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We’re in the basement, hiding from the heat. I’m in a sweaty heap with my little brothers, Mike and Steve, and two neighbor kids, Becky and Jimmy. We lie on the floor, silent, just the sound of our breathing.
Then I say it: Let’s play poison.
The game is my invention and I’m prepared. From my shorts I produce a roll of Life Savers, carefully unspooling the foil wrapper. Slipping a cherry into my mouth, I hand out sublime flavors to my companions: watermelon, pineapple, orange, lime. They suck their candy, serious as cyanide.
We all wait for the inevitable—it won’t be long.
It’s the summer of ’67 and I’ve just turned eleven. Thin as a matchstick, with a big dollop of blond hair across my brow, I close my eyes, preparing to die. As usual, Becky will be the first to feel the symptoms. Becky is excitable. She’s twelve and a half, with flaming red hair and new boobs.
Becky doesn’t know how to whisper. In perfect agony, she calls out, “Help me! Something’s terribly wrong!”
I say, “What is it, my darling?”
She places my hand on her chest. “Can you feel it? I’m burning up!” she screams. And it’s true: her breasts are surprisingly warm. “I-I can’t breathe,” she stutters. “Our food was poisoned!”
Taking my hand back from her hot bra, I tremble. “I feel strange, too. But who would do such an awful thing?”
“The Russians,” Mike says.
“Or the Red Chinese!” Steven cries.
My brothers are endearingly bad actors—I’m proud of them for remembering their lines. In the half-light of the basement, I watch them grimace and grin.
“There must be an antidote!” I call out, as I clank through my father’s liquor cabinet.
“It’s too late for that. Uhhhhh!” Becky becomes hysterical. It’s contagious. The five of us drool and twitch and run about, each suffering in our own special way. Steven, at eight, perishes in a torrent of blubbery tears. Michael, a brute at ten, keels over with a maximum of movie violence, convulsing and kicking the table as if drilled by machine-gun fire. Becky’s little brother, Jimmy (strawberry curls and good manners), is wistful and understated. He coughs once and joins my brothers on the floor.
Becky and I are the final act. I embrace her as she goes limp in my arms.
“My darling. Please don’t leave me!”
But Becky gurgles and spits and collapses in slow motion. With her last bit of strength, she grabs my Bermuda shorts and pulls them down. In one grand gesture, buxom Becky is gone.
Standing in my underwear, I consider my audience. They sprawl on the floor, eyes pretend-closed, awaiting my soliloquy. Since I’m already half-dead, I decide to risk a Calvary motif (I’m a good Catholic boy and know my New Testament). Stretching out my skinny arms, I ask, “Lord, Lord, why hast Thou forsaken us?”
My high voice echoes against the concrete. I improvise: “Dear God, why would You poison Your own children?” Standing in my underwear, beseeching heaven, I get a baby boner. Before I can pull up my shorts, the lights flick on and, instantly, my parents materialize, their mouths open in horror. Somehow Father Dempsey, pastor of our church, is standing between them. He turns a redder shade than usual.
Dad says, “For Christ’s sake, Chris, pull up your pants.”
“We were just playing.”
Dad says, “Oh, I can help you with that.”
Father Dempsey winks at me as I tug up my shorts.
Mom sighs—she understands the nature of drama.
Mother is very dramatic. Her clothes often veer toward costume. Today, she’s wearing her gold I Dream of Jeannie slippers and a chiffon blouse that blooms like a giant orchid. Her hair flips upward, defying gravity—her lips pout, a shade of pumpkin pie.
As the other kids scurry upstairs, Mom pulls me aside.
“Fainting not enough?”
I’m thrilled she remembers.
* * *
I’D BEEN TEACHING myself how to faint—deeming it, in addition to dying, an important life skill. The trick was getting the little sigh right just before your knees gave out. After perfecting my technique, I’d run to show Mom, the one person who’d understand. She was in the kitchen, cooking dinner, and when I asked if she wanted to see me faint, she put down her wooden spoon and said, “Fainting is not a joke. Do you know I fainted in Spain once from too much garlic? I had to be hospitalized. If your father hadn’t caught me, who knows what would have happened?”
Mom’s story went on for quite a while. There was a handsome doctor (“I considered running away with him”) and smelling salts (“a diabolic invention!”). My mother was famous for her monologues. I waited patiently, and when she was finished, I said, “So can I faint now?”
“I’m busy. Go faint for your brothers.” And then: “We have guests coming tonight.” She pointed a lacquered fingernail at me. “I don’t want you fainting for any of them.”
* * *
THE HOUSE OF RUSH was booming.
