When the fašade was vaporized off our little Norman Rockwell world, that is to say, when nine eleven happened, I was visiting friends in Washington State some thirteen hundred miles from home. I remember being glued to their TV set watching hour after hour of raw video being beamed into living rooms all over America on that first day. It was hypnotizing and horrible all at the same time, much the way a traffic accident draws so many rubber-neckers - you feel compelled to look, even if you don't want to see anything. The whole country gawked at New York City, in all of its murky devastation. And I gawked right along, from the second tower sporting an unseasonal orange chrysanthemum to the blizzard of ash and confetti to the search for the wounded to the search for survivors to the eerie sense that things would never be the same again.
Every time I closed my eyes for the next six months, a parade of images from those initial fifteen hours, cascaded through my mind's eye. It was frightful. And then, one day in March 2002, something happened to change all that, and this is how it happened. By the way, I'm not using anybody's real name here because somebody will undoubtedly deny that this happened and get pissed off (I swear it's true!).
I received an invitation to have dinner with my cousin at my mother's house one Sunday evening and out of guilt I accepted. See, I don't see my mom very often because, quite frankly, she's kind of hard to take in large doses (ironic because she's not very big, but when it comes to outlandish behavior, she's a giant!), and sometimes you just got to pay the piper.this was one of those times.
My cousin Priscilla, whose own mother was slowly dying of cancer at a famous doctor's hospital (where she was receiving excellent care - at least until her insurance ran out), was down visiting from her central California home. And she was running late (traffic or something), so we started the party without her.
My mom lives in a coastal town west of Los Angeles, in the same house I grew up in. She got it as a prize for putting up with my father's philandering ways, if you know what I mean. She lives there with her boyfriend Floyd, of some twenty years. For some reason my mom will never set foot in a church again, at least not for her own wedding. Like Tom Waits says, "I don't mind weddings, as long as they're not my own!"
They make quite a pair, her and Floyd. They've been living together so long that they operate like a tag team. Floyd'll start a sentence and mom will finish it. Mom tells a story and Floyd does 'color commentary.' Floyd tells a joke and mom tells the punch line. It's a very down-home, yet eclectic atmosphere. Mom has a fondness for contact paper, she used to buy it at Target or Pier One, it comes in bright colors or looks like wood grain (we used to call it hillbilly wallpaper); yet she also makes a mean flower arrangement and often picks up some folding money doing arrangements for some of her friends and events down at the yacht club. Yeah she belongs to a small yacht club a few towns over, been a member there since I can't remember when. Hell, her bar tab alone has probably paid for a year's worth of maintenance on that building.
Oh yeah, did I mention that she drinks? She's been putting the booze away for quite some time.and Floyd ain't no slouch in that department either. In fact, every year for at least the last fifteen or so, Floyd and some of his friends have made their own wine. They drive a couple of pickups up to the wine country and bring back a couple of tons of the grape and mash 'em up, bottle 'em and put them up in mom's garage to ferment. It's quite an operation. Just picture that episode of I Love Lucy where she decides to go native on a trip to Italy and ends up brawling in the wine vat with one of the local gals.
So, on the occasion of our little party, the vino was ready for sampling, and since my cousin was running late, we commenced to sampling. I have to say also, that homebrewed wine packs a wallop since it is usually at least five percent higher in alcohol than the store bought stuff. So two glasses is like drinking three or four, depending on your tolerance. You need a lot of tolerance to sit through a dinner at my mom's house, hence you need a couple of glasses of wine, or gin, or whatever it is that allows you to sit numbly by while Floyd tells his racist jokes and mom tells her stories about how screwed up her kids are (and you're thinking, what am I doing here?) and you start wishing you'd had something to eat before coming over here, 'cause the wine is really kicking in.
Well, by the time Priscilla showed up, we were a pretty happy crew, feeling no pain as the saying goes. She had come from her mom's bed-side, fought the traffic and gotten lost, so by the time she showed up, she needed some serious "tolerance." Seeing our "happy" state, she asked Floyd for a Gin and Tonic, which she slugged down and asked for another. This one, she sipped, and as she did you could see the weight of her world slowly easing up.
Now, my cousin is usually pretty jovial. She has a contagious laugh which causes her to jiggle a bit when she gets going; and, by this I mean that most of the women in my mom's family tend to end up on the round side, what Floyd would call zaftig. We all tend to fill out eventually and I'm no exception.
