This would probably be a good time to share some things about my sister Megan. Particularly the fact that up until that moment, as far as I knew, she was a lesbian. She had always been the problem child. Megan spent life until she was six years old being the spoiled, misbehaved baby of the family. When Tom was born, she lost the baby's share of the attention, and that made her even worse. Being the only girl wasn't enough for her. She had to be the center of attention at all times.
No one would ever imagine there could be so much competition between siblings six years apart. But each one of Tom's successes in life had been topped by one of Megan's disasters. The day Tom was potty trained, Megan took a book of matches to school and set fire to Stuart Brady's American history textbook inside his desk. When he was elected student council president in the fifth grade, she ran over Bob Svoboda's foot in the school parking lot. On purpose.
When Tom was brought up to the varsity team for the football playoffs at the end of his freshman season, Megan brought her girlfriend home for Thanksgiving dinner. It was her sophomore year at Indiana (she had to go there even though almost everyone else in the family went to Illinois), and she stayed at school until Thanksgiving day even though she didn't have classes all week.
She showed up in the middle of the Lions-Bengals game with her roommate Claire. Now keep in mind, she'd been referring to Claire as "my girlfriend Claire" since July. But everyone assumed she meant "girlfriend" the way Mom does when she says she's going to spend the afternoon at the mall with her girlfriends. None of us had taken it in the my-girlfriend-gives-me-mind-blowing-orgasms way. It would have been much clearer to us all if she had actually said things like, "my girlfriend Claire give me mind-blowing orgasms" rather than "I'm going to bring my girlfriend Claire home for Thanksgiving dinner to meet the family." We were left to find out about the orgasms on our own.
After the game ended and Willy and I finished pretending like we cared who won so we didn't look less manly than our much-younger brother, Mom called us all to the table. We all arrived at our own pace, but everyone was there for about three minutes, just waiting for Megan and Claire to show up. Tom got impatient and reached for the cornbread.
"You can't eat until your sister and her friend come to the table," Mom said.
"Fine," Tom said. "I'll go get them."
He looked around the house but he couldn't find them anywhere. When he was just about to come back to the table, he noticed that the door to our parents' bedroom was closed. He knocked and walked in without waiting for an answer. There on our parents' bed, right on top of Aunt Sarah's coat, Claire had her head between Megan's legs. It was too much for Tom to handle. He waited his whole life to see something like this. Only it was his sister. He couldn't decide whether to be intrigued or repulsed. So he screamed. And the entire family came running, arriving just as Megan was sliding her underwear back on.
"My coat!" Aunt Sarah yelled.
In the history of awkward Thanksgiving dinners, that one had to rank second or third. Not just of our family's Thanksgiving dinners. Of all the Thanksgiving dinners that have ever been eaten. With the language barrier and all the small pox and syphilis, I think it's safe to say that first Thanksgiving dinner was the most awkward of all time. And maybe some other family had at least one other dinner that was more awkward than sitting there with the sister and the lesbian roommate everyone just saw performing a sex act on her. But this dinner definitely ranks at least third.
Needless to say, it was a shock to get out of the car in our driveway and see her holding hands with a man.
"Jacob! Hi," she said, throwing her arms around my neck. It was a little change from the calm indifference I was used to from her.
She let go and reached back for the hand of the guy who was with her. She pulled him closer, and I saw what her angle was with this one.
"Jacob," she said, "this is my boyfriend, Jim."
Jim was at least ten or fifteen years older than our brother Willy, which put him at least 40. She gave up women for men who could be her uncle.
"Hi, uh, Jim," I said. "I'm Megan's brother, Jacob."
"Ah, yes. Jacob," he said. "The writer, the world traveler. A man of true courage."
He reached out and shook my hand with an overly tight grip. He displayed no awareness that he was closer to our parents' age than to ours.
"Yeah, well, I write ads for a newspaper and I only traveled outside of England like twice in the three years I was there," I said.
"Well, you're a braver man than I."
"Oh, I don't know, Mr. Gray," Tom said. "I'd say you're a pretty brave man being that –"
"Tom, stop!" Megan said. She whacked him on the shoulder with the back of her hand.
"Please, Tom, call me Jim."
"My parents always taught me to call my elders by their last names."
"Tom, cut it out, you jackass," Megan said.
