|Oct/Nov 2011 Nonfiction|
Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins
In 1980 my father obtained a full-time preaching position at a small church on the Colorado prairie, and our family moved into a pink farmhouse just outside the city limits of a town called Fort Morgan. I was excited about our new residence, primarily because I expected to be living inside some sort of walled garrison, wearing a coon-skin hat and fighting off Injuns with my trusty musket. My pioneer fantasy was momentarily crushed, however, when I learned that the city had earned its "Fort" prefix during the 1800s, and since that time the local white men had shed their coon-skin headgear in favor of grease-stained baseball caps, which they wore as they trudged through the streets every morning on their way to work at the local sugar-beet factory.
Ours wasn't a real farm, just a house at the end of a long, dirt driveway, but there was enough land for a chicken coop next to the garage and a small garden, to be tended by my mother. Still, my father insisted this was our opportunity to live "off the grid," a phrase he often used after watching too many episodes of Little House on the Prairie. "Just imagine," he said, "giant carrots plucked right out of the earth! Fresh eggs for breakfast!" We would weave our own socks with a loom and then beat them against a rock on laundry day. When baths were needed, water would be fetched in buckets from the well and soap would be made from lye and lard. Who needed expensive modern appliances? Material trappings were for those hedonistic Hollywood types who graced the covers of celebrity gossip magazines. No more glossy centerfolds for us. In fact, no more television or radio, either. From now on, songbirds would be our pop stars and sunsets our nightly news. We would study the beetles with the same passion and amazement that our peers studied The Beatles. At some point, we might even trade in our Ford Granada for a couple of prancing white horses and a wooden carriage. Could I wear a coon-skin hat? You bet I could. And maybe even a sweater made from coyote pelts to go with it. Anything was possible because we would be completely self-sufficient. Just like the settlers of ye olden days.
The idea was to wean ourselves off the teat of mainstream society and eventually go underground. No bank accounts, no social security numbers, no way for Big Brother to track us down and tattoo barcodes on our foreheads. We were going to separate ourselves from the frills of secular culture by adopting a simpler, purer way of life. True, the world was falling apart all around us—satanic rock bands constantly screamed obscenities on the radio, godless communists threatened to obliterate freedom-loving countries with nuclear weapons, liberal intellectuals taught their students that human beings evolved from chimps—but if we could just maintain complete control over our tiny section of the prairie, perhaps our souls would escape the chaos uncorrupted.
In spite of my father's histrionics (or perhaps because of them), there was a certain rustic romanticism in this proposed lifestyle that I found appealing at first. I'd inherited more than my fair share of my father's delusional nature and fancied myself quite the heroic frontiersman, despite the fact that I was a small, sickly child who rarely enjoyed physical activities—what is commonly known in playground circles as "kind of a wuss." My pioneer daydreams were indirectly connected to a collection of children's books called the Little Patriot Series, which featured fictionalized accounts of notable figures such as Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Sam Houston. I wasn't quite old enough to read them myself, but I enjoyed the pictures and often forced my overworked mother to read them aloud before bedtime. While not altogether historically accurate, the novels were filled with tales of barrel-chested men who wrestled grizzly bears by day and slept under a canopy of stars by night. According to legend, some of these trailblazers could shoot the wings off a housefly at 20 paces and kill a mountain lion with a single, mighty blow to the kidney. The writing wasn't exactly Pulitzer Prize material, but the authors knew how to turn a simile. Tough as nails, fast as a jackrabbit, strong as an ox. It was enough to excite the imagination of any red-blooded, semi-literate boy. Beholden to no man and afraid of no beast, these hardy patriots exemplified the spirit of American freedom and self-determination, and I wanted to be just like them. Or so I thought.
