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Friday, May 28, 2010

Stepdad

I stared blankly at him from across the table and examined his giant orange peel nose, his melanoma-speckled forehead, massive and red - the shore of his baldness which had morphed at some point from athletic-type buzz cut into old man head. Years of golfing weekly with no sunscreen and hair loss can do a number on a good looking man.

As usual, he wore a tie-dye collared sports shirt, one of his shirts -- the ones he'd been dyeing and selling for 20 some years, having started his business in our garage with our own washing machine. Together with his shorts and runners, his whole ensemble perfectly represented both pot-smoking hippie and jock that had molotoved him into one hot conservative Republican mess. He was on his third tequila sunrise (requested in a tumbler lest he be mistaken for a ‘faggot’) and we hadn’t even had our appetizers yet. His green eyes peered through sagged eyelids that appeared to droop down so low they almost folded over themselves and nearly touched his eyeballs while a few still remaining eyelashes pointed almost downward, emphasizing the tired, pigeon feeder Grandpa look about him. His squarish fingers were spread out as he monologued, his thumb naturally in a position of hyperextension.

I suppressed eye-rolling, groaning, or feigning an epileptic fit. We were, after all, in a restaurant for god's sake. I drifted in and out of listening to avoid the worn shoe of confrontation.

"...So anyway, we was the kinda kids that would break anyone's ass that got in our way. I mean it..."

Jesus Christ he’s old, I thought, and at 56 he’s still talking the same shit about growing up in Wisconsin. Maybe he read my mind because he stopped, turned his head ever so slightly, smiled goofily, and sweetly uttered one of the many nicknames he had for me. His cracked tooth that had greeted my giggling face so many times over the last 25 years reminded me of the beautiful man behind the worrisome sun spots, the political diatribes, and the days of old before he was a joy-sucked middle-aged adult whose better days were far behind him and who watched way too damned much Fox News.

".....I dated Margie back then -- she had the biggest tits. But anyway, that's not the point..."

I pretended to be intensely interested in the wine list and buried my head in it, while I breathed in my mother's tangible, thick embarrassment. A familiar parcel of family dinner failure was about to arrive without warning. But she only scoffed and then shoved a vodka tonic into her face.

"...Those fucking people. They don't know how to work. All they know how to do is cash their welfare checks and use their food stamps. And I'm gonna work my ass off and pay for their health insurance? Uh uh..."

Food stamps, I thought, and had a faint recollection of using a food stamp for postage to a letter to Santa Claus. This is the man that rescued my mother from standing in line for blocks of government cheese when I was eight years old. Maybe his politics were more nuanced back then.

"...Fine. I'll shut up. Can I get another tequila sunrise please?"

From my eight year old point of view, he was like a large freckled child – unlike any other adult I had ever met. He was a massive muscular man testifying to the hours he spent boxing, wrestling, running, and in general trying to maintain the youthful body that would eventually escape him. His patience for kid hyperactivity was inexhaustible. He would chase me around the couch until I fell to the floor in utter euphoric exhaustion where I would be doomed to a tickling session until I cried out for my mom gasping for air through my roaring upheavals of laughter. Then, fully clothed, I would get tossed into the pool as I squealed in a mix of terror and delight, but mostly delight. On occasion, he would then pretend to walk casually and step fully clothed into the swimming pool, as if just walking about. La di da, he would hum, for my amusement. He would take out his wallet soaked and ruined and pull out the sopping wet money and pretend to pay for something while I doubled over in pre-adolescent hilarity.

When he wasn’t acting silly for the sole benefit of getting me to snort and snicker and squeal, he was working himself to the bone, reinventing some way to keep the wad of Benjamins he always carried in full supply. He couldn't go back on a rescue attempt. He knew my sisters and I would be needing synchronized swimming lessons and Guess Jeans and trips to Disneyland and trampolines and cars insured for 16 year old garage mishaps.

"...We're losing our house..."

I snapped back from my rescued childhood, replete with everything I had ever wanted and more and stared at the man that now had an IRS freeze on his checking account.

