1) How bad could they be?
“I KNOW an old lady who’s so blind she puts her dentures in backwards, and she can still drive faster than you,” I said, offering Jackson Ledbetter an impatient frown. “If you drove any slower, we’d be going in reverse.”
“Would you like to drive, smarty pants?” Jackson demanded.
“Of course,” I said.
But he made no effort to pull over, jaw clenched, hands gripping the steering wheel of his Jeep as though clutching at his sanity.
“How bad could your parents be?” I asked, growing concerned.
“My mother could give the Bride of Chucky a run for her money.”
“So could you,” I pointed out. “And no doubt the Bride of Chucky could drive faster than you can, short legs and all.”
“Would you stop? Jesus, what a nag!”
“Don’t think I’ve ever been called a nag before.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
“Aren’t we a Mr. Cranky Pants?”
“You would be too.”
Jackson Ledbetter had said very little about his parents over the past two years that we’d been together, certainly nothing about his mother bearing a resemblance to the Bride of Chucky or any other fictional character. I had tried to talk about them, of course, but he had led me to believe there wasn’t much to talk about. Nothing going on here, folks. Move along! Nothing to see!
Apparently that was not quite true.
“I thought you and your parents got along good,” I said.
“Good? And you’re a writer?”
“Got along well. Is that better, Mr. Grammar Nazi?”
“Pretty soon you’ll be giving me tips on how to write good.”
“So what’s the big drama?”
“There’s a reason I moved halfway across the United States.”
“I need to live my own life.”
“I thought they had no problem with you being a big ole raging homosexual.”
“It’s not that.”
“You survived my family. We’ll survive yours. Have a little faith.”
“There are some things I forgot to mention.”
He did not elaborate.
“Mysterious,” I said.
“You have no idea.”
“Does your mom have three breasts or something?”
“Nothing like that.”
“You’ll see. Man, will you see! The light will shine and darkness will flee and brother, you will see!”
“You’re a poet and don’t know it.”
“That joke is so old….”
“Don’t you know me at all? We’ve been together for how long now?”
“Sometimes it feels like five thousand years.”
“That’s a little mean.”
“And they’ve been the best years of my life. Anyway, I stay for the kids, not for you.”
I glanced over my shoulder into the backseat at Noah, who was looking out a window and hooting incoherently. “Hoo hoo awk! Hoo hoo awk!”
“When you say kids,” I said, “I’m a little concerned, since I only have one, and to my knowledge, you don’t have any. Is there something I don’t know? Did you impregnate some helpless female at the hospital? Got yourself a baby mama on the side? I think we need to be clear about that kind of stuff.”
“I mean ‘kids’ as in Noah and whomever else might come along when we get gay-married and think about adopting.”
“Are you offended by good grammar?”
“And I thought I was the nag. But anyway, adoption takes too long. We’ll just buy a couple on eBay. If we don’t like them, we’ll send them back. If they don’t take returns, we’ll jack up the price a bit and sell them to someone else. We could make a lot of money, you know. What do you reckon?”
“I don’t reckon, because I’m a Yankee, and we don’t reckon. We think. And I know you’re kidding when you talk that way, but not everybody gets you. Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“We have to make this visit with my mom and dad work.”
“What could possibly go wrong?”
“I’m serious. None of your typical Wiley crap.”
“And that means….”
“No walking around the house in your underwear, for example.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I know you’re a sixties-loving, Beat Generation, Hare Krishna, ‘My Sweet Lord’ hippie Buddhist wannabe walking around with a flower in every orifice and free love and John Lennon and make love not war and the Grateful Walking Dead, or whatever the hell all that shit is about, but for the next month, Wiley, just keep a lid on it.”
“Wear lots of clothes, in other words.”
“Exactly. You and your son both. We don’t live in a barn.”
“Is there something wrong with living in a barn?”
“And none of your bullcrap stories about how your little brother was eaten by crocodiles, how your Uncle Bernie had two heads, or how you and your brother Billy-Joe-Bob-Mike-Daniel-Harold used to milk chickens to make eggnog for Christmas dinner.”
“I don’t have a brother named Billy-Joe-Bob-Mike-Daniel-Harold—”
“And no politics, Wiley! No Tea Party diatribes or talking about your penis or aborted fetuses or Michele Bachmann’s vagina or any of the other crap you go on and on about. And God knows you go on and on. You feel some of that coming along, you just zip it.”
“Zip it real good?”
“Zip it, Wiley! Got me? It’s only a month. You won’t die. I promise you.”
“When a penis comes along… I must zip it!”
“Now I know why your mother says you’re like a stone around her neck!”
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just castrated me?”
“I don’t want them to think you’re a nutjob.”
“But I am a nutjob.”
“I thought that’s what you loved about me.”
“I do, but my parents don’t know you. Try to act like a normal guy.”
“Well, if I must….”
