Seattle, December 1984

I was a teenage art-geek. Frizzy-haired and studious, I hadn’t yet learned to work a prodigious vocabulary and ample rack to my advantage. But junior year at my strict Catholic high school, I finally had my first real boyfriend, Chris. Both of us loathed our surroundings and this intensified our bond. We discussed Dylan Thomas at lunch and at night, after we finished our reams of homework, he played King Crimson riffs for me over the phone on his second-hand Stratocaster. I was in love.

My Greek parents, like most progenitors of our nationality, were hardly laissez-faire when it came to their kids, particularly their young daughter’s newly acquired romantic interest. At that time, Dad was Supervisor of the Sentencing Unit for the Criminal Division and Mom was a Deputy Prosecutor assailing fraud cases. So when Mom and Dad insisted on meeting Chris, I balked, sensing they would terrify him and that this was their intent. I relented, however, when Dad threatened to run Chris’s license plates.

“This house is like living in a cop show!” I yelled, eliciting a bemused smirk from Dad and an eye-roll from Mom. I posed no more threat to them than a gnat to an elephant. Resistance was futile.

The next day after school, Chris loaded his books into my used Mustang, and we drove to my family’s large brick house, festooned with multicolor lights along its perimeter and holly and snowflake appliques in its dining room windows. It was two weeks before Christmas and I’d told Chris my folks wanted to include him in a traditional Greek holiday meal. Once inside, Chris and I sat on the living room couch by the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be home for a few hours and I thought my brother, 18 months younger, was at soccer practice.

“You’re my other half,” Chris said and put his hand on my knee. As he leaned in to kiss me, a moaning sound wafted down the hall. Barely audible at first, it grew persistently louder. I realized it was my brother.

“It sounds like someone’s jacking off,” Chris said, alarmed.

At that moment, we heard the bathroom door fling open and my brother raced into the living room.

“Aaaahhhh!” he yelled and ran directly toward Chris. His hands were coated with a viscous white liquid and he waved them maniacally.

“Is he retarded?” Chris asked frantically, tripping over the hassock in an effort to get away.

“I want to give you my baby juice!” my brother continued, and chased Chris into the kitchen. I heard my mom’s planter knock into a wall.

By now, I knew what was going on. My brother, reflexively hilarious and the ultimate class clown, was hazing my new boyfriend. Said boyfriend, however, had no clue.

“Goddamnit, Greg! Leave Chris alone!”  I sprinted into the kitchen, grabbed Greg by his shirt and yanked. He stopped and burst out laughing.

“Oh, my god! You should have seen the look on your face!” he told Chris, who was visibly shaken. “Lighten up there, pal. It’s just Ivory Liquid. I would have had to crank it eight or nine times to get that much jizz.”  He said this as if it were clearly self-evident.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Chris wailed.

That night at dinner, Chris endured my parents’ inquisition with aplomb. He answered questions about his college and career plans and made polite conversation with my brother as though nothing unusual had happened.

Then, two weeks later, he dumped me for a cheerleader. He said it was because she blew him. Yet I can’t help but think Chris preferred his Christmases white, and not Ivory.

 

The Ear

By Kris Saknussemm

Memoir

Saknussemm Family

Every perfect family needs a Shetland pony, right? Girls and horses.

I missed my sister’s doll era (I don’t think she had much of one), but she was deeply committed to miniature horses. I’d say there were over a hundred by the time I could tie my shoelaces by myself. She kept them dusted with a moist washcloth every day. From there it seemed a natural evolution to getting her a real horse of some sort to ride. (I sorely wished this same principle had applied to my interest in robots.)

Our mother, who felt that horse riding was the ideal way to emphasize what she considered her aristocratic bearing and patrician heritage, aided her in this scheme. (In truth, her father had just been a country doctor with a thick head of white hair and a modest talent on the viola, who’d inherited a big drafty house full of chimney swifts and field mice-but in her mind it was a mansion on the hill, and she couldn’t believe she’d given up a room full of suitors bringing her corsages for my minister father who tied fishing flies at the dinner table and did ridiculous imitations of Hitler with a black comb held above his upper lip, even if he hadn’t been into the infamous “cupboard” where he kept his hooch.)

