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Fruit of the Loom

Ann Marie’s mom died.  She’s the first person I know who has done it.  At her funeral mass we knelt, then stood, then knelt, then stood, then did the hokey-pokey and turned ourselves around.  Expressing your faith with reverence, chants, and synchronized choreography – that’s what it’s all about.  My dad told me Catholics aren’t real Christian because they worship Mary and idols and The Democrats, but at least they are New Testament devotees, my dad agrees they got that right.

Sermons about The Wrath of God was something our grandparents listened to.  Hip Christians prefer something more in vogue – love and lambs, and peace that passes understanding. We have the Old Testament, but beside the Psalms of Praise, it’s usualy just referenced- or sampled.  It seems by the time God got around to write the sequel His character transformed a bit- or he just mellowed when His Son took on the big project for the family business.

My mom was washing the dishes and looking out the window to the backyard where Ann Marie and I were playing hopscotch when I ran in for Otter Pops. I opened the freezer then huffed, disappointed.   “Mo—-m,” I started; she cut me off, “Ann Marie’s mom died last night”.  “How” I asked. “Cancer”.  I could see Ann Maire looking back at us through the window above the kitchen sink.  Not sure how to respond I said, “Okay”, then walked back outside and gave Ann Marie the last Alexander the Grape; I took the house key I keep around my neck, our front door locks automatically, and tossed it into one of the squares.  I didn’t know how to console her, so I thought the best thing to do is to just keep playing hopscotch. 

Ann Marie lives next door. Her dad is a cop and works at night and sleeps during the day; their house is now dark and smells of old magazines and toothpaste. My parents are including her in our family. My dad has always done this, reach out to people who are going through a hard time, when he does, I think about the run-down farm we visited that he lived at for a while as a little boy.  An uncle took him in after his mom was murdered and his dad was away in the Navy. This uncle didn’t seem to have much, and what he did have, food and living space, was enough to maintain his family.    When I visited the farm it looked like an adventure- a day adventure, maybe two. But not a place to stay, not a place to live.  The forest, full of skinny trees the country folk refer to as the sticks, invade the usable land and cramped outbuildings.  Stepping a few yards in, following a rabbit or quail, it was easy to lose sight of the farm.  It was easy to image the trees were gnarled, white fingers reaching up from the damp ground to snatch you and pull you in further.  When panic starts to creep up your gullet there was always a cousin, or aunt or uncle, coming out to call your name and guide you back home for supper.  

Calling out to those that have lost their way is one of the lessons I learned from my dad and the country folk. Others include: to speak only when you have something to say, you are what you do, help when you can, and give what you have: even if it’s not much, even if it’s as simple as your last grape popsicle.

Ann is sitting next to me in the backseat at the drive-in while we wait for Superman: The Movie to start. When I show her my new cross-eyed look I’ve been practicing, she slugs me in the arm and says, “You look like an idiot.”   Ann Marie has always been a slugger, but her slugs have been getting a little harder lately.  This one caught me between the muscle and the bone in my left arm. 

My mom is insistent I find some boys to play with, but Ann Marie is tougher than any boy I know.  She fights, she swaggers, she picks at her scabs until they bleed. None of these characteristics impress me, but I do like the way her ponytail swings in a circle as she does her windmill-underhand-throw from the pitcher’s mound in her softball games. My dad says she’s a tom-boy: a girl that likes boy things.  Everybody seems fine with that, and, in fact they all kind of encourage it- which is kind of confusing.

I got a terrific Christmas gift- Superman Underoos.  It’s underwear and a costume and an opportunity.   I run around the living room to the backyard, an exhibitionist with superpowers. It’s liberating.  My brother Aaron is wearing his Spiderman Underoos and pretends to cast webs from his wrists. He runs around the house making web shooting noises and jumping off furniture. My mom scolds him, warning him not to break an arm; it’s hard to stop a boy transformed by his imagination and brightly colored underpants.  And why would you? 

I don’t limit my powers to comic book restrictions. I experiment in performance art.   I’m The Man of Steal lip-syncing to Crazy Little Thing Called Love.  I’m Superman saving a school bus full of children, then, in red underwear and my dad’s cowboy boots, I break into a celebratory impromptu barn dance- clogging on the back patio. I make the most of this opportunity endorsed by my parents, though, there is a different TV superhero I find more engaging.  

If you save the used toilet rolls, slit them on one side, they stay securely on your wrists.  Aluminum foil shaped as a boomerang fits nicely on your head. 

I go to the backyard to spin.  I spin and spin; the sound of the tap of my feet in my dad’s cowboy boots on the cement slab in our background feels me with power and potential.  Spotting forward, I whip my head around, waiting to be transformed.  The intention isn’t to be transformed into a woman, but into something brave and striking, and fancy. I run around the backyard until the red elastic on my underwear is sweaty. I use my magic bracelets to repel imaginary bullets from imaginary bad guys and bullies.  I make the gun noises the same as every boy everywhere does. I rest my hands on my hips, then, using my lady voice I say “ththtop right there you bad guyz”. I pretend to throw my magic lasso – then I freeze.

Like every good superhero I can since something is wrong.  My mom is staring at me from the kitchen window above the sink.  Is she wondering what I’m doing? Or does she know?  My instincts tell me that my secret identity needs to be protected. I cast off the boomerang/headband and pretend to fly- I lower my voice “Up, up, and away”- around the backyard.

