All of the neighborhood kids were converged in our backyard playing shark attack when we heard a whooping Gladiator cry.
“Yah! Yah! Yah!”
We couldn’t see who was screaming, but we heard the smack of fast feet on the sidewalk. In our imaginary lands, we were always under attack. It was 1978, that time before Atari transfixed kids in basements across the nation, and parents had not yet started fighting back with summer-long wilderness camps. In those pre-video days, every kid we knew spent the summers roaming aimlessly. My brother Peter was nine and I was eleven.
Peter yelled, “Up! UP! UP”
We clamored to the top of the jungle gym expecting Al Capone or several insane garbage men to appear. Instead, a little boy Peter’s size rounded the corner of the house. A shock of white hair sprang up fountain-like on the top of his head. A crossbow was slung across his back. He was skinny, dressed in saggy army fatigues and a tight black T-shirt. His thin white arms looked as flimsy as the mini-blinds Mother was peeking out of behind him. He turned round and round on the lawn with his knife poised as if he were in the jungle doing recon. In his other hand, he had an entire ammunition dump, which he let clatter to the ground once he was in position.
Everything turned on that moment. Or so it seemed later.
“Cool,” Peter said, climbing down. “Where’d you get all those guns?”
“Me dad,” the kid yelled. It sounded like he had a mouthful of gumballs. Later we learned it was a Canadian accent. His name, he said, was Fez Callinan.
“What kind of a name is that?” Peter yelled. He walked over and picked up a .38 special cap revolver.
“Fez for Phineas, some old dead somebody I was named after,” Fez said. “My Uncle Charlie says Phineas is a faggot’s name.”
There were a lot of born-again Christians on the block and four of them—George Fishback, Mikey Mayer, Eric Brewer and the Hayden Allen—were in the yard that day. All of the born-agains attended Grace Community Church and all of their parents were strongly opposed to violence. Every time a fight broke out in a born-again backyard, a parent would emerge and suggest we “take it to the peace table.”
Of course, kids had made weapons out of sticks and broken bats and old rusted pipes. They’d whittled knives out of broken branches. They’d fashioned grenades out of pinecones. But real toy weapons—store-bought weapons—weapons that looked like weapons. That was new and tantalizingly wicked.
It wasn’t long before everyone else climbed down from the jungle gym to examine Fez’s booty. He distributed every piece in his arsenal. I took an M80. A pacifist in theory, I was no extremist. We organized into enemy lines and lit off down the street, Fez in the lead.
That day our nanny, Jacinta, had to scour the neighborhood before she finally found us in Fez’s yard in the midst of a battle for control of the new lime-green swing set. “I’m a look for you everywheres,” she said. “You know what time you go home, Johnny!” She pointed to the sky. It was dark.
I left with her but it took several more shouts to roust Peter out and she was so mad we could barely keep up as she barreled down the street ahead of us.
“Isn’t he the best, Johnny?” Peter said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“See you guys tomorrow,” Fez called after us. “Bright and early. I’ll sound the battle cry.”
“My dinner it all burnt now!” Jacinta fumed as we made our way home. “But you better make like it taste better than birthday cake.”
Our housekeepers, Jacinta and Maria, were hired when mother first started talking in tongues. At first, my father thought the incoherent babbling was a by-product of life on a zealot-infested street. In the end, he would have given anything for that to be the case. Over the past three years, she’d been hospitalized more often than not. Whether by assignment or mutual accord, Jacinta and Maria had divvied up the chores so that Jacinta did all of the cooking and Maria cleaned. About once a month, they received letters and pictures from home. One time, Jacinta set a picture down on the counter while she was cleaning the stove and I stared for a long time at the small girl in an eyelet dress standing in front of her tiny tin-roofed shack. “Where,” she seemed to be asking, “did my mommy go?”
