when i was a kid, i always wanted to hang out at my friend’s houses instead of my own. other moms let you play video games into the wee hours, and in the morning you could watch cartoons while eating <quote-01>fruity pebbles or lucky charms<quote-01>.
william, you’re too close to the television, i need you to scoot back, my mother says as she passes between the two on her way to the outside fridge. it’s christmas, and i’m helping her with dinner. sarah is out with the dog, and the rest of the family is spread around the house. william, i’m not gonna tell you again. she walks past him, <quote-02>costco pies balanced on her forearms<quote-02>. is sarah going to need a snack before dinner? she asks me as she unloads the pies. nah, i think she’s good. / i’m sorry, nicholas, give me a second, she says, heading back to my nephew. if you want to watch your show, you’re gonna have to move your body further away from the television.
mom, gosh, leave me alone! i might have barked back as a kid, but then it would be dad’s turn to discipline. he couldn’t care less where you sat in relation to the tv, but he’d be damned if he was gonna let you be the reason his wife later turned her frustration toward him. imagining the roles reversed is good for a chuckle: debbie working the crossword, unflappably shooting off a terse and <quote-03>effective admonition<quote-03>; a busy-bodied anthony rapid-firing weightless commands into the air as he markedly completes the day’s tasks.
she stands there, holding her ground. she’s calmer with william than she was with me. she’s not frustrated; she just needs him to scoot back. <quote-04>he finally concedes a few inches<quote-04>. thank you, william. it’s not good for your eyes, sweetheart. sit on the couch if you want; it’s more comfortable.
after dinner the adults play cards while the kids take turns using the spare bedding to sled down the carpeted staircase. i figure they’re gonna have to find another activity when i notice the edge of the stairs taking on some of the green dye from my childhood comforter. i’m surprised when my mom shrugs her shoulders. it’s ok, she says. she exhibits a calm warmth. time with them is just too precious.
i got something that’ll get it out, my dad affirms with a touch of annoyance, his eyes in his cards. <quote-05>i take the comforter away. there are plenty of other blankets<quote-05>.
back at the card table, our mom mentions that she never had friends over when she was a kid. like, because you weren’t allowed to? my sister and i ask. no, we could, she says. we just never did. we’ve heard tell on separate occasions from both her older sister pam and her younger brother bill jr. how the three of them would huddle together in the closet when their dad returned home from work. grandpa, evidently, had a volatile temperament. i think it was just too embarrassing for us.
born in oklahoma city, debbie grew up in oxnard, california, where her father bill owned a machine shop and her mother georgia kept the books. around the time debbie married her first husband, <quote-06>rebecca’s father<quote-06>, her parents moved nearer to pam in <quote-07>camarillo<quote-07>. as such, my sister, our three cousins, and i spent our summers alternating between camarillo and upland. julia was my sister’s age, aaron mine, and matt right in the middle.
when i was eight or nine, however, bill sold the machine shop and bought a cattle farm back in oklahoma. some of my fondest childhood memories are from the summer weeks i spent out there with pam’s boys--just us and our grandparents. <quote-08>these must have been nice breaks for our folks too<quote-08>, what with my sister off at her other dad’s, and julia, well... who knew where julia went. not to the farm with us, that’s all we cared about.
it was mostly open field, the farm, but to us it felt like a great wilderness. plots were sectioned off by steel-poled fences, barbed wire, and rows of tall trees. there were six ponds of various sizes, and the larger ones were overpopulated with perch and bass. you had no time to relax after casting your line; as soon as the bait hit the water you had yourself a fish. we were taught how to drive the atv--my introduction to the clutch mechanism, years before the manual transition in the ford ranger--and allowed to set off and explore on our own, occasionally venturing out onto the dirt roads of the <quote-09>town<quote-09>. hanna, oklahoma: population less than 500.
