My father bought this house for my step-brother, Animal. It’s about seven-hundred square feet. It has green siding and a little statue of the Virgin Mary that my step-mother, Christina, situated on the front porch the day my step-brother moved in. It’s as though the statue is protecting Animal, though I’m not sure from what, since the neighborhood is so safe.
Christina, I’ve always thought, is too protective of her son. And the woman is scary with that religion stuff. She doesn’t even let my sister and her boyfriend of seven years sleep in the same bed when they go up north to visit my dad at the lake-side cottage he shares with his wife. “Not till you’re married,” Christina tells my sister. My dad, James, a retired engineer at Dow Chemical, doesn’t care if his daughter sleeps with her boyfriend or not. “I mean, the girl is thirty years old, for Christ’s sake,” I heard him tell his wife one time. “Don’t blaspheme!” Christina scolded Dad.
My sister called Christina a puritan once. I didn’t think that was out of line.
Animal, whom I live with, is Christina’s low-functioning son. I guess I’m a tad low-functioning myself, because I can’t seem to make any money, though recently I graduated from Central Michigan University and I now teach in the English Division at the local community college here in Saginaw. Anyway… I moved in with Animal, is the point. James and Christina – whom I sometimes call JC, as though they’re my savior – charge me only one hundred dollars, plus utilities, to live here. That’s kind of them. Still, this isn’t what I hoped for myself. I didn’t think I’d be struggling, in other words. Not at twenty-nine.
But worse things have happened. Like Deepwater Horizon or the earthquake in Haiti. Incidentally, that all went down in 2010, the year I moved here.
Our neighborhood is pretty safe. But Saginaw is not. In 2012, Saginaw, Mich. saw twelve shootings in one two-week period. I remember the day I drove to Saginaw in my Fusion, which was new at the time; I’d filled my car with old textbooks and boxes of clothes, and I listened to NPR the whole way. It was only an hour-long drive from Mount Pleasant, where I’d attended Central Michigan University, to Saginaw. The earthquake in Haiti had just happened, and the news brief said there’d been 160,000 casualties in and around Port-au-Prince or Leogane or whatever.
Now it’s 2014.
Every day I write at the kitchen table. Animal stays in his bedroom, where he plays video games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. The other day, I knocked on his bedroom door, and I heard him say, “Enter!” as though he were the headmaster at some fancy boarding school. Now that I’d been given permission to do so, I opened the door and crossed the threshold.
Animal keeps his shades down. It’s dark in his bedroom, and it smells like shit in there, because he doesn’t shower or brush his teeth or even wash his underwear, I don’t think. Everywhere you look there are posters of wrestlers, like John Cena and Sheamus. The guy loves wrestling. In fact, if you go in there on a Monday night, when wrestling is on, Animal, who’s twenty-eight, won’t even talk to you, and if you really bug him, he’ll get up from his bed – where he sits, cross-legged – and he’ll punch you in the face. I’ve learned this the hard way. One time, Animal chased me around the house with a butcher’s knife for twenty minutes, because I’d pestered him during Monday Night Raw. That was scary. I almost called the police, but then Animal realized he was missing his show, so he returned the knife to the kitchen drawer, and he retreated to his bedroom, although not before screaming, “Don’t bug me, Brian! I FUCKING MEAN IT, ASSHOLE!” He gets this language from me. I’m always swearing and farting around the house. If only my Composition students knew how I behave at home…
The other day, I was standing in Animal’s bedroom, and I farted right in his face. “Fuck off!” he screamed. Then I looked at his television screen, and I watched his avatar, or whatever it’s called, stab someone in the throat.
I looked at my step-brother. “Is this healthy?” I said, sounding very progressive and forward-thinking all of a sudden. “I dunno,” Animal answered, lazily. “You don’t think violence is contagious?” I said. Animal didn’t know how to respond here, in part because he was distracted by the video game he was playing. Too, he had to think about the word contagious. “You know what contagious means?” I said, finally. My step-brother shook his head. “Ok,” I said, thinking about how I was going to explain myself, though I knew Animal didn’t give a shit. “You know how in the bible it says Adam begot Sam, and Sam begot Jeff, and Jeff begot Rebekeh, and Rebekeh begot Razzles or whomever? Well… Do you think violent video games beget violence in society? Aggressive behavior and so forth?”
“I dunno,” Animal said, looking peeved, wishing I would leave his bedroom, it seemed.
“Do you understand the question?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, sounding fed up, though I’d only asked him a few innocuous questions. Of course, whenever I ask Animal if he understands the question, he says yes. Half the time, I doubt he knows what I’m talking about. “Let me ask ya this: Do you think you could ever stab someone in the throat?” I said.
“Maybe,” he said, still sitting cross-legged on the edge of his bed, looking at the television screen – his avatar was engaged in a sword fight with three samurais now. “If people like you keep bugging me…” he said, and then he trailed off.
