Kites: A Memoirby Jason Wachtelhausen
After dad died my brother started having these dreams. He would open the door to the bathroom and my father would be standing there at the sink staring at his reflection in the mirror. My brother would start to apologize and back out, but something about the way our father just stood there staring at himself would keep him from turning away. Dad would raise an old-fashioned straight razor, the kind my mother said people used to carry hidden in their shoes in the bars and pool halls she’d hung around in as a youth, and my brother would breathe a sigh of relief thinking he was only going to shave. And then my dad would cut his throat. Sadly, life would sort of jump back into him after that, and he would panic as he realized what he had just done. He would drop the bloody razor into the white bowl of the sink, and then with his big, white hands he would try hopelessly, ridiculously to stop the flow of blood that was now spraying through his fingers like something from a cheesy old horror flick and covering everything in the bathroom in red.
This all came out over a dinner my brother and I had one evening with our friend Scott at Chili’s. My brother was only fourteen, and I would be turning sixteen shortly, but we both felt that our father’s sudden, unexpected death had brought us immediately into adulthood, and Chili’s seemed like a pretty grown up place to go. Plus we’d heard they had good wings.
So we sat and ordered and my brother told his story and cried. I sat shocked at the graphic nature of the dream, and Scott, a Mexican whose tough-love attitude came from the years he spent as the only Mexican member of what was then Columbus, Ohio’s largest all-Latino gang, yelled and shook my brother by his shoulders and told him he had to toughen up, then gave him one of those big tight man hugs that men give men. One of those hugs that says, “I feel your pain and I know this is tough but you’ll get through it because you’re tougher”—and also shouts to everyone in the vicinity, “Hey, it’s OK for men to hug each other,” which I always feel sort of detracts from the whole thing. I find the ferocious slaps on the back can be a bit of a drawback as well, but we got through it. We hey-ed and OK’d and alright-ed and generally duded it out, and were all in better spirits by the time the onion blossom arrived.
Dad’s death affected our mother in a different way. She started hanging out at the bowling alley a lot more, and she started stealing people’s keys. A strange manifestation of the breakdown she was quietly having, I guess, but no stranger than the one I was headed for.
I’d be sitting at the table eating a bowl of granola or whatever it was I ate for breakfast back then and drinking a cup of pomegranate tea. We used to get a wonderful loose pomegranate tea from a place called the King Avenue Coffee House—and mom would come down the steps hung over from the night before. She’d walk into the kitchen and glance down at the ring of keys sitting in the middle of the table. She’d look over at me, and I’d shrug, and then with a little jingle she’d snatch the offending set of keys off of the table and sit and put her head down or sometimes look out of the window.
I’m not sure if the bowling alley was a good place for my mom or not. She made a few boyfriends there, and I guess that that was nice. My brother had liked Hamer, because of his ice-cold wrap-around shades, I think, but I always thought the best was George from Georgia. That was how he introduced himself to people and consequently how people always referred to him. My mom had to fire him though when she found out how young he was. She just couldn’t see what a fashionably dull young Georgian like him would want to do with a heavy set black woman over twenty years his senior. Maybe George had a fat fetish or a black fetish or an old lady fetish, and mom didn’t want to be hanging around with a sick fetishist. He may have also just liked my mom because she had a good sense of humor and was pleasant and a great bowler, but was it worth the risk? So, she sent him on his way, and he put his hands into the pockets of his denim jeans, or maybe it was his denim jacket, and with the wispy evidence of his manhood fluttering in the breeze above his lips he walked dejectedly down the steps my father had fallen down the day before he died and out of my mother’s life forever. That’s not exactly true though, because he still followed her around like a puppy at the bowling alley. So, I guess what I mean to say is that with his shaggy brown hair blowing briefly out of his sad brown eyes as he turned to take one final look back, he walked out of our home forever. But, that’s not really true either, because he did come by for drunken barbecues from time to time. They broke up, I guess is really what I’m trying to say.
