(Since Zin is currently obsessed with second person, I’ll be taking over the PEN/O.Henry comments for a while).
This was before things changed, before Hurricane Camille, the casinos. Long before Hal’s death in a car wreck at the age of twenty-one, my father’s heart attacks and fatal stroke, the aneurism that took our mom, my younger brother Ray’s drug addiction and long-term illness.
That’s not a spoiler: it’s the second paragraph. I don’t have much to say about this story (you can read it online). It reads smoothly. It’s got some moving parts. But it felt incomplete, like some pages got stuck together or were missing. It’s a perfect portrait of what used to be called, back in the 80’s (I don’t know if this terminology still exists) the “dysfunctional family” with the hero (Hal), the scapegoat (Ray), and the lost child (our narrator).
And the lost child uses this story to change that script. Younger brother Ray is mentioned in the opening paragraphs then not mentioned again. His brief appearance is striking. He is, at age two, left with Grandma, and it’s intimated that a vacation with Ray would be little vacation at all, since he’s demanding and attention-seeking. The narrator is glad Ray is not there: “his absence made more possible – or so I imagined – for me to get more of Hal’s and my parent’s attention myself.” The inclusion of “or so I imagined” indicates this was not actually the case: Hal meets another boy and starts hanging out with him and his family. So even changing the script doesn’t work for him.
Mom is a jumble of fears. She witnessed a drowning and fears water. The narrator realizes, too late of course, how much courage it must’ve taken for her to even go in the pool. She takes paregoric for her nervous gut. She’s straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. She and Dad eventually divorce. She dies alone. I’m not sure what the point is.
There’s a real sense of place here (Ecotone is, after all, a journal dedicated to place). Not exactly place – I don’t know much about Gulfport, but I remember those old motels along the I-95 corridor, and in the same time period I too loved them: the swimming pool, the noisy, smelly air conditioners, the Magic Fingers beds, unfamiliar TV stations, the tacky rooms with paper bathmats and paper-wrapped soaps and sashes proclaiming the toilet has been sanitized that seem impossibly exotic to a seven-year-old.
He hits the nail on the head like this in other areas:
A second child will always feel displaced by the first. People say it’s the other way around but it’s not. Later in life there are the photographs you discover of your older sibling, before you were born, with one or both of your parents. It’s then, after you’ve had children yourself and know the experience in your own life, that you understand the bond between the new, young parents and their first child. You understand how miraculous and illuminating it is….when the second child comes along, it is only as if the eclipsing body has moved aside, moved along in its path. The parents’ sense of wonder as passed….
I’m sure the oldest child has a similarly distinct, though completely different perspective, but this really covers middle-child-syndrome pretty well. When I (a second, but youngest, child) was about ten, I found these words of wisdom in Reader’s Digest (the literary form preferred by my father): “You never see parents wake up their second baby just to see him smile.” I pondered on that for many years before realizing it had two meanings: on the surface, they know the consequences of waking a baby and appreciate silence and sleep more; but also, they have lost that sense of wonder. I don’t think anything my parents ever did made me feel more like a second child than that sentence. That I remember it nearly a half century later gives some measure of the impact it had on me.
There’s also a wonderful image of the narrator remembering, perhaps inventing, a Tarzan episode (oh, yes, I loved Tarzan movies, they were broadcast on UHF channels every Saturday afternoon) in which Tarzan was shot in the forehead. He realizes, as an adult, this probably did not happen, that no movie studio would have made such a movie, but still was awed by the Tarzan who could survive such a thing.
The story is full of these wonderful little bits. Sometimes it’s just a sentence: “When you are quiet, you are different, which makes everyone a little nervous and suspicious.” Or a perfectly executed scene of a man repeatedly cannonballing in the pool to splash his wife, much to her dismay, until the diving board breaks and rips of his little toe (or maybe it’s his big toe, Dad says impossible, it’s just like Mom to make it seem much worse than it was). They return from this vacation to discover a tornado has torn through town; their house is standing, but trees are down and the area is a mess. Impending catastrophe just around the corner is a running theme.
I’m sure there are miracles of discursive rhetoric (a term from Zin’s Second Person Study; don’t ask me what it means) that are eluding me here, but it was just a nice read with a lot of evocative moments. All unhappy families are supposed to be unhappy in their own way, but this one, it seemed to me, was pretty stereotypically unhappy.