Brad Lee and the Big 2K, by Darius Marley. Copyright © 2019 Marley LLC. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Every week, a new episode will be added here until the entire blogcast series is complete. Any donations to help pay for endless cups of coffee that fuel my writing are highly appreciated!
Every morning, I navigate over mounds of clothes, comic books, and magazines, as I make my way back from the bathroom. Then I sit on the edge of my bed, and close my eyes. I can still hear the toilet tank refilling and hissing in the background, but I try to ignore it while I concentrate on taking nice, slow, deep breaths. When the time is right, I exhale while lowering myself backwards, until my upper body is stretched across the center of the mattress.
This is how I like to get in position to do abdominal crunches. I can do fifty good ones in a row, without stopping. I also like to keep going with at least fifty push-ups, but crunches always come first. They are the most important, because they set the tone for everything else.
Something interesting happens during this routine. I develop a sort of lightheaded sensation, but not in a bad way. My mind becomes amazingly clear. Focused. It’s kind of like when I’m reading a really good book, or when I’m zoning out in a boring class, while filling my sketchpad up with drawings. It becomes much easier for me to concentrate on just one thing, whenever I get this way.
The problem is, I’m usually thinking about a lot of stuff at once, and that can make it hard for me to stay on track. A few years ago, I was taking Adderall because my ADHD was supposedly getting out of control. But I quit using it, because that stuff wasn’t really helping, and it actually made me feel like shit most of the time. I’m pretty sure the doctor just wanted to sell expensive drugs to my parents anyway. They definitely fell for his sales pitch, but my dad made it clear from the start that he only cared about getting everything covered by our insurance. Beyond that, he just looked pissed off and annoyed to hear that his loser son had yet another major defect. What an inconvenience. Sorry, dad.
Mom was pretty freaked out. This wasn’t like the other times I’ve gone to the hospital, after breaking or spraining something. This problem couldn’t be revealed by a couple of x-rays, and it wouldn’t get fixed by simply using ice packs and bandages for a week or two. We were visiting a psychiatrist, which automatically put her way outside of her comfort zone. She kept looking at me, then at the doctor, then at my father. Her head was on a swivel. She looked like a nervous bird watching a bunch of cats. It was pretty sad, the way she just sat there and listened to all the terrifying reasons they needed to medicate me. Hyperactivity. Anxiety. Chemical imbalance. Impulsive behavior. Disorder. I’m sure she was praying for somebody to let her know that her English simply wasn’t good enough to understand what was really going on, and that it was all just one big misunderstanding.
After a while, my father put a hand on her knee, which by now was bouncing up and down furiously. His other hand pulled a heavy ring of keys from his pocket. He started whipping them around in quick circles, and they produced a menacing thud every time the keys landed on his palm. The doctor got the message. It was time to wrap up his sales pitch, and just write the damn prescription so we could all get on with our day. Suddenly looking uncomfortable and not in such a chatty mood, he hunched over his desk and scribbled a couple of lines, then the note was snatched away before I could sneak a peek. As soon as that happened, everybody was on their feet, and my father practically shoved me out the door.
Mom sat in the front passenger seat, with her body twisted sideways. She stared at me and didn’t say a single word the whole time. It definitely made the trip home kind of awkward and annoying, but the worst part was when I caught a glimpse of my father staring at me from the rear-view mirror. I could tell what he was thinking. He was angry because I was causing more trouble between him and Mom. This trip to the doctor was only giving her another excuse to overprotect me, while she bitched at him for always being too unfair with me. I saw his eyes grow narrow, and the creases in his brow got deeper. He was telepathically warning me that those drugs had better work fast, or else.
My situation sucked, but at least I wasn’t alone. It seemed like all of a sudden, everybody I knew had developed a case of ADHD that year. I mean, it wasn’t like we’d never heard about it before, but for whatever reason, they made it seem like a national plague had finally reached us, and now it was causing a terrifying epidemic in our town.
Mrs. Webb, my biology teacher, pulled me aside after class and asked me if I would be interested in doing a presentation for the student body about my personal struggle with ADHD. “Your personal struggle.” Those were her exact words. I totally had to stop myself from just blurting out “no fucking way,” and instead I took a deep breath before politely letting her know that I would probably have a panic attack if I tried doing something like that. You know, because I have ADHD. She immediately nodded her head, and let me go.
It’s hard to blame Mrs. Webb, because she’s actually one of the nicer teachers and I’m sure she honestly just wanted to help people. On the other hand, I was starting to get the feeling that certain people weren’t necessarily unhappy about the big ADHD craze. Of course they were all saying it was bad, but at the same time they seemed to be excited to report this news, like we were now finally part of some important national statistic. We made it to the big leagues of American high schools! Hell, we were already in the state’s top percentile for teenage pregnancy, and with ADHD finally under our belts, all we needed was a Crips-versus-Bloods gang fight to really make us part of the club. The counselors at my school were suddenly very busy passing out ADHD pamphlets, and they began offering private emergency sessions for any students who felt like they might be suffering from symptoms of this thing. It reminded me of when that senior got killed in a car crash over spring break, and they wanted us to know that we could talk to them if we felt depressed, or suicidal, or whatever. It was pretty depressing, and the school felt a bit darker and quieter for a few days after that. But this time around, some kids figured out that they could get passes to excuse them from entire class periods, using ADHD as an excuse. It was pretty ridiculous. I even thought about giving it a try, but when a group of students got reported for hanging out at the mall during school hours, they stopped doing the emergency counseling thing, and switched to after-school sessions instead. From what I heard, nobody went to those, and then the school stopped offering any sessions at all. The pamphlets eventually stopped circulating, and that was pretty much the end of it.
Anyway, I stopped taking those pills after the winter holiday, and nobody could even tell the difference. Sometimes you just have to take care of things on your own. Discover your own solutions. Also, I found out that some kids at my school were paying ten dollars per pill, so I sold my entire supply in just a few days. Of course that’s when the stoners started talking to me, and before long, I started hanging out and smoking a little bit of pot with them, which I discovered to be super helpful for getting my brain to calm down during classes. I stopped hanging out with them after a while, but I would still buy a bag every now and then so I could smoke a little bit of weed at night to help me get a good night’s sleep. Actually, that’s around the same time I started doing my morning exercises. It’s already been over a year, and this program has been working way better than those pills ever did. I don’t even know if I really have ADHD, but if I do, then I’ve figured out the best way to manage it, all by myself. Maybe I should become a doctor. No, wait a minute. I couldn’t be a doctor if they ever found out I used marijuana, right? Maybe I should stop using it.
For now at least, smoking pot is something I only do here, and only if I’m sure my parents aren’t going to walk in on me. Even if I could do it somewhere else, I wouldn’t, because I don’t want to become one of those full-time stoners. Those dudes smoke way too much, and they kind of look like they need to relax a little less, if you know what I mean. Those guys don’t have ADHD. They’re just losers. The truth is, they just don’t give a fuck about anything except getting high, playing N64 games, and constantly quoting lines from movies like Friday, or Dazed and Confused.
I would probably be a loser too, if I wasn’t always reading books or drawing pictures. That’s not going to happen though, because I’m starting each day with some exercise, and this morning routine is really working for me. It’s funny because I’ve never been interested in sports or bodybuilding, I guess because those are purely competitive activities. Also, the people who do that stuff are usually a bunch of assholes. But now, for the first time in my life, I might actually be able to say that I can relate to the jocks at my school, and the way they were always bragging about lifting weights, or strutting around in the parking lot, or showing off on game days with their gay-looking matching muscle shirts. I can see how a guy’s confidence would benefit from getting bigger and stronger, but those guys are idiots. I’m not interested in acting retarded, and I’m in no hurry to dumb myself down, just so I can start hanging out with them. That would be my dad’s dream come true, if I did all that, but I’m pretty sure they still wouldn’t like me anyway. Those are the same guys who went out of their way to fuck with me since my first week of high school, and I don’t forget about stuff like that.
I need to stop thinking about it. Another slow, deep breath. The whole point is to get myself focused. I need to think about thousands of strands of muscle fibers, contracting and straining to lift me up, and then slowly lowering me back down. Imagine the satisfying burn of lactic acid that follows each deliberate, controlled release. Look for that window of opportunity, to give my brain only one single thing to think about. Every morning, this is what matters the most.
Things really have changed since I started doing this routine. Last summer, my feet were still hanging off the side of the bed, barely able to touch the floor. This summer, I grew a lot. Now I’m a lot bigger all over, and I’m still not used to seeing those muscles every time I walk past the bathroom mirror whenever I get in and out of the shower. I know where they came from, though. Commitment to my routine, and dedication to pushing myself to become somebody else. Somebody new.