No, no, no, no. You got it all wrong. You are the one with the piles of cash everywhere and the Christmas presents that fill an entire room, see? You're the one that knows about mortgages and investments and the stock exchange and interest rates and how to check the oil in my car and how to file my fucking income tax return, and how to interview for a job at Dairy Queen. You're the one with all the answers who knows how to solve everything. I'm the one that needs a girl scout uniform and flute lessons and braces for my gnarled teeth and someone to pay for my college tuition. I'm the one that needs help paying my rent and that can't afford to get my wisdom teeth pulled. I'm the one that crashed my car and can't afford the $2000 repair job. Remember me? You're the one that went into a trance and punched the fuck out of a punching bag in the garage. But I'm the one that has always needed you punching. You're not defeated. You can't be.

My eyes flashed between his sad eyes and my mother's uneaten plate of pasta and I wrestled myself from the ridiculous grips of self pity and the selfish solitude of realizing that there was no one left to hold my life together if I were to fuck it up. I allowed myself to grasp, however superficially, his disappointment, loss and sense of years wasted - his own personal Waterloo. How much graver and more psychologically destructive is it to, at 56, lose everything you've ever worked for than to, at 33, watch your childhood superhero become merely a man?



I flagged down the waiter and ordered another margarita while I calculated if I had enough money in my checking account to pay for dinner.


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13 comments:

The Unbearable Banishment May 28, 2010 at 4:32 PM  

56! From the description I thought he was 156!

Margie is such an old name. Like Delores. Or Ruthie. Or Gladys.

He sounds like he’s got a bit of Jimmy Bastard in him.

So this is recent history, right? Not something from the past? Nice work. Sorry to hear all this, but very compelling to read. I’ll bet his politics are about to change.

Blues May 28, 2010 at 5:56 PM  

@Unbearable Banishment - Recent. This is one of the highlights from my recent trip home. The man has aged dramatically since the last time I saw him just months ago. Maybe it was just exhaustion and worry that made him look so old. Thanks for still reading me. I wonder sometimes if anyone is still out there and it's good to know there is.

formerly fun May 28, 2010 at 7:12 PM  

Not to gush, but this was so evocative. I really got a sense of him, warts and whistles.

Sorry to hear they are losing their home, I hope that he can muster some of that reinvention to get back on track, it's not easy at that age but possible.

When my grandfather, who was essentially a stand in for my own father, got pancreatic cancer, I watched the man I had always seen as unbreakable be tossed and tumbled by the disease and coming to grips with his own mortality. It was painful to watch and humbling but it also taught me a great deal about being human and living the life you should and sucking out all of the beauty and grace out of every moment you can. It also showed me how much we can bear when we are asked to.

You're right, it's hard to watch the person you have always expected to pick you up or bail you out, deal with their own mishaps. A difficult thing for them to go thru but still, beautifully written.

Ellie May 29, 2010 at 2:43 AM  

Jesus. You make us read. Riveted to the end. But feeling guilty because the subject matter is so sore. Bitter sweet and bitter.

Blues May 29, 2010 at 10:26 AM  

@FF - your comments always make me understand my own post even more. Thanks for sharing that about your granddad.

I thought I was only going to write the post about how he made a fool out of himself at dinner talking about his ex's tits to me and my mom, and how depressing it was to realize that he was just a guy, just like anyone, not the perfect man (politics aside) in my memory. But then I began to realize how his obnoxiousness and my reaction was all tied in to their economic problems right now (and thus the heavier drinking).

For awhile I was really upset with my parents in my mind because I thought "Holy fuck - would you guys look at me and my inability to even figure my shit out?!? Please don't make me have to figure your shit out when I barely get my life on track." I just soooo wanted them to AT LEAST pay off their house before they reach retirement age, even if it was wishful thinking that they would have any savings for the actual retirement. but they got caught up in the real estate boom and I guess society was telling everyone they were an idiot if they didn't upgrade into a better house, since it would be worth so much more tomorrow and so the bigger the house, no matter what you owe, will make you all the richer in the future.

