We were having a homemade dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes when dad first floated the idea. Things were just beginning to resemble something closer to “normal” at home and making dinner together had been the latest addition. The smell and sound of cooking food in the house was both welcome and strange.
“So how have your friends adjusted to high school life?” he stabbed a piece of meatloaf that had fallen from his fork a second before. His voice had a funny sound in it but I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was only a few moments later that I realized the tone in his voice should have clued me in on an ambush. And a poor one at that.
I shrugged. Most of kids I knew started, like me, at the local high school, Bertram, while others went off to St. Ivey’s, Franklin or Perce HS. I looked at my meatloaf and decided maybe we should have kept it in a bit longer.
Dad looked up as if thinking. “What’s the name of that school, the art school, on Bainbridge?”
I thought and then it came to me. “PAA, right?”
“Right,” he said. “Philadelphia Art Academy.”
Another quiet pause. He scooped a spoonful of instant mashed potatoes into his mouth. I had gotten pretty good at instant mashed potatoes. The trick was to let the water almost come to a boil and then -
“Did you ever think about going to a different school?” The words came out too fast and it put me on high alert for some reason I couldn’t exactly identify. He was looking directly at me with his brown eyes and for a second I could see how easily mom fell in love with him. I mean dad was, I guess, traditionally handsome but his eyes were very expressive and deep. For a flash he looked like a little kid to me.
“Um,” I uttered and pressed my lips together before grinning and shaking my head. “You mean like PAA?” My defenses were rising so I played it a bit dumb and waited for him to come out and get to what he was getting at.
“Well, no, maybe not PPA but, um, a school that is, I don’t know,” he looked around the dining room briefly as if he was seeing something in it that he didn’t like, “completely different?”
I had no answer. I looked at him and his eyes fell back to me again and there was something new behind them... a question somewhere there, I was sure of it. "Well, I guess Bertram is good enough. Teachers seem pretty cool and all."
He nodded and chewed and, for some reason, wasn't looking at me now. Another pause that only reminded me of how quiet our house could be.
“What’s going on, dad?”
He held his eyes on me for another second before answering. “I got a job offer.”
Now it was my turn to wait. After a moment, “So, that’s a good thing.” I didn’t realize how he had been holding his body until his shoulders dropped a few inches.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” he said and smiled, “it’s actually a promotion within the company.” Dad’s company was a distributor (of what I couldn’t tell you honestly) and he had been at Batel Ltd. for a while - almost right out of college so I guess it made sense that they were going to move him up.
“That’s awesome,” I said. “Maybe with the new cash flow I can get that ‘vette I’ve had my eye on, right?”
He chuckled but it sounded forced. “Well, the thing is…”
No sentence in the history of humankind ever started that way and ended up being good. Just sayin’.
“...the position’s not in Philly. It would be in a brand new office that they’re building right now.”
Wait for it.
“And it’s going to be too far to commute.”
The only sound in the room was my pulse whooshing in my ears.
“So it looks like we might be moving.”
“What?” Oh, I had heard every word up to then clearly. The word ‘what’ just spilled out. He couldn’t be serious. Could he be serious?
He was carefully choosing his words and said something about the company moving him up to a regional supervisor and offering to pay for relocation but I wasn’t really listening after the word ‘moving’ came out of his mouth. Moving is a big damn word and it demands your attention, so much that every other word around it becomes useless. He said something about a place called Katherine Falls, I think. I guess he saw my expression because he suddenly switched gears.
“Believe me, I know it’s a lot to take in and I promise we’ll make everything go as smoothly as possible but it’s a great opportunity for me," he said and then gestured at me with his fork, "maybe for the both of us.”
I must have said something or made a sound after the stuff about the promotion to a regional super-who-gives-a-damn because a low hiss came from his tight lips.
“And what the hell am I supposed to do?” I asked, the words finally pouring out like warm vomit.
“What do you mean?” he asked, trying to keep his voice cheery and all.
“You’ll go to school, make new friends, probably be the coolest kid in town, right?”
I could see he had anticipated this reaction and had already come up with a strategy which pissed me off more. Also I hated that he called me a kid…
“Look, I know it’s not the best time for this but - ”
“Seriously, dad? Not the 'best time'? When the hell would it be the best time? I’ve never even heard of this place, Katherine Hills, or whatever, and now you’re saying we’re moving there?”
