From the series: Splatting Shit Against the Wall – Old or Rejected Writing Otherwise Collecting Dust
My son asks if a real zombie outbreak might ever happen so I glance over to his phone to see what curious cubbyhole of the internet has enticed him into its candy cottage of binary code. But, knowing that’s dangerous, I turn away before determining his exact coordinate in that neural network of 1’s and 0’s. I’m also driving us at 70 MPH up to Chicago on Interstate 65 behind a Peterbilt hauling lumber, while trying to gauge merging traffic so I decide I’ll give safety the right of way. The road signs and bumper stickers are suggestions enough that texting and driving kills and this can’t be much different so I go back to the highway and settle on asking why he asks that.
“It popped up on my Facebook. It’s from the The National Geographic website. They’re credible, aren’t they?”
I reply, “Usually, I suppose.”
He reads the title of the article, “Zombie Virus Possible Via Rabies-Flu Hybrid?” His inflection makes it clear it’s a question, not a statement.
At his age, I too had an affinity toward horror and comics and heavy metal and punk rock. Dissimilarly, he likes soccer while I never cared much for sports at all. And he seems to be getting into Joy Division, which makes as much sonic sense to me as Physics II did either lawfully or mathematically – which is to say, not much. And regarding this inquiry of the realities of the undead, I assume the synapses between his consciousness and the net’s have converged at his present destination, both taking some guidance from his acknowledged likes of zombie shows and movies and video games and the thumbs up he gave George A. Romero on social media.
The radio switches from Naked Eyes to The Bee Gees. When I was his age I hated my old man’s music. But my child doesn’t. He taps his foot, dangling from sitting cross-legged, to the beat of Stayin’ Alive. We’re going to see his favorite band in Chicago. He’s shown them to me on YouTube or Vimeo or somewhere else. Some metal act with a singer who dresses as a sinister Pope and a band masked and cloaked like something from Eyes Wide Shut. It’s all pretty cool to me but I’m probably the weird parent. I don’t get freaked out by my son liking this stuff, cause that’s what I’m supposed to do, get freaked out. So I don’t. And I know that from Alice Cooper to Kiss to Slayer, these bands have made the parents as much the marks as their kids and I don’t like being a mark. So fuck it. He’s allowed to like it.
Plus, I know he’s a good kid so he can like the rockin’ demonic Pope for all I care. I won’t deny him that pleasure just because I’m the bigger mark. And if it means he’s on the road to ruin, there’s still time to figure that out for himself and change course. I can’t do much about it. If he’s a fool, then so be it. How could I ever change that? But my litmus test suggests he’s not. So I give him plenty of rope to either explore or hang himself. You learn more about the world by exploring the current limits of your chain. So I’ll let him decide what to do cause, cause sooner or later he’ll have to anyway.
A new Lexus RX 350 rolls by on the left. The letters and numbers mean nothing but I know it’s probably twice the cost of our Toyota. I gag on the prejudgement that the owner is a show off even though that’s what I’d been taught. That anything above and beyond necessity is all for the sake of appearances. And I bought that line for a long time. Until I noticed I liked Hamilton watches more than Casio. And that some pretty regular folks prefer Doritos and Pepsi and Twinkies over the store brand. So I’ve come to understand that sometimes people just like what they like. And if they can afford it, why not? I’ll not get in the way of their pleasure, even if it’s only with an attitude that spreads like mold spores. And I realize now too that sometimes, when we live simply for subsistence or existence, demanding nothing more of ourselves and our lives, it makes sense to desire no more than what’s essential and then alchemize a moral platitude out of it.
My son snickers but I know not at what.
I sometimes imagine my thoughts as the number selected by the dancing ball on a roulette wheel. The numbers it lands on seem random. But they aren’t. They’re always connected. By the wheel and by the ball. Always. So this query about the zombie epidemic sends me down a path unimagined while Naked Eyes was playing. This path concerns our fears.
“You know, there’s always things to be afraid of. When I was a kid it was killer bees and bigfoot and getting trapped in burning skyscrapers.”
Then I add, “And AIDS.”
Another mile marker dashes past without me noticing the number.
“I wouldn’t be too worried about zombie viruses or the bird flu or ebola or that volcano underneath Yellowstone that’s supposed to kill us all.”
