Dad raced his thundercar and made Mom get the races on tape until the summer I turned twelve when Buddy Nightingale slammed Dad into the wall of the third turn at Meridian Speedway. The steering shaft went through his eye socket, pulled out, and took with it Dad’s left eye.
That was the summer we didn’t celebrate my little brother’s birthday.
Raymond turned ten that summer. He quit chasing the fireflies, the way I didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. We had volumes of videotapes of Dad racing. We watched them when no one paid attention to us.
After the race, Dad got a glass eye that didn’t move when the rest of his face did. He wore an eye patch. Mom didn’t like it. She started seeing Pastor Rob. We heard her sneak out at night. She crept across the carpets quiet enough, but when the front door squeaked, I knew to wake up Raymond in the bed next to me. We went to the window and watched her walk through the front yard, open the chain-linked gate, and walk down the dark street until she disappeared.
Where is she going? Raymond asked.
I’m not sure, I said.
Mom didn’t like taping the races on Saturday nights because it made it hard to get up and take us to church on Sundays. Dad stayed home Sundays because he said it was the perfect time to work on his thundercar. That next Sunday, a week after the crash, we had breakfast all together and Mom was hopeful. She made Dad some pineapple juice, his favorite. He pulled out his flask and dumped some liquor in the juice and took a few belts. We knew what that meant.
I thought you might come to church with us, Mom said.
Car needs ironing out, Dad said.
But you can’t be racing anymore, Mom said. They won’t let you race.
Doesn’t matter, Dad said. When you love something, you love it forever.
The sermon that weekend was on idolatry.
False Idols get in the way of salvation and lead us to the path of the wicked, Pastor Rob said. False Idols make crooked the ways that the Lord has made straight. Mom bowed her head when it was time to pray. I kept one eye open. Raymond was whispering his prayers out loud and so was Mom. Instead of coming home right after the service, like we usually did, we went to the church potluck afterwards at Camel’s Back Park. On the way, Mom stopped at Albertson’s and got some Jell-O and a box of cookies.
Glad to see you here, Pastor Rob said.
Your sermon today was wonderful, Mom said. I feel His presence whenever I hear your sermons.
Pastor Rob took a bite off a hunk of chicken and looked at us kids. If you like, we can talk more, Pastor Rob said.
Buddy Nightingale got it good two weeks after he ran Dad into the third corner at Meridian Speedway. Uncle Bruce had taken over the racing duties. Mom said she wasn’t going to waste her time watching Uncle Bruce race, so I videotaped the race that night. Uncle Bruce drove Dad’s thundercar mean as a drunk. Halfway into the race, he T-boned Buddy so hard that his car rolled over the wall and onto the other side of the racetrack. Buddy broke his arm, which put him out for six weeks. All his hopes of winning the circuit that year were gone. Dad jumped up and screamed. He turned around and got his face right up to the camera lens. It surprised me so much, I kept the power button on.
He had it comin’ to him, Dad said into the camera, his pointing finger clacking the camera glass. He had it comin’!
Never mind that Dad’s car, his only car, had been completely totaled as well. After that race, Uncle Bruce gave Dad a high five, we had the car towed, and walked all the way to Merritt’s Diner. Dad still wore his eyepatch and the kids at the next table said he looked like a pirate. Raymond ordered a burger with some fries and a milkshake.
That was something else, Dad kept on saying to no one in particular. How’re we going to get to school now that we got no car? Raymond asked.
Dad smacked Raymond on the back of the head.
It’s summer, dickweed. You don’t go to school in the summer, Dad said.
Then he laughed and Bruce laughed, too. So I laughed as well. Raymond ate his burger and French fries too quickly and got a stomachache. Dad gave him a sip of his coffee.
This will get you back on the horse, he said.
Then he said he had an idea. When we got home, Dad went to the garage with Uncle Bruce. Raymond stayed up and waited until Mom snuck out. Our bedroom door creaked when Raymond opened it.
What are you doing? I asked him, but he was already out into the kitchen. I followed him and watched as he unplugged the coffee maker. He unhitched the sliding back door and hid the coffee maker out in the field behind our backyard.
