Friday, October 14, 2011

Fiction - Before the Fall


The assignment this week for the fiction writing class I’m taking was to start telling my life story in summary. (“Summary” here means the part of the story that gives the reader background about the characters, situation, etc. versus immersing the reader in a pivotal scene.) My classmates and I were told to do summary for awhile and then stop and move into a scene.

We were told this exercise could be autobiographical. Because I’m trying to learn to write fiction, I didn’t stick to the truth, nor to the facts, with this exercise. You should consider it purely fictional. (The resemblance of characters to actual people isn’t pure coincidence, I must confess.)

Before the Fall

I was late to my own birth, hitting the scene two weeks after my due date. The backdrop of my childhood was Boulder, Colorado. The seventies.

To outward appearances my family was a very close, happy one. Outward appearances were my dad’s specialty. For so many years my three brothers and I had no idea how miserable our parents’ marriage was. For Christmas one year my dad bought my mom this really posh stuffed bear called a Gund, which got him a lot of good press from his relatives. We all assumed that my mom loved the Gund, but learned later that she actually hated it for making her self-absorbed husband look caring and sensitive. If my brothers and I had only known, we could have offered to coat that bear in model airplane cement and torch it for her.

Mom was begrudgingly complicit in this illusion of a happy marriage. For example, she would let Dad kiss her hello when he got home from work. It was, I later realized, a grotesque parody of a kiss: a reluctant reaching outward of the two pairs of lips, as tentative as a young kid’s hand timidly reaching out to poke a sea urchin in a tide pool. A micro-kiss, with an absolute minimum of actual lip contact, lasting just long enough to make a little smacking sound. (See? Your parents are in love. They still kiss.)

My brothers and I fought a lot, but beneath it we respected one another. We kind of had to because we were all social outcasts. None of us got along with our classmates. Occasionally I’d encounter an older kid who knew one of my brothers and would say, “Ewww, you’re an Anderson?! It was a stigma, but also a strange honor in some way—sort of an us-vs.-them deal.

The oldest brothers, Seth and Ryan, twins, were almost four years older than I, with Mick right in the middle. Mick and I hung out quite a bit but the others usually ignored us. The main thing that bonded the four us together was the shirking of household chores. I remember one day in particular when we killed a whole afternoon at this. Ryan was supposed to mow the lawn while the rest of us dug weeds. The lawn was half weeds and half dead. Our neighbors, the Gales, had this lush, perfect, Technicolor green lawn and the boundary between our properties was sharply delineated, like their grass was a different species, in its robust prime, while ours was disheveled and elderly and sick.

Ryan mowed one strip across the lawn, turned the lawnmower around, started back, and then ran over the cord, stopping the machine dead. (We must have been the only family in America with an electric lawnmower.) It would be weeks before Dad got around to replacing the extension cord, so Ryan was off the hook. He wheeled the dead mower back to the garage, strolled back out, and flopped on the lawn. I picked halfheartedly at a weed. We were paid three cents a weed to pull them, but the roots had to be intact. On a hot day like this, it just wasn’t worth it. I glanced over at Seth. He was lying on his back, pretending to drive a car. I watched his left foot expertly working the clutch as he went through the gears. He steered with his left hand and by the looks of it he was on a twisty mountain road. It would be two years before he was old enough to drive, but he appeared ready.

Mick was on his feet, looking across the lawn to the neighbor’s car. Mr. Gale’s son Craig was seventeen and had the coolest car—a late sixties Mustang Mach 1. It was not in good shape—if you looked closely you saw layers of flaking paint, dimpled like an orange peel, from amateur paint jobs, grey beneath orange beneath blue, and inside the upholstery was peeling like a banana—but the car had good bones. We all dreamed of getting a ride in it one day, but it wasn’t running. It just sat.

