Monday, September 12, 2011

Michael Schulze

Fiction by Michael Schulze

My father used a cigarette butt as a search warrant to rip apart Richard’s room. The more he dug up, the more he strengthened his argument to send Richard to military school, a proposition my mother was not swayed on. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Vandermaiden, had found the cigarette butt. He announced his discovery during a toast with our dinner party guests.   
     “To the cars and boats of our neighborhood... And the Marlboro butt I just pissed on in the toilet. Richard, I believe you were in there before me.”
     “That’s impossible,” my mother said, emptying her glass. “Richy knows not to use the downstairs bathrooms.”
     “So, the upstairs bathrooms are for smoking?”
     The neighbors laughed.
     My father threw his napkin on his plate. He always lectured us before company arrived. Edward Chandler raised respectful children whom would be respectful adults. It was just another competition. He wanted Richard to be better than other thirteen year olds, pushing him in everything.  But it was about my father, not Richard. Richard never cared that I, who was three years younger, could throw a baseball further. Only my father felt ashamed when other parents mentioned how I was more athletic.  
     He ordered Richard upstairs without dinner.  After the neighbors stumbled home an hour later, my mother and I did dishes while my father sat at the kitchen table. Richard appeared and opened the refrigerator.
“Hungry?” my father asked.
“A little.”
Eyeing him, my father lit a cigarette. He blew smoke into the kitchen lights. “Phew. I needed one of these.”
Richard sighed.
“What’s the matter, son?”  
“May I please have something to eat?”
He lowered his head. “Can you please give me something to eat. I need you to give me something to eat.”    
My father smiled. “Heat him up something, honey.”
After Richard ate, we went up to his bedroom. The investigation began with emptying the bookshelves. Sandwiched between some textbooks were two magazines, which according to my shrieking mother were “pornographic filth.” Even though they were only a Playboy and the new 1985 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, Richard was ordered to go to confession. I dug the magazines out of the trash when nobody was looking and hid them between my mattresses for later.
Next, my father rummaged through Richard’s dresser. Boxer shorts sailed across the room until he raised a pair of pink panties. His eyes darted from the panties to Richard. Then he dropped the panties. “Oh, no. No. Why would you have these?” He looked at my mother.  ”Tell me these are yours. They must’ve got here by mistake.”
“Those are most definitely not mine,” my mother said.  “My God, Richy. Premarital relations? Are you trying to kill your good mother with shock? You are not allowed to have girls in your room, period. How do you explain this?”
My father interrupted. “I don’t care if sex is why women’s underwear is in my son’s dresser. He could be running a brothel out of his closet for all I care. In fact, I’m praying a tramp rings the doorbell right now, asking if anyone turned in a pink thong. I mean it, Richy. If you can’t bring the girl who owns these over here, and if she doesn’t slide into them like Cinderella, the fairytale’s dead. Get the picture?”
“What’s the matter with you!” my mother said, slapping my father’s shoulder. “These panties are not our son’s. Whose are these, Richy?”
We hovered around Richard. Who might the pink panties belong to? There were a few neighborhood girls his age, such as Kristy Kane who was on the freshman dance team. Perhaps she had shown her routine, and Richard had coaxed her into making it a striptease. She had a great body, the kind any girl would want. But she was never home from rehearsal until after dark when my parents were home arguing about what Richard had done that day.    
Richard shrugged. “I honestly don’t remember which girl those belong to.”
“Yes!” my father cried. The relief on his face was similar to last year when my mother told him she was not pregnant. However, as quickly as he had been reassured that his son was not cross-dressing, his confidence again wavered with the next find. It was a notebook filled with Richard’s own poetry.
Richard was a poet? The notebook suggested he had been writing for years. Loose pages spilled out. Each page was bathed in ink front and back, Richard’s chicken scratch no doubt the product of hours spent day dreaming during class.
My mother was confused. “What does this mean?” She read aloud: “‘Imprisoned in an Erudite ghetto, forced to labor in a cesspool of Philistines.’”
A few of the words were foreign to me, but my father seemed offended. My father, who, just like us, was set for life the moment he was conceived, said Richard had no idea what a hard day’s work was: “Labor?  You’ve got to be kidding. The most work you’ve done is holding your arms up while Mama scrubs you in the tub. Gimme a break.”  He then added that “only whiny faggots and ungrateful immigrants write poetry, so knock it off before the KKK starts burning crosses on our lawn.”
