The biggest discovery of my first Little League summer was Gatorade. It cost 39 cents at the time and came in that lemon-lime flavor that Jim said looked like owl piss. It tasted better than water and, for the most part, it kept me from passing out after long afternoons playing baseball in the sun. My headaches finally stopped when some parent complained that the pesticide the school used to kill bugs was actually poisoning us.
It was my first year in junior high, which is now, for some reason, called middle school. That meant 7 different teachers, not just the one teacher we had in elementary school. A prototypical nerd, I looked forward to the schoolwork, which I loved. Mostly, though, I looked forward to the start of the school year because it meant shopping for clothes. All summer long I formulated my clothes strategy. I would go to the Army-Navy store in the Orange Circle and make a list of things I wanted. One of my friend’s parents gave each kid in their family a budget for school clothes. They could buy whatever they wanted, as long as they came within budget. My parents were a lot more cavalier about shopping. “You need this? Fine? That? Okay. Let me think about that.” “Mommmmm…” “Okay, we’ll get that too.”
My list consisted 5 Hang Ten t-shirts, each with a pair of bare feet as the logos. 3 pairs of corduroy pants, which are now known as narrow or slim. At the time they only came in one size because boys in those days weren’t as chubby as they are now. And good old Chuck Taylor high-tops. Black. It was the Saturday before Labor Day. Shopping Day. I woke up to the smell of sourdough pancakes, made with the starter that sat in the fridge for 24 years, until the day after he died and my mother, in a pique of despair, emptied the fridge. There was sausage that Jim made from pork he bought from the Mexicans. Tortillas made by my Mom’s best friend. And orange juice that came from the orange trees in the back yard.
I moseyed out to the kitchen. Jim was sitting there at the table drinking coffee and reading the L.A. Free Press. I knew he’d show me the latest installment of the Fat Freddy’s Cat cartoon series and then read me something from the personal ads. At the time I didn’t understand what the ads meant. Now I do. Boy, do I. Piss showers? Really? The kitchen was an unholy mess, as it always was when Jim took over the kitchen. I knew that Mom would clean it up.
Except, where was Mom? The turquoise basket where’d she put her pink hair curlers after taking them out of her hair wasn’t on the table. There wasn’t a Welcome to Luverne, Minnesota coffee mug sitting next to the basket. There wasn’t that cloud of cigarette smoke that always remained above her head like a halo and moved with her around the kitchen. We weren’t listening to the news on KFI-AM. I figured she was somewhere – at the neighbors, perhaps. Maybe she went to get something at the market.
I sat down to eat. Jim showed me Fat Freddy Cat. He read me a personal ad about something called coprophilia. I’m glad I wasn’t so curious about words then as I am now. Still no Mom. The Army-Navy store was going to open in a half hour. Figuring I’d get the show on the road with some movement, I said to him – and to Mom who I assumed was hiding somewhere – “Well, I’ll brush my teeth and then we can get going.”
Jim didn’t move. As I brushed my teeth, it occurred to me that not only was my Mom not there, but neither were my brother and sister. I came out of the bathroom and asked where everyone was. “It’s just you and me today,” he said.
What? At the time, I lived in a very orderly universe. Piano practice at 5:30 on weekday mornings, baseball in the afternoons, and a set sequence of TV shows at night. Now, of course, I know better than to think the universe is orderly, mostly because I’ve since learned it doesn’t revolve around me. At the time, though, this was a disaster. “But who’s going to take me school shopping?” I asked, in a voice that confirmed I had yet to begin puberty. “I am,” said Jim, “Let’s go.”
I didn’t wonder where Mom and my brother and sister had gone. I just wondered if we were going to get the clothes I had so carefully researched and then, as we always did when we were at the Circle, go to Watson’s Drug and Soda Fountain for a hamburger, fries, and chocolate malt. At the time the Vietnam War was raging on the other side of the world. Jim had been to a couple of funerals for the sons of his Mexican friends. I had no clue about this or his sometimes Morose Saturdays he would return from a funeral dressed in his special occasion turquoise bolo tie and sit on the sofa and drink Jim Beam and play mariachi records on the record player all night.
Jim wasn’t talking much so I wasn’t talking much. We headed west on Chapman Avenue, towards the circle. I saw 4 of my friends riding double on 2 Sting Ray bikes with tall cissy bars on their way to play football. We passed the Jack in the Box fast food place where, 3 years later, my best friend Timboe would shoot out Jack’s eyes with Jim’s 22-caliber rifle while Jim and Helen were at a quinceanera. Instead of going straight through Tustin Avenue, we turned right. “Oh oh,” I thought, “we’re making one of Jim’s Vaunted Detours.” These detours would drive my Mom crazy. We could be going out to get a haircut one morning and, next thing I know, we’re exploring a ghost town in Bodie. I was about to ask Jim what was going on when he suddenly began to sing from Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine.” Yikes, I thought, this is going to be an Adventure.
