Women called me a she-wolf. In their lack of understanding they claimed I foraged for prey while the blood of my last innocent still dripped from my fangs. Local moralizers stood ready to oust me from the place of my birth but rather than run, I strengthened my stance and insisted that every man, however unconscionable his upbringing, however frightened, stunted and off-putting he’d become, deserved to flourish. And if for that to happen, I had to break their mothers’ grip and introduce them to pleasures they should have enjoyed years earlier, so be it.
I’m a native of Royalton, Kansas. And while Royalton is small with just a single bar and a handful of restaurants, in 1997 the National Rotary Club named us one of the best little towns in the Midwest. Tour it while the hydrangeas are at their peak and you’ll think you’ve found heaven on earth. But we’re also visited by tornadoes that send us fleeing below ground while above us, amid a horrifying roar, the village is rearranged with less forethought than a little brother has when he swoops the pieces of his sister’s Monopoly game off the board and hurls them at her face.
It’s not uncommon to peer at the wreckage and see a severed hand that still holds the morning’s coffee cup. Royaltonians endure these tragedies without self-pity. A minute of silence to remember the crushed and it’s back to work.
They’re pioneer stock descended from four close-knit families who fled the famine and riots in nineteenth-century Germany to claim a stake in Bloody Kansas. Loathe to lose even an inch of their new holdings, they drove off interlopers with a ferociousness that gave rise to the motto, “Be brutal if necessary to hold tight to what’s yours.” Girls are named Gertha, Herta, Retha, or Addie after their foremothers. The boys are called Edel, Gerhard, Dieter, Fredrick, Otto, or Karl and from toddlerhood on they’re expected to be like their ancestors, sober people with short, scrubbed nails and straight dark hair they parted in the middle.
But even the strong can be fearful at times. The fact that life is finite presses in on us while we huddle in the root cellar and cover our ears against the sounds overhead. At that moment we yearn to have even the smallest control over what happens to us. Frustration evolves into anger. Royaltonians are pleasant until they snap.
E.g., my subjects’ mothers were raised by women who’d gone on violent rampages over things as small as a strand of their daughters’ hair escaping the confinement of their dime store barrette. And when their husbands labeled their wives’ desire for a radio or the chance to lie down, nonsense—when they grew sick of their overabundance of children with their wide Durst noses and their sloping Geber foreheads, the mothers screamed, “Addie, pull down your pants. I’m going to whip your laziness out of you.”
Or a mother said, “Retha, if you don’t get better grades I’ll make you a dunce cap and glue it to your head.”
My subjects’ mothers hardened themselves against their parents’ abuse without excusing it. Averse to entering into another humiliating relationship, they wed opossum-like milquetoasts who were too timid to criticize their now steely mates. The surprise came when the husbands decamped to the basement toilet and locked the door.
These newly-wed brides had learned the hard way how to set a lovely table with sparkling china and smudge-free cutlery. Their roasts were brown on the outside and pink where it counted. The vegetables were vivid and firm. But what use, if the wife eats alone or with a man who has less personality than a cardboard cutout?
Royaltonians are pragmatic beyond what’s required. If something doesn’t work, they quickly cut their losses and set a new course. My subjects’ mothers moved their husbands into the sewing room and transferred their hopes to their newborn sons. That done, the mothers blossomed to the extent that the deeply wounded can blossom. They dressed nicely for their tiny sweethearts and cherished the valentines they helped their boys make, piloting the little hands as they wrote, “I’ll love you, 4-ever.”
My subjects spent their early years nestled in their mother’s beds, the mix of cold cream, eau de toilette, and body odor becoming the scent they sought when they were afraid. But what is there to fear when a boy is so well-cared for? When he’s breast-fed until his baby legs grow long enough to reach the floor. And his mother spit-combs his hair and carefully irons his little shirts and polishes his oxfords and thoroughly soaps him in the bath with strong, straying hands. How can a boy ever be sad when his mother stirs chocolate syrup into his milk and lets him drink it through a red and white straw? Her only request is that he stay as sweet as he is. “I promise,” he says.
