Halloween, Big Brothers & Butcher Knives

We begin with a butcher knife. It hung on the kitchen wall as long as my childhood lasted. To say that my brother was fond of it would be an understatement. One of Patrick’s* favorite past times was secretly removing the butcher knife from the wall and, with it held high above his head, he’d chase me throughout the house cackling in his most sinister Texas Chainsaw Massacre voice:

“I’ve got the butcher knife! I’ve got the BUTCHERRR KNIIIIIIIFEHEH HEH HEH! 

Butcher knife

popscreen.com

Technically it was a meat cleaver. But he called it the butcher knife. In the interest of full disclosure I should probably state that this butcher knife was a fancy “menu” from a Steak and Ale that my parents frequented for their nights out. I found it!

Meat Cleaver 1968 Steak and Ale Menu

I found it on Ebay! This is it! This thing chased me down hallways! Scary shit, right?

Dad liked it and took it home with him. It had a blunt blade. But I must maintain that it was still a butcher knife and SCARED THE SHIT OUTA ME! I always ended up behind a locked bathroom door until I thought it was safe to come out. This usually meant that my mother had somehow intervened and I could hear her voice. But if it was too quiet I knew to stay put. The Butcher Knifer was always waiting around the corner counting on my false sense of security. God my brother was a brat. I still get the heebie-jeebies thinking about that “menu.”  Twenty years later he can still whisper “I’ve got the butcher knife” in my ear and I immediately turn nine years old again.

There was also a box in the attic. Every Halloween the box would come down and we’d rifle through the odds and ends of Halloween costumes of the past. Being the youngest of five there were always costumes waiting for me to be the right size. My mother sewed. She made a Matador costume for my brothers, complete with torero,

Ours was made of black felt with stuffed “ears” on either side. The ears went lopsided over years of back packing. – Squidoo.com

and a Geisha costume for my sisters. Well, it was a red satin kimono with long lovely sleeves and a large black (bad) wig to go with it. A picture exists of me being the last to wear it but, alas, nowhere to be found today. I wish I could remember all the costumes. It was so much fun to rummage every year through the aging fabrics trying to figure out what paired with what.

What wasn’t there? Plastic capes and insta-witch hats from the nearest Eckerd’s. It was a different time. A time when Christmas decorations didn’t go up until December 1st and pumpkins didn’t go out on the front porch until mid-October and we didn’t trace our hands in school to make a picture of a turkey until sometime in early November.

I never thought I’d be the one to get nostalgic. Isn’t that what our parents do?

What kind of nostalgia will the little gremlins and goblins trick-or-treating this week be pining for in thirty years? It won’t be how they used to go door to door and dump out their bags of candy for Mom and Dad to check when they get home. Mom and Dad would be with them… if they were allowed to knock on doors at all….

downingtowndoes.com

Happy Halloween! Happy costumes! Happy candy corns!

Happy trick-or-treating (at a safe party with the people your parents know.)

Happy haunted houses and scary lawns!

Happy Blunt Butcher Knives. (Heh heh heh!)

May all your bathroom doors have locks.

*Name not changed 🙂

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A Huge Leap Forward Regardless of Where You Land

I have made the decision to afford myself my first ever bonafide writing retreat. I cannot wait and I have chosen not only a place that I feel very much at home but I also around those who will hold me accountable.

I am going to Nashville to finish Who’s My Girl and to begin recording the demos. This is a very exciting time for me in my life. Why Nashville you ask? Because it’s Nashville! And because my girlfriend said, “Hey why don’t you come out here and stay with us and finish that damn musical of yours. Use my car. Come and go as you please.” That’s why Nashville. You’d go, too. And because I hear there are some, you know, recording studios there…I think. But most importantly because I’m from the South. I feel like fresh cut grass and daisies there and I happen to look good in green. See?

Me on a farm in Nashville

Me with the trees on a farm in Nashville. A Farm! Look! No puffy eyes!

This is the first time I’ve ever done something like this for myself. I hear stories of “writer’s retreats” but that was only for the …other… writers. It was always something they did while I was auditioning, rehearsing, performing… or trying to find a J-O-B.

