Saturday, January 5, 2008

Summit Memoir 1 - The summer my cousins came to visit

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I’ll never forget the summer my cousins came to visit. At that time we lived in a place called Summit Valley. It was named after the huge rising summits that surrounded the valley, deep in the Huckleberry Mountains. We lived in a little pink and yellow house down one of those winding country roads where the summer lasts forever and so do the memories.

There was a creek running alongside the house that was spanned at one point by an old, weathered bridge. The bridge was missing boards in places, leaving gaping holes in the framework and you had to be careful when crossing or you would find yourself falling twelve feet down to the creek, choked with the remnants of an old beaver dam.

I was lying outside on the lawn watching the white puffy clouds race by. These were my favorite because of the shapes they would form when drifting lazily in the breeze. A car sped past in a flash of gleaming metal, leaving only clouds of dust behind to mark it’s passing. A picket fence, faded to a dingy white separated our yard from the road. The far side was cumbered with tall weeds and slats were missing in places, giving it the impression of missing teeth. I reached to my mouth and poked at the spaces my own teeth had left behind. Twenty-five cents each, that’s what they were worth. For the sake of getting rich I had once entertained the idea of pulling them all out with a pair of my dad’s pliers, but when I considered the pain that would accompany such an act, I quickly abandoned the idea.

I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I didn’t notice the next car coming down the road until it slowed and turned into our driveway. The dusty windows of the Pacer held faces that stared at me intently. I stared back and rose from my place on the grass, leaving behind an indentation that rose much more slowly than I.

The front door of the car opened and as Aunt Joan got out, I realized that the faces in the backseat must belong to my cousins, Doug and Tracy. Sure enough, from out of the car they came. As Joan reached out to hug me my older sister, Shawna, burst from inside the house. She let the screen door slam shut behind her and she let out a yell, “Aunt Joan!” and quickly ran to where we stood. Mom followed behind and the two adults began to talk and laugh over our heads. Walking into the house they left us to face our cousins alone.

I remembered Doug and Tracy well enough from our last visit to the city and all I can say is that they looked quite out of place here in the country. “Hi.” I said, trying to sound friendly even though I had no particular love for my cousins—well, Doug anyway because he was a first class jerk and bully.

“Hi.” They both answered back, taking in our house, the trees across the creek, the weeping willow which hung over the driveway with it’s tire swing drifting lazily in the breeze which had sprung up. I couldn’t say that I was all that happy to see my cousins…what were they doing here? Why hadn’t Aunt Joan told us they were coming? From the expressions on Doug and Tracy’s faces I could tell that they were somewhat disappointed in our home.

“How come you’re here?” Shawna asked, brushing her long, tangled hair from her face.

Tracy smiled. “Mom and Dad are sending us to stay for the summer.”

Shawna and Tracy hugged. They began to chat away about all of the things they would do. Play with Shawna’s cat, practice putting on makeup and about a million other things that would never interest me. She and Tracy carried Tracy’s duffel bags into the house and left me standing alone with Doug.

Doug grabbed some things out of the car and tossed them to me. “Here, you can carry this.” He said. It was not a request, it was an order. As I caught the backpack I thought that maybe it would be nice to have another boy around for the summer, after all, my brother was gone for the summer and our nearest neighbor with a boy my age was about a mile away, if you cut through the woods. I decided that I would try to make the best of it.

As Doug and I walked into my room it was obvious that he was not impressed with the surroundings. The people who had lived in the house before us had odd preferences for color; this was why the house was painted pink and yellow. My sister’s room was an even uglier shade of hot pink with matching curtains; the sight of it was certainly enough to make a person puke, which brings you to my room. The shade of green on my walls wasn’t actually the shade of puke, but it was close enough to pass. It most closely resembled the split-pea soup my mother frequently made. I was used to the color and size, it was the smallest room of the house, not much bigger than the bathroom but just perfect for the currently smallest person of the family—or so my parents had decided. This explains why our parents had given the bedrooms to us and had chosen to set their bed up in the living room, it was close to the TV and the walls were white, pure beautiful white—not the type that would give you disturbing dreams or an upset stomach.

