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The Fairy Whip

ISSUE:  Winter 1998

They always put Foley and me together. From the time he was four and I was two, they thought it was cute the way we’d hug and hold hands and toddle around together. With him being mildly retarded, and boys being slower than girls anyway, we were just about equal in what we could do. Even so, if you look at the photos from those days, you’ll see it’s me who’s holding Foley’s hand, me who’s hugging him, while he just kind of stands there.

Where you see it most is in the pictures from Ocean City, when they put us on the rides at Playland. We always went on the Fairy Whip, mostly because it’s the very first ride as you come in the door. My mom says I started us riding together, because Foley cried when he was by himself in the flower-shaped car. I scrambled out of my blossom and climbed in beside him. They took the pictures just as the flower hit the corner and slung us around. Foley’s mouth is all lopsided in a wail. You can see the tears glistening on his cheeks. I have my arms around him tight, laughing like anything.

We went to Ocean City every summer, and one of my aunts or their boyfriends always took snapshots. My mom had stopped taking pictures by then. My aunts say she always cut people’s heads off or showed their big behinds. My father videos everything with his camcorder, but even if we aren’t too self-conscious, he hardly ever holds still long enough so you can see what people are really doing, what they’re thinking, or even if they’re having fun.

My folks don’t drink much usually, but once on every vacation, when we kids were put to bed and all the grownups were sitting around on the porch, they used to get loaded. I’d lie awake listening to the voices downstairs, whispering at first, so as not to wake us up, then louder, with gushes of laughter. I could pick out my mom’s low chuckle. Once I woke up from a bad dream or something and went downstairs and saw her, perched in the big rattan chair with her bare feet pulled up. She was flushed and shining, and she waved her cigarette like an actress. I never saw her smoke any other time, before or since.

Now that I’m old enough to stay up, they’re a lot more careful. They pay me and Foley’s sister Annie to take care of the little kids, which means staying upstairs and watching Pocohontas or Beauty and the Beast until bedtime, but I still see a lot of what goes on. Annie calls it Party Night when they decide to get wasted, and you can always tell, because they start out in the afternoon, playing old swing tunes or Tex-Mex on the boom box. After supper somebody, usually Annie’s folks, starts dancing in the living room. My dad doesn’t dance, but sometimes my mom and Aunt Terri do the swing. They’re really good.

To tell the truth, Annie and I were looking forward to Party Night last summer, because we had a plan to sneak some tequila when all the grownups were too drunk to notice. Annie is a year younger than me and she goes to Immaculate Conception, but she’s always getting ideas like that. The girls at I.C. have a wild reputation.

I’ve dug out all the photos of me and Foley on the Fairy Whip. In the later ones, I’m still smiling, but I’m looking at Foley, like I’m trying to reassure him that it’s fun. Because that’s the thing: if my mom or Foley’s mom or any of them had ever really looked at those photos from year to year, they’d have seen it was mean to put him on that ride, even with me to take care of him. An ordinary kid figures out what to expect after the first time. Foley never got it. It was just one scary surprise after another for him, and he was never sure when they were coming. He’s not crying anymore in those later pictures; he just looks more bewildered every time. The only reason he wanted to go every year was because it was the first ride when you came in the door, and he forgot how it scared him. Plus I think he liked it when I held him.

It’s a pain to try to find anything on my dad’s videotapes, because he just shoots at anything, with no rhyme or reason. When you get to the beach tapes, it’s really gross, too, because my dad always tries to slip in pictures of girls in bikinis, especially if they have big boobs. There’ll be a shot of Foley and me and Foley’s dad building a sand castle, and the camera will shift around, so right behind us there’s a picture of somebody’s butt or their boobs. Sometimes on the boardwalk, you can see the girls act disgusted to have some old lecherous guy point his camera down their tops, but he just doesn’t get it.

What’s even grosser is that he tries to be sneaky, to make us think he’s really watching us, and not noticing that somebody’s bulging out of her bikini. One time at Playland he and my mom had a fight about it, or my mom did, anyway. “I know what you’re doing, Boyd. You’re not fooling anybody with that stupid camcorder.” My dad doesn’t fight. He just looks like pained innocence and denies it. This was after he was pretending to video us in the bumper cars but really shooting some motorcycle lady who had a snake tattoo drooping out of her halter top. My dad doesn’t have very good taste, either, which is another thing that makes my mother mad. She won’t let him video her in a bathing suit, even though it’s a one-piece and she looks fine, except for a little tummy.

