First Season, Shotgun

A mild winter meant a busy first shotgun season for hunters in the rolling hills of southern Iowa. My father and I had made the hour drive from Des Moines south on I-35 to my grandfather’s land midday Friday for the hunt that night. When we arrived, the evening air was cool, but not cold, and the snow covered the ground in patches. Now I found myself finally out in a deer stand, listening to the reports of shotguns miles away.

The stand my father had suggested for me was a metal ladder attached to a metal seat that leaned against an oak tree. It wasn’t very high—only eight feet—in comparison to some of the fancier stands hunters used that made it easy to climb trees and sit twenty to thirty feet off the ground. The idea was that if you were really high up the deer wouldn’t be able to smell or see you. My stand wasn’t like that. It relied almost entirely on location. My stand was on the middle of a finger in a thickly wooded area, with deep draws on either side running down to meet a stream at the bottom of a valley. I could see a large portion of a slope to my right, a slope with a deer trail tracing its way between trees and rocks down into the draw.

The sun became blood red as it set, the silhouette of timber striping it black. Slowly it dipped lower and lower on the ridge to my west until it vanished, leaving a pink sky filled with long thin ribbons of clouds so far away I wondered where exactly sky ended and space began. My breath showed in front me for the first time that day. The warm weather had made slush of the snow and I regretted choosing sleep instead of hunting all day. When the woods started to look gray in dusk’s fading light I knew to pay attention. My father had explained that at the end of the day, hunters would be coming home for the night in trucks and on four wheelers from the public hunt that butted up against my grandfather’s land, and the noise of the engines would put pressure on the deer to make a quick getaway. The deer, just waking up during twilight in the woods and starting to forage for food in adjacent fields, would slip back into the shadows of the oaks. The trail on the slope across the draw from me was one of those avenues deer would use to jump off the main paths to escape danger and circle back around to the fields, listening for pursuit.

I opened the chamber of my shotgun to make sure I’d remembered to load it. The big gun lay across my lap, loosely held in my gloved hands. I’d never killed anything large before in my life; sure, some frogs and a few possums, but nothing bigger than me. As I stared at the cracked bark of an oak tree in front of me I wondered what it would be like. I daydreamed about shooting a big buck with one clean shot right through the heart, dropping it in its tracks. How I’d drag it back to my grandfathers house in a feet of Herculean strength and proudly hang it in the barn to be skinned and gutted by another, lesser hunter while I ate and rested. A man from the government would come out and measure the antlers. He’d measure and remeasure, always stopping to shake his head and recheck his math. Sure enough, I would take the state record. My father would stand in awe of such a huntsman, accomplishing something he had never been able to.

I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me.

I blinked hard a few times and tried to keep the oak’s bark in focus. As the world got grayer the intricate cracks in the peeling bark were harder to make out. Twilight seemed like a dream place between day and night where I couldn’t trust my eyes. Sometimes they would play tricks on me when I looked around at the gnarled trees on the forest floor. One knobby bush in particular had morphed many times, from a dog, to a bear, then to a man. I wondered if twilight was playing tricks on my mind as well, making me imagine strange visions of my own hunting prowess. I slapped myself in the face a few times to make sure I was fully alert and wondered if this period of mistaken eyes and straying thoughts was why my father cautioned me to be careful at dusk.

“In the dark, things will be different,” he had said. “You will need to keep your wits about you, and trust yourself.”

I started to doubt everything. The visions of hunting prowess were replaced by missed shots and falling out of my stand. When small creatures made noise in the dark thickets I jerked up straight in my seat, my heart banging my chest. The grayness of twilight became richer until it was nothing more than a thin film of white on a dark world. Soon I wouldn’t be able to see across the draw to take a shot at a deer. I sat as quietly as I could, willing my heart still and slowing my breath to a noiseless exchange of air. Then I heard it: a faint cracking of sticks at the top of the far slope, near a dirt road. I listened to a deer slowly walk in from the road, trying to make as little noise as possible, but unable to be completely quiet as it worked through the trees to the deer trail.

I turned my body sideways in the stand and trained my eyes on the trail. The deer walked into view and stopped for a second. I didn’t have a good shot; the deer was behind too many branches. The shot to the trail was a long one at around forty yards—too far for such an amateur marksman. I trained the bead of my shotgun through a clear place in front of the deer and waited for it to walk forward. The deer just stood there, though, listening and looking around. I was afraid to move, to set down my shotgun, because if I could see the deer then it had a line of sight to me. For agonizing minutes I held the heavy shotgun still. Sweat started to bead on my forehead and my shoulders grew white-hot with pain. I wondered how much longer I could hold up the gun when the deer started walking.

I held my breath. I knew I shouldn’t but I couldn’t help it. The deer walked until it was in the middle of the shaking bead on the end of my shotgun. For a second I hesitated, wondering if I shouldn’t wait for a moment, let the deer walk a little closer. The bead on the end of the barrel kept coming and going out of focus, alternating clarity with the deer behind it in my vision. For a moment the bead would be crisp, the only thing in the world I had in my sight, then the woods would snap back into focus all around me, then the deer would be crystal clear. The moment I realized the deer had antlers I pulled the trigger.

The blast deafened me. I pulled the shotgun’s stock from my shoulder, holding the gun like a soldier at port arms while I looked around, bewildered at the sound of bells. I blinked hard, trying to get the striped imprint of trees illuminated by the blast out of my eyes. Slowly I pulled down on the wooden fore-end on my Remington 870 Express. The spent red cartridge sprung out of the chamber flipping end over end, arcing first upward, then down in a crimson streak. A sweet, acrid smell filled my nose and mouth; the gunpowder announcing its fruition to all of the senses. I slowly slid the fore-end of the shotgun up to its original position, listening carefully for the sound of a new cartridge seating in the chamber.

I strained to see where the buck had fallen on the path. The slope struggled to focus in my vision while I tried to see through fluorescent blue stripes left by the trees lit by the blast. I caught sight of the buck as it staggered back to its feet on wobbly legs. I fired again, and again as it bound a few yards down the path. I pumped the shotgun quickly this time like a piston. Each time the woods would light red, the trees leaving yellow and blue negatives in my eyes, the ringing sound around me so complete I existed in reverberation. The third time I fired the buck fell forward on its chest while at a dead run, sliding a few feet face down in the slush before stopping. I stood with my mouth open.

Holy shit, I actually killed it, I thought.

My hands shook badly as I tried to fumble ammunition from its pouch into the shotgun’s feed. I kept dropping the cartridges. They fell to the ground to join the spent ones in the mud, little red spots in the dark. I managed to reload the shotgun and was slinging the gun to climb down the ladder when I heard a strange sound, a quick crashing through the undergrowth. The buck was moving through the woods like some kind of creature I had never seen, using its back legs to propel the entire body over the ground on its stomach. I stared in complete disbelief for a second, then raised my shotgun to track its course down the slope to the draw.

KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk was the sound of my barrage as I fired and pumped the shotgun.

The deer worked its way down the slope like something out of a nightmare, jerking into the underbrush, head twisted to the side as its antlers caught the undergrowth. Only its back legs moving it, sliding on its stomach. When it reached the bottom of the slope, crossed the draw and started up the slope of the finger I was on I panicked. I don’t know if I thought the creature was coming for retribution or if I doubted the lethality of my weapon, but I started firing wildly, frantically jamming new cartridges in the gun like my life depended on it. I lit the woods up like strobe light, firing again, and again, not even sure if the bead lay over the fuzzy form of the buck—just firing.

The buck propelled itself up to the top of the finger thirty yards downhill from me, got tangled in a thicket, and lay still. I stood in the stand for fifteen minutes waiting to see if it would reanimate until finally I mustered the courage to climb down. I carefully slung the shotgun over my shoulder and descended the metal ladder, grasping the rungs with hands that trembled, until I felt the slush under my feet. I pulled a headlamp out of one of my pockets and put it on, its small white light showing the ground in front of me. As I walked around my stand I heard a noise come from the thicket, a strange ethereal sound that started as a high pitched cry and ended as a gentle moan.

“Oh my God,” I said.

Training my weapon on the thicket I slowly walked toward it. I tapped the safety off and kept my finger on the trigger; afraid the animal would rise and charge, I clung to the shotgun like a life preserver. The weapon made a rattling sound as my hands shook. I squinted through the fog of my breath. I didn’t know what I would find in the brambles, what kind of thing had moved across the ground in such a grotesque manner. When I got to the thicket I cast my headlamp’s light on the buck. One of its antlers had snagged on something during its descent of the slope and snapped off. The front legs sagged off its body and lay on the ground; I’d shot through its front shoulders, the slug obliterating bone and severing sinews. The buck’s back left leg was now a bloody stump six inches above where a hoof should have been. Several other entry and exit wounds oozed onto the deer’s shiny coat.

The buck looked up at me.

I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The deer was supposed to get shot and then die quietly somewhere, either on the trail or off in the woods a little ways. The bloody, barely alive buck missing an antler in front of me bore no resemblance to anything my imagination had conjured. I vaguely remembered my father telling me if I downed a deer and needed to finish it off not to shoot it in the head. A deer with no head was messy and hard to hang by the neck in the barn.

I leveled my gun at the buck’s neck, right in the middle. I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me. I pulled the trigger. The deer’s body convulsed in a whipping motion as an ounce of lead slammed through its neck. I pumped the shotgun, sending a red cartridge spinning off into the brush. I broke a twig in half and pressed the sharp end to the deer’s eye to see if it had died. I thought this act important, to make sure the buck had passed beyond misery. If the deer didn’t blink then it was dead. But the deer blinked when I pressed the sharp end of the twig into its eye. I jumped back and stood stalk still. The deer lay on the soft carpet of grass, mud, and slush in the thicket. A puddle next to its shoulder was slowly turning black like an oil spill.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk filled the woods as I shot the buck twice more in the neck. Blood sprayed up onto my clothes.

I sat near the thicket on a downed oak and collected my thoughts. I’d come to the stand with twenty-five slugs and now only had six left. I’d shot the deer to pieces. The buck only had one antler now and it hadn’t crossed my mind to count the tines. I gutted the dear, felt the warmth of its innards in my hands, cut its heart out and held it like something precious. Eventually I walked back to my grandfather’s house in a trance and used a four wheeler to retrieve the animal.

My father laughed and called me a bad shot when he saw the condition of the deer.

“We thought all that shooting was three guys who’d been walking together and kicked up a buck,” he said. “What were those last few shots, at the end, all close together?”

“It wouldn’t die,” I said. “I had to finish it.”

My father fell silent.

“At least you got one,” my grandfather said.

I didn’t say anything.

I think of the first time I killed a deer a few times a year, whenever hunting is in season. Someone will ask me if I hunt, and I’ll say no. I’ll say I haven’t been hunting since I got back from Iraq and that usually ends the conversation. But I think about it for days afterward. I think about the deer lying there, the little bit of life left in its eyes when it looked up at me. I don’t have it in me anymore, what it takes. I worry if anything looked up at me like that again I’d throw my gun down and start walking.

I’d never come back.

Jason ArmentJason Arment is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he served as a machine gunner in the USMC. Jason is now pursuing his MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2 and War, Literature & the Arts.

Nuclear Fallout

While the one divides into two: the heart and its shadow,
The world and its threat, the crow back of the sparrow.

-“Of Ancient Origins and War” Brigit Pegeen Kelly

 

“Doesn’t look like much,” Mom said, as we pulled into the parking lot of the Titan Missile Museum.

The main building was low to the ground. A few small buildings, which looked like garages or tool sheds, and large equipment were scattered throughout the fenced property.

If I hadn’t known where we were, I would have thought it looked like a work site with a few trucks and what seemed to be oil tanks, not a nuclear missile site. Looking over the denuded ground and its desert setting, I could almost sense the danger, the power, of the place. But nothing visible attested to it.