“It's Katherine Falls and, yes, I think we should talk about it, I want to know - ”
“No. No, no, no. I can tell you’ve already made up your mind and just want me to agree to it so you can feel better about making the decision without asking.” I dropped my fork and it landed on the plate with a satisfying clang. "You say 'go to school'? It's not that easy. It will be a brand new school in a brand new town - "
"Look, they have a great high school there," he said. "It’s listed as one of the tops in the area. I think that starting this new stage of your life with a fresh beginning will be good for you.”
“What new stage? You mean the stage without mom? That stage?” I froze after that. The only thing that moved was my eyelids. They blinked. “Wait...you knew about this long enough to check on the schools?”
He hesitated and folded his hands. “They gave me a packet of information at work to look and, yes, it had information on the school.”
I picked up my plate and dropped it into the sink, food and everything.
“Kenz, look,” he said. “You’ll meet new people, see new things - ”
“New things? In Katherine Hills? What, like did they just get goddamned telephones?”
“Katherine Falls,” he managed to get in one more time.
“I don’t care what the hell it’s called...and what if I don’t want to meet new people? What if the people here are just fine?”
“I’m sure they are, Kenz. Look - ”
“What’s wrong with this house? You know, the one I’ve lived in my whole life? You think you can just makes decisions for both of us now that mom is gone?”
I stomped down the hall and made sure he heard my bedroom door slam. When I jacked the radio way up “The Look of Love” came on but I couldn’t remember who sang it right then and it pissed me off so I changed the station. Allentown came on after that I wanted to scream because living in Allentown would probably be a million times better living in Katherine Hills...wait, Falls? Oh, who gives a shit?
I turned the radio off. I could hear dad cleaning the dishes down the hall. Somehow the sound was sad.
Moving? I mean It wasn't like I was super excited about my high school but who the hell is? I sure expected to stay in Philly, though. I thought about the few kids in school who I got along with and what it would be like without them. Do I really have to say goodbye to more people in my life? Jesus, haven't I done enough of that already?
Would any of them really care?
I looked around and it only made me more discouraged: walls covered with movie posters, a stack of Screen Screams magazine in the corner and a whole shelf filled with painted monster models, horror video tapes and books with titles like "50 Years of Monsters in the Movies", “The Art of Film”, "Horror Movie Masters" and "Film Magicians".
Who the hell was going to get someone like me in a place called Katherine Hills?
I pulled the last title and sat on the corner of the bed. Mom bought it for me the Christmas before she died. It felt heavy and comforting on my lap, like it would keep me from floating away. Like mom floated away.
No, wait, that’s not quite right. As graceful as she was, mom didn’t float away. She was ripped away. Nothing graceful about it. Now dad wanted us to disappear from here like none of it even existed.
I resisted the urge to throw the book across the room, took a breath and opened it. I flipped through the pages and was soon looking at a picture of a handsome young man behind a camera, wearing a boyish smile. I looked at the old Jaws poster taped above the head of my bed. Some of the edges slightly torn from moving it from wall to wall. It hadn't moved from that wall in years...
I imagine everyone has that moment (or two) in their lives when things just change - the way you look at the world or maybe something you experience that leads to a deep love. It happened to me early and I truly hope it happens again because it was, well, awesome. I pray that was not my only shot and if there are people out there whom it never happens to, well, that sucks. Keep looking.
I was only 10 at the time but had of course heard about Jaws for most of my life. It was one of the most successful movies ever made and it broke all sorts of crazy records. The director, Steven Spielberg, was practically unknown at the time. It literally scared people out of swimming at the beach for summers afterwards. Mom told me that she saw it when it came out an as much as she loved swimming down in Atlantic City, she stayed out of the water for most of the summer of 1975.
The movie was already five years old by the time I heard that it was being brought back to the Duke and Duchess for a limited time. It took a lot of begging and pleading to convince the folks that I was old enough to handle it.
“Mom, with a movie of this magnitude, it would be wrong for me NOT to see it in the theater, right?”
Yeah, I said that, precocious little fart that I was and mom just threw me a sideways look that asked, “What have I created?”
Going to the D & D that night felt like going into a haunted house - butterflies were battling inside my belly the whole walk over. JAWS was shouted in large, red block letters on the marquee and on the way in we passed the famous poster, which always gave me chills. You know, the one with the woman swimming peacefully just seconds before being devoured.
