My mom left so many years ago, abandoning Ernie and I, her two sons, to our grief and anger and simply to wonder. We never understood why. Growing older I settled for knowing that I probably never would understand but that never stopped the pain I always felt. My father, a prominent congressman in Texas, dismissed our inquiries so we asked them less and less often. Our mom simply disappeared. She evaporated into thin air and no one knew where she went. “End of story”, our Dad would say.
Ernie took it the hardest. I always figured this was because he was the youngest. Ernie was two when she left, while I was five so I can remember more of her, especially her voice, her laugh and her soft white hands. By the age of nine Ernie had attempted to burn down our father’s tool shed and had been kicked out of fourth grade for biting his teacher so hard on her arm that he drew blood. Our nanny, a friend of our Dad’s sister Justine, was named Mrs. Piper, but we called her Mim. Mim gave us both lots of support and attention but she could never replace our Mom. I’d ask her sometimes if she knew my mom or if she knew what happened but she’d just shake her head and say she didn’t know.
“I’m sure there is a logical explanation Franklin but I don’t happen to know it. You’ll find her someday though, that much I do believe.”
Ernie’s outbursts grew increasingly severe the older he got. Mim tried her best to calm him but he couldn’t cope with the unanswered questions and the secrecy, directing his anger and frustration outwardly which was not acceptable to our father, the Congressman. Congressmen need to come across smooth, polished and able to control every situation. How could he allow a little brat like Ernie to take away what he’d worked so hard to obtain by making a scene everywhere he went? Our father was dedicated to his career and reputation so in his no nonsense manner he made plans to send Ernie away.
It was a week before Ernie was to turn eleven. I handed him my favorite binoculars wrapped in newspaper as a going away/birthday present. I could tell Ernie was scared so I told him not to be and we both knew he’d better not cry in front of our father. Dad would have pummeled him, emotionally reducing him to shivers and snot. Our dad was very good with intimidation so it was better not to give him any reason to be mad at us. I waved to Ernie as the dark sedan pulled away from the curb, my brother’s frightened face pressed to the window. I wanted to run after the car and pull my brother from it but I stood still, my arms and legs frozen like icy stones.
I wondered if Ernie was being sent to the same place where my Mom had gone. Could my father make people disappear when they were inconvenient to him? I never asked him, nor did I ask Mim this question. I was too afraid that he would send me somewhere if I asked too many questions so I just shut up.
I could tell Mim felt bad about Ernie being sent somewhere.
“Franklin, your brother is going to a special school to help boys who have behavioral problems. Do you know what this means?”
“I guess so” I replied. “What are they going to do to him there?”
“Oh Honey” she said “You don’t need to be worried, it is not forever and he’ll get to come home for summer and Christmas breaks. This school is really going to help him Franklin.” Mim gave me a queer look when she said this, an almost imploring look, like she was trying to make herself believe what she was saying to me.
My Dad had said, “End of story” but this wasn’t really the end of the story, not for me, nor Ernie, nor my Mom.
I saw Ernie a dozen times between eleven and eighteen. These were shallow times; self serving Christmases where our father paraded us to public events to show off his family virtues to his political supporters and summers of structured vacations where the press would shoot photos of us in various public spaces. I remember one summer when Ernie was thirteen and I was sixteen. We were standing near the edge of Lake Austin, having just left a museum that thoroughly bored both of us. Our father was being interviewed by some news station.
“I found some of Mom’s things in the attic Ernie” I whispered to him as our Dad pontificated in front of the camera fifty yards away from us. “I found some photos and letters. I don’t think Dad knows this stuff was up there.”
“Damn, are you serious?”
“Yeah, look.” I passed him a faded photo of our mom. She was young with long blond hair and a faint swollen smile. I couldn’t really tell if she looked happy in the picture, or perturbed. “You look like her” I said to him.
Ernie grunted and did that weird thing he always does with his lips when he looked at it.
“What did the letters say?” he asked as he pocketed the photo.
“They were all from some lady named Diana. Mom must have been pretty unhappy because this Diana would write how Mom shouldn’t allow Dad to be so controlling, that he kept her too confined like a Barbie in a box. How now that she had kids she would be shut off from the rest of the world and simply dissolve into a sad state of nothingness. There were lots of insinuations about her other relationship, which I can’t figure out. The last letter was dated 1986, which would be around the time Mom left. In this letter Diana tells her that she has to do it now. If she is ever to be happy, she has to leave and just do it. She’s got to get out and be who she’s meant to be!”
“Leave and be who?” my brother asks squinting at me sideways.
“Hell, if I know, I don’t understand it.”