As my husband pulled into the parking space, Dad opened his door prematurely, and Marshal braked quickly. “Whoa, sorry,” Dad mumbled. After the car stopped, he rolled his body out the door, wincing as his feet hit the pavement.

We all got out, stretching ourselves as if we had been driving far more than fifteen minutes from Mom and Dad’s condo to the museum.

Only a little earlier, we’d been back at Mom and Dad’s condo, debating what to do with the last day of our visit.

“We’ve already been to Tubac a hundred times,” I said. I hated sounding like the surly teen of decades before, but the last thing I wanted to do was walk into the shops with Mexican crafts made for Americans and watch Marshal buy a wind chime while Dad fumed in the corner. Dad saw a purchase like that as impractical, a waste of money. He preferred to buy run-down real estate and several-times-a-week golf and to peel a Franklin from his money clip to pay for our dinner. Dad kept the smaller bills nestled inside a hundred dollar bill which faced outward in the clip. When I was younger the big denomination was just for show, but as I got older he began to spend it.

“The cathedral?” Mom’s voice sounded bright, like artificial lights. The four of us sat in their condo living room. I could hear a ballgame on the TV my adult son Marc watched from the couch in the tiny den. Breakfast dishes were done, and we couldn’t leave for home until at least 4PM. Not much to do in Green Valley, Arizona. I felt suffocated in their winter home, with the mismatched remnants of their travels and the fruits of Dad’s puttering.

Dad had stamped every surface with his imprint. His gourd masks and roughly crafted wreaths lined the walls. A little table next to the armchair sloped to one side as the metal sculpture he had made for the base of the tile table top was higher on one side than the other two.

“We did that before. Remember?”

Dad’s face tipped downward in a pout. “I still think you need to see the observatory.”

“Marshal just can’t handle the altitude.” My father’s face told me he resented that I couldn’t go because of my husband’s auto-immune troubles.

“What about the Titan Missile Museum then?” Dad’s voice hit a defensive note. He explained it was nearby, in Sahuarita.

“Sounds good.”

I had shepherded Dad into the passenger seat up front in our SUV, across the console from Marshal. Marc sat between his grandmother and me in the rear seat. Slouching back, he hid his face under the brim of his Yankees cap. I glanced at Mom, worried that every day she had to ride in their car with Dad driving. The summer before, distracted, he’d driven right into the closed garage door of their Michigan house.

I figured Mom had prepared for more togetherness with a finger of Scotch or what she called nerve pills. At some point she’d changed from the sensitive child-woman of my childhood to a brittle stoic.

Marc whispered to me, “Why didn’t you tell them no? This sucks.”

Mom either didn’t hear Marc or she ignored him. Looking trim in her sweater and matching vest, she stared straight ahead with a neutral expression. Once she cleared her throat and pursed her lips. Her short gray hair was immaculately cut, as usual. With the car windows closed, I could just make out her light, flowery fragrance.

Glancing at Dad, I wondered if he was still irritated about the observatory. Or how I had made sure he rode shotgun. “I was driving way before you were born! Thanks for treating me like an old man.” People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

So that I could catch him just in case he were to fall, I stood by Dad as he slowly climbed out of the vehicle, then walked with him up the walkway, matching his very slow and determined steps. “My hip still gets me a bit,” he said. I nodded that I knew.

We milled around the low-ceilinged lobby until we were directed to a small theatre to watch a short film. Afterward, the tour guide insisted that anyone over 5’6 wear a hard hat. Both Dad and I had been measured as 5’6 when we were younger. But he’d grown smaller, shrunken with age. He insisted on wearing a hard hat.

Of the group of twenty adults, Marc, at twenty-five, was the youngest. The guide led us down 55 stairs which meandered around a central hub. Finally we arrived at a small window. Motioning for us to peer inside, the guide pointed out that we had been winding around the missile, tensed in its silo.

The Titan Missile Museum, as Mom had said, didn’t look like much when we drove up, but the sense that its energy hides just under the surface had begun to take root from my initial impression.

Our guide took us down into the underground launch control chamber, where we positioned ourselves in a rough circle to listen to his speech.

I stood across from Dad—the empty chair in front of the controls in the center between us—and when I looked over at him concentrating on the guide, I saw how taut his body was, as if he were a little kid trying hard to keep himself under control.

Is Dad working himself up at not being the center of attention…or is it something else?

The guide droned on. “The launch control center is a reinforced concrete structure 37 feet in diameter. It contains three levels and is shaped like a dome.” The word dome resonated. It sounded religious. I wanted to watch the guide, look at the controls, but my gaze kept moving back to Dad, as he stood stiffly there at the edge of the group.

“These three floors within the launch center are suspended from the ceiling. This is to minimize blast shock, permit a static floor load of 100 psi. The launch control and communications equipment were housed in the center. So was a mess and sleeping quarters for the four person crew.”

The guide pointed out we were now at an angle to see an actual Titan II missile in the launch duct.

Dad still looks pissed off.

Was he mad at me?

Or Marshal, his son-in-law? That hostility traveled as if through an electrical conduit.

Or Marc, who looked gloomy, bored by the ancient history?

Maybe my mother had irritated him and he was fueling his anger like the driver of a car stuck in mud gunning the motor?

Is he mad at me?

People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

I never knew when something would set him off, but times with Dad weren’t always bad. When I was a kid, I preferred spending time with Dad and his engagement with the task at hand over spending time behind the darkened draperies of my mother’s silence. When I was little, Dad’s workshop, with its noises and warmth, was the center of our home.

All my memories of my father working in the workshop have collapsed into one. From the kitchen, I heard the teeth-jarring screech of the chainsaw in the basement. I almost choked on the last rushed bite of mashed potatoes, so I could run downstairs to watch.

At the bottom of the wooden steps to our basement, the workshop bustled with activity. Vibrations from the fluorescent light which hung suspended on chains felt like a beehive’s humming.

Almost every night he worked bent over the workbench, its thick wooden surface scarred by slick hammer blows and nail holes. It reminded me of the cobbler’s bench from “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” where the elves finish the shoes while the shoemaker sleeps.

As I approached the workshop doorway, I heard the creak of a nail my father salvaged with the claw of his hammer. I walked past a pile of rotting lumber on the floor of my playroom just as Dad tossed another board out of the workshop. It flew a scant inch over my head. “Watch it, Hon,” he warned.

I ducked out of reflex. “Whatcha doing?”

“Ah, this old crate will make some good firewood. Just saving some of these perfectly good nails.”

“Whatcha need firewood for? We don’t have a fireplace.” I reached out and touched the wood in Dad’s hands and drew back. “OUCH!” I examined my finger; a large wood fragment stuck out from my skin like a miniature sword. I held it up to Dad’s face. “Look!”

Dad plucked it out, dumping it in the trash under the bench. “Lots of splinters. It’ll come in handy some day.” Dad yanked the last nail and hurled the board out the door. He turned and looked at me. “How about I look at that truck of yours?” He picked up one of many toys stacked at the end of the workbench and examined it.

While he worked, Dad played a paint-spattered radio to keep him company. He turned down the volume so he could hear me.

“Whatcha doing?”

“I’m fastening the lug nuts on your truck.”

“What’s lug nuts?”

“Bolts to put wheels onto trucks.” My father scowled at the truck as if to see better.

“What’s bolts?”

“Fasteners.”

“What’s that?” I pointed to the tool in Dad’s hand.

“It’s a wrench.” He paused. “If it was a real truck, I’d be using a lug wrench, but for a toy, I can just use this.”

“Why?”

Dad was concentrating hard on fixing my truck so, when he didn’t answer, I didn’t ask three whole questions that came to mind. I watched his hands over the surface of the bench, which he had constructed with a board thick as butcher block—pitted and pocked and flecked with paint. He’d found it in an old mill which was collapsing into the ground just outside of town. From this headquarters underneath our kitchen he planned and executed his dreams for his house, using whatever materials he could scavenge or finagle.

He handed me my own small wooden workbench, the sort with the wooden pegs to be pounded all the way down and then pounded back again when the “workbench” is flipped upside-down.

“Get to work,” he said. I pounded the pegs hard.

The wooden studs and plywood of the subfloor above were exposed, and the floor I sat on was cold concrete, but I didn’t mind. Every square inch of wall and ceiling space was accounted for by some cherished tool or belonging. My favorite treasure in the workshop hung from the ceiling—a pair of snowshoes. His army green sleeping bag was stuffed onto a shelf right below.

“Tell me again about the sleeping bag and snow shoes,” I said, peering up at my father.

Dad lay down the tool he held. He picked me up at the waist, setting me down on the workbench. “You remember that old story?” I nodded. “I was issued those snowshoes and sleeping bag during the Korean War. I was in Alaska and Korea, and it was fiercely cold all the time. I had to sleep in that very sleeping bag on the ground, in the snow, that’s how cold it was! You know how cold that is?”

I knew what came next, but it was my job to ask, “How cold, Daddy?”

“It was so cold that my nose froze into a Popsicle one night.”

“What flavor, Daddy? Orange, Daddy? Or cherry?”

“Must have been red like cherry, Hon. In the morning, when they blew the horn and woke us up, I had to put on my snowshoes and walk a long way in the snow. Do you remember how I walked in those snow shoes?” I shook my head, and he tried to pantomime how he walked on snow with the big woven pads, but I could not understand because winter seemed far off on that summer night.

*     *     *

When I was six, Dad moved all his tools out of his workshop and up to the garage.

I first noticed as he made his umpteenth trip up the stairs with his arms loaded.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Moving everything from my workshop to the garage.”

“Why?”

“Hon, you’re getting in the way,” he said. “Watch out!”

“But why are you moving the workshop?” I felt as if the fire was going out in the hearth. Although we didn’t actually have a fireplace, the workshop felt like one to me.

Somehow he had gotten that thick and heavy workbench out into the garage himself. He’d set it up on its sturdy legs without me even seeing what was happening. Now he screwed a pegboard to the wall above. “Mmm,” he said, two screws sticking out of his mouth.

“Daddy, why?” I wiggled around from side to side behind him.

Dad roared at me to get out of his way. Not sure if he was angry or just busy, I ran back into the house and pulled out my fairy tale book, pretending I was far away from the ruined workshop.

I was still reading the book when Mom called me to supper. While my parents discussed how Dad was arranging the workshop in the garage, I kept quiet.

After helping Mom clear the table, I went back into the garage, hoping to see the workshop had been magically transported out there. Dad was concentrating very hard on hanging up his treasures. “Daddy?” I said very quietly.

He didn’t seem to hear me. “Daddy?” I raised my voice a little. Still no answer. “Daddy!” I shouted.

“Hell’s bells. What do you want?”

“Do I have to move my playroom?” My playroom was downstairs, just outside Dad’s workshop. Most of my dolls, my doll high chair, and a toy box full of blocks and baby toys were stored there. So was Grandma’s neckpiece, which fit me as a stolewhite rabbit fur with its one spot of black meant to hint at ermine. Dad didn’t answer me, so I left.

When I snuck back to the garage later to watch without talking, I saw that he had put his snowshoes and fighting helmets and army green sleeping bags up in the rafters of the garage. A few days later, Dad set up a little space heater, but it was dangerous, and I was no longer allowed to play in the garage.

One night after dark, the workshop room now emptied, Dad brought home a load of cement blocks in the back of his truck and dumped them behind the house. He carried each brick down the basement stairs by himself.

Dad was grumpy and busy, so I knew enough to stay out of his way.

My mother came down with a basket of laundry. Her Keds made a squeak on the wooden steps. “Mommy, what’s Daddy doing?” I said.

“Can you keep a secret?” She searched my face, her blue eyes mirroring mine.

“I’m good at secrets.”

“Yes, you are,” Mom said. “Daddy is building a nuclear fallout shelter.” As Mom walked to the laundry room, I followed behind. She set down the basket and began to sort into piles. “Do you want me to try to wash that skirt?” She nodded toward the Hopalong Cassidy skirt I wore over my pants. “I might have to hand wash it because of the fringe.” The vest had disappeared at some point in the previous three years, and the skirt was too short to wear without the pants.