I glance over for a smirk or other expression of exasperation at my rambling. It doesn’t come so I wade in deeper, from the ankles to the knees now.
“My generation was supposed to die from all sorts of things and we never did. At least, not yet.”
Without looking away from his screen, he nods in affirmation so I take a few more steps into the gooey warmth of imposition he’s granting me. Now it’s up to my waist.
“Cancer and heart disease are the real killers. But you can’t put them in a movie with The Rock and sell tickets. Nuclear holocaust and Russian invasion. Now those sold tickets.”
I’m up to my chest in it now, this homewrecking of his time and conscience and space. He grants me leeway. Maybe I’m not just murdering his time and attention.
“War Games. And there was another one.” I pause to pull it from my hard drive but it stalls. “Shoot. I can’t remember. Can you look it up? Can you Google something like 80’s nuclear war movies?”
I’m up to my neck in it now. This is a physical imposition, something he can’t kindly ignore or dismiss or pretend to care about with a feigned and tepid smile. A real distraction from what’s already engaged him from behind the glass. But he cordially obliges with pecks and swipes at the screen. I peak between the road and his phone to monitor the progress.
“The Day After?” he suggests.
“Yeah. That’s the one. It was a TV movie that scared the crap out of us kids. We went to school the next day sure we were all gonna die.” I chuckle aloud at the thought but really it was nothing funny. There’s a part of me that thinks maybe it was an early practice in conditioning us to live in fear and confusion. Like those fucking duck and cover drills my parents were put through, hiding under their school desks as protection from the hydrogen bomb that was sure to come. Maybe it wasn’t so much about protecting themselves. Rather, maybe they needed to be made keenly aware of a looming doom.
“Thanks,” I say and go on thinking about all the more glorious ways to die than cancer or kidney failure before realizing I forgot about quicksand. Quicksand was something I’d also distressed over as a kid, mostly from seeing it in cowboy shows, I think. And maybe on The Six Million Dollar Man. Or The Dukes of Hazzard. There was always that lurking danger, rooted by television, that while wading in the creeks or rivers any of us might get stuck and sink and that a stick held out by a buddy on more solid ground wouldn’t be enough. But none of that ever happened, though I have vague recollections of us kids pointing at mud and crying out “quicksand” and pretending that it was.
And with this thought of quicksand, the roulette wheel spins again with the ball plinking into the slot for my sister and mother and how I’ve tried to understand them through this metaphor of quicksand. So, to our mutual indulgence, the radio occupies my son and I, partly at least, with The Bee Gees. To our exclusion, my son indulges in Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and whatever other vaporous apps. Me, with these flickering thoughts.
My sister Lisa changes men such that I can’t keep them straight. She turns them over like old homes or autos that you buy knowing they need repair. There’s an enthusiasm in the beginning, I suppose, of what that car’s gonna become. But you realize a few months in that it’s gonna take a lot of work. And a lot of money. And at some point, it just seems easier to throw in the towel and start over. But by then money’s been spent and there’s not enough left except to buy another junker or another fixer-upper. So that’s what she does. Buys another one in need of brakes and rotors, that leaks a bit of oil and is starting to rust a bit around the left-rear wheel well, hoping all the while that this one is the diamond in the rough.
She has a daughter from one of them. He was boyfriend 1 before the baby came along and then he became husband 1. But he turned out to be a deadbeat. Not wanting to work. There was always an excuse so Lisa and their daughter left him. In true deadbeat form (I guess it’s okay to think prejudicially about a deadbeat, right?), he pays no child support. Lisa takes considerable pride in how she’s been able to support her daughter without him, mostly.
Then came boyfriend number 2. He ran some small business or another that was given to him by his parents. But he fucked it up and they took it back. So he got a loan for $10,000 and opened up an ATV shop in a small town where ATV’s sell about as much as new inground pools. Which is to say, not much. He sells maybe one per month and after rent and markup, he made about 500 bucks a month. At least that’s what Lisa said. But at least he wasn’t a deadbeat. He had a job and a business and most of us just don’t know what it’s like to struggle as a small businessperson in that sorta economic climate. Lisa had suggested he get a job at the Amazon warehouse, which pays $13.00 an hour. She said he’d make that 500 bucks in a week there. He’d quadruple his monthly pay. But he complained about how he’d lose money on the drive all the way down to Kentucky. And they probably kept the weed issue silent. He’d already flunked a coupla drug tests. And when the bickering became too much, they split. And after that, Lisa was proud of the year or so she was able to make it on her own. She liked telling friends and family how she’d broken away from a bad situation. How a lot of women didn’t have the strength for that.
