Thursday, July 23, 2009


In Which We Offer A Taste...

So, here's the chapter I promised. It's from early in my book, which I guess I should tell you is sort of a memoir about growing up in New Hampshire, but is mostly about being raised to tell stories, by people who were themselves master storytellers. In fact, each chapter is its own story, each building on the next until the whole thing adds up to the book my parents always told me I'd write.

This will read a little different than my usual blog post. When I post, I give very little thought to structure; I do almost no rewriting or editing after the fact. What you get is a rough draft. This here is a first draft, a little more polished and rounded out. Or at least it ought to be. Jesus, I sure hope so.

And now that we come to it, I feel weirdly self-conscious sharing this with you. I guess it's good that I care that much about it, but weird too. Anyway, have a look:


My parents bought my brother for 150 bucks.

That sounds like a real bargain at today’s baby prices, but in 1965, at my father’s hourly rate at the welding shop, that was more than two weeks’ pay. Dad was not an extravagant man and large expenditures—anything above, say, $17.50—were an affront to his sense of thrift, easily the keenest of all his senses, except for maybe his eyesight. But he questioned even that when he got the bill that fall from the Elliott Hospital in Manchester. He was so stunned he made Mom read it back to him to confirm the amount. Then he had to go out and rake leaves for an hour.

“Spent that hour trying to remember where the receipt was. Thought we might be able to return him,” he’d say every year on my brother’s birthday, as he’d tellabout how the 150-dollar baby came to live with him and Mom.

“Why didn’t you?” I once asked when I was seven. For $150, my parents could have bought me a good bike or a used motorcycle or something and spared me seven years of torture and pain beyond anything my parents or any other child could ever understand.

“Well, it was too late,” Dad said to me with a freshly stunned look, inviting me to share his astonishment. “We’d already named him—and after me. It’s like getting your initials monogrammed on a sweater—can’t bring it back to the store after that.” I nodded, understanding instantly. No other parents would buy a used baby like that, especially one with a name like Douglas Francis.

At some point in the annual telling of the story, Mom had to jump in and spare Dad the obvious pain of talking any more about the time he got rooked on a bad baby deal. Mom always told nice things about the birthday boy. But this was crazy for two reasons: one, it was all obviously made up, and two, the birthday boy didn’t care. He never seemed to listen to the story, preferring instead to stay hunched close over his plate to eat, hand and mouth working together like the piston and wheels of a locomotive.

“He was a beautiful baby. And healthy too. The nurses said he was the loudest burper on the ward,” she said. And the beautiful baby looked up and offered a loud belch in support of this claim. He blew it across the table at me, enveloping me in the stale smell of partially digested pork and onions. I made a face and fanned my hand wildly to ward off the death cloud. “Maaaa!” I cried, adding extra vowels to signify my righteous disgust. “He’s blowing stinky burps!” But this caused my mother to make up even more lies.

“You have no idea how lucky you are to have such an excellent big brother!” she cried. Then she told a story about how, before they went shopping for me at the hospital, she and Dad ordered a crib from Jordan Marsh over in Bedford. When the deliverymen came to set it up, my brother, who was almost 3 years old, screamed and cried, inconsolable because the little brother he’d been hoping for had not come with the crib. “Where my Brubby? I want my Brubby!” he howled. Allegedly.

When I finally did come home, Big Brubby—or BB, as he sometimes referred to himself--followed me everywhere, watching me as a baby and toddler with all the undiluted affection and awkward care of a St. Bernard. If I cried, he was often the first one into the room to soothe me. He even went so far as to check my diaper himself. “He would stick his finger in and yell out, ‘Mom! The Kid is wet! Mom! The Kid is brown!’ He loved you that much,” she claimed.

I looked at my brother, and tried to reconcile the angelic guardian of my mother’s fantasy with the reality that sat across from me, and just knew they couldn’t be the same person. When my parents left the table to go to the bathroom or something, BB often reached across and took food right off my plate. I was willing to indulge this behavior if we were having pot roast or tuna casserole, but if it was chicken and dumplings or spaghetti and meatballs, I had to scream Mom’s name with about 25 extra vowels or else be ready to fight to the death for my supper. Dessert? I had to eat that in the kitchen, or standing up, ready to run.

I had to admit, at least Dad got some heft for his money. All the grown-ups referred to my brother as husky, but I knew fat when I saw it and it was staring at me right across the dinner table, shoveling in the grub like it was being outlawed tomorrow. I was never happy about my brother’s size. It wasn’t just that he was fat—although he weighed a whole other me—it was that he was tall, too, and getting taller all the time. Mom was forever letting out the cuffs of his pantlegs and about once a month we had to drive over to the Antioch Shoe Outlet to get another pair of shoes or sneakers for him. Plus BB was strong. He had inherited our father’s long gorilla arms—at 10 years old, his were just as hairy as Dad’s and almost as strong.