I left the three of them to fight it out on the driveway. I lugged my bag to the back door. On the porch, I paused for a second before turning the knob. It had been almost a year since I had seen my parents. I wasn't ready for all their questions.
"Hello, Jacob," Mom said as I walked in the door. She hugged me, pinning the arm that was holding my bag to my side. "Where's Elizabeth?"
I wish there was a line in Vegas I could have put some money on saying that would be her first question. Mom always knew how to ask exactly the right questions to make you feel terrible about what was going on in your life. She wasn't malicious or mean; she just had an uncanny ability for striking raw nerves. It was like a sixth sense.
"She couldn't make it, Mom."
"Oh, well that's too bad," she said. "She and your cousin Samuel really got along so well."
I must have been the only person in the family who hadn't caught onto the fact that Elizabeth and Samuel were such great friends. It was always my impression that she thought he was kind of boring. It sounds like a terrible thing to say about someone who wasn't yet in the ground, but I was getting tired of hearing how much my dead cousin loved the girl who had just walked out on me.
"Well, she had other things going on," I said. "She sends her condolences and stuff."
I didn't actually think she knew he died, unless maybe word got to her through the landlord or something.
"You can put your bag up in Willy's room," she said.
"Yes, the room you two used to share. It's just his now. You'll be able to sleep on an air mattress on the floor,"
The hallway leading to the stairs was like some kind of Lervus family museum with black-and-white photographs hanging on the walls going back three generations. A whole wall full of people who would be let down if they knew I was giving up on my London dream and running back home. And I'm sure they all would have loved Elizabeth.
I turned back to my mother, who was still standing in the kitchen doorway.
"What's Willy doing living here again?"
"It's a long story," she said. "He's having his attacks again. I think it's all those terrible chemicals the doctors have him pumping into his body."
"Mom, those chemicals are the only things keeping him from having more panic attacks. He's probably having them again because he listened to you and all that crazy Schadenfraude –"
"Schadengeist. And it's not crazy."
"Well, whatever. That's probably why he's back living here at 31."
"Just put your things upstairs and go say hello to your father," she said, shouting up the stairs while I was already on my way up.
Willy walked into the room while I was looking for any empty dresser drawer to put my clothes in. He was decked out in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers. It looked like he hadn't showered in three or four days and his eyes were a little glazed over.
"Hi, Jacob," he whispered.
I was squatting on the floor to put my sweaters in an empty bottom drawer and he came up behind me, resting a hand on each of my shoulders. He squeezed lightly.
"How are you doing?" he said. "How are you?"
"I'm all right," I said, shrugging off his hands and standing up. "Mom tells me your attacks are back."
"Yeah," he said. "Where's Elizabeth?"
"How the hell should I know?"
That question was really starting to make me angry. I thought about calling them all together to break the news so I didn't have to spend the next three days straight answering that question. But I thought about all the follow-ups, and then it didn't seem so bad.
"She couldn't come," I lied. "How bad are the attacks? Are you taking your pills?"
“Yeah, most days I take them … well, at least when I remember to I do,” he said, scratching the hair right behind his left ear.
“Willy, most days isn’t good enough. You know that,” I said. “You know without the pills you’re never going to get better.”
“But I feel like the chemicals might actually be poisoning my brain and making the problem worse,” he said. He squinted hard.
“What if taking the pills ends up giving me some sort of cancer or brain defect or heart condition? You never know what these things are going to do to you ten years, twenty years down the road.
“I read this thing on the internet about a guy who used this cream for acne when he was a kid and it ended up giving him skin cancer. Can you imagine that? You clear up all your zits and now you have skin cancer.”
“You need to stop reading shit like that on the internet,” I said. When did I inherit the job of looking after my older brother? “You’re just going to make yourself crazy reading stuff like that. If you’re concerned about something, talk to your doctor.”
He laughed a nervous laugh. I walked past him into the hallway. He followed.
“But I already am crazy,” he smiled without showing any of his teeth.
“Willy,” I said, “cut it out.”
It had been almost three years since I stayed at home. After the first time we visited from London and Mom and Dad made Elizabeth sleep in Megan’s room, we got a hotel room when we came to visit. Now that I had to stay at the house, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wandered down to Tom’s room at the end of the hall to see what he was doing, but the door was closed and heard loud music playing. I decided not to bother him. Turning around, I almost walked into Willy, not realizing he was still behind me.