Priscilla was filling us in on her mom's condition, which was pretty serious, when Floyd decided to get dinner rolling. In this case it was steak, a nice thick cut too, served with salad and potatoes and, you guessed it, another glass of wine. I just sat there like a bump on a log while my mom and my cousin calmly discussed the impending departure of my aunt. It'd been a drawn out process and they were both looking forward to its end. I tried to follow the conversation but found that I kept drifting off into my own little world of thoughts. I couldn't close my eyes and rest because when I did that, there was that damned tower with its orange "flower" suddenly blooming. Fortunately, Floyd brought the steaks in from the BBQ and dinner began. The conversation moved away from death and dying and became more irreverent. Mom began her litany of people who'd disappointed her, with us kids being at the top of the list as usual. I wanted to protest, but said nothing because it was pointless. I'd been down this path before and knew that my sibs weren't worth the effort required to defend. Besides the steak was great and the wine was providing a cotton candy-like layer of tolerance, so I just let 'er rip. And rip she did. She ripped me, she ripped my cousin (who just smiled politely), she even ripped Floyd (who chuckled and said "it's true"), and she even ripped my aunt for being rigid and overbearing (I thought I saw just a glint of anger in my cousin's eyes but she kept on smiling). She went on and on like a little kid having a tantrum and we sat there like hostages, wondering when the sword would come down.
Eventually, mom ran out of steam and slumped into her chair. I asked Priscilla what was new and she gladly took charge of the conversation, but again I found myself drifting off. She's very active and does a lot of traveling for her job, so she's seldom home. I know this bothers her, but she takes it all in stride (which is probably how she handles my mom's outbursts) and smiles through it all. She's a sly one, old Priscilla. God, I love her.
Somewhere during this chatter, maybe after dessert and coffee, we got to talking about this fellow who has a show on the local PBS TV channel, called Travels With Elmo. He sounds a lot like a cross between Gomer Pyle (a character from an old TV show who had a big smile, a back-woods drawl that just wouldn't quit and a fondness for saying "Shazzam!" when he was impressed by something) and Floyd. He's got this persona that just seems arcane in our "modern" world. It's "golly this" and "golly that" and "gee whiz" etc. Elmo travels around the state and does little puff pieces on towns and people that are off the beaten path. His show is interesting sometimes, but he's so over-the-top that you almost need a big, old, glass of "tolerance" to watch them.
So, there we sat, relating our favorite episodes, mine being the one where Elmo and his intrepid cameraman Luigi ("Golly, Luigi, look at that!") go to a borax mine and see these huge dump trucks and I did my best impression of Elmo drawling "Golly Luigi, look at the size of those tires!" Floyd chimed in, "They's huge!" And we all started cackling with laughter. This went on for a while until my mom got that devilish look in her eye that she gets right before she starts some mischief. She said to no one in particular, "You know what I'd do if Elmo was standing over there?" She leaned back in her chair, puffed out her chest and, to my horror, started bobbling her boobs up and down, saying excitedly, "Hey Elmo, get a loada this!"
You know how time slows down when you're in peril, like during a car accident? That's what this was like. Try to imagine the sight of an old lady cackling her ass off and bobbling her tits, which are really just sacks of skin so they don't really bounce anymore, but really just go flap, flap, flap. Now add to that the fact that this old lady is your mother and you get some idea of the shock I was in.I wanted to scream "GEEZUS H. CHRIST, MOM WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!" But mom has always loved being inappropriate; "keeps the suckas on their toes!" So, as she kept flipping those things, I turned to my cousin with a look that was pure "Silent Scream" and mouthed the words "help me." But old Priscilla just smiled that Cheshire Cat smile back at me and arched her eyebrows just slightly as if to say, "hey, she's your mom, deal with it!" I knew she was right; after all, her mom was dying in the hospital, but at least she had the dignity not to play 'grab ass' with herself.
This went on for no more than twenty seconds, but it seemed like a lifetime. A moment later, after the hysterical laughter died down, I made my move.
"Geeze, look at the time!" I blurted as I jumped out of my chair; "I've got to get home!"
I had kissed Priscilla on the cheek and waved goodbye to Floyd, before mom had stopped flappin.' I leaned in for a kiss but decided against it and nearly pirouetted as I reached out to pat her on the head. Priscilla and Floyd were pretty amazed by this interlude of terpsichorean magic.so was I. They were even more impressed when I completed my turn, grazed the door jamb and stumbled down the hall towards the front door. I don't even remember reaching the door or leaving or even getting on the freeway to head back to my apartment in Long Beach. Somewhere near Torrance I reappeared on the radar, and was home in no time.
After a few days, when the shock had finally worn off, I told a few people about this incident and I soon discovered that most found it both disturbing and hilarious. This was interesting to me, so I began to study it. I studied it for about a week and that's when I discovered something else. I noticed that now every time I closed my eyes, I no longer saw that damned tower coming down. Instead.you guessed it, I saw her things flapping up and down. 9/11 was now just a crappy memory (and like any memory, it comes and goes according to its own timetable).
I still find myself laughing sometimes when I hear her words, "Hey Elmo! Get a loada this!"Send us your comments on this article