One

 

 

JOSHUA RODE shirtless on his skateboard up the sidewalk to his dilapidated home in Eagle River, Wisconsin. He was covered in sweat, but he felt surprisingly invigorated. It was a cool eighty-five degrees out, and Joshua had been skateboarding with his friends at the local park for most of the day. He had only been out of school on summer break for one week, but already it felt to Joshua like it had been a whole summer. Joshua was skilled at enjoying every moment of his free time.

As he approached his front door, Joshua noticed the porch light to his house was off, although the lights in his living room were on. He thought that was odd, as his father always turned the outside light on at 7:30 p.m., even though it didn’t get dark till after 9:00 p.m. One could set a clock by his father’s obsessive adherence to routine.

Joshua peeped through the door window and saw his mother in the living room watching television. She was uncharacteristically quiet. Joshua’s mother was not the type to watch TV peacefully. She was the kind who commented loudly on everything that was happening, typically in a morally judgmental tone. It got to the point that Joshua didn’t like to watch TV with his family anymore. He spent his time at night in his bedroom reading, while playing music to mask his mother’s relentless moaning.

But now his mother was just sitting there on the couch, as quiet as a mouse. Joshua reasoned that his father simply wasn’t feeling well and had gone to bed early. That would explain the lights being on and his mother’s apparent calmness.

It wasn’t unusual for Joshua’s father to get sick. He drank all the time. Joshua could scarcely remember a time in his life when his father didn’t have a beer in his hand. No one used the word “alcoholic” in Joshua’s home to describe his father’s habit. To Joshua, an alcoholic was someone who drank themselves into a stupor, lost all inhibitions, and then beat their subordinate family members violently. Joshua knew families like that. It was all too common in the poor neighborhood he lived in. But Joshua’s father had never beaten him or his mother. And neither ever felt subordinate to him. Joshua viewed him as a good man—if somewhat flawed. In his relatively few moments of sobriety, Joshua’s father always tried to spend some real quality time with Joshua. He even treated Joshua as an equal, as though they were friends.

If Joshua’s relationship with his father was that of equals, things were quite different with his mother. She was the dominant one in their family. She made all the decisions, and she ended all the arguments. Joshua’s father rarely argued with his mother. It was pointless. His father always backed down and let Joshua’s mother have her way. It wasn’t as though his father agreed with his mother on everything—or even on anything. It was more like his father no longer had any fight left in him. He was broken and dispirited and no longer cared. And so he drank.

Joshua realized he would need a really good excuse for coming home so late. His mother didn’t like him to be out after 7:00 p.m., even in the summer with no school. Joshua had forgotten to take his watch with him when he left that morning, so he didn’t know the actual time. But it was clearly past 7:00 p.m., as the sun was low in the western sky. Joshua had disobeyed his mother, and there would be consequences. There were always consequences.

Joshua could handle punishment, whether it be grounding or extra chores for a week or so. But he would also have to sit and listen to one of his mother’s endless sermons first. Those he couldn’t handle. They were the worst. She could break the darkest, most malevolent of souls with her sermons—not because she was morally right, but because she was unrelenting. Just when you thought she was done with her tirade, she’d hit you with a prolonged diatribe, wrapped in a sermon, and topped off with a tedious dose of scripture.

Joshua finally opened the screen door to his house and looked cautiously over to his mother. She didn’t look back. She had to have heard him enter, Joshua realized, as the door creaked loudly. It always did. But still, there was no reaction from his mother.

“Mom?” Joshua muttered as his mother sat on the couch watching TV.

I’m such an idiot, he thought. She hadn’t heard him come in. He could have made it to his room—to his safety zone—bypassing a nightly sermon, but instead Joshua had to call out to her. What were you thinking? he scolded himself. But Joshua had to say something to his mother. Everything just seemed wrong somehow, and he wanted to know what was up.

“Mother?” Joshua called again. This time the scolding voice in his head stayed quiet, agreeing that something was wrong. She should have responded the first time, but she didn’t.

“Oh, Joshua, sweetheart, I didn’t hear you come in,” she said gently to her son.

“Sweetheart?” Joshua repeated quietly to himself. Now he knew something was wrong. He had violated his mother’s rules, and she hadn’t even noticed. And to top it all off, she was being nice to him. This was a true rarity. Something was definitely wrong, Joshua realized.

“They’re talking about President Clinton on TV. You should sit down with me and watch,” she said.

To anyone else, it would have sounded like an invitation. But Joshua knew there was no such thing from his mother. It was a command. Joshua didn’t mind, though. He enjoyed the slight return to normalcy. Whenever President Clinton was on the news, Joshua’s mother made him watch. It wasn’t because she wanted her son to be informed. She didn’t seem to care herself about being informed. She just liked to complain about life. And politics was always the best excuse to do that.

Joshua’s mother had been having a field day with the Monica Lewinsky scandal that so dominated the news lately. She always tuned in to get the latest on “that pervert of a president,” as she called this particular head of state. Joshua’s mother ate it all up. It was sustenance for her soul. She could live on all the hatred.

Joshua sat down obediently on the chair next to the couch where his mother sat. Everyone had their own place in this house. Joshua got the beat-up old chair with torn cushions. His father always sat on the uncomfortable hard wood rocking chair. And his mother always got the entire couch to herself. If you could determine a family power structure by where one sat, then it was obvious who was in charge in this household.

“Today, President Bill Clinton issued a surprising proclamation,” the news anchor reported.

“Oh God!” Joshua’s mother screamed. “Nobody is watching the news to learn about some stupid proclamation!” she yelled impatiently at the TV, obviously wanting to hear more about the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now that was the mother Joshua knew. She was back to her droning commentary now that she had an audience. Things were normal after all, he decided.