I tossed Doug’s sleeping bag and backpack on the floor as he looked at the walls. “Ugly room.” He observed.

Ignoring his comment I headed for the kitchen where mom and Aunt Joan were talking. As I came closer I caught snatches of the conversation, phrases like; out of control and I don’t know where else to turn met my ears. But as they noticed me in the room the conversation shifted to grandma and her failing health. We didn’t have a phone and letters were usually our only correspondence with family. Dad did have a CB radio on which he and mom would talk with friends in the valley, but the signal wasn’t strong enough to travel very far.

Mom turned to me and smiled. She was pretty with long hair that was light brown, the same color as mine. I loved it when my mom smiled, it made me feel all tingly and light inside, and it would always make me feel better when I was sad about something, but now it made me feel differently, like something terrible was about to happen.

“Jason,” Mom began, slipping her arm around my shoulder. “Your Aunt has a lot going on back home and is going to be really busy over the next few weeks.” She paused and considered her words carefully. “Your cousins will be staying with us for a while.”

I didn’t know what she expected me to do or say. I knew I couldn’t make a scene with Aunt Joan standing there, she, like grandma, had this mistaken belief that Shawna and I were perfect children and dad didn’t want us to spoil that image.

I gave a weak smile. “Sounds great.” I lied. In actuality, I didn’t know whether it was great or not. I actually didn’t know Doug all that well; maybe out here in the country, and away from the city he and I could do things together. I had a fort I wanted to build in the trees behind the house and I would finally have someone here to play with during the day. Yes, I decided. It did sound great.

Before long, Joan stood to leave, promising to return in a month to pick up Doug and Tracy. They waved goodbye as the car backed down the driveway. As she drove down the road in a flurry of dust and pebbles, she stuck out a hand, gave a wave to her kids, and then was gone. That’s when it all began.

I tried really hard to get along with Doug at first. I usually didn’t have anyone to play with but Shawna and she didn’t enjoy hikes along the creek or exploring the woods as I did. I was thinking how much fun it would be with another boy around but it didn’t take long before Doug started bossing me around and generally acting like he owned the place. Heck, if I had wanted this, I could have hung around my sister!

Charles, Doug’s dad, was a career Marine and had been a Green Beret during the Vietnam War. As a result, his son was constantly bragging about how many Japs his dad had killed and just how tough he was. “If my dad tells me to drop and give him 50, I do it!” Doug said proudly.

Doug boasted constantly of how tough he was and told me that he knew of at least twelve different ways in which he could kill me and make it look like an accident. I thought maybe he was just doing this to scare me, and it was working. I tried to avoid him but he constantly seemed to be following me around, telling me how tough he was. He took over my bed and made me knock whenever I wanted to come into my own room.

“I can do more pushups than you can.” Doug sneered on the third day, coming into my room.

I didn’t doubt him on that. At seven years old I had thus far only mastered three or four pushups in a row. I was trying to be careful in my words so as not to egg him on.

“So?” I asked.

“So, I’m tougher. I can do more pull-ups too.” He waited to see if I was impressed.

I shrugged. “Big deal.”

Doug dropped to the floor and proceeded to crack out pushups on the yarn rug to prove his point. I stood and walked outside.

My sister and Tracy were sitting on the grass on the front lawn laughing as they played with Shawna’s snow-white Manx cat, Feather. They dangled string for the kitten that pounced and clawed at the dancing thread.

I flopped down on the grass and pulled up a single blade, examining it between my fingertips. I glanced down at the lawn at all the grass growing and the bugs scurrying beneath its canopy. Did they ever worry about anything? Did bugs know when someone was about to sit down and move out of that area of lawn before they did? I could almost imagine police ants setting up little barricades and yellow “do not cross” lines. I smiled at the thought and looked at the girls. I couldn’t see how Doug and Tracy could really be related at all. Tracy was the exact and utter opposite of Doug. She was tiny and fragile and would laugh, her blond hair swaying back and forth. I noticed that she had been smiling a lot since they had come, I was wondering if it was because now Doug was picking on my instead of her.

