In Exile on Violet

My parents’ car was revving at the cold curb. I was lugging my duffel down the garlanded hallway of my grandparents’ house, when Joyce took my arm, led me to the kitchen, and explained that my sister and I would not be returning home. For one whole week! Joyce (otherwise known as my mother) delivered this news with the syrupy excitement of an infomercial. But wait—there’s more! She pointed out how my grandmother would spoil me and how I’d be a big help to my grandfather, as she slipped my duffel from my shoulder and set it on the kitchen floor.

I couldn’t smile. I collected the facts: my grandmother and sister had been AWOL all morning; my grandfather was nestled with cancer on the sofa; and the way my mother tousled my hair and winked me to death didn’t match her rigid demeanor. Besides, her lipstick was colored outside the lines, her hair acted like it was still in bed.

Joyce got a sudden tremor in her voice. She said she or my father—they didn’t know which one yet—would be back in a week to pick us up. She turned and whipped through the den to hug my grandfather goodbye, before bolting down the front steps and into the car at the curb. Bart (aka Dad) waved, unsmiling, from the driver’s seat. Puffs of exhaust hit the December air, trailing them like a ghost down Violet Street.

It was noon, day after Christmas, I was still in my bare feet.

Here I am—almost shaving!—and as if my voice hadn’t changed or anything I started to think of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid. Not the popular ones with Daffy or Sylvester or Tweety or Bugs. I’m talking about the ones starring no one in particular, where an unwanted newborn is abandoned on someone’s doorstep. Lullaby music plays, a sure sign that the baby’s future with the new family will be safe and secure and tons better than with the morons who dumped him. Tha-tha-tha that’s all, folks!

I closed the front door and slipped my cold feet into brown shag. I retreated to the living room and there, as if scolding me, the Christmas tree loomed. Scattered in its skirts were board games and puzzles and books, still not packed for the ride home, as if they knew all along we were staying put.

It hit me: my sister Danielle had already been told of our weeklong exile. I recalled her and my grandmother’s early escape. I’d listened from bed, drifting between dreams and details, as they hustled down the hall and out the door to hit the mall, to buy joy with their crisp Christmas money.

I could see Bart and Joyce gunning down Violet, and at the bottom of the hill, at the blind curve, they brake and skid and hit the oncoming car—my grandmother’s car. The screech and crunch busts your eardrums. Bloodied bodies land in lounge-like poses. Sprawled on the hood. Curled under the windshield. Bunched in the floorboard. Mouths agape like movie stars posing for pictures. Cops at the scene throw up their lunch. Hi-lair-ee-ous.

Watch me play under the Christmas tree. Goo-goo ga-ga. Like I’m a friggin’ baby. Who cares? Makes me wish for Christmases past. Opening gifts and playing in pajamas, sunrise to sundown, until my father announces that it’s time to go to bed because December 25th is O-V-E-R. He used to say stuff like that with a wink, like he was Mr. Brady and I was little Bobby.

But no winks this year. This year Bart gathered his gifts, still wrapped in paper and bows, and carried them to the car, mumbling something about how he’d open them later. Joyce had unwrapped her gifts with the same tedium she applied to opening a utility bill. My grandfather—with his monster milky eyes—exploded with a cough every second to remind us he was still kicking. Danielle and my grandmother cackled at every present like parrots in a gaudy jungle. Phonies. Freaks. Retards.

A rattling cough came from the dark den, shaking me from the memory of yesterday’s Christmas fiasco.

An arched doorway connected the two rooms, a demarcation between sun and shade.

I tiptoed to the doorway and adjusted my eyes. Pine paneling, droopy-leafed ferns, console TV. Paw Paw’s room. Alter-ego to the living room’s gilded cage. He was sitting up on the green sofa, with his feet on the floor, and his head bowed, his mouth ajar. He gripped the cushions, concentrating on his next breath.

The TV got my attention. People were cheering and yelling—it was some sort of movie. A woman skier was slaloming down a hill. She was rounding the last orange flag, the finish line in sight at the bottom of the mountain.

My grandfather exploded with a second cough.

The skier suddenly snapped a pole, sliced between some trees, and sailed over a raggedy cliff. Her arms and legs flapped crazily in slow motion. She landed all screwy like a tossed puppet. It took a moment for me to realize it wasn’t my grandfather’s phlegmy eruption that caused her accident in some sort of real-life-TV-time-warp.

The camera angle switched to her point of view, like they sometimes do in movies to put you in the character’s shoes, and now you, the viewer, were looking up into her friends’ eyes as they bent over her. Suddenly all of their cries and questions, even the weepy violins, cut to quiet. The skier heard nothing.

