Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Lab Test Subject

Growing up I had a cousin Polo who was a little maladjusted to say the least. Polo had been named after the shirts because his mother saw them when she was pregnant and said my Uncle Julius looked great in them. Of course my Aunt Jeanette was bossy and said she wanted to name her child Polo. It was either going to be that or Ralph Lauren, whichever got his ass kicked in school less. Either way, it was about dressing up the fact they were white trash intent on sending their kids to prep schools. They thought it made the child sound rich and elite. Meanwhile it set them all up for a dynasty of stupidity.
 Aunt Jeanette had been the last of my great grandmother’s six children. While most of the older kids were good family people, Jeanette was the exception. My great grandmother had her accidentally and later in life, therefore she was tired of parenting. There was a ten year gap between Aunt Jeanette and my grandmother’s child before her. As a result my Aunt Jeanette sort of grew up with my mother because only a few years later my Nunni had her. Forced to be her playmate from time to time during visits to my great grandmother, my mom often grimaced and referred to her as “Spoiled, stupid, and loud.”
Aunt Jeanette had been the whore of their small town and wore short skirts and white lipstick. While this would have never flown with my great grandmother’s other children, she was getting older and most of her children were married. Plus my great grandmother had developed Type II Diabetes and had lost her eye sight. If my Aunt Jeanette wanted to dress like a hooker that was her prerogative. Plus my great grandmother couldn’t see it so she wasn’t going to bother fighting. Not to mention my great grandfather was also very sick. They had their hands full basically.
Anyway my aunt had been seeing a nice guy who really loved her but was cheating with my Uncle Julius, who was basically a moron who was always getting involved in some get rich quick scheme. While during the time I knew him, he looked like a cross eyed mongoloid, apparently Julius Newcastle was quite dashing and handsome back in the day. Maybe my Aunt Jeanette got my great grandmother’s blindness by-proxy. I don’t know. Well this was revealed when my aunt got into a horrible car accident, why she was driving in that snow storm. It was not to go back to nursing school but to see my Uncle Julius….
Well the nice guy dumped her, she ended up marrying my Uncle Julius. They had Polo right away which is why we speculate the wedding was done under Catholic duress. Thank God my great grandmother had been blind otherwise she would have probably lost her ever blessed mind over my aunt’s low cut wedding gown. While the woman was a gentle soul from what I hear and hardly ever swore, this would have been the lone occasion for the once in a lifetime blue streak. My Aunt Jeanette and my Uncle Julius headed out to their honeymoon while my aunt adorned her Go Go boots for the post wedding pics, probably knocked up.
Polo was born and right away the kid had behavior problems. My Aunt and Uncle had two more kids, one entitled and fat and the other who never spoke that moved out of the house as soon as he could and never speaks to any of them. In school, Polo was always getting in trouble. Rather than discipline her kid my aunt simply did nothing. When she was called upon by teachers because Polo would swear or say obnoxious things she would blame it on the television. Then my Uncle Julius, useless as ever would say,“Boys will be boys.”
The kids all attended an elite prep school in Erie, PA. At the school, the Newcastles felt they were established members of the upper crust. Polo was a mediocre student but excelled at hockey and track. Max Factor (named after my aunt’s makeup, Max for short) was a mediocre student who excelled at football and hockey, but was often penalized for fighting and other obnoxious behavior. Perry Ellis (Perry for short, named after my Uncle Julius’s cologne), the youngest, was something of a genius. Placed on the gifted track right away, he had no aptitude in sports but was very bright. We often joked that if he called The Boys Town Hotline wanting to run away, ordinarily they would tell kids that it wasn’t an option. However when he said his name was Perry Ellis Newcastle they would tell him to bilk it. Life would be better on the streets, even if he became a hustler.
The Newcastle’s didn’t believe in punishments at all, only talking out the problems. They wanted to teach their kids to be safe around alcohol, so at dinner the whole family drank beer, despite Perry only being twelve. Rather than sit down and teach their children about sex, Uncle Julius and Aunt Jeanette got each a book of dirty jokes and read them aloud at dinner. This can be put in a leaflet of what not to do when you raise your kid. So what happened next to Polo Newcastle was no surprise to anyone but them.
