In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I was born in 1962 in Houston, Texas, and spent most of my early childhood in a neighborhood called Pine Woods, where we had a small house on an oak-and-pine-lined street named Mulberry. My grandparents, my mother’s parents, lived five blocks away on a street called Hewitt. My mother was the oldest of ten, and she gave birth to me when she was sixteen, while her own mother was having her late-in-life children. My grandmother’s last two sons, Walter and Richard Gallagher, were around my age and more like brothers to me than uncles.
I never had any siblings of my own. My teenage father, perhaps having seen my mother’s gigantic family, ran out and got a vasectomy after I was born. He had to quit high school for a time, as did my mother, though both eventually got their diplomas. My mother went on to earn a master’s degree and works in healthcare in Houston. Though he never finished college, my father started his own insurance business, which now reaches all of Houston and the surrounding suburbs.
But back in the sixties, when everything and everyone seemed young and unsure, my father worked at low-paying jobs: pumping gas, loading railroad cars, delivering newspapers at night. My mother had just started her career as a nursing assistant and worked midnight shifts in the emergency room of the local hospital off the 610 Loop. What little social life they had revolved around my grandparents’ house on Hewitt Street. Not a day went by that we weren’t over there for dinner, or breakfast, or lunch. I often spent the night while my parents went to work. The next morning, I would walk to elementary school with my uncles Richard and Walter, the three of us escorted by my Aunt Mary Margaret, or Maggie, as everyone called her, who was on her way to high school.
I was always proud to be seen with my young aunt, as she was incredibly beautiful to me, with long blond hair parted in the middle, in the plain style of the late sixties. She had the strong chin and deep blue eyes of a Gallagher, only slightly exaggerated, her chin a tad more prominent, her eyes a deeper blue. She wore hip-hugger bell-bottoms, and when she baby-sat me, we listened to music together and she talked to me about her boyfriends and her worries for the future. Sometimes my mother would let her borrow our yellow Volkswagen convertible, and Maggie would take me for a ride with the top down and pop music on the radio. I can still see Maggie leaning over to me, the wind blowing her hair everywhere, singing along to the Archies, “Sugar, ahh, honey, honey . . .”
Like me, Maggie was a big chicken, afraid of everything, and at night we would often sleep in the same bed and tell each other scary stories until we held one another in fear, afraid even to get up because a murderer might be hiding under the bed, waiting to grab our feet and slit our throats. It didn’t help that our neighborhood was considered somewhat dangerous then. Police cars regularly careened down the streets of Pine Woods, and helicopters hovered over our homes, shining searchlights into our backyards and through our windows — which, Maggie and I felt, did nothing but drive the murderers indoors, and straight into our room.
I say I was proud to be seen with my aunt, but really any of the Gallaghers would do. The fact was, I wanted to be a Gallagher. Because I was usually with my pseudobrothers Richard and Walter, and because my facial features resembled theirs, people would often assume I was a Gallagher, and I would never correct them. At school, everyone knew not to mess with the Gallagher clan. My older uncles and aunts had all been attractive and popular athletes and scholars and had collectively ruled the school. Three of those uncles were now in Vietnam. The other older uncle, Peter, was a senior in high school and had declared that he would not fight in that distant country like his brothers. Peter was a hippie, and something akin to a god to me. He had curly brown hair and a thick beard, and he appeared strong and healthy: the exact opposite of me. I was thin and pale and always sick back then, in and out of the hospital with pneumonia or measles. Peter looked just like the picture of Jesus in my illustrated Bible. He was always flashing the peace sign, and I remember him showing me how to make one, holding my small fingers just so.
Most of my memories of that brick house on Hewitt Street date from the late sixties, when the house was filled not only with children, but with my father and his buddies, and my mother and her friends, and her sisters and their friends, and just about every person in the neighborhood, it seemed. There was a lot of drinking and smoking and dancing in their small living room. My Uncle Peter would play the guitar and sing along to Arlo Guthrie, and Father Parker, the parish priest, would let me sip from his large glass of red wine while he played cribbage with my grandfather. A former middleweight boxing champion in the navy, my grandfather was tall and lean and wore dark, horn-rimmed glasses, and all the women agreed he looked exactly like Cary Grant. My beautiful grandmother was always in the center of the room, her curly red hair practically jumping from her head, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She was constantly laughing and moving and cutting people to the quick. All life, it seemed, emanated from her.
