Rose

Rose and I had a complicated relationship. My parents pitted Rose against everyone else. They called her “evil” and were constantly fighting with and yelling at her. One of my earliest memories of Rose was watching the babysitter pull her from the window as she tried to run away. Rose was wearing a teal and white striped overall/t-shirt combo, bag packed for her new life.

She used to tell this story about when her and Robert got caught fighting and each parent thought the opposite child was at fault, so they would both get 3 lashes with a belt. This was before they moved on to spanking us with those cardboard rods you could take off hangers. The adults took the children to separate rooms to deal the punishment. As each parent thought their child was innocent, they spared them this time, making them promise to lie and say they got spanked.

My parents fought often. Once, as they were yelling downstairs, Rose and I were sat at the of the stairs. She could see the fear, sorrow, and confusion in my young eyes. She said something like, “This is all just a story. Do you know how it ends?”.

“Divorce?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she offered, “no one knows.”

Though our parents did a bang-up job demonizing Rose and conditioning us to hate her, we were still blood and they couldn’t break our connection. As we grew older, we went through phases of closeness and complete separation. It took me a long time to understand even a portion of Rose and how strong she had to be.

Being on the outs with my parents made Rose an excellent confidant, and somehow she knew she could trust me too. We were the respective black sheep of our blood lines.

Once, Rose entered my room in a hurry. She paced in front of me over and over asking if she smelt like cigarettes. I yelled her name in admonition, then said that I couldn’t smell the smoke. I later found out she was keeping one of her packs in my closet, as she thought my parents wouldn’t search there. She was right- I had some privacy for now.

Rose and I loved horror movies and most shows/movies that were forbidden to us. She brought The Ring home when it was new; Robert found out and made her watch it in the garage. My parents had instilled the belief that physical things held spirits associated with them. So, scary movies held and/or attracted demons. When I mistakenly let my mother watch Constantine, she made me put the DVD in the van until we could return it to Blockbuster.

When our mother was in the hospital, I think for her gallbladder, we visited her and asked if we could go see The Mummy Returns. She answered yes with a morphine-induced smile on her face; she was obviously less than thrilled with us when the drugs wore off. My heart pounded so hard during the film, I was 11 and it was one of the first “forbidden” movies I had seen. It was beautiful, thrilling and sacrilegious if you were a “bible-believing Christian.”

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Tumbleweeds

Guns were a part of my childhood. Starting with the classic bullseye BB gun, getting fancier, more elaborate and powerful pellet guns each birthday and Christmas. My father owned a 410 shotgun, a 12-gauge double-barrel, a 9mm handgun, and a .22 rifle, all of which he hid under the floorboards of a closet in preparation for “Y2K”. One of my father’s pellet guns (pictured above) was Japanese and very powerful, as illustrated by the immense force it took to pull the lever from the underside down toward the butt to cock the gun. It split like a wishbone when you cocked it, and as a kid, I would have to use both hands, one on the barrel, one on the lever. I’ll never forget the shock I felt as the mechanical bar slipped through my fingers and slammed my head into the sharp metal groove it was recoiling into, producing a little blood.

I honestly can’t remember if it was the Japanese gun, the .22, or both Chance and I were shooting that summer day, either one was potentially deadly. We had a huge cardboard box set up as a target, maybe 25 ft away. It was my turn to shoot. As unreal as it sounds, I remember a feeling- an innocent, almost goofy desire to aim a little higher than the target and into the woods behind it. Directly after I fired, Garret appeared from behind the target like a nausea-inducing Jack-in-the-Box. He had snuck behind the bullet-ridden cardboard while Chance and I were reloading and our father was busy working on the porch. He ran to Garret as I screamed and just about fainted; I knew I had almost killed my little brother.

We were rough and tumble kids through and through. We loved throwing our bodies around, whether it be on trampolines, dirt bikes, horses, go-karts, boogie boards progressing to surf boards in the Gulf of Mexico, or biking down to the marina and subsequently squishing countless leaping leopard grasshoppers on the ride. Our trampoline had a massive net held up by poles attached to the base surrounding it. After a few months of testing this safety feature with our projected bodies the netting gave way and eventually came off. For a brief period, before our parents noticed, we would run at the poles, swing around them and back onto the trampoline or into to the grass, re-enacting scenes from The Matrix.

A look of shock and terror set over Taylor’s face as her feet landed on the grass. I searched her expression for the cause, to which she screamed, “I swallowed a mosquito!!!”. She had the worst luck with bugs. One Easter when she was 4 or 5, my mom noticed her hair seemed to be moving around, upon further inspection, she found a stick bug, maybe two, tangled and squirming in perfect camouflage. A few Easters later, Rose, Taylor, and myself were playing cards on the porch around dusk, maybe the game was Crazy 8s. Without warning, a beetle loudly buzzed and in one movement landed on Taylor’s eye. She jumped up from the table flinging her hands and shrieking as she ran inside the house, leaving Rose and I to hold our stomachs in laughter.

