Dancing for My Mother Duff Brenna Memoir

remove_red_eye Dancing for My Mother

by Duff Brenna

Published in Issue No. 159 ~ August, 2010

In the fall, the mom was told a truth she couldn’t ignore. One day, talking about Carol Marie’s future and men and getting married, Pappas came into the conversation. The mom said again that she shouldn’t have married him. Again, she brought up the fact that it was barely six months after they were married that she had to haul him out of a hotel, where he was playing the man-slut. She said where women were concerned Pappas couldn’t be trusted any farther than you could throw him. Carol Marie nodded her head, chuckled nervously and said, That’s for sure. The mom gave her a look and said, Tell me something, has he ever touched you? Carol Marie told me later that she almost fainted when she answered, Yeah, he’s touched me all right. And then she told on Pappas. Told the mom what had been going on since she, Carol Marie, was twelve years old back in Urbana, Illinois. He’s done more than just touch me, she said. Lots more.

When Pappas came home that evening the mom’s hair and face were witchy. The face of a wild woman ready to kill. She had the Luger in her hand and her voice was fiery dramatic as she pointed the barrel at him and said: You get outta heer before I keel you! You son of a beech! Pappas knew it was over. He didn’t say a word. His face was ashen, his upper lip trembling. His hand out as if to ward off the bullet while he backed away. Turning he ran out the back door, down the alley. The mom cleaned out the closet and drawers. Threw his clothes over the back fence.

And that was all? It was over? That simple?

That’s all there is? I said to my little sister who was hugging her pillow and looking at me as if she was afraid I might hurt her. I was mostly wondering what would happen now. Maybe Pappas would come back with a gun and shoot everyone. I loaded my 30-30 Marlin and waited with killer intentions playing heroic scenarios inside my mind. Waited for him to walk in the door. Fired in self-defense, I’d say. Protecting the family. No jury would convict me. I would walk. Walk out of court a hero! C’mon, Pappas, sir. C’mon try it.

After awhile, sitting with the rifle in my lap got old. Heroic daydreams faded and I was left with a shadowy house, a morbid place that needed light. After turning on the TV, I plopped Michele Renee in front of it. The mom stayed in her room. Another hour passed and I was wondering if I was going to get any dinner. I listened at her door. Heard sobbing. Peeked in and saw her curled on her side. The Luger still in her hand. She pointed it and said, Get out of here before I shoot you. Which reminded me of the time Pappas lay on the same bed with the same gun in his hand. This was just after he got thrown in jail and the mom finally bailed him out and right away he took a bottle of booze into the bedroom and said if anybody came in he would kill them. Everyone went around whispering, looking at each other, wondering if he was going to come out firing. Shoot yourself I kept thinking. And boom! The gun went off and everyone waited, hearing nothing, thinking, hoping, praying. It was Carol Marie who finally opened the door. He lay sprawled on the bed like a dead man. But he wasn’t dead, he was just dead drunk. Sleeping it off. I saw a splintered hole in the floor and fingered it, hoping to find the bullet, but it was buried too far. Carol Marie took the gun away.

So this night when the mom finally ran him off and was bawling about it, I went into the kitchen and made fried baloney and egg sandwiches and glasses of chocolate milk. Carol Marie stayed in her room and wouldn’t eat the sandwich I made her, so I ate it and drank her milk too. Michele Renee and I watched I Love Lucy and even though some serious shit had happened, we couldn’t help but laugh at silly Lucy pulling another stunt on Desi. Finally, I put the rifle back in the closet and hoisted my little sister into bed.

Later, I heard the mom in the kitchen making a drink. When she carried it back to her room I followed her and said, So how you doing, Mom? You okay? Her eyes looked pink and blurry and raccoon-ringed. She said, Shit, I sure stirred a hornet’s nest this time. She was breathing fast, practically panting. She downed the drink without stopping. Then said, I’ll have another. I went to the kitchen and poured her another.

What’s going to happen now? I asked. She shook her head. I don’t know, she said. I feel like dying. Wish I was dead, Duffy. When you are dead nothing can hurt you. No more memories. No more pain, no more migraines. I’ve never been happy! Why can’t I be a little bit happy? Is that asking too much? Life is sorrow and suffering, you know what I mean? When you’re dead there is no more sorrows and suffering. No more men.

