by: Jon Epstein
It was six o’clock in the evening. The large punishing orange sun still lurked well above the horizon. Death Valley-like heat waves rippled and rose off the blistering Hollywood Hills asphalt. I was trapped in our maroon Oldsmobile. The air conditioner was busted and so was I. I was lost in my life, empty, done…. I just needed out.
“A family that plays together, stays together,” Dad recites one of his favorite credos. Since I can remember, he’s been saying stuff like look with your hands tied behind your back, your eyes are bigger than your stomach, children should be seen and not heard, don’t gild the lily, and the list goes on and on. When I was a snot-nosed kid, his canned sayings didn’t bug me—now they make me sick.
Dad looks in the rearview mirror. Our eyes meet. He smiles. I don’t. My mind is on the parties I wasn’t invited to, knowing I won’t be dancing, or making out, or doing anything remotely romantic on my so-called Graduation Night.
“Do you mind?” Laura says. She points at my leg.
I look down at my boring, bargain basement pants Mom bought me at JCPenney. “What?” I’ve no clue what my sister’s moaning about.
“You’re sitting on my skirt.” She acts like I’m The Blob.
“Excuse me for living.” I scooch over an inch.
“Excuse you!” My butt-wipe brother Greg smarts off from behind his Superman comic.
Dad turns the key in the ignition and releases the parking brake. He looks over his shoulder and stretches his arm across the top of the seat and caresses Mom’s arm. “All clear, Captain!” He mimics a line from McHale’s Navy, then turns back around, shifts into reverse, and backs out of the driveway.
“Did you remember to put the Cold Duck on ice?” Mom asks, and takes a long drag off her Pall Mall.
“JESUS!” Dad slaps the steering wheel. “I said I would, didn’t I?”
Mom backs away like a startled cat. Laura shudders, and Greg disappears deeper into his comic book. I sit wide-eyed, numb. Fuming, Dad grabs a pipe from the overflowing ashtray and reaches for a book of matches on the dash.
“I told you,” Mom says, “your juggling all that crap while you drive makes me nervous.” She flicks ash from her cigarette into the butt tray and glares forward.
“Goddamn it, El!” Dad is in no mood. “For once, would you quit your goddamn bickering?” He pats his pants and jacket pockets. “Who’s seen my tobacco?” he asks and stops at the red Barham light.
Laura, Greg, and I sit tight-lipped while we brace ourselves for more Krakatoa activity. I look out Greg’s window toward Ramsey Shilling Realty and think back to the day Mrs. Lewis, the office manager, hired me for my first weed-pulling job. I remember falling asleep that night fantasizing about my new gardening empire.
“I can’t keep track of your crap.” Mom scowls.
“G. David Schine!” Dad digs in the seat crack with his right hand. “Would you check the damn glove?”
Mom puts her cigarette in the ashtray. She reaches forward and clicks open the glove box. An old mangled package of pipe cleaners, a tape measure, and a threadbare tennis ball spill out.
“Christ,” Mom says. “When are you going to clean all this crap out?” She rummages through the cluttered compartment. “I can’t find anything in this mess.” She crams the stuff back in and slams the flap shut.
“Try under the seat,” Dad says.
Mom bends over and mumbles. Dad’s and my eyes meet again in the rearview mirror. Sun reflects off his smudged bifocals, and nose hairs sprout like wild bushes from his nostrils. His lips part and I tense up; it’s too late to look away or batten down the hatches. I clench my teeth and wait for the gale-force winds of Hurricane Roy to hit shore.
“Jon, Jon the leprechaun,” Dad chants, “you ready for some champagne tonight?”
I’m relieved Dad didn’t blow his top.
“Cold Duck cold schmuck,” I say under my breath and look away.
“What?” Dad says.
“Nothing,” I say. I shake my head and dangle my arm outside the window.
