[Author’s Note: I’m splitting this one up into separate parts because nobody likes having to read 6,000 words on a computer screen in one sitting. Since I wrote it all out as one story, the breaks may occur at inopportune times, so bear with me. Oh, one last thing – thanks in advance for reading this and commenting. –SD]
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I was thirteen when I first shook hands with Larry Feaver. A mix of timid pre-pubescent uncertainty and a downright fear of the elderly, I offered up my outstretched palm meekly and gave a crooked, slightly embarrassed smile – for courtesy’s sake. With a wide toothy grin he grabbed it firmly and gave it an energized pump, an act he followed with a playful wink. I was petrified. He was a tall, older man, still incredibly broad shouldered and looked as strong as an ox. Even though his hair was peppered with silver streaks and thinning by the second, his soft blue eyes betrayed a certain youthful exuberance that made him seem much younger than his reported age of fifty-five. After shaking my hand he fished out a pair of sunglasses from his breast pocket, and pressed them onto his face.
‘Well?’ he asked, hands on hips and surveying the mess of boxes begging to be unpacked. “Are we ready to roll?’
We were indeed, and by nightfall all of his effects were liberated from their cardboard prisons and strewn about our basement – his new home – and he unofficially became a member of the family.
I don’t remember being told how he and my parents first met, though it’s likely the initial encounter occurred at the friendly neighborhood pub my parents frequented for its live jazz music, or over a cold one at Mable’s Bar and Grill. When they initially sat me down and explained that we’d have to take on a boarder to pay for some unforeseen medical expenses, I was panic-stricken. A crazy old man? Moving in with us, on such short notice? Is he big and scary? No, they assured me. He’s as soft as a giant wad of cotton.
As I look back now, I recall that he did have a mildly frightening appearance that my powerful child imagination ran away with. Despite having relatively poor posture he stood high as a giant, at least a head taller than my dad, who was a tall man himself. The aforementioned toothy grin turned out to be a rather sneaky illusion – the product of Larry’s ultra high-tech dentures (I spent more than one afternoon with my eyes transfixed to them as they bobbed up and down hypnotically in the glass jar on Larry’s nightstand). Every Halloween he’d sit and wait for hopeful trick-or-treaters to ring the door, then answer it with his dentures hanging out. The poor kids would invariably run off shrieking.
It was clear from his sandpaper chin and cheeks that he didn’t shave very often, yet when he did the whole house was inundated with the pungent fumes of faded imitation French aftershave. He was diabetic, too, and with my irrational fear of pierced skin I’d cringe and have to leave the room every time he stuck himself with his long cloudy needles of insulin. He had a seizure nearly a year before taking up residence with us and had lost partial feeling in his fingertips and on the bottoms of his feet. So to help heighten his weak sense of touch he wore gloves, big brown cotton ones, everywhere throughout the day. It looked funny, the gloves did, especially during the hot summer months when he’d wear short sleeve polo shirts. The sweltering hot brown mittens accentuated his nearly glow-in-the-dark hairless white arms, and it was hard not to giggle when he tried to eat a popsicle in the backyard only to have it stick to his gloves..
But for all his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, it was very hard to get angry at the fellow. In fact, Larry’s energy and unwavering religious faith were a strong presence in our openly atheistic household, and despite my green age I had what I considered to be very serious questions about God that my family couldn’t, wouldn’t, answer. I found myself spending great amounts of time sitting at Larry’s desk in the basement, quizzing him about God and Catholicism. There were instances, I admit freely now, when I had all but convinced myself that I was damned child, that my soul was somehow too impure to enter God’s kingdom. It was during these times that our friendship grew the most, and his arms were such that I could always find solace in them.
- - -
My family was once religious, though, back before my mother had her first breakdown. We were as typical a Ukrainian Catholic family as they came, attending church practically every Sunday with my grandmother and my aunt and uncle and cousins. I hated standing for what I considered to be unnecessarily prolonged periods of time and as a result I found Church to be especially boring. But what eight year-old wouldn’t?
We always ate dinner together as a family, and once a month mom would treat us to an exotic dish gleamed from the pages of Martha Stewart Living. She also wrote sweeping poetry, and she could be counted on for a gentle sense of humor and infallible maternal wisdom. She was a lot slimmer in those days, and she smokes a lot more now than she used to.
My dad, prior to mother’s breakdown, had been characteristically cheerful and optimistic. What really made him tick, though, were cars. His love for Chrysler and Dodge bordered on fanaticism, and he would often joke that if my brother or me ever bought a Ford we’d be out of the family; his forced, uneasy smile and raised eyebrow gave me the impression that he was half-serious. He worked as a mechanic and driver in the city’s core – a grunt’s job, but it paid well and it allowed him to immerse himself for hours in something he loved.
My brother, Al, was three years my senior and a different story from me entirely. Whereas I was short and stocky, he was tall and thin. I found livelihood in sports and competition; he found solitude in the seclusion of a two pound paperback novel. I had all of the physical gifts that one could bestow on an athlete; he was brittle, prone to coughing fits, and wore thick rimmed glasses. As you would imagine, our experiences at school were quite different. At an age when popularity is measured by a child’s willingness to conform, I had no trouble whatsoever fitting in, while Al was bullied nearly every day. He was a few grades higher up than I, and I remember feeling utterly powerless whenever a clique of jock-types would steal his glasses or vandalize his books.
We were all seemingly normal, well-adjusted individuals, though, and like all normal, well-adjusted families we were bound to one another and acted cohesively as a whole. We’d bow our heads and say a grace lead by father before each meal. Every religious holiday, without fail, the whole family would make the pilgrimage to our grandmother’s house for a night of laughs and good old fashioned Ukrainian cuisine. Our cousins would come too, with our jovial and always festive uncle Roman and his wife of ten years, my aunt Julie bringing a host of sweet, sugary goodies. While the adults discussed more serious matters in the living room, we four, my brother and cousins and I, would retreat into the spare bedroom and play card games until supper was ready. Life for me was simple, as it was for all of us at the time. Over the span of one year - 362 days - a spark would fly that would light the flame that would prove to be the end of simplicity – the end of simplicity and the end of our well-adjusted nuclear family normalcy.
"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen... there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."
From his Last Will & Testament, Marquis de Sade