Their home was heaven to me. I never wanted to leave. Our house was deathly quiet by comparison, my parents often gone to work. (My mother was working the day shift by then.) Though I was a sickly child, I was considered mature for my years and at seven or eight was allowed to stay home by myself. I had a key to the house and would let myself in after school and sit at the green kitchen table and read library books. My father dropped me off at the library most Sundays, and I would stay there reading for the entire day and then bring home as many books as I could carry. My favorites were fantasies by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov.
When I wasn’t reading, I was drawing. By my first year of school it had come to my parents’ notice — and before long everyone else’s — that I had better-than-average drawing ability (and a compulsive need to draw everything and everyone I saw). So it was decided by general consensus that I was to be an artist when I grew up. Though my major concern was fitting in, I suppose I did like the attention, the fawning, the wonder over each new portrait or still life I produced. The best part, though, was that this artistic ability linked me in a way to my Uncle Peter, the only other member of the clan considered to be “naturally gifted.” His talent was music, and though he was unable to read a note, he could play any instrument he touched: guitar, harmonica, fiddle, piano. I even had the same taste in music as he did, or just liked what he liked. Whenever Peter was away from the house, I would go into his room, put on one of his albums and his headphones, and lean against the wall for hours, as I’d seen him do, listening to Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida five times in a row.
Music seemed to be the driving force behind most of the action in that home. Besides the incredibly chaotic kitchen table, where it was every person for him- or herself, the large stereo in the living room was the focal point of the house. My uncles Richard and Walter and I worshiped the Beatles, and we would sit there listening to my older aunts’ and uncles’ albums and watching the green apple on the label spinning around. We memorized the pictures on the album covers and knew every lyric. My Aunt Maggie had actually gone to see the Beatles (my Uncle Peter had taken her when the band had come to Houston), and we would beg Maggie to tell us about the concert. When she consented, it was as though we were in catechism on Sunday, learning about the saints. She spoke of each Beatle with reverence and awe. As if producing a relic from a saint of old — a piece of cloth from his decaying robe, or a chip of sacred bone from the grave — she would show us a small Gerber baby-food jar with its lid screwed tightly shut and nothing inside. Maggie and her friends had taken jars to the concert, opened them, passed them over their heads once, shrieking, “Beatle air!” and then quickly sealed them forever.
Richard and Walter and I appreciated the Beatles on a different level. We weren’t so much concerned with their looks or desirability as with their music. When we would sit in that living room and listen to their albums, we would actually become John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. There were only three of us, of course, so for the most part we left Ringo out, unless a particularly great drum solo came up. My Uncle Walter was George, because he played the best air guitar. Uncle Richard was always Paul, and I was always, always John. Though I admired Paul as much as anyone, John’s songs had a certain melancholy quality that touched me in some unnamable way. I would sit and listen to “Dear Prudence” again and again, strumming my imaginary guitar and singing with what must have been a laughable intensity.
When we weren’t the Beatles, Richard and Walter and I played football in the front yard, or crawled down into the sewer under Hewitt Street on hot summer days and walked in the cool dark, sliding along on the algae that grew in the water, hiding from the world. Or we walked the two blocks down to White Oak Bayou and across a fifty-foot-high railroad trestle over the water, something we had been rightly forbidden to do. On the other side we caught crawdads in muddy creeks with raw bacon on a string; or played in the thick woods beneath tall loblolly pines, pelting each other with green pine cones; or filled a bucket with black dewberries that grew in thorny bushes lining the railroad tracks. Then we watched the trains go by and ate our berries and lay on the ground and talked about nothing.
I suppose I admired Richard more than I did Walter. I was more at ease with Walter, but he was needier and more vulnerable. There were times when he felt like a third wheel, dragging behind Richard and me, lost in his own world. Walter was also accident-prone and often got seriously hurt. There was the time he was hit on the shin by a fastball, which produced giant blood clots that had to be operated on; or the time he took a baseball bat to the head while playing catcher, requiring more operations; or the time he took several bites out of a large, green, poisonous elephant-ear plant in my grandmother’s front yard and had to be rushed to the hospital. Then there was the sledgehammer he dropped, breaking his toes; the broken arm he got jumping off the roof; the syrup of ipecac he drank down straight, mistaking it for the pancake variety.
