The sign for The Red Racer proclaimed an estimated wait of 15 minutes. The line was short because the coaster is old and there was a threat of later day rain.
Katie turned to Chuck and asked whether or not they should wait. Chuck said the wait would be just fine so they meandered through the queue like livestock led to slaughter, stopping behind a group of teens. The park was slow, though the weather was then fair. Nobody else was making their way through the chutes to get on The Red Racer.
Facing each other, Katie and Chuck leaned back on the bars of the queue.
“I only came here once as a kid,” Katie said. “My aunt and uncle brought me.”
“Your mother never brought you?”
“No. Mom never liked crowds or lines.”
“Well, so long as it was about her.”
Riders screamed as they dropped from the big hill above.
Katie went on, “I remember Aunt Joyce riding this with me. Uncle Ted stayed behind. Aunt Joyce was a real trooper that day. We even rode The Beast and it banged the shit out of me. I can’t imagine what it did to her. I won’t even ride it anymore. But she never complained, at least not to me.”
Chuck looked around to see if anybody else would be riding with them but there was nobody else filling up the queue.
“Aunt Joyce must have been in her forties at the time. Older than us.”
“Did you come with your cousins?”
“No. They got tickets from my uncle’s work. My cousins were in high school by then. I think Aunt Joyce must have known I’d never been here and wasn’t likely to ever come otherwise. At least not as a kid.”
Katie thought about adding that it might have made sense that Aunt Joyce and Uncle Ted were taking pity on her. But to suggest that she might have deserved pity is something she didn’t want to express to Chuck or much of anybody else.
“Your Mom didn’t even want to go? She could have just stood around. She could have just tagged along. Didn’t she like her sister?”
“She never liked lines or crowds.”
“Oh yeah. Well, that was kind enough of your aunt and uncle.”
“Yeah. I’m sure I never appreciated it enough. I should have thanked them before they died but I never did. Thanked them for the good time. Obviously it was something special since I still remember it.”
“So, was your mother always that self-centered?”
“Sure. In the years before she died she even made a big deal about being my backstop,” Katie said. “She even took to signing her emails, The Backstop.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”, Chuck asked.
“She said that since she was all alone, she had nothing to live for but me. That the sole purpose of her continued existence was to be there for me if I got into trouble.”
“Holy shit. Well, there’s no pressure or burden in that,” Chuck said sarcastically. “Continued existence. Did she really use that phrase? That’s too much.”
“No. I’m being hyperbolic. She probably said life.”
Katie checked the queue behind them. Nobody else was coming.
“Yeah. There’s plenty of nobility and self-sacrifice in living exclusively for somebody else ,” she said. “I suppose it gives a person real meaning and purpose.”
“But doesn’t every cat owner do pretty much the same thing? Like take care of their obligation to their cat like when it gets sick? They pay the vet bills and all. I mean, it kind of goes with the territory of having a cat or having a child, right? There’s a crisis, you step in. People do it for neighbors for fuck’s sake. And when you got nothing else to do anyway. Damn.”
“But see, the important thing here is that the devotion was absolutely exclusive. Some people might have a job that makes demands of their life. But without a job or a husband or whatever, then the cat or the kid gets it all. Don’t you see the selflessness in that?”
“I can tell you’ve thought this through,” Chuck said. “I hope you’re not planning on employing any of this bullshit on me any time soon.”
“No. I’ve lived it. I wouldn’t dream of dumping it on somebody else.”
Another round of coaster cars fills up, then takes off. Katie and Chuck shuffle forward a few feet.
“It makes me think of those experiments where they terrorized baby monkeys,” Chuck said. “Like if you terrorize it with sounds and lights but then the scientist’s the one to turn it all off, then the monkey assumes he’s its savior because he’s the the one that extinguished its terror. Meanwhile, he’s the one controlling the experiment, including the monkey’s terror, all along.”
“Maybe,” Katie said, which meant she wasn’t following.
“It’s like if a person can create a need or a belief in a need and then set themselves up as the one to fulfill it, then that person will always be seen as needed. Or in the case of the scientist – the hero. In the case of your mother, the potential hero. The big difference is real heroes doesn’t manipulate the experiment to set themselves up as heroes.”
“Yeah. I think you’re right,” Katie said.
“I got wise to that kinda shit in like 8th grade with a girl named Mia. Thankfully I got an early education. But your mom thought it would work on you? As an adult?”
“Yeah. She was stubborn like that. She never liked to be proven wrong so she never gave up. She stuck with the game plan all the way through giving herself that moniker.”
“Jesus Christ,” Chuck said. “Giving yourself a moniker like a fucking professional wrestling. I guess The Backstop was better than The Hammer or Thunderlips or some shit.”
Katie couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of her mother as Thunderlips.
“She didn’t have a sequined robe with The Backstop embroidered on the back, did she?”
She laughed again but harder.
“Stop it, Chuck. That’s too much.”
“The Backstop. Whooooooo,” Chuck exclaimed in his best Ric Flair impression.
The teens turned around to see what the hell was going on.
“Sorry,” Chuck said to them, smiling coyly.
“Settle down,” Katie said. “It’s usually the kids that act that obnoxious.”
“It’s alright,” Chuck said. “We’re at an amusement park. It’s okay to be amused.”
