My father is hanging from the ladder off the side of the house, a common sight. He tinkers constantly, blind hope filling in where carpentry skills fail, with our 200-year old residence, trying, hopelessly, to navigate the creaks and pains that come with its accelerated aging.
“Hi, Brian. How was rehearsal?” His fingertips hooked around a rotting rain gutter, this question is eagerly, almost hopefully, asked- even before the woman who is directing the small community production that I have joined as a time killer this summer has the chance to pull out of the driveway.
“Fine,” I reply.
“Good.” Then before I have a chance to expound any further about the process, to snootily remark that I will be happy to be back among the future professionals at the famous theater school that I have been attending in the fall, he gallops as if atop a through-bred, to a newly reconfigured finish. “Before you go inside, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve rented a house in Alfred for the coming year and…I’ve filed for a temporary separation from your mother. I think it’s for the best.”
Almost working in accomplice with his forced ease, I take this news with breezy relief, as if this new juncture was a long foreseen conclusion. And it has been. My parents’ marriage has been teetering towards oblivion since the day I was conceived. This feels like the first smart move that my father has made towards that increasingly acidic partnership in a while.
“I think that’s a wise move, dad.” He almost blushes with relief. Then. as if the dissolution of an almost 20-year old marriage is everyday news, I quickly ask “Can I borrow the car?”
“Sure, Brian, sure,” he happily sputters. “And thanks!”
Touched by his childlike alleviation, I expand a bit. “The commute has been rough on you and the kids. & a break will do you and mom good. Things have only gotten worse lately.”
Comrades now… equals, he solemnly nods his head in agreement with me. “I knew that you kids could feel that. I decided to do this for everyone. Not just your mom and me.”
I nod and he swings back to his patchwork repairing – a whistled tune soon escaping from his recently loosened lips.
Later, after I have returned from the store with my frozen pizzas and 2 liter bottles of pineapple soda, my mother approaches me, teary eyed.
“Did your father talk to you?”
“I – I just can’t believe it!” Tears begin to pour forth from eyes as her body hiccups with the intensity of her sobs.
I am shocked. Her every waking moment has been colored with derision towards my father since my late teens. How could this not come as some sort of relief to her? I look on at her as she weeps… bewildered and judgmental, a photocopy of the whispered glances that I am sure she is consumed with worry that are soon to come – frowns from family members and the well wrapped parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church, scowls filled with disapproving inferences. She is a failure. She could not make it work.
Thus, the summer unfolds in degrees. Lou and I watch Alice, Sweet Alice and Blood Sucking Freaks during late night get-togethers. He has been counseling both of my parents and the extremity of being twisted between two sides weighs on us both. Inducted, fully, into the creative activities of a big city life, I desperately clutch at any culture I can imbue myself with. My parents take turns accompanying me to events. The concerts I attend with my mom are a mixed bag of practices – Marie Osmond at Chautauqua Institute contrasted with a huge homecoming bash at JCC for hometown heroes 10,000 Maniacs. I excitedly procure Natalie Merchant’s autograph on a flyer before she skittles quickly, skirt flowingly away. Ever in competition, my mother decides that my father has fared better with me – shows with Judy Collins and Emmylou Harris (who I also get to meet) seem much more relevant to her. More disturbingly in her spreadsheet of wins to losses, while out with my father at the Little Valley County Fair, I am called up onto stage to perform with Louise Mandrell – an event that is captured by one of my mother’s co-workers on camera. This provides hard photographic proof that my paternal regiment is there for the significant artistic occurrences in my life – a fact that provokes wearying conversations – especially as my brother and sister disappear more completely into their new lives several townships away.