The family’s fixation on horses (along with all their associated costs) would have some profound repercussions on our finances and solidarity when the divorce eventually happened (which was something like the earthquakes we experienced so often, only it didn’t stop, it just kept shaking things apart). But the obsession started out modestly enough, with a Shetland pony ride at Tilden Park for my sister. I was quite happy to stick with the merry-go-round. (I particularly enjoyed riding the giant rooster, so perhaps I shouldn’t make any comments about girls and horses).

Of course worshipping miniature horses is one thing, actually getting on a slightly less miniature horse is another. My sister was petrified, which I found deeply amusing. Somehow, it seemed like such a long way to the ground to her-and yet she so wanted to be able to do it. Dad’s solution was ever a lateral one (although many would’ve said “skewed”).

One of his techniques for getting us over any fear of the water had been to blindfold us. As strange as that may sound, it had worked very well, and both my sister and I became good, fearless swimmers at a fairly young age. It was true that I was forced to wear a life preserver in open water like a lake, but even Dad occasionally employed some sensible precautions.

Seeing my sister’s alarm at having her dream fulfilled, but worrying that she might wet her pants with anxiety on her first real ride, he took the pillow case off one of the pillows we’d been sitting on the lawn with, and put it over her head. I think the people running the pony ride were rather surprised by this move-and I’m fairly certain several other parents were-to see this little girl wearing a white hood led around the ring on a pony. “Mommy, am I going to have wear one of those?” a girl behind me asked.

I see my sister parading around the circle of dust, looking like a kidnap victim or a Klan child undergoing some initiation rite. My mother was scandalized (but that was easily done). Two circles around and the hood came off. Dad’s methods were unorthodox, but they worked.

After that success, for so it was counted, the next step was a true ride out in some fields and on a real trail. The “ranch” was out in Martinez, which is the seat of Contra Costa County (where I would later serve my only jury duty assignment, an interesting murder case that finally hinged on a photograph of a driveway where the outline of a car appeared, proving that it had been parked there during the rainstorm when the crime was committed). It’s also the birthplace of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, and home to a massive Shell Oil refinery and tank farm that gives the live oak California ranchero air a distinct tinge of industrial grit.

But the pony farm my father located was there, and so off we went one Saturday. Everything seemed fine at the start. My sister was calm (and no doubt glad not to have to wear the pillow case). The pony was a fat thing named Suzie and seemed smaller to me than most of the merry-go-round animals. I figured if I could ride a big crazy looking chicken, my older sister could ride a half-pint horse. What could go wrong?

Well, that’s the problem when things go wrong-it becomes very hard later to say where the drama started. Was it Dad’s lack of attention to the security of the saddle when the woman with the big bazooms came out to water some of the other ponies? Was it her husband with the terrible stutter that put us all off? Was it the mix of gold grass and black oak pollen combined with the harsh waft of oil smoke and plastics being made? The fact that my mother wrapped our crumbed chicken picnic in cellophane and not foil, which then peeled off the skin and meat, could’ve been a factor too. Maybe everything counts when an emergency transpires. Maybe accidents don’t just happen, but are delicately if secretly orchestrated.

What occurred in this case was something my sister would’ve been better off wearing her hood to have experienced. The pony got loose and shot forward at full gallop. That may sound funny, and the whole idea of ponies is indeed a bit foolish-but they’re still powerful creatures, and this little tubby thing got up to speed in a way that stunned us all. My sister especially.

We watched her gallop off, just like in a movie. At first, I admit, I thought it was funny. There was an element of someone’s hobby getting away from them-of Life, even at pony size, being more than they bargained for. But there was an acute sense of our family running away from itself too. The shrill cry of my mother blaming my father, when it seemed to me that she was every bit as much at fault. The whole horse passion was really hers. And what good did it do to yell at him anyway when the problem was two hundred yards away and escaping? Without understanding it, I learned a vital lesson that afternoon. The first person to assign blame is the most likely to be at fault. Think about that when stuff happens. I’ve found it to be a very sound rule. “I thought your father had it all under control,” are words that might ring across the ages and at least two of the major religions.

