Part One

You wouldn’t be surprised to know that we spent holidays, particularly Christmas, at my aunt and uncle’s house, would you?  After all, they lived in the right part of town; they had the split level house with the finished basement with a pool table that converted to a ping-pong table, and the two car garage with an automatic “Genie” roll-up door.  Everything, from the food to the decor, was always just so. My aunt did it all, from flocking the tree to putting up the lights at the top of the gable over the garage, planning the menu, cooking it, wrapping presents, all, all, all of this when she wasn’t mulching the winter roses, knitting an afghan with silk yarn, adding rick-rack to a new apron she’d just made on her Singer in her perfectly organized craft room–the third bedroom–and the one room that was my favorite of all the others.

Did I mention that her hair never moved?  I don’t believe I ever saw her with anything but every hair in place, whether bouffant or hidden under a scarf a la Jackie Kennedy, no wisp escaped — it would have meant defeat, had they misbehaved — and she thin as one of her crochet needles in her holiday sheath, red wool one year or blue the next — always coordinated with the holiday decor, so well, in fact, that if she stood still for a moment, you’d wonder where she’d went, someone would say, “where’s Marilyn?” and her voice (if I can recall it) would pipe up from this corner or that, living room, dining room, kitchen, the back porch with a bag of garbage in her hand, the detritus of being the perfect hostess her burden.

Of course I thought she was the paragon of all that was right with the world, at least as far as design and entertaining went and only for the time we spent with her–when she wasn’t in front of me, she didn’t exist.  It wasn’t that my mother and I were in a position to emulate the opulence (as mean as it was) of her Danish Modern home with its mid-century walnut breakfront and the low slung dark blue couch with its nubby upholstery that seemed a mile long up against the sparkling picture window in the living room, no, but these holiday visits always spurred some home improvement project at our own home whether interior in the winter or exterior in the summer–not that it would have mattered to her, because try as I might, I cannot ever remember her visiting our house and we only lived on the other side of town — perhaps no more than five miles away, our house was even on a paved road, but she just wouldn’t have ever found herself on our street or in our house with its braided rugs on a linoleum floors–the neighbors across the street with their car hoods open, some kind of repair always going on.  This, of course, is possibly not true, but the fact remains that I can clearly recall being in her home, but cannot recall her being in our home, ever.

[A side note:  after one Christmas at their house, I remember preparing cheddar cheese cubes on toothpicks and sliced black olives on Ritz crackers or vice versa, and surprising my mother with a cocktail—whiskey, straight with a water side—and hors d’oeuvres—it’s true, that’s what I called them—when she got home from work one night—I was probably 10 or 11—and she saying “where did you learn to do this?” Which was a refrain I often heard her say, as I was always trying to prettify our lives—a voracious reader of Redbook and Family Circle and as you may have surmised, slavishly devoted to the ideal perfection of my aunt’s house-keeping, as remote as it might have been from our reality.]

 

Uncle Ralph, center, and grandfather, Ralph, Sr., at uncle’s house, Christmas 1964

On the other hand, her husband, my uncle, my mother’s half-brother (10 years her junior almost to the day) came by to visit us on a fairly regular schedule–usually after working on Saturday morning at his plumbing shop — he the owner and not a plumber — would drive up the hill to the north side of town, dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, pulling into the driveway with a crunch of gravel or up to the curb in front of the house, and with his peculiar speech pattern—most sentences would start with “uh yup” and were accompanied by a little duck of his head and a chuckle, and he and my mother would sit at the dining table or out on the patio in back of the house, weather permitting, and talk about their parents, their work, their lives and the kids—me and my cousin, Rodney, two days older than I and an only child as well—I’d reckon they would sort out whatever adults sorted out then–working out the little miscommunications, misinterpreted signals–the sign language of families–as well as the news of the day, he with a beer in a glass, served with the salt shaker which he’d sprinkle over the foam or in later years, a glass of milk to quell the turmoil of an ulcer before he headed out to the Elks Club golf course for a round of golf and many more cocktails.