My stomach was the first thing that caught my eye. What used to be a white, hairless, doughy child’s belly, was looking more like the manly ‘washboard’ everybody seems to want. My arms and shoulders became bulkier, too. Even my bony legs, a lifelong source of embarrassment, had thickened up and become solid. This was particularly awesome, because now I don’t feel weird about wearing shorts in public. I’m definitely going to wear shorts every day this summer. I should just throw all my pants away, and wear nothing but shorts.
But right now, the only thing in the world that matters, is reaching crunch number fifty. After that, I’m ready to face whatever life throws at me. Completion gives me a sense of accomplishment.
So far, I’m only at twenty-four. Twenty-six more to go.
Since last Christmas, everybody agreed that I looked so much older. So mature. He’s so tall now. He’s getting his dad’s build. His mom’s looks. Listen to that deep voice. Why isn’t he playing football and breaking hearts?
I tried to just take it all in with a smile, keeping my mouth shut and soaking it all up, while surveying the tops of everyone’s heads. A lot of my older relatives have bald spots. Even some of the women. My uncle Dan looked smaller than I remembered, and he kept squeezing my shoulders and slapping me on the back. That was kind of annoying. He also liked pointing out that no matter how big I got, I’ve still got a baby face, which was super annoying. Somebody made a joke about the electric shaver they bought me for Christmas, and then everybody laughed. That’s when I left the room and stayed out of sight until people started going home. My aunt Steph kissed me on the cheek and said “Merry Christmas, heartbreaker.” Her new husband – I can’t remember his name – took a step forward with his fist raised in front of his face, as if he wanted to punch me after seeing me with his wife, and then the entire room burst into laughter again.
Fuck them. Maybe I don’t know much about being a so-called heartbreaker, but it doesn’t matter because a couple of weeks ago, an older girl hit on me at the supermarket. Mom had forgotten to grab something when it was time to check out. She told me to hold our place in line, since she would return by the time I reached the cashier.
So I waited, and watched an old couple examine the weekly specials flyer as they argued about prices and tore out coupons right in front of me. A scrawny, birdlike cashier chewed on her bottom lip and rapidly blinked her eyes at them, also waiting. Somewhere in the background, a baby screeched and totally drowned out a Kenny G sax solo that played on crappy little ceiling-mounted speakers.
Then a girl with long red hair bumped against my shoulder, giggling as she said, “So… I guess you’re never too old for Lucky Charms, huh?”
She was beautiful, and standing really close to me. I remember being hit by the smell of fresh-cut grass and laundry detergent, which confused me for a split second, until I figured that it was probably her shampoo. Her hair was long, flaming red, and really curly. I immediately spotted a pink bra strap that peeked out from beneath the neckline of her t-shirt, but quickly averted my gaze so I wouldn’t look like a total perv. Her shoulder was smooth, pale, and sputtered with little tan freckles. I didn’t know if she was a college student, or already finished with school, or whatever, but she was definitely older than me. Not too old, though. I guess she was in college.
Soft, copper-brown eyes looked up at me. More freckles were scattered across her nose and cheeks. Her lips were the same color as the bra strap. I felt like she was waiting for me to say something, but I had no idea what to say. So of course I jammed my hands into my pockets, raised my eyebrows, and spit out the first thing I could think of.
Pretty stupid, right? My face and ears instantly burned red, but the girl just laughed and grabbed onto my arm, as if she needed to steady herself because my reply was so unexpectedly clever and awesome. Her touch was cool, and a little sweaty. “No, no, you’re okay. It’s kinda cute,” she said. Then she nodded towards the box of cereal in my shopping cart, let go of my arm, took a short step back, and playfully tossed her curls to one side. She was still standing really close to me, and she still smelled good. My mind reeled as she proceeded to explain how she always liked eating Oreos, and how she still loved dunking them into a coffee mug filled with hot milk, the same way she did when she was little. I couldn’t help but study her lips form the words as she continued.
“Except now it only takes a minute in the microwave for the perfect temperature,” she explained. “That’s called putting modern technology to good use, wouldn’t you say? God, I could totally eat the whole package. But I don’t, you know. I just know that I could, if I let myself do it.”
There was another giggle, and her hand reached out again. This time, her touch was warm and not sweaty at all. I felt a current of electricity shoot up my spine, and I quickly turned my head to cough, so she wouldn’t see me making a weird twisty face.
As you could guess, I was fucking speechless. This random girl was enthusiastically flirting with me, but all I could do was stand there, nodding and gawking at her like a big dumb geek. Everything around me looked like a movie in slow-motion, and I wanted to tell her that I liked Oreos too, but I wasn’t into dunking them, because I hated how they made milk turn sludgy at the bottom, and in fact milk actually gets better in a bowl of cereal when you drink it after the cereal is all gone, and did you know that Lucky Charms turns your milk pink? Not a good pink, like that bra strap I keep staring at, but a nasty sort of dirty dishwater color, with just a hint of pink.
Her hand was still on my arm, and somehow I was smart enough to just keep my mouth shut instead of screwing up this unbelievable moment.
Then, a familiar voice snapped at me. “Brad! What are you doing? You’re holding up the line!”
Mom had reappeared. She stood with one hand on her hip, while the other hand gripped her purse strap so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Her favorite sleeveless white blouse was tucked into a high-waisted pair of dark blue jeans. Her lips were squeezed into a thin, impatient, disapproving line.
It took everything I had to stop myself from running away. I actually thought about doing it. My heart was thumping, and I watched in horror as the girl’s eyes grew two times larger. My ears instantly burned again when she jerked her hand away from me, reached for her shopping cart, and rolled it away without looking back. It was over. Mom had her arms crossed and her shoe was making angry clicking noises as she tapped her heel up and down. I didn’t look directly at her, but I could tell that her eyes were shooting lasers at me. Then she pointed towards the end of the checkout counter, and told me to go sack the groceries after they had been scanned.
All I wanted at that moment, was for a friendly Federation spaceship to beam me off the surface of this miserable planet. I would be happy to spend the rest of my life scrubbing Captain Picard’s toilet if he would just take me away from here. Of course, there was no chance of that. My eyes darted around, hoping to catch one more glimpse of the redhead girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. The scent of her shampoo still lingered in my nose, which helped ease my pain a little. The moment was gone, but never to be forgotten. My eyes narrowed as I imagined her long red hair, lathered into wet spirals, clinging to bare white shoulders. What her freckled body might look like, slick and shiny and smooth in the shower.
The bird-lady interrupted my thoughts with a sharp throat-clearing noise, looked up at me, and rapidly blinked. Her bifocals were so thick, I could see magnified globs of mascara that clung to the eyelashes of her bottom eyelids. She punched a string of numbers into the keypad. The register’s printer started to rattle, and a big red box slid towards me. I looked down at Lucky the Leprechaun. At least we have each other. Magically delicious.
A wave of anger washed over me, and I carelessly crumpled the sides of the box as I stuffed it into a plastic grocery bag. I’m pretty sure I smashed some of the cereal, but I didn’t care.
Things never would have gotten very far with her, anyway, right? What would we even talk about, besides the virtues of milk and childhood treats? Even if we were to somehow, miraculously, have an actual conversation, maybe we would meet up and talk again, somewhere outside the grocery store. But then what? Last summer, I was a skinny, unattractive loser. Now I’m allegedly all grown-up, and good-looking, but I’m still a loser deep down inside. I’ve barely had sex with one girl, and it kills me to remember how my first shot at getting laid didn’t really go so well. Who was I kidding? I still hated to take my shirt off at the swimming pool. Zero self-confidence. Surely she would notice that. Let’s not forget that I couldn’t even put a sentence together in a supermarket checkout line. I didn’t even ask for her name.
Okay, enough. Why am I starting my day this way? I inhaled sharply, and held my breath until I could force the swirl of unpleasant thoughts to recede into blackness. Today is a new day. Who cares what anybody thinks. In the safety of my bedroom, I’m a superhero whenever I look at my own reflection. And I often think about the supermarket girl, too. After much consideration, I’ve decided that her panties were probably the same color as her bra.
Forty crunches so far. This is all that matters right now.
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
“Brad! Come to the keet-chen!”
Mom’s voice blasted straight up the staircase, flew down the hall, rippled right through the bedroom door, and bounced around inside my skull. I thought about Joe Pesci, and how he shot that lady in the ear with a .22-caliber pistol. That’s what Mom’s voice can feel like sometimes. Like a bullet ricocheting around in my head, scrambling my brains into a thick liquid. Some day she’ll find me lying here in a pool of my own juices, and then she’ll really scream as she watches the puddle slowly soaking and spreading across the sheets.