I hated my family and resented my parents. Dad was the liberal equivalent of Archie Bunker, and Mom was an angry version of Edith. Worst of all, I hated me: a troubled, nerdy teenager with no girlfriend, no potential, and very little pubic hair. Years later, in multiple twelve-step recovery rooms, I came to learn that in terms of matching a round hole, I was a trapezoid. I didn’t fit in with my family. I didn’t fit in with my peers. And I didn’t fit in my skin. I needed to find the hidden parallel universe that waited in my future, but my blind, neonatal eyes were still covered in afterbirth.
The light turns green.
“Here’s your damn tobacco.” Mom sits up and shoves the red pouch at Dad.
“Thanks, hon.” He takes the bag. “But you’ll never make a Carmelite.” He smiles like he just cracked a humdinger. Everyone’s silent; soon Dad’s smile fades to disappointment. Other than Greg’s flipping magazine pages, the mausoleum quiet inside the car is deafening.
“Dad, that joke was so funny I forgot to laugh.” I need to warm the icy tension. “Ha, ha, ha, I just remembered.”
“You’re a chip off the ole’ block,” Dad says. He grabs the steering wheel with his knees and opens the red tobacco bag. He pulls out a pinch of cherry crimp and packs it into the bowl. He seals the pouch and flings it on the dash. Both hands back on the wheel, he holds the pipe and mashes down the tobacco with his right thumb. Somehow he manages to strike a match and keep us on the road. Mom looks horrified. He takes the pipe between his teeth, lifts the flame to the bowl, and draws. The pipe crackles. Flame shoots up and his shoulders drop. Smoke fills the car. “Next stop, Gomorrah,” he says. I have no idea what Gomorrah means.
We motor down Barham Boulevard toward Hollywood. I picture how my night’s going to unfold: first this awful drive into Hollywood, then the boring graduation ceremony, then we’ll pile back in the car, drive home, I’ll watch Mom and Dad get drunk with their friends while Laura and Greg feed their faces. The highlight of my night will be watching Room 222 on my tiny black-and-white TV with Mark Knapp downstairs in my room.
Kevin Connolly comes to mind. I lean forward and cozy up, resting my arms on the front seat top. “Can I invite my friend Kevin Connolly to the party?”
“Kevin?” Mom lights another cigarette. “Who’s Kevin?”
“KEVIN? He’s my only REAL friend at Le Conte!”
Mom acts like she doesn’t hear me, or maybe she just plain doesn’t care. She drags hard on her cigarette; the tip burns bright orange. She exhales smoke through her nose and mouth. “I thought Mark Knapp was coming.” She opens her window a crack.
“Yeah,” I say, and watch smoke be sucked out the inch of opened window, “but…”
“We said you could invite ONE friend.” Mom shuts me down.
My neck gets hot and my armpits sweat. “GREG, I TOLD YOU WHEN WE GOT IN THIS CAR TO ROLL YOUR STUPID WINDOW DOWN!”
“Jon!” Laura slaps her thighs, and they jiggle. “Do you mind?”
“YEAH!! I DO MIND!”
“Don’t take your wrath out on me!” She straightens her skirt.
Greg rolls his window down two inches and grins. “How’s that?” He loves to taunt me.
“HEY, FATSO, PUT THE WINDOW DOWN… NOW!”
“JON!” Mom yells back. “What did I tell you about calling your brother ‘fat’?”
“Well, he is,” I say. “And I can’t breathe!”
“Tough luck.” Mom pats the sides of her frosted hairdo while looking in the vanity mirror. “Any more breeze will ruin my hair,” she says.
I was past angry. I was beyond sick of being mistreated. And I was just plain done with feeling like I didn’t matter. Later in life, it took me hours of therapy to unravel my anger issues and understand that growing up in alcoholism meant feeling like I was never enough.
We cross the Barham Bridge. I look down at the jammed-up freeway rush-hour traffic. I’d give anything to get away in one of those cars, escaping from this stupid family schlepp into Hollywood.