I used to have a recurring dream; I won a raffle from a cereal box label.  Linda Carter, (In her boomerang tiara, golden eagle boddice, and calf-high red boots) and I have breakfast.  She sits across from me with her bowl of cornflakes and smiles, while I tell her about Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Ann Marie stops coming around for a while.  I’m nine, she’s twelve, and she’s becoming meaner. My dad is taking a psychology class and explains the five stages of grief to me. Ann Marie seems to be stuck at anger. My mom still makes an extra sandwich and brings it to her house and washes some of her clothes, but we’re not allowed to play together for a while.  She, as my dad said, knocked out my lights.  My dad told me to hit her back the next time and said I have to stand up to bullies, but I didn’t, I don’t, not because she’s a girl, that’s an excuse. My other excuse is Matthew 5:39 but when I turned the other cheek, her left hook was as good as her right.  The real reason I don’t? I am terrified of confrontation, particularly confrontation in arm’s length.

Now I understand, but bullies terrified me then and for years. I had thought, if I was just nice, and kind, and Christian, I wouldn’t be bullied.  Ann Marie, I figured, was a one-off. I didn’t have that fire in my belly that makes boys, and some girls, mad enough to commit to violence and disregard the cost. Risking a fist slamming into my mouth verses the reward of standing up to a bully didn’t seem worth it. I was wrong.  It’s worth it.

The Seven Stages of G… over thirty-five years.

Stage two DenialDear Jesus, I can’t be… I like Linda Carter and Dolly Parton and they both of big boobies.

Stage three AngerEvery boy at my Jr. Highschool should die in one big bus accident.  All of them, except Scott. Scott smiled at me yesterday.  Oh Lord, just as David asked in Psalms- let me dip my feet in the blood of my enemies.  Let my dogs lap up their blood…, except Scott. Save Scott.

Stage Four BargainingGod, make me normal. Make me a normal high school boy and I will become a missionary. I will dedicate my life to feeding the poor and preaching the gospel and sing only Christian pop songs at my concerts.  

Stage five DepressionI could use my dad’s shot gun or jump off a building, but that seems messy.   I’m not going to take sleeping pills; I heard that’s the way women kill themselves.  I don’t want a feminine death, that would be to on-point.   I’m going to stop eating. If I’m going to do this, then, I’ll at least go out with well-defined abs and wearing half shirts, like Rob Lowe.

The first stage is Shock.   I was never shocked. Having a thirty-five-year-realization isn’t a shock, it’s a slow submersion.

Number Seven is Acceptance. It’s why I started writing this. 

I’ll fight now, and I stand up to bullies. When I meet one: the big, straight, dumb, white variety is whom I’m usualy toe to toe with. I am transformed; my voice deepens, my chest puffs out, and I get loud and threatening- and I’ll fight.   I’ll cry after, but I’ll fight. Sometimes I’ll cry during the fight, but I don’t stop.  Nothing makes a big, straight, stupid, white dude back down faster than, what seems to him, another big, straight, stupid, white dude yelling “Come at me bro, I’ll knock the shit out of you” – while weeping.

My mom and Aaron are at the grocery store and my dad is at School.  I’m standing on the front porch covered by the shrubs on both sides. I can see out, but nobody can see me unless they come right up the driveway.  My hands in fists on my hips, my legs apart, my bare chest puffed, my head lifted.  The Santa Ana winds blow back my hair (a shirt tied around my head, held in place with my tiara), and through my superman underwear- both a thrill.  The afternoon sun shines on my magic bracelets. I’m also wearing my dad’s cowboy boots, a look of invincibility and nothing else.  It’s thrilling to be, almost, in public in my true identity.  With the power of God on my side, and all His Old Testament violence, I’ll seek revenge. I will fight for the downtrodden; I will stick up for the week.  I’ll …oh here comes Ann Marie on her bike up the driveway and my mom’s van behind her- and me, with no housekey on my bare chest.

The Grapes of Meth

Before California, my mom and I lived in a trailer. We weren’t trailer trash. To be considered trailer trash you need a double-wide that rests on cinder blocks in a trailer park.  We didn’t participate in opulence.  We had one of those small, oval, hitch trailers that looks like a giant snail stopping to catch his breath.  The trailer was furnished with a bed and a sink.  The sink we used as a pantry; the trailer wasn’t attached to plumbing.  The hitch was only used to sit on while star gazing or watching cows grazing.  The trailer was the same color as the Missouri sky after a storm, with accent colors in green and neglect.  It was parked, not quite level, by the creek on my grandparent’s dairy farm.  Grandma Faye’s property was in Mountain Grove, Missouri located in the northern part of the Ozarks.   Mountain Grove, once known for its deer hunting and dairy farms, is now known for its Wal-mart Supercenter and meth.  I spent most of my time alone: running around naked, swimming in the creek, playing in the mud, laughing and singing. The Meth-heads continue my former past times.

The novel The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad’s family, who traveled west on Route 66 during the great depression.  Like my parents, they also came from a small town and end up in California.  In the 1970s this migration continued with young people who headed out west looking for a promise of a better life and to escape the poverty, the Methodists and the humidity that made their long hair frizzy and rebellious.  My mom and the man who would become my adopted dad, were two of these young people.  Before she followed my dad out to Santa Ana, California: she left me with her mother, Grandma Faye.   After my parents were settled, they convinced my dad’s honky-tonk loving parents, Grandma Maxine and Grandpa “Vegas”, to bring me with them during their next annual trip from Mountain Grove to California.