Raymond’s birthday was still two weeks away when Dad brought us into the garage to look at it for the first time. This, boys, Dad said, will put us over the top. He showed us the frame of a 1969 Mustang, hollowed out and on cinder blocks. His hands moved along as if they were saying, ta-da.
Bruce and I pooled our money together, Dad said. The return on this will pay for itself. Another life-lesson for you two. This is what is called an investment, boys.
Has mom seen this, Raymond asked.
Mom doesn’t need to see this, Dad said. Mom doesn’t need to see anything we do.
The second thing Raymond hid was the blender. He snuck out at night and hid it in the field a week before his birthday. The next morning, Dad walked into the kitchen. He hadn’t shaved since he showed us the frame and he was still wearing the clothes he had on from the night before. Mom was at the stove, cooking bacon and potatoes. She looked tired, too.
Bruce sat next to me and when he ran out of bacon, he reached over to my plate. Do you mind, he said, and took my last slab. Mom didn’t like Uncle Bruce about as much as she didn’t like thundercars. When he was around, she’d check her wrist as if she was wearing a watch. Dad pulled Mom aside and told her that this thing with Bruce here, it was temporary.
He’s just here for a bit, until things get going again.
Let’s hope so, Mom said. She checked her wrist.
When Dad went to work, Uncle Bruce sat on the couch and watched Hollywood Squares and Mom vacuumed the floors and dusted the shelves. She kept the house spotless when she was secretly dating Pastor Rob. She was so busy keeping things clean, she didn’t notice that anything was missing out of the kitchen. A couple of times when Raymond and I were digging holes in the sandbox by the open window, we could hear Mom having conversations with herself.
Yes, I did tithe and I did my devotions.
Yes, I am prepared to meet Jesus when he comes again.
Yes, eternity is a long time.
Raymond and I played in the backyard. We dug holes and buried things in them. We buried army men, Legos, Tinker Toys, and action figures. Raymond liked to make stories with everything-there were always two sides fighting each other-with the endings always having the evildoers fall in the pits that we dug for them. He-Man had it comin’ almost every time. Then, when He-Man or Superman or the space Lego repairman couldn’t get out of the pit, despite their best efforts, Raymond would bury them alive.
The day after Raymond hid the blender, we were burying a Hot Wheels car when I saw it: a praying mantis standing on a blade of grass in the middle of the yard. I made Raymond go inside to get a Mason jar while I kept an eye on the mantis.
Look at how he just waits there, Raymond said. We had the whole set up. We put twigs at angles against the walls of the jar, while the grass covered the floor, just like it would in the wild. It was easy to catch him-just a scoop and a twist of the lid. We poked holes in the top with Mom’s can opener and watched the mantis roam around its new home, one of his front arms feeling the side of the glass. After two minutes, Raymond said, Ok, now what?
I told Raymond to go get a grasshopper. I went and got Dad’s camera. Raymond caught a big one in the field behind our backyard. We opened the lid and shoved the grasshopper in as fast as we could.
The grasshopper sat on a leaf moving its twitchy face. He looked dumb perched there on a twig, not moving, not knowing what was about to happen to him. The mantis was licking his arms like a dog would, his triangular head swiveling and those eyes looking like ball bearings on the sides of his head. He turned, froze. Raymond kept hitting my arm with his open palm.
He’s going to do it, he’s going to do it, he said.
The mantis kept turning how a statue turns on a pedestal. The dumb grasshopper spit a black liquid out of his mouth that stained the twig. Right after, the mantis struck. The jar jolted and my reflexes made me block my face with my hands. It was violent, the way the mantis grabbed the squirming grasshopper. He started at the middle so the grasshopper could see his guts being taken out of him and eaten piece by piece. The thorax was next. I didn’t know when the grasshopper lost his life, but I got queasy when the mantis started eating his head. I kept my one eye open through the lens and kept the camera rolling, though. Raymond pulled my arm.
He’s eating him! he said. That’s what he gets, dumb grasshopper.
As the mantis finished eating a leg, Raymond finally looked up at me.
Man, he’s Hungry Mungry, he said.
The name stuck.
Let’s show Mom, he said.
Mom was cooking and Dad was sitting down at the table when Raymond shoved the mantis in her face. Look, he said. Mom screamed and said that Raymond was never to bring anything like that into the house again.
Let me take a look at that, Dad said.