Another big breath goes in. Please, no more distractions. I squeezed my eyes shut, and pushed everything out.
Forty-one. Almost there. I exhaled slowly, and opened my eyes. Time to command my muscles to contract again, and this time I’ll focus on whatever I see around me, to stop my mind from wandering beyond these walls.
Forty-two. A frisbee-sized dark patch had become a permanent part of the ceiling, over the last few years. My father would always mumble “goddamn useless wetback roofers” as he slathered plaster, rather unskillfully, over that same spot, every time Mom complained about it.
Forty-three. I pondered another smear of plaster between the ceiling and wall. When I was a little kid, an inch-long gap appeared there. Later that week, I watched a documentary about black widow spiders, and until my dad plugged it, that mysterious crevice was the source of many vivid nightmares.
Forty-four. There’s the air-conditioning vent, located directly over the bedroom door. Sometimes I would daydream about finding bundles of money and guns inside, like they always do in the movies. I never bothered to climb up there and look, though. It was too close to the spider crack.
Forty-five. Taped to the back of my door is a life-sized poster of Carmen Electra. She stands at a very lifelike five-foot-three. I measured her picture from head to toe, just to be sure. In this scene, she’s seductively posing on the beach. Sun-streaked blonde hair is blowing in the wind. The color of her skin contrasts sharply against white sand, and her eyes are the same color as the water.
Forty-six. I pulled myself up again, and this time my eyes landed on Carmen’s sand-speckled ankles. I imagined what it would feel like to reach out and wrap my hand around one of her shapely calves, to give it a nice squeeze. She would approvingly whip her hair to one side, motioning for me to go ahead and slide my hand up. “Slide it right up Brad, and see what else I’ve got for you.”
Forty-seven. By now my hand is slowly skimming the inside of Carmen’s golden thigh, until my palm glides across a smooth, tanned pelvic area just outside the hi-cut bikini line of her red Baywatch swimsuit. She’s making soft moaning noises now. “Come on Brad… you’re almost there,” she whispers.
Forty-eight. Carmen’s hands are interlaced behind my head, and she’s pulling me towards her. My hands are now exploring aggressively, as I’m blindly feeling around for whatever seems soft, supple, smooth, and filled with promise. “That’s it!” she gasps. “I’m gonna let you do whatever you want!”
A sudden thump against the door, and Carmen’s picture vibrates from the impact. My entire body jolts and convulses, as if I had just been shocked with a million volts of electricity.
“Whaddaya WANT?!” I shrieked. My voice cracked.
Giggles and footsteps fade away as my little brother bounces down the stairs.
With a long groan of defeat, I slump backwards, and catch a glimpse of my clock radio. The digital display says eight-twenty-six, and I groan again. Way too early for this bullshit. I’ve been awake for less than half an hour, and already events beyond my control are beginning to unfold.
I was really bummed out to see how quickly my boner had recoiled into a lump under my boxer shorts. Might as well just lie here and wait for the inevitable. The spell was broken anyway. I won’t even bother with the final fiftieth crunch. Carmen will have to wait until tomorrow, and there will be no push-ups this morning.
“Brad! Brad Lee! Come down here, now!”
Uh-oh. First-name-last-name. Mom only does that when she’s getting close to having one of her legendary tiger-mother meltdowns.
I sat straight up, then continued to curl my torso further until my head dipped between my knees. Stretching both arms out, groping at various items under the bed, I fished around for the nearest t-shirt within reach. As I pawed past magazines and comic books, I noted that this maneuver could possibly be counted as the fiftieth crunch for the day, which made me feel a little better.
Finding a t-shirt, I gave it a firm shake and a quick sniff, and pulled it on. A somewhat clean pair of jeans followed.
Familiar footsteps began to thump-thump their way up the staircase, with just a little more force than necessary, adding Mom’s typical touch of melodramatic urgency to an otherwise unnecessary situation.
I closed my eyes, and sank backwards into the old oak four-poster for the last time. My arms crossed into an ‘X’ shape in front of my chest, just like Dracula might do, whenever he settles into a nice layer of moist Transylvanian dirt at the bottom of his coffin.
“Vat’s… the prrroblem?” I snarled, doing my best Bela Lugosi impression.
Smiling to myself, I knew it didn’t matter. Unless Mom were to show up with a wooden stake in one hand, a vial of holy water in the other hand, and a wreath of garlic bulbs around her neck, I’m pretty much indestructible today.
Today is June 15, 1997. It’s my eighteenth birthday.
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
The door swings open without a courtesy knock. It’s just another thing Mom likes to do, whenever she wants to get a rise out of me. Normally I would start moving toward the door by now, to cut her off before she has a chance to start yelling at me, but this time I decided to test my luck by staying in character.
“You… vill pay… for thisss!” I waved a hand, as I made my announcement.
I still had an idiotic grin on my face, but I tried to focus on speaking with a dark, ominous tone as I continued the role by muttering under my breath.
“Very well. You may now speak to the Prince of Darkness, helpless mortal.”
Mom stepped through the doorway, ignoring my act, and replied with one of her standard comebacks.
“Agh! Your room smell like a peeg house, you know that? It’s not healthy in here.”
She marched across my room, timing her steps perfectly to throw the curtains open with a well-practiced one-armed swoosh. Then she stopped, pivoted, and looked straight down at me. I have to admit, she really has this routine down. I guess it’s because we’ve rehearsed this little dance so many times.
I raised my arms to shield myself with an imaginary cape, and loudly hissed at beams of sunlight that instantly illuminated my room. Millions of floating dust particles exploded with a blinding, swirling glow.
Her knees were parked at each side of my head, and her silhouetted figure cast a long shadow that spilled over me. I continued to squirm, as if I were desperately seeking cover. Then the whole world shook as she kicked the wooden bed frame beneath me, and I unhappily grunted in acknowledgement.
She bent over, with her hands on her hips. “Brad, you need to get up and see what we got you today.”
I wanted to answer, but my mind was on other things at the moment. The comedy that was unfolding in front of me was spellbinding, as her upside-down face morphed into a sort of grotesque human caricature, with her chin suddenly looking like a fat, comically oversized round nose, and bottom teeth forming the illusion of a perfect, tiny, white row of top teeth. I felt my face contort again, and this time I could clearly see that Mom was not in the mood for any of this. Thoroughly frustrated with my impromptu schtick, she grimaced with disapproval, which only made the upside-down face way, way, funnier.
I had successfully reached the point of no return. I quickly sat up, if only to prevent her from seeing me crack a smile again. Birthday or no birthday, I needed to get a grip, because Mom was about to go postal on my ass.
“Ohhh-kaaayyy… I’m ready. You see?”
“Go. You always make everybody waiting for you.”
She quickly navigated around the bed, kicking away whatever crossed her path. Then she stopped at the door, and watched for anything that could possibly signal the slightest shred of defiance, as she jabbed a finger toward the hallway.
“Now. Downstairs. To the keet-chen.”
I sighed one more time. Then I stood up, and sheepishly lumbered past her.
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
Remember when birthdays were fun? I barely do. From what I’ve heard, they’re only supposed to get better as the years go by, but I can tell you this is simply not the case for everyone. At least that’s the way it’s worked out for me so far. Other kids told me that their tenth birthdays were kind of a big deal, and thirteenth birthdays were cool because that’s when people started to assure them they’ll stop being treated like children, as long as they quit acting that way. Girls always seemed to get a lot of special attention on their sixteenth birthdays. I’m guessing it’s because Molly Ringwald made sixteen such a significant number to their parents.
Guys have to wait a little longer, but for most of us, it’s worth the wait. People get excited when we turn eighteen. People take us more seriously. They start referring to us as “young men.” That’s also when we get to stay out as late as we want, and parents start asking us what we think about serious topics. It’s a time when everybody’s talking about stuff like going to college, getting a real job, or joining the military if the other two things don’t work out.
At least that’s what it’s supposed to be like for most people. I’m not expecting anything like that on my big day. My last good birthday happened when I was only six years old. That was way back in 1985, and it had been raining all morning, just like today. The only difference was as soon as the weather cleared up, there were sausages and burgers grilling in our backyard. So far, I don’t smell anything cooking today.
I remember watching a group of men standing around the fire, talking about sports and taking turns aggressively gesturing at each other, each with a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Women in long skirts and sunglasses were chasing kids around, while struggling to keep their high-heels from sinking into the soggy lawn. It kind of felt like I was watching them play a really strange game of Smear the Queer, because all the women had that same helmet of short blonde highlighted hair, with about half a bottle of styling mousse in it. And, as if that wasn’t funny enough, they were also wearing tiny jackets with massive shoulder pads. It actually looked like they were the queers, hard at work trying to smear an opposing team of midgets.
