Read A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father Online

Authors: Augusten Burroughs

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father (8 page)

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
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The glove had dried stiff. I’d ruined it.

My mother felt sorry for me. She drove me to the Mountain Farms Mall, where we parked in front of JC Penney. As always, I couldn’t resist staring at the tooth imprints on the dashboard of our drab Dodge Aspen wagon. When my parents had brought the Aspen home for the first time, I’d sat in the passenger seat, admiring the new car. Then, because I could not stop myself, I leaned forward and bit into the soft dashboard. The material flexed beneath my bite and when I pulled away, I saw my tooth marks had remained in the dash. Even at the time I’d wondered what had compelled me to bite the dashboard like that. But now, a year older, I groaned inwardly whenever I saw the bite, which was every time I got in the car. It was like a tattoo of my immaturity. Plus, my father had been furious when he saw the damage, screaming, “Jesus Christ, son, what possessed you? Why would you do such a thing?” He couldn’t think of a punishment appropriate to the crime, so there had been none. My own mortification had been enough.

“Ready?” my mother said. We climbed out of the car and walked into the mall.

The pet store was, of course, my favorite. Although I visited it each time we went to the mall, I’d only once been allowed to bring something back from it: hermit crabs. The crabs had been fascinating pets, as I invented a rich inner life for them, naming them Gladys, Marshall, Stuart, Gabrielle, and Charlotte. Despite my best efforts, they all died, leaving me with their shells, which my mother, to my horror, wanted to mix with the bowl of decorative seashells in her office. “When Cream dies, will you hang her hide on your wall?” I asked.

We were here today for a guinea pig. My parents wouldn’t let me get another dog, but at least my mother understood that another set of crabs just wouldn’t cut it. I needed something warm and fuzzy that I could name and snuggle with.

The pet store had an entire wall of small, furry mammals: mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils. While I liked hamsters, too, the Habitrail cage was expensive. Even I could see that the interconnecting boxes, tubes, and spheres could easily bankrupt a family and lead to addiction later in life. Because, how would you know when to stop? How 
could
 you stop? An entire city could be built with a Habitrail. My mother understood this at once because when I asked she replied, “No way.”

But a guinea pig and an aquarium were modest, so she agreed.

There were so many and they were all cute, and I realized this wouldn’t be just a matter of waltzing into the store and pointing to one. I would have to meet each of the pigs and choose one based on its personality, spirit, and innate good manners. Luckily, the clerk was patient and allowed me to cradle every pig I pointed to. I knew I didn’t want a long-haired model, those were for girls who liked to comb hair and add repulsive little bows. So I narrowed my search to the short-haired variety.

Still, it was tough. The black ones were sleek and beautiful, but did they look a little like rats, all one color like that?

I could get a white one, but then, why not just get a bunny? “Could I?” I asked my mother.

“Absolutely not. You may select a guinea pig and that’s it.”

I settled on a tricolor, a little of each. He was tan and white with just a smattering of black. When I pressed him to my chest and he wriggled up against my neck and nuzzled my ear, I named him, Ernest. Ernie for short.

We set up Ernie in his aquarium in the kitchen. The aquarium had a stand, so the top of the tank was well over my head. I had to call my mother or my father to take him out when I wanted to pet him.

Soon, Ernie possessed an impressive repertoire of tricks. He squealed every time the refrigerator was opened and would stop only if some lettuce was deposited on the cedar-shaving-covered floor of his cage. He emitted a different squeal when he wanted to run around on the floor. If I called, “Here, Ernie!” he would run to the side of his aquarium closest to the door, stand up on his little back feet, and wait to be picked up. “Look at you,” I said to him, “just a little animal, plucked from nature.”

Ernie was so adorable, even my mother, who at first called him “a loaf of rat,” came to love him. “He is awfully sweet, isn’t he?” she admitted as Ernie crawled across her bosom to nibble on her blue Indian corn necklace.

My mother took many photographs of me and Ernie together—Ernie in one of the costumes I created for him out of fabric scraps and glue, Ernie sitting in a chair just like a person. Though when I strung one of my mother’s gigantic bras across the back of two kitchen chairs and set Ernie into one of the cups, like a hammock, she didn’t take a picture as I expected but screamed, “Take that horrible thing out of my good bra!” I was insulted that she called Ernie a “horrible thing” and I back-talked her. “He’s cuter than what’s usually in that big old bra.”