One Christmas, around this same time, I went up to their bathroom, with its plush carpeting, swags on the curtains, bows holding the shower curtain in a swoop, and when you shut the door, the muffled sound of the goings-on downstairs. It was a split level house, so it was just six or seven stairs up to the bed & bath–& beyond and it would seem a world away; a scented candle burning in a holiday dish or decorative jar and pine cones on the long tiled vanity—one year the counter was chocolate brown, another it was a dark green, money can do that for you–change things you know, little things that you wouldn’t have thought of if you didn’t have the money to make those changes. It’s most likely that I used going to the bathroom as an excuse to get away from my cousin because he didn’t like me and I knew that he was on his best behavior.  “Be nice to your cousin Robert, it’s only for a few hours,” she’d say, and he, “but mo-o-o-m, do I have to?”  And like other only children I know he’d be patted on the head or back or shoulder or have his arm squeezed, hair messed with—all of that imparts the essence of privilege and condescension, passed down like baldness or bad teeth or alcoholism, not unlike Balzac’s “La Cousine Bette”, but without the triumphant revenge I hoped for.

We’d play pool or snooker, games that I was miserable at it due to lack of practice and opportunity, or ping pong — which was worse, because any game with a moving object that arced through the air flummoxed me–I could never tell how close or far the ball was from me, swinging too early or too late at that little white ball — which, by the way, stings when it hits you if it’s been hit hard enough by your opponent, another reason not to like the game—or my cousin.  I’d lose interest somewhere in the middle of a game and wander away, back upstairs to sit on the floor by my grandmother, she’d stroke my neck and absentmindedly pat me on the head while the murmur of the talk of adults continued, a cigarette smoke cloud floating above, shadowing the ceiling with its whorls of plaster, which my aunt had done herself with a whisk broom, the perfect evocation of her character.

But there I am in the bathroom sitting on the closed toilet with its Christmas cover made of many layers of green, white and red felt, holly and berries made of sequins, and snow from angel’s hair—like spun glass insulation–the stuff you can only handle with gloves on or you’ll cut yourself, and I reach into the magazine rack that’s positioned right in front of me and pull out True Detective or Argosy, or some such title, maybe it was Men’s Adventure, the title not the important part — because there on the cover, chest heaving and bare—I learned that I preferred the hairy ones within minutes of discovering this trove of manliness—and I started paging through it, delighted with my discovery, maybe even experiencing a little tingling in the crotch, but because I’m not in puberty yet, maybe not so much, but the drawings and the stories captivated me; I’d scan the articles for the descriptions of the men and words like “swarthy”, “sweat glistening on his hairy chest”, “muscles straining”, “tumescence”, a word which I had to look up when I got home that evening in my big blue American Heritage dictionary, and when I did learn what it meant–swollen–had to ponder how that figured into the story, and did not understand what it could have meant and was too confused about my feelings regarding men–such complicated feelings too, half-filled with lust, the other half wanting the comfort of a man’s arm around my shoulder, father to son, both feelings filled with love–to have asked anyone, including and especially my mother.

And for a few minutes I’d lose myself in the heroic (am I the only one who sees how closely related the word heroic is to erotic?) deeds of manly men and the women who loved them, or if not love, lusted after them, needed them, relied upon them, called after them, “Shane, Shane, come back to me, Shane,” or some such exotic name or perhaps they were known only by their last names, Raleigh, Windsor, Jones.   And afterward, after saving the damsel-in-distress, these men would not settle down with the woman, but ride off into a sunset, or back to war, always turning from the love of a good woman. In fact, what it seemed to me was that they preferred the company of men.   And that is it, isn’t it?  They did prefer the company of other men; women were accessories, perhaps even a necessity, but the true romance, the heart of the story was the camaraderie of men in the heat of battle, in the jungle wilds, on the prairie, in the mountains, conquering, defeating, standing tall and erect over their vanquished enemies, alone or with a male partner, companion, lover…