It’s not like Animal and I don’t have fun together. He and I had a good laugh one day in the car. I was driving him to Family Video, so he could return a few DVDs he’d rented – Mortal Combat Annihilation, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Marine – and I was telling him about this Halloween party I was planning on attending the following week. My buddy, Adam, whom I met at Central, and his wife, Shana, have the same party every year. Everyone dresses up and brings a dish – a veggie tray, cheese and crackers with olives, sourdough bread and dip – that they put on the island in Adam and Shana’s kitchen. One year, I went as Jesus Christ, and I brought baguette and red wine for guests to enjoy. Last year, I didn’t know what to bring. “Go into the bathroom, and make a shit,” Animal suggested, sitting in the passenger’s seat of my Fusion. “Then put the shit in a Tupperware container, and bring that!” “Yeah!” I said, excitedly. “I can bring plastic knives, and when I get to the party, I can lay the shit on the island, like it’s a stick of butter, and I can bring crackers, too, and everyone can just take turns smearing my shit onto a cracker.” “Tell them to eat your shit!” Animal said. We knew it was stupid, immature. But that’s what was so funny about it!
Once, I drove Animal to Amazing Grace, where he volunteers twice a week, taking care of homeless dogs and cats, playing with them, feeding them, etc. I was so busy picking my nose that twice I almost veered into the left lane, where there was oncoming traffic. “Ouch!” I said. “It’s like there’s a rock up there. I can’t get it out.” “Pick harder!” Animal advised from the passenger’s seat. “I can’t. It hurts,” I told him. “Come on!” Animal yelled, sounding almost like a drill sergeant. “Be a man!”
Sometimes I hate Animal. He’s such a fucking retard, I think, whenever he leaves boogers on the bathroom mirror. Then I have to remind myself that I can be just as gross.
Sometimes I feel like Tom Cruise’s character in Rain Man. There are many differences between Dustin Hoffman’s character and Animal, however. Raymond won’t go outside when it rains. Meanwhile, Animal loves the rain. He’ll run around on the front lawn like a turkey, making this strange noise that I can only compare to a gobble. Too, Raymond appears a little more dignified with his tucked-in shirts and his tidy haircut. Meanwhile, Animal drools and picks his nose and wears the same thing almost every day – a solid lime-green T-shirt that he tucks into a pair of brown Wal-Mart shorts. He has really bad dandruff and terrible breath. He eats pizza rolls constantly, and his gut hangs over his belt. Of course, the biggest difference between Animal and Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man is the autism. Raymond is a fucking genius, though socially awkward, to put it mildly. Meanwhile, if you put Animal on a desert island with two chickens and a dozen eggs, Animal would immediately slaughter the chickens, and he’d fry up the eggs, to boot.
Animal is not autistic; he’s a few notches up from Down Syndrome, really. He doesn’t even know what 9/11 is, though I’ve explained it to him several times.
I guess I should leave Animal alone, the way he asks me to, but if I don’t knock on his bedroom door and check on him sporadically, I won’t have any human interaction, since I don’t have any friends. I’ll never speak to anyone…except maybe Dad, who visits every weekend.
After the stimulating discussion I had with Animal on violent video games, I returned to the kitchen table, where I keep my HP netbook. I can’t afford a MacBook, because I make as much money as a paper boy. I’m not kidding. “Hang in there,” my mother, who still lives in Canada, tells me. “This isn’t about money, Brian. You’re getting experience, is the thing. One day, you’ll apply for a full-time position, though I think that would be a little premature at the moment.”
Mom and Dad divorced in 1989, when I was four. Then, in 1993, Dow Chemical pulled out of Sarnia, where we lived, and a lot of the parents on my street became unemployed. Not Dad, though. Dow transferred Dad to Midland, Mich., where he met Christina about four years later. My sister, Carroll, and I stayed in Canada with our mother and her boyfriend, John, who later became our step-father. My brothers, Charles and Bronson, moved to the States with Dad.
The day before the big move, Dad invited my sister and me to his house for burgers. He had to retrieve a spatula from one of the boxes he’d packed.
Dad was single then, and Carroll and I loved going to his house and seeing our brothers on weekends. “The boys,” we called them.
Dad sat at the head of the table. His four children sat in the chairs that surrounded it.
“Bronson,” Dad said. “Say grace.”
“Do I have to?”
“You have a lot to be thankful for, whether you realize it or not.”
Bronson cleared his throat. We all put our hands together, as we’d been trained to do.
“Thank you, God, for being a friend,” Bronson started. “Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true; you’re a pal and a confidant.”
“Ok,” Dad said, disappointedly.
Then he looked at Charles and said: “Take over, please.”
Charles closed his eyes and said: “Thank you, God, for giving us Dow Chemical, a wonderful company whose products include Agent Orange, which does wonders for people’s complexion, I’ve heard, so much so that the U.S. military thought they would just drop it all over the good people of Vietnam in the 1960s, turning innocent villagers and their babies, who’d been exposed to the herbicide, into mutants.”
Dad rolled his eyes.
“Ok,” he said, looking exhausted.
“Thank you, God, for giving us Dow Chemical,” Charles continued. “a wonderful company that is destroying our home, the way they destroyed homes in Vietnam about twenty years ago.”