Then she met the one, I think named Jared, who’d been promised a management position at some retail store in Toledo. I think it was Aldi. So Lisa and her daughter followed him to Toledo. The job wasn’t everything promised (who wants to do retail in Toledo anyway) and Lisa had a hard time finding a job. Jared took comfort from Toledo in another woman so Lisa packed up and made her way back to Cincinnati. Again, she took pride in not being a woman who’d settle for being cheated on. She has standards. And, if nothing else, she was setting an example for her daughter of how not to be treated.
And between them were interlopers who didn’t start off that way but eventually became unwanted or unneeded for some reason or another. One drove a truck. Another sold guns legitimately. And another, I think, sold dope.
And to me these men are her quicksand. She takes pride in her struggles in getting free of it. Free of them. A pride which obscures her from understanding the reasons why she always gets stuck there in the first place. And then again and again.
“I feel like one of those ten cent super balls we bought as kids. I just keep bouncing back from these guys,” she once told me without questioning why she ever allows them to play with her in the first place. “It gets nicked and scratched but it just continues to bounce.” And it’s true. They bounce her off the sidewalks and curbs. Off the sides of buildings. But the superball is hard to control and predict. It’s far more likely to end up in the sewer drain than in back in your own hands.
And the more I’ve thought about it, our mother had her own troubles battling against the quicksand. Hers I mostly attribute to fear or laziness. Fear of an outside world that kept her inside, numbed by her six ounce cans of orange juice and a heavy pour of Smirnoff and a husband and a television that demanded little or nothing of her. And with those things, Mom’s days breezed by. But this all led to weight problems that affected the knees and hips and back, which necessitated surgery after surgery. Mom took pride in her mediocre recoveries from cutting and repairs. She took pride in bouncing back at 50% when the doctor was quick to remind her over and over again how great she was doing because some people barely bounce back at 25%. So you see, being obese and sedentary and nearly crippled wasn’t so bad after all if you were the one bouncing back at 50%.
But even more than those recuperations, what Mom seemed most proud of was raising me and Lisa into what she repeatedly described as “good and decent, productive adults”, which, when you think about it, minus the conviction, is a pretty bland descriptor and a fairly low standard. Mom never had much else to take pride in, so I didn’t want to strip her of that. But as my son sits beside me, I hope he’ll learn a different lesson. You see, Mom hadn’t achieved anything more than the minimum that the rest of the ladies in the neighborhood had, a couple kids and a husband. She never asked any more of herself. She achieved the minimum and had reconciled to squeeze every ounce of pride out of it. It was more than nothing, but not a lot more. It was, at best, average. And she struggled in later years to be seen and appreciated for having done more than average. And she never got the accolades. From me. Or from Lisa. Or from her grandchildren who were able to see what their own parents were doing and question why Grandma never expected more from herself. Their Grandma died bitter from going mostly unrecognized. She was the aged and broken caped crusader whose true identity she took with her to the grave.
She died with a mound of money from Dad’s life insurance but her fear and those screwdrivers kept her a prisoner. And she never wanted to see that. Or admit that. That, ultimately, she was a coward, which, when Lisa had once called her that, I thought was harsh and cruel. But now, I realize it’s mostly true. And deep down, our mother knew it too. And that’s why she died bitter. And it wasn’t killer bees or sasquatch or any of that other Leonard Nimoy In Search Of bullshit that she was in fear of. It was fear of being inadequate. Of being judged and, if judged harshly, not wanting to change. Of not being accepted in a world beyond the walls of our 1,509 square foot ranch on Stone Drive. Of failing as a cashier at the local grocery. Of ringing up Wonder Bread for nurses and my teachers and wondering what they were thinking about why she was only a check-out lady. So she adapted an out of sight, out of mind strategy for her life, I guess. But it was the register and the neighbors and their thoughts and ideas of our mother that were the real threat. Not rattlesnakes or towering infernos or the Bermuda Triangle. So, in a way, I guess that did made her a coward.
