Excerpt from I Know This Much is True
Growing up, my dad had lots of people in and out of our house, usually men. My brother and I called them our “uncles”. Uncle David, Uncle Shank, Uncle Tony, are the ones I can recall offhand. I think it was my dad’s way of putting a title of respect on them from a child’s point of view, and I think he was attempting to create a brotherhood or community for himself. His family was all deceased, except for his sister, Cleo, and my mom had no siblings herself.
Uncle David owned a shop of some sort, but what I do remember were the candy sticks he sold in jars. They were colorful, with a white stripe that wrapped around them. I’m pretty sure he sold them for a nickel apiece, but I was allowed to pick one each time we visited him. He was always very nice to me, and I loved tagging along with my father to visit him, because we would always pass the “Sleeping Giant” on the drive to West Hartford.
Uncle Shank was a big, black man, with a salt and pepper beard. I don’t know why I loved him, but he seemed like a big teddy bear to me. He would come to our apartment occasionally to visit, which was rare for us to have visitors other than the neighbors. I remember my dad yelling at my mom after his visits, accusing her of cheating on him with Uncle Shank. It never made sense to me, because Uncle Shank was my father’s friend first.
Uncle Tony was the dad of Tony and Joe, the boys who lived across the street from us in our rental in Florida. They lived in a big white, wooden house, different from all the other houses on that street, which were made of cinderblock. I never went inside their house until after they moved out, and it was falling apart. I would get yelled at for getting caught going in there, so I always made sure to explore it when my father was at work. Uncle Tony was SO COOL. He was Polynesian-bred, so he was short and small boned. Tan, with long black hair, always smiling and joking. He seemed like such a fun dad, and I often wished mine would go away so I could have a new one. His wife, Amy, was blonde and gorgeous. She would lay in their yard, slather herself with baby oil, and declare “Ok Mr. Sun, do your stuff!”
Then there was another uncle, whose name escapes me. He was handsome, and much younger than my parents, maybe late twenties. He was tan, brown-haired, and good-looking. He lived with us for a short time, and would give us change to walk up to the convenience store for sodas. He seemed no different than any of our other “uncles”, so there was no need for me to have my guard up, even though he lived with us at the end of the summer I was ten. He was a distraction for my father, so we got yelled at a lot less, and I had already buried what my father had done to me by then. My mom had decided to put me in summer camp a couple weeks after it happened. Even though she had no idea what was going on, I was grateful for the break away from my father during the day. I would wander around Shore Acres Rec Department grounds, listening to the music they played from the loudspeakers. Climaxx Blues Band’s song “I Love You”, and Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” seemed to be on repeat that summer, but they were a reprieve for me.
One day, my father told us the uncle was moving out. We were sad to see him go, but we’d had so many people come and go through our lives already that it was no big deal. He put his bags in his red truck, and started off down the street. I ran behind the truck, yelling goodbye, when he stopped at the end of the street. Naively, I thought he had a present for me. I ran up to the truck, he rolled down the window and said “Give me a hug goodbye!” I reached through the window to hug him, and he stuck his tongue in my mouth.
I repeat, I was TEN.
Not long after, a woman moved in with us. She seemed so wise, and talked to me like I was an actual person. She taught me how to do backbends, back walkovers, and we were just getting down my back handspring when my dad threw her out.
My father told us he was American Indian, and we believed him. We would go to schools around Florida dressed in regalia, and my dad would give educational talks to the students on American Indian life. Then my brother, Tony, Joe and I would perform some dances while my father drummed. This woman went along with us. Then my father got the call he wanted so badly, from the St. Petersburg Pier. They had permitted him to do a performance at the Pier. He was so excited. I was not. I was tired of missing school, of being forced to wear regalia, and performing the same dance over again. During the summer, the woman made being an Indian interesting. She showed me her beadwork, and made fires in our yard, which I loved. I’m a closet pyromaniac.
We loaded up the car and van and drove to the Pier. We set up the stage. We did our performance. My dad got angry with me because I wasn’t performing to his liking, but it was hot. The regalia was thick and heavy. Afterwards, we began packing up, and wanting to get away from my father, I followed the woman to her car, hoping she would offer to take me home instead of having to ride with my father and the boys. We were three feet from her car, when I heard my father whistle for me, then yelling loudly to get my ass back to him. I ignored him. He came running. He grabbed me by the arm roughly, and then started yelling at the woman, and me, accusing her of trying to kidnap me. I was confused. Was she really trying to kidnap me? Was I really this stupid, again?
She defended herself, saying she was only going to bring me home. That I didn’t need to ride with smelly, sweaty boys. I looked back and forth between them as they yelled at each other, very loudly. My father told her to pack her shit and get out of his house before he got home. He yanked me by the arm up the sidewalk to the van, cussing at me the entire way. “You should fucking know better than to go off with fucking strangers! Are you fucking stupid? She wants to rape and kill you! She’s a fucking drug addict and a whore! You’re god damn lucky I came after you, or you would be fucking cut up just like Adam Walsh and we would never fucking see you again! What the fuck is wrong with you?! You’re a goddamn fucking idiot sometimes! How the fuck are you in the gifted program when you’re this fucking stupid?! You have no god damn fucking common sense.”
When we got home, I got my ass beat.
By the time I walked through the doors of Skyview Elementary for fifth grade, I had no idea how to behave anymore.