Grandma and the Barracudas

When I was 9 years old, my stepfather bought a resort in the Florida Keys.  From just outside of Detroit, Michigan to Islamorada, Florida was definitely a change, in the end not necessarily a bad one but for me, living in a childhood fraught with the dangers brought on by the alcoholism and narcissism of both my mother and stepfather, moving away from my grandmother and aunts (my mother's two best friends Cindy and Georgette, who were more mother to me than anyone else save for my grandmother) was terrifying.  Up to that point I always knew that when anything was truly out of hand or dangerous, I could call them, or manipulate my mother into somehow giving me to them, and I would be safe.  And happy.

But now, it would be my mother and her husband, (or M&M, which stood for Manhattan and Martini, their eventual pet name), coral snakes, palmetto bugs, wolf spiders, scorpions (and yes, I was stung by one!), tropical storms, and cigarettes. Lots and lots of cigarettes.  The move took place in January so you may think, “Damn kid, you're lucky!  You missed winter in Detroit!”  Uh huh.  But I was a socially awkward genius freak starting at a new school in the middle of the year. And (and you're not gonna believe this) they were going to send me to a public school!  Coral snakes were one thing, but this was barbaric.

Yes, I was a bit of a snob, but to be fair I had never gone to a public school before and with a soaring intelligence, a photo and audiographic memory, and a ravenous, knowledge-devouring nature, I was usually the “smartest” person in the room even at 9 years old.  I know now of course that my academic knowledge may have given many adults a run for their money, but my emotional intelligence was in its infancy and my Brainy Smurf, know-it-all behavior could be irritating and even painful for others.  I remember one of my mother’s girlfriends saying, right in front of me, “How can you stand to be around him?  I mean he is always correcting people.”  Yikes.

Other kids didn’t like me and who could blame them.  And now, I would be attending a public school, in Florida!  Despite NASA, Florida, the land of strippers, gators, and more than a few of our favorite serial killers, was not known for intellectual prowess, although it would be 20 years before the entire nation discovered that Floridians couldn’t count.  Fitting in at a private school chosen specifically for academics was hard enough.  With a new school, a new state, a new everything looming, how would I ever survive without my Grandmother?

I never said anything of course.  When my mother said it would be an adventure, I smiled and agreed.  I cried in my room, or out on the jetty, but never so she could see.  Every day, anytime I was alone, for the first several months...I missed my Grandma so much.  But then the most remarkable series of events...

The very first day in my new school, I walked in and the teacher was kind.  Sweet-natured.  And so was the next teacher, and the principal.  And the other students were smiling at me.  By the end of the first two weeks, my teacher recommended testing for the gifted program (we didn’t have a gifted program in Catholic school!).  And suddenly I was surrounded by little freaks who were just like me.  We went on field trips, and cared for the classroom animals and aquariums, and did projects together.  We had a weekly visit from a ranger and naturalist from the Everglades.  And because we were all freaks, none of us was made to feel like one.  This was heaven!

And because school was going so well, I didn’t feel that awful emptiness, all the time.  It was just the break I needed.  Suddenly, it seemed I might not die from missing her.  I wasn’t done crying and there would never be a time while she was alive that I didn’t want to be next to her at the kitchen table, eating plate after plate of her spaghetti or smelling her banana cake cooling on the tile counters, or making her laugh so hard she would have to run out of the kitchen to a smaller room with tile counters, yelling at me the whole way, accusing me of doing this to her on purpose, and of course she was right.  Is there anything better than making your audience pee with delight?  She was the greatest audience, had the loudest cackle and the purest heart, and was the best friend a boy ever had.  She never judged me, always showed up, and never disappointed.  But I was nine now.  Yes, nine and gifted.  It was time to pull it together, give it my best shot, and make her proud.  

I worked hard in school and at the resort, and I began to open up to new experiences of all sorts. My stepfather had grown up poor during the Depression in the hills of Oklahoma.  He hated his background, and nearly anything that reminded him of it.  They had fished and hunted to survive and though you would think these two activities would fall prey to his self-loathing, they instead became the most celebrated pursuits of his existence.  He was a real estate magnate but he still scrubbed down the boat after a long day of fishing.  He was a seasoned, licensed, and frankly, superb Captain and as much as he frightened me, I never felt safe unless he was driving the boat.  n one instance, we were deep sea fishing and the waves were 25 foot rollers.  It was the most terrifying thing you can imagine, staring up from the murky canyon as twin 25 feet towers of solid green sea water rise on either side of you.  We were going to die.  I don’t think anyone on that boat that day believed otherwise.  Except for him.  It was like watching a great cellist or violinist.  His hands moved so quickly, his focus never tested as he deftly kept us pointed into each wave as we soared up one wet mountain and down the next, over and over.  It was something to see.  And of course we made it.  He kept us safe that day, the Great Fisherman did. And that was the day a new fisherman was born.

