It was one of those nights that seemed extraordinary. The white Christmas lights were up all over town. A light rain had fallen and the dampness froze on the trees making everything sparkle. It was almost Christmas and anytime my mother offered to take all three children out to a meal it meant something bad.
‘So, where do you kids wants to go for dinner?’
Where I was was fine, I thought.
I had been picked up from the Rosen’s house where I babysat everyday after school. I usually stayed there for dinner and preferred it that way.
‘I have some news to tell you kids, but I’m not sure if now is the right time. The pastor was supposed to come with us but couldn’t make it tonight. Would you rather wait for him?’
‘Well, what is it?’ I asked, already frustrated with the game. It was like being told someone has a surprise for you and then making you wait. It’s not actually a surprise if you know it’s going to happen.
‘Well, I just don’t know if you’re ready to know, but maybe you’ll want the pastor here to ask any questions. Do you think you’ll want to ask questions?’
Mm… I smell weakness, the audible quaver in her voice delicious to my over developed sense of schadenfreude. I was stuck with them and miserable, but at least she was too.
‘I have a question: What are you talking about?’ I pushed.
‘Leave it alone.’ The first outburst of the night came from Niki, crackles of electricity and disdain flying from her head as she seethed.
‘Well, either tell us or don’t. But, you obviously brought us out because you wanted to tell us anyway.’
‘Okay, well, where do you kids want to go for dinner?’ she said sweetly.
‘Who the hell cares?’ was palpable in our collective silence and our mother’s ignorance of this made us suspicious. Mom was no dummy and rarely tolerated sass. She reserved her rosewater-scented denial complex only for special occasions. It began to dawn on us that whatever needed to be said we might not actually want to know.
Suddenly, the drive became endless.
Bad news. Bad news. Hm, maybe bad news for them, but good news for me? Am I being put up for adoption? Am I being sold to the circus? I could get used to the traveling, but not the fetid animal smell.
‘How about Clark’s Dairy?’
A collective ‘fine’ emerged from the three of us in grunts that sounded more like the dying of a car engine.
We finally pulled up in front of the happy diner. Its large front widow displayed a brightly lit, nearly empty restaurant. It was more of a student/weekend lunch place so was rarely a stopping point for families looking for a meal on a chilly weekday night. The brightness from inside made the large ice cream cone painted on the window look sad as the back lighting revealed the truth of its blotchy paint job.
As we stepped out of the car my mother had propped up the ends of her full lips in an attempt to smile. But, just like the ice cream cone, whatever she had hiding in her head was showing through, the ugly light of it twisting her features into a saggy and frightening mask like an under stuffed scarecrow.
Niki, had been sitting next to her in the front seat. Maybe because of her proximity in the car, age, or female intuition, she seemed to know what was going on. Something serious was about to come down on us and there was nothing we could do to stop it. Niki, as far as I could tell back then, had always worn a gloomy shield that I would later learn. It was her way of getting through the rougher things in our family.
As the eldest, she was the first to get out of the house. And she ran as far as she could to Tennessee. At home, she was famous for academics and her drive for change. But, she was also the daughter of a mad-man preacher come academic and a fractured mother. So, she wore the exhaustion of her family’s insanity.
At college she found herself crash-landed in the heart of sycophantic southern life and it was no doubt a shock. But, even as she battled her way in her new world, shedding her high school glory, she found a home in the southern drawls, y’alls and gospel music. Most importantly she found escape. And now the memory of each minute of every day of life before University was pulling on her as she climbed out of the car. She emerged from our blue Subaru a much harsher shade of grim, the crumbling precipice of bad news making her normal gloom much more poignant.
We all dragged that night, our bodies braced for impact, the cold air choking us as the portent of the secret loomed. We entered the restaurant and took our seats in a booth. The red faux leather seats squeaked inappropriately as we all slid into our resting places. I sat next to Lynn, facing my mother, Niki, and, most importantly, the window for escape purposes.
There were drawings on the wall from the various customers of the diner praising the less than fantastic service. I noticed a drawing on the wall drawn by a childhood friend of mine, Michael Dundee. Michael, a talented but troubled artist, gave birth to most of my nasty pranks in school – me the brains, him the guts to do it. I wondered what happened to him and if something like this is what set him on the path to kicking our teacher in the face one day.
‘So, what do you kids want? You can have anything you want.’
A new family? Trapeze lessons?
My mother paused and we waited for the usual condition, ‘if it’s under ten dollars’. Conditionals are what my family thrived on. ‘I’ll give you five dollars if you wash the car.’ ‘You won’t get pinched if you stop fidgeting.’ ‘We’ll fix your teeth if you don’t do it again.’
