My first horror movie buddy was a priest named Lou Hendricks. Several years ago, Hendricks was named by the Western New York Catholic diocese as one of their most unrepentant predators in the ’70s and ’80s. Thus, I grew up watching monster movies with a monster – a man who was like an uncle to our family. Over the next few months, I will be sharing some of my stories from that period of time.
My father is away for the weekend and my mother and I are fighting again.
This should come as no surprise, though.
A tar dark country night swirls above us, an inky stain that seems to revel in feats of unprecedented madness. This atmospheric wonderland is made for home invasions, furious insults from the maternal line, domestic batteries. On a weekend much like this, many years ago, a distant neighbor ripped the growing baby out of his wife’s straining belly. The mother & child both survived, living on while the town whispered their sordid story behind cupped fingers for the many months that followed. The galaxies must have swirled, chaotically, that evening, peeling the stars, usually so fragrant above our fields, down to tiny pricks of light. Tonight, as it must have been then, I can only count one or two soft glowing spots far above us. Both dim orbs are culling the fervor from within our familial souls. Perhaps, though, this is only a magical exaggeration, and our violent arguing is, as my mother claims, truly the fault of my moony negligence.
Admittedly, I live in my head…always making up stories, imagining the plot lines of the movies and plays that I will star in once I have escaped into my real life. 18 and a city nurtured existence can’t come soon enough for me. Until those deliriously blessed days arrive, I restlessly spend my weekend hours, wandering from room to room, moodily deciding where I might fit in, character wise, in my favorite soap operas. I even devise passionate and committed off screen love affairs between myself and the handsomest cast members. My head whirls, constantly, with these romantic notions…and this dreamy path only has room for one – any other participants would surely destroy the allure. A stranger, even a family member…let’s be honest, probably most especially a family member, would singly obliterate these illusions, would point out, emphatically, that this is all fantasy…all in my head. So, I fervently channel these possibilities alone…and my mother broods, cut off from my deepest thoughts, picking, critically, around my flight activated edges. Out of hurt, she points out my many faults, weighs out my unmanly preoccupations, arms outstretched as if they were the scales of justice, sentencing me to inferiority like some dirt stained, school yard bully.
Frankly, I am not immune to jealous notions myself. When she isn’t preoccupied with anchoring down my un-abided affection, my mother murmurs consistently about the wayside kids at the home that she works at, the fever of social work warming her daily blood. Dinners are often focused around the trials & tribulations of these youths, many sent to this country facility, far away from their unfortunate families, with that hopes that our quaint, natural surroundings will protect them from the drug and gang addled lives that they have been subjected to. It seems to me that she is as obsessed with these crime stained wards as she is with me – sometimes even more so – and while I bristle at her clutching attentions, I defiantly do not want them focused elsewhere. It hurts that she so passionately worries about their grades and their meds and the faltering attentions of their own parents. More than that, their histories scare me…much more than the horror films that my family now, due to Lou’s quietly supportive intervention, have reluctantly conceded to be a major part of my life.
Recently, my mother brought me a letter she received from Dolly, a former student. Dolly and another girl from the village sized reformatory that my mother spends her working hours at visited us once. Slaquered with make-up, naturally curly hair teased high, her already womanly buttocks stretched tightly into stone washed jeans, Dolly commandeered my stereo that day – sorting through my records like a sassy Ronnie Spector-wired DJ. She and her friend danced throughout our living room, side stepping our curiously nonplussed dogs, discussing (as their arms swung rhythmically, hips clocking to the beat) which boys at the home were the best dancers. Their brash confidence scared me – I don’t think I could ever be that fluidly sure of myself. I was also annoyed at their dissection and momentarily yet propriety claim over my possessions, their dismissal of the artists that they deemed unworthy for some personally identified prime, grooving flow. Those were my albums – I had purchased that stereo with the last of the money saved from a paper route & it was my prized possession. I was able to dance just fine to Liza Minnelli AND John Cougar Mellencamp – no matter what they said. Of course, then I didn’t understand about the quivering insecurity that could flow like swirling streams beneath overt bravado. Soon after her visit, Dolly was reunited with her mother. She was thrilled to be returning to the home that she had been taken away from due to neglect and a supreme lack of supervision. That trend continued unabated upon her reintroduction to that environment— her mother’s boyfriend soon turned his attentions from her mother to Dolly, herself. She became, unsurprisingly, as the world seems to turn on the axis of a gothic beast’s shoulders, pregnant by him. Mere months after the child’s birth, he unleashed his unbounded fury upon her and murdered her in her crib because she wouldn’t stop crying one night. In the letter’s girlishly scrawled missive, Dolly wailed “He killed my baby, ma!!” – a chilling blue inked cry that haunted me beyond measure.