My father, for all his shortcomings, had a theological position that can be summarized as: don’t lose faith even when the blood starts to flow, and in this world, God’s work must truly be our own. He leapt into our old Rambler and bounced across the fields around the back. Meanwhile, my sister had slipped from the saddle and appeared to be almost dragged along the ground, her head seeming to bounce even more than the car.

Dad returned about fifteen minutes later, leading the pony, with my sister back in the saddle, her face streaked red with tears and fear-and blood. He held something in his hand with an uncomfortable level of care.

Not two minutes later we were in the stuttering rancher’s car and headed to the hospital. My sister was in a state of shock, holding the left side of her head. I wanted to hold the ear, which was wrapped in some of the cellophane left over from our picnic.

You think we might’ve learned from that episode, but not us. That was just the beginning.

I glanced at the ear in my mother’s lap and noticed there was some chicken skin on the side of the transparent wrapping. It made me think of the mad rainbow colored rooster I’d ride on at Tilden Park. We were all on a carousel, without even knowing it.

“It’s only a piece of the ear,” my father said to the rearview mirror. (He’d later do that even when the back seat was empty, old habit.) “It’s going to be all right. They can do wonders now. Just some stitches.”

“If I had a pony of my own, this would never have happened,” my sister choked, in a brilliant seize the moment ploy. Dad would’ve handed her the car keys just then-anything to duck Mom’s wrath. I meanwhile, was wondering what an ear would taste like-figuring it would probably be a step up from my mother’s chicken. We were all on the same carousel, lost in the same stampede.

“It’s going to be all right,” Dad repeated, and I knew that he’d say that at least five more times before we got home again.

Author’s note: The following are annotated highlights from the morning show playlist on WTMD 89.7 out of Towson, Maryland on the morning of Wed. April 13, 2011. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the DJ Erik Deatherage, who has unknowingly nursed me through many a difficult morning.

I couldn’t possibly have known that Ava’s mother would pick this night for a surprise visit.  Predictable she’s always been, paying special heed to my warnings that it’s not a good idea for someone her age to drive.  She’s eighty-six.

I have to place her there now, however, deep within that whole mottle of confusing events, that soft slide from infamy to tragedy.  Had it not been for Ava’s mother, I would only have had to deal with the infamy.

Many years ago I confessed to Ava that I felt quite guilty because I didn’t like her mother very much.  In one of those moments, however, that brought a measurable strengthening to our marriage, Ava said, “It’s all right.  I don’t, either.”

SantaJesus

By Robin Antalek

Memoir

Santa and I have long had an uneasy relationship. It began a few weeks before Christmas in 1962, the only time in my life when I looked good in cranberry velvet. My mother had ventured with me into Macy’s in Herald Square for my first real holiday experience. An experience that ended with me kicking Santa in the face with my shiny patent leather Mary Jane’s as she tried to pass me off into his enormous gloved hands. I was under two but at close range the Mary Jane’s had enough force from my sausage encased white clad thighs that Santa sprouted a cut lip and a drop of blood on his snowy beard. Santa’s helper promptly thrust me back into my mother’s arms while another Elf called for a wet cloth and bandages. My mother thought she heard Santa utter an expletive while she slinked away under the glare of angry parents and their wailing red-faced children who obviously thought I had killed Santa.

Coming from a large Italian-American family where church was something you did, not really explained, we all trooped to mass every Christmas Eve save for my grandmother who seemed to be excused by the man himself preparing the Feast of the Fishes while we were gone. Christmas Eve services: I was always hot, itchy and overdressed – wearing too many layers of clothing: tights, slip, sweater, blouse with peter pan collar, plaid skirt, wool coat, a hat, and gloves. I would slip slide along the pew, kicking my feet against the padded kneeler, crawling over my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins until I reached my grandfather’s lap, where I would fall asleep. The singing would wake me and I would be carried from church by my grandfather out into the night where everyone who greeted us assured me that now, Santa would be coming soon and somehow I took that to mean that since church was over, SantaJesus, one and the same, was cleared to deliver the gifts. I remember thinking I should have paid more attention inside the church, that maybe now he won’t bring me that Chatty Cathy doll. In my mind the two have forever become one.

