Last year at this time I was working on a new years story when I received word that a friend and regular reader died just after Christmas. The news shut me down: Writing dumb stories seemed meaningless when compared to what that poor woman’s children were going through.
She was a very encouraging presence, and I would love to share with her the progress I made during 2014. She would have made it all seem much bigger and exciting than it truly is.
I still miss her, and I still can’t bring myself to finish the following story.
My father left us when I was eight years old. We were living in a Chicago suburb, and after our house sold my mother moved us a few blocks away to a rental home. “A few blocks” in kid math was another world. All the kids I played and fought with were gone: no more front yard football or baseball in the street. No more swapping baseball cards. No more Evel Knievels with my best buddy, Curt. I spent my time in the rental’s empty kitchen, bouncing a bright green super ball.
About a year later my parents reconciled and we moved to Texas, where my father now worked as a maintenance manager in Miller Beer’s can manufacturing plant. He worked long hours and was rarely home. One evening he flopped exhausted into his recliner and started downing free cans of Miller. He built a can pyramid next to his chair, adding each dead soldier until it toppled over, and then he said, “Well, that’s it.” It was one of only two times I ever saw my father with a buzz.
Just before Christmas I came home from school and my father was home. Seeing him out of context was strange, like Happy Days coming on at three in the afternoon rather than eight at night, or something like that. “Check under the tree,” he said. Beneath the Christmas tree were fresh presents for my sisters and me.
“Where did they come from?” I asked.
“I took the day off and went shopping,” he said. This was strange and exciting. Christmas mornings always exposed my father’s lack of participation in the holidays via exchanges like:
Me: Thanks, Dad!
Father: What the hell is that?
Mother: That’s the record we bought him.
Father: Oh yeah. That’s right.
But that year my pops selected something just for me. I couldn’t wait.
I chose my father’s present as my Christmas Eve gift. I tore away the paper and revealed a board game named Chopper Strike, a helicopter vs. tank game. I didn’t care about helicopters or tanks, and I had no one with whom to play it. I choked back tears. Chopper Strike was the greatest gift I’d ever received.
We’d never had a party. Kiddie parties sure, but never an adult party where the ladies wore wigs and makeup and the men stood in little groups drinking smart cocktails and telling dirty jokes. But there we were on December 31, 1976, our suburban Texas ranch house filled with grown-ups who smelled funny and chugged my father’s free Miller and its classy cousin, Lowenbrau. I ran around eating the fancy hors d’oeuvres: the Ritz crackers and Cheez Whiz; the dip made from powdered French onion soup; the mini pizzas my mother made that were no bigger than silver dollar pancakes.
I was invisible to the grown-ups. They laughed too loud and acted interested in each others’ stories and drank. I weaved between their slacks and pant suits like a squirrel stealing picnic food. “Them’s some good crackers, ain’t they?” He was old like my dad, but he wore jeans and a hooded gray sweatshirt that zipped up the front. “Don’t look all scared, you ain’t in trouble. What do you want, little man? Skip’ll fix you a plate.”
He heaped snacks onto a paper plate until it sagged. I had to hold it with both hands. “Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome, buddy. Come on back if you want something else.”
I went to my sister’s room. When I opened the door she gasped and jammed her hands beneath the covers. “I thought you were Dad,” she said.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not supposed to be reading this. It has sex in it.” She reached under the covers and pulled out a copy of Jaws tattered from months of smuggling between middle school friends. The shark on the cover was scary, but the real money was the nude swimmer gliding along the ocean surface.
Any hint of nudity was arousing. Buried between the Glenn Miller and Dion in my parents’ stack of records was an album entitled How to Strip for Your Husband. Its cover was Mad Men sexy, a Don Draper arriving home from work to find his wife, her back to us, with her dress unzipped and the military grade clasp of her bra exposed. Buried among the coins my father deemed too valuable to spend was a gold-colored slug with a pair of breasts stamped into one side and a shapely behind stamped into the other: heads and tails.
And although it was the late seventies and Farrah’s glass cutting nipples were ubiquitous and braless Chrissy jiggled her way through every Three’s Company episode, the Sears catalog remained a reliable cheap thrill: pages of belly button concealing panties and bras guaranteed to withstand a category five hurricane. My favorites were the maternity bras, their flaps at half mast exposing a bonus triangle of bare flesh. Now I had the Jaws cover for my mental slide show of naked ladies. I had no use for such a gallery, but I liked how I felt when I thought about the pictures.
I went back to the party. The grown-ups were a little louder, laughing a little harder between bites of deviled eggs and Vienna sausages. Skip waved me over. “Hey, partner, we need a little music. You got some records?”
“Well go get them, bud. Hustle up! Let’s get these stiffs moving.” I ran to my room and gathered my few records: Elton John and CW McCall singles; a few favorites from my father’s stack of jukebox discards; John Denver and Barry Manilow albums; my aunt’s old Beatles records. I ditched The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” and ran back to the living room.
Skip squinted as he looked through the records. He divided them into two piles, then he handed me the Manilow and the Denver and he said, “Don’t tell your mom and dad I said this and excuse my language, but this is pussy music. You’re a cool little man, so I’m going to give you a little man to man advice: Never bring pussy music to a party, you understand?”
“Don’t tell your mom and dad I said that. The Beatles are cool. How you know the Beatles? That’s back from my time.”
“This is my favorite record,” I said, and I pointed to the cover of Rubber Soul.
“God damn. You are a little man, ain’t you? Let’s get these old farts dancing.” He slid open the cover on my folks’ console stereo and dropped the needle. Nothing changed and everything changed. Nobody danced, but I was part of the party now. I contributed something.
As the clock neared 12 the grown-ups grew more animated. This was my first New Year, the end of 1976, goodbye to the Bicentennial, goodbye to the year my father left, goodbye Chicago. Goodbye childhood: double digits, the big 1-0, was just a few months away.
5…4…3…2…1…Happy New Year! The grown-ups hugged and kissed and clinked their glasses together. I ran to my bedroom and dove onto my race car bed, sobbing. I don’t know how long I cried into my pillow, but when I turned over Skip stood swaying in my doorway.
“What’s the matter, little man?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Are you sick?”
“Are you sad?”
“I guess so.”
“Why you sad?”
I couldn’t explain it to him. I couldn’t explain it to myself. All I knew was that my insides felt like my pyramid of cans had toppled over. “New Years,” I said.
“Well hell, that ain’t nothing to be sad about. I seen lots of New Years but I ain’t never cried about it. Don’t let nobody see you crying, okay? Let me tell you man to man: they see you crying they’ll say you’re a pussy and you ain’t a pussy. Know how I know?”
“Because you’re my friend, little man,” he said, and he turned and wobbled back to the party.
Categories: Throw Beck Thursday