“That’s enough!” Dad yelled, and then he slammed his fist on the table; my three siblings and I jumped, like people watching a horror flick.
Dad looked to my sister and me. He quickly realized, however, that he could not rely on his two youngest to say grace, because we were probably the least thankful of all, since we were losing one triad of our family.
He put his palms together, and he looked at my older brothers, as if to say, “Watch. This is how it’s done.” Praying, like buying a car or changing a tire, was something he needed to teach his boys.
He said: “I thank you, oh Lord, for giving me this wonderful opportunity. As you know, so many of my friends and colleagues have not been as fortunate as I have been these last couple months, and they are really struggling to put food on their tables, as I’ve done tonight for my children, and we ask that you watch over my friends and colleagues, and we ask that you watch over their children, who are, many of them, friends of Charles and Bronson. We ask that you watch over these people, though we know you have a plan for them, my dear, benevolent, merciful God.”
In 2003, I graduated from St. Christopher’s Secondary School in Sarnia, Ont., and I moved to Mount Pleasant, where I attended Central Michigan University, Charles and Bronson’s alma mater – by 2003, they, Charles and Bronson, had graduated and taken jobs and started their lives.
Central is where I got my master’s degree, too. Recently, I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble, grading papers. I approached the counter, where I ordered a coffee. There was no one else in line, so the barista and I started chatting.
“What did you study at Central?” she asked.
“Creative Writing,” I told her.
“Wow. What a major!” she said.
“Yeah. Major wrong turn,” I said.
In 2009, while I was in grad school, Dad retired from Dow. Now Dad doesn’t know what to do with himself, except play golf in the summer. He loves that I moved to Saginaw, which is only an hour and a half away from his cottage in Tawas. The man visits every goddamn weekend.
When I moved here, Dad wanted to move Animal’s exercise bike out of the third bedroom, so he could have somewhere to sleep during visits. “How often are you planning on coming here?” I asked, terrified that the answer might be, “Every weekend.”
Dad was evasive. “Oh, I dunno. We’ll see,” he said.
But I could tell he had something more specific in mind. Dad wanted to drive down on Fridays, I could tell. He wanted to watch Tigers games and cook brats on the barbeque he’d bought me for my birthday one year. He wanted to get up early on Saturday mornings, cook eggs for breakfast, and work on the house together – the green house I’m living in now has always been a real fixer-upper. I didn’t want to be mean, but living with Dad on the weekends sounded like a nightmare, especially since Dad had been coming every weekend and telling me that I needed to clean my room and stop doing laundry so often. “Stop coming here so often,” I felt like telling him.
“I’ve never heard of an agreement like this,” I told Dad, when I first moved in. “A landlord ordering his tenant to clean his room? The landlord collecting money from the tenant, though the landlord often stays in the spare bedroom?”
Dad said: “We’re only charging you a hundred a month, Brian. That’s a killer deal.”
But the house comes with a roommate who never cleans, I felt like telling him. Plus, I’ve looked at realtor.com, and there are houses in Saginaw going for like…nine grand. You could just about put one of these fuckers on your credit card.
And these houses on realtor.com are comparable to the one I live in now, which makes me wonder: How much would my mortgage be, if I just bought this place myself? and: Is it really accurate to say I’m getting a “killer deal”?
When I raised this to Dad, he got kind of hostile. “Go buy one of those houses then,” he said. I didn’t know what to say, here. “The nice thing about living in this house,” Dad continued. “is that you don’t have a mortgage, Brian. You can leave as soon as you get a full-time teaching gig…whenever that happens.”
Dad was right. Whether I liked it or not, the guy had all the leverage. Yes, the house came with a roommate, and yes, it was falling apart, and yes, Dad visited every weekend. But these were the terms. “Take it or leave it,” Dad was implying.
He was holding all the cards, it occurred to me.
“All right, all right,” I said, trying to change the subject. “So you want the bike out of the spare bedroom, so you can sleep there on weekends. Is that right? But where are we going to put the exercise bike?”
Dad was very creative. “We’ll put it in front of the front door,” he suggested.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You just want to put it right smack in the middle of the foyer?” I asked.
“Why not?” Dad said. “You and Animal never use the front door…except maybe to check the mail.”
He had me there: Animal and I use the back door only. In fact, the deadbolt to the front door is always getting jammed, and sometimes you have to jimmy it for like…five minutes, if you’re going to open the front door at all; and most days Animal and I get so fed up that we just back down and go through the kitchen, out the back door, and around the house, just to get the mail sitting in the mailbox on the front porch. The mailbox hangs there just above the Virgin Mary statue.
“What if there’s a kitchen fire, and we’re not able to access the back door?” I asked Dad.
“Oh, please,” Dad said. “It’s just an exercise bike. It’s not that big. You can maneuver around it, if you really need to go out the front, is what I’m saying.”
“Yeah, but it’s just gonna look bad,” I finally told him. “I mean, come on! I want this place to look decent.” I reminded Dad that I wasn’t sixteen anymore. “My days of taping Public Enemy posters to my bedroom walls are over,” I told him. “I like vases and coffee tables and things you buy at Pottery Barn. I want it to look like an adult lives here. Because an adult does.”