Peter and I slept in a bunk bed in my bedroom. We kept all of our toys in Peter’s bedroom. Downstairs Jacinta cooked. Maria slipped in and out of our rooms as wordless and wary as a cat. Mother remained secluded in her bedroom. Her strange behavior mortified me. Whenever Jacinta went in to check on her, I pictured Jesus venturing into Lazarus’ tomb. Other people’s mothers moved around in the daylight. When I had friends over, I always pretended that her ailments were temporary—flu, I said, a stomach bug, a headache. Not Peter. When his pals came over he’d point to her room and shrug, “My mother sleeps all day.” Later, he was even less circumspect. The first time we brought Fez up to the playroom, Peter yelled, “Wacko alert! Wacko alert!” when we passed her room. Fez burst out laughing.
The day after Fez appeared we made another intriguing discovery about him.
“My mother’s a celebrity,” he said. “Delia Callinan, the new Channel Seven news anchor. She’s so good her boss says it won’t be long before she’s giving Baba Wawa a run for her money.”
We told our father about our auspicious neighbor and he let us watch the news with him, which was a first. She was a beautiful woman with dark eyes, a big bright red mouth and hair almost as light as Fez’s. It fell to her shoulders in a sheet. Her hair, so static and straight, and her robotic recitation of the nightly news, reminded me of the mannequins in the Hudson’s Department Store window display.
“She looks a little stiff,” my father said, “but she’s very professional.” He seemed impressed by the arrival of a television personality on the street. All of his hard work at the bank had paid off: a beautiful house and a swanky neighbor to boot.
After that, we struck up daylong baseball and dodge ball and soccer games on the vacant lot across the street from Fez’s house and rode our bikes past every chance we got, but we never caught a glimpse of her.
By July, Fez had achieved legendary status on the block.
“He’s got tons of comic books, he’s got a huge candy stash in his room, he knows Karate,” Peter gushed. Every morning at seven, he headed out the door to wait for Fez on the front lawn. I wasn’t as geeked. All of Fez’s stories made my stomach churn. He told us about his mother’s divorce, how she had caught his father with another woman. His mother had thrown the other woman into the bedroom wall. There was a hole where her head went through. Or so he claimed.
“Geez!” I said to Peter, when Fez was finished. “Can you imagine if that had happened to Mother? She probably wouldn’t even have noticed the other woman! She probably would have just hopped into bed with them.”
“Can’t you just see it?” Peter laughed. “She’d plop down right on top of them. ‘Oops!’ she’d say, ‘Excuse me!’ and then she’d just wander back out into the hall.”
According to Fez, his mother’s relatives were all “white trash.” She was the only one who had gone to college or achieved anything noteworthy.
“My cousin Shelly went to the hospital to pick her mum—that’s my Aunt Krissie—up with this new baby Myra. This nurse, this enormous Amazon with bright red hair, had to wheel Aunt Krissie out to the car. Just as she was aboot to get up from the wheelchair, the fat bitch grabs Aunt Krissie’s hair and yanks her head back.”
“She’s yanking and yanking and she says, ‘Shame on you. You knew you weren’t flying solo.’ Shelly said Aunt Krissie was just howling in pain. Uncle Rob had to pull that fat twat off her.”
It didn’t take much to worry me in those days and it wasn’t long before Fez began to frighten me. After he brought the Penthouse up to the fort and tied a sparkler to our cat Whiskers’ tail, I started to lose sleep. One day, on a whim, I asked Mother for advice. She was reading on the couch and something about the concentration with which she studied the book and the way she licked her finger to turn the pages reminded me of the old days when she could be counted on to make the transition from one sentence to the next. I sat down on the couch across from her and waited for her to look up. When she did, I said, “I’m beginning to think Fez is a total creep. He uses bad words. He lies. I think he stole $20 from my drawer.”
“Hmm?” She blinked several times; her eyes were as wide and black as Susie Fishback’s Baby Tender Love doll. “What was his name? Finnegan? Faustus? Is that the new boy?”