Mom needed a break, and she knew it. She’d been having too many late nights, hanging out with too many young dudes, stealing too many strangers’ keys without realizing she was doing it at the time, and then not remembering who she’d taken them from. The front desk at the bowling alley was also becoming a little suspicious with the number of sets of “lost” keys she somehow managed to “find.”
Mom decided that what she needed to do was to get away. She craved the salt air of the Atlantic and some time alone with the family…so she packed bags for herself and my little brother and headed for some new Trump hotel in Atlantic City— not sure which one. She took my brother and not me because she figured I didn’t like to gamble, and she was right. I didn’t. My brother did, but she forgot that he was too young and he spent his vacation time in an alley shooting craps and pitching pennies with other kids and sketchy oldsters who either weren’t allowed into the casinos or preferred the company—or perhaps it was the challenge—of back-alley betting with the underage set.
My mom also forgot my super-sweet sixteen, and didn’t realize that the little vacation she’d arranged would leave me alone on my birthday. I spent it in a strip club called Dreamers watching my underage friend Laurie dance and listening to Scott tell me that I had to toughen up when I mentioned the fact that I was a little bummed that my mom had taken a vacation with my brother on my b-day.
My mom came back from A.C. and felt she was ready for the bowling alley again. The key thing thankfully had stopped, and that was good. She made some new friends: Artus, who spoke his own language; Joe, a gay pot dealer who kicked us down ounces of shake for forty bucks a pop; and Don, the ex-Satanist Sam Elliott look-alike who would become her first and last long-term boyfriend after dad kicked the bucket. If you don’t remember Sam Elliot from the old Mission Impossible show or his numerous westerns you might remember him as the guy who played the Stranger in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. This dude Don was a dead ringer for the guy, droopy, push-broom, soup-strainer moustache and all.
Poor Don was a sweetheart in many ways, but in more ways he was a dumb-ass and in the end my little brother almost killed him for calling my mom a parsimonious bitch, or maybe it was sanctimonious bitch, and eventually she had to kick him to the curb. It was sad, because Don always struck me as one of those guys who needs an anchor in life, and in more ways than simple weight my mom can be that. It was sadder still, because it’s all too easy to imagine Don having a Satanic relapse, and from there it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to imagine him dressed in some stupid looking robes and standing in a circle with seven others or nine or twelve or whatever number is most pleasing to the demon-lord of hell in a stinky, smoky, dimly-lit, carpeted room…and then, for some reason I imagine myself having to have dinner with all seven or nine or twelve of those people. Don’t ask me why, but I do, and even now the thought makes me want to beg my mom to take him back before it happens. I can’t help but wonder if Don is out there somewhere still, and these thoughts come from a spell he’s cast on me. Maybe he’s reading this now, a broken man with nothing left to lose.
If he kills me please tell my wife and daughter that I love them and David Sampe that he can have all of my shoes.
Artus was never a boyfriend. He was just a nice old Southern gentleman, or maybe Northern or, based on the way he spoke, he may have been from Papua New Guinea, so…maybe Eastern. He was an old black guy and dressed in the way old black guys dress in films when the director wants to portray the old-black-guy-who-hangs-out-drinking-in-a-bowling-alley-all-day type. He had short salt and pepper curls and deadly-looking, white side whiskers and would always greet you with a raised cup and a hearty, “She-bong-dong-hang-bong-day!” or something of that nature. The entire time I knew Artus I never, ever understood one word he said. Ever. When my mother first introduced me to him, I asked her if she understood him—if, after a certain amount of exposure she learned to understand his language or lack thereof. She said no. She said that over time you just learned to nod in the right places. I had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to be friends with someone like that, someone they couldn’t understand. I put the question to my mom, and she said, “Well, he seems nice.”
I love my mom.
I had a friend then called Eric. He’s still a good friend. Eric is hyper-intelligent, hyper-talented. He’s not really a nerd. Brainy, I guess you’d call him. He’s white. He looks like a white Michael Jackson, so he’s kind of whiter than most of your run-of-the-mill whites. His sister looks like a white Michael Jackson too, but it works for her. She’s beautiful, but Eric just sort of looks like a tall, dying elf.