Singy. The following Christmas, my great uncle returned from a trip to California with a special gift for me: Singy. So christened by me who was insistent, obviously on combining then shortening SantaJesus. Singy was a compact little man about sixteen inches in height with a hard plastic face and molded features. His painted blue eyes were affixed so it appeared he was permanently looking off to the side in a mischievous kind of way, his mouth partially hidden by a fluffy white beard, a solid, sawdust stuffed body covered in red and white flocking, a black belt with a buckle and hard plastic white boots for feet. In the pictures that year I am sitting on a small wooden chair in front of a soaring tinseled covered tree in my grandparents’ living room. I am wearing plaid flannel-lined corduroys rolled at the ankle, a sweater with snowflakes and flyaway pigtails that barely touch my shoulders. Singy is tucked beneath my arm, his eyes turned toward me like he thinks I’m going to hit him. I hadn’t been back on Santa’s lap since the Macy’s incident and my wary expression says it all. I’m afraid if I put him down he will be angry so I clutch him to me all night long, but when we go to sleep that night I turn his face to the wall.

When we were small enough not to care, my brother and I shared a room, twin maple beds at right angles to the other. A night light between our heads. My brother’s bed was covered by an army of stuffed animals. On my bed my mother propped Singy, brought out of Christmas storage and he grinned at the wall evoking anything but visions of sugarplum fairies. But I am still nice to him. I include him in all our games. I bring him to the table. I insist we set a place for him and give him some food. I shove his plastic head up the dirty fireplace to show him how it’s done. Just in case.

On this particular Christmas Eve, my brother and I crawl into bed exhausted, aching from too much food, overheated houses, relatives of all shapes and sizes pinching our cheeks. We are wearing our Christmas pajamas. Me in a candy cane striped nightgown and matching ruffled sleeping cap and he in red and green plaid pajamas that button up the front purchased from the pages of the 1967 Sears Wish Book. It is not too much later when rustling noises at the bottom of my bed wakes me. I open my eyes and there is SantaJesus, resplendent in red suit, white beard, black sack rumpled on the floor at his feet. I had twisted my brother’s fingers in church tonight and made him cry after he broke my candy cane and so I think SantaJesus’ appearance in our room may have something to do with that. He is not as tall or as round as I imagined him to be and at first I try and pretend I didn’t open my eyes, but I can feel him watching so I flutter open my lids just in time to see him press a gloved hand to his lips. I pull the blankets up over my head but create a flap where I can peek out. He hangs our stockings on the posts at the end of our beds and then he exits the room, leaving the door just slightly ajar like my mother always remembered to do. I can see a Pez dispenser, the vivid green asymmetrical head of Gumby, the hook of a candy cane and the metal curve of a Slinky popping out the top of one stocking. While I’m debating whether I should go back to sleep or wake my brother, the door to our room swings open and my mother enters with SantaJesus. I am still hidden so she can’t see me. SantaJesus has his arm around my mother’s waist and she says something into his ear and he turns his face to her and presses the side of his white beard against her head and they both smile before leaving the room. I don’t know what to do with this piece of information and I ruin Christmas morning, ignoring the Barbie in the red plaid cape with the moveable arms and legs to pester my parents’ with questions. I spend the rest of the day searching for clues, but find nothing and instead come to the conclusion that because my mother’s name is Mary just like SantaJesus’, mother, then the two of them must somehow be related and I had better start paying attention during mass.

By the age of twelve I have long known that SantaJesus doesn’t exist, although I am still unclear on the reason why I must go to church. As far as I can see the pay-off of life ever after up in the clouds is just too far fetched of a concept for a girl who has yet to be kissed here on earth. During mass, instead of watching the altar, I stare at the ceiling hoping to see the face of Jesus in the shadows making me special and possibly a candidate for absolution of past and future sins. The only thing that holds my attention is the drama of benediction, where the priest swings the smoking incense filled bejeweled ball and speaks in Latin. I have long suspected that this is what SantaJesus smells like and a few years later, as a teenager, when burning cones of incense becomes the thing to do, I alternate between feelings of guilt over becoming a lapsed Catholic and intense longing to sit on SantaJesus’ lap.