Grandma Faye has a tractor, sings alto in the church choir, and has an admirable collection of ceramic owls.  Grandma Maxine has Rhinestones on her jacket.  Grandma Faye has a talent for home cooking; biscuits and gravy and seven different recipes for squirrel.  Grandma Maxine and Grandpa Vegas have a shared talent in consuming large amounts of alcohol and driving cross-country.  Most could make this trip in three days;it takes us as long as the Joads family.   Grandpa Vegas has a Cadillac: it could get us their quicker, but only if he skips all the bars with a happy hour.

Grandpa Vegas drives for a few hours then stops at Tootsies, the Grizzly Rose, the Thirsty Beaver, or any bar that shares a name with a half-priced-middle-aged-hooker.  Grandma Maxine, red dyed hair piled high and eyes the color of cut glass, stands me on a bar stool and I sing You Are My Sunshine until we are bought a round.  Whiskey for Grandpa Vegas, rum and coke for Grandma Maxine and a Shirley Temple for me. 

Repeat the drive – a bar – a song – all the way to California.  My grandparents sponsored my first national tour.

 Ooh, each morning I get up I die a little
Can barely stand on my feet
Take a look in the mirror and cry
Lord, what you’re doing to me
I have spent all my years in believing you
But I just can’t get no relief, Lord!
Somebody ooh somebody
Can anybody find me somebody to love.

We sing along to Queens’ newest anthem roaring from the radio. The windows are up, the air-conditioning on, cigarette smoke like a fog machine with a broken off-switch; we ride into town on a dusty, bright, California morning. 

I never go back on tour. When sad or frustrated with my lack of success, I would get in my truck and drive:  looking for a dive bar, singing the hits from Queen, a cigarette in my hand and a run and coke between my legs.  It takes me 35 years to find somebody to love. It was worth the wait, now when I occasionally want to run around naked, play in the mud; laugh dance and sing.  I don’t always do it alone.

Miss. Linda’s Inspirational Galloping Breasts

I like to tell people I go to a “private” (with air-quotes) school- always with air-quotes.  It makes me feel pretentious and rich.  I’m not rich and not sure how the tuition is covered.

I assume, now, it was a combination of my dad’s expanding, born-again ideology, my mom’s concern for my literacy and some sort of scholarship for the needy. Disadvantaged hadn’t been invented yet.

During recess I trade stickers with the girls, google eyes, scratch and sniff and Smurfs are the best.  I love going to a Christian school- a “private” school”.  This week’s bible verse is 1st Timothy 4:4 which I’ve memorized by heart.  “For everything created by God is Good”.  Mrs. West, who looks just like Barbara Mandrel, told us “God made you and loves you just the way you are”. I know that’s true about me but not so sure about Miss. Linda, the teacher’s assistant, she’s fat and has bad breath.

I can fake reading when only Mrs. West is in the classroom. I put my finger on a page and wait until I see, from the corner of my eye, Heather who sits next to me, turn her page.  But today, once again, I can since Miss. Linda’s large breasts hovering above my head, along with her breakfast-burrito-breath. I know she knows; I’m faking it.

  She makes me read out loud to her, slowly, in a whisper voice. I don’t like her.  I don’t dislike her I just don’t like her. Why is she so insistent that I do something I am not capable of? I am not a reader and that is fine!  God did not make me a reader. He made me a charmer.

She sounds out the words to force me along. This, along with her girth, and whatever she had as a midnight snack, makes the air around me oppressive. She reminds me not to rush, something I’m sure she’s good at.  I wish she would leave me alone, though the slower pace does give time for the letters to stop switching places.

I’ve agreed to trade a Smurfette sticker for a blueberry scratch-n’-sniff and a “K-ROQ 106.7 FM” bumper sticker.  As I open my sticker-book I hear a yard duty teacher blowing her whistle, over and over. It’s not the short-double-whistle, that means, stop being naughty and behave.  These are long and irregular. We all look towards the sound.

Miss. Linda is running with the whistle in her mouth and a boy in her arms. There is blood, too much of it.  I’m shocked to see so much blood.  I’m also shocked to see how fast Miss. Linda can run. 

Miss. Linda is congratulated during school chapel for her quick response. I feel proud to have a close relationship with her as both her and the boy, Jason, rise in popularity. I also note that being a victim in a dramatic event can bring additional attention. This is a valuable lesson.  Jason seems fine, but he is slightly cross eyed, and I can’t remember if he was that way before he hit his head.  It doesn’t make him look goofy, but kinda cute, like a talking Disney animal. 

For years I’ve thought about Miss. Linda’s jumbo breasts galloping, as she sprinted with Jason in her arms. I think about her, and them, when faced with a challenge I don’t feel equipped for.

Ryan’s Mom Smiles

Ryan’s mom smiles as she drives us to school; blond, energetic, and crazy-faced. It could be a normal, pretty, mom-face, but when it smiles it ages and goes bonkers.  The mouth opens and exposes her small white teeth and her wet tongue. What it does to her eyes, though, is fascinating.  They get wide and frantic. The smile of an asylum resident making an escape and driving two third-graders to school.  Ryan’s mom smiles often: Ryan’s mom smiles religiously.

We are on the Jesus-Train. Actually, a brand-new Lincoln Continental that Ryan’s mom drives while talking, singing, praying, smiling and sometimes crying.  She never uses her turn signals. I don’t know if it’s because she doesn’t now about them or because they would distract from her talking, singing, praying, smiling and sometimes crying.