We went out to my mom’s house once for something. I’m not sure what…probably to steal some of these Codeine pills her friends sent her from Canada. 222s they were called. Artus was there drinking at the kitchen table. I introduced Eric and went upstairs to speak with my mother. We got into a discussion about something—can’t recall what, but eventually my mom said, “Oh God, Jason did you leave poor Eric down there with Artus?!?”
We both rushed downstairs not able to imagine how poor elfish Eric might react to Artus’s gibberish. When we got to the kitchen Eric was sitting directly across from Artus, and Artus was saying, “Budda-ya-banna-dig-ding-ding.”
Eric said, “Right, but Artus, the thing you have to understand about the Black Power movement as a whole is the way it affected the whites in this country as a whole,” or something like that. My mother and I just looked at each other, shrugged and went to finish our conversation out front. I remember it was a beautiful day.
My brother, Guillermo, developed an interest in the Black Power movement some time after dad died, around the time he was learning about gang culture by getting shot at on 4th Ave. on Columbus’ East Side. This was also around the time my mom discovered my brother’s little black revolver, hidden, not surprisingly, under his bed. My mother disposed of the gun by driving a few towns over and depositing it in a supermarket dumpster.
During his Black Nationalist/gang-banger phase Guillermo once asked my mother if she had ever gone to see Huey P. Newton or any of those Black Panther Party for Self Defense types speak when she and my father lived in California. She said, “Oh, probably. Your father was always dragging me around to see some black shit,” and then, if I remember correctly, she went into some story about when dad had taken her to see The Wiz.
Dad was white. German. Teutonic, I think it’s called. He did not in any way resemble Michael Jackson, or an elf. I suppose if you were going to say he resembled any fantasy creature it would be a Cyclops, just one with two eyes. A bi-clops, I guess. I was my father’s son from the beginning. If I ever have any doubts about that I only have to look into the mirror—at my two eyes—to remind myself.
My parents were in love, but it wasn’t some silly storybook version of love. Just like we had cars growing up, but they weren’t silly storybook versions of cars. They weren’t cars with bulletproof windshields or a built-in computer that helped us solve crimes. They were cars that broke down and got into crashes, and sometimes if we didn’t give them a good slam, the doors swung open when we rounded corners. My parents’ love was like that. Sometimes the doors swung open. And when the doors swung open they would fight. Sometimes the fights were about real things like my dad’s drinking, and sometimes they were about fake things like who had the tougher job. But at the base of it all, whatever the fights were about on the surface, whatever the words made it sound like they were saying, what they really were saying was, “We love each other, and we know we’re not going anywhere (except maybe dad’s friend Rick Grabfelter’s couch for a few days) so how are we going to work this thing out?” There was never any of the grim soul-searching or wondering if they had made the right choices in life that invariably come with a breakup. There was never any sticking with it for the kids or any of that noble crap. Their decision or non-decision to stay together had absolutely zilch to do with my brother and me, and I see that as a good thing.
But they fought. Of course they fought. You can’t put two people together who are that different, for that long, and not expect them to disagree. And, especially if the people both have a strong belief in themselves and a degree of passion, which both of my parents did—to the max—you are going to have some clashing of wills and general bickering. Sometimes those disagreements are going to be loud and vocal, and sometimes they are going to take the shape of long notes taped to bottles of vodka that begin like this, “ASSHOLE! I knew this was the first thing you’d go for when you walked in the door!!!!!!!!!!! Did you even notice that your children are here alone! ASSHOLE!!!!!!!!” In my dad’s defense, I think it was actually his friend Rick Grabfelter who found that one.
Religion was one of the things my parents disagreed about, or maybe not religion so much, but God. Mom is a devout Christian…a Baptist, I think. Dad was an Atheist. I ended up somewhere in the middle, in a place I call the smart rational people zone. It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone except everything makes sense and is really pretty easy to understand and explain—which is nice. Unfortunately, the theme music is just whatever happens to be playing on the radio and that can’t really compare with the Twilight Zone’s unforgettable Dee Dee Dee Dee.