I pulled out the plastic handled pistol from my gun belt and tried to twirl it like I’d seen on TV. It slipped from my hand and fell to the concrete floor.

I shook my head vigorously and changed the subject back. I had to be on my toes with my mother because she excelled at subject changing. “Why isn’t somebody helping him? It’s too heavy,” I said.

“Because it’s a secret,” Mom said. “You can’t tell anybody about it.” She ran a slender hand through her short brown perm and then smoothed it down.

“A secret!! What’s a nucular fallen shelter?”

“A bomb shelter.” She pulled her lips into a straight line.

“Jiminy cricket!” I felt like throwing myself to the floor in disbelief, but I was a watchful kid.

The rest of the week Dad worked downstairs, the Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole from his radio trying to smooth the edges of the sounds of slamming concrete. He stacked the blocks alternately by row, in a quadrant-shaped domino pattern, creating a shelter two blocks deep. The bricks were stacked without mortar like my wooden blocks, the roof plywood topped by a double thickness of bricks.

My mother sat in front of a Leonard Bernstein concert on TV on the last evening, one of our rickety aluminum tray tables in front of her, her light blue scuff slippers poking out in front. The table wobbled under the pressure of her pen on the list evolving under her hands. “We’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” she said without looking up.

Next day I went down to check out Dad’s work. Mom came downstairs with two full grocery bags and saw me looking at a brochure.

“Those are the plans for the shelter,” Mom said. “Daddy followed their specifications, and now I’m going to stock the shelter with the items they suggest.”

The brochure said U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration. These words were difficult, and I didn’t understand them. I studied Mom’s spiky handwriting on the list:

2 foldable army canvas cots

2 army style double sleeping bags

4 blankets and sheets

1 8″x 32″x 72″ shelf unit for canned goods

meat, tuna, fruit, beans, bread, crackers and candy

2 sixteen gallon GI water cans plus 6 or 8 two gallon water containers

2 galvanized garbage cans for waste

Coleman two burner stove

2 Coleman gas lights with two gallon gas supply

reading materials

box games, generic Raggedy Ann type doll, puzzles

Porta Pottie, toilet paper

camera

tools, crowbar, hammer, ax, pick, ice pick, and hand tools

portable radio

medicines

2 flashlights

4-6 extra 2x4s for emergency bracing

one change of clothes each

several changes of underwear each

sweaters and coats

toiletries

1 22 cal single-shot rifle with ammo

one baseball bat

double compartment wood orange crates and apple boxes (for storage)

The next weekend, after Dad finished building the bomb shelter, I played hide-and-seek with some neighbor kids. I got the idea of hiding in the shelter since nobody could find me there. Alone, in the dark, the walls of the small room loomed right over me in a teepee effect, as if the walls were coming down at me, closer and closer.

I sat on a cot, in the shadows; it was cold and damp, like the root cellar at my mother’s parents’ house, and I shivered.

The bomb came straight at Kalamazoo, as clearly in my mind as if it were on television. Dad would scoop me up in his arms, and he and Mom would run for the shelter. Now they close the door behind them. My friends and neighbors are left behind. We hear the bomb hit and explode. It reverberates, and the block walls shake. Across town, my mother’s family—Grandmom and Grandpa and Aunt Alice—have been blown up into teeny pieces. We sit on the two cots, Mom and me on one and Dad on the other. We look at each other, then put together all the jigsaw puzzles Mom has stacked inside the maroon-painted apple crates. They were my parents’ first furniture when they were married, and now they are with us for the end of the world.

We stare at our laps until Mom decides we’ll eat the baked beans and mandarin oranges. I don’t want the Spam, but Dad insists I swallow. I choke as it goes down my throat. Mom and Dad and I are still looking at each other, and the food is almost gone. Dad yells at Mom. “Jesus Christ! Stop your complaining. What do you want me to do about it?” Mom cries.

I didn’t like where the fantasy was heading. I realized I couldn’t live forever in this tiny cement tent with just my parents.

The baseball bat and the rifle propped up in the corner of the bunker gave me another scenario. I imagined Dad closing the door behind us and before the bomb exploded, the neighbors discovered our bomb shelter. They pounded on the door, trying to break it down. Dad gave Mom the rifle and showed her how to shoot it. He held the baseball bat as if he was ready to beat the first person to get through the door.

My hands and legs trembled. As my chest tightened, I wondered if I’d stop breathing.

Eventually, I slinked out of the shelter, up the stairs, and into sweater weather, the air crisp, but still leaf-scented. I breathed deeply.

I still wanted to go back inside the bomb shelter. It called to me like a scream in the distance. But I readily admitted to myself that I wasn’t going in there alone again.

When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

That night I had my first nightmare. What happened after I fell asleep was a sudden hurtling downward into a black and unknown space. I sensed walls, boundaries of some kind, not too far from my touch, but fell unimpeded through this openness. With no sense of a bottom to this and no end to my falling, I felt no control over my fate. The terror rose from my stomach and ballooned to my arms which had parachuted perpendicular from my body. When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

Not long after the bomb shelter was finished, the weather changed; the temperature dropped ten degrees. Wearing fall jackets, Mark from next door and I played in his sandbox with my yellow cement mixer and his orange dump truck. Mark usually reminded me of Humpty Dumpty, but as he directed all his intensity on ramming his truck into mine, he looked like a tough guy on TV, his expression hard and focused, his buzzed blond head giving the impression of a Marine sergeant.

“Want to see something neat?” I said.

“What?”

“Can’t tell you. But I can show you.”

“Okay. This better be good.”

I led him into my basement.

He looked around as if he was marching into Disneyland, with his mouth open and his head rotating.

“Ka-boom!” Mark made loud noises like bombs exploding. “This is the best thing anybody in this whole neighborhood has! You’re so lucky!”

Mark noticed the rifle and grabbed it. “Your Dad can get the Commies with this gun!” He examined it and pointed it at me. “Pow, pow, pow!” Mark made noises like a semi-automatic. “This is so neat!” he said.

Goose bumps pimpled my arms. “Mark, better put it down.” Dad would have a cow if he found out. I wasn’t allowed to touch his gun. I knew a gun could kill people.

“It’s pretty nifty!” Mark set the gun down and shivered. “It’s cold in here! Come on, let’s get our bikes and go up to Gull Road.” He’d already lost interest in our bomb shelter.

That night Mom told Dad I had brought Mark into the bomb shelter.

“Did you forget it’s a secret?” she said.

“I didn’t know it was a secret from Mark,” I said. Uh oh! I’ve done something wrong! I felt shame, but I wasn’t sure why.

“That’s a load of bullshit!” Dad said, getting a red face. “I’ll teach you to open your mouth when you shouldn’t!”

Dad spanked me right there in the living room. As he struck me, he said, “You will NEVER bring friends to the shelter again! Do you hear me?!”

As soon as he let me up on my feet, I rushed to my room and shut the door. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I recited to myself, the bomb shelter is just for the three of us. The bomb shelter is just for the three of us. There is no room for friends, neighbors, or Grandmom and Grandpa. It’s just for the three of us.

That night I read the story of “Bluebeard” in my fairy tale book about a husband who forbids his wife from opening one room in the house. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the room when he is away. She discovers his dead ex-wives hanging from hooks in the blood-spattered room.

The story gave me a nightmare fraught with more intensity than those which preceded it. I cried out, which woke up my mother. She took the fairy tale book from me.

I didn’t say anything when my book turned up missing. I looked in the garbage when Mom was in the back yard hanging some sheets on the clothesline. My book lay in there, underneath some coffee grounds and orange peels.

All these years later, standing among a group of mostly strangers, I felt a deeply rooted longing for that book. The Titan guide was still talking. “The heart of the Titan II operations was the Combat Crew, which was responsible for day to day operations of the missile complex. They also had to respond to the launch order that, thankfully, never came. Each crew consisted of two officers and two enlisted.” Like Mom and Dad and me and Ted. “The crews had to be informed about conditions which affected alert status.” When baby Ted came home that day from the adoption agency, we had been living over the bomb shelter for a year.

Chains tightened around my stomach. Propellant met pressurization in my head.

“Many Americans constructed bomb shelters as a form of reassurance. They mainly had symbolic value.” The guide rambled on and on.

As a child I’d stayed clear of the bunker in the basement and as an adult I’d begun to forget, but now I remembered how I began to imagine it as a meat locker, a freezer, an abandoned igloo on empty frozen tundra. How I had felt the shelter’s merciless icy presence chilling our house.

As the guide finally wrapped up his monologue, we drifted out to the yard. As if he could barely stand, Marc leaned against the chain link fence, pulling his cap down further on his face, while the rest of us shuffled through the gravel to peer at the roof of the missile silo, which barely rose above ground level, as if the entire housing for the missile were a whale with its back just visible above the water line.

Under the sun, Dad’s staccato walk and fidgeting were both more obvious and less intense, as if part of his compressed energy blew away with the wind.

In the car, Mom said, “The Hoovers, remember them? Bob and Sylvia? They were in our golf league. Well, their youngest granddaughter is studying engineering at Northwestern.” I couldn’t remember who the Hoovers were because there were so many and I had never listened very well when Mom gave me her friend updates. “Wasn’t it engineering? Was it Northwestern or Illinois?” My father, staring ahead, seemed transfixed by the road ahead. “Do you remember?”

Dad uncoiled himself and turned to look at her. “Engineering. I don’t know what university. Something that is supposed to sound good.”

By the time we got back to the condo, Dad’s mood shifted toward center. “How about I grill that salmon now?” he said.

Marc made a beeline for the tiny den. Marshal turned on the TV in the living room as Mom and I started rustling in the kitchen and Dad fired up the grill. I heard the sound of a 24 hour news channel. When I brought Marshal a glass of Coke on ice, he spoke so only I could hear. “I’m waiting to see if something happened outside of Green Valley. I sure hope so.”

As Mom pulled together the ingredients for the rest of dinner, I watched to make sure she didn’t confuse the teaspoon and the tablespoon measurements as she had the night before. I purposely didn’t notice that she snuck sips of Scotch from a glass nestled behind the blender. She didn’t gulp as she was a master of moderation.

While Mom stirred her sauce on the stove, I paced between the food preparation counter and the patio where Dad watched over the salmon, his body straight and still except for the rhythmic flexion of his knees.

“Smells good,” I said, filling a gap.

Dad smiled at me. “It’s my specialty.”

Luanne CastleLuanne Castle taught at California State University, San Bernardino before moving to Arizona, where she now lives with a herd of javelina. Her writing has been published in 13th Moon, Airplane Reading, The Antigonish Review, Redheaded Stepchild, Visions, The Black Boot, The MacGuffin, and others. Her writing can also be found at http://www.luannecastle.com

Me and Jerry

“Do you like Jerry Lewis?” I ask the stranger next to me in a movie theater. We’ve been making small talk, waiting for the movie to begin, about films and directors, young and old. The conversation has just turned to comedians, and I thought, there’s my cue.

She tilts her blonde head. “He’s not my favorite.”

I’ve heard worse. The last baby boomer I asked answered, “No. And he’s a son of a bitch.”

“But I went to high school with his kids,” she continues. “They were into music. And I knew his wife. She was a very nice woman; and she was very pretty, even though she let her hair go grey.”

She knew Jerry’s family? My heart beats fast. I want to tell her that I saw his oldest son, Gary, sing “Sonny Boy” with his dad on Jerry’s TV show and “This Diamond Ring” with his band, Gary and the Playboys a few years later; that Jerry’s wife Patty, a former singer, managed Gary’s band; that Patty’s hair went grey because Jerry wouldn’t allow her to dye it; that Jerry divorced Patty in 1980 and married SanDee Pitnick, a Las Vegas dancer, three years later; that the only way I could know more about Jerry Lewis is if I broke into his house.