Finally I’d hear my name float up the stairs — breaking through the sound of blood buzzing in my ears — and I’d carefully place the magazine exactly where it had been in the magazine rack, flush the toilet I hadn’t used, wash my hands and step out into the hallway, making an entrance down the stairs that looked as if I was coming from the craft room, such subterfuge a cover for what I took to be behavior outside the norm.  Who read those magazines? Was it my uncle?  Surely not my aunt–but possibly my cousin?  I know I felt like I had gotten away with something bad, and it wasn’t that I felt an attraction to men that I thought was bad, although I had put up with my share of “sissy” and “queer”, that bothered me a lot less than you might imagine, but that I had learned what it meant to be a man.

A few years later at my first visit to the notorious leather bar “The Gold Coast” in Chicago you must imagine my surprise and delight when I found that same hyper-masculinity from the pulp magazines on display–the cowboy boots, the flannel shirts, the white t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up, the tight jeans showing off their manhood (a lovely word, is it not? so full of promise, so snake-y, so sexual), their hairy, heaving chests, with a few motorcycles parked out in front, that I could not help but marvel at the fact that I was not the only one influenced by these magazines.  And it wasn’t just me, the graphic artists of the day also called up those pulp fiction heroics in their depictions of man-to-man sexual combat: Tom of Finland, Toby, Etienne, whose work would decorate the bars and bath-houses, the porn shops and the ‘art’ magazines, such as In Touch or After Dark.   What the pulp writers had so exhaustively described in their stories, appeared to be true.

 

Uncle, right, asleep, with nephew, far left, and son, center, at a picnic in the Black Hills, 1970.

Part Two

[Author’s note: You may not be surprised to learn that I haven’t a single photograph of my cousin, Rodney, or of my Aunt Marilyn. Several years ago, in a generous mood, I took all of my photographs of them and my uncle, and created two photo albums for Rodney’s daughters, Angie and Becky. One had recently married, the other just graduated from college. I thought it would be a nice gift, you know, a history of their family, including grandparents, that they might not otherwise know. I carefully captioned each photograph to the best of my memory and sent them off, receiving a nice thank-you note from Angie and a perfunctory one from Becky. This before the advent of the in-home digital age. Consequently, the following “snapshots” will have to suffice.]

Snapshot:  its winter, but no snowfall yet, Rodney and I are standing in the courtyard parking lot of the Corner Motel in Gillette, Wyoming, which our grandparents own.   In this black and white photo we’re both bundled up in parkas and caps, I may have my mittens clipped to my sleeves; Rodney has no gloves.   We’ve been interrupted by an adult (my mother, uncle, grandmother?  it is definitely not my grandfather, if it were up to him there would be no record of the people in his life) as we’re playing with parachutes that we’ve made out of handkerchiefs, string and a stone.  I don’t remember who knew how to construct such an object, but once we had them made, out we went to see whose would work the best.   We can’t be any older than 6 or 7 and you can tell by the look on our faces that whoever thought a picture would be a good idea is living on another planet.  We have that particular glow that children surround themselves with when they are deeply involved in playing.  It is always best to leave them alone then.

Snapshot:  there is no photograph from this excursion Rodney and I took with our grandparents, at least one that I know of, so this memory photograph, like the previous one, is in black and white.  my grandfather was a rock hound, an amateur lapidarist, a tinkerer with stones–in his garage he had a tumbler to polish them, a saw to cut them and if he was in the mood, he would make a piece of jewelry out of the stone for my grandmother.  I have a pair of agate cufflinks he made for me one Christmas, it was his hobby.  They’ve been visiting us in Rapid City, a holiday, a birthday, a religious celebration (although, only I among all of the other relatives, actually attended a church on a regular basis.  My mother insisted that I have the experience of belonging to a church. When I would complain about going alone, she’d say that when I was 18 I could make up my own mind about god, but until then I would be going to church.)  They’ve picked up Rodney and I — we are probably a few years older than the last snapshot — in their Nash Rambler and we’ve headed southeast out of town, looking for a dry gulch that my grandfather had heard was so full of agates that you could just pick them up off the ground.  We’re walking down a dirt road, Rodney and my grandfather ahead of me and my grandmother–the two of us much less interested in this past-time than we let on.  There are huge cottonwood trees shading the road and they separate it from the dry gulch my grandfather is now searching.  This particular scene is filled with dust, the warmth of the dirt road seeping up into my canvas shoes, my hand in my grandmother’s.

