Saturday, August 7, 2021

The gray divorcée

First in, who knows, maybe a series of short stories about being GenX in slightly alternate universes.


Steve’s dad had played one season of pro baseball for a minor league farm team. He was very quick to tell everyone that it was, like, the least professional thing you could do in baseball and still get paid. But everyone knew it was false modesty because Steve’s dad was a giant tool and it was really the only thing he’d ever done that was in any way interesting. 

He slept in on Sundays when Steve and his mom and little brother went to church. I know, because it was our church, too. He wanted to umpire in the local Little League leagues, but he refused to take the required two-hour training course because he shouldn’t have to because, you know. He sold some kind of stuff that got used in building commercial buildings. Maybe siding or insulation or something. I was never sure. He travelled on business a lot. Chicago, New Orleans, Dallas. He’d bring back some snow globe with the city skyline or other lame-ass shit from airport gift shops. 

Steve told us, his friends, he was pretty sure his dad saw prostitutes when he was travelling. He’d overheard his dad say something about it during poker night one time when he, Steve, had to get up and get a ginger ale for a stomach ache. 

“But he may just be making shit up,” Steve told us at his 12th birthday sleepover. “He does that to seem cool or dangerous to his friends or whatever.”

In 1978, at twelve, the idea of somebody’s dad seeing a prostitute was on par with somebody’s dad being an actual intergalactic alien captain of a spaceship.

But that was what was in my head at Katy O’Reilly’s birthday party later that summer. Steve’s dad seeing prostitutes in Chicago, New Orleans or Dallas. With a snow globe waiting on the cheap, bedside table in a motel decorated in 1960’s goldenrod or celery. A snow globe from somewhere that didn’t have snow. Waiting to come back to suburban Boston and sit on the back of the dresser in Steve’s bedroom. Waiting to be dusted twice a month until it got thrown out when Steve cleaned up his room before going to U Penn. 

Steve’s birthday, like mine, was right near the beginning of summer vacation and that was cool. Get out of school and have a couple parties and sleepovers. Boom. Good times. Katy was a year older than us and her birthday was in early August and her oldest little brother was a year younger which is why we were invited to her party because her mother and our mothers were friends and Katy’s mom wanted to pad out that particular birthday because one of Katy’s actual friends had moved away and another had stopped being her friend for some reason. 

There was Katy, who we liked, and then her four little brothers, all of whom were various flavors of terrible. The next one, the one we were supposed to pretend to be friends with, was Mike. I think. Maybe Matt. It was an “M” name, because he insisted on being called “Big Mike” (or “Big Matt”) at some point when he was around eight. That lasted exactly three minutes before somebody was like, “So, you’re ‘BM?’” Which was, and still is, hilarious. 

So his nickname was “BM,” which he hated, even though he told people it stood for “Big Mike” (or “Big Matt”). 

Katy was cool, though. And I felt honestly bad about the losing a friend thing. That was an age when there was a realignment of friendships from grade school to what would eventually be the major high school cliques. People just stopped being your friend for no goddamn reason. It had happened to me already, and I knew the girl that had stopped being Katy’s friend and it was about some “who likes which kind of dancing” bullshit. Ballet vs. jazz at the local dance academy. Whatever.

Anyway, I liked Katy and, by extension, her mom. And, Steve’s dad was, at least in my mind, a criminal on par with Hitler (or at least Goebbels) for having (maybe) gone to a prostitute while on a business trip and he was kind of gross, regardless, and so that’s why I made him color blind.

If you didn’t go to birthday parties for kids in the 70’s, I’m happy for you. It was a terribly awkward time between the Boomers’ childhoods -- when kids were kids in ways that, for us, seemed forced and goofy -- and when they, the Boomers, had their own kids and parties became a lot more about whatever Disney or Marvel or Star Wars merchandise and characters or sports teams were favorites. 