But then I began to feel so sick about seeing it selfishly. Especially when this man has done so much for me. It's just hard to realize that I will probably have to support them, and if I ever end up having kids, it will likely be before they are even in college, so don't ask me how that's gonna work out!

As to the warts and whistles, I tried to portray him honestly, but I hope the sense is more of the whistles because I'm feeling a bit guilty about the warts I showed and hope none of my family ever finds my blog. Guess I shouldn't post pictures of myself on it. Oh well.

@Ellie - Thank you so much. I'm kinda feeling guilty myself for using this as blog fodder!

Ellie May 29, 2010 at 12:59 PM  

Don't feel guilty. It's your way to come to grips. There is love in it.

Pueblo girl May 29, 2010 at 3:17 PM  

Like UB, I thought he must be about 86 at least. Which tells you more about my age than your writing.
Been thinking about this post since I first read it, because it brought up uncomfortable recognition. With my parents too, the tables are turning, and it's kind of a sticky moment when you realise that they're not going to be there for you anymore, it's your turn to be there for them. I feel really, really guilty and selfish and spoilt for even thinking this.
I'm glad you had someone so nice around when you were a kid.

Here In Franklin May 30, 2010 at 1:25 PM  

Our parents are all in their mid-80s. Thank goodness they don't have money problems--it's hard enough just watching the gradual slowing and sometimes confusion. At least they are close to hand.

Like the others, I thought you were describing someone much older.

I haven't thought of a tequila sunrise in years. Decades, actually.

A Free Man June 3, 2010 at 10:38 PM  

It's worth waiting for your posts. Because when they pop up in my reader I always finish just stunned at how good you are.

But, fuck. Do you ever think that you escaped the US at just exactly the right time? Before everything started going to shit? Before the whole experiment failed? I do. All the time. And when I think about the things that make me sad - a family that I'm never going to see as much as I should - I don't regret it.

Sid June 4, 2010 at 12:23 AM  

I agree with everyone. This was a particularly brilliant piece - even though the subject matter. It was so beautifully written that it made me all too aware of my own shortcomings.

Sorry to hear about your family difficulties.

Lil June 7, 2010 at 5:13 PM  

The wait between your posts is so worth it. You're one of a few writers who continually blow my mind with your ability and talent.

I've gone through the whole transition from caretakee to caretaker with my grandpa and now it's starting with my mom. When you realize what's happening, it's like your eyes are truly opened and there's this huge open space on the horizon that's going to be filled up with arranging doctor appointments and surgical aftercare then segueing into powers of attorney and nursing home placement. At least that's what I see in my future and it's like, come on Mom, I know it's coming. Let's get on with it so I don't have to dread it anymore. Which is horrible because right now she's independent and functioning so in essence I'm wishing for her to become debilitated. Selfish me.

At any rate, for whatever it's worth, psychic/telepathic/non-corporeal support being sent your way and heartfelt thanks for sharing this bit of yourself. Your eloquence is always appreciated, admired and envied. :-)

Monika June 15, 2010 at 12:54 AM  

You are such a good writer! Poignant description of a familiar process..The USA is a harsh and unforgiving place to survive in! I wish your parents luck!!

Blues June 24, 2010 at 11:32 AM  

@Pueblogirl - that's exactly what I feel, and selfish for it too. But it's more financial than due to their age/health. I just don't know how the fuck they are going to manage or how I will manage with their inability to manage.

@HIF - I think tequila sunrises are a bit out of fashion, but he always always orders them, and they always try to bring it to him in a froo froo glass.

@Free Man - thank you Chris. Your compliments always mean a lot to me. To answer your question (late I know), yes I am happy I'm the fuck out of the there, but on the other hand, I don't know if here is the answer either. This economy for the last 15 years has been based on the pyramid scheme that was the housing bubble and everyone was in on it. That and tourism which is on the decline because the countries where the tourists came from are struggling and Spain got too expensive. I feel like the U.S. has a bit more of a base than this place, so I don't know what's in store for us. I do know that I'm appalled at how fucked up things are back home and know that going back there isn't the answer right now.

@Sid - thanks for the compliment.

@Lil - blushing over here :-) thanks. it looks like this is something a lot of people go through.

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