But I’m afraid if I tell her all that, she’ll shrink in discomfort to the other side of her seat. There’s no more time to talk anyway. The lights dim, the theater goes dark, and we face forward to watch the coming attractions, my mind still racing with thoughts of Jerry.

  *     *     *

It’s a Sunday night during the Golden Age of Television. We’re watching The Colgate Comedy Hour. Its hosts rotate every six weeks; but for me, Ed Wynn, Abbot and Costello, Donald O’Connor, Eddie Cantor and even Jimmy Durante—whose “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…” gets me every time—were just warm up acts for Dean Martin, the smooth crooner, and his sidekick Jerry Lewis, the skinny, hyperactive klutz with the loud nasal voice and the big mouth and the long legs whose nonstop crazy shticklach (as Jerry called it) light up the cramped den where I sit with my family in front of our small black and white TV.

Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry. Now he’s catching Dean off guard, kissing him full on the lips. Then he’s jumping into the arms of the bandleader, curled up like an impish toddler who needs protection from his angry, older brother. Then he’s arching his back, spreading his arms, throwing his head back and lengthening his legs like a ballerina ready to be hoisted high up in the air. (Does that sound gay? He wasn’t, even though he sometimes dressed up like Carmen Miranda with a turban of fruit on his head and pantomimed her singing, and even though, by his own admission, he was plain crazy about Dean Martin.)

He isn’t just funny. He’s cute in his nebbishy way, and he’s sweet. And when he isn’t pulling sad or confused faces, or pantomiming or falling down, he sings and dances with musicality, style, and ease. I sing and dance along with him in the doorway even though it annoys my father and brothers.

His ad libs thrill me—they give me a glimpse into the man behind the clown. When a gushing water pipe soaks Dean’s watch, Jerry stifles a laugh, puts his face an inch from Dean’s, drops his high whine an octave and says, “You forgot to take your watch off, huh?” Or when he opens a suitcase and the clothes that are supposed to explode all over the stage lay quietly folded, he approaches the audience to explain how well the gag worked in dress rehearsal and to rebuke whoever was responsible for the malfunctioning spring: “Where will you be working tomorrow?”

At the end of the show, Jerry stands in front of the curtain in his black tux, his bow tie loose, and wipes the sweat from his face with his white handkerchief. “Ladies and gentleman,” he says, “Dean and I want to thank you very, very much.” Then he plugs their latest movie. The pathetic nerd is nowhere to be seen. Here’s a man in total command of his life.

I’m nine years old, and I’m in love.

A year after The Colgate Comedy Hour goes off the air, Martin and Lewis split up. Jerry begins making his own movies. For the next nine years, throughout junior high and high school, whenever one of Jerry’s movies are playing, I beg any and all of my girlfriends who are willing to sit beside me in a dark movie theater on a Saturday afternoon while I silently swoon. They don’t conceal their boredom and disdain. They can’t understand what I see in him. I can hardly understand it myself—I don’t think he’s all that funny anymore, but I’m sure there’s a sensitive, brooding guy in there somewhere who reminds me of a boy I also have a mad crush on, who is also lanky, moody, and impulsive, and whom I also worship from afar, as if he too were a celebrity.

I asked my cousin recently if she remembered my crush on Jerry Lewis. “Of course,” she said, “but if you ask me, you conflated him with Lenny.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But I fell in love with Jerry first.”

 

Dateless on a Saturday night in my senior year of high school, I watch Jerry’s new show. After an hour or so of his usual antics—sticking a cigarette up his nose, running around the stage so that the cameraman can’t follow him, then doubling back and kissing him on top of his bald head—Jerry gets serious, and sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” from his album, Jerry Just Sings. His voice isn’t great, but his timing is; and he sings with passion and a shameless sentimentality reminiscent of Al Jolson.

Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry.

This is what I’ve been waiting for. I own the album. I’ve looked long and hard at Jerry’s melancholy face on the cover, his mouth open in song. I know every song, every word, every big band chord. I’ve stood in front of our foyer mirror not far from the hifi in our living room and mouthed the lyrics, as if by doing so, I can feel his heartbreak in “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or his exuberance in “I’m Sitting on top of the World.” My favorite isBy Myself,” (“I’ll go my way by myself. I’m by myself, alone.”) since that is how I feel now that Lenny, who can also sing, and who became my high school steady for a couple of years, has gone off to college where he’s falling in love with one pretty co-ed after the next. Jerry sounds lonely too when he sings, even though he’s married, has five sons and one more on the way.

 

The ratings are so bad for Jerry’s show that despite their five-year contract, NBC cancels it after 13 weeks. I can’t understand why so few people see how brilliant and lovable he is. (I don’t yet know that the French already think he’s a genius.) I don’t agonize about this for very long, though. I go to college the next fall where my tastes and worldview evolve as Jerry’s popularity declines. He becomes old-fashioned, even to me. I don’t think much about him for years except for an occasional glimpse at him while he hosts his schmaltzy Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethons, his dark hair slicked back with too much Brylcreem. But then I read an interview in Esquire Magazine in which herefers to starlets as “fucklets” and praises John F. Kennedy, who he claims had been his good friend, as one of the “great cunt men of all time.” Women’s liberation is in full bloom. Shocked and dismayed that this man whom I so adored is a Neanderthal, I’m done.

 *      *     *

My husband walks into the kitchen. “I found something on Gold Star you’re going to want to do.”

I look up from unloading the dishwasher. A transplanted New Yorker, he’s always hungry for theater deals. Now what?”

“Jerry Lewis is speaking in Beverly Hills tonight. For free.”

Miles has never found Jerry funny, but he knows I was obsessed with him when I was young.

“Oh, God. I don’t know. It’s been such a long time, I’m not sure I care anymore.”

He shrugs. “Up to you.”

He leaves the kitchen, and I rethink: Jerry is 86. This is probably my only chance ever to see him in person.

“Okay,” I call into the next room. “Let’s go.”

 

We join the crawl from the beach to Beverly Hills, arrive late, step gingerly by the people in the last row who, along with the rest of the audience, are standing, clapping and yelling as Jerry makes his entrance. I can barely see his grey head above his short neck and stooped body. He takes a few awkward steps and then collapses deeply into an arm chair opposite his interviewer.

The event is in honor of Jerry’s technical accomplishments as a director. To make it easier to act in and direct his own movies, for instance, Jerry met with Sony in Japan 25 times before they invented the “video assist” for him, used by movie directors today. I don’t care that much about the technical side of movie making, but I am impressed by Jerry’s drive, inventiveness and smarts. And I love the clips of him high up in a crane or zooming around Paramount in his golf cart, looking youthful and vibrant in his red crew neck sweater, white sox, and loafers. And I love the scenes from his old movies, in which he invariably plays the schmendrick who gets the simplest tasks wrong, making life impossible for everyone around him.

And yet, when no one’s watching in Who’s Minding the Store?, he sits at a typewriter and, accompanied by music, transforms the keys and return-carriage into a percussive instrument, his face so alive with focus, surprise and private joy, his timing so perfect, his neck so long and lifted, he is elegance itself.

Or when The Errand Boy finds himself alone in a large office, sitting at the head of an oval conference table, he lights up a cigar and, in time to a Count Basie number, imagines he is a “Chairman of the Board,” pointing to the imaginary businessmen under his charge sitting around the table. As the music builds in intensity, so does his imperiousness. At one moment, he turns his chair around, his back to the camera, only to swivel suddenly back around in response to a loud, climactic chord, crossing his eyes and throwing his arms and mouth open wide as though the sound of all those horns was coming in all its wildness straight out of his kishkes.

Miles laughs and elbows me, “He’s funny. We should go back and watch his movies.”

I feel vindicated.

Jerry asks to be excused. Does he have to use the john? He’s an old man after all. No. He wants to see his daughter, who has recently gone off to college, has just landed in L.A. and is backstage. He waddles off the stage and leaves the interviewer at sea: “Gee, I’ve never been left in the middle of an interview before.”

He leaves an audience of over 1000 to go kiss his daughter hello? What kind of princess must she feel like? I can’t imagine my father leaving any conversation in the middle to talk to me. But Jerry does what he wants. Isn’t his lack of restraint one reason why he was so appealing to me, a dutiful daughter?

When he returns, he takes questions from the audience.

A few hands go up.

“That’s all??” he yells. “Come on!!!”

One woman tells him that she did a small scene with him in a movie a long time ago; that it was so wonderful to work with him, it was her most memorable experience as an actress.

“Lady, sit down. You’re annoying everyone.”

Everyone laughs. I wince.

A young boy raises his hand. Jerry nods. The boy stands. “I’m a great admirer of your work.”

People laugh again, tickled by the boy’s precocious phrasing.

Jerry asks him his age.

“Ten.”

“Young man, would you like to live to see eleven?”

The audience roars. I don’t. Caustic comebacks may be part of his shtick; but in dismissing the gushing actress and the reverent boy, he’s dismissing me.

At the end of the evening, the audience gives him another standing ovation.

“Thank you very much,” Jerry says. “You’ve made this old Jew very happy.”

Even though Jerry poked fun at his fans, I’m hooked again, like I’ve seen Lenny at a high school reunion; and despite his receding hairline, the old fantasy that we were made for each other pulls on me. Like a lover who can’t get enough of her beloved, or a mother who finds her newborn endlessly adorable in his most mundane gestures—a yawn, a grimace from gas, a toothless smile—I watch endless videos of Jerry on YouTube.

In one of my favorites, Jerry enters the stage in a long, formal coat, strides pompously towards a five member glee club, pinches one girl’s cheek, lifts another girl’s chin, punches one guy’s arm, shakes another’s shoulders, and then tweaks the last guy’s nose. Then he leads them in “Oh Danny Boy.” While they sing “…from glen to glen..,” Jerry extends his right arm emphatically on the second “glen” to elongate the note, leaning further and further to the side until he falls into the curtain. A moment later, preparing for the big finish, he turns, marches about 10 feet away from the chorus in three big steps, pivots, then trots back, every trot a leap, in time to “oh, oh, oh.” Reaching them on the final “oh,” he spreads him arms wide and high and leans back and away from them with so much passion for the note that there’s nowhere else for him to go but on his ass.

I always loved falls, or as we called them when I was a modern dancer, “going to the floor.” Mostly, I favored controlled, soft descents, except for the time I was performing a solo in New York at the Merce Cunningham Studio. I was jogging backwards in a large circle, increasing my speed as I went, planning to stop deliberately at the height of the acceleration by abruptly changing my direction and stamping my foot. Excited, perhaps, by the dance celebrities or critics who might be in the audience, my speed got the best of me. I lost control, fell backwards onto the floor, slid about ten feet, and lay there, spread eagle, catching my breath for a few seconds before I got up and continued. Miles remembers it as his favorite moment of the dance: “You went with it, and you made it look natural.”

Watching Jerry as the pseudo-dignified glee club director who abandons himself to the music so thoroughly that he falls on his ass isn’t just natural, and it isn’t just funny. It’s satisfying, like seeing a thing pay off, come to its fullest and right end, like watching the inevitable, like watching the truth. That is what thrilled me at nine. Like the boy in Beverly Hills, I knew genius when I saw it.

 

I read every article and book by and about Jerry I can find. He was born in Newark, New Jersey and had a terribly lonely childhood. (I knew it!) His vaudevillian parents were always on the road. He idolized his father, Danny, for his looks and his talent. And since the ladies liked Danny, Jerry’s mother, Rae, his pianist and musical arranger, stayed near her husband to keep an eye on him.

Left with various relatives, Jerry moved around so much that he didn’t do well in school even though he was a smart kid. At the end of the 4th grade, when all the kids in his class moved into the 5th grade classroom, Jerry was told to stay in his seat. The new 4th graders piled in, stood at the blackboard and stared at Jerry. “At nine,” he says in an interview later, “I knew trauma.”

