Hail Vulgar Juice of Never-Fading Pine
The summer after my mother died, I began to understand that my father was becoming, or perhaps had always been, gay. In a house previously untouched by even the softest-core pornography, I found an issue of Top Bottoms carelessly left on the bathroom sink and my hands went numb before I could open the magazine. I mentioned this in a letter to my Canadian pen pal, Yoshi. "If you tear out a page and mail it to me," he wrote, "I'll send you something wonderful in exchange." He got a picture of a Latino man, heavily eye-shadowed, hands touching the floor, and I received a Polaroid of a woman pushing her tits together. On the back of the photo, Yoshi had written, "This is my mom's jazzercise instructor. She lets me touch her boobs for five dollars." I placed the photo inside my father's magazine, hoping it might have some effect. He never mentioned it and soon the magazine disappeared to someplace hidden, though I believed that many, many more issues had joined it.
One night I came downstairs to find a woman in a wheelchair and a thin, towheaded man watching TV. The woman was dressed as the Statue of Liberty and the man was dressed as Dracula, his face pale with makeup. They were holding hands, their mouths wide open, perhaps high, perhaps retarded. "Your father is in the kitchen," the woman said, still staring at the TV, and I thanked her.
I walked into the kitchen and saw my father, dressed as a Buckingham Palace guard, naked from the waist down, furiously stroking himself. Two men, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, were silently watching him. "Just give me a second, you rinky-dink fuckers, and I'll show you what's what," my father said to the men. "Dad?" I said. My father looked up from his still-flaccid penis and said, "Go back to bed, Andy," and then continued to masturbate.
I returned to the living room and sat on the sofa beside Dracula, who put his arm around me and gave me a reassuring squeeze. Removing his plastic fangs, he said, "You miss your mother?" I began to nod, then caught myself. "Who are you?" I asked. "I teach at the university," he responded. "Complicated math."
He then leaned over the coffee table, pouring a winey-brown liquid from a mason jar into a juice glass. "This is tar water," he said. "It is exactly what it sounds like, tar mixed with water." He placed the glass in my hands. "Do I drink this?" I asked. "You must drink it," he answered. "It is a curative for a broad range of physical and emotional ailments." I was not convinced. "You just carry this around with you?" I asked. He gestured towards himself and the woman in the wheelchair. "We are people who must deal, on a daily basis, with a broad range of physical and emotional ailments." He pointed at the glass in my hands and made a drinking motion.
The drink tasted like roofing tiles, sun-baked and soft, and I tried not to gag. I thought, "This is poison and now I will die." With a hard swallow, I finished the contents of the glass. The man looked at me expectantly. "It's good," I offered. "Of course it is," he responded. "In Finland, we have a saying that translates roughly to mean, If you are torn in half by wild dogs, seven cups of tar water will stitch your body back together by sunrise." I nodded. "Our grandfather's withered arm was restored by drinking a pint of tar water a day," the woman said.
I wondered if what I was feeling was drunkenness or simply the introduction of something altogether unknown into my body. Finally, I decided that, goddamn, I was drunk. "I'm drunk," I said. "Impossible," the man replied, his attention returned to the television. I fell asleep just as someone in the kitchen began whistling the Lone Ranger theme song.
When my father woke me the next morning, the woman in the wheelchair, now out of her wheelchair, was pressed against my body, a widening stain of her drool on my shirt. "I made eggs," he said, then turned and walked back into the kitchen. I adjusted my position on the sofa and roused the woman, who was, strangely, much more beautiful in the daylight. She was missing one of her canine teeth but, otherwise, could have been a wheelchair model. "My father made some eggs," I said. "Carry me to the table," she said and then laughed as if this was the funniest thing that anyone had ever said in the history of the world up to that second. "No, no" she then said, "just go in there and I will join you shortly." She kissed me, my first ever kiss, and I walked into the kitchen with an erection that went unnoticed by the men around the table.
I thought about the letter I would write to Yoshi. What would I mention? The party, the tar water, the woman. What would I leave out? My father's penis, Dracula's arm around me, the wheelchair. I wondered how much of the rest of my life would require this kind of careful editing. My father was gay, or worse; I was in love with a woman in a wheelchair who was at least twenty years my senior; and my mother was dead and not coming back to save my father and I from the awful mistakes that we'd only just begun to make.
My father placed a heaping plate of scrambled eggs in front of me, but I could not imagine eating them. I caught Dracula's eye and made a drinking motion with my hand. He smiled, returned the gesture, and passed me a glass of tar water, filled to the brim. I imagined that my body had been ripped in two, my other half miles away, and I drained the glass in one sustained swallow.
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