But that December of my twelfth year I was still a semi obedient willing to please Catholic school girl. So when Sister Jean, the director of our Christmas Pageant had emergency surgery, Sister Mary Catherine announced there might not be a play unless a volunteer from the class came forward. I offered myself as writer and director. I constructed a play about an angry Santa and a Mrs. Claus who longs to travel and a few reindeer that refuse to participate in Christmas along with a monster and a wayward Elf. The storylines cobbled together from every televised Christmas special I have ever seen. I also, to please the church loving crowd, throw in Mary and Joseph and in the cradle, where the baby Jesus is to lay, I place the precious, albeit mangy, Singy with his shifty eyes turned to his supposed stepfather, Joseph

 

At the end is the big production number where we dance to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and I instruct the boy who played Joseph to toss Singy into the air for a grand finale. That is when, carried away by the music, the end of the play, the bag of candy kisses that I had backstage, the jubilation that we are done, Singy becomes the holiday equivalent of a hot potato. He is catapulted over and over again by greedy little fists that punch him, volleyball style, higher and higher into the air. When I finally get him back his beard is torn, the pom-pom from his hat is hanging by a thread, his belt is gone and the stitching on the side of his left leg has come unraveled.

That night when we get home my mother salvages his leg with thread and glues his beard back to his face. When I wake up in the morning I see that she has placed him at the end of my bed, his shifty little gaze looking off toward the wall. I sit up and stare at Singy; I demand that he look at me. Under the covers I rattle my feet so he moves. His squat little body tilts to the right, as does his gaze. Look at me, I say again.

Understandably, our long and tortured history not withstanding, that painted twinkle in his eye gave me a glimmer of hope.

But he refused.

 

 

 

“Run!” I scream to my sister Michele as I shove a cop with a broken arm into a display of folded t-shirts. Michele bolts, darting around the Joskes Juniors section like a squirrel on speed, scrambling for an exit route. I shuffle back and forth in front of my cop, blocking, while her partner, a barrel-bellied bully, gives chase to Michele.

“Hold it right there, little girl,” he booms, which stops my sister in her tracks. Behind a table of tank tops, she glares at the cop, narrowing her eyes and puckering her mouth the way she does when she’s really pissed. No one calls her little, even though she is, and for a moment, I think she might jump the cop just like she does the boys at school when they tease her, a battle she always wins, but the cop lunges, sending her back into a tailspin of escape.

The weekday crowd watches without interference, their drama deprived faces grateful for an injection of excitement. A woman in a pink polyester tracksuit removes a bag of cashews from her purse and begins to snack.

“How do I get out of here?” Michele hollers as she knocks over a mannequin wearing a patent leather raincoat and hot pink galoshes.

“Through cosmetics,” I shout as my broken-armed cop whacks me with her cast, which catches me off guard and makes me wobble on my stilettos. She pushes me back, spins me around, then slams my arm up to my shoulder blade, just like Chuck Norris might, which normally I would think is way cool, but since I’m the one getting slam-armed, I’m not so impressed.

My snakeskin mini-skirt rides up my ass and my spiky studded belt pinches my belly against the table of Jordache jeans. “You’re hurting me,” I whine to the cop.

“Too bad,” she quips as she cuffs me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see my sister skittering around a rack of sundresses, her Mohawk a fin of stalagmites, while the bully cop hikes his waistline rounding a corner. Michele races past a stroller mom then disappears into the cosmetics department.

“She won’t get away,” my broken-armed cop says as she snaps the cuffs around my wrists.

“Yes, she will. My sister’s a really fast runner,” I insist as I turn back around to face my captor. She’s much older than I expect. Too tan for a cop. And for a split second I notice that she looks like my friend’s mother, and my mouth waters anticipating the snickerdoodle cookies she always makes when I come over.

“We’ll see about that,” she says, snatching me away from my snickerdoodle dream.

Just this morning, Michele and I start out like any other day. We eat Cheerios watching Scooby Doo, we argue with our step-mother Juanita about laundry (we never do it right), we practice our cartwheels in the back yard, we wreck the moped again, we hide from dad, we practice throwing our stars and stilettos against the garage door, Bruce Lee style, and we flat-iron our hair, all before 9am when we all leave for the day.

