My plan is to paint the kitchen, living room and two bathrooms in the house I grew up in – as a surprise. Mom will be gone for a week in Los Angeles at my aunt’s: or more specifically the Palos Verdes peninsula, an hour and a half from downtown LA on a good day. They’ll drive into the city and eat Mexican food; cruise Santa Monica and Rodeo, chat about life and whatnot. Sister time. Relaxation in a warm climate. Once a year, usually in the early summer my mom packs her small check-in luggage and takes a plane ride. It’s been a staple for years, visiting her sister in southern California.
I’ve been to my aunt’s house on numerous occasions. It’s quite lovely: luxuriant, and all her own. She’s a busybody, too diligent at her work for a serious boyfriend, even at fifty-plus. The backyard is full of lemon trees and all sorts of flowery plant life on a long slope. You can see the vastness of Los Angeles to the west and Long Beach harbor to the east. Once while visiting I took a long walk along the pacific side of the peninsula, through the brush and the narrow trails. The ocean hangs in the sky. Everything that grows is brown and yellow and the only sound is the wind cutting through, like fresh money in your fingers. I sat down and finished a Stephen King book I’d been reading, the last in a long series. In the book, a noble creature saves the life of a character I’d invested a lot of years in getting to know. In the end the noble creature dies. I sat and watched the ocean, so magnificent in its scope. I imagined it as a mighty bedspread. It looked comforting, inviting. Not in any suicidal type way, just glorious and blue forever. And sitting there, the heavy hardback edition in my lap, I felt something cool glide over my hand. I looked down and was amazed/stupefied to see a rattlesnake moving across the trail and into the hot crumpled brush, floating along the top of my hand. It ignored me completely. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been misty-eyed by the courage of Stephen King’s imaginative, heroic creature and the endless sky-meets-ocean smallness of my own existence I may have reacted poorly and it’s possible the snake would have bitten and killed me. The snake was the color of the trail. I never saw it’s eyes, only the rattle as is disappeared into the camouflage of its habitat.
I always get a phone call from my mom months in advance reminding me of the exact dates my services will be required to look after her two cats and dog.
Like veteran stage actors, we have our lines memorized.
I implore her that it is deranged and slightly psychotic to remind me months in advance.
My mother brushes away my concerns and tells me she’ll remind me again before the actual date of her departure. She tells me to expect a phone call once a week or so beginning a week from this conversation. She’s explicit in reminding me that I should know my father is useless when it comes to providing for the animals and my sisters are busy with their own lives.
One of my sisters is a mother of her own monstrous, selfish little brat. The other would only pull a knife from my back if it was the only knife in the house and needed to slice open an avocado or something.
They are my blood. And they tried to kill me once when I was a boy. They force-fed me thinly sliced pieces of carrot hidden in vanilla ice cream. When I was young I hated only two things: carrots and black licorice. My sisters knew this. They converged on my weakness of being ticklish, attacking me violently with jabbing fingers. I was helpless in my defense. Mouth agape, I fiendishly fought for air. Somehow I survived.
I believe it’s been proven that you can tickle someone to death. I’m a believer and a survivor.
In the end it is always up to me to serve my mother’s wishes, and like any decent son of a Jewish woman who has always provided for her children, I can’t and won’t say no. And besides, none of it really bothers me, the taking care of her animals, or making sure my dad doesn’t burn the house down accidentally. My father, well, he’s a completely normal, competent person. It’s just a funny thing I’ve gotten used to, my mom.
My father and I never discuss why I’m always around when my mom takes off for trips. I’m in my thirties, so maybe he worries I’m a weirdo, some socially inept loser. Though I like to imagine he thinks it’s cool that his only son wants to spend time with him, bond like men as we eat hotdogs with chili and shredded cheese poured all over, share a joint, and watch football or extremely violent Japanese horror films. We don’t talk a whole lot, but we’re together and that’s enough for us. For me it’s an odd realization. I’ve wondered if I’m afraid of letting my family see the real person I’ve become. I don’t think it’s that. Part of me wants to believe it’s my lot in life to have these fragmented understandings of self and relationships, like maybe when I’m much older and death is a fixture of possibility in every rising sun I’ll have some epiphany that my piety or whatever is my regret at having not gone deeper into the relationships with those I love dearly. Like if I know that and come to terms with it I won’t be judged so harshly at the day of my reckoning or whatever. Or maybe I’m just boring and scared. It keeps me up at night.