To thank him, she kisses every inch of his face twice over and tickles him under his arms until he shrieks with what they both deem to be laugher.
These boys celebrated their fifth birthdays at an at-home mother and son celebration where they wore party hats and were allowed to open their presents, a coloring book and a box of crayons, right at the table, and to start filling in the pictures then and there, which was such fun that the boys who were usually so attuned to their mothers that they seemed to share a single nervous system, didn’t notice her gloom.
America is a free country yet it has its laws. Education is mandatory. The mothers’ five-year-old sons would soon spend hours a day with a young kindergarten teacher, who unlike the mothers, hadn’t been shattered and secretly, amateurishly glued back together. Miss Bleyer, a bouncy blond, came from a section of the country where breezes were content to spread pollen rather than decimate entire towns.
In the months before school started, the mothers spent their nights staring at the ceiling above their bed hoping a hole would appear so that they and their child could climb through it and escape their earthly futures. Hour after hour, they held tight to their sons who had fallen asleep and were trying, a thing they didn’t dare do while awake, to wiggle free from their mother’s grasp.
By July, the days were extravagantly long. They barely waned in August and still they couldn’t keep September at bay. On the first day of school, Miss Bleyer welcomed the mothers and their boys to the classroom she’d decorated with maps. “Let’s be explorers,” she’d written on the blackboard for those advanced enough to read.
Miss Bleyer offered her hand. The mothers refused to shake it while, without waiting for parental permission, a thing they’d never done before, the boys scampered to chairs where their names were written on brightly colored construction paper. Clearly smitten, they beamed at their teacher.
The mothers had so much in common, hyper-critical parents, ghostly husbands, overly earnest five-year-olds and yet when Miss Bleyer sweetly but firmly told them to leave, rather than befriending each other and seeking coffee and consolation at the nearby luncheonette, they clustered in the doorway while a fierce, viper-like hatred rose up from inside them and barreled toward their sons. “We’re done with you,” it snarled at the boys in a flat Midwestern accent. “Wander the streets if you like until a truck jumps the curb and plows you down. Marry your teacher if you love her so much. For all I care, for all the difference it makes.”
They’d given birth to exquisite beings but disloyalty had transformed Dieter’s Durst deliciously round nose into a pig’s snout. Fredrick’s sloping Geber forehead was ape-like. Otto was spastic. Karl’s eyes were slits.
The mothers recalibrated. They’d thought they’d produced cherubs like those in paintings who never change. But nothing is static. Abandonment is a form of death and acts of survival aren’t always benign.
The mothers bought their sons ugly, ill-fitting clothes and gave them unflattering haircuts and fed them foods that were likely cause acne. They made fun of the rare friends the boys managed to find and belittled their sons’ accomplishments. As the years passed and the boys sat slumped in their rooms overtaken by despair, their mothers entered without knocking. Wrapped in quilted bathrobes, their increasingly crepey breasts partially exposed, they loomed over their boys and said, “Stop moping. You have me if no one else.”
However weak-kneed the runner and skewed the odds, Americans have the God-given right to chase after happiness. Yet Dieter Durst, Fredrick Geber, Otto Bahr, and Karl Schmidt were denied this chance. On their darkest days, they contemplated chopping off a foot to free themselves from the cuff that chained them to their mothers. But why endeavor to hobble off on makeshift crutches when their captors would apprehend them and they’d be back where they started, mangled and writhing from phantom limb pain.
Such men are the modern day equivalent of eunuchs. They’re the butt of jokes yet I, for one, didn’t snigger at their oddities. I hadn’t had an easy childhood myself. My parents had come late to ball that is Royalton. My father had run out of options and moved here to work at Olde Towne Pizza, where moments after he tied on his apron he spat onto the specialty—a pie laden with pigs’ knuckles and covered with sauerkraut. Thereafter, he and I relied on my mother, a sometime harlot in neighboring towns, for sustenance. My mother balked at this responsibility and made her feelings known by gorging in front of us while our stomachs rumbled until, as though our lives took place on a film loop and could never vary, my father would exert his rights as the king of the castle, the brute, the goon and grab my mother’s plate, cramming whatever was left into his mouth. Afterwards, pumped with adrenaline and wild for a fight, he’d pull me out of my hiding place and smack me around. “I was happy enough before she had you,” he’d say. “John and Mary Cruyffs astride their Harley-D’s, shit-faced and fancy free.”
