– Philip Kobylarz –
I guess he drank too, and a lot, my unknown dad, like all parents of the fifties and sixties did. If indeed drinking is going into the kitchen, opening the bottom cabinet drawers and coming back into the family room in which there was a stratus of low lying smoke, dropping in elevation to disperse into the furniture and on the plastic webs of the fake house plants. T.V. playing not very loud but usually sports or something with women in it like figure skating because there is that time in a man's life that he decides he will no longer play games, exercise, be active, play with his son. Instead, he'll just watch other people's lives, maybe even other people's wives, battles to be conquered on a small gray playing field: the screen. It’s what most people do in any country anyway, the screen life, they start screening life. Nights become a comfortable slouch, the plastic from the pack of smokes becoming a whistle when blown upon or even an improbable way to floss; a scotch on the rocks, a newspaper barely read and not at all cared about and the general Zen stance in a westernized yogic position that communicated: I have no idea what life is about. Please remain seated and quiet.
Nobody is promised a returnable tomorrow.
In the other room where no one ever went, the living room, on a coffee table on which coffee was never placed, was a plastic aquarium. Sea monkeys. The floating, fibrillating creatures inside a bubbled container containing salt water ecstasy. Men monkeys with antennae popping from their milky white heads like the eyes of snails. Women monkeys holding up a regal hoop that adorned them in an underwater halo bliss. Part of their mating routine involved connecting these protrusions so that these brine shrimp, ever ethereal, nevertheless got stuck in horn-locked lust for minutes at a time. Long enough to experience unadulterated sexual bliss in front of gigantic plastic human eye view ports.
I tried to pull them apart. Out of guilt? Out of desire to enact a mini Spanish Inquisition? I tried to pull them apart by first using pencils, their sharpened tips. Never did I think I was spear fishing. Never did lead poisoning cross my mind. It didn't work. It was like eating Chinese food with drumsticks. It was like surgery with a hoe and shovel.
I tried to pull apart the tiny googely swimming life forms, those tiny sea worms which is what they really are, ocean insects, and then I used my fingers and I couldn't touch them, knowing that by putting my contaminated, germ-filled probes into their chemical soup of salty water, I was breaking the first rule of the directions.
It was over in two hours. Floaters, they became, on a briny surface. They were all dead. My very first murder. Their little beach so pristine with fine grain sand was empty except for bits of their special food.
Everything about them was sublime. Their big alien eyes. Their frilly backs. The way they sought light and would wait swimming back and forth, just to be fed, or looked at, or thought about. And I killed them. I killed them to know how it felt to know that something was dead. My first art.
I buried them in the yard under a patch of grass right next to the backyard patio, a square of concrete sunk into the ground. I made a cross with Popsicle sticks, not ordinary Popsicle sticks but plastic kinds, the ones that resemble erector set parts, they came from fudgecicles. Their immortality could be seen from the dinner table.
"Mom, why don't you please sit down and we'll get the green beans when they're done?"
"Sit down and eat before it gets cold."
"You don't have to be over there. Come to the table."
"You can't digest your food walking around the house!"
"Don't worry about the dishes . . ." "Eat, mother, just eat."
Green beans. Corn. Mashed potatoes. Yams. Turkey. Baked potatoes. Salad. Croutons. Home-made noodles. Duck's blood soup. Pigs feet. Hot peppers. Canned green tomatoes. Stuffed cabbage in a sauce orange in color. Stuffed with pork. Cabbage salad. Cheesecake. Ice cream. Strong coffee from a percolator.
Having a perfect body means eating whatever is offered wherever it's found, whatever, whenever, anytime. It means never having to say you're sorry. It means parading around the house nude and attracting attention. It means you probably will never see your parents or your older brothers or sisters naked. Except for maybe that one time your oldest brother took you to the strip mine.
Three giant cones of sand and a jungle of ivy beyond. Out past the ancient Amerindian city of Chillicothe. There were groups of other bathers of a hippie nature or simply party goers (and don't they all dress badly of any era?) with their silver kegs of frothy liquid honey, bonfires burning for the smell of wood to cover the pungent skunk spray of weed, making the ears perk up and the nostrils tremolo.
Water clear cool deep green and lucent enough to see a steam shovel in yellow mechanical frozen pirouette mossily attempting to break the surface. To reach the rare little kids on their blow-up boats that they have named after themselves, prefixed with an S.S. in black marker on a bow that at any time could easily puncture, sinking, bubbling a little screaming boy, a skin fish who can barely swim and certainly not in the face of danger, who's even less apt at drowning with dignity. While the underwater machine's yellow painted prosthesis slick with green hair scoops him down into a dark netherness past huge blind catfish and carp so stupidified by the murk that they've never been seen and don’t really care for visitors, only imagined as someone's desperate Loch Nessies, scooping the frail young starting to bloat/float body to the control box of the machine where the skeleton of its operator's eroded into vegetal matter whose corpse is forever sonambulistically grinning.
We are never any of us naked together even for a moment. There are things boys will do like playing piss swords in the bathroom or in the snow writing their names. This involves two or more brothers or friends intersecting piss streams mostly within the porcelain play field of the toilet bowl or on a snow drift’s back. Or there is an occasional glimpse of a sister retreating from a hastily taken shower whose back, bare and glistening ass, was vaguely familiar but different in a wet way. Never never never a naked mother or father because that was unheard of and unseen. To think of them, the fleshy members of our sacred fount, as being naked, vulnerable, like us, alone in the organ of their flesh, was the most dire and closely guarded of taboos. Once, the sight of mother in a flesh- toned bra made my breath almost cease. She had nice boobs too. What a pity.