Friday after work I head to my parent’s house in Cedar Mill. Traffic is nightmarish. Sweaty white people mutter under their breath, NPR playing at a reasonable volume on stereos, air conditioners full blast. Everyone is in a hurry to get home and can do nothing about it. You can’t rush gridlock. One thing I notice, Portland to suburbs around five p.m., is the lack of children in cars. Everyone is driving solo or with a coworker who also lives a ways away to save money on rent and doesn’t have that inclination to be cool and stay in the city proper. Someday I hope to have that resolve, say ‘F___ it,’ and buy up some property in a quiet area, see stars when I look at the sky. I imagine a couple dogs playing in the grass nearby. In these visions the air smells different, not the misty clean-shaven scent of Oregon, and not the musty razor-burn waft of California, so I wonder if in my heart of hearts I haven’t found home yet.
I’ve made this freeway drive hundreds if not thousands of times. It’s quite beautiful. The highway weaves through huge forested hills and for a while the magnificent trees shade us all from either side, bathing the world in an ethereal blue tint. I wrack my brain and can never conjure images of this highway from my youth. I have specific memories of walking through the park downtown, hand in hand with my mom, watching tall black kids play basketball; or with my dad, showing up at the bar his friend owned on the eastside of the Willamette, my dad whispering to me that his buddy Gary owned such a nice house and could have his own pub because he cooked the books and it saved him a lot of money on taxes and stuff. When I was little I didn’t know what in the world he was talking about, just thought it was cool, I guess. I sat on a stool next to my dad and ate cheeseburgers that Gary made, and I blew on the fries before shoving them in my mouth, they were so hot from the fryer.
I pass the Oregon Zoo. It is the halfway marker between Beaverton and Portland. I’m sure I have been there many times when I was young, though only one memory comes forth: I was six or seven, with a small girl and her father. How I knew them I don’t know, nor have I retained their names. We may have seen tigers and lions and it’s possible we visited the elephant enclosure and watched the polar bears swim laps. I don’t know. I was too excited to see the monkeys. That is the only thing that stuck. There was a slight incline leading to the monkey enclosure. I screamed, “Monkeys!” I know that. And I ran full tilt, screaming, “Monkeys! Monkeys!” again and again. The father and the girl were somewhere behind me. I ran. And then I’m sitting on a toilet seat with no cover on the bowl, the father on his knees in front of me applying stiff, cheap toilet paper under my nose. His voice is lost but I can recall the words, and he tells me I ran directly into a glass door, sprinting like he’s never seen such a small boy run. He says Carl Lewis would have been impressed.
I never saw the monkeys, or if I did they’re lost somewhere up in my head with all the other things that happen and are forgotten.
My dad broke his nose when he was young. I can’t recall how. I can’t remember if he ever told me how. I did not break my nose running into the glass door at the monkey exhibit, but it feels in some sense both could have happened to the same person, father or son. In the garage at my parent’s house there’s a kiln fired nose that dad sculpted at some point when he was younger than I am now. It resembles his nose, just ever so slightly crooked, and when I think of those noses – my dad’s and the nose my dad made in the image of his own nose, I’m not sure which is which.
There are other memories too, though nowhere a scene of driving from the suburbs into the city. That’s what I’m thinking when I notice I’ve passed my exit. I’m surprised by the error, as it’s never happened before. The directions to my old home have been carved into my soul. Caught up in thoughts of the past, and now in the present as myself, I turn around at the next exit and pull off at the correct off-ramp, the familiar exit I spent my entire youth coming to know as The Way Home.
