--Loudon, NH 1982--
The richest members of our Pentecostal church owned a racetrack, and as a favor to my father they hired my brother and me to help sell programs. I was 13, and Brian was a year older, and as we schlepped the glossy magazines back and forth in front of bleachers teeming with be-leathered motorcycle enthusiasts, rednecks, and drunken ZZ Top look-alikes, I realized I had never been so scared in all my life.
It was the infamous ‘Motorcycle Weekend’, and as the sun pounded us and the Ducati motorcycles whined around the track, my brother and I each lifted a magazine meekly above our heads and mouthed the word “program” for any lip readers who might have been in attendance. The stink of gas and oil created its own weather system, the air smelling both noxious and sweet.
To get our attention, a biker would jam a tattooed arm into the sky, and then either my brother or I climbed the aluminum planks to receive our newfound customers. Surprisingly, the gentlemen always said “Thank you” and “Please”, and never tried to shortchange us, patiently waiting as we counted out the bills from our aprons, tens and twenties sticking out all over the place and sometimes falling to the ground.
“Um, son, you seem to be losing a bit of your money there,” one man said who sported a Fu Manchu mustache and t-shirt that pictured a bride and groom with the words “Game Over” scrawled beneath. “No, no, you’re giving me back too much change, boy,” said another, his black vest festooned in buttons showcasing assault rifles nestled between an assortment of naked breasts. Looking back, I think they were so honest with my brother and me because we were painfully young and too easy a target. I mean, where’s the honor in rolling a couple of skinny and nervous-looking white boys who reeked of innocence and decent bedtimes?
When we sold our lot, we made our way back to a little trailer near the park entrance, past the copious beer booths and a line of port-a-potties that were more like cholera outbreaks in training, and dumped our cash in big piles on the trailer floor. My brother and I would then grab a new stack of magazines and enough cash to make change, and repeat the process all over again.
During our third trip back to the trailer my brother showed me a $20 bill he had stashed in his pocket. “Who cares,” he said. “It’s not like anybody’s counting.” And it was at that precise moment we decided to change everything.
* * *
My mother and father had been divorced for about a year by this point, and my father had moved in with his own mom back upstate. Things were, well, tense doesn’t really describe the situation accurately. We didn’t have hot water, or even oil heat; to save money, my mom had to buy two cords of unseasoned wood. In fact, when the guy dumped it in our driveway, the wood was crusted in a pile of snow. Brian and I were relegated to ‘digging duty’ as we pawed through the frosty heap and collected the best-looking specimens to stand next to the woodstove to dry. I can still hear the sound of all that wood sizzling as the ice melted into large puddles on the floor and my younger siblings Josh and Liz asked for another blanket while eating cinnamon toast on the couch.
On a few occasions, my mom brought home a large, clear plastic bag filled with uncooked Kentucky Fried Chicken. We swooned, our plates that night overflowing with mounds of crunchy chicken fresh from our oven. We had no idea that my mom knew someone at KFC who snuck a bagful of chicken out of the restaurant to stash behind a dumpster for her to pick up after work.
In regards to our father, we rarely saw him, so I imagined that he was terribly unhappy without us, and was sorry for going away. I had one daydream where he stood in my bedroom doorway, keys in his hand, asking if I wanted to go with him to Hampton Beach to play video games and get some fried dough. I always said yes and he always promised to never to leave again.
* * *
By the following summer, my dad announced all four of us kids would spend a week with him at our grandmother’s. He sweetened the deal by saying he got Brian and me a job at the track during Motorcycle Weekend. At last, I thought. I finally get to do something dangerous.
The day he came to pick us up, my dad drove Grampa’s old Cadillac. Long, red, and shark-like, the car had air conditioning powerful enough to run a city morgue. As we drove away, my mom waved from the picture window, cigarette in her hand.
“Is this Grampa’s car,” I asked excitedly. Grampa had died of a heart attack two years previous, and the Cadillac had been just sitting in his garage. Comparatively, my mom was forced to cart us kids around in a green Volare station wagon that smelled like yogurt and gasoline.
My grandmother lived in a big house with an even bigger back yard. The open space was liberating. After unpacking, my brother and I hauled the croquet set out of the garage and smacked the brightly colored balls throughout the yard, aiming for each other’s ankles.
Then we explored the creepy garage. One wall was lined with old New Hampshire license plates; seeing the words “Live Free or Die” up and down in little aluminum rows made me feel terrified, and I wondered if Grampa’s ghost was hidden behind all the dust and broken umbrellas stacked in the rear. Brian then accidentally broke a window by swinging a golf club around like a Musketeer, and we made a hasty retreat.
That night, after everyone went to bed, Brian and I snuck into the living room to watch HBO—our T.V. back home got six channels. We anxiously huddled before the TV’s blue glow.
“What’s this,” Brian asked, and the words on the screen said The Exorcist.
Two hours later, Brian and I lay sweating in the dark, staring up at what we hoped was the ceiling.
“Hey, do you think all that stuff in the movie really happened?” I asked Brian. It was almost three in the morning.
“Sure it happened. Probably happens all the time.”
“That movie was based on real people,” he said. “Real events.”