Royaltonians are proud of their limited gene pool. My family affronted this consistency. Everything about us from my father’s tattoos that detailed his nearly life-long quest for pussy, to my mother’s short skirts, her thigh-high boots, her way of flinging her lit, half smoked, lipstick stained cigarettes at passing cars, disgusted them. We would have been run out of town if they could have caught my mother in the act. But none of the Royalton wives would let their husbands take part in the search and without concrete evidence to wave at a judge, they settled for shunning us. My parents had been labeled riffraff before and they delighted in cruising around town mooning their critics. The fact that I was kind, refined, and hardworking didn’t help my cause. We Cruyffs were regarded as a matched set.
A youth spent dodging ire made me crave a companion who’d treat me with the same obsessive devotion a mama’s boy gives his mother—minus the hidden rage of course, the desire to strangle his jailor and hack her to pieces. I wanted to help these poor souls become happy, well-rounded adults, a nearly impossible task, but I took courage from the statue of Royalton’s patriarchs in the town square. The men, sculpted at one and a half time’s normal size, are shown raising their pitchforks to reroute a tornado. In their willful presence, monstrous columns of destruction become as passive as hay.
I started with Dieter Durst. Aside from his round “clown” nose, he was bone thin. Excessive hectoring had hammered his spine into an unfortunate curve that sent his head jutting forward. In a farm community where most boys are miniature musclemen, Dieter was called Skinny Minnie and for years poorly drawn approximations of him wearing a polka dot bow in his hair and Minnie Mouse shoes on his feet made the rounds of the school yard. Instead of defending himself, because how could he, he’d focused on his studies. At twenty-one, he kept the books for the A-1 Country Seed Store where he sat with his face an inch from the ledger and meticulously tracked the movements of the incoming and outgoing merchandize. Every Friday, he gave his paycheck to his mother who, in turn, doled out the same allowance she’d given him since sixth grade. This transaction, like many in Royalton, was public knowledge.
I cashiered at Schmidt’s Clothing and Sportswear Emporium, a maze of rooms stocked with flannel shirts, cowboy boots, guns, fishing gear, bras, and prom gowns. Arthritis had curled Otto Schmidt’s hands into fists. My fingers were agile, I could work a register faster than anyone else in town but as a Cruyffs I was thought to have thievery in my blood. Schmidt solved this conundrum by stationing himself directly behind me and keeping his unblinking eyes on the till.
I lived for the half hour when I could eat lunch alone behind the store and not have to hear him constantly mutter, “Floy-floy with a boogie-woogie hoy-hoy,” under his breath. Once Dieter became my focus, I sacrificed this silence to move to a bench where he sat by himself hunched over his food.
In Royalton tact was considered manipulative. To comply with the local etiquette, I said, “Dieter, you’re a grown man. A dollar a week is unconscionable.”
He put down a sandwich so meager it was translucent in places. “What?”
“Your mother is taking advantage of you.”
His lids fluttered. I thought he might faint but he was simply, with great concentration, composing his reply. “My mother and I don’t require interference. Do you see us asking for sympathy? Or passing around a tin plate?”
I started to leave but despite his plea for privacy, I’d unlocked something inside him and his words poured out.
“Our house is enormous but you can’t slice a house in two, can you? For the sake of economy?” He stared straight ahead, at the high school football field, a place that couldn’t have held happy memories for him. “Bills can’t be negotiated. Mother doesn’t want boarders. She’d feel violated while she waited in the hallway for a stranger to vacate the bathroom I’ve painted a very particular lavender blue at her behest. What’s your name?”
