Surfside Beach is connected to the mainland by a string of chemical plants. Vast plantations of pipes and cooling towers squat over the shallow waters of the bay. At night, illuminated by security lights, the plants were strangely beautiful. In the daytime, they made me think of cancer and three-headed fish.
We were traversing this no-man’s-land because Katy had a mission. She had found an old picture of Brian onstage, naked except for a cigarette, a fedora, and a strategically placed guitar. We were driving to the Brazosport Mall to get it transferred onto t-shirts for the show.
“I want a shirt too,” Waylon said from the back. “I want a shirt with Uncle Brian on it.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I’m not sure that would be appropriate.”
“Oh, what the hell,” Katy protested. “He wants a t-shirt of his donor.”
“Well, you can’t wear it to school,” I said, weakly. What the hell. It was a hilarious picture.
We were just coming over the bridge to the mainland, and Katy pulled over at a store called Buc-cee’s, which was a combination convenience store, surf shop, and t-shirt emporium. They sold diesel fuel, bikinis, flip flops, and blow-up rafts, along with hamburgers, chicken wings, chewing tobacco, beer, and homemade fig preserves.
Waylon was immediately drawn to a large display of sand pails and shovels. Katy headed for the children’s clothes and started flipping through the racks for a size 4 black t-shirt. I decided to try on floppy sun hats. If you can’t beat the consumers, I figured, you might as well get something good.
“Mommy, Mommy, can I have this?”
Waylon was dragging an enormous plastic ship through the racks of bathing suits and trunks. When it was clear that he was addressing Katy as “Mommy,” everyone in the store, from the teenage girl in the bikini aisle to the trucker waiting for his food order, did a double take. I couldn’t tell if Katy noticed.
“Sure,” she said automatically. “Check out this t-shirt.” She held up a black t-shirt with an anchor on the sleeve that said “Surfside Beach.” It matched the tattoos on her arms.
“Yes!” Waylon exclaimed. They high-fived.
The line at the cash register was long. One vacationing family was buying snacks for a day on Surfside. But mostly it was chemical plant workers, grabbing coffee and donuts before reporting to shifts at Dow and Shintech. Katy scooped up Waylon and held him while we waited. “My boy,” she said, kissing his head. “My boy is going to get a shirt just like Mommy’s.” Waylon nodded enthusiastically.
“If anybody asks you who’s on the back, what do you say?”
“You say, ‘that’s my Donor!'”
That night, after practice, Brian was even more nervous. He sat silently through dinner, answering his wife’s cheerful queries about band practice with terse, one-word answers. Kathy’s daughter, Jessica, was visiting from college, and I felt bad, because Brian’s nerves were casting a pall over their mother-daughter time.
“We could build a bonfire on the beach tonight?” Kathy asked, hopefully. Brian shrugged and stared at his food. The silence was awkward, unbearable. All of the women, myself included, immediately began to fill it with airy small talk. But when Brian left the room, Kathy scraped his plate with barely contained fury, her lips pressed together in a thin line. After the dishes were done, she wiped the formica table in sharp, precise circles.
I hovered between helping and not helping. The whole scene was like a rerun of the family gatherings of my early adolescence. I knew the script by heart: men set the mood, women set the table…and cook, and clean up. As a teenager, I’d vowed to resist my assigned role in this drama. Now, stuck in the beach house, I felt angsty and oddly irritated with Katy. I didn’t sign on for this much heterosexuality! Why are you making me sit through this? I wanted to hold my hands over Waylon’s eyes. Don’t watch!
My angst was tempered by a guilty sense of sympathy. I guessed Kathy wasn’t used to seeing her husband this nervous. They had met long after he retired from Rokitt. In her world, Brian was a caseworker for people with developmental disabilities. I had seen him with some of his clients when we visited Michigan. He was relaxed, patient, sweet.
After dinner, Brian retired to the back porch to smoke. Everyone else gathered in the living room. It was clear that no bonfire was going to materialize.
“Mom, can I watch one more Thomas?” Waylon asked.
I felt ambivalent. I knew he was bored, but I didn’t want to be rude, hogging the TV with kiddie shows.
“Ask Uncle Brian if he wants to use the TV,” I answered. Just then, Brian walked in the door and started to cross the room. Waylon followed him across the linoleum floor.
“Can I watch TV?” he asked, tugging on Brian’s shorts.
“I don’t know,” Brian said, sullenly. His whole body recoiled from the responsibility that the question implied. “Ask your mom.”
The next day, Waylon and I escaped to the beach to jump waves. Every few minutes he yelled, “This is so fun!” as if he couldn’t quite believe his luck. I felt the same way. As a child, I would stay in the surf for so long that my body could feel the rise and fall of the waves in my bed at night. Now Waylon’s excitement was making me feel like we shared a special bond.
When he got winded, I held him on my hip and jumped for him. Waylon told me stories about preschool. I told him stories about childhood vacations. We talked until I ran out of stories, but he still wasn’t ready to go ashore.
“Are you excited for the big rock show tonight?” I asked.
“Uh-huh.” He shook his head. We’d been taking him to shows since he was a month old.
“Are you going to dance for Uncle Brian?” I asked.
“Yes, and I’m going to sing with the band. On the stage.” he informed me.
“Oh.” This was the first time I’d heard of this plan. I didn’t want to smash his dreams, but I also didn’t want him to be disappointed if it didn’t work out.
“Um, Sweetie, Mommy is singing with the band. Did anyone tell you that you were going to sing with the band?”
“No,” he said serenely. “I just am.”
Read Part IV here.