My brother, Erik, was living in Queens then, working as an orderly at one of the hospitals in the city, but since he disliked Brenda even more than I did—having borne the full brunt of her overcompensations when our father first married her—no one expected him to contribute, even though he was the one with the specific expertise for it. Still, he came around the house much more often than me or my aunts expected, driving down to New Jersey whenever he had two days off in a row. Mostly, we got drunk and watched old slides of our father’s childhood, our childhood, and the scant years in between. We’d both developed into pretty big drinkers by then, and if we hesitated at first, it was because our father had never been a big fan of alcohol, and this had always made us a little embarrassed of how much we liked it ourselves. I think we were afraid he’d think the story of our family was taking a step backward, but since he spent most of that summer—his last on earth, as it indeed turned out—shuddering in and out of consciousness in his room upstairs, that didn’t seem to matter much any more.
Brenda didn’t drink either, but she was more than happy to run down to Westhaven Avenue to get us more beer. Even though it was her house, she knew she had to purchase the right to remain in the room. “Now who’s that?” she’d ask, and when Erik, who was three years older than me, would make a rough guess as to which of our parents’ relatives we were looking at, Brenda would squint at the screen and remark that the person didn’t look at all the way she’d pictured. What we were to understand was that not only had our father painstakingly described our former lives to her in their entirety, but that she’d paid strict attention to every word. That was how much she cared about him, and us.
Brenda would also make comments about our mother. They were generally good-natured interjections implying that the two of us must’ve been particularly exhausting as children, and I suppose she wanted us to know that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our mother in front of her. “She looks so tired there, that poor woman,” she’d say, and Erik and I would grit our teeth in the dark. We would’ve much preferred to be flipping through those dusky frames without her, swirls of dust suspended in the projector light as we tried to decipher the secret meanings behind the looks our parents gave one another through the camera lens, tried to figure out who, exactly, our mother had been.
In one series of slides, our parents smoked marijuana. They were smiling, as if it were something of a novelty to them and they couldn’t help feeling a little silly. Our father may have been liberal in his politics, but he was strait-laced in his personality, and our mother had grown up in a strict Pentecostal family in Washington County, about as far up the coast you can go and still be in the United States. It’s quite possible that this was the first, or maybe the only, time they ever did it or did it together. In one photo, our mother was crossing her eyes as she inhaled, and in the next, she was standing in the middle of some unidentified kitchen, still holding the joint and laughing, her open mouth and eyes red in the light of the flash. Her earrings were red as well, round hanging globes my brother claimed to remember, and her white dress was almost indistinguishable from the paleness of her arms. Her hair was cut into a blonde, curly bob, and she looked more like a 1920s flapper than a woman nosing around the edges of what the sixties had to offer. The rest of the picture was a dark-brown smudge, and the glowing eyes of the people sitting at the table behind her were the only other detail we could make out. “Oh, that’s too bad,” Brenda said. “I bet your mother wouldn’t have wanted you to see that.”
“I remember it,” Erik said. When I looked over, he was sneering.
“You remember your parents smoking dope? That’s nice.” Brenda folded her legs, her long blue skirt folding around them like a collapsing tent. “Do you remember it, Randy?”
“I don’t remember this night,” I said. “But I remember Dad smoking pot.”
Brenda shook her head. “I can’t believe he would do that in front of you.”
“He did,” I said. “I remember watching him and Vi and Casey and wondering why they were holding a cigarette with scissors.”
“No!” Brenda said, and both she and Erik were laughing. “You’re making that up.” She reached over and slapped me on the knee, and when I told her I wasn’t, she sighed. “Well, it was the times,” she said.
“Like you never did it,” Erik said.
“I’m not saying what I did or didn’t do,” Brenda smiled faintly, as if she were being mysterious. “I saw a lot of lives ruined from drugs, though.” The truth was she’d gotten high way more than either of our parents had, and we all knew it. While our parents were slogging away in the wilds of Maine, too poor and too pregnant to engage fully in the counterculture, she’d been spending her weekends in the East Village, had not only made it to Woodstock but to the Band of Gypsies shows at the Fillmore East as well. She didn’t have any money either, but she’d had access.