At once I heard my grandfather wheeze. When he inhaled his breathing knocked and pinged and gurgled and whined in the way Bart’s car sometimes struggled to make a steep hill. Then my grandfather’s exhale tumbled over moist stones and muddy potholes, down into a mucousy low-water-crossing cough.

He made me all queasy, but I sidled up to the sofa and carefully patted him on the back. From this angle I saw his scrawny neck disappear into his baggy blue pajamas. He stretched for a white Styrofoam cup on the side table and spit into it. That’s when the stench hit me, as if his extended reach had burst open a puss-filled sore: Paw Paw reeked like the PE showers at school. Armpits and buttholes and jock straps and feet.

I wondered when Danielle and my grandmother might return. I imagined the two of them scurrying through the mall like mice through a well-learned maze, carrying crisp paper sacks of pink and blue and green.

I escaped to the kitchen and inhaled the stirred odor of burning coffee and dish soap. Still on the floor, right where Joyce had put it, was my packed duffel. Going nowhere.

I kicked it hard. I poured a glass of water for my grandfather.

“Thank you, son,” said Paw Paw. He swallowed the liquid in long gulps.

He handed the empty glass back to me, and I set it next to the white Styrofoam cup. When I sat on the floor in front of the TV his eyes floated in my direction. He smiled and exposed yellow teeth. It was weird. I was weird. I didn’t smile back. I mean, this bony antique was a stranger to me. See, before cancer reduced him to gristle, he used to live life in two solitary ways: 1) dressed in his orange jumpsuit smoking Marlboro Reds in the tool corner of the garage, or 2) poring over the yellow receipts at his Western Auto store he ran with my grandmother. Know what else? In his pre-cancer days he looked like Johnny Carson. Spitting image. There, behind the desk in his office at the Western Auto. I half expected Ed McMahon to be sitting next to him with that drunken laugh. Only thing was, Paw Paw didn’t possess any Johnny Carson charm, the kind of charm that made people want to sit next to you and talk.

But he had one thing going for him—the toy aisle in his Western Auto. When I was a tiny kid I’d open games in the middle of the aisle and play. Customers had to tightrope around me to get to the fan belts and spark plugs and batteries. I’d grab a game—Battleship or Sorry or Trouble or Risk—and play with friends who assembled around the board in my imagination. I won every time.

I never understood why toys were in a Western Auto, until one weekend, on another visit to my grandparents, I heard Joyce bitching to Bart about my grandmother’s need to spoil. Maw Maw added the toy aisle to ingratiate herself to her grandchildren. Sounded to me like Joyce was jealous.

You know, the odd thing about Paw Paw was that he only said one kind thing to me—ever. Don’t get me wrong: he wasn’t mean or anything. He didn’t kick or curse. He just never knew that I was there. Paw Paw kept in his world, and we all kept in ours.

Except, this one time when he complimented me, it was during the year that Joyce got the brilliant idea to sign me up for the Arkansas Boys’ Choir. To show off my beautiful voice, she told me in a rare moment of motherly goo. And the crazy thing is, we recorded an album of choral music! I and fifty other boy sopranos sang in a professional studio. I gave the album as a gift that Christmas, and my grandmother ripped opened the cellophaned sleeve. A singer like Barry Manilow! She admired the pictures on the back (none of which I was in) before putting the grooved disc under the stereo needle. There we were. Joyce and Bart and Maw Maw and Paw Paw and me, even Danielle, sitting around the living room, picture perfect, like we were the President and his family at the White House. Three songs into the album Paw Paw lumbered towards me, dressed in his orange jump suit, and said something about how proud he was, before he left to keep his tools company.

I knew right then I’d accomplished something.

The girl on TV caught my attention. She was crying now. She was out of her ski outfit and into a hospital gown drenched with tears. Her mouth was an agonizing oval as doctors told her she was paralyzed from the neck down. A guy was there, too. Her boyfriend? I focused on the boyfriend’s concrete jaw, tight sweater, football shoulders. Beneath his Superman hair he shed a tear with an earthquake lip.

“You look like your dad,” Paw Paw said, out of the blue.

From my spot on the carpet I turned and looked him in the face. His thin mouth held no expression, yet his eyes now seemed alive.

“How you sit Indian-style. Watching TV. Just like him.”

His voice was soft, like he was testing it out, like it’d hardly been abused by cigarettes. And the remarkable thing was, it was clear, no wheeze.

“You should be running around outside, not stuck here with a sick old man,” he added, louder, over the TV. “Stuck here while your mom and dad go figure things out.” He exhaled a long, heavy sigh. “I wish to God they could be happy.”