Ryan sits in the back, ignored and ignoring.  I sit in the front, engaged. I like Ryan’s mom.  She is one of my fans, and I’m one of hers.

I am newly enrolled at Whittier Christian Elementary.  The staff and parents of my new school believe in the power of prayer.  They believe in corporal punishment.  They believe focusing on our salvation will have greater rewards than focusing on how to pronounce it, or spell it correctly.  Jesus will teach me to read. I’m not sure if they believe in Mexicans.  I haven’t seen any yet. I’m trading cucaracha dancing for worship clapping.

My life in Mountain Grove was full of white people- working class white.  My last school in Fullerton was 80% Mexican. Whittier Christian is 95% rich white people and 5% who identity as though they are.

Driving us to school Ryan’s mom smiles and sings along with her favorite 8 track, Slow Train Coming, a Christian album by Bob Dylan.   “Did you know that he is born again?” She asks (me?/herself?/Bob?), but defiantly not Ryan. Ryan is not a participant in our early morning chatter.  She continues, “His song, Nashville Skyline, was playing when Ryan’s dad and I decided to get married.”  She glances over at me and smiles, mouth open.   I’m not certain what it means that they “decided to get married”, like deciding to have a bologna sandwich for breakfast.   I also don’t have an opinion on any Bob Dylan songs not played on repeat in her Lincoln Continental.  I do like that she talks to me like an adult… or maybe her imaginary friend.

 Most grownups talk to me like they are hiding something. Ryan’s mom doesn’t seem to hide anything.  She talks about how tedious her life feels; she talks about a boyfriend she had in college; she talks about how she wishes she would have waited later to have children.  I glance back at Ryan to see his response; he looks like he agrees.  Sometimes, I lose track of the conversation and focus on her face to see if she ever takes a breath while talking.  She doesn’t.  It’s like a superpower. I like she needs little encouragement to keep talking.  I approve of this approach to conversation, and I return her wide-eyed smile, my mouth open.  

She brings her monologue back to Bob Dylan, still without taking a breath, “I’ve always been a fan, but Ryan’s dad said I needed to throw out all my secular music: The Who, The Doors…” The Lincoln Continental is stopped, in the left-hand turn lane, at a green light.  I point at the light. She is frozen, frowning, her hands gripping the steering wheel.  I look back at Ryan; he shrugs his shoulders.   After a few seconds she steps on the gas, smiles, and when she asks, “Do you like Jackson Brown?” I see that her eyes are shiny; she’s about to cry.

“I like Barbra Mandrell and the Mandrell Thithterth. Thaturday nighths at Eight on N. B. Thee.”

She smiles and nods a recognition that I’m listening and I have spoken.  She continues, “I’m just really happy that Bob has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior”. I’ve heard other adults refer to Bob Dylan as “Dylan” but never “Bob”.  Maybe now, that he’s “one-of-the-saved”, Ryan’s mom feels less formal about this mush-mouthed-singer.

When “Brother Bob” sings, Gotta Serve Somebody, a song about making a choice of serving the Devil or serving The Lord, she closes her eyes and alternates lifting her hands up in worship between shifting gears.  At the next red-light she lifts both hands up and keeps them lifted even after the light turns green and she steps on the gas.  She doesn’t touch the steering wheel again until we start to veer into the next lane.  I know she is planning on going to heaven; I wonder when.

She has a pretty voice, and she is passionate about what she is singing.   She is so passionate, sometimes, a little bit of spit hits the inside of the windshield.   I stare at these little love offerings trying to figure out what the lyrics are.  For most of it, I have no idea what Bob Dylan is singing.

When the next song comes on, I listen intently, happy to know that someone with a speech impediment can have a recording career.  But I would like to sing along.  Is he singing about his love of Jesus? Valerie Bertinelli?  It’s hard to tell.  There is one song, my favorite, that I do know the words to, it’s about man giving names to all the animals titled, Man Gave Names to All the Animals.

Ryan’s mom sings along,

Saw an animal as smooth as glass.  Slithering his way through the grass.  Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake.

I sing with Dylan,

I think I’ll call it a ththnake

Ryan’s mom laughs and smiles; she pats the back of my head.  She likes me better than Ryan.  He sits silent and still in the back seat.  Like the turn signals on the Lincoln Continental, she makes no effort to engage either.  I look through the window as we arrive.  I can see the school chapel through the glass, where I’ve added my own little thpittle.  

You’re Saying Sh** Wrong

 Last year I was in the first grade and I get to do it again!  Mrs. Mitchell likes me so much, she asked me back again this year.  I have a way with people.  I love the first grade.

8:30 – Give a high-five to the crosswalk lady, great Mrs. Mitchel with a hug, flirt with Abigail.

9:00 – The Pledge of Allegiance (I get to lead it today, which is for the best. When the other kids lead, they are monotone and uninspired. When I lead the pledge…well…)

“Please stand”.  (I wait and check to make sure everyone has placed their hands over their hearts before I begin)    (With dignity)  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of”                                                 (Punch next part) “The United States of America”.                               (Increase the urgency) “And to the republic for which stands”.                (Increase my dynamics) “One nation under God”.                            (Beat- then try to cry) “With liberty and justice”                           (beat, let it sink in…) “for”                                                                           (Lift both hands to the audience) “all”.                                                   (I bow and wait for applause). “Thank you, you may be seated. Mrs. Mitchell, the class is yours”.

