I suppose every family has a magic number; ours is two. Once a gathering grows to three or four the odds of some type of fracas increases significantly, and the holidays literally guarantee a complete Chernobyl-like meltdown. You can almost smell the dysfunction in the air when fifteen or twenty of us are cooped up for more than an hour in mama’s little rat-trap of a maze she calls a home. We love her to pieces, but when a woman misses the birth of her grandbaby because she can’t pry herself away from the QVC Lunch Special it’s time for someone to pull the batteries from the remote. The last time we ‘intervened’ I discovered two dozen unopened horse brushes hidden in the corner of the pantry. I could understand it if she ran a stable, but the closest momma ever had to a horse was that over-sized, half-breed of a mutt that sat in the corner and licked his sack 90% of the time, and split the other 10% between trying to give the babies kisses and getting tangled in everyone’s feet. When I confronted her with the brushes she said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly get rid of those….they make the cutest stocking stuffers.” It wasn’t anything we officially announced, but after third or fourth intervention we kind of gave up trying. I guess the moral of the story is, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t do it justice if you don’t have two dozen horse brushes.
I felt bad that we dumped a lot of the responsibility on momma’s boyfriend, Hank. I did truly appreciate what he meant to my mother—she seemed happy, but Hank definitely wasn’t going to be momma’s knight in shining armor where the hoarding was concerned. He’d done a lot with the place in the last fifteen years. There was the gnarly gang of broken down lawn mowers lurking in the wilds of un-mowed grass that he optimistically referred to as ‘strategically placed yard ornaments’, and of course the Old Style can-pyramid in the living room kind of screamed ‘art nouveau’. The thing I liked most about Hank was that he farted a lot—kind of sputtered when he walked, especially when he made trips to and from the fridge for beer. In redneck terms it was a flatulence freestyle version of the X Games…small fart, he laughed, medium fart, he laughed harder, big fart, he began the full fledged belly-laugh. The infamous explosive fart was reserved for the finale, which typically resulted in an extended visit to the bathroom and a fresh set of sweats in a darker color. I guess there comes a time when every 60 year old man feels the compulsion to grow up. After the old dog passed away, Hank was forced to take ownership of the stench floating about the room as well as the stains in his easy chair. I’m pretty certain that degree of reckoning would knock the wind out of any well-trained athlete. Hank just didn’t get tickled nearly as often anymore. It was kind of a shame for the little ones, because for years he was pretty much full-time entertainment.
I don’t really know how my little brother and older sister feel about our real dad. We never talked much about it, even though he’s been M.I.A for going on thirty years now. As tragic and sudden as a car accident or heart attack can be, I remember wishing for something so ordinary. I preferred to have been able to lay eyes on a crumpled pile of metal or at least have had the memories of seeing him lying in a casket. Dad rolled out of the driveway on his Harley in a beat up pair of jeans and a white tee and just disappeared into thin air. He told mom he was headed up to the T-Mart for a pack of smokes. The cashier said he’d been in that afternoon and the only thing odd about his visit was that he bought a winning scratch-off lottery ticket. Momma said the $500 would have gotten us completely caught up on rent, but assured us she’d make ends meet somehow. She didn’t talk about dad after that.
As a ten year old boy I remember thinking that whatever his reasoning, dad’s scheduled his departure perfectly. He narrowly missed the period of time when our family began to unravel. After a particularly ugly fight with momma, Linda, fourteen at the time, moved out of the house to live with her alcoholic and abusive boyfriend. My younger brother, Wayne, started wearing girl’s clothes and insisting that everyone call him Wanda. About that time Mom decided we didn’t have to go to church on Sunday mornings anymore, and I just remember being angry about everything, especially things I couldn’t change. Before long I was subsisting on a steady diet of schoolyard brawls and suspensions. I suppose we were all too busy dealing with our own demons to notice Momma sitting in front of the television, buying things left and right. I think she got tired of the brokenness and just wanted something shiny and new.