I told her that I bet Pappas wished she was dead too. And she said, I knew that man was poison the first time I seen him. But God he was so damn big and handsome! I tell you I can’t stand no more! How did I stand it this long? You don’t know how long it’s been. Good God if everyone knew the shit that’s happened to me since I was a little girl all hell would break loose. She made a vinegary face and she actually spit on her palm and slapped her own cheek. Slapped it hard. So hard it glowed. Don’t do that, goddammit, I told her. We are rid of him at last. You got rid of him. You are my hero, Mom. And so is Carol Marie for finally ratting him out.

In a voice full of an odd wistfulness the mom said, But you know, Daddy has been good to us most of the time. He’s a hard worker and sweet when he’s sober. And I was thinking, Hard worker? Sweet when he’s sober? Big fucking deal! But then again, I could see why the mom would go there. She admired Pappas in ways beyond tall dark handsome. She admired hard workers, she admired hustlers, those who made their own way in the world and asked nothing from nobody. She had come out of the Great Depression and knew the value of a dollar, knew the value of hard work. Truth to tell, the mom was the hardest worker I’ve ever known. Long hours of labor were nothing to her, whether it was at home or on the job, she was a dynamo. I always wished I had her energy. Work gives you worth, she would say. Without work you’re nothing. Without work you add up to zero! Pappas bought into the same philosophy. They believed in each other’s talents and capacities. Yeah, so okay: hard worker. Sweet when he’s sober: to her!

She lay there chewing her nails and breathing hard and she said: But he needed to keep his goddamn hands off my daughter! Why didn’t she tell me earlier? Why did she let it go on so long? For years! What’s wrong with her? You can’t tell me she didn’t know what she was doing. What’s her excuse? I’ll tell you what her excuse is. He said it would kill me if she told. He told her I would end up in a mental hospital. That’s what she said he said. She said it would kill me! Did she really believe I’m such a pansy it would kill me? She knows me better than that. I’m tough as nails. I’m tougher than my own mother who is the toughest broad I’ve ever known. To get by in this world you gotta be tough as nails, Duffy. Just remember that when things don’t go your way. My whole life, nothing has gone my way, but do I say, Oh poor me! Do I whine about it? Your sister knows what I’m made of. She should have told me the first time it happened. Damn that girl, she should have told me! Twelve years old! Twelve years old and he’s molesting her. Twelve. My God twelve.

Did she blame Carol Marie? The tone of her voice said she did. What was the word for her? Ambivalent? Dithering? Dickering? I really wondered about where her heart was, because over the years she had often bitched vicious about Pappas. Saying horrible things. How brutal he could be. How he had slapped her when she had looked at some guy. This tirade of hers went on for quite a while. But then when I joined in agreeing with her, getting in a couple of digs of my own, she would get defensive about Pappas. It was like she didn’t really know what she felt about him, even after she knew what he’d done to Carol Marie. Not to mention her son at all. Who didn’t say a word about the many ass-kickings Pappas had given him. Yeah, maybe at this point I was brain damaged. Yeah, that might have been the problem. Yeah, that was my excuse for the idiotic things I did. Yeah, brain damaged! Where was that lobotomy guy when you needed him? He was all the rage. Saved thousands of mentally fucked up people with his ice pick. Been in the papers, the magazines. Freeman. Walter Freeman the finger of God. Come on, Walter, here’s a family you can work on.

But I had to admit there had been moments when I had wavered about Pappas like the mom did. Like the time when I was a dog-gnawed eight-year-old convalescent and Pappas held me on his lap and caressed me kindly. Stroking my hair, kissing my cheek, rubbing between my shoulder blades and saying, When you grow up you will be a cowboy just like Grandpa Mike says. And on and on he went, until I was purring like a kitten in his lap. This happened when Pappas and the mom were in the first stages of leaving the land of sober for the land of all things possible. I loved him then and put my spindly arms around his powerful neck and gave him kisses and listened happily to what a great future was ahead for me. The mom saying college, maybe a doctor, become someone with an education and with his head straight on his shoulders. Not none of these hoodlums hanging on the streets, not our little Duffy. I might have been chewed ragged by Husky, but I was living at Grandpa Mike’s and things were calm and the family was acting like a real family, a scene that always stuck with me. A could-have-been—IF things had just been different. A little bit.