More than half the theater was filled and we found seats near the back which was fine with me. Somehow being too close to the screen meant being too close to the shark. I can honestly say I was having second thoughts but we were already there.
I still spent a lot of time peeking through my fingers at the screen but I loved every minute of it. It was a perfect mix of action, horror and even humor. The characters were real - and scared like I was! It was gory and I think even dad worried a bit that it was too much for me because he asked if I wanted to leave.
“No way,” I whispered and devoured another handful of popcorn like they were swimmers.
Okay, so mom was always a bit of a joker - let’s just get that out of the way. She had told me that you never really see the shark, that most of it was NOT seeing the shark and that was what was really scary. It made sense because for most of the movie you really didn’t see the shark at all (or very little). It was just as scary to see the people pulled under water and then seeing the blood rise to the surface of the water. I was fine if that’s where it stayed.
Then...as the main characters of Brody, Hooper and Brody, calmly waited on the rickety boat the ORCA, the huge gray head erupted out of the water with its mouth opened wide. And even though it made me jump and toss half my popcorn into the air, it was completely perfect and unexpected. The audience shrieked along and then mom burst out in that hitching laugh that I loved so much and hugged me.
From that moment, I was on that rickety boat with Brody, Hooper and Quint. It was us against the shark. The music was as scary as the shark itself...like a pulsing heartbeat.
When would the shark appear?
Who would survive?
Would anyone suvive?
Don’t worry, I won’t give it away. I’m not that kind of person.
Steven Spielberg was my actual first crush. I still had pictures of him I had cut out of magazines and taped to my walls. My favorite was one of him laughing while he was actually sitting in the mouth of the mechanical shark they used in Jaws. He was only twenty five years old when he directed what became one of the biggest box office movies in history. After that he directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and more.
Goddamned boy genius.
I flipped back through the pages and more names blurred past: Martin Scorcese...George Lucas...David Lean...Stanley Kubrick...Alfred Hitchcock....Brian DePalma...Francis Ford Coppola...that’s where mom should have been. Right after Coppola and right before DePalma.
Or, wait, she wouldn’t have had a married name, right? Her maiden name was Barnes...so…
I flipped further. Ingmar Bergman…Woody Allen. She would have been right after him and, in fact, I realized as I looked over the glossy pages, she also would have been the only woman in the whole book.
Why the hell didn’t I see that before?
I imagined what her photo would look like: her one eye would be pressed to the camera, building that perfect shot through the lens, her slim face still showing the freckles that I had come to love. She would be smiling because it was so natural to her, like breathing. Of course, if she was in this book I probably wouldn’t have existed. It didn’t seem fair and it made my head hurt thinking about it.
I know grandma said that I reminded her of mom but I just didn’t see it. We both had freckles but on mom they looked like they had a purpose, like constellations. Mine were more like someone dropped a brick into a bucket of brown paint and I had gotten too close. At my age, mom's hair had been lighter red and only turned dark by the time she graduated high school. My hair has always been dark like dad’s.
Mom’s eyes were this amazing green and when the light hit them it was almost like she was from another planet or something. Mine were somewhere in between that and dad’s brown eyes. Nothing that special. Let’s call it swampy.
Plus, I’m already taller than she is - I mean, was - which is way too tall in my opinion. I can thank dad for that as well. He once told me that he was about a head taller than all his classmates when he was my age. Great. If you’re gonna be tall then you have to have the body to go with it, you know? And me...well, we’ll just leave that there, okay?
The one good thing was that none of my classmates ever teased me about my height. I think kids tend to make fun of you if you’re shorter, maybe because they know that someone taller can probabay beat the crap out of them.
I put the book aside and grabbed 50 Years of Monsters in the Movies. This was like my bible. It covered movie creatures as early as the Phantom of the Opera way back in the twenties to Alien which was just a few years ago. It had some wonderful behind the scenes pictures. My favorite was a picture of Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s monster, in full makeup and sitting with a cup of coffee. I had seen most of the movies in the book by now, even the really bad ones like Attack of the Killer Leeches and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Mom had sat next to me through most of them. Dad even joined me for a few after mom was gone. I know he’s trying. I know he has to be breaking on the inside like me.
I took a breath...wait...
ABC. That’s who sang The Look of Love.
Dad didn’t bother me for the rest of the night but he did save some of my dinner and placed it on a small table outside my room.
And it was still hot.