We didn’t drive far, about 4 blocks. Then we pulled up to a strip mall that had a record store, a place my Grandma called a smut shop, 2 bars next to each other, out of each was blasting rock and roll in a language I didn’t understand, and a place called Big Daddy. We got out of the car. Jim said something I couldn’t hear to the voter registration guy wearing huarache sandals, white bell bottoms, and a serape in front of the record store. Someone I recognized as my 5th grade teacher Miss McCannis came spinning out of one of the bars. One day in 5th grade she came to school with a black eye. She said she got in a fight with Cassius Clay. When she saw Jim, she smiled and bowed. When she saw me, she planted a kiss on the top of my head. “So long boys,” she said, as she spun back into the bar. We got to Big Daddy and went in.
Big Daddy was a clothes store. At least I think it was. Instead of neat little rows of pants and shirts organized like vegetables at the market, I saw clothes hung over chairs and counters, hung from ceilings, and draped over the mirrors outside of changing rooms. Clothes were crammed into bins and cardboard boxes on the floor. Music exploded out of 5-foot high speakers. I thought my ears were going to cave in. The place spelled funny. I didn’t yet know what pot and patchouli were. In a glass case next to the beaded entry to the storeroom was an array of bongs. I didn’t know what those were, either. More effort was spent on the arrangement of the bongs than of the clothes. Though no one had come to serve us, Jim was already rummaging around the clothes the way Mom and Grandma do at Buffum’s or Bullock’s when there’s a blue light sale. Suddenly I realized, “Oh oh, Jim’s picking out my school clothes.” I crumbled my list into a ball.
He asked me to come over to a rack of shirts. “Hold this up,” he said. It was a dress shirt. The buttons were where they were supposed to be but it didn’t have a collar. It was the color of sinus infection snot and had these little amoeba decorations all over it. “Perfect,” he said. What?
He moved to the next rack. This was not going as I had planned it. Not at all. That’s when the fattest man I’ve ever seen came through the beaded door from the storeroom. I never did learn how he knew Jim. Whenever we made these Vaunted Detours, Jim seemed to know people that my Mom and, especially, my Grandma would call Undesirable. He came up to him like they were old friends. His hair and beard were the same length, so his head looked and smelled like a moldy muffin. He wore round pink tinted glasses that were too small for his massive face, and a serape, just like the voter registration guy. He was naked under his serape.
“My man!” he said, doing some odd handshake that Jim seemed to know how to do. Though Jim was a stocky guy, with arms like Popeye, this guy dwarfed him. I had to crowd in to hear what they were saying because the music was so loud. I assumed they were talking about my school clothes. Then I heard him say “Ah, man, I’m sorry to hear that. She’ll come back. I guarantee it. Wanna get stoned?” “No, that’s okay, thanks,” said Jim. “We’ll figure it out,” he said. “We always do.”
Then Jim gave me $5 and told me to go Amuse Myself. I knew that was his code for telling me to scram and normally I would because $5 meant 100 pieces of nickel candy. The problem was, we were school shopping. “But shouldn’t I be around for this?” I asked. “No, it’ll be fine. I’ll be out shortly,” he said. Then he and Big Daddy walked to the back of the room.
Well, this wasn’t what I expected. I thought we were going to Army-Navy and Watson’s and instead we were at Big Daddy. Whatever, I was going to blow the $5 and See What Happens. That’s one of my Grandpa’s favorite expressions, Let’s See What Happens. I came out of Big Daddy, followed by a whoosh of stinky smoke. There was a TG&Y store across the street. As I was about to head over, Miss McCannis came out of the bar. She wasn’t spinning anymore, so I got a good look at her. Although it was only a little after 9 in the morning, she already had what Mom called her Happy Hour expression on her face. Her hair was held in place with a headband covered with daisies. I saw she wasn’t wearing any shoes. She was wearing this slinky, silky dress-like thing like the blonde girl wore in “I Dream of Jeannie.” Timboe was right – Miss McCannis was stacked. I walked over to her like she was a magnet and I was a nail. I felt like a nail because I suddenly had a boner.
At first she didn’t recognize me, even though she had just kissed me on the head a few minutes before. Then her eyes seemed to focus. She walked up and wiped the lipstick off the top of my head. “We can’t have you walking around town with lipstick smeared on your head now, can we? People might talk.”
I just stared at her. She was my teacher when I was in 5th grade and now I was going into 7th grade and she was talking to me like we were old friends. “How’s your dad?” she asked. “You mean Jim?” I said. “Of course I mean Jim. Do you have any other father?” “Um, no, I said,” as if that was the most ridiculous question in the world. “Well tell him that Pam says hi.” “Pam?” “That’s my name, silly. Pam McCannis. He’s a swell guy.” “Who, my father?” “Yes, your father. Tell him I appreciate what he did for me very, very, very much.” A weird day had just gotten weirder. “And what did he do for you?” I asked. “Let’s just say he got me out of a very awkward situation. One day you’ll understand.”