Thunder House

My family lived fluctuating between having luxuries and living in poverty. Dirt bikes and a track bulldozed through the woods for them, a monster truck for my father- complete with a ridiculous sound system, a TV in each bedroom, and being sent into the grocery store with almost enough cash for everything on the list, my 11 yr old brain trying to figure out what part of dinner to put back. When we were really struggling, Taylor had to share a bedroom with 4 younger brothers. I bunked with Robert, whom I fought with to keep my Evanescence poster up.
During the few years of steady income my parents attached a double-wide mobile home to the back of our house, taking the room count from 5 to 10. My father even hired a guy (who looked like Thomas Jane) to help build a massive covered porch that started halfway down the side of the older home, followed the length of the new addition and wrapped around the back. This porch had ceiling fans, outlets, and two built-in benches on a landing leading to the huge yard. Grape vines would eventually cover most of the railings along with confetti lantana bushes placed here and there.
Directly in line with the porch steps was an above-ground pool. I got up early one morning to help my father set it up, trying to beat the mosquitoes with no luck. As we filled the inflatable ring of the pool, he said to the pests, “I’ll make you a deal: you can bite me, but I’m gonna kill you.” A chicken coop stood past the pool, at the edge of the forest, a path into the woods behind and to the right of the structure. If you looked right from the steps of the porch, you’d see the back of the garage, a picnic table on the slab of concrete in front of it, and a row of huge elephant ears between them. The new porch railing went right up to the garage and served almost as a step to the roof. I would sit there for hours and tear the cheap deteriorating shingles off the roof.
If you continued along the side of the woods, there was a trail-head next to a pond, which my father paid to have dug for my mother on Mother’s Day. I’ll never forget how pissed she was. “All I asked for was that the house be clean and now there’s a huge hole in my backyard!” she explained. That pond was the worst thing to happen to our property; it quickly became a home, not only for frogs and tadpoles, but long, black plains garter snakes, which my parents thought were water moccasins, and mosquito larvae.
In the front yard, a wooden swing hung from the huge, slightly off-center tree. We would swing for hours on cool nights and hot, humid afternoons. The tree’s growth had begun to swallow the chains, bark finding its way through the rusty metal. Behind the massive tree, 3 cement steps guided by a wrought iron railing led to our front door, black paint chipping from the bars to reveal dark rust. There was a small awning over the porch that would wear down and become a hazard to stand under.
There were two doghouse windows that belonged to the only two rooms upstairs, both of which would be mine at different times. We would switch rooms regularly to stave off boredom. From the front of the house, there was a fireplace peeking from the left and a 3-car garage to the right, past the picket fence which was broken up by a plastic lattice archway for the plants to cling to. The front door was heavy and swelled when it was humid and, being an hour’s drive from the coast, it was often humid.
There was a half-circle of windows at the top of the front door, through which you could see a staircase to the right and a hallway along the left side of the steps. At the end of the hall was a door leading to the bathroom which was drafty, but had a beautiful claw-foot tub. Opposite the bathroom door was a pantry under the stairs that smelled like old library books and had an antique latch mechanism with a tiny, oval-shaped knob. The hallway let out in what was originally our kitchen, an ancient black and white gas stove stood to the left of the entrance.
Upon entering the house there was a room to the right, used for many purposes over the years, and a huge doorway to the left entering the original living room. A huge brick fireplace was centered in the wall opposite the entrance, built-in white shelves and cabinets were fixed on either side of the brick mantle, the left one bearing the weight of our huge boxy TV. Along the right side of the room a wall separated my parents’ bedroom.
When the new trailer was attached to our house, like mix-matched play sets, my parents’ room was doubled in size by removing the wall between the two rooms and adding French doors to the entrance by the front door. Connecting the two houses was a hallway with four doors, one from my parents’ room, opposite that was a door leading into the computer/laundry room of the new house. At the other end of the plywood-floored hallway was a door leading outside and another back into the old kitchen, which would become a bedroom with French doors that let out onto the new porch.
The computer room was connected to the new dining room, which had to be 25ft x 10ft, with windows lining the left wall, an armoire stood catty-cornered in the first corner on the right. After a little use, my mother insisted the carpet in the dining room was destroyed, so we ripped it up and dyed the wooden floor underneath a deep forest green. In the center of the room was a distressed white table that could seat a basketball team, made by the only uncle I had on my father’s side. We had met two, maybe three times. A decent-sized kitchen with an island stood between the new dining and living rooms. Before you reached the kitchen, there was a door on the right wall opening to what was supposed to be the master bedroom, inside there were double doors to the left leading to another room. On the right there was a bathroom door that connected to a huge hallway-style closet with it’s own door back into the bedroom.
In the kitchen, the stove and fridge were on the right and the sink on the left, a window above it looking into Mr. Cothin’s backyard. The kitchen let out into a sizable L-shaped living room with a hallway leading to three bedrooms and a bathroom, along the wall of the common space, a door led first to a 6ft drop and later to a finished porch. Following the porch to the right, past hordes of wicker furniture, took you towards the front house and connected to the garage. As you can imagine, 12-15 people produce a hefty amount of waste. I think at one point we had 10 full-size trash cans. To enter the garage, you would step from the porch onto cinder blocks in the doorway. If you were standing there on the blocks, there was an open space directly behind your feet, leading under the porch. We would soon find out that raccoons thoroughly appreciated our garbage. If you forgot to make some noise before entering the garage at night, 3-5 scrambling bandits would run directly over your feet and under the porch, running under the length of it to the end closest to the safety of the woods.
The messes they would leave smelled terrible. The little bastards would drag trash around and leave it in places you couldn’t get to shy of using a sledgehammer. So, the garage usually smelled like hot diapers. Even a custom-built cage of wire and wood for the trashcans didn’t keep them out. It was my job to take out the trash, so this meant first sweeping up the ketchup-covered papers and rotting produce into an industrial-sized dustpan that got so much use its handle eventually broke off.
When the smell wasn’t overwhelming, the garage was used as a gym. A punching bag hung from an old rafter, a weight bench and free weights took over whatever space was left in the first two bays, which were cluttered with bikes for 10 children. The last bay was divided from the others by a wall, inside were probably 5 dirt bikes and an old workshop in the back with doors made of wood slats. The bay would become a practice room for my eldest brother’s band, “Chozen”. Pink and yellow egg-crate were stapled to the walls and spray-painted black. All us kids loved hanging out with the band and singing along to their overtly Christian songs.
My strongest memory of this room is the time I went to feed our pet gerbils in the old workshop, JC and CJ respectively, only to find our grey and white cat, Sylvester, finishing up his two-course meal.