that first summer, after a brief but thorough lesson in firearm safety, <quote-10>grandpa<quote-10> gave us the code to the gun safe. i practiced opening it over and over again, the clicks of the black dial and the silver numbers. there were two <quote-11>semi-automatics<quote-11> that were off limits, but the single actions were all fair game. confirming your theory, murph, that <quote-12>if there ain’t a train or a cowboy<quote-12> i ain’t interested, my favorites were the 22mm pistols with the revolving chambers. they were heavier than they looked in the movies, louder than the rifles of the same caliber--what with the shorter barrels--and much harder to aim. we’d line up empty two-liters for target practice or take aim at lily pads in the ponds. birds were off limits, but aaron picked one off the fence anyway. <quote-13>i remember returning to look at its tiny body throughout our stay, horrified by the maggots that eventually filled its hallowed chest<quote-13>.
everyone in hanna grew watermelon. we ate it all throughout the day. grandpa would hack one open down the middle lengthwise, then hand us each a steak knife and <quote-14>let us go to it<quote-14>.
if you want to tell whether a cow’s pregnant or not, do you reach in through the butt or the vagina, <quote-15>grandpa asked us around the campfire<quote-15>. vagina, matt said. that’s right, grandpa confirmed. now we knew. important knowledge too, what with red around. red was the bull. he’d saunter up to the fence when we entered an adjacent plot and wait for us to come over and scratch his head. i can feel his coarse, orange hair, the hard bone of his forehead. big red: the docile bull.
i never understood it, my mom says, and neither did grandma. she hated that farm, hated being away from her kids all year, her kids and the grandkids. / well, we sure loved our time out there. / oh, i know, i know you did.
georgia’s lungs began to bother her in oklahoma. the basement was covered in mold, the walls of the house filled with it. a few years after buying, bill was forced to sell. it was all the same to rebecca and julia, but <quote-16>matt and aaron and i sure were bummed<quote-16>. bill lost money on the farm, but he didn’t care. i guess it’s what they mean when they say folks want to return to their ruts, my mom says, her accent coming through.
they moved to a retirement community in sun city, arizona. those were some hot christmases. culs-de-sacs fanned a pastel swath of rock yards, each its own distinct, pale desert shade. this is the image that came to mind when my father recently mentioned getting rid of their lawn in rancho. which shade will he choose, i wonder. pueblo sand? sante fe tan? weathered saddle, perhaps.
bill died in sun city, died from colon cancer on a hospital bed in his living room. georgia and all of their kids were present. even julia and her fiancé came to help out for a while at the end. bill was a big man, but so was marcello. he helped him to the bathroom and helped to clean him. marcello had manners for days. it was yes, sir this and you’re welcome, sir that. he even used the opportunity to ask bill for permission to marry his granddaughter.
grandpa, what would you do if i married a black man? a young julia once asked, basketball on in the background, complete with bill’s offhand racist commentary. i’d get my gun! he barked. (gasp) mom! did you hear what grandpa said?! he said if i married... / leave it alone, julia! pam barked back, as if julia, happening upon the bird aaron had shot, had brought it into the house to get him in trouble.
bill gave marcello his blessing and asked that they plan to be wed soon. so that he could come to the wedding, julia likes to imagine. she loved her grandpa very much.
in the final days, the family took turns resting. pam was asleep in georgia’s bedroom when bill finally passed. it happened fast, and things were hectic. she was, understandably, upset that no one came to wake her up.
the last time i saw my grandfather was <quote-17>in 2004<quote-17>, during a similarly warm christmas at my folks’ house in rancho. his once thick head of gray hair had thinned to about what mine is now. it was combed straight back, though he used to part it on the left. it glowed a blue-white. i thought it was beautiful.
bill jr. stayed on with georgia in the years following his father’s passing, the beginning of a long decline in his mental health. in the end, he stole nearly every penny left in his mother’s name. no one in the family will speak to him anymore, far as i know.
rebecca’s other dad moved his family to virginia around the same time grandpa moved grandma to oklahoma. she loves how sarah is from virginia. it’s so pretty there, she always says. before the move, rebecca left for her other-dad’s in oxnard every other weekend. they were allowed to do whatever they wanted over there. she had a step-brother who smoked cigarettes and stole stuff and a pregnant step-sister. there was also a second step-brother who listened to rap music and acted black one month and decided to be a skinhead the next. she’d come back and tell me all about it. they watched r-rated movies and ordered pizza all the time. i was missing out.