I heard the screen door slam shut behind me. Doug was standing on the top step, watching us with intent eyes. I breathed out s sigh. Great, I thought, won’t he ever leave me alone? Doug only stood there for a moment before he ambled across the lawn to where we were sitting.

“Watcha doing?” he asked, not really wanting an answer.

“Nothing, now go away,” Shawna said coldly. I was pretty sure she was just as sick of him as I was.

But Doug didn’t leave, he merely grinned about, probably thinking of some way to be a jerk, you know, something like hiding the seat of my bike or setting the barn on fire. Doug wouldn’t let on what he had been thinking until he reached out and snatched Feather from my sister.

Shawna was on her feet in a second, trying to get the kitten back. “Give him back to me!” she yelled. “He’s mine!”

Doug seemed to enjoy this reaction and danced away from her. “Maybe I will,” he jeered, “and maybe I won’t.”

Shawna made a futile grab for the cat that clearly didn’t like being swung around like a rag doll.

It’s difficult to describe what happened next, it seemed that there was lots of shouting and name-calling. Doug was backing farther away, holding the cat over his head like a sacrificial offering. Shawna was threatening to pound him and tried to keep her cat from falling. Tracy burst into tears and kept blubbering about something, maybe Doug had done this to her cat before and she was thinking about what would come next…it was hard to be sure.

Amidst all of this I heard the front door slam with the force of a thunderclap and there he was. The man that stood there looking at us, six foot five with dark hair and beard and a look of disgust on his face. For all practical purposes it could have been Grizzly Adams or Paul Bunyan standing there, but it was far worse, it was my dad.

It was plain from the tone of his voice that he had just about had it with all of the problems that had been happening lately and finally this was the last straw. “What is going on out here!” he demanded, more a statement than a question.

Nobody answered. Nobody dared. I noticed Doug standing quietly and the cat had somehow managed to disappear from his grasp, nowhere to be seen. The silence that now dominated the air about us was eerie; the creek, which usually gurgled contentedly, was strangely silent. And the usual noise of birdsong was notably absent. It was like the whole world was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next.

Dad stood there in his towering greatness and strode from the front step of the house. Still nobody moved. We were all like deer, frozen, looking into the blinding whiteness of an oncoming car’s headlights, which would spell certain doom.

I think dad grabbed Doug first, the reason I say this is because he didn’t have a chance to run, and I myself being his son wouldn’t have dared to. Nobody ran from my dad, he may not have been fast, but he lived in that house and he knew that you’d have to come home sometime. Dad grabbed me next and hauled both Doug and I out to the backyard. I could now hear the creek chatting away over its bed, telling the rest of the world I was as good as dead. Tracy and Shawna followed along behind, probably curious as to what was going to happen next. I’m sure Shawna felt somewhat guilty that it was me getting blamed for the fight and not her so out of respect she was coming along to see me get shot along with Doug.

Dad released us both and said, “I’ve had it with the both of you. You two are going to have it out right here and now!” I wanted to protest, saying that it was all over Shawna’s stupid cat and that it wasn’t my fault but I knew that no amount of plea bargaining would get me out of one of Dad’s decisions.

Mom came out from the house and quickly discovered what was going on. She approached my dad and said. “George, fighting won’t solve anything. It’s only going to make it worse.”

Dad pushed her aside and said. “Doug needs a good whipping and it’s my son that’s going to give it to him.” Dad turned to me and said, “Go on Jason, take him out!”

It was one of those times in my life where I’ve wondered, how did I get into this? I hadn’t planned on getting creamed when I woke up that morning, but it appeared that the fates had this in mind. I looked at Doug; he seemed bigger now than he had been before, like a towering mound of bully just waiting to show me how much he would love to turn my face into hamburger.

