Wash away us all, take us with the floods. – Pantera
Everyone was a liar. At least everyone I knew was.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I promise. Mommy’s just a little tired. I’ve been run down lately, that’s all. Really. Trust me, I’m as sober as a judge.” That was my mother, typical Hattie, reciting her bullshit automatic response any time her sobriety was in question. The inquiry was made by me, her doting son. I must have been no more than seven or eight years old at the time. Nevertheless, I was concerned. “Go and gather all of your belongings we’re going to be leaving soon, hon. Don’t forget your pumpkin.” As if I would ever forget my pumpkin.
I asked my mother once more if she was alright, she nodded shamefully, and left her to sit in her own stew. Hattie Flood, my only acting parent, the direct source of all those negative personality traits, traits that I wouldn’t own up to or claim any responsibility for.
I recollected how strange and old her hands appeared that evening, how familiar yet bizarrely otherworldly they were as they secured a tumbler lounging inside five other empty versions of itself. Irish Matryoshka. Her hands resembled those of a corpse, her fingers bloated and strangled by gaudy rings, cutting off the circulation. Anemic fingers with eerie French tips rapping against her bloody mary. Intoxication is the desired result for a multitude of reasons.
If Hattie ever won the lotto she would still cry at parties, only she’d have platinum grills and a 14k gold rope chain equal to her own body weight around her neck. Iced out four finger rings. Blood diamonds bejeweling her entire sad existence. Gilded high heels. She loved that kind of shit. She’d be broke within a year.
My Mom’s gross infatuation with jewelry always baffled me, I mean, poor struggling lower class people should not be worrying about obtaining trinkets or concerned with baubles. A clear sign of fucked up priorities. Those hands were foreign to me, estranged for years now. If they appeared out of thin air and touched me with the softest affectation I’d shatter into innumerable pieces of tiny sharpness. I wouldn’t know how to react to her, in kindness or in spite. In all honesty I don’t know how to react to most things these days. I am simply unable to behave normally. My whole style was awkward, but not like the cute awkwardness you see in movies. I want to behave normal, that is, be normal. It’s this weird form of momentary amnesia, as in I completely forget how to be myself. Hyper self-conscious and uncertain. It might not be that bad, but it might actually be that bad.
Hattie brought me to a Christmas party, a party her friend threw every year. I don’t recall any other children being present. It was a long time ago so I could be mistaken. The privilege of escorting Hattie to the jam was all mine. My little sister stayed behind to hang at home with our old man. I doubt there was an agenda for me to go with her instead or anything, I think she just liked having me around and I was more self reliant. Catherine was too little to attend such an event whereas I was a tad precocious and more seasoned to gatherings. Is it possible my intelligence peaked at eight years old? I guess I made a habit of leaving Catherine behind early on.
Being with Dad was not terrible either, don’t get me wrong. I could picture how their night unfolded, most of the evening before she was to put to bed consisted of sitting on the floor in front of a blasting Magnovox. My father didn’t care about parties or social status. He cared about westerns and liverwurst sandwiches. He loved his children, naturally, as any self respecting parent should. He loved John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. My father was immune to that feeling, you know the one, the feeling you’ve missed out on something. He couldn’t give a fuck about being sociable or the opinions of others. I found that trait admirable. I’m working on it, old man. Contentment was thick sliced deli meat on bread with mustard and six shooters while sitting Indian style on the carpet.
I wondered if I was excited about the party. I was probably all about it. Now I avoid spectacles and shit shows. I’d prefer to avoid human contact entirely.
The memory of that night is not entirely clear. I admit the memory is a bit drunk itself, hazy. It unfolded within my mind in a kaleidoscopic fuzz, with a weird but festive green and red tinge. I could see myself in the memory or is it how I wanted to see myself, I’m getting on with it. I positioned myself timidly in the corner of my mind, which was now the living room of my mother’s best friend, lying on my stomach with a large drawing pad beneath me. The cowl of the red hood of my sweatshirt pulled over my head and tightened by a pull of the drawstrings. My longish dark brown hair was nicely tucked inside the hood. The zipper zipped up all the way to my chin. This was not a fashion statement. It was about comfort and security, I was hiding in plain sight while surrounded by people most of whom were damaged. That red hooded sweatshirt was my favorite, it felt soft to the touch, and was personalized with two yellow iron ons declaring my initials boldly on my chest. W F, on opposite sides of the zipper.
