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At night here I often dream of my parents. They are good dreams and I wake happy and refreshed, although nothing very important happens in them. We will be sitting on the porch in summer, drinking iced tea and watching our scottie dog, Jordan, lope across the front yard. Although we talk, the words are pale and dreamy, unimportant. It makes no difference—we are all very glad to be there, even my brother, Ross.
Now and then Mother laughs or throws her arms out in those great swoops and arcs when she talks—her most familiar gesture. My father smokes a cigarette, inhaling so deeply that I once asked him when I was young if the smoke went down into his legs.
As is true with so many couples, my parents' temperaments were diametrically opposed. Mother ate life as fast as she could get her hands on it. Dad, on the other hand, was clear and predictable and forever the straight man to her passion and shenanigans. I think the only great sadness in their relationship for him was knowing that although she loved him in a warm, companionable way, she went all-out in adoring her two sons. Originally she had wanted to have five children, but both my brother and I had such difficult births the doctor told her having another child would be a deadly risk. She compensated in the end by pouring the love for those five kids into the two of us.
Dad was a veterinarian; still is a veterinarian. He'd had a successful practice in Manhattan when they were first married, but gave it up to move to the country right after his first son was born. He wanted his children to have a yard to play in and the safety to come and go as they pleased any time of the day.
As with everything else in her life, my mother pounced on the new house and tore it limb from limb. New paint inside and out, new wallpaper, floors stripped and sealed, leaks stopped ... When she was done she had created a solid, amiable place with more than enough room, light, warmth, and security to assure each of us this was a home as well as a house.
All that and two little boys to raise. Later she said those first two years in the house were her happiest. Everywhere she went, either someone or something needed her, and that is what she thrived on. With one boy in her arms and another clinging to her skirt, she telephoned, cooked, and hammered the house and our new life there into submission. It took a few years, but when she was done, things both worked and gleamed. Ross was starting school, she'd taught me how to read, and every meal she put on the table was tasty and different.
When she felt we were all taken care of, she went out and bought the dog for us.
My brother, Ross, quickly turned into an eager, curious kid who, at five years old, was already supremely naughty. The kind who does ghastly things but is constantly being forgiven because people think the act was either accidental or cute.
When he was a toddler he used to scour the house looking for new things to poke into or take apart. Over the years he moved through Tinkertoys, Silly Putty, and Erector Sets like an express train. Much against my dad's wishes, Mother bought him a wood-burning kit for his sixth birthday. He used it properly for a couple of weeks, spelling his name on any piece of scrap wood he could find. Then he spelled ROSS LENNOX on an oak armchair. Mother spanked him and threw the burner away. She was like that—very determined, and sure that the only way to raise children was to love them all the time, notwithstanding the necessary smack now and then when they deserved it. No excuses, no apologies—if you did it, you got hit. Five minutes later she was hugging you again and would do anything in the world for you. I must have understood her way very early in life, because I was rarely hit. But not Ross; God, not Ross. The reason I'm mentioning the episode is that it was the first time the two of them really knocked heads over something. Ross burned the chair, Mother spanked him and threw the thing in the garbage. When she was gone he took it out of the garbage and carefully burned holes in the bottoms of her expensive new leather boots.
She discovered them an hour later and, to my horror, asked me if I'd done it. Me! I was the dullard who watched these titans with awe and trembling. No, I hadn't done it. Of course she knew that, but needed to hear it from me before she took action. Marching into Ross's room, she found him sitting calmly on the bed reading a comic book. Just as calmly, she went over to his dresser and picked up his favorite model airplane. Lifting the burner out of her apron pocket, she plugged it into the wall and, in front of his astonished eyes, burned holes through the middle of both wings. He wailed, the room stank horribly, and those black, wispy threads of singed plastic floated everywhere. When she was done she put the plane back on the dresser and walked out of the room, winner and still champion.
She won that time, but as he grew older, Ross became increasingly more clever and wily; their duel continued, but on an equal level.
What happened was, my brother had inherited her vitality and appetite for life, but rather than desiring everything, as she did, he preferred specific courses in huge servings. If life was a massive feast, he only wanted the pâté, but he wanted all of it.
