Two Short Stories by Ken Brand
Living In An Oven
Maybe it’s sick…surely it’s a bit creepy. I don’t care. Sometimes I hope my mom isn’t home. I let the phone ring 5 times, the antique GE answering machine picks up with a crisp click, tiny metallic wheels engage, with a flea faint squeak, two micro-reel motors drag the streaked faded UPS brown recording across the dual tape heads. A cotton ball soft, static hiss fades out…abruptly dad’s firm gravely voice, uncomfortably, with deliberation, speaks semi hurriedly and unrehearsed, “You’ve reached the Brand residence, we’re not home, leave your message at the beep.” Without fail, dad’s voice triggers a deluge of mass shadowy remembrances. Following what feels like a full minute of near silent hissing, a rude, over loud beep, wrenches my heaped memories back to now. I always leave a cheery message for mom.
My mom lives alone in an oven. Actually…she lives inside climate controlled comfort three point seven miles near to my little brother Erich and my two young nephews, Von and Baron.
Except on the most scorching days, laboring air conditioners beat back the Arizona blaze…they are powerless when it comes to cooling radiation generated by mom’s remembrance of forty five years of marriage to Dad. They fought like cats and dogs, loved like Romeo and Juliet and laughed like Rickey and Lucy. Dad died and mom’s heart broke over six years ago.
On stage and in-motion she seems normal. When the audience exits and quiet intrudes, I know mom mourns deeply. Still. Forever.
I jet in like a tourist. On the flight back to my own family in Texas, in quiet contemplation, I always promise myself – thrice yearly visits – at least. Priorities misalign, commitment dulls and actual visits slip to sporadic reverse “Cat’s In The Cradle” infrequency. I am guilty. I phone. When the antique recorder picks up, I always leave a cheery message and wonder if she ever calls herself, just to hear the sound of dad’s voice. I know my brothers and I do.
The End - May 2007
Love Splinters and Invisible Bruising
By Ken Brand
Dad wore four tattoos. Two were unremarkable.
The third covered his right shoulder. Inked exquisitely in burning shades of China red, deep shadowy greens and sinful blacks, he grinned. Hidden like deceit, in the fine detail of leered expression, tall feline limbs stretched Y’d. Eager delicate fingers wrapped hard round his harder horns. She draped. Ripe. Lithe. Bareback. Wearing only a soft seductive smile, Eve rode the serpent’s forked tongue. Like he knew your sins, Lucifer grinned.
The fourth? Colors of bruising. Deep purples, blackened blues and tints of jaundiced yellows. Although this tattoo was invisible, it was as real and heavy as shackle iron. A thick blue hourly-wage-slave collar encircled dad’s throat.
Dad never finished high school, ran hot, got caught, did time, met mom, and married her, my sister, and me. The DNA of addiction colored our bloods and dad’s obsessions shined and shadowed our family in equal measure. Family in-tow, he cinched his noosed collar tight and strapped himself down tighter. Beyond reason, he worked hardest, partied harder and played hard. My dad was a complicated man and dangerous.
Outdoors it rained sheets of shined sun.
From our terraced backyard, Tecolote Canyon sprawled napping while tall San Diego skies melted into a shiny sea-blue tabletop. The Coronado Islands were plainly visible.
From our front yard, a confetti of pastel house hues, neated lawns, garden gnomes, chrome grilled automobiles, wild flowers and people pollen, breezed across the sweeping hillside, then splashed laughing into the blue glitter of Mission Bay.
It rained sheets of shine and confetti outdoors. Indoors, currents of pressured tension, contangoed danger and awkward love, whipsawed, bone rattled, convulsed and wept without warning.
We didn’t “walk on eggshells”; we played hide-n-go-seek, tiptoeing through a house crammed with randomly armed, hidden and half hidden emotional land mines. There was bloodshed and heartache, scarring and love splinters.
Our shouts and flapping arms only speedballed his rabbit panic. “STOP!!!! DONT RUNNNN”, we screamed in karaoke. Running from dad or trouble was always a mistake. Erich squirted through the half closed sliding glass door, sprinting crouched, zigity-zag beneath the heavily fruited trees. Uniformly trimmed limbs kept in-chase dad at arms length and Erich momentarily shadowed in safety. Half hurrying, Dad rounded the peach tree, nearly tripping on the shit shovel. He skidded, stepped backwards and scooped up the shovel.