But, the if never came. It was like my mother was waiting for us to fill the hole left by her loosened grip on the purse strings with cheer, something to augment the caustic smell of doom, burger grease and overly pungent table cleaner.
I was the only one driven enough by appetite to be dizzied by this new-found generosity. I didn’t care what the news was. I was getting a bacon mushroom cheeseburger with fries, a strawberry shake, and onion rings.
Hm… I’ll have to share the onion rings so maybe I’ll just get an extra order of fries with cheese. Then I can lay claim to them with too much ketchup.
Lynn ordered a burger and Niki ordered nothing and I was annoyed by their lack of gusto.
In the food euphoria I had completely forgotten why we were there and the girls were in no rush to bring on the big-bad creeping over our mother’s shoulder.
She started anyway.
‘So, if you kids have any questions about this I want you to know you can ask me. And the pastor knows, so he’s more than happy to talk as well if you need.’
The only thing I want to know is where’s my milkshake?
‘Oka-ay.’ I dragged out the ‘ay’ hoping the comedic affect would provoke laughter from somewhere. In those days I hadn’t figured out that the crowd pleasers I’d learned watching F×R×I×E×N×D×S didn’t work in real life.
My mother stared down at the table, the assisted smile now completely washed away.
‘Mom!’ Lynn had belted out a healthy one-word command. It was common knowledge in our house that when Lynn got on the charge it was best to stand out of her way. This was the first thing she had uttered all night and, while I was happy to volley the subject, drawing out the torture, it was clear that Lynn was fed up and wanted to stick her horns in something.
‘Okay, you kids know how your father’s been sick for the past few months, in and out of the hospital?’
‘Yeah, with a pneumonia.’ I said, happy that that was over with.
Where is my food?
‘Yes, well, he does have a pneumonia. But, I’m going to tell you this not because it means you should be scared of him or upset with him, but because it’s for your own safety.’
Oo, this is it! I’m actually the half-daemon spawn of my father, just like in the movie I saw where the mother gargoyle ate the father because he told her secret. My dad’s going to eat my mom!
‘Your father is HIV positive.’
I paused, confused, more hungry than concerned.
Niki sat motionless, her eyes boring into the chipped lacquered table. She was drilling ‘I don’t want to be here’ into the varnish with her mind.
Lynn sat with her lips pursed like she was praying for some liquid, or, more likely, tiny daggers, to spit in dramatic affectation.
The waitress appeared.
‘Hamburger? Bacon-mushroom cheese with extra cheese fries?’
At last, what was mom saying? Oh, yes, dad’s a gargoyle. No, wait?
‘Do you kids have any questions?’ She seemed concerned that we weren’t at all concerned. But, even in my youthful desire to hurt people’s feelings, I knew none of the questions running through my head were appropriate. What do you ask when you find out something like that? All the terrible details you would find out on TV? But, on TV you don’t have a mouth full of cheese fries and strawberry milkshake.
‘Does this mean we have to be nice to him?’ Lynn barrelled through with the first in a series of unsettling Q&As.
‘No, um…we should treat him the same as we always do. Except, you kids need to know that if he gets sick that you need to protect yourselves. This is about your safety.’
‘How did he get it?’ I asked.
Here’s the creamy centre of the drama that makes for scrumptious teen angst, the nitty-gritty, the stuff that makes Jerry Springer move.
‘Well, he says he got it through a blood transfusion.’
‘That’s a lie.’ I snapped.
‘Sweetheart, I choose to believe your father’s an honest man.’
Eve, meet the snake. He has a tasty, not-at-all sin-filled apple for you.
My father and I lived in the same house but didn’t talk much. But I knew enough about the facts of HIV from years of sex education to smell B.S.
‘Mom, when has dad ever been in a serious enough accident somewhere before the late 80s where he would have required a blood transfusion? They screen the blood now and he’s never been hurt like that.’ I was armed with information, education and venom.
I sat there, brick in hand; my mother’s face the glassy diner window. I was right and she was in a corner. She was going to give us the answers we needed, and, I wanted tears – vindication, for the forgotten birthdays, baseball games and school plays.
‘He probably got it from sleeping with someone else.’ Lynn said in a stage whisper, taking the brick from my hand and chucking at my mother. The window shattered. In fact, the whole damn diner came down. My mother burst into painful sounding sobs and moans, choking almost, as pretence collapsed and the darkness she held back burst forth.
‘You guys are horrible!’ Niki shouted. ‘You’re all horrible!’