I emptied my jack o’lantern, spilling pencils, Crayola crayons, and Sharpie markers on this woman’s carpet. A woman who seemed strange to me. I did not like the look of her so I paid her no mind. I was obsessed with colors then. I would state out loud whatever color I picked up. If I picked up a black crayon I said, “black.” Blue. Red. Mahogany. Burnt sienna and so on. I zoned out all of the annoying laughter, which I found no humor in these people, and their piercing voices whose volumes increased as the night went on.
I focused on my artwork. Art should always be the most important thing whatever your medium. It should be but it doesn’t always carry importance. A lot of artists don’t really care. It’s safe to confess that I have been an aspiring escape artist since childhood. Escape artists like Houdini, who is buried in Queens like the rest of us, had a nice ring to it, but I didn’t mean it that way. I wasn’t freeing myself from literal chains. Art was a way to briefly free myself from reality. Those billions of pictures I’d drawn, almost none of which I have in my possession today, were all portals. Each picture is a trap door to briefly leave the moment.
I’ve always daydreamed of running away from home. The thought of bundling up my meager possessions in that paisley handkerchief, tied to a sturdy stick and hung on my shoulder. The fantasy of clinging to the side of a slowly moving freight train, sitting in the darkness of the train car, beside who knows what, off to the next hopeful city, leaving everything behind in a puff of black coal smoke. I’ve always thought of running away, I thought about it then, I think about it now in my twenty-eighth year. It’s kind of pathetic, really, but that was where my mind was. I just yearned to leave this place behind me. Those unskilled works were exit doors. A much needed distraction. Drawing took away the anxiety, it removed the hatred I felt for the world I lived in. It was therapeutic, just as necessary as creative writing would be for me later on. It appeared that for me to remain intact, mentally at least, I needed to be creative. I consumed myself with mad creations like a childish Dr. Frankenstein on 18” by 24” sheets in a top bound Strathmore drawing pad. On those pages I manifested my own little worlds, my own dimensions to command and control. Control is something else I fear that I have never had in my life but that didn’t stop me from having a small god complex. I think all children have a touch of it. I still might, don’t you?
I drew a dumb picture, alone in the corner of a lame party when It happened. A familiar feeling rose up inside my heart. It transpired rather quickly, promulgating throughout my underdeveloped body, filling me with anxiety. I felt compelled to take a black crayon and fuck up the drawing, quick hard strokes in every direction to make it ugly, as ugly as life itself. Face the facts. Life is grotesque and vile and shameful. Unsettled by the emotion that droned within me, and the awareness that something was indeed wrong, I knew it, I felt it, the next impulse was grab my shit and go. Don’t say a fucking word to anyone in this holehell and leave. Irish goodbyes were inherent.
Where was my Mom? My eyes welled up with tears which caused me embarrassment and I attempted to fight them back but in the end the tears won. I oscillated my head with panic, searching through the crowd for her, and then I spotted her. There was no relief when I cast my eyes upon her, I only felt worse.
Hattie Flood was a good person. Though if we’re being honest she was afflicted with a tireless and profound ennui. Sadness was inescapable for her. Whenever she became crestfallen, which was often, I absorbed it. It was our connection. My inheritance. Her sadness stayed with me. That and guilt, of the Catholic variety. My mother was a beautiful woman who’d never believe I was capable of a compliment like that even if you told her. She was convinced I had nothing but hatred for her, but it took a lot of convincing on my behalf. If you see her do me a favor tell her I loved her and I thought she was pretty.
Garrulous by nature, my mother was clearly upset and engaged in a conversation with a woman of equal intoxication. They swayed and spilled shit on the carpet. I knew the woman but had no love for her, she wore far too much make-up and had shoulder pads Lawrence Taylor would envy. Hattie was crying, her makeup streaked, corpse paint like, in the midst of informing the linebacker of recent events where she had to hock all her jewelry except whatever pieces she had on display to pay this month’s rent. She confessed to the electricity already being turned off. I enjoyed the candlelight. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, it was adventurous. How many great historical figures wrote and read volumes beside a dwindling candle? Why wasn’t it good enough for us? I didn’t give a fuck about that shit but neither did my mom’s friend.
