I hadn’t known François Grolier but a month when we made the bet. It was a simple wager, the first to fuck the other’s mother won. Won what, we hadn’t bothered clarifying.
This was 1984. We were both fourteen. I had the first opportunity and failed like a fourteen-year-old boy facing the task of seducing an older, single woman. I spent the night at their house, a little brick starter home with brown weeping willows. In anticipation, François and I shot baskets at the nearby blacktop until sundown. The clouds ribbing the violet sky turned orange, like an earth-sized tiger stretching above, only the squeak of our soles and the jangle of the chain hoop when the ball sunk or thumped off the backboard. Soon, the streetlamps blinked on, and a group of shirtless middle-aged men crowded us out.
“Look out, little shooters,” one of them said to us.
It was my first time spending the night at François’. His mother was working. She’d return at ten, he told me, stating the time gravely as though doom impended. We passed the hours in François’ room, me flipping through the channels on his little black-and-white Panasonic as he picked at an acoustic wound so tight it sounded like a ukulele. I wanted to tell him to put down the guitar. I wanted to tell him that we didn’t have to do this, that we could just call off the bet, but he’d already told me, his little black eyes set straight at me, “No backing out.” I’d planned on just walking into her bedroom around midnight. I’d go in there, stand at her bedside, push my hand into the mattress if she needed waking, and wait until she saw me. From here, I didn’t know. I’d never even held a girl’s hand.
Midnight arrived. I made it as far as his mother’s door, which stood ajar just enough for me to peek in. She lay in bed with her back turned to me. A record spun on a turntable in the room’s corner, a single speaker through which a French aria played low volume. She was smoking a cigarette, reading or staring at something near her elbow on the mattress. She had the covers over her legs up to her hip where her semi-transparent negligee revealed the arc of her lower back, the curve of her spine, the gentle swellings of her shoulder blades. Through the thin fabric, a little spot of skin showed darker than the rest, a quarter-sized birthmark almost in the shape of a perfect crescent. She exhaled her smoke in little puffs that rose like cumulus toward the water-stained ceiling. And then I knew the biggest folly that we’d made with our bet: thinking we might dictate an adult’s actions on that scale, that I’d actually be able to walk in and seduce this woman.
Going back to François’ room, I only made it as far as the den. I slumped onto a couch and spent an hour staring at orange patches of light from a street lamp outside. Through the blinds slats, they stretched across the wall in long slivers as thin as fingers, covering half of a record sleeve propped on top of a bookcase, Grace Jones’ Warm Leatherette, the singer with her feet folded atop her thighs Buddha-like, heavy makeup accentuating her cheekbones and eyes. I froze in those eyes’ glare.
I woke on that couch, and the wall and record sleeve were lit with morning light. François’ robed mother stood at the couch’s armrest and stared down at me with stream rising from the mug she held.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Can I make you breakfast?”
She told me to call her Mrs. Grolier. Her son walked into the kitchen as I sat down to pineapple slices and eggs, bacon, toast, and a glass of orange juice. I hadn’t even a second to make a decision. The way he paused at the threshold, looking back at me and then to his mother several times, he’d already come to the worst conclusion. All I had to do was confirm his thoughts. I wish that I had chosen differently. I always will wish. I leaned back, placed a sliver of pineapple in my mouth, and sipped some orange juice, wagging my eyebrows over the glass’s rim.
Not a half hour later, we found François on the bathroom floor, pale as the lime-green tile. Some of the sleeping pills that his mother kept in the medicine cabinet were still caught in his throat, his mouth. I called 911. Mrs. Grolier screamed for me to do so a hundred times. When I came back, her fingers were clawing the insides of his mouth, and several half-dissolved pills stuck to the floor, close to François’ serene face.
But before François’ pill-fueled lullaby came, of course, there was the bet. Two sun showers passed over Atlanta that day. We sought shelter in a men’s club where aged strippers kicked empty beer cans patrons left on the stage’s edge. I would think about those sun showers for years. I would convince myself that this wasn’t just two masses of precipitation bookending one slice of pristine day, but two separate systems, the second on the humid heels of the first, and they’d cross America with every meteorologist misdiagnosing.
