“Don’t sugar coat it honey,” Aunt Francis said when I walked in the house holding my T-shirt up to my face, a stream of profanity spilling from my mouth like Sugar Creek in April.
Francis was dabbing at the split in my lip with a wash cloth–avoiding eye contact. I think she was afraid I’d start crying if she looked at me. She knows how much I hate to cry. Whenever I do, all kinds of old stuff I try really hard not to think about comes bubbling up inside my brain. Before you know it, I’m bawling like some cry baby on the playground that dropped his milk money in the sewer drain, or lost the ice cream scoop on his cone to a stray dog.
I knew this day was going to be weird from the moment I opened my eyes and saw Henry, the Turd Wrangler, staring directly at me from a few inches away. He was breathing his dinosaur death breath in my face and licking my nose. I cussed him, but at the same time I was scratching his smelly old ears, so I doubt it had much effect. As I was getting dressed, I caught the smell of Uncle Fred’s coffee coming up the stairs and figured he must have sent Henry to wake me. No late sleepers in my Uncle’s house.
Anyway, after a quiet bacon and egg breakfast with Uncle Fred, I decided to ride my bike into town. The road there is completely flat and surrounded by farmland the whole way. Unless you find endless rows of corn and soybeans scenic, it’s a pretty uninspiring trip. But it sure beats the hell out of sitting around the house with Uncle Fred and Frannie when they are having one of their annoying (and thankfully rare) grump-a-thons. When my uncle and aunt aren’t getting along, they both start talking to Henry the dog instead of one another. Complaining to him about what the other forgot to do, or did. They try to act like everything is normal and I guess they expect me not to notice this peculiar behavior. It’s weird–like some sort of messed up little game. Sometimes I think they just do it because they get such a kick out of making up when it’s all over. They’re both so nuts about one another they aren’t fooling anyone, not even their nephew. At least, I don’t think they are. Hell! I don’t know how this marriage stuff is supposed to work.
Guess that now is as good a time as there will ever be to tell you why I hate to cry so much (I’ll tell you why I had that split lip later). When I was seven, my mom was killed in a car wreck. No one else was involved. She was coming home from Aunt Francis’ around 10:00 at night (probably singing along to America’s top 40 on the AM radio) when a deer ran right out in front of her car. She was so crazy about animals, that she swerved to avoid hitting the damned thing and hit an uneven patch on the shoulder, flipping the Oldsmobile several times down an embankment. She was thrown from the car and died on impact. At least that was what the state trooper told us–maybe just to make us feel better. Dad and I were having a camp out in the backyard on the night it happened. We were already asleep in our make shift tent of blankets thrown over the clothesline, when the trooper knocked at our front door. He woke up our neighbor Don, who showed him where we were. Don was calling our names and scared the crap out of both of us–the flashlight shining in our blanket tent. I can still feel that kick to my stomach when the trooper explained what had happened. My Dad pulled me to him, tears streaming down both our faces. It is still the only time I’ve seen him cry. There are few things as unsettling as seeing your very own Dad break down sobbing–especially when you’re not even in second grade. You still have no idea that your Dad isn’t indestructible. You’ve yet to realize that there are many things even he can’t do.
It was over a year before we went to Aunt Francis’ again after that and to this day, we take the long way to her place every time. Dad was mad at the whole entire world after mom died. He didn’t mean to be mad at me too. I know he didn’t–though he was pretty touchy for weeks and quick to lose his temper. I was just sad, sad, sad. I started sleeping with my old security blanket again. I still get it out of my closet sometimes and put it to my cheek. I don’t know how, but when I smell that tattered old thing, it’s like Mom is still kind of with me somehow. It sounds just idiotic to say out loud, but when I’ve had a rough day of it, that old blanket is like a good friend. I’ve never told anyone about it, not even Dad. Besides, it’s too embarrassing to admit it anyway. If the guys found out, I would never hear the end of their crap.
