“Oh I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer wiener,” sang 7-year-old Rex at the top of his lungs, his big smile exposing the brown streaks on his teeth. His brother, Roger, two years older, also sang along with the television. Rex in his Spiderman pajamas and Roger wearing a light blue set, were stomping across the living room floor, like the parade in the commercial. The second they heard the awful vomiting coming from the back bathroom, they stopped, as if they had been touched in a game of freeze tag.
“I hate that noise,” Rex whispered.
Roger put his chubby arm around his little brother. “He does it every morning,” he said, slowly shaking his head. Roger turned up the volume to the TV then dove onto the couch. "Come on, you can't hear it now."
Rex joined him and they continued watching Wiley E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Soon, Rex's eyes went to the hallway. He poked Roger in the side to get his attention.
Their father, Lendy, was coming down the hall. He was wiping his mouth with a towel. Rex's body stiffened.
When he reached the living room, their father glanced at the TV, at the boys, then directly at Roger. “Turn that fucking thing down," he said, "or I’ll throw it out the window.”
Roger ran to the TV and turned it down. Rex sprang up; he could feel the tension between his brother and father as they fixated on each other.
“I’m going outside,” Roger announced, not wanting to fight with his dad.
“You better,” Lendy said, flinching toward his 9-year-old son, as if he were going to strike him. Lendy watched as Roger ran out to the porch, the screen door slamming behind him, then, slicking back the comb-over hair that had fallen in his face, Lendy turned to little Rex. “What are you lookin' at boy?”
Rex shrugged. “Nothing. I’m going outside, too.”
As Rex walked toward the door, his dad, reeking of Old Spice, grabbed him by the collar and held Rex tight against his beer gut. The first blow landed on Rex’s ear, he winced, and felt overwhelmed by his father’s strength.
Lendy, not needing a reason, continued to pummel his son’s head and shoulders in rapid-fire motion.
“Mom! Mom!” Rex wailed, frantically wriggling his scrawny body. Pauline was in the back bathroom sorting through her pill bottles, rummaging for her morning uppers. “Mom.” The sight of his mother hurrying down the hallway, still in her bathrobe should have brought Rex relief, as Lendy squeezed his son tighter and told him to, “shut up.”
"You let him be, Lendy!" Pauline screamed, throwing the bottle of pills she was holding at her husband. "He ain't done nothin' to you!"
The distraction caused her husband to loosen his grip, allowing Rex to get a couple of stinging kicks to his dad’s shin before escaping out the front door. Rex was brave that way.
From out in the street, Rex and his brother, still wearing their pajamas, watched through the living room window as their mother flailed and threw everything within reach at her husband – magazines, newspapers – anything she could grab.
The commotion of tables being knocked over, lamps shattering, and his mother’s pleading cries could be heard all the way to where they stood.
“We should have gone with Lisa to the carnival,” Roger said, referring to their older sister. The lump in his throat made it hard to speak.
“Yeah, and never come back.” Rex hung his head and kicked the dirt. Another piece of his young soul had broken off and shattered like a melting iceberg hitting the ocean.
Rex and Roger sought refuge under the big shady Maple tree at the edge of the yard, on that muggy, July morning in Fayetteville. They felt safe there, as if the dense canopy of leafy branches could protect them, or that the rushing wind would scoop them up and carry them on invisible wings to a happier land. Hiding behind the thick, knobby trunk, Rex started fantasizing about floating away to a far off kingdom where men weren’t drunkards and didn’t hit their sons. Ironically, it would be his dad who would make that fanciful wish of floating away come true.
One night when Rex was 8, he had a terrible toothache and couldn’t sleep. He was trying to be quiet, but his sobbing was loud enough for his father to hear. Irritated, Lendy brought his son a small amount of light brown juice. “Drink it.”
“Yes, sir,” Rex whimpered. He sat up as Lendy handed the boy a small glass. Rex gulped down the liquid that smelled like a solvent you would sterilize the bathroom with. He tried his best not to gag at the unexpected harsh taste, while his father stood over him and glared, the crease between his eyes deep. Rex gave him back the empty shot glass without saying a word. His father turned and walked out of the room. “Now stop whining,” he ordered as he shut the door.
Rex lay back down pulling the covers over his head, feeling small about crying in front of his dad. A few minutes later, his toothache went away and, even though he was awake, he felt as though he were in a dream and his bed was floating around the room.
The next day, Sunday, Rex and Roger were out playing Hit the Target, in the backyard. “I had a toothache last night,” Rex said, “and dad brought me some of his whiskey.” Rex picked up a smooth, round, gray-colored rock that fit perfectly in between his thumb and forefinger. “Well it was stinky so I think it was moonshine.” He tossed the rock two feet up in the air a couple of times before he cocked his arm back and threw the rock as hard as he could at his Folgers coffee can.
“No way! Dad gave you some of his moonshine? He never lets anyone have any.”
The boys were with their dad and his buddy once when the men were making moonshine on the friends back patio. Rex and Roger watched that day as the men stirred cornmeal, sugar, and yeast into a large rusting vat full of water. Lendy told them it was barbecue marinade. The boys knew it was alcohol by the odor, even before the older men carried on about the word moonshine, which came from the verb moonshining. Overhearing the conversation that day, the boys learned that moonshining meant activity was being done late at night, by the light of the moon, so nobody would know.
“I can’t believe dad gave you some. Maybe I should tell him I have a toothache,” Roger went on.
“It tasted terrible, it burned my mouth. Then I felt real funny, in a good way. I want to have some more. Have you ever had any?”
“No. I asked one time why he liked it so much and he told me it was none of my business.” Roger whizzed his rock at an empty plastic coolant container.
Rex raised an eyebrow. “Follow me.” His predisposition to addiction was already taking control, but like a frog in warming water, he had no idea his troubles were heating up.
The boys tiptoed through the quiet house, careful not to wake their mother, asleep from taking her afternoon Valium. Lendy was at the local tavern and Lisa was in her bedroom doing homework.
“You go first. I’ll stand guard,” Rex whispered, peaking around the kitchen threshold. “Coast is clear.” Roger held the container over the kitchen sink and twisted the cap off of the fullest bottle.
By the end of summer, the boys had developed a habit of sneaking sips out of the bottles that neatly lined the kitchen counter. Some held brown liquids and in others, the liquid was clear, like water. Some were big jugs with handles, others were tall and slender. The different colored labels fascinated Rex. Although he could not read all the words, he knew what was in the bottles – his dream world.
Little Rex no longer thought twice about the gasoline flavor or the acrid smell. Even the moonshine became palatable. He anticipated how the alcohol heated his body and left a burning sensation as the liquid traveled through his insides, down to his stomach. He craved the fuzziness that came over him a few minutes after ingesting alcohol. He wanted to be in that magical world where his body felt airy as if it really could float, and no matter how hard the sadness knocked on his heart, was not allowed in.