“He’s been here for three months,” I said.
“Forget it,” I said, standing up. On my way out the door, I passed Jacinta, who, it turned out, had heard me.
The following morning she caught Fez as he was coming through the side door. “I know what you do to Johnny,” she said.
I was at the top of the stairs listening. Peeking through the banisters, I could just make out the top half of the front door. Fez tried to slide in past her. She grabbed his shirt and pulled him toward her.
“What I do to Johnny?” He grinned and cocked his head.
“No bad magazines. No bad words. If you steal, you no come.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, saluting.
It was the first time it occurred to me that if Mother wasn’t available there might be other options.
After a long afternoon on the jungle gym, we would hear Jacinta call us in for dinner. Peter leapt down and raced for the door. But every day I grew heavier and heavier, as if my shoes were filled with sand. If Mother made it to the dinner table those nights, I ignored her. I sat in my chair like a stone, not touching Maria’s fried bananas and fish. If my father put the newspaper down and asked us about our day, I didn’t answer. One day we heard someone whooping in the backyard and when Mother asked who it was, I told her it was Faustus.
“Really?” she said. She got up, went out to the backyard and reappeared a minute later with Fez in hand.
No one spoke much at the dinner table at my house. My father read the paper. Mother stared into space. Peter and I made faces at each other.
Fez didn’t know the rules.
“Chow time!” He shouted, tucking his napkin into the collar of his T-shirt. “You guys have no idea how hungry I am.”
Mother turned to him and in the automated voice that was a by-product of the medication, said, “When was the last time you ate?”
“This morning I had a Poptart. I don’t always go back for lunch, ya know, with Maureen being the big bitch she is . . . excuse me, Ma’am, . . . being kind of mean, I don’t like her.”
Mother chewed on her lower lip and stared at him for a long time.
“I knew a boy like you once,” she said. “His name was Pip. He also had great expectations.”
Peter and I looked at each other. Fez stared at Mother, his lips quivered as if he was battling a laugh.
“Oh?” he said, finally. “That’s too bad.”
“Yes,” she said. “It is.”
After that, we ate in silence for several minutes until Fez said, “I noticed you sleep a lot. Are you sick?”
Mother put down her fork. “I’m glad you asked,” she said.
My father looked up from the paper. “What’s this?” he said.
“This little boy has just asked me what’s wrong,” Mother said.
She reached out and patted Fez softly on the head. “I love this white hair.” When he flinched, she stood up abruptly and placed her right hand on her chest as if she was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It’s funny that you think I’m sleeping. Sleeping is funny or is funny is sleeping? Funny to sleep when you’re feeling funny. Feeling funny? Feeling sleepy? I’m not sleeping. Sometimes when you think I am sleeping, I am . . . ” She stopped and looked over at my father who was giving her the weary look one might give a child who has peed in his bed again.
“I don’t know that it’s any of your business, young man,” my father turned his defeated gaze on Fez. “It’s not polite to ask people about their ailments.”
“I’m not sleeping,” Mother said again. “I am..”
She was staring straight ahead now. Her eyes had glazed over. Peter shot me a look. He got up from the table and went over to the sink. Jacinta took his plate.
“I’m not sleeping,” Mother rotated toward me. “I am . . . ”
“That’s enough, Rosemary,” my father said. “Maybe you should go upstairs.”
Looking like a member of the marching band executing an elaborate roundabout, mother turned on her heel. Fez stared at her, wide-eyed, the sides of his mouth twitching.
“I’m not sleeping. I’m not sleeping,” she repeated as she marched in place.
“Rosemary!” my father hissed. “Go up and rest.”
We all watched her march out of the room.
I got up and handed my plate to Jacinta. Normally she would have chastised me for not eating but she took it and dumped it in the sink without glancing up. Fez followed me. Peter was already waiting for us.
“Man!” Fez started laughing the minute the side door closed behind us. “I thought my mom was fucked up, but you two . . . you guys!! Man!”