“Fine!” Dad said, sounding huffy. “We’ll leave the exercise bike where it is…even though no one uses it, Brian.”
Dad still comes every weekend, though. It’s as though the above conversation never happened. He sleeps on the couch instead of in the spare bedroom, where the bike that no one uses lives.
Dad couldn’t move the exercise bike into the garage, because when I first moved in, I thought the place was a dump, so I moved a bunch of Animal’s things into the garage, and now the garage is pretty much full. Animal doesn’t care about what his house looks like, incidentally. People like him don’t. Retards like Animal don’t flip through Pottery-Barn catalogues or browse through Ethan Allen.
But I do. Sometimes, when I’m in Barnes and Noble, I’ll take a break from grading papers, and I’ll look at The World of Interiors, and I’ll fantasize about selling the novel I wrote at Central to a heavy-hitting publishing house and buying a brownstone in Manhattan and decorating it however I want. Or I’ll flip through Cabin Life, and I’ll imagine buying a cottage on Lake Huron, the way Dad did shortly after retiring from Dow. Of course, Lake Tahoe would be way cooler.
When I moved here, there were puzzles that Animal had glued to the walls. Everywhere you looked, there were wrestling puzzles and animal puzzles that Animal had bought at Wal-Mart along with his favorite pair of shorts. There was even a puzzle depicting Johnny Depp on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. The first thing I did after moving in is take these down and throw them carelessly into the trash. “You have a roommate now,” Christina told her son over the phone one night. “You have to compromise.” Too, there was a bookcase in the living room, and it was overflowing with miscellany (i.e. blankets, Bob Seger albums, cleaning products). So I carried the bookcase out to the garage, which has green siding, just like the house; and I put the cleaning products under the sink, where they belong; and I donated the Bob Seger albums to the Salvation Army. Animal was a little cross with me for taking over the way I did. But at least now the living room is free of clutter. Ultimately, Animal didn’t give a shit. He hadn’t listened to those Bob Seger albums in a decade. They were just sitting there, collecting dust.
That’s what I’m doing, incidentally. Collecting dust!
At Central Michigan University, I wrote a novel called Progeria Everywhere – it’s a bildungsroman about prep schoolers who publish bestselling novels and books of literary criticism, though they’re only eleven and twelve and in some cases thirteen. It’s supposed to be absurd. Social commentary is what it is. An observation! It seems to me that everyone has progeria. Seriously! People my age are in such a rush.
I do fantasize, though, about getting a full-time job, getting married, getting on with my life…
Most of the time, however, I think: Gee. I should be going out every night and getting laid. I should be bedding and abandoning various women. I should be making sweet love to someone right now.
Sometimes I think: I should be backpacking across Europe or teaching English in Japan. Now is the time to do those things.
Instead, I’m just sitting here at the kitchen table, writing. Instead of enjoying my twenties, I shuttle between the kitchen and Animal’s bedroom, where I have to knock on his door every fifteen minutes some evenings and tell him again to turn his Anime down. I’m secretly praying that I’ll wake up to an e-mail one of these days from some New York literary agent telling me she thought Progeria Everywhere was a masterpiece and that she would totally drink my bathwater if it meant I would sign a contract with her.
During Christmas dinner one year, Christina told me she thought it was cute that I’d written a novel. “Cute?” I felt like saying. “You think it’s cute? Do you have any idea what it is to really create something? Oh, don’t tell me. Let me guess. You thought you’d really created something when you gave birth to Animal. That’s right. How arrogant of me. Women are the true creators. What does it take to give birth to someone, though? Some asshole fires a load into you, and for nine months you stay away from cigarettes. Oh, what difficult work that is! Let’s be honest – isn’t being pregnant something you can pretty much do on autopilot, like taking care of a plant? Maybe I’m out of line. But seriously… Do you have any idea what it is to write a five-hundred-page masterpiece, to work on the same book for three years, to stick with it, to get up every day and revise and edit and proofread and polish and refine? It’s complex architectural work is what it is. It is not cute. It is awe-inspiring.”
I’m not saying it’s right; I’m only telling you what I felt like saying at that moment.
Sometimes I feel like I’m dead already. Sometimes I feel like I’m in Hell, which is funny, because when I first moved in, there were little crucifixes and nativity scenes and plastic doves atop the entertainment center in the living room. I threw all of this into a box labeled “Religious Paraphernalia,” and I carried the box out to the garage and put it next to Animal’s bookcase.
I wanted to redecorate further, but it isn’t my house, and I wasn’t allowed to do anything indelible. Plus, I think Christina found it insulting that I’d gotten rid of her religious knick knacks. I didn’t want to push my luck.
Even if I had been allowed to give the house a complete make-over, it’s not like I had any money for the leather sofas and stainless-steel appliances I wanted.