The kids they were chasing around were all supposed to be my friends, but in reality I only liked two of them. Those two were the Wakowski twins from across the street, and both of them were wearing matching denim overalls and getting mud on their brand-new white Reeboks.
Old Mrs. Van Dijk was there of course, doing her best to hide that persistent cough of hers by discreetly raising one pale, wrinkled hand in front of her mouth, and making her little silver earrings jiggle around as she balanced a Salem Menthol in her other hand. Then she would take a few long drags from each perfectly straight, crisp white cigarette, which always left dark smears of blood-red lipstick on the filter end. I used to watch and wonder how long she would keep that glowing tip of ash dangling precariously from the opposite end, before casually flicking it away.
Hundreds of black ants formed dotted-line trails, as they streamed up the legs of a folding table, and then disappeared into a pile of plates and napkins. After a while, everything was covered with armies of tiny, six-legged soldiers, and most of them were quickly marching around a cake that was supposed to be an edible replica of a World War II fighter airplane. It was long and rectangular-shaped, colored grayish-blue, and covered with jigsaw puzzle camouflage pattern lines. There was even a red mouth airbrushed on both sides, and it was filled in with rows of pointy white teeth. The whole thing looked more like a dead shark whose skin had been peeled back into a rigid smile, as it rapidly decomposed in the summer heat. Humidity clung to sugary icing in sticky globs. Fat, heavy drops rolled down the sides, leaving glistening trails behind them. There was even a small swarm of hungry insects buzzing around it, giving the scene a truly gnarly effect.
Nobody was paying attention to me, because one of the kids had a nosebleed. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to snatch a candle from the cake, while they were all distracted. I had been admiring those candles for a while, and now that I had one in my hand I took a moment to fully appreciate its pearly, confectionary appearance before popping it into my mouth, and hastily chewing it into a shockingly flavorless, waxy paste.
I started gagging and choking, and then Mom became hysterical. Another man held onto my father’s arm, probably to steady him, because he was drunk and stumbling as he advanced toward us. He laughed and raised his beer into the air, then loudly informed everyone that it would be easy enough to make a new kid, if this one died from candle poisoning. The men grunted, whistled, and chuckled in agreement. In an instant, Mom was kneeling in front of me, with one hand formed into a fingernail-tipped vise that gripped my face so hard, it made my cheeks hurt. The other hand was swiping at my nose, mouth, and chin, using a napkin that she repeatedly dabbed against the tip of her tongue with each pass.
Then I started to cry, and the last good birthday of my life was over. That was the beginning of a bunch of shitty years. That was also the year my parents started shouting, slamming doors, and frequently sending me to my room because “the grown-ups needed to talk.”
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
I rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairwell, and saw my little brother scrambling to take position as this year’s official birthday candle-lighter. He was grinning and teetering on the edge of his chair, while balancing against the table with his knees.
A generic pile of grocery store sponge slathered in chocolate frosting essentially resulted in an oversized, flattened cupcake. No name written in icing, or anything festive about it, besides eighteen multicolored candles that had been stabbed into its surface by two clumsy little hands.
Every year the cake would get smaller, and cheaper, which consistently matched my overall level of enthusiasm for the big event. Certainly not the case for my brother, though. He was a hyperactive, shaggy mop of dark brown hair and crooked front teeth who didn’t care about any of those things. He shouted, “Look! I’m lighting the candles this year, Brad!” Then he got back to work, struggling to flick the thumbwheel on a childproof cigarette lighter with only one hand, which only managed to produce a shower of sparks.
Dad reached over to him, snapped his fingers, and said, “Here, gimme that.” Then he plucked a candle from the cake. With exaggerated ceremony, he handed back some fire, and pocketed the lighter.
That’s strange, I thought. He wasn’t standing in his usual big-man stance, with his arms crossed, and his beer belly thrust forward. He was seated, leaning back, and looking vaguely satisfied about something. Very strange indeed. It’s the weekend, the sun is up, and he’s not holding a drink.
“Peez, be careful!” Mom said, while moving in to assist with the operation. She gently pressed his shoulders down, forcing the chair back on all four feet. He giggled and sprang back up, then continued to hover over the cake.
“Piz” was the name he gave himself, long ago, with my unintentional help. It happened one day when he was barely learning how to speak. I remember he was sitting in his high chair in front of the old kitchen TV, when one of the commercials caught his attention, and I started singing along, just to have a little fun with him. As usual, he started imitating my moves and facial expressions. This time, he also started copying the sounds I was making, which quickly got Mom’s attention. Before I knew it, Mom was laughing and dialing the phone to tell my father about a word that sounded like “piz,” which was actually her misinterpretation of the word “fizz,” which a bunch of hot girls in bikinis were chanting in unison as the commercial ran on TV. After that day, the new word officially became his nickname. I didn’t make any effort to correct them, because Piz was already two years old, and my parents were relieved to hear him say anything that even resembled a word, at that point. Why spoil their fun?
Tilting my head back, I took a moment to study my parents from a distance. It was unusual to see them standing so close to each other, without any hostility going on. They weren’t always like that, of course. I do remember a time when they seemed to care about each other. Even now, they may not be good examples of a model marriage, but the two of them still have their moments, like their little habit of obnoxiously conspiring to come up with all kinds of stupid nicknames. It’s one of the very few activities they can handle doing together, without starting another fight. I think it’s because talking shit about other people distracts them from their own problems. I can always tell whenever they’re doing it, because they always exchange smug looks, and then lean close together to whisper and snicker about someone. Dad is all about stoically making some smart-assed comment, and Mom would pretend to suppress a laugh while slapping at his arm with the back of her hand. Making fun of others brings the best out of those two. They loved coming up with shitty names for everybody.
One of their favorites was The Lump. They were especially proud of that one. He was a red-faced QA inspector at the factory who always slowed production runs down, which really pissed my dad off, because surprise audits always meant that everybody would have to work late that day. Then there was Tackity-Ann, who was the factory’s whiny front office receptionist who was supposedly destined to become “a future crazy old cat lady.” There’s our skinny neighbor across the street who is originally from Boston, and one day they called him Clam Soup, which was eventually shortened to just Clam. Then there was Clam’s wife, who was called Chunky Soup, because she was pretty chunky. So many other names on the list. Each one less funny than the one before it.
Naturally, they also had names for each other. When I was my brother’s age, Mom’s French half used to refer to my dad with something that sounded like mon-shoo. When I asked about it, my mother took a moment to translate the words in her head, then replied in her heavily accented English: “Eet’s like… a leetle, how you say… a very small choux bread?”
That’s when I erupted into a fit of laughter, and started running around the kitchen shouting, “Shoe bread! Shoe bread!” I pointed at my dad’s shoes and waved my other hand in front of my face, while sticking my tongue out and rolling my eyes. Mom’s hand quickly shot up and covered her mouth, to cover her smile. Unfortunately, my father was not nearly as amused as we were, and the name was never used again after that day.
When she’s angry with him, which happens much more frequently these days, her Vietnamese side spits out a scathing jumble of unpleasant noises. Stuff I can’t even pronounce. I don’t bother asking questions about those. It’s probably a good thing I never learned much Vietnamese. Or French, for that matter. My father was always against us speaking anything but English around the house, and maybe this was one of the reasons.
As for him, well, he’s far less creative, simply calling her “Mom” as me and my brother do. Whenever he’s pissed off, he calls her “that little girl.” I often wonder what he calls her when we aren’t around. I’m sure it would be better to never find out, though. I’ve learned to leave some shit alone.
Sometimes I find out stuff by accident, whether I like it or not. There was the time when I started sneaking downstairs to scrounge up a few leftovers from dinner. It was right after Halloween, last year. I guess that was around the same time I started growing so fast, because I remember getting super hungry every night, always around midnight. I crept past a couple of jack-o-lanterns on the kitchen counter, thinking about the big hunk of pumpkin pie I saw in the fridge when Mom was putting stuff away. As soon as I turned the corner, I was disappointed to find the same pie dish on the kitchen table, which was now empty and surrounded by crumbs, letting me know that somebody else had already beaten me to it. I turned toward the fridge to see what else was in there, and that’s when I noticed the unmistakable flicker of our big-screen TV in the living room.
