tells some of his stories.” I said yes immediately. During the drive to Wyoming, I had spent hours rolling through a catalog of memories and the handful of stories my grandpa told last summer. I wanted to write something about him, based on the scribbled pages from my notebook. Instead, my dad’s offer allowed me to write (and learn) more about who my grandpa actually was.
Over the next few days, I asked a lot of questions. I met with my grandpa’s sister, Donna Lu, and asked about my grandpa’s childhood. What were his parents like? Was grandpa as ornery as a kid as he was in adulthood? Sitting down with my grandma, I asked about how they met. Where did they go on dates? What is the secret to a successful, 53-year marriage? With my aunts and my dad, I asked about what he was like as a father. What kinds of adventures did they have together? What were grandpa’s most meaningful pursuits?
It occurred to me that although I had always known my grandpa was a true character and a strong family man, I knew very little about what had happened in his life. After three days of mini interviews, I had six typed, single-spaced pages of stories from my grandpa’s life – stories I had never heard before. I never knew that my grandpa grew up on a farm in Nebraska, that he lied to the nuns at his Catholic school and cut class to go pheasant-hunting with his friends, that he played semi-pro baseball and got into brawls with the umpires over bad calls. He embarked on a road-trip to California with a buddy but stopped in Casper because he only had $5 left in his pocket, and stayed because he met my grandma at the local Knights of Columbus Hall. In the basement of his business, Lammers Do-It-Yourself Store, he built a meat-locker where all his hunting pals kept the game they shot in the mountains on ice. For years, he had an unofficially reserved seat at the back of church, which he secured each week by arriving 30 minutes before mass started. I never knew any of this, because I had never thought to ask.
Two nights before the funeral, I sat down to write the narrative. One thought would not leave my mind: our lives are so full. We are more than blood and bones and bodies – we are stories. Our heads and hearts archive our best and worst days, the people who moved us, the experiences that changed us, and the places that anchored us. If we don’t write our stories down, if we don’t tell someone our stories, then we let part of our history disappear. But more importantly, if we don’t ask the people we love these questions, then we are at fault.
In my grandpa’s case, six pages of notes barely served as an outline for the hardships and joys he experienced in his long life. I can’t imagine how many stories I missed out on. In the future, I won’t make the same mistake with anyone else in my family. It doesn’t matter whether any of them are storytellers. It is my duty as a writer to ask and listen, write down and remember every word, and ensure that no one’s story goes untold.