We were all thinking it, you idiot, I thought as I continued testing the legitimacy of my teenager appetite.
‘Do you have it?’ Lynn asked, this time much quieter.
It was the one legitimate question that my cynicism would not allow me to find. The one question that had immediate consequences and whose affect created a shockwave in my mind, tearing holes and ripped seams in the future of my life in a way I had never dared to imagine. Our health, my mother’s health, all of our futures were scattered in the reverberation.
I suddenly wished it all to be over. It wasn’t funny anymore. The food wasn’t good. Everything was bad. Very very bad.
I had seen the videos. I had watched the ‘True Life’ stories. There was that guy, Pedro, on the Real World who died of AIDS. There was no circus of high flying trapeze acts or joy for an HIV positive teenager.
I picked at a crack in the seat cover and tried desperately to pull my mind away from what was actually happening. My mother breathed slowly and paused. And, I lived a world of possibilities in the pause.
I died a thousand times.
Neurons fired in my over active imagination creating memories and emotions in a time immeasurable by any human calculation. Over and over again I replayed every mouth ulcer, sneeze, cough, sore toe, mysterious pain, and felt myself die for each one. I was a dying at 14 and this was the news that Clark’s Dairy, with no pastor, no place to run, held for me.
‘No, I’ve been tested, and I don’t have it. And, I thank God everyday that I don’t have it, because it’s a miracle in itself.’ Her hands were clasped into a prayer below her lips, the words coming out resolute and firm now as she swallowed the last of her sobs. Her face became solid. She had cried these tears before.
That’s when I realised just as much as I’d dreaded that pause, she had lived that moment a million times a million for the three of us. That panic, that fear and pain for her children multiplied by the pain and guilt of loving an infedelitous man, times the weeks she waited to get tested, times the days she waited for the results, and the tears she cried in relief when she knew that she was safe. The false comfort the floor must have provided in her loneliness helping her find gravity in the knowledge that she could not protect her children. She was forbidden to tell the story that the dozens of orange pill bottles whispereed at her from the kitchen shelf. She endured this, and she waited five years to warn us of what disease filled deaths lurked in every bloody nose and pulled tooth, every cut finger, every pulled stitch. She died for it.
How did my father get it? I only learned in later years it was a sordid affair with other men from the church he pastored in Missouri, a fact that probably contributed to my mother’s reaction when I came out to her. He was unaware of his HIV status for five years. And then, it was only once he was hospitalized with a pneumonia, two years after he found out, that the doctor’s informed my mother of the ‘complications because of her husband’s HIV status’, information that was more earth shattering than the idea of shock can convey. For seven years, unknowingly, she’d slept in the same bed with a man who was HIV positive and did not contract it.
And, despite my anger and sadness at this – the sour taste and schisms that night created in my life – this is the one miracle, the one thing that gives me faith that there is a God.
Trees – with Dad
We always go with dad
To chop the tree.
It is our time, my sisters and me.
Crunch, cookie. Crunch, snow.
Apple cider and gingerbread
In white styrofoam cups and paper napkins
Wait for us at Milford Tree Farm.
Then we begin. Dad’s hands
On my waist, hoisting me
Onto the hayride. We stay on
To the farthest lot.
We have nine-foot ceilings.
We get big trees.
I carry the saw. The snow
Rises to my ankles,
Knees, thighs. Here is our tree.
One bald spot, like dad.
It will face the window.
You chop the lower branches.
And girls collect them for the wreath.
Dad never makes wreaths. We do
As he says. Don’t drag our tree
Girls. There will be no needles
I know. Thighs, knees, ankles. He lets me
Push the tree through the wrapping
Machine. We have trapped it.
Two men in flannel hats, big like
Men on tv, grab
Our tree and hoist it
Onto the Subaru. I am
In charge of getting rope.
We never see dad pay,
The cookies and cider are for children.
Dad wraps us
In blankets and arms,
Cold stinging cheeks pressed
Let’s go to McDonald’s.
We climb into
The car. A thick scent
Of pine. The needles prickle
My skin. I am soaked through.
It is Christmas.
Themo H Peel is a writer and illustrator based in Edinburgh Scotland. He has published two young adult science fiction novels, and has poetry published in Arlington Literary Journal. This essay is part of a series of poems and essays called MEN about the influential men in his life. As an artist and tutor he has a passion for inspiring diverse (minority, LGBTQ+, neurodiverse, disabled) young people to use art as a tool for self-actualisation. He holds a BA in Fine Art from Yale University and an MSc in Creative Writing from Edinburgh University.