After that, his grandma Sarah insisted that they leave him with her in Irvington, a suburb of Newark. In a documentary about his life, Jerry, looking tired to the bone at 70, his bronze facial makeup contrasting with his pale neck, describes Sarah as an “apostle.” (Unusual description of a Jewish grandmother—maybe he learned the term from his wife Patty, a devout Catholic.) “When I needed wisdom, information, and…” Jerry sucks on a candy and furrows his brow, searching for the right word “…articulation, and profundity, I’d go to Grandma.”

I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is.

There’s a picture of Jerry as a teenager with wavy hair and a winning smile, standing outside his grandmother’s modest clapboard house that is not so different from the houses in my old neighborhood, only a few states away in Massachusetts. What if we had grown up together? Jerry had desperate crushes on any girl who smiled at him then. Would he have had a crush on me? Would he have tolerated endless, tortuous make out sessions in the red velvet arm chair in my living room; or would he have pushed for more? Would I have given into his squirms, sighs, and insistent hands and suffered relentless guilt, or broken up with him and made myself sick with longing?

I imagine us sitting on my front porch steps on a summer night (like Lenny and I used to do), our legs touching, my head resting on his bony shoulder. Jerry holds a cigarette in one hand, my knee in the other. My stomach aches, knowing he can’t stay much longer. My father drives up in his dark blue Dodge, spots us, and shines his bright lights as a warning. Jerry doesn’t freeze (like Lenny did). His mobile face makes one crazy expression after the other, as if the headlights were spotlights. Then he gets up, prances down the porch steps, waits for my father to get out of his car, and throws his arms around him like a long, lost relative.

He’s so brave, so funny, I think. How can my father not like him at least a little bit? But my father frees himself from the arms of this weird, wild kid, walks into the house and slams the door. Jerry hangs his head in defeat, then grabs me and won’t let go. It’s the happiest despair I’ll ever know.

 

Grandma Sarah died when Jerry was fifteen. At sixteen, he punched the principal of his high school for making an anti-Semitic remark. Not long after, he dropped out of high school altogether. All he wanted to do was perform. At his theatrical debut at 5 (as part of his parents act) he accidentally kicked in a foot light, heard the audience’s laughter, and that was it.

Having been a dancer, I understand the intoxication of performing—the heat of the lights, the vague faces in the dark looking at me while I handed them whatever part of myself I cared to dress up and share.

 

I gobble up the stories: about his love at first sight romance with the singer Patty Palermo, nee Ester Calicano, six years his senior (I’m jealous.); his ceaseless adoration of Dean Martin (despite the bitter break up and the 20 years of silence between them); their gargantuan fame with “the money and the women flowing in;” his rampant infidelities (I’m not jealous of that.); his split from Dean 10 years to the day after their debut smash performance at the Copacabana; his solo film career, obsessive work ethic as director, writer, and actor; how the American critics disdained him; how extravagant, compulsively generous, tyrannical, and impossible he was to live and work with; and his life-changing fall in 1965.

It’s not clear how it happened—either during his entrance on the Andy Williams Show when he slipped on some water or doing a cartwheel off a piano in his solo act in Las Vegas. However it occurred, he chipped a piece of his spine in his neck; and no doctor in the world could do a thing. To bear the pain, he took over a dozen Percodan a day for 13 years, slept on his couch for hours at a time and disappeared as a father from his sons. Even before the accident, he was such a workaholic that he wasn’t present in their daily lives except for kissing them on the lips hello and good-bye, and disciplining them, often harshly, if they committed the slightest offense at the table, even though he allowed himself to mash chocolate brownies all over his teeth and stick carrots in his ears and nose during dinner.

It’s one thing to learn about Jerry’s lonely childhood; it’s another to discover how that neglect affected him, how insecure and easily enraged he could be; how prone he was to excessive behavior, including extravagant spending—his 400 suits, how he never wore a pair of socks more than once, the 20 pieces of luggage he took whenever he traveled; how his addiction to Percodan made him, as Jerry confesses, “as mean as a snake;” how he took his torment out on those closest to him—his “long-suffering” wife, Patty, and his sons; how the agony of his spinal injury, the narrowing horizons of his career and his “sputtering” marriage drove him one night into his private bathroom in his Bel Air mansion (built originally by Louis B. Mayer) where he took out a pistol and put it in his mouth until he heard his sons playing in another part of the house and put it away.

As sad and sick as the stories sometimes make me, my attachment to Jerry remains. Why am I so loyal? In a New Yorker Profile, Jerry says that his fans were heartbroken when he and Dean split up because they had become like family to them. And I think, yes, maybe that’s it: you are like family to me—Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch, whose ancestors were Russian Jews, whose grandfather was a Rabbi, whose inflections, sighs, and sarcasm remind me of my Uncle Charlie, who delivered his dark humor in such a deadpan that it was impossible to distinguish the affection buried in the insult.

“Hello Ganiff,” Uncle Charlie would greet my 9 year old brother Billy. And to me he’d say, “Hello Meeskite.”

When I asked my mother what the words meant, she said, “Uncle Charlie’s just kidding.”

I insisted that she tell me what he was saying until she gave in: Ganiff means crook, and meeskite, homely one.

Maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t laugh when Jerry asked the 10 year old boy if he would like to see 11. Maybe I remember my Uncle Charlie, whose jokes were too mean to be funny.

 

At least I am not Jerry’s craziest fan. In an interview with Peter Bogdonavich, Jerry tells the story of a woman who approached him on the street and told him that she loved him so much that she was writing her dissertation about him. She got up close, put her hands around his neck and said, “I love you so much. I love you so much. I love you so much.” Realizing that she was choking him, and that he had to stop her, Jerry socked her in the jaw, broke it, and wound up paying her $475,000 in damages.

But perhaps his most insane fan is fictional: Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, is so sexually obsessed with the talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry) that she helps Rupert Pupkin (Robert Deniro) kidnap him. Alone with him at last, she straps him to one of her French Provincial chairs with adhesive tape from his neck to his shoes. In a sheer black lounging outfit, she sits across from him at a table set with a lavish dinner, tells him how much she loves him and sings Come Rain or Come Shine. (I know that song!) Then she disrobes to her underwear, sits her skinny body on his lap and leans in to kiss him.

Before her lips reach his, Jerry, his eyes both dead and enraged, tells her to take all the tape off. She does. He then picks up the gun which she had aimed at him earlier, fires a couple of phony bullets, walks slowly towards her, slaps her hard across the face and runs out of her apartment into the streets of Manhattan where he keeps running (and he was around 58 when he made this movie) for the rest of the scene. Masha runs after him, still in her white bra and panties and spiked heels, screaming, “Jerry, wait! Jerry! Come back here!”

 

I would never choke Jerry, kidnap him, or strap him to a chair. But having been attuned so early to his vulnerability, I do count myself among the women, who, as Shawn Levy put it, would like to “burp him.” And I agree with Carol Burnett when she says, “When Jerry wasn’t being funny, he was sexy.” Shall I tell you what in his face or physique or tone of voice moves and captivates me? Shall I mention his green eyes, his nice nose, sensual mouth, and his long, limber body?

The lanky adolescent is not the only Jerry I love. By the time he’s in his forties, no longer as lean or as agile, his comedic shticks less compelling, I still like to watch him sing and dance, and I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is. In interviews, Jerry can be introspective, polished, pompous, vulnerable, defensive, sweet, generous, philosophical, religious, nasty, as business-minded as the provincial Jewish merchants in my home town, or as sophisticated as a cinema auteur. He’s unfathomable. All I can do is guess when he’s being honest, and when he’s telling a version of the story he wants the world to believe.

When he explains why he won’t allow other men to dance with his wife, for instance, that he assumes they would behave like he would (“get cute and hold her very close”), I recall what Patty wrote about Jerry’s terrible jealousy, how he berated her (“brought me to my knees”) with false accusations of her infidelity. When he talks about how much he adores his sons, I remember reading about how neglected they felt and how jealous they were of the love he showed his muscular dystrophy kids, whom he called “Jerry’s kids.” When he claims that he respects Pauline Kael because she’s such a knowledgeable film critic, that he can’t “rap her” even though “the old broad” has no use for him or his movies, I wonder why he’s wearing that phony looking ascot and doubt that he’s ever that sanguine about any critic, having just admitted that he’s emotional about everything (“Patty says I can get upset about a bad sunset.”).

But when he talks about his open set policy, how much he enjoyed “showing off” to an audience when he was directing his movies; and when, many years later, his face bloated from steroids, his voice unnaturally high, he says how fast and hard he and his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, a dancer with great “pins,” fell for each other; (I’m jealous again) that he hasn’t laid an eye on another woman since, over 36 years ago, I believe him.

And I believe him when, in his 80’s, wearing yet another red shirt—red must be his favorite color—his voice gravelly, his eyes as sharp as my grandmother’s were at his age, he extols Carol Burnett for her artistry and heart. “Be careful,” he thinks, watching her fall, knowing what his falls cost him. “She was a clown,” he says softly near the end of the interview, like she was his soul sister. “Anyone who is a clown comes from a very, very unique place.”

 

I still yearn to understand Jerry’s unique place, what particular permutation of sorrow, rage, hurt, love, passion, and genius gave him his “funny bones,” as he puts it, and made it possible for him to sing, dance, act, direct, write and produce, and to draw me and millions of others to him.

Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people in the world—those who love Jerry Lewis, and those who don’t. Although Miles now appreciates his “flashes of brilliance,” most of my family and friends, old and new, don’t. Just yesterday, finishing up a lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, I mentioned that I needed to get back home to finish something I was writing.

“What are you writing about?” she asked, her eyes wide with interest.

“Jerry Lewis.”

“Jerry Lewis?” Her face, tone and inflection all cried, “Who? What? Are you kidding? Why in the world would you write about him?”

“Yes. Jerry Lewis.” Neither of us had time for a longer answer. Either you get him, or you don’t, I thought. And even if I wanted to persuade her that he was worthy of my fascination, where would I begin?

Lisbeth DavidowLisbeth Davidow’s work has appeared in print and online in Alligator Juniper, All that Glitters, Helix Literary Magazine, Mandala Journal, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Pilgrimage, Prime Mincer, Revolution House, Sliver of Stone, and Spittoon.

Lunch Ticket’s reading period for Issue #5 overlapped with The Southeast Review’s annual Narrative Nonfiction Contest. At the same time that “Me and Jerry” was accepted for publication at Lunch Ticket, it was also selected as a finalist by the nonfiction judges at The Southeast Review. Both publications extend their congratulations to Lisbeth!

 

I Once Knit My Own

It wasn’t until sixth grade that I started lying about my mittens. Bright blue and pink, I told my friends that they had been a Christmas gift from my mom.

“Nice mittens, man,” they’d say.

“I know right,” I’d say laughing, and tuck them into my pocket.

The truth was that I’d knit them myself; painstakingly. I’d put days into them; pretended I’d forgotten about soccer practice, and skipped dinners, for them. I’d spent an hour in the store, deliberating over electric-blue versus forget-me-not.

Once, I’d have shown them off. Knitting was pretty normal at the school I’d just left, Ashwoodwhich was named after a tree. Ashwood Waldorf had a different educational philosophy from most public schools, I think. Needlework was a required skill there, along with the ability to draw Celtic-knot borders, and play the pentatonic flute. As a result, kids usually ended up equally proficient in arithmetic and apple pie.

I ended up leaving, but I did take my love for needlework with me, to Lincolnville Central School. There, my new classmates informed me that embroidery was an unbefitting pursuit for a twelve-year-old boy. But I liked working with thread. Something about the creativity blended with precision appealed to me. It made me smile. Then again, I enjoyed having friends. I decided to forego one in favor of the other.

Cue Weezer album.

