I have family in Phoenix, or East Los Angeles, as
they are wont to call it. After all, one road connects the two cities and it’s
a quick trip. I first moved there against my will at age thirteen or fourteen.
It was my initial exposure to an outdoor K-12 campus with fast food chain
options for lunch, and a staggering amount of girls far too young for breast
implants. They had them nonetheless because they’d obtained permission from a
parent to be cut and sewn. One even went around exclaiming she’d gotten them as
a birthday gift from her father, a plastic surgeon. My first day of school felt
like I’d eaten LSD and could expect the ceiling to start pissing on me at any
My mother had met a gentleman old enough to be my
grandfather and had allegedly fallen head over heels. We were to move into his
modest abode that hung on the side of a mountain next to a golf course. I had
never seen anything like it. The view I would have had from my room was
something I’d never forget. Until my mother changed her mind two months later
at the request of a prenuptial agreement, and we moved back to South Dakota
where I was instructed to forget it.
The second time we moved to Phoenix I was sixteen.
Laws were different in Arizona, and I was the only one in my high school class
able to drive. I made friends quickly. My mother rekindled the fire with the
elderly gentleman and all was well with the cosmos. Then the flame was once
again doused with obsessive-compulsive tendencies amongst other wildly strange
things that I can’t even bring myself to speak of, and we returned to the
Midwest a second time.
The third time I braved the dust bowl, I was alone.
I stayed at my grandparents’ place a while until I figured my shit out, then
met a girl and we got a place together in Scottsdale, a place I’ve come to
regard as the holding tank for those who want to live in LA but can’t afford
I enrolled in college and eventually got my degree
in “Nearly Irrelevant Shit.” To this day it’s the most expensive piece of paper
I’ve ever come across. But it was fun and sometimes interesting, and I met some
good people. I showed art at now-defunct galleries, made new friends, drank to
excess, smoked copious amounts of marijuana, and ate like shit. Oddly enough I
was in the best shape of my life.
I graduated and once again returned to the Midwest
because, to me, Phoenix has always been that superficial drinking buddy who
keeps trying to clean himself up but won’t bleach the chewing tobacco stains
from their white v-neck, and they refuse to buy another because it would cut
into the drinking fund. He will be there if spirits are present, but would
never offer a ride if you were stranded somewhere. Mainly because he has never
owned a vehicle, and even if he did, he would be far too inebriated to find the
keys. Plus his prepaid phone minutes have run out, so he’d miss that call
suppose driving sixty miles to and from school four days of the week in 115
degree heat with fake leather seats, no air conditioning, a severe oil leak,
and a spare dry t-shirt to change into when you get to your destination would
leave a foul taste in anyone’s mouth after so long.
Phoenix is a phenomenal place for the retired, or if you like to visit warm
climates with an abundance of Jewish delis. They have an amazing stand-up
comedy scene if you’re into it, or at least they used to. I have a blast every
time I visit, but visits are the extent of it for me from here on out. I
learned the harshest life lessons in that city, varying from neglect of routine
car maintenance to financial despair to when to cut a relationship short, and I
don’t regret any of them. But sometimes a healthy distance is best. I’ll call
Phoenix again when I want to grab a beer.
BAR NAPKINS AND NEWSPAPERS
Pops had somehow finagled custody of me and my
sister every other weekend, but by the time it was approved it’d been so long
since the divorce, and there had been so many failed attempts that he had all
but given up and began to indulge in leisurely pursuits full time. Exhausted by
the red tape involved in such a process, what was once a noble effort on his
part had taken so long that he let his bad habits get the better of him. By
this time we’d been brainwashed by our mother to regard him as the devil and
there wasn’t a day that passed where we weren’t reminded. I’m sure any
psychiatrist worth their weight in scripts would agree this was parenting at
So before we were dropped off or picked up every
other weekend, she gave us outlandish warnings about our father, as if since
we’d last seen him he had morphed into a rabid stray pit bull with an
unrelenting bloodlust for the children he helped conceive. There was no filter
when it came to the counsel bestowed upon us before we left the dictator’s
residence for all of two days to see our father.