We biked down Piedmont Avenue in the first shower, the city’s buildings rearing up behind us in the mist like a swarm of glassy giants. The rain stopped, and for a moment we quit biking and looked around us as though we might find God standing next to a switch controlling the weather, then the pouring came again.
I followed François to the Claremont, an old brick hotel standing on a hill, a men’s lounge on the bottom floor. We carried our bikes down a long staircase built into the steep slope. He swore that we wouldn’t get in trouble. For Atlanta boys, the place was legendary, stories of men taking dancers up to the hotel rooms. I’d looked up at these rooms while driving past in my parents’ Cutlass Supreme and imagined the things that went on behind the sheer curtains.
“Relax,” François said, squinting at me.
The club was smoky and cold, loud and dark. The whole time, I expected a bouncer’s sandpapery hand to clamp my nape, especially as the entrance door swept shut behind us, but the bartender only nodded at François, saying his name like he’d been there a hundred times before. Music blared, the floor throbbing with the bass of “99 Luftballons.”
Only one patron sat in the club, an old man stage-side drinking from a tall can of beer. The woman on the stage pulled at my eyes like a magnet, but I tried to be discreet. Her blonde wig didn’t match the black tangle on her pubis. Brown nipples topped her small breasts like little hats. She caught me looking and winked. My crazy grandfather had died a few months before this, and I’d just learned of embalming. That wink would make a boy’s blood boil, you’d figure, but my veins only felt like they were filled with cold, pink syrup.
We went to a booth in the farthest, darkest corner. The rain swatted at the windows. Getting us in there, François seemed a magical guide.
“See that old man over there next to the stage?” François asked.
“He isn’t anything.”
The old man smacked the stage’s edge in beat with the song. He smiled at the dancer and I said, “He looks real enough to me.”
Once we’d settled in the shadows, François said, “This song is made by Germans, but you love it nevertheless.”
“Exactly. Now, Elvis, that’s a musician that can’t be overplayed.”
“That’s because they don’t play him anymore.”
He picked up a laminated drink card from the table’s center as though he might order booze, too. This was only the third time that we’d hung out away from high school. He’d only been in America for two months. He quoted Truffaut and claimed to have been named after him. He spoke perfect English, despite being raised in France. He’d lost his father in a war, though he wouldn’t say which one. He claimed that he and his mother had only come to the states so that they’d be closer to Graceland, and, when I once asked why Atlanta and not Memphis, he shrugged and asked if we ever got exactly what we wanted. But he said that he would get one thing, no doubt. He’d become Elvis. He would go out to honky-tonk clubs across the world and impersonate The King. With his voice and gyrations, guitar and rhinestone jumpsuit, he’d make people cry, men and women. He was right. Nowadays, he’s on the Internet, albeit playing to dazed geriatrics clapping along in shimmering Vegas auditoriums.
In the Claremont, the song had reached its last few seconds, the singer’s voice and the synthesizer. To this, the dancer waved her fingers over her body and smiled down at the old man. He craned his neck in such a way it looked as though his stool might tip.
“That woman up there,” François said. “What do you think of her?”
“Her tits are kind of small, but she’s excellent.”
“Would you fuck her?”
I looked at my friend. With the irony of the present situation beginning to dawn on me, I didn’t know whether he could read my mind. My father was a confessed debauch, and my grandfather had been, too. François waited for my answer.
“That’s my mother,” François said, and I wouldn’t have believed him, except, since we’d sat, he hadn’t looked at anything but the card in his hand and at me. He picked at a laminated corner and said, “Do you like looking at her?”
The song had ended, but another didn’t begin. The long heels of her gold shoes scraping along the stage, Mrs. Grolier did a slow pirouette with her arms raised above her head like a ballerina. She bowed at the man looking up at her. He tucked a crumpled dollar bill under her shoe strap and she pet his head like he was a zoo animal. She walked to the stage’s back and disappeared behind a red curtain. If I apologized too quickly and François was joking, I’d risk playing the fool.