But I have done this crazy thing called “planning ahead.” Heard of it? It’s FANTASTIC. Now I have all this time to focus on whatever I need to do to be in the mental and material zone by the holidays. It’s really just good ole fashioned goal setting, I guess. I won’t say I’m not good at goal setting. But I will say I’m not always consistent.

All I know is I have X amount of weeks. Oh wait. I can actually count them… that would be 8 1/2 weeks until wheels up and chords down. The actual time there is meant for the rewriting (and “finishing”) the book…and recording the music. <Gulp>

The music portion, the writing of it, so I can do the singing of it, needs to be happening now. (I just felt my stomach turn over. It does that lots these days.) <Flip>

Fleur in LA

LA Reading of Who’s My Girl

I had this dream that I saw review “bites” for the show floating in the air. Good stuff. But after I woke up thinking “Oh My God It’s a SIGN!” I immediately figured my psyche was screwing with me. I better get to work to make that dream real and love it up as much as I can before the inevitable pissing critic comes a callin’.

When I think of recording my own music and lyrics in Nashville (or anywhere) I feel such a sense of accomplishment and well-being. It really is a whole new creative world for me. I’ve sung countless demos for countless composers. I have stacks of CDs with my vocal print on them. But this is the first time I will be singing for myself with words and music of my own. It’s a huge leap forward regardless of where I land.

I am so happy I decided to tell my own story this time. I am so happy to be creating my own work; my own world. That old saying of sitting by the phone and waiting was for rotary phones. It’s a mobile world now.

Stomach flipping or not. It’s time to fly.

Little Girl One of the Boys?

“Fleur, c’mere…pssst…C’mere!

In hindsight, my first clue to walk away should have been the sight of my brother and cousin, both three years my senior, including me in… anything.

These were the perpetrators of Tabasco sauce in the Kool-Aid pitcher, of usurping TV time by switching the channel (by walking up to it and actually switching the channel dial) then standing in front of the 13″ TV set for the entirety of Gilligan’s Island, and these were the boys who invented “Hey, c’mere and smell my hands! They smell like lemons. No really they do. No REALLY!”

They did smell like lemons. The first time. The second time they smelled like adolescent boy-ass. And I know you won’t admit it but you know what that smells like. Somehow we all have that unfortunate thing in common. Boy-ass smell gets around.

I was barely six and not yet savvy to the duplicities of persuasion.

Sfari.org

We huddled (they huddled) in the hallway just outside my grandmother’s 1950’s style kitchen adorned with formica table and yellow floor tiles.

“Go in there and ask Aunt Betty what that is.”

They spoke of her vagina.

We understood it to be that “V” space between her legs that met her torso.

So I walked into the kitchen where my mother, my grandmother and my aunt sat talking and smoking as they did. My aunt sat casually, legs uncrossed, facing my mother. She wore polyester slacks.

I knelt before her, leaned in with my pointer finger, zoned in toward the “V” and recited my line:

“What’s that?”

Before I could finish the final “T” I felt my body flying through the air by right forearm.

I landed in the bathroom face-down over my mothers knee as she held her second favorite instrument: the pink plastic hair brush, for a hoedown swatting of the butt cheeks. First fave was the fly swatter.

There was an added cruelty in the color of the brush. Pink was reserved for princesses and party dresses. To be spanked by the back end of a pink plastic 1970’s bristle hair brush had an added touch of betrayal.

When it was over I could hear adolescent boy-snickers coming from the living room.

I’d been framed! Oh! The consequences of persuasion. Why hadn’t I read Jane Austen at six?

Truth be told, I knew what I was doing and that I probably shouldn’t be doing it. But I wanted to be one of the boys. I was the youngest. And the only little girl in the family. I wanted to play with my big brother. This was only okay when he was alone with no chance of being caught being nice to the “shrimp.”

So in part (very small part) I deserved what I got. But as far as I can remember they never got theirs. That day anyway.

I finally stopped trying to play with the big boys.

I have found playing full woman is far more rewarding.

What Moment did “Little You” Never Forget?

I knew it was an important moment and one I needed to burn into my brain. And as I stood at the end of the narrow concrete walkway up to my new front door – an apartment front door – holding a small box, I whispered to myself repeatedly: “I’m four years old.”

