Fold it in half, fold it in half, fold in third, third, third. Fold it in half, fold it in half, fold in third, third, third.
My sister and I are folding towels that have been freshly washed and plopped on the couch. This is the mantra I repeat to myself with each towel to make absolutely certain that I am folding to my very imposing and very scary stepmother’s precise instructions. It’s a little song and it’s creating for me a pleasant rhythm to mindlessly complete one of her seemingly mindless chores.
Fold it in half, fold it in half, fold in third, third, third.
It’s Saturday morning and we, the children of the household, are cleaning. The older stepsister is in the upstairs bathroom scrubbing the toilet. The younger stepsister is downstairs in the basement with my sister and I dusting. The very scary stepmother is upstairs vacuuming. The father is outside in the garage, ostensibly following orders and straightening the mess he creates wherever he goes. We, the children, know that this is probably not happening. He’s just listening to Garth Brooks, drinking Coors Light and occasionally banging around so that the very scary stepmother thinks he’s cleaning.
Fold it in half, fold it in half, fold in third, third, third.
“Cyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyle!!!” the vacuuming stops and the very scary stepmother shrieks my name as only born and bred Midwesterners can do, with a vowel that is equal parts terrifying and profoundly irritating. My sister and I look up in unison at one another. Our mother never screams like this. Ever. “Get up here and help me lift this