Nobody informed him that any white-sheeted hostility would be because we were Catholic, not because Richard doodled poems in a two dollar notebook. My father’s idea of poetry was Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, two men whom he thought jeopardized global masculinity. My father’s only books were the Garfield comics by the toilet.
He slammed the notebook into the trash can. “Playing patty-cake with poetry-pushing teachers has made you soft. Christ, you don’t even play baseball anymore. You know what? Maybe you smoking is a good thing. It could man you up. Just make sure you don’t touch Virginia Slims or any bitch cigarettes. The boys at military school will tear you apart.”
“Why do you want me to hang around a bunch of teenage boys?” Richard asked.
The thought sounded unpleasant to me as well.
“He doesn’t need to go to any place where hillbillies sleep with pornography under their pillows,” my mother said. “It’s only going to encourage him to objectify women.”
“I hope it does,” my father said. “Say, I’ve got an idea. I’ll take him down to the Hustler Club. We’ll get him to acquire a taste for women. After tonight, he’ll be dreaming about the smell. How’s that sound, son?”
“Dad, I’m not gay. And besides, I know what it smells like. It smells like dead animal.”
My mother sneered at my father. “Are you happy? Your son knows the scent of a vagina. Can we drop it now?”
Not convinced but wanting to avoid a slap in the face in front of Richard, my father left the room, saying: “Starting tomorrow, we’re doing more manly things.”
I tagged along. We drove three hours to hunt pheasants. Before we left, my mother made it clear I was not allowed to hold a gun, a rule my father happily enforced. He told me to play the dog.
“We don’t have a mutt, so your job is to go ahead of us and rustle up some pheasants. Just kind of duck when one’s in the air.” He turned to Richard. “Keep your elbow up and only shoot the cocks. Killing a hen is a big fine. Got it?”
“It’s hot,” Richard said, wiping his forehead.
I walked ahead, and after about ten minutes, a chubby bird flew from the tall weeds.   
Richard shot.
My father cursed. “Are you blind? Don’t shoot the hens.”
“You never explained the difference,” Richard said.  “You just said no hens.”
“The cocks are the golden ones. They’ve got a golden chest. Lucky you’re a terrible shot. You’re too stiff.  I told you to keep your elbow relaxed.”
“No, you said keep it up. You can’t keep it up and relaxed at the same time.”
“Keep quiet,” my father whispered. “You’ll scare the others away.”
Richard rolled his eyes. “Don’t we want them to get scared and fly away?”
A plump pheasant with a yellow chest flapped up when it saw me.
“Shoot! Shoot!”
Richard aimed.  Bang!  
“Wow-wee!” my father said. “That was close, son.”
Richard never hit a bird, but on the drive home, my father let him pick the radio station.   
After dinner, we gathered on the putting green in our backyard. While Richard yawned, I listened to my father explain the rules of “the greatest gentlemen’s game in the world.” When Richard stepped in his line, my father said, “Never walk between someone’s ball and the hole, Richy. Your foot imprint changes how the ball rolls. Go around.”  
“What’s the difference? The last group would have stepped in the same place.”
“It’s proper etiquette.”
“Says who?”
“Says the man who invented the game you’re fortunate enough to play. Don’t ask questions.”
“Why’s it called golf?”
My father smiled. “Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.”
After they went inside, I practiced putting on my own. The only thing my father had taught us before was not to touch things in people’s houses.   
On Sunday, we made a Father’s Day boat trip to Catalina to catch yellowfin tuna. Our neighbor, Mr. Vandermaiden, tagged along. When my mother asked why he was not spending the holiday with his daughters, he replied, “The tuna will eat your hook this time of year, and my girls don’t like to fish. It’s alright, though. I don’t take it personal.”
Then my mother did the “if he’s coming, we’re all coming” thing, so we set sail.
When the green hills of the island appeared, the motor shut down and the boat bobbed on some swells. We began stringing up their poles.     
“Nothing beats the outdoors, does it, Richy?” Mr. Vandermaiden said.
“I’m sunburned from hunting yesterday.”
“That’s why they invented sunscreen,” Mr. Vandermaiden said, squeezing a tube. The paste whitened his hairy torso.
“Richy, you need to put some on, too,” my mother said, leafing through a tabloid magazine. “We’ve let you spend all the time in the world outside lately. I don’t want you turning into roasted marshmallow.”