When you’re young you probably played that silly game where you create your own porno actor name using the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on. My porno name would be Mittens Devonwood, which I think has a good ring to it. Mittens was a cat and she was my best friend at an age I can’t place, definitely a small boy. Before I found interest in girls or drugs. Those inclinations came later, after Mittens. During Mittens tenure I found a snake at the park near our house. I used to bring a bucket down to the creak on weekends and some days after school when the weather was nice. I caught it easily, the snake, and brought it home in the bucket. A garter snake. Black, maybe a foot long. It was thin and even for such a small creature it had a completely foreign strength that I found fascinating. The way it could lift its body with no effort and move like a joint-less finger. It reminded me of a cat’s tail, somehow alive, and yet a far-out concept. The snake’s black tongue flicked at the air as its black eyes stared off, seemingly unfocused in that strange reptilian way.
I killed the snake. I stomped on it.
After school one day I tried to show my dad how cool the little thing was. It slithered and wound around my wrist and fingers, rested its small head on my fingernail and flicked its black tongue. My dad was never impressed. He wasn’t a fan of snakes, though he didn’t say so in words: I could tell. The snake, by this point named Sylvester, excreted some pinkish solution and it drizzled down my hand and wrist. I wasn’t frightened, though clearly it shocked me. I flung the poor thing at the ground and slammed down instinctively with my little sneakers until Sylvester was obliterated. My dad frowned a little and continued doing whatever he was doing, I think making our dinner. In my family dad is the chef.
I cleaned up the mess that was my pet snake and never even so much as humored the idea of housing a reptile again. It wasn’t the pain of killing the snake that sunk my passion for snake ownership, I don’t think, just a general disinterest in slithering creatures. Like the way kids grow out of video games. I have friends with snakes and after a few beers I’ll sometimes hold them and let them slither about on my arms, and rarely if ever do I think of Sylvester and stomping him to death.
I do sometimes wonder if the weird pinkish liquid was snake shit.
I pass the familiar streets of my youth. Things look different while carrying the well-tread essence of the ever lasting. The blue house where I got my hair cut once or twice is gone. In its place a duplex, each garage door open, inside matching sedans of complimentary colors. Two boys that would be impossible to distinguish in a police line-up are outside. There are more duplexes than I would have thought possible. Most of the classic homes I spent afternoons riding past on my bike are gone, the yards bulldozed and replaced by rock gardens. None of this has hit me until now, just how much everything changes with time.
I turn onto Devonwood Avenue and park my car on the left curb in front of my parent’s house. The grass is short, a vibrant green. When I was a kid I mowed that Godforsaken grass once a week for years. The hose is curled up to the right of the front door, resting in fresh bark dust. Droplets of water cling to the flowers, so it appears my dad has been taking care of the yard, surely at my mom’s behest. The front door is open and at the threshold my mom’s dog, a small mixed breed. She’s yipping in furious rapture, tail shaking a mile a minute. The dog likes me. For many years when my younger sister constantly changed her mind about every aspect of her life she kept her dog here. That dog, though cute and charming in its own way peed on the floor anytime I entered the house. She was easily excited. Now that dog is passed and my sister is in Northern California trimming weed, or maybe in Canada selling magazine subscriptions – I don’t know what she does. The last I heard she flew to Nicaragua with friends to attend a huge international electronic music festival.
The dog keeps barking as I walk up. She stays at the door as she’s been trained to until I get close enough and she can no longer help herself and launches at me. I pet her for a minute or two and call out to my dad through the dark entryway. I’m convinced my dad could exist in a world without electric light. He does everything in the dark. Cooks in the dark and eats in the dark, even reads in semi darkness. When I was still in high school he came home after work one night and dumped out a plastic bag full of nondescript spectacles. His eyes were bad enough to require glasses when he read, and by mere luck the exact prescription was sold off the rack at the Dollar Store. So now he leaves glasses all over the house, ready at his whim. If the dog gets antsy and chews a pair up it’s not a big deal. He tosses them and finds another pair lying around in some random place.
Dad emerges from the shadows and waves to me. He’s wearing a Miami Heat t-shirt, another reminder that time is coming to collect all debts of life. Growing up he would have taken his belt to me if I ever showed up in the garb of any team non-Lakers or Raiders. He smiles and moves in toward me. Occasionally we hug, which wasn’t common when I was young. He hugs me now.