And manipulate? There was no one who could do it better. I was the world's biggest pushover and no challenge at all, but in the short span of three months one summer he got me to: break the window in my father's study, throw a rock point-blank at a beehive (while he stood inside the house watching), give him my allowance so he'd protect me from God, who, he said, was always on the brink of throwing me into hell for my evil six-year-old behavior. My father had an old copy of The Inferno with Doré's illustrations, and Ross showed it to me one afternoon to let me know what I was in for if I didn't continue to pay him protection money. The pictures were both so horrific and so engrossing that I needed no prompting after that (and for the next few weeks, until the spell wore off) to take the book down on my own and marvel at what I'd just barely avoided with my brother's help.
I was certainly his prime chump, but he could throw his lasso around most people. He knew how to work my mother so she'd let him stay home from school, my father so he'd take us to a Yankee game or a drive-in movie. Naturally he got caught once in a while and was hit or punished, but his record (what he called his "won-lost record") was astounding compared to most other kids'.
In comparison, I was the archangel Gabriel. I think I made my bed from the day I could toddle, and in my endless prayers at night I asked God to bless everyone I could think of, including the Barnum & Bailey circus.
I had a hamster in a silver-colored cage, a Lone Ranger rug, and college pennants on my walls. I kept all my pencils sharpened and my Hardy Boys books in strict alphabetical order. In answer to this, one of the many things Ross liked to do was come into my room and dive-bomb my bed. He'd spread his arms out as far as they would go and hit it at top speed. Often one of the wooden support slats groaned or even broke, and the pillow would fly up in the air from shock. I'd whine, and he'd hee-hee with delight. But having him in there was a great treat, so I never complained too loudly. He once put half a dead cat on my pillow with a little baseball cap on its head, and I never told a soul. I tried to pretend it was a special secret we had between us.
His room was the opposite of mine, but ten times more wonderful, always. I admit it. Everything was in an uproar, from sneakers on the desk to a radio under his mattress. He and my mother had world wars about his room, but it stayed his way three quarters of the time, regardless of her hair-pulling or threats. The most amazing thing about it was the variety of stuff he'd accumulated.
None of those college pennants for him. He'd gotten hold of an immense movie poster advertising Godzilla. That covered one wall in flames, blood, and lightning. On another was a tattered Albanian flag my father'd brought back from the war. On the bookshelves were a complete collection of Famous Monsters magazine, a leprous-looking stuffed skunk, all of the Oz books, and several of those old cartoonlike cast-iron banks that are so popular in antique shops these days.
He loved to go to the town dump and spend hours with a long metal pole, rummaging through piles, flipping aside things that he wanted to take home. He'd found a porcelain snuff box there, a railroad clock with no hands, a book on paper dolls that had been published in 1873.
I remember all this because some time ago I woke up in the middle of the night after having had one of those remarkably clear dreams; the kind where everything you experience is in such cold, clear light that you feel out of place in the real world once you wake up. Anyway, my dream took place in his old room, and when I came awake, I grabbed a pencil and paper and wrote down a list of all the things I'd seen.
If a boy's room is an out-of-focus picture of what he'll later turn out to be in life, Ross would have been ... an antique dealer? An eccentric? Something unforeseeable but very special, I think. What I remember best was lying on his bed (whenever he'd permit me in the room—I had to knock before I entered) and letting my eyes run over his shelves and walls and things. Feeling as if I were in some land or on a planet that was impossibly far from our house, from my life. And when I'd seen everything for the hundredth time, I would look at Ross and be delighted that however foreign or strange or cruel, he was my brother and we shared a house, a name, our blood.
His taste changed as he got older, but that only meant things became more wacky. For a while he was obsessed with old typewriters. At any one time he would have three or four of them lying around in a thousand pieces on his desk. He joined a club for antique typewriter collectors and for months wrote and received hundreds of letters. Swapping parts, getting and giving repair tips ... Once in a while a strange, mossy voice from Perry, Oklahoma, or Hickory, North Carolina, would call and ask for him. Ross talked to these other fanatics with the poise and assurance of a forty-year-old master repairman.
From typewriters he moved on to antique kites, then Shar-Pei dogs, followed closely by Edgar Cayce and the Rosicrucians.
It sounds as if he was a burgeoning wunderkind, and to a degree he was, but away from his obsessions Ross was sullen and sly as a splinter. He constantly locked the door to his room and was consequently suspected by my parents of doing all kinds of "things" in there. I kept telling them he did it to get their goat, but they didn't listen to me.
For any number of reasons, he would have a battle royal with my mother two or three times a week. With her hair-trigger temper, he knew how easy it was to make her mad (chew with his mouth open, not wipe his feet ...), but that didn't satisfy him. When he was in the mood, he wanted her tied in fiery knots, raging, stumbling from a fury so blind she actually bumped into things.
