After the divorce, Mom bought herself a brand new, limited edition, Dodge Ram. She did this even though there is nothing in her life or mine that requires a truck of this size and power. There wasn’t even anything in our lives that required her to buy a new car. The car we had, a 1996 Toyota Camry, was completely functional and relatively new at the time. The reason she bought the truck was simply that she’d seen the commercial on TV, and it had “spoken to her.”
Now, in case you’ve never seen the commercials for the Dodge Ram, allow me to say that they’re not all that different from a typical car commercial. There is footage of the car driving gracefully along some scenic mountain highway, on which it is the only car. The Dodge Ram is shown doing other very outdoorsy stuff, like splashing through puddles of mud, and hauling through blizzards. The types of things that people who need trucks want to make sure this truck will be able to do with ease. Over all of this action, a man’s voice tells you about all the car’s specs, and new features. They show you the inside of the truck cabin in all its luxury. Then he tells you about the deal they’re offering on financing that makes it super possible for you to be a person who drives this car. And then, and this is the part that sold my mother, he says, “Dodge. Grab life by the horns.”
This became her motto for years afterward. “Sweetie, grab life by the horns! You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you grab life by the horns!” She justified everything by explaining that it was her new way of grabbing life by the horns. Sometimes she would even shake her car keys at me for emphasis.
I have wondered many times if, upon encountering a testy mountain ram, this was really the best advice. It seems like probably it would actually result in a minor case of death.
But, nonetheless, the purchase of that car was the beginning of a major change in my mother. It was her gas-guzzling declaration of independence from Gerald. She started painting and sculpting again. She joined Alice’s “Women for Women” book club and became a frequenter of the Knotty Lady, a local yarn emporium. And, perhaps most importantly, she began attending weekly jazz dance classes. I say most importantly because it was in one of these classes that she met Jimmy.
Gerald, of course, hated everything about this car. Sober and drunk, he would call to complain to me about the car and how it was all an elaborate lie my mother was telling herself. “She doesn’t need a truck,” his voice would slosh over the phone. “A truck isn’t going to make love to her. Is that what she thinks? That she can replace a man with a truck? She can’t. She doesn’t need that truck. What she needs is a man. A real man. But she threw me out and she bought that truck. She’ll see. She’ll see she made a mistake. You can’t replace a man with a truck!” Sometimes I would put the phone down and do other things during these rants, coming back occasionally to say “Uh-huh. Of course. You’re right.” Once I put the phone down and accidentally fell asleep reading. I was awakened by my mother screaming into the receiver “Well you can think that if you want but I’m telling you it’s not a lie, you selfish ass! I’m grabbing life by the horns!”
I stay in the foyer for as long as I think I can get away with, and then figure I have to either go upstairs and be social or find a better place to hide out. For a second I feel bad for abandoning Kevin and then I don’t.
It’s okay to not be ready, my internalized Valery voice says to me in a soothing and annoying way.
I notice mom’s keys sitting in a small, handmade clay dish inside the front door. The dish has the words “keys please” painted in it. An adorable handicraft mom clearly threw and painted for herself in the basement. I pocket the keys and go downstairs to the garage.
The Dodge is basically always parked in the garage, because it’s an impractical monstrosity to be driving around Seattle with any regularity. We used to drive it everywhere anyway, and Mom used to park it outside on the street like a big trophy of her new carpe diem lifestyle, but then she got too many angry notes from neighbors about how they hoped she was enjoying her truck because it was destroying the planet. And so she started parking inside, and we started to take Jimmy’s Honda Civic.
I climb up and into the passenger seat. I think maybe I’ll turn the radio on but I don’t. Instead I just turn the heat all the way up for five minutes and then turn the car off.
“This garage is so full of shit, Mom,” I say, like we’re sitting in the car together. “You should have a yard sale, make some more room for yourself in here.” I know she won’t ever do that now because most of this stuff is Gerald’s. It’s all the stuff he didn’t ever have a place for, and she didn’t feel comfortable just throwing away, even though undoubtedly most of it is just broken crap and porn from the 80’s.
