What’s So Funny? A Love Story
My mother stands in my bedroom, a can of canary yellow paint overturned atop her head, its bright, creamy contents cascading down her face and red bouffant hairdo. Seeking the center of the earth, the paint plunges on past her shoulders, chest, and arms until it encounters the hardwood floor, rebounding in a mighty splash. Obedient to the laws of physics, it then disperses outward in waves that appear chaotic but are really not. The paint finally subsides into rivulets at her feet and forms a sort of coastline, whose configuration, if you appreciate fractals, might even map to that of some continent.
Paralyzed with disbelief, my mother is still hunched in a reflexive, futile effort to deflect the can, which had, only seconds before, perched above her on the platform of a step ladder. She must have jarred the ladder, but for the can to have flipped over and landed so precisely on her head suggests a well-choreographed movie stunt.
This mess is the center panel of a triptych. In the foreground, and right panel, are the witnesses to my mother’s mishap—her mother- and father-in-law, and I, her older daughter. We three are frozen in our respective poses—a hand aloft, a wince, a mouth half open, a head turning away. The far left panel of the triptych is merely a dingy white wall covered with crude crayon drawings of a horse, a house, and a couple of capering stick figures. They are the artwork of the former tenant’s child, set to be covered up with the yellow paint that my mother now wears, but safe for the time being. The stick figures now seem to mock my mother in a victory dance.
The bohemian lifestyle of our apartment’s former tenants is evident too in the living room, whose walls are a livid mauve, while the puce ceiling suggests the contents of a plague bubo. This color statement may have been their rebellion against the sterile snowy walls and silver-spangled ceilings of late twentieth century L.A. lower-middle-class multiple units.
It’s been a crazy ride for me and my sister, our family’s swift descent from prosperity into poverty as my father’s Minneapolis contracting business failed, driving him to pills and alcohol to buffer the stress of canceled projects, laid off crews and proliferating creditors. Even our own home, crushed with mortgages, has been foreclosed, hence this shabby new L.A. habitation, the rent paid by tersely ungracious extended family until my parents “get back on their feet.” But this position is unlikely, since my father departed weeks ago in the family car, destined never to live with us again. My mother, who had cultivated her social status like a hothouse flower, has wilted from house-proud wife to resentful, thin-skinned object of pity, disdained by her once competitors.
We are still just milliseconds into the can eversion. Other than my mother’s sharp yelp and the involuntary gasps from her witnesses, nobody has responded. My grandfather and I are too stupefied to speak, while my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, does not understand what has taken place but might be aware that the can of paint is not doing what it is supposed to do.
My grandfather, a onetime yeshiva student turned atheist union organizer, well recalls impacts to the head from the truncheons of strikebreaking goons, Many years and six children later—all prosperous but for my prankster, pauper father—he has dropped by to visit, seeking an afternoon of respite from his wife’s galloping senility.
And now, this.
My grandfather faces an exquisite dilemma: his sense of humor is wicked and legendary; the sight of his vain, fiery daughter-in-law in such a vaudevillian predicament would have been irresistibly funny to him. But laughter is unthinkable because his son has recently abandoned this woman and their awkward, half-grown daughters. So he is struggling to control his response, and his face is distorted with the effort, his mouth is asymmetrically open, lips twitching, gray, bushy brows rising and falling above rapidly blinking eyes.
At fifteen, I should have been a mere blur, rushing in to help my mother, but I’m held fast, checking my memory for transgressions or oversights: was this accident my fault? Children raised by a tempest insert a beat of caution before entering the parental vicinity. You learn early that life is a minefield, and you tread lightly, testing the air for that whiff of maternal sulfur that presages a detonation.
My mother’s wrath is sure to follow hard on this catastrophe, and I am the universal recipient. Do I dare seize this moment of opportunity to bolt from the bedroom, down the stairs and through the garish, unlivable living room out the front door? Dashing through the unfamiliar neighborhood in my mind, I soon reach the gargantuan conduit that is Wilshire Boulevard, where I am quickly absorbed into a river of ceaseless, anonymous traffic, disappearing from the disaster that is my family into some alternative life story. But rather than flee to the unknown, I will spend the remainder of the day down on the floor with a bucket, brush, and sponge, scrubbing up paint of a color that I will avoid from now on.
My ex-husband’s father had a temperament resembling my mother’s—explosive and child-targeted. So my spouse and I had that in common at least, one of the few similarities in our backgrounds.
My husband grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, in a town of several hundred that lacked stoplights, paved streets, a movie theater, and most other trappings of modern urban culture. It did sustain a dry goods store, a gas station, and a school. My future husband’s father was the postmaster, and he was not a happy or fulfilled man. His own parents had migrated to this parched and stunted California town from Oklahoma during the Depression. My husband’s grandfather, a disabled oilfield worker, was a man of mammoth, and probably not misplaced bitterness. He had once knocked a horse unconscious that had tried to bite him. His son, the father of my future husband, now handled his own lost hopes, boredom and stress with cards and liquor, the usual recourse in this area.
