Wednesday, April 1, 2015

American Idyll

Remember that famous scene in “Poltergeist,” the one where the child is kneeling before the TV, her palms pressing onto a static-covered screen—then her hands press through it? That kid was me, well, except I’m a guy and I didn’t exactly go into the TV like she did, but I identify with the imagery. After my parents’ divorce, reality became a place I didn’t want to be so I reached out toward the alternate universe offered in movies. It seems that gateway had always been waiting in the shadows, watching and rubbing its hands together eagerly, biding its time in the background until the tension between my parents snapped, flinging my mother and father in opposite directions. They each had a hand in showing me into the TV’s waiting arms.

Divorce was a declaration of war to my parents, turning them into generals of opposing armies that ripped our world apart. They fought over the hearts and minds of us kids—our loyalty—and like any war-torn and ravaged land, we bore the ugly marks of conflict. Our bruises recorded a history of abuses. They had duel custody of us, so we were marched left and right between them, leaving bits and pieces of ourselves behind each time, hoping we could just go back to the way we were.

Eventually, it was clear that we kids loved our parents equally despite their winsome efforts, and my mom proposed a peace treaty: She wanted to take the younger two and go her separate way, leaving my older brother and me with my dad, but he flat-out refused, telling her she was fucking crazy if she thought to split the boys up like that—it would turn us all against each other, perpetuate their war down through the generations. Rather, he wrote in stone that we four boys were to always remain together, either with her, or with him. That was when their war took on a new dimension, their wrath growing to Biblical proportions, and everything became a weapon in their hands…even their children. In hindsight, they remind me of my older brother and me. When we got angry at each other, we’d grab the other’s most prized possession—a favorite pair of shoes or baseball card collection—and destroy it in front of the other since we couldn’t physically hurt one another. It was psychological warfare at its basest. Pettiness wasn’t off-limits.

When Dad heard Mom made us go to bed by nine, he’d make sure we didn’t sleep ‘til sunrise unless we wanted to, or until we fell over from exhaustion. Then he’d just pick us up and carry his sad sack of shit to the nearest couch or bed, sort of chuckling low to himself about how we were too weak to keep up with his insomnia. As soon as she found out he let us eat all the junk food we wanted, she began pointing a sharp finger at every deposit of fat we possessed while saying in broken English, “You be just like you fahdah—fat bum if you no stop eating junkkk,” turning the last word into a disgusting sound as if trying to get the thought of it hocked up and spat out. Then she forced us to eat every odd vegetable known to man that was able to grow in her garden secreted behind her house.

We kids were about the only thing they kept in common besides their hatred of each other, thought even that appeared to be different: She hated him for the way he was, because he was a “fucking pig,” a perpetual offense to her sensibilities. He hated her for not loving him forever no matter what, as she’d promised, and because he suspected she’d only married a soldier boy to escape the oppression in Korea. He had been her lifeboat to America, where everything seemed shiny and glowing with potential, and as soon as her feet stood on solid citizenship, she abandoned him. So he blamed her for his degeneration.

She started putting on airs as if they were jackets, and he sunk into his savagery like it was a tar pit. They were two time-elapsed movies of evolution moving in opposite directions. He seemed to grow hairier and more slovenly, and he went shirtless and barefoot in winter, even over gravel and broken glass, putting his cigarettes out with his bare heel. She raised her nose higher, stood up straighter, walked more upright; she dug dust from every corner of her polished floors on her hands and knees like a Korean Cinderella, accompanied by a bucket of suds and rags, and had fancy slippers for every occasion. His violence grew in volume proportionate to his gut, more overt, brutal, and volatile, as hers became more sophisticated. He’d ground and pound the living shit out of us in sudden explosions of rage, while her artful criticisms, contemptuous looks and snorts count be so sharp and slick I’d barely register a thing…right then…but later I’d feel an emptiness gathering within, and a sensitive spot, tender to the touch, where an insecurity was festering, growing gangrenous. We were constant reminders of the absentee parent, walking around and back and forth before them like sandpaper rubbing old wounds raw. We became their whipping boys.