Didn’t he recognize me? Cruyffs. Durst. We’d sat in alphabetical order from kindergarten on, had had our attendance taken endless times and now worked three doors away from each other on West Main.
“Brandy with a y?” Said like a municipal clerk. In fact, all of his sentences, no matter how fraught the content, emerged in the same drained monotone.
“With an I.”
“Noted. Brandi, My father died early. We never had the chance to toss a ball or go down to the river to fish. ‘Ce n’est pas important,’ my mother said. ‘Not when we can play Chinese checkers together.’”
“Was if fun?”
He looked confused. “Losing my father?”
“Chinese checkers. With your mother?”
He shook his head at the absurdity of my question. “I’ve taken on my father’s share of the financial burden along with mine. I’m grateful to be of service. A person has to be useful or he’s likely to grab a gun and put a bullet in his head. Nothing’s better than being needed. Well, for me there is something equally satisfying.”
“The exploration of science.”
I twirled a strand of my nearly colorless hair. “OK, but that’s solitary. Marry and have children.”
He sat as straight as he could, given his scoliosis. “I told you. I choose duty over happiness. Integrity over pleasure. Study, knowledge, that’s why I exist.”
He had an escape route the other mamas’ boys lacked, a device to compensate for his loneliness and the austerity he’d been shackled to. For his fifteenth birthday, his mother alert to his interests and afraid of where they might lead him, had emptied her savings account and bought him a professional grade telescope now cemented into the yard. In the event of a tornado, he planned to use his hundred and thirty pound body to further anchor it or be borne aloft clinging to the object he prized the most. Until then, while he lost himself in sights of fiery planets, his mother watched from the window, victorious.
I asked if I could peek through the lens.
He screwed up his face at the prospect. “Even if Carl Sagan himself drove up to the house and begged me to let him use it, I’d have to say no.” He’d heard himself. I could tell by the creakiness of his laugher, the trouble he had getting the sounds out, that laughing was a strange new experience for him. “Well, that would be a different story, wouldn’t it? A radically different story. A hoot of a story. Imagine the great Carl Sagan here? I’d get out my camera and record that day for history’s sake. God, how I wish he would come and see me.”
“Me? To come here? He’d think I was nuts.”
The point was, his telescope, a triple refractor Celestron, proudly said as though everyone coveted it, was too delicate an instrument to share. He did consent, out of a profound state of unacknowledged loneliness, to let me stay while he peered at the heavens as long as I promised not to disturb him.
Why did I accept so stingy an offer? And dress for our nightly encounters, analyze them afterwards for signs that the walls around him had started to thin? One could say, in light of my history, that I preferred indifference to violence, silence to insults. In my defense, I’d vowed to help the mamas’ boys however hard that might be, and Dieter was my needed lesson in how to minister to Royalton’s other emasculated beings.
A month passed. With the exception of nights when it rained, I watched him while his mother sat at the window and grimly monitored us lest I wrest him from her hold. She was a big woman with a square head and tightly pursed lips who’d armored her body in excessive fat. Even so, I could see through her to the injured child who lived crouched and weeping inside her frame. Lose Dieter and she’d have nothing but the white elephant of a house she’d be unable to keep. I pitied her, but I’d chosen sides, had picked the newer wound over the older one, and was committed to destroying the mother to rescue the son.
My times with him were a test of patience, of having the strength to endure the tedium of imposed isolation. Had there been a therapist in Royalton, he or she would have said the rescuer in me was attempting to replicate my mother in a more nurturing form, while another equally angry part of my psyche was wild to show my father the unimportance of testosterone.
By the sixth week, in violation of our agreement, I pressed my hand against Dieter’s chest.
“Dieter, do you care for me?”
Pulled down from above, he struggled to get his bearings. “What?”
“Do you care for me?”
“Will I take care of you? Are you ill? Should I get the car?”
I moved my hand in slow circles over the bones and furrows that made up his ribcage wishing I could pry it open and let his best feelings escape into the night. “Don’t you want to be more than your mother’s slave?”