“I’m four years old. I’m four years old.”

Red Head in a Box

Photo by CanadianFamily.ca

This was the day I moved from Houston to Fort Worth, Texas with Mom, my brothers – and my new step-father. A day I obviously never forgot.

At that young age I knew, (even if I didn’t know I knew), my life would never be the same and must be mentally recorded.

Now it occurs to me that I can’t really remember much before that. I can recall flashes of the “black house” (as it was nick-named) that I lived in with Mom and Dad. I have mental snapshots of a living room with a nondescript couch. There are pictures of my toddler self being held by my big brother in our pool.

We had a pool? Of course we did. I know because of the pictures.

But I don’t remember life before “I am four years old.”

I don’t remember anyone telling me I was going to be moving. I don’t remember… being told anything really.

I just remember the sidewalk and the box… and that moment; a life with a different Man of the House.

In the ’70s we hadn’t yet arrived at the “Oprah Consciousness”. No one was really that concerned with how the kids would handle the big move (not to mention a divorce). Or perhaps, if there was concern there was no readily available mapping system set in place everyday on ABC at 4pm for How to Transition the Kids.

Was that Sidewalk Moment my way of transitioning myself? Taking a mental snapshot? Talking myself through this turning point? “Don’t forget this. It’s important. I don’t know why. But I must remember.”

What mental “snapshots” did you take as a child to mark a moment of great importance?

I sit here writing and I think, “I am forty-something years old. I am forty-something years old….”

It doesn’t have the same ring.

Perhaps I feel am not moving. Or more accurately, moving too much. No Sidewalk Moment but too many sidewalks. Box replaced by a kitchen table, a glass of Spanish wine, and an nearly finished musical.

If you could travel back and tell your four year old self something, what would it be?

I would kneel beside that little girl, watch her watching her new front door whispering her mantra…

…and whisper in her ear…

…it’s good to be four.

How Does Dad Prepare Daughter for…?

When I was about fourteen years old Dad started saying this funny (weird funny) thing to me:

“Baby, I’m not going to be around much longer.”

KA-BAM!

What the hell is a fourteen year old supposed to say in response to her Dad’s own prediction of his nearing departure from his life…and hers?

My teenage response was usually, “DAD STOP SAYING THAT!”

Obviously and understandably it would upset me when he said it. He told me when we were alone just sitting around. But it was always said seriously and soberly. He left misery out of it. It was just plain fact. No emotion. Dad-like.

Fact: I’m dying. And soon.

Photo from http://www.The Upbeat Dad.com

He didn’t have cancer or a terminal disease. He hadn’t been given a death sentence by his doctor. He wasn’t suicidal. There was no depression or emotional abuse connected to these few moments. He was an active man. He had many friends. He and his wife, my step-mother, went out two-steppin’ often.

He just knew he was a gonner soon. He’d already had two heart attacks. He wasn’t weak (or he never seemed that way to me). Nothing scrawny about this man. He just knew he wasn’t long for this world and wasn’t going to let me be surprised by it.

“Baby, I’m not gonna be around much longer.”

I’d reply in good ole fashioned teenager whine, “DAD! Stop saaaaying thaaaaat!”

“I just want you to know.”

And that was simply it. Exactly what he said. He just wanted me to know. He wanted to prepare me for what he felt was the inevitable. Not inevitable in the way that death is for us all but imminent. He felt it was coming soon. And It was. And It did.

One year later Dad had his third and final heart attack and it took him out. He was alive for one week in the hospital and then he was gone.

I didn’t really remember our bite sized death convos until the initial shock and grief had begun to wear off. But when I did it affected me deeply.

I didn’t like it while he was telling me. It scared the hell out of me. I didn’t know how to respond and I didn’t want to think about him being gone. But Dad knew how attached I was to him. And I was the youngest. The baby.

“Baby, ….”

So as a sixteen year old, feeling Dadless, I began to wonder about the things he would miss: graduations, my wedding (if I’d only known how long I wouldn’t have to worry about that), celebrations, opening nights and recitals. And I often felt upset that I was unprepared for my first trip to an emergency room, and subsequent first funeral not realizing that one is rarely prepared for these life altering events.