Back then he had a farmhouse outside of town but we
spent little time there. Usually he’d find some excuse for not seeing us that
weekend, two of the four days per month he’d been legally allotted, at his
request no less, and we’d end up staying with his parents instead. It was less
tense and there weren’t half-naked strangers walking around like at his place- people in bands just passing through,
redheaded white women who lived on Native American reservations, or other
random rogues with tales of despair.
I remember my father’s parents once took us children
to the opposite side of the state, hours away, to visit him while he vacationed
on the aforementioned Native American reservation. He was staying in a teepee
in the middle of a barren field below a mountain range. There was a fire out
front and it didn’t appear that anyone was around. We pulled up to the structure
in our modern chariot and honked the horn. My father, all six and a half feet
of white man, emerged shirtless with an eagle feather carved from bone dangling
from his ear, and the redhead who’d occasionally stayed at his farmhouse
followed. I’m not sure if their idea was to expose us to the truth behind my
father’s “vacation,” or if he had actually requested to see us that weekend,
but I think we all would have been better off ordering takeout and staying in.
We saw him for an hour, made small talk and watched
his lady’s eyes drift this way and that as she struggled to keep her stability.
We then drove immediately back home, none of us discussing the event in any
great detail. Assumptions were made, but nothing confirmed. Given his track
record, it was alleged he was consuming vast amounts of illegal substances
under the sun in the middle of nowhere, a sleazy individual by his side until
the money ran out. The situation was eerie and the feather in his ear was too
Sometimes, even though the week at school already
dragged ass, I found myself wishing it would last longer just so I didn’t have
to hear another excuse as to why my father wouldn’t be picking us up, and in
turn hear the hostile response to the excuse from my mother fill all corners of
the house like a fucking pipe organ.
On several occasions my father brought me to the
bar, which was attached to a restaurant and was constantly busy, even more so
on the weekends as it was in a small town and was the only form of adult
entertainment for miles. I suppose the shit kickers bored easily and became
thoroughly unimpressed by another night of transistor radios and cheap whiskey.
The place was a smoke-filled room with an abundance
of neon and a pool table and loud adults everywhere. My father would drink and
flirt and I would sit on the bar stool being intermittently babysat by whomever
was pouring drinks that shift. I could never figure out how they felt about my
presence. Part of me thinks the patrons and employees resented it because it put
a damper on their fun, seeing a child all of ten years old in a crowded bar.
When heavy drinkers want to have a good time, the
tendency is to test the boundaries, and if someone is around that isn’t
indulging as well, it’s almost as if they take offense. They feel stifled and
insecure, like they need to behave. They’re under the impression the sober one
is judging them and they can’t be themselves.
Some were nice enough to slur at me and attempt a
conversation, clutching at any common ground they could find with someone my
age, but I was shy and guarded and of course I didn’t want anything to do with
the place but didn’t have a choice. I’d draw on bar napkins or coasters or
whatever was nearby that had a blank surface. Cartoons were my default since I
can remember, and some of the employees were blown away by my reproductions. It
was the only time I felt good in that place.
Like any respectable artist, I’d honed my skills at
first by blatantly copying. I’d trace images of the cartoon scoundrel Yosemite
Sam with his long red mustache and cowboy hat, boots and guns and all. For
whatever reason I had a high affection for him, even though he was a bit of a
dipshit that was always outsmarted by a rabbit. Call it a bleeding heart for
the evil underdog.