my first r rated movie was with matt and aaron in oklahoma: the terminator. the second one had just come out, and the first one was on tv. they’d already seen both, of course. matt demonstrated with grandpa’s lever-action shotgun how arnold’s single-handed twirling reload was, in fact, possible. yeah, the second one is way better, aaron said. but you do get to see her titties in the first one. / really? titties? i thought. <quote-18>i couldn’t believe my luck<quote-18>. i was worried what my folks would do when they found out and surprised how easily my cousins suggested we just not tell them. it’s tv, so they’re gonna cut out all the nudity anyways, said matt.
those weekends rebecca was in oxnard were the ones i’d spend with tom. uma thurman would go on to take her top off for the two of us countless times. we debated taking the vhs of dangerous liaisons to my place but then thought better of it. we built domino rallies in the dining room and had water balloon fights in the front yard. in the backyard we’d play tetherball. whatever my house lacked, it made up for with tetherball. the white pole consisted of three lengths that locked together with stiff metal buttons. you had to set it up and take it down every time you wanted to play, lest the rust get to it. if the grass had been neglected, you had to search around a bit for the hole. but <quote-19>anthony did it right<quote-19>, digging deep and surrounding the base with cement, the pole as sturdy as those permanently installed on the playground. the shallow slope of our backyard allowed for height-handicapped positioning when playing an adult or for kicking the shit out of the ball from the high ground when you were alone and angry.
i suppose that’s part of what makes a place good for hanging out: permission to be angry.
my mother was visibly upset and finally left the room, followed by my sister, but only after my father, without voicing his discomfort, removed himself first. it was a holiday afternoon in sun city. we were sitting in the living room after lunch, football or fox news on the tv. grandpa had been relentlessly insulting grandma over something trivial, something none of us can now recall. she cheerfully continued to reassure him that he was misremembering whatever it was that had upset him so and that there was no need for him to be raising his voice. it was dumb grandma this and stupid grandma that.
i remember sitting alone at the end of the couch finishing <quote-20>east of eden<quote-20> after everyone else had gone to bed.
there was another episode i remember from when i was real young, from when they were still living in camarillo. the four of us had hurried to leave, as if for our lives, a towering demon of a man, fists to the heavens, driving us from the house. he kept using the word rebuke. i rebuke you, he said over and over again to my mother. she wept in the car. clueless and frightened in the backseat, i asked my sister if mom and dad were getting a divorce, assuming she’d know better than i. what else could the horrible news have been that drove grandpa into such a state? no, we’re not getting a divorce, my father assured us, his eyes on the road.
i later learned from julia and uncle bill that my mother had gone through a period of therapy with an analyst whose methods they questioned. julia and uncle bill both have degrees in psychology. new memories of abuse were brought up for my mother during these sessions. i’ve never asked her about them, and she’s never offered, but evidently, her siblings were suspicious of the claims. i now believe it was these accusations that were made known to her father that day--whether directly or indirectly, i’m uncertain.
regardless, it’s troubling to imagine them in there, those three kids in the closet, in the dark amongst the shoes, listening intently for which version of their father will be coming home. and there’s no disagreement among them there.
these days georgia refuses to speak of bill. she talks about her first husband instead, and quite often. his name was earl. she was prohibited from ever mentioning earl, but now that bill is gone, it’s as if earl was all there ever was. he was a rear gunner, shot down in germany. the pilot survived; earl did not. he was buried abroad then excavated and moved to a cemetery in long beach, california.
sure, i got you. where you guys from? i ask, reaching into my pocket. i must have had an audition--<quote-21>no other reason for me to be in times square in the middle of the afternoon<quote-21>. oklahoma. / oh nice, my mom was born there. where ‘bouts? a smoke on the walk to the train is a good first step toward exorcizing the role you’ve worked on for days as if it were your own. i give them two, one for each of them. little town in the middle called hanna, she says. you can imagine my surprise. he hands her the lighter. you’re not gonna believe this, but my grandpa was the mayor of hannah for a few years back in the early nineties. i spent my summers there with my cousins, shooting guns and eating watermelons. they’re not sure if they believe me. it’s also possible i’m misreading them. watermelons, right? you guys are, like, famous for your watermelons! he takes a drag. i mean, not really, no. we got some watermelons, sure, but it’s our weed we’re known for. best in the state!
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