The interview with the news anchor is over and our Dad whistles at us like a couple of dogs. “Come on you two” he yells as he turns his back to us and begins walking to his car.
“He’s such a bastard. I hate his fucking guts!”
“He’s doing the best he can Ernie” I say trying to sound mature but I agree with him, my Dad really is a freaking bastard.
On a hot June afternoon in 2002 my brother graduates from high school. I drive out to the St. John’s Reform Academy in Arizona to get him. The Congressman is too busy with other obligations to bother. “Franklin, I am counting on you to be there for Ernie. Don’t let me down.”
I want to tell my Father that HE is “the letdown” but I bite my tongue. “Sure thing Dad” I tell him.
I watch Ernie walk up to the Academy’s principal to receive his diploma. The bleachers are scorching, flat and hard. My back aches. The clapping is hardly hearty with parents; siblings and guardians all there in the dim hope that the graduate will be home and gone in no time. Reform a peripheral word not to be spoken.
I glance at the crowd, straining to see a familiar face but knowing there will be none. I am nearly 900 miles from home and I don’t know a soul here. I whoop and holler as Ernie accepts his diploma. I’m mighty proud of him! Across the field I hear another voice hooting and cheering and figure it is just some drunken asshole making fun of my brother. Ernie looks towards the voice, the assholes and not mine, and I see a man and a woman waving. What the..? Who in the hell is that?
Another forty minutes and the ceremony is over. I greet Ernie down on the field and give him a brotherly bear hug.
“Good job Bro” I tell him. “I am really proud of you.”
I realize right then and there that my brother is all I have in the world. I have my job and my girlfriend, but my brother is my compadre, my comrade, roots that keep me anchored so I don’t topple over. We’ve each dealt with our missing mother in our own way and Ernie had such a tough go of it.
“Who was that you were looking at up in the bleachers” I ask him.
“Oh, that was just Bobby Ray,” he says offering no further explanation.
I have no idea who Bobby Ray is and though I am curious I decide not to ask, I assume he is the parent of some unnamed friend Ernie has met here and will now leave.
It’s hot and we go to the dorm to clear out his stuff. Ernie doesn’t really have a lot in the way of belongings, even though he has been here for seven years. He throws his clothes into a duffle bag and I notice that he still has the binoculars I gave him and that picture of our Mother with the pouty smile that he tosses in too. I lean over and take the picture and for the first time really notice that she did that same mouth thing that Ernie does when he is thinking or anxious; a sort of Mick Jagger lip pucker pose. I feel a faint pull in my heart and then toss the picture back into his bag. Absent are any mementos that he might have received from the Congressman or collected elsewhere along the way.
“Hello Ernie, I want to congratulate you on your graduation” a grinning man says walking straight into Ernie’s room unannounced and then hugs him.
“Thanks Bobby Ray. “ Ernie says, looking genuinely happy, and takes the envelope the man has pushed into his palm and slides it into his pocket.
I’m mystified; I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Ernie hug anyone besides me, except for Mim perhaps, when he was really small. I realize that I recognize the guy; he’s the Weatherman on Dallas’ WFAA Channel 7 but I can’t figure out how he knows Ernie or why he would be here.
Ernie introduces me and we shake hands. Bobby Ray is a slight man, not huge and muscular like the Congressman.
“Can I take you two out to celebrate?” Bobby Ray asks.
Before I have the chance to say anything Ernie accepts and the next thing I know I’m wedged in next to Bobby Ray’s wife sitting across from Ernie and Bobby Ray at Gregg’s Grog and Eats in some dustbowl town in Arizona.
“We’re celebrating here.” Bobby Ray says, addressing the brow pierced waitress. “Four pints of Scottish-style ale and bring us some appetizers please, a variety.” The waitress sizes us up and seems to make her mind up that Ernie is old enough for the beer.
“So how do you know my brother?” I finally ask, leaning in towards Bobby Ray so he can hear me over the noise.
“I was once a friend of your fathers. I heard that he had sent Ernie to St. John’s and so I decided to contact Ernie to help him out. I figured he’d need a friend, a father figure if you will, since I knew your own dad wouldn’t come out too often.”
“My dad never came, not even once” Ernie added bitterly “but Bobby Ray, he’s been visiting me since right after I got here. Haven’t I ever mentioned him?” Ernie asks me and not waiting for a response adds, “Thanks again for the check Bobby Ray, that was very generous as always.”
I pick up on a subtle shift in Ernie, calmness so different from his life back in Austin, pre-St John’s. He’s genuinely grateful to have a father figure who cares about him. I wonder why Ernie’s never mentioned him before. Why I am finding this out now. I never knew that my Dad was such good friends with a Dallas Weatherman, but then again, I don’t know too much about my Dad either.
