As Carlos and I are in sunny Miami for business and pleasure, I thought I’d do something I’ll call “On This Date In ISBL History” and repost some things from back when the blog was new, and newish … this—a piece of a book I’ve written called, ironically, I should Be Laughing—was originally published January 11, 2009:
His fingers gripped the lip of the mahogany lectern that the minister had carried from the trunk of his car. He picked at a splinter on the front edge, pulling it away just enough, and then letting it snap back into place. Not used to speaking to a large group of people unless he had a cold Coors in one hand—and several more in his belly—and a pool cue in the other, Jimmy began speaking shyly, “Um, most of you know…knew…you knew my mother…. Our mother,” Jimmy waved awkwardly at Harry and Renny, silent in their seats.
“I know you didn’t see her around town because she, um, didn’t get out much. But I know you saw her every once in a while, Mister Dawson.”
Up for re-election to the Town Council, Jerry Dawson nodded to the crowd.
“She liked you…she told me so…when you came by with her…. She always said that, uh, you were a decent man and why couldn’t I—.” He turned away from Jerry Dawson. “And Mister Dailey? You used to work on her car…”
Harry twisted in his seat to look at the man in the wrinkled suit; the one holding the bag with the bottle inside. Of course! Roger Dailey; he owned the Chevron on the highway, and, on more than one occasion towed Barbara’s car home after she had sent it into a ditch or a tree on a late night, drunken escape from insomnia. He had even pounded out the dent in the fender that Barbara had gotten from hitting one of the pumps at his station.
“She used to say you were fast and fair. Never took advantage of her because she was a dru—a woman!”
Roger Dailey stood a bit taller.
“Miss Evers? My mother loved your shop. You always had something that she liked in there. Pictures frames or…I remember this, uh, this little ceramic cat she brought home from your shop when Grandmother was visiting. It had a chipped ear…. But she set it in the kitchen windowsill anyway.”
Sara Evers bowed her head, remembering the day Barbara Seaton left her shop with that cat because she had knocked it, and its mate, off the shelf. The mate hadn’t survived, but Barbara took home the damaged cat; Sara had a stern ‘You break it, you pay for it’ policy.
“She didn’t see many other people,” Jimmy was saying, “but she talked highly of most of—.” He stopped to survey the faces in the crowd. Renny watched from the other side of a lacy wall while Harry’s face was illegible, his eyes dark and sightless. David, Ben and Vera, not knowing him very well, not knowing what he wanted to say, stared blankly back. His father, at the far end of the crowd, was unsmiling, his own eyes disapproving. Lastly, Jimmy eyed Wyatt, the first person, other than Charlie Bloom or the checker at Dawson’s, to tell him how sorry he was that Barbara had died; Wyatt nodded, as if to say, ‘Go ahead, Jimmy. Tell them.’
His eyes tripped over the craggy faces of Roger Dailey and Jerry Dawson, and he grimaced at Sara Evers and a woman in a flowing blue dress the color of a stormy sea; a couple of other people, from the church no doubt; one of his old school teachers, his scowl greeting Jimmy even now. Then a slight smile, as out of place on his face as he was at this funeral, crossed Jimmy’s mouth when he spotted Charlie Bloom standing at the back; he’d actually shaved and worn a tie.
There were four strangers in the crowd, his father being one of them. A young girl, sixteen or so, her eyes drooping with boredom, picked at her fingernails, while her brother, Jimmy somehow knew that, stood beside his…Billy Seaton. And there was an older woman in a hat, their mother, his wife; she looked like…. He glanced away quickly, not wanting to see his father, even after so many years, and his eyes found Lyle, whose hair was a halo in the sunshine, whose eyes smiled, whose hands tugged at his Uncle Harry’s tie.
Watching his son, Jimmy wanted them all to know about his mother.
“She tried, my mother did…I truly believe she tried to love us, but…she didn’t know how. She, uh, she cared so much about what other people thought that she forgot to…she only cared about how we looked and dressed and behaved. She cared about that stuff, but I don’t think she cared very much about us.
“She, uh, was…she…hurt us. Me, Harry and Renny. She did that a lot…hitting and screaming…she threw things. When we were real young, me and Harry, she would lock us in our rooms all night…or out of the house if I…” Jimmy wiped his eyes, thinking of those hours spent at that all-night diner when Barbara didn’t want him in her house.