My parents’ cocktail parties careened through the fifties and sixties like a great drunken circus. The whole town came and went. I remember a pastel sea of summer dresses; waiters flying by in black and white, carrying trays of martinis, ten at a time. Booze filled the world with excitement. Everyone danced and laughed, fell over and got up. If ladies landed in the pool, the men jumped in after them. There were sing-alongs and fistfights, bloody noses and slow cigars. And at the end of the night, as Dad helped the last of the guests out to their cars, Mom would get a flashlight and sweep the yard for bodies.
Sometimes, members of the fallen were local priests—men I respected and looked up to—so it was odd to find a cleric facedown in the daffodils. I knew that priests weren’t like cops, they were never “off duty,” but in our house they could let their hair down, as my mother liked to say.
“And their balls,” as my father once added.
* * *
OF THE SEVEN Rush children, I was in the middle. I grew up when my parents were most fabulous—and most happy. They still believed that the past was firmly behind them. The past was always referred to with some suspicion—and I associated it with a phrase my mother often used: good riddance to bad rubbish. We rarely saw members of my mother’s or father’s family. I knew that bad rubbish had something to do with white trash.
By 1967, my two oldest siblings, Chuck and Kathy, were already married with kids. The next person in line was my sister Donna—a contagiously happy sixteen-year-old, leading us all to a better, brighter future. I adored her Vidal Sassoon blunt cut and artful mascara—and she had her priorities straight: after a star turn as captain of the cheerleading squad, she planned to become a professional model.
She’d already done summer training at the Barbizon Modeling School. For the two months of the program, Donna and I had taken a bus to New York City every Saturday. Though I was five years younger than my sister, Mom dubbed me Donna’s chaperone. Preparing our outfits took the better part of Friday night. There is a photo of Donna in a peach cashmere wrap, with a taupe fedora and white eye shadow; I’m standing beside her in a glimmer-blue suit and yellow ascot.
Together, we’d prance up Fifth Avenue to Barbizon, to the little door where all the girls zoomed in. I’d wave goodbye as Donna disappeared into a world of poise, posture, and panty hose. I was captivated.
On my own, I walked around town in my miniature man-suit, window-shopping. I’d study all the stylish women walking into Saks. Style was a bid for happiness, a kind of hope.
On the bus home, Donna and I would page through fashion mags, searching for cool.
Sputnik earrings—of course, of course!
I watched my sister closely, aped her every move—slowly separating myself from my younger brothers Michael and Steven, who were barbarians, and my baby brother, Danny, just a pet in diapers.
* * *
IN THE MIDDLE, I floated about freely, yapping to everyone. Once I’d exhausted Donna and my other siblings, I’d start on any adults hanging about. For a long time, I assumed adults knew much more than they actually did. But when I asked them about vampires or continental drift, they looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about.
The time I asked Father Dempsey if he spoke with God, he pretended not to hear me. When I told him I talked to God all the time, he leaned in to whisper. “Maybe that’s something you should keep to yourself.”
Mom, at least, was fun. If I asked her a question, she always answered. She had lots of opinions. In that way, we were similar.
* * *
“MOM, ARE PAPER FLOWERS PRETTY?”
I knew it was a dumb question, but she took the bait.
“When your father and I were in Acapulco, children chased us around with paper flowers. Paper flowers and Chiclets! Or they just begged. It was very sad, all their little hands sticking out. Your father got quite teary, said he wanted to adopt every one of them. As if we could just scoop a brown baby off the street! I had to put my foot down. So, no, dear, paper flowers are not pretty. They’re cheap.”
“Oh, because I thought I might make some.”
“I can’t stop you, can I? Please don’t make a mess.”
* * *
WITH TISSUE PAPER, coat hangers, and floral tape, I methodically followed the directions in Family Circle magazine. Soon, a jungle of pink and purple pom-poms overtook my room. Cheerful as an elf, I carried out the two biggest for my mother.
Just in from golf, she wore white culottes and a buttercup visor. Before she even got off her sunglasses, I screamed, “Mom, Mom, look—flowers for you!”
“That’s so sweet. Maybe keep them in your room for now, okay?”
After I’d assembled a dozen or two, I decided I should sell them. At my parents’ next bridge party, I strolled from table to table showing off my wares. I wore my black Andy Warhol turtleneck to accentuate the merchandise. Flowers flopped about in various radioactive colors. The adults went quiet.
Then old Miss Chester spoke up. “Young man, what on earth are you doing?” She had a voice deeper than dirt. A cigarette dangled in her diamond claw. I smelled whiskey.
“I’m selling paper flowers, ma’am—five dollars each. I made them.”
“Well, good for you.” She grabbed her purse.
When I got excited as a kid, one of two things happened: I threw up or my voice got very high. At that moment, my voice filled the room like a dentist’s drill. “Do you want red, yellow, or pink? I think yellow is best. But this is a fantastic pink! I’m not sure about red, though. It might be too much.” My mother had told me that red was questionable after forty.