For example, even at parties for twelve and thirteen-year-olds, GenX kids’ parents still often did games like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” (I shit you not) or “Musical Chairs.” Which hadn’t really been fun since we were like seven. We were forced to wear conical hats and blow through those noise-makers that roll up. And, as I said in the case of Steve and me and some of our friends, they often invited a bunch of not-quite-friends based on parents’ ideas of who should be invited to a party, not just the birthday kid themselves.

I don’t blame our parents. They were all Silent Generation kids and as lost between Greatest and Boomers as we’d be lost between Boomers and Millennials. All our ideas about What is the Right Way to Do Things were filtered through the memories of adults who either didn’t want us to become adults or expected us to act like they had when they were kids... twenty years earlier. 

Since it was August, it was a picnic party, which is better. You can do some outside things like horseshoes or lawn darts and it’s picnic food like hot dogs and burgers and stuff, which is better than what you get fed indoors at a kid’s birthday party in February, which is much more like real food and might even include a vegetable other than baked beans or saur kraut or corn.

Except this was the year they decided, since it was so hot, to try doing some “fun, wet games.” 

For fuck sake.

If you don’t have an actual swimming pool, don’t have kids bring a bathing suit and a change of clothes. Especially if you’ve invited 30+ kids that aren’t really friends in order to cover some kind of perceived social gaffe that would happen if you actually just invited people your kid wanted at the party. 

Twenty minutes of eating decent picnic junk and then (I continue to shit you not) pin-the-tail and a pinata full of generic candy nobody ever likes (root beer barrels?) and then the cake and the singing and then, “OK everybody! Get changed for the water-sports!”

Yes. “Water sports.” 

It was the 70’s. Calm down. Nobody thought what you’re thinking right now. Zero out of everybody. This was way before the internet and most of us didn’t hear or read the word “dildo” even until we were sixteen and got ahold of a Penthouse and read the letters and, even then, we had to ask somebody’s older brother who ended up getting it spectacularly wrong.

So... half an hour wasted while we all waited our turns to change in the bathrooms. Half an hour of the boys standing around holding a towel and a suit and doing nothing while the un-conditioned air of the basement rumpus room made us all conscious of whose sweat was now puberty sweat. Half an hour of looking at friends and not-quite-friends and who-the-fuck-is-that-kid, all coming out wearing bathing suits that were either way to small because mom hadn’t gotten around to going to Sears for a new one, or too big because she had and it needed to last through next summer. 

The girls (there were more of them) got to change a couple at a time in the larger, master bathroom upstairs where it was cooler. 

I will not discuss the bathing suits of girls at that age. It was confusing enough at the time. 

The slip-n-slide was fun, at most once, for most of us. Until the ground got muddy and it sank down and the New England soil expressed its eternal rockiness and started poking us in the junk and one of the younger kids slid too far and scraped a bunch of skin off on the grass. 

Then we threw water balloons at each other based on “teams” which lasted about zero seconds until it because a free-for-all. The original round of two water balloons for each player lasted a hot minute, and then we waited around while somebody’s dad filled them up at the faucet, breaking every third one by overfilling, and that was another half hour of standing around in our bathing suits being awkward and looking at what was left of the cake but that we’d been told we couldn’t have because Katy’s aunt and her young kids were coming over tonight and we need to save some for them.

Last on the agenda was a squirt gun battle using tiny, old-school squirt guns that we’d all been provided from some “party pack.” The girls got to pick first. Mostly they picked based on color. Then the guys got to choose their guns from three styles that kind of looked like a Nazi pistol, a cowboy gun or an alien zapper. No matter the color or style, they all held about ten squirts of water, then it was back to one of the buckets to fight over who got to fill up next. 

To be fair, though, that was the funnest part of the party. Running around like idiots in the hot, August afternoon. Kinda high on sugar and being outside in a bathing suit and being allowed -- nay, encouraged! -- to squirt people with guns. Some of the parents even got into it and if they had a gun you knew it was OK to squirt them and they were all really into it in the fun way that decent adults at a kid’s party know how to be and they weren’t dicks about being squirted while wearing their street clothes.