Eventually, Brenda went to bed, and I was able to tell Erik the other thing I remembered from that night, which was our mother bragging to some of her nursing friends about how, after spanking me, she’d warned that the next time I misbehaved she’d “spank me into Kingdom Come.” I’d only been three or four at the time, and so I’d looked up at her through teary eyes, asked “Mom? Whe
re’s Kingdom Come?” Her friends all laughed, and she pulled me to her side, ruffled my hair. There was no warmth in the gesture, her hand rough against the side of my head, almost dismissive, and I didn’t remember her laughing when I’d asked the question, either. Our mother may have wanted to be a hippie, but there was a harshness to her that no amount of marijuana or McCarthy For President could smooth away. Brenda and my father’s sisters would’ve blamed it on the Pentecostal thing, but that seemed too simple. I knew lots of religious people out West, gentle people who never raised their voices at their kids at all, wouldn’t have spanked them for all the spare the rod verses in the world, rugged Mormon Men who wept openly when their children’s pet puppies got run over. It was more a country thing, I think. A poverty thing.
“She hated doing it,” Erik said, meaning the spanking. “What did you do?”
“I don’t remember,” I said, and Erik shook his head.
“I never can either.”
If I’d told the story around Brenda, she would’ve frowned thoughtfully, made some diplomatic comment about how spanking was typical of our mother’s own upbringing. This was what she’d said about the time when Erik had been terrified of our neighbor’s dog, and our mother had made him go out and walk past it by himself day after day on his way to the bus stop anyway. She’d never said, her heart was in the right place, but that was what Brenda thought. There were some things she just couldn’t understand, and even our father used to acknowledge, albeit in a joking manner, that she never could’ve lasted a week in Maine. But that wasn’t quite it. What my father really meant was that Brenda never could’ve lasted a week in our mother’s Maine, which wasn’t the same thing at all.
It’s true that we hated Brenda just because she was there, but it’s also true that she could be difficult, even embarrassing. By the time she came into our lives, Brenda had already worked with the mentally ill for at least ten years, and they seemed to have rubbed off on her. She helped them after they’d been released from the hospital and were trying to fit back into regular life, and in that way she was a good person, I guess. But whenever we were out as a family, at Burger King or playing miniature golf, her patients always seemed to find us. They’d come shuffling up in their pajamas, carrying their wallets in zip-lock baggies, a half-hour’s worth of conversation rehearsed in their minds. It happened so much that my father and I used to joke to one another that she’d made plans to meet them beforehand, just to see how they were doing.
Brenda was also shrewd with money, which our father had never been. She was a big believer that any product that was even slightly defective could be returned, and she’d bring back appliances, sneakers, even food that wasn’t up to her standards. When the clerks explained that the sneakers had been worn, the food opened, she’d argue with them in ways I’m sure my mother would’ve considered beneath her dignity. Brenda always brought me along for these exchanges. She knew my being there would make her more likely to get her way. “I don’t understand,” she’d say, gripping the skin of forehead as if the conversation was giving her a migraine, “Do you stand by the products you sell or don’t you?” Finally, the clerks would grudgingly open the register, look at me sympathetically, obviously feeling sorry for any kid who had to go home with this goofy-looking woman, bony and pale, with frizzed-out hair and rimless glasses from 1967.
But at least I would allow myself to be seen with Brenda in public, if only for my father’s sake. When Erik was in his teens, he’d walk at least fifteen feet ahead of the rest of us at all times, and even though he always appeared to be moving slowly, aimlessly even, we could never catch up. It wasn’t really personal to Brenda—he wanted to get away from all of us by that point, but of course, she took it personally. It pissed her off to no end, as she was fond of saying. Once, when we were all out at the Bergen County Mall the summer before my father and she were finally officially married, she actually ran to catch up with Erik. She’d been doing a lot of yoga then—this was back in the late eighties, years before it became popular—and was much more graceful and quick than I’d ever imagined she could be, swooping up behind Erik and grabbing his hand before he even knew what was happening. When my father and I caught up, they were standing in front of one of those faux-brick water fountains that stand about knee-high and are filled with fake-looking, broad-leafed plants. Brenda was baby-talking to Erik, wiping the side of his face with the back of her hand. I’m sure she thought people would turn and stare, that Erik would be embarrassed. But no one was looking, and even if they had been, one look would’ve been enough to tell them that, whatever Erik had done, Brenda was the one being ridiculous. He was just standing there, taking it, with his nose in the air, as if he’d already disowned the wrist she was holding.