The longer I sit in the car the more offended I get that no one has come looking for me, even though I don’t know why they would. I was sure they’d have sent Alice in for me by now. As immature as it is, I just keep sitting there waiting for someone to come and ask me what’s wrong, like I used to do when I was seven.
Mom always left this task to Gerald because he could usually make me laugh no matter what I was sulking about. He would come into my room and sit down across from me, and stare at me for a long time. I could always hear him coming, and I would make sure to have my back to him when he came through the door. Then, eventually, he would say, “Ms. Macadocious. I have one very important job for you, and I need you to get it right. Can you promise me you will get it right?” And I would shake my head no, and tell him to just leave because this wasn’t going to work. He always laughed when I said this, this big whole body laugh, like he thought I was just the funniest little girl in the world. And then he would say, “Oh pretty please. It’s just one job, Mac. You can do this for me. Please will you do this one thing for your dad. Please. I’m a weak man and I need your help with just this one thing.” And then, every time, when I would agree to help him, he’d say, “Oh thank you, thank you. Now. The only thing I need you to do, and it should be easy for someone like you, is not smile. Can you do that? No matter what happens, Mac. I need you to make sure that you don’t smile. You have to stay serious 100% of the time for the rest of forever. Can you do that?” I would roll my eyes, but then I’d have to bite down on the insides of my cheeks to keep from laughing and he would say “Now, don’t fail me, Mac. I need you to do this. Even if I’m silly. You can NOT laugh. Even if I tickle you, or if I make a crazy face,” and he would twist his face up, or make little fishy lips at me, “DO NOT laugh. Don’t even think about laughing.” Inevitably, I laughed he would fall down on the ground crying out, “Oh no!! You laughed! Mac! I was trusting you! I was trusting you to do this one thing!” I would get down on the ground with him and giggle and tell him he was so silly, and we would laugh and laugh, and eventually I’d forget that I had been so unhappy just a few minutes ago.
It’s been a full twenty minutes of no one coming to see how I’m doing before I hear Nathan and Lana pulling in outside. Nathan is notoriously late for everything and, even when his lateness is of great inconvenience to everyone else, Mom always says the same thing: “That brother of yours! So FASHIONABLE!” Nathan has never actually been fashionable. He has never been particularly good at people either, always sort of quiet and awkward and disinterested. The first time we met, at the rehearsal dinner for Mom and Jimmy’s wedding, he’d come over to me and said, “So, do you know who I am?” And when I’d said yes, and that he was my step-brother, Nathan, he’d just said, “Yup,” and then slinked away. We’ve only gotten a little bit better at talking in the years since then.
But it’s Nathan who eventually comes for me. He is holding a tiny gift bag in his hand when he gets into the driver seat.
“Good spot,” he says, nonchalantly handing me the bag. I look over at him, but he’s staring out the windshield. I fuss with the ribbon that’s holding the bag handles together and finally get a peek inside the bag. It’s an assortment of tiny airplane bottles of booze. He has covered all the bases: gin, tequila, whiskey, vodka, and a tiny bottle of white wine. It is identical to the one Beth gulped down at the Holiday Inn Express, and I can’t help but laugh. “Go ahead. Pick one.” He leans against the driver’s side door and yawns.
I take the tequila and he takes the whiskey. It tastes terrible, but I don’t care. “Are they wondering where I am?” I ask him after a minute.
“Not really. Think they figure you’re grieving.” He still hasn’t really looked at me. I don’t know if he thinks we’re bonding, or if he would’ve come out to the Ram to drink even if I weren’t here. I look down at my outfit, and think about what Mel said about me looking slutty. The cleavage alone speaks for itself. I don’t look like a person who’s grieving. I couldn’t even be bothered to wear black.
“I don’t know if I am or not. Grieving, I mean.”
“Cheers,” says Nathan, clinking his bottle with mine. I guess we aren’t bonding. For a while we both drink in silence. Nathan turns the heat back on, and adjusts his seat to give him more leg room. “God love a truck,” he says to himself. He starts fiddling with the radio and eventually settles on a song with a chorus that’s just some twangy pervert saying “Country girl, shake it for me, girl” over and over. It is so obvious to me in this moment that I don’t understand Nathan at all, and suddenly I wonder if anyone does, or if he is just the kind of mystery that some people are into for no discernible reason.