Only my brother was uninterested in Ernie. But my brother, I’d come to understand, wasn’t interested in living things. Not only would he refuse to make eye contact, my brother wouldn’t respond if you spoke to him. You had to walk up to him and scream at the side of his head to get his attention, or jab him really hard with something sharp. That worked.

One morning, an expression of contempt settled on his face when I told him there was no more cereal because I’d fed the last of it to Ernie. He was now in active competition with the little guinea pig for food.

That afternoon I said, “Mom? I’m afraid my brother is going to do something bad to Ernie.”

She stopped typing and looked up at me. “What do you mean by bad?” she asked. “Why would you think such a thing?”

I told her, “I just . . . my brother doesn’t understand little pets. They aren’t cute to him. What if he fed Ernie a battery? What if he cooked him?” Ernie was, after all, in the kitchen, along with all the other ingredients.

My mother continued to look into my eyes, then she reached for her pack of cigarettes and lit one. She inhaled, closing her eyes. 
“Okay,”
 she said, exhaling in relief. She chewed her thumb nail as she thought about this. Maybe she was remembering the time my brother buried me outside, headfirst. Or perhaps she was recalling when my brother hooked her up to a series of strobe lights when she was sleeping, so that she awakened with a heart-seizing shock to a flashing, confusing light show inches from her face. Even though nobody ever spoke of it, we knew there was just something 
different
, perhaps even defective, about my brother. You could see it in photographs of him when he was small, something about his eyes. He had the oddly impersonal gaze of a mischievous farm animal, a goat maybe, but not a boy.

My mother moved Ernie’s cage into my bedroom, where he would be safe.

“IT’S OKAY, ERNIE, it’s okay boy. Don’t worry. This just happens sometimes is all. They’ll stop soon, I promise.” I was whispering these words into Ernie’s ear as I lay in bed with him tucked into the crook of my arm, covers pulled up over us.

My parents were shouting at each other in the living room.

I’d never known life without the sound of my parents’ fighting. The shrill, furious screams of my mother, the drunk, bitter reprimands of my father. Though they’d been fighting since I could remember, over the last few years it had escalated. Now I was afraid something might
happen
.

I scratched behind Ernie’s little head and he made the softest sound, air rubbing against air, as his whiskers twitched and brushed against the blanket. “Don’t worry,” I said softly, “we’ll be okay.”

But I wasn’t sure about this, not at all. Sometimes, I’d be able to make out a word: “kill” or “hate” or “die.” I didn’t want to hear what they were saying, I didn’t want to understand one thing. I just wanted them to stop.

As though I had willed it to happen, the house was suddenly silent. I gently ran my index finger down Ernie’s nose. “See? It’s over, it’s all better now.”

I silently peeled back the blanket, as though by making even one small sound I would reactivate the battle in the living room, and climbed from the bed, Ernie still cradled in my arms. Gently, I stepped onto the chair I’d placed beside his aquarium and lowered him onto a bed of soft, fragrant cedar chips. I saw that his water bottle was full, but I knew by now it wasn’t cold any longer. Normally, I’d run into the bathroom and let the water run until it was icy. Our water came from our own deep well and all other water tasted wrong to me. But that would have to wait. I couldn’t risk leaving the security of my room. One thing I could do, though, was scoop out the few soiled chips that I saw, throw them into the trash can, then add a fresh handful.

Ernie circled like a miniature dog then snuggled into a ball. I gently lowered my hand into the aquarium and traced the irresistible curve of his precious back. With my finger just barely touching him, I could feel the tiny rise and fall of his body with each breath. Ernie was a happy guinea pig, unlike the one at school that was a small monster, driven mad by the shrieking children, the constant poking and squeezing. The school pig struggled against affection, would nip your finger if you reached for him. Pauline Milkmoore had to see the nurse after it bit her pinkie and drew blood, and I could only hope she would die from rabies. Pauline Milkmoore would run around chasing everybody and shouting, “Smell my finger” after having inserted it into one of her many holes.