Their mindless war even crammed them into opposing moral and financial positions. However, seldom can life be clearly defined in terms of solid-colored categories—there are just too many grades of gray between, especially when it comes to humanity. Living with my dad, being poor made going out anywhere a rarity, but when we did go anywhere together as a family, crazy as we were, even going to the movies was a National Lampoon’s Family Vacation. To further cheapen the experience, we’d fill our pockets with Dollar Store candy, some of it paid for if necessary, and only one ticket would be purchased if possible: “Goddammit, Son, you need to pay attention! You already know what to do but don’t fuck around once you get inside. Don’t stop at the concession stand,” he’d say, ticking points off on his fingers, “don’t go to the bathroom to piss, don’t go to the goddamn arcade—keep your grubby little dick-beaters to yourself and get yer skinny little ass in their before everyone starts showing up. We’ll be at that door in two minutes; you’d better be too.” With a quick shove to help me along, they head outside to wait. Ticket held ahead of me like a magic key to get me into heaven, I’d ease past the gatekeeper. I was always a bit surprised I made it in so easily considering what I was about to do. Then I’d creep like a ninja to an emergency exit door and let in my anxious brothers with an air of magnanimity and a sweeping gesture as if I owned the place. They’d come twisting and slinking by as I held the door, then my dad, looking like a plainclothes cop version of the Kool-Aid man in cutoff jeans and a raggedy plaid shirt, would smash by me sweating, wheezing, and growling, “Stop acting like a goddamn idiot and shut the fucking door before you get us all caught—“ clubbing me on the head, “remind me to beat yer ass when we get home,” and he’s through the door like a cork from a bottle, my chest popping and spurting air. I never reminded him; he beat us enough as it was.

Movies big as God Himself were awesome to behold and made me feel like one of the apostles, or Moses, with a mountain-top experience, but they were too few and far between like mountaintops, so to keep myself elevated during my time in the valleys, like Aaron and the Israelites, I had myself a golden calf. I idolized the TV movies. They mentored me, taught me where to touch a girl and how to do spinning back-kicks, how to rob a bank or track down fugitives, and how to talk a guy down from a ledge.

At my dad’s, the living room was our church, the TV stand our altar, the TV our god. The motley collection of used furniture served as pews where we sat in slack-jawed ecstasy while eating up every word coming from the mouth of our god. We were united as one body, our differences set aside and temporarily forgotten—except when deciding between channels, we entered the heavenly vision, believing but never receiving the promises. Bleak as our world was, we hungered and thirsted for the milk and Honey Nut Cheerios advertised in our dreams, hoping and begging for a miracle to be Cool Whipped and spread over everything. Such is the life allotted to any family living below the Mason-Dixon poverty line: Everything north is rich and white (or so we thought then), while everything South is the unrefined sift leftover, wearing leftover clothes and shoes salvaged from Salvation Army bins, fighting over the leftovers kindhearted Christians would sometimes bring on the weekends when they came to bring the Gospel, which, at the time, we discard like so many other leftovers. All I could think of was being one of those 5,000 men miraculously fed, even if I had to sit through a sermon first. Sometimes I would pray they lay hands on my dad, cast out his legion of demons; or just lay hands on him lie he did us.

We placed such a high value on being able to watch cable, along with HBO and Cinemax, that we were willing to settle for lesser things in other areas. Every household budget has needs and wants constantly chirping for attention, and ideally the needs would take priority over the wants, but we were so hungry for our shows that every image floating from the TV was manna to feed our souls. If we were running low on cash, we could always trade our food stamps for the going rate of fifty cents per dollar for forcing us into such a dilemma. HBO and Cinemax were greedy High Priests who made a living worthy of their high calling, heedless of the sacrifices our family made. I suppose it’s how we justified ourselves. If we died from malnutrition, so be it—at least it’d be while smiling idiotically as we watched the American Dream being dramatized in other people’s lives. But I can’t really blame or begrudge them; it’s just their nature; that is, the nature of business as usual. Every now and then that compassionate cable company would give us all the free static we could eat.