Mom was like a smaller, quieter version of Francis–as pretty, though less interested in being the center of attention. She would never be caught dead in a bikini at the lake, doing swan dives–or putting bourbon in her sweet tea.
She gave up smoking when she found out I was on the way. Francis said she gave up a lot of things when I came along. Mom used to cuss like a sailor too and the four of them would go out dancing and drinking together. When mom learned she was going to be a mother, she lost interest in almost everything else. I think she was trying to undo all the hurt and trouble she and Frannie went through with their folks.
It makes me happy to think that I got my love of profanity from my sweet well-mannered mom. I’d never heard her even curse under her breath. The worst thing I ever heard her say was, “Damn” once. She made me extra bacon for breakfast that morning. As I wolfed down the fourth slice, I promised not to tell dad. Everybody in the family always tells me I’ve got her eyes. I don’t know what exotic bird I got my nose from, but it sure wasn’t my parents. They looked like old movie stars in their high school year books. Mom in those kooky black and white shoes–with her pant legs rolled up to make sure everyone could see them, I guess. In her prom picture, her hair was in this flip thing at the sides and she wore bright red lipstick. Dad was in a tux that looked about two sizes small. Somehow he still looked pretty good.
If you haven’t already forgotten about my split lip and are still curious how I got it….As I mentioned earlier, I rode my bike into town that morning, just looking for something to do. It was summer time and there are usually a few kids I know in town playing baseball, or just hanging around the mostly vacant downtown trying to entertain themselves. Just kids doing bored kid stuff like throwing rocks, having spitting contests, or following girls around in hopes of pissing them off somehow, just because it’s kind of fun to see what they’re capable of. I don’t normally get involved with bothering girls, but on this particular day, everything was particularly screwed up. Most kids understand that there is a pecking order and that the bigger the kid, the more likely it is he/she is going to have their say so. I’m well aware of the laws of the land and survival of the fittest and stuff. Unfortunately, Mickey Sullivan was either too naive or just plain stupid and unaware of these untold rules of adolescence. So when he decided that it would be a fine idea to crash the Finley sisters’ backyard tea party with water balloons, and since I had no idea who the Finley sisters were, I was only slightly reluctant to join in on the insanity. We stowed our bikes behind some bushes and Mickey tried to wheel his kid sister’s red wagon as quietly as he could down the alley behind the Finley’s. It was filled to the top with our ammunition. My index finger had a blister later that day from knotting all those stinkin’ balloons. We crouched down behind this old clunker and peeked in at our targets through a knot hole in their fence. They were just a bunch of giggling girls with dolls and a tea set on this worn out picnic table. They seemed a little old to be playing with dolls, but what the hell do I know about girls? Mickey opened their unlocked gate, looked over at me and said, “Are you ready? Aim. FIRE!” He was a mad bomber, firing half a dozen to my one. Guess I was a little hesitant after all, when the screaming began. I was about to toss my second balloon when a giant girl, at least a foot taller than me, suckered punched me right in the mouth. Mickey took off running without a peep and left me to defend myself. Why he didn’t suspect that the Finley’s much older and 6 foot tall sister would be supervising the girls during the summer, I’ll never know. I was bleeding and blubbering apologies and she let me go, but not before promising to find out just who in the hell I belonged to. Humiliated, I tucked my tail between my legs and rode the two miles back to my Aunt’s.
Turns out, Uncle Fred is good friends with Hunter Finley, the girls’ father. It probably won’t be surprising either when I tell you that I had to take a ride into town that evening with him and found myself in the Finley living room apologizing to all of the girls and their parents. The girls were giggling at my swollen lip and really didn’t seem too upset about the situation. Mr. and Mrs. Finley were pretty pissed off, however. They said we broke a couple of tea cups that were valuable. Why you would carry expensive dishes out into the yard, of course I didn’t get to ask. I had to send my allowance to them for what seemed an eternity to pay for the cups. Mickey, of course, got off without so much as a tongue lashing. He’s like a free range chicken, not a lot of parental supervision, or concern.