I finally did find a video with us on the Fairy Whip. It’s from when I was almost four and Foley was six. The blossoms and the track and everything look much smaller than I remember them, of course. My dad, as usual, picked the wrong place to stand, so instead of seeing our faces as we’re being whirled around the corners, all you see is us going back and forth in the straight parts.

By that time, Annie was riding too. She always rode by herself, and every time you see her going by, she’s yelling her head off and leaning way forward, like she’s trying to make the flower go faster. Foley and I are in the blossom behind. Foley looks stunned, like someone just smacked him and he doesn’t know why. I look like my mom. This is weird, I know. I don’t really look like her. I have her body, I guess, but in my face and my coloring I take after my dad. What I mean is, in the video I do two things exactly like her. The first is that when the flower goes by the big mirror at the far end of the track, I turn and check out how I look, just the way my mom does. I have her exact same expression on my face, kind of critical, but secretly admiring, too. The second thing is, except for that instant when I look at myself in the mirror, I’m looking at Foley the whole time. Which is how my mom is with my dad, or how she thinks she ought to be, giving him all this attention and support so he’ll do what she wants, which is to work hard and take care of us.

In the video, I’ve got my arms around Foley, and I’m talking to him like he’s really brave and he’s having fun and I need him to tell me it’s safe and not to be afraid. “Oooh, Foley, that was great! Here it comes again. Get ready! Hold on to me! Don’t let me fall!” You can’t really hear me saying that on the video, of course. I can just see it on my face. All you can hear on the video is yelling and the music from the carousel and the racket from the other rides. Somebody in the background, I think it’s my Aunt Terri, says “Boyd! Over here!” A couple of times my dad says “Chase! Chase!” trying to get my attention, but I never look his way.

As soon as Annie’s dad, Phil, put on his Flaco Jimanez CD, we knew it was Party Night. Annie checked out the booze and found two bottles of Cuervo Gold on the kitchen counter, plus rum and a lot of other stuff. We’d had Foley and the little lads out on the beach all day, playing their brains out, so we knew there’d be no problem getting them to bed. All through supper Annie kept giving me the eye like this was going to be so easy, and I thought she was right, because the grownups were laughing louder and louder, and none of them was into crabbing about our table manners, not even my mom.

The little kids were out even faster than we thought. They didn’t even last through Aladdin. Foley didn’t budge the whole time, because that movie is his favorite. He really likes the genie.

I was for waiting until the movie was over and we were sure all the adults were out on the porch before we went downstairs, but Annie said we’d better sneak down to the kitchen while they weren’t expecting us. I said no, but she just kept getting more and more antsy until she finally said she was going to do it whether I came along or not, and I could stay and watch kiddy videos with Foley if I wanted.

I didn’t feel like staying with Foley by myself. He was still pretty much the same old dopey, lovey Foley, but lately he’d been starting to rub up against me, and I knew what he wanted, even if he didn’t.

We followed our plan, which was to go down the back stairs and sneak into the kitchen through the back door, Annie would pour the tequila into her water bottle while I kept watch. If anybody came in, we’d say we were just raiding the cookie bin.

Outside was shivery; my mom would’ve made me wear a sweatshirt if she knew I was going out. Our bare feet flickered down the shadows of the back stairs. The thump of the boom box and the splashes of laughter seemed far away. Annie swung the screen door and my spine quivered like the spring. She hung there for the longest time. “Well?” I whispered.

“Maybe we should wait.” Annie does that sometimes. She’s all hot to do something, then she loses her nerve at the last minute. I’m more like, once you start something, you might as well go through with it.

“Let me go first.” I eased the door open and slipped past her. The dark heaved like a blanket. There was a moan. At first I thought somebody was hurt. At first I thought it was my Aunt Terri, because our legs are all the same, hers, mine and my mom’s. All I saw was her skirt hiked to the waist and the gleam of her leg, shaven all slick, wrapped around Phil’s leg, and her arms around his neck. The skirt dropped like a shadow as they lurched apart. I smelled my mom. I’m almost as tall as her now, and I can always smell her hair. Even through the tequila and sweaty Phil. Even through the disgusting smell of her wanting him. I felt like throwing up. I felt like smacking her. Even now, I feel like crying.

Phil cleared his throat. “Aren’t you girls supposed to be in bed?” Which we weren’t. It was only nine-thirty.