Dad swiveled the jar around in his hand. The mantis, finished with his meal, licked his arms.
He’s Hungry Mungry, Raymond said again.
So am I, Uncle Bruce said, walking into the kitchen, making a direct line for the fridge.
Can he eat with us? Raymond asked, picking up the jar and setting it next to his place at the table.
Absolutely not, Mom said as she opened a cupboard. Her hands parted the Tupperware before she turned around. Where is the blender? she asked.
Bruce handed Dad a beer and they talked about strategy for the next race. They decided that they were going to watch the tapes again when Mom reached for the spaghetti and then her pots.
Where are my pots? she asked. Raymond was sitting at the end of the table, his head lowered, his hands hugging the Mason jar. Dad and Uncle Bruce kept talking.
Fine, Mom said. Microwave dinners for everyone then.
That’s when she noticed her microwave was gone.
This whole house is going to hell, she said. I can’t find a damned thing. She said the word damned in a funny way and I knew it was only a matter of time. Sure enough. She ran upstairs and slammed her door. Dad looked around. Where did mom go? he asked. Raymond and I pointed upstairs. Huh, he said. Guess if we want some real dinner we better get going to Merritt’s.
That night, the night before Raymond turned ten, Mom left us for good. The door creaked extra loud as she walked her suitcases out to the driveway. Raymond and I crept out to the front living room window and watched as Mom waited on our sidewalk. Pastor Rob drove up and she threw her suitcase in the back seat of the car.
Is she getting my birthday presents? Raymond asked.
I didn’t want to lie.
Yeah, she’s getting your presents, I said.
Mom moved into the shed next to Pastor Rob’s house until her divorce with Dad could be finalized and she could marry Pastor Rob. Mom ended up having a very nice life with Pastor Rob. They moved to Arizona. Mom wrote us letters saying to obey Dad and tell Uncle Bruce that going to church would help him get his life together. The thing is, Mom turned out fine.
The morning after mom left, Dad asked me, Have you seen your Mother?
I told him that she packed up some suitcases and left. He thought about this for a second.
She’ll be back, he said. Another life-lesson: don’t let anything get in the way of your dreams. Besides, I’ve got a big surprise for you and Raymond. Raymond was sitting on the couch, watching T.V. It was dark in the living room. Dad didn’t notice that the lamps were gone. C’mere, he said to Raymond and me, giving us the c’mere finger. We followed him into the garage. Uncle Bruce had on a welding helmet and was burning a metal into another metal on the workbench.
Dad said, I’d like you to meet the newest member of our family: Doreen.
Doreen was shiny in the green garage light. She was glossed up with a big number 27 on her side. I never saw Dad so excited. He got into the driver’s side and revved the engine like he used to do before he started every race. Raymond started clapping and then, I don’t know why, I started clapping, too. Uncle Bruce took off his welding helmet, set down his blowtorch and began to clap. We were like Dad’s personal audience, the way we were clapping. Raymond told me that Doreen reminded him of the Hot Wheels car that we buried when we found the praying mantis. I gave him O-brother eyes.
Get in here, Raymond, Dad said.
Raymond opened the passenger-side door and sat next to Dad. I looked through the open window. Hanging from the rear-view was a picture of Raymond and me when we were younger. I had just lost my front teeth.
See that, Dad said, pointing to the picture. You boys remember, you are the most important thing in my life. Then Dad did something I had never seen him do, nor ever seen since: he choked up. I could tell from the tear coming from his eye.
The night after Raymond’s birthday, it was time to race again. Dad had Doreen done up nice. It looks real professional, he said. He sat in the stands while Bruce raced and I got the whole thing on tape. Uncle Bruce ran Doreen hard and mean and before the asphalt cooled, Doreen had a few dents in her and a streak of blue, the paint of another car, down the side of her. Uncle Bruce got second place and with it 125 dollars, which went to a new paint job and a custom-made flag that Uncle Bruce put out of the passenger window that said: Hardy Racing and had a horse with fire coming out of his nostrils.
After that, Dad didn’t talk to us much. He got off work and went right for the garage. He set up a hammock next to the car and slept there while Uncle Bruce came in through the screen door and slept in Mom and Dad’s bed. Uncle Bruce kept on placing in the races, so there was always more money to spend and something new and exciting to replace on Doreen.