Around the time Polo was sixteen the real problems began. Being at a crucial point and with no discipline whatsoever, Polo began rebelling and skipping class to drink in the graveyard with his friends. When asked about his slipping grades Polo became defiant. Once he called his mother a “bitch.” Instead of disciplining him my Uncle Julius said, “Well he is correct Jeanette. Sometimes you can be a bitch.” And he gave Polo forty dollars to go party. However the threat of summer school loomed as well as possible expulsion from the posh prep school after a troubling meeting with the headmaster. My Aunt and Uncle decided that they were going to stand up to Polo and do something they never did, parent.
During a summer excursion Polo wanted to go to a gathering where beer would be present. Trying to make the growing conflict easy, my Uncle Julius pointed out there would be plenty of booze at home. Polo said he was sick of drinking with his family. Aunt Jeanette then put her foot down and said no. Polo, being rather undisciplined from lack of any real guidance began to throw a tantrum. The fighting became louder as swear words flew, and Polo decided he was going to the gathering whether they liked it or not. So all emotion and hormones and no brains, he opened the car door and jumped out. However, he forgot the car was moving and my Uncle Julius is a driver who goes over the speed limit because in his words, “Gas is expensive and you have to get the most bang for your buck every mile.”
So Polo flew out of the car, slammed his head on the concrete, and cracked his skull. My Aunt Jeanette screamed in horror. Polo had made a statement alright and he made it clear he was never drinking with his family again. Uncle Julius stopped the car, loaded him in, and drove him to the hospital. Bleeding all over the back seat his words were barely audible. All these years of bad parenting were staring them in the face. For a moment they showed compassion. Max, typically loud and always eating, sat in silent concern for his brother. Perry, silent and lovely, took Polo’s hand. Maybe they would all learn something.
No such luck. The doctor announced there would be brain damage. Not taking his own parental inventory, my Uncle Julius furiously stormed, “That selfish bastard, I always knew I would be wiping his ass.” The doctor was shocked. Most family members express this thing called concern.
The doctor then, befuddled by this reaction, explained it wasn’t like that. It was more the senses would be compromised and that my cousin might have some anger issues. To which my Aunt replied, “Good. We don’t need a retard in the house.” The doctor was looking for love and concern but saw none.
When Polo got out of the hospital his intelligence was not affected, not that he really had much. His ability to taste and smell was compromised however as the doctor promised it would be. But the most astounding was the anger problem he had developed. Later in my travels and through experience of my own, I know for a fact anger and frustration are the side effect of cranial injuries. Mine had come as a result of an accident when I was fifteen and was short lived. However my cousin’s trauma and damage was much more severe. So severe that he had to be hospitalized briefly in a state mental hospital after slapping his mother.
At the time Polo had a girlfriend named Sandy. My Aunt Jeanette detested Sandy, but Polo loved her. Sandy was very pretty in that trashy kind of way, much like my Aunt Jeanette was as a young woman. During one of their many Jerry Springer-esque fights, Sandy informed my aunt she was a bad mother. My aunt proceeded by calling her names. Perhaps Sandy had a point.
 Anyway, during some teen drama Sandy decided she was through with Polo. In between his anger problems, the fact he needed a whole salt shaker to give his food any taste, and the fact he stopped bathing because in his words, “If I can’t smell myself stinking, why should it matter to the rest of the world?” it became a little much for her. Note, Polo lost his sense of smell in the accident but the rest of the world didn’t.  Oh and when Polo heard ringing in his head he swore the aliens were sending him signals. Not to mention after trying to punch a teacher Polo had been expelled from school. Sandy’s parents put their foot down. Polo was going nowhere and fast.
However Polo was not having this. He got his family’s rifle from their shed, because that is what they have in Pennsylvania, and knocked on his girlfriend’s door to talk. Polo asked Sandy to get back together. When she didn’t he held a gun to her head, promising to kill her and them himself. Of course her parents walked in and Polo promised to kill her family as well. The neighbor, seeing my cousin in plain view with the gun from the window, called the cops.