9:15 – A volunteer to feed Oliver The Third, our class goldfish. (I raise my hand first)

10:00 – Lewis and Clark and The Great Frontier (I tell the class about my dad’s friend who was in prison and now lives in a Teepee)

Snack – (I help Mrs. Mitchell collect her papers then I eat my Banana)

11:00 – Jane has 4 cookies.  Jane gives 1 cookie to Sam.  How many cookies does Jane have left? (“Three”, nailed it)

12:00 – Lunch recess.  (In my Charlie Brown lunch box is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and baby carrots. I hit the monkey bars and swings)

1:00 – Sitting on the rainbow mat. (Mrs. Mitchell puts on a record, The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, a story we follow along as Mrs. Mitchell holds up the book and turns the pages.  I listen, sitting Indian style, with my hands in my lap, smiling)

Then it all falls apart, every day, same as last year.

1:30 – “A” next to a red apple, “B” by a bird, “C” by a cat, and this continues across the wall, above the chalkboard, like railroad tracks to nowhere.

Reading is overrated.

I have never seen Will Robinson reading while Lost in Space or Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes or Daisy Duke read.  THIS is my destiny- a cute orphan in hot pants exploring the galaxy, in my own TV show.  I just need a theme song and a catch phrase.      

I take out my pencil and writing book. The writing book has thick grey paper with lines and dashes, to illustrate where the letters go.  I practice writing my name.  This I can do, I have to.  Someday I’ll be writing my name over and over on shiny pictures of my face, for my fans: S-h-a-y  B-r-a-n-d-o-n  B-u-r-k-e.

My first signed picture will go to Mrs. Mitchell. She has earrings that match the holidays and arms like bread dough.   Once, when I was sad, she gave me a big, long hug; I could feel her belly pressed against my head, like a welcoming, warm, oversized beanbag. 

Mrs. Mitchell gives us two assignments; the first is to write rhyming words. When Mrs. Mitchell calls on me, I haven’t written any rhyming words; I’ve drawn a pig on my lined paper that I wanted to be a turtle, so I improv- “Shay, ray, stay, play”.   Mrs. Mitchell praises me, then tells me to rhyme with one of the words written on the chalkboard. 

“Which one?”, I ask

“Any of them.” She waits.   

“(Beat) Mrs. Mitchell, I really like your Easter Egg earrings.”

“Thank you, Shay, now can you give me a rhyming word for bag?”,

“Tag, sag, rag, f…, beanbag.”

Next, we are to read from page 8 of our 1st Grade Reader.  Mrs. Mitchell gives us a blank paper, to draw a picture illustrating what happens in the story.  I look at the story; it’s short and should be easy.  I read to myself, words, words, words, words, words, words.  I recognize some Js and Ls and Cs and other letters scattered around the page. I start drawing my picture.  Maybe my theme song should be like The Brady Bunch.  Here’s a story, of a Shay Shay Shay Shay, who was living with Shay Shay ray stay and play”.  It’s my turn to share my picture about the story in our book.   All the others taped on the wall have a similar theme, a boy and a girl on a green hill. There is also a bucket turned sideways. In John’s picture the boy looks dead, with red crayon coming out of his head and Xs on his eyes.  Abigail drew a boy and girl with a sad face.  She wrote the letters J-A-C-K above the boy and J-I-L-L above the girl.  There is blue crayon coming out of the bucket.  Their pictures aren’t great, but Mrs. Mitchell tells them they are.  My picture is of a purple spider, but I wanted it to be a crab.

“Shay, did you read the story?”

“Why?”

“You drew a picture of an Octopus.”

I look down at the story again, trying to absorb it. “…did you know the Easter Bunny isn’t real?  Jesus is, and He died for our sins.”

This is the same most days.  School is fun until after lunch, then it’s not, except for Wednesdays, when the fancy people come.

          The fancy lady has red hair, big lips and a skirt that twirls.  She looks like one of the ladies on the cover of my Uncle Mike’s magazines.   The fancy man has yellow hair, a billowy shirt and a brooch.  If he had a crown, he’d look like the picture next to “Q”, for queen.  They are the fancy-dancing-couple who show up on Wednesdays to rehears with us for the Cinco De Mayo Festival. The fancy lady and the fancy man stomp twice, turn, then clap twice.  She- head held high and pouting. He- smirking with an eyebrow arched.  They have my full attention.   I love them.

They teach us to stomp La Cucaracha.  Abigail and I are the best, so the fancy couple put us in the front row.  I stomp, with my hands clasped behind my back.  I look at Abigail and try to raise an eyebrow and look severe, like the fancy man, but I can’t help but smile; It’s so much fun.  We turn in opposite directions, then stomp and clap, twice. I think I love Abigail; I think I want to be a fancy man. I know I love to stomp the cockroach.  “La cucarcha, la cucaracha…  Dinero para gastar”

2:30 – Parent meeting

My mom sits in a chair built for smaller legs.  It’s odd to see her like this, not because the chair is small, but, because I’ve never seen my mom sit without laundry to fold.  Mrs. Mitchell gives me a booklet and tells me to go to the back and trace my letters. 

“He’s not lazy,” Mrs. Mitchell tells my mom, “Shay is a joy to have in class.  He participates, makes friends easily and is always willing to help.  I thought he just needed another year to mature and catch up.  He has a highly active imagination but still tends to get distracted and not finish his work.”