One thing I did do, however, is ask Dad if he’d help me rip up the carpet and restore the hardwood underneath. Dad refused. “I don’t think Christina wants hardwood in here,” he told me. “Why not?” I said, sort of outraged. “Hardwood floors are beautiful.” We were staring at the living-room carpet, wondering how we were going to spruce up the house, which Dad conceded looked pretty shabby, with its pale wood-paneling in the living room, its lime-green carpeting throughout, and its old plaid sofas that Christina had bought at the Salvation Army for twenty bucks.
Dad said: “You’re just gonna move out one day, Brian. And then we’ll be stuck with the hardwood. Not you. And hardwood is cold in the winter. And you need to buy an area rug or wear slippers, if you’re gonna have hardwood floors. And a nice area rug is expensive, Brian.” He looked at me. “But listen!” he said, sounding upbeat. “We can replace the carpet. We’ll get a nice one, too! It’ll be great. You won’t feel so down anymore. You’ll feel a lot better about living here, at least.”
“I want to restore the hardwood,” I said, stubbornly.
“Well, I wanted a Jaguar, when I retired from Dow, Brian. But we can’t always get what we want.”
What a cliché, I thought, and I rolled my eyes.
I said: “Dad. The only reason you didn’t get your Jaguar is because Christina insisted you keep the Mountaineer, so you could move furniture, whenever she needed you to.” Dad just looked at me, thinking about how he was going to counter this. “We can have the things we want,” I told him. “We just have to demand those things and not let our wives veto every goddamn decision, Dad.”
“You don’t have a wife, Brian.”
There was a subtext here. Dad was reminding me that I was alone; he was calling me a loser. That hurt.
I wanted to hurt him back.
So I said: “You know what, Dad? You need to get over this goddamn chivalry nonsense and join the twenty-first century, where men are equal to women. This whole notion that husbands get a man cave and wives get the rest of the house – I don’t get that! A husband isn’t there to just foot the bills and make sacrifices.” I’d heard this line in Woody Allen’s Interiors. “Get your goddamn balls back!” I said.
I immediately regretted yelling at him like this. Ultimately, I think the man just loves his wife and wants her to be happy. Nothing wrong with that!
I’m just not sure what there is to love.
When I was a kid, I lived with my sister, my mother, and my step-dad in Sarnia; and we certainly had our share of problems. But they were nothing like the problems my brothers experienced living with Christina, who’d moved into Dad’s house with her son, Animal.
It was no Brady Bunch, I assure you. In fact, every weekend, my sister, Carroll, who often stayed with Dad in the summers, called Mom with the latest horror story. “Christina has really taken this mi-casa-su-casa thing seriously,” she told Mom, one evening.
Christina had taken my sister’s clothes and shoes and nineteen-inch TV and put them at the side of the road for the garbage men to collect the following morning. I can’t remember exactly what had inspired this. In all fairness, maybe Carroll had been verbally abusive to Animal, the way my brothers were on a regular basis – they called him “Invalid” and “Hottentot” and even “Troglodyte.” Living there must have been hard for Christina. She’d moved in with Dad and his naturally-antagonistic teenagers, who constantly ridiculed Animal’s smelly breath, prominent teeth, and speech impediment. His name isn’t even Animal, incidentally. It’s Adam! But my brothers called him Animal – with good reason, really – and over the years the sobriquet became his official name. Even Dad uses it now. It gets a pass with Christina, because believe it or not she finds it cute and sort of endearing.
Poor Christina, I sometimes think.
Still, I can’t defend her for calling Mom one evening and yelling at her for about an hour because apparently Mom had raised Carroll to be a “miserable little bitch.” (Christina was very efficient; here, she managed to attack two members of my family with one phone call.)
Christina’s phone call to Mom was a real hoot, especially when you consider that the person I live with now fires boogers onto the bathroom mirror every morning and doesn’t clean them up. “I know you’re a fucking retard, but who fucking raised you?” I feel like asking Animal, after seeing the green gobs that cling to the bathroom mirror, like slugs.
This Christina person, this total outsider, was being crammed down our throats. My siblings had to live with her. They had to respect her. Suddenly, Dad’s house in Midland, Mich., which he’d owned for three years before meeting Christina, was her house.
The woman had taken over.
One Friday, Mom drove me to Midland, where I visited Dad for the weekend. That night, during dinner, Christina gave us her thoughts on welfare and Affirmative Action. She was against both, saying that African Americans should go out and get jobs and not rely on government handouts and that institutions like Affirmative Action shouldn’t be there as a crutch to help blacks get those jobs, either.
But Christina had come from nearby Saginaw, an underprivileged area. She had attended Saginaw Valley State University, a decent school, though nothing spectacular. Now she worked for a staffing agency. That may be an honorable profession, but let’s face it: Christina didn’t set the world on fire, and if it weren’t for my father, who rescued Christina, she would have been one of the first Americans to sign up for Obamacare, which she now loathes, calling it socialism.
Since meeting Dad, Christina had adopted this hardcore conservative attitude; and, considering her background, I thought this was perplexing. “They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she told us, at the dinner table. “Why can’t these people flourish, the way I have, the way your father has?”