Like many other local children, my future husband, age ten, owned a pet rabbit, who lived in a chicken wire hutch to protect him from hordes of drooling predators. He had begun life as a tiny Easter bunny, but the Valley knows how to grow things, and this rabbit, bored as the rest of the family, had eaten itself into a hulking tank that produced metabolic by-products at a rate amazing to the boy and his two sisters, tasked with keeping the hutch clean.
My future husband’s surly father came home late one summer afternoon to a revolting sight. His son had, as directed, cleaned the rabbit hutch that morning. He had shoveled the bunny’s voluminous droppings, urine, leftover rabbit chow, water, hay, and drenched newspaper into a cardboard box. Done. But he had not carried the box to the garbage can. So there it had sat in the front yard, throughout the hours of the day, reeking and steaming.
My future father-in-law’s face and body were architected for rage. He was a wide and solid man; his muscles compacted onto arms and legs too short for them. His nose had been pummeled into a bellicose slope during his youth, and his eyebrows drew together above it like black bolts. The mouth was an inverted scythe; even when smiling, its corners turned down.
His son, tall, skinny and loose-jointed, took after his fair-haired, wide-eyed mother. The boy was just not built to play football, and this was already a problem between father and son, destined to worsen.
The wretched child had caught sight of his old man in the front yard, and he felt his throat tighten as he desperately searched his mental library of excuses. Doing chores or running errands for the mother might work; it was a lie, but he felt confident that she would back him up. She might even believe him herself because she often got into the bottle, as she had today. Despite the old man purging the premises before he left for work, her ingenuity in bottle-concealment verged on genius, a legacy of the primal mammalian food-caching talent.
As he watched from the driveway, the boy could sense the old man’s ire gaining force like a hurricane. He was sure to blow at least a Category Two on his son’s general worthless half-assedness and the unwillingness of a hard-working father to raise a lazy ass son who couldn’t be bothered to do his chores. The boy might be reminded that his father had once suffered through a whole day with near-fatal appendicitis because he would not allow his work to pile up while sitting on his ass at the doctor’s office. The father could launch the word “ass” with the force of a whiplash, the heavy glottal growl terminating in a stinging hiss. The boy calculated hopefully that being spared the lugging of the noxious box to the garbage might even make the lecture worth it.
Because the truth was, the boy had approached the box several times but gagged unmanfully when he got near. It was deep midsummer in the California Central Valley, and the temperature had lingered above a hundred degrees all day. The sun and heat had fermented the contents of the box to a potent brew generating a poisonous miasma. Tellingly, they had also altered the composition and integrity of the box’s cardboard bottom.
Still in his stiff, suffocating post office uniform, my future father-in-law squatted, grabbed the box, and rose with a disgusted grunt, hoisting it to chest level. He even had time to utter an oath and a reflection on the half-assery of spoiled and lazy boys before the chains of molecules that had been holding together gallantly under the assault of uric acid cooked in noxious alkaline fluids, now loosed their bonds and gave way according to the immutable laws of physics in this universe, the only universe we have.
The contents exploded out and down, obeying to perfection the second law of thermodynamics; that is, becoming more disorganized by the instant. Gaining entropy, as they must, they headed for the center of the earth resting so securely within its hammocky space-time warp. The contents were traveling at the velocity dictated by the immutable laws that will someday be explained so beautifully and simply in the elusive but absolutely certain-to-exist Grand Unified Theory.
An avalanche, a tamponade of bunnyshit soup poured down the front of the old man’s shirt, uniform and shoes. This scene was not a triptych but rather a slow-motion video, the boy a stunned and oh-how-very-unwilling witness to the disintegration of the traitorous box, which, according to its brash logotype had once possessed the structural integrity to hold a dozen and more mammoth Valley cantaloupes.
“What did you do?” I said to my future husband, who was at the time no more than a blind date and about whom I knew very little except that he had an arresting, mischievous grin.
“I ran,” he said, and something about the purity and logic of the flight—hopelessly devoid of destination, as my own dream had been—and its crazy courage ignited a thin flame of love in my breast, which was to spread amid the dry tinder of my chronic, aching loneliness and grow into a conflagration before the night was out.
The neighbors would have seen the boy tearing down the dusty, laneless road that was the town’s main street, possibly veering east into the cantaloupe fields that stretched nearly to the Sierras themselves, running, running with the arrow of time into his future, as if he sensed even then that somewhere on this path, a bounty of life and love awaited him with all its pleasures and betrayals, which was, of course, true. Running as if he would never stop until he had reached and claimed it all.
About the Author
Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Hollywood Dementia, Drunk Monkeys, Word Riot, Hobart, Ducts, Blunderbuss, Adelaide, Thoughtful Dog, Storyglossia, Able Muse, The Furious Gazelle, JONAH Magazine, The Boiler, and others, including several anthologies. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016, and her feature film, Murder in Fashion, about the killing of designer Gianni Versace, played in theaters and festivals in 2010. Her coming-of-age short story published in Epoch is currently under option to director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) for development as a series, and her thriller, Space Reserved, is also optioned and casting in L.A.