When my brother-in-law was at Vassar he had a summer job driving a taxi in Hyannis. He made good money from the rich crowd vacationing at the Cape. Garrett— who hadn’t met my sister then— is tall, and wore his hair in a thick black ponytail. He’s quiet. It’s my sister Carol Ann who usually tells this story. She can say the most with the fewest words of anyone I know. Once, when she was a little thing sitting on Mother’s porch swing, I was giving Mom a list of dos and don’ts for watching my two year old. Mom came out with an exasperated, “Mary Kate, I raised seven children and haven’t lost one yet!” My sister piped up, “We only have your word for that.” She was serious as a heart attack.
Anyway, Garrett had this taxi job and he’d get some pretty interesting fares. The one which makes for the best story when we’re all sitting around at Christmas or Thanksgiving or whatever is the time some guy offered him $150.00 to take him from the Cape to Logan Airport. Garrett wasn’t about to turn it down. He waited with the motor running while the man stopped by home, ran in, and grabbed his suitcase. The fare slept in the backseat all the way to the airport, woke up when Garrett stopped in the loading zone, paid him, grabbed his bag, and raced into the terminal. Piece of cake. When Garrett got back to the taxi stand, the cops were waiting— he’d been the getaway driver in a home robbery. All Garrett remembered was this: the guy was wearing a propeller beanie.
That story has been on my mind because I’ve been listing to track thirteen of a CD my nephew gave me for Christmas. It’s a compilation, and while some people in our huge family have resorted to giving gift certificates or donating a heifer, Simon took the time to make a personalized CD for each of his thirteen cousins, twelve aunts and uncles, and his Granny. Mine starts with the Righteous Brothers, has a great cover of Uncle Cracker doing Drift Away with Otis Redding backing him up, and is sprinkled with Janis Joplin and Cheryl Crow. Track thirteen isn’t something Simon ever heard at my house. It’s The Archie’s doing “Sugar, Sugar.” Every time I play it, I’m zapped back to Saturday morning thirty years ago, laying on a rag rug on the terrazzo floor watching cartoons; waiting for Mother to wake up, so I can hand over the baby, hop into my bikini and stroll down to the beach. I’d walk up and down dark, packed sand at the edge of the sea. I could tell what weather was coming by the temperature and clarity of the water out past the sandbar, and figure out exactly what time to be back at home to beat the afternoon rain. Other than taking care of my sister once in a while, keeping my room straight, and drying the dishes, my only responsibility was getting home before dark. Sugar, Sugar.
Right before Thanksgiving, Simon tried to kill himself with Tylenol. Thanks to being six-seven and weighing 230 pounds, thanks to the girlfriend who now won’t speak to him who took him to the hospital, there will probably be no lasting physical effects. But he’s still pretty needy, even though his father and stepmother are psychologists and got him the best therapist in town once they moved him back in with them from the hospital; even though he hangs out with Mother when he’s not working, and hangs out with our four sons—Simon is an only child. At first he told everyone, even his father, he was in the hospital with stomach flu.
The truth was, Simon got behind on his rent and was evicted. He returned to his apartment one day to find the locks changed, all his stuff gone. He lost his father’s old guitar, the collection of snow globes Mother had given him over a lifetime of Christmases, his books and clothes and computer—everything. I’m sure there are other factors that played into his suicide attempt. What twenty year old shares their darkest thoughts with parents, aunts and uncles, cousins? Simon is obviously hurting. And his thoughtful Christmas gifts, laboriously created on his father’s computer, cries out for in-kind care.
I want to do something more for Simon than take him along when we go out to dinner, ask for his help with chores around the house. I want to lighten him, take some of his burden, tell him that even though everything is not okay, might never be okay, we love him and need him: Most of all we’re there for him, no matter what. I never want him to feel that desperate and alone again.
All this bubbles up when I listen to the CD, even when I’m flying through Wendy’s drive-thru for a sort-of healthy sandwich on my thirty-minute lunch. I teach, and if I’m not back on time to get my students at the cafeteria, Uh-Oh. So, mouth stuffed with ham and lettuce and mayo, I’m puzzling on Simon and, dammit, slowing down because there’s a city maintenance crew up ahead. Their truck is a little in the road, so I have to slow down to pass. There are three men working on riding mowers along the right-of-way, and the last one I pass is a big black man in coveralls, he must be sixty, with a careworn face and gray moustache. This guy is concentrating on his work, looking just like any other man might at noon in Florida on a fall day working on keeping the brush from taking over the roadway, except—on top of his head, twirling away for all and sundry to see, is a bright red plastic propeller on a yellow, blue, and green beanie.
What are the chances I’m listening to the Archies, wondering how to help Simon, thinking about Jughead’s beanie, and this is what I see? I’ve never seen one in my life. So that’s it. That’s what Simon needs: a propeller beanie. Maybe we all do. Maybe everyone should have one to take out when things get to serious, too hard—when, suddenly, you need to step out of character. But, if that were the case, it would be too easy. We’d just get used to them, and they wouldn’t do any good. So, I think I’ll pick one up for Simon, go online, find out where to get a propeller beanie. And have my great, tall, hurting, much-too-serious twenty-year-old nephew bend down, lean forward, and let me place it on his head.
Kate Cumiskey is a graduate of the MFA program (poetry) at UNCW, and teaches English at a high school in Port Orange, Florida. She’s written a nonfiction book, Surfing in New Smyrna Beach, in its second run at Arcadia Press; another, University of Central Florida Through Time (Fonthill Media, London 2015); and Yonder, a book of poetry, from Silent ePublishing. Her work appears in Crazyhorse, Beloit Poetry Journal, Paterson Literary Review, Blood Orange Review and others.