Another signal missed, and bad turns to worse. Valerie James and her parents pull up next to us in the other left-hand turn lane at the Cahuenga intersection. The chrome on their shiny new Cadillac glistens in the sun. I slump down and peek around Laura’s head at Valerie in the backseat. Her tight silky red dress shows off her boobs; her long blonde hair splashes down on her bare shoulders like a waterfall. She’s so pretty it hurts. And her dad’s totally cool, too. He’s wearing a fancy blue blazer with a gold emblem embroidered on the handkerchief pocket and shiny brass buttons on his cuffs. His teeth are movie-star white. Their car creeps up a few inches, and I get a better look at Mrs. James. Her big gold earrings, icy white lipstick, and beehive hairdo remind me of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, but even prettier. All three of them are so smooth they could win a beauty contest. I slump down lower.
Again, I’d stacked the cards against me. Comparing my uncool family with Valerie and her parents was like betting a pair of deuces against a full house. The Jameses were so cool and classy, and we were… well, not.
The traffic light turns green, and the James family leaves us in the dust. For once I’m glad Dad is asleep at the wheel. I sit up, stick my head out the window, and take a gulp of air.
“Put your HEAD back inside,” Mom says. “We didn’t raise you in a barn!”
“Yeah, Jon.” Greg can’t hold his tongue.
“Hey, Blubber Butt.” I make a fist. “You’re crusin’ for a bruisin’.”
Mom spins around, pointing her cigarette at me. “Don’t talk to your brother that way!” Ash falls on Laura.
“MOM!” Laura brushes off her skirt. “Your cigarette!”
“FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!” Dad smacks his hand on the steering wheel. I want to cover my ears. Laura and Greg tremble. All three of us turn to stone.
Mom’s and Dad’s erratic reactions were billy clubs. Their unending emotional beat-downs had pummeled Laura and Greg into nervous turtles, retracting into their brittle shells, and I’d become as skittish as a wet cat on a hot tin roof hooked up to a thousand car batteries.
“Well,” Dad says, pointing his pipe at the completed Holiday Inn over on the right. “They finally got the landscaping in.”
I look at Dad’s latest engineering project. His name appears in small red print on the bottom of the white construction sign. The new high-rise hotel dwarfs the surrounding structures. I think: Harold L. Epstein, Structural Engineer… big deal. With all his fancy engineering stuff, why’s he always saying we don’t have any money?
“Where’s the next Inn going up?” Mom asks.
“Homer said Long Beach.” Dad puffs on his pipe.
Holiday Inn, Circus Circus, Laughlin Riverboat… who cares? We never get to go.
We continue down Highland Avenue and cross Hollywood Boulevard into the hippie zone. A guy wearing a tie-dyed tank top and wide brim beaver hat is sitting on a U.S. Postal mailbox, strumming a guitar. He’s surrounded by Tony-and-Susan-Alamo-Jesus-freaks handing out flyers. A few feet away, bald-headed, tambourine-tapping Hare Krishnas dance in a saffron circle while a never-ending stream of multicultural tourists flows by. Beyond the sightseers, zealots, and freaks, groups of kids walk with their normal-looking families toward the Hollywood High auditorium.
“Jesus H.,” Dad says, “where the hell are we going to park?”
“You might just have to pay, Roy,” Mom says. “All the parking spots look taken.”
“Over my dead body!” Dad says.
“Look!” Mom says. “Pull in there!” She points at a man dressed in a white uniform with a red vest near the curb. He’s holding a flashlight with a long orange plastic cone attached to the end and is swinging his arm in a circle like a jet-powered windmill. Next to him is a sandwich board with big bold black letters that say: PARKING $1.50.
“A buck and a half to park?” Dad grits his teeth. “Sons of bitches! Where do they get the nerve?”