Growing up with a dance teacher for a mother, I had a fair amount of exposure to girls popping and locking, pirouetting, and kick-ball-changing. There had been a few boys in her classes, but only a few. Those few didn’t much make sense to me; dancing was for girls, not boys. Shaking my head, I’d smirk and continue on with my cross-stitch. However, some of my mother’s rhythm must have rubbed off on me, because I looked forward to my first dance at LCS with that mix of trepidation and exhilaration that accompanies all activities of which people feel obliged to not care about, but are secretly talented. I felt at a loss then when I spent the entire dance standing by the edge of the bleachers. I watched my new friends and enemies, lepers and heartthrobs, writhe ass to groin in a large, amorphous blob.

“We’re just grinding, dude,” assured my friend Devan, dripping sweat as I accompanied him to the water fountain. “No need to freak.”

I opened my mouth to assure him that I was far, far from freaking, but something resembling a bird twitter escaped.

Wide eyes and awkward gropingthese are the dim photographs of middle school dances that hang framed in the halls of my memory. Each is identified by a bronze plaque, with inscriptions such as, “what am I even doing,” and “should have untucked my shirt,” to accompany them. I came from Ashwood. There, the term ‘orgasm’ is dealt with in a similar manner to how China addresses YouTube. I felt the sudden pressure to straddle sexuality almost overwhelming. Boys were expected to move through girlfriends like Pringles. Girls who gave blowjobs were awarded social dominance. And here I sat, knitting.

Our eighth grade graduation trip included a visit to the Québécois Quaker Museum, to see the butter churns and old dresses, I guess. That same night the school took us on a cruise around the harbor, where Dylan Schurper was immortalized for grinding with a drunk twenty-two year old. When Sarah offered me a lap dance next to the shrimp cocktail, I feigned confidence by quoting a James Blunt song.

I was torn between worlds: one was fuzzy; the walls were made of knit-and-purl, but the ceiling was a printout of my mother. The other was immediate, and wielded my dawning adolescence with a shovel. It was sleepovers, truth-or-dare, and celebrity ranking; it had behind it the weight of a country in which admitting virginity after sixteen is social suicide. I didn’t know what to do. My mother, whose favorite movie is The Sound of Music, advised me to “follow my gut.” In my life I’ve gone to the hospital twice for intestinal issues.

In 1965, Temple Grandin developed a machine to give herself hugs. She discovered that children who are often embraced gain a greater capacity for empathy and handling stress. These ‘squeeze boxes’ were adopted by the beef industry as a way to comfort cattle before slaughter, and thereby keep meat tender.

My little cousin Jay and his best friend Brian have been friends since second grade. They’ve now reached a stage in which hugging is socially acceptable, as long as they first don a social condom by assuring the world, “no homo.”

Girls frequently comfort each other by holding hands. This has often driven me to lean against a wall and smoke a cigarette.

The other day I asked my mother if she knew what had happened to those mittens that I knitted myself that one time.

“You tossed them in middle school.”

It is winter now. Sometimes my hands get cold, and I tell myself to man up.

Kyle Laurita-Bonometti_optKyle Laurita-Bonometti grew up on the coast of Maine. He is currently a student at Colby College, studying writing. This is his first publication. Read his other work at kayelbeeme.tumblr.com

Beyond the Pale

I’ve worn different races as if they were shades of pantyhose. Many times, they felt just as constricting. They were not always adopted willingly, but sometimes forced on me. I am mixed; my father is white and my mother is an immigrant from El Salvador. But like all children, I started out raceless, like a page in a coloring book not yet crayoned in. As kids, we marauded through the parks and playgrounds of my mid-western town without ever thinking about the different hues of our skin. For all I knew we looked like the gang of Muppets I saw on TV. Nor did we ever think about whose family had money or which kids wore the nicest clothes. All of our thrift-store clothing was tattered from raucous games that carried us up and down slides and flying from the swings. We could have never guessed that our neighborhood was considered lower middle class because we all felt rich when we traded ten-cent packs of Now and Later and snap-its.

Now, for the first time since childhood, I find myself once again without a race to claim. I wish I could say I have returned to that place of childish freedom where race had no meaning, but I’ve traveled so far from that, I have come full circle. After three years of living abroad, I wish I could say that upon returning to the United States I now feel like I am among my people, or that I belong. But the truth is I feel even more alone.

 *     *     *

 Shortly after I returned to the U.S., I moved to New Orleans. I arrived at Louis Armstrong Airport late at night with only a suitcase and a reservation in a dorm at a hostel. I would be starting a writing program the next day and in the next few weeks I would search for a place to live.

The hostel was located in the Lower Garden District, which I discovered was a curious mix of southern-style mansions, corner stores attracting men with paper bags to their lips, and posh restaurants, which college students crowded into at night. I was confused by the dynamic until a few days later, when I studied a map from Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans. I learned about the historical settlement pattern of whites that formed a tea pot shape within the u-shaped dip of the Mississippi River. This “white tea pot” was akin to Seurat’s pointillism. Tiny dots, each representing five people, amalgamated into a blue tea pot amidst a sea of yellow. The blue dots were the whites, and the yellow were blacks. The overall population of Orleans Parish is 61% black, but the tea pot is a majority white.

I was introduced to my race that first day in third grade when a sneering little boy said, You look dirty.

Whites built their houses and shops within this area because it is the highest ground in a flood-prone city. Its body, or kettle, is a large vicinity encompassing the neighborhoods along the Mississippi River called the Garden District, Uptown, and Carrollton. The spout runs several blocks east through the famed and touristy French Quarter and Marigny. All of the districts that make up the teapot are known for chic studios and resplendent manors, oak trees that sprawl over and shade the sidewalks, and restaurants that serve lavish plates of seafood and steak.

After looking at the map and reading about the history of discrimination in the area, I knew I didn’t belong here.

 *     *     *

 When I was seven years old my family relocated to a small rural village. On its surrounding country roads one would find only an occasional stoplight, but at least a few trucks adorned with confederate flags. In southwest Ohio, where many migrants had crossed the bridge north from Kentucky, many seemed oblivious, or at least resistant, to the fact that Ohio was a Union state. In our small town there was a historically strong KKK presence.

On my first day of school in my new town, I was dressed in a silver skirt connected to a satiny cream shirt that had a collar, shiny buttons, and a small reddish-brown stain near my stomach. As I waited in the principal’s office to be shown to my new classroom, I yanked at my tights and fingered the spot, like I sometimes did in church. I wondered whether my older sister had spilled ketchup or salsa, or tried to imagine a stranger who had worn it before her. When the principal escorted me to my new classroom, I entered slowly behind her, stepping into the doorway as I peered across the rows of desks. I saw immediately from the blue-eyed stares of the other students that I looked all wrong.

I was introduced to my race that first day in third grade when a sneering little boy said, You look dirty.

As the years went by, books whose stories paralleled mine provided comfort to me: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Coming of Age in Mississippi; and I know why the Caged Bird Sings. I knew what it might be like to be black because I was black in the minds of my Aryan-featured classmates, who often called me ‘nigger’ as well as ‘spic’ as they pushed me into lockers and threatened to lynch me.

At the hostel in New Orleans, I witnessed a fight in the common room one evening. I was furiously clicking through craigslist ads for housing, hidden behind the screen of my laptop in the back of the room. About twenty feet of sea-foam green carpet separated me and two men who were watching TV. One was white, and he wore a black leather vest, chains, and facial piercings. The other man was black, and he sported a t-shirt and the early onset of a full-size gut. At the turn of the hour they began arguing over which program to watch next. Their voices rose all the way up to the high ceilings. The black guy got up from the couch and started to walk away. As he crossed the room, the white one yelled after him, “You’re just a fuckin’ nigger.” I cringed and filled with heat. I imagined I knew what would happen next because I’d been there myself, throwing a beer or a fist into someone’s face. So, I was more than waiting, I was hoping for it. But to my surprise, nothing happened. The words hung in the air unchallenged and the man left. I was flushed and trembling with anger as I packed up my computer and belongings.

The hostel’s position in the teapot was tenuous. It was located on the last street of the lower border of the spout, and if one walked south the Victorian houses became vacant warehouses. On the outside, its hulking brick facade was decorated with white metal latticework and precise landscaping, which matched the character of the surrounding mansions. On the inside, however, the floral upholstery was as faded as the faces of the other guests, most of whom were actually down-on-luck locals or new transplants, and their sagging smiles called for another drink. Black plastic bags and duct tape, which protected the mattresses from bed bugs, rustled me awake at night. My food disappeared from the refrigerator and a weary maid carting an industrial hamper complained that prostitutes gave her too much work. But no one would guess these things about the hostel just by looking at it.

A couple of days later I moved out of the hostel and into a weekly room rental in Mid-City where I continued my search for housing.

I asked anyone I could about the neighborhoods, and the answers often varied according to race. Black residents suggested the 7th Ward or Gentilly, while whites advised I live in the teapot or other predominately white areas, such as Lakeview. One white woman also warned me not to take buses because they weren’t safe. I wondered how she thought I might get around without a car.

People have always made presumptions about my race. In the area where I grew up, other kids would ask me, What are you?

Human, I began to reply.

Then, when I left to attend college in Columbus, I faced an altogether different kind of reaction: surprise.

I just thought you were white.

Interestingly, I don’t recall an African-American or other minority ever saying this to me. They are more likely to ask me my race or later tell me, I knew you were something. Perhaps this is because they know how high the stakes are when it comes to race, whereas obliviousness is yet another form of privilege.

For a large part of my life I was told I was not white—was not allowed to be. I was degraded and humiliated in the name of my otherness, and I would not let whites take this identity away from me as easily as they had branded me with it. I viewed this as just another attack on my self-determination. I almost preferred the more overt tactics of my high school classmates. At least we both knew where we stood in relation to each other.

Too often whites have assumed they are in like company when they have made racist jokes or comments in my presence. One stranger even paid my boyfriend’s and my bill at a Japanese steakhouse after discovering he had offended me. This stranger certainly must have known that payment could not rectify his words, but he could not have known that the deeper injury had been caused by my boyfriend’s silent assent to his bigotry. The betrayals by loved ones—friends whose true feelings came out after a couple beers or family members at Thanksgiving letting a word slip within my earshot—hurt most.

White liberals advised me that the New Marigny was “up and coming.” Later, I learned this neighborhood was just north of the Marigny, on the southern border of the 7th ward, which was predominately poor and black. The area was undergoing gentrification, a loaded word here in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Given my history, it is probably no wonder that I have trouble trusting the intentions of gentrification. Although I would like to believe it rests on ideals of diversity and integration, the reality of displacement inspires bitter thoughts of modern-day colonization.

I avoided this area, with its not so clear-cut lines.

I considered the Tremé as an option, which was about a thirty minute walk south from where I was staying in Mid-City. Of course, I’d heard about the TV series by the same name, but what interested me most was that it was historically a racially mixed neighborhood, an identifier that resonated with me.

As I zigzagged my way down the streets, one house blasted me with its sound and color: bright blue and purple paints and speakers playing brass band music. I stood at the sidewalk, at the helm of a well-manicured lawn where statues of animals and religious figures emerged from the green grass. I read a message posted on the house: a eulogy to the owner’s dead son who was murdered at its steps.

The house was still in Mid-City, but it set a somber tone for the rest of my walk. I breathed the air a little more deeply as I continued on.

I walked through the heart of Tremé, not the edges that met with the French Quarter, which were also being gentrified. As I walked, male teenagers shouted to me from a car tremoring with bass, and a drunken man with a Saints shirt saluted me with his beer in celebration of the day’s game. But for the most part, the neighborhood was almost eerily quiet, with no one but me walking along the edge of the street where there should have been sidewalks. The houses were humble, with dilapidated and vacant buildings scattered between them. Scrawny trees reached no farther than the rooftops. I saw no grocery stores, but several liquor stores. As I returned to Mid-City on a more main thoroughfare, I occasionally encountered small groups of young African-American males leaning against railings and resting on porch steps. They ignored me. But I was still struck by the same feeling as when I lived in Africa and groups of children would yell at me “La Blanche!”

 *     *     *

 

Never had I felt such shame to be part of a collective whose actions I could not control.