“The proclamation declares the month of June to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month,” the news anchor said. The program broke to a clip of President Clinton speaking. “We cannot achieve true tolerance merely through legislation; we must change hearts and minds as well. Our greatest hope for a just society is to teach our children to respect one another, to appreciate our differences, and to recognize the fundamental values that we hold in common.” The camera came back to the news anchor, who seemed increasingly uncomfortable with the story. He looked to the camera and sped up his narration, hoping to get that particular segment over with. “‘Diversity is a gift,’ President Clinton said as he concluded his speech.”

“What!” Joshua’s mother screamed at the television, suddenly taking an interest in the proclamation. “There is no end to this man’s perversion!” she shouted.

Joshua found himself surprisingly interested in the news as well. Joshua’s mother had never lectured her son on the evils of homosexuality before, but she didn’t have to. Joshua knew exactly where she stood on the issue, as she frequently dismissed President Clinton as that “gay president.” His mother always went ballistic whenever President Clinton said “gay” or “lesbian” in an inclusive way during his televised speeches. The message from his mother was clear. “Gays are bad. Bill Clinton is evil.”

“President Clinton’s critics view this like his executive order last year banning discrimination in federal employment, seeing it as a run around the Republican-led Congress,” the news anchor elaborated.

“So, President Pervert thinks he’s a dictator now,” his mother mumbled.

Joshua was getting very uncomfortable with his mother’s commentary. He was used to ignoring her whenever she forced him to watch the news. But as he was getting older, Joshua increasingly realized he had some major disagreements with his mother regarding political issues. He didn’t know anything about budgets, social security, and Bosnia, or even really important things like the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he knew something about gay people. He could never tell his mother why he knew about gay people, though. So Joshua just sat there silently as his mother trashed President Clinton. By extension, she was trashing her own son as well, albeit unknowingly.

“This isn’t the first time President Clinton has been criticized for his advocacy of gay rights,” the news anchor stated. “His controversial presidency started off when he tried to lift the ban on gays serving in the military. A conservative backlash forced him to sign the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell compromise and later the Defense of Marriage Act. With this proclamation, the president seems to be returning to his roots.”

Joshua’s mother angrily got up and shut off the television. “Can you believe that guy?” she asked rhetorically. She wasn’t expecting an answer. And she never got one from Joshua. He knew better than to answer her rhetorical questions. But this time was different.

“Maybe it’s the whole Constitution thing,” Joshua said quietly, but with an argument in his voice. “You know?” he continued. “All men are created equal.”

Anyone listening to the conversation would not have picked up on the sarcasm in Joshua’s voice. He was skilled at hiding it. It’s what allowed him to survive his mother’s numerous tirades with some dignity still intact. But his mother seemed to detect it this time. Perhaps I overdid it, Joshua thought.

“What did you say to me?” she asked, as if not believing her ears.

“Nothing, Mother,” Joshua said with another hint of sarcasm. “He’s such a pervert,” he added, unsure whether or not the sarcasm was still showing.

Joshua’s mother had a look of horror on her face, as though her son had been possessed by some kind of demon. The rage seemed to build up in her like a volcano just prior to an eruption. This was going to be some sermon, Joshua realized. He had only one option—change the subject and hope it worked. Next to subtle sarcasm, changing the subject was his second greatest skill.

“Let me tell you something about queers,” his mother said as she began her sermon.

“Mom, where’s Dad?” Joshua interrupted, sounding genuinely concerned. He really was concerned about his father, despite the fact that his question was meant as a diversion.

The impending volcano suddenly fell silent. A look of sadness, even pity, overcame Joshua’s mother. He had never seen that expression on her before. He didn’t know how to interpret it. He just knew that something was very wrong.

“Mom, is something the matter with Dad?” he asked, concerned.

“We need to talk,” his mother finally responded, breaking the awkward silence. “There are going to be some—” She paused to find the right words before finishing. “—changes.”

“Changes? What do you mean?” Joshua asked. “What happened to Dad!”

“Your father left us,” she said. “He won’t be living here anymore.”

Joshua couldn’t believe it, and yet, at the same time, it wasn’t much of a surprise. All his mother and father ever did was argue. Or rather, his mom yelled at his dad, while his dad sat there and listened. Yet that’s the way it had always been. It was normal. Joshua was used to it, and now that was going to end. It was too much. Apparently it was too much for his father as well.

“Where is he? Did he leave a message for me?”

Joshua’s mother ignored his questions. She seemed lost in thought.

“Mom, where is—”

“Joshua, you’re moving,” his mother said, interrupting him.

This was too much for Joshua. His life had completely transformed in just a little over thirty seconds. His father was gone, and now they were moving.

“What? Moving? Mom, I don’t understand. Where are we going?”

“No, Joshua, not ‘we.’ You.”

“You mean I’m going to live with Dad?” he asked, confused.

“No, you’re moving to the reservation. You’re going to live with your grandfather.”

Grandfather? It was a word Joshua had forgotten. He barely remembered his grandfather. Some of his earliest and best memories were on the reservation in northern Wisconsin. But those memories seemed like a distant dream. Joshua hadn’t seen his grandfather in years. There had been a “falling out,” as his mother liked to put it. He had never gotten a better explanation than that. And now he was being told that he was going to be living with this man he could barely remember—the father of his father, who had just left him.

“Can I bring my skateboard?” Joshua asked. He knew it was a dumb question and probably even an insensitive one. But if his life was going to change, he wanted to hang on to something familiar—an object, a routine, anything. As long as he had his skateboard, things would be fine.

“No!” his mother said, obviously not in the mood for insensitivity. “Now start packing.”

“What a great way to turn fourteen,” Joshua grumbled.