“I’m not sure what you mean” my mom replies.

Mrs. Mitchell and my mom look over at me.

I’m by the fish tank. I’ve got a small American flag in my hand, a Dracula cape around my waist and my schoolwork in front of me like sheet music. “It’s an honor just to be nominated, now join me in singing He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  

I smile at Oliver The Fourth,I can tell he is a fan.

Mrs. Mitchell looks back at my mom, swinging her shamrock earrings.

My mom looks at Mrs. Mitchell, rolling her eyes.

My mom believes in work.  She never spoke much about her time on the farm, except mentioning once, that, on her way home from school she would dig up a raw potato, wash it in the creek, and have a snack.  

I like to imagine her as Laura from Little House on the Prairie. But Laura spent too much time narrating; Laura could never dig up a fully grown oak tree, carry it on her back, while feeding a baby and stirring a pot of beans.  My mom doesn’t waste time talking about her life. Writing a memoir about her childhood, trying to make the obstacles she’s overcome clever or interesting would be self-indulgent.  

My mom doesn’t indulge, I don’t think my mom daydreams; I don’t even think she sleeps.  She does think there is a solution for everything.  The solution is, stop complaining, stop talking and do what needs to be done, this includes: setting broken bones, putting down a sick dog, dealing with marital issues and raising children.  If any of these are completed without a little dirt and blood under your nails, then you probably didn’t do it right.

Her callused hands, as strong as her work ethic, turn the pages as I follow the adventure of a determined little train. She points at a word.  The word doesn’t interest me, but the red-brown fingerprint she leaves on the page does.    

My Uncle Carl thinks repeating first grade, was “Buuuuuullshit. We-ell… hell! He’ll figure it out on his owns. My daddy never didn’t learnt to read and write.”

Everyone assumes I’ll catch on sooner or later. I think I can, I think I can. I think I can – until I do there are goldfish to entertain, pledges to pronounce and cucarachas to stomp.

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Not only am I popular in class, but everyone is interested in my accent.  It’s not like Uncle Carl’s, or Daisy Duke’s or anybody else in my family, TV or class: “A” a-apple, “D” d-duck, “S” th-thnake. 

My accthent thoundth adorable to motht adultth but ithz fruthrating the hell out of my mom. I talk rapidly, loudly, and often.  I talk to the mailman; I talk to the dogs. I talk to the homeless lady; I talk to my reflection in a shop window.  I talk to old women in wheelchairs and strangers sitting on toilets; sometimes I’m sitting, talking through the bathroom door jamb, other times I’m peeking through the door jamb and talking- while someone is sitting.

When you are good at something, you should do it often and proudly.  I believe you should share your gifts with the world. I’m not aware of how I sound, but I am aware it brings a smile to the faces of people I chat with.  Ignorance might lead to awkward situations at a cocktail party or a swinger’s night, but I’m seven.  One of the joys of being seven is not being self-aware. 

Adam and Eve were ignorant and lived in paradise, before they took a bite of the aaaple, presented by the thtthhnake.  The apple made them self-aware and embarrassed of their nakedness. I’m often naked and ignorant. It is bliss. 

My bliss came in jeopardy when I met Ms. Thomas. 

Instead of practicing for the Cinco De Mayo festival on Wednesdays, I am sent to the library, with a lady who smells of Listerine and exasperation (Two words I still have trouble spelling but can now pronounce perfectly when sober).  I am sent to Ms. Thomas so; the truth can be revealed to me.  The truth is, I’m saying my own name wrong.

Me – Thay Brandon Burke

Her – Did you say your name is “Thay” or “Shay?”

Me – Thay

Her – Shay

Me – Thay

Her – Shay

Me – Thththththay

Her – Shshshshhay

Me – (Pause) Do you want to thee my danth? (singing and dancing) “La cucarcha, la cucaracha…  Dinero para gathtar!!!” (bow and wait for applause)

Her – (Pause, arms crossed) Gassssstar

Mrs. Thomas is not a fan.   

At seven, I think of my diction the same way I would later execute my singing.  It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect, as long as it’s loud.  I sing as loud as I can at the Cinco De Mayo Festival with the rest of the school.  I don’t dance La Cucaracha.  While Abigail and the fancy people were perfecting their stomping on Wednesday afternoons, I was listening to Ms. Thomas pound out- “Shay-sold-sea-sells-down-by-the-sea-shore”, and the rest of her bullththit.             

The speech therapy didn’t take. I did try; I just didn’t understand what the problem was.  I was ignorant.  The Bible says, “The truth shall set you free”.  It took me until my mid-teens to start to understand the problem, and the truth shackled me.

In high school, boys would whisper as they passed me in the hallway. Their voices masculine, their diction perfect, “Hey- Shay, (beat) are-you-gay?”  It’s a catch phrase I lived with, a theme song that played in my head at night. 

I was 42 when I hired a speech pathologist and found out that the tongue lightly touches the roof of the mouth for the “S” sound and curls up slightly for the solid “SH”.  I practice this now in place of the Oscar acceptance speech I never gave.  I stand in front of the Jesus-Loves-You-mirror, that now hangs in my office.  Jesus love, ”Shshshshshay”, You.

When I’m tired, or after five Bud Lights, I revert back.  

“Ththhay”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s Thththay, rhymes with gay, but without the lithp.” 