“So,” I shift toward him and fold my legs underneath me on the seat, trying to make conversation, “Mom told me that you have a girlfriend.”
“Yep.” He finishes his whiskey and glances at me for the first time. “And dad told me that your real dad’s dead.” He doesn’t seem particularly apologetic or comforting. I look away and down the rest of my tequila, tossing the empty bottles back into the gift bag.
“Yeah. He is.” There’s a pause. Nathan yawns again, and then flips off the radio.
“Welp. You hungry?”
And that’s that.
The house smells distinctly of spare ribs and barbecue sauce now, and Mom is busying herself with getting the food on the table. It’s a real juggling act because she refuses to move the shrine to my father that she has already laid out as a centerpiece, and so the food has to be carefully arranged around all the photos and candles. There are several moments when it seems impossible that she’s not going to light the whole mess on fire, but somehow she manages. The final arrangement is cluttered and extremely precariously balanced, but Jimmy comes in and tells her it looks beautiful, “just what Gerald would have loved.” As if anyone could know that.
I came up with a theory once that the best thing to do, in a funeral or memorial service type setting is to find a place where you feel comfortable and stand there the whole time, allowing people to come to you instead of attempting to mingle around. My logic is that people will form a sort of a line and pay you their respects and then move on because you’ll be sad and not very much fun to hang around and chat with. I’ve only had the opportunity to test this once before, at my grandmother’s funeral, and it worked out pretty well, with the exception of one man who stayed and talked a long time about the unending love of Jesus, and I’m pretty sure he would’ve done that no matter what tactic I’d taken.
Tonight I choose to stand next to Jimmy’s home aquarium. It’s prime real estate: close enough to the dining room table that I’m already in place when dinner’s served, and if someone tries to engage me about shit I can’t deal with, I can always talk incessantly about the fish until they leave.
I am particularly enamored of one of the Lion Fish, and am watching him closely when I hear the first of the grievers approaching.
“There you are! My poor lil Ms. Mackenzie! Oh hon-ey bun-ny!” It’s Alice. When I turn and look at her, I’m overwhelmed. She has outdone herself tonight, all done up in black and topped off with a small hat that has a little lace widow’s veil attached. If we were having a competition to see who was the grieviest Alice would be taking home the gold. She hurries over to me and throws her arms around my neck. “And look at how beautiful you look! Even in this time of unbearable sadness, you look so beautiful! That is the healing power of youth, y’all! That’s the healing power of youth right there in the flesh.” She squeezes my face with her giant acryllic nails, and when she lets go I worry that she may have drawn blood. I run my fingers over my cheek, luckily she has not. We exchange pleasantries about her trip to San Antonio, and she tells me what a relief it is to back in a place where the heat isn’t having it’s way with her hair. “You’ll never see me without frizz in San Antonio,” she exclaims. “That heat won’t allow it! And for the love of sweet Jesus, it’s January!” I offer her my condolences. She tells me I’m a darling, and kisses me squarely on the forehead. Then she whispers, “You’ll see, muffin. Sometimes death is a blessing.” She winks at me, then bellows that her glass has run dry, and hurries back into the kitchen.
Walter comes up next and gives me a stern handshake, slipping me a $100 bill, and saying, “Tragic loss, my dear. Tragic.” If he had said “Congratulations, my dear. Congratulations,” this would have been exactly the same as my high school graduation. I smile politely at him, but then when he goes back to the kitchen, I realize I don’t have anywhere to put the money. I resolve to slip it into my bra, when Jimmy comes up from behind me and slaps me on the back, and makes me drop the bill on the floor.
“You made it, Mackie! That’s my girl.” He comes around and holds me in a very long hug. “I was worried you’d back out. I know this must be... with all the photos, and... It’s hard for all of us.” I hold Jimmy tightly. For all his quirks, he has always tried to be a good father figure, and in this moment I do love him for it.
“It’s harder than I thought,” I confide in him. He lets me out of the hug and looks at me, holding my shoulders tightly in his soft hands. His bright, smiling face cracks. He takes my hand and squeezes it.