Fourth

I am 4th of 13, born 2 days after the 4th of May, which is my grandmother’s birthday. She still tells me the story of how she walked around all day, up and down stairs with my mother, trying to induce labor so we could share a birthday. In order of age, oldest to youngest, there is Robert, Rose, Brandon, myself, Taylor, Garret, Avery, Amory, Emory, Creed, Cade, Asher, and Channing. Robert and Rose have different fathers, whom none of us have ever met or even know their names. We grew up together, all except Brandon, who is from my father’s previous marriage and grew up with his mother’s family. My parents were ashamed of and did her best to hide their past, as a result, Brandon and I only spent time together 3 times until I was 20 and he tracked me down. He came to visit once when I was 8, which I have little memory of and again when I was 11. I was obsessed with movies by this point, loved sharing them, and he hadn’t been allowed to see many, so that accounted for most of our time together. Upon his departure, I cried on the bathroom floor; I knew he understood me better than anyone.
The last time I saw him was brief and he disappeared for almost a decade after. I was 13 and helping my favorite aunt move into her brother’s house when I got a call saying he would only be there for a day; he must’ve been in town for a child support hearing. I decided I would stay, help my aunt, and head home when we were done. It took longer than expected to reach a stopping point, by the time I got home it was after midnight. I was sharing a room with Robert at this point, and upon entering, I saw Brandon asleep in my bed, his huge cross tattoo visible from the doorway. Robert’s bed was a mattress that was shoved under the bed during the day. I remember looking at my brothers and realizing how vastly different they were before going downstairs to pass out on the couch. In the early hours of the next day, Brandon woke me up only to hug me goodbye on his way to the airport with our father. Years later, I wasn’t sure if the farewell was a dream or a memory.
We were raised with strict rules. I can still remember the first day of kindergarten, sitting on the floor of the classroom with the other students as we recited with the teacher. “God’s word is truth, eternal, cannot be changed, is law,” blah, blah, blah, repeated over 14 years. Aside from being in church every Sunday, we were either in Christian school or home-schooled; my parents feared that public school would corrupt us, failing to realize that private school is where some of the kids end up after getting kicked out of public school.
We moved into a two-story house from the early 1900s when I was 6 years old or so. This is the place where Avery, the twins, Creed, and Cade would be born. These were the 3 acres we would get lost in, the railroad tracks we would climb to, the magnolia trees I would scale to bury my face in the white blossoms, the roses that sat on either corner of the house, and the honeysuckles we would taste. The rosemary bush growing through the white picket fence in the background of a photo of your wild eyes, Amory. The wide gully which started at the street and disappeared into the woods that Taylor and I would drive into and out of accidentally as Garret jumped off the back of the go-kart, having zero faith in our ability to survive the 5 foot drop. I gunned the gas pedal and we shot out of the other side, adrenaline pumping. When rainstorms would flood the ditch by the street, we would ride inner tubes down the ditch in the 3 ft of rushing water.
These blades of grass, the smell of the honeysuckle vines at the edge of the woods as I rode my dirt-bike past, close as I could. They toy and visit with my mind, as if I could almost touch them, an inch away from time travel, if only I could smell them again. I would trade 100 or even 1000 of my tomorrows for one day in the past with you, my cluster. One moon to tell you the story that words fail.
The first few years we spent there were a blur. At one point, my G-Ma came to live with us, at another, it was my best friend and his mother. This arrangement was obviously not ideal for the adults, but I was ecstatic to have my best friend around. We would rent movies with his mom, Sun, and screen them on Robert’s TV. Jaws 1-4, The Cure, and The Matrix were among some of our choices.
Chance made the best hiking buddy. We would regularly make our way through the woods to the steep hill that led to the train tracks. We usually each had a machete in hand, snacks in a backpack along with cans of spray paint we snuck out of the garage.
One hot Texas day we reached the top of the hill, it must’ve been 40 ft high, only to find the headless corpse of a small tan dog laying against the tracks as if the wheels had decapitated the pup. We searched nearby for the missing piece to no avail. Once we noticed people walking towards us in the distance, we hurried down the railroad tracks. The machete in my hand felt condemning. We made it to the familiar place where the bridge over Bear Lake, off the San Jacinto river, starts and provides an easy way down to the water, huge rocks piled up on either side.
We made our initials in the neon spray on the underside of the bridge. Most times we were alone on our expeditions, the kids were too young to keep up. Occasionally we would encounter a homeless man fishing or communing with trees, speculating that he lived on the small island in the middle of the lake.