I found another way around the gay sound.  I adopted my uncle Carl’s accent.  Nobody thinks you sound queer, if, you sound as if you are fond of camouflage clothing and spend your Saturdays bow-hunting deer, and your Sundays beating you wife.

“Yeeehaaw, and hell ya!  Ya’ll can just call me Brandon.”

Call me Brandon. Brandon doesn’t rhyme with anything.

Jesus Seems Troubled

Hector lives the next block over; he is my Mexican friend.  I recommend it.  Going to another kid’s house feels exotic, like jet setters who visit multiple countries when touring Europe.  You partake and note the local customs, music, and food.  “Oh, you call this room a den, where I come from, we call it the living room. “

Hector’s mom makes warm tortillas covered with butter.  We eat them while watching TV then hide from his sisters, which isn’t easy since there are so many of them.  His mother is perpetually pregnant and there seems to be an additional Maria or Elena or Juanita every time I come over.   

Hector and his family have a different Jesus.  Ours is healthy and active. He holds a lamb and talks to kids; his eyes shine with understanding, hair freshly washed and blow-dried, designer stubble on his jaw.  He sometimes looks directly into the camera and smiles or laughs with big white teeth.  Hector’s Jesus seems troubled.  Our Jesus is akin to a children’s television host, a hip Mr. Rodgers or handsome Captain Kangaroo.   Hector’s Jesus looks like an extra from Escape from Alcatraz.

There is one Jesus picture a little different in his garage; huge and felt. In this one, Jesus is a pretty woman with a beard. His right hand raised and tentative about interrupting us. I sometimes look up at him while we play in the garage.  “Yes, pretty Jesus, do you have an opinion about how to operate this electric saw?”

I wear my Speedy Gonzalez T-shirt when I go over to Hector’s house, The Looney Tunes’, “Fastest Mouse in all of Mexico”.  I’m proud of this choice. While Hector’s mom works in her garden, Hector and I yell “Arriba! Arriba! Andale! Andale! El gringo pussycat problemante? Si, si el gringo pussycat problemante!  Hectors mom shoos us out of her tomatoes and laughs. Laughter sounds the same in Spanish.  Everybody is happy at Hector’s house, until we burn it down.

Like most kids in the 70s, we were not encouraged to play with fire, but if you ignore boys long enough it happens.  Hector’s family, to earn extra money, collects newspapers and phone books for recycling.  Every three months they turn in their collection to help pay bills, and I assume, the growing expense of diapers and tortillas.  I go with them sometimes knocking door to door or to look in trash cans.   We fill up a red wagon and stack it all in their garage. 

Jesus looks on as Hector and I roast marshmallows on a little fire in the garage.  As the fire spreads we take turns filling glass coke bottles with water and try to poor it on the flames.  It is an impossible task. Pouring anything out of a glass coke bottle only comes out in gurgles.  The flame is so hot we pour it standing three feet away.  Ultimately, we are just pouring water slowly on our own feet as the flames of hell consume the garage.

Exhausted and out of options I turn to Hector, “I think it’s time for me to go home”.  I run as fast as I can, my soggy shoes squeaking. I hear Hector’s dad yelling “Vamos! Vamos!” Panic sounds the same in Spanish. Nobody was injured, but nothing in the garage was saved.  Not even velvet Jesus.

I rarely saw Hector again, but I have since made lots of warm tortillas with butter, made more Mexican friends, and fires.  I seem to still be constantly trying to put out fires.  But now, I don’t run away.

Stretch Armstrong, Tube Sock Monkeys and Rick

Anyone alive in the 70s will remember stuffed monkeys made from tube socks, roach clips decorated with feathers, and stained-glass windows featuring doves.  We had all these, along with crocheted jump suits with rainbows on the chest I naively wore.

Supporting a growing family by selling pottery isn’t easy.  Our house is filled with items dad has traded with other post hippies with a penchant for painting, poetry, and pot.  While other kids, for birthdays and Christmas, got Stretch Armstrong, or Battle Star Galactica action figures, or slot car racetracks, we got driftwood with faces carved in them, hand painted trains, trucks, and puzzles.  The things you see elves make in every animated Christmas movie, ever. I am perceptive enough to know our presents are better; handcrafted and unique just like God made me.

For my birthday I got a two-foot-tall marionette peacock with real feathers.  I named him Rick. Though he has a slightly perplexed look in his eyes, he is cocky and proud when hanging in my bedroom.  When I take him down and manipulate his strings, he’s a bit gawky.  Rick takes giant steps, his head wobbles like a drunk toddler. I make him run, like a blind man someone has coxed on to a treadmill.  I take Rick through our house.  I make him take blundering steps past an oil painting of a tiger. I make Rick fly and attack Aaron in his handcrafted highchair.  I make Rick tap dance in front of ceramic pigs with broken legs and missing snouts.  If asked his thoughts, I image him awkwardly shifting his head towards me. His crossed eyes trying to focus, “What is wrong with me, how did I end up like this?”

 “It just takes a little more practice.” I’d reply, “Just have faith.  All things work out for the good for those who love the Lord.”  Rick looks away and whispers to himself, “I need to call my agent.”

My favorite item dad traded for is a 5-foot-tall mirror framed in stained walnut. The artist carved ornate designs and “Jesus Loves” at the top and “You” at the bottom. I stand in this mirror admiring my good looks; comfortable and confident that not only Jesus loves me, but everybody does.