He says, “I had a feeling you’d be coming by.”
I tell him my plan to paint the kitchen and the living room and the two bathrooms before mom gets back from aunt Lo’s. I tell him I want to surprise mom.
He gives me an odd look, like I’m crazy. He says, “Your mom made me paint the kitchen last weekend. Two weekends before that we painted the living room together. Courtney helped. She needed money. You know how your mom is. She paid her upfront and Court left when the job was only halfway done. I think she’s in Peru or something. She didn’t tell you?”
Courtney is my younger sister. She never tells me anything.
“When was the last time you saw Courtney? She’s like something from a Ray Bradbury story.”
New tattoos, I presume. She’s covered. I tell dad I haven’t seen Court in months, maybe I saw her in April. A random guess for guessing’s sake. My dad is a pretty hip guy for the most part, but for whatever reason he draws the line at tattoos. He thinks they’re a grotesque waste of flesh and money. I’m indifferent about tattoos myself. I don’t have any and have no plans to ever get a tattoo, but to each his own. Besides, I don’t think you can get buried in a Jewish cemetery with tattoos. That would break my mom’s heart.
My dad asks me if I’m hungry. I can smell something cooking, something beefy. It smells good. I consider myself quite handy in the kitchen and I owe it all to my dad. He taught me how to look at a kitchen and know what I’m seeing. Before I focus on food I change the subject and ask about the bathrooms, if they’ve been painted.
“Yeah. You can take a look. They’re pretty nice. Your mom is nuts.”
He throws the last sentiment in as a little reminder that we are father and son, that we can make jokes at our matriarch’s expense. And it’s true besides: My mom paints and repaints the rooms of our house like most women paint and repaint their fingernails. It’s an obsession. She is the only person I know that can tell, or cares about, the difference between Egg Shell and Non-Buttered Popcorn. I have been personally responsible for countless layers of primer and paint on every inch of this house.
I drift to the left and walk through the foyer into the living room, over my shoulder affirming my father’s suspicion that I am in fact hungry and that whatever he’s cooking smells really good. He says, “Like I said, I had a hunch you’d be coming over. I bought Nathan’s hotdogs, kosher because you’re a Jew, and I made chili. Had the day off work. It’s been slow cooking since eleven. Do you want jalapenos? I picked some up for you.”
I tell him I do want jalapenos.
We have a running joke that I’m a Jew and my mother is a Jew like her mother. My sister’s are both Jewish, yet my father is not a Jew. Not really a joke as much as just fact, I guess. I don’t even know what kind of wedding my parents had. They were married several years before I was born. I guess the question slipped my mind. He might’ve had to step on the glass under the napkin or whatever. I should study up on my heritage. My grandparent’s did flee the Nazis after all. 39’? 40’? 44’? I have no idea. I’ve never asked.
The living room looks great. I don’t have a clue what the new color is, and I can’t bring up an image of what it used to look like. It’s nice, though. The walls seem to draw from the natural light in a comfortable way. The couch might be in a new position. That could have something to do with the relaxed vibe I’m feeling. There’s a book I’ve never seen before on the coffee table. I pick it up. It’s hardbound and heavy but not too heavy. The cover is a picture of a cheetah, eyes half-shut, hair frizzed out from what I assume was wind resistance during a hardcore sprint of some kind. The name in the bottom right corner is my aunt’s. I flip through the book and see all types of nice shots of Africa, my aunt’s favorite continent. She’s got pictures of Rhinos and Elephants, Lions, and the lot. She must have a nice camera. I set the book down after a few minutes of perusal. I have a sense of déjà vu, like I knew my aunt had made this book. But I know I’ve never seen it before.
The bathroom in the hallway is white or maybe such a light blue I can’t tell the difference. Out of curiosity I lift up the seat on the toilet. The bowl is sparkling. I make a mental note to use a different toilet when I need to pee. In my parent’s bedroom, the bathroom is bigger than in the hall. The walls are a light caramel color. It reminds me of something out of an Ernest Hemmingway story, though I’m not sure why I get that sense. Some coward failed to kill a lion and then his wife left him, I think. Or they both died, or maybe he died or he killed her. They were rich. I close the door behind me as I leave. There on my parent’s bed is one of the two cats. It’s curled into itself in deep sleep. I leave the room as quietly as I can to not disturb the little fella. I know how hard a cat’s life can be.
