I was three when they
got divorced. I don't even remember living with him, actually.
There are flashes: a dog biting a paperboy; a dog's funeral in
some desert community somewhere; me and a girl drinking Vick's
Formula 44 and being made to vomit. That's about it.
They made a pact to never say anything bad about each other, a pact they lived up to, especially her, when I would come home from the summers that I got to spend with him in the paradise I knew as Santa Barbara, crying that I wanted to live with my dad.
Christmas break, when
I was in third grade, she got her second divorce. From a guy
named Mike. We lived in a development community outside of Tucson.
Everyone had cats because they would tease the scorpions into
stinging themselves. There were dead scorpions and dead cats
everywhere. We had a puppy.
No one had grass in
the desert. The entire community had front yards of gravel. When
my puppy pissed on the gravel, Mike would make me go out with
paper towels and clean each individual piece of gravel. It didn't
make sense to me then. It doesn't make sense to me now. I don't
think it made sense to her, either, but she would just give me
this look that said "do what he says... for me." She
wanted to keep Mike, I suppose.
Until Christmas break of third grade.
I was waiting in line for the Matterhorn. An eye on him where he stood at the phone. Waving hands. I've never seen him mad since then.
He would take me to Disneyland every summer and every Christmas break that I visited. This time, at Disneyland, he kept stopping to use the phone. I always knew when my flight was. We would have just enough time to watch the Main Street Electrical Parade, buy some magic tricks, and then speed off to LAX and, amid much fanfare about someone so young flying alone, I would just make my flight.
If it was a particularly profitable year, we would spend the night in a hotel. This year wasn't a profitable one.
There was a family from Alberta in line in front of me. The mother looked so pretty. She had her head on her husband's shoulder. The girl was my age. They talked to me. Helping me ignore him.
I was an expert on Disneyland. I had been there every summer and every Christmas break since I could remember. I told them all of the best rides. How the guy at the Autobahn this year let me drive my own car, even though I didn't reach the red height line.
"You can't keep dragging him around the country like this!"
"I'm not dragging him. Get him on the plane."
"What's that supposed to mean, 'We'll see'?"
"The line's moving, I'll call you later."
"What a sec, Burt. 'We'll see'?"
"Well, Sea World just opened this exhibit with a Killer Whale, I was thinking of taking him to that tomorrow."
"His flight is tonight, Burt. How are you going to take him to see the killer whale tomorrow if his flight is tonight?"
"The line's moving... I'll call you after the Matterhorn."
He liked movie stars and Hollywood and James Dean. He had all of the magazines. The kids at school would tease him because he was fat. I could never reconcile the pictures of him when he was in high school with the dad I knew. A buzz cut. Chubby cheeks. Hands tucked into the big pockets of his suit. A big grin trying to make the best of it.
Somewhere or other, he learned to tap dance, and would sing and play guitar and tap dance in the bed of a truck at the county fairs. The kids at school, again, would tease "Fat Burt" mercilessly, but he had pockets full of change to spend on ice cream sodas and movie magazines. They didn't.
He wet the bed. This is how they got him to stop: When he came home from school, his mother would wrap him in the wet sheets and wrap a belt around it so he couldn't move. When his father came home, he would get beaten with the belt.
Mike moved us from Santa Barbara to Utah. We were Catholics, I guess. I don't know anything about it. Other Catholics keep talking about the guilt. I just remember the long ceremonies and the presents I got for learning some prayers.
She made peanut butter and honey sandwiches for me for lunch. Sometimes she made two of them. If she bought the right kind of bread, the honey would soak through the bread just the right way and it would be crunchy.
I walked from our apartment to school through a graveyard. There was a grave for a girl who was born the same month and year that I was born. I passed her every day.
I always looked forward to seeing her.
Charlie Brown's mom used to put notes in his lunch. So did mine. "Study hard, and someday you could be president. - Mom"
I would sit on the edge of the blacktop, watching everyone play foursquare, eat my sandwiches and think of going to East Beach with him during the summers.
He bought me the soundtrack to "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," and I knew all the words. He even took me to see it in Hollywood one year. He was living there, trying to be an actor. I got to meet the people on "Laugh-In." I even got Ruth Buzzi's autograph.
A few years ago, Ruth Buzzi and I were on a TV show together. She remembered me and my dad.
"I found a nice place in Tucson. Downtown. I'll stay there until the school year is up and then we're moving to Oklahoma City. Uncle Buzz is gonna send me some money."
"What about Barkie?"
"Blackie. Can he stay in the new place? Dogs are important to kids."
"Don't tell me what's fucking important to kids, okay. I know what's important to kids. A mother is important to a kid!"
"So is a father."
"I'm just saying..."
"I know what you're saying. Quit it."
"Can he keep the dog?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Don't worry about it. I like that dog, too."
"He's happy here."
"He loves it here. Did he make any friends there?"
"He's so shy."
"I'm looking at a clock here. I figure you've got two hours left at Disneyland. Half hour to the airport. Don't say anything about Mike. Let me tell him."