We never did anything collectively at bodies of water, in fact. Fresh, clean enough water anyone wanted to swim in a paradoxical rarity even though the millions of lakes in the vast rippling cornfield forests of the upper midwest. Never even swimming or sunning together. Never had the chance to find ourselves in an indecipherable intimate situation that the physicality of our bodies denuded, even if only partially, could launch us into. Never even came to the intersection of a brave new world. Who were we? Five boys, one girl, and a mom. I know what you’re thinking: Catholics. You can think whatever you want. You’d be right.
The result, tallied. Little to no human contact. Touching disdained. Fear of sexuality, even of our own. Shame. Guilt, on saltine crackers. Repression tea, no sugar. A belief that some things are "dirty". A fascination with sex but not with sexuality. The desire to see all people nude. Here's one for the psychologists: an obsession with dust. Inspirational pornography. So then our parents raised us to be, then, true Americans.
We were afraid of the atom bomb. We had tornado drills at school. Sirens. Lights out. Get under the desk. Grab your ankles. They weren’t really tornado drills. They were practice for Armageddon. Stuff your head in between your knees. Pray. Duck, cover, survive. Pray some more. And we knew what these drills really were for. The Soviets.
There was an evil empire out there. Fields and trees that surrounded the school were lurking with hostile Mongolian commandos. Or we were in danger of at any moment of stillness watching the skies erupt into hallucinatory video game erotic neon and right after, all of us and our pets fizzling into oblivion of ash, liquefied.
Dantesque woods of mystery, empty liquor bottles, abandoned forts, a dried up discarded feminine pad, and the possibility of trouble. The woods that outlined any place, the woods that were always there if even in a corridor or a hidden ravine, emanated with primitive temptation. The woods were where we originally escaped to when we ran away from home (for a few hours). In a city of rolling ridges cut by a meandering river, separating its one collective encampment into hundreds of small villages with slightly different codes of conduct, sometimes accents that couldn't quite manage a "th" sound substituting a “d”, sometimes curling at the end in southern inflections, sometimes staccatoing in memories of ancestral Lebanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, from homelands of luscious green valleys to find speech and memory in a place not too far from Chicago, less crowded, the air easier to breathe, crime no longer a burden. Or we didn’t think about it as much.
We weren't as kids or adults afraid of the looming specter of crime, locally. Never did the door need to be locked although rumors of an odd news report made mother secure the windows and sleep with a knife under her pillow, once. More danger in that of her stabbing her ear.
The woods were also where we made out for the first time. Where we stashed our first stolen cigarettes. Where we of course read our hidden bundles of Playboys that we found stashed by some other group of wild forest boys who shared in a trust of desire unachieved. The woods would drive us to climb trees by the railroad track as high as we possibly could and from their top most unbroken branches, whip out our weenies and piss like rain. Golden streams of eternities.
The woods were where we constructed an alternative living space hewn out of bushes of poison ivy and ragweed and young treesprout. Surrounding forest was cordoned off from a flat hillock bottom none too far from a clear running stream.
We were neighborhood boys seeking transformation. James the big black kid who always had itchy armpits, Petraki the tall stupid slow one who smelled strong, Nicki the roust-about whose parents bordered on white trash and Marco who was so shy that meeting other people would change the size of his head– smaller. We built a hangout/clubhouse after Petraki stole a roll of rain-soaked carpeting and another of mosquito net. We were going to build a place where we could sneak the occasional six pack, read our comic book literature, and be young gentlemen in private. Our vision was to have it evolve into a sort of natural nightclub where we'd roll kegs down into, using ropes once we'd tried our best to corral also any amount of over one female to introduce to our crick-side saloon. ANY GIRLS ALLOWED a sign we posted in black marker and poster board.
And sometimes, they'd even come, the adventurous ones with long, straight hair. With faces that looked like the Virgin Mary's. Tall girls, short girls, kind of fat but nice girls, and the girls that had reputations (even though they weren't true, and proved it to us by shooting us down). All of us boys were sadly-dressed skinny-assed children wearing backwards baseball caps, or golf hats, walking string beans of hormonal desire looking like thin penises that had somehow sprouted hair and come to life. I mean, who wouldn't want us?
The girls were definitely something else. The way they smelled. That they smelled. They had things to talk about. They were better in math and art and English. They shaved their legs. The bras beneath their shirts were obvious and they didn't care if we looked. They had either a brown birthmark or small bruise on their right calf, uniformly. They were cheerleaders or were on the swim team and they played soccer and they could give us a run for our money in any sport or even arm wrestling and they were in their white varsity tennis shoes and tube socks gorgeous.
They also got drunk on two beers. With some music, some Cars jamming out of the boombox, we were isolated in the woods far from civilization as it knew us, in the leafy green-ness where one of us brought a rain-stained mattress with its springs showing its arthritis through its thin skin in a blatant showcase of wishful thinking. Leading one another into a thicket covering a cool lawn of long grass and lying down in the ponytail pillow of her hair unbunned, we'd make out under the stars until our lips were chapped and we were thirsty completely out of spit except for each others’ and until my mouth received a silk screen etching of her braces, watching fireworks erupt on a day before the fourth of July. That was all we'd do if you don't count wrapping our naked shorts-wearing legs around each other and feeling the warmth they barely concealed inside.
Kiss and don't ever tell.