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  • Prologue

    The trade in family stories is fraught full of forgeries and fancies. And my own family's are no exception to this general rule.

    There's the story of my mother’s affair with the local Catholic priest, for example, as told repeatedly by my now estranged father. Or there's the story of great Great Uncles who gallantly snuck Gorta Mór immigrants into the United States through a Pennsylvanian pencil factory, which, in all of its years of operation, never once bothered to fashion a single pencil. Farther back, there are the usual genealogical stories populated by characters both unsavory and sweet: pirates, rebels, spies, and lady pirates, lady rebels, and lady spies. Oh, and of course, there were ancestors who had once been - if only for an afternoon - kings and queens of Ireland. A grain of truth in all, perhaps - though I'm inclined to believe the grains were first fermented.

    But the story that follows, I promise, is absolutely and completely true. It takes place in the year 1976, America's bicentennial.


    In the back seat of an ice-cream stained apple-red VW Beetle sat three children, two of whom were - and still are - my brothers, and one of which was –and in some vague way, still is - me. Occupying the front seats were two adults, those progenitors and protectors known to we brothers as Mum and Dad, and to each other as Karen and Peter.

    The oldest of the children - and the golden child – sitting behind my father is Shawn. Behind the front passenger seat, which in this story is occupied by my mother, is the youngest, Alan. And between the two, wearing a black hat with his name stitched across it, stuffed behind the stick shift, is me, Shane.

    The Volkswagen itself is sitting in the parking lot of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. We are all, incidentally, wearing shorts.

    And we are tired, tired with the sticky fun that amusement parks for a stiff fee are guaranteed to provide.


    The car will not start. My father turns the ignition and presses the little metal pedal. Nothing. We have parked far away from both the entrance and exit for reasons that my father refuses to explain but insists are of a ‘practical’ nature.

    My father tries again but the Beetle stays stubbornly unmoved.

    “Dammit,” my father said.

    “Shit,” my mother said.

    “Fuck,” I said.

    That’s right; I said fuck.

    It might have been an error in judgment on my part. But it's just a word. And it seemed a well-fitted one. Best of all, it got a belly laugh from both my brothers. My mother even asked me to say it again! I did.

    It should be known that she has a very quick hand that, when provoked, can strike as quickly as a ill-tempered viper. And that’s just what it did. The laughter, of course, withered and died right then and there.

    My father turned around and asked my brothers if they had thought my saying 'fuck' was funny. They said, no. My father agreed; it was indeed not funny for me to have said 'fuck'. Which left a small nagging question in his mind, he told them. And the vexing little gnat of a mystery, he explained, was this: What was it, then, that they had just a few moments ago found so funny?

    Alan said that he hadn’t laughed. A pathetic attempt at a defense, but he was only six. Shawn, on the other hand, claimed he was laughing because Alan was laughing. (Should I ever find myself in the prisoners’ dilemma with my older brother, I think I could bet on the outcome.)

    “Get out of the car, all of you!” loudly instructed my mother as she opened the door and got out herself. “And Shane, leave behind the bear. And the hat.”

    (Perhaps I should explain that it was my birthday, too, and that the hat looked very much like the one that that hook-handed pirate I met earlier wore, although mine had my name stitched into it and his did not. And the bear was to be my new best friend, just as it had been Christopher Robin's before me.)

    We cluttered obediently out of the car as quickly as we were able. My mother got back in and closed the door. They sat there for some time, my father shaking wires, cursing some more and shifting useless gears. He then instructed us to push the car forward from behind, which we did, while he, half-in/half-out of the driver's seat, pushed it, too, his hand remaining always on the steering wheel. The car stuttered and started. My father jumped in and the two adults drove away. Just like that.

    We had, it seems, been abandoned at the happiest place on earth. And we were miserable. (Okay, more accurately, it was the parking lot, row G3-22, of the happiest place on earth, but still...)


    “Why did you say that?” my older brother asked me with narrowing eyes.

    “I don’t know.”

    “You shouldn’t have,” said Alan, smarting with a sense of betrayal.

    “It wasn’t a big deal. It’s just a word.”

    “If it’s just a word, then why are we standing here, idiot?” Shawn umm… socratically queried .

    We alternated between standing and sitting in desolate and disconsolate tableaus while the bland Anaheim air subtly constricted around the late afternoon sun. Most of the rest of the cars, filled by people laughing off of snaking trams, had left. And the few that remained were soon to tumbleweed out of there, too.

    In the bruised summer silence, we took turns squinting towards the distant edges of the parking lot, watching for the return of the VW with the same mixed mirage of hope and despair that those long-at-sea sailors must have in their waterlogged hearts when spy-glassing for any sign of blesséd land.


    It did return eventually, the VW, and with it our parents. It was minus my new best friend, sadly, though. And a really nice hat, too. (I hope to this day that they might have met another lonely Shane somewhere along the way and given them to him.)

    On the way back to the hotel, I was encourage to think about what I did. Why had I said it, that word? Was saying it a rite of passage, a bold and colorful linguistic step into the adult world? Did I believe that any risk is worth it if you can get a laugh? Maybe, and more darkly, saying 'fuck' was an expression of an unresolved Oedipal conflict aggravated by my father's impotent attempt at starting the Bug? Or was it an unconscious response to a growing awareness of the potential loss of a transitional object embodied by Winnie the Pooh? Freud aside, I just didn't know.

    But still, I learned something important that day and it was this: that words are more mysterious and more powerful than are dreamt of in our tiny imaginations; that they have the capacity to release enough unguarded laughter to upset the very authority on which both the imperial and imperious rest or, likewise, they can serve to sever our senses from our very selves; they can be a tower of giraffes moving with easy grace through a sleepy suburban morning or they can be spastic pigeons flapping about in a pot of pudding; but what is more, they can, too, always and unceasingly, in kindness and in love, be the key to the cuffs that is contained in Bess Houdini's kiss.


    And after all, when Adam and Eve heard God's heavy footsteps Fall, the first word they said was 'Fuck'. The next, incidentally, were 'My, what a lovely world! Why hadn't we noticed it before? What was in those apples, anyway? And, are there any more?'...

    [Editor's note: A brief interview with Shane's mother revels a number of inaccuracies in this story. For example, the 1976 Volkswagen Beetle that appears in the story was orange, not - as Shane seems to claim - 'apple-red'. They also, she says, did not give away the bear; a few months after the events described here, Shane opened the bear's head to see what it contained; his mother was forced to throw it away sometime after that, for the family dog began chocking on the bear's head fluff.]
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