“Don’t laugh,” he said.
“Then what’s that you’re doing with your face?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That’s just the way that I look.”
He waited for a better response. I willed another song to start, but I only got the clinking of glasses as the bartender stacked tumblers. I thought of my own life then. I thought of how we’d gone nearly two weeks without my father in the house, how my mother and I had begun eating our dinners, not at the kitchen table, but on TV trays in the living room so we could fill silences with the local news. This seemed relevant then, and I was prepared to match family dysfunctions with my friend, but he began disclosing more.
“Back home, she worked at a very respectable cabaret, but then the owner died.”
“Why’d you come in here if you get so upset over it?” I asked.
“What choice did we have with the way it was raining?”
We. How he said ‘we.’ Like I’d played a part in bringing us to the Claremont. I cut him off before he could speak anymore.
“My dad’s in a psych ward up in Baltimore.”
Just as soon as I said this, the music started again, some song that opened with a wailing guitar solo. Another woman walked out onto the stage, this one a squat brunette with cat-eye glasses who might as well have worked as a librarian at our school. François glared at her. She wore nothing but a black-and-blue feathered boa. The old man moved away, leaving his beer can standing on the stage’s edge, where the dancer walked over and kicked it to the floor.
I’d never spoke about my family to anyone. A strange woman called asking to speak to my father one night. My mother answered. He claimed that the affair had been part of a midlife crisis, something genetic in his family, a serious affliction. No doubt he’d been acting impulsively for the past few months, sick days away from the civil engineering firm so he could take my mother and I to summer parades, a whole weekend spent in our driveway with shovel and cement, planting a new mailbox shaped like a bald eagle’s head, the lid painted gold like a beak, and then, a week later, a new maroon station wagon, which he’d bought after trading in our reliable Cutlass Supreme. And in that new car we took him all the way to Baltimore so he could be treated by the same psychiatrist who’d taken care of my grandfather.
I told François all of this, the words streaming out like the electric guitar’s solo from the club’s speakers. The fact that François wasn’t responding started to make my neck itch. Maybe he saw me writhe. Maybe he sensed that I had a touch of the same nervous energy that compelled my dad and my grandfather. Either way, he turned toward me and smiled crookedly. It was only much later that I’d realize I hadn’t really acknowledged what he’d told me either.
“I bet that I can fuck your mother before you can even touch mine,” he said.
That he might be serious didn’t even occur to me, that this was more than just some species of wild dare. There was the exchange of standard taunts about one’s parents, the indubitable fact that either one of us would be chickens not to accept. During the shake, he squeezed my hand as though he were trying to dislocate my fingers. I squeezed back.
Soon thereafter, the dancer approached our booth. She pushed her glasses up with an index finger and said to François, “You’re Chandelle’s son, right? Who’s your friend?”
“Some son of a loon,” he said.
At least then I knew that he’d heard me.
François spent a few days in the hospital, a few more away from school, and then he was back.
I made the mistake of telling my mother about his suicide attempt. Immediately, wide-eyed, she began to probe me, clearly mortified that she’d just let me stay with him and his mother, especially during this critical point in our own family life. My mother made me call them. She made me ask François to put his mother on the phone. I had to explain to him several times that it was only because my mother wanted to speak, her watching over me as I twined the phone cord around my finger, pulling the coils noose-like.
We went to Jade Tree, a Chinese buffet about ten miles outside of the city. My mother wore a new cardigan, indigo with a pair of roses embroidered just below the shoulders. François kept looking at these flowers, flicking his gaze toward me to make sure that I noticed. I wanted to stop everything, the awkward attempts at conversation, the averted glances, the repeated sipping of Cokes, and reveal what had brought us to this point, some silly little bet between two boys nursing their bruised egos in a strip club, of all places. But I’d made that bet. I’d sealed it with a handshake and I was afraid of what this said about me.