“She shredded my sister’s whole life and then shoved it in a box…she turned her back on my brother because…. She threw everything away that belonged to Harry…it’s all gone, all of it. She got rid of them, my brother and sister,” he lifted his eyes toward Harry and Renny, “but she wouldn’t let me go. She paid for me…and my family…so we couldn’t get away…she was never going to let me go because…. It was so awful in that house, for Harry and Renny and me, but who could we tell?”
“What would people think?” Harry mumbled.
“We didn’t know anyone and…” Jimmy continued, “being so far away from town, you couldn’t hear the…screams. Ours, sometimes, but mostly it was her…and my Dad, when he was there.” Jimmy took his eyes off that loose sliver of wood on the lectern and gazed at the man he had never really known; the man whose own blue eyes narrowed. “My father wasn’t any better than my mother. He left before I learned to walk and we never knew where he went…or why.
“He’s here today and I still don’t know why he ran out on his family. See, I always thought fathers were s’posed to teach you things, you know…like how to ride a bike or throw a ball…I learned that stuff from my sister. Fathers are s’posed to teach you to be a man, but I didn’t even learn that until my brother came home this week. The only thing my father ever taught me was how to run away.” Jimmy blinked back his tears. “But…see, I was only a baby when he left…so I never learned that lesson…
“But you know…I learned how to, uh, fix things and hide things and lie. After all my mother did to hurt us, the bruises and fights, the times she would fall down and we would have to get her from the store…or the beach…nights she would wreck her car…or start a fire in the trash barrel out back, we would fix it. I would fix it because no one else…. She made my sister leave home and never come back…she made Renny hate her life so much that she forgot all about me and Harry…She never told a soul about us…her family.”
From the front row, Renny was sobbing; reliving the sting of Barbara’s palm across her face; seeing the ribbons of clothes in a box on the parlor floor; recalling how she and her brothers hid from their own mother, doing anything to stay out of her way. As Jimmy spoke she felt those hurtful pieces of her past fall away; with every tear she shed, she put another bad memory away for good.
“And Harry,” Jimmy was weeping openly now, “was the loneliest boy I ever saw. He had no one to talk to…. People were so mean to him because he acted…at school and at home, he got teased from everyone. My mother…even me. My mother made him put her to…she made him go away, too…and then, one day, she had me take his things…his books and records and drawings…and burn them in the yard. She tossed out his pictures and told me I could never talk about Harry again…. For the longest time I didn’t know why, but then Harry came home this week…with Wyatt…and then I knew…”
Reaching for Wyatt’s hand, Harry forced himself to think of only good things. He remembered dancing at The Stud; fireworks over the marina and a bicycle ride in Hawaii. He revisited the afternoons in Renny’s room, playing music while she talked on the phone; he once more saw Jimmy as a boy, running around the yard, chasing a ball; the trips to San Francisco, when all he could think about was how he would one day live there. He didn’t think about the bad times; he’d put those away for good; forgiven and forgotten.
Trying to stop him, the minister moved beside Jimmy, but, gripping the other man’s arms, Jimmy held him at bay. Watching his family, in tears now, all of them, he realized that those who lived through it were remembering, and those who weren’t there finally learned the truth. Renny leaned onto David, who crouched next to her; Ben aimed his eyes at the sky to keep from crying and Vera held her head in her hands. Wyatt leaned behind Harry’s chair, hugging him and Lyle.
“Please?” He let go of the minister and pleaded with everyone. “I’m almost done.” Twisting his head to one side, he found the small gray cube at the edge of the cliff, the four huge windows out front screaming, and the toothpick picket fence leaning a little. “You see, as bad as it was for us in that house, as lonely and sad, as painful…. As bad as it was, my mother did one nice thing for us…. Finally.
“She died.” His head down, Jimmy sobbed as his audience shifted uncomfortably. “She killed herself so my family could home again and not be afraid…I got my them back because she died. I got a sister who is pretty and who loves me…likes me. I got my big brother back again, when I needed him most of all…and I got his…lover…Wyatt who is more a part of this family than anyone else here today.
“And I have my boy, too.” He wagged a finger at Lyle, who sang back, ‘Daddy.’ “He loves me with all his heart and I love him more, if you can. I’m gonna make sure he grows up loved and happy and safe, especially loved.
“Our mother was no angel like he said,” Jimmy scowled at the minister. “But she wasn’t a monster either…not really. She was just scared and alone and tried to make us like that…afraid of loving anyone…afraid no one would love us, but,” he was almost finished. “We’re not afraid anymore.”
Jimmy stopped. It was all said and done. It was over. Time to go home.
After having sent the book to several publishers and getting the No Thanks Letter, I put it away, but now I am going to try again.
Perhaps a publisher out there somewhere .... ?