Moments and my breath compressed. My body paralyzed, my worries shot ahead. I was a goner. I knew it. Our dogs crapped everywhere. Policing the backyard, shoveling-up the squishy turd piles and heaving them into the canyon was one of my daily chores. The shit shovel laying in the yard, not neatly stored in its tool shed place, was easily worth a few lashes from dad’s skinny brown belt. If his bare feet stepped in a fresh shit pile, dog shit I was supposed to have previously policed, I’d be covered in belt welts for certain.
With a looping one-handed arc, the smooth side of the shovel found it’s tiny bulls eye. Erich’s four-year-old kid self levitated, cannonballing into harsh sunlight. Shocked, mom and dad raced to collect and inspect him. Injuries included only utter confusion, heaved sobbing and slobber. His original infraction pardoned, further punishment was deemed unnecessary. Erich had learned a hard lesson, a lesson the rest of us Brand kids already knew; “Flinching was allowed. Never break and run; always stand your ground.”
Collecting myself, I hustled into the canyon, huffing into the wind, “Dear Jesus, thank you for not letting dad step in dog shit. I promise to pray more and beat the crap out of my sister less. Amen.” and wondering, “Why was dad was barefoot?”
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
I’ve seen furniture splintered, tables cracked in two and objects flying. I’ve watched dad’s skinny brown belt whistle and crack, and I’ve worn welts myself. I’ve witnessed hateful word-to-word combat and an occasional grapple.
Once, mid meltdown, mom stormed down the hallway. Dad followed. She slammed the door in his face and locked him out. Without a word or warning, he hip-snapped a haymaker, blowing his balled fist and splintered wood chunks through an eight-inch hole. Calmly, he reached through, unbolted the door and let himself in. I was more impressed than petrified. That same hallway has three bullet holes.
I’ve seen plenty, but I’ve never seen dad hit my mom. A rule of engagement, I supposed, one on a short-list of Brand Family Geneva Conventions.
It began like you might strike a campfire, by furiously rubbing two dry sticks together. Friction first, then heat, expectant sparks, measured fanning, stoke with flammables and Eureka! Licking flames. Only mom and dad weren’t lighting a cozy campfire, nobody sang Kum-By-Ya or served S’mores. This fire leapt fierce and hostile.
Mom spoke harshly, rubbing dad wrong. Dad chaffed back and mom bit deeper. Dad blared hotter. Mom reflected his heat and lobbed a few flammables for good measure. Dad detonated, spun to the counter, snatched up the dinner dishes, cranked them over his head and wheeled to face mom. Flinching, her silver sandaled feet fell back two steps. Blocked by the wall, she fumbled behind herself, frantic hands seeking the rake.
With a two-fisted chokehold, she whipped the wood handled rake between her and dad. Screwed into the business end was an immense fanning, white plastic rake head. Dad smashed the dishes to the floor. Mom shielded herself with the rake. I tensed transfixed. Cheap dishes exploded like frozen ice. Sharp edged, ill shaped shrapnel skittered across the linoleum. Peeking behind shag rake tines, mom yipped, “God Damn You”. Dad didn’t say a word. He just growled, stepping a pace closer to mom and directly in front of the harvest gold stove.
On the right back burner sat mom’s pride, dad’s recent anniversary present. Like a J.C. Penney museum piece, gleaming in Scandia White, glazed with graceful stems of soft blue, tender blue leaves and blooming blue daisies, sat mom’s Corning Ware coffee carafe. Wrapping his fist around the thin stainless steel handle, he jerked the piece over his head and glared directly into mom’s brown eyes. She stiffened, dropped her tined shield below her chin, dropped her tone two octaves and threatened dad, “Don’t you DAARRREEE!” Dad rocked back three inches. His cocked arm froze; Lucifer peeked from beneath dad’s white short sleeve. Dad’s head swiveled right, our wide eyes glancing off each other. His ricocheted left, mine right and we both locked on mom, glaring and daring.