“Better do as your mother says,” my father said. “Next weekend I’m taking you golfing. I don’t want to hear you complaining about your sunburns.”
“What’d you mean next weekend?” Richard said.
“Yep, next weekend. Mr. Vandermaiden’s going to let you play at his club.”
“Don’t embarrass me, kid,” Mr. Vandermaiden said.
Richard stood. “But I wanted us to see a performance on Saturday. It’s based on The Catcher in the Rye.”
“Is that, like, a play?” Mr. Vandermaiden asked.
My father grimaced. “Gee, Richy, about that. I don’t know. Sounds kinda boring.”
“Well, maybe I think fishing is boring.”
Mr. Vandermaiden scoffed. “Forget going all the way down to the fudge packed theater. Plays take what, like three hours? Besides, how do you stage an explosion or a gunshot wound in the theater? There wouldn’t even be any blood.” He tossed Richard the tube of sunscreen. “What’s the play called, again? I’m sure I’ve got a movie version lying around the house somewhere.”
My father’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, how about a movie, Richy?”
“There is no movie of The Catcher in the Rye.  The play can’t even use the title of the novel or any of the names of the characters. The author never sold the rights.”
“What an idiot,” my father said. “Doesn’t he know he could be making a boatload? I don’t think we need to see anything by a deadbeat who’s stupid enough to work for free.”   
Richard’s fishing pole smacked the deck. He marched to the bow, arms crossed over his chest. The wind growled, and some swells rocked the boat. My father picked up the rod. After stringing line through the holes, he tied the hook on. He held up the pole. “Grab a sardine.”
Richard spat in the ocean. “You put one on. They’re all slippery and dirty.”
“What’re you gonna suck on your fingers? Don’t be a baby.”
“I don’t like getting the scales stuck on me.  They’re gross.”
“No, they’re not,” I said. I used two hands to extract a sardine from the tank. Then, I used one hand to strangle the fish while my other hand pulled the hook through its lips. I raised the pole for everyone to see the fish flopping on the line. 
“Way to go, baby!” Mr. Vandermaiden said. “Bring that bad-boy over here. You can troll right next to me. We’ll catch a whale of a tuna.”
I high-fived Mr. Vandermaiden.
“How about that, Richy?” my father said. “Your sister’s not afraid to touch a tiny fish.”
“Wow! Give her a trophy. But can she do this?” Climbing on the seat cushion, Richard leaned over the side. He unzipped his fly. The ocean foamed. “Look, Daddy!  I can go all by myself!”
My mother looked up from her magazine. “Oh, dear Lord. I’ve given birth to a caveman. The meaning of your life must be to embarrass your poor mother.” She peered toward the island, as if the ant-sized people could see Richard urinating.
“Yuck!” Mr Vandermaiden said. “I don’t want to eat any fish swimming in that.”
My father’s knuckles whitened around his fishing pole. “Pull your damn pants up, boy.”
Finally, my mother took action. Setting down her magazine, she stormed across the deck. “First you smoke in front of company. Now you urinate in public like street trash. I’ll show you what it’s like to be embarrassed. Maybe you’ll…”
Richard plunged off the boat, disappearing into the water. Everyone leaned over the side, except for my father. There was nothing. My eyes searched the dark water before resting on my mother’s wrinkled face, illuminated all too much by the sun. Thirty yards from the boat, Richard popped up with a helmet of wet hair. Everyone breathed again, including my father.
Instead of swimming back, though, Richard overhand stroked away from the boat.
“Richy!” my mother yelled. “Are you all right? Stay there.” She turned to my father. “Fire up the engine! The current’s taking him away from us.”
“Looks to me like he’s swimming under his own power,” Mr. Vandermaiden said.
“Let him,” my father said. “Let him swim away for as long as he wants. He can’t make it to the island by himself. He’s too much of a sissy.”
My father taunted him while the boat idled alongside him. “You tired, yet? You need me to carry you?”  
A funny thing happened. Richard swam over a mile to reach Catalina. By the time we docked in the harbor, he was eating hotdogs and hamburgers with some new friends on the beach.
“I’m going to play bocce ball while you guys fish or explore the island,” he said.
My mother wanted to get his stomach pumped, but my father ignored her plea. He walked up to Richard’s new friends.
“Say, can I bum a cigarette from any of you kids?”
A teenage girl in a pink bikini reached for her purse. She had a nice body. I whispered for Richard to introduce me, but he just aimed his eyes on her pink chest.

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