Clearing the path


My brothers and I got together for a little bit tonight.  We do that once in awhile.  Sometimes the subject of our childhood comes up.  We actually laugh about it, believe it or not, in a gallows humor kind of way.  Like the time our mother’s estranged husband sneaked into the house one morning and stole the truck keys off my mom’s dresser.  My younger brother Garth was half asleep and watched him do it.  When Danny left (I’ll refer to him by his given name.  I have other names for him that are way more appropriate, just not in this venue), Garth woke up Mom.

“Go find the truck,” she said.  “Pull some wires, or something.”

So Garth and I were walking the streets at the crack of dawn.  We had a pretty good idea that the truck would be parked at a seedy apartment building on the other side of town.  We weren’t sure what we were going to do if Danny should appear while we were disabling the truck.

“We should just kick his ass,” said Garth.

Danny was a grown ass man and we were young boys yet.  We were both pretty healthy kids at 16 and 17 though, and probably could have taken the bastard out.  We had spent most of our childhood being afraid of him, so Danny had that going for him.  Then again, fear and adrenaline, coupled with years of pent up anger, might have put Danny in the hospital, or worse.  It would be like hitting a spider with a brick—you want to make sure it can’t get up and scare you again.

Anyway, we’re walking along, and a police car pulls up beside us.  The window rolls down.  The cops in this town knew our faces, and they damn sure knew Danny.  They had been out to our house over the years dealing with his dumb drunk ass enough.

“What are you boys doing out so early?” asked the cop.

“Going to get our truck,” I said.  “Danny took it.”

The cop looked like he just bit a lemon--Danny acting up again, right at the end of his shift.  “Listen,” he said, “When you find him, thump him.”  And then he drove away.

There was an idea.  Garth and I looked at each other.  We continued on for a block or two, and then the same cop rolls up again.  He’d thought about it.

“Better to stay away from him,” said the cop. 

“We were just going to mess up the truck a little so he couldn't drive it,” said Garth.

“Okay, do that, and then get home,” said the cop.  “We’ll get the keys back for you.”

I’d like to report that we did indeed hang Danny by his ankles over a balcony, but we never saw him.  We found the truck, just where we thought it would be, and yanked out the distributor cap, along with the spark plug wires, and then we went home. 

Soon after that, I remember sitting at home on the couch reading a book.  I did that a lot.  Books were kind of cool, and the bad guys nearly always got their asses righteously kicked.  Life was fair in fantasy land.   Danny was at the house and he and Mom were going at it.  By going at it, I mean that she had finally had enough of his shit and was chasing him around our kitchen table with a big fat knife.  I feigned nonchalance, sitting there with my nose in my book, but I was watching to see how things would turn out.  There had been blow outs like this before; usually once or twice a week when we were kids, but this was the first time cutlery was involved.

Mom seemed to have the situation in hand.  My little sister had run screaming across the street, where Garth was hanging out with a buddy of his.

“She was screaming ‘She’s gonna kill Danny, she’s gonna kill Danny!’” said Garth, reliving the story.    “We run to the house, and there is Darren on the couch with his book, and Mom and Danny running around the table.” 

This is where the story gets weird for me. Garth remembers things that I don’t.  Maybe it’s because he needed for me, the big brother, to be the hero in our own book.  I don’t know.  Most of what I remember during these altercations was fear, paralyzing and mind numbing.  Anyway, according to Garth, as he and his friend burst through the door, they saw me get off the couch, snatch Danny by the throat, and wall slam him so hard the windows rattled.

“Enough,” Garth says I said. 

And Danny, seeing Garth and his barrel-chested friend standing in the living room, swept my hand away and ran outside, the three of us close behind, where he engaged in a lot of chest thumping and saber rattling until the cops showed up and took him away.  We had seen Danny in the back of a patrol car once or twice over the years, but this time was different.

“He looked happy,” I said to Garth.

“Yeah,” said Garth, “Happy we weren't kicking his ass.”  

That may have been true, and maybe I really was the heroic big brother that my younger siblings said I was.  What I do know is that after that day, however it played out, none of us were afraid of Danny anymore.

Fear is a monster, every bit as overpowering as any slithering creature in a horror novel.  Some people never seem to get past it—it’s always in their way, blocking the light and clogging their future.  We were lucky, my siblings and I.  We faced the beast and won.

Sometimes the monsters aren't as big as we thought.



The last dance


I remember when I was a teenager in the 70’s.  It was 1978 and I was a self conscious 14 year old.  Who wasn’t at that age?  My mother tried to get me to open up more.

“Just be you,” my Mom would say.  Apparently I had all these wonderful attributes that would explode like a supernova if I would just be me.  I would maneuver the congested hallways of Canon City Junior High School, possessed of Sinatra like qualities of calm self assurance and dry wit, winking at the ladies and cracking wise with the guys.  Women would love me.  Men would want to be like me.  If only I would just be myself.

I wish it was that easy.  I had no idea what the hell was going on the in the world, much less how I fit into it.  This person my mom wanted me to be was someone I didn’t know yet.  I was smack dab in the middle of a maelstrom of pop culture, peer pressure and hormones: things would fly by and I would grab them, attempting to piece together some kind of identity for myself, only to discard them and try other things later.  I was a work in progress.