I gather it's not uncommon for families to be at one another's throats during the kids' so-called formative years, but what happened in our family was that as Mother lost more and more ground to Ross, it made her increasingly wary of both of us. I was a coward and took to the hills whenever I felt her temperature rising, but I couldn't always escape. The fallout from her flashes of anger often hurt me, and I couldn't believe the unfairness of the world. I knew I was a happy, normal little boy. I knew, too, that my brother was everything but. I knew he drove my mother nuts, and I readily understood why she blew her top at him. But what never made sense to me was how I got dragged into their often brutal melees and ended up being slapped or screamed at or punished for no reason at all.
Did that scar me for life and make me hate all mothers I've met since? Not at all. It scared and awed me to see Ross act that way, but I was also the most captive member of his audience. Even including the occasional whack, I wouldn't have traded living on the outskirts of hurricane country for anything in the world.
Soon he was stealing whatever he could lay his hands on. He was a premier thief, due in large part to chutzpah. He was constantly stopped in stores and asked where he was going with that watch (book, lighter ...). With a guileless, uncomprehending look, he would say he was just bringing it over there to his mother. After being stared down by Ross, the salesperson would apologize for being so gruff with him. Five minutes later Ross would have the thing in his pocket and be out on the street.
Once, he had a fight with my mother the day after Christmas and told her he'd stolen every one of the presents he'd given us. She erupted, but my calm father—saddened but used to it by then—just asked which store they'd come from. Ross wouldn't say, and we were off on the carousel again.
Five days later my parents went out to a New Year's Eve party and made Ross baby-sit for me. Ten minutes after they were out the door, he dared me to slide down the banister with my eyes closed. I'd gone a couple of feet before I felt something hideous and burning on the back of my hand. I threw both arms up, knocking away the cigarette he'd been singeing me with. Losing my balance, I fell over the side and landed on my arm, which instantly snapped in two places. All I remember besides the pain is Ross's face right up next to mine, telling me again and again I'd better keeping my fucking little mouth shut about this.
Was I a fool? Yes. Should I have screamed bloody murder? Yes. Did I want my brother to love me just a little? Yes.CHAPTER 2
When he was fifteen Ross changed his image and became a tough guy. Leather jacket with a thousand zippers and chrome studs, a bone-handled switchblade knife from Italy, a tube of Brylcreem hair goop on the shelf in the bathroom.
He hung around with a bunch of dimwits who, instead of talking, smoked Marlboros and spat on the ground. The leader of this pack was named Bobby Hanley, who, although short and skinny as a car antenna, had a nasty reputation. It was assumed that anyone who messed with him was out of his mind.
The first time I ever saw Bobby was at a high school basketball game. I was eleven, and because I was still in elementary school, I didn't know who he was. I'd come to the game with Ross (who'd been forced into taking me by my parents), but he ditched me seconds after we got there. I'd looked around frantically for someone to sit with, but it seemed as if everyone was a stranger. I ended up standing by the main door. A few minutes into the game an old janitor who I knew was named Vince came in and stood next to me. He had one of those long wooden brooms in his hand; every time our side scored he'd stamp it on the ground. We started talking, and I felt more comfortable. It was very pleasant, and I started thinking about how great it would be when I was in high school and could come to these games all the time with my friends.
A few minutes before the end of the first quarter the door whacked open and a bunch of tough guys sashayed in. Vince muttered something about "little turds," and since I didn't know anything, I nodded.
They walked right up to the out-of-bounds line and stood there, checking out the crowd, ignoring the game completely. Then one of them took out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. He threw the match on the floor. Vince walked up and told him there was no smoking in the gym. Bobby Hanley didn't even look his way. Instead, he took a long, slow drag and said, "Blow it out your ass, Pop."
I couldn't believe it! The even more astonishing thing was, Vince mumbled something, but walked back to the door.
A few of Hanley's crew snickered, but none of them had the nerve to light up too. Standing next to me, Vince cursed and kept moving his hands around on the top of the broom. I didn't know what to do. How could this kid get away with that? What kind of crazy power did he have?
The quarter ended as Bobby smoked his cigarette down to the brown filter. When he was done he dropped it on the hardwood floor and ground it out with his boot heel. I watched his foot move back and forth. Much too loudly I said, "What a big jerk."
"Hey, Bobby, numb-nuts over there called you a jerk."
Excerpted from Voice of Our Shadow by Jonathan Carroll. Copyright © 1983 Jonathan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 29, 2014