When everyone was done eating, my mother and Mrs. Grolier went to the bathroom. François had been quiet for the most part. His hair hung oily at his ears, like he hadn’t washed it in a few days. But now he turned to see whether our mothers were out of hearing distance and then looked at me squarely.
“My eggroll tells a fortune your mother’s not going to believe,” he said.
“You’re crazy,” I said. “I told you nothing happened.”
“No, you’re crazy. Your fucking family is crazy. You admitted so yourself.”
It was starting again, the same boyish machismo that had led to my friend’s botched suicide. Years later, I’d warn my own two sons against this sort of behavior when they started eyeing each other murderously. Nothing gets accomplished this way. Someone’s face will only be covered in gore, like François’ would soon be at Locus Grove.
“I kissed that little spot on your mother,” I said, “that little birthmark near her shoulder blade? You must know the one I’m talking about, given you’ve seen her dance naked.”
François said nothing. He only stared at me with his brown eyes wide, didn’t even break that gaze until we left the restaurant. He didn’t even say a word until, on the way home, the Locust Grove Farmlands billboard came into view. On it, a giant alligator stretched past the borders, the tail’s jagged end and the snout’s tip spilling out on either side into the broad daylight. It was strange. About twenty yards behind the billboard, a radio tower steepled upwards. It looked as though this long crisscrossed spire, too, was part of the sign. Underneath the reptile’s picture, text read, “At 12 feet, Florida’s biggest living gator!”
“We’ve got to go there,” he said, and Mrs. Grolier agreed, which in turn made my mother agree.
We took the exit, bypassed the turnoffs of little country roads set with citrus and boiled peanut stands, a hush falling over us. Signs with crooked arrows directed us down a little dirt lane muddy from the previous night’s showers. My mother sat straight up and leaned forward to make sure that the car didn’t veer off the path. It was a new car. We could have easily driven back and forth to Baltimore every day to see how my father was doing. It almost made me ask what we were doing there at that moment.
We drove deep into the woods. Giant grasshoppers the size of small bananas clung to the trunks of live oaks. The road’s shoulder dipped down toward a bog stretching out to our left, strands of petrified cypress, a few white herons with one leg pitched forward as though they might flee at any moment. Finally, the road widened and stunted off into a clearing, a kind of natural cul-de-sac ringed with tall pines and spruce. A little lot to the right held no cars, only a vacant watermelon and lemonade stand.
“This place might not even be open on Sundays,” I said.
“It is,” François said.
“We’ll look to find out,” my mother said, parking the car. She looked over at me and smiled. I knew even back then that she was doing this for herself, for me, for what had happened with my father. She kept smiling all afternoon. She’d kept trying to involve François and Mrs. Grolier in conversations. At the Jade Tree, she’d started talking about careers. Mrs. Grolier said that she danced, but not where. My mother said that she was a housewife. François said he’d one day be Elvis.When all eyes turned to me, I thought for a while and said that I might do something in engineering, like my dad, although as it turned out, I became a meteorologist.
A brick building took up about a third of the clearing, and about five yards off in another wide clearing, the radio tower loomed. My mom figured it out before either one of us did. This was the old FM radio station specializing in jazz for the past five decades in the Central Georgia region, a recession-era casualty whose recent demise had created a lot of grumbling from long-time listeners, us included. I could remember lying awake late at nights, my bedside radio playing jazz at low volume, the deejay’s hushed words a lullaby for the sleep deprived, and with the station still tuned in, sometimes his voice would drift into my slumbering mind and my dreams would refract, as I’d suddenly be aware that I wasn’t in the waking world. I’d even have dreams of waking up, details down to the lemon-colored sheets on my real bed, the pastel-blue walls in my room, my bedroom door, dreams within dreams, so when I really did regain consciousness, I’d think that I might be asleep still, the thought of this chain going on forever, me losing the thread of where reality began, the infinite reflections of oneself in a hall of mirrors.