She spilled her guts to someone who wasn’t a caring friend, she wasn’t a confidant, she could care less. Hattie’s questionable friend was unmoved, visibly uninterested in hearing about our family’s misfortune, and silently prayed for an excuse to get up and be rid of this conversation. Heavy as it was, it was no one’s burden but our own. The drunken woman felt trapped, and hoped for someone else to come and replace her, and land themselves into the dangerous epicenter of the pity party. It was only a matter of time before the fallout would spread and contaminate the rest of the celebration. The clock ticked closer to a scene. This has the potential to get way worse. I didn’t understand the rationale. Why tell this person anything? The lack of common sense or pride, or is it tact, whatever the reasoning in that skull of hers to make these pathetic admissions of our personal lives, not just hers but ours, stung. The most cringe worthy part of it, the thing that really killed me was watching her manically shifting between fake smiles and real tears throughout the uncoerced confession. The self pity was staggering and would instill an overwhelming sense of awareness, and unwavering vulnerability within Catherine and myself to emit into generations to come. The saddest part of her behavior was that Hattie would never dare tell anyone about our misgivings who might actually care or want to help. We were sworn to secrecy from the moment we could speak.
I put everything away, got my coat on and buttoned it myself, pulled my maroon wool hat out of a pocket and pulled it over my head, tucking my hair inside it. I walked toward my mother with my drawing pad underneath my left arm, hitting people with it along the way, and held my pumpkin by its plastic strap with my right hand.
“Ready to go home, Mom? You know I was thinking it’s a pretty nice night. We should probably walk.”
Linebacker lady excused herself, and went on to mingle, spending the remainder of the night, coming on way too strong in the hopes of getting laid, unsuccessfully.
Walk, she said.
“Yeah, it’s not far,” I said.
“What’s the matter with you? Are you going crazy? It’s snowing out.” Her left leg hung limply over her right, swirling bright hot pink pumps. Bandolino, made in Italy but not recommended for winter. “Besides, these are my driving heels.”
“They could be your walking heels.” I tried to reason with her.
“We’ll catch hypochondria. Hypochondria? Freudian slip. Hypothermia. That’s it. I’m almost certain that hypothermia is no fun at all. Not one bit. Wilhelm, we are going but we are definitely not walking. You were just sick. You’ll wind up catching another cold and you’ve been truant too many days trying to save the princess.”
“They keep moving her to other castles.” The 8-bit joy that emanated from that little grey and black box was immeasurable.
She told me to go and say goodbye to these people.
“Why can’t we just leave?”
“Don’t be fresh, Wilhelm Flood,” she said sternly through her slurs.
Before I could ignore her direct orders and just head for the front door without uttering a word to any of these people I was interrupted. Some asshole was holding the top of my head, palming it like a basketball and playfully moving it side to side. “Hey Will, what is up with the jack o’lantern? Halloween is over, brother.” I looked up at him and he had some residual power trapped in his coarse nostril hairs that needed a trim. I didn’t trust this man and I think he understood that.
“My name is not Will,” I said, a little snotty.
“Hey!” she yelled, “don’t be fresh.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I thought his name was Will, wasn’t it always Will?
Mein name ist Wilhelm.
Hattie addressed him by name but I refuse to give him the smallest amount of recognition or validation. “Technically, his name is pronounced with a V. W’s are V’s in German. But you’re not really wrong either, it’s more of his preference. Wilhelm is the German equivalent of William. But he doesn’t like to compromise. Stubborn boy.”
“Like Wagner,” I definitely did not say that. “You know the composer.” I didn’t say that either. In all probability at that age and time in my life I would be unaware of the composer’s existence but it would have been pretty slick if I had.
“He carries his pumpkin with him everywhere he goes. He loves it,” she said.
“I can see that,” said the man.
“He probably loves that pumpkin more than he loves me.”
I didn’t humor her with a response. No answer is sometimes an answer in itself. In the end It might have been better to have told the truth.