“He does that a lot,” he said.
“Does what a lot?”
“He sits in his room with the door closed with music playing really loud,” he said. “I think maybe he’s on drugs or something. He’s always, always got the door closed. I never know what he’s doing in there.”
“Leave him alone. He’s seventeen years old; he probably just wants a little privacy,” I said. “Don’t you remember when you used to shut yourself in your room when you were a senior in high school?”
I headed for the stairs. Willy followed.
“Yeah, but when I was a senior in high school, I wasn’t on drugs.”
“You were on Ritalin.”
“Shut up. You know what I mean. I wasn’t using narcotics, the kind that mess up your brain.”
“Yeah, thank God. I can’t imagine how messed up you’d be if you did.”
He hit me in the back of the head and I laughed. I guess I missed my brother more than I realized.
We reached the bottom of the stairs. Mom was in the kitchen at the end of the hall. I lowered my voice.
“Tom isn’t on drugs,” I said. “You’re being paranoid.”
“No shit,” he said, laughing. “That’s one of the reason I’m on all this medicine.”
At least he could joke about his condition.
Mom was sitting on the kitchen counter and talking to someone on the phone. I couldn’t make out from the conversation who was on the other end. At the other end of the hall, Megan’s bedroom door was closed and I heard her and her new manfriend laughing.
“Just make sure you keep taking them,” I said. “Maybe then you’ll realize your straight-A, football star brother isn’t a drug addict.”
I realized there was still one person I hadn’t seen since I came in.
“Where’s dad?” I asked.
“He’s in his study,” Willy said. “He spends all his time there now. I think things with him and Mom might be on the rocks. I think maybe they’re going to get divorced or something. He’s always in there. They’re never together.”
“Maybe he’s on drugs too,” I said.
“I’m gonna go say hi.”
“He doesn’t like being disturbed when he’s working.”
“He hasn’t seen me in forever,” I said. “I’m sure he won’t mind.”
Dad was sitting in front of a typewriter at his desk in the study under the light of a single desk lamp. I stood in the doorway watching him for a moment before letting him know I was there. His desk faced away from the door and I made a conscious effort to breathe softly enough that he didn’t hear me. He wore a gray cardigan with leather elbow patches, the kind he always talked about when he would regale us with his fantasies of quitting his job at the cookie factory and writing a television show about a vampire detective named Bartholomew Fang. I’m not sure exactly how a sweater with elbow patches fit into the image of a hotshot television writer in his mind, but if dreaming about it made him happy, I didn’t want to ask too many questions.
The rhythm of the keys slowed to a stop. He paused for a moment and leaned back in his chair. He rested the heels of his hands over his eyes and drummed his fingers on his forehead, where his hair had conceded after years of hard-fought battle. When he leaned forward again, I spoke.
“Having trouble with the words?”
He jumped and gave a startled scream. He almost fell off his chair. Turning around, he came at me with open arms. I expected a hug, but he placed his hands on my shoulders and tightly squeezed.
“Jacob!” he said. “No one told me you were home. How long have you been here?”
“Not long. I just went upstairs to unpack.”
“You couldn’t stop and say hello first?”
“Sorry, I wanted to get settled and I didn’t want to interrupt you,” I said.
“You could have said hello.”
“I’m sorry. I wanted to unpack my stuff and I was still recovering from the shock of seeing Megan with a man.”
“Please,” he said. “Don’t get me started on your sister. Her and that little lesbian didn’t shock us enough anymore so she had to go off and started running around with one of my friends’ brothers.”
“Jim is Steve Gray’s little brother. Steve who I played basketball with in high school. He was Tommy’s little league coach.”
“That guy is Coach Gray’s brother?”
“F-ed up, isn’t it?” he said.
“Knowing Megan, it will end as soon as the shock value wears off.”
“If your mother doesn’t kill her first.”
On the desk there was a pile of typed pages, probably an inch and a half thick. Dad always talked about writing a screenplay or a TV pilot. When he was younger, in college, he used to write sketches for a campus comedy group, and I guess he wrote a few one act dramas for a student theatre group. We all grew up hearing the legend of the student film he made, but none of us had actually seen it, supposedly because he didn’t have the proper equipment to show it. Any time the subject came up, we’d all beg him to track down a projector and show us. He always told us he would see what he could do, but none of us ever saw the film.
