Mother’s Day 2011.
I have finished my laundry, vacuumed the apartment and am mopping the floors. To keep up my cleaning mood, to do these domestic things I have learned over the years, I’ve got to have the radio blasting. Tom Schnabel has just started his Sunday show with The Intruders, “I’ll Always Love My Momma,” released in 1973.
I sing along with the bouncy tune until a sudden weightlessness overcomes me, like riding in a roller coaster when the terrifying downward part begins. The feeling is not thrilling at all, very unpleasant, and as the song continues - I am forced, as I am every Mother’s Day, to remember my mother. Between 1970 and 1973 she had two strokes, the first when I was fourteen and the second massive and fatal one when I was sixteen. She was forty-nine when she died in April of 1973.
After her death, the call for our motherless family was to “get back to normal.” As I think about those days after her death, my jaw locks and my grip tightens around the mop’s shaft. I attack a stubborn spot of dirt in the corner of the kitchen and slam the mop into the nook harder and harder with all my might and repressed swearing. My face is red, my mouth clenched, beads of sweat pour off my forehead. My cat Bertram heads for cover in the closet. He doesn’t like this at all. The radio sings, “She’s my favorite girl…”
A month after her casket was lowered into the moist spring earth, I tried to mop the neglected checkerboard linoleum floor in our kitchen. The floor hadn’t been washed since her burial and was caked with dirt. To describe myself, the term “shell shocked” would work. That was what we called Vietnam vets who came home, the ones with the thousand-yard stare. Back to normal, back to normal, back to normal. That was the most important thing the experts said. “It’s best to get a family back to normal as soon as possible after a death.” But normal didn’t seem normal or fair, not to me anyway.
Normal had become a series of random and senseless beatings by my brother Peter, who was two years older and a lot stronger. When I complained to my father, he turned his anger towards me.
“Jesus Christ, what did you do to start this?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Then what the hell do you expect me to do?”
Be a father, show some balls, I’d thought, but instead said quietly, “I don’t know, make him stop.”
“You just have to find ways not to get involved.” You’re a pussy and you can’t beat him or he’d stop. You deserve this, so just run away.
Thoughts bounced around like a thousand BBs inside my head. Hey, Peter steals my money, clothes, albums, my pot and he is whacked out on speed all the time, but wait, you’re never home, always at work or traveling.
Normal at the Fox childhood home after my mother died meant days or weeks of opening up the refrigerator with only the hum of the motor inside. I’d stare into dirty open space, and see only some corroded celery stick predating my mother’s death and a bread heel surrounded by mold.
When he was not in Europe working, my father would pour himself nightly down the steps of the 5:13 out of Grand Central. He wouldn’t be hungry because of an extravagant client lunch at Tavern on the Green, Le Cirque, Tom’s Shangri-La or whatever expense account restaurant he was using that day. And if he wasn’t hungry, he didn’t expect us to be hungry either. He was perfectly happy to guzzle from the weekly gallon(s) of Gallo wine he got at Yanatelli’s and to smoke his special European Benson and Hedges. There was no family dinner, no talk of “How’s school?” Or “How can I help?” Only wine-fueled good times allowed, because we are a good time family. This was normal. Back to normal, back to normal, back to mother-fucking normal.
Was normal supposed to feel like a ball of weighted blackness hanging on a tenuous branch a thousand feet in the air?
To avoid the eternity of emotional whirlpools brought on by a brother who was on his third night of no sleep, or a father’s drunken indifference, I smoked a lot of pot and drank beer.
Normal was: wake up at six, go down stairs, boil water for a breakfast (and most likely lunch too) of Swiss Miss hot chocolate, stare out the kitchen window at the dawn light with only the sound of two pairs of lips, my father’s and mine, slurping on the hot liquid.
My dog Arthur would nuzzle his nose into my palm. This was truly the most normal thing I knew, his wet nose against my hand, the stump of his tail wagging like a metronome, comfort, love.
Climb into the Pinto; open the door at Four Corners.
“Bye,” he mumbled.
Wait for the bus to school. Bus, drive, bridge, river, school, free period, pot, history, home, pot, pot, pot. Bus, drive, bridge, river, school, lunch period, bum money for food, pot, history, home, pot, pot, pot, Peter, fight, bleed, cry. Bus, drive, bridge, river, school, free period, pot, history, home, fight, lose, fight, lose, fight, lose, pot, pot, pot.
As we slid into the summer of 1973, I was unable to find any direction,. I swirled in the languid laziness of summer, color and texture lost. I was weight. Each breath, labor. My head was marble, my body clay. I only came about when thick thunderstorms approached. I’d run out to greet the force of nature, to revel in lightning unleashing its violence. The sight of a hundred million volts ripping the wet air in two was orgasmic. I’d stand on the edge of the slope to watch the black clouds take over the sky and march across the river towards me. This was pleasure, being in the middle of an ancient game of ten pins with Rip Van Winkle’s mates. A blinding white flash with a simultaneous pealing crack immediately accompanied by a body-shuddering boom. “Yes,” I screamed up into the heavy rain as the thunder ran through my body.
Days and nights intertwined. I lay in bed watching our wisteria vine slowly march onto another tree and begin its slow assassination of a new unsuspecting evergreen.
“You’re fucked,” I’d mumble to the tree and half laugh, rolling a joint at eight in the morning. Time to see if there was any food in the fridge. Nope. Well what the fuck else is new, I thought.
Turn on the TV.
Turn on the TV and get lost.
The soft friendly blue white glow of the TV.
The TV didn’t punch, ignore, scold, criticize, or steal.