As I’ve gotten older and reflected on these feelings and questions there’s one thing that comes to the forefront of my mind: he prepared me. That isn’t to say that I was prepared. But he did do his best to make sure I wouldn’t be whip-lashed by surprise. It may not have been poetic or comforting at the time. But why should it have been? It was real. It was true.

It was generous and thoughtful.

“Baby, I’m not going to be around much longer. I just want you to know.”

He never belabored it. He never abused me with it. But it needed to be said. Perhaps because he knew me better than I did.

Later I relayed this to my older siblings. They were surprised to hear my story. I was expecting them to nod in agreement at how Dad said the same thing to them. But he didn’t. I learned that he only said it to me. Who knows why. Maybe he just felt I needed a little more prepping. A little more babying for the baby. They’d had more time with him after all.

So I survived losing my father at the age of fifteen –  one month away from my sixteenth birthday. I survived the grief and the absence. I survived not knowing the answer to questions that would come later in life – questions I didn’t know I’d have like: Where should I move after graduation? Should I go out with this guy? How do I save money for….? What do I do when…?  I survived Dad’s death. Just like to obituary said.

I didn’t have to ask how to change a flat tire, though. He took care of that before he left…that and how to change spark plugs. Never had to use either. But I was prepared.

Now uh, Dad?…about those boys

Calling all Stand-in Dads

It was a bad break up. Baaaaaaaaaaaad baaaaaaaaaaad break up. He was my entre into becoming an expert in dating dangerous men. Which kind of dangerous you ask? The controlling kind. The drinking kind.

The kind that did not like being the one dumped.

Though it took me three years and several verbal and emotional bruisings to understand that, yes, I could get out and I could make it on my own at twenty-six, (even though I’d moved to New York alone), I managed to finally muster up the courage, get over my Daddy Complex, and exit stage left.

At this point in my life my father had already died and my step-father was fifteen hundred miles away in Texas. He was not the rescue type (and I was not telling my parents everything either). But they did know enough call in the tertiary troops.

This “troop” came in the form of my mother’s first cousin, who also lived in New York, and had five children of his own. All grown. The moment my mother made the call, I became number six.

He made damn sure I knew it.

“You’re my kid,” he’d flatly state.

That’s a man, my friends. That’s a Stand-In Dad. “SiD.”

SiD, my first cousin once removed, not really my dad, too fatherly to call cousin. I’ll call him Uncle. Very Shakespearean.

Fleur and “Uncle Sid” (a/k/a Robert Braine)

Uncle SiD arrived from Long Island on the official day of my departure from an Upper West Side apartment, (rank with Stench du Wino), in his car; locked and ready to load. He came as moral support, too. Oh, let’s be real – He came as The Protector. Dad Protector. The only thing missing was the cape.

We loaded the car with all my things. We were just ready to hit the road when he spotted three boxes packed and stacked against the wall in the corner off the hallway.

“What are those?” questioned SiD. He was eyeing labeled boxes. Conspicuously labeled boxes. Boxes labeled in black Sharpie: “FLEUR’S STUFF”.

I explained that I was going to come back and get them (what was I thinking?) later.

He made no response.

I reasoned that they were heavy and I thought I’d just load them in a cab…you know…later. The truth is I didn’t want to be a burden to this relatively new relative-acquaintance of mine. I had no idea at the time he would become Uncle Stand-in-Dad. Perhaps he just needed a little reassurance.

“It’s okay. I’ll get them…ya know…later.

There was a brief eternal pause.

Then Uncle SiD spoke as if he was separating lights from darks, ordering a burger, choosing a tie.

“Let’s take them now.”

This is not my native tongue. What is this language he speaks? I suspect he has spoken this Speak before. It’s as if he knows what he’s doing. Could this be… Dad-Tongue?

Yet Little Red continued down the garden path. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” she said, skipping toward the door, “I can get them laaaaaaater.”

SiD didn’t move. Laundry done, Burger gone, Tie tied.

This was the moment of truth. A subtle game change. The first clue was the glint in his eye. But not knowing him well, I couldn’t read his glints yet. Was this hypnosis? Telepathy? Was he simply confused by this newly adopted Southern transplanted orphan? It was a face-off at either end of the hallway. Who would draw first?