But this is now when she said: I think I might be losing my mind, Duffy. Really I wanted to shoot him, but didn’t have the guts. I’d be in jail if I had and then what would happen to you kids? Grandma would never be able to take care of you. And Grandpa is not really your grandpa, so you couldn’t go there either.

What to make of it? Would I have pulled the trigger if the gun had been in my hand?  How can you know these things? Back when Carol Marie and I were planning our stepfather’s murder it felt like I could kill—pull the trigger. Blow Pappas away. One of the plans was for hero Duffy to take his rifle and shoot his stepfather when he got up at night to go to the bathroom. Afterwards, I would say I heard a noise and thought it was a burglar. Sounded easy. Sounded doable.

How about switching to beer? I asked her, wanting to slow her down. Hard liquor made her loony, made her maudlin. Before you knew it she would be into her childhood, her crummy father abandoning her on the porch and never coming back, Ed Nielson beating her mother, the swing of the vase that laid him low, moving in with her aunt and uncle, her mother’s long weeks of disappearance, how she would come back and lavish Janice and Dean with affection before going away again, the monster cancer that had Aunt Eunice screaming in agony, death and death and more death.

You got a cigarette? she said. A beer would be good. Getting my Lucky Strikes and a couple of beers, I brought them back to her room. Michele Renee was there rubbing her eyes and saying, When you coming, Duffy? Gruffly I told her to go back to bed, leave me alone. And of course she had to start bawling. So she got hauled up between us. Me and the mom lay there with our heads on the headboard smoking fags, sipping Coors and watching Michele Renee curled up and sucking her thumb. Until finally she closed her eyes. Drifted off.  Picking her up, I put her in bed with Carol Marie.

Who wanted to know what the mom was up to. Talking shit, I answered. She’s drunk. She hates men. She hates Nick Pappas most of all. But then she says he is a hard worker and sweet when he’s sober. Mom doesn’t know what she’s saying. Shit, she’s still calling him Daddy!

A sick world, Duffy, Carol Marie said. This whole world is so sick. I asked her was she really only twelve when it started? Her voice rushed as she told me: It was the first summer in Urbana the day he looked at me with those eyes. I was wearing a bathing suit in the backyard sunning myself and I saw him standing on the porch looking down at me, looking right at my crotch. The next day he did the same thing to me that the guy who had the cabin in the mountains did when they left us with him. Same thing exactly. Had me lay on the couch while he put his hand down there and said, Don’t worry, I wouldn’t hurt you for the world. This will feel good.

I had to ask her: And did it feel good? Hell no. I didn’t feel anything. I was too scared and confused to feel anything. But that was the first time and things progressed from there. I was this body. I was this toy. Did it hurt? Carol Marie shook her head, she said, My cherry was already broken. I broke it that time my feet slipped on the pedals of your bike and I fell on the cross bar. So what he did that day didn’t make me bleed. And I learned a trick as time went on. I have this trick, Duffy. I learned how to get out of myself. An out-of-body experience. I learned how to shut down my mind most of the time and not feel what was being done to me. I can still do it. I have a switch that I turn off and my soul leaves and I feel nothing. I’m disembodied. It’s true. I swear to God it’s true.

You sure got some shit to tell your psychiatrist someday, I said. Also thinking about Karen Fielding and what the two of us did in that other dimension, where anything goes so long as some part of you isn’t there. I wondered if I should tell my sister what had happened with Karen in Urbana. While Pappas was doing things to Carol Marie, I was doing things to Karen, only it was mutual, both of us wanting what Carol Marie went out-of-body to escape. I avoided thinking about Karen as much as I could, because if I thought about her I would have to touch myself. And feel guilty afterwards. Did that make me a pervert? Are you anything at thirteen for sure? Or could you be anything, hetero or homo, depending on what happens next?