“Yellow is fine.” Miss Chester handed me a ten-dollar bill.
“It’s just so lovely doing business with you,” I effused.
My father, at a corner table in shirt and tie, looked, for some reason, displeased.
“Norma!” he shouted across the room.
Mom took charge. “Chris, you’re interrupting. Go watch TV.”
“I have to make change,” I said.
My client winked. “Keep it, honey-pants.”
I handed her a flower and ran off with my tip.
* * *
WITHIN A WEEK, I’d made thirty-five bucks selling to every person who dared walk in our door. My sister Donna ordered two in school colors—blue and white. I was a factory; fake flowers spread to every corner of the house. In a fit of inspiration, I started adding perfume. Three spritzes per flower. I was using Mom’s expensive stuff—Shalimar and Arpège. My brothers, though, acted like my flowers were poisonous. Dad, too.
I didn’t understand.
Mom did. “Honey, how about I buy all your flowers? Every single one.”
“Yes, then let’s say enough for a while. You need to go outside and get some air. You smell like a lady of the evening. Why don’t you jump in the pool?”
“Okay, Mom. Thanks!”
* * *
I LOVED OUR POOL.
It was huge—bluer than heaven. Around it, the trees strutted, the roses roared.
Finished in ’56, our house was my father’s midcentury masterpiece. Featured in newspapers and fashion shoots, our house was new, new, new!—no attic, no heirlooms, no trace of the past.
Every detail was carefully managed by Norma Farrow Rush, the pale-skinned daughter of a taxidermist. She no longer had to do any dirty work for her father; the house was her shining rebuke.
The kitchen was immaculate, wrapped in Formica, smooth as snow. And though Mom had dined all over the world, she seemed happiest in her own kitchen, performing for twenty guests in a snug apron and high heels. By some Catholic miracle, her figure improved with each child. Babies, she said, were her beauty secret.
Sometimes when Dad was out late at a meeting, I’d sit with Mom at the kitchen table and watch her play cards. She taught me how to win at solitaire—by cheating. She placed each card down with a decisive snap, saying: If you don’t cheat, you lose—and what fun is that?
Past her makeup and her jewelry, I could always spot the glimmer of sadness. I think she could see me seeing it. She called me “the sensitive one.”
There were days when Mom was particularly manic, when there was nothing left to cook or clean, no fund-raiser or bridge party. I’d come home from school and she’d say, “Let’s go for a spin.” Often it was simply a run to the grocery store—but sometimes we’d drive out to an old cemetery in the woods off Route 9, to look at headstones.
The names on the stones were not Rush or Farrow.
“Who are these people?” I asked my mother.
“Old families, long gone,” she said. “I love how peaceful it is out here.”
I recall my shock, seeing a marker in which the year of birth and the year of death were the same. The stone read: BORN INTO THE ARMS OF ANGELS. There was no name. Only the word Baby.
My mother told me not to mention where we’d been.
“What would your father think?”
* * *
ON THE WAY HOME, Mom would drive past the place she grew up. It wasn’t much, just a small apartment over a run-down store. Red neon still flashed above the door: BAIT AND TACKLE. Out front was a life-sized concrete brontosaurus—a New Jersey landmark. I longed for a closer look, but no matter how many times I asked, Mom would never stop.
Her father was still living there. Sometimes, I could glimpse him standing behind the counter. Mom, eyes on the road, never once looked toward the shop.
I didn’t ask about him. Questions of that sort were not encouraged. To Mom, the past was something you sped by—and best to do it at ten miles over the speed limit, in a brand-new white Cadillac.
Whoosh! Good riddance to bad rubbish.
* * *
MOM WAS DEMANDING when it came to other people—and especially hard on the help. Our most recent nanny had been let go for body odor. Her room downstairs had been empty all summer while Mother tried to air out the smell of poverty.
One afternoon, I went down and sat cross-legged on the black linoleum. It was quiet in the basement, and it smelled fine to me. A square of light fell from the high window, landing on the floor like a magic doorway. I thought it was poetic.
I was sharing a bedroom with my brother Michael, who was not poetic. I asked Mom if I could move downstairs, claiming I needed greater privacy.
“You’re eleven,” she said. “You don’t need privacy. You need supervision.”
From whom, I wondered.
Mom was not much of a supervisor. She regarded her children as her audience—and once we’d applauded, we could do as we wished.
* * *
DAD WAS MORE of a mystery—a dark planet, exerting only vague astrological influence on his offspring. He walked with a limp, a steel brace on one leg from the car crash of ’64. He was still strong, though, and steady. He could be quite charming, always ready to amuse guests with a story or a joke. But to a child, to a son, he had nothing to say. He seemed unsure around kids, uncomfortable, even guilty. I knew something bad had happened to him, something that couldn’t be talked about.