After Fez tied the sparkler to Whiskers’ tail, the other mothers began to clue in to his antics. Parental conferences took place via phone and later on the stoop in front of Mrs. Brewer’s house. I heard about it from Peter who kept up on the neighborhood gossip. Mrs. Brewer’s husband Ed owned the Village Market and all of his kids went to The New School. She did not want Fez bringing his weapons into her yard. Interestingly, Mrs. Allen thought it was all right as long as we kept them outside. I was surprised because she had never allowed Atari or even Gilligan’s Island. I began to wonder at these arbitrary parental restrictions.
A couple of times when I went to the grocery store with Jacinta, we ran into Fez who was wandering up and down the aisles by himself. Whenever we saw him, he waved to us as if it were totally normal for a nine-year-old to be cruising through town by himself. The sight of him terrified me. I knew what he was capable of. He might steal something while I was looking. If he did, would I snitch? If I didn’t, how would I live with that? My other fear was that he would pilfer something and stuff it down my shirt. I would get caught. The police would drag me away because Jacinta wouldn’t be able to convince them I was framed.
“Who takes care of that kid?” Mrs. Fishback was leading George and me through the line at Friendly’s Ice Cream Parlor. Fez was sitting in a booth by himself eating a strawberry ice cream cone. George and I shrugged. Fez was the only person who regularly emerged from his house. We all decided that his mother must be teleporting to work. She was so furtive that no one could say for sure what kind of car she drove. Luke and Tommy said it was a black LTD. Peter thought he’d seen a navy blue Pinto parked in the driveway, but the general consensus was “she couldn’t drive that crapper.”
One day Mrs. Brewer knocked on Fez’s door. The woman who answered was disheveled and swollen. Her clay-colored hair hung down like strips of papier-mâché. She had no shoes on and her ankles were as round as telephone poles. She looked like she had just climbed out of bed.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” Mrs. Brewer said. Even we kids could tell she was trying not to look shocked. It was 11am. “I’m Luke’s mom.” She gestured behind her where a whole troop of us were stationed at the end of the lawn. Peter waved.
“Fez keeps asking Eric over, but I have a policy. I like to meet the parents or caretakers or whomever is in charge before he goes over to someone’s house.”
The woman continued to stare at her wordlessly. Mrs. Brewer fumbled a little in the silence, before adding, “I mean I also wanted to welcome Fez’s family to the neighborhood.”
“I’m Maureen,” the woman said. She gave out a tight little grin. Her teeth were brown and crooked. Around her neck, she wore a gold-toned necklace with the letters “MO” worked out in rhinestones. Her white T-shirt had what looked like spaghetti stains down the front. “Mrs. Callinan ain’t home.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Brewer said.
Maureen peered out at us.
“Well, clearly I’ll have to come back!” Mrs. Brewer laughed.
“We’ll all head back to our house.” She motioned to us.
“OK,” Maureen said. She shut the door.
Fez came running down the street, into the backyard. He stopped, dropped his bow, looked at us for a minute as if he had no idea how he’d ended up in front of us, and then threw up all over the lawn.
“Gross!” Peter yelled, banging on his ears like he did every time we watched a horror movie.
I followed Fez into the house. He walked past Jacinta and into the bathroom, rubbing his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. Mother looked up from her book and studied the bathroom door.
“Go outside, John.” She got up from the couch.
“I’m waiting for Fez.”
“I said, Go OUTSIDE!”
“Geez, whatever,” I muttered.
They didn’t come out again. Mother locked the side door so none of us could get in. I would have been worried about him, but I knew that both Jacinta and Maria were home and could save him if things went awry.
We headed up to Eric’s house. When I came back a couple of hours later, the side door was open and Mother was back on the couch reading her book.
“What was that all about?” I said.
“Inclement weather.” She didn’t look up.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The return flight is always bumpy.”