Even at ten years old, I knew it was more complicated than that.
Christina doesn’t think so, however. “Parasites!” she calls welfare recipients. “Bottom feeders!”
The woman also thinks gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry, because the bible says so. “But you’re assuming the bible is the word of God,” I feel like telling her. “Not everybody agrees with that. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to prove to me that it is the word of God.” My step-mother thinks people shouldn’t have children out of wedlock. “Who is this thing you’ve let into our lives?” I feel like asking my father sometimes.
But she gets it from Dad. Since marrying my father, Christina’s become really arrogant, soap-boxy. “I have arrived,” she seems to say, without actually saying it. “Whatever happened to being humble?” I feel like asking her. “Isn’t that in the bible, too?”
When Dad retired, so did his wife. Dad had the effrontery to say: “Why are you retiring, Chris? You’re ten years younger than I am.” Christina set him straight. “Excuse me?!” she said, as though Dad were one of her peons. “I have been working since fifteen!” she yelled, sounding like a victim of child labor.
“Everyone starts working at around that age,” I wanted to remind her.
JC has since moved into a lake-side cottage in Tawas City, which is in Northern Michigan. The whole state is filled with republicans like JC. Charles’s nickname for Northern Michigan is, “Land of the Wrong.”
One day, Dad and I were sitting on his boathouse overlooking Lake Huron. We were picking at the Brie and crackers Christina had set on the coffee table for us before going into the cottage, where she would watch The Big Sleep on Turner Classic Movies – Christina loves Humphrey Bogart.
It was mid-July, and the neighbor’s grandkids were water skiing. One kid, I remember, was sitting in a wheelchair at the end of the neighbor’s dock. He was watching his friends in the speed boat going from one of the horizon to the other.
I was relaxing in a steel lawn chair, reading The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi.
Dad said: “How are summer classes coming along?” He had to raise his voice in order to overcome the sound of the speed boat roaring past the boathouse every few minutes.
I told Dad that my students were frustrating. “They’re not engaged,” I said, still looking at the black-and-white pages of the novel I was reading. “I need to find a way to engage them, for God’s sake. Right now, they’re just going through the motions.”
“More group work,” Dad suggested, from his lawn chair.
I told him about my vow to never impose group work on my students; I told Dad that I’d hated group work in college.
“Yeah, but that’s just you,” Dad countered. “You’ve always been a lone wolf, Brian. Most kids are social…like the kids in that boat out there. They don’t wanna just sit there, listening to you lecture. They want to interact with each other. They want to talk with each other, even if it’s about some stupid essay you’ve given them.”
He leaned in toward the coffee table and smeared Brie across a cracker.
“How do you know the essays I give them are stupid?” I said, putting The Buddha of Suburbia on my lap and looking over at Dad.
“I went through your briefcase,” Dad said, his mouth full. “‘A Nation of Jailers’? The New Jim Crow? Come on, Brian!”
I removed my Wayfarer sunglasses and glared at him.
“First, don’t go through my things,” I said, angrily. “Secondly, don’t speak with your mouth full. Lastly, have you even read ‘A Nation of Jailers’?”
“No,” Dad confessed, and then he did what I’d told him to do, and he swallowed the cracker and the slice of Brie he’d been chewing. Then he said: “I can imagine what is in that essay, though.”
“The author is simply wondering whether or not we might be a part of the problem,” I said. “I mean, after slavery, we weren’t even willing to give African Americans forty acres and a mule, Dad. They had been denied an education, they had no skills, and now they were poor. But we expected them to flourish within a few generations, really. Well… They didn’t, surprisingly. That poverty was just handed down, like a recipe. And now, in the 21st century, we wonder why they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, when they’re still not even permitted an education.”
“What do ya mean they’re not permitted an education?” Dad said, outraged.
“School districts in urban areas like the Bronx, where many of the kids are black, are atrocious,” I said. “These people aren’t being given a decent education. And I really think the author of that essay in my briefcase is just wondering whether or not we might still be their oppressor, albeit to a much lesser degree. We don’t give them access to education. And as a result, they can’t partake. They can’t…participate.”
“Participate in what?”
“THIS!” I screamed, meaning the whole scene: the white kids water skiing past Dad’s cottage, the two of us sitting on Dad’s boathouse, eating crackers and Brie…
The water, incidentally, looked like a billion blue diamonds.
I said: “How many black kids get to swim in this water? How many black kids even live in Tawas?” It was a rhetorical question, and I did not wait for a reply. I said: “It’s very difficult for them to achieve this, because they’re not surrounded by role models, the way kids in Midland, Mich. are. We need to be the engine that creates the wake for them, Dad. And ‘A Nation of Jailers’ simply asks whether or not we’re doing that.”
“Wow! What a battle cry!” Dad said. He rolled his eyes. He reminded me of one of my disrespectful students.
“Gee. If Christina were listening to this…” Dad said before trailing off.
I wanted to strangle him and Christina.