We were then quiet for a bit.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Try to hold your breath,” Brian suggested. “They won’t know you’re here if they can’t hear you breathe.”
* * *
The next morning was our first day at the track, and after Brian’s duplicit revelation, we had pocketed over $80 each by midafternoon. We felt absolutely alive and in charge. That night, we treated everyone to dinner at the Tamarack Drive-in, and loaded up on clam boats, hot dogs, and French fries. After dinner, we hit Funspot and played some video games, the change machine emptying like a loose Vegas slot as Brian and I slid in one five dollar bill after another. We were better than rich, I thought. We were famous.
On the second day, Brian and I took more money, high on the simplicity of it all. We finally found our voices, shouting out the word Programs! with such poise that the bikers in the stands grew irritated with our bravado, and changed their demeanor. Nobody likes a confident kid hawking over-priced magazines to hungover bikers in the middle of the heat.
* * *
After the week finally passed and our father dropped us off back home, Brian and I offered a quick hello to our mother and then went to our room to discuss how we’d spend our loot: we scored a haul of almost $300. Each. I almost thanked God for our good fortune, but then, you know, realized I’d probably burn in hell if I did.
Right then, my mom walked in our room and asked if we had fun and if we did anything ‘out of the ordinary’ while visiting with our dad. Damn it, I thought. We’re busted.
“No,” I offered. “You know, just hung out and stuff. Watched TV.”
“Really? Didn’t do anything…different?” Her voice cracked, and I then felt less scared and just more confused.
“You mean to tell me that you two big spenders didn’t think it’s ‘fun’ or ‘different’ to take everyone out to eat the other night?”
I was completely baffled until I remembered the Tamarack Drive-In and how Brian and I sprang for the meal.
“Your father said he had a great time out at dinner! Did you have a good time? Huh?”
“I, I guess so, mom,” said Brian.
“What about me!” my mother suddenly yelled, and Brian and I flinched. “You’ve never taken me out anywhere! All these things I do, how hard I work. What about something like this for me and not some man that doesn’t even love you enough to call you on your birthday!”
“Wait mom, we were gonna do this for you too,” I lied.
“Oh, you’re so full of it!” she yelled.
“Well, sorry we didn’t know that love was something we had to buy from you!” Brian countered.
My mother’s eyes narrowed. “It has nothing to do with that. Nothing! How dare you!”
The three of us then just stood there, unsure of the next move.
“Well, I hope you enjoy all your money and I’m so glad you were able to spend such quality time with your…your…father!” My mom said ‘father’ the way I imagine one might say Jim Jones. She then quickly left and went in to her bedroom, slamming the door behind.
Brian and I were thunderstruck. I mean, where was it written that spending money on our dad meant we didn’t love her? Didn’t she know that we loved her most of all?
What I discovered later is clearly she didn’t. As a family operating on survival mode, love was shown in what you did, not said. And my mother showed us love by getting up at two a.m. to keep the woodstove going, and in heating our bath water the following morning. Love was making us a hot meal every night of the week, and in loading our plates with a tower of fried chicken that was stolen from the back of a fast food restaurant.
* * *
Any plans my brother and I had of buying up the world with our stolen windfall faded very quickly: we were ruined by greed. When Brian and I returned from a downtown shopping spree the next day with a new boom box, over a dozen albums, Ocean Pacific t-shirts, several bags of candy, and the promise to go back the following day to get what we couldn’t fit into our arms the first time around, my mom knew.
We didn’t even put up a fight when she asked how we managed to buy as much as we did. The math didn’t make sense, she said. But the weird thing was, my mom wasn’t as angry as I had expected her to be. It’s like she understood how we could be so easily seduced by all those piles of cash and wished she could just look the other way, but knew that would be unforgivable.
We mailed the remainder of the money back to the owners of the track along with a letter confessing our sin and asking for mercy. They responded by sending us a very chipper note saying it was “no biggie”. We were floored. How, in the midst of such blatant disregard for trust and respect, could they respond by acting so goddamned…Christian?
Summers passed, and both my parents remarried. My mom found a great man who loves her and treats her with the type of respect she never enjoyed while growing up. In fact, he helped us plan a surprise party for her fiftieth birthday at her favorite restaurant. All of her children, adults by this point, sat patiently in a booth until my step-father brought her in and we showered her in choruses of ‘Surprise!” and “Happy Birthday!” We all stood up. Colorful presents overflowed from the table. My mother didn’t even have her jacket off. She just froze, put her hand to her mouth, and started to cry.
And that’s when we encircled her, buffeted her; made our love real enough to touch.
Christopher Locke's essays have appeared or are forthcoming in such magazines as The Sun; Parents; Nowhere; Maine Home+Design; Exquisite Corpse; Adbusters; The American Spectator; Ducts; Stickman Review, and as a prize-winner in Georgetown Review. Chris has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New Hampshire Council on the Arts, and Fundacion Valparaiso (Spain). His first full-length collection of poems, End of American Magic, is currently available from Salmon Poetry. His second full-length, Waiting for Grace and Other Poems (Turning Point), was recently released. The memoir Can I Say (Kattywompus Press) is forthcoming at the end of 2013.