If you sit still on your mother’s yellow and brown paisley sofa, right in the center, and if your face is tan enough and you know you are the middle child, and quiet, then you can understand how you can be invisible.
It is December 1968 and the whirlwind of your sister’s wedding reception weaves about the backyard, the living room, the kitchen, the four small bedrooms and two baths, one of which hasn’t worked for four years.
Your house can accommodate the seven in your family easily, but there are a hundred guests in the backyard. That’s where the warm Florida sun is, that’s where thirty pounds of jumbo shrimp are, and that’s where the makeshift tavern is, with enough Black Label beer, cheap liquor and cigarettes to satiate all the adults. With little supervision of the bar, no one notices the missing booze used to inebriate your seventeen-year-old brother, Ed, and his friend Bruce.
Your eight-year-old brother, Charlie, gets into the spirit when, with beer can in hand, he and six-year-old, Frank, march like drum majors on top of the endless rows of parked cars that line both sides of the long street. The neighbors see your brothers, see the beer, watch as they dent the trunks of the cheap imports, but say nothing. It’s that kind of neighborhood.
You turn around, bored by your younger brothers’ adventures. Across from you, in a smaller, orange and green sofa, sits Aunt Dottie, your parents forty-six year old friend who dresses and smells like a twenty-year-old and isn’t really your aunt but that’s what you call her. You have never seen her sober, and now, wedged between your brother Ed and his buddy Bruce, she is as drunk as you have ever seen her.
Eddie nibbles her ear as Bruce slips his hand between her arm and her Carolina blue dress to feel her up. They glance your way, but they can’t see you because, like you already said, you’re invisible.
“What’d ya say, Auntie?” Eddie slurs.
“What?” Aunt Dottie slurs back, the ash on her cigarette dangling precariously over her best dress from the cedar closet of her double-wide at the Rocky Water trailer park where she lives with Uncle Marty, he not your uncle either.
“Ya wanna do it?” Bruce asks. His hand snakes through the lace and silk like a confused gopher.
“It?” she asks.
“It-it.” Bruce says using all of his high school debate rhetoric to convince her. She stares dumbly through you, unable to see your pubescent grin.
Eddie manages to work his hand in from the other side to join Bruce’s.
“It,” Eddie says, jerking his head toward one of the four ten by ten bedrooms. Charlie’s is first in the queue. “C’mon, damn it.”
Outside, guests drink, smoke, and laugh while avoiding your hundred-dollar aluminum pool full of rainwater, sporting some kind of green algae. Uncle Marty staggers from the horde toward the house, vodka and ice dancing in his Flintstones glass. The acrid odor of fresh-cut weeds floats in as he slides open the screen door, contemplates, walks through the kitchen, bumps the black Madonna statue, and stumbles toward you—and Eddie—and Bruce—and Aunt Dottie.
He stops by the sofa to stare at the roving hands. Dottie looks up and sucks the burnt filter of her Winston. “What the hell do you want?”
Marty wobbles, corrects, overcorrects and then wobbles back.
“I have to pee,” he says.
Bruce points with his free hand.
“Thank you, young man.”
Marty hits his head on the Jesus-on-the-cross-picture that has a built in piano lamp to light the crucifixion, then slides along the wall to the bathroom that works. There’s no familiar tinkling, so you guess he misses. It serves your mother right. No one puts carpet in a bathroom.
Eddie and Bruce prop Aunt Dottie up, a hand under each elbow until she shakily stands, the cigarette freshly lit and pointing east toward Charlie’s bedroom. A coincidence. She has no idea what house she’s in, let alone which bedroom they are headed for. You read her mind, because you are invisible and you can read minds. They bump walls and duck Jesus and queue single file through the small door of the small bedroom and then they are gone. You wait for the thumps. Charlie’s bed used to be yours and has a lot of lateral movement and is close to the wall.
Uncle Marty exits the bathroom wiping his hands on his jacket just as those thumps resonate from Charlie’s room. He stops and stares at the ceiling for a moment, listening, then shrugs and sets off for the backyard, but not before Jesus nicks the side of his head again.
Your father stops Uncle Marty directly in front of you. You pause your invisibility and meet your father’s gaze. You want him to lean over, place his hand on your shoulder and say, “How’s my son today?” or “Why don’t you come out back and I’ll introduce you to my friends?” But instead he narrows his eyes, your hair suddenly too long, though it barely covers the top of your ears.
He turns and puts his arm around Uncle Marty’s shoulder. “You hear that, Buddy? Moonlight in Vermont. They’re playing our song.”
There is no music, only a repetitive scritch from the stereo console someone had moved outside for the reception. The stylus bounces off the paper label with a scritch, scritch, scritch.
“C’mon, baby, It’s our song.” He guides Uncle Marty effectively past the Black Madonna only to run into the sliding screen door, which bends out obscenely. It isn’t fixed for two years after that.
