Friday, November 23, 2012

First Draft of First Chapter

Riverside Drive, Before Evil

The only difference between group sex and group therapy is that
in group therapy you hear about everyone's problems,
and in group sex you see them.
—Dennis Miller, Playboy Magazine, June 1979

My dad, it turns out, was one of those guys.  The kind you shouldn't marry, if for some reason you end up a single mom, with daughters, or even one daughter --because all it takes is one.  I’m not that one, just her younger step-sister, six years younger-- I’m the other one.  The one who told.  
Before my dad was one of those guys, he served in the air force, he went to college in Eugene, Oregon and he was a dad who made lemony cream cheese danish from scratch --the kind whose icing was a tart-sweet drizzly line that hardened into white before he could finish criss-crossing the flaky pastry line. They’re still my very favorite and I try them in bakeries that take the task seriously enough--usually small bakeries that haven’t desecrated the surface with a lake of icing or clear-glazed the whole thing.  Thank you, Lee Forrester Barr, for excruciatingly specific taste in cream cheese danish.
The only time I witnessed him defile one of his danishes was in service of God, which in this case meant teaching a lesson to one of our hunkiest congregants, whom I thought of as Bo because he looked exactly like the blond and blue-eyed Bo Duke of the early Duke’s of Hazzard years. My Bo, who wasn’t mine at all, because I was seven and he was something like twenty-two, dressed in cut-off, grey sweats and came to meetings for the food, it seemed, as much for the connection to God.  My dad, at thirty-two, was as tall and dark as Bo was light. His shaggy brown hair fell around his squarish glasses and dark beard and he’d run his fingers through his hair and then trace  his thumb and bent forefinger around his mouth before starting in on something important, like meetings.
I was never the only coveter of Lee’s danishes and on this night it was clearly the very last one, so Norma, my bottle-blonde, soft-spanking stepmother stationed me in front of the last lonely danish to deflect people through the kitchen into the dining and living rooms --with smoking preferably on the deck!, I was supposed to emphasize.  For Bo, late as usual, the hot pepper flakes and whatever else my dad put in, went undetected, until far past his mouth. In the low light from my spot across the room, I watched it go down and kept wondering how he could have missed the crunch. Maybe he did inhale food.  Lee had moved through his moment of silence and introductions to a stern reminder about greed and graciousness when entering a person’s home, that it burned him when people rushed through the love and toil of their hosts. His stare rested briefly on Bo, whose face had developed a sheen of sweat with cheeks so flushed I thought he’d explode.  He didn’t, though, just excused himself and made for the commode.
I adored my new big sister Shay, in ways only little sisters seem to do.   Opposite my ‘small for my age’ dark haired self, Shay was tall with perfectly feathered dirty-blonde hair and bangs that hid her eyes when she wanted them to.   Eyes that would crinkle when she pulled her hair back and her blue parakeet peck-kissed her ear and then, though I cringed at first, the very middle of her tongue.  I loved where we lived, off Riverside Drive, catty-corner from the movie theater, in red-brick apartment-landia that seemed wrapped in green, almost as much as I loved Shay.  It wasn’t a farm in the country stocked with baby animals, as my dad had promised, but kids by the dozen made up for it with their pure socialness and availability. It was heaven, really, for swimming, wiffle-ball and learning a few things about life, like that time I was trying to impress a new friend and when she asked me what the pink plastic thing in the bushes was for, I shouldn’t have picked it up, spread my legs and demonstrated. Especially with Bo, my dad and my step-brother Chad watching from a window, the only window our apartment had on that side of the building, a story up.  I tried to explain that my clothes were on, and that it was like air guitar, except it was air used-plastic-tampon-applicator instead, but my words somehow didn’t do the trick.  My dad decided Norma should handle this one, so she sent me for a time out into her room.  I ended up tuning into Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and prancing around the room. No wonder I preferred Norma’s punishments to my father’s-- no bruises!  
When it wasn’t being used for meetings, my bedroom was a combination of the living room couch and hallway closet.  I didn’t mind the arrangement at all. It meant I couldn’t be sent to my room (!) and that my bed was not only in the middle of meetings, but right next to the stereo and across the room from the ever mind-expanding mecca called HBO; a little black box sitting on a big black box. Over that first summer, I watched the movie Piranha a few times with Shay and Chad, which taught me that freshwater fish in the Amazon, a continent away, could make their way into U.S. freshwater and eat you alive, especially if you’re a skinny-dipper or if someone wants you dead and stocks them in a secret government tank. Weren’t we skinny-dippers? And wasn’t  Austin,Texas pretty far south?  One of the Hardy Boys books confirmed the use of piranha in swimming pools too.  The boys were invited to take a swim at the home of  a family under investigation and just as they were about to dive in Joe halts the action with a “Whoaah, I saw something glinting in the water, like a fish.” and so the brothers run through the house, find a ham-hock in the kitchen and throw it into the pool as a frothing shimmer of fish devour it before their eyes, bones soon plunking on the bottom of the pool. Yikes. As a Texan, who would not identify herself as a Texan until she lived far, far away from the place, I interpreted this to mean that any handy meat, aside from oneself, should be tossed into dubious lakes, rivers, ponds and pools as a tester before entering.  Furiously frothy water was a bad sign I never encountered and fortunately highly populated areas were in and of themselves safe places too.  