“Okay, Bren,” my father said. “He gets it. Let him go.”
“Oh, how can I?” She swung Erik’s arms up into the air like they were playing London Bridge. “He’s just so adorable.”
“Bren.” My father’s voice was tired and measured. He sounded like a man who’d learned from his mistakes. “Give him a break.”
Brenda sat down on one of the fountain walls. “This isn’t going to get better?” she said, mainly to herself. “No, no it isn’t.” My brother slowly extracted his arm from her grasp, walked around to the other side of the fountain, and then disappeared into the crowd. “Am I the wicked stepmother, Randy?” Brenda asked. “Is that what I am?”
“No,” I said, but of course I’d thought of her that way many times.
“I’m not going to try forever.”
“We know,” my father said. “We’re all doing our best.”
“You could’ve fooled me.”
“It’ll get better.” My father sat down beside her, and she wiped her eye on her sleeve. I could tell Brenda was softening, and as my father put his arm around her, I was ashamed by how relieved I felt. Hadn’t I been praying to get away from Brenda for a year and a half? Hadn’t Erik and I talked about putting Raid in her coffee? For a brief moment, another new future—this one without Brenda—had risen up in my mind, and its outline had terrified me. Or maybe I’d realized for the first time that my mother really was dead and we wouldn’t be going back to Maine no matter what.
When Brenda saw me crying, she held out her arms. “Oh, Randy, you got scared, didn’t you?” she said, and I hated her even more for being right. On the car ride home, Erik wouldn’t
even look at me.
The next time we were out in public, he walked out ahead again as always. This time, Brenda just sighed and took my father’s hand. “Oh, it’s a long, long road,” she sang, and when I asked her what song that was from, she told me she’d just made it up.
In mid-July, we made it to the slides of the old property in Greene. Some of the pictures had been taken only months before our mother died: her walking up our long gravel driveway in her purple felt jacket and smiling, my father and me stacking wood under a blue tarp in the rain, my brother standing in the side field with the grass up past his ankles, holding up a snake he’d just caught. “That’s a neat trick,” Brenda said.
“Just get ‘em by the back of the neck,” I said. “Then they can’t bite you.” Erik had read about the technique in a library book, and we were shocked when it actually worked.
“No, thank you,” Brenda said. “I’d rather not.”
“They were garter snakes. They couldn’t hurt you.” Erik glared at her. He’d driven down as soon as his shift was over, and he was still dressed in his orderly’s uniform. Before the hospital job, he’d worked construction, and his hard, vein-strapped hands looked strange coming out of those soft blue sleeves. He’d grown his hair back as well, had finally fulfilled his life-long dream of becoming the kind of man who could make even a ponytail look menacing.
But not to Brenda. She’d always been oblivious to the changes in Erik, almost as if she were his real mother, blinded by maternal love. When he’d finally been sent home from Belgium for stealing from his host family, she’d clutched her purse in mock fear in his presence. When he’d been kicked out of culinary school in Bar Harbor—the first of many times he’d tried to regain some kind of foothold in our home state—for selling drugs, she’d asked him if he had any “good shit.” When he’d been arrested for assault while living in Cambridge, she’d given him a book on non-violence the following Christmas. For some reason, she couldn’t believe that Erik had grown into someone who was not to be laughed at. This was what he hated most about Brenda. That she was more afraid of garter snakes than she was of him. “The worst they could do was shit in your hand,” he said.
“Gross.” When she wrinkled her nose, I could almost smell the snake on my hands after I’d held one, slick and watery and not entirely unpleasant.
“Get over yourself, Brenda,” Erik said.