Hot humid heavy afternoons drifted in through an open window and cicadas sang their abrasive song of late summer. On the radio a top 10 hit with a bullet, “I’ll always love my momma, she’s my favorite girl…”
The phone rang, one of those heavy sticky rings, the one where the echo of the bell rolled through our empty house. The ring was a siren calling, “pick me up” even though you knew you wouldn’t like what was about to happen next. One of those, “Oh-shit” rings.
“To whom am I speaking?” An official sounding authoritative voice. What has Peter done now?
“This is Robbie Fox.”
“Mr. Fox, how are you related to James Fox?” What?
“He’s my younger brother.”
“Well, your brother has been arrested and he is here at the Peekskill barracks.”
“What, what for?”
“He’s been throwing tires in front of cars on 9D and lying in the roadway pretending he’s dead. Your brother is one messed up kid. What is he, 11,12?”
“What? Is there anyone else involved?”
“There were others, but we only caught your brother. He won’t tell us who else was doing this. You related to Peter Fox?”
And if I am, what the fuck is it of your business - asshole.
“Yes, he’s my older brother.”
“Thought so.” I heard his crew-cutted head chomping on a stick of Double Mint. “You have a screwed up family, bunch of losers,” chomp-chomp. “Where are your parents?”
“My mother died last spring and my father works in New York City.”
“Oh,” chomp-chomp, “so you have no one to care for him?”
“Well, you’re not doing a good job of it are you?” Chomp-chomp, “Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Pick him up please, sir.”
I hung up the phone and dialed my father’s office.
“Hey, hi, um, Wugs got arrested and is in the Peekskill troopers’ barracks.”
I hear the phone being cupped quickly with a hiss of some sort leaking through. I imagined his teeth gritted when he muttered, “Jesus Fucking Christ.” I braced myself.
“What was he doing?”
“I don’t know. But he is covering for his friends.”
“Christ, can’t I leave you alone for any amount of time without your fucking up royally? Go pick him up, will you?”
My stomach fell and darkness came into my vision. I could only see through a small circle. Like looking through a toilet paper roll, the edges vanished into a murky depth. My body slumped, collapsed into itself, and I fought the overwhelming desire to lay on the floor and curl into a ball. Yes, I should have kept a better eye on Wugs. I should not have allowed him to go out with his friends. Of course I was responsible.
The walk down the hill to get our car at the station was longer than usual. This was Wugger, the good –one, the one always doted on. The one you bought the motorcycle for. The one who hasn’t spoken to any of us since mom died. Oh, and also, he’s the one who busies himself in his room by making torture tools. Have you seen the whip with nails coming out of the sides so that when a person is cut- it won’t heal? Yes, that one is a very nice piece of work. What, what? You didn’t notice because you’re too busy being in Amsterdam? Oh.
Long tufts of summer grass lined the side of Upper Station Road. I grabbed two fistfuls near the base and tugged with all of my might, my neck tendons extended like blades, teeth grinding, and still I was unable to remove the rope-like grass from their dug- in roots. But I expended my energy, and that’s what I wanted to do. Inside the wood paneled barracks another trooper in a creased shirt and crew cut asked, “Why isn’t your father here?”
“Because he is in New York and won’t be home until much later tonight.”
“Are you the guardian?”
“I’m his older brother.”
“Okay well, we need to talk to your father at some point. Sit here.”
I looked at the community commendations on the walls, the bowling trophies, the black and white photos of grateful citizens shaking hands with the barracks commander and watched people come and go. They looked at me knowing I was guilty of something. Why else would I be here? I sat quietly in my chair waiting for Wugger to appear from behind the locked steel door.
He entered with his jet black hair pasted to his forehead, his clothes dirty and messed up. He put back on his blue handkerchief headband.
There was quiet as we drove around the traffic circle bordering the marsh. We got on Route 9 and headed north. Maple and pine trees hugged the two lane road.
“You covering for Underberg and Suttenhams?”
He looked ahead glassy-eyed.
“I know you are, don’t bullshit me. It’s not like they can do anything now. You’re the one taking the fall, and I think you’re pretty decent for doing that cause I sure don’t think they would do the same for you.”
He watched his hand outside the window as it moved up and down like an airplane wing.
On 77-WABC, Dan Ingram spun the new smash hit, “I’ll always love my mom…” Wugger kicked the radio’s button to change the station; the button broke. The radio emitted a high-pitched squeal. At least the fucking song wasn’t playing anymore.
After this performance, Wugger had to attend a private boarding school, leaving only my angry drugged out and violent older brother and me to sort things out while our father traveled to Amsterdam for longer and longer periods of time. This was normal and I’d love to have known when normal was going to end, but it didn’t, not for a long time.
Someone slams a trunk outside of my apartment in Studio City and Bertram comes out of his hiding spot in the closet to rub against my leg. I am sitting on my couch staring at nothing, every bit the numbed out sixteen-year old from thirty-eight years ago.
I know how to fake normal. I can cook a good dinner, wash and fold clothing, smile at the right times. I can do all the technical things a mother can do. I figured that out a long time ago. But, I have no wife or children, not even a girl friend. I don’t know how to love or be loved. Normal people don’t understand that.
Back to normal is superficial - things like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and clean sheets. Tonight I will lie on the couch bathed in the blue glow of a TV doing its job of providing temporary emotional warmth for one more night.
Robert Fox teaches writing in a variety of places, however, he is most proud of teaching creative writing to incarcerated teenage girls in the Los Angeles Juvenile Justice System with InsideOUT Writers. His poetry and opinions have been published in the New York Times and his creative non fiction in LA Weekly and Diverse Voices Quarterly to name a few. Robert lives in Los Angeles but is a citizen of the world.