“No.” He was trembling. “My convictions are unalterable. They’re the only fixed entities in our rotating universe. Why can’t you get that?”
“Carl Sagan married three times. He has five children.” I pressed against him as tightly as I could. “Let yourself go. Surely you have urges. Don’t lock them away. Dieter, I’m here for you. Open yourself to me. Fully. I give you permission. Act out your inhibitions. I mean it.”
He was taller than I was. He gulped air, buried his head in the crook of my neck and started to lick me as though he was a rabid cat engaged in a mad grooming ritual. He seemed possessed, unable to stop. His tongue traveled all over my neck and under my blouse. He tore at my buttons, ripped open my shirt and with a high-pitched cry, he came in his pants.
A door slammed. His mother rushed out in her bedroom slippers calling, “Dieter, what did you do?”
Shocked at what physical contact with a woman had awakened in him, his eyes darted from her to me. “Nothing, ma. Go back in. Please.”
“I tried to stop this,” she shouted. “I said, all a Cruyffs can do is steal and sell sex. Well Miss Strumpet, it’s you who’s the fool. We have nothing to spare. Not a crumb for you to sink your teeth into. Bother us again and I’ll phone the police.” She picked up a rake and held it like a weapon. “Stay and I’ll poke out your eyes.”
He was at my bench the next day, lit with a rage that made my father’s seem tame.
“Give yourself to me,” he said. “But you won’t, will you? Meddlers don’t follow through. They leave you to rot in your own excretions.”
“Do you love me?” He squeezed my shoulders with more strength than I’d imagined he had.
“We hardly know each other.”
“All those nights.”
“We never spoke. You didn’t want to me.”
“For good reason but what’s done is done. Finish what you started. Take off your clothes.”
“Here? People will see us.”
“The town tramp and the guy with a polka dot bow in his hair? Step right up for the sideshow. Watch the dregs of Royalton copulate, if they can manage it. If he can, I mean, or will he flay her instead? Maybe they’ll throw coins to beef up my allowance. Afterwards to further gratify your wishes you’ll move in with me and my mother. Wait on her like I do. Bathe her. Calm her nerves when the wind picks up. Trap the rats in the basement. Isn’t that why you wooed me?”
“I wanted to set you free.”
“And so you have. Applaud yourself as I progress from freak to rapist until I’m cornered and brought up on criminal charges. When I go before the judge I’ll be sure to thank my first love, little Brandi with an I.”
“If only.” He let go of my shoulders and ran from me.
I can fix this, I thought. I’d pushed him too hard, neglected to share how I planned to take him from point A to point B. “Progress isn’t easy.” I’d say. “Let’s erase what happened and start anew.”
The optimist in me lived inside a bubble that floated above the mayhem I’d witnessed since birth. I’d furnished it in lovely pastel colors and rode in it toward Dieter’s house the next night. I’d given him time to cool off, had bought candy and flowers to placate his mother. I touched down in the yard. The front door was wide open. The rooms had been emptied.
I was one of the last to know. A passerby had seen the dumpster, the rental truck and Dieter’s beleaguered mother struggling under an overstuffed carton.
“Why on earth are you leaving?” the woman had asked.
“In two words, Brandi Cruyffs.”
The passerby, one of three different Mrs. Gerhard Bahrs who lived along County Route 128, was flabbergasted. “She’s nothing to bother about. But you? You’re a direct descendant of the patriarchs.”
“Be that as it may we should have run them out of town the instant they arrived. She destroyed my child.”
Someone else in my shoes would have abandoned their mission and laid low until the episode passed from the town’s memory. But in Royalton, nothing was ever forgotten.
I’d torn the roof off the Durst household and strewn the lawn with body parts more cruelly than a tornado would have. Tornados were insentient occurrences formed by clashes of hot and cold air. I’d purposely seduced a disturbed man. My guilt was deserved. The victims had fled. The crime couldn’t be redressed. In order to redeem myself I’d have to succeed on my second try.