So these movie nights provide relief – for both Lou and myself. Almost ineptly pornographic, I can’t quite decipher what Bloodsucking Freaks is, cinematically. It’s the only film that I watch with Lou that makes me feel a bit awkward. With its brain milkshakes, head vice tortures and elements of WIP slavery, however ineptly rendered, it’s not exactly a film you watch with the equivalent of a family member. (Years later, I would have the same reaction when watching the opening moments of Leaving Las Vegas with my father’s second wife, Judy. “Why, he should be arrested,” she sputtered during Nicholas Cage’s first drunken diatribe as I, cringingly, held my breath until she, soon thereafter, joined my father in their bedroom, a whole thankful flight of sound proofed stairs away from the TV room, where I continued to watch.) Still, it feels like a film, much like The Toolbox Murders and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, that as a well-rounded horror aficionado that I should have in my viewer’s canon. Ever looking for connective tissue between my celluloid obsessions, I am also thrilled to find that the film features former soap opera actor Niles McMasters as the avenging, crime solving hero. While almost silly here, McMasters gives a much more well-rounded portrayal in Alice, Sweet Alice, a film that I adoringly play on repeat throughout the summer. Not only do I watch it first by myself, but I also share it with the older group of kids that I watch over at the local children’s home, my summer job. I excitedly purchased it – my first VHS tape – with my inaugural paycheck – picking it out from other desired offerings such as Sleepaway Camp and Empire of the Ants in the budget K-Mart movie bin – although the $10 price tag does not seem like much of a bargain to me, to be truthful. I had first read about the film in a scholastic style biography of Brooke Shields which described, in judgmentally lurid detail, her character’s violent murder at a first communion ceremony in the film. While the author’s intent was to seemingly make the readers avoid the movie – it had the opposite effect for me and I had been, dreamily, searching for it ever since. Slightly influenced by that writer’s assessment, I was not expecting the rich atmosphere, twisted dramatics and stylized violence that, markedly, colors the film. The exact opposite of the cheap horror outing that I was expecting, I adored it and wanted everyone to revel in its hysterical beauty along with me.
Lou was surprisingly silent about these offerings, though. Blood Sucking Freaks was understandably hard to, conversationally, qualify. Although, I, at least, expected him to comment on McMaster’s handsomeness. But I fully expected to discuss the wonders of Alice, Sweet Alice with him. I could, instinctively, hint at the things that the film was trying to say about power and those devoted to it. It seemed emblematic of the world around me. It seemed there, as in real life, no official could be trusted.
But perhaps it hit too close to home. “You watched this with, Lou?” my mother asks me, looking up from the magazine that she has been half- heartedly picking through, during one of my repeat watches. Now that my father and siblings are in absentia, she often spends her evening hours cuddled near me as I view my favorite programs. “Yeah.” Her eyes flicker with a questioning note. “What?” “This just feels a bit…anti-Catholic. I’d be offended, maybe, if I was a priest or a nun.” For a moment, I also consider the character of Mr. Alphonso, the corpulent landlord in the film. This character defiantly accosts the film’s pre-teen lead at one point early in the plot’s gestation. I realize I have seen myself in all the awkward final girls that I have grown to love – from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Laurie in Halloween to Chris in Friday the 13th, Part 3. I connect fully with their otherworldly apartness. Perhaps Lou saw himself in the well portioned vastly skinned Alphonso and he did not like what he saw.
I do not dwell on this thought for long, though. My mother’s birthday is fast approaching and I want to ease some of her sense of loss by throwing her a party. Lou agrees to offer up the rectory as the gathering place if I provide all the necessary drinks and food stuffs. I begin inviting folks and buy packs of cold cuts and bags of potato chips and pretzels from the Quality Market. Lou assesses what I have purchased and suggests I buy more.
The night of the event I am in heaven, greeting the invitees as they arrive and playing DJ. I think my mother even realizes she is wrong about the events I’ve attended with my father being the more significant. I happily show off the Marie Osmond album (with its silky atmosphere and leggy pose) I’ve been playing to Marsha Hinman, one of the soft spoken elegant church ladies I’ve invited. My mother overhears me rhapsodically speaking about Osmond’s act with her and beams. We’ve needed this. Just the week before, I spent the weekend with my father. My brother who had been attending a movie with a friend got in a small car accident and was taken to the hospital. When I call my mother to let her know from the payphone in the visitor’s lobby, she has a fevered breakdown on me. She screams, inconsolably, blaming me somehow for her physical and emotional distance from her other son during this minor tragedy. Unable to reason with her, I finally hang up the phone. After he is fitted with one or two stitches on his forehead, I convince my brother to call her – and though no apologies leak forth when she asks to speak to me again, I can tell just hearing his voice and his assurances that he would have called her immediately himself if he had been able to, has calmed her.
Tonight, all has been forgiven, though. And it even seems, that days away from my return to college, all is as it once was. She clasps my waist and happily squeezes me moments before Lou gooses my backside proudly. “You did a good job,” he tells me, a paternal note of proudness leaking into his voice. But I can see. due to the winking brightness behind his bifocals, that he longs to go further, to stroke my buttocks softly, as well.
But reveling, for once, in the deterrent of my mother’s closeness, I quickly remove myself from his over grasping attempts at affection and begin the clean-up that gatherings such as this always justify.
Note: (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.)