After a standoff with the police that lasted two hours my cousin surrendered. He of course went to jail. Because he was a juvenile in Pennsylvania, his parents had to pay an incarceration tax for his jail/reform school stay. My Uncle Julius and Aunt Jeanette, wanting to wash their hands of their troubled spawn and save money, emancipated him. During family functions, my Aunt Jeanette and Julius would show up to parties with Max and Perry. As usual they would tell crude jokes, and take all the pies. Max would announce periodically that he farted and would say something racist, despite offending my cousin Martin’s girlfriend at the time Monique who happened to be black. (That is a different story altogether that I will tell later). Perry would say nothing, only looking out the window perhaps hoping to jump. His grades were good in school so he had the most potential for a future. My Aunt Jeannette would brag about him, “He became an Eagle Scout and built an outhouse for his project.”
And then my Uncle Julius would brag about his current get rich scheme and say, “And I make an obscene amount of money. Speaking of obscene, Max over here plays hockey and they call him Mr. Triple Team. Because every time he gets the ice he takes three people down!”
And then Max bragged, “Yeah, I am Mr. Triple Team. Hockey is my sport. It is the only sport where the apes havent come out of the jungle to take over.”
Awkward pause. “You okay?” I asked my cousin Martin’s girlfriend at the time Monique who was sitting on the far end of the table with me. Earlier Max had been on his usual run of racist jokes where the n word was used. Like anyone with a brain, Monique couldn’t take this idiot who had probably learned to walk upright the week before. While she wasn’t showing it, she was seconds away from stabbing him with her steak knife.
Monique, who had caramel colored skin and attended Carnegie Mellon as a studio art and engineering double major, who’s mother was working for President Clinton at the time said, “Yes. He’s a moron and probably rides the short bus. I know his IQ is limited so I can’t take it personally.”
“He ate the short bus.” I replied and we both laughed.
Just then my brother Wendell leaned in and said, “Mr. Triple Team. Like he farts and three people fall on the ice?”
Of course my sister Skipper said, “I hope he leaves enough ham for the rest of us. He’s eating enough for a third world country.”
As we ate the subject turned to my cousin Polo. The rest of us sort of bit our tongues. If you have never had one, an incarcerated family member is like an elephant in the middle of the room. You know they exist but you just go around it. Actually at a certain point you acknowledge the elephant and maybe give it some peanuts. The incarcerated family member, just never existed. “I spoke to Polo and he is doing great. He is getting therapy and working on his anger.” My grandmother said.
My Nunni, who despite her wild exploits from acting in local TV commercials to telling inappropriate stories had a soft side. While it was unspoken, it was common knowledge that while the rest of us had decided to erase this family member from the proverbial tree, Nunni had been sending him care packages. My cheap ass Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Julius wanted to save face and save funds, but my Nunni would give any stranger the last dime she had or the shirt off her back. Very Catholic, she was into the spiritual side of her faith and believed in remembering those who were deemed untouchable. While her eccentricities masked his side of her it was why she never had any money. My mom would always say to Nunni, “Mom, you have to stop giving morons money. They spend it and you have none.”
The table went dead silent. Monique looked at Martin. “Polo?” She asked. Martin was as still as a statue. Nunni had delivered a blow like Rubin Carter. It was intentional, it was deliberate. It was awesome.
“You should have been a better mother. None of my kids are in jail.” My Nunni said to my aunt, letting her know where she had failed exactly. “And if they were I would be there.” Minutes before my grandmother had been telling some wild story about some friend she had and some trip she was planning to take. While we dismissed her as whimsical and crazy, she was perhaps putting on a charade.
“Knock it off Pat. It’s Thanksgiving. Save the fighting for the phone like the rest of the family always does.” My grandfather, or Pop Pop, was a sweet little old man. He always had a twinkle in his eye and barely spoke. When he did he was funny, insightful, or on the mark. My Pop Pop had also been speaking to Polo here and there and had become sort of a surrogate father. However he was not in the mood to tolerate any of this right now and just wanted peace. At the time he was getting treatment for prostrate cancer and was not a fan of conflict.