My mother opened my door with such force, a gust of wind passed through my room and the curtains swayed. “We’re leaving,” she said directly. “Pack your bag with underpants, clean socks, a pair of jeans, a sweater, two or three shirts. I need you to hurry, Augusten. Do this right now. You’ll need your toothbrush.” She turned to leave but I called out, “Wait!” and she froze.

“What is it?” she said, her eyes burning with intensity.

She frightened me. I didn’t understand what was happening. Where were we going? But I only said, “What about Ernie?”

I watched her eyes slide to his aquarium, then back at me. “It’s okay,” she said. “Leave him right where he is. Your father will take care of him. He’s staying.”

She started to leave but before she could I rushed in with another question: “But where are we going? Why?”

I thought back to the Amherst apartment, Mexico. I didn’t want to go. It was like she was asking me to come with her back in time.

“We’re just going to a motel, that’s all. Just for a couple of nights. Now hurry up and pack.” She turned and left.

I did as she said, retrieving my small suitcase from the closet. I opened it on my bed and put in a pair of jeans, a few shirts, socks, underwear. I glanced around my room wondering what else I should take but then I heard the car start up outside my window. I closed the case. “Okay, Ernie, be good,” I said. But he was sleeping. And I wouldn’t dare wake him up for this.

Carrying my suitcase, I stepped as softly as I could down the hallway to the front door. I didn’t see my father or my brother. The front door was open, so I just stepped outside and closed it behind me. My mother was in the car, the dome light illuminating her drawn, gaunt face. She looked frightened and this made me worried. Something was wrong.

I placed my suitcase in the back, then climbed into the car, feeling like I was in some sort of fever dream, where things aren’t quite right somehow; colors too bright, sounds unnatural, the scale of things all messed up. “What happened?” I asked after I settled myself in the seat.

She put the car in reverse, looking wild-eyed over her right shoulder as she backed down the driveway. She shifted into drive and we set off.

“Your father and I had a fight and I don’t want us sleeping at the house tonight. He’s very drunk and I don’t think it’s safe.”

Something heavy shifted out of position within my chest. There was that word again, 
safe
. We hadn’t been safe before and we’d had to live in an apartment. “Are we going back to Amherst?” I couldn’t help asking, and my voice sounded younger to my ears, and I felt younger, too. Things were terribly wrong and I 
wasn’t
 one hundred percent sure I 
wasn’t
actually dreaming, sick and high-fevered, shaking in bed.

“No,” she said, “we’re just going away for a night or two. Three at the most. Just until your father settles down and we can work this out. Don’t you worry,” she said, looking over at me.

“What about my brother?” I asked, wondering why he wasn’t coming with us, too.

“Your brother’s fine, don’t worry,” she said. “He’s staying at home with your father.”

Why was 
he
 safe and we weren’t?

The question remained unasked and unanswered. My mother crushed her cigarette into the ashtray, which was overflowing with butts, and immediately lit another.

•    •    •

WE CHECKED INTO a Holiday Inn just off Interstate 91 in Northampton. The first thing I did was stand on the bed and touch the rough, sparkly ceiling. I could just reach it. As I drew my finger across the coarse, prickly surface I enjoyed a sense of relief and fulfillment—it felt exactly as I knew it would. Sometimes, I would be sitting next to my mother in the car looking out the window when I saw a fence or a stone wall. “Pull over, 
please,
” I would cry and my mother would slide the car over to the shoulder. I’d been watching the fence or the stone wall and imagining running my fingers across it, could almost experience what it would feel like to the touch. And I simply had to see if I was right, if it felt the way I thought it would feel. It was like this with the ceiling.

My mother grabbed the telephone and carried it over to the bed. She made a pile of pillows behind her back, lit a cigarette, and settled in.

I turned on the television and my mother automatically made a motion with her hand, lower the volume.

She called her friend Gayle and spoke in a weary, fatigued whisper. “I took Augusten and left the house.” She pulled on her cigarette and blew the smoke above the mouthpiece of the phone. “Yes, exactly,” she said. “That’s what I was worried about. So we’re fine now. We’re here and I’ll phone the doctor in the morning. Hopefully he can work on John.”

It was hard to focus on the television and not eavesdrop on what my mother was saying. I began worrying about Ernie. Would my father just give him his regular food, or would he remember to give him treats? He had been the one who’d first given Ernie some carrots, so I wasn’t too worried.

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
10.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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