Except Steve’s dad, of course. Who hung back out of range while sipping a Dr. Pepper, eyeing the remains of the cake as much as any kid there. 

And eyeing Mrs. O’Reilly. Katy’s mom. 

She was getting what I now, as an adult, recognize as “a few minutes of peace” while the kids were all actually having fun and she wasn’t prepping for the next activity. She was sitting on the bench of the picnic table that the cake was on, keeping watch on it, and us. I was waiting in line for the bucket to fill my purple, alien-style squirt gun and so was pretty close to the picnic table and she caught me looking at the cake and gave me a fun, “Oh-no-you-don’t” smile. She knew I knew I wasn’t going to sneak a piece, but it was fun to think about being a little bad and it was all part of the fun to get caught a little. I smiled back and patted my stomach to show how full I was and shook my head and made the, “No, no” gesture like I was a grown-ass person refusing another bite, and she laughed.

I was at the age when cute girls and pretty women had become something I was aware of, even if not involved with. She was a pretty lady. Laughing, she was beautiful.

She was also divorced. Which, while not as weird as an alien UFO captain or a travelling business dad hooking up for money in a HoJo’s, was still pretty rare in suburban Boston in the 70’s. Now? Nobody cares. I mean, the families obviously care. The kids care. But nobody “judges” per se. Divorce is simply an unfortunate reality in the 21st century, not a moral failing or social catastrophe. 

Katy’s dad had left a few years after the last of the brothers was born. At that age, I had no idea why. I had overheard from my mom that “he sends her plenty of money, but isn’t ever coming back.” Years later I found out he had both a terrible drug addiction problem and a terrible girlfriend problem who encouraged it. 

So I’m standing there, shivering slightly and somewhat deliciously as hose water evaporated off my back and arms, hearing the shouts of kids and grown-ups, getting impatient for my turn at the bucket and I become aware of a warming sensation as if someone to my left had opened an enormous oven.

Now, if you were born after about 1980, you probably aren’t aware of how warlockery was completely not-talked-about until Vatican III and (some say coincidentally) George Clooney’s famous PSA about his own challenges with natural magick. It’s perfectly normal now to take your kid for preternatural testing at five and then get them into a program and the right medication. But like divorce -- and autism and being queer and abortion and confederate-psychosis -- we were still suffering under a variety of Victorian-like blinders and gags when it came to having helpful, transparent discussions about areas that were considered, by mainstream Protestant America, anathema. 

Of course I’d heard of warlocks. But in the same way that I’d heard of faeries or international spies or atheists. They existed somewhere between the world of, “We know that’s just a story” -- like Santa Claus -- and “there’s something to this, but nobody really knows,” like hypnosis. 

I’d certainly never known anyone who themselves was a warlock. Or who admitted it. There were stories about a couple people “back in the old country” or a distant uncle. But, again, at that point in time, the mid 70’s, it would have been like being gay in public.

There were the few famous people who claimed warlockery for themselves -- William Holden and Ralph Ellison, of course -- but as the Parson’s Test hadn’t been developed, a lot of that was shrugged off as superstition. I mean, I had a great-aunt who claimed that she’d been healed of endometriosis by crystals and a distant cousin who was a snake-handling Methodist Bishop-Flagellate. But we just nodded politely and then rolled our eyes at anyone who claimed actual manifestations of any religious beliefs, didn’t we? Religion was for moral instruction, holiday traditions and covered-dish suppers. Not... power.

Until it happens to you, of course.

I still don’t know exactly how to describe it. I’ve been unspelled for more than 20 years now, of course, since I began treatment. But for those first few years, until I got up the nerve to talk about it, drunk, with close friends in college, there was simply no reference point for a normal, white, middle-class boy to talk about having random magickal powers. 

But there I was. Wet and filled with cake and hot dogs and potato-salad and the air next to me seemed to grow solid and filled with hints of vectors and averages and points of reference. As if someone had spilled a bibliography written in glass shards onto a disco floor.

