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Authors: Sean Madigan Hoen

Songs Only You Know (9 page)

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
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No place demanded better manners. Dad used to rake a harsh comb over my scalp as we proceeded up the driveway. “Please” and “thank you” would not suffice. His command was not to “give one-word answers” to questions posed. He’d once offered an ice-cream reward in return for my carrying on a sufficiently coherent conversation with my grandfather, but the old man’s presence canceled every trace of my personality. I went blank. I could not—did not want to—be found.

Caitlin averted scrutiny with a girlish coquetry as we both
endured the time on Dad’s side, anxious to cross the street. We knew it pained my dad to see us rush the door of Mom’s parents, bursting in as though we’d earned our freedom. No matter the occasion, Mom’s parents had presents waiting: candy and AA-battery-powered gadgetry, plastic oddities they’d read about in the paper. We called Mom’s dad Papa. We called her mother Lady Grandma, for her faux-silk scarves and White Shoulders perfume. Always, she’d offer up her famously charred cookies. Mom’s youngest brother, Steve, snuck whoopee cushions and handshake buzzers into my pockets; as I got older, he slipped me recordings of his rock albums. AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne.

Between Mom and Dad’s families there’d been, at most, a wave from their opposing porches and a routine greeting called over the curbs. Two decades of visiting both homes, yet I’d never once seen my mom’s parents cross the street to drop in on Dad’s side, or vice versa. Separate worlds, we understood, divided by Evangeline Street when it was paved in the early sixties.

M
OM HAD COME CLEAN
to her parents about Dad’s problem and her impending divorce. She’d visited them to confess the general details, but did she use the word “crack”? The class A mother of all narcotics. Or did she simply say “drugs”?

I’d hoped we’d return to Dearborn without anyone suspecting a thing. Telling Lauren of my parents’ separation, I’d described the arrangement as a sort of vacation and gave her no opportunity to console me. “Do you feel okay?” she’d asked, eighty miles away in her dormitory. “Is Caitlin all right?” I imagined her adventuring deep into college nights while exploring the ceremonies of coed living. Smoking joints in the moonlight. Keg parties. So little chance our relationship would survive, but
neither of us had the heart to wield that sword on our own without definitive reason.

“It will be good for everyone to get out of here,” I said.

Lauren didn’t know about the drugs, though she would. Our cover was blown, and starting with Mom’s parents, the world was going to learn about Dad’s crack and our busted home.

O
NCE
I’
D FINISHED PACKING
my bedroom, Mom assigned me the task of boxing up our basement’s clutter. I swatted Christmas wreaths and tinsel into bags and shoved old sporting equipment into boxes. The only items of interest were the photo albums and scrapbooks, my parents’ high school annuals. And though I was certain of having once flipped through the yellowing Polaroids and news clippings, they now revealed things altogether different: Dad’s proud, chiseled face. Mom in a pink jumper, a flower in her hair. I stood there examining their young, unknowing eyes and felt something I never had before: pity for my parents’ younger selves and this future they’d never have bargained for.

Caitlin and I knew the vague outlines of their pasts. Mom had told us about the afternoon Dad pulled up next to her outside the high school to ask if she’d like a ride. He’d driven to school in the van his father’s doughnut shop used for deliveries. The day he’d rolled down the driver’s-side window was the first time he’d spoken to my mom, though they’d been neighbors for years. His light blond hair was close cropped and parted fastidiously in the antihippie style of 1967, his neck thick from shoulder lifts in the weight room. He’d played in a state championship football game at Tiger Stadium that fall, losing by a touchdown to a team from Detroit, but would soon be on his way to the Air Force Academy, full-ride scholarship.

My mom, a year younger, was small in the waist and had
grown her blonde board-ironed hair to her shoulders. Bashfully pretty—you could tell from her sideways glance at the cameras, smiling at the surprise of the flash. She’d loved books, the Moody Blues, and worked for the school newspaper. She’d seen the Beatles at Olympia Stadium in ’65, and her prized possession was a dictionary she’d won in a writing contest. Dad had been a forgivable troublemaker, a former altar boy at the Catholic church both families attended.

“Do you like him?” one of Mom’s brothers asked the day my dad dropped her off.

“He’s okay.”

“But he has those big muscles.”

And every time she told the story, she said, “You know, I’d never noticed before he mentioned it.”