A man came out of the building as we exited the car. Tufts of gray hair stuck up around the crown of his balding head. He shook all of our hands, saying hello four times, his palm clammy and his breath boozy, and then he gave us a figure for tour admission. François’ mother insisted on paying our fares. As she rooted through her little blue purse, the man watched François and me, his head lowered a little as though he wanted us, as males, to commiserate about the opposite sex, but then she handed him a wad of crumpled bills and he tilted his head back, never averting his gaze from ours, like he’d decided that we were just boys and that he, after all, was the only one of his kind out here.
Inside the little brick building, a long panel window gave view to unadulterated Georgia wetlands. Framed photos lined the walls. Like good tourists, we sauntered to them. The largest showed a younger version of the man before us, a signature scrawled under his neck: Jimmy Briarcliff, one of the most popular deejays of the defunct station. He’d lost his glossy pompadour and his once-white teeth had yellowed. But his voice was unmistakable.
“They’re up there to look at,” he said to us. “Get closer.”
“Who’s Jimmy Briarcliff?” Mrs. Grolier asked.
“Sweetie, he’s speaking to you right now.”
I’d been keeping an eye on François’s proximity to my mother. Now, with a sour curl to his lips, my friend looked from the photograph to the man.
Dozens of photos showed Briarcliff with women, some celebrities—Reba McEntire looking a little uneasy on his lap, a young Dolly Parton with her head leaning on his shoulder—and dozens of others with shaggy coiffures and high cheekbones, heavy rouge or a deep natural blush, and always the deejay, his perpetual smile. The alligator was in many pictures, too, closer to nine feet than twelve. Briarcliff was in these photos, as well, younger, wearing a Panama Jack hat out at the edge of a swamp, a little triangular head peering out from the dark waters at his feet, other pictures of him and the animal over the years, the alligator kicking dirt into an oblong hole filled with eggs as Briarcliff knelt nearby, the alligator propped on a log, mouth cracked, a pointy-toothed smile next to Briarcliff’s beaming grin. My mother had gravitated toward a particular picture. A black-and-white photograph in the top left corner showed a little girl no older than five, a big cowboy hat perched on her curly hair, sitting on the alligator’s back. The caption underneath read, “May 6, 1979: Connie Briarcliff’s maiden voyage.”
“She’s adorable,” my mother said, looking at the picture.
“She is, isn’t she?” Briarcliff said.
“Is she your daughter?”
“No, no. I can’t say that I know the girl’s name, but Connie’s the gator.”
Briarcliff’s eyes fell on my mother’s ring. He looked at me, cleared his throat, and said that we should follow him. Telling a story well-rehearsed with puns and transitions, he led us through the radio building. Connie had been around for as long as Briarcliff had been deejaying there. He’d been feeding her since she was only three feet long. She’d always trusted him; he managed well with the opposite sex. Now the station had gone belly up, its broadcasting equipment liquidated, but he had bought the building for cheap. Eventually, the radio tower would be uprooted, airlifted across the state for some new station to use, or just broken down for scrap metal.
He brought us to the room where he’d once done all of his broadcasting. The wood-paneled floor had darkened with age, but a large rectangular section close to the wall had retained its original tan luster, the part of the room where the soundboard had once sat, he told us. I could picture Briarcliff in a swivel chair, a microphone turned down close to his whiskey-burnt mouth, his finger poised over a button to cue the next record, Georgians listening, a single French woman smoking a cigarette and reading in bed while Briarcliff’s selections played, children drifting off into sleep tucked in their beds. Now, about the only things occupying the room were a twin-sized bed and a single metal file drawer with a digital alarm clock sitting on top. We stood there quiet, looking.
“My goal is to claim the airwaves back one day soon,” Briarcliff said, “through money raised here and through public support.”
François and his mother stood side-by-side, their shoulders rounded by the same slouch. That day was really the first time that I’d seen them together. They seemed as distant from one another as my mother and I did to them, probably.