“I’m serious as a heart attack, Wiley. If you and I are ever going to get gay-married, we need their approval.”
“I could get you a hammer.”
“So you can make your point more effectively.”
“And none of your sarcastic bullcrap either!”
“In other words, for the next month, I should try very hard not to be myself. If I feel any of my normal impulses, I should just do the opposite.”
“I’m lovin’ it!”
“This is important to me,” he said, clenching the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were turning white. “I need my mom and my dad to approve of what I’m doing. For once in my life. I want them to be part of our family, and I don’t want you fighting over fetuses or the Civil War or body shame or the social construction of sexual identities or how Sarah Palin needs to masturbate more or God knows what else it is with you. And it’s always something with you.”
“Okay, Captain Obvious. Got it.”
“Do you want me to look in the back for a hammer?”
“Please, Wiley. I need this to go well.”
“I’m not that bad.”
“My mom and my dad are going to be complete virgins to the whole Wiley experience. So just go easy. If we’re having breakfast and you come to the table naked, they will absolutely freak out.”
“I’m not in the habit of going to the table naked when we have company, dear.”
“God only knows with you, Wiley.”
“If you don’t want me to tell them about Uncle Jerry’s two penises, I won’t. I’ll save it for people who appreciate it.”
“All right, then.”
“So do you think you could drive a little faster?”
“God, you’re a nag!”
“I hope you don’t drive this slowly on our way home. We have to go to Noah’s school, you know.”
“Like I could forget!”
“I love you,” I said.
“Love, love, love you, big guy!”
“You rock my world!”
“Put a lid on it, Wiley,” he said firmly. “A month. Zip it.”
“Fine,” I said, pouting. “I know when I’m not appreciated.”
“You’re too much sometimes, that’s all.”
“When a penis comes along… I must zip it!” I sang.
In the backseat, Noah sang, “Hoo hoo awk! Hoo hoo awk!” He was deaf and didn’t quite know what a note was, but he was determined to keep trying until he got it right.
What are you singing? I signed.
It’s a J-o-h-n D-e-n-v-e-r song, he signed with a sly smile.
Are you being smart with me?
I’ve taught you well! Good boy! Are you hungry?
Can we go to M-C? His face was suddenly very earnest. “M-C” was finger spelling for the Golden Arches, which we rarely visited because we weren’t especially fond of food-like products. Well, I wasn’t. Just one of the many things that has yet to rub off on my only child.
I don’t know, I said.
Please? I’ll stop singing….
He nodded eagerly.
Daddy! We never go! My friends go all the time, but we never do! Please? Just once? Why can’t I have a normal father like everyone else? Why do you have to be so weird?
I’m not weird!
Are too! Please? Can we go? Just once?
I don’t know. Have you been a good boy?
Your room is a pigsty.
I’ll clean it up. I promise!
You’ve got clothes that have been laying on your floor for so long they’re going to get up and walk away.
I don’t know….
You’re my favorite daddy, and I love you so, so much, and I’ve been so good, and even Mrs. H says I’ve been so, so good—
Was this before or after you put a spider on L-i-s-a’s desk at school and I had to talk to your teacher?
His grin was full of mischievous joy.
You think that was funny? I asked.
He nodded. It was hard to argue because it was funny, if only because Lisa Stedler was an insufferable little snot who had joyfully taken it upon herself to inform their classmates that Noah had “two daddies” and should not be allowed to play with them during recess.
You should not have done that, I signed as sternly as I could.
I told her I was sorry, he signed, striking a penitent pose. And you already punished me. And anyway, you can’t punish me twice—that’s the rule. Remember? You can’t break the rules. So… can we go?
If you don’t stop singing, Papa’s going to make you sit on top of the car for the rest of the trip.
He will not!
He’s really cranky today. He might….
I’ll stop, he promised. So… can we?
Oh, all right!
His triumphant smile revealed the hell that was his teeth—gaps, doubles, the sort of bad teeth that would make Satan proud and which Lisa Stedler and her clique of fifth-grade demonic entities never tired of ridiculing. Like the extra pinkie on his left hand, they were visible reminders of his start in life as a meth baby with the birth defects to prove it.
Daddy? he asked, face suddenly serious, blond hair tumbling into his eyes.
Do you think Papa’s mom and dad will like me?
Of course they will.
They’re going to be my grandmother and grandfather, aren’t they?
Do you think they’ll like me? I mean, really, really like me?
I know they will, baby.
He did not seem convinced.
Why wouldn’t they? I asked.
He shrugged, bit his lower lip.
They’re going to like you. Don’t you worry, I said.
He turned away and looked out the window at the Mississippi countryside flying by.
I turned back to Jackson, glanced at the speedometer.
“Oh my freaking God!” Jackson Ledbetter exclaimed. “Would you shut your pie hole?”
“Don’t argue in front of the kids, dear.”