We’re a Happy Family

Jim Morrison pegged himself The Lizard King. I was The Scorpion Queen.

They slipped through the cracks like roaches into our south Austin country home, and while my older brother sustained numerous attacks, I somehow avoided a tail lashing. Mom once forced him to put on his shoes as he complained and protested, “hurt, hurt” but Kirk always complained. He emerged from the womb complaining so Mom thought nothing of it until a scorpion emerged from his shoe, but I was spared the trauma. I once toddled up to her holding out my hand smiling with boastful pride at my captured treasure, “see, see?” The scorpion crawled around in my tiny cupped hand as mom stood terrified, finally grasping my wrist and flinging my new pet into the air.

I was too young to know how good we had it back then. I vaguely remember the house on Circle Drive with the steep rollercoaster hill sloping down into our long driveway. If we had neighbors they were far enough away to remain anonymous. Surrounded by a forest of oak trees, cedar trees and limestone rocks, the Oak Hill community resembled a Norman Rockwell painting back in the early 1980’s. Fireflies lit up the night sky as I zigzagged across our never-ending yard chasing the yellow blinking lights. Absolute magic to a child, but we were banned from keeping them in mason jars. Mom felt sorry for the lightning bugs so Kirk and I were forced to catch and release. Never mind she let me squish grub worms with a rock in her vegetable garden.

In my mind’s eye, our cream colored limestone house was a mansion, but years later when my dad took me to see it as a teenager I was surprised at its modest size. I actually thought he had the wrong place. Growing up, my memories of my father are limited at best. I’ve been told I was a daddy’s girl, and I imagine it’s true. Most little girls are, or would like to be anyway. Along with selling real estate, he also had an auto parts business called Checkered Flag, and to this day those little black and white race flags remind me of him, as does the smell of boot polish. He used to sit down next to the fireplace on our dark brown shag carpet and polish up his cowboy boots. After dinner, he’d lie down in front of the television and fall asleep snoring on his oversized velvet green pillow. I might have curled up next to him, or maybe it’s just a memory I wished existed. Even at that young age, no older than three or four, I could feel the tension mounting in our south Austin mansion. I remember asking my mother, “when’s Guy Guy coming home?”

Cursed with a severe speech impediment, my vocabulary was a string of made up words as I substituted letters for the ones I couldn’t master. I discarded “Kirk” altogether and called him Bubba, blanket became haba, yellow became lello, truck became fu—well you get the picture. My mother was the only person who could decode my foreign tongue. The rest of the family just looked down at me and smiled as I talked up a storm of nonsensical gibberish. Mom was an elementary schoolteacher, English no less, so maybe that helped with the translation process. Adored by every student who had the pleasure of sitting in her colorful classroom, she was the kind of teacher who enjoyed yearly visits from high school students looking for hugs and words of encouragement. Big, hulking sixteen year old boys would return to their old stomping grounds not to vandalize or terrorize, but searching for that petite little schoolteacher who changed their lives forever.

A few days before giving birth to me, my mother was hit with some pretty bad news. The doctor voiced his concerns that I might be born with limited mental capacities due to a narrow umbilical cord preventing blood flow to my brain. In other words, there was a chance that I might be retarded. My mother cried all night on the phone with her sister but as far as I know, I turned out okay save for a slight mathematical handicap. On the surface, life was good back in those days. We were an upper-middle class family with a nice home in the rolling hills of South Austin, my parents an attractive couple with two blonde-headed kids and a dog—we really were the picture-perfect family. Saturday nights were spent at our favorite pizzeria, the one with the cartoon room in the back where I sat and ate my pepperoni pizza watching Looney Tunes with the rest of the privileged youth. When the old black and white episodes of the Three Stooges were inevitably played, I’d toddle back over to my parent’s table and interrupt a conversation that probably wasn’t going too well. On the ride home, dad (despite his need for speed) stayed in the right lane so Kirk and I could enjoy the deep dips in the road created by the numerous street gutters lining the curb. We took bicycle rides through the woods together with me strapped into the plastic child’s seat on the back of my dad’s 10-speed. Blue Boy often followed along, his silvery coat disappearing and reappearing through the thick trees. On one such journey we encountered a small brush fire that left a lasting impression on my young mind. I remember being terrified of the burning field, convinced that our horse-like Weimaraner would soon meet his fate as he inched closer to the flames. Although dad reassured me that Blue Boy would not willingly cast himself into the fire, I was inconsolable.

It’s the trauma that leaves its mark. Despite all the pleasant memories that drift in and out of the exhausted mind, it’s the trauma that sticks around like a well-preserved snapshot. One of my earliest memories of Circle Drive is when I braved the pigeon cage my dad had constructed from some scrap wood and chicken wire. I don’t recall the exact count, but judging by the size of the cage we probably housed at least twenty or so homing pigeons. Some of them even had names, none of which come to mind except for one – one beloved bird named Silver Wing. He was the friendliest of the flock and my father’s favorite, so you can imagine my excitement when he flew down and perched directly upon my small head. Mom was a bit apprehensive but I beamed from ear to ear as though all my childhood dreams had come true in that one spectacular moment. Silver Wing, however, dashed those dreams. In classic birds-gone-bad behavior, he rudely left his mark all over my red-ribbon curls. Once again, I was inconsolable.

Periodically, dad would drive out somewhere and release the homing pigeons, no doubt impressed when every last one of them found its way back to the nest. Eventually though, one by one, they trickled off. Silver Wing stuck around longer than the rest, but he too failed to return home one day leaving my father somewhat broken-hearted. Not long after, when Blue Boy also failed to return, our days on Circle Drive came to a close. One of my last memories of that house is watching a thunderstorm roll in from the screened back porch. Streak lightning splintered across the night sky as the rain lightly brushed against our faces when the wind changed directions. Blue Boy had been gone for a couple of days, which was nothing out of the ordinary, but he always returned home when the rains came. My parents sat in silence waiting, watching for that horse-like dog to appear from the darkness of the woods, but the storm came and went without a trace of him. Soon after, we traded in our country living for a house in the suburbs. Dad sold his auto parts store and took to selling real estate full time, and before long, Guy Guy also failed to return home.


Author: Lindsay Niemann

Writer | Graphic Artist