I’d be lying if I claimed we suffered all the time. We were blessed compared to most other families living in the projects: Our other parent actually paid child support. That time of month would be like Christmas—well, how I imagined it must be up north—and we’d go grocery shopping, buy stuff food stamps didn’t cover. First we’d cram our freezer with hot dogs, bread, and baloney. Our staples. We bought cakes and pies and potato chips, massive amounts of generic soda (Orange, Grape, Lime, etc.), and we bought with Dignity, now able to look those cashiers and beggars in the eyes, rather than at their feet. When I complained about receiving a pitiful allowance, my dad pounded a lecture into me, “Be satisfied and go ride yer bike—at least ya fuckin’ have one, you ungrateful little shit. We may be poor but yer sure as goddamn hell the richest fuckin’ poor kids around!” I knew it was true, although I didn’t like the way the Truth was hand-delivered. All I had to do was look around; poverty would spit in my eye.

The projects were the vision of desolation. Clumps of dying grass floated on seas of red dirt and sprouted strange flowers made of spent bullet casings, used condoms, crack pipes, and broken glass. To run and play was dangerous, and I have scars to prove it. The first gun I ever had was found lying on the ground, resting in a halo of heavenly light that I alone could see—it was my Destiny to discover it…and I swear I heard a chorus of angels singing in a creepy “omen” kind of way the second I laid eyes on it. Giant dumpsters stood like sentinels around the complex, layering the air with rotting garbage while the pungent threads of drugs and alcohol woven throughout glowed as brightly as neon EXIT signs promising a quick escape from our harsh reality. Hopelessness created an atmosphere of bitter desperation and inevitable destruction. For us, hell was here already.

There were only a handful of bikes around and they all looked like Frankenstein’s creations with scavenged parts holding them together. NERF footballs looked more like football-shaped sponges for all the missing chunks. Basketballs had more breasts than porn flicks. NO ONE ever saw roller skates in real life until the 5th grade field trip to the skating rink, which was a joke because we spent more time on the ground than skating. For many, hunger was a close companion. Kids carried around empty soda cans as mementos of better moments, absently sipping at it as if hoping to draw out one more drop of joy, or filling it with water so they could be seen actually drinking, though the many dents and faded paint usually gave its age away. I tended to be oblivious like most kids; my dad, however, saw it all.

For his many faults, his uncontrollable anger, his insane ramblings, and mysterious midnight conversations with people not there (yet—it turns out he was preplanning his arguments with us, mom, or others like a chess master seeing ten moves ahead), his heart had gigantic wings that never stopped expanding, taking in everyone around him. He embodied the “love thy neighbor as thyself” principle. We kids took his abuse, but everyone got to be embraced by his heart. He gave us everything we asked for if he had the power, but he also gave himself to everyone he encountered. He shared our home with the neighborhood, every bike, every basketball, every videogame; our ketchup, mustard, and sugar, and even our cable. He’d let neighbors bore holes through adjoining walls to run extensions into their apartments until our hook-up looked like a nest of skinny snakes slithering in every direction. That way they could watch and worship too. Our place became a safe haven for the neighborhood children, a sort of surrogate home or indoor playground. His love bridged the racial divide; we were one of the first non-black families to move into our ‘hood.

We’d burn through Mom’s child support as if it were soaked in gasoline, then share sodas out like communion to anyone who happened by asking for a drink. Whoever decided to be our best friends that day, and were around when dinnertime came, were more of my dad’s sons and got to eat like one. Even a couple of rich kids from school would come hang out because they were allowed to eat, drink, smoke, or do just about anything they wanted. We definitely got to watch everything a kid shouldn’t, and nothing one should. His only vice was cigarettes. He wasn’t a drinker thought he talked like he was drunk. Many thought he had a speech impediment, but in reality he was so excited to be speaking (to someone, anyone, it didn’t matter) that his words would tumble out of his mouth like a box of kittens being overturned, all tangled and wrestling one another for dominance. Sagely, he’d share his smokes and his opinions—the two came as a package deal—with anyone who wanted, or was willing, to listen to the burly, grizzled bear-of-a-man who seasoned his speech with helping handfuls of foreign language phrases so garbled and mangled they were hardly recognizable to anyone but him. Everyone else just nodded and agreed, or laughed whenever he did because really, he was happy just to be socializing. Between his gruff appearance and hard-to-understand way of speaking, he very seldom got to do the very thing he loved (interact with other adults) unless he was giving them something. He knew it too, and though it hurt, he used it to his advantage because he knew how to control who did, or didn’t, come around. Children loved him—they responded to him on a deeper level, one where one’s looks or words were second to what emanated from the heart. They sensed his spirit and knew he’d die for any of them. How interesting they should feel so safe while his own sons were often terrified.