Steve’s dad was leaning in a bit close to Katy’s mom and I could tell she was uncomfortable and he brushed a bit of hair away from her cheek where it had fallen out of her sensible, casual-fun-type ponytail. 

“Lovely,” I heard him say, though I shouldn’t have been able to. He was a bit too far away, there was some breeze, and the ambient noises of the water fight were quite intrusive. But the expanding sphere of not-quite-invisible lines and shapes gathered his words and brought them to me.

They also delivered a world of knowledge about Katy’s mom’s state-of-mind. How tired she was of raising the children on her own. How tired she was of being in a situation she hadn’t chosen. How happy she was that her kids were having some fun for once. 

How much she wanted to murder Steve’s dad.

It almost went that way. They talk about controlling warlockery as if it’s a game or a puzzle. Like, if you’re good at it you can just call up some spells. People have asked me to “do tricks” and “make stuff happen” and all the absolutely hurtful, rude garbage that, even now in the 2020’s, is still bandied about by douchebags. I once had a really good run of luck at a card game at a friend’s frat house in college and he, being a bit drunk, mumbled something about, “Well, that’s a warlock for you.” He apologized profusely later, but it was hard to get over and get back to our previous level of friendship after that.

Her casual-yet-serious thought manifested in the web of not-just-air that was forming around me. I could see it happening as if it was a TV show I’d watched just the day before...

Steve’s dad inhaling hard as he laughs at his own joke. That wasp over there taking off a few moments earlier than it had intended. Getting sucked into Steve’s dad’s throat and stinging him there, on the inside. Throat closing up. Steve’s dad trying to yell but nothing comes out, or goes in. People yelling to call an ambulance. Adults pushing their way closer to see. Kids standing around, water pistols dripping, both confused and completely drawn in to something extraordinary happening on the grass by the folded up slip-n-slide...

Steve’s dad said, still brushing at Katy’s mom’s hair, “What color is this? It’s lovely. From a bottle, at your age, I assume? Reddish blonde? Blonde-ish red? Reddish-blonde-ish?”

That was the joke. His own joke, the one he was about to laugh at. Hard, with a big gulp of air at the end and...

There goes the wasp. A bit early, yup. A slow, spiral up and closer to the cake and...

I still don’t know if I did it on purpose. At other points, when I’ve suffered a spell, I seem to have had some limited control. Only like you might decide, after tripping, that you’ll take the weight on your elbows instead of palms. You can’t “not fall,” but maybe you can manage to not break your wrist. 

In this case, though it was closer to control than anything else I’d ever experience in the future. Maybe because I had no idea what it was, what I was doing, or the limits. No expectations or fears, just the moment. And in that moment, my very strong, very focused thought was:

It’s auburn, you dick. Are you color blind?

And before he could laugh and inhale the wasp, Steve’s dad sat up very straight and blinked a few times. The wasp flew past where his face had been and landed on the cake, as it would have had it taken off when it was “meant” to. 

(Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash)

No inhale of the bug. No internal stabbing and anaphylactic swelling. No bright pink cheeks and bulging eyes. No knocking off a pitcher of Kool-Aid as he fell to the grass. None of what I’d


But we still got a show. 

“Fuck!” he yelled. “Oh, fuck!”

1970’s poolside with a bunch of kids? Not cool. The “F-Word” was still a big no-no in general. You could maybe get away with being caught whispering a, “bullshit” or “kiss my ass.” But a full-on, grown-up, outside-voice-yelling, “Fuck!”

It drew some notice.

The crowd was similar to the one in my vision. Adults pushing past the kids to get Steve’s dad to both shut up and tell us what was wrong. He was babbling about having a stroke or an aneurysm or “eye clot” or something. 

They peeled him away and took him inside and, a bit later, one the moms drove him to Branston Memorial Hospital. A bit later Steve’s mom showed up and picked him up, after he’d dried and dressed, and they went to see him there.

We went back to playing... but perhaps with slightly somber tones to our yelling and respectful postures to our water-sports (shut up). 