I’d been standing there looking bewildered for well over a minute before she finally glanced up again.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” she said, waving her hand dismissively.
“He’s MY friend!” When I shouted, she didn’t even flinch.
“What’s wrong with Fez?” I asked Jacinta later that night.
“Maureen got sick right in front of him.” She continued slicing cucumbers and tomatoes, periodically wiping her large, knuckled hands on her white apron. “But she’s going to be OK, Praise Jesus.”
“The problems is in her head. But the doctors will put her back together.”
“Is she coming back?”
“No, no, of course not!” Jacinta looked horrified at the thought.
After the new nanny, a tiny Asian woman named Shell, arrived, Fez’s behavior got worse. He got caught stealing candy from the toy store. He pulled a girl’s pants down on the playground. He told Peter to “Fuck off!” at recess. Peter told the principal.
“Do you think he hates me?” Peter said. He thought Fez was kicked out of school because that’s what happens when you say bad words, but the truth, we later found out, was that he’d thrown his pencil case at his teacher. She was writing on the blackboard so she’d never seen it coming. She’d turned around just in time to catch it between the eyes.
Fez was sent to a military academy in Indiana. Aunt Krissie showed up to drive him just as Jacinta was passing by the house on her way to the Village Market. Jacinta knew we’d be interested in Fez’s destination so she stopped to chat with Aunt Krissie. She met Delia Callinan as well, and reported that she looked like a Jezebel with all that paint on her face. Jacinta said that Fez waved to her when he got into the car. According to Jacinta, he seemed happy.
“Wherever he goes,” she said, “it goes better there.”
One time about a year ago, I went out to Alaska to visit Peter. He lives in a cabin. Well, it’s more like a shack. It can’t be bigger than an 8 x10 bedroom. He has no heat, no running water. He goes to the bathroom in an outhouse, which is a miserable experience in Alaska—in fact, it’s nearly impossible. In the cabin, there’s a cot and a chair. He hangs his clothes on three hooks next to the tiny window. When he hangs up his coat, it covers the window like a curtain. He trains sled dogs and normally has between sixteen and twenty on his property. When I was there, seven of them slept with us in the cabin. The stench was unbearable. When the kerosene stove heated the room to fifty, Peter said, “I’m so hot, I can’t breathe!” and started to strip down.
I knew that when he wasn’t training dogs, he sat in the Applewood drinking whiskey all day. I had gone there to try to talk some sense into him. How long could he survive alone in a cabin in the woods? At some point during the night, the conversation turned to Fez.
“I don’t think he had a happy childhood,” I said, after I was more than a little drunk.
Peter raised his glass, finished his drink and put it back down gently on the table.
“Never state the obvious,” he said.
Right after Fez left for the military academy, Peter barfed in Mrs. Fishback’s car on the way to the zoo. Flustered, Mrs. Fishback dropped him off at home without calling first. Jacinta was at the grocery store and Maria had gone home for three weeks to visit her family. He found Mother on the floor in her bedroom. She had taken a whole bottle of her pills. Her pale blue nightgown was wedged up around her hips and she was surrounded by postcards. They were scattered all over the floor. Somehow, he was able to drag her back to the bed before calling 911.
The ambulance came and carted her off for her third hospital stay in as many months. I found the postcards still scattered on the bathroom floor later that afternoon. There were at least twenty of them. A picture of the Caribbean, one of Jesus on a mountain, a beautiful Eucalyptus tree. They all said some variation of the same thing:
“Hello from Buenos Aires!”
“Happy birthday from Rome!”
“Happy New Year from Sao Paolo where it’s nice and sunny!”
The following summer, Fez came back. We were playing baseball across the street from his house when Aunt Krissie dropped him off. Instead of heading inside the house, he opened up his trunk and grabbed his artillery. As we watched him run toward us shouting gladiator-style, it was clear that military school hadn’t transformed him.
Jacinta sat us down the next day and said, “Don’t you mess around with that boy. I know your mother thinks he’s OK, but I can see right through him.”