I froze where I stood, expecting someone to walk in on me, but nothing happened. So I quietly retraced my steps back toward the staircase, and that’s when I saw my dad passed out on his recliner. A six-pack of empty beer cans were on the floor beneath his hand, which hung limp from the armrest. I don’t know how I missed it when I was sneaking down the stairs, but there he was. Since then, I found him every time I made a snack run – always with the TV on mute, and always with a pile of empty beer cans at his side. Sometimes I would go down, not even wanting to eat anything, but just to see if he was going to be there. It made me wonder how long ago he started spending his nights on that chair. Mom never gave off any signs that things were going so badly between them. Even if she did, what was I supposed to do about it? Best to just keep it to myself, and act like everything was okay, the same way they were doing. I decided not to tell anyone, not even Piz.
So far, Piz had only racked up one nickname, although every now and then, my father would upgrade his title to “The Little Piz,” for a bit of extra impact. As for me, there were plenty of names. Most of them were nothing more than convenient temporary labels that directly related to whichever offense I had committed at the time. Doofus. Butterfingers. Lazy-ass. Captain Clueless. None of them meant much to me, except for one in particular. It’s a nickname that my parents gave me before I was even born. Even now, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck tingle, as it wormed its way into my head.
I really hate that fucking name. There’s a couple of vague stories explaining its origin, something to do with a book my mother read, around the same time she emigrated from her home country. But I couldn’t care less about what it originally meant, or where it came from. This name became pretty hurtful to me when I was only seven years old. I don’t really know what was going on that day, but it all started when Mom refused to come out of her bedroom until lunchtime, long after forgetting to take me to school. I pushed the door open and saw her kneeling on the bed, crying and rocking back and forth while speaking Vietnamese to somebody who wasn’t in the room with us. I was starting to feel scared, but I didn’t want to leave her there, because I kind of wanted to see if any actual ghosts would show up. She blew her nose, and I tried to comfort her. We headed down the stairs together, and she kept stroking my head and telling me that she wouldn’t even be alive if I was never born. Then she sank onto the sofa, rolled over, and told me to eat whatever I want and watch whatever I want on TV.
Minutes later, I walked back to my spot with a big bowl of cereal. It was pretty clear there would be no school for me that day, which was pretty exciting. It was officially the first time I ever ditched school, and I totally had Mom’s permission. After shoveling a big spoonful of cereal into my mouth, I glanced back and saw that she was still sprawled out on the sofa, asleep with the front of her robe open and hanging off the side. She was wearing an oversized t-shirt underneath, and I could see her underwear. I immediately whipped my head back around to face the TV, instantly regretting my decision to look in her direction.
That’s when she reached out to me, and touched my shoulder. I turned around, expecting her to say something about me looking up her shirt. If I was lucky, she only wanted to say something about the milk I had just splashed onto the rug when I sat down. Instead, she did something completely unexpected. She looked right into my eyes, and instructed me to cry.
I’m pretty sure I just looked back at her with a blank expression, offering nothing in response. I thought I misunderstood what she was saying. “Why don’t you cry,” she began to repeat. “Why not just cry for me?” She sat up, and I recoiled backwards. She leaned closer until my eyes couldn’t focus on her face, and began cajoling me with an exaggerated baby-voice. “Come on Katik… cry for me. You, and your beautiful leetle white face. Cry for your poor mommy. Just one leetle tear, Katik. Come on.”
I was scared and confused beyond explanation. What was she doing? The world crumbled all around me, as my lip quivered and a tear rolled down my face. She seemed pleased by this, and began coyly stroking my cheek with her index finger, tracing the wet trail from the corner of my eye, all the way down to my chin, while the weird voice demanded more. I remember squeezing my eyes shut, and not wanting to see my mother’s face. This isn’t my mother, I told myself. I think that’s what scared me the most, not knowing who she was any more. She had transformed into somebody else, and that person wanted to see me in pain.
When it was over, she pulled back toward the sofa, and I turned away from her to wipe my cheeks with the backs of my arms, and to eat my soggy cereal. Eventually, Dad came home to find her lying in the same spot, looking like she had just climbed out of bed, with no dinner ready. She was still wearing the same big t-shirt and robe, and the floor around her area was littered with moist clumps of tissues. Then there was me, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, just a few feet away, looking up at him with my mouth open. I remember how my father’s face changed color as he stood there, still holding onto his briefcase and wearing his coat, as he took it all in. That’s when the shouting started.
After he was done with Mom, he summoned me back down to the living room, and continued yelling about how I was old enough to know better. What the hell was wrong with me, anyway. I could have picked up the phone and called the factory, instead of deciding to act like some kind of spoiled little princess, perfectly happy to blow school off so I could watch daytime soaps and game shows and eat a whole fucking box of cereal from a five-quart mixing bowl. I was in as much trouble as she was, and of course I got the belt, but I don’t remember feeling hurt by the strap that left a row of pink stripes across my thighs. I was already used to a lifetime of getting smacked around by my father. It was my mother who did permanent damage, using only her voice, and never leaving a visible mark.
My relationship with Mom changed a lot after that happened. Instead of being sorry for what she did to me, she started telling people about it, even when I was right there listening to her. She never mentioned the part about her spending the day crying and forgetting to take me to school, though. I guess she was embarrassed about that. Her version of the story was all about the time I cried on command, and how strange it was for her to experience something like that. Yeah, strange for her. Every time she did it, she would look at me as if waiting for an apology, or some kind of explanation. Maybe she wanted me to come up with a punchline for this very unusual joke.
By the time I was twelve years old, I couldn’t take it any more. She tried to embarrass me in front of an audience for the last time. I erupted into a deliberate full-blown public tantrum, and that was the end of that.
I had willingly traded one humiliation for another, knowing that I wasn’t winning anybody’s sympathy by acting that way, but I didn’t care, because that’s not what I wanted. This time she was thoroughly embarrassed, having been checkmated by me, after I decided to use the nuclear option. She attempted to save face by scolding me in front of everybody for acting like a spoiled little asshole. After all, I was nearly an official teenager, and there was absolutely no excuse for such bullshit. She made me apologize to everybody, and that was just fine by me. Victory was mine, even if she would keep calling me Katik until the day I die.
I would always win, because I finally took the fun out of her game.
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
I felt another tingle on the back of my neck as my vision refocused back into reality. Could it be possible that Mom learned her lesson and decided to spare Piz from the same nickname torture she put me through? To me, their relationship almost seemed too normal, as I squinted and studied Mom’s movements, while she laughed nervously and guided my brother’s hand as he lit each candle. Their eyes and smiles lit up with the golden warm glow of firelight, and somehow the whole thing seemed so fake and rehearsed, it reminded me of a cheesy motivational poster.
“No! Let me do one more! Mmmooommm!”
I watched my little brother pout as Mom snatched away what remained of a candle that was splattering little beads of wax everywhere. She blew out the flame while pulling two tissues from a box on the kitchen table, and then she started wiping and scrubbing at my brother’s fingers, using her patented spit-and-napkin routine. He was busy wriggling around and making faces. That’s when I knew it was the perfect time to annoy him just a little bit more.
I stepped forward, reached out, and tousled his hair. Seeing that he was outnumbered, he slapped my hands away, broke out of Mom’s clutches, and scurried to his usual seat at the other side of the table.
Mom regained her composure and smiled. She was done with him, and ready for the main event.
“My beeg boy!” she exclaimed. Her accent always gets thicker when she’s excited about something.
She clasped her hands together and held them up beneath her chin, as she grinned and repeatedly glanced over to my father, who by this time, was walking back from the cupboard with a long carving knife in his hand.
“Here you go, man. Cut your cake.”
He handed the knife to me handle-first, while locking his eyes directly onto mine, which made me feel incredibly uneasy and sent a shiver down my spine. The only time he called me “man” was when he was really drunk, and trying hard to bond with me on a guy-to-guy level that was purely of his own imagination.
This time was different, though. He wasn’t drunk, that I could see. Something just seemed off about him today. There was a kind of smugness on his face, as if he knew a hilarious joke, but wasn’t sharing it with us. Like he was high on something, and figured nobody could tell. Maybe he finally decided to upgrade from beer, and switched to another form of recreational substance abuse? Come to think of it, Mom is acting funny too. Maybe they’re both high as kites. Actually, that would explain a lot. I’ve often imagined what life would be like if my parents decided to just go ahead and cruise through the rest of their marriage on auto-pilot, with a little help from a doctor who isn’t shy about prescribing something strong enough to chill them both out.