I became white when I moved to Cameroon. In looking at what it means to be white, privilege is one of the primary indicators. Certainly, I recognized this in Cameroon, where I lived for over two years serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. As a result of my skin color I achieved a special VIP status. I could commandeer the front seats of the bus, finagle my way out of cover charges into clubs, and strut through special events of the elite class, where I certainly had never belonged before. Of course, such a celebrity status was not without pitfalls. I was continuously barraged with a variety of requests for not just money, but sometimes the shoes worn on my feet or the purse carried on my shoulder. Vendors attempted to charge me three to four times the actual price of goods—something my fellow volunteer and I called a ‘white man tax’ or sometimes formed into a verb: he tried to ‘white man’ me. If I even attempted to explain to my friends that I was not really white, my tale was met with hearty laughter.

Crazy white girl.

In their eyes I was rich.

I became defensive.

I would scream at taxi drivers who were trying to overcharge me. I blamed the country’s poverty on the people’s political apathy. I ignored how America’s wealth was bought with their poverty. I walked around with a guilt that was intangible but ready to defend itself.

This proved me to be white, as did my struggle to understand my own whiteness.

One night, a group of my fellow ex-pat Americans met in our regional capital, Maroua. We spilled across three outside tables of one of the many bars that lined Rue de Mayo, amidst the crowds of young Cameroonian men standing in social circles along the street or seated nearby. Without street lamps, the night was dark and the thrum of motorcycle taxis, dust, and rhythmic beats filled the desert air. We drank.

Towards the end of the night, a faction of our larger group had become incoherent, stumbling, and sloppy drunk. One guy vomited on the side of the building. A few of the young women went inside the bar to dance provocatively with men. One of them was dressed in a low-cut shirt so that as she began kissing her dance partner, her breast was revealed in its entirety.

Never had I felt such hyper awareness of how others’ acts were also mine. Never had I felt such shame to be part of a collective whose actions I could not control.

In the Tremé I stood face to face with poverty, and just as I had been forced to in Cameroon, I confronted my own privilege. I thought about my friends in Cameroon who would have been grateful for these houses whose walls didn’t collapse with rain and whose faucets gave water. I was ashamed to admit that two years in Africa had not strengthened my tolerance of poverty; it had weakened it.

 *     *     *

 One day, while I was viewing an apartment in Mid-City, I noticed a school called Esperanza, meaning ‘Hope’ in Spanish. My heart welled.

For several years, I was Hispanic. In college and the years after, I delved into my mother’s culture. I became President of a Latino co-ed fraternity, and worked in the immigrants’ rights movement after attending law school. This was my time to be fully Latina—to rebirth myself as the strongest version of what whites rejected, pushing myself farther away from them on the racial continuum.

In many ways, this place felt natural. I had grown up to the soundtrack of Jose Vicente’s anguished rancheras and gritas. I had patted masa flour with my hands until the dough almost formed a circle, even though my tortillas were always too thick. And my mother’s accented English and quirky parenting tactics resonated so strongly with George Lopez’s stand-up comedy, my lungs ached from laughter.

Before Katrina, the Hispanic community in New Orleans was small, leaving little impression on the city. Post hurricane, large numbers of Latino laborers migrated into New Orleans to help with its rebuilding efforts. Many have stayed, and estimates show the Hispanic population may more than double in the next five to ten years. Mid-City has seen the largest increase within Orleans Parish, although the suburbs have seen even higher numbers. Still, because it is a rather new immigrant community it has the typical characteristics of such: hidden and closely-knitted.

Each time I speak Spanish or dance salsa, I feel like I am revealed as a fraud. I speak fluently but with an American accent and the grammar of a six year old. My hips go rigid when I try to swing them to the beats of Celia Cruz, even though I can shimmy and pop to Petey Pablo.

However, there is so much more that separates me and a Latino laborer.

I know that being Hispanic is not something I can fully ever own.

 *     *     *

 Recently, I traveled through Africa, South East Asia, and Central America. For the latter regions, I was once again raceless. I was simply a foreigner, an American. I was reminded of a statement I’d read written by Albert Murray: “For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

During my travels, I met three Americans while crossing the border from Zimbabwe to Zambia. We spent Christmas together, sharing a buffet of Greek salad, lasagna, and pumpkin ravioli at a restaurant in Livingston. Before meeting them, I hadn’t seen another American in weeks. The familiarity of their speech and attitudes warmed me; it felt like a homecoming. One woman was bi-racial and the other two travelers where white, but I embraced them all equally as family.

After traveling for nearly a year, the Atlanta airport was my re-entry point into the United States. Here, I saw for the first time how skewed my perception of race had become. I had arrived from Guatemala, where I’d spent the last two months writing essays and refreshing my Spanish. I waited at the luggage carousel and watched as my companions from my plane grabbed cellophane-wrapped suitcases that were nearly the same size as them. But the machine did not feed my bag out. After a while, I scanned the crowd to see who was left from my flight.

Now, most of the bystanders were wearing plaid shorts, sunglasses used as head gear, and brand-name neon tennis shoes. Apparently, another flight had arrived. None of these white people were on my plane, I thought to myself.

That’s when I recognized that the people I was referring to as ‘white’ included African-Americans and excluded only a few of the Latin Americans who were left. I was confused by my own thought process until I realized my racial categorizations were no longer based on race, but perceived wealth.

My baggage never came, and I passed through U.S. customs with nothing to claim.

In some ways, there is freedom in this kind of existence. I can move in and out of races, and I do. Noel Ignatiev coined the term race traitor to describe someone who seeks “to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin.” Sometimes, in discussions about social issues, I do not reveal my race because I have learned my opinion carries more weight if I am perceived as white. In accordance with Ignatiev’s ideology, I am not trying “to pass;” I’m practicing racial espionage. Ignatiev believes that abolishing the white race requires “the defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a predictor of behavior.” He rests these claims on the principle that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

My loyalties are unbending.

I discovered a compassion in Africa that knows no enemies. There, I learned what it felt like to carry the burden of oppression in a different way. For the first time, I had to take responsibility for the charges I had previously dispatched to others.

I learned that we all have to take responsibility for each other.

The most racially diverse tract in Orleans Parish is a three-block group area within Mid-City. When I stood in front of Esperanza School, I did not know I was standing just a few blocks south from this tract. I watched as a Hispanic woman guided her daughter across the street by the hand. I walked on, and shortly after, an older African-American gentleman asked me for a dollar. I shook my head because I didn’t have cash, but we spoke for some time about where he might stay the night. He was a veteran from North Carolina. As I continued, I passed a smiling white couple who moved over for me on the sidewalk.

In each of them, I saw a part of myself.

A few days later I put down a deposit on an apartment in Mid-City.

I still can’t say I feel I belong here, but I think it is the closest I can come to the feeling of belonging. I doubt I will ever truly belong anywhere. Even though I have found a place to live, my search for a place in New Orleans and America continues.

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Florentina StaigersFlorentina Staigers is a first year student in the creative nonfiction MFA program at University of New Orleans. She is also a social justice attorney with a background in sociology. She is currently advocating for policies that address racial disparities in health and education.

The Blue Blanket

I keep the brown blur in my peripheral vision and trudge up hill, stinking of sweat and Deep Woods Off. A few yards off the trail, the canine dervish whirls her speckled body, thick neck thrashing in the air. She springs high on muscular legs and drops, scraping her face in the dirt, raging to escape the muzzle strapped on her snout. My submissive dog, Trink, a Springer Spaniel, plods alongside me, a safe distance I think, from Sandra’s dog. My tank top and shorts are sopped, sticky after a six-mile hike in the steam bath that is South Carolina July. I upend my water bottle and guzzle, throat wide open. Yowling lacerates the silence and I pivot, see Trink pinned down by clenched jaws. “Sandra! Get your dog off!”

Petite Sandra plants her legs wide and straddles the snarling animal and grabs its collar, tugging with both hands, her shoulders heaving backward. I sprint to my car, fling the door open and Trink scrambles to me, belly dragging the ground. I boost her onto the car floor and she flattens, an instant fur pancake. I see the blue blanket crumpled under her. Blood is spreading, saturating it.

When Mother died, I donated her belongings to St. Luke’s Resale Store.

I kept the blue blanket.

 

Her frail body quivered under the goose down comforter at Laurel Woods Assisted Living. I slid the thermostat lever all the way up, leaned over and stroked her icy cheek with tenderness I wished I felt. She laid diagonally, a heap of old woman, trembling in the twin bed against the wall. I patted her shoulder and bent fingers darted from under the bedclothes, yanking them up over her head.

“Are you getting warmer, Mom? The heat’s up as far as…”

“NO…get the blue blanket, under the bed…what I pay you’d think I’d have heat.”

My throat constricted and I tipped my head back. This eighty-nine year old woman, this tenuous bundle of flesh and blood was still hostile, even as she unraveled.

Kneeling on the floor, I crouched low on my elbows, shoved one arm under the bed and smashed my knuckles into Mother’s mahogany jewelry box. She’d hidden it again, convinced that villains lurked in the halls, plotting to steal her Joan Rivers Signature Collection pendant and earrings—limited edition items, not available in stores. When we moved her into the new room, she’d ordered me to take her jewelry and Hummel figurines home and lock them in the safe she imagined I had.

I peered under the lace bed skirt and ran my free hand over the booty stashed under Mother’s bed. A crumpled J. L. Hudson’s shopping bag contained L’ Eggs Knee Highs and eight or ten threadbare, Maidenform girdles. I marveled that the paper sack must be thirty years old, the Detroit landmark department store having been demolished decades ago. A crinkled Rite-Aid bag bulged with sugarless candy, five bottles of aspirin-free pain reliever and a 24-ounce bottle of congealed Pepto Bismol. I laid my ear on the floor, craned my neck sideways and spotted it—the finely woven, pastel blue blanket.

 

Mother had been alone for thirteen years, since the Saturday morning in 1994 when her doting husband had a heart attack and crashed his Mercury Sable into a massive oak tree. We lingered at Dad’s bedside in Cardiac ICU for a week. Heroic surgeons installed a heart pump that failed and then determined he wasn’t a candidate for more surgery at age eighty-one. Managing his pain became increasingly difficult and on the sixth day the stoic cardiac team surrounded me. “We’ve done all we can, Mrs. Tucker.”

An hour later, flanked by a hospital administrator and a cardiac nursing supervisor, I signed the pile of documents ordering the removal of Dad’s life support. Pen quivering in hand, I thought of his last coherent words, spoken two days before, “Take care of your mother, Les. For me.”

And I did.

I’d excelled like a fiend for decades to gain Mother’s approval but always went wrong.

For fifty-three years Dad had protected and provided for Mother in the manner gentlemen of his generation did. She’d written checks only at the beauty parlor and grocery store, had never pumped gas or had her car serviced. She knew nothing about insurance or the investments that would keep her in comfort for the remainder of her life. After Dad died, I paid her bills, balanced her checkbook, and handled the disposition of his estate. I chauffeured her everywhere on Michigan’s congested freeways and supervised her home repairs and yard work.

After three months, the geriatric therapist I consulted was adamant. “You’re not doing your mother or yourself any favors by taking over,” he said. “Why not teach her to manage by herself?” According to the expert, Mom was a healthy and intelligent seventy-six-year-old and capable of handling her own finances.

I called before visiting with her checkbook, insurance documents, bank statements, bills, and Revocable Living Trust in hand. We’d review financial matters together, I said, I’d help with the new responsibilities. We’d ease into it.

“Wouldn’t it be better for Don to help me? Men are better suited…”

I bit my lip. At forty-six, I’d managed my own finances with precision and accuracy since age eighteen, throughout two marriages. And she knew it. I set up a file for monthly bills, marked her calendar, gave her new checks I’d ordered. Her demeanor was icy and although she learned fast and managed well for the next decade, her anger at me simmered.