I flip the lights on as I enter the kitchen. My dad is leaned over a pot, ladle in hand. The walls are a lipstick red. Under normal circumstances I’d say the color is ghastly. Now however, with the light glowing warmly through the window it seems right. My dad asks me, “Can you grate some cheese? Then we can eat anytime.”
I suddenly feel incredibly stupid about all the paint in my trunk, the rollers and blue tape to mark off edges. What was I thinking? And how did I not know my mom had already done all this painting. I never got a phone call, I don’t think. I thought for sure I was the first call every time this kind of thing goes down. The child who was always ready to lend a helping hand. Suppose not, and really I’m in my thirties so it shouldn’t surprise me that my mom isn’t calling me for help at every turn. Either way, the paint jobs all seem nice. Good attention to detail; no runs or errant marks. Everything about the house seems pleasant.
I grab a brick of cheddar from the refrigerator and the cheese grater from the cupboard it’s always been in.
“Try this.” Dad hands me the ladle of chili. I put it to my lips and slurp. It’s excellent. The perfect balance of sweet and savory. I wonder what he’d say if I told him I have my own chili recipe I’m proud of and that it’s vegetarian.
I start grating the cheese, and ask him if he can remember when we started eating chilidogs, when it became ‘our thing?’
He sets the ladle down and turns toward me. He rests his backside against the counter. “Funny you should ask.”
I ask him why it’s funny I should ask.
“You must have been three or four. Your mom’s brother, Robert, he graduated from some scuba program. He was certified to do it professionally. You remember your mom’s brothers used to do that kind of stuff, right? They were in the ocean whenever they had a chance.”
My uncle Robert told me he swam with Great Whites, and he was the first person to show me JAWS. My cousin wouldn’t use the toilet for weeks after seeing it. She was afraid the massive shark was going to burst through the toilet and eat her. I became obsessed with sharks for a time.
My dad went on, “Anyway, we had a big party at your grandparent’s house. This is back when we all lived in California. We were eating hotdogs and hamburgers, you know, barbecue grilling type stuff. I made chili at home before we came, something I have always enjoyed cooking. It’s easy and delicious.”
I agree with him on that point.
“You and your cousin Britney were tromping around in the yard. You were near the fence, totally normal. I was manning the grill, putting together a hamburger or something, and from nowhere I see your grandpa, your mom’s dad flying across the yard. He’s got a shovel over his head. He’s just running like his life depends on it. For a second I actually thought he’d lost it, just gone off his rocker and was going to kill you kids or something. Seriously. It was surreal. But he reaches the two of you and shoves you both out of his way and he brings the shovel way up high over his head and swings it down. Thunks it into the dirt. No one in the party knows what’s going on. He yells across the yard that everything is okay and walks back over, you and your cousin right with him. He’s got a rattlesnake slung over his shoulder and the head is in his hand.”
I have no memory of this at all, and I tell my dad that. I don’t mention to him it’s a little concerning that he thought his wife’s father might kill his son and just stood there doing nothing.
“You were smiling the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. You weren’t grossed out or anything. But yeah, anyway, after that we sat down and you and me ate chilidogs. Just chili and cheese and wieners. It sounds dumb to say, but I was sort of proud that your first chilidog was made with your old man’s chili. And you were beaming. Seeing your grandpa kill that rattlesnake made you hungry. Do you remember that?”
After I finish grating the cheese, we make some chilidogs just like that day I don’t remember when my grandpa saved my cousin and me from a rattlesnake. I put jalapenos on mine. Dad likes pickle relish. We sit down in the living room and turn on the TV. My dad flips a few channels and stops on an image of a man sitting at a dining table with his son. The man is drunk on wine. The two of them are having a conversation without words. The movie is JAWS. I feel like a boy again, sitting with his dad, and I can’t help but wonder if the time will ever come that I’ll feel like I’ve grown up.