Angels had nothing on Grandma Alice, who served as seer and Greek chorus to our family’s fate. She’d disapproved of her only child marrying into Dad’s family, calling them, apparently within his earshot on the eve of Mom and Dad’s wedding, nothing but white trash covered with Oakie dust.
If her four grandchildren mitigated her grievance, it did nothing to assuage my father’s legendary grudge holding: he’d rarely let us visit her, so she’d scrimp to save gas money from her meager Social Security stipend in order to drive the ninety miles from her Hemet bungalow to Palm Springs. She never missed a birthday or holiday, but mostly visited during the week when Dad was on the road. This is how I place the night Herschel almost died as a Friday. She’d been visiting, playing with me and Barb after school, helping Mom sew some curtains. She was gone by the time Dad got home.
My parents curled together on the couch. Barb sprawled at their feet while I hovered in front of the television, trying to get close enough to see Flipper. Mom fingered the red-lined leaves of the Dieffenbachia she kept at the side of the couch, even though she warned us not to touch it. With her singular ability to be partially right and completely wrong, she’d told us it was called a Death-in-Baccia plant because people in Baccia ate it and died.
Mom jumped off the couch. Started pacing. I tried to ignore her, but she started crying, gasping for Dad to get off the couch, for us to pray. Honey, it’s Herschel. There’s been an accident.
Weeks earlier, Mom dreamed Herschel died in an accident. I knew this by spying on my parents in the kitchen one morning. They liked to sit at the table before the kids were up, drinking coffee and holding hands. They’d press their heads together, nuzzle each other’s ears and necks while Dad fingered the ties of my mother’s yellow apron. I loved listening to the stories they told each other, even if they were always about their lives before they had four kids. Usually they told each other stories about how they’d fallen in love after Dad got back from the Navy. They were a World War II couple trying to make sense of the rubble while hoping to turn modest service benefits into something substantial. Invariably, Dad told Mom she was the most beautiful girl in the world and teased her about writing so many servicemen. Mom giggled her way through the stories, reminding him of how he’d called her a “scrub” in high school, or how many other boys had asked for her hand. That day, though, they weren’t telling stories. They were holding hands while Dad prayed in English and Mom whispered in tongues. Occasionally Dad slipped into tongues while Mom punctuated his prayer with Yes, Lord and Please. When they pulled apart, Mom wiped her eyes on the skirt of her apron and told me to go get your brother.
Herschel sprawled on his bed, a blue and white striped sheet wadded at his feet. The tangy smell of urine hung in the air.
When I told him Mom and Dad wanted to see him, he startled, felt around his sheets, and let out a small animal noise. I closed the door while he started stripping the sheets. At nearly seventeen, he still peed the bed. He was a decade older, but I hadn’t peed the bed for years. Dad stopped spanking him for it before I could remember, but the penance I saw was worse: every morning he had to rinse his soiled sheets in the tub and hang them to dry on the clothesline in the backyard, the mustardy stain in the center flapping all day, a shaming more public than the belt. When Herschel walked into the kitchen, he slid the pocket door closed behind him, but I could hear everything.