Patterns broke, awareness doused his flames and dad gently reset the carafe. Wheeling, he brushed by me, lightly squeezing my left shoulder. As he walked out, smoke wisps and flecks of soot curled softly in his wake. The screen door slammed. Mom wept and broomed, I collected the bigger shards with her rake.
Silently, I wondered why they couldn’t just stop rubbing their fire sticks together? I was grateful that as hot as it got, there were rules of engagement.
Dad was de facto capo of the Los Locos Motorcycle Club, a crash of
cronies race’n wide open. Founding members included dad, eight initiated work buddies and my two favorite uncles. Uncle Ryan cracked the funniest jokes, was a part time barber, genius motorcycle mechanic and an ex con. He told me he was innocent, of what, nobody would say. The men had nicknames. Uncle Ryan’s was “Blue”. Uncle Sonny’s was “Torp”; he was an honest-to-God, fully commissioned, US Navy Submarine Commander.
On any Sunday, Los Locos and occasional uninitiated friends chewed up the Miramar Canyons, racing tweaked out two strokes and bored out thumpers. After burning through beer, breaking down or crashing too hard, the tribe frequently rallied to secret and randomly rotating locations. Habitually, severe partying ensued, gnarly stories were told and history rewritten. On just such an occasion, the after party crash-landed at our house. I leaned in the shadows. Watching without speaking, Dad had a strict kid law, “Do not speak unless spoken to.”
I laughed inside my head at the stories dad’s drunken friends told or more usually, slurred. Dad was a good listener, never laughed too loud, shined an occasional approving half smile and sporadically snorted, “bullshit”. Mostly, dad was quiet; he didn’t approve of bragging. Many of the stories others told included dad in the telling.
A friend of Blue’s, a guy called “Duce”, was a loud mouth. I’d never seen him before and he obviously didn’t know dad. I couldn’t make out Duce’s words, but his tone was clear and I could read his animated body language; he spoke disrespectfully — twice. I unleaned, attentive. Dad’s smile flattened and his relaxed posture rippled slightly. I’d seen this before and I suspected what Duce did not.
It took five heartbeats. Grabbing a fist full of shirt collar and a handful of belt, dad spun him, jerked him six inches off his feet and launched him head first through the closed screen door. Torn from its hinges, Duce followed the bent doorframe. Crumpled man and metal cart wheeled down the front porch steps and skidded to a rude stop on the front lawn. The door was a total loss; Duce wore fresh grass stains, a bleeding forehead and newfound respect. I thought, “He knows dad now.” He left quietly. On the hi-fi, Mick leaned into “Get off my cloud…” and the sounds of drunken story telling swallowed the pause. Before things really got out of hand, I slipped out the back door.
Among the initiated and the left behind, Los Locos annual crusades were legend. Desert racing in Baja, deep sea fishing expeditions, hell raising at McQueen’s Elsinore Gran Prix, and the most epic of all, a sons included, deep into the High Sierras, week-long motorcycle camping trip.
From base camp, eleven crazies and their thirteen sons strapped a weeks worth on our backs and bikes. Swift kick starts cranked hostile horsepower to combat. With nodded smiles, as one, gloved fingers stretched, then squeezed clutch. Booted toes mashed gears to engagement. Twenty-four wrists wrenched throttles full-bore. Agitated sounds of tuned engines, straining metal and hot exhaust swarmed like flying scorpions, stabbed stinging through whispering pines, hived up the mountainside and disappeared into formerly silent canyons.
Charging single file, blurred silver spokes pounded down thin trails, scratched up ravines, rounded blind corners and bounced over stumps. Dodging half boulders and splashing through rushing streams, our horde hauled ass it’s six-hour way to Grasshopper Flats, Eden on earth.
We camped on twenty yards of velvety grass surrounded by a weave of ancient and holy pines. Ninety paces into the forest, rich earth turned to boulders and slabs of smoothed rock. The Kern River flexed, awed, ripped and roared. Down stream, in eddied pools and fingered streams, rainbowed trout schooled, eager and unwise.
In daylight, we fished, caught, rode and napped. We boys also gathered wood.
At dusk, we gorged on endless pan-fried trout, sunflower seeds and beef jerky.
At night our bonfire threw strobed shadows, floated sparks and crackled like broken bones. Inky black hid behind star blaze and random meteors bottle rocketed across the sky.