It turns out, living off the grid is a lot more arduous and boring than one might imagine. Chores were assigned, and I soon found myself being forced out of bed before sunrise to water the tomato plants or collect warm, poop-covered eggs from the feathered nether regions of manic hens. On Saturdays, when other children were watching cartoons in their footie pajamas, my brother and I were outside gathering icicles and buckets of snow, which would later be melted down by our mother for drinking water. The work never ended. As soon as you finished weeding the garden, it was time to shingle the roof or dig some postholes or make strawberry preserves in preparation for the upcoming winter. These tasks were neither fun nor patriotic, and I wanted no part of them.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better when my father decided to add a pregnant sow and a hut full of rabbits to our little ark. But my initial optimism dissipated when I learned what real pioneers did with piglets and bunnies. Apparently, Daniel Boone did not take cuteness into account when surviving in the wilderness. The rabbits were skinned and the pigs gutted, the meat either sold to neighbors or dried, salted, and made into jerky. This always happened, conveniently enough, while the children were at soccer practice or visiting relatives for the weekend. When we returned, the rabbit hut would be empty and the kitchen would be filled with the delicious, gamy aroma of stew.
Somehow it was decided that participating in the execution of four-legged mammals would be traumatic for the youngins, but watching poultry get slaughtered would have no adverse psychological affects whatsoever. Therefore, every summer the entire family got together and butchered a dozen chickens in the backyard. My job was to chase down the fat, headless bodies after my father decapitated them with an ax. Normally our chickens were slothful creatures that could barely be bothered to waddle a few feet for their morning feeding, but apparently all they needed was a good, swift whack in the neck to motivate them. Afterward, they flopped around for several minutes, beating their wings as they scampered blindly across the driveway like drunken Olympic sprinters, leaving behind a trail of blood and feces. The phrase "Running around like a chicken with its head cut off" took on a whole new meaning. I followed the headless cadavers until they ran out of energy and fell, seemingly exhausted, to the ground. Then I grabbed their weird lizard feet and dragged them over to my mother, who plucked the feathers and disemboweled their naked remains. Sometimes my brother would put one of the severed heads on his index finger and chase my sisters around the house with it. Chicken-head puppets, that's what we called them.
But, alas, not every day could be as exciting as Chicken-Head Puppet Day, and I quickly grew tired of living off the fat of the land. Apparently, the land had become anorexic. Hard work and sacrifice were not what I'd signed up for. Staring down buffalos and fighting off Comanches were the adventures I was after. The fact that I would have soiled myself at the sight of either was beside the point. If I couldn't have fun being a pioneer, why bother? Freedom and self-determination are nice in theory, but when it comes down to who's going to castrate the farm animals, I think we can all agree there's something to be said for shallow materialism.
I decided that my parents were holding me back. It was fine with me if they wanted to live like a couple of Dust Bowl hermits, but it wasn't fair to force that lifestyle on their innocent, postmodern offspring. Why not join the 20th century and live a little? After all, I was fortunate enough to be growing up in the Golden Age of Spoiled Children. It was the 1980s, and juvenile greed was at an all time high. Everywhere I turned, my peers were holding their breath and throwing temper tantrums in an effort to acquire the latest incontinent doll or comic book action figure. Baby Boomer parents seemed powerless against such techniques. Advertisers picked up on this, and soon there were million-dollar marketing campaigns directed at pint-sized customers who did not actually have any money of their own. Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Twinkies, Cap'n Crunch, Hot Wheels. How could a five-year-old afford such treasures? The goal was to loosen the parental purse strings by encouraging children to behave like jackals feeding off a lion's kill. If we harassed the lion long enough, eventually it would grow tired of our yelping and abandon the Hungry Hungry Hippos carcass. Then we could fight amongst ourselves over what remained of the cheap, plastic cadaver.
My parents raised me to be an obedient child, but I was open to other options. The problem was, I didn't have a role model. My siblings were all respectful and well-behaved by nature, traits that were of no use to me whatsoever in my new position as Generation X Brat. No, it was obvious that I would have to look outside my family for inspiration.
My mentor finally presented himself one day in the unlikeliest of places: the breakfast aisle at Safeway. This was where I saw a kindergartner named Tommy slap his mother in the face because she had the audacity to put oatmeal in their grocery cart instead of Count Chocula. When this happened, I was shopping for cereal with my own mother, who politely turned away from the scene and pretended to be engrossed in the list of ingredients on a box of Grape Nuts. However, unencumbered by good manners, I gawked at the little monster and took careful mental notes.
