Authors: Augusten Burroughs
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs
“That is my father,” I told myself, speaking the words aloud so they would exist in the world and begin to become real. But I didn’t believe them. It was easier to imagine that this boy the lens admired was not my old, rotten-toothed father, but my secret brother, dead from consumption or given away to live with a movie star, and replaced with me.
“I was just about the same age you are now,” my father said when I asked him about the photos. I bit my bottom lip, sucked it into my mouth, and delicately nibbled the skin. I looked at his crispy fingers, ruined by psoriasis, the corner of the photo pinched between his gruesome thumb and forefinger. It was as if he were telling me that he’d once had a tail.
“Why are you standing in a drugstore?” I asked, pointing to another image.
A smile formed on his face, something like pleasure flickering behind his lashes. He leaned back, gripped the arms of the chair with his hands. “My grandfather Dandy, that would be your great-grandfather, he owned that drugstore, right there in downtown Chickamauga. And every Saturday, I would spend the day in there, making ice cream sodas behind the counter, reading comic books. Sometimes, he’d let me ring something up on the old cash register. . . .”
I sat at my father’s feet and stared up at his face but he wasn’t looking at me. He was gazing off into the distance, peering into the past, seeing people and places decades out of my line of sight. As he spoke, I studied his face, his hands, and I felt a black ball of dread begin to form in my stomach. Was I going to look like him when I grew up? Would my teeth rot in my mouth, just like his? Would my skin peel off and leave those patchy areas of raw meat? After all, if that boy in the pictures really was my father, he started off looking an awful lot like me. I desperately wanted to ask him,
When I grow up, am I going to turn into you?
but I didn’t dare. And I wouldn’t think about it anymore, either. If you pondered some things, even for an instant, they might become real.
MY FATHER WAS born in 1935 to two teenagers, Jack and Carolyn, in Chickamauga, Georgia. Carolyn was fifteen, Jack seventeen. When Carolyn gave birth, her father, Dandy, thought it was a real shame for such a young couple to be saddled with a baby, waking up every three hours to feed it, their own lives forfeited for diaper changes and burping. They deserved some time alone together to just be married and grow up.
Which is how my father came to spend his first seven years with his granddaddy Dandy, and three teenage aunts, Marjorie, Betty, and Dixie the Baby, who was referred to as Dixie the Baby until the day she died at eighty-one.
Dandy’s good nature served him well as the town’s druggist, but raising racehorses was his passion. Racehorses and daughters, that is.
The aunts were nearly mad with joy over suddenly having a boy in the house. They spoiled him wickedly, giving him the first, best bite of their own desserts, always spooning an extra dollop of whipped cream into his hot chocolate, making sure he was on the other end of every wishbone at Thanksgiving. When he scraped his knee, all three fussed over him, “Oh,
,” and bandaged the wound as though attending to the rituals of a religious ceremony.
The sisters led him to his bedroom at night, peeling back the ironed ivory-colored sheets from his twin mattress and bribing him under the covers with the promise of a story. Sitting on the bed, the girls, dressed in satin nightgowns of pink, mint green, and blue as pale as a vein, passed around his favorite book,
The Velveteen Rabbit
, and read it out loud. Then, one by one, they filed from the room, but not before bowing their heads, as if in prayer, to softly kiss his forehead.
My father was an adored pet boy who was never allowed to suffer one moment’s discomfort. He was never required to wait more than an instant for anything, not when there were three vigorous girls in the house, bouncing on the balls of their feet in eagerness to serve him.
The sisters gathered around him in a clutch and sat him at their skirted dressing table, easing his resistance. “It’s okay, honey, we just want to see how you’d look.” Their clear, blue eyes gleamed with mischief.
They dipped their fingers into the rouge and smeared it in a circle on his cheek. They combed his hair until it was as smooth and fine as the satin hem of a baby’s blanket. They unscrewed a lipstick and told him, “Pucker, like you’ve got yourself a girl to kiss,” and my father would pucker in obedience, imagining his mysterious mother—pale, almost transparent, lovely, rarely seen. Then they would apply the lipstick, blot the excess with a tissue. “So pretty,” they would say, all three girls standing behind him and looking at his reflection in the mirror. Even through the rouge they could see that he was blushing, but his trust in them was complete. Never would they shriek, “Fooled you!” and laugh at him, then run screaming and giggling from the room.
