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THE GERTRUDE TREE

A MEMOIR

(an excerpt)

"Lord, what fools these mortal be."

             William Shakespeare

       Startled by a sudden stream of profanity spewing from the master bathroom, I turned in the direction of my father’s voice and gasped.  Flying missile-like five feet off the carpet and hurtling headlong toward the bookcase was my brother's little body.  “Can’t even take a goddamned crap in peace!” Dad bellowed. 

       My brother, Robbie, barely two at the time, had been watching Popeye cartoons with me on TV in our parents’ sitting room.  I don’t recall where my sister, Kathy, was— probably in her room cutting all the hair off her Cinderella dolls. 

       It was the governess’s day off and I, all of eleven, was supposed to be keeping an eye on my little brother.  Popeye’s misadventures were more engrossing, however.  So, when Dad walked by on his way to the bathroom, I hardly noticed the crinkling sounds made by the rubber pants Robbie wore over his diaper as he toddled after him.

       Until I was alarmed by my father’s shouts and my brother sailing through the air.  Had it not been for the chaise upon which Robbie landed in a heap, he might have broken his neck against the bookshelves.  

       Bloodied slightly about the mouth where his baby teeth had cut into his lower lip, he began wailing.  I ran to him and gathered him in my arms, holding him until he quieted.  But the moment I sat down with him in front of the TV, he began to bawl again.  Rocking him in my lap, I tried to distract him.  “Look, there’s your buddy Popeye!” I said, as I pointed to the whiffling sailor wielding his magical can of spinach.

       Dad emerged from the bathroom then.  “Sonofabitch!” he roared, marching across the carpet in our direction.  “Why the hell do you have to park yourselves here, for Christsake?  Go watch the TV in the Goddamned playroom!”

       Instinctively, I curled my body around my brother’s, bracing myself for the blows usually accompanying Dad’s rage.  But for some reason, he merely stomped past us, emitting a torrent of curse words as he stormed from the room.  

       Relieved, I sat up and checked the damage to Robbie’s mouth.  He whimpered as I wiped a dot of blood from the inside of his lip with my thumb.  “You’re okay,” I told him, “you’re okay”—just as Popeye exclaimed, “Well, shiver me timbers!”

 

       The scandal that occurred thirty-three years after Dad hurled Robbie from the bathroom was just one of the aftereffects of our upbringing.  My brother, sister and I may have grown up with every advantage you could want, but we grew up deprived.  Just because you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth doesn’t mean you get to eat a lot of velvet fudge cake.

       To the outside world it seemed our family had it all.  But beneath the surface of our lives there was a void as deep as the Mariana Trench...

 

(SDSU 25th Annual Writers Conference, Editors Choice Award - originally titled Eating Cake)