We all gave Mick our complete attention because we knew what he was thinking. He suddenly sprinted toward the car and just before he reached it he screamed, “Look out, George!” and made a terribly realistic sound effect of screeching brakes. Then next second the car had knocked him off his feet and he sprawled over the hood, bouncing twice before tumbling to the ground. Of course the car hadn’t really moved, but the illusion was uncanny: our eyes told us this kid had just been hit by a car. We ran around to the other side of the car to look at Mick sprawled on the asphalt. He was in bad shape: convulsions racked his broken body.

“Yeah, that was a good one, but I think you need to tone down the convulsions—they’re a little overdone,” Seth said. Mick got to his feet. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “But how was the rest of it?” He’d been practicing his stunt all summer and was still perfecting it. We made our way back to the lawn. I took my weed digger and winged it at the grass, hoping to impale the ground so the handle would stick up. I was Pepe, Steinbeck’s young hero, throwing a switchblade at a post for practice. I picked the digger back up and was about to try again when Mick took another run at the Mustang. This time, as he landed on the hood, the car horn came on, and stayed on. FRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA…. Gave us the willies.

After a few brutal minutes of vainly hoping the horn would shut off, we went and knocked on the Gales’ door. Mr. Gale answered. He was wearing a white tank top and looked like he’d just woken up. He tried to be grumpy about the car horn but couldn’t help laughing. We all must have looked stricken. He went over to the car, opened the driver’s side door, popped the hood, then came around to the front and disconnected the battery. The horn stopped. Mr. Gale asked what made it turn on and Seth and Ryan immediately ratted Mick out. That was the end of his being hit by the Mustang.

That was one of a great many useless, idle, indolent days we brothers spent that summer. The best part was that we had no idea that our basically happy family was about to be ruined. Had we known, we’d have tried to make the best of our time together, which just would have felt strained. We really didn’t know what we were about to lose until we lost it.

The end began in my mom’s car, a Volkswagen Dasher, coming back from swim practice. Ryan was riding shotgun—seating was by birth order and he was twenty minutes older than Seth—and I was in the back middle seat because I was smallest. Mom said, trying to sound casual, “What would you boys think if I told you I was thinking of divorcing your father?” A chorus: “No, Mom, don’t do it!” But it wasn’t a real inquiry—her mind was already made up.

A week before Labor Day my mom bought a condo and moved into it. Condos back then seemed a sudden, novel phenomenon and vaguely subversive, only in part because the first time I came across the term, it was on a giant “CONDOMINIUMS FOR SALE” banner that college kids had folded over itself so it read “CONDOMS FOR SALE.” Our parents, who both worked full time and had historically not paid a huge amount of attention to us kids, each began a campaign to win us over and turn us against the other parent. The ultimate prize? Custody.

So it was that on one of the last evenings of summer, Dad took Seth and Ryan to the new James Bond movie while Mom took Mick and me to Baskin-Robbins. Today’s jaded kids might not think such outings would be a big deal, but to us it was an amazing show of largesse. It was a hot day and Baskin-Robbins was completely mobbed. The line snaked out the door and across the strip mall all the way to La Paz Fine Mexican Dining. Customers sprawled across the lawn out front. When my mom realized how long we’d be waiting, she went off to go shopping. “Just meet me out front here,” she said.

Everybody gets ice cream. Out front were little kids wearing t-shirts with big iron-ons (“Star Wars,” etc.) and there were older guys who were shirtless and bronzed. Many of them had on those super-short running shorts with the piping down the side. Boys had taken off their shoes and tube socks, girls had kicked off their sandals. A teenage guy said to his girl, “God … my arms are so damn tan.” Inside, I tried to take a number from the little pink dispenser and pulled out two feet of spooled paper tickets. Mick helped me stuff it all back in there.

We didn’t mind the wait because soon enough, after the ice cream outing, after a few more days of purgatory, a few more bribes, we’d be expected to tell our parents which one we’d decided to live with. We hadn’t heard of joint custody and our parents evidently never considered it. Instead they went for the King Solomon approach, splitting the family right down the middle, with the kids working out who would go where. It was a no-win scenario and we sought to forestall it as long as possible.