A strange thing about my dad was that he was both narcoleptic and an insomniac. Sleep danced away when he tried to catch it, but would turn around and pounce on him at the oddest times. At night, he’d wedge himself into a corner of the couch, propped up by the extra back and arm in case he passed out. Sitting in absolute dark, he was but a disembodied voice and a pulsating red-tinged face that was lit for seconds at a time by the ever-present cigarette, tempting Fate with his narcolepsy. Every seat and arm looked as if an army of melted caterpillars was invading or burrowing into our furniture. It’s a miracle he didn’t burn us out of a home, or go up like a blazing ball of cotton, though there were gaps in his mustache, beard, and chest hair. Sadly, his narcolepsy never brought him more than an hour’s rest, and seldom more than fifteen, twenty minutes; most often he’d only get five or ten, so he was never really able to relax. “All I fuckin’ want is some GODDAMNED PEACE AND FUCKING QUIET—is that too much to ask?” he’d say while looking up at God. I’d flinch every time, expecting (and admittedly sometimes hoping) for lightning to strike. Lightning never came, but there was no need; he was the most tortured soul I’ve ever known. Ironically, his sincere blasphemy helped convince me of God’s existence.

Since it gave us so many good laughs and brief respites from his abuses, I considered his narcolepsy a unique blessing. We’d be gathered in the living room attempting to let his latest rant roll right off our backs, trying not to make direct eye contact with this rabid bastard, and mid-sentence a switch was thrown—his chins would pillow the fall of his heavy head as it hit the carpet on his chest. We’d all heave a concurrent sigh of relief, look around wide-eyed, snickering and shrugging at one another. Then turn the TV on quietly, surgically remove his dwindling cigarette before it burned his fingers, and worship while we waited…Eventually he’d awaken as if he’d only blinked and continue his soliloquy exactly where he left off, then stop when his empty hand reached his lips formed around a memory, and take notice of the change in seating positions: sometimes we’d shuffled ourselves around or hurriedly go change clothes to mess with him. With an epiphany blossoming bright red in his face, a mixture of embarrassment and anger, he’d condemn our goddamn disrespect and ask why we didn’t fucking wake him up. Yeah, okay, Dad, please wake up and continue your abuse. Having lost his momentum, he would huff and puff and blow as much menacing silence as he could muster. “Just get the hell outta my sight; go outside or to your rooms—I can’t stand to see you right now,” while he flipped his hand dismissively, perhaps to deprive us of our show or movie since we obviously were so engrossed in it.

For my dad, abuse was in his DNA. He grew up fighting a never-ending row of stepfathers that tried to treat him and his siblings as their personal punching bags or blow-up dolls. I believe part of his torment stemmed from his own ruined past, one he’d sworn never to put his children through. He KNEW its power to devastate. After a beating, he’d often sit down and cry with us as if he was as much a victim of his violent nature as we were. Strangely, in his effort to keep his boys together, when one of us provoked his anger, he’d make all four of us line up in front of the couch with our hands gripping the cushions as he went down the row beating “respect’ into us with his heavy leather belt. How many hundreds of lessons we had to learn like this. At first we cried and flinched from every lash or fist, but then he beat us for that too. We had to learn to take it, to embrace the pain, to toughen up until the only pain we felt was the humiliation of physical subjugation. He knew one day we would reach our breaking point and grab the hand that held the belt, but that’s another story. For the time being, we will subjected ourselves to his authority even though his abuses were so arbitrary; we never blamed each other for the unmerited beatings. He’d punish us for spilling an ashtray or for not getting out of his way fast enough, yet he might take us out for ice cream when we got suspended for fighting or skipping school, but the next day could be the opposite. This unpredictability, his psychotic instability, gave me the wary mind and quick reflexes of a wild animal.