So what was Mom’s great idea to get me out of my shell and turn me into a suave and debonair man about town?  Disco dance classes.  Yes, you heard that right—disco.  If there was ever a dance craze that catered to self indulgence and pretension, disco was it.  Getting out on that dance floor, resplendent in all that double lapelled polyester glory, was the ticket for turning me into a happy, confident kid.  That was the theory.

I wasn’t going to suffer alone.  Mom had arranged for my brother, Garth, and his friend Marvin, to attend the classes with me.  The fact that Marvin and Garth spent most of their waking hours trying to make each other laugh did not bode well for our success.  Mom might have thought the structured environment of a class would somehow reign in their natural inclination to act up.  It did, for little while.

Mom dropped us off at the dance studio.  The three of us sat on metal chairs against the wall, along with 6 other people.  The woman who let us in spoke to us.

“Hello, class, I’m Jan,” she said.  “Some of you know me, some of you don’t.  This is a beginner’s class, so tonight we’re just going to learn a few basic steps.”

I glanced at the guys.  So far, so good, I thought.  They were looking straight ahead, paying attention.  Jan continued.

“But first,” said Jan, “Jeff and Maude here are going to do a little routine for us, to sort of introduce you all to what disco is all about.” 

Uh oh. 

The pair stood, Maude in her long skirt guaranteed to flare at every spin, Jeff in his white zip up boots with bell bottom pants, paired with a white shirt and stylish corduroy vest. This could get ugly real quick.  I looked at the guys—still behaving.  Jan put a record on – “The Hustle.”   The dancing began.

Really, there was nothing humorous about it.  Jeff and Maude were good.   They twirled, they spun, and they knew all the moves.  It was kind of awe inspiring, actually.    Unfortunately, throughout the routine they wore these smug expressions that said, I got skills, baby.  It was the kind of look you’d expect a heart surgeon to wear as he stitched up a leaky valve or an astronaut as he landed a spacecraft on the moon. 

I saw Garth look sideways at Marv.

“Don’t you do it,” I said to Garth, whispering.

“What?” said Garth, all indignant—the picture of innocence. 

“You know what,” I said.

 I looked back to catch Jan looking at the three of us, eyebrows furrowed.  I turned my attention back to the dancers, stone faced, thinking, okay, we got this.  Garth and I were veterans at this sort of thing, having spent many a Sunday sitting in the pew next to Grandma.  Grandma brooked no funny business at church, and the consequences of giggling were immediate and dire.  We knew how to hold it in.

Mercifully, the dance ended.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Jocularity had been kept at bay, Garth and Marvin had kept it together.  It was all downhill from here, I thought.  There was nothing good old Jan could throw at us now that would crack our thin veneer of respectful attention. 

“You two,” said Jan, pointing at Garth and Marvin.  “Come up here, please.” 

Huh?  What was this?  This was not good at all.

“You young men are going to help me demonstrate a basic step,” said Jan.  Garth and Marv looked at each other, eyebrows raised—a bad sign.  Jan then demonstrated something she called “a funky walk.”  She sashayed a few feet, then did some kind of a hip shake thing, then turned and did it coming back. 

“See,” Jan said.  “Simple.”

I was watching Jan do her thing, envisioning Garth and Marv doing it.  Just the thought of it was almost too much to bear—I snorted, and then threw an exaggerated cough on the end of it to cover it up.  Garth and Marv looked at me, biting their lips, and then looked at the ground.   

“Sorry,” I said in response to Jan’s scowl.  “Allergies.”

Jan put another record on—“Brick House,” by the Commodores.  She pointed at Marvin.  “You first,” she said.  “I’ll give you the sign, and you give it a shot.” 

Events at that point kind of took on that slow motion inevitability of a car accident.  Bad things were going to happen and there was nothing we could do about it.  I looked at Garth and Marvin.  They looked at each other.  The song played on.  Marvin looked sideways at Jan.  Jan stood, head cocked, listening for just the right moment.  It came.

“Three funky walks!” Jan yelled.

 Jazz hands and funky walks, baby.

Jazz hands and funky walks, baby.

Marvin went into action.   He took a few halting steps, all rubber legged, then did this thing where his knees went one way and his ass went another.  Then he did some kind of Charleston move with his knees, except without the hand thing, and then he did a pirouette, with jazz hands, and did it all again coming the other way.  It looked nothing like what Jan just did.

The dam burst.  Garth exploded, literally falling on the dance floor, laughing uncontrollably.  I howled in my chair, holding my stomach as if in pain.  Marvin just stood there looking perplexed, as if he was wondering what he could have possibly done wrong—which of course made everything worse. 

The record needle scraped painfully across the vinyl with a sound like a rusty zipper—Jan had had enough.  “Get out!” she hissed.

Our disco dancing career was over before it started.  Mom never said anything about it—I can only hope she got her money back.  As for myself, I didn’t leave my one and only disco dance class suddenly knowing how to be me.  But for one shining moment, I laughed my ass off, caring not a whit about the consequences or for what anybody thought.  It's in those unplanned moments of explosive mirth that the mask drops off and we are truly ourselves. 

 It didn't make me suave or cool, but at least Mom got what she wanted, if only for a moment.