If Linda had went to college, or even graduated from high school; she would have majored in procreation. She studied hard and always had a willing lab partner waiting in the wings when an experiment finished. No one knows for certain, but I think she produced five babies in a shade over four years. Quite an impressive streak for anyone, but especially when the first arrived two weeks before her fifteenth birthday. More like a litter of puppies than babies, Linda kept three, and the luckier two went up for adoption. At the ripe age of twenty she took a break and settled down with a boyfriend who appeared more interested in moving drugs than making babies. He moved her into what is arguably considered one of the nicer government housing apartments in Clayton County.
On his sixteenth birthday Wayne convinced my mother to take him to the court house to officially become Wanda Rene. Upon graduation, Wanda moved to the city. She never gave an official reason, but I heard through the grapevine that she went to work as a hairdresser, no doubt with like-minded folks, at a trendy salon called Transformers. Wanda made a good living, with enough disposable income to afford some quality plastic surgery in the facial region as well as a very realistic pair of torpedoes jutting skyward. Regrettably with a significantly higher trajectory and a full cup size larger than Linda. Wanda was hands down a more attractive woman than my sister and Linda knew it. Looking at the pictures hanging on the walls of my mother’s home there was a clear distinction between pre and post- conversion. Post pictures were signified by Linda standing with no less than three people between her and my former brother.
I too had admittedly encountered a few bumps and crooks along the way. It took three failed marriages and a couple of domestic charges before discovering I was the type of person who needed to operate solo and in open spaces. I eventually dropped the drinking and learned to harness my anger and redirect it toward more positive outlets. I settled into a rather mindless factory job that allowed me to live modestly in a double-wide at the edge of town. In time I opened myself to the idea of sharing my space with a rescue from the shelter. My new best friend was a blood-hound named Rudy. I immediately connected with him because like me, he’d been dumped, and I was dead set on making his life mean something. We spent a lot of time bonding and honing his instinctive skills. Over the years he had tracked countless coons and located a multitude of poorly shot deer. He even helped locate a missing three year old once, and a couple counties over we used him to put a serial arsonist behind bars. Whereas dogs are concerned, Rudy became a rock-star not only in my mind and heart, but in the community as a whole.
I never considered myself better than my mother or either of my siblings—at best slightly less damaged. For me, one of the hardest parts of Christmas was looking around the room, surveying all of the collateral damage, while the catalyst of the collapse had driven off into the sunset. The most unjust aspect of it all was that he never once was forced to look any of us in the eye and admit any
culpability for the broken and wandering souls he left behind.
Dinner went surprisingly well, aside from a few harmless, verbal barbs and sideways glances which I considered to be a vast improvement over years past. Like the pro she had become, Linda transitioned from wine to beer and was well on her way to being over-served by the time we were opening gifts. I nearly bit my lip in two each time she demanded her three year old retrieve another beer from the cooler.
“Take one to your Uncle Randy, Sweetie. He looks like someone drove a railroad spike into his 8 penny diameter asshole!”
Linda smirked as she popped the top, and didn’t seem to notice that more beer dribbled down the front of her Christmas-themed sweater than entered her mouth. In stark contrast she wiped her face with the back of her hand like a lumberjack, and then carefully flicked the stray droplets of brew from Santa’s beard.
Holding up my hand I waived the toddler off. “No thanks, Darlin’. Your mommy probably forgot that I don’t drink any longer, but her potty-mouth is like American Express—never leaves home without it. Come sit on your uncle’s lap a minute and Granny will get us a gift to open.”
Mom ran interference by stepping in the line of sight between Linda and me, while handing out similar looking and shaped gifts to all the children. After making quick work of the wrapping, my niece looked up at me with her chocolate-drop eyes and asked “What is it?”