Wish I didn’t have all these weird pictures in my head, Carol Marie said. I see him, I see his thing, I see it in me, I see Allison licking me, I see that man who lived in the mountains feeling me up. I’m a magnet for perverts, Duffy, that’s what I am. It’s fucked up my head. All the shit that happened has made me mental. The things I do! I can’t explain them. God hates me I’m so awful. Men have used me all my life, like I don’t have any real me at all, just this body they’re after. I might as well be a doll they can blow up and play with. I just do what they want me to do. I didn’t want it. I didn’t ask for it, but it happened anyway. My soul is dirty, Duffy. I’m filthy inside. We looked down at sleeping Michele Renee and looked at each other and I could tell we were thinking the same thing. One day it would be her turn. Somewhere. With someone.

Carol Marie said: I wish we could go to Minnesota. We got relatives there. A ton of cousins and uncles and aunts. They are nice as pie from what I remember. They are real people, average real people. The thing of it is they are all NORMAL, Duffy. At least I think they are. Our mother should have never left there. She has been insane ever since she took off with us and our real daddy died. God knows why she left. I think part of it was that she didn’t want any more short, blond, blue-eyed men like our father. She wanted a movie star. A tall dark one. Our dad was nothing like that. Look at us. We’re what our dad looked like. She rejected him and it became a parade of men, until she married that filthy Allison. Then traded him for Nick who was Tweedledum to his Tweedledee. I think Mom has one of those split personalities, don’t you? One moment she can be this perfect mother all loving and telling you she would give her life for you and she loves you more than life itself and, well, you heard it, you know what I’m saying.

Yeah, I know what you’re saying. One minute Mom loves you, the next minute she’s saying: Why did I ever have any goddamn kids! I drive her crazy, I said. I suppose I ought to be nicer, but I only half-like her sometimes. And sometimes I actually hate her. And Carol Marie said: We’re both bonkers, Duffy. Who wouldn’t be?

She was quiet and I was about to get up and go to bed, but she stopped me by saying, You know what he’s been doing now when I go out on dates? He waits up for me and gives me the third degree and then he bends me over the table and exams me and puts his thing in me and says his sperm will kill the sperm of the other guy. He said it would keep me from getting pregnant because the sperms would kill each other. That’s how gullible he thinks I am. What if our mother had gotten up and caught us at it there in the kitchen? I kept thinking something like that had to happen, but it never did.

I asked her if the sex was rough. Was he mean? She shook her head no. Not at all. He was a tender lover. He wanted to make me feel something and sometimes I did a little and it would make me so depressed I wanted to kill myself. Most of the time I could flip the switch and go away and all he had was my fucking flesh. One time he said he loved me as much as he loved Mom and it was a shame he couldn’t marry both of us like the Mormons can do. He thought life would be heaven if he could have us as his wives and we could all sleep together. Can you imagine? Crazy bastard. He lives in a fantasy world, Duffy.  A sick man. Sick men are capable of all kinds of things and capable of making you sick too. Always be on your guard! You hear me? Are you listening?  This is a man who, even if he doesn’t actually kill you, kills you.

Yeah, I was listening. I was burning her words into my brain. I asked her if she remembered our real dad and she said, I sure do. She said she prayed to him. Sometimes she felt him watching over her, an invisible angel. She prayed: Our daddy who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. He’s up there, he’s watching. I believe it as sure as I believe in God. Are you learning anything? I was eager to know all of it, but then she said, I don’t want to talk anymore. Go to bed. Take your sister with you. I don’t want her here tonight. I want to be alone. When Grandma comes home, she can sleep with you guys.

On Sunday the mom got us out of bed and took us to the nine o’clock mass, where we bowed before Jesus Joseph Mary and stood and sat and mumbled and pounded our chests mea culpa to tell God that it was our fault. Mea culpa mea culpa, the mom said as tears ran down her cheeks. Finally she got up and left. When I followed her outside she was wiping her face with a hanky and she said: I have to compose myself. Go back inside and ask God to forgive you for all your sins. Next Friday we are going to Confession. Don’t you realize you could be dead any second and in hell? And then she added: Life is hell.