Frederick Geber became my next subject. He was tall, overweight, and wore baggy pants he couldn’t pull up over his stomach. Misery flowed from him in acrid excretions no deodorant could mask. He was shy beyond measure. And if he also had a skull like a Neanderthal? Before my father’s debaucheries had bloated and yellowed his exemplary body, and barroom brawls had splintered his movie star face, women had flocked to him dewy with ardor only to crawl away sobbing. He couldn’t have cared less. In his prime, his supply of want-to-be lovers had been inexhaustible. Whereas Frederick the Gentle, the Needy, the Sorrowful, the Maimed would have no one unless I stepped in.
His mother had structured his life so that one errand followed the next at as harried a pace as a heavy young man with a duck-footed gait could manage. His routine never varied and I chose to accost him at the deli where he’d gone to buy his mother’s favorite lunch meats. Programmed to submit to a woman’s demands, he took a large can of tomatoes off a high shelf and gave it to me. Our hands touched. He flinched. I saw fear in his eyes.
I asked him to walk me home. In deference to the woman who fed, clothed, and deformed him, he ran to her house instead. Or more exactly, he lumbered, his knees buckling when he tried to increase his speed.
I understood, having learned from Dieter that a man who’d never had options needed time to adjust to a life that offered possibilities.
Days later, I saw him leave the shoemakers’ with a brown paper bundle. He wore the same plaid shirt. His pants were stained. His mouth was slack and wet with saliva.
“New heels?” I asked.
“You don’t know? And why should you?”
“Why should I anything?” he muttered. “Why the f. should I anything?”
Stirred by his anguish, I reached up and kissed him.
He reddened. His eyes filled with tears. “Who put you up to this?
“No one. Why would you even think that? You’re terrific. Everyone says so.”
“Right. And pigs fly in formation.”
“Frederick, don’t belittle yourself.”
“Why not? Give me one good reason.”
He was too far gone to be cured with a pep talk. I shepherded him to my car, an old four-door sedan I’d purposely parked on an out of the way street.
I was ahead of schedule, hadn’t prepared him the way I should have but as the child of salacious parents who’d never said a nice word to me, my collection of confidence-building tricks was meager at best.
We settled into the backseat. Old cars are wide but mine wasn’t wide enough to allow Frederick to stretch out comfortably. He had to wedge his head under the handle and bend his huge knees. I was thin at the time, a near pixie. Necessity had elected me to take the lead. I climbed on top of him and slid my hand in his pants. His breath quickened.
“Stop.” In his panic, he threw me off like a horse bucks a rider. I fell to the floor with my legs in the air as he rolled onto his side and went at himself with a harrowing frenzy. His final shudder shocked us both.
“Why’d you start this?” he said. “I’m an f’ing pervert. You saw me. I’m a pudwhack, a jerk that can only flog the log. Spread the news if you want but just go away.”
“I’d never do such a thing.”
“No? I don’t believe you.”
When my father was irate, his voice rattled the dishes. Frederick in his fury sounded like a frightened child.
He crawled out of the car and sat in the dirt. “Get away from me and stay away. Will you do that?”
At least I knew to honor his wish. We’d forgotten about the package. A day later I left it on his doorstep. He saw me through the window and closed the shade.
His mother had minor surgery. In accordance with the adage, “teach a boy to drive and you free him,” he’d never gotten a license and had to ride the bus to the hospital in Minden. Enslaved, he spent his days at her side feeding her with a child-sized spoon, loading it with too much or too little cherry flavored Jell-O which led her to rant about his incompetence until visiting hours ended and he caught the bus home. His father was long gone. Rumor said he’d turned to dust and she’d vacuumed him up. Or he’d met a mouse of a woman who’d somehow respected him. Either way, for once Frederick had the house to himself and could blare music, devour tubs of ice cream, watch porn and imitate the actors’ moves using a cushion for a partner. He could also have liquor-soaked parties that would go down in Royalton history as cautionary tales about the heedlessness of youth but that would have necessitated him slipping out of his shell to spread the word.