My least favorite is the wooden slide. After jumping around in the back sprinklers, bare chested in swimming trucks I climb up the stairs, then push myself down the slide.  Wooden slides don’t thrive in backyard sprinklers and hot summer days.  My dad pulls out the splinters with tweezers, needles, and pliers.  “Well, what did you expect?” he laughs.  “varnish”, I should have responded.  As I’m bent over a chair, my bottom in the air, I make eye contact with Rick. I think he’s smirking.

Years later I learned to dislike the full-length mirror. I’d stand in my tight white fruit of the looms, read the inscription and look at my reflection. “Jesus Loves” a chubby, naked, pink adolescent with a baby face and man eyebrows, “You”.  I’d lean in and whisper, “What is wrong with me? How did I end up like this?”

Behind me a can see the marionette in my bedroom, matted and tangled in a corner. Aaron threw up on him.  I tried to give him a bath. But Rick will never be the same.

Sexy at Six and Seven

I am the hottest guy in my first-grade class.  Fashion model hot. Put me on a Toys Are Us magazine playing with Legos or on a Mickey Mouse Hoppity-Hop and they will run out of stock.  I’m not just sexy, but confident – a confidence that isn’t tempered by modesty.  I smile at the teachers. I flirt at the grocery store. I walk around shirtless in my neighborhood; body confident, curly blond locks, chubby cheeked and struttin’.

I look like a White Supremacist’s painting of the Christ-child.  Christ-like, if the Messiah were born to a farmgirl named Donna Lyn from the Ozarks. Like Mary, Donna Lyn was an unwed, brunette teen, surprised to find herself “with child”. Mary went to Bethlehem; Donna Lyn went to the back-forty on the dairy farm. Neither had running water. Both had sons with visions of standing in front of multitudes. One with a scroll, the other with tap shoes and a smile. The future doesn’t worry me, I just need to make it past thirty-three.

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Mom chased me around the kitchen with a wooden spoon last night.  Hair like Linda Ronstadt, eyes like Charles Bronson; she is quick, accurate, and justified.  She was making dinner after coming home from work and trying to get to her night-school class on time.  I had paper and my 64-pack of Crayola crayons spread over the table.  She asked me twice to clear my mess and set the table.  When she asked the third time I said, “Make me”.  My strategy was to keep running around the kitchen table until I outlasted her outrage.  On my last lap I ran into my dad’s belt buckle- the one with “IXOYZ” inside the outline of a fish. It was attached to my dad.

————————————————————————————————————————

Today I am enjoying Mom’s olive branch.  We are in line to see Star Wars.  I’m wearing my official T-shirt: the one that look as though it was designed by a graphic artist who has not seen the movie and works mostly designing covers for romance novels titled Come Love a Stranger, Savage Spirit or Morning Glory.  Luke has a chiseled chest and a six pack.  His legs spread gripping his erect lightsaber straddling over Leia who has huge breasts, long slender legs and a force me look.  For some reason she is wearing a cape, which I think is fantastic.

In line with me is my little brother Aaron who is holding onto our mom’s leg.  I’m networking with another boy whose mom drinks from a little bottle in her purse. When I’m caught staring the boy says, “My mom gets thirsty.”  She looks down and smiles at me and says, “Hi honey.”  She has breath that makes me think of the circus, all cotton candy, and caged animals.

Aaron is wooing another mom while perfecting his, I’m shy and if you talk to me I’ll flash giant dimples, look.  I have more charisma than Aaron but I’m losing my hold on most adorable.  I should have been an only child, or an orphan, or both.  All my favorite characters I pretend to be are orphans with no little brothers to compete with. Pete in Pete’s Dragon, Tony in Escape from Witch Mountain, Diana Ross in The Wiz.

If Star Wars weren’t a hit there would be no follow up and Luke would forever be an orphan.  If he had parents, or if Owen and Beru weren’t killed, Luke might have stayed home.  He could have developed a passion for computer programing or made those sand art windows that sit on desks and when flipped simulate colorful sand dunes being formed.  He could have sold these at the Thursday night Tattooine Arts and crafts show.

I love Arts and Crafts shows.   We spend every Thursday through Sunday at various shows around southern California selling dad’s pottery.  All the potters and carpenters and stained-glass artists look like my dad. A big beard, a parrot on a shoulder and a leather belt stamped with either “John 3:16” or “Who’s got a doobie”.

My job is to wrap up the pottery in newspaper after a sell; windchimes as a wedding gift wrapped in a picture of Ted Bundy, a ceramic piggy-bank an old lady bought for her grandson wrapped in “Roman Polanski flees after pleading guilty to sex with a minor.”  After a sell, my dad the patron and the parrot talk about Jesus.

I also ran errands; parents did not regard child molestation as a popular hobby then and at seven I had free roam.  If I found and brought back an android with a secret message from a woman with a white shawl over her head, big brown eyes and dark hair glimmering in a luminous light my parents would have declared it Idolatry – Mary worship.   They would insist it be destroyed or returned. But not if they were dead.

I don’t have fantasies about my parents dying.  I have fantasies about being an adoptable boy soprano who has an invisible dragon or befriends a pickpocket in the streets of London or finds a golden ticket to a chocolate factory.  As I consider myself I see the Purse Drinker lean down to her son and whisper, “if you don’t sit still during the movie I’m going to give you a woopin’ and send your body to Alaska.”

This confused me, gave me a fear of Alaska and an appreciation for my mom.