Baskin-Robbins had never before seemed like such a grim place. Suddenly I was down on everything. Their “Thirty-One-Derful Flavors!” slogan struck me as really dippy. The flavor name “Here Comes the Fudge” was annoying because though I somehow knew it was a play on “Here Comes the Judge,” this cultural reference was just another that had passed me by. That French Vanilla “costs a bit more, but it’s worth it!” seemed a cynical marketing gimmick. The staff seemed bored, and then irritated at how many taste spoons I asked for. Was it my fault nothing tasted good enough?

A radio was playing and the guy next to me at the counter, a young adult, was lip-synching to the music: “I guess it’s just the woman in you that brings out the man in me.” Like that’s a good thing. As the guy reached for his ice cream cone, I noticed his bracelet. It was engraved: DAMN I’M GOOD.” Is that how it works? You just declare how great you are? Is that why my family was collapsing—because we got tired of holding each other back with our humble, cozy complacence? Was dead-weight Dad the only obstacle to Mom becoming damn good, or getting a man who was?

Mick and I left with our cones and then they were gone in minutes and we had nothing to do but stand among the throngs outside and wait for Mom. Once she got going on errands there was no stopping her. When she finally arrived, we heard her car before we even saw it. Its engine made a distinctive rattling sound because it was a diesel. (Of course we had the only diesel station wagon in America.) Mom was driving through the parking lot at like one mile per hour because there were so many people everywhere.

And all at once, Mick saw his opening. It must have been a thrilling moment of insight, like when Watson and Crick first deduced the double helix. It was a moment of mental brilliance, and yet Mick acted on pure instinct. He raced through the crowd, bounded down off the curb, and let out a perfect brakescreech. Then—BAM!—he was bouncing over the hood of Mom’s car, which made a great noise as it caved in and then sprang back into shape. He’d left out the “Lookout, George!”—he’d finally realized, just in time for his big moment, that it was the least realistic part of the stunt. He also skipped the convulsions—when I raced around the front of the car to look at him, he was deathly still, lying on the road in a fetal position. As many times as I’d seen this stunt, I couldn’t be completely sure he hadn’t been hit. If the action had stopped here, half a dozen witnesses would have said, “I saw the whole thing! That crazy bitch must’ve been going thirty miles an hour!”

But it didn’t stop there. As people crowded around the accident scene trying to figure out what to do, Mom suddenly opened her door and jumped out. She was furious. “Get up!” she screamed. “Get up off the ground, you brat!” More amazing still, Mick rose from the dead, jumped to his feet, and the two of us got in the car. As Mom drove, cursing, from the scene, Mick and I were laughing so hard it didn’t even make any noise. We couldn’t get enough air and tears were streaming down our cheeks. It was the pinnacle of the summer and of our childhood. Our last hurrah.

From there, things unraveled predictably enough. Mick and I moved into the condo until he and Mom couldn’t stand each other anymore, and then he drifted away and began living in a total dive with a bunch of deadbeat teens, filling his days with weed and the like. I got hooked on something far worse: TV. It started out socially, watching David Letterman with friends, but it got worse over the years to the point that I ended up taping shows like “Simon and Simon” and “Remington Steele” and watching them during the day, when other kids my age were in class. I missed my brothers terribly.

Over the decades, my brothers and I eventually made good. After passing the GED, Mick took fifteen years putting himself through college, took a degree in electrical engineering, and although he’s not rich yet, he was just granted the patent for mRFIDs, microscopic radio chips that fit not just in your wallet but on your earrings or car keys. (So long as your personal effects are within a quarter mile of your smartphone, you’ll never lose them again.) Ryan has created the ingeniously compact encryption algorithm that can run on a chip that small. Seth now lives in the Netherlands where he’s a soap opera star. I’ve got a lucrative real estate job that I could do in my sleep, and usually do, as I bide by time: when Mick is a billionaire, I’ll write his authorized biography, or maybe his unauthorized biography. Maybe both. Whatever else we Andersons accomplish and enjoy, though, I doubt I’ll ever recapture that pure joy of carelessly pissing away a perfect summer day on a half-dead lawn in Boulder.

dana albert blog

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