“Get over myself?” She grinned in my direction, but I acted like I didn’t see her. “I didn’t know I was under myself.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I swear to God, Erik, I don’t.” Upstairs, my father turned over in his bed, and Brenda stood up, stepped gingerly over the projector cord. What my brother meant was that someone who was neither rich nor sheltered herself, who’d told us stories about walking across the dark floors of apartments she rented when she was younger and feeling cockroaches crunch under every step, someone who worked with crazy people every day, couldn’t really be scared or grossed out by garter snakes. It was a pretension toward a life of ease and a delicateness she’d never possessed. As she mounted the bottom step, we could hear our father turning again in anticipation of her arrival, and his feverish anticipation seemed to say everything about his life since our mother had died, his endless gratitude for Brenda’s presence. I never thought it could happen again, he’d said at their twenty-fifth anniversary party. I hadn’t been there, but Brenda had shamed me into watching the video the next time I was home. There were tears in his eyes, and a laser-like satisfaction etched into Brenda’s face as she stared back at him. You deserve it, baby, she said, and the whole room had applauded.
“When was the last time you went to Maine?” Erik asked me when she was safely upstairs.
I shrugged. It’d been years, and I’d only gone as far north as Kittery, right on the border with New Hampshire. I was afraid that our old places would be either utterly unrecognizable or match up too closely with my memories, and I didn’t want either of those things.
“I was there last winter,” he said. “In Mechanicsport.”
“Did you see Nana?”
“I don’t think she knew who I was.” Erik gazed into the darkness with a sad, sacrificial pride. “She’s still living at home though. Ninety-seven and still cooking for herself.”
“Who else did you see?”
“Uncle Howard, Timothy, Rachel. You remember any of them?”
“Sort of.” I knew Rachel was our cousin who was close to our mother’s age, that she was dark-haired and had played Go Fish with me and Erik the one time she’d come to visit, her voice low and pleasant as she trounced us over and over again. Howard was our grandfather’s brother, tall and round-bellied and with glasses, and Timothy was Howard’s youngest son, between Erik and me in age and confined to a wheelchair. But that was it. I knew more about Brenda’s family than I ever had about these blood relatives.
“They’re good people. They wanted to hear about you.”
I pictured my brother among all these long-lost relations, soft-spoken, almost meek as he told our stories over a kitchen table in some weather-stained farmhouse. He wouldn’t lie about his past to what he considered to be these simple, noble country folk, nor would they hold it against him. In fact, they’d be gratified by how troubled he’d been since being ripped from their orbit. In turn, Erik would view them as the only people who could forgive him, specifically because none of his transgressions had affected them in the slightest. I wondered what he’d told them about me.
Mechanicsport was the town where our mother grew up. We’d only been there once, for the funeral. Other than the tiny wooden church with its birch-bark pews and altar that I retroactively identified as being straight out of some Catholic horror movie, all I could remember from that day was my father’s sister, Bonnie, pulling us out of the receiving line, walking us down to the beach where we sat on the cold, gray rocks and watched the white sun sifting over the ocean. Then my father’s other sister, Stacie, had taken us back to the motel to watch The Muppet Show, Joan Baez singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” until the funeral was over.
All of this was specifically against our mother’s parents’ wishes. They wan
ted us to be in the receiving line, and made a lot of noise about making sure we looked into the coffin before it was over. But it was my aunt Bonnie, my father’s oldest sister, who got to the hospital first. She’d been vacationing with her first husband in Old Orchard Beach when it happened, and so she’d been the first and only family member to arrive while our mother was still alive. Even my mother’s parents hadn’t been able to make it in time, and since they’d had to go back to Washington County the very next day to make funeral arrangements, my aunts had stepped in to take charge of us kids. By the time of the funeral, we were firmly in their orbit. “I think they’ve done enough being seen for awhile,” Bonnie said as she shoved us past my mother’s father and down the aisle to the door.
Grandpa’s face was livid. It was like he was struggling for breath, just like our mother had when the bee had stung her, her entire body swelling up, the skin of her face seeming to swallow her eyes. For a moment, I thought he was going to clutch at Bonnie’s arm, and I’m sure that if she were a man he would’ve, and more. But then he stood aside, and the whole church seemed to fall silent as we stepped out into the ocean air.
After the funeral, there was a period of time when we seemed to go back and forth between lots of places: the empty house in Greene, New Jersey, rest stops on the Maine Turnpike where we had silent, frozen dinners with my mother’s parents. The next fall, my father was offered a job with the VA office in Trenton, and our mother’s family dropped out of our lives completely.
When I got up the next morning, Erik had already driven back to the city. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t see him again until Dad’s funeral.