This particular evening my father, through red eyes
and white noise, took notice of what I was drawing, and how quickly I was
drawing it. He said I should go around the bar, introducing myself to people
and betting them five dollars I could draw an exact reproduction of the famous
cartoon character in less than one minute.
back, being presented with such a thing stirred up slightly the same sentiment
as being set up on a blind date by friends, or worse family. I don’t know if
this was a father’s ill-fated attempt at a confidence building exercise for his
distant son, or if he was merely bored. I wanted nothing to do with it. I was
perfectly fine on my bar stool keeping to myself and pretending I was anywhere
but where I was.
But he insisted. And as a child, when a parent insists, you are to listen. I
strolled the room surveying tonight’s crowd and attempted to find the least
boisterous table. I came upon a young couple and stood in front of them. They
glanced up at me and smiled. I looked at my father by the bar hoping he’d
changed his mind and decided against my making new friends and hustling them
out of a five dollar bill. But he gave an intoxicated nod as if to say it
needed to be done.
So I introduced myself and they did the same.
Through a murky fog of reticence of which I’m sure they were keenly aware, I
gave my pitch. I let them know my age, and that I loved to draw, in particular
Yosemite Sam. I presented them with a wager they couldn’t lose. I bet them that
in under a minute I could reproduce this notorious cartoon character on a
napkin for them. If I did not finish, they would keep whatever I had completed.
If I did finish, however, they would pay me five dollars, but they would also
be able to keep the completed masterpiece. They agreed.
I sat in their booth and we intensely watched a
nearby clock, waiting for the second hand to hit twelve. When it did, I started
feverishly scribbling on the napkin, tearing through here and there but I
didn’t care. The lady yelled aloud to stop and I set my pen down. They each
laughed and the man reached for his wallet. He laid the five-dollar bill next
to the napkin and told me it was the best drawing he’d ever seen. I thanked him
and they each smiled and told me to have a good night. I told them to do the same.
I rushed to my father’s side and showed him the
cash. He said it was great but that I should continue on. I thought it was a
one-time thing, but again he insisted I get back out there and push for more.
It happened over and over and when all was said and done I had fifty dollars in
my sweaty, decade-old palm. It was my first art sale, and surprisingly the old
man didn’t take a cut.
He was resolute that I stay the course and continue
to make money. I told him I was tired and didn’t want to any longer and kept
asking when we got to go home. He pushed more until I began to weep in my chair
like a schoolgirl with a tender wound in front of the lady who’d been
bartending. I wept from exhaustion, I wept from the strangeness of it all, and
I wept even more out of embarrassment from weeping.
Finally he eased off when the bartenders told him to
in front of a room full of people. My father stayed and sipped whiskey but
called his mother to come pick me up and take me to her place. I ruminated on
that experience for some time, and still recall every smoky, sticky detail. I
would never forget that night; it was my baptism by fire into the demanding
ways of the world, and the exhaustion that comes from doing as you are told and
forgetting you have a voice, all in the name of making money.
Years later I graduated high school and began to
take painting a bit more seriously. I received an award for best local artist
in my hometown newspaper. It was meaningful for me, considering I hadn’t
acquired any public accolades for my hobby, but also strange because I was
under the impression that very few people knew who the fuck I was or that I
painted in my spare time.
So I grabbed a few copies for family or anyone who
wanted one. I made sure to save one for my father, bizarre as it sounds, even
though drawing on bar napkins had been etched into my mind as a poor memory.
And knowing the man, he’d take full credit for any success or notoriety I’d
ever gain because he introduced me to grueling door-to-door sales in the middle
of that lounge, instead of recognizing it as the inappropriate situation it
No one had seen or heard from him in two years;
there was a bit of speculation that he was back in rehab in Minnesota, but no
confirmation. I was at my house where I’d lived alone for a while. The only
visitor from time to time would be my mother stopping in unannounced to keep
her fingers in my life by telling me something, anything I was doing was
probably wrong and that she had all of the answers. But today was real special.
There was a knock on the front door, and when I pulled the curtain back my
father’s face came into view.