We went outside to the building’s back. A short chicken-wire fence stretched across the land’s slope, cutting off the swamp beyond. Bald cypress strung with Spanish moss loomed at the water’s edge like bearded bog men, some of their roots snaking beneath the enclosure. Somewhere, not too far off in the distance, chickens clucked. Briarcliff said that he kept a coop, which accounted for the name Locust Grove Farmlands on the billboard sign and, hopefully, a government grant sometime in the near future.
“A farm and a radio station all in one,” he said. “Imagine that. And alligator rides.”
The chicken-wire fencing opened up on the yard’s opposite side, rounding off into an enclosure behind which a spiny alligator stretched on the grass, languid in the sun. The fence ran up land’s rise toward the radio building, ending where three sheets of Plexiglas stood about four feet high and two yards apart from one another. These extended all the way to the building’s back wall. Grooves were set along the top of each sheet so that this contraption―an old leather saddle suspended a foot from the ground―would roll along on its route. Briarcliff had constructed all of this himself. At the end of the Plexiglas maze stood a pen where a chicken waited. You could see it through the transparent sheets, the gobbling of so many poor chickens. Connie let him fit her with the saddle for someone to mount, the suspension straps preventing the person’s weight from crushing the alligator. She didn’t seem to mind, Briarcliff told us, or at least her interest lay more in reaching the chicken than getting the weight off of her back.
Now, by gate, Briarcliff entered the enclosure. He went around the building’s side and returned carrying a chicken upside-down by its feet. He stuffed it in the little pen and wiped his hands on the seat of his pants. He came back to us.
“I see you looking at Connie,” Briarcliff said.
We all looked at each other. He hadn’t indicated an addressee.
Then he walked up to Mrs. Grolier and said, “I’m talking to you.”
She stood there with one side of her mouth pulled up in perfect replica of François’ sneer. Briarcliff offered his hand and she accepted. She didn’t wear a ring, even though she kept her husband’s name.
“No charge, free rides today,” he said, leading her to the enclosure and the rigged Plexiglas.
François followed at their heels, but Briarcliff closed the gate so he could advance no further. If my friend and his mother seemed to have disappeared from Locust Grove up to this moment, it’s because François had been keeping her as far away from the deejay as possible. Even at that point of time, I could sense the truth behind François’ angst, how he’d sat in the Claremont, a pint-sized sentinel to his dancing mother, and how he’d dismissed the old man who’d tucked a dollar under her shoe strap, how our wager, compared to the real threat that Briarcliff now posed, had the flat ring of brash adolescence, barely a ring at all. It was just him and his mother in this world. Nobody was going to fuck her on his watch.
Connie wore a leather collar and Briarcliff hooked this with a long pole to maneuver her under the raised saddle. She let him strap it around her belly like they’d performed the routine a thousand times. When he was done, Briarcliff retook Mrs. Grolier’s hand and she squatted onto the saddle. She tucked her legs up against the alligator’s sides so her feet didn’t touch the ground. She laughed and looked up at her son and then over to us and her face went expressionless, her body losing balance as soon as Briarcliff unhooked the rod from the leather collar. The alligator lunged forward. She held on to the edges of the saddle.
To say it all happened quickly is an understatement. Connie was rounding into the second Plexiglas lane with Mrs. Grolier on her back. Mrs. Grolier’s magnolia-printed skirt started hiking up her thigh, revealing more and more flank that, away from the Claremont’s dimness, seemed very pale. Trying to catch the skirt, she tipped backwards. She landed on one hip, stretching her bare legs in the air, trying to avoid the alligator’s tail. Varicose veins stood out like rivers along a map. The breeze ran through nearby cypress limbs and made the Spanish moss flutter. Mrs. Grolier lay flat and pulled down her skirt. Even though he stood outside of the Plexiglas lanes, Briarcliff stooped like he might help her smooth the fabric.
François stalked past Briarcliff and high-stepped over the fencing before the deejay could make his move. He helped his mother up by her arm. Briarcliff reached them and grabbed a handful of François’s shirt, telling him that he couldn’t be back there without paying. He pulled François back. My friend stumbled and fell hard enough to the ground so that his teeth clacked together, biting through his lower lip.