Chuck understood Katie well enough to detect her deserved and deep-seated scorn for her mother. He also knew Katie to be mild tempered and congenial and kind-hearted and emotionally frail. He knew that direct derision and scathing criticism of the tyrant would be an affront to Katie’s congenital sense of paternal fealty, no matter how misguided or misplaced that devotion was. But humor, as an indirect means of attack, was acceptable within limits. Somehow the laughs seemed to act as an emotional salve or intoxicant, allowing Katie to purge a bit. And Chuck, though silly, was wise enough to see how she needed it.
So how did all her “living for the sake of her daughter” manifest itself?” Chuck asked.
“Mostly in words to me and making sure the rest of the family understood her martyrdom,” Katie said. “Words to the effect that she was just living in order to support me in the event of a crisis. That’s where the backstop metaphor comes into it.”
“Yeah. I get it. I’d have to be an idiot not to.” Chuck said. “That’s some epic fairy tale metaphor right there.”
Chuck shook his head in feigned disbelief.
“And nobody in the family called her on that bullshit?”
“No. She was stubborn and temperamental. Nobody wanted to deal with the drama.”
“That’s some real next-level passive/aggressive shit there. A real martyr’s complex. I’m mean, that’s how like every parent feels without declaring it to the world, right?”
“No,” Katie said. “She was sure to point out that not all parents would do that. Some parents never cared about their kids. Some parents let their kids starve or get chewed on by rats.”
“Well, I don’t jerk off in your shoes,” Chuck said. “It’s not like my abstinence is deserving of a compliment or congratulations or praise or your devotion.”
“Do you even possess such an urge that needs to be resisted? I mean, not killing when there’s no lust to kill isn’t really a resistance, is it? It doesn’t take effort to not kill when you’re not inclined to kill anyway, right?”
“Thankfully, no. There’s no inclination to either kill or jizz in your shoes,” Chuck said.
They smiled and checked to make sure the teens weren’t listening to their talk about mass murder and masturbating into Katie’s shoes. They weren’t eavesdropping so Katie continued.
“Then it’s not really even a sacrifice. You’re not resisting anything. A mamma squirrel protects her kits by instinct. To not do so is just fucked up. It goes against nature. To act according to nature and then declare it as some sort of virtue is more or less saying praise me for not being utterly fucked up, right?”
“True. But those are nice shoes. They don’t feel sticky do they?”
They both laughed.
“You can be such an asshole, Chuck. I was trying to make a serious point and you bring it back to the jizz shoes. Sometimes I think you’re sick.”
“Maybe. But how were you expected to repay for all this sacrifice of one’s later life?”
“Well, mainly through attention and praise since she was lonely and living only for me. That was a lowly price for sacrificing her later years all for me. don’t you see?”
“Living only for you? Sounds like she was living only for herself.”
“No maybes. That’s some real unhealthy manipulation there. I’ve known single moms with three kids, not just one, and two jobs who anguished less.”
Chuck took a moment to think, then said with a smirk, “I think I get it. So like if I quit my job tomorrow and just start playing the lottery with the promise that if I win, you get half my fortune – if I really mean it – you’d owe me gratitude for the potential sacrifice or offering? Meanwhile, I get to watch porno and play Grand Theft Auto all day, every day, while waiting for the winning ticket to hit?”
“That’s the logic,” Katie said. “Though Grand Theft Auto and porno all day doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice.”
“You’re not respecting what I’m offering, Katie. A hundred grand for nothing in return. My, how ungrateful you are.”
“Or you could respect my boundaries. That would be more tangible.”
“Nope. That’s the pledge I make to you right here and now, Katie. Take it or leave it. On my honor, on the day I win the lottery, you’ll get at least a hundred grand of my winnings. That being the case, drinks are on you from now on in honor of my offer. That only seems fair. Okay?”
“But if you win the lottery, neither a hundred grand nor half the pot will matter to you one way or the other. You’ll never have to worry about money either way. So nothing’s being sacrificed, just offered. Something offered that, under the circumstances, will be of no real consequence to you anyway.”
“My point exactly. I’m a pretty sharp scientist, aren’t I?”
“Not smart enough. The monkey caught on to who was really controlling all the lights and noise.”
They both got a good laugh out of that.
“But a little recognition of the scientist, a little sign of devotion and concern wasn’t asking too much was it? In lieu of all he was offering?”
“I hate being manipulated,” Katie said. “Especially under the pretense of love and concern.”
“I agree. It’s vile. It’s odious. That life of pure sacrifice while she couldn’t even stand in line at the amusement park for her own daughter. Yet her sister did.”
“In the big scheme of things, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal,” Katie said.
“Nah. Sounds to me like it spoke volumes and your aunt probably new all about it well before that day but didn’t want to tear down the only thing that you had, even though it wasn’t much.”
The riders were making their way back to the stations. Their distant screams grew louder.
“But wait,” Chuck said. “Did she ever buy herself a World’s Greatest Mom shirt? That would have been rich.”
“No. But she’d have been too humble for that. Her shirt would have read Great Mom.”
“Not the world’s greatest, huh?”
“No. She was self-aware enough to know her place within the pantheon of motherhood.”
They both laughed. Even the teens turned around to see what all the excitement was about.
“Maybe I should get a shirt that says World’s Greatest Father – Potentially,” Chuck said.
“You’re such an asshole.”
“Hey, so long as it’s never put to the test, then it’s true. Where’s the fault in that logic?”
Katie shook her head in disbelief of who she was with.
“You can be a real wise ass, Chuck.”
“Yup. But I know it and I’m not pretending otherwise. I can be an asshole too, just so you know.”
“Oh, I know.”
And maybe that’s why Katie liked, maybe even loved, Chuck – because they both knew what they were dealing with.