Bobby Ray picks at a piece of breaded calamari and twirls it on his plate before he puts in mouth. His hands and mouth are smooth with just the faintest amount of hair. I’m fixated on his mouth, the way he chews his food, the spinning of the food on the plate. His wife laughs and I can swear I recognize that laugh.
I feel a start in my chest and then as if peeking under mortuary sheets, looking at a dead body, I see what I don’t want to know yet I’m unable to look away. I don’t want to see what’s before me, don’t want to know what happened, but I can’t stop myself. She’s here and she has been with Ernie all along. She is not dead and gone but very much alive in different form. Why didn’t he tell me? How could I have not known? Does Ernie know? What does he know?
Diana asks me to pass the salt and the memories flood me like a tsunami. Ernie has just been born and I am very little myself. My mom is teaching me how to tie my shoes and I am watching her hands.
“Franklin, hold one lace in your hand like this” she says, as she holds up the blue and white lace, “then fold the other one like this and then loop it under and then over.”
I am practicing, my own hands fumbling as I twist the laces around and around. Her hands come to help mine. They fold on top of mind, guiding my hands into loops and pirouettes. “There now” she says, “you’ve got it. Now try it again.” I look up at her and she is smiling at me and I smile back.
Bobby Ray is at once a stranger, and then again, so familiar. I’ve heard we all have a twin out there somewhere, people that mirror someone we know or who make a gesture in a certain way and voila we remember who they remind us of even if they don’t actually resemble one another. The way he gyrates his food on this plate before it touches his lips, the way he holds his hands reminds me. Oh, it is so familiar.
Not long after I learned to put my own two shoes on and tie them Mom and Diana took me to the kiddy park in Austin. I rode the Merry-Go-Round while Mom and Diana looked on from behind the entry fence. Each time I passed them I waved and they waved back. I could hear them laughing, it was a nice laugh. It was Diana’s laugh and it was my Mom’s hands. We went to have lunch from the snack bar in the park. Mom would tie knots with the French fries and then absent-mindedly twirl them on the plate as she sopped up the ketchup. I liked to watch her do that.
Bobby Ray and Diana. My Mom and Diana. Now I knew what I didn’t want to see but what was there all along. Now I understood what just do it means.
“Why did you leave? Did he make you leave? And why did you do this?” I ask Bobby Ray as I point towards him in my anger and disgust.
Diana stops laughing and Ernie is doing mouth contortions.
Bobby Ray’s eyes flash and I realize that Ernie doesn’t know. Only Bobby Ray and Diana and I understand the truth. I’ve wanted to comprehend for so long why she left us and now the answers are staring me in the face. I can feel my checks sizzle and I feel light headed.
“Did you think I wouldn’t recognize you?
Bobby Ray lifts his beer and I see those hands, THOSE hands.
“I’m sorry Franklin” he says putting his beer back down and staring at the table. “I am so sorry. I tried to make it work, I really did and it was just so hard.” His voice is quivering now, “ I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to leave.”
“But you did.” I said, answering both of the never meant to questions at once. It hurts, it fucking hurts to have been betrayed by not only my father but my long-lost mother who now sits in front of me, her flesh converted and hidden in the body of a man.
“What are you talking about?!” Ernie interjects, looking crazed and utterly wild.
I want to tell him that his great buddy Bobby Ray is a complete freak, a fraud, a fucked-up transvestite or transgender or whatever the hell they are called. I open my mouth to blurt the biggest, baddest insults I can muster and then I just freeze. I can’t do it. As angry and as horrified as I am I just can’t do it. I have to protect Ernie from the lies, the deceit, and the destruction. I won’t out her because it would hurt him so badly. It’s Ernie’s graduation, in fact it’s his fucking life, and he has always deserved better so I stop myself. I don’t know what to say and so I say the first thing that pops into my head, “So, did you hear this one? A husband and his wife were sound asleep when suddenly the phone rings. The husband answers and says, "Hello?” then there is silence and then he says, “Well, how the heck should I know? Who do you think I am, the weatherman?" Then he slams down the phone and gets back into bed. "Who was that?" his wife asks. "I don't know. It was some guy who wanted to know if the coast was clear."
They all look at me for a minute and then they start to laugh. Bobby Ray looks relieved and Ernie relaxes. What I know today will remain locked away forever and unspoken, a coin tossed in a pond never to be retrieved and left there for eternal luck. As Bobby Ray laughs his lips arch and he claps those white hands. And then I recall how much I loved that laugh and despite my anger how I might just like to hear it again.