At that moment I had a revelation: The mom was right. Life equaled hell, the abode of Satan who ruled EVERYTHING. God and Santa Claus were fakes. Frightened and feeling lost I went back inside. Sat next to Carol Marie and Michele Renee and prayed God to forgive my monstrous thoughts. I made the motions, crossing myself kneeling standing sitting, repeating over and over, Forgive me, God. I want to believe, make me believe. When the mass was over, I went home and prayed some more.

When Friday came the mom didn’t say a word about Confession. But she wanted to talk to me about becoming a priest. Her eyes shifting back and forth in her head the way they did when she was coming up with something strange. (And she was the one who had said you should never trust shifty-eyed people.) On and on she went, saying she wanted me to pray hard about being a priest, how it would be a straight shot to heaven for me and her if I became one of God’s chosen. So let us pray on it, she said. She folded her hands and had me fold my hands and on my knees pray for Virgin Mary to enter my heart. Virgin Mary, she prayed, show this boy the way. Let him know if he has a calling. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen. I felt tingly all over my head, a sense of wellbeing swelling my heart. Virgin Mary giving me a sign?

That night before bed I made Michele Renee kneel beside me and pray. I murmured all the prayers I knew: The Our Father Hail Mary oh God I am hardy sorry and I believe in one God Father Almighty creator of heaven and earth alleluia alleluia show us O Lord Thy mercy and grant us Thy salvation alleluia. When I was done I waited a second to see if the tingling happened again. But nothing. So Michele Renee and I hopped into bed and this was one night I wanted to cuddle her tight. So I did. But then the pressure of her butt on my crotch made me think of Karen Fielding. So out of bed and on to my knees again thinking about my calling that had not come, won’t you come won’t you come. Also thinking: Jesus, what is with you, man? Maybe all the happenings have put a spell on the house and you are all controlled by demons. Don’t want to be this way. Pray! Pray so hard on the hardwood floor that you bruise your knees and like the pain and want more pain. Go in the bathroom. Wash your pee hole with soap so hard it stings.

The next day when I peed it still stung, but then the stinging went away and I was right back at it with my hand. It didn’t matter how long I was on my knees, how many prayers I prayed, every two or three days my fantasies would take control and there was nothing to be done about it. So I knew I was as weird as Pappas when it came to sex. But at least I stayed away from Michele Renee. I wouldn’t let her sit in my lap anymore. I growled and made faces and she burst out crying and said, Mama, Duffy hates me! And the mom said, Be nice to your sister. She is just a little girl. She needs you.

But the mom didn’t know. She didn’t know.

Church a few more times, but the mood petered out, like it always had before. A little religion went a long way. A crucifix went up on the wall in her bedroom above the bed. A leather-bound version of the Bible, complete with color pictures inside, appeared on the coffee table and she said: This is a Catholic Bible, the true Bible, the real Bible, not like all those other bibles. Which confused me because wasn’t the Bible the Bible? And if not? Did it mean that all the Lutherans Baptists Methodists had their own separate Bibles too? The mom wasn’t making any sense and that old Santa Claus feeling crept in again. Like I was being had.

Sometimes it was too hard to believe in God, but there were days and nights when I was so scared of living and dying I prayed with all my might. And, like Carol Marie, I started praying to our dead daddy (Our Father Hud who art in Heaven) and even imagined he answered, saying things like: I’m here. I’m watching out for you, son. I told the mom that my dead dad whispered in my ear and she said: It could happen. The dead are all around us. God has a Plan and the dead are helping make the Plan come true.

For a couple of weeks the mom had me and Carol Marie take turns reading passages from the real Bible before dinner. Suffer the little children to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of God – that was one of the better ones. Grandma Inez refused to read passages when she was home for dinner. She continued to insist God was the Great Spirit Giche Manidoo. Steadfast in her belief that the only way to pray to him was to wrap the prayer in smoke and blow it skyward while wearing a bright red or blue outfit. The better for Giche Manidoo to see you. Your way of praying is boring, she told her daughter snorting. Dismissively.