It was clear that she wasn’t budging on the details so I told her I was going to TG&Y. “Can I come?” she asked. “Huh?” I said. “I said, Can I come with you?” “Yeah, sure.” I said. I was very confused.
She walked out in the middle of Tustin Avenue like she was a crossing guard. Right in the middle of traffic. It was clear that she wasn’t going to budge, so the cars had no choice but to slam on their brakes so they didn’t squash her. Horns started honking. “Come on, silly, “ she said, “we don’t have all day.” She took me hand like she was my Grandma and we crossed the street.
I was loading up on Abba Zabbas and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Big Hunks and Chicklo Sticks. The woman behind the counter said it was a little early for Halloween. She walked away from the counter and came back with a yellow pillowcase. “Put them in here,” she said. Suddenly, I had a yellow pillowcase full of candy. As Mom would say, I was Ready for Action.
I went looking for Miss McCannis. She was standing in front of a mirror, holding a red polka dot shower curtain wrapped around her like a bathroom towel. She was singing Mom’s favorite song, “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife.” Her eyes were closed and she was twirling around like she was dancing. Now she looked even more like I Dream of Jeannie. “Um, Miss McCannis,” I said, “isn’t it time to leave?” She stopped dancing and turned to look at me. I’ll be danged, but she was crying. “Are you okay?” I asked. I was scared out of my wits. Was she worried that I was going to get sick from eating a pillowcase full of candy? “I’m fine,” she said, “I was just thinking about what your father did once.” She wiped the tears off her face with her hand, put the shower curtain back where she got it. The lady was still behind the counter, looking at us funny. “I paid for these, remember?” I said. Miss McCannis again stopped traffic like a crossing guard. She walked me over to Big Daddy and gave me a big hug, the kind Mom would suddenly give me out of the blue. “Thank you,” she said, “you were a true gentleman.” Then she walked over to her yellow Mustang and drove off.
Jim was walking out of Big Daddy as I was about to go in. His arms were full of bags. “Oh oh,” I thought, “I bet he picked out clothes. I hope he’s got the receipt because Mom will have to come back to get a refund.” Again I wondered where Mom and my brother and sister were.
Later that night, Jim and I were barbecuing hamburgers and hotdogs in the back yard. Jim had let out our two terriers, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart, out of the coop and began to throw them uncooked wieners. He put one in his unzipped pants and had Stonewall Jackson come and rip it out of his pants. That was funny the first time he did it when me and Timboe were camping in the backyard. Now though, as my Mother would say each time she heard the story, it was just anecdotal. Patsy Cline was singing a song on the jukebox about how she was crazy about feeling so lonely and that’s when I heard the station wagon pull up in the drive way. I got up to show Mom my clothes. Jim grabbed my arm. “Wait,” he said, “let them come out here.” My brother and sister came out back. My sister looked at the clothes I had laid out of the picnic table and started laughing for 5 minutes straight. I would have laughed too if I wasn’t so embarrassed. If Jim had his way, I was going into 7th grade wearing the most ridiculous clothes I had ever seen. I had two things Jim called Nehru jackets, one gold, one a dirty red. I had three pair of bell-bottom pants. One was a light blue plaid, one was bright yellow, one was lime green. I had a pair of brown boots, the kind I later learned were called jodhpurs. There was a thick brown belt with an amethyst on the buckle, a headband that looked like it was made from the serape that Big Daddy was wearing, and round glasses with thin wire frames. “I don’t wear glasses,” I told Jim. “That’s okay,” he said, “they’re not prescription lenses.
Finally Mom came out. She looked tired, but Pretty Tired, as if she had gotten to the end of a rope and then decide to climb back up. “How was shopping?” she said. “How was shopping? Look at this,” said my sister, “he’s going to be the laughing stock of school, that’s how shopping was.” Mom did this half smile, which I later learned meant that she was laughing at the thing itself as well as at the absurdity of the universe. Patsy Cline was now singing about walking after midnight looking for someone. Jim hadn’t looked up from the barbecue. She hadn’t looked at him.
I asked her, “Why would Miss McCannis be so grateful for something that Jim did for her? I saw her this morning and she said maybe one day I’d understand.” This time Mom did a Full Smile, one of those ones that meant that the angels were about to sing. She sat me down on a chair and told me a story. The whole time Jim was motionless. He just poked a stick in the fire. She told me a story that made me realize how Jim could be two people at once. Maybe even three. She told me about an abusive boyfriend and how Jim almost went to jail and how, in certain circumstances, two wrongs can make a right. How there’s a balance to the universe, but only if you tip it a little. “That sort of story,” she said, “is why I married him.” Before she went into the house, she walked up behind him and kissed him on the top of his head. She had kissed him the exact same spot that Miss McCannis had kissed me. A few minutes later, Jim followed her into the house.