My parents had an argument once about my mom wanting us to go to church. Dad’s argument was that we should not have to go. Somehow the compromise they reached was that dad should take us to a Catholic church so that we could see what church was like for him when he was a boy. This of course had nothing to do with what they were arguing about and was something I’ve always regarded as a masterstroke of manipulation on my mom’s part. Dad wasn’t used to getting duped, and he was sitting next to my brother and me in a shirt and tie on a hard wooden pew in some damp Catholic cathedral, before he realized that this was exactly what had happened. He kept muttering, “Fuck…What the fuck?” making hand gestures and mumbling back snatches of the argument to himself under his breath trying, I’m sure, to figure out just how he’d been tricked into this.
I’m not sure if my father was really a forgiver, or a forgetter, and more than once he told us about the Catholic school he’d gone to growing up. The janitor there had a little shed out back and also had the privilege of disciplining the children. If you did something that called for more than the ubiquitous ruler across the knuckles you were sent out back to see him. His method of discipline was straightforward enough. He would make you strip naked, completely naked, and then he would open a box of 100 tacks and throw them down on the dirt floor of his little shed. All you had to do was pick up every single tack. Every time you bent over for one he’d whip you—I can’t recall with what. My dad said you’d always get hold of about thirty or forty, and your hands would be bleeding from holding onto them so tight and trying to do it so quickly, and then he’d deliver a particularly savage blow and you’d convulse dropping everything you’d managed to pick up to that point, and then, of course, you’d have to start all over again. Dad told me that no one ever managed to pick up all 100 and that the janitor never stopped beating anyone until they were passed out and had stopped flinching at his blows. My dad got in trouble a lot, and until the day he died he had thin white stripes of scar tissue that ran from the hallow behind his knees to the place where his neck met the back of his skull.
After the church thing was over and we were back out in the sun, back on the street, Dad asked us, “So, what did you think?” I shrugged. I really didn’t know what to say—or what was expected of me.
Without any hesitation, my brother said, “Boring.” To this day I have admired him for that gutsy, honest statement. I also knew then what it was that had been expected of me. The truth.
“Exactly,” was all my father said, and that was the end of the experiment. We didn’t talk about it anymore. We didn’t have to. My dad summed up everything he had to say with that one word, and then we went to get some ice cream.
The next week we returned to mom’s church, and Pastor Dan, our regular Sunday school teacher. Pastor Dan had a few pretty long strands of black hair and was fat and white and dressed in earth-tone polyester three-piece, the way white dudes dress in films when the director wants to portray the fat-white-sweaty-perverted-Sunday-school-child-molester-with-a-serious-greased-down-combover-and-the-sweaty-face-of-a-fat-guy-who-molests-kids-type.
My mom wasn’t shy about warning us against the dangers of sexual predators. She had read something about a pre-school where the teachers had forced the students to have sex for sick films and had chopped the head off a live rabbit in front of all the kids and told them that this is what would happen to them if they ever ratted to anyone about what was going on. She told us all about it and explained that no matter what anyone said would happen to us or to our parents we always had to tell them. We got it. We understood perfectly, and we didn’t think there was anything to worry about anyway. Pastor Dan never chopped the heads off of any rabbits or anything else. All he ever did was make us go to the bathroom two to a stall and show us how to pee by holding our little weiner-dogs for us—to show us how to aim and stuff like that, and maybe sometimes he’d give us little kisses on the forehead.
Eventually he got a little bolder, and shortly before we moved to Canada, I remember my dad reading my mom a newspaper piece about Pastor D getting busted. I remember him saying to my mom something about how suspicions were aroused when a number of parents started finding unusually large amounts of grease around their kids’ butt holes. My mom stood motionless with her hand over her mouth as he read. Dad finished, and my mom said something like, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
Snorting, my dad said in his most sarcastic voice, “Well Lila, do they still have to go to church now?”
God, I loved that dude.
Wachtelhausen has written for magazines including Wired and ReadyMade.