The uranium get-rich scheme fell through and Pappas and Uncle Dean lost all their money. The Cadillac was sold and replaced by an ugly four-door 1950 maroon Desoto, a gutless piece of scrap metal. Dean got a job selling Triple-AAA insurance. Pappas re-enlisted in the Air Force with his old rank of sergeant and was stationed at Lowry. He kept calling Carol Marie, trying to get her to say it was all a lie. Trying to get her to say she had exaggerated because she was angry and wanted to get him back for giving her a black eye.

Carol Marie met him once. She told me she didn’t know why she went. She didn’t know how he had persuaded her to meet him, but he did. It was like she was a puppet and he the puppet master. Part of her told her not to go, but the other part that had always obeyed him couldn’t disobey him when he said: Meet me in the Zanzibar parking lot. They sat in his car and talked. He kissed her gently, whispered in her ear that she had broken his heart. His love wasn’t a love between father and daughter. His was a love between a man and a woman. His was a love he couldn’t help. You can’t stop love, he said. It happened between me and you. We didn’t mean for it to happen, it just did. Can’t you see that, honey? No, she couldn’t see it. I don’t love you, Nick, she told him. I’m sorry but I don’t. Not true, he insisted. When the dust settles you’ll see I’m right. You’ll see what we did wasn’t bad, it was love. I know you love me and you know it too, he said, trying to hug kiss her some more. But Carol Marie pushed him away and got out of the car and walked. Walked home fast. Closed the door. Locked it. He called and called, but she wouldn’t see him anymore. She told me: The look in his eyes terrifies me. His bad eye is like the eye of an evil spirit, the evil eye.

So Pappas started working on me, calling me up, taking me for rides, buying me toasted cheese sandwiches, root beer floats and chocolate fudge sundaes at A&W, giving me money, telling me things like: You’re my only son. Saying he was proud of how tough I was now. Taking credit for the badass version of the Duffer.

I was as malleable as a marshmallow in Pappas’s hands. He was driving a very fine cream-colored ’39 Ford. He let me drive it all over town. The shift on the floor was very cool. Pappas was living in a rooming house not far away from Ironton Street, about five miles was all. He took me there and introduced me to the owner of the house, saying, This is Duffy. He’s my son. The woman saying, I can tell he is. You want some banana cream pie and a glass of milk, Duffy? Sure do! She called herself a pie-baking machine. Hers was the most humongous bubble butt I had ever seen in my life. Jiggly as a pair of beach balls was how I described her ass to my pals.

The family didn’t go visit Grandpa Mike in Frederick. He was still Michele Renee’s grandpa, but the mom quit going out Sundays with gallon jugs full of water. We never had dinner with him again. Fading, he faded out of our lives because, well, he was Pappas’s papa and the mom didn’t want to be associated in any way with anyone associated with Pappas.

Before long she had dyed her hair platinum blond and had a boyfriend named Tommy, an officer in the Air Force, a captain. One Indian summer Sunday when he came over she took a blanket out on the front lawn and they sat there having a picnic, drinking eating talking. Lots of laughter. What a good time we’re having. All the neighbors seeing them. The neighbors knew what was going on, but she didn’t care. She was giving them the invisible finger, saying fuck all you, all you go to hell. This was Janice’s life and she would live it the way she wanted. She would live it to the hilt. She had wasted seven years on Nick Pappas and she was going to make up for lost time. Seven years. A failed marriage. Seven years. Seemed like SEVENTY, probably.

Tommy was a big guy. Maybe slightly bigger than Pappas. Short-cropped hair. Broad, manly shoulders. Deep chest. A chin that could chop kindling. He had a neat little mustache, two thin threads outlining his upper lip like Errol Flynn. Glad to have him around to keep the mom company. Kept her cheerful energetic vivacious. He kept me at a distance. Clearly not thinking of himself as a potential daddy. The two of them drank as much as she and Pappas had. Sometimes they got music going, pushed the furniture back and whoopee! Michele Renee and I joining in. Dancing making everyone laugh. Everyone ecstatic. Life is good! Now and then.