It was a couple weeks until Steve told us that his dad had gotten a bunch of tests and, yeah, they think maybe it was a minor stroke because the only thing that happened was that he was now color blind.

“So everything he sees is like in a black-and-white TV show?”

Steve nodded, swapping a pudding cup from his lunch for my Fig Newtons. A regular trade.

“Yeah.” He shrugged. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal, but he’s super freaked out and won’t stop talking about it.”

I paused, half-way through peeling off the foil lid, and asked, “What is there to talk about?”

Steve shook his head. “Yeah, I know. Right? I mean... It happened. I get it. It’s not great. But I guess they said he could have been paralyzed or real-blind or something a lot worse. Now he won’t stop yelling about how he can’t match his ties with his suits and shirts.”

I nodded and started in on the pudding. 

“You could pin labels on them?”

Steve pointed at me and shook his finger, saying, “That’s exactly what I told him! And he got wicked pissed at me!”

We both shook our heads, finishing our pudding and Fig Newtons.

I guess I’m glad I didn’t kill him.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

On the 10th anniversary of my dad's death

 Today is the 10th anniversary of my dad’s death.  

He was born January 21, 1939, so he lived just over 72 years. I think he said to me once something about a good man’s time on earth being an allotted 3-score-and-10, so he hit that mark. You can read his obituary if you’d like, but like most obituaries, it captures a person’s life the same way a train schedule captures the excitement and mystery of a cross-country journey by rail: not at all. 

Dad, in fact, loved trains. He wrote a poem about them when he was young; in high school or college, I think. It was called something like, “Roar On! Mighty Engine!” in the mode of Walt Whitman. I read it a couple times when I knew where it was located in his home in Tennessee, but I’m not sure where it is now. Probably with mom in her stuff. It’s not that important to me among the many gifts, both worldly and abstract that he left me. Dad was very much better than me at a lot of things--poetry was not one of  them.

Back to trains... We took three overnight train trips to see mom’s parents in Florida when we were a youngish family. I think the first was when I was eight and the last was when I was 17. We’d take the coach car to Pennsylvania Station and then switch to a sleeper. We had two of those little cabin cars with the wall between them slid back to make one larger (though not large) room. We played games, ate snacks, watched the East Coast slide by and generally had about as much fun as two kids can have at that age. Sleeping on a train, eating on a train, playing Rook in the club car with strangers’ kids, all the while knowing that you’re heading to Florida to go to Disney World and that swamp garden place with the alligators and that other place with the water ski tricks. Yes, I could look up their names, but verisimilitude requires that I write them down as I remember not remembering them.

Dad and I also took a train coach to see my brother at college once in Philadelphia. John was performing in a rock concert and it worked out in our schedules to go down, spend a night, and come back and the train seemed like a fun adventure. It was. 

Dad brought a bugle so that, after the concert, while the crowd of college students were applauding for an encore, he could stand up and blow a bugle call to help make it clear that he, too, wanted more.

On that trip we re-captured a bit of the adventure and a lot of nostalgia all at once. I remember that, at the time, I was reading a biography of the explorer Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton and I’d tell dad some of the things about Burton’s much more grand adventures as we had our own more personal, relaxed journey. 

I don’t believe I ever saw dad read a book that wasn’t related to his profession or to theology. That was another difference between us. He enjoyed a good sci-fi or fantasy movie... he enjoyed a good movie or TV show of any kind, really. But he was not a “big reader” in the sense of doing so for pleasure. I didn’t realize this until after he passed and I’m glad I didn’t, because I probably would have asked him about it and I don’t know if he would have taken it as a suggestion of a flaw. I wouldn’t have meant it that way, of course. But as an English Major, and writer, reading was obviously core to my entire mental landscape, and I think it might have brought him up a bit short to think too closely on the matter. He did read, as I said, quite a lot of professional, medical texts and he also read a lot of theology. Maybe that would have gotten him over that hump. Or maybe I’m imagining something he wouldn’t have given, as he would have said, “a fat rat’s ass” about.

