Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Still just playing around here.

Once upon a time, there was a television show called the Brady Bunch. A photogenic widower with photogenic sons meets and marries a photogenic widow with photogenic daughters. Hilarity ensues.

This was not going to be like that, though nobody seemed to know it at the time. But yeah, the widower in question had three sons remaining at home. The widow, three daughters. They got that much right.

The widower was not especially photogenic, alas. He was a tradesman, worn by years of grief and worry. His ability to hold a job – maybe his interest in holding a job – had suffered. In further hindsight you could make a case that his judgment had done the same.

The widow? Who knows what she was about? Middle Son never learned her story, nor did he – nor did any of them – think to ask. It was a done deal. Middle Son never actually spoke to her during the Introduction phase of the courtship, which had already progressed to an engagement so what difference did it make? She didn't speak to him.

The daughters? One of them – the middle one, too, which Middle Son found somewhat ominous even at the time – was loudly and volubly enthusiastic. It was all so perfect. Middle Son was six years old, and not a model of observation and analysis. But even he noticed that only that middle daughter said she thought this was a good idea. None of the other five kids, including Middle Son, voiced any opinion at all.

I'd describe them, but what the hell? Descriptions are irrelevant. These kids weren't TV characters. They weren't “the smart one,” or “the funny one,” or “the mischievous one.” They were just kids. Pick any six kids: It was like that.

The wedding followed the introductions by weeks. The troubles followed the wedding within subjective microseconds, and in later years Middle Son had blotted most of them from his memory. It wasn't deliberate. He just naturally formed the habit of erasing certain memories – the unpleasant ones. Since he probably also possessed the childish trait of adding other, made-up memories, any memoir he might have thought to write about that period would necessarily be more than usually undependable. But he didn't bother to replace the erased memories, which meant that large chunks of his childhood remained blank to him for the rest of his life. This included virtually everything about his stepmother. Her indifference toward her new children grew, in the fullness of time, to active dislike. She was never coy about it, give her that. She had very direct ways of dealing with things she didn't like.

Widower seemed to have a lot of trouble holding jobs. This became a permanent trait. Middle Son was puzzled by this, when he grew a bit older and began trying to analyze things outside himself. The Widower seemed to be very good at his trade, to the extent that Middle Son was entitled to an opinion. Skillful and competent. His problem, as far as Middle Son could tell, was that he just completely hated it and for reasons related to that hatred he got fired a lot. Or maybe he quit; insufficient data. Either way, when you've used up all the job opportunities in a particular area you move to another area and start over. Widower moved a lot. So did his … well, for lack of a better word let's call it a “family.”

Hilarity, oddly enough, did not noticeably ensue. What the adults discussed behind closed doors, Middle Son never knew or cared. At least they didn't yell. He was very familiar with yelling, and hated it – even when it wasn't directed at him. If at any point in their marriage they were affectionate with one another he missed it, but mutual bitterness was not in short supply. And the kids? Armed camps. But since Widower was gone a lot – after a while, he was gone a lot – it would have served the boys better to have studied Sun Tzu and Ho Chi Minh. They needed guerrilla tactics if they were going to compete, because the girls had all the weapons in that protracted war. Mostly they just took their dad's example and stayed away as much as possible. It was easier for the older son, who soon got a driver's license and basically disappeared from his siblings' lives. The younger boys? Cannon fodder.

They all formed certain, er, personality quirks. Middle Son found himself developing a strong distaste for cities. Since they invariably lived in or around cities, this was a problem. But it was also the early sixties, and there were always places that hadn't been bulldozed under and paved over, or places that had been abandoned for a time and went back to trees. He was drawn to those places, places where he could build “forts” and retreat to his books and his fantasies. As long as he showed up on demand for school and meals, nobody cared where he went or what he did. He often went very far afield indeed. It wasn't enough, but it would have to do.

Under the circumstances I suppose it was inevitable that the two remaining sons would find themselves with an attitude toward authority that was less than entirely socially beneficial. The youngest one eventually became a sociopath. Someday, if he'd lived, he'd have moved next door to you and your lawn would die. Your daughter would experience virgin birth, your pets would disappear and you'd get hepatitis from stepping on that abandoned syringe needle. The youngest one never did learn the uses of nuance.

But nuance was possible. Middle Son developed certain traits that, from a distance, appeared socially responsible indeed. He became extremely punctual, for example. It was practically a mania with him. When you show up where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to be there, people don't yell at you. They don't ask where you've been or what you've been doing. This reduces the need for lies, and simplifies the lies you tell anyway. Middle Son learned from experience that simple lies were the best ones. It was much easier to keep them internally consistent that way.

His other trait, sometimes taken by others as a sign of social compliance, was a terrible dislike for theft. He did not steal, and he did not tolerate the company of people who did. What was his, was his. You must understand that at this point in his life there was very little he could call “his” and effectively defend the claim. He truly hated a thief. This should not be taken as a sign that he was actually an honest boy. Nuance – but he didn't steal.

To call him socially maladroit would be accurate, if understated. You can call a thermonuclear bomb rather loud, too. Accurate. Understated to the point of falsity. I mentioned that they moved a lot. Social adroitness is formed in childhood by long-standing relationships, and the conflicts and amities that develop therein. Middle Son never grasped the concept of “long-standing relationship,” so he just skipped all those other steps. He graduated, after a fashion, from the twelfth public school he ever attended. After a while he welcomed every move the “family” made as an escape from the social chaos he left in his wake. Hatreds, feuds, vendettas, frequent beatings – he never got big enough to deal physically and effectively with his social problems, and perhaps that's for the best – occasional death threats. There was always a next move. In the fullness of time he learned this really didn't bring advantage. But it was usually welcome anyway.

He began to think of other people as real problems. He began to grow angry. At first he didn't even know what he was so angry about. He had no basis for comparison, and assumed everybody lived like this. That is, when he thought about other people at all. In the glorious clarity of hindsight, he later realized that everywhere he went there were people who found him rather frightening.

Maybe they were right to do so. It's safest to assume that if he had gone the way his younger brother did, he'd have been more competent at it.

By the time Middle Son was no longer a child his worldview was largely fixed, and consisted primarily of scar tissue. It was not a recipe for a well-adjusted or successful adulthood. He had a strong sense of right and wrong, which probably prevented him from simply becoming a criminal, but it was not necessarily recognizable as such by anyone else. His distrust of any authority figure or symbol was profound. His social isolation – total.

And he never did call her “Mother.”


desert fox said...

Fascinating look into the mind of a story-teller.

Thanks for sharing.


Pat H. said...

East of Eden II?

Jim said...

Pat: Nice to know someone still finds Steinbeck worth mentioning.

Joel said...

Definitely not East of Eden.