Once outside, your father bends over to reset the arm on the correct groove of the LP. Not an easy task while simultaneously propping Uncle Marty against the wall. He is one drink away from passing out, your father still a six pack to go.
The shrimp-filled guests grimace as one when the needle bounces from Come Fly with Me to I Love Paris and finally to Old Blue Eyes taking it down a notch on the fifth groove of Moonlight in Vermont.
Your father and Uncle Marty are back at the Starlight, dancing under the rotating glass ball, eyes closed, the old man singing harmony to Frankie S. while Uncle Marty holds on to your father’s lapel to keep from toppling onto the green thatch that has taken over the backyard.
A sudden spin is too much for the dizzy Uncle Marty and he backpedals out of view, dragging your father with him. You can’t see the resultant disaster, but you smile as water cascades over the polished shoes of guests and the last three inches of Marilyn’s wedding gown. “Shit,” she says and rushes for the porch.
Uncle Marty and your father stagger to their feet and slosh over, first to the makeshift bar, and then, beers in hand, to sit against the relative warmth of the aluminum garden shed.
The hundred gallons of pool water and algae drain well through the thatch and into the sandy soil of your backyard. No permanent damage done. Uncle Marty topples over and passes out. Your father continues to sing Moonlight in Vermont though Sinatra has gone on to other hits. The bride rejoins the reception, courageously holding her hem off the wet lawn until she tires of it.
The excitement out back abated, you turn to check on your younger brothers in the front yard who stand attentively by the groom’s younger brother, Joe, as he resolutely rubs limburger cheese on all four hubcaps of the bride and groom’s ’66 Triumph Spitfire convertible.
Your brothers of car-walking fame hand sardines one at a time to Joe who lays them on the engine manifold. It would be only a few miles later on their way to the airport that the newlyweds would be treated to the pungent odor of warm cheese and burnt fish. And then another month before the stench goes away. Joe smiles at his handiwork. It isn’t funny and it isn’t meant to be. He is mean-spirited and doesn’t care what others think of him. You know a lot of kin like him. Joe would have his share of trouble, he of the same temperament as his brother.
Speaking of the groom, Dan waits in the bathroom queue behind Mr. Randolph, your neighbor, three houses down. Dan is handsome in his Marine Corps dress blues and patent leather shoes. He is six foot with sandy hair, buzz-cut to Corps specs. The cold blue eyes and smile can’t hide the arrogance he wears like an epaulet. Six whiskey and waters have loosened him up since the wedding ceremony and he is in a good mood.
“Those dress blues fit you like you’re just out of basic,” Mr. Randolph says. “Where’d you go? Pendleton or Parris?”
Dan leans in close to him. “You a leatherneck?”
“Was. Got out six months after VJ Day.”
“Semper fucking Fi, brother,” Dan salutes with his whiskey. “Just did my second tour of Nam, myself.” Dan turns around and pulls his fitted uniform shirt up. Two round scars dot his back. “One for each time. Won’t let me go back, so, screw ’em. And me with fifty-two ears, twenty short of a record.”
“Yeah. You didn’t count the gooks’ ears in the big one?”
Mr. Randolph shakes his head and inches closer to the bathroom as someone exits. Two left in front of him. “We counted the dead. The brass believed us.”
“Not anymore,” Dan says. “Christ, I gotta pee.” He looks around the corner to check the line. “Caught us cutting off both, so now it’s the left one only. You hone that pig sticker so sharp them ears come off like butter. Another notch for the gunny.”
“I’m not a fan of this war. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Well, excuse me,” Dan says.
“That’s not what I mean. You can’t blame the soldiers. It’s just that it seems like a waste of time. Even the South Vietnamese act like they don’t care.”
“So I took two rounds for nothing? You gonna pee or what?” Dan points to the empty bathroom.
Mr. Randolph holds the door wide. “You first, gunny.”
“Fucking A,” Dan says and shuts the door.
The chaos continues with guests and relatives passing by you to and from the bathrooms and bedrooms. You speed up the scene using your internal time lapse photography until the walking images become blurs. Sometimes you slow it down when someone interesting goes by.
Aunt Dottie surfaces from Charlie’s bedroom and spends several seconds trying to light a cigarette. After a few puffs for motivation, she slowly and carefully works her way out the bent screen door to the reception. She looks like she is trying to remember whose party it is, gives up, and walks over to the bar.
A minute later, Marilyn passes by you holding the wet hem of her wedding dress off the floor. Charlene, her new mother-in-law, has come in the front door after having a cigarette with Joe, her limburger cheese and sardine caper son. Neither Marilyn nor Charlene try to hide their disdain for one another.
“Well, doesn’t the bride look darling all dressed up?” Charlene says. “That old style dress must weigh heavy on a blushing bride.”