There was always silence in his wake.
Every Sunday, our family went to church, but Dad went during the week, as well. He went to confession often and took Communion every day. I was intrigued by the idea of his soul—and even more intrigued by the idea of his sin. What could it be?
* * *
WHEN AGAIN I BROUGHT UP the idea of my taking the maid’s quarters, Mother had already moved on. She was on the phone, talking about Dotty Doone, the golf pro who dressed like a man. As she gossiped, I carried my clothes and records downstairs right in front of her.
Once I’d settled in, I asked my mother about décor.
It was the exact right word. Instantly, she came alive. “You know, I always meant to do something down there. Make a statement. I don’t know why the girls we hire don’t make more of an effort. Why live in squalor?”
When I suggested we paint, Mom smiled. “How about a wild yellow? Maybe a marigold—the kind of yellow that wants to be orange.”
“That’s me—I’m a yellow who wants to be orange!”
“Yes, I know that about you.”
Soon we were downtown, looking at swatches—and the next day the basement was reborn. Against black linoleum, marigold was a rocket launch, a flower-power explosion. Inspired by photos of hippie crash pads in Life magazine, I went on to strangle my bookcase with Christmas lights. I taped tinfoil to the ceiling and threw fake fur on the floor. From a ratty record store in town, I’d procured a black light and the necessary posters; now Jimi and Janis flickered on my wall. When Donna came down, she nodded in approval. She gave me incense and a 45 of Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow”—which I played a thousand times.
One night, I took off my clothes and danced naked, wiggling in the mirror, a daub of Day-Glo on my teenie-weenie. Then, from out of nowhere, there was the sound of static and a God-like voice: What is that horrible odor?
I’d forgotten about the intercom, by which Mother sent commands into the maid’s quarters. I pressed the call button. “It’s frankincense and myrrh, Mom.” I reminded her these rare fragrances had been gifts to the Baby Jesus.
“Don’t be smart. It smells worse than Nanny’s underarms. Open your window. And turn down that screeching.”
* * *
AS TIME WENT ON, Mom tended to forget I was in the basement, burning things and growing up. She never visited and only occasionally intruded by intercom. In the fragrant gloom, I was free to become a weirdo. By day I was a Catholic boy in a plaid uniform. By night I was a freak in a fuzzy vest.
Having grown up in a spotless space-age home, I developed an unwholesome desire for all things vine-choked and Victorian. On weekends, I searched yard sales and junk stores for buried treasure. I found mad crystals and silk tassels, tintypes and diaries. I carried home a case of butterflies—each one stabbed through the heart with a pin.
It all belonged in my room.
In a moment of good cheer, Father Dempsey let me have a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary I’d found moldering in the church basement. Delivered by two of Dad’s workers, Mary seemed content as my roommate. Glass-eyed and gilt—I thought she was beautiful. I played records for her, explained that rock music was a kind of prayer.
My search for treasure continued. One Saturday, I walked to Polly’s Bric-a-Brac and Fine Furnishings, a disaster of pointless merchandise in an unheated barn. Cupboards and crutches, Bibles and toilets—it was a kind of perfect chaos. Hoping for gold, I opened an old leather trunk and pulled at a tangle of frilly underwear and faded neckties.
Then it flashed: a cape—a pink satin cape!
I ran to a cracked mirror and tried it on. Draped across my shoulders, the fabric was blinding, the color obscene. The label said Pucci—the lining a riot of rainbow colors. It was a fashion miracle. I gave old Polly a rumpled dollar and ran.
* * *
FOR A WEEK, I wandered the neighborhood in my cape, feeling potent and magical, a vampire-saint prowling the earth. In a Transylvanian accent, I asked people: Do you like my Pucci? Neighbor Becky, my partner in poison, refused to answer when I rang her doorbell. My brothers all but disowned me. To other children, my delirious face, emerging from a magenta flame, may have indicated mental illness or clown school. Girls gaped. Boys spit. I carried on.
Until Dad spotted me.
He stopped his new Thunderbird and put down the electric window. “No fucking way. Get it off.”
“Dad, I’m Pope John—the Twenty-Third!”
“You heard me. Get it off. Now.”
The Pucci was banned. Dad wouldn’t explain, but later, during an argument with my mother, I heard him use a new phrase.
“The boy is a goddamn queer, Norma—it’s obvious.”
“Charlie, don’t say that, he just needs a challenge.” Mom suggested piano lessons, or archery. “Why don’t we call Father Dempsey—or one of the younger priests? Maybe they’ll know what to do with him.”
Lying on my bed, I thought: What’s a goddamn queer?
Copyright © 2019 by Chris Rush