 

My mother’s mother and step-father, through hard work and their tenacious character, scratched out a pretty decent living for themselves from the red dirt of Gillette, Wyoming.  My grandmother, Bessie, had homesteaded with her mother and brother outside of Rozet in 1924, moving from the fertile farmland of southwestern Iowa to what is still considered the godforsaken plains of northeastern Wyoming.  The land was cheap and new beginnings were all the rage.  My grandmother was divorced with two children (a daughter–my mother, Evelyn–and a son, Lester); once in Gillette and only 28 she soon fell in love with my grandfather, Ralph Holmes, who owned a gas station.  They went on to become respected citizens and business owners, you might even say pillars of the community.  They lived frugally, the one conspicuous display of wealth was a new car every year, paid in full with cash.  They had one son, my uncle, Ralph, Jr., who had one son (my cousin, Rodney, also an only child, just two days older than I).  When my grandfather died he left a considerable sum of money to my uncle, as his natural born child, and left nothing to my mother or her brother.  My mother was hurt by this but said nothing, what good would it do to complain, she loved her half-brother and money does have a tendency to spoil things, why let it get in the way of their relationship.

My step-father, however, was of a different mind about this, he knew the slight had hurt my mother grievously and so he spoke with my uncle (what I would have given to have been there when that conversation took place!) about the distribution of grandpa’s money.  A few weeks later, I received a check with a one and several zeros after it along with a note from my mother saying that it was my share of the inheritance and to invest it wisely.  Although I believe my uncle would have eventually (as he did) let this change of plan slide by, his wife, that paragon of everything housewifery, was furious.  We stole that money from them, it was rightfully theirs, and we had no reason to have interfered, we were (my step-father particularly) horrible people and deserved their opprobrium. Whew. That was all subtext though, because she continued to plaster over any bumps or flaws in her life with her perfection.  We only knew the truth because my uncle told my mother.

Snapshot:  this photograph, also a memory only, is in color.  It carries with it the smell of a school cafeteria and the thrum of kid’s excited voices as they move between classes, sliding down the terrazzo flooring, the noise bouncing off of the metal lockers.  Rodney and I are sophomores in high school and I, because of my height, have spotted him a few yards ahead of me in the hallway, surrounded by his friends/classmates.  I call out to him, “Rodney”, and he turns to look and see who is calling his name.  When he sees that it’s me his animated expression turns to a stony glare and in the split second that this happens, I realize that we will never be friends.   We did not speak to each other again unless at a family event and then it would be routine, formal replies to “how are you?” “Fine.” “How’s school?” “Fine.”  My friends who knew both of us had no idea we were even related.

Before you think, “Oh Robert, why, why are you telling us this?  It’s so personal, surely there’s another side to the story,” I want to share with you two letters that I received shortly after my mother’s death.  One is from my stepfather and enclosed with it was one my Aunt Marilyn had sent him a week after my mother’s funeral. Let’s listen to Aunt Marilyn first, shall we?

Sat A.M.

Hi Roy,

Just a short note along with the card.  I’m so sorry about Evelyn, but guess we all knew this was the way it was to be- We will truly miss her even tho she was so far away.