Dad drives a red Nissan sports car – one of those turbo-injected things that makes people drive like assholes. We’re not even two blocks out from the house and he’s already cussing some old man for driving too slow. I wonder if the old guy is on his way to the hospital, dying of some incurable disease. Or maybe to visit his cancer riddled wife. Or his daughter, dying from ebola. Or his son, back from some unholy place.

Dad swerves around the old man, flipping him the bird, and despite being labeled blind by the courts, a “disability” that only seems to flair when he doesn’t want his child support upped, it doesn’t hamper his driving, his dancing, or his ability to run three businesses. He also chainsmokes Virginia Slims, and I often think that if he didn’t smoke so much, maybe he might see better.

“Can we have ten dollars?” I ask him as we pull up to the mall.

He fingers a ten from his money clip and hands it to me. Michele and I worm out of the backseat. “I’ll pick you up at 8.”

“Ok,” I say looking at my Snoopy watch, crunching the numbers. Eleven hours to kill.

“What do ya want to do?” I ask Michele as we walk up to the mall.

She takes a pack of Marlboros out of her purse and lights one. “I don’t care. Grease?” she asks, exhaling.

I shrug as we walk inside the mall and head towards the dollar theater.

Sometimes, we spend all day in the theater watching movies. No one ever checks between showings, so we only ever pay once. It’s an easy way to kill time, and since Dad regularly drops us at the mall (he figures this is better than leaving us at home to our own devices), we always have a lot of time to kill.

Grease is our favorite movie of all time. We’ve seen it a gajillion times, and we can never understand why our brother likes Star Wars better, even though Hans Solo is a badass hottie.

After two viewings of watching Sandy become Apollonia, another one of our heroes whom we both model our fashion sense after, Michele tells me she’s hungry, so we head out.

The food court provides little entertainment. Only overweight taxpayers who color inside the lines. Michele orders some French fries and I get a Dr. Pepper.

“Now what to do you wanna do?” I ask Michele.

She rolls her French fry in ketchup, considering. “I’m bored.”

“Me, too.”

Six hours left to kill.

Author Ellen Parr once said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

I contend that curiosity will land you in jail with a hooker from Pecos City and a donut lady who killed her good-for-nothing husband with a frying pan.

“You think anyone would notice if I take this?” I ask Michele as we peruse the clothing in Joskes. It’s a leopard print shirt that matches my favorite parachute pants.

Michele scans the perimeter. “Nah. No one’s looking.”

I snatch a large plastic shopping bag from behind an unattended register and shove the shirt, still on the hanger, into it.

Michele hands me a belt.

“Cute,” I reply, then stick it in the bag.

By the time we’re done, we have two bags full of clothes still on hangers, and we head towards the exit to conquer another store. As soon as we step foot outside the threshold, the cops jump out as us, sending us running back into the store.

My cop, the one with the broken arm, catches me immediately. Michele manages to make it all the way across the mall before the bully snags her.

“How old are you?” My cop asks as she rifles through our purses.

“Fourteen,” I sniffle. “She’s twelve.”

The bully cop laughs. “Sure you are.”

My broken cop pulls a paycheck stub from my purse. “Gotta be sixteen to work. Let’s take em in.”

“But I promise, I’m fourteen. Please, we won’t do it again. Don’t take us to jail.”

“Honey, you girls shoulda thought about that before you crammed a thousand dollars worth of stuff into those bags. Anything over a thousand is a felony.”

My face drops. A felony. I’m a felon. Will they give me the needle? The chair? Will I be forced to eat eggs like Cool Hand Luke? Or work the chain gang in these stilettos?

Cuffed and crying, the cops parade us through the store, an example for all the preteen bystanders, and escort us into a police car that smells like hamburgers.

“What will mom think,” I whimper to Michele as we head out of the parking lot, the mall becoming a shadow behind us.

Michele erupts, a volcano of sorrow and snot. “What will Jenny think?”

Jenny is our dog.

I wind my finger around hers, a gesture that provides little comfort on a day that started out like any other day.