They were amalgams: nudists, migrants, Germans, chain-smokers, victims, assassins, butchers and people with dirty fingernails who could till hardened soil and make a life from it.
I was six the year my mother changed the course of my life, divorcing a stoic peacemaker for a stock car racer who wore chinos, a hairline moustache and his name tattooed across one bicep.
For a birthday gift, my stepfather bought Mom new breasts, these gum-pale mounds that peeked out over everything, showing up at inconvenient moments. Whenever my friends visited, I’d have to ask Mom to put a shirt on over her halter. She’d narrow her eyes and purse her thin lips, cigarette smoke funneling out of her nostrils like a defiant dragon. “Just who the hell do you think you are?”
Summers we picked pie cherries on rickety ladders, rope-tied pails slung over our shoulders like ragtag infantrymen. As far as I could tell, my brothers and I were the only ones who weren’t drunks. I knew for a fact we were the only pickers who were white people.
One year when I was thirteen, the foreman, who ran the orchard and had a crush on Mom, threw a season-ending shindig, as he called it. What we had, really, was a two hour break, some ice-cold hotdogs and plenty of alcohol.
It was us and about fifty Mexicans; the friendliest folks I’d ever met, even if they couldn’t speak English. Jack, the foreman, was a squat stick of dynamite who chewed so much Red Man tobacco that his teeth had become feces-colored, worn down and cracked.
At the party, my Stepdad got drunk in a hurry. I thought he was faking it, but then he toppled over a hay bale and didn’t get up.
It took about five minutes before Jack slipped his arm around Mom’s waist. Stone-faced, she allowed it.
I had borrowed my brother’s Bowie knife a few days earlier to complete a chore and had left it sheathed inside my boot the way wise drifters did. It was a noteworthy knife, with a wide serrated blade and the tip slightly curved for easier entry. My brother used it to skin rabbits and squirrels, and once he had even cut down a thin maple with it.
While someone turned up the portable radio, I transferred the knife from boot to the inside of my pants.
Couples formed, dancing to the clatter of yodel and Honky Tonk. Their shuffling feet threw up clouds of chaff that swirled with cones of gnats in the sunlit air.
A lot of people were drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. When handed one, I took a swig. The fuel taste was not unlike when we’d be flat broke and have to siphon gas. I took a second pull. “Well, how about that?” Jack said, dumbfounded.
I drained the rest of the bottle on my third drink.
“That’s my boy,” Mom said, her face lit up with what I suspected to be pride, even though I’d never seen it before.
She broke from Jack’s embrace and gave me a hug.
I felt Mother’s heart beating through those fake breasts just as I could feel the hilt of the knife handle pressing hard against my hip. For the longest time then and afterward, those two different pressures gnawed at me, urging me to choose, demanding an answer.
published 15 January 2011