I opened it and invited him in, even though I knew I
was in for at least an hour of catch-up that I wasn’t thrilled about. My
parents both took full advantage of my consideration for the human condition no
matter what their missteps were, which is why my father probably assumed I
wouldn’t turn him away.
It was uncomfortable at first, like most encounters
with assumed-vanished parents, but we fought through it. We came to a steady
rhythm of fake concern for what the other had been up to, although mine was a
bit more legitimate considering I hadn’t known if he was alive or dead for two
He said he had in fact been in rehab in Minnesota
and had been living in a sober house. A sober house is the most depressing
environment I’ve ever been a witness to. It’s as if a giant chastity belt
surrounds the place like a force field, and everyone pretends to take meaning
from bibles and religious poetry. It’s a place where everyone says they are
diseased. It’s a place where I say people have addictive personalities and a
lack of willpower. To me, liking alcohol and drugs too much is not a disease,
it’s a choice and you have a fifty-fifty shot at picking up the bottle. If I’m
in Vegas I’ll take those odds.
He showed me a coin or a chip or something. I told
him I was proud, even though I knew it’d only be a matter of time before his
next slip, as reinforced by his countless other slips. Success rates for those
in the program are astoundingly low and this man was no exception.
We bullshitted for at least an hour about whatever
came to mind, had a soda, and I told him about my recent praise. I handed him a
copy of the newspaper. He said he was proud and set it on the floor beside him.
I got up and headed to the sink to drop off my glass and he got up from his
seat as well. He told me he’d best be moving along now, and that he had a few
other family members he needed to stop and see, for just a hug and a handshake I’m
sure. I said that sounded peachy and thanked him for stopping by to let me know
he was alive.
He puttered around a bit and mumbled for a few
seconds before articulate words formed. He said this was incredibly difficult
for him but it had to be done. Seconds after that statement I knew what was to
follow. He wanted to know if there was any way he could borrow some money from
me, considering he’d just left rehab and was trying to get back on his feet. I
stared at the floor in front of me, and like an effortless mark in a long con I
asked him how much he needed. He casually said he required five hundred
dollars. I scoffed and said I’d give him fifty. He immediately settled for
fifty- aim high, take anything. I wrote the check
and handed it to him. He hugged my defeated body and was on his way.
I closed the door, returned to the couch, and sat
for what felt like an hour staring at the wall, replaying the encounter in my
head. Finally I shook the feeling of being eased into a fifty-dollar emotional
rape and told myself I was in desperate need of a peephole at the door, and
that until it was installed I’d be accepting no more company.
I got up to return to the sink for water and it
was then that I caught a glimpse of the living room rug. Three feet to my left
where my father had been sitting lay the newspaper I’d saved for him.
I was still living at home with my mother, which was
my mistake. I was eighteen and old enough to go to war and gamble, but had been
so reckless with the money I made since entering the work force at age
fourteen, I simply didn’t have the means. Unlike a healthy fraction of the kids
in my class, I had a car payment with full coverage insurance due as well.
Also, I had my first beer around age thirteen and after that my weekends were
booked. I had squandered any leftover income on alcohol, or getting those of a
legal age to purchase it for us. I felt less guilty knowing most of my peers
were also living with their parents, drinking on weekends to pass the time until
Living at home is never rent-free. My fee was paid
in information, or in most cases misinformation. Where are you going? What are
you doing? Why did you stumble in so late? Years prior it was fine, but by this
age my mother had attempted to train me to be a best friend instead of a son,
and she was growing impatient because her plan wouldn’t take.
She wanted to socialize far too often for comfort.