She was preaching to the choir as far as I was concerned, but Peter didn’t hear a word she said. Fez came over almost every day. I usually spent the afternoons holed up in my room in order to avoid him. One afternoon as I was reading on my bed, enjoying the peace and quiet and the warmth of the sunlight coming in from the window above me, there was a knock on the door.
“Your brother here?” Fez walked in without asking and came to a stop next to the bed where he leaned down to peer at the cover of my book, “Tom Sawyer . . . isn’t that a baby book?”
“I think Jacinta took him to the dentist,” I put the book down and scooched up so I was sitting up against the headboard.
He’d grown over the past year. He was closing in on me height-wise and he already had sinewy muscles in his arms, which I knew portended no good. I watched him thumb through the other books on my bookshelf and amble around peering at my desk and my bedside table. In those days, I was afraid that whatever had claimed Mother would take hold of me and I kept a Bible on my bedside table for protection against, what I thought of then, as her demons.
Fez eyed it. Then, he picked it up. The postcards poured out.
I leapt up, yanking the Bible out of his hands. When I did that, he bent down and scooped the postcards up before I could get to them.
“Give me those!” I yelled. He had turned away from me and was facing the bookcase, flipping through them. When he turned back around, he was smiling.
“Those are Mother’s.”
“And who sent them to her, eh? A lover? Another crazy daisy? Someone she met in the Institution?”
He held them out to me and I grabbed them.
“Who sent them, Johnny? Don’t you know?”
I stared at him.
“You know what would be great? It would be great not to see that sad sack, boring, end-of-the-world face every fucking day. Is that all you can do? Make that stupid face? Why don’t you stop moping around like a dipshit and get a life?”
“You’re a jerk,” I whispered.
The next day when Peter went into town with Fez, as usual, I stayed behind. Officer Rich Hess called my father at work and my father went to pick Peter up in jail where he and Fez had spent the afternoon sitting on stools in the police department’s tiny kitchenette. They’d lifted Poptarts and sparklers from Safeway. Because we lived in such a small town, the jail only boasted one cell. Peter was disappointed that a “real criminal” was already occupying it.
My father grounded Peter for a month, but as things turned out the punishment ended a week later; forgotten because of what happened to Mother.
I was in my room reading the following afternoon. Fez’s taunting was eating at me. I was a coward. I spent my whole life tiptoeing around trying not to get in anyone’s way, trying not to upset Mother, trying not to bother my father, trying to pretend that everything was normal. I was a dolt and I was sick of it. There was no reason I couldn’t simply ask her about the postcards. At least that would spark a conversation. At least then, I could ask her outright what was wrong with her and how long she thought we would all have to put up with it. Peter would have thought I was crazy attempting a conversation but he was too young to remember the days before everything fell apart—the afternoons spent playing chess and eating cookie dough straight out of the bowl, the trips to the zoo and the science museum.
I found her in the den watching Shirley Temple.
“I hope you’re feeling better,” I said. She had been back from the hospital for two weeks at that point. I’d heard my father tell Jacinta and Maria that he was hopeful the doctors had finally gotten the dosage right.
“I love this one.” She pointed to the TV I stared at her sunken face. Despite the new medication, she was still chewing on her lips. They were swollen and bruised.
“How are you feeling?” I said.
Shirley had her mesmerized. I took a seat on the couch opposite her and placed the postcards in my lap. “I’ve already finished my summer workbook. I’m thinking about asking Jacinta whether we can bake some chocolate chip cookies.”
“You’ll never be done,” she said.
At first I wasn’t sure she was talking to me; she was still staring at the television. Shirley started singing, “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”
“There will always be more.”
Normally that comment would have sent me packing, but that afternoon I was determined. We watched TV for a couple of minutes before I was able to push out the words.
“I was wondering about these postcards.”
Her head turned slowly, as if a tiny man inside was cranking it. “What?” she said.