Marilyn looks down at Charlene’s outfit and frowns.
“Really, Charlene. A mini-skirt?”
Charlene pirouettes. “You got it, flaunt it, I always say, honey.” Charlene is forty-five and does have it. The hair is up and sprayed the same way she wears it at the restaurant where she works, though the hem of her yellow mini-skirt is a few inches higher than allowed at the Lobster Shack. Married twice, she is working on number three, a preacher who enjoys his Friday night lobster and beer.
“You want mama to help you out of the wet gown?”
“You’re not my mama.”
“My, Marilyn. Let’s not get excited. We all want to have a good time before we send you off. Where’s the honeymoon?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Best way. That’s how Dan’s father and I handled it when we got hitched. Keep people from bothering us, you know.”
“Did you wear a mini-skirt then, too?”
Charlene doesn’t smile but tilts her head slightly.
“No, honey. I wore a white gown, which is proper and all, since I waited until after the wedding to have my first child.”
Marilyn makes a small “O” with her mouth and says nothing. So Charlene knows. Only one person could have told her about your sister’s child, born two years earlier and given up for adoption. After graduation, Marilyn had disappeared with her older boyfriend for nearly a year. You awoke one night to a loud argument between your sister and mother. Your parents had hired an ex-cop to track her down and bring her home.
“You’re pregnant? How the hell do you explain that?”
“I didn’t have the money for an abortion.”
“You don’t think that hurts me when you say things like that? How can you sit there in front of God and act like you don’t care about that baby?”
“There is no God.”
The slap sounded like the crack of a whip. Their relationship was never the same after that. Your mother lost a daughter that night and your sister couldn’t have cared less.
Charlene grins as Marilyn turns and rushes to the bedroom. Your sister may be thinking about how she will ever be able to face her mother-in-law again now that Charlene knows, but Marilyn needn’t be concerned. In eight hours and twenty minutes, Charlene would be dead, her neck and face dark blue from where the blood pooled as she lay face down on the orange shag carpet of her apartment.
As the sun begins to set, the cake is hurriedly cut and passed out to guests who have consumed all the liquor and shrimp and look anxious to leave. Someone wakes Uncle Marty, your brother, and your brother’s friend, and they join everyone else out front to throw rice at the sardine convertible as it speeds down the street.
Your mother comes back in and sits across from you on the small, orange and green sofa. Your invisible cloak has apparently vanished. She raises her eyebrows and stares at you. She is only forty-four and strikingly beautiful with Asian black hair and a tan body kept thin by Salem menthols. Her brown eyes make you drop your gaze.
“You let your brother drink a beer?”
You shrug and parley with sarcasm. “He’s almost eighteen.”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
“I don’t think he drank any.”
“He did drink it and he gave some to Frankie and now Frankie has an upset stomach.”
You shrug again and grin slightly. She shakes her head and grins back.
She is disappointed in you. You don’t mind. You like her when she is like that. It’s a way of showing her love for you. Charlene has never been disappointed in her children. She doesn’t care enough about them to be disappointed and it comes back full circle when later that night, her son Joe loses his temper and in a drunken haze breaks her neck with a well-timed blow.
Your mother stands, comes over to you, and kisses your forehead, her eyes soft and full of compassion.
Forty years later, as she lies on her deathbed, those eyes are grey and milky and though there is still an appearance of love in them, they aren’t the same ones you saw on your sister’s wedding day. She still loves you, but has long ago stopped being disappointed. In 1968 it meant she cared enough to want you to behave, to do the right thing. She was full of life then and toughened by being one of eleven siblings herself. She had to be tough to live with an alcoholic, a man of little love or sympathy.
As your mother waits to die in the clean hospital room, her thoughts drift back to 1941, to her fiancé, Charles Patrick O’Reilly. In high school, they had dated no one else and called each other by their last names as terms of endearment.
“Daley, you wanna go to the dance or not? I can ask your sister, who, as you know, is more attractive and liberal in her philosophy on dating.”
“Take whomever you want, O’Reilly. It makes no difference to me.”
Mom repeats the story to you many times as she struggles to talk through the oxygen hoses in her nose. She had loved Charlie O’Reilly more than anything in the world. More than God, she says. She even named a child after him.
It was their last dance. A year later, Sergeant Charles P. O’Reilly lay on a sandy beachhead in Guadalcanal, half his head blown off by a Japanese sniper. Had he lived, they would have married and things would have been much different. She would have had the life she desired, the life she deserved.
And maybe, just maybe, you wouldn’t be invisible.
J.J. WHITE’s fiction has appeared in The Homestead Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and the 2016 and 2018 Saturday Evening Post anthologies. He has had three novels published: Prodigious Savant, Deviant Acts and Nisei. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for his short, Tour Bus. He resides in Merritt Island, Florida. Find him online at www.jjwhitebooks.com.