Summer bedtime off Riverside Drive meant collecting my sheets, pillow and current array of stuffed animals from the hallway closet and then walking the eight or ten feet over to my dad who was usually sitting in his armchair, illuminated by the TV.  I had to stand at his shoulder, or slightly beside and behind him until he acknowledged me.  At that angle and through his glasses I would watch TV in long distance miniature, all tiny and distorted. He loved 20/20, the news and late-night HBO, and so I would wait for some sort of intermission and with permission I would move across his field of vision and dump my things at the end of the couch. I’d tuck the sheet around the bottom cushions and arrange my animals just so.  I would add the top sheet, cotton blanket and slide right in, facing the back of the couch, of course, so I couldn’t watch the TV, just listen. I fell asleep to the flickering light and woke up, most days, to Chad crunching through a plate of toast slathered in peanut-butter and Karo syrup.  He would sit alone at the oblong dining room table, illuminated by a swathe of kitchen light.  The front door would shudder-shut behind him as he left, before the rest of the world was up.  
When Shay couldn’t go out, or be on the phone with a friend, she taught me how to hook rugs. She and I would sit cross-legged on her bed in the corner of her room and spread out the pre-painted grid fabric, complicated hook-tools in hand .  She approved of my one foot by two Winnie the Pooh ambitions.  “Devoted hooking, she’d say, would result in such a cool Pooh.” In year one of being a teen, her walls were a mix of mirrors, Tweety Bird hook rugs and Kiss posters.  I will never forget Gene Simmon’s tongue.  Who could?  So triangular, wet and red.  I would stare at it, tacked to the wall above her twin bed and sing along with Fats Domino songs.  I would think of a blueberry balanced on the bottom of a hill, which was also the tip of his tongue. Shay complained that her nose was too round and that her breasts were too small, but I didn’t agree or even see those things about her.  What I remember from lazy summer days and then hurried school mornings, was Shay feathering her hair --her brush and dryer working in mesmerizing tandem, while Fats or the Beatles, singing Here Comes the Sun, crooned and misting puffs of Aqua-net stung my eyes and settled around the room. Her hair obeyed, by God. Something mine seemed never destined to do.
My dad joked that the apartment was so close to the movie theater we could pick out a movie and be there, in our seats, before the newspaper had a chance to settle to the ground, which really meant five minutes, door to door, and me half flying-running by his side, Wheeeeeeeeee. I wanted to throw the single leafy newspaper page off the balcony and race it to the theater, but I never seemed to think of  doing it except when we didn’t have time. The first movie we couldn’t be late for was The Black Stallion. A boy and his gambling father are on a boat (what kind?)and the boy develops a sugar-cube relationship with a huge Arabian stallion, the Black. When the ship is going down, fires raging, the boy’s life vest ripped from his body, the black stallion squealing in terror... let me just say, it engaged a faith in myself and in people my own age being able to figure things out.  Piece it together and make it work --whether on an island, under a bridge or in a railroad car-- make it work.
My worst nightmare when I moved into Riverside Drive, involved a car-sized tarantula chasing me through a dense city street.  Originally it was a cockroach with a fluttering, scratching sound of pursuit, but cockroach evolved into tarantula, another nocturnal hunter, and the sound of death became clicking, like eight tap shoes in spidery concert.  I was a good runner, but out of the city all I could hear was my breath and the clicking. Starting up the mountain my chest would ignite, my feet sliding through dirt and rubble and at the hoary rock summit the tarantula’s fuzzy pincers would hold me, so it could inject it’s paralyzing venom and turn me into soup. According to my dad, hell is reset button that makes you live your worst nightmare over and over again, so in this case hit reset and  I’m back in the city, alone at night and the tappity-clicks of danger aren’t quite discernable from other city sounds.  Except this isn’t the worst anymore.  But I don’t want to admit it, because I don’t understand it exactly --and exactly matters.   Does hell become literally your worst nightmare, which means you actually have to dream it?  Or can it be the worst thing you’ve ever seen or heard which means you could dream it, even if you haven’t yet?