The child was sitting in the fold-out seat for toddlers at the top of the grocery cart, a perch for which he was obviously too big. His fat thighs barely fit through the wire slots designed to hold them, and his mother had to keep one hand on the cart at all times to prevent it from tipping over. The other hand was busy fending off the constant barrage of kicks and punches the boy directed at the woman despite her quiet protests. "Stop that, Tommy." "Put that down, Tommy." "Please don't punch Mommy in the throat again, Tommy." I was amazed. Up to this point, I'd been under the impression that the adults were in charge of the planet, but this underage tyrant proved who was really in power. Tommy ruled his household with an iron sippy cup. When he wasn't physically abusing his mother, he was shrieking and throwing stolen Skittles at passing customers. "I'm so sorry," said the mother after a piece of red candy bounced off the permed head of an elderly woman. "He's normally not like this." The old lady looked at the boy sitting in the grocery cart, his pudgy hands and face covered in rainbow carnage, and she nodded kindly. It was all too obvious that little Tommy was like this all the time, and his mother simply made excuses for his horrible behavior. Somehow the innocent angel that emerged from her loins just a few short years ago had transformed into a Third World dictator with a sugar addiction. And his mother had been assigned the unenviable position of public-relations director for the regime.
After the old woman moved on, Tommy's mother smiled apologetically in our direction and then bent down to retrieve a box of oatmeal off the bottom shelf. When she stood up, Tommy reared back and clocked her right in the kisser. This was no playful tap, either. It sounded like someone had smacked a chicken cutlet with a spatula. "Chocula!" the kid screamed. "I want Chocula, stupid!"
My mouth dropped open. Surely this full-grown woman would not stand for such treatment. She would rip the tiny prince off his wire throne and beat him with a bag of oranges. She would pull down his pants and paddle his bare hindquarters with a meat tenderizer until he apologized. And then she would light him on fire.
But that's not what happened. Without a word, Tommy's mother meekly returned the Quaker-inspired breakfast food to the shelf and selected the creepy vampire candy instead. The despair and resignation in her eyes as she did this resembled that of a concentration camp victim or a woman who had been trapped for months in a serial killer's basement. Clearly, this woman had been broken. Tommy seemed to understand this, and to complete the humiliation, he smiled and kicked his mother directly in the vagina.
A whole new world opened up for me in that moment. I realized I had been a fool. An ignorant, chicken-chasing fool! All this time I had been living in the past instead of embracing the future. Hard work and self-reliance were no longer part of the American Dream. These days it was all about gluttony and emotional manipulation. When you wanted something, all you had to do was point at it and scream until it became yours. If that didn't work, one shouldn't be afraid to throw a punch every now and then to remind the parental units who was in charge. This was oedipal warfare at its finest.
From that point on, I decided my days of being a pioneer were over. Sleeping late, watching television, eating junk food—this was the true birthright of my generation, and I was ready to collect. As far as I was concerned, Davey Crockett could keep his stupid coon-skin hat; I wanted an Atari.
If it were actually possible to kill someone with kindness, my mother would be the deadliest military weapon on the planet. She could wipe out the whole of Eastern Europe with a polite smile. A few heartfelt thank you's would sink Australia. Compared to my mother, Gandhi was just a skinny a-hole wrapped in a bed sheet. Mother Teresa was a poser. I have rarely heard her utter an uncharitable word about anyone. Once, after reading an article about a serial killer who had murdered half a dozen prostitutes in the Chicago area and then had sex with their lifeless remains, my mother put down the newspaper and said, "Well, he sure does have a nice smile."
I knew my mother loved me because she said so constantly. In fact, as I grew older, her affectionate demonstrations were becoming something of an embarrassment. Sure, it was acceptable to administer a casual peck on the cheek before bedtime to help bolster my courage against the various closet monsters, but it was not okay to lick one's finger and then attempt to remove some imaginary smudge from my face while friends snickered nearby. The woman had no boundaries.
In the past, I'd considered my mother's love a source of shame to be endured, but now I saw her devotion for what it really was. A bargaining chip. Her children's happiness was my mother's primary concern in life, and I planned to exploit those maternal instincts for all they were worth.