I’ve had 10 years to think about him like this: in stasis. Where there are no new memories of our time together... except of course there are. Because, as I’ve said many times about memories of important moments and people and places in the past, we don’t remember them the same way we remember phone numbers or what time a show starts or where the remote control is: we visit them. And for the last 10 years I’ve been visiting dad and sharing new thoughts of my own.

Chief among those are my experiences with my own son, Dan, of course.

Dad was a gifted musician who could play almost any instrument by picking it up and “farting around with it” for a half hour. Usually that meant figuring out how to play “Lady of Spain” on it until he was asked to stop, please and thank you. He had a high tenor voice that seemed to come from a much younger man from a much earlier time. He’d used it once on the Ed Sullivan show when he was with the University of Rochester Yellow Jackets. He sang songs around the house that were either sacred or quite ridiculous; camp songs, songs from his days with the Glee Club, songs from old comedy radio shows like Spike Jones or Sid Caesar. Being a singer myself and someone who has had great joy plonking around with a variety of instruments, I always envied his tenor (I’m a baritone/bass) and his easy instrumental ability.

He was also, I think, an actual genius. Like... as people and schools measure those things. I’m fine with where I fall on the smart scale. This isn’t me being unduly modest. Those of you who know me well know I don’t do false modesty. But if I’m smart, he was the next thing. He connected ideas more quickly than I did, remembered concepts (and words in Latin and Greek) from 30 years prior in an instant, and had a facility for new scientific concepts (and dropping the old ones, mostly) that is enviable in anyone who wants to keep current as a physician.

I mention those two things -- his music and his brain -- in relation to Dan because Dan is better at them than I am, too. And while I have no real regrets about my relationship with my father, I do wish the two of them had had more time together. Time as adults, because by watching Dan grow into an adult, I begin to understand my dead father, as an adult, better. 

Which, frankly, is odd as hell. 

I watch Dan do and learn and say smarter things than I am capable of. And, in his time with the OSU Marching Band, grow into a musician surpassing anything I’d be able to do. All of which is what parents want, of course. For our kids to “do better, be better, be more” than we are or were. 

We say, “I don’t care what you do for work or who you marry, or not, I just want you to be happy.” But I’m not sure that’s entirely true. We don’t want our children to be happy if it means they screw over a lot of other people. And we don’t want them to be shallow-happy. Or to require a great sacrifice of ideals. We want their happiness to be framed in a variety of ways that indicate both a good foundation and the ability to make positive changes.

When we were expecting Dan and discussing what fears we had about being parents, the only one Chris and I really had was that, somehow, he would grow up to be unkind. We believed (I still do) that we could deal with a lot of different parental challenges, but being parents to a cruel child -- somehow failing, either through neglect or accident -- to impart the ideals of kindness... that would be something that would have given us real, true sorrow. So far, that hasn’t happened (unless he’s hiding it very well). 

And I think it hasn’t happened in my life, either, and I think that if he’d articulated his dreams or plans or fears for me, dad might have said something similar. Because kindness ends up being a stand-in for a lot of other values and goals. 

Finances, property, grades, degrees, global climate change, politics... there’s a lot of stuff for parents to worry about on a day-to-day basis. Lots of stones on either side of the “Am I A Good Parent?” scale when you “fart around with it” for a week or month or year. But how do you measure yourself over a generation? 

Maybe you only stop and think about it every decade or so, or it’ll make you (as he would have said, as a psychiatrist) “bug fuck crazy.”

So: ten years after his death, while we can’t know what’s in another’s heart, I would have no fear or shame in showing dad mine. Because, as I’ve thought about him while watching Dan go from being a boy to a man, I’ve realized that what I want for my son is what, I think, dad wanted for me: to be kind. Both to others, and to myself. 

And as I’ve visited him in memory -- sitting next to him on the train and talking about the fantasy books I wrote (that he probably wouldn’t have read) and Dan’s time in TBDBITL (that he would have loved), I think he’d be pleased with how the Ward Havens journey progresses in that manner.

PS: Maybe he would have listened to the audiobook version. :-)