Nineteen sixty-eight: they went on a few dates, diners and drive-in movies. They saw each other until my dad left for basic training, en route to the Academy’s Colorado Springs campus, where he wrote her letters from his military-style dorm. Mom’s parents urged her to sharpen her typing skills, maybe land a secretarial job at Ford World Headquarters. She also claimed that her parents had been tougher on her than we’d ever believe; though who’d imagine Papa or Lady Grandma raising their voices, their gentle hands?

When Mom was accepted to a university two hours west of Detroit, her parents balked. Having barely ventured beyond the Michigan state line, she took out a loan, on a hunch that there might be life beyond typing memos. Western Michigan University was as extravagant as she could manage. “A rinky-dink school” she called it, telling of her life there, a flicker of time in the mill town of Kalamazoo.

I’d pieced together my father’s years at the Academy through scenes he recalled as we tossed baseballs or stopped for a
moment on a rink, our skates dusted with ice shavings, when we were alone and I was his apprentice. Little of what he told about those days had much to do with the Academy itself. Dad talked about singing R & B hits in the back of the bus with the black cadets, about rabble-rousing and all manner of hijinks. The time he tore his scrotum on a daredevil ski jump in the nearby Rockies, barreling over a boulder the size of a house. These yarns unraveled as he was teaching me how to throw a fastball or to dig the blades of my skates into the ice.

“I wasn’t fast, but I was quick,” he’d say. “You gotta learn to use your leverage.”

On the rink, he’d demonstrate a slow-motion body check, bending low to dig his shoulder into my ribs.

“It’s not always how big you are. It’s how you use what you’ve got.”

I was lean—scrawny. Eventually I grew two inches taller than him; built like my mom’s brothers, he’d say. But when it came to running the fifty-yard dash, stealing bases, or freewheeling on the ice, I was as fast as anyone. I’d inherited none of his girth or killer instinct, but I could motor my legs so fiercely that no one could catch me.

I
TOOK DOWN MY
first fifth of whiskey a few nights before we left Ridgewood Hills for good. The house was mostly packed. All that was left standing were our beds, surrounded by boxes, the cardboard flaps taped shut and labeled. Will and I had nipped the bottle—Jack Daniels, that fabled rock and roll elixir—on our way to a show downtown. Will had keen musical tastes but was impressed that my band’s low end rivaled his favorite records and did so on a budget. Which urged me to impress upon him that I was, truly, as unhinged as the art. On our way home from the gig, I decided to guzzle the fifth, let him witness the result.

“You crazy Mick,” Will said, after I’d taken the first dramatic pull.

I’d grown fangs and was frothing at the gums before I’d knocked back half of the bottle. I could no longer taste the whiskey’s burn or gauge its powers sip by sip. We cruised Detroit in Will’s truck, blasting tapes he’d made of pop 45s slowed down to 33 rpms—Eddie Money death sludge—as I howled at the vacant buildings. Soon enough, Will called it a night, insisting on chauffeuring me to Ridgewood Hills. I agreed, mostly because I wasn’t ready to be alone. As we pulled off the highway, I asked to be dropped near my grandparents’ condo, where my dad may or may not be asleep in the basement.

“Gotta walk it off, man.”

Will didn’t argue. He pulled to the shoulder on a quiet stretch of road, a half mile or so from the condo.

“You cool?” he said.

The nights were dark out that way. The electric fuzz of the city could not be found in the sky above. That breezy silence I’d never gotten used to.

“Walk it off” was all I managed, butting my knuckles into his.

“Take it sleazy.”

It must have been 2:00
A.M
. as I’d stumbled out of his truck. After a few paces, I began wheezing. Each inhalation took place inside my head, a hot pant with each footfall, in between which I muttered lyrics. The world quaked in front of me; I might have been viewing it from inside a gas mask. The liquor was working its way through me as the condo’s porch lights came into view a few paces up the road. There were several attached homes that all looked the same, but I knew the one.

After I’d banged the screen door a few times, my grandmother appeared, a small, able-bodied, gray-haired woman,
fidgety in the porch light, without her mascara. She squinted until she realized who I was. She asked if I’d been drinking.

“Uh-huh.”

But she showed me to the staircase, and in the basement I found Dad asleep on a mattress in a semifinished storage room. A frosted sheet of plastic came aglow in the ceiling as I snapped the light switch. The walls had long ago been papered, but the closetlike space held little more than a dresser and an alarm clock. Where he’d hung his suits and ties was anyone’s guess.