Whereas Walter was sensitive and clumsy, Richard was tough and cool. The eldest of us three, he had long, straight brown hair and a leather necklace and desert boots. I had to wear penny loafers my mother had bought for me, and my father still cut off most of my hair and combed back what was left with firm strokes and liberal doses of Vitalis, so it was especially impressive to me that Richard could dress in the latest fashions. In fifth grade the girls already liked him and were sending him notes. A few even braved a romantic visit to the Gallagher house. (I say “braved” because any potential suitor — male or female — faced severe scrutiny and often ridicule from the rest of the clan.) Mainly, though, it was Richard’s easy way of gliding through life that appealed to me. Whereas everything in my life scratched at me like an itchy wool sweater, nothing — absolutely nothing — seemed to bother my Uncle Richard. He was scared of no one. If a bully were to pick on Walter or me, Richard was immediately there and, without hesitation, landed several precise, powerful blows. After finishing off his opponent, he’d fling his hair out of his eyes, ask if we were OK, and then hop back on his Huffy Cheater Slick bike and ride off with pretty Susan Sullivan sitting on the handlebars, both of them laughing.
At moments like that, I think I was actually in love with my Uncle Richard. I remember telling my mother once, in all seriousness, that the one thing I wanted to do in life was make Richard laugh. It was hard to do, but if I tried, if I really tried, sometimes I could do it. She gave me a strange look and said, “Your Uncle Richard’s no angel.” I found her statement unfathomable and, since I believed she knew all about angels, disconcerting as well.
I’m not sure what year it was. I don’t keep track of those things. I wasn’t exactly that kind of a fan. I just know that my Uncle Walter came up to me outside his house one afternoon and told me that the Beatles had broken up for good. I didn’t believe him until we went inside and my Aunt Maggie confirmed it. Maggie didn’t seem especially shaken by the news, probably because she had other things to worry about. We all knew she was pregnant at seventeen by a guy named Joey, who was three years older than she was and whom I didn’t particularly like. Walter and I went back to the living room and listened to Abbey Road and talked about the fact that Paul was barefoot on the cover and that a license plate on a car in the picture read “28IF.” These were rumored to be clues that Paul was really dead: corpses were buried barefoot, and twenty-eight would have been Paul’s age . . . if he were alive. Was it really Paul on the cover then, or was it a fake Paul? If so, had the fake Paul been the one who broke up the Beatles? Or was it John’s girlfriend, this strange Yoko Ono woman? Had she poisoned John’s mind?
It was all very confusing to me, as were the other events of that week, when we all had to go get hepatitis shots, everyone in the family, because my Uncle Peter was now addicted to something called “heroin” and had contracted hepatitis and exposed us all. Also I’d seen my parents and my grandparents in the kitchen, and my grandmother and my mother were crying, and my grandfather got a handsaw and cut off the end of a broomstick and walked across the street with my father, and we listened and watched through the window as they pulled three hippies from an old car and my grandfather asked them where his son was and they said they didn’t know and he took the broomstick from his sleeve and shoved it hard into a young hippie’s stomach and he told them where Peter was, and my father and grandfather went and found him and my mother told me he had overdosed and had almost died but now he would go to the hospital and after he’d recovered he would join the navy, like his older brothers had. And then, to top it all off, I’d watched Joey, the father of Maggie’s unborn child, with his muscle shirt and motorcycle boots and greasy hair and big, drooping mustache, playing pool with my father and grandfather in the den and asking them both if he could marry my Aunt Maggie. I remember the sinking disappointment I felt when both men said yes, and Maggie telling me it would be all right, that Joey was an artist, that he drew things, just like me, and I could come see them and their baby in Joey’s trailer anytime I wanted.
© Steve Donoso
My father had started his business by then, and things were starting to look up for us as far as money went. There was talk of our leaving the crime-ridden city of Houston to live in something called a “subdivision” twenty miles to the west of the city, where there was a clubhouse and tennis courts and a swimming pool everyone could use. I would go to a different junior high, not the one my parents and all of the Gallaghers had gone to, but a shiny, much larger one that had just been built. And there was talk, very serious talk, among Richard and Walter and me that no matter what, no matter where we went in our lives, we would always stay together, and when we were grown we would start a business and live in a neighborhood together, and our wives (if we had any) would be friends, and our children (if we had any) would grow up together, just like us.