I held the stack out to her. She was looking toward me but not quite at me.
“An old friend,” she said, turning back to Shirley.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Give me those.” She held out her hand. I handed them to her.
“Please leave me alone,” she said.
“You wrote them, didn’t you?”
She didn’t answer. She wouldn’t look at me.
“Why?” I said. Suddenly out of nowhere, I became so angry I started shaking. I wanted to leap on her and beat her to a pulp.
Shirley kept singing,
When I get hold of the big bad wolf
I just push him under to drown
Then I bite him in a million bits
And I gobble him right down
Jacinta came in carrying a laundry basket.
“I’d really like to know,” I hissed. “I’d really like to know what kind of person sends herself postcards.”
My tone caught her attention and she finally looked over at me. When she opened her mouth, nothing came out.
“I’d really like to know how long you’re going to be like this!” My throat was raw. The words were coming out but it was as hard as pushing jawbreakers through a straw. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I shouted.
“Johnny!” Jacinta shouted, dropping the laundry basket. “Johnny, you need to stop bothering your mother.”
“What is wrong?” I continued, pointing at Mother. “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?”
Mother started to cry. She grabbed one of the throw pillows and buried her face in it.
Jacinta took my arm and dragged me out of the room.
When we were standing in the hallway, she struck me on the side of the head with the flat of her hand. “What the matter with you? Your mother sick. You think she like it like this? You think she want this? What were you thinking?”
I turned and walked back to my room. I felt bad for making her cry, but I also felt like I’d been carrying a carcass around and finally I’d had the guts to set it down.
A week later, I slept right through the sirens.
When I refused to leave my room, my father forced me into counseling. Dr. Andrews, a kind, grandmotherly woman, thought she could guide me back to shore. I never let on that I couldn’t even see land. Twenty years later, I’m still adrift. I look to the outside world like a replica of my banker father. I myself am a successful banker. I know how to play the game. I keep on rowing my boat despite the anchor. I’m the only one who knows I never make any progress at all.
That fall after Mother died, Fez’s mother landed a spot on a national morning news program out of New York. It was a huge job, and we often tuned in before school while we sat in the kitchen with Jacinta and Maria eating our Cap’n Crunch. She held that job for ten years before they nixed her. I remember thinking that it would be wonderful to have a mother who was famous, one you could show off to your friends, one who was alive and well.
These days my brother and I talk once or twice a year. When I visited him last year in Alaska, we talked about Fez.
“Fez’s mother was hot, but she might as well have been living on another planet,” Peter was sloppy drunk. He leaned back against the wall in his tiny cabin, eyes closed, his breath mushrooming up like plumes from a volcano. On the floor, one of his many dogs whined in its sleep.
“That probably didn’t make up for the hot part,” I said.
“She wasn’t around at all.”
“No, she wasn’t.” Peter said.
“I wonder what ever happened to him.”
“I heard he went to Africa,” Peter said, exhaling smoke.
“Then I heard he was in jail.”
“That sounds more like it,” I held out my hand and he passed me the cigarettes.
“Then I heard he’d invested in all these gas wells and he lives on his own private island in the Caribbean.”
“Who’d you hear that from?” I lit my cigarette. It was almost too cold to hold it.
“George Fishback. He and some buddies were out here hunting last year.”
“Hmm. I wonder which story is true. I’m betting jail. Remember Whiskers and the sparklers?”
Peter chuckled and tamped out his cigarette into his cup, before handing it to me. Then he got up from the bed and threw the blanket around his shoulders. “I’ve got to pee,” he said.
“Wherever Fez is, I’m sure he’s fine,” I said.
“Yes,” Peter said, opening the door. A snow gust blew into the room covering the floor and the bed. He ducked his head into the blanket. A couple of the dogs started barking and ran out into the night ahead of him.
Before he closed the door, he looked back at me and grinned. “That was the difference. Fez was well-armed.”