Curled safely in our sleeping bags, we soaked in the familiar. Loud laughing and Wild Turkey fueled story telling. Charred wood smells, campfire smoke, the clean scent of pine trees and the heady aroma of burning weed. There were also hooting owls and occasional gunfire.
One night a debate flared. The question? Who was the greatest heavyweight; Joe Frazier or Cassius Clay? It turned personal, as things often do when men are too stoned to stand, then physical.
Blue: “Ali was a deserter and big mouth punk!”
Wing Nut: “He wasn’t a deserter, he was a conscious observer. You’re a dumb ass!”
Angel: “Smoken’n Joe was a righteous puncher brother, he’d take your head of with one punch!”
Torp: “Are you two dumb asses related to Gomer Pyle? It’s conscientious objector you moron. Sent his ass to prison, shoulda shot him as a traitor. Boy could box though.”
Wing Nut: “Fuck you all, I’m not a dumb ass, mother fuckers, believe that!”
Two Shoes: “No, fuck you, mutha fucker, shut your pie hole!”
Ringo: “You’re the punk! You ever even been in a fight — whatchu know bout fighten — my wife could kick your ass.”
Two Shoes: “I can kick your ass. I know that! And yer drunk anyway.”
Ringo: “Yeah, well you can’t ride for shit…asshole! And I’m not drunk Goober, I’m high… therz a difference shit for brains and I know what you don’t know, you knowww?”
Squeak, thinking he was the Sheriff, stood, wobbled, righted himself, pulled his short-barreled Smith & Wesson and fired one shot in the air and two through the green tin Coleman stove. Dad and Wing Nut leapt to their feet, others dove to the ground and some gawked, like us. They tackled him, rolled half into the fire and threw punches. It ended as fast as it started.
The next morning, you’d never know anything unusual had happened, because it hadn’t. Dad’s knuckles were scraped, Wing Nut’s pinky finger was dislocated and Squeak wore a singed shirt, a purple eye and a sheepish grin. His morning mantra, “What the fuck, I was just try’n to restore a little order.”
Sons were taught how to fish, how to start a fire, other stuff and simple camping laws. Laws like “Don’t point a gun at anyone, even if you think it’s unloaded,” and “Shared stories and deeds done were considered “Camp Talk”. “Camp Talk” was never shared with the women. Not mothers, not sisters, not girlfriends. Never.
Breaking the “don’t point” law might earn a beat down, even if you point at the sky or a stove; breaking the “Camp Talk Law” was more painful. My friend Johnny, Ringo’s son, found out the hard way. One year he broke the “Camp Talk” law, the next year he was left behind with his mom and sisters. My brothers and I made every trip.
I worked at dad’s printing factory as the weekend janitor and gofer. A full time wageslaveship apprenticeship would begin mere days after my graduation. As doomsday neared, the dread of working in dad’s salt mine shoved me to action. Three months before graduation, without permission, I enlisted in the US Army. Because I was seventeen, I needed signatures. Fearing slave hood more than dad’s disapproval and danger, I waited two weeks before ceremonies to pronounced my decision and request he sign my permission slip. I braced dad in his woodworking shop and was prepared to demand it. Dad locked eyes with me and said, “I’m glad you’re not going into this blood sucking business Kenny. You’re a smart boy, son. Learn a skill, travel the world, meet pretty girls, become a man.” Relief vertigo almost dropped me. When we told mom, she blubbered tears and hugged me so hard it hurt.
Tuesday evening, August 12th, 1974, I tossed my duffle bag into the trunk, we loaded into the Pontiac Le Mans and drove to the downtown Grey Hound Station. I hugged Terri, Jay and Erich, kissed mom and dad. One last time, I punched Teri and Jay in the shoulder, turned and bounded up the steps, nearly tripping.
Pulling away, Teri and Jay were bickering as usual; little Erich waved. Mom’s chin trembled as she dabbed tears. Dad looked taller. His right arm hugged mom tightly. He waved, launched a lazy left-handed semi salute and cracked an approving half smile. The brand of smile I’d only ever seen him share with the men he worked and played with, and now me.
Ken Brand, 8/29/08