Now, though, the light from one of those solitary stars suddenly beats through the windows of our kitchen. It entrances my mother and, in the middle of her ongoing list of my ingratitudes, she calms, almost bewitched by the power of its flashy sentiment. She stands there, moments passing, watching so quietly that I am worried that she is having one of the mild seizures that overtake her on occasion. Finally, she stirs, utters a deep sigh and, as if forgetting our quarrel entirely, asks, “Would you like lasagna for dinner tonight?” She knows this is my favorite, the meal that she makes with ingenuity and zest.
“Sure,” I, cautiously, utter.
Transformed, she beams.
“How many fingers?” she suddenly asks. In our happier times, this is one of her favorite games, a silly testament to my devotion. Normally, I would hold up both hands, proudly, and wiggle my bony digits throughout the air, a physical representation of the 10 fingers that I supposedly have her wrapped around. But I feel too old for this game right now. I can’t let my anger go as completely as she has. I turn away from her and notice part of the letter from Dolly is still scattered across the tiled island in the center of the room – even though it was shown to me weeks ago. Our passions as a family seem to overflow into our sense of order, as well. Things are often cluttered, unattended here – books are battered, left coverless. My parents old Rolling Stones & Brenda Lee albums, all originals, are left out of their sleeves. Correspondence that I should have never been allowed to see is left about, important pages torn & missing.
So, instead of the expected boyish gesture, I swivel towards her, flipping up the middle fingers on both hands, a defiant double bird. My mother reacts like a bride whose flowing trail has been stamped on, choking her, stopping her short.
She gasps, “I’m calling Lou. He’ll talk some sense into you.”
There is a part of me that wants to object. I have plays to write…my Lisa Hartman album awaits me in my bedroom – Nothing makes me happier than pretending I am her male counterpart – I dance around my private spaces, singing along with Letterock, pretending I am a rock star adored by millions with secret celebrity boyfriends lining the walls of my dressing room. But I know my mother will not be appeased until her orders have been met – until someone in the world, in this case Lou, bears witness to what a rotten child that I am.
One summer, several years ago, my parents spent a long weekend away. As the oldest, I was sent to stay with my mom’s rigid, often emotionless parents. This was a much less desirable destination than the home of my affectionate, loving paternal grandparents (where my brother and sister were ensconced). Adding further grit to the fuzzy, life-sized lollipop that had been wedged into my mouth, I was instructed to tell my grandparents that I had to go to confession on Saturday, penance for talking back to my mother one too many times. My mother left it up to me to tell them – a nerve jangling experience as I was fully convinced that I would receive further punishment from my disapproving kin. Thankfully, my grandfather just laughed and dropped me off at the church that afternoon while he ran errands.
Lou, the activated civil servant, reacts in mainly the same way after he quickly arrives. He makes pleasantries with my mother and then asks, “Do you want to go for a ride, Brian?” He winks at me, secretly. “We can talk about treating your mother with more kindness in private.”
My mother looks at me with an insulting superiority in her eyes, as if I have been suitably chastised. My teenaged attitude executioner has arrived.
“Sure”, I say. I am cautious about being alone with him after that flirtatious gesture, but anything seems preferable to the blazing self righteous fury contained now in my mother’s eyes.
In the vehicle, we roll on in silence for a moment. Lou quietly shifts onto Hoxie Hill Road. Even though I cannot see it through the gloom, I know farmland ripples all around us – pastures, hills, acres of woods that bloom with crisp, orchestral colors in the fall. Everything is round, lush, breathing widely before us, the seeming antithesis of the tightly wound, graffiti graced cities that I desperately long for. Always aware of cultural significance, I note that we are traveling on a byway named after the family of a former schoolmate of mine. Having a curving farm woods lane named after you in this area seems the equivalent of being born into royalty and I wonder what it must be like to feel like you are part of a dynasty – even if it is a backwoods one, unpasteurized milk staining the lips of every descendant – the family cows moaning in fields, a very vocal ancestral crest. I respect every kind of celebrityhood it seems…even the ones that I deem less than desirable.
“My mother was loved by everyone, too,” Lou finally ventures. “And she loved everyone back. She truly cared about people – which can be hard. As the child, you want to come first. You don’t want to share.”
I sigh. There is so much more to it. So many complicated strains of emotions bleed through my familial interactions, often on a daily basis. Everything about this life seems way too complicated to decipher in a simple evening’s jaunt.
Slowly, I gather my thoughts. “I understand,” I begin, “that I have more than anyone at the Home does. & I love mom’s passion for helping them…”
Lou nods. He rubs my leg with compassion, lingering there for a moment…and then stops, returning his hand to the steering wheel of the car. I tense, ready for some twist – he always finds a way to turn simple affection into something erotic. But moments pass and I realize, for once, he has read this situation compassionately and won’t try to negate it with humor or a winking offer of sexual relief.
And on this kind of night, a night where bloodshed and horror and death would not feel out of place, on this night where a parent’s love feels outlined with a dangerously poisonous intent, I take this respite as a true blessing and, for the first time in many hours, my breathing slows to a normal pace and I feel some kind of hope, no matter how distant, surround me at last.