So the two of them raised hell for a while. Bar hopping and dancing and making loud noises in the bedroom. And I was thinking maybe Tommy would be the next daddy. A nice guy. I liked him fine. But then Tommy quit coming around and the mom dove into one of her deep depressions, threatening to kill herself. She had had it with men for sure this time. Maybe she has had it with life she kept saying. If it weren’t for you kids I would take the gun and shoot myself, she said again and again.

Not long after losing Tommy, she dyed her hair bright red and was going out with a motorcycle rider named Harry. Great red flame of her hair blowing behind her as she hung on to him, the motorcycle zooming down Ironton. Look at her go! She was wearing sexy outfits, leather vests and gloves, going to biker bars, she and Harry having a grand time. One of his buddies, his name was Charlie, took me riding with him. Hauled ass down Interstate 70. Prairie flying by in a blur. The power vibrating beneath my ass was arousing. Wanted an iron horse! Indian or Harley.

When we got back home, Charlie drove right up on the lawn and I jumped off and started begging: Let me take the bike for a spin, Charlie. Will you, huh, please, please! Do you know how to drive this thing? Charlie asked. I’m telling him: Hell yes I know how. Also thinking: Hey, can’t be any harder than driving a car, can it? I had seen how he shifted, how the gears rise and rise, how the brakes work, how the throttle cracks open and shoots the bike through the air like a rocket. Reluctantly, nice guy Charlie agreed to let me in the saddle, just a little spin round the block was all.

I climbed on, gripped the handlebars. Charlie sat behind me and was saying, Easy now, easy now as I cracked the throttle voom! voom! Pulled in the hand clutch, kicked the gear shift down one and bam! shazam! did a wheelie right off the lawn. Charlie flew off the back as the bike went unicycle down Ironton for several yards before the front wheel came down. I was fucking frozen, my petrified hand keeping the throttle open. I didn’t shift, didn’t pull the brake, didn’t pull in the clutch, didn’t turn the key to kill the engine. Racing down Ironton in first gear, heading for busy East Colfax Avenue. Ahead were numerous evergreen bushes bordering some one-story apartments. Out of control heading for the evergreens, plowing through them before veering back to the road, the loose gravel of Ironton causing the rear wheel to shift like a belly dancer shaking her hips so hard I nearly went down.

At last I got it through my hammering head that I needed to take my right hand off the throttle. As soon as I did that, the roaring was over, the bike drifting to a wobbly stop, plopping onto its side like I had killed it, killed the iron horse. Standing there looking at it in utter shock. My God, so much power it had paralyzed me! Heard Charlie cussing screaming, calling me a dumb motherfucker, a stupid sonofabitch! In a minute he was beside me panting, pushing me out of the way, hoisting the bike up, straddling it, starting it, looking at startled me and saying, Kid, you’re too dumb to fucking live! Charlie took off towards East Colfax. That’s the last I ever saw of him. And then days later Harry took off too, no more motorcycle rides and the mom was blue, hating men with all her heart again. They’re all rotten bastards, she said, eyes scornfully staring at me her son.

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Duff Brenna is the author of six novels, including The Book Of Mamie (University of Iowa Press, 1989) which won the Associated Writing Programs Award, and his most recent novel, The Law of Falling Bodies (Hopewell Publications, 2007). A Minnesota native who once tried his hand at running and owning a Wisconsin dairy farm, Brenna is currently a freelance writer living in Sun City, CA.
  • Lance

    Awesome, Duff. Awesome.

  • What a beautiful, searing, heartbreaking piece. The understatement and clarity of the writing is powerful. Duff Brenna's essay is a masterclass for writers — our job is to examine life straight on, not to flinch, not to turn away; and then communicate to the reader precisely what we've learned. Few do it so well.

  • Traceydonnelly

    A brother's dynamic point of view on sexual abuse, alcoholism and all that comes with that particular landscape for this mother and this sister. It is a powerful thing. This is an underappreciated point of view isn't it, and again, a powerful one because Mr. Duff can tell it, make you feel it, and then make you care. Aren't the best story tellers the ones that can make a difference in how we live our lives?

  • Big hug for what you said, Lauren. Thank you.

  • Duff Brenna

    Thanks so much, Lance. Wish I could get Dancing published, but nope. Not so far anyway.