“It’s not my fault. I tried. It’s the criminal gene.” My Aunt Jeanette explained. “We sent them to prep school. One kid is hockey captain team. The other kid is going to be an Eagle Scout.” Then my aunt chirped about her findings and the rest of us went back to eating.
On the way home in the car my dad said, “Criminal gene my ass. More like a fucking asshole for a mother. I put people like this moron in jail every day working for the District Attorney. Behind every criminal in a bad parent.”
“Bill, I was thinking the same thing. You know my aunt. You know she’s a crude human being. That kid never had a chance.” My mom begged. My dad was in one of his moods. Pissed off was an understatement. The Newcastles and their anti-logic could drain the life blood out of anyone. We drove in silence.
“That whole family! I swear to God. Anne, next time they come around don’t bring me. Tell them that I died and wont be coming back.” My dad commanded as we drove down the dark road.
Just then a guy cut my dad off. Already pissed from the encounter with the extended familial relations from hell my dad screamed, “You can’t cut me off you Yum Yum Asshole!” And proceeded to flick the man off. That’s when my dad said, “Kids, as you can see foolishness and stupidity run in your mom’s family and not mine. Avoid falling into the trap.”
To which my mom replied, “Well your family has it’s own set of assholes.” And they proceeded to fight all the way home. When we got home and my dad turned on the television, and my mom got him some saki, he calmed. Aunt Jeanette, Uncle Julius, Max Factor and Perry Ellis could do this to anyone to depend on alcohol as a way to avoid being homicidal.
We received updates on Polo for the next eighteen months. He was released from jail and reunited with his girlfriend Sandy. No one understood how or why they got back together. Sandy had cheated, and Polo tried to kill her and her entire family. That is usually a permanent deal breaker. At least with most people but not them which is a testament to their codependency but I digress. Anyway, during this time they horrified everyone further when they announced Sandy was pregnant. Polo had no job, and Sandy was in college. Employment options were limited because of Polo’s criminal record, and Sandy’s mother told her that it was Polo’s job to support the child. Note, we never said Sandy was normal and her behavior does not indicate that of a normal person. But Polo surprised everyone. According to my Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Julius, Polo was gainfully employed and making an “obscene amount of money.” Perhaps my grandparents were right to believe in him.
The child was born, a girl, who’s name was Destiny. While they were hopeful, it is a name that curses your kid to get a starring role on Sixteen and Pregnant and then when that fame fades it’s the pole that becomes her final home. Everything was fine except for one thing. When Destiny was born she was missing her right foot. While I have never met the unfortunate child of sorts, my grandmother only gave me the story in bits and pieces. I take it the foot never formed. But these people are white trash. Maybe they ran out of food and like a pack of hungry dogs ate the only food source they could find and figured, “She never has to walk.” But a child with a missing limb requires further medical care and Polo stepped up his game and got a better job.
Despite being a good provider and such, he couldn’t always make it work with Sandy. During one of his breakups he moved back in with his parents. Sandy and Polo shared Destiny, and started seeing other people. At this point Sandy met a man at AA, a recipe for disaster and not much of a step up from Polo. And Polo was dating some cashier at the local Sheets who’s husband had apparently been taken out of their trailer park by Jesus or aliens. Either way, one night they had been watching The 700 Club when he just up and disappeared. Despite their new loves Sandy and Polo wanted to work it out. It was all very complicated.
One Thanksgiving, Aunt Jeanette, Uncle Julius, Polo, Max Factor, and Perry Ellis all showed up. Max Factor announced he was studying to become a teacher. We all found this terribly ironic since he had probably only learned to walk upright the week before and checked his knuckles to see if they were bleeding. My mom, trying to be helpful suggested he take some classes in teaching Special Education to expand his employment. She had student taught at the school for the blind and found it rewarding. Then again, my mother is a good person. Max is a selfish prick. He proved this by replying, “Hell no. Don’t want to work with those retards.”