The last movie we watched together  was Time After Time, a modern-day (1979) time-traveling Jack the Ripper tale.  For adults, it’s campy, cheesy even but the images that still blaze are of arcing splatters of blood across white walls, white everything.  Of a night scene  with the ripper creeping out of a wide watery ditch to slit the throat of the stupid woman wandering alone (thank you 1970s for making us all out to be ‘stupid whores’). After that, I feared for everyone in my family.  Anyone out after dark was the source of gut clenching fear and prayers, bargaining prayers that they would be spared.   So, some nights on the couch, I didn’t fall asleep to flickers, I fell  asleep entirely alone and worried.  To soothe myself I decorated odd spaces in tree houses.  Tree houses for squirrels, who lived in little apartments and rooms up through the tree.  All the trees I ever drew had holes in them.  A black hole on the trunk of every tree.  Which is where the squirrels lived, of course.  I went room by room in my head and placed rugs, lamps, couches and curtains- all with a patchwork Holly Hobby flair.  Decorating didn’t always eject the ripper from my mind.  He lurked in every sultry night, and Austin Texas had a lot of sultry nights, not to mention squirrels.  I would worry about  my parents while they were out and I would worry about myself and where I would hide if the ripper came here to spread blood everywhere.  On the top shelf of a closet , I decided.  Curled up and still.  Or spread out stiff on the back of the shelf covered in closet debris.  Had I been smart and say forty instead of seven, I would have been praying that Jack the Ripper was gay, and on the prowl for someone tall dark and handsome.  That was my dad, tall dark and handsome.  Able to climb any mountain, perform, with grace and ease, any sport.  Is frisbee a sport?
Sometime that school year Shay fell in love, but what pierces her foggy teen layer was the wrongness of the love. Was he a high school boy?  A Puerto Rican boy?   Whatever he was, he was the wrong boy and when Shay came home with hickies it sent Norma over some kind of edge. Due to Shay’s hickies and my very public and wrong version of air guitar, I was given an up close and personal sex education demonstration by my forty-two year old step-mother.  I’ll start by saying that no one wants to be stuck in the bathtub, while their mother, no matter what kind of mother, opens her robe, sits on the closed toilet right beside the tub, spreads her legs and proceeds to pry her vaginal lips apart. I didn’t understand what she was up to at first, but when I caught on and squeezed my eyes shut, she told me to open my eyes and take good long look, long enough to understand and recite something about tampons, penises, vaginas and babies all having a lot in common. Ugh.  Not even soap in my eyes could delete her even more obviously bottle-blonde self from my mind. Naked is one thing, and eye-level pried apart anatomy is another. I was so busy wishing  her lesson out of my head, that I didn’t stop to think what version Shay might be getting, or from who.  
One afternoon’s meeting, my father’s marker was tapping down the San Andreas fault, already heavily outlined in red.  The US map was thumb-tacked to the white dining room wall and the tapping emphasized the shifting cadence of his words. “...those fool Californians. They’re going to die in the sea, and they’re going to hell because they don’t believe in me.”  When his words became at all sing-song and rhyme-y, it cued me to focus again, that he might be moving from sermon, to summary questions, and he liked to ask me questions to get the conversation flowing.
“Leigh-Stephanie,” he said, focusing his gaze on me.  “ What is hell to you?”  
My real worst fear was being hunted down and skinned alive by Jack the Ripper, with my blood spattered against the white apartment walls, my hiding place curled on a closet shelf, not good enough; the ball of me, there, on the shelf, not tight enough.   My mother, Lee’s first wife, was a whore to him, which made me at least half whore.  A perfect ripper victim.
All I said though was “A giant, prickly tarantula turning me into live soup.”  and I resumed an inspection of my toes.  His smile of approval was a tight commiserating pucker, including me in something I didn’t even understand.  “Hell,” he said, looking around “is your worst fear lived over and over again; an endless loop of the scariest thing you can imagine.”
Though Lee couldn’t send me to my room, he could send me to take a bath and so the bathtub became my literal and figurative holding tank. We had two bathrooms but only one bathtub in that apartment.  Chad with walls covered in Styx, Cars and Kiss posters too, had the bedroom with an attached bath at the end of the hall. Meanwhile, there are only so many glistening coats of baby oil that one seven year old can coat her skin with, really.  Did my hair come out looking afro-sheened?  There are worse places to spend time, I know, like closets- those come in the next chapter, but I was not allowed out without permission, and if I asked for permission I was an irritation to my father, who wouldn’t give me permission, so I just had to be quiet, and stay in the tub.  No draining that tub either.  Not a noise he wanted to hear.  Be quiet or get a spanking, the thought of which ignited primal fear.   It didn’t matter if  images from  Jaws and Piranha and some awful movie with nightcrawlers spooging out of the showerhead and up through the drain, were trawling through my brain.  Add sinking ships and Jack the Ripper, with a penchant  for all  things wet, and I started developing a fondness for staying dry.  
If I’d been just a little bit older and had just a little bit  less imagination I might have understood what it meant that my father made time to drive Shay all the way over to the pet store, the one near Fifty-First Street and Airport Boulevard.  I realize now that I was an oblivious cover.  I could get lost in a pet store for hours, inspecting birds, cats and jingling cat collars.  All the animal related ‘sparkly things’.
Over the years, I watched him slay Shay, in some way, but he didn’t do it alone.  I  never heard him say such a thing, but actions speak volumes and the distillation of his volumes goes something like this:  “If Shay could fuck the wrong boy, couldn’t she just as well fuck me?”

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