First thing I do is check the television. They said it had cable.
Yep, punching the remote from the dark orange quilt on the
queen size bed, it’s got cable. Fred MacMurray stares out at me
from TVLand for a split black and white second before I click it off
again. I don’t need to watch. I just like knowing Fred and his
family are still there.
This time, it’s the Desert Moon Motel with its strange
unwrinkleable quilt; the air crisp – the way motel rooms always
get once the air conditioner starts. Hell, it’s still like 90 degrees
Fahrenheit at least outside, but in here, in here it’s just fine.
Like the All-American TV dream come true.
Then, right before I know what I’m doing—dozing, thinking,
whatever—it all comes back to mind. Summertime. 1976. I was 13.
There was no cable yet, but that was okay—the re-runs were still
on from 3 to 6 every day after school. All day, on some channels,
during the summer vacation…
Hot afternoons soaked in warm stale sticky cheap empty cans of
beer come floating back through my mind. The stump of wood I
crushed them on, crushed them with an eroded sledgehammer
that used to be my grandfather’s. The stump stunk like a bad old
drunk. My hands stunk. And my t-shirt, where quarter-full cans
sprayed up lukewarm—sometimes hot—dregs, stunk. The big
black garbage bag I dragged out from the hot garage, full of
empty Lucky Lager or Black Label cans, stunk.
The cans on the bottom were sweaty with the stuff that dribbled
out of the cans on top. Those were my grandmother’s cans. My
father drained his dry. Every son of a bitch’s got one decent thing
to be said for them, right? My father drained his dry.
The blasting heat of those California July days worked like some
sort of unholy incubator: the cans emerged wet and warm, like
little alive things. Little alive belching dripping slimy hot things that
came back day after summer day to be crushed.
Hit straight down on top was the best way to crush them. Struck
on the side still meant the edges had to smashed in –that took
three swings as opposed to one, but the sledge hammer –it stunk
of hot beer, too—was heavy and there was less of a chance of
missing that way. When I was done with the bag, I could go in and
I got exactly nothing for doing that, I remember. That was my
keep. My duty. My work. Everybody had to pull their own weight—
even if they never asked to be there. Even if my father kept
saying ‘shut up’ with a backhand when I asked what weight he
pulled. Kept saying ‘mind your own business, you don’t know the
first thing about jack, why… don’t… you…just… shut… the…
hell… up’. That was his keep.
My father had more important things than weight to pull. He was
an artist, which meant that he was special, even if only him and
my grandmother knew it. He could draw tattoo flash of both the
Jimmies: Page and Hendrix, and the Hank Williams Jr. logo too.
Freehand. So special.
That is, that’s what he did when he did anything. Like all great
artists he could only work when he was inspired—to expect him to
get a real job (not mailing art to tattoo magazines and hanging
with some guy who airbrushed pictures of Jesus on lowriders, but
a real job like the real dads did on the shows) would be an insult.
And to insult him was to insult my Grandmother. Because
Grandma believed in him. Loved him.
I figured if she loved him, she would have wanted the best for him.
Maybe even for his kid. Yeah, right.
She called me a stool pigeon when I told her about my father
smoking pot all the time. I was 13, I figured she’d make him stop,
make him better, make him like the other dads I knew, the way
dads were supposed to be. The dads on TV.
I saw them every day. Dads were like Mr. Brady. Sheriff Taylor.
Mr. Douglas. Even a dad like plain old Ed Johnson who wasn’t on
TV but who rented a light blue-sided ranchette across the street
from Grandma. She said that the whole Johnson family was just
plain white trash because they didn’t own that house. But I
watched Mr. Johnson go to work every morning. His kids wore
real Levi’s and got driven to school in a clean tan Malibu station
wagon, with bumper stickers. They had a color TV too.
But, after I told her, she didn’t make my dad stop smoking pot;
she just stopped liking me, instead. Put her television set in her
bedroom, where I wasn’t allowed to go.
I’ve got to stop laying here, on this cold bed, and try and get
some rest now. Because I have to stop thinking now and turn on
that TV — any channel – find Fred MacMurray, and my
Marlboros, and what’s left in my coffee cup or I’ll never make it to
that meeting in the morning. And I have to make it.
I have to keep making it. That’s what I do. I make it.
Like they do on TV.
Juleigh Howard-Hobson‘s writings have appeared in various journals, including Flipside Magazine and the anthology Undertow.