At this point everything became muddled. I hit Doug, or at least, I hope I did. I can’t be sure if the blow landed because he knocked me to the ground and we were tumbling all over the lawn. It was a mass of fists and legs all striking and trying to do the most damage as possible. It was obvious that Doug was now winning; as the blows came to my head and stomach I felt that that these would be my last few moments on the earth. I could almost imagine the inscription that would be chiseled to my headstone,

Jason Zimmerman
Beaten to death by his cousin because of his sister’s stupid cat.
This act was sanctioned by Jason
s father.

At my moment of feeling no hope for deliverance, Doug rolled off me and began to curse more than he had before. I opened my blurred eyes and caught a glimpse of my sister and Doug on the ground, my sister was on top and they were both grabbing fistfuls of hair and plummeting each other bloody. My older sister had saved me at the last possible moment. I stood and ran to her aid, I wondered what I could do to help; after all, she was literally kicking the snot out of him.

I looked down at my black Converse tennis shoe, now streaked with grass stains and dirt. I looked at Doug and Shawna hitting each other and I kicked him, several times.

Doug started to scream out that he gave up and the fight was officially over. Doug’s face was smeared with blood that ran from his nose as if it had been a faucet turned open full throttle. He spit on the ground and began to walk to the house, trying to maintain some semblance of cool as he wiped the blood from his chin. I can only imagine that he felt somewhat humbled getting beaten by a kid two years younger than he was, of course, my sister didn’t really count because, after all, girls don’t fight boys.


hintonrae said...

Oh, my goodness-where do I even begin? Thank you for linking me to this (and hopefully other people will read it, too.) This is such an amazing piece of writing, Jason. 1st--love the beginning--the fanciful nature you had as a boy, envisioning shapes in clouds and treading the old bridge carefully. 2nd--your teeth! Hysterical. My kids are probably plotting carefully, because they get $5/tooth. 3rd--your cousins. So wonderfully constructed and characterized. I could see them. You've inspired me (once again--that's one of the things I love about blogging--you're always being stretched and influenced to reach a bit beyond yourself. As I'm a bit lazy sometimes, I need that) to do the same with some of my cousin and brother stories. And finally--the fight. Oh, my. I love that you "didn't plan on getting creamed" that day. Such warriors. And all for a stinking stupid cat. I love it. Sorry for the lack of moderation. ;)


Teachinfourth said...

Glad you enjoyed it, I have a couple of others I 'published' online about my cousins and growing up; I have others which I need to finish, too. One day I'll eventually get around to it.

Thanks for the feedback.

Rachel said...

Oh*my*stinkin*crap! I thought I was the only one with stupid city cousins! My younger sister and I joke all the time about, "that summer the stupid city cousins came to stay with us".

Your writing is amazing and puts my "memoirs" to shame.

I could relate to so many things you wrote and I'm sorry to say but.....girls do fight. Especially when it is with their stupid city cousins and after said certain cousins whoop their stupid city cousins they look down at them in disgust and think, "stupid city cousins". At least that is what I'm told.......

Ask Matthew tomorrow to show you the gaping hole he has in his mouth because he just HAD to yank out another tooth last night. A tooth that was not ready and had a root a mile long still.

I'm a lazy blogger. I truly am. I don't take the time to put in the detail like you did here. I don't have your talent/gift though either.

Teachinfourth said...

Don't we all have relatives like that somewhere down the family tree?

Rotten apples.

Luckily, they grew up and didn't stay that way.

Hopefully Matt didn't lose any of his brains when that tooth came out...

Rachel said...

P.S. Slamming the screen door was a big no no at our house. I can remember having to stand and close the screen door 20 times quietly because I'd slammed the screen door one too many times.

Richard & Natalie said...

So I have been admonished to rest today, and since there is nothing good on TV I have been reading some of yours and Gerb's posts in your archives.
This one had me rolling. Cousins... what pains. Everyone can relate to the stares and awkwardness of cousins just arriving; or at least I can. I love that your dad just had you guys get it all out in a fight. Ashton and his best friend in Canada did the same thing. They fought like cats & dogs until the fight, then they were the best of friends after. Funny how that works.
You are a great storyteller, I stayed hooked all the way to the end.

Teachinfourth said...

N - I'm flattered that you went back into the archives...


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