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Thomas Wictor

The cost of the freedom to write, part one

The cost of the freedom to write, part one

I could never have published this while my parents were alive. In fact, it was the deaths of my parents that gave me means and freedom to write whatever I want. Would I give it up to have them alive again?

In a second. As flawed as they were, I wish they both could’ve lived to be a hundred and then died peacefully in their sleep. I’d be sixty-six when I took advantage of the new lease their deaths gave on my writing career, but so what? Think of how much better a scribbler I’d be after fifteen more years of practice.

Please don’t get mad, Mom and Dad. How could I have kept this inside me any longer?

A barbecue in Bedlam

Several years ago my family was invited to a man’s house for an Independence Day barbecue. I’ll call him Floyd. My father hated him. It had to do with something that happened when my grandmother Carolina was in the final, spectacular throes of an unspecified dementia.

We visited Grandma every year in the summer, and during this period she once tried to have us all arrested as strangers who’d suddenly moved in with her against her will. Mom was in Florida, tending to my Great-Aunt Marion, and Carolina fled to the church down the street. She complained to the priest, who called and demanded to know who we were and why we were torturing Carolina.

“Get out of there! Just get out!” he ordered, exorcising us over the phone.

We went to the church and showed the priest our IDs. Carolina laughed, mollified for the moment.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’re my grandchildren?” she asked us. “I thought my grandchildren were this high.” She held her hand two feet off the floor.

Another time Grandma woke us all up at 4:00 a.m., one after another. At each bedside, she loomed out of the darkness, thrusting a platter of bread forward like an enraged waiter, her eyes popping as she shouted, “Would you like some nice bread?

Things got so bad that one afternoon when Mom was again in Florida, Tim had to wrestle Grandma into the shower and douse her with cold water to soothe her agitation.

While all of this was happening, my always-suspicious father discovered something wrong with something, and following a series of frantic, tearful calls from a family “friend,” restitution was made and the whole thing was dropped. My father wanted to prosecute, but my mother demurred. None of it was ever really explained to us, the kids. What we knew, we’d picked up from Dad’s monologues. I’ve learned that he wasn’t the most reliable of primary sources.

So now Floyd invited us to his place to celebrate the Fourth. Dad begged off, citing a sudden urge to vomit. Mom, Tim, and I therefore went out to Floyd’s house in an upscale city an hour or so away. It was the first time any of us had seen his new digs. He’d retired at the age of forty-nine; in the eleven years since, he and his wife and son had lived in four different houses.

Floyd’s home sat at the apex of a circular cul-de-sac. We got there around 4:00 p.m. I hadn’t seen Floyd in six years; his great love of exotic meats and cheeses had done their work. His wife Molly was the same, a silent dark-haired woman almost six feet tall. Out on the patio in the back was Will, their twenty-year-old son. He towered over me by more than a foot but weighed about 150 pounds.

After shaking my hand, he turned away, muttering, “Boop. Boop-beep. Bip-bip-bip. Pshhwww. Pshhwww,” the sounds of the countless space battles he fought on the computer in his room. He’d had this vocal tic since he was nine, but Tim and I were the only ones who’d ever noticed.

Sitting under the sun umbrella on the patio were a large blonde woman named Sue, her two morbidly obese sons—nineteen-year-old Wayne and fourteen-year-old Frank—and a cheerful brunette in glasses.

She introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Leslie. I work at Wal*Mart.”

Sue and her absent husband Greg were Floyd and Molly’s neighbors; Greg would join us later. Mom, Tim, and I sat down to get acquainted with Floyd’s other guests, though after ten seconds it wasn’t necessary for us to talk. Sue did the honors.

She was an earthy raconteur who told thousands of stories about her family and their devotion to Christ. The third sentence out of her mouth, in answer to a question about what she did, was, “We live our lives through the Lord.”

Sue’s spiraling, drill-like voice wavered near the pitch of total hysteria. It was an exercise in suspense listening to her because I was waiting for the moment when she’d start shrieking uncontrollably. Her family’s trip to Santa Barbara wasn’t a success.

“They dint like us at all there. They got their noses on skyhooks. That’s what I call them: ‘Noses-on-skyhook people.’”

A vacation to San Diego was also unpleasant.

“Greg ‘n me actually broke that bed there in that motel ’cause he was lovin’ me up like a crazyman! They did not like that! No sir!”

Her favorite destination in the world was Wal*Mart, where she met Leslie.

“Isn’t that just the nicest, happiest place? They treat you like family.”

As she talked she unleashed gusts of moaning laughter that tightened my scalp and sent shivers racing up and down my back. She was chock full of bromides, maxims, and epigrams. They began with “My momma always told me…” or “Like the preacher said to the room fulla sinners…” or “As the Good Book says…”

I don’t remember a single thing Leslie said except for one line.

“I had to take my car in to get it fixed because it started doin’ the ‘La Bamba.’

She may have meant the lambada, a dance popular back then.

Floyd had a big pool, and the three teenagers decided to go swimming. Wayne dove in fully clothed—T-shirt, shorts, socks, glasses, and all. The only things he removed were his shoes. Inside, Frank changed into a pair of trunks and came out shirtless and relaxed, his rounded physique bared for all to see. Will checked a thermometer dangling in the water.

“I cannot go swimming unless the water is precisely 88.6 degrees Fahrenheit,” he announced. “Beedle-boop. Bip-bip-bip-pshwww.

Molly and Sue badgered me to go swimming too, but since I had no suit and I hate taking my shirt off in public, I declined. They began chanting.

Aw c’mon.
Aw, C’MON.
Aw, CUH’mon.
AW, c’mon.
Aw, c’MON.

It went on for twenty minutes, until I got up and pretended to look for the bathroom.

Will went inside and changed into his own trunks. When he came out, he flitted around like a giant crane fly, his fragile, mushy limbs ready to fall off his body at the slightest touch. I had to revise his weight down to 120 pounds, if that.

After an hour or so, Sue’s husband Greg showed up. A bearded, heavily-muscled man, he had a blond mullet, mirrored sunglasses, and the barrel chest and crouching stance of a silverback gorilla. When he took off his shades after the sun set, I saw that his pupils had contracted down to the size of pinholes, unresponsive to the gathering dusk. His eyes were blank, sky blue disks.

“We’re having having hamburgers and pork loin,” Floyd said to him. “Is that all right?”

Greg stared at his feet, shook his head, and chuffed as though it were the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.

“Oh, man,” he said, looking up. “Man! Shit! As long as it ain’t tube steaks, I’m fine. I had so much of ‘em in army I can’t even look at ‘em anymore. I…It…They…Just…No tube steaks, man!”

He unleashed a horrible laugh, like a donkey being vibrated at high speed.