My friend James Fletcher told me that everything changed at his house after his dad started using some new meds to fix his OCD situation, and then he said it was even better when his mom started using some other drug to stop her from having panic attacks. Jim is a couple of years younger than me and lives in my neighborhood, and I’ve seen his parents a bunch of times over the years, but I never would have even suspected that they were all so fucked up, if Jim didn’t tell me so many crazy stories about their personal problems. Apparently they had some pretty epic fights behind closed doors. I shouldn’t be surprised about that, though, because I remember how one day I kept ragging on Jim by calling him “Jimmy,” and we ended up getting into a fight. Then his sister showed up, and said she was going to tell on us. We stopped fighting and started calling her a fart-knocker until she started to cry, and after that, me and Jim became pretty good friends that year.
According to Jim, his mom used to get stressed out about a lot of stuff, and then whenever she reached her boiling point, she would go on a massive crazy house-cleaning spree. Then Jim’s dad would come home to find all of his shit moved around the house, which drove him absolutely nuts. Jim thought it was really funny, and when his parents weren’t watching, he would secretly move more stuff around, just to instigate even bigger meltdowns. I told him he should stop doing that, because his ass would be toast if they figured it out, but he would always just laugh and tell me to relax, because he knew what he was doing, and it was actually part of his ultimate master plan. He was working on getting them both to agree with his idea about letting him permanently move out to the pool house, since he was getting good grades and wouldn’t be able to keep his 4.0 average if he had to listen to them act like a couple of psychos every day.
I told him it seemed like a solid plan, although I didn’t think they would go for it. Besides, I’ve been to their pool house, and I don’t know what’s wrong with Jim because there’s no way I would trade my room to live in that crappy little shack. I wonder if he ever did it. I haven’t talked to Jim in forever, and he would probably be blown away if he saw what I look like these days.
My father cleared his throat, loudly. I blinked a few times, and then returned to the real world, where everybody was staring directly at me. I must have been zoned out for a long time because even Piz was sitting still, not moving any part of his body except for his eyes, which were darting from side to side to see what Mom and Dad would do.
Mom wasn’t about to watch her happy little moment go to shit, so she pulled another one of her classic moves by repeating “My beeg boy!” with a panicky grin plastered across her face. Dad grunted, and sat back down.
Clearly, I had forgotten that everybody in the room was waiting for me to blow the fucking candles out, so we could all get on with this unbearable moment of obligatory family time. I stepped forward to fulfill my duty as quickly possible, hoping that I could just take a slice of cake up to my room, and try to make the most of what remained of my weekend.
Mom dashed up to me, firmly clapped her hands on each of my cheeks, and tugged at them, because that’s all she knows what to do when things spiral out of control. This time I was the one wriggling around, trying to escape. I made eye contact with her for about a second, and something was definitely off about her too. She hasn’t grabbed me that way since she was as tall as me.
“Just look at heem!” she said, with panic in her voice.
My father was looking. His eyes had been locked on me, ever since I walked into the kitchen.
“Hurry up and blow ’em out, Brad. And make a wish. Let’s finish this.”
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
If I wasn’t already feeling suspicious about my day so far, it was the fact that every trace of this morning’s birthday-related proceedings were completely wrapped up long before lunchtime, which provided the clearest evidence. But, there were other signs too.
For one thing, there were no gifts this year. This didn’t make me feel sad, or hurt, as much as it made me wonder what the hell was going on.
For another thing, the whole place was dead quiet, unless you count the faint buzz of a lawnmower coming from somewhere down the street. Unlike every other birthday before this one, nobody from the neighborhood stopped by. Nobody asking me about my plans for college, or other stuff I might be thinking of doing, now that I’m eighteen years old and done with high school. Not even a visit from any of my mooch-ass family members who only show up a couple of times each year, to hand over a Hallmark card with five or ten bucks inside, gulp down some free food, and then disappear.
The rest of the morning went completely without any of the incidents, shouting-matches, or door-slamming conclusions that usually signal the end of a family gathering. It was eerie and quiet in our house. I think I heard the phone ring a couple of times, but that was about it.
My brother devoured three pieces of cake, then Mom drove him to soccer practice. Leftovers were crammed into Tupperware containers, and wedged into the fridge. My father was nowhere to be seen, which probably meant he finally slipped out to avoid Mom and drink beer in the garage.
I crouched in front of my bedroom window with Grandpa’s old 16×50 binoculars and watched squirrels chase each other while they made little squeaky barking noises and battled each other for food. I dialed the focus wheel as fast as I could to get a better look at them fighting, which was super hard to do, but what I was really struggling with was my weird, nagging awareness over a total lack of fanfare on the biggest birthday of my life. The feeling got even worse when I started thinking about how my relationship with everyone in my life would inevitably change after this day, now that I was eighteen. I don’t know why I started thinking about that shit. It was starting to make me feel depressed about how so far, this year wasn’t off to such an amazing start.
Last year my birthday was actually pretty good. Mitch and Connor, who were a couple of guys I used to hang out with from school, dropped by and told me they were going to go see the new Pamela Anderson movie, and that I should just sneak out and go with them. This was an easy choice for me to make, since I would much rather watch Pamela’s boobs and ass bouncing around on the big screen, than to do the usual birthday thing at home. Plus I hadn’t seen those guys all summer, and I missed how we used to just hang out and do random stuff.
We headed out the kitchen door, and walked all the way down to the big cineplex on Main Street, instead of going to our usual theater at the mall. Mitch told us it was one of the first theaters to have full Dolby Digital sound, and he already saw a few movies there, and it was gonna blow our heads off when we heard it for ourselves. I was super stoked to check it out, because Mitch was always right about movies. He was kind of a movie freak. His dad was in charge of a major supplier for the company that makes labels for VHS tapes, and somehow he was always able to get his hands on movies before Blockbuster had them in stock. Of course he never let us borrow them, because he said it would get his dad in a shit-ton of trouble, and that’s when Connor started calling him Mitch the Bitch, which was actually really funny because his full name was actually Mitchell, and then Connor started to pronounce it “Michelle,” like a girl’s name, and after that day, we stopped hanging out so much. I actually did see him again at graduation, but he said he was going out of state for college, and I guess he did it, because that was the last time I ever heard from him.
Connor was a whole other story. He was kind of like me, in the way that he wasn’t popular or good with girls for as long as I knew him, until we hit sophomore year. That year, he showed up and everybody liked him because he grew a lot taller, and he was totally different-looking after he went to stay at his dad’s house in California for the summer. He had a bunch of blonde highlights in his hair, and suddenly he was wearing baggy pants and saying that things were tight and he always had to dip whenever he had to go somewhere. It was a whole new style and attitude, and it was definitely working for him. The biggest score he made was when he went out with Lori Christoffsen, who was the gymnastics team captain, and a senior. Everybody in school was talking about some rumor that they did it in her mom’s house while she was away on a business trip for the weekend, but little did they know this was barely the tip of the iceberg. Connor pulled me over and told me every little detail about what really happened. He told me they were just hanging out in the house, like no big deal, but then she wanted to play a game. She told him they should pretend to be a married couple, and she even started making all kinds of stuff for dinner that night, and told him to walk back inside like he just got home from a long day at work. Then I guess she got so caught up in the whole thing that they ended up doing it four times on her mom and dad’s bed that night. He didn’t even need to worry about rubbers, because apparently she planned the whole thing out and already had some with her. Then they did it again in the morning, on the bed and another time in the shower, and after that he actually sat in the living room and read the Sunday paper while she cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast. My mouth must have been hanging open the whole time he told me the story, because his grin got wider and wider as he watched. How can I blame him? I mean, here was this guy who was possibly a bigger geek than me, who simply changed his hair, got some new clothes, and then went ahead to win the ultimate prize by banging the most popular girl in the world. How does that happen? They broke up after a few weeks, but it didn’t matter because after that, his reputation was locked-in with everybody at school, and that’s about the time we began to drift apart as friends.
I ran my fingers through my hair and groaned. Then I started thinking about what happened to the Wakowski twins, when they finished high school two years ago. We were never super close friends or anything, but I remember going to their neighborhood graduation party that year, and how the adults in the room no longer seemed interested in asking them about their summer plans, or how they were doing in school. Instead, everybody was asking what they thought about the Oklahoma City bombing, the OJ Simpson verdict, upgrading to Windows 95, and if they were looking at majoring in the same subjects even though they were going to different schools. They were identical twins, after all. It was funny because I knew them since we were all just little kids, and suddenly they were being treated like adults, and at that moment I felt like the only kid in the room.
A sonic boom tore through the sky, so I lowered the binoculars enough to scan the area until I spotted a fighter jet that was passing overhead. I raised the little rubber eyecups back up to my face and turned the focus wheel to follow the plane while it dipped in and out of the clouds, but I wasn’t really paying attention any more. Dark, heavy swirls of distant thunderheads flashed and glowed with lightning. My mind swirled with an equally turbulent jumble of competing thoughts, and I quickly lost interest.
