Rusty Dolleman

Slides

            My father was sick, and my coming home that summer was supposed to make it better for him. Or for me, or for my stepmother, I can’t remember who. But it was the off-season in the ski town where I was living out West anyway, and so there I was, back in New Jersey, mowing the lawn and unclogging the drains and, on the days when the care worker didn’t come, helping Brenda usher my father down the hall to the tiny upstairs bathroom. When we got there, he’d be shaking and breathing hard from the effort, Brenda squeezing herself onto the edge of the tub so she could unbutton his pants. Always, I would ask if I should stay, and always she would decline. “Nope,” she’d say, grinning like she knew I’d rather not be there for what came next. “I think we’ve got it all under control in here.” In a basic sense, she was right; I had no desire to help my father use the toilet, to change him if he’d already gone in the diapers he wore now, to wash him out in the shower afterward. No one would look forward to that. Not with your own father, not with anybody. But having Brenda get such a kick from pointing it out was as infuriating as it’d always been. She could never let it go, not when she thought she had your number on something.
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 o