Things were pretty rough after Daddy Jay headed north to Alaska pursued by Wombats. Money was tight. Mom had been an elementary school teacher before she had us, and hadn't worked in years. Now, she had three kids, a mortgage, and an ex-husband who wasn't paying alimony or child support. At this time, there was a glut of teachers in Strawberry Park, meaning no work in that field other than some substitute teaching- which doesn't exactly pay the bills for a family of four. We didn't know any of this. My brother, sister and I were busy being kids, and things seemed pretty much like before. Maybe we all got hand-me-downs more often when it came to clothes, and maybe we didn't go out to eat pretty much ever, but life didn't seem too weird. Yet.

Then, things started to disappear. That was a little strange. First, it was all the old stuff in the garage. Mom had all this old furniture in the garage- things she had inherited after her mother died, a beautiful set of  mirrors, chests, things like that. To me, they were just unused stuff, but Mom was hoping to one day live in a big house where we could use all those beautiful antiques. One by one, they vanished. And then Juliet disappeared. Juliet was Mom's '57 Chevy. It was sky blue and white and very cool, and she loved it. Mom talked about Juliet like it was a person, an old friend who she had had many adventures with. Then one day, she was gone. Within a few years, Mom re-married, and so began life with Vern.

My step-father Vern was a complicated man. One of my first memories of Vern is from when I was five or six years old.  I was hanging upside down from a branch on our magnolia tree in the front yard and saw him walking up to our house. I shouted out "Daddy". He smiled and said "not yet".  He came across as really nice. He laughed a lot, told jokes, and let us watch Get Smart when we visited him at his apartment. He even got us a dog shortly after he and Mom got married. We had only had one dog before, a little white dog named Spot that Daddy Jay had given us. Spot ran away around the same time  my father left. We named the new dog Gigi, and I loved her very much. Life was pretty sweet. For a bit.

Something was shifting in house. At first, it was hard to pin down, just a tension that seemed to fill the air. Mom would get a little jumpy when we got loud or left our toys out. And in the mornings, especially on the week-ends, we were told to stay quiet until Vern got up. And he would sleep in pretty late. Sometimes, Vern would swear. It was exciting to hear these forbidden words, but also kind of creepy. Adults weren't supposed to talk like that.  And sometimes, Vern would yell at us. Now, being a kid, I was used to grown-ups yelling now and then. But there was something different about Vern yelling. More intense. More scary. Mom said Vern had had a hard life, and so he drank too much sometimes, and we needed to be understanding, that he just got into bad moods from time to time. Well, it was true about the bad moods, and we learned quickly that if Vern was in one of his funks, it was a really good idea to be on our best behavior. Life became something like dancing with a polar bear. Still fun and exciting, but now much more dangerous, and if you weren't careful, you would most likely get an eternal lecture on how stupid you were and how meaningless life was and told that you should never have to be asked to clean your room, you should just do it. Shouting and crying and fear were regular dinner guests. And somehow, I became Vern's favorite. He'd tell me jokes at dinner. I'd pour his wine- red with ice cubes. I'd ask him to tell me about his life, and he'd tell stories about being in the army and sitting through a hurricane on a base in Florida, or when he ran a television repair store near Sacramento, or about the Porsche he used to drive. And this seemed to calm the savage beast, to make him happy. And when he was happy, he was nicer, less prone to yelling, or throwing things, or getting into big blow out yell fests with Mom after we went to bed. So making him happy was job number one. I learned how to make him laugh, mostly through trial and error. If I said certain things a certain way, Vern would laugh. You could tell when a laugh was needed, when things were heading south, as they say. Usually, there would be the inciting incident- Vern would ask if we had done all our chores, or been good at school- some quotidian thing like that. And he would only ask if he knew that we hadn't. So he'd ask the question, there would be a moment of silence, and if you didn't manage to make him laugh, the interrogation would begin, dinner would be effectively over, and who knew what would happen next? Usually it would be yelling, but there was the occasional glass thrown, and on one infamous night, he back-handed my sister in the face. Vern was a big, scary man- and we were little kids, scared out of our minds. So whenever possible, when the moment came, if at all possible, I'd make him laugh, the moment would pass, and we'd all breathe a little easier.

But comedy would only work up to a certain point, for so many glasses of wine. After that, all bets were off, and the thing to do was shut up and look for the closest escape route. It is a very curious thing to watch someone change right in front of you, to morph themselves in a sort of slow motion imitation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; to see the eyes blur and grow mean,  smell the breath become danker and danker,  physically feel tension and anger fill a room, like an acrid fog. Curious and terrifying. And heartbreaking.

By fourth grade, I had abandoned all hope of Daddy Jay ever coming back. Life was harsh, and nothing could change that. There was only one thing I secretly hoped would happen, one thing that might bring a little bit of magic back to the world.


I  realize that might sound like a fairly dull dream to a lot of people. But you have to understand, it never snowed in San Jose. Ever. Not once in my life. The only snow I ever saw was on tv and in the movies. Snow was glamorous, even mystical. You could go sledding, have snow fights, eat snow pies, make snowmen. I had a few vague memories of going up to the mountains, way back when Daddy Jay was still around- and I remember it being fun and that I loved it. And I wasn't alone in my hope for snow. Every kid at Strawberry Park Elementary wanted snow. If it got below fifty degrees, we'd look to the sky, and dream.  So snow was it. I became an avid fan of the weather reports- but the news was never very promising. Still, many nights I'd go to sleep wishing fervently for snow, praying to a god I wasn't so sure was up there anymore to make it snow.  Snow would make it all okay. Santa would return, with Melvin the Great sitting in his sled. Vern- or Dad, as we called him by then- would stop drinking. Everything would be all right again, all thanks to the Messiah called Snow. It was the last bastion my soul had against an encroaching reality.


Jon E. said…
I remember that time, when I only knew the daytime-out-in-the-sun Vern. Before I knew about the darker side. Sometimes I was envious since I'd never known my dad. Later I realized that nothing can be an improvement on the wrong things.

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