It had gotten to the point where all Dad and Uncle Bruce needed to do was to place in the top three sometime in the next three races to clinch the circuit. The night before the first of those races, Dad and Uncle Bruce finished all their weekly repairs on Doreen. He ordered us a pizza for dinner. And he and Uncle Bruce got ready to go out. We are going to celebrate all our accomplishments, he said. You boys get to bed at a decent hour. If you’re up by the time we get back, there’ll be trouble waiting for both of you.
It was almost August. I opened the window in our room because it was hot. I made sure we both got to bed early. That night, Raymond woke me up.
Come help me with something, he said.
I saw that he had his shoes on. Is Dad home yet? I asked.
C’mon, Raymond said.
We should get back to sleep, I said.
Just c’mon, he said.
We crept out to the living room. Raymond had the screen door open. Help me carry this, he said.
Carry what? I said.
The couch, he said.
Where? I said.
Out there, he said. He pointed to the field behind the backyard.
We shouldn’t do this, I said.
It’s ok, Dad won’t know, he said.
I helped Raymond with the couch just to get it over with. I wanted to go back to bed so we wouldn’t get in trouble when Dad came home. But when I got out back in the field I forgot about Dad for a second. Half our house was out there. I hadn’t been out in the back since Raymond started all this. Our living room was almost complete, just the T.V. was missing.
We were in bed but I wasn’t asleep when Dad and Uncle Bruce came home. They laughed and yelled and I heard Dad say there is a lot more air in this house since Mom left.
They both hooted at that one.
The next day, right before the race, I snuck into Dad’s garage and took the picture of me and Raymond off of the rear-view. I shoved it in my pocket. I thought, this would make a good addition to Raymond’s collection outside.
It wasn’t until those last hot days in the summer, those dog days, when the living room was finally emptied out and Uncle Bruce started losing races, that Raymond ran an extension cord from the backyard out into the field, hooked the VCR to the T.V. outside and started taping over Dad’s races, making movies starring Hungry Mungry, a Hot Wheels car and a bunch of poor grasshoppers. When I gave him the picture of me and him, he said he could use it in one of his stories.
The morning after Uncle Bruce lost his third straight race in a row, Dad noticed that the picture was gone from the rear-view. We were still asleep, but Dad came busting in our room.
Where’d it go? he said.
Where’d what go? we asked.
You boys get up and help me find my picture of you two. We’ve been losing races because of that missing photo. Dad was walking out of our room when he said, It’s a total disaster.
That’s when Dad started looking around the house. He didn’t notice that the blender was gone until he couldn’t find the toaster. When he couldn’t find the toaster, Dad noticed that the forks and knives were also missing. Dad, who was in his bathrobe, ran through the house, checked every room. He started to yell and sweat. Where the fuck did everything go, he said. We just finished getting up. Dad ran into Raymond and me in the hallway. We were still in our pajamas.
Where did everything go? he said.
Dad went for the rest of his clothes in his room, but his dresser was gone. He ran around the house in his boxers screaming things like: the goddamn coffeemaker’s gone, and, what the fuck happened to my razor? He noticed it when he looked out the window: the camera on its tripod, out in the middle of the field.
What’s my camera doing out there?
When we didn’t answer him, he said, you kids are in deep shit.
He dashed out to the backyard and jumped the fence. That’s when he found the guts of his house out in the middle of the field. Raymond and I took our spot at the window and watched. For a while Dad didn’t do anything but stand there swiveling his head back and forth with his hands on his hips. Then he sat down on his chair and pulled the recliner up. He took the remote from the coffee table, rotated it in his hand, examined it carefully, and finally tried the T.V. Raymond’s movies popped on the screen. I closed one eye while I watched. A grasshopper was tied to the top of the Hot Wheels car with fishing line. Raymond’s hand from offscreen drove the car around a track with the army guys, He-Man and the space Lego repairman and us, the picture of us, in the audience.
Hungry Mungry was also in the crowd. He and his ball-bearing eyes watched as the car looped around and around, guided by Raymond’s hand. When the grasshopper crashed his car, Hungry Mungry struck.
He had it comin’, Raymond said. His voice made hot fog on the window. He had it comin’.