She would propose grabbing beers, and seeing movies. She began using slang and
references she had no doubt heard on television in order to assimilate. Whereas
once she had asked where I was going out of genuine concern for my well-being,
now she was asking to see if she could tag along. It was an abnormal
As I got older, I realized her increasingly
overbearing tendencies stemmed from an abrasive personality with a penchant for
political incorrectness in social settings. She had a foul word for anyone who
didn’t like her or her opinions. She would make and lose friends within a very
short period of time, always having unrealistic expectations for them. They
could fuck right off if they didn’t measure up immediately. Her views on
everything from drugs to illegal immigrants were no secret, as she made it a
point to announce them in some fashion every time she was exposed to a new
It was my senior year and my mother had been dating
a grown man of at least forty who lived in a small camper at a campground on
the south side of town. I’d stake my life that even at my ripe age, short on
cash and a car as my only possession, I had more assets and a higher credit
score than this gentleman. Tonight they would be enjoying one another’s company
far from me, and that was as much of a silver lining as I could hope for.
It was prom night, the night every high school kid
either greatly anticipates or is terrified of. They think about it from time to
time throughout their tenure, but when senior year arrives it can be the cause
of great anxiety. So much planning goes into the occasion. So many
opportunities are present for awkward situations. On prom night I would learn
that giving out too much information to a needy, early-onset empty-nester with
a healthy disregard for human decency could make a young man’s year crumble in
front of his very eyes, and present the most awkward of these situations.
That night our group of around thirty friends and
acquaintances met at a restaurant prior to the dance. It wasn’t the greatest of
places, but for our high school budgets after tuxes and additional accessories,
it would suffice. We all met dressed head to toe in the finest things most of
us had ever worn. I recall being the only one in white. A top hat, cane, and
gloves accompanied the rental. It seemed the only thing missing was a monocle
and an effeminate southern drawl telling someone to fan me in my rocking chair
before fetching me more lemonade.
A young lady in our group had won a complimentary
photography package from a local who would take our group’s shots shortly after
we finished our meal. As expected, the young men eating dug right in and the
ladies had a few leaves of lettuce with a sip of water between each.
Midway through I glanced to my right to see a woman
clearly stumble in through the front doors of the restaurant and walk directly
past the hostess. I remember thinking silly things to myself about how this
would only add to the fun of the evening, watching a random get kicked out for
being out of sorts. A tall man stumbled in behind the woman and dashed past the
hostess as well. I noticed the hostess didn’t do much to stop either of them, I
suppose assuming they were headed to the bar and they’d be in good company. But
they were not headed toward the bar. They were headed into the center of the
restaurant, and it was only when the dark figures came into the light that I
realized with much mortification it was my mother, her campground native and
productive member of society trailing behind her.
I got up and darted over to them before they had any
chance to interfere with dinner, pretending I needed to use the restroom so
that hardly anyone in my group would notice what I was actually up to. I
approached them both and made sure to quickly and quietly usher them back
toward the lobby so I could ask them what they were doing here, and in such a
state no less.
We neared the lobby and they slurred and giggled as
if this was some sort of video game and they were thrilled to have reached the
next level. I asked them what they were up to, in a stern tone a parent would
normally reserve for a badly behaved child. While the boyfriend laughed, my
mother did her best to string together a sentence and all she managed was, “To
give this to you so you’d have a good time tonight.”
She opened her right palm and there laid a sweaty,
crumpled twenty-dollar bill. What would I have done without it? Thank you but
no thank you. I’d gladly have paid a hundred more of these to never again
encounter the woman who birthed me highly intoxicated in a public setting, on
prom night no less. She insisted I take the money, and to stifle the
ever-increasing volume of her voice I took it from her hand so we could end
this juvenile attempt at crashing a son’s prom dinner and get on with our
lives. I felt if I hadn’t returned soon my date would’ve began to wonder where
To speed things along, I said thank you and sent
them on their way, making sure to emphasize the importance of this night and to
let them know if they could not fuck it up beyond repair, it would mean a great
deal to me. I said goodbye, turned my back and let out an awesome sigh of
relief at their departure. I was pleased with nipping a potential fireworks
display in the bud. The thirty people in my party didn’t know it, but I had
just rescued their prom night from a walking reality show.