Perry Ellis said nothing, but Aunt Jeanette announced he was accepted to MIT. Apparently he had written a ground breaking essay, probably on the genetic mutations he called his family. She also announced he was going ROTC, probably as a stunt never to see his family again. Who could blame him?
Just then Uncle Julius announced, “I have a great joy to share. Polo is home and he is making an obscene amount of money.”
“What are you doing?” My father asked, suspicious of this claim. Also to see if he was legal because as he told my mother in the car, “If that moron gets arrested I am not representing him. He’s on his own.” Translated, my dad had to get any and all idiots related to us out of legal jams because he was a lawyer. Sometimes I suspected that is why they fought the law so often, because while the law always won they had a lawyer in their back pocket and knew their rights.
Polo, who had gained at least fifty more pounds stood up and held his bottle of beer. His hair, once brown and curly, was now shaved, and there was a suspicious scar, probably from where he jumped out of the car and cracked his head open. “Well I am selling used cars.”
“Good.” My dad said trying to hide his distain and confusion at this whole thing.
“You must be a great car salesman.” My mom said trying to intercept my dad’s contempt. Plus the whole room had become awkward and she was just trying to play peacemaker.
“Only the best.” My Aunt Flo said. While her weakness were men who were unemployed and mooched off of her and she usually turned a blind eye, at this point my Godmother was suspicious as well.
“Oh, and that is only part time. My other job really pays good money. It’s where I get most of my dough and I only have to work one weekend a month.” Polo shared.
“That is like no job I have ever heard of.” My cousin Meara said. She bounced in with her auburn curls and dance leo. She had recently come from the local ballet school where she took class and now taught. While she knew Polo had his troubles she didn’t want to humiliate him. Even so, she too had questions.
“Well I work as a professional lab test subject. They pay me four hundred dollars an hour. They shaved my head and put the electrodes on my scalp. I got kind of sick afterwards because they kept shocking me and gave me a shot of something weird. And my limbs got kind of numb but now I am doing fine. Destiny wants a scooter and a dad has to do what a dad has to do, right Uncle Bill?” My cousin Polo said looking at my dad.
There was a silence as if everyone was unsure of how to respond. My Aunt Flo who’s suitors were typically unemployed with legal troubles could not compute. Meara didn’t understand. My other aunts and uncles sat there trying to process this very alternative occupation. They were dentists, hygenists, teachers, and all other things. Finally my dad said, “Well Polo, that is very good. I am glad you are growing up. You are absolutely right. A dad has to do what a dad has to do.” Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Sure my cousin was flying lopsided but they had connected on that universal level. The rest of my uncles nodded and the chatter resumed.
Looking back, my cousin never had a prayer with the parents he had. My Uncle Julius and Aunt Jeanette only thought of themselves and their children were afterthoughts. While they dismissed my cousin as a genetic mistake rather than blame bad parenting, he got it right in areas that they never did. Parenthood isn’t about what prep school your kids go to, how many hockey games they win, or what college they go to. It is about showing up for your children, and doing what you have to do no matter how humiliating to support them. That is where my cousin Polo, despite his mistakes, got it right where his parents kept failing that question on the Universal Test called Life.
When my grandmother died, my cousin Polo came to her funeral and spoke about how my Nunni was the only one who believed in him when the rest of his family turned their backs on him. In her letters, my Nunni always told him, “I know you will do the right thing.”
Sure, it was eccentric. Sure, it was weird. Sure, it was something none of us were prepared for. But unlike his parents, my cousin Polo did the right thing by his kid. In the end it can be safe to say the brain damaged ex-con with the anger management problem rose above them all. While he probably can’t pee on his own and glows in the dark, perhaps he taught us what life is truly about. 


I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl
Paperback available on Amazon and 877-Buy-Book
E-Book available on Kindle and Nook
Audiobook available on itunes and Audible this Spring
Portion of proceeds go to RAINN

No comments:

Post a Comment