That was the story of my life since I could remember. Dad wouldn’t pay for parking. Dad wouldn’t valet. Dad wouldn’t spring for brand-name stuff. And when we did go out to dinner, Dad wouldn’t let us order appetizers. Dad only purchased stuff at sales, or with coupons, or at wholesale places open to the public that took hours to drive to.
“Roy, please… just this once!” Mom pulls down her visor. She looks in the little mirror and touches up her lipstick. “I don’t want to walk five blocks in these heels.”
“To hell with ’em!” Dad looks in his rearview mirror. He spins his head to the left… then right… then straight ahead and puts the pedal to the metal. We zoom past Hollywood High in a blur. Dad makes a tire-screeching hard right onto Sunset Boulevard. A loud horn rattles our car, and Mom’s uncapped lipstick jams into her window, smearing a long red streak across the glass. Greg, Laura, and I are mashed together in the backseat like crash test dummies.
“JESUS, HAROLD!” Mom says. “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?”
“I wasn’t even close!” Dad slows and turns right onto Orange Avenue, then right onto Hawthorne. He finds an empty spot opposite the Hollywood High athletic field and parks.
“There!” he says and turns off the engine. “We’re a buck and a half richer. Now, let’s get a move on.”
Nobody budges. I look through the wire mesh fence at the lush green football turf. A zillion birds are pecking at the grass. I admire the bright yellow goal posts and the fresh white chalk lines on the dirt running track. Even though I know I won’t, I wonder if I’ll ever play high school sports. I think back to the times I qualified at Le Conte. I made the seventh-grade basketball team, I competed in the six-hundred-yard dash, and I could have played volleyball, but every time I rotated to the front line, I did something klutzy. Whatever the sport, I always ended up quitting. Mom wipes the lipstick off the window, and Greg rips at a candy wrapper with his teeth.
“Well,” Dad says, “what’s everyone waiting for?” He opens his door.
“DAD! You almost killed us!” Laura slaps her hands on the back of the front seat.
“Just move it, lard-ass,” Dad says to Laura.
“HAROLD!” Mom yells.
“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, YOUR daughter hasn’t been missing any meals.” Dad gets out of the car.
Laura wipes her eyes. I feel bad when Dad’s mean to her. I open my door and get out. “Do you want to come out my side?” I hold open my door.
“It’s okay,” Laura says.
“Sorry I was mean to you,” I say.
“Thanks.” She tries to collect herself.
I close the door and walk to the sidewalk. Smog, exhaust, and the aroma from a street vendor’s popping popcorn permeate the air. The monolithic-sized Sheik painted on the backside of the performing arts building leers down. I bend over to tie my shoe and notice a pigeon pecking at a lost golf ball in the gutter; the bird’s magical iridescent pink, turquoise, and yellow neck is contrasted by a disgusting pile of discarded cigarette butts. A groan of tuning orchestra instruments wafts out an open auditorium exit door and distracts me.
“I guess this isn’t so bad.” Mom acts like everything’s peachy-keen.
“Onward Christian soldiers.” Dad cinches up his pants.
I want to rush ahead or straggle behind, anything but march in the family spectacle— instead I fall in formation and toe the line. We walk to the corner. Dad stops and turns. “Get the lead out!” he yells at Greg.
I’m a sitting duck surrounded by a thousand .22 caliber eyes. If I thought becoming cool was near impossible, Dad’s excruciating yell seals my fate.
Dad turns toward me. “Well, not much longer,” he says with his stupid grin, “we’ll be popping those champagne corks!”
“Uh huh.” A hint of bile creeps up my esophagus. I don’t care about the champagne. I don’t care about the graduation. And I don’t care about my life. If I could have, I would have wanted to care, but I couldn’t. I just wanted out.
Jon Epstein is an emerging writer and fine artist inspired by the daily trials and joys of simple life—as well as a father, musician, and sober, recovering alcoholic of thirty-one years. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife of thirty years. Epstein’s work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Santa Fe Writers Project, Poeticdiversity, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, Sanskrit, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Poetry Super Highway.