Then Annie . . . , sometimes she’s so dumb. She goes “we just came down to raid the fridge,” and jerks the refrigerator door. We all squinted at the glare, but in that instant I saw Phil, all clammy and slack in the face, like Foley when he wants to rub against me. He blinked at my mom like he was surprised to see her. My mom looked away, and her hands shook as she tucked in her blouse.

“We were just getting a drink,” she said. “Would you girls like a soda?” Just like that. It was so lame and pathetic. Grownups get caught doing the grossest, most disgusting thing they could ever do, and they act like it can all be smoothed over by being polite. Just then my dad walked in.

“Shelly . . . ?” He finally got it. Even my dead-brain dad, going around with his camcorder stuck to his face, even without seeing as much as Annie and I saw, he figured out what had been going on. I couldn’t see his face in the dim kitchen, just the glint of his glasses. He didn’t even look at Phil. “Is there any more ice?” Then, as if he were seeing Annie and me for the first time, “what are you girls doing up?”

Foley and Annie’s folks are getting a divorce. My mom told me about it after school one day, as she was driving me to figure skating. “How come?” I asked, and she knew what I was getting at.

“They don’t love each other anymore.” She almost missed the exit to the parkway, and a truck honked at her when she swerved over at the last minute. She glared like she wanted to give him the finger, but she didn’t. “Oh, I suppose they still love each other, in some ways, but they just can’t live together anymore. I don’t know, exactly.”

“Are you and dad getting a divorce?” I can’t believe I asked that, but I did.

She gave me a look, but she wasn’t mad. She pretended she wasn’t expecting the question. “No, honey, what makes you think that?”

“What’s Phil going to do?”

She started concentrating on the traffic. “Phil’s getting a condo in town, I think. Peggy’s keeping the house.” She started to pat my knee in the dopey, useless way she does, but then she caught hold of it and squeezed. “Your dad and I just had some hard times, honey. We’re not going to break up.”

I guess I knew that. After that night at the beach house my dad moped around all day, but he didn’t say anything. My mom acted like she was mad at him, instead of the other way around. Phil went up to Rehoboth to look at some property, and then he had business, so he never came back to the beach the rest of the time we were there. For almost a week, nobody ate meals together, and my dad didn’t even come along when we played miniature golf. I think my aunts sided with Annie’s mother, so it was like everyone was against my mom, but she stuck it out, she was so stubborn. If she’d had the camera, I bet she would’ve cut their heads off and showed their big behinds in every shot.

Finally, a couple of days before we were supposed to go home, they made up. We had the kids and Foley down on the beach. My dad came down to swim, and he spent a long time out beyond the breakers, stroking hard, back and forth, like he was trying to get in shape to get a new wife. I was sure they were going to get a divorce. When he came back out, my dad looked exhausted. He slumped on a rock at the edge of the breakwater. After awhile my mom came along, in her one-piece black bathing suit and a ball cap with her hair sticking out in a ponytail behind. She spooned up behind my dad, like the two of them were riding double on a horse. She rubbed his back but he didn’t look around. I couldn’t tell if they were talking. After awhile she hugged him, resting her cheek on the back of his neck. He patted her knee. That afternoon they drove off by themselves and didn’t come back until after supper. My dad was almost like his old self. My mom didn’t look happy or unhappy, but there wasn’t that tension with my aunts anymore.

I think about that when I look at those photos of Foley and me on the Fairy Whip. There’s not much to that ride at all, just a couple of quick turns that whirl you around at either end of the straight-away. They’re not even that great once you learn to expect them. You have to distract yourself, look in the mirror or look at your partner, so they’ll come as more of a surprise.

Annie’s staying with her mom, unless she gets kicked out of I. C., which she might, she’s been acting up so much since her folks decided to get divorced. They sent Foley to a special school near Wilmington. The last time I got to see him was in April, at his 16th birthday party. My mom dropped me off at their house, but didn’t come in. Phil was there. He brought Foley a bike, but they didn’t know whether Foley would be able to take it with him when he went to the new school. Foley wasn’t his usual dopey, lovey self either, because he hadn’t seen his dad in awhile, so he was way too loud and laughing too much and wanting to show off. He ate a bunch of sweet stuff, too, so he was extra hyper, and by the time the party was over, he was back in a slump.

I just gave him one hug before I had to go, but I squeezed him extra tight, like we were really having fun and it was great and he should get ready and tell me not to be afraid and hold on to me and not let me fall.


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