Rusty Dolleman


            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 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 fat