When I wasn’t at school, I was out on the dock fishing.  I didn’t know what I would catch just yet. When we were out on the Atlantic, we caught yellow-tail, red snapper, grouper, swordfish, and once we almost caught a full grown 10 foot tiger shark because it wanted the yellow-tail more than we did, and so it followed the hooked fish to the surface and nearly took my stepfather’s arm instead.  But from the jagged little jetty and old wooden dock, I had no idea what would come my way, but there was something about being surrounded by the sound of the waves, the sunset, the great herons, stingrays, horseshoe crabs, pelicans...I didn’t have to feel so alone.  And when I did, when I missed her too much, I didn’t have to cry alone.

So off to the outermost point, with my rod and reel and long bright lures, and I began casting as far as I could, over and over.  And from the very first day, there was a presence there, beneath the surface, powerful, wise, and watching.  The lure, moving home to shore as quickly as my hands could spin the reel, was being followed.  Not by one but by two, three, sometimes five or six.  But they were fast and they weren’t biting.  They followed, but they never took the bait. And suddenly I knew what they were.  Barracudas.  Silver flashes, long and thin, they ranged in size from one to five feet long, and they were fascinated by, well, by me.  At least that’s how it felt.  They never took the bait but they always followed, and just when it looked like they would be dashed by the rocky shoreline, they would veer off and move back out to sea. I would cast and they would come.  No matter the time of day or the weather or the season.  A good day at school and my wise friends were waiting.  A drunken brawl between my mother and stepfather, the unwavering silver specters would be there to console me.  They never judged me, they always showed up, and they never disappointed.  Just like...

Everyone needs saving at one time or another.  It turns out, in terms of lifelines, there isn’t much to distinguish a warm midwestern kitchen from a tropical sea.  

About the Boy

It was a day like any other in America, perhaps a bit more promising.  A too-young mother-to-be was watching television, a comedy, and smoking a cigarette.  It was the late 1960's, turbulent, war-time...and the young woman escaped like so many others into a TV world of simple, slapstick comedy. Goofball characters brought to life by great comedians, the writing often tinged with sly political undercurrents, but to most Americans, simply a reprieve from the news. The show was called Laugh-In, and laugh she did.  So hard in fact that she went into labor and at 2 o'clock in the morning the very next day, a new life began.

A few short years later, on a crisp autumn morning, the young mother was reading the newspaper, the comics to be exact.  As she was reading, she was laughing.  And the boy was listening, watching, and wondering.  He reached out and tugged at her jeans, gazed up at his mother, and asked, "What are you laughing at?"  She looked down at the boy and responded, "Oh honey, you wouldn't understand?" and returned to her reading.  The boy paused, stomped one foot, glared at his mother, and very nearly growled, "I can't wait 'til I can read!"

And that morning proved to be prophetic for the boy could not wait...for anything it seemed. He read voraciously and studied as if his life depended on it.  He was enthralled by all things academic, especially words and language and politics.  But his passion did not stop there. He practiced his chosen sport almost addictively, four or five hours a day.  He loved to laugh, so much so that it was often impossible for him to stop until his eyes were filled with tears.  He cared for his family, and friends, and animals.  He believed, and trusted, and forgave, and believed again.  He was being raised Catholic and that suited him fine because he loved Mass.  As strange as this may sound, even as a boy, he experienced the Mass, felt it, the oneness, the stillness.  Faith was effortless for this boy, and eventually for the young man he would become.  Faith is easy, when you are young.

And so this life began.  He believed in his family, in God, and in the American experiment. He believed in his youth and in his dreams, and that life and the world were fair and that justice prevailed if only you worked to secure it.  

He was a lovely young man.  Looking at him now it is almost hard to believe that I grew to despise him so very much.  His trusting and naive nature left us open, laid bare to predators, liars, and eventually, a violence he could never have imagined.  But as I write him, revisiting his passion, excitement, innocence, and wonder...I can't help but forgive him, embrace him, and recall that he is in so many ways the best part of who I was...who I am.  The boy, the young man...born of laughter.

 

Playing Dead

They never knew I was gone.  

As an adult, I have always felt a deep sense of loneliness and a terrible fear of that loneliness as if left unchecked or not constantly battled, it will somehow devour me.  It wasn’t until I started writing that I began to realize that it’s been there, a constant companion, since the beginning.

I was talking to my therapist about it and happened to mention an old habit of mine: Playing Dead.  Well I don’t suppose it was a habit; more like a scheme or plot.