"Why don't you let him stay with me until you finish the year at Arizona State?"
"What are you trying to say, Burt?"
"Adam is his best friend here. His best friend anywhere."
"What are you trying to say to me, Burt?"
"This can't be good for him; moving around like this all the time."
"I swear, once we get to Oklahoma, we're going to stay there."
"What are you going to do in Oklahoma?"
"I'm thinking of going to law school."
"You're going to be a lawyer now?"
"Don't even think about it, Burt."
"You dropped out of high school. You're going to be a lawyer?"
"I'm about to graduate college. Women can be lawyers, for your information. Goddamnit. Goddamnit."
"Do you talk like that..."
"Okay, Burt. This conversation is over. He's on the plane in two and one half hours, right?"
"I don't know."
"He is on the plane in two and one half hours. He is going to come home to his mother. You put him on the goddamned plane."
She grew up with Oklahoma oil money. Her younger brother was raised as an experiment: No Rules. None. Not even the one that is so popular now of not hurting anyone else or yourself. There were just no rules. Her brother had a .22. He could shoot it in the house. His walls were covered with bullet holes.
She had one rule. She had to read a book every week and give some kind of report to her mother. That was the condition they agreed on. Other than that, anything was okay.
Her mother was an English professor and she would go to classes. A free-spirited 16 year old girl with oil money and a groovy English professor mom.
They didn't make them like this in Arkansas. She had been to Europe with her family. Sailing to Greece. A summer on the Queen Elizabeth. Ponies. Four months in jail in Hines County Mississippi on the "Freedom Ride."
She smoked. She told dirty jokes. She swore. She drank. Her little brother had a motorcycle that he kept in his bullet hole riddled room, apparently.
She had never been wrapped up in sheets.
The hotel in California was nice. He took me out to have Mexican food. Then we had ice cream from 31 Flavors.
We watched TV that night. I asked him if they were going to show "A Charlie Brown Christmas" again. I kept asking him if he was going to be on each show. He would just shake his head.
He said that since the Main Street Electrical Parade was late, I missed my flight and that there was one the same time the next night.
I got to pick out two magic tricks at Disneyland this year. One was a mini-guillotine that cut a cigarette in half, but not your finger. The other one was a little red magic lantern that made a ball disappear. Since he didn't smoke, we worked on making the ball disappear for a while.
I talked on the phone to my friend, Adam. Adam thought it was cool that I got to go to Disneyland and Sea World before I left.
He bought swimsuits for us at the giftshop and we snuck over the fence and went swimming in the pool. Some teenagers were there, too. I hid behind him.
"I called Buzz. You can go to jail for this. Did you know that?"
"I think it would be best if we did what we talked about."
"What did we talk about, Burt?"
"You know. Him staying with me until you get settled in Oklahoma."
"We didn't talk about that, Burt. You talked about that. I never said anything about that."
"I just think it's best."
"Well then, we have a problem, don't we."
"You're kidnapping my son."
"No I'm not."
"It's kidnapping Burt. That's the law. I have custody. You were there, weren't you? You signed the papers."
"How are you going to support him?"
"I have tenure at Santa Barbara High."
"What about this acting thing?"
"My son is important enough to make sacrifices for."
"Don't ever say something like that again."
"Don't. 'My son? My son?' Are you kidding me?"
"I said I'm sorry, okay?"
"Goddamn. Goddamn you, Burt."
"I talked to a lawyer, too."
"Do you really want to do this to him?"
"Let me talk to him."
"He's out by the pool."
"No. I can see him. He's a good swimmer."
"Is he alone?"
"There are some hippies there. They look like your brother."
"He's alone by the pool?"
"I can see him. He's not alone."
"Let me talk to him."
"He's by the pool."
"Where are you?"
"At a hotel. He likes hotels."
"I know that. I know quite a bit about him. He's my son."
"I think he should stay until you get settled."
"Where are you, Burt?"
"I told you."
"Goddamn. Goddamn you for this, Burt."
"Mother and Daddy think it's a great idea, him staying with me."
"Of course they do. They can teach him how to say nigger and how to be a good little Christian and how to be an ignorant, illiterate Jew-hater from Arkansas. You think I want your fucking mom brainwashing my son? It's bad enough you taking him there for the summers. He comes home after that saying yes ma'am and no ma'am."
"It's just good for him to be around family."
"I am his family, Burt. I am his mother. How many times do I have to say that?"
She said that she could feel the conception. That she knew immediately that she was going to be a mother.
He spoke enough English to get by in a bar and ask for a cigarette. He was studying engineering at the University of Austria. All of the smart Turkish kids were sent there by their parents after their mandatory summer in the military.
They met on a midnight horseback ride. She was the only one who could ride a horse drunk. Everyone else ended up walking theirs.
He asked her for a cigarette every chance he could. Smiling at her. Doing an impression of John Wayne with his Turkish accent. Clowning around.
He kissed her that night for the first time.
The second time he kissed her, it was two weeks later and they were in his dorm room.
The last time he kissed her, her mother was taking her back to a place called Oklahoma.