I remember those tiny cans of Donald Duck orange juice. I remember how difficult the shiny tab was to peal off but once you did, how it revealed what reminded me of a keyhole. Or a tear drop without the sharp point at the tip. I remember how the tin or the preservative made the orange taste like grapefruit juice. Those 6 ounce can must have been the perfect size for Mom and her Smirnoff, like a comfortable pair of shoes.
Or maybe Mom was just lazy. Days on end of a comfortable 72 degrees indoors with fewer frets than the prospect of the soaps being interrupted by a public service announcement. It was a pretty cush gig. So why throw it away? Dad didn’t care. He was getting his blowjobs from some mom and wife of the neighborhood after his bowling league a few nights a week and that seemed good enough for him too.
And I wonder how much Mom might have influenced Lisa? Showing and encouraging her along her own path to the quicksand? Mom’s quicksand was idolatry and fear and booze. Lisa’s are the men she choose from fear of being alone.
We pass another sign, this one indicating West Lafayette in 48 miles. I’ve read there’s some cool stuff in West Lafayette like Indiana’s oldest drive-in restaurant. But we’re on a straight shot to Chicago. No detours. Maybe some other time.
Then I’m disrupted by my son asking , “Why were you a rebel when you were young?”
I know what he means. He’s seen the family photos with the long hair and scowles and cigarettes and Black Flag t-shirts. And he’s found the punk albums in the fake milk crates in that little space under the stairs. And he’s heard me defend pot use at the picnic table at the family reunions. And the books of Bukowski poetry on my shelf, all serving as little more than reminders these days of who I once was.
“Because I was confused.“ I don’t attempt to glorify it to myself or him.
“But being a rebel is cool,” he says.
“It’s even cooler knowing who and what you are from the start. You get further ahead that way. You don’t waste time and energy and hope on things that are never gonna fit.”
I juggle the thought of that old diner in West Lafayette with this discussion of rebellion. But I don’t allow him to realize it. Who was I back then compared to who I am now and why? And what pies might they have at the diner?
Being confused about the world and who you are is not a good place to be. And maybe that’s the reason it’s so easy for Lisa to be prey for men. And why Mom was easy prey to the bottle. These people are and were not rebels. Confusion and disorientation just express themselves in different ways.
The radio switches to Journey. I tell my son that when I was younger I thought Journey was complete crap. But now, it’s gloriously corny. I don’t tell him that when alone, I love to sing along at a high squeal.
“I know,” he says.
“You know that it’s awesomely corny? Or you know that I like it?”
“Both,” he says.
I want to feel pride in that. That’s he’s light years ahead of me. But I can’t. It’s all of his own doing and understanding.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he asks, “did you ever read A Clockwork Orange?”
“Yeah. When I was maybe eighteen or something like that. Probably a little older.”
He asks if I liked it. I glance over to his phone to see how his roulette of information landed him there. But again, for just an instant cause I’m driving.
“Yeah. It’s really good.”
Then I correct myself.
“I mean, I thought it was really good.”
My son lays his phone down and I can feel his glare criss-crossing the flow of the air conditioning.
“Why do you have to always do that?” he asks.
“Be so pedantic.”
I’ve already regretted a dozen times teaching him that word. It’s becoming as shameful as when I was a kid on the playground getting labeled a queer when I wasn’t. But nowadays, I guess queer or gay or whatever isn’t such a bad label. Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll try to remember to ask my son, though I’m pretty sure he’s not.
“It doesn’t make you seem any smarter,” he says of my scrupulous use of verbiage.
“I just want to be exact,” I explain. “That I thought it was a great book is fact. That it is a great book is a matter of opinion.”
My son shakes his head and goes back to his phone.
“You might hate it,” I say. “And that’s just as valid to you as my liking it is to me.”
All this shit about zombies and Anthony Burgess. At fifteen I understand that some of his influences must have come through me. He’s seen my books and record collection. He knows I like Kubrick and Scorsese and the original Evil Dead. And maybe that I don’t force feed any of it makes them more mysterious and appealing, sorta like my uncle’s collection of Playboys he kept boxed in his office and, with a wink, would send me in there to fetch something or another when he could tell the holiday gossip was getting too boring. Not only were they salacious but there was an added allure in their concealment.