Anyway, by the time I was about four years old, I would play dead.  You see, she liked scary 50s and 60s Saturday afternoon thrillers and horror movies, Vincent Price, wax museum, Carnival of Souls, Christopher Lee...and because I worshipped her, and because she made me, I would cuddle up on the sofa with her and we would watch them together.  I knew what dead people looked like because I had a black and white, Saturday afternoon, low budget, horror flick, TV education.  The problem was that dead people, even in those old movies, had cold, filmy, open eyes and well, no matter how good a little actor I was, I couldn’t pull that off.  No, the eyes had to be closed.  But I could hold my breath forever and fall dramatically, landing in just the right, slightly contorted pose, and stay there.  For a really long time.  No seriously, a really long time. For four or five years old, I was incredibly patient and determined. And the prize, after all, was her attention.  So maybe I couldn’t be a convincing dead boy, but seizure boy, or heart attack boy, or coma boy (my favorite because the cause could be sooo many things!)?  All these I could pull off without breaking a sweat...

So in the hallway, or the walkway into the kitchen, I would look around to make sure no one could see the fall, and then thud...down I’d go.  And then I’d wait.  I’d wait with anticipation knowing that she would be coming through the living room with laundry from the basement or heading to the kitchen to check on dinner and her eyes would be drawn to the statue still, lifeless body of her little boy and she would fall to her knees and gather me up in her arms as best she could (because everyone knows dead people weigh more!).  And in her shock and grief, she would begin to promise things if only I would breathe.  Please just breathe.  I’ll take you to the zoo this weekend and of course we can go to Grandma’s every day and you don’t have to eat ground meat ever again, if only you BREATHE!!! And then, as if her motherly love made it so, the breath would come.  Slowly of course, and jilted.  That was important.  A few sounds now...not making sense.  And then, the moment, eyes open, looking up into the eyes of the greatest and most powerful Mother who ever was.  She would never let me be hurt or sick or alone.  And having experienced all of this, I would let her in on my game.  And she would feign anger and tell me I had frightened her so and to promise never to do that again.  And I would promise and I would keep that promise.  And we would have chocolate chip cookies and milk.

Yes, that’s how it happened.  Always.  In my mind.  In the imagination of a child.  But somehow, no matter how skilled my fall or how broken my pose, how shallow and rare my breathing, her eyes were never drawn to that still little body.  She walked by or over.  Not irritated or angry. Never a reaction or discussion that I can recall.  You know, it was sometimes cold, and always lonely on that floor.   And although I went back to playing dead on many occasions, the strategy failed to elicit the response I hoped for every single time.  I suppose I was never convincing enough to fool her.  That’s what I tell myself.  Because the alternative seems so much worse:

What if I was?

The Beginning continues...

I was a really cute kid…a beautiful child actually.  When people who have only known me as an adult see my pictures they are always surprised to see how thick, shiny and almost silver my hair was.  High cheekbones and big eyes with unnaturally long lashes, I looked like a Precious Moment without the pastels.  Little Lord Fauntleroy was a term I heard far too much as a child. Funny thing is, she said it so much, I thought it was a good thing, until one day she informed me (I was six) that it was not and had been meant as a warning.  I understood immediately.  I wasn’t much of a boy is what she had been saying all along.  Nice.

She said I was a happy child and as I was the first grandchild, there is all manner of proof to bear that out.  Home movies, scrapbooks, photo albums...all dedicated to the joyful occurrence that is the first. I'm almost always smiling, laughing, moving.  Oh alright, if I don't write this there will be hell to pay from my friends:  I held court from the moment I figured out there was a court to be held.  The trouble is, looking back, I'm not sure if that was who I was or who I evolved into to survive.  She said, "I don't remember you ever crying."  But I do. I do remember.

When I was four she met a man who would become her second husband, my father being that mere stepping stone I mentioned earlier.  He was self-made, self-taught, self-centered, self-aggrandizing…I can’t think of any more but you get the picture.  He had reason to be pleased with himself.  He had come from nothing and was a millionaire many times over, and I learned a thing or two from him, but more than anything else I remember about him, it was his scent, I guess to a child it was more like a stench, that is the most vivid.  He drank gin martinis and I can’t remember a time he didn’t smell like one.  He would say goodnight to me, holding me by the shoulders a little too close, and there it was, that gin-soaked blast directly into my wincing face.

“I love you right. You know that right?” he would say.  And I would nod and hope the lecture would be short.  I remember squirming, which was unusual for me, not being a particularly restless child in the physical sense.  Anything to get away from him, and then the guilt because I believed, even then, that I was responsible for everyone else’s feelings.

I can sum up our time together as follows:

 

They drank…a lot.

They fought…a lot.

And I was alone…a lot.  At least it seemed that way.

 

I think it is important to pause here for a vocabulary lesson.  Arguing and fighting are two distinct activities.  One is probably acceptable behavior for married people, though not preferred I grant you. Fighting, on the other hand, is a sport and the way they did it never disappointed.  She was almost superhuman when she was fighting and he...well, he had more money than God and no conscience so what or who dared stand in his way?  She lifted chairs to throw at him and he broke down doors she had locked herself behind…and I sat shaking on the stairwell, or screamed at them, or ran to the neighbor's.  I would stay next door for an hour or so until a dark silence fell, and then I would sneak back in and up the stairs to my bedroom.

 

They never knew I was gone.