After particularly rough days at the cookie factory where he was a production manager, he always came home fuming, declaring that he was going to quit and move us all to Hollywood that weekend. The threats scared us at first, despite the fact that you would think the prospect of relocating to the land of movie stars would excite kids from the suburbs of Chicago. But we didn’t want to leave our friends, and worse have no money, because Dad decided to throw away a steady career to chase a Hollywood dream. And Willy had read enough about landslides, earthquakes and wildfires to make him nervous about ever even visiting California on a trip to Disneyland.
Dad always messed around with his scripts, writing a page or two every few months. When he was mad about work or angry with one of us kids or Mom, he locked himself in the study and banged at the typewriter keys for an hour or so. But I don’t think he ever finished a single script in my entire childhood. This pile of pages on the desk was unprecedented.
“Things been a little rough at the plant lately, Dad?”
“I don’t know how they’ve been,” he said. “I quit.”
“Come on, Dad,” I said. This guy had been talking about quitting this job for the last twenty years; there was no way he finally just went in there one day and did it.
“I just went in there one day and did it,” he said. “The day before, they told me I had to find three more guys off the line to lay off. These guys have kids to put through college, what have I got? So I went in the next day and said I wouldn’t do it. I quit.”
“But you still have Tom to put through college.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” he said. “There are at least three Division II schools that want to give your brother scholarships to play football. He’ll be just fine.” He smiled.
“But what if he doesn’t want to go to one of those little schools?”
“Jacob, stop worrying so much,” he said. “You of all people should understand this. Aren’t you the one who uprooted his life to move across the pond with the girl of his dreams?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
I knew what was coming next and I wanted to run out of the room before it did. But I stood frozen in my spot.
“Where is Elizabeth anyway?”
“Doesn’t anyone in this family talk to each other?” I said. “I’ve told everyone already. She couldn’t make it, all right?”
“Ok, calm down. It was just a question,” he said. “You seem tired. Probably just jet lag. You should get some rest.”
He took off his gold wire-rimmed glasses and slid them into the pocket of his sweater.
“My pilot is there on the desk,” he said. “It’s called ‘Detective of the Night.’ Give it a read and let me know what you think.”
My Dad stopped for a few seconds at the bookshelf nearest the door before taking a book from the shelf and walking out the door. I took a seat at the desk and rolled a newly finished page out of the typewriter.
It was a dark and stormy night
Things were looking down already.
Our hero, Bartholomew Fang lurks in the shadows down at the docks. A sketchy looking character waits under a single light on the side of a warehouse. Two men in suits approach. Cut back to Fang, who is moving farther into the light. The two thugs draw guns. Fang leaps on them from the shadows.
Fang: Not so fast, you goons!
There is a fight. Fang struggles with the armed men, knocking their guns loose with an upward swing of both arms. He knocks one to the ground with a right cross. Close up as he sinks his fangs into the neck of the other.
Thug 2: Noooo!
Fang: I sentence you to life. Life after death!
The man falls to the ground, lifeless. His companion pulls himself along the ground toward his nearby gun. Fang stomps on his outstretched hand with one foot and delivers a devastating kick to the head with the other.
Jason: Bart. You’re a vampire? What will the chief say?
Fang: He won’t say anything, Jay. Because you won’t tell him.
Jason: I won’t? … Oh, yeah. Right. I won’t, of course not. (A pause). Hey, can you teach me how to fly?
Fade to black.
It was campy and generic. I could definitely see some TV executive green-lighting it. But I still couldn’t fathom that my dad had quit the job that supported his family for 30 years, that put three of his four kids through college, to write a TV pilot about a crime-fighting vampire detective. The premise was unique, even if the characters and dialogue were pilfered from every Saturday afternoon feature he had watched in his entire life.
I set the page on top of the pile. On the corner of the desk there was a picture of us four kids when we were much younger. We’re sitting on the sofa in the living room and Willy is holding baby Tom in his lap. He’s holding him gently, his had supporting the back of Tom’s head, as if it might break off if he isn’t careful. Megan is lifting her shirt up to her neck.
I heard Mom calling me to dinner.Posted by dpetrella at November 15, 2006 9:57 AM | TrackBack