Birds and Bees

Mom’s request seemed as random as anything I’d ever heard spew from her caustic maw. “Clean out your drawers—I want to switch my chest for your dresser.”

“Jeez, mom—what the heck are you talking about?”

“Your dresser. I want to put it in my bedroom and give you my chest of drawers. Your dresser holds more shit—clean it out so we can switch.” 

“Gimme a second—I’m organizing my magic library.”

Because she was nomadic by nature, mom frequently grew tired of our surroundings. This is what compelled us to move so often, sometimes to as many as three apartments per year. Because she didn’t drive a car, we always packed light. To minimize log jams on issues like interior design, mom and I shared components from the same thrifty bedroom ensemble. One chest, one dresser, two nightstands, and two bedframes: one double, one single. If whatever apartment we moved into that month couldn’t accommodate mom’s desk, Dictaphone and IBM typewriter, I’d take the big bed and dresser and mom would make do with the single bed, chest, and night stand. 

Why mom wanted to switch dressers in this home was not readily apparent. We’d lived there for months before she got the urge to redecorate. After shelving my treasured volumes on prestidigitation, I begrudgingly complied. Before I could empty the contents of my massive dresser onto my bed, mom had already dragged her chest of drawers into the hallway. After helping her shove my empty dresser into her tiny live/work space, I began the painstaking process of re-organizing my clothes. Socks and underwear up top, T-shirts and shorts in the middle, color-coordinated bed linens in the bottom. That’s when I found two items mom had overlooked: a scratchy synthetic blanket, and a paperback tome nearly two inches thick with a title that tickled me where my bathing suit covered the second I read it. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But were Afraid to Ask).

I was eleven, so of course I had questions. Why do some kids have hair on their balls? How come my dick look like a snail in a turtleneck and my friend John Reagan’s looks like a baby with a plum in its fist? Why did the principal at Jesse P. Miller Elementary get fired for spanking girls over his knee? I quickly buried my find under the Houdini biography in my nightstand, then returned the blanket before she could realize what was missing. “Thanks, Harold,” she said. “I’ll need this blanket—it’s supposed to get cold tonight.” Most nights mom slept in the cozy embrace of a single-malt fog—what did she know about cold?

It if snowed dog shit in our living room that evening, I wouldn’t have noticed. Mom’s sex manual consumed me. So many questions. So many answers. Each one spelled out in a captivatingly dry, pedantic manner. Fellatio. mom called me a cocksucker all the time—is this what she meant? Masturbation. Now there was a word I could use to impress the girls at the park. Cunillingus. Sounded reasonable to me, especially after learning how difficult it is for women to experience vaginal orgasms. Orgasms. So that’s what happened every time I washed my dick. A dick, I was relieved to learn, that was exactly three-eighths of an inch longer than average. It took me three days to finish Dr. Reuben’s manual, and another month to show it off to friends. Mom didn’t know it, but her book had turned me into a guru among every sexual neophyte in the sixth grade. Or did she?

After referencing mom’s weighty missive at least a dozen times, a challenge materialized: how was I going to get rid of it? I couldn’t simply hand it back to her; doing so would instantly brand me a sexual deviant. Hiding the book in perpetuity wasn’t an option, although storing it as I had for the previous five weeks in the dust bag on our Hoover was an inspired bit of subterfuge—mom was more likely to translate the New Testament into Sanscrit than push a vacuum. No, for me, consuming Dr. Ruben’s manual was much easier than disposing it. We lived about 500 yards from a small neighborhood lake—I could have tied it to a rock and thrown it in the water. Better yet, my best friend Kenny Bacon had a fireplace—why didn’t I just burn it, or simply throw it in a dumpster on my way to school? 

Faced with too many fool-proof solutions, I did what any other addle-headed adolescent blinded by birds and bees might do—I threw it on the roof of our house. As long as mom didn’t climb the tree in our back yard, my secret would be safe. We were probably going to move in ten weeks, anyway, so I liked the odds of my gamble. In the end, Dr. Rueben’s book decomposed peacefully beneath the brilliant Florida sun. And in Coach Peepers’ sex-ed class, my knowledge of all things vulgar, twisted, abhorrent, and profane shined just as bright.

Dress for Success

Had she not earned a “D” in PE her senior year—an achievement I topped with an “F” in the same class by the tenth grade—my mother could have been the valedictorian in Manatee High School’s Class of ‘59. Instead, that academic faux pas earned her a one-way bus ticket to secretarial school in Jacksonville, Florida. Hardly the scholastic springboard to fame and fortune mom dreamed of. Still, Jeanette emersed herself in her studies with customary fervor. After mastering the arcane language of Gregg shorthand and accelerating her typing skills to a blistering 172 WPM, mom shared laughs and smokes with an acrobatic water skier at the Jacksonville YWCA. When the company of bull dikes and unwed mothers became too much for mom and her roommate to swallow, the girls would dodge curfew at the Y and hit the town. With a bottle of Thunderbird and a pack of cigarettes stuffed beneath their trench coats, the ladies would sneak off to shoot pool with the sailors on R&R in Jacksonville harbor.

One sailor who caught mom’s eye was an 18-year-old yooper from Michigan. Friends called him Harold. Family members called him Sluggo. By their third date, mom was calling him Mack. One year later, friends at the Y were calling their ex-roommate “Mrs. McGruther.”