I think I saw tumbleweed blow past the bathroom door.

“Why don’t we take them… now.”

Checkmate.

Phraseology be damned, he was using the word “We” in its royal form. And We were not questioning anything. We were now hoisting the first box, (heavy books), onto Our able shoulder.

Yet still she doth protest! “But —!

“Let’s go.”

There are moments where action takes place right before your eyes. You see it happening. There it is. Yep. Right there. Happening now. Look at that. La la la. Your mind wants to debate, defend. Yet words will not go from space between ears to sounds out of mouth. Duh, duh, duh.

By the time I managed to catch up with what was happening he was out the door with the third box.

Holy Stand-in-Dad.

I forgot to mention that the now “Ex” was witnessing all of this from a safe distance in the kitchen the entire time.

I slammed the door for the last time to the hungover screeching of “GIVE ME BACK THOSE PEARLS I GAVE YOU,” reminiscent of a wild peacock in heat.

I still have the pearls. I keep meaning to sell them. Or give them to the homeless woman on the Times Square Shuttle who loves to sing Donna Summer’s On The Radio in thirty-second increments.

But the death knell from the croaking peacock that day could never outlast the Song of SiD:

“You’re my kid.”

So sweetly singeth Uncle SiD.

Don’t Stare at a Dwarf (as taught by Dad)

Dad had a short fuse. Or so my elder siblings told me as they begrudged me their fact that he’d mellowed out by the time I came along. I don’t know about that. I can remember his fat hand against my butt cheeks when I’d done something out of line. Though for some reason now I can’t, conveniently, remember any of the reasons why.

He must have already begun to mellow out the day I took a straight pin I’d found on the floor and stuck it directly into his stomach. Perhaps the bourbon and coke in his hand kept him from reacting quickly. This isn’t my own memory. It’s another Older Sibling Myth told around the proverbial campfire. They like to tell the one about how I took a pot and hit my brother over the head with it when he wouldn’t turn the channel to Sesame Street. This is an untruth.

It was a skillet.

Dad may have “mellowed out” by the time I’d arrived singing “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” But he did discipline. He was a paper salesman (does anyone do that anymore?) and would take me to printing companies. I can still smell the oil of the printing presses.

Dad and Me

Dad had a colleague and friend called Jack. But everyone called him Little Jack. Because of just that. He was a Little Person.

Dad introduced me. I recall being approximately five at the time. And the exact same height as Little Jack.

Dad smiled, “Fleur, this is Little Jack.” I looked at this clearly full grown man and could not comprehend how he could be my height. Instead of saying, “hello”, I just stood there trying to figure this little guy out.

I cocked my head to the right.

And immediately felt my entire five year old body yanked into the air and around the nearest pillar.  (It was a pillar. I remember clearly there being a pillar.)

There was a gigantic pointer finger in my face.

Dad stared directly into my eyes.

“Don’t.   Ever.   Stare.”

The pointer finger froze. Just at the end of my five year old nose. Time stopped.

And then Dad was done.

Stare? I pretended I was legally blind for the next twenty-four hours.

Last week I babysat a little boy, Stevie, about four years old. We walked down the sidewalk in Queens.

We passed a dwarf.

Stevie stopped. Stevie stared.

I gently guided him forward, my hand on his shoulder, calmly explaining that there are all different shapes and sizes in the world.

He didn’t hear a thing I said. He was just trying to figure out how a grown man could be not much taller than himself. Or maybe he was just thinking, “different.” Or maybe,  “cookie,” as he thinks “cookie” a lot.

Stevie will stare again.

So … what? Am I to use Dad’s approach? Granted, Stevie is not my kid. But I can’t see myself putting my finger in any kid’s face, let alone one the ones that I know.

But I never stared again.

Is it me? Or a generational thing? Growing up in the South? Did I miss something and it’s okay to stare now? Or do we just pretend it’s not happening… what do we do when the head cocks to the right?

I may not remember why Dad’s hand ever crossed my ass but I do remember why that finger was in my face.

And frankly, I don’t begrudge him one bit.