A black Volvo is passing us on the right. It must only be doing a single mile per hour faster than us. It seems like it takes a full minute or more to leave us behind. So I switch lanes to where we should be.
“What’s it like being old?” my son asks.
“Well, there’s a lot of confusion that we try to conceal. And a lot of responsibility. And there aren’t that many concrete answers.” I also want to mention how I find more pee trickling out of my pecker for minutes following a piss. But I keep that one to myself. “TMI”, as my wife would surely say but the kid might find it funny.
“At this age you find yourself wearing less white and grey underwear,” I want to baffle him with, but don’t.
Instead, I say aloud, “nobody’s got their act together like you might think. Including me and your mother and especially your teachers.”
“True that,” he says.
Like me, he’s growing up on horror and comic books. But I hesitate, willfully, to acknowledge my own influence on his decisions and interests. Those things are cool in and of themselves. That he finds them cool too is no reflection upon me or what might remain of my fast fading connection to what was once hip. I’ve evolved like Chuck Taylors from counterculture to mainstream.
And I’ve prayed a few times that by not forcing my interests on him and forcing a deeper connection with him over these things, that he’ll never interpret it as disinterest. I want him to grow to be his own man. Not one formed after me. But the fear that some day I’ll hear, “remember that time I tried to talk to you about A Clockwork Orange and you just blew it off? There I was trying to connect and you couldn’t have cared.” That’s my nightmare. Again, no concrete answers.
A new song comes through the dashboard and the wheel spins and the white ball tinkles into another enumerated slot.
My father liked to tell me how when he was a kid he would sneak into the theater to watch the Universal monster movies. He said he idolized Boris Karloff and, even though he was mostly known for being Frankenstein, Dad loved him particularly as the Mummy. They and the sci-fi nonsense of the day were his favorites. When I got older and started taking to monsters myself, my father liked to say how all that must have rubbed off on me. Thankfully, he never used the cliches about the apple falling from the tree or a chip off the old block. That would be nauseating to constantly think back on, like eating a whole box of Ding Dongs.
I realize now that it wasn’t so much about those films as it was about him wanting to see himself in me or the opposite. But, for the handful of things in which we shared, there were thousand we didn’t, which he willfully ignored. And thankfully, of those differences, was his appetite for blowjobs from my classmate’s married mother. That hadn’t rubbed off on me either. A willingness to trash another or our own family for the sake of a quick, cheap thrill. So I’ve concluded we can be influenced by others but are mostly independent. And that’s what I hope to encourage in my son. His interests in horror and music aren’t about me. They’re about him and his own connection to it. They are part of his unique identity, not mine.
Still, I understand how we are influenced by those around us. My wife persuaded me into buying this Toyota, which I might not have considered without her since my childhood household was a Made in the USA one. And it’s turned out to be a fine choice of automobile.
I had begged my father to take me to a Mötley Crüe concert when I was thirteen. He did it because my birthday was coming up. That was the gift. The gift also included his pissing and moaning about every moment of it, making it as unenjoyable as his own influence could. Still, he never let me forget that sacrifice. You’d have thought the ticket had more worth than a donated kidney. You see, again, it was about him. It was my birthday, but it was still mostly about his experience. The glory in his sacrifice in going to a show that he didn’t want to go to. But it was a choice. Me or the show. And the show won because, by proxy, he did too. So though I’m not particularly a fan of this band I’m taking him my own son to see, and even though it’s not for his birthday or Christmas, I’ve resigned myself to go and be happy and grateful to be spending the time with him. Because he’s a good kid. And that’s what parents do for good kids because not much of anybody else will. And maybe someday he’ll appreciate it without me cramming it down his throat. And maybe he never will. But either way, I’ll try to accept it, humbly. I’ll take the risk without knowing the payoff, because my son deserves it. This needs to be about him and not that diner in West Lafayette.