“You’re a tough cookie, Mackie.” He grins, and, for lack of anything better, I grin back. I don’t know what it means that I’m a tough cookie, but even more I don’t know what he could have said that would have meant anything.
Nathan doesn’t line up with the others. I think he must assume he did his part in bringing me the tequila. To his credit, it was the most useful thing anyone’s done so far. He never spent much time with Gerald. By the time Jimmy and Mom got married, Nate was already basically graduating from high school. He wasn’t at home much, and the few times he and Gerald had been in the same place at the same time, it had been tense. Gerald was always asking whether Nathan was my boyfriend. Any boy even close to my age who hung around the house was a potential threat in his eyes. Even my step-brother. Gerald would use his best fatherly intimidation tactics on Nathan, looming over him and asking bizarrely specific questions, like “How many inches would you say you’ve got between your thumb and pointer finger?” and, “What’s your wingspan?” Whatever Nathan said, Gerald would say a few inches more, and then laugh this creepy and intense laugh. “If he’s hanging around my daughter, he should know I could kick his ass,” I heard him explaining to Mom once. What a fucking weirdo.
Works-with-Orphans-Lana looks more like a praying mantis than anyone should. She has very severe and pointy features topped off by very large and wide set green eyes and she even holds her hands up at her chest, and plays with her fingers. I swear to god, the woman is an insect. Her hair is a chestnut brown, and she has it all pulled back into a high ponytail. That, in combination with her athletic build, make me think she must be highly sporty when she’s not cuddling parent-less children.
“You must be Natey’s sister, Mackenzie.” She edges over toward me after Jimmy has gone, and stares into the aquarium.
“I am. And you’re Lana.”
“Oh! Yes! He-- Natey told you about me?” Her whole face lights up, and if she weren’t so creepy looking it would be sort of sweet.
“Not in so many words, but yeah. You came up.” She half-giggles and I smile reassuringly at her. I can’t help but feel a little sorry for her. What a horribly awkward way to meet your boyfriend’s family for the first time.
“I met your boyfriend,” she says. “He’s hilarious. And,” she leans in closer, lowering her voice, “so cute.”
I choke down a laugh. “Oh, ha, no. Kevin’s not my boyfriend. Really not my boyfriend. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you that.”
“Wait, really?” Lana’s giant eyes get even more giant. If she actually is a praying mantis, this must be the face she makes before cutting off the heads of her partners. “Are you being serious right now? He said you guys have been together a few months now.”
My stomach drops. “I’m sorry, he said what?”
“Yeah, oh my god, this is so weird. He was literally just telling Natey and me about how you guys have been friends forever, and that it took him far too long to see how perfect you were for each other, but now you’ve been doing the long distance thing for a couple months and then he came out here to be with you for New Year’s... and of course now he’s staying because of... well, you know...” Her whole demeanor changes. Her face stops being so creepy and gets intensely caring and gentle. I don’t know how she does this, and resolve that she must be an Animorph. She places her hand on my back, “I was so sorry-- I mean, I am. I am so sorry to hear about your father. Natey told me you two had a complicated relationship...”
Lana goes on talking, but I’m only half-listening. Behind her I notice Kevin carrying on happily with Alice and Walt. Jimmy joins them, handing Kevin a beer and patting him heartily on the back. Is he telling everyone that he’s my boyfriend now? For the life of me I can’t figure out why he would want to do this.
“Mackenzie? Are you okay?” Lana’s giant worried eyes are searching my face for shock or mourning. I can feel her switching into orphan-mode.
“Sorry, yeah. I’m just processing... everything,” I say in a far-away voice.
“You know, I work a lot with children who’ve lost their parents,” she says. “And all the adults I know who have been through this tell me the same thing: that it doesn’t get any easier just because you’re older. It can still be just as traumatic as it would have been at a very young age.” She squeezes my arm, and awaits my response to this pearl of wisdom.
“I did lose my father at a very young age,” I say to her without even thinking about it. “It’s just that now he’s dead.” She shrinks away from me slightly, and then we both just stand there. Staring into the aquarium.
The Lion Fish swims up to the surface of the water and gulps some air. I wish this was a thing humans could do. I would do it now.