Once, before leaving on vacation, I stopped by Mother’s house with contact information for Don and me. She stood on the threshold, blocking the front doorway. “How nice. You have time for a vacation when you’re too busy to handle my finances.”

I’d excelled like a fiend for decades to gain Mother’s approval but always went wrong. I was a wild child, and high grades and musical accomplishments never made up for my squirming when she’d read fairy tales or demonstrated how to whipstitch a hem. I preferred handsprings on the lawn and riding my bike like a banshee over sewing dirndl skirts and changing bobbins with her. The rowdy, geeky girl who chopped her own crooked bangs never pleased the plant-leaf-dusting-lady. I grew reckless, sunk into the sensuous 60’s and became a teenage mother. I twisted the lid of our relationship down tight and smothered any hopes she had of my becoming a lady.

 

I was ten on that Saturday afternoon in August 1958. My younger brother was staying with a friend and I was headed to Sally’s, two doors down, for an overnight. I’d packed my suitcase, actually Mother’s Singer Sewing machine case, and scurried downstairs, jumpy as a monkey. The tall wooden windows were flung wide open and a brisk breeze swirled through our brick colonial. Raw silk drapes billowed like parachutes against the baseboards and the canopy of elms outside rustled like taffeta. My parents would have thought they had the house to themselves.

Sally and I sprinted up to her attic and were quickly engrossed in our favorite game, Murder Mystery Dress Up. We draped her mother’s 1920s evening gowns on our scrawny bodies, concocted intricate plots, and acted them out with glamorous costume changes. As The Motor-Cycle-Riding-Flapper-Murderer, I needed a gun and told Sally I’d run home and grab my brother’s cap pistols.

Kicking off my sequined pumps, I bolted down two flights and flew home. The official Lone Ranger cap pistols were in my brother’s room, in their holster, and I grabbed them, buckling the belt around me, imagining Sally and I shooting it out in our sparkly dresses.  And then I heard it—Dad’s baritone snoring reverberating through the upstairs.

The hallway was windy and the door to my parent’s bedroom was propped open with an encyclopedia volume. I peeked in. Why would Dad be sleeping in the afternoon?

They were both sleeping! Cuddled up, her back rounded, his bare arms encircling her naked shoulders, their bodies were nestled together under a light blue blanket. His hair, usually slicked back with Brylcreem, was tousled on his forehead and fluttered in a puff of breeze. Mother’s face was smooth and the two straight lines that carved a number eleven between her eyebrows had disappeared. The blue blanket cocooned around them and I spotted a torn foil wrapper on Dad’s nightstand. Mother stirred and he adjusted the position of his arm, pulling the blanket up over her bare shoulder.

Stealthy as the murderer I would portray in Sally’s attic, I backed up on the balls of my feet, crept down the stairs and slipped out of the house.

 

Nowadays, after hikes in the woods, the blue blanket protects the backseat of my car from mud and dog drool, and the washer and dryer don’t seem to damage it. The blanket is over fifty years old, faded but not frayed, and the zigzag stitching around its edges is intact. On the day Trink was attacked, the blanket had slipped off the backseat onto the car floor. She sprawled across it as her neck and face spurted blood.

 *     *     *

The phone jarred me from a fitful sleep at 5:00 am. Dazed and clumsy, I pawed it up to one ear. “Mrs. Tucker, this is the night nurse at Laurel Woods. Go to St. Luke’s. We’re sending your mother over there. She’s having trouble breathing and she’s hit the nurse’s aide again.”

In St. Luke’s Emergency Lobby, the triage nurse motioned me toward the ER. Mother was collapsed on her side when I opened the curtain on the darkened space. The blue blanket was tossed on top of the hospital bedding and she grasped a clump of it near her throat. I moved her clenched fist away from her face.

“Mom, it’s me.”

No response.

“Mom, I’m here now. They’ve given you a shot to help you relax.” I patted her shoulder and she shrugged away, fierce. “It’s not helping. Nurse didn’t know what she was doing, gave me the wrong shot. If you’d been here…”

“I got here as fast as…”

“Not fast enough. I don’t trust these people and…”

“You’ve got a hospital ID bracelet and your Laurel Woods ID is around your neck, they check both before anybody gives you anything. They’re familiar with your case, Mom. This is a small hospital.”

“Is Curt here? Is your brother here yet?”

“Remember? His back is injured. He’s in Michigan. We talk and he’s thinking of you. When you feel better I’ll call him on my cell phone and you can…”

“You and that damn cell phone. Why would I talk on that thing?”

“To talk to Curt, I…”

“You’re not allowed to use them in here, there are signs up. Still can’t follow the rules can you. Is Don coming? Why isn’t he here?”

“He’s back at the house. His parents stopped on their way to Florida. Remember? They only a have a couple days, arrived this afternoon. Joe’s been sick since his heart surgerythis is the only time Don has with him.”

“Of all times for them to barge in, make you drive here in the dark, alone on these mountain roads…”

“No problem, I’m…”

“You don’t know a problem when it bites you in the face. Why are they staying? Don’t they know I’m in the hospital?

“They had no idea, their trip’s been planned…”

“Stop badgering me…”

A nurse poked her head through the curtain and motioned me into the hall.

“Dr. Allene would like to speak to you, Mrs. Tucker.”

I stepped back inside the curtain, leaned over the gurney and pulled the blue blanket high up over Mother’s shoulders so she could feel the fabric on her chin.

The dog that attacked mine is a Belgian Malinois, a breed known for its “jaws of steel.” It is trained for specialized police and military work, is the official dog of the Kenya Police Unit and is used to patrol men’s prisons in Kenya and Tanzania. I shudder to imagine what that means.

Sandra adopted her Malinois, Kaley, from a shelter in Michigan, years ago, and was horrified by the dog’s vicious behavior on the day of our hike. There had been other incidents, never as serious, and Kaley wore the muzzle for hiking. The day of the attack, we women were breathless, drenched after hiking in the stifling heat and Sandra worried that Kaley needed her tongue free to pant and cool off. She removed the muzzle and in a flash, Kaley sunk her teeth into Trink’s neck, clenched her jaws, and shook a forty-pound Spaniel like a rag doll.

 

I stepped into the hospital hallway and Dr. Allene, the palliative care specialist, told me what I already knew. Multi-system organ failure. Mother was dying and all we could do was make her comfortable, a turn of phrase that hit me like an ax in the forehead. Making Mother comfortable was a task for titans. For several years, she’d astonished everyone with the anger and aggression she mustered as her body declined.

Mother was transferred from the ER to a private room and a morphine drip was hung. Valium capsules were opened, the powder moistened and the nurses and I took turns rubbing the paste into her gums. Dr. Allene assured me that although Mother moaned and pulled on her bedding, she felt no physical pain. The doctor had seen this syndrome before, was certain that in a few hours Mother would relax, sink into a morphine coma, and spend her last hours in peace.

Four days later, the night nurse urged me to give up my vigil. “Go home. Get some sleep,” she said. In thirty years of nursing she’d never seen such fervor, such fury in someone so heavily sedated.

When the morphine finally took hold, Mother was non-responsive, propped on her back, drawing long, rasping breaths. I kissed her forehead. She didn’t flinch. I tucked the blue blanket up around her shoulders.

Windows wide open; I drove home through the clear black night, brisk December wind blasting, arriving around 4:00 AM. I collapsed, dropped deep into velvet sleep and at 4:30 the phone buzzed. Mother had died minutes after I left, had never opened her eyes or uttered a word.

 

At home with Trink on the day of the attack, I squat on the driveway, coax her into my arms and examine her. Although her face is swollen to twice its size, the gash on her face has clotted and the puncture wounds behind her ear are not oozing. I’ll put Neosporin on them later. Sitting on the back door stairs, I rinse her with the hose, lather on baby shampoo, and rinse her again. She loves it. I blot her off with an old beach towel and she stands and shakes and shakes. Inside, she drops like a bag of cement mix on the living room rug and snores for hours.

I grab the blue blanket from the floor of the car. Globs of mud and blood cover it. I spray pre-wash on the bloodstains, toss it in the washer and crank it up.

 

What kind of a life was that? To be the one who waited?

I am overwhelmed when I recall the magnitude of my parents’ love affair. Mother and I never understood each other, but I loved her anyway and believe she loved me too. I’ve been a restless adventurer most of my life, one who learned patience in late middle age. It’s difficult to imagine how Mother endured, made a career of waiting to be with my father. She waited for him to travel the world, to graduate from law school, to fight a world war. And when the war ended, she watched other women’s reunions as American soldiers came home in droves. She waited almost two more years as her husband visited Nazi death camps, gathered evidence, and then prosecuted war criminals.

What kind of a life was that? To be the one who waited? While he was landing at Normandy, she landed a secretarial job at General Motors. For four years, she lived with his parents, a squatter in his vacant bedroom in their lower flat. As he marched toward Munich, her eyes twitched, scanning newsreels in dark theaters. He led the battalion that liberated Dachau while she sipped Pepto-Bismol, quelling her nausea as Western Union rang doorbells in their neighborhood. She whirled around the Arthur Murray Dance Studio during “For Women Only” lessons, dreaming of the day she would glide across the floor with him.  She hoarded money, emotion, and physical desire, all treasure to bestow when he returned.

How much room in her heart could she have had for a daughter born less than a year after he finally came home to her? A daughter he showered with his precious time and attention. Mother won her gold medal and had to share it with me eleven months later.

 

Eighteen years passed and by the time her daughter’s daughter was born, Mother had room in her heart. She cherished my baby girl, the polite, lap-sitting grand-daughter who loved learning to sew and was mesmerized by fairy tales. Grandma and granddaughter baked cupcakes, tossed bread chunks to the ducks at Quarton Lake. I shoved through college, partying with defensive fury, not yet understanding the anger that could have obliterated me. The bond my mother and daughter shared skipped over me, but I was the conduit. My blood connected them, and eventually, I loved each of them more for the way they loved each other.

The War Crimes Trials ended and the elation of reunion and post-World War II American dreaming consumed my parents. They raised and educated my brother and me, keeping their promises to each other for fifty-three years of marriage. Our family sat together in Dad’s hospital room for more than an hour after he died, until a nurse patted Mother’s arm. “How much longer would you like to to stay?” Still holding his hand, Mother whispered, “Not enough time…my soldier boy.”

 

I’ve passed sixty now, have divorced and remarried, and will not live long enough to love a husband for fifty years. I’ve escorted my parents through their last ravaged days, have faced down the medical posses and demanded that their final wishes be honored.

Thirteen years after Dad died, I boarded a Northwest commuter jet and flew to Detroit with Mother’s ashes in my lap. It was unseasonably chilly, even for Michigan, on that May day, and the sun blazed in the wind, flapping my coat open as I laid her next to him, just the way they wanted.

In the clarity of my mind’s eye, Mother and Dad are young and strong. Their unlined faces glow, just the way they did on a breezy summer afternoon over fifty years ago, when they lay together beneath a blue cotton blanket.

I unload the car at home today, after a hike with the dogs to Jones Gap where we’ve climbed the falls and splashed in the Middle Saluda. I hoist my damp backpack and mud-clumped boots from the car and pull the blue blanket from the back seat. Hunks of dog biscuit drop from the folds as I grasp two corners and unfurl it in the wind like a flag. I shake and shake it. Sun shines through thread in some spots and the flannel is buttery smooth on my grimy hands. I flop it over one arm and head toward the house, flexing and relaxing my bare feet on warm concrete.

Inside, I spray the blanket with stain remover, crank up the washer and toss it in, knowing it will come out clean.

Leslie TuckerLeslie Tucker, a Detroit escapee, lives on a Carolina mountainside and refuses to divulge its exact location. She is an avid hiker and zip liner, a diligent yogi, and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. She holds ancient degrees in business and music and an ACBL Life Master in sanctioned bridge. Her work has appeared in two Press 53 Anthologies, The Tarnished Anthology, So to Speak Journal, The Baltimore Review, Shenandoah Magazine and Prime Number Magazine.