I had no plan; only then did I realize it. I’d been lured there by something. Fear. And a drunken urge to look it in the face.

Dad sprang from the bed, anticipating an intruder, but I ordered him to sit down. My license to rage—every worrisome thought melted away so that there was nothing but raw impulse. He must have seen in my eyes the type of hell I was capable of making. He was shirtless, the surgical scars like dribbled wax on his chest. From his neck a silver cross dangled on a chain. Though he wore only his underwear, he made no effort to cover himself. He sat squinting, pulling at his jaw.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “What’s happening?”

I’d been spending time with a certain poem by a drunken madman, in which the wordsmith claimed there wasn’t a man on earth he feared being alone with, as long as both of them were chained to opposing corners of a cell. Believing his black thoughts could paralyze the most heinous men, he’d probe their minds with verse, drive them inward until they chewed their wrists to escape his crazy sermon. There in the basement—it went something like that.

I set loose a horrendous spiel I’d never remember entirely, saying god-awful things—most of them lies—simply because I could. Each time Dad attempted to stand, I commanded him back to the bed. He covered his ears and pounded the mattress.
I told him Mom was drinking every night, that I’d been smoking rocks, just to show him how easy it would be to man up and quit, cold turkey.

“What?” he said.

“You know,” I yelled. “You know what I mean.”

“Keep it down,” he said. “Your grandpa’s asleep up there.”

As I remember it, I felt not a tinge of anger. It was something more, a desire to goad him into a fight that would shatter all boundaries. My grandfather, we knew, was living his final days, and I threatened to walk upstairs and bust the old man’s legs.

Dad shot up, raising a fist. I cocked mine and squared my shoulders, until he threw himself back to the mattress. It was the first power I’d ever exerted over him, brutally and with vague knowledge of his unreciprocated love for his half-alive father.

“Fuck, fucking, fuck,” he said. “I’m sorry for everything.”

It wasn’t long before I’d burned through whatever lunacy was keeping me upright. The room twirled, and I crouched to keep my balance, finally toppling onto the carpet and crying in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid. The last thing I remember saying was, “You’ve always thought I was a pussy”; his voice quickly softened, and he began speaking quietly about a time I’d been blindsided by an opponent twice my size on a hockey rink.

I’d recently done everything I could to erase any evidence I’d ever played the game, had tossed away every photo of myself in a jersey, stick in hand.

“I thought you’d be out cold,” Dad said. “But you got right back up.”

It’d been a first-rate cheap shot, meant to paralyze. The impact of the flying elbow knocked the helmet off my skull, sent my body propelloring before it smashed against the ice.
A semifinal game. The bleachers full, the crowd groaning as I came to.

“You got up,” Dad said, “and scored the winning goal.”

This was true. Though I’d never been much good for anything other than skating with a frantic speed, the puck had come to the blade of my stick, and I’d made a sprint, eluding defensemen before faking out the goalie, wristing the puck into the upper-left corner. The crowd cheered, banging the Plexiglas. A blast of manic inspiration I’d had no idea I was capable of.

“That’s how I think of you,” Dad said.

For a moment, the floor ceased spinning. Dad reached out a hand. His sallow face and sleep-matted hair and scarred body came fully into view as he pulled me close. And I let myself fall into him. And this I hadn’t forgotten, because the sensation came flooding back to me: the strength of his arms, holding me as a child, the safest feeling I’d known because it’d been true, then, when love required only the most fundamental expression. My cheek pressed against his bare shoulder, the freckled, familiar skin, and I rested like that for as long as I could stand it, until from his deathbed my grandfather howled through the house, “What in hell’s going on down there.”

S
TEERING CLEAR OF HIM
for the next few days, I hoped what had happened would be eclipsed by the anxieties of moving. Dad came by to do yard work without asking for assistance or coming inside, while Caitlin spared several family keepsakes from the Dumpster. We’d pulled apart our house into two separate loads, yet there always seemed to be something we’d missed. I was giving the basement a final once-over when I came across the last of the pictures, a small vinyl album containing shots of my mom with a dimpled, curly-haired young man of Mediterranean pigment. They wore winter hats and smiled, holding
gloved hands. She looked about my age, a little older. When I found her in the kitchen wrapping dishes with newspaper, I flashed the photos.

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
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