Hands

It doesn’t seem real, and maybe that’s the years of numbing, but it will never feel natural to have cut communication with my parents. I still see my mother’s hands writing a grocery list, organized by the different departments of the store. Blue ink creating little 3-D boxes in the margins while she thought and planned hearty meals of boneless fried chicken, mashed potatoes, chicken gumbo, zucchini simmered in butter, baked mac & cheese with shredded cheese on top, green beans, corn on the cob, smothered steak, spaghetti and meatballs, homemade pizza, tacos, enchiladas, tostadas.. She taught me how to cook and how to draw those simple boxes. By the time I was 10 or so, I could batter chicken, chop veggies, make cornbread, peel, mash, and season potatoes, etc.
I was working with my father by age 14. He does paint and body work on semi-trucks and shuttle buses. It’s lucrative, but taxing work; peeling stickers off a semi trailer with a blow-torch and your fingernails leaves its mark. This was called “de-IDing” and was mostly what I did, aside from cleaning airport shuttles and sanding huge trailers and buses to prep them for painting. This work, while it paid well, was not for me. I liked my hands and hated the way the hot stickers and chemicals would suck dry my fingertips, leaving them hard and cracked, like my father’s, by the end of the day.
I was always my mother’s child. Though my father called me his “#1 lookalike,” I never wanted to be like him. We shared a love of martial arts and adrenaline-inducing activities like dirt bikes, jet skis, and cars, but that’s the highest level we could relate on. I remember imagining that he thought the way he spoke. Hearing his voice talk through what he was doing in a kind of impatient infantile speech, with exclamations where they didn’t belong, was enough to make me want to distance myself from his mindset. He told me that $100 was nothing, that he “peed that much every morning,” further explaining that the money was spent on a fast-food breakfast and supplies such as a putty-like substance used to fill in dents called “bondo,” paint thinner, sandpaper, and various other chemicals for the day’s work.
We left the house at 7 AM at the latest in order to beat traffic. The lots where he worked were always by an airport or hotels with cheap weekly rates in some god-forsaken part of town that you would have no other reason to visit. He obtained most of his accounts by going into the businesses and talking with a manger. Since he owned his own company, he could usually offer them a better deal than what they were getting from a corporation. If nothing else, my father was charismatic, for which my mother shamed him. “You can’t go in to a gas station without trying to make the clerk like you,” she once said. Like a pastor at a mega-church, this charisma was self-serving. He needed people to validate him and don’t most of us?
For a while, my older brother, Robert, who was finishing up high school, would handle a couple of the shuttle bus accounts. I much preferred working with him. He would let me listen to secular music, as long as I kept the secret. We listened to Bush, Audioslave, Limp Bizkit (wince), Linkin Park, and the like. 94.5 The Buzz was the “alternative” station in Houston, TX. Sometimes we wouldn’t get home until well after midnight, scarfing down Taco Bell on the way. Robert was my mother’s first-born and it seemed like he was always torn between the example he was supposed to set and the inborn desires he had to listen to “ungodly” music, have sex with his girlfriend, or joke with his friends about masturbation, as if guilt wasn’t conditioned into us for these natural urges.