The girls had a warm, narcotic effect upon my little boy father, lulling him into a sort of drowsy, perpetual gorged joy. In the sweltering heat of their Georgia home’s small, rosebud-papered rooms, they did everything for him. And he, enchanted by these three sweet-smelling, cool-fingered creatures, was devoted to them, utterly.
Granddaddy Dandy was beside himself to have a little man in the house. While he adored his daughters, he did have
of them. Yes, he knew that with these girls there would be more trouble ahead. He couldn’t keep the boys away with a shotgun forever. Sooner or later, all the rest of them would fall in love and then there would be weddings and tears and more kitchen appliances to buy. He couldn’t have known it then, but in just a few years, Dixie the Baby would elope with one of Dandy’s own jockeys—
—and they would flee to Havana, hysterical newlyweds on the run. Dandy would take off after them with his Winchester, have the marriage annulled, and threaten the jockey’s life if he ever so much as
of his baby Dixie again. Dandy could be mean as a snake when he had to be, and with four daughters, he had to be.
So certain was he that these girls would—sooner rather than later—be the end of him, he’d already purchased his plot at the Chickamauga cemetery. Thus, to have a boy, at last! Like a drink of cool water from the deep, deep well.
Hand in hand, they walked every morning to his drugstore on the main street. “Young sir, would you like to do us the honor?” he asked, passing the bronze key to my father. Standing up as straight as he could, maybe even rising up on his toes, my father unlocked the door and followed Dandy into the rear office.
Dandy spent the day standing in his starched white coat behind the pharmacy counter, filling orders to soothe the ailments of the Chickamauga citizens: Dr. Pitcher’s Castoria Mint (known as “the pleasant laxative,” and always asked for in a furtive whisper), Pinex Throat Medication (both the sheriff and the mailman would testify to its efficacy), and, of course, Azomis Baby Powder for hot, rashy infants, and DeWitt’s Golden Liniment for burns, scalds, toothaches, and general lameness. It was rumored that Widow Henderson even used it as a beauty cream beneath her eyes, a peculiar vanity that was generally forgiven due to the unspeakable nature of her tragedy as such a young widow.
Dandy wore gold spectacles and counted pills with supreme accuracy. He impressed upon my father the importance of meticulous counting: “Just one pill of the wrong variety and you could take a life. Always remember that, little buddy.”
My father, meanwhile, amused himself behind the soda fountain making root beer floats and banana splits with what ought to have been an illegal amount of chocolate syrup. He thumbed through the comic books, careful not to wrinkle their pages. He sat on the tall stools at the counter and swung his feet back and forth while he softly sang along to the radio, especially “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by the Andrews Sisters, his favorite song, which the station didn’t play often enough to suit him.
Tall amber glass bottles stood in a long row on the top shelf behind the soda fountain and sometimes Dandy would send my father up a ladder to retrieve one, warning, “Careful there, boy, don’t drop it.”
A small brass-bladed General Electric fan helped keep the air moving. My father liked to speak into it to hear his voice distorted. “Hello in there,” he’d call, the spin of the blades pitching his voice high and lending it an exhilarating vibrato.
Perhaps most of all, my father loved to ring up sales on the big cash register, engraved as it was with intricate filigree work. He liked to sort the monies into their proper compartments and sometimes the occasional generous (and well-to-do) customer let him keep the extra penny here and there.
At night the family ate together around an oval table made from solid mahogany and shined to such a luster you could see your face reflected in its mirrorlike surface. Fried okra, black-eyed peas, cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet, ham so salty you had to take a drink of milk after every bite, turnip greens drizzled with vinegar, crispy fried chicken, biscuits that split apart into steaming, paper-thin layers.
When he turned eight, his parents came to collect him. A mother and father he’d known only from pictures swooped down like birds of prey from the darkened sky and hooked him away from Dandy and the aunts.
The reunited family moved first to Athens, then Pensacola, before settling in Tampa. Jack sold Koolvent awnings to people wanting to block out the sun, a bare necessity of life in the deep south.