And behind him, though the clear partitions, I’d never seen something disappear so fast, just the white wings caught in Connie’s jaws, several feathers circling the air above her head. François’ chin glistened with spit and blood. He cried and cursed at the sky, and Mrs. Grolier hugged his neck and whispered into his ear. I’ll never know what my friend’s mother said, but whatever those words might be, they didn’t stop his crying.
Briarcliff didn’t have to tell us to leave. My mother and Mrs. Grolier helped François to the station wagon, where he leaned against its hood. Mrs. Grolier stared at us. She shook her head more than once.
“We’re not going anywhere else with you two,” Mrs. Grolier said, dabbing her son’s chin with a baby-blue handkerchief she’d pulled from her purse.
François eyed me for a moment, but then looked away. And I knew then that just as I had told my mother about his suicide attempt, he had told his about my father being in Baltimore.
“Look at my boy,” she said, as though we were somehow responsible.
“This was his idea,” I said.
Briarcliff came around then. He was careful with his words. He only apologized for François’ shirt, the collar red with the blood, and agreed to call a taxi. We waited with them until the cab came. My mother even paid for it. And as they drove off she put a hand on the small of my back.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Later, my father would lead me to the truth. A month passed and I was sitting with him in the living room. He hadn’t shaved since coming back and red hairs grew all the way down past the spiny knob of his Adam’s apple. A shit storm had descended on Briarcliff’s cockamamie operation. The local news showed animal rights activists swarming out in front of the old radio building. They showed footage of Connie in a leather muzzle and still photographs from the radio station’s wall. They showed the Plexiglas lanes. They showed the little wire cage sitting at the end. They showed a few chickens. They showed the little girl in the cowboy hat, the first one to ride down those lanes.
“That definitely looks like something up your mother’s alley,” he said. “Anything that she knows she shouldn’t be doing.”
But he was so wrong. He didn’t even know my mother, not then, and perhaps never. Moreover, she didn’t know him. And I didn’t know them. I couldn’t help but to tell him about the old radio station, then, the little room where through a microphone Briarcliff had once spoken to us, but now only slept. I kept talking. I couldn’t stop. I told him about sitting in the Claremont, about falling asleep under Grace Jones’ glare. I told him about the bet I’d made with François. He absorbed it all silently. Then he asked a question.
“Your bet, who won the bet?”
He lifted his head and continued looking toward where I sat on the floor.
“No one, I guess,” I said.
He looked at me a while longer and then turned his attention back to the television, where the weather report was beginning. I can’t say that I decided to become a weatherman then, but when the meteorologist came on, we sat and watched silently, the pressure systems encroaching on our state, cold and warm fronts projected to meet right over where we lived. I gave my father a sidelong glance. He said something about weathermen never being right, so I turned my face full on toward him, crossed my eyes and gave my worst sneer. If he saw me, he didn’t move his head from its resting spot. Why’d I give him that face? Because I imagined what it must have felt like to stand in front of a camera having no one appreciate your work. Because I recalled what Briarcliff had said about reclaiming the airwaves, although that obviously wasn’t going to happen now. Because the camera focused on the meteorologist and thousands of eyes around the North Georgia region waited for him to pronounce days and days of weather.
My father would go back to Baltimore one more time while I was in college, but, by then, life never really surprised me. I never did talk to François again except for one time a few years later when he told me that I had a tick burrowed in my neck. Our senior class was on a nature hike, and I was holding hands with my girlfriend, who’d eventually become my wife, the mother of my children. Turns out he was right. The whole class had to stop and watch as the teacher picked this bug out of my neck, and because I’ve heard that you can pull the insect’s body out and it’ll still leave its gory head implanted, my neck still itches in that spot sometimes. I still can find François on the internet, streaming on YouTube or Vegas venues. I can click play on the embedded video and watch him twist around on stage with his cape and guitar, watch him croon another man’s songs under all of those lights.