I found him on the porch. A neighbor had left a casserole. He was on all fours, eating it like a dog would.
“Let’s go inside,” I said.
His face was wet, swollen and spattered with food. “It’s too empty in there. I miss her too much. What if she di….” He stopped himself.
His guilt had spoken. He wanted her to die, had prayed for it, loomed over her with a knife while she slept until in a moment of hesitation, he’d compared her vitality to his and lost his nerve.
“Frederick, wouldn’t it be better to get away from here and live you own life?” In my passion to be the savior of desolate men, I’d as much as asked if he wanted me to wheel him in his iron lung down to the lake and push it off the dock so he could swim with the gang.
He aimed his words at the floor he’d sloppily painted under his mother’s appalled supervision. “Go somewhere else? Where? How? I wouldn’t survive. I’m done for without her. She can’t di…”
“You’ll inherit this house.”
“Bite you tongue,” he screamed. “Bite your God damned tongue. She has to come back.”
“She will. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
Despite our talk, he slept outside as though her ghost awaited him in the kitchen ready to punish his every crime from stealing lollipops, to being the opposite of who she wanted and needed.
I drove him to and from the hospital until she triumphed over the malevolent forces that had been out to get her and she was released. Fredrick guided her into the car, too conscious-stricken to introduce us. I waved from behind the wheel but she saw no reason to acknowledge me.
“Well, honey, I survived,” she told him.
He sat holding her hand in the same back seat where he’d humiliated himself weeks earlier but such was his life that one shame layered itself over the last one ad infinitum.
“Whatever they threw at me, I managed with grace. Frederick, I hope to God you never get sick and have to spend even one night in a hospital. You couldn’t do it. You’re not tough enough. That’s you in a nutshell. Not tough enough. Not tough enough for anything really.”
She and Frederick continued to ignore me while I helped her up her porch stairs and into her house. In their self-absorption, their rekindling of their pernicious relationship, they failed to notice the troublemaker who’d attached herself to them.
Whatever little fight Frederick had had in him, had been crushed years before. He was lonely. I was determined and our courtship, such as it was, continued furtively, virginally in my car. While we sat parked at the edge of various farms and stared through the windshield at a recently plowed field or later, at the emerging shoots or later still, at the snow that had fallen on Royalton’s winter wheat, he began to feel more at ease and say things like, “I’m big enough to play football. But if they’d tackled me I would have exploded like an enema bag.” And “If I could just please her one time, I’d know what to do.” And “I took an I.Q. test and did better than most. But so what if everyone treats you like you’re a sub-moron?”
A year into this and Frederick was able to imagine a passable life that had room enough for me and his mother.
“I wish I could be more for you,” he said in late June. We faced a field that been harvested, leaving rows of clipped straw. “More outgoing and able to do things. More of a m….”
“Frederick, I’d rather have you than an angry, self-absorbed charmer.”
“You should dump me. I don’t understand why you don’t.”
“Because you’d never hurt anyone. It’s the struggle to please that rips you apart.”
I’d long daydreamed about sharing a white-washed cottage with a fellow who was given to handholding and little impromptu pecks on the lips. I saw him as pink cheeked and so buoyant his feet skimmed the ground—a bubble gum mate who at the worst might get too full of himself and pop his sugary skin.
“You hit the hammer on the nail,” he said. “I can’t hold my own.”
“Then why don’t I?”
For once I saw past the way he bumbled through life with his shirt buttoned wrong, his fly at half-mast, and his laces untied. I saw a man who at birth had been a good enough baby, who the doctor had pronounced healthy and whole and who could be the exact fellow I wanted if I unraveled him like I would a poorly knit sweater and remade him with skill.
I took his hand in mine eager to call him sweetheart. Afraid he’d freak out, I said, “Time is our friend.”
He asked if we could keep our engagement secret for now. He’d inched into it, had to get used to how it felt on him and most important, find the nerve to tell his mother. We drove to E & H Jewelers in neighboring Fort Barnes. I chose a Zirconia eternity band. Frederick furtively counted out the bills and slid them across the glass, his hand covering the money, as though he was in the midst of an illegal transaction.