I tossed the binoculars onto the bed, turned my body around to lean on the heavy bedpost behind me, and slid down against it until I hit the floor with a soft thud. Maybe I should just draw something. That usually makes me feel better. I stared at the wall in front of me, eyeing a huge Mars Attacks movie poster that hung over my desk, which didn’t really help my mood at all. Mom took us to see a movie before Christmas last year, and she wanted to see Jerry Maguire, but she found out it was rated R, so that was a no-go. I was excited to have a chance to see Mars Attacks instead, but that movie was rated PG-13 and had a bunch of aliens in it, so no way she would let my brother watch it. He was laughing and pointing at a giant cardboard cutout of Beavis and Butthead Do America, and that’s when she quickly announced that we would be seeing The Preacher’s Wife, which was rated PG, and totally sucked donkey balls. I ended up taking three trips to the bathroom, because I gave myself the shits after eating a box of cinnamon Hot Tamales, a large tub of caramel popcorn, and a 20-ounce bottle of Dr Pepper. Of course Mom got pissed off at me, for “ruining the movie.”
About a week later, on Christmas morning, my brother and I each received a movie poster along with our other gifts. I remember coming down the stairs and immediately spotting a pair of long, tube-shaped packages propped up against the tree, and before I unwrapped mine, I thought about how cool it would be if it was a pool stick, or a BB gun, or even better… a samurai sword. Instead, I got the Mars Attacks movie poster, all rolled up tight until it was as thick as a broomstick, and sealed in shrink-wrap. My brother got the Beavis and Butt-head poster. For the rest of the day, he ran around the house saying “yeah-yeah” and “huh-huh-huh.”
Great, I thought. We never even saw the movies, but at least we got the posters. I was going to chuck mine into my closet and leave it for dead until I could throw it out without Mom seeing me, but after unrolling it again while I was alone in my room and checking out Lisa Marie’s pointy tits, the Martian Leader making crazy eyes, and Sarah Jessica Parker’s head stapled onto a chihuahua’s body, I decided it was definitely worth hanging on to. It might even be one of the best gifts Mom ever got me, to tell you the truth.
I stretched my legs out in front of me, turned my head to the left, and took a long look at Carmen. She just looked hot, as usual. Smiling and posing for me, same as always. I guess there’s nothing to worry about, when you spend all your time getting paid to hang out on the beach. My hand landed on something small, smooth, and round on the floor next to me. It could have been a stray M&M or a Skittle, but I didn’t bother to look down to see what it was. Then I took a slow breath, and closed my eyes.
My mind raced. My father loved to remind me thst he was eighteen when the US Marine Corps sent him overseas. He had to grow up in a hurry, while people were shooting at him. I can’t imagine what that was like. I honestly tried to understand it, but he never wanted to talk about the stuff they did over there, unless he was drunk, which I quickly learned was not a good idea. The best I could do was watch movies like Full Metal Jacket, which were pretty cool and totally classic. Especially the parts with the drill sergeant, and the me-so-horny girl. Apocalypse Now was a good one, but I didn’t like how they chopped that cow up at the end. I also made the mistake of watching Jacob’s Ladder, which scared the living shit out of me. Maybe that’s closer to the real thing. For sure, I’d be angry all the time and messed up in the head too, if war was anything like that.
I bounced the back of my head against the bedpost a few times, then stopped to wipe the back of my hand across my forehead. There’s plenty of chances for me to go overseas to join whatever war happens to be going on in some desert, somewhere, but that’s out of the question. I’m definitely not interested in going to exotic places, so I can “meet new people, and then kill them.”
So what am I supposed to do now? Maybe I’ll just go to college. At least that’ll cover me for a few more years. Maybe I can be one of those “professional students,” like Mrs. Bonner, who taught our junior biology class. She said that was her dream once upon a time, to do nothing but live off free money, and worry about nothing but getting good enough grades to just stay in school forever and keep changing majors. Her plan obviously didn’t work out, because there she was, teaching at my school, and getting called Mrs. Boner by the students.
The lawnmower noise stopped, and I could hear those squirrels still going at it, chattering at each other in the trees. I stretched my arm out to reach for the binoculars, but I didn’t really want to get up. I pondered whether I should make an honest attempt at changing my ways, to actually try becoming more engaged with everybody who’s been a part of my life for the last eighteen years. Mom says I already spend too much time in my room, but what else is there for me to do? Now that school is over, I’m really going to be spending a lot of time hanging around the house. Maybe I should get a part-time job, or just go out and start looking for anybody who might want me to draw stuff for them. I’m pretty sure Mom would be okay with that. She might even drive me wherever I need to go, as long as she isn’t busy. Maybe I can drive. I should probably get a car.
I really didn’t want to get up. My father would be the hardest to deal with, because he already thought I was a slacker going nowhere fast. He always loved to tell me how smart I was, but how stupid I could be for not putting my brains to better use. Of course he never had useful suggestions about what I could do with all this alleged brainpower, but I’ve learned to stop expecting more than criticism from him anyway.
Maybe things would eventually work out, if I could just get enough people to see me in a new light. All it would take is getting everyone to support my new identity, and I’m sure he would just let all the stupid shit I’ve done in the past few years, slide and be forgotten. I would really need to do something amazing, though. I would need to prove to him that I’m not “hopelessly average,” as he likes to put it.
Was there some way I could get him to recognize my artistic abilities as more than just some stupid hobby? That would be super hard to pull off, because he already has a low opinion of anybody who falls into the category of “weirdos and queers” who call themselves artists. To my father, nothing is really worth a shit unless it makes money and is respected by normal people.
With a long sigh, I finally gave up, and rose to my feet. Maybe I should be thinking less about making things happen in my current situation, and just go find the right place where I can really get out from under his control, so I can finally just chase my dreams. No, not dreams. He hates that word.
“Hey! Hey, Bra-yud!”
Speak of the Devil. Dad’s voice bellowed from the bottom of the stairs. I responded with a hey back.
“Brad! Why don’t you come on down here for a minute!”
Damn it. I tossed the binoculars onto my bed, again. Then I headed for the door, as if guided by remote control. Ladies and gentlemen, the master of the house has spoken. Time to see what he wants, before he loses his cool. Mom could be goaded into an occasional confrontation, but my father never had much patience for anything like that. He says go, and I go. Or else. Such was the extent of our relationship.
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
The sky was starting to darken overhead, as thunderclouds gathered and threatened to hit us with an early afternoon shower.
I stepped over a crate of ancient Pepsi bottles that were almost completely hidden by a narrow strip of crabgrass and dandelions between our house and the garage, and I watched as my father turned his head just far enough to spit past his shoulder. At the same time, he was snapping his fingers at me. That’s his thing. He’s all about non-verbal communication.
Then he pointed toward an old, thoroughly rusted BMX bicycle that had been leaning against the garage since my last year in middle school.
“Shit, Brad. I thought I told you to dump that old bike long ago.” He didn’t even look back as he instructed me to “go ahead and grab it, since we’re already here.”
I pulled the bike away from the wall and tried to roll it with me as I walked, but the chain’s links were fused solid, and I ended up struggling to lift the frame with one arm while using the other to drag it along on a flattened front wheel. I’m sure I looked like a total moron.
My father was already in the alley, watching me. He was digging around in his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes, and watching every move I made, as I wrestled with a useless, tangled mess of corroded steel and crumbling rubber tubes. The smirk on his face was priceless.
I wanted to say, “ hey how about giving me a hand with this shit,” but even though I’m a whole inch taller than him, he still intimidates the hell out of me. He’s a big man, with broad shoulders and thick triceps of a former athlete who likes to throw a ball around with the guys at the factory during their lunch break. Even though his days in the service were a long time ago, he still walks around with a certain kind of swagger. A guy who knows he can kick the shit out of most people, without trying too hard. Life for him is always defined in simple and straightforward terms, which is just the way he likes it.
And then there’s me. I tend to “complicate simple things,” which is something that he doesn’t like so much.
I’m pretty sure that in his mind, nothing changed much since he was playing football for the high school team. He only needed to hit the pause button when he was shipped off to war. He came back with a wife that he “rescued from that goddamn shit-hole,” used his GI money to settle down in an old suburban triple-decker, and started a family. Sure, he eventually became older, fatter, and balder, but I’m pretty sure he thinks it’s all part of his master plan anyway. Guys like him are all about feeling like they’re always in control of everything.
