Excerpt from SUPERBABY SAVES SLUGVILLE
By the time my little brother showed up, everyone was pretty much sick and tired of the whole baby thing. The Teamsters were on strike, so our dad was walking picket lines up and down the California coast instead of delivering meat to North Beach and Chinatown butcher shops in his blood-stinky van. Our mom tossed out her hospital slippers, put on black leather pumps, and hopped on a streetcar headed downtown, where her secretarial job was waiting for her to come back after she popped the little bugger out. She was happier than anything to return to the much-needed overtime and martinis with the “kids,” which is what she called anyone her age without children.
Our grandmother had recently gotten divorced. She was finally living the high life, which basically meant her grand-maternal instinct rolled over and stuck all four legs straight up in the air. Instead of enjoying after-school hours in the park with her baby grandson the way she had with me, Grandma spent her afternoons hell-bent on losing the nest egg at Bingo and shopping for dresses that shot off sparks when she did the rumba or the cha-cha. Grandpa made himself rather scarce in those days, but he showed his red face every now and again to scare the crap out of us, borrow a sawbuck, and then sail away in his beautiful Checker cab number 584, which gleamed like a yellow submarine. My youthful, plentiful aunts and uncle were busy wasting time and pocket money on the so-called Summer of Love, so the chore of babysitting my brother naturally fell to me.
We spent our afternoons in Grandma’s front yard. Like a jailbird, I separated rocks from dirt clods and dirt from turds in the dried-up cement square, while my brother keened for hours on end in a small wooden box in a shady corner. At first, our antics attracted a slew of visitors. The Hinterlanders, whom our uncle dubbed the Weiners, complained they couldn’t hear Merv Griffin over my brother’s caterwauls. The Bossanovachiks claimed rearranging the turds confused their dog Maxie (whom our uncle called Muttonhead), which gave her the runs. Bonnie J., who had just recently moved in and didn’t know too much about our family, came over to introduce me to her dolly (big whoop), and brought candy for my brother, which I instantly confiscated, announcing that his allergy to sugar might be fatal.
After a few months, my brother’s all-out hollering subsided to an incessant whine. The Hinterlanders turned up the TV. The Bossanovachiks switched Maxie’s dog food. Cobwebs collected in my brother’s ears and pigeons came to roost on him when the fog broke and the sun came through just right. It was hell cleaning their snow-white shit from his playsuit; the acid devoured the polyester nearly clear through to his skin.
About six months in, my brother got hip to the idea that the standard baby bullshit wasn’t going to fly at our house, and that extraordinary measures would be required in order to get any attention. It was on toward winter now, and our pleasant hours in the rock pile had been forcibly relocated indoors. One rainy afternoon, our aunts and I were all home, watching my brother in his cage in the corner of the living room. The crying and whining had ceased; now all my brother did was sit, wobble from side to side and chew on the end of a raggedy blanky.
“Do you think he’s hungry?” one aunt asked.
“Maybe he’s sleepy,” suggested another.
“He looks like he’s gotta go,” said a third.
“I think he’s spying on us,” said the fourth.
I was watching Merv Griffin and plucking the gold threads from the arm of Grandma’s scratchy Chesterfield. I said nothing.
After watching my brother wobble became totally boring, our aunts left the room to smoke a cigarette or make a phone call to a boy or girlfriend to complain about my brother’s boring behavior. When they returned, my brother was out of his cage, on his back in the middle of the floor.
“What happened?” they asked.
“Merv sang,” I said, braiding the gold threads into a wristband.
“No,” they said, “your brother.”
He was lying on his back, raggedy blanky akimbo, glowing in a kind of stunned silence, for once not eating or shitting or sleeping or boring the crap out of us. We picked him up from the floor, returned him to his cage, then went back to ruining our lives and the furniture.