Author’s note: In the interest of starting Smokin’ & Cryin’ as close to the inciting incident as possible, I cut a couple of scenes that came beforehand. I still like them and thought it’d be fun to share them anyway. Arthur Comes Home is 1 of 2.
July 4th. Hairspray. Yellow onions. Burgers and bratwurst smoking on the grill. Arthur sauntered into our sun-scorched backyard, barefoot, wearing cutoffs and a ringer T-shirt. Shrieks and whoops and applause rose from our relatives and neighbors who were thrilled to have him home from the war. I’d wanted to be the first to see him, the first to welcome him home, but the sight of him through the sliding screen door froze me at the kitchen table, knife in midair, the onion I’d been chopping abruptly forgotten.
I’d lost track of how completely superior my stepbrother was to me. Muscular and all-American handsome in that square-jawed way of models in the menswear section of the JC Penney catalog, except his dark blond hair was long and messy, and he hadn’t bothered to shave.
When just about everyone had got in their hug or high five, he leaned against the edge of the picnic table, so casual and relaxed it was like Vietnam never even happened to him. He cracked open a Budweiser and laughed at something Deuce said. That smile. I never knew how much I missed it until I saw it again. I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my hand-me-down Central Wolves baseball jersey. Holtzapple, my stepbrother’s last name, was emblazoned on the back. I was not crying, I swear. It was the onions.
My stepmother, Bev, didn’t even realize her only real son had sauntered into the backyard, the guest of honor at a cookout to celebrate his homecoming and the 4th of July. Her can of Aqua Net hissed endlessly from the bathroom down the hall while she cemented her black beehive into place and smoked her Virginia Slims. She’d been planning this cookout ever since Arthur had flown home to the States. But first, he was stuck at Walter Reed recuperating from the shrapnel wounds that had been his ticket home, then his real dad had whisked him off to Escanaba to recuperate at their family’s old motel. I was 15, no driver’s license, no car—he might as well have been on Mars.
Someone cranked up It Don’t Come Easy on the transistor radio in the middle of the picnic table. Bev may have been oblivious to the fact that her son was home, but my dad, Vern, was just straight up ignoring him. He kept his focus on the grill like his stepson was just another neighbor who’d wandered into the yard, drawn by the scents of charcoal and grease. Vern’s mission in life was to keep everyone in their place: beneath him at all times.
Bev came out of the bathroom in a cloud of hairspray and cigarette smoke, smoothing down the front of her sleeveless polyester dress with its navy, lime green, and white paisley print while Lisa gripped the hem with one stubborn, fat little hand.
“Honey, come on. Let go. You’ll get it all grubby.” Bev pried Lisa’s fingers away and came into the kitchen.
Lisa trailed behind her in a patchwork sundress, coughing, eyes still glassy with her recent nap, fine baby hair in two dark ponytails that stuck off the top of her head like puppy-dog ears.
“Jeez. you couldn’t even tell me he got here?” Bev stubbed her cigarette into the brass ashtray next to the cutting board and shoved open the sliding screen door. “Baby!” She hurried across the lawn to hug Arthur, leaving Lisa whimpering on the wrong side of the screen.
I picked up my little half-sister and put her on my hip. Her training pants were damp and she had a vague tang of pee, but that was for Bev to deal with. From behind the screen we watched Bev and Arthur embrace. Lisa quivered with jealousy. “Who dat, Wobin?” It was more an accusation than a question, but I couldn’t exactly explain that he was her half-brother on her mother’s side, the child she’d been conceived to replace. “Mommy no like him. No, no, no,” she added.
“Aw sweetie. Don’t you worry. You’re still the baby,” I said.
“Daddy no like him.”
“Ha. You sure called that one, toots.” I handed her a dill pickle spear and carried her outside where I could palm her off on a doting grand aunt. Bev was still clinging to Arthur. Everyone clustered around him except for Dad. He kept on smashing burgers on the grill, grimacing like maybe the meat wasn’t dead after all. Like it was nothing for his stepson to return from the war with a Purple Heart. I was angry about that for the ten seconds it took me to remember that Arthur was always better off when Vern paid him no attention. We both were.
He spotted me through the swarm of people around him and a huge smile broke across his face. “Shit man, when did you get so tall?”
I looked down at my red Pro-Keds and back up at him, then shrugged. “I don’t know. Last month?”
“Shit man.” He laughed. “And your voice is way deeper, too. Get over here. Let me look at you.” He put his hands on my shoulders, then pulled me in and hugged me tight, his familiar scent of soap-and-cigarettes scent filling my lungs with relief, joy. I’d missed him and missed him, and now he was home.
Later on, everyone else went downtown to watch the fireworks. But Arthur said he’d had a lifetime’s worth of exploding shit, so we hung out in the backyard and took turns jamming on the old Gibson J200 guitar he’d left behind when he went to boot camp. I had to be the one to break it to him that Dad had pawned his Les Paul and his amp the first month he was in Indochina.
“Man, why? Shit man. Shit. Arthur tore the ring off a can of beer guzzled some down. “What gives that motherfucker the right?”
How was I supposed to know? Dad always acted like he had the right to
do things no one else would dare, and if you questioned him he answered
with the back of his hand across your face.
I shrugged. “He didn’t think you’d come back. Or care about music much anymore if you did. According to him, rock music is for pimply adolescents. He keeps saying he’ll know I’ve matured when I quit playing guitar and buying record albums.”
While I was scrounging through the melting ice in the cooler for the last bottle of Towne Club root beer when some M-80s boomed close by. Arthur’s nylon-webbed lawn chair collapsed on the grass, and then he was nowhere. Disappeared. I searched all over and finally found him hiding under his truck, facedown in the gravel, hands over his ears. I had to convince him my name wasn’t Washington and we weren’t in the Quang Tri Province before I could coax him out of there. What a trip.
After that, we hung out upstairs in my bedroom, which we used to share, and I
played some songs I’d been working on. That chilled him out.
“I dig that shift from the D to the suspended D chord,” he said. “Pretty groovy.”
I’d forgotten the way he emphasized everything with his hands, cigarette smoke leaving a hazy trail. By the time he left, my room smelled worse than the Hub Bar with its smoke-yellowed windows next to Rhuland’s City Dairy. But I’d had a blast catching up with him. We still dug all the same stuff: The Stones, Odette Bros., Hendrix, Blind Faith, Zep, Cream. We’d set the guitar aside and were playing albums by the time our folks got home from the fireworks.
I thought he was going to stay at our house but after an argument with my dad, he split. I got grounded because every other word out of Arthur’s mouth was “shit” or “shit man.” Lisa picked it up and was running around saying “Shit man! Shit man!” Dad couldn’t exactly punish Arthur for it, so I was the one who caught hell.