I seated myself back at our table, eased my date of
her concern, and we finished up. I glanced to the right to observe the
two-person party take itself elsewhere out the front door. I couldn’t bring
myself to dwell on it. Horrifying, and completely uncalled for as it was, I had
to let it go or it would ruin my night. I remember justifying to myself why I
often gave false testimony to my parents about my whereabouts.
We finished our meals and began straightening our
ties for the photo session. We all stood in a line, our dates in front and the
young men in back. The photographer set up his gear and arranged us where we
needed to be. He began to take photos.
I noticed a woman bolt into the restaurant through
the front door and my heart sank. I froze. My knees locked and I felt like I
was about to pass out from sheer terror. I recognized my mother heading full
steam toward our group as if she were about to bowl someone over. The man she
was with must have stayed behind for a cigarette or something, because at this
point she was alone.
The few friends I had who recognized her in the
group began to laugh nervously as she approached, no doubt wondering who
invited her and how many cocktails she had. The answers were no one, and
several. To the people in the group who had never met my mother, it looked like
a random troublemaker on a mission to interfere with the photos being taken.
They were correct in their assumption, except for there was nothing random
about this. It was a calculated effort, like countless other occasions in my
lifetime, to shift the spotlight to the most important person in the world.
She physically bumped the cameraman out of her way,
and with her disposable camera in hand, a recent purchase from the supermarket,
she began to snap away and direct the thirty or so individuals in front of her
where to stand and how to pose, all while trying to maintain balance. The
photographer looked absolutely dumbfounded and eventually figured out this
wasn’t going to stop, so he went to see about removing the problem.
young lady who was awarded the complimentary photo package did not know my
mother, nor did a majority of the people present. As far as they knew this was
some miscreant off the street who got nice and liquored up. While the
photographer found someone to escort the crazy out of the building, the girls
in the front row all asked one another with intensity and confusion, “what’s
going on?” Who was this person and why was she playing house on our special
night? They were growing angrier by the minute, and rightly so. But with a
bright red face, and locked legs, I was both unwilling and unable to admit my
relation to the individual who decided to make this night about herself. And if
I did have mobility, or a working tongue, I would have let that information
follow me to the grave regardless.
I can say without any hesitation this was the most embarrassing moment of my
entire life, and I’ve had some noteworthy shit shows. Halfway through the
shenanigans it was let loose that the woman fit for a straight jacket making
fuzzy memories directly in front of us was of my bloodline. The hatred and rage
that was swelling within the females in the front row had now been redirected
to the young man in the back row with the white top hat and gloves.
the intoxicated amateur hour could slur more directions for any of us to change
poses, the manager tapped her shoulder and instructed her to leave. She did so
but not willingly, and not before bellowing out a hearty goodbye directed at me
for those in the balcony who hadn’t figured out we were related yet. She
stumbled sloppily toward the exit with a satisfactory grin. The limelight had
been hers on this important evening, if only for a few minutes. Minutes that
I’m sure seemed like seconds to her, but hours to me.
The remainder of dinner was uneventful. Photos were
taken; people were tense with anticipation that another outburst was just
outside the front door waiting for the most inopportune moment. But nothing
happened. Shaming glares from fellow students were plentiful. I had no
explanation. Did I need one? Would I be shunned from any social event from this
point on because of my mother’s lack of common decency and refusal to stay
away? I began to think so.
We arrived at the dance hall, hands clammy with anticipation
of the night to come. The potential of a great time somehow trumped everything
that happened earlier. People didn’t forgive, nor did they forget, but that
evening they seemed to let it slide for a few hours, because most of us only
got one prom. The night went off without another hitch and we had a great time.
I saw photos from dinner that evening weeks
later and relived every tense second when I noticed the fuming scowls on
everyone’s faces. When I confronted my mother about how unbelievably small she
made me feel, she said with extreme indifference that she didn’t remember any
of it and she hoped I had a great time.