After tossing the bike onto a pile next to the dumpster, I took a moment to slap at rust-colored streaks that were all over my jeans and t-shirt. I’m not sure why he wanted me to come out here, but I hope nobody sees me like this. He extended a meaty forearm toward me, and waved an unlit cigarette in my face. I immediately responded by waving it away, while trying to avoid making contact with his eyes.
He snorted, and said, “Oh, please. Your mom told me she could smell smoke coming from your room, boy. She knows I don’t smoke in the house.”
My stomach did a somersault. Is this why he wanted to bring me outside? I should have been more careful. Lucky for me, my father wasn’t the one smelling the smoke. That would have been a total disaster. I always figured he was busy enough doing his own thing, hiding downstairs every night. And Mom is pretty clueless about most stuff, which means she doesn’t even know what weed is supposed to smell like.
Without looking up, I accepted the cigarette, and told him I was sorry for smoking in my room. He shrugged, which for him, is the exact opposite of smacking me on the head.
Lying directly to his face felt good, even though my heart was thumping in my ears. I tried to steady the cigarette, which was shaking between my fingers.
My father reached out to me once again, this time offering a light. “Don’t worry about it. You’re a man now.” He paused to spit again, then turned back to me. “Might as well act like one, instead of pussyfootin’ around.”
I took a deliberate, cautious drag, as he lit up another one. I couldn’t believe my luck. This day could have turned out seriously bad for me. I smiled to myself, and glanced down at his hand. He was using the same lighter from this morning, the fluorescent pink one.
“That’s not a very manly lighter,” I said, and then I immediately regretted my choice of words. Way to bring our rare moment of father-son bonding, to an abrupt and terrible halt, idiot.
Instead, he grinned and blew two long streams of smoke from his nose. “I always buy them like that. Pink’s kind of a faggot color, right? Any time the guys wanna borrow it, they always give it right back. They don’t want me to ask them why they decided to keep my gay pink lighter.”
Then he spun toward me with a surprising burst of speed, and shot a couple of fake combo jabs at my ribs. He laughed loudly while he clenched the cigarette’s filter between his yellow front teeth.
We hung out in the alley, talked, and smoked our cigarettes. My father made wisecracks about the weekend sports news, and I nodded my head, pretending to know what he was talking about. I didn’t care if it was just meaningless jabber. It was so weirdly surreal to even be talking to him like this, to pretend that he was treating me like an equal. I was perfectly okay with any topic he wanted to cover.
When we finished smoking, we walked along the alley, and made a turn onto the sidewalk that led back to the house.
He extracted a keyring from his back pocket, pointed one of the keys toward a reddish-orange car that was parked on the street, and said, “Lookit over there.”
Then, dangling the keyring between thumb and forefinger, he jingled them up and down, as if he expected the car to respond the same way a dog might, as if he were offering it a treat.
I was dumbfounded. Did my father, who had spent the last decade of my life letting me know how much I had disappointed him, actually get me a car for my birthday? It’s no secret that he isn’t thrilled with the way I turned out, but this… this was a gesture beyond my wildest expectations.
He clapped me on the back and jerked his chin towards the vehicle. “That right there is a 1977 AMC Hornet.”
Still stunned, I couldn’t believe he would do something like this, especially after all the tension and hostility we had built up over the last few years. My eyes burned with hot tears as they welled up. Words escaped me, while I tried to think of how I could possibly thank him for not giving up on me, without sounding like a blubbering little kid. Maybe it would be best to just apologize for being such a fuck-up all these years, and then let him take it from there. Yes, that would be easier than me coming up with a clumsy speech. I wonder if it’s already got a sound system? How fast does it go? I’d better not say anything about that nasty-ass orange color. A quick paint job would take care of that. Maybe all-black with some flames on the hood. That would look fucking awesome.
But when I reached for the keys, he jerked his hand away.
“I was thinking about getting a new car,” he continued, “since the year me and your mom moved to this neighborhood and got ourselves all good and situated.” He leaned away to scan me from top to bottom, and shrugged, again. “But then you came along, and the party was over.”
That’s when the needle on the record skipped. Every muscle on my face suddenly relaxed. The tears stopped threatening to fall, and my eyes returned to their usual half-lidded position. A familiar combination of disappointment and apprehension washed over me, and my shoulders slumped, as my body resumed its regular slack posture. So much for our bonding session.
My father has never been good at showing his emotions, unless those emotions are anger, disgust, or the kind of delight that comes from witnessing a great play during a football game. Clearly, this was another thing. He was excited about showing me the car, but my involvement in this touching father-and-son moment no longer made any sense.
He didn’t seem to notice anything had changed. He pointed at the car and said, “She’s got a V-8 under the hood. A three-oh-four. That ain’t too bad.”
Well, that part made sense. He prefers his vehicles fast, and at the very least with big engines. These days he drives a Ford F250, and I couldn’t imagine him buying anything with wheels, unless it had something satisfying under the hood.
I watched him roll his eyes. “Of course I wanted a pickup, but I was gonna teach your mom how to drive, so I figured I’d bite the bullet and get something more her size. Plus it’s got a three-speed slushbox.”
Again he jabbed at my ribs. “Now that I think of it, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see over the wheel anyway. Oh well. Your mom’s happy with her little car. I saw this one in the paper for six hundred dollars, and it made me feel kinda sentimental, so I figured why the hell not!” He cackled loudly as he dug around for another cigarette.
He’s saying that the car was originally for Mom, eighteen years ago. Now it’s 1997, and today is my birthday. He really doesn’t seem interested in giving me those keys. What’s going on here?
“Anyway, you’ll get a chance to tell me how it runs, since you and me are going for a ride pretty soon.”
Finally, I turned to him and asked if the car was my birthday gift.
His face went blank for a moment, then twisted with a look of total shock.
“Your birthday gift? That’s a negative, sir.” He stepped away from me and stretched his arms out before clasping his hands behind his head. “This car is a gift to myself. Shit, I’ve earned it.”
I actually felt a wave of relief pass through me. To even consider the notion that my father would do something so uncharacteristic, so beyond any possibility, was too much for my brain to process on this day. But him being a selfish asshole? Well, that was simply the way things should be. Everything was back to normal again. I shook my head as I looked down at my feet.
“Never mind, okay? I just thought–”
“You thought I was gonna give you a damn car!”
He parked one hand on his hip while rubbing his eyes and forehead with the other hand, while whistling a single, long, low note. My cheeks burned with embarrassment. His face was red too, but it looked like he was about to cry and laugh at the same time. Then after a quick swipe across his pants leg, he extended his legendary “knife hand” towards me.
“Son, I’m gonna give you what you really need, more than anything. I’m gonna send you out into that world, so you can finally pull your head out of your ass, and become a man.”
I stood motionless, as he proceeded to deliver an inventory of reasons.
First of all, he was dismayed beyond words about how I turned out to be such a late bloomer. Then, when I finally did grow up, I turned out to look like a starting quarterback for the NFL, but instead of getting with the program, I always had my head up in the clouds. Or my nose jammed inside a comic book. Or my eyes glued to the TV, watching some bullshit about aliens and spaceships. How the hell could a guy be so smart, and still be so low on common sense anyway? He fought in vee-yet-namm with a couple of guys like me, and they were always the ones who gave the enemy plenty of target practice. Guys who read lots of books and loved to use lots of big, impressive-sounding words, but never had enough sense to know what was going on right in front of them. Bunch of fuckin’ daydreamers. All talk, no action. That’s the problem, you know. Too soft. The world is a hard place. And now, it’s time for trial by fire. Do or die!
At long last, my father’s point of view was abundantly verbalized. Today was the day I would be forced from the nest, and left to perish. Or, I would surprise everyone and give him something to brag about. Either way, my time was up here.
Putting a nice sharp point on the topic, he then gave me until lunchtime to pack up and be ready to roll out, or get rolled out by force. I wasn’t sure if I heard him right, and I could tell he knew that, because his posture suddenly shifted, making him look very impatient.
He cleared his throat, then cocked his head to the side and spit on Clam & Chunky’s front lawn again.
He squinted, as if he were distracted by something far away in the distance, before he turned back to me. His eyes locked onto mine.
Leaning in slightly, and tapping his fingernail loudly against the face of his wristwatch, he repeated very clearly that I would have more than an hour to pack a bag, which was more than enough time to ‘bug out.’
Again he pointedly stated that I needed to meet him right here, at this spot, by twelve o’clock sharp.
Then with a curt nod, he turned and walked away.
Are you enjoying this story? Please consider making a donation.
What happens next? Be sure to drop by every Friday for another new episode of BLB2K!