Other couples would have celebrated with drinks at a roadside café. Frederick was seized by cramps and begged to go home.
“Now,” he whispered. “Please. Before I crap all over myself.”
Within hours his mother investigated the origin of her latest, as yet undefined attack of paranoia and pulled him, pants down, off the toilet.
He tried to cover himself.
“Don’t bother,” she said. Hadn’t she washed, dried, and powdered his weeny countless times? And if it had grown monstrous and dangled unpleasantly from an obscene tangle of hair, he was the one who should be ashamed, not she. “Fredrick, what are you hiding?”
Soiled, naked from the waist down, his gut aching, his mind frayed from her endless prying, he confessed.
She insisted I pick them up and drive them back to the store where with the staff as her witnesses, Frederick called off the marriage and asked to have the ring resized so she could wear it.
“On my pinky,” she said. “We don’t sin before God.”
Once again they climbed into the backseat. Frederick looked flattened. His mother, in her triumph, had absorbed his lost bulk.
She leaned forward. “You’ve been a hussy since you were five years old and ran round town with your belly button exposed. Do think our boys are so second-rate that you can just wink and they’ll be yours forevermore?” There was traffic around us. “Take Indian Fort. I don’t want to prolong this.”
Indian Fort, a single lane, ran alongside yet another string of fields.
“Frederick,” she said. “Let’s treat ourselves to lunch at the Red Lantern tomorrow. I have a yen for their New England chowder.”
A deafening sound bore down on us. Aware of what it signaled, I thought, this is it. Annihilation. Or would the vista crack open and reveal a realm where angels threw kisses and devils pierced newcomers with burning swords? Bring it on, I thought.
But rather than the usual black mass that cut through our county sucking in houses, shattering, spewing them out, the walls and the roofs now looking like things a child had fashioned from tongue depressors, we saw a thin, undulating white line. This tornado was light filled. It was otherworldly. Extravagantly shaped tufts softened its edges while mile high streaks of lightning sprung up around it. Overhead, in the graying sky, shorter flickering bolts curved around each other in rococo patterns.
The tornado stopped a few hundred feet from us and spread its widening feathery whiteness into the stratosphere. My belief in God was weak to begin with. It often shrank even further, but at that moment I wondered if a spinning, roaring tree from the Garden of Eden had returned to earth.
It seemed to call to me, to offer an invitation to transcend the judgments, misguided efforts, and lack of love that defined me. “I have to go it,” I shouted over the din, rise into it, spiral toward the heavens or be ejected in tatters.
Frederick’s mother grabbed my shoulders. “Don’t be crazy. You’ll perish.”
“I don’t care.”
“I do. Marry him if you want. I didn’t know there was love between you. Frederick, I give you my blessings to marry her.”
Fist-sized hail pitted the hood. It banged into the windows, chiseling deep holes into the shatterproof glass. This much ice in heat of the summer was another marvel.
I tried to push open the door and run to my salvation.
“We’ll all go,” Frederick shouted. “Ma? We’ll all go.”
A hundred feet away the tornado arched, spun faster and rose into the clouds.
“Come back,” I cried, to no avail. Abandoned by hope, left in an existence I felt loath to continue, I howled like a parent who’d just watched her children march off a cliff.
Frederick’s mother lowered her window. In the aftermath of the storm, the sun had the sky to itself. “Brandi, is life that bad for you?”
“I’d say it’s on par with Frederick’s and yours. I wish love didn’t play favorites, that there was enough of it for the likes of us.”
A direct descendant of a Royalton patriarch, she was too close-mouthed to talk about her own disappointments. Instead she invited me to join them at the Red Lantern, saying I could use some hot chowder.”
With great care, she ferried her soup into her mouth exactly the way her mother had taught her so that none of it escaped, causing her to use a napkin that would have to be washed. On the ride home she did say something that stayed with me. “The only thing worse than being a victim is to identify as one.”