Despite it all, I can’t get the image of a werewolf out of my head, the good one who’d chain himself in the basement during a full moon so he didn’t harm anyone when he turned. My dad gave us freedom to roam, while he stayed chained to the couch. I don’t believe it was just his opposition to my mom, which motivated him. One reason was for our protection…from him. But also his feelings of inadequacy as a husband and a father—as a MAN—along with his guilt drove him relentlessly to try and compensate by giving us everything we wanted. Being penniless for the most part, and poor in self-control, he gave the only thing he was capable of giving: FREEDOM. He got the hell out of our way. Without a parental obstacle to negotiate, I sought answers to life’s questions on TV anywhere but at home.

Under Mom’s restrictive regime, it was, of course, the opposite. I had so little freedom I couldn’t touch the fridge or go outside without permission, let alone try to develop any relationships that weren’t screened and approved first. She could afford two family rooms: one for her and my stepfather, one for us kids. My sister, born of my mom’s second marriage (this was her third), was a fascinating addition to our group. Nine years my junior, she made it difficult to leave his world because I had to protect her from the dangers I knew existed. However, she’d plant herself beside me and together we’d travel the worlds offered on display. Our little family room stayed stuffed with kids and FDA-approved friends watching regular TV—no cable—through bars and static, or memorizing the dozen or so movies we had on tape (not even on DVD). My mom’s family room had a big screen television that dominated one side of the room, two plush recliners that were like thrones exactly twelve feet directly opposite, a futon couch along a perimeter wall at such an oblique angle it was more for rest than for watching TV. She also had a satellite reception, and it was about twice as spacious in their room even though they had a third of the regular people. We weren’t allowed in there without them, and definitely couldn’t touch anything unless it was per their request to hand them something, although they graciously permitted us to sprawl on the floor at their feet and watch whatever boring thing they had on.

Alas, we were abandoned to worshipping by ourselves. She was blink-blinking in and out of our world, there but not there simultaneously. She was either in her family room, at the spa for hours at a time, or at one of their favorite golf courses. Before they had “retired,” she spent all day working in the restaurant she owned. The only time we really spent together as an actual family was at dinner. Food was even more sacred than TV, and my mom was a High Priestess able to cook meals worthy of the gods. Even so, I felt like I lived in a perpetual state of homesickness, hungry for my mom’s attention through she was right there. I was invisible unless I did something wrong to show up on her radar. No doubt, love provides food, shelter, and the decent clothes Middle America faults, but people need something money can never buy, something free but seldom freely given: genuine affection in the form of hugs, praises, and gentle looks.

My mom’s parents were hypercritical or outright neglectful. She became a mother to her siblings, forced to grow up overnight, cooking, cleaning, and literally singing for food on corners in Korea. Abuse takes many forms and sometimes it’s the passive aggressive, subtle gestures that wound us most. Like the fact she had wanted to take my younger brothers to live with her. Though my dad rebuffed her attempt, the desire manifested in myriad ways. A singular incident stands out amongst the piles of decrepit things. My older brother, Michael, and I were in our room when dinnertime suddenly dove between us. Knowing the importance of punctuality, we decided to go on downstairs rather than wait until the last second. We stepped out of our room above the foyer and saw our brothers, sister, stepfather, and mother sneaking out the front door. Before she could close it,

“Mom? Where’s everyone going?” we ask, dumbfounded.
“Out to dinner.”
“Oh! Hold on, let us grab a jacket and—”
“No, you stay. We go.”
“What… what about us?”
“You big boys; you eat sandwich—or whatever. Clean after. Okay?”

As if she was giving us a choice. And with that the door shuts.

We were seventeen and fifteen, but still. We eyed each other telepathically, unable to hide our shock and pain. Dazed, quiet, and fighting tears, we headed downstairs like a couple of drunks trying to pass a field sobriety test. We hadn’t done anything wrong that we knew of. “George, I’ve got some money. Screw them. C’mon, we’re going out, just you and me.” It seems he was always the strong one, always there to pull my ass out of the fire or out of the depths of despair; or stand between me and bullies, even when it was our parents.

