Tuesday, March 10, 2009

IN THE SHADOWS

I found out that the world was not as tidy and stable as I had once believed, that I might not be who I thought I was. This realization hit me way back when just about every living room in my family’s hilly Orange County neighborhood held bold, brocaded Mediterranean-style-matching-sofa-love-seat-combos, and chunky dark end tables with the requisite massive corresponding coffee tables wrapped in studded leather straps. Wall-to-wall carpeting was all the rage, especially multi-colored shag, and the American public wildly embraced side-by-side refrigerator freezers in avocado green, rust brown, and harvest gold.

My mother, on the other hand, still prized her ruffled and frilled Early American style furniture, maple tables, milk-glass lamps, paintings featuring barns and covered bridges, and the like. I was uncomfortable bringing friends into our dated two-story Colonial. Our hardwood floors were covered with old-fashioned braided and hand-hooked rugs. Both the dated stove and fridge were white. Our manner of living seemed so conventional and outdated. But then my parents were stuck somewhere back in the early sixties. Mom had never worked outside of the home, nor did she want to. Dad was an engineer and hid behind the newspaper for the most part—such a clichĂ©. According to Time magazine God was dead. But we still got all dressed up in itchy clothing to attend church every Sunday. Then Dad made a beeline over to Denny’s after service in his reliable Oldsmobile. My transplanted Mid-Western parents preferred bland cuisine, sticking to eggs and meat and potatoes for the most part. Their idea of spice was a sprinkling of salt and pepper. To my mother’s way of thinking spaghetti and pizza represented exotic fare. She wouldn’t touch something as foreign as a taco with a ten-foot pole.

The parents of my friend from across the street were super-cool, his mom taught at Cal State Fullerton. His dad sold Chevrolets and was known as the Corvette King, such a cool job. I adored spending time at the Rodriguez’s lively, full house. I was an only child, our house was as quiet as a tomb. But over at their house I was surrounded by enticing chaos and five lively kids.

Our next-door neighbors, The Klein’s, were super progressive types. Ruth Klein caused many jaws to go slack when she had the nerve to openly criticize Nixon at the Fourth of July block party. Her husband, Larry Klein the lawyer, was somehow involved with the NAACP.

My best friend’s parents really impressed me, as they commuted all the way to Los Angeles where they both worked at a talk-radio station, Mrs. Cuomo behind the scenes and Mr. Cuomo at the microphone. Thousands of listeners encased in cars inched down traffic-laden freeways under smoggy skies while mesmerized by John Cuomo’s witty repartee weekday afternoons.

Us guys—Javier Rodriguez, Joe Klein, Mickey Cuomo, and me—we rode our bikes all over hell and gone, swore like longshoreman, and lusted wildly after high school and college girls. Since my mom didn’t work, she would schlep us out to Newport or Huntington so we could body surf, and up to Big Bear to play in the snow, or all the way out to Magic Mountain so we could ride the scary rides till the park closed. Joe had all the brains, Javier oozed charm, Mickey made us laugh, and I was the strong one.

The guys wanted to go see The Godfather down at The Titan theatre. But they were worried that we wouldn’t get in because it was rated R. I asked Mom if she would take us. I knew that she had read the book and I figured that she would understand that we were mature enough to go see a mobster movie. After all, we were thirteen. “No way Bobby,” she said. “It’s my understanding that they didn’t leave out the violence, or the sex, and I’m sure the other boy’s parent’s wouldn’t approve either.”

“Ah, come on Mom,” I pleaded. “It’s just a movie.”

“So is Deep Throat,” she said. “The answer’s no.”

I stopped bugging her. Mom was easygoing but I knew her Irish temper would flare if I pushed too hard.

Luckily, Javier had more clout with his dad. Mr. Rodriguez had a Tuesday off so he took us to see Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. That’s what he called it. We went to have pizza after the movie and Mr. Rodriquez said that The Godfather would sweep the Oscars. He said it was the best movie he’d ever seen. I agreed. Who could argue? High Noon and Shane took a backseat. I felt kind of bad about deceiving my parents, I lied and told them that we were going bowling.

I learned how to chug beer in a deserted orange grove, and I smoked a joint behind Ralph’s supermarket with Mickey and Joe that summer. I had to start shaving way before the other guys. I grew several inches in a matter a few short months. In July I bought my own ticket to go see Deliverance and they didn’t ask for I.D. It was strange sitting in the dark movie theatre by myself. I felt so grown up. I had turned fourteen and would soon be starting high school. I was buzzing and popping. My skin could barely contain all that static energy. I felt as if someone was waiting for me. An unseen, unfamiliar mysterious presence lurked in the shadows, murmuring incoherently behind my back.

One day my dad folded up his newspaper and set it aside. He took a sip of his orange juice and then said evenly, almost under his breath, “Bobby, you’ve inherited your Uncle Curtis’s build. I hope you don’t develop his disposition.”

I had never heard of this uncle named Curtis. I looked at my old man. He seemed so agitated. I didn’t know how to respond. What did he expect me to say?

Dad leaned closer and his eyes grew cold. Mom was busy in the laundry room out back. I immediately understood that he didn’t want her to hear what he was about to tell me. “Your mother’s brother went to jail twice. He’s still in the penitentiary in Texas. That’s all I’m saying on that subject.”

“So, you think I’m going to turn out like him?” I cried. I was pissed off. Why did he bring the guy up anyway? Just because I looked like some uncle I’d never even met, let alone heard of, I was supposed to have a criminal mind? “That’s not fair Dad.” I was losing my temper. I stood up suddenly and almost sent my chair flying backwards.

Mom hurried into the room. “What’s wrong Bobby?” She asked, clinging to a stack of neatly folded dishtowels.

“Dad’s worried that I’ll turn out like your brother,” I told her. “Your brother Curtis!”

She dropped the towels. “What have you done Gene?” 

“He’s not a kid anymore Lois.”

“Bobby,” she said, addressing me intently, “you don’t need to know about him. My brother’s rotten through and through. He was an ornery child and he’s grown into a despicable human being. I never told you about him because he’s dead to me.”

My Dad shifted in his seat. I could see him preparing to bolt out the back door. But Mom walked over to where he sat and pointed her finger directly in his twitching face. “How dare you bring Curtis up,” she said in a low scary voice that I’d never heard her use before. “Don’t you ever lay that shit on Bobby again, or I’ll leave you. You know I will.”

My mother never spoke to my father in such a manner. I backed up against the broom closet for support. She walked away from him and Dad left for work without saying another word. Mom quietly began to pluck up the towels. She smoothed them out on the tile countertop and placed each one into an open drawer carefully and systematically. Then she closed the drawer, walked over to where I stood, and gave me a hug. It was a strange embrace. I towered over my mother. The change had occurred so quickly that I was caught by surprise. How could I be so much bigger than the most important person in my life? “You have always been a good boy,” she said. “No reason to think that will change.”

But I was not a good boy. I had lied. I had done bad things. Maybe I was like this Uncle Curtis. Maybe I was just like him, a despicable human being destined to disappoint and confound those that loved him.






All Rights Reserved. © 2009 by Elizabeth Bradley.