One Saturday, I was grading papers at the kitchen table, and Dad waltzed in with a bag from Lowes. He’d come all the way from Tawas. He was always shuttling between his cottage in Tawas and our little green shit-box in Saginaw.
“All that driving must cost you a fortune,” I said.
“It does,” Dad confirmed, and then he sighed. “But I love seeing my youngest son on the weekends,” he said. He smiled, warmly. “One day I’m not gonna be here,” he reminded me, still smiling.
I wanted to smile back at Dad, but I couldn’t. For the longest time, the man had been coming to see me every weekend, and I’d had enough.
“That’s really sweet,” I said. “Still, don’t you think all this visiting is a little much? We’re not Italian people, Dad.”
I wore a facial expression I hoped would tell Dad how smothered I was feeling.
“Brian! In about two seconds, you’re gonna feel very angry with yourself for looking at me that way.”
He was right. I felt bad for looking at Dad like he was a nuisance, because at Lowes he’d bought me a slick metal shower rod. I hated our old plastic one; in fact, I was always complaining to JC, my landlords, because the shower curtain was always getting caught or snagged or whatever, and it wouldn’t slide all the way over, unless you gave it a quick jerk, and I hated doing that, though really it was only a minor inconvenience each morning.
“I think you’ll find that this one is more…cooperative,” Dad said, smiling, as though he’d solved all of my problems.
But the new shower rod was no improvement. Not really.
At least it was easy to install. In fact, I entered the bathroom about fifteen minutes later, and there it was, our new chic shower rod, stretching from one end of the shower to the other.
Animal came out of his tomb, where he’d been watching Anime, looked at the shower rod, and nodded. “Cool,” he said, lethargically, though he doesn’t even use the shower. He retreated to his bedroom, although not before saying: “Would you guys tell me when you’re finished with the bathroom? I gotta pee.”
I was not so agreeable. “Uh, Houston, we have a problem,” I told Dad. He was standing in front of the shower. “Look! The rod protrudes outward,” I told him, sounding like a real brat. “It’s arched, like a goddamn rainbow, and it protrudes outward, Dad, so when I’m standing here, looking into the goddamn mirror, the shower curtain that hangs on the rod is like…right in my goddamn face. Know what I mean?”
I stood there, folding my arms.
“I see,” Dad said, looking up at the expensive shower rod he’d just bought. “You’re right, Brian. It’s a small bathroom. Isn’t it? And now we’ve only made it seem smaller. Hmmm…”
He was sort of laughing here.
“We didn’t do anything,” I said, angrily. “You did it.”
Dad stopped laughing. He looked at me, sternly, and said: “Calm down. I can fix it.”
“You storm in here on a Saturday, when I’m grading papers,” I exploded. “You don’t even knock! You don’t even let me know you’re coming. And now the house is turned upside down.”
Dad’s jaw dropped. “Turned upside down?” he said. “Do you think you’re being histrionic?”
“No!” I snapped. “The house is filled with the sounds of hammers and power drills… I’m trying to work!”
“I’ve been here maybe thirty minutes,” Dad said, looking at the watch on his wrist. “How big a nuisance could I be?”
“The point is,” I yelled. “I just saw you last weekend, and now here you are again, and the weekends are my time, Dad. My time! To work on my fiction!” I tried to remain calm. “So I was trying to get papers out of the way, so I could work on my writing, but now here you are, and I won’t be able to concentrate on my work now, because I’m angry, Dad. I’m really angry.” Now I was yelling again. I couldn’t help it. “You just have this way of…taking over. You’re the typical white guy. An imperialist, Dad! You just…invade! You take over!”
I wasn’t totally out of line here. On my windshield, I have parking stickers (one for the main campus and one for the satellite campus in Bay City, where I teach on Wednesday nights every semester), and when Dad borrowed my Fusion a year ago and drove it to North Carolina for a friend’s wedding (he said his Mountaineer was getting old and sort of unsafe to drive, at least on the highway), he removed the stickers and transferred them to the very peripheries of my windshield, because he thought he would be able to see better that way.
This wasn’t a big deal.
But the thing that irked me is that he never put the stickers back the way I’d had them. And I hated the way Dad changed little things in my life without my permission. I wanted my own Goddamn life! I wanted to stand on my own two feet and make my own decisions and be a man, and I felt infantilized by Dad, who was smothering me, because he was bored, now that he’d retired from Dow.
Charles and Bronson and Carroll have their own lives, incidentally. They have husbands and wives and their own bratty kids that say bratty things at the dinner table on Thanksgiving. They’re no longer chasing careers; now they’re chasing toddlers.
I felt like the human sacrifice. Dad needed one of his kids to keep him company, and because I lived nearby and didn’t have a wife or kids or even a full-time job, it seemed natural that I would be the burnt offering.
But I’d had enough of Dad for a while; and I felt I needed to get some hutzpah and tell him that, finally. Otherwise he would never stop; he would continue to cruise down every weekend, maybe even for the rest of his life, which would make me mental.
“It’s nothing personal,” I said, still standing in the bathroom with Dad. “If Carroll or Mom or Charles or Bronson started visiting every weekend, I would tell them to get a life, too.”