We did move to the suburbs a few years later, as did the Gallaghers, and I rarely saw Richard and Walter anymore. We all had new friends now, and our meetings never held the same intensity. We would still talk about music and even listen to old Beatles records, but there were hormonal issues that seemed more pressing. At home, alone, I continued to draw pictures, listening to sixties rock religiously while I worked, wishing I’d been older when all of it had occurred, always thinking I had been born just a little too late, that my decade, the seventies, was an inconsequential bore. It wasn’t until punk music came along in my late teens that I jettisoned the old records, succumbed to fashion, and seemed to forget the sixties entirely.
In 1980, not long before I would graduate from high school, I would often stay up late in my room listening to talk radio into the night, unable to sleep. Around midnight or so one night, I heard that John Lennon had been shot. They played a recent interview with him then, but I didn’t really listen to it. I spoke with my father about Lennon’s death the next morning. He said it was sad, but he couldn’t actually understand this public outpouring of grief, as he had never really liked the Beatles and had been, he said, “too busy working for a living” to pay much attention to the hype. That day, in my high-school government class — a very conservative class, in a conservative school, with a conservative teacher who told us every day what an evil man Jimmy Carter was — a retro-hippie girl came in with a black armband on. The teacher scolded her at length, telling her only a government leader deserved such a tribute. He told her to take off the armband. When she refused, he sent her to the principal’s office.
In my freshman year of college I went through a short period of listening to John Lennon’s solo work from the seventies, especially the last album he’d recorded before he died. I didn’t really understand his politics or his worldview, but I did understand his anger and defiance, and identified with the emotions. It was fashionable then to wear little buttons that said things like “White Punks on Dope,” and I wore one that had a picture of John Lennon over the Union Jack. I went into the campus post office one day, and the old postal clerk saw the button and said, “Who the hell is that?” And I said, “It’s John Lennon,” and he grew angry and said, “I can’t believe you’re walking around in public with that ugly son of a bitch on your shirt,” and all I could do was turn red with embarrassment and leave, as I never was good with snappy replies. They came to me only when I was alone and had a moment to think.
About fifteen years later, I was working outside, and the radio was on. It must have been the anniversary of Lennon’s death or birth or something, and for three hours they played his songs and a number of interviews. I had my own thoughts on the world by then, and I was surprised how much they coincided with the views of this young musician on the radio. I was surprised also at how demystified the man had become to me. In some ways, in the early interviews, he even seemed quite naive, but in many of the later ones, almost every word out of his mouth sounded like simple common sense, mingled perhaps with a hopeful idealism that someday people would come to understand themselves, and each other, and then, maybe, they might make the world a better place. I listened to the songs and found, with no disappointment, that some of them were silly or downright dumb, while others were still touching and poignant, or driven and hard. It came to me that I was listening to someone younger than myself, a young man whose final age I would soon hopefully pass, and I realized it was John Lennon’s honesty that I admired now more than anything else. It was that courage to be open with people, and to try to tell the truth as he saw it, as he felt it, whether they liked it or not. I wondered, as I was working that day, if that was really what artistic expression was all about: the ability to bare your soul, to tell your deepest thoughts, to tell the truth, and hope that someone sees something of their world in your own.
My uncles Richard and Walter and I rarely speak to each other now, except at the odd wedding or funeral. When I do talk to Walter, I find that I care for him deeply, but I also find his life somewhat boring, and I’m sure he feels the same way about mine. And when I speak to Richard, the fact that he is now in AA seems to underlie our every word, as he knows I am an alcoholic, and it’s just another bully that he would probably like to beat up for me, but this time he can’t.
And my Aunt Maggie, she lost her first child in a miscarriage and left Joey the next week. Within a few years, though, she met a young, extremely kind lawyer and moved to Dallas, where they were soon married. They have two beautiful children together, a boy and a girl, and Maggie lives a comfortable existence now in a giant house in Highland Park, with maids and a Mercedes at her disposal. And my Uncle Peter, my colleague in talent, is now a paranoid schizophrenic with organic brain damage who lives in the mental ward of the veterans’ hospital and hears the voice of Jesus talking to him from his television whenever he doesn’t take his medication.
As for me, I never did become an artist. I paint houses for a living, and I lose myself each day in the music on my radio, and a joint, and the repetitive motions of my trade. I suppose I suffer from depression, but I don’t want to take any medicine for it, because I still want to express myself from time to time, to release this energy, my feelings, and while I was painting yesterday and listening to the radio, they played this old Beatles song called “Rain,” and I suddenly remembered how much I wanted everyone to be happy, how much I wanted everyone to get along, and it came to me that John Lennon was dead, and it really bothered me.