I was unsure myself, so I rolled the objects over in my hand several times before discovering an inflation valve on each. There were three distinct components, two of them connected with a rubber strap, and a lone cone-shaped object. I worked hard at suppressing the notion I’d just wasted a good amount of breath I might regret having expended at life’s end.
Mom jumped from around the corner, a pearlescent, cone-shaped object jutting from her forehead and the other two flapping on either side of her back, “We’re all Unicorns for the day—Yeaaahhhh!”
The suspense of this year’s mystery gift unfolded as my grown mother galloped about the living room with all the miniature unicorns trailing behind. Their eyes lit up when she revealed each and every one of them was an important part of the world’s first and most beautiful unicorn parade.
It was in that goofy moment I appreciated my mother the way I should have all along. As eccentric and frustrating as I often found her to be, her heart was always in the right place. She had done the best she could raising three less than cooperative children all on her own. Her joy came from sharing it with others, even when it came in the form of bulk purchased trinkets. Tears were pooling in the corners of my eyes when Linda’s drunken bellow stopped the parade cold.
“I wanna know whose gonna clean up all this sparkly, unicorn shit before it gets trampled into the carpet?”
Mom’s patented frown did little to suppress an inebriated giggle trickling from my sister. I followed it up by pressing the side of my index finger vertically against my lips, hurling it at her as much as a gesture’s direction can be harnessed.
Linda swiveled her head in both directions as if there was any question whom the directive had been intended.
“Don’t you shush me, you goodie-two-shoes little shit!” Linda extended her finger in my direction, the tip of it circling, until the closing of her left eye seems to steady her aim. “Every since you stopped drinkin’ you ain’t no fun!”
I leaned around the Christmas tree and fired back, “It’s ever, and aren’t any.” She looked puzzled so I expounded. “Ever since you stopped drinkin’ you aren’t any fun. And that’s completely not true.”
She began laughing hysterically, “You damn straight it ain’t true. I ain’t quit drinkin’ yet and don’t intend to ‘til that coolers empty, and I’m a butt-load of fun.”
I was pleased to see that Wanda had matured past the point of holding silly grudges. She pulled up a folding chair near Linda and attempted to make small talk, but Linda was in rare form.
“What? The fake-tittied he-she in the crowd hears the word butt-load and heads right over!” That’s righteous ain’t it!
At that moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this year’s meltdown would be instigated by Linda. When she drank too much, she turned into an angry and rabid dog, more than willing to ravage anyone that wandered close enough to the cage.
I motioned for Wanda to come away from her, and lowered my voice, “Leave her be, Wanda. She’s not much right now.
My phone went off and the text message was from a friend on the emergency squad.
‘I know its Christmas Day, but need you and Rudy’s help.
Out on route 39, mile marker 48, family of four confirmed dead.
Suspected drunk driver fled the scene and headed into the woods.
K-9 handler is out of town, can’t be here for another 4 hours.
I now it’s askin’ a lot, but can you help us out, brother?’
I shook Hank’s hand, pulled on my jacket, leaned over my mother’s chair, and kissed her forehead. “Thank you for continuing to do this despite the difficulties…i.e., Linda. There’s an emergency they need my help with, and I need to go. Linda’s about ready to crash and burn; she’ll be piled up somewhere soon. I’ll plan on heading back, pouring her into my truck, and driving her home. Love you, Mom.”
As I made my way around the room saying good-byes, Linda snatched my arm.
“Hey, Bar. That’s Boring-ass Randy—you ain’t leavin’ until you open up my gift!” She insisted.
“Alright, Sis, but this is important, so let’s make it quick.”
I plucked the bow off and peeled the wrapping back, to reveal a Christmas tree ornament with the likeness of Rudy on it.
“You don’t like it do you?” She suggested.
“No—I do like it. It looks a good bit like Rudy. I like it fine. Thank you, Linda.”