Now I’d really done it: Dad was on the verge of tears, it looked like.
“Gee. Is that what you’re telling me?” he asked, his voice rattling. “To get a life, Brian?”
I would hate myself for saying this, but I said: “That’s what I’m telling you, Dad. You’re just like the shower curtain!”
We were both standing in the tiny bathroom. Christina had bought Animal and I air conditioners for our windows, because the house had no central air. Still, I felt hot, standing in that closet-sized bathroom, and I felt claustrophobic, and this, I think, added to the frustration I felt at that moment. “YOU’RE IN MY FACE! JUST LIKE THE FUCKING SHOWER CURTAIN!” I screamed.
I marched into the kitchen, where I started crying a little.
Dad followed me. “What is wrong?” he said.
“My God! Weren’t you listening in the bathroom?” I wailed, standing against the kitchen counter.
I started sobbing.
Dad wasn’t the problem, however. It was just everything. My whole fucking life! I was twenty-eight, when this happened, and I had not published a word, though I’d been writing fiction for ten years. I was single, and I often felt lonely. I had not had sex in half a decade. I often confused boredom and depression. Gee. I feel really down today, I would think, opening the refrigerator door. But then I’d think: You’re just bored. You need something to do, Brian.
But what would I do? Writing fiction had not proved conducive to making friends or even meeting people. And it wasn’t like I could call one of my students. I was an adjunct, a junior academic, and I didn’t have an office, and I wasn’t allowed to attend meetings, where I could mingle with other faculty members, and there was no water cooler where faculty would congregate and talk about their weekend, for example. Teaching just wasn’t like that.
And this, I think, is what I was lamenting in the kitchen of the little house my father and step-mother had bought Animal, who does nothing…though I suppose it isn’t a crime against humanity that he does nothing, since he’s a low-functioning adult.
After composing myself, at least to some degree, I sat down at the kitchen table with Dad, and I explained to him, calmly, that I didn’t want to be another low-functioning adult in his life. I told him I wanted to be a good fiction-writer one day and that I needed to practice writing whenever I had a spare moment, if I was ever going to make my dream come true; and I told Dad that I wasn’t developing as a writer because he’d been visiting a ton lately and taking up all my spare time. And I told him he was ruining my life, though I knew in my tummy that “ruining my life” was getting carried away.
Dad listened to the whole diatribe. He just sat there at the kitchen table, taking it. He was embarrassed, I could tell. He’d planned on coming to the house and installing the new expensive shower rod and saying: “Ta daaaaa!” And I think he’d even expected me to say: “Wow! What a godsend!” or something cheesy like that.
But the shower rod wasn’t a godsend. The bathroom was too small and too shabby for it; and where it really belonged, I thought, was in some New York City brownstone with a bathroom the size of our garage.
Dad removed himself from the kitchen table. Before leaving, he said: “Sorry I barged in, Brian. Guess I was just excited to show ya what I bought.”
I was even angry with Dad for saying this.
After Dad was gone, I finished grading papers, which took me the rest of the afternoon. That evening, I did not work on my fiction, as I had planned on doing. Instead, I started writing an apology e-mail.
It wasn’t until the following morning that I got down to business. My papers were graded. I had the whole day to work on a short story I’d been writing and send out a few manuscripts – I was still trying to publish Progeria Everywhere.
I felt guilty about what had happened between me and Dad. And, yes, I even took fifteen minutes to work on the apology I’d started the previous day.
Still, I must say: that Sunday without Dad was heaven.
A few weeks later, Dad and Animal and I replaced the carpet, and I have to admit: thanks to Dad the living room looks a lot better now…even though the carpet Dad picked out has a purple tinge to it, at least when you look at it from certain angles.
Dad bought a new sectional and threw out the old pair of thrift-shop sofas. And my mother, who still lives in Canada with my step-dad, gave me a beautiful coffee table they weren’t using. I borrowed Dad’s Mountaineer, so I could lug the thing up to Saginaw.
I had written my father a lengthy e-mail apologizing for all the venom I’d spewed at him. Dad responded to my e-mail quickly. He agreed that I was being smothered, and he agreed that he needed to back off a little and give me space. “I come to Saginaw,” he wrote. “because you won’t come up north. That’s your right, your choice… And though I’m dying for you to come and see me in Tawas, I also want you to be happy and do whatever it is you’re dying to do, even if that doesn’t include me.”
We patched things up.
Then, a couple weeks later, Dad came to the house to work on the living-room carpet with me and Animal. It was a long and difficult process, especially since Animal and I aren’t used to doing manual labor, which is what Dad had grown up doing with his father. At around 1:00, we took a break and ate turkey sandwiches at the kitchen table. Afterward, I cleaned the counter using paper towels. “Why not use a rag?” Dad said. “Paper towels cost money.” I bit my tongue. Then, later, Dad said: “Is that the washing machine I hear? Are you doing laundry again?” And yes, later still, Dad peeked into my bedroom and muttered: “Yep. Looks like someone hasn’t cleaned his bedroom recently.”