He said this last part as if he was deeply hurt.

Then I understood why Danielle and I had been abandoned. Joyce and Bart were on the skids. Over the last year they’d become invisible, huddled on the other side of doors, mumbling and shuffling and whispering like ghosts. And whenever they emerged their averted eyes revealed how they longed to be, I don’t know, somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Odd thing is, I turned invisible during this time too. Oh, I was still there—I was always at the house—and yet not there. I hid in my imagination. Know what I mean? If you’ve ever been a kid you get it.

“I’ve seen a lot,” Paw Paw said, randomly. “That’s what old folks say when they get to be my age. I’ve never seen war—on account of my weak heart—still, I saw plenty of troubles. There are battlefields at home, too. Droughts. Floods. Broken farm equipment. You name it. These hands got me through.”

He held them up, shaky and all; he was admiring them, you could tell. He returned them to his lap.

“It’s how I met Alice. My first wife. Her daddy’s John Deere broke down and he hired me to come to his place to fix it. After a while I became a regular. Alice sweet-talked me, thinking I could fix her, too. She thought these hands could take her to Little Rock, where life was happening. But no, they wanted to stay—they brought in the money, see—so I listened to my hands and she listened to her dreams or whatever you call it. She took herself to Little Rock and let my hands be. Divorce was blasphemy back then. Devil’s work. See—I had this school buddy, his mom and dad divorced. You’da thought the town come unglued. Can’t remember his name or his dad’s, but I remember his momma. Ever’body remembered her. She’d walk to the courthouse smoking a cigarette. She advertised the crack in her cleavage. A boy’s imagination run wild. What a commotion….what a commotion…But Alice wasn’t that way. When she and I quit she just disappeared to Little Rock and some judge granted a quickie. Like none of it happened… Still—it lingers in my head. Not love for her. I love your Maw Maw, the only woman I ever truly loved. But memories don’t quit, son. Like elephants. Elephants forget nothing. I learned that from a teacher way back. Don’t know how she got inside an elephant’s brain but I take it as gospel cause it’s the same with me.”

Alice? Who was Alice? Before Maw Maw there was Alice? My grandfather was divorced? I waited for the punch line…I thought maybe he was fibbing. But he spoke so naturally, honestly. It’s like he trusted me with the truth. A family secret. A secret maybe even Danielle didn’t know! My sister who knew everything about everyone and bragged about it forever. Such a smart ass.

A cough began to boil in his throat. All that talking had dislodged congestion in his chest. Paw Paw gripped the sofa and spread his legs and planted his feet and gave it a heave-ho. He hacked to a sickly rhythm. He shifted and shuddered and dredged up a prize-winning oyster.

He rested for a long moment.

He stretched for the Styrofoam cup and spit. Paw Paw returned the cup to the side table and settled back on the sofa and that’s when I saw that something had fallen out of the hole in the crotch of his pajamas.

“That was Alice coming back to haunt me,” he chuckled. “Don’t tell your Maw Maw I said that.”

His…thing. His Thing! Holy crap. Paw Paw’s thing was jumbled in a mound pouring from his pants.

“It’s not what life throws at ya that affects ya,” he said, “but how you deal with it. Divorce ain’t easy, son. Not on nobody. Maw Maw’s all tore up. Your dad’s her son, but your mom is like a daughter to her.”

His mouth moved but all I heard was the voice in my head: “Put your thing back in your pants!” How could he not know it was hanging out? The entire world could see it!

“No telling why things happen, son. Some fall out of love as quick as they fall in. Some it don’t matter how much they try, the machine won’t work for ‘em. Like farm equipment—and Alice. Sometimes it’s broke and can’t be fixed.”

It was long and corrugated like the rubbery hose on Joyce’s vacuum. And hairy. Brownish gray. None of it looked like it belonged to him.

“Things happen that’s hard to look past. People don’t mean to hurt one another. Just happens.”

None of the penises in PE class looked like this. Not even Justin Mitchell’s. And his was the first to hang low, sprout hair, and leave boys in awe. When Justin showered and toweled it swayed heavily like it was one of the sand bags we carried across the gym for exercise. I stole looks in the showers. Not only at Justin, but at all the boys. And you wanna know what’s embarrassing? Wanna know what happened when I looked? When I stared it made my penis grow. Which made me all proud because now mine was just as big. Just as big as Justin’s was soft. But one day Justin caught me looking and called me a faggot and gayrod and fairy. I was a car wreck on the inside. I answered with a wimpy smile like I could take the joke. I made some excuse that I was thinking about his big sister, who everyone knew had gone to New York to become a model. But that pissed him off more because no one talked about his sister that way. I waited for my swelling to die before I left the showers, and then, as I was dressing, the guys looked at me and sniggered as if Justin had told them. Their eyes took aim and labeled me for what I was.