Ralph and Scrub [my maternal grand-uncle] arrived home about 3:00 yesterday–I’m so sorry that Ralph didn’t have the opportunity to see Evelyn one more time- This was his wish, but for some reason it was not granted [granted has been underlined by Roy]–

Evelyn and I had visited about Bessie’s Jade ring – We agreed Evelyn was to have it until she was finished with it and then it was to be mine – She said she would see to it that I did [underlined by my aunt] receive this ring – Since Ralph didn’t bring it home with him, I trust that you plan to send it to me – I will be watching [underlined by Roy] for it

Ralph tells me you are going to Colo sometime this summer and are planning on coming to R.C.  We’ll look forward to seeing you

Sincerely Marilyn

All I can think is that the lack of punctuation and the selective use of the dash indicates a rage bubbling just below the surface of this letter.  Her cursive writing is like that of most educated women her age…the excellent Palmer Method, clear, slanted and concise.  As it would be.

On the day he received the letter, he sent it to me with this note:

Hi Robert

Just a note for to-day hope everything is ok with you.  Im trying to stay busy but sometimes the place kind of closes in on me.

I got the enclosed letter from your Aunt to-day.  I want you to read the 3rd paragraph carefully.  I just couldn’t believe it.  I would like to hear your comments on this the next time we talk.  Your mother and I had never talked about this ring at all.

Take care 

Roy.

I do not remember if the ring was sent to Marilyn or not; I imagine that it was not.  This then is how my uncle and I stopped talking for nearly 15 years.  Roy and I did manage to make that trip to Colorado a couple of summers later, driving from the Missouri Ozarks across Nebraska and into Colorado up to Wyoming and into South Dakota.   I had sent my aunt a note that we were on this trip and when we would be in Rapid City and that we would call when we got in.

“Hi Aunt Marilyn, its Robert.”

“Rodney and Maggie have photos for you of your grandparent’s grave, you can pick them up at the hobby shop.  Ralph and I don’t have time to see you.”

Okay.  I call the hobby shop–this is what Rodney had done with his inheritance (considerably more than I had received, but the amount never really mattered to me and to this day, I’ve tried to be nice to him and his ex-wife, Maggie, whenever necessary); friends of his mother’s had owned the hobby shop on Main St. in downtown Rapid City for many years, they were ready to retire, so he bought them out.

Snapshot: there is no photo of our meeting Rodney and his wife.  I will tell you that it was high summer in Rapid City; the sun was beating hard on the pavement–there may have been some cumulus clouds on the horizon.  Roy and I have had a wonderful trip together, we’ve visited friends in Colorado (my mother’s ex-lesbian lover Mary and her new partner); we’ve gone fishing and generally just shared the vista of the high plains with each other.  But now as we walk down the street from the motel where we were staying to the hobby shop, you can almost hear the spurs clanking, faces shaded from the noonday sun by cowboy hats as we draw nearer and nearer to…and were greeted (that may be too kind of a word) by Rodney and his wife.  By blocking the door, they obviously had no intention of letting us in; Rodney hands me an envelope with my name written on it in Marilyn’s tidy script and said, “Here are the photos of grandma and grandpa’s graves, we’re busy, good-bye,” and turned and went back into the store, closing the door behind them.

Envelope in Aunt’s Palmer Method script with blurry photos of grandparent’s gravesite.

 

I wish I could remember what happened next.  I do know that we spent the night in Rapid City, and we may have had plans to stay a little bit longer and poke around and see the sights (we did drive by our old house up on Willsie Street), but the next morning, we both got up about the same time and packed our bags and left.  I haven’t been back since.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s titled Pulp Fiction, and I know you’re sitting at your computer reading this and wondering how this will all come together and I’m not sure there is a clear connection.  I know that my aunt and my uncle hurt my step-father in two different ways:  my aunt’s venality is clearly the most obvious, but the worst to me though was my uncle’s silence through all of this.

But I do know this.  Rodney should have spent some time reading those pulp fiction magazines of his father’s and taken to heart the lessons that were plainly spoken in those pages; about how real men treat each other and how, in spite of differences, everyone deserves your respect.

Stepfather, Roy, left, with the author on their return from a nine-state tour, 1986.

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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