The fact that she was under a lot of stress worked in my favor. Living off the grid was taking its toll on my mother, who by this time was looking after four young children and operating a small petting zoo, all with limited resources. While my father had been adamant about our frontier lifestyle in the beginning, like me he grew tired of the tedious work that went along with it. More and more, he began to focus his energy on bringing salvation to the masses, an activity he enjoyed because it allowed him to escape the confines of our house. If he wasn't at church delivering sermons on the Apocalypse, he was driving up and down the numerous dirt roads surrounding Fort Morgan, reminding the local citizens they were going to hell. Many advised him to do the same. Eventually, these heavenly road trips took him further away, to neighboring cities and counties, where he brought the good news to far off lands, such as Sterling, Holyoke, and Laramie. He returned late at night, tired, grumpy, uninterested in household maintenance or monetary problems.
Meanwhile, my mother was trying to hold our small, gridless estate together. A farmer's daughter from rural Minnesota, she was no stranger to hard work, but this was more than she could handle by herself. The garden provided a few salads in the summer and chicken eggs made for nice breakfast omelets, but it was not nearly enough to feed a family of six. On top of that, there were a variety of unplanned expenses that kept popping up. My father's income was sufficient to keep us afloat, but it was not enough to cover emergencies. And there were always emergencies. Car engines stopped running and kid noses started. Mechanic and hospital bills piled up. The bank kindly bounced a few rubber checks for us, but despite all that elasticity, the money never stretched quite far enough.
I wasn't much help. After the encounter at the grocery store, I became increasingly lazy and difficult to deal with. Whenever my mother asked me to perform even the simplest of chores, I would groan and roll my eyes as though she had requested one of my kidneys. Every task became a burden and the person who asked me to do it an oppressor. My attitude rubbed off on my well-behaved siblings, and soon I was the leader of a small, whiny insurrection. Together we protested our indentured servitude with furrowed brows and pouting lips, a guerilla army of Che Guevara Jrs who refused to take out the trash.
For the most part, my mother endured this behavior with infuriating grace, patiently smiling whenever I misbehaved, reminding me that I was a good boy at heart, even though I had become rotten, like a jar of mayonnaise that had been left in the sun to spoil. I observed her reactions and decided my initial conclusion had been correct: my mother's love was an ocean. Its depths were infinite. If I happened to miss a wave of affection every now and then, it was no big deal. I just had to wait around for a few minutes, and another would come crashing at my feet. The way I saw it, my mother owed me a great debt. If I had never been born, she would simply be a crazy woman who darned socks and occasionally deboned chickens. My endless demands for time and attention gave her existence meaning. The least she could do in return was to buy me things and cater to my every whim. After all, I was her son. And she was my meal ticket.
Several months passed before I returned to the grocery store alone with my mother. At the time, we were on a mission to purchase cake ingredients for my sister's upcoming birthday, and my mother was in a rush because she also needed to visit the bank and the post office before they closed. I decided it was time to have my mother's love appraised and find out exactly what it was worth. If things went well, I would be setting myself up for life. All I had to do was lay a little groundwork, and my future would be filled with the bounty produced by my parents' desperate attempts to buy my affection. The toy box would overflow with the fruits of my whimpering. Candy would appear every time I stuck out my bottom lip. On my 16th birthday, there would be a new sports car in the garage, and two years later I would drive it to an Ivy League campus, where, after a few guilt-inducing sighs, my parents would write a check for the tuition. Sure, they might have to take out a mortgage or two, but wasn't my happiness worth a little soul-crushing debt? I thought so.
Therefore, with a lifetime supply of M&M's and a Harvard education in mind, I followed my mother through the grocery store, waiting for the opportunity to ambush her. The occasion presented itself when she stopped to ask a woman in a red smock where she could find the birthday candles. The employee was in her mid 30s, plump and matronly, with thick glasses and the type of short, no-nonsense haircut commonly worn by women whose grooming habits have been streamlined by a houseful of children. I figured having an additional parent around would only help my case, as it would cause my mother to feel as though she was being judged by a jury of her peers.