“Remember, son: your dad loves you. But you gotta be the man of the house, now that he’s movin’ out.”

A man? I wanted to be a man. To smoke like Paw Paw. To cuss like they did on HBO, goddamn it. I wanted to walk down the halls at school and feel like I owned the place. What Justin Mitchell had. I wanted girls to want me, really want me. And if I impressed one of them, just one, then maybe this sick, burning feeling would disappear forever into the beautiful arms of a beautiful girl.

Without warning, Paw Paw shot to his feet. He shuffled quickly to the wall and stopped. Actually, it was more like the wall stopped him. He threw his shoulder into it and leaned against the pine paneling. He looked like a propped up ladder. He scooted down the hall like that. He was crazy. He acted as if he’d done it a thousand times. There he was, with his butt hole stench and swallowing pajamas and quaking hands, with nothing more than a wall for support.

I jumped up and went down the hall, but the bathroom door was already shut. He was a quick old guy.

I gripped the door handle thinking he could use my help, but then I stopped. There was something about that penis stuff that jumbled up my head. It was weird. I don’t know. Some things Paw Paw’s going to have to do on his own, I figured. He’d made it this far alone, right? I could hear a powerful stream through the door, a horse peeing, and I could tell he was hitting everything just right which was a good thing.

It seemed to me that something, I don’t know what, was set in motion. Something was out of the starting gate and I had no control over it. That was the thing. I couldn’t stop it any more than that skier could stop falling off that mountain. No more than her arms could stop trying to fly.

Then I got this insane idea. I wanted to tell Paw Paw my secret. What would he say? He was walking around with his penis hanging out! That story about Alice he told, that was personal and private, right? I wanted to tell him something about me.

I wanted to kiss Justin Mitchell. That day in the showers. I was overwhelmed by an inexpressible urge to hold him. I wanted to reward him with something beyond words, with something I knew was right and true.

A truth packed with possibilities. People cheering me on. With me racing to the finish line.

Then a snap. A plunge over a cliff.

I didn’t want to be crowded over by classmates, poked and pawed and offered no comfort, only inhuman labels and unspeakable slurs.

And Joyce and Bart. They might look at each other and say, You can have him. No, you. When all they really cared for was Danielle.

I let go of the bathroom door handle. I returned to my place on the carpet.

The girl on TV is smiling a cockeyed smile. She wears make up and a bright blue cable knit sweater and is sitting at a table in a room filled with light. Parallel bars and exercise machines and cushioned mats. A physical therapy room. She looks at her boyfriend giddy and all. Her hair is pretty with a butterfly clip.

Her boyfriend’s dimples burst like fireworks. He looks directly into the camera, at me.

On the table in front of his girlfriend is a big white bowl of potato chips. Straining, she slowly lifts her right arm and exposes a balled fist. She stretches out her arm. It floats over the bowl. And as if someone cut an invisible string her fist falls without grace. Cracked chips skitter over the bowl’s edge. Her lips purse, her eyes squint, the whole world is concentrated in her fist. A golden strand of hair breaks from the butterfly clip and dangles in the middle of her forehead. The girl makes a complete mess, yet she’s unembarrassed. She raises her arm and smiles. In her fist is a single broken potato chip. She holds it out to her boyfriend, like it’s some sort of offering, a wedding ring.

Her boyfriend looks sidelong at the empty parallel bars in the corner. On his Superman face is an expression he can’t control. His dimples extinguish.

Paw Paw appears at the doorway of the den, wheezing mightily. “Life sometimes gives you lemons,” he says, between breaths. “But, hee-hee, if I didn’t just get rid of the lemonade.” He then leans toward the sofa and tilts forward, slowly. He’s in the hands of gravity…and falls…grabbing hold of the sofa arm.

I extend my arms, impulsively, into empty air. Frozen, like I must’ve thought I could offer some sort of rescue from my place on the floor. If Maw Maw and Danielle had returned at that second they might’ve joked that I was trying to gather Paw Paw, the TV, the whole room into my arms.

The sobbing on TV pulls me away. The girl is crying. The boyfriend is gone.

A flurry of noise. Paw Paw is back on the sofa, attempting a smile, with his chest heaving and shoulders rising and falling.

The camera backs away. The girl looks at no one. The potato chip falls from her gnarled fist.

With my outstretched arms, I gather my legs to my chest and grasp them tightly. I hold on to myself. I hold on.

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