She used my arm for leverage, climbing the sleeve, as if her voice wasn’t already 50db too loud. “You don’t like it, Randy!” She insisted. “I can tell by the way you’re lookin’ at it.” She finally gave up the ill-advised attempt to stand and folded back into the chair, but continued her tirade with a renewed venomous tone. “Don’t pretend to like it if you don’t. God knows we grew up with enough pretending in this house—dad pretending he ever wanted anything to do with any of us, boys prancing around pretending to be girls, and momma, that bitch, pretending she cared about any of us and that she didn’t drive him away in the first place!”
The room became deathly still—so much that the ticking clock sounded like a bass drum. The eerie silence gave way to quiet sobs originating from opposing sides of the room, first Wanda, then my mother. The expression on Linda’s face was one of remorse, albeit significantly muddled and muted by the alcohol.
“That’s more than enough, Linda!” I roared.
My booming tone caused her to shrivel back so far into the chair it was almost as though I had to peel her from the fabric, before hoisting her over my shoulder.
“I’m taking out the trash, mom! Merry Christmas, everyone.”
Linda passed out in the passenger seat of my truck before we arrived on scene, and I figured a good rest was exactly what I needed from her. We passed the ambulance heading the other direction, presumably carrying the bodies of the family that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a spit second all of their hopes and dreams and the generations that would have come after them were crushed when their vehicle slammed into an eighteen wheeler careening out of control. According to witnesses on the scene the truck driver was not at fault, even though he had crossed the median into oncoming traffic. A motorcycle rider came flying up the on-ramp and forced his way into the lane. The truck driver swerved to avoid the immediate obstacle, his load shifted and the trailer jack-knifed, sweeping the biker into the median, before the tractor plowed through the divider and wiped out the oncoming car. The bike was certainly a mangled mess, but appeared to get pushed far enough to avoid the deadly swath of the truck. It had no license plate and had been reported stolen only an hour before the accident. A young woman said she saw the biker limp across the highway and disappear into the woods.
I allowed Rudy to sniff around the bike until he had a nose full. Then both of us slipped across the lanes and descended the steep berm. Even though it was more difficult on the dog, I didn’t want to ever influence his direction so I tended to lean back slightly and allow him to pull me along. I’d say we had traveled probably a half mile into the woods when the leash suddenly went light. Rudy had lunged and snapped the harness. I tried to keep up, but once he was free from the drag of pulling his owner he seemed to pick up pace, and was out of sight in the matter of a few minutes.
The shadows were growing thicker and starting to melt together. I estimated no more than an hour of light remaining. I was still waffling between forging onward with a tiny flashlight and going back for help and a better source of light when I heard the distinct crack of a hand gun. The shot came from deeper in the woods. A wave of relief washed over me when Rudy’s rhythmic howl picked back up again. A second discharge followed and Rudy’s cadence stopped mid yelp. I barreled headlong through the briars and the undergrowth with a renewed sense of urgency.
I emerged back on the highway well after dark, carrying the limp animal in my arms.
“He’s got a gun, Michael.” I shouted. “He shot Rudy. I’ve gotta get him to the vet!”
Without another word between us, I hopped into the truck and mashed the accelerator to the floor.
“I’m sorry—he’s hurt too badly, Randy. The best I can do is make his last few minutes comfortable.”
I know it was stupid, but I had never once imagined losing him, how difficult it would be to say goodbye, and how much more difficult it would be to get up each morning or come home in the evenings to an empty house. I guess that’s part of how we survive life—looking forward to the good times, and avoiding thinking in great detail about the crueler aspects of life. Whether you consider the bad or not, sometimes it blindsides you when you least expect it.
Ironically, it turns out that the murderer of my best friend, the renegade motorcyclist, was also my estranged father strung out on heroin. Although I tried for awhile, I came to the realization that I did not have the capacity to hate my father more than I already did. I also decided that telling my family about it would serve no purpose other than keeping the hurt alive. If I ever wanted to be a better man than my father today was the time to start.