Precious few memories I have of my father were formed by any real experiences I shared with the man. His triple commitment to manic depression, marital infidelity and serving his country didn’t leave much time for baseball and bike rides. Instead, nearly all the illuminating portraits of dad hanging in my head were painted by my mother. One of my favorites shows a short, solidly built Italian guy tearing the Jacksonville phone book in half with this bare hands. Then there’s the SCUBA diver loading his gear into a white ‘64 Chevy II with a red vinyl interior—the only paint combination that appealed to his double-colorblind eyes. Other snapshots include yo-yo coach, car crash victim and wearer of small pants.

When I was 12 years old, I wore the same sized pants as my father: 28 square. Among fashion-conscious preteens of the day, Sears Toughskins were all the rage. Boys dug the groovy colors. Budding young flower girls liked their hip-hugging silhouette. Mothers and Catholic priests praised their reinforced knees. Unlike conventional blue jeans, grandma could cut off a pair of Toughskins with pinking shears and the ballistic-grade polyester would never fray. Pegged or flared and in every color of the rainbow, Toughskins where the pants to wear when you had to wear pants. Of course, I wore Moleskins. These thinly veiled pretenders to the Toughskins throne were the house trouser at Montgomery Ward’s.

Because it didn’t have a power tool line to rival Sears’ Craftsman brand, Ward’s was where divorced women and their fatherless crumb snatchers shopped for frocks and togs. Mom’s favorite flame-retardant pantsuits came off the rack at Montgomery Ward’s. When there was money left over from the 125 bucks per week she pulled down at the law offices of Frank Arpaya, Mom would buy me a pair of Moleskins in mustard, avocado, or some other funky earth tone. Among boys my age, one polyester pant was as good as the next. To the discerning eye and supple flesh of this young haberdasher, Moleskins were a tactile abomination. I blame no one but my father for the anguish and discomfort I suffered in those relentlessly abrasive, ill-fitting jeans. Fortunately, it didn’t take too many of grandma’s Boston cream pies to snatch me out of Ward’s boys department and straight into menswear. After reaching that milestone, my sartorial priorities took a turn for the wurst. Although I was built like a sausage, my mom was determined not to let me dress like one.

If the look for boys in the summer of ‘69 was Tom Sawyer, mine was Tom Jones. Mom took great pride in turning me out at holiday dinners and grade-school music recitals in ruffled tuxedo shirts, polyester bellbottoms and pastel suits. Pimps are expected to dress like that. It’s good for business. When your business is practicing magic and hiding boogers beneath the sofa, prancing around the schoolyard like a Welsh lounge singer was an invitation for an ass kicking. Then as now, I deflected caustic confrontations with a shield of self-deprecating wit. With so much good material to draw from, learning to laugh at myself came easy.

Anchors Away

I love cruise ships. There’s something magical about piling into a floating cut-rate casino with 3000 buffet assassins and their feral offspring that makes suffering a week of sea sickness worth the low five figures Paula and I typically burn to endure the experience. If that sounds amazing hold onto your life vest, because at every port-o-call on these journeys there’s a decommissioned school bus waiting to whisk you and a thousand other geriatric gadabouts to a swamp, pirate’s brothel, or hole in the ground—just show your passport, fork over 89 dollars and walk the plank.

There is an upside to stowing away on an aquatic gin palace for seven days, and it’s this: these floating Petri dishes making seeing big chunks of the world fast and cheap. On one seven-day sail, my mother and I visited Cancun, Cozumel, Honduras, Belize and Virgin Islands. Total price: $1,600. In headier times mom would have doubled that number with her bar tab, but a wheelchair makes bellying up on the Promenade Deck much harder these days.

On one of our earliest dates I asked me soulmate-in-training if she had a passport. “Of course,” she exclaimed. “Why?” “Because when you’re through with me,” I boasted, “it’s gonna look like your three-year-old beat on it with a rubber stamp.” Three months later Paula and I were chuckling about that humble brag at a Formula One race in Brazil.

Where we go and what we do makes us who we are. Everything else is just stuff. I learned that the hard way last spring when our house burned down. We escaped with the clothes on our backs and the cars in our driveway. Everything else was destroyed by fire, smoke, water, or all three. It will take nine months and nearly a half-million dollars to rebuild our lives from scratch. Paula’s childhood memories, Silas’ Nerf guns, and our family’s seven bicycles? Gone forever. Someday this story will be good for a giggle, but today no one is laughing. Instead, we’re counting the months until this smoldering nightmare is behind us. I’d hold my breath, but I did that last March for Covid-19, and it’s gotten me nowhere. Whining about a melted tool box when three million Americans have Coronavirus makes a person look selfish and small.

Alas, there might be one silver lining in the smoky cloud of our fiery milieu. Because first responders flooded the burning guts of our humble abode with 40,000 gallons of water, every wall and ceiling, every foot of electrical and plumbing, every appliance, stick of furniture, and personal effect will be trashed, fumigated, or replaced. This will take a year, and cost a fortune. Fortunately, Paula’s super powers include record-keeping, letter-writing, and voicemail navigation. In the blood sport that is negotiating an insurance claim, the vultures at Mercury and Progressive don’t have a chance. All we need to do—and have done—for approximately nine months is hurry up and wait.

If the recalcitrant mouth breathers at City Hall moved half as fast as Paula does, our general contractor and friend Big Mike would have his building permit by now. Instead, it took over two months for our engineer Mike II to assess structural damage and draft blueprints for our home, plans the city of Temecula and our GC require to authorize final demolition and start the rebuild. Why the foot dragging? One week after Mercury introduced us to our affable architect, he got Coronavirus.

Home fires are a nightmare. Suffering one during a global pandemic feels like being waterboarded during a prison rape.