Our parents never let Lisa or I live down their sacrifices. How Dad had toiled over his Coca-Cola route and had to deal with the numbskulls in the office so that we had shoes and pencils and boxes of macaroni and cheese. Or how Mom had lost so much sleep over Lisa getting bullied by the other girls. To all this, our parent’s grandiosity over the routine, Lisa had come to term it ‘tyranny of perception’. She explained that when you live mostly in a bubble, it’s easy to coerce interpretation. It’s easy to coerce a naive mind into believing that picking yourself up after a trip on the sidewalk is a grand gesture of courage and resolve so long as there’s nobody else there to tell you otherwise. As long as there’s nobody else there to tell you that that’s just what people do.
“They really had us convinced that their petty shit was really something. Mom raising two kids while never having to leave the house. Shit. Try raising one on your own with no fucking support. While working at least 40 hours a week. Now that’s something to brag about but I try not to.”
It’s true. Lisa never really bragged about that. But she did take pride in it. But it wasn’t for the sake of pure glory or accolades she seemed to be pitching it. It was more like moral support she was providing for herself, since she wasn’t getting much from anywhere else.
But then I think too, isn’t Lisa doing much the same to her daughter? I’ve heard that fucking super ball analogy, with her sideways glances at her daughter to ensure she’s paying attention, every holiday and other family gathering for the last decade. Isn’t she inflating the glory of overcoming the struggle to the detriment of teaching her daughter how to avoid it? Somebody steps in dog shit in the same spot every day and thinks he’s better for scraping it off his shoe than the guy who steps in it and doesn’t. Mr. Dog Shit Shoe tracks it all over the place and brings the stench with him wherever he goes. He’s a lowlife, no doubt. And the one who at least scrapes the shit off his shoes is at least more considerate. But aren’t they equally idiots for stepping in the shit in the first place, day after day? Isn’t that the bigger picture?
My father drove and delivered for Coca-Cola. He liked pointing out how delivering for RC Cola was second rate cause nobody really drank that stuff anyway. And how the local Pepsi guy always smelled of cigarettes and his uniform was always wrinkly. He liked to say how Pepsi had no standards for their drivers, unlike the Coke guys. Grandma had always said that my father had been smart enough to become whatever he’d wanted. I guess that meant he was only smart enough to figure out how to deliver soda pop. And as I get older, I imagine his critiques of the other tribesmen of soda delivery, the Royal Crown and Pepsi guys, was more about making himself feel better for having chosen the wrong thing to do than it was about those men or their products’ moral inferiority.
“Coke’s a classic. Everybody loves it,” I’d heard him say dozens of times, pridefully as if by association, he was equally loved.
Another mile marker passes and I know that diner’s getting closer. Apple? Banana Cream? Chocolate?
“So have they announced an opening act yet,” I ask my son.
“No. It’s still listed as TBA.”
He swipes at his phone a few more times, then asks, “Did you ever read Neil Gaiman?”
“You mean the Sandman guy?”
He shakes his head yes.
“Nah. But some friends in college really loved him. I just never gave him much of a shot.”
It’s an odd thing I realize when your own child surpasses your own geekishness. But it’s not a bad thing, really. He’s moving on in a different direction in becoming himself. So I try to make note to myself that a Sandman graphic novel might make a nice gift come Christmas or his birthday or just cause he’s a decent kid.
“Don’t be afraid of zombie viruses. Or quicksand,” I spring on him like he did A Clockwork Orange on me.
“Quicksand? Why you gotta get all weird like this?” He’s not indignant. He’s playing along with my flights of mental fancy. He doesn’t care to connect the dots but thankfully, he’s still amused enough or feels pity enough to let them pass between us with some grace.
“I’m just telling you, it’s not quicksand or killer bees or bigfoot that’s the problem. DOn’t worry about them. Worry about the subtler stuff.”
“Like managers at Aldi. Or tiny cans of orange juice. Or disparaging remarks about guys who deliver Pepsi. That’s the insidious stuff.”
“Whatever,” my son says, and goes back to tapping his foot. He lays down his phone and looks out the window at the passing signs or houses or cars. Or maybe the sky or nothing.
“And cash registers. They’re ominous. They’ve broken many a person.”
“Stop,” he says playfully, as the radio turns from Another One Bites the Dust to Blondie.
I want to tell him that before she went disco, Blondie was Debbie Harry and that she was more punk than pop. But my son continually surprises me. He may already know that. And I don’t want to be called pedantic again so I just let him enjoy it, as evidenced by his foot tapping and whatever else has captured his attention outside that window or in his mind.