This put me at a severe disadvantage when we got to arguing, because after a few heated words over ownership of a Hot Wheels car, or for control of the Lincoln Logs, my brother would just abandon diplomacy and punch me—an act he euphemistically referred to as “thumping,” as if he were a gentle bunny rabbit giving me a playful nudge. In fact, BB put his weight into it. And if he thumped me hard enough that I started to cry or bleed or both, he would panic and hide the evidence.

My parents were big ones for saving containers of every stripe. In the garage, they still had giant cardboard cartons saved from the move out of the apartment and into the house. My Dad also bought plastic garbage cans whenever they were on sale—they made great storage bins for the scraps of pipe and lumber he was forever bringing home from job sites. In the house, my mother had three wicker hampers, each bigger than an oil drum. She kept one in the living room for clothes that needed ironing, one in her and Dad’s bedroom as a laundry hamper, and one in our room for toys. We also had four long wooden toyboxes that Dad had made—using scrap lumber he brought home. They slid under the bottom bunk.

Depending on our location when the thumping occurred and how loudly I started crying, BB would sometimes dump me head-first into a musty wardrobe box, which was too high for me to escape from unaided. Or he’d throw me into the garbage can with the least amount of pipe or lumber in it, then put the lid on it and a cinderblock on top of that. It was only by poking the lid repeatedly with a length of copper pipe that I was able to lift the lid a little bit on the side and stick the pipe through and so get enough oxygen to survive until rescued.

Once, when Mom was out hanging clothes, BB thumped me so hard my lip swelled up like a hornpout’s and long stringy ropes of blood began falling out the sides. Before I could spit some evidence on the floor and scream my guts out, he put me in the wicker ironing basket, closed the thatched lid and ingeniously locked it with a bent wire hanger. As always, he hissed that he would be back to let me out once I stopped crying and promised not to tell. By then, this had happened enough that I didn’t panic—not like the time he emptied a toybox, put me in, and rolled me under the bed. I had never been in the ironing basket before and thought it was kind of nice. I wiped my mouth on one of my mother’s white blouses, then made a little nest out of the linens in there and fell asleep. Eventually my mom got to wondering where I was, and when she couldn't find me, my brother was too scared to tell her what he had done, so a house-to-house search of the neighborhood ensued. When he thought the coast was clear, BB returned to let me out, but Mom caught him.

The problem was, my brother usually just got shouted at—if Dad was home he might get a rap in the mouth. But mostly BB got sent to the bedroom we shared, and that wasn’t like punishment. I mean, all our toys were there and since I couldn’t go in until he was paroled, it was kind of like punishment for me, too. Eventually I discovered that, though BB was bigger, I could dominate him—or at least annoy him--with my mouth, which was way more satisfying than watching him get sent to our room.

When I was eight, I found a book in my parents’ closet that explained where babies came from and how they got there in the first place. I didn't understand all of it, but I gained enough new knowledge to drive BB crazy. I informed my brother that, in fact, I was our parents' first child, but that our mother and father loved me so much, they held me back. Then they had BB "first" so they could see what went wrong with a kid, figure out how to fix those mistakes and get it all perfect with me, as they so obviously had. I usually had to start running as I said the last part, because the only way BB could soothe his rage and frustration was to lay hands on me.

Once, when I was too slow, he caught me by both arms, lifted me off the ground and pulled my arms in opposite directions. Something in my chest popped like a giant knuckle. It was so loud my mom heard it in the next room where she was ironing. It even startled BB, who dropped me to the floor. I landed flat on my stomach, knocking the wind out of myself and that was how Mom found us--me gasping for air at the foot of my brother, who was already crying, “I didn’t mean to break his ribs! I didn’t mean it!” But even blacking out and half-dying, I knew he was a big fat liar.

By the time we got to the hospital, I had secretly come back from death, having caught my breath on the drive into Manchester. My chest felt sore, but not too painful. I was lying across almost the entire back seat of the car, a pillow under my head and a blanket wrapped around me. I felt as comfortable and cozy as I had been that day I was trapped in the ironing basket. BB was scrunched way over in the corner. I know because I kept him there by pushing both feet up hard against the side of his butt.

“Are you still alive?” he kept asking, his voice sounding high and warbly. I ignored him a couple of times, but then Mom would get worried and speak up from the front. “Is he breathing? Are his eyes closed? Are his lips blue?” Then I would have to answer—weakly, “I can breathe--” I waited a moment, then sighed hugely. “—just a little.” BB stared at me, chewing the nails on his first two fingers. He was always eating something.

At the hospital, they took X-rays, which was scary because I had to go in a dark room all by myself. I was sniffling a little when they brought me back to the exam room where Mom and BB waited. My brother was gazing at me with eyes I’d never seen before. He came over and—very gently—patted me on the shoulder. “Are you okay, kid?” he asked. Then Mom squeezed my hand, and changed the subject. “Good God, last time I was in a room in this hospital was when you were born. The nurses wheeled you in on a rolling crib from the nursery. You had the biggest head of red hair.” She ruffled it now. “And you still do.”

“Was I born here too?” BB asked, looking around the room with new interest. Mom nodded, giving my brother a serious look. “The doctors thought you would be stillborn.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It means born dead,” I said wistfully, remembering the word from the book I found in my parents’ room.