The woman was stacking reading material in a tall, wire display case. At the top of the display, there was a comic book called Richie Rich, an illustrated story of a wealthy blonde boy who lived with a butler and, for some inexplicable reason, always wore a red bowtie with blue athletic shorts. Like Archie and Casper, I considered Richie Rich a juvenile comic that was beneath my literary standards, but that wasn't the point. It was the principle that mattered here. I needed to dig my foxhole and dig it deep.
I pointed to the comic book and said, with the most entitled voice I could muster, "I want that!"
My mother glanced down at me and patted my head. "Not now," she said. "I'm in a hurry."
This infuriated me. How dare she dismiss my desires with such flippancy. Who did this woman think she was? I grabbed a handful of her shirt and yanked. "But I waaaant it!" I said. "I want it now! Right now!"
The look that came over my mother's face was not the defeated, submissive expression that I'd hoped for. In fact, I had only seen this particular horrified grimace on one other occasion, during a Fourth of July barbeque, when she accidentally stepped in fresh dog shit while walking across a neighbor's lawn. "That is just disgusting," she'd said as she scraped the foul-smelling excrement off the bottom of her shoe with a pencil.
There were no pencils in sight this time, but the look my mother gave me insinuated that I, too, needed a good scraping. She bent down close to my ear and said quietly, "I said no. That is the end of this discussion. If you don't like it, you can wait in the car."
She stood up and apologized to the woman in the smock. "I'm sorry. He's going through a phase."
The woman waved her hand dismissively, as though shooing a fly. "I have five of them at home," she said. "Believe me, I know how it is. They're always going through a phase."
The two women laughed, and my face burned. What was going on? They were supposed to fuss over me and attempt to gain my favor. What had happened to maternal instincts?
Sensing this was a pivotal moment in our relationship, I decided to call my mother's bluff. Wait in the car, my butt. She was just showing off in front of her new friend, but I'd show her. I'd show the both of them.
With a long howl that could be heard all the way in the produce aisle, I turned and kicked the display case with my foot. I'd meant to topple the thing in dramatic fashion, but given that my foot was about the size of a Milano cookie, all I did was jiggle it a bit. "I want it! I want it! I want it!"
My mother rolled her eyes and excused herself.
"No problem," said the woman in the smock. "You take care of business, honey."
My mother is five-feet tall and weighs 95 pounds soaking wet, but she's not exactly what you'd call a fragile woman. When she flung me over her shoulder like a bag of cat food, I was so surprised, I forgot to scream. We were through the automatic glass doors before I got out a good wail, and by then it was too late. She opened the car door, sat on the passenger's seat, and placed me facedown across her lap.
"But you love me!" I bawled.
"Yes, that is true," my mother said. And then she proceeded to spank me in the Safeway parking lot in front of the entire world.
It was only three swats, distributed lightly and without anger, and the tears that followed were formed from embarrassment, not pain.
"I don't know what has gotten into you lately," my mother said. "But I am very disappointed in your behavior. This is not the well-mannered little boy that I know. I hope you clean up your act soon, but if you don't, I can do this as long as it takes." Then she kissed me gently on the forehead and closed the car door.
After she was gone, I rubbed my skull vigorously to remove all traces of her kiss. The nerve of that woman, administering affection after nearly beating me to death. She would pay for what she'd done. I wasn't ready to admit that I'd been in the wrong, and so I ignored the scene I had made in the store and focused on my punishment. I sprawled out on the backseat and placed my right hand on my forehead, palm-side up, pretending I was dying from heat exhaustion, even though it was a mild day and my mother had cracked the window before she left. When I shriveled up like a raisin, she'd be sorry. Then she would understand why a mother was supposed to give her child anything he asked for.
I remained dead until my mother returned with a bag of groceries. She placed the bag on the passenger's seat and told me to buckle up. I did, but only after sulking first. My mother sighed and removed a Richie Rich comic book from the grocery bag. "You can read it after you've finished doing all your chores," she said. "And not a moment sooner."
I crossed my arms over my chest and stuck out my bottom lip. "That's not even the right one," I said. My mother rolled her eyes and drove us home.