“You’re mine now, boy,” his daddy said. On their first night together, my father asked for a bedtime story and Jack whipped his bottom with a leather belt. “They sure as hell spoiled you rotten.”
Jack drank every night and he was angry as hell, but over what nobody could ever figure. My father climbed into his mama’s lap for protection, but Carolyn was practically a child herself and every bit as terrified as her son.
When my father spoke of his early childhood, he smiled and remembered every detail, even the tiniest. He wouldn’t look at me as he spoke, as though he were remembering privately and I was eavesdropping. But when I asked him what it was like to suddenly live with his parents after all those years of not knowing them, for this is the part that interested me most, my father looked at me, startled, as if I had spontaneously appeared before him like a fist of ball lightning. He became angry and his memory failed him. “Well, it was just very different,” is all he’d say. “It wasn’t a happy time, that’s all. It wasn’t a happy time.” And then he’d send me away. “I have papers to grade here and I’m tired, very tired.”
I turned, began to walk away. My father said, “Son? If you like, you could come with me to the university tomorrow.”
Thrilled, as though he’d just told me we were getting a helicopter and a pony, I said, “Really? Okay!” I had trouble going to sleep, images of my father in the drugstore with his grandfather merging with my fantasy of going into school with my father.
But at the university the next day my father sat at his desk doing paperwork. When he saw that I had drawn shapes on his chalkboard he was furious. “Goddamn it, that is not for you to touch. The writing on that board represents a lot of time, do you hear? An awful lot of time.” My father had written whole paragraphs on the boards and I avoided those areas, drawing my silly shapes, some of which had arms and feet, only in the unused corners. “But I didn’t mess anything up,” I whispered.
“This was a bad idea,” he fumed. I could see on his face that I had behaved terribly, that drawing on his chalkboard was one of the worst things I’d ever done. His small, angry eyes, creased forehead, and painful frown created a mask of misery and regret. It was exactly the same face I saw on him when he and my mother fought, when the hate was thick between them.
Then he smiled. His dry lips peeled open revealing his foul teeth and his black throat. There was nothing happy in that smile, however. It chilled the room. “You’re a lot like your mother,” he said.
He did, I realized, think of me as a smaller version of her. I was her
, her creation. Secretly, this pleased me as I took it to mean I wouldn’t turn into him when I was grown up. But a wiser, more knowing part of me understood this to be false. That the ways of genetics were fickle and I could, indeed, wake up one day to find my father looking back at me from the mirror. Already, I had his nose and mouth.
I wondered again if maybe I really had another father somewhere. A brief fluttering sensation in my chest signaled excitement and hope. Someday, I would find him.
“Augusten, I have told you again and again, your father is your father,” my mother told me. But maybe when I was born a nurse at the hospital made a mistake and gave me to the wrong parents. My mother said the hospital where I was born isn’t there anymore. Maybe they mixed up a lot of kids and the police made them close. My mother said the hospital where I was born is a parking lot now. Maybe they gave so many babies to the wrong people that they had to build a new big parking lot to hold all the cars of all the parents who came back to get their correct babies.
In my treasure box was a tiny bracelet a nurse put on my wrist right after I was born. Blue and white beads spelled out my mother’s name: M. ROBISON. It was so small I could wear it as a ring.
Oh, it just
to be true. Never mind that I had my father’s features.
Somewhere in the world was my real father, and he thought about me every day. Maybe he had a chalkboard with colored chalk, not just boring white. Maybe he had a pharmacy, too, and a soda fountain, and pretty aunts in long dresses embroidered with tiny roses you could stroke with your thumb.
I ran from my father’s office, turned left, and took off down the long hallway past closed office doors and classrooms, my sneakers squealing on the linoleum tile floor. At the end of the corridor before me, I imagined a man, arms outstretched. I wanted to run into his arms as he hugged me and said the word
MY GRANDMOTHER CAROLYN sent me a package of balloons in the mail, the kind that inflate into tubes and you can twist and shape into animals. There were instructions but I wouldn’t read them. “Will you?” I asked my father, gently poking him on the elbow. “Will you look at them and show me how to make a dog?”