Sure, there was plenty of food at home. There were two extra freezers packed full and chilling in the garage. I asked if we could catch a movie instead, saying I’d eat later after we returned. “Sure, little brother, sure. Whatever you want.”

To be honest, I never doubted the sincerity of either parent’s love. It was more complicated than that. Ideas have consequences. Looking back, it’s clear both had a flawed, incomplete understanding of what it means to love. The effects were apparent in the collapse of their marriage and the deterioration in their children. My dad found escape into TV long before, gleaning his twisted idea of love from there, since it was evident no example was to be found at home with his parents. All he knew was unrestrained giving to others (and himself), hedonistically, without thought of moral boundaries or tomorrow; pleasure was all it valued. In contrast, Mom’s had little to do with pleasure or emotions, but rather was more pragmatic in that it focused on sustaining the basic necessities to keep a body alive.

Both believed their way exclusively correct, and neither could see it otherwise, yet both would later admit they knew something wasn’t right, but for the life of them [they] couldn’t say what it was. She condemned his brutal methodology, and rightly so, though she too was tarnished despite her polished, highly cultivated living standards. Dad toughened us with his thick leather belt or whatever was at hand—even his own heavy hands. Although he also verbalized his violence, she was the true-spoken samurai soldier ripping us to shreds with her heavy-handed tongue lashings, cutting words and looks, and cold-hearted cold-shoulders. Worst of all was her abandonment. She left us to raise ourselves and a dad who never truly grew up…until he grew up with his sons. We were more a parent to him than he was to us.

I’ve wished I could simply explain love to her like this: “The love you were always looking for? It’s been right here the whole time tugging at your dress, clip-clopping through the house with your shoes on because I didn’t know then that boys ought not to, waiting at the door for you to get home from the store, then running out to jump up and down around the car, eager to tote those ‘heavy’ bags for you, hoping you’d uncover that radiant smile even before you spent a car to fix your teeth (while leaving mine as is). You’ve always been Miss America to me, Mom, the most beautiful girl in the world, without any make-up on, hair all mussed up in the morning. Every kind of gentle word or look from you was sunshine on my face to erase all the previous negativity as if it had never existed: love covers over a multitude of sins, and you have a blank page in my book.”

At least my golden calf was there for me. I was mothered by a multitude of moms, doted on by dozens of dads, parents we all dream of. I had moms who hugged me often, who let me know how much they loved me and convinced me that they meant it. Moms who were understanding and cried with me when I tried so hard but failed anyway. Moms who promised me it’d be okay while the world around us was crumbling to ashes at our feet. I had dads who protected me, taught me the value of a dollar, and how to treat a lady. Dads who taught me respect by demonstrating and earning it rather than beating it out of me; and who taught me how to stand for something, accept responsibility, be a MAN.

I also learned to take the law into my own hands, to follow my heart wherever it led me, even into sin; that I could steal from the rich or do whatever the hell I wanted and all would be forgiven if I just gave a dollar a day to some kid with flies on his face—he’d even send me monthly updates to tell me how much of a saint I was. TV told me I could be anything I dreamed….It lied.

Recently, someone asked me to dig through heaps of yellow-tinged memories to find the first movie I ever saw. But that’s like asking me to retrieve my first breath from where it came to rest after the doctor slapped it across the room! Movies have been such a part of my life and there have been so many, I suppose it’s only fitting for my memories of them to be smeared together like an abstract painting on the canvas in my head. I catch fragments of images flitting past my eyes while a cacophony of gunshots and screeching tires is blended together with maniacal laughter and colorful profanities. Fingers of fear, lust, and envy dance up and down my spine to play me like a piano. It’s all discordant and flickering like a faulty projector.

As I stare up at my insane history, popcorn peppers my lap and shrivels my lips, my neck is cramping from the sharp angle of the front row, and my eyes (which haven’t blinked since the movie began) are leaking sympathetic tears that meet beneath my chin to comfort one another.

by George Wilkerson

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