“You were fine, of course, but they didn’t know at first,” Mom said. “The bastards gassed me, knocked me out before I could hold you. I was bullshit mad when I woke up. Later, Grandma and Papa made a special trip up to take a look at you. They only had one other grandson, your cousin Buzzy, but since he was Aunt Barbara’s child, you would be the first one to carry on the family name,” she told my brother.

“Did they come to see me too?” I asked, feeling that Mom’s attention had wandered. She turned back to me. “Not you, dear. You were old news by then.” Then her expression hardened and she looked at BB. “Do you know, when Grandma got a hold of you, she looked you over, then handed you back and said to your father. ‘Well, at least we know he’s yours.’ Then she gave me a look and walked out. Five minutes later, she and Papa were back in the truck. Can you imagine?”

I looked over at BB, who gave me back the look we shared when we had no idea what Mom was talking about. It didn’t matter anyway, because a second later the doctor came in and said the X-rays showed nothing broken, which disappointed me a little, after all the trouble I’d been to. Then the doctor pushed his cold hands all around on my chest for a long time and listened to my insides with an even colder stethoscope. Eventually, he announced that I had a pulled muscle. He told Mom to give me a baby aspirin and a day of rest, but I knew an injury this severe would take at least a week on the couch to heal up.

I let a nurse put me in a wheelchair. When they rolled me out to the front desk, Mom remembered to be mad at BB again, especially when the clerk handed Mom the bill. Dad had lousy insurance back then. Mom had to pay for the two X-rays. “Seventy-five dollars? Each?” she cried, inviting the sympathetic clerk to share her astonishment as she fished in her purse for the checkbook.

For a moment, Mom’s eyes fell on BB, still hunched attentively over my wheelchair. She pointed at him then said to the clerk. “Can I still return this one?”

It still needs work--it's only a first draft. But I'm already committed to this thing like an insane person to an asylum, so I guess that's something.

Hope that was worth waiting six weeks for. Maybe I'll post another taste one of these days.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I love it. Don't know if BB will love it but who the f*ck cares. :) I want to buy the first copy. Where can I buy it?
it's AWESOME. i look forward to more as always!!
Ah, brotherhood. Nicely done, it looks back on growing up without being overly nostalgic. Look forward to reading more chapters someday!
Lovely, MM. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Just absolutely, positively love it. Anyone with a sibling will laugh and relate. Those who are only children can only be grateful.
I have really missed your writing. Keep it coming and put me on the list for the hard copy.
Fantastic! Loved every sentence, every paragaph. Keep 'em coming, please!!

Loved it, it was worth the wait. I hope we get to hear more soon. Where do I get my copy?
I love stuff like this, MM. A whole book full of it will be a ticket to Heaven.
I am really liking this. Get to writing so I can read the whole thing. Thanks!
Great stuff! Thanks for sharing it. You've got such a great style of writing that is definitely your own, so I always know I'm in for something good when I start reading.
very nice. now i'm hungry for the rest. is it done yet?

how 'bout now? :-)
I like the stuff about your mom the best :) I love your mom.
Of course! Keep writing, dammit! I mean..........please.
Your writing, my friend, is always worth the wait. This taste merely gets the juices flowing for the steak that follows.
I loved it! I can't wait to read more...please :)
Yum. That was good stuff!

I'm with Heather. I just ADORE your Mom stories!
Sigh. Definitely worth the wait.
I jumped over here through a link on Arkansas Patti's blog. Well worth it! I very much enjoyed your story. Write on!
that comment that Gram George made when she first saw BB was pretty darn close to the same when she first saw Denise. I was really insulted and hurt. I still think she was a very hateful person. Did not get along with her at all.
I definitely agree with Suldog about this being a part of a "Ticket to Heaven". I am looking forward to having your book on my reading table. Lizardmom
Judging by the number of your blog readers who are anxious for you to get cracking and get this book done so we can each get at least one copy of it, I'd say you'll have a best seller on your hands for sure! A rival to Grogan's "Morley and Me" for sure!
So you can add my name to the list of those ready, willing and able to get a copy hot off the presses.
I'm looking forward to this book, AND your book recounting all of your October moments. All of them. Even the ones you haven't told us yet.

That's two books. That should keep you busy for a while.
Wonderful preview!!! So glad Arkansas Patti gave you a shout and I found you.

I wish you great success with your new venture and I will follow it.
I get your updates via Google Reader so I don't often leave a comment, but my adrenaline always surges when I see a new post. This is BRILLIANT. Can't wait to read more!
Damn good.
When you get it published.
Let us know.

I want to own one.

Good work.
Can't wait to read the rest of the stories.
Two thumbs up. Being a girl, I never had the dynamic with my brother that you and BB share. Very funny read.
I can't wait for the book. You have a best seller on your hands.Like all the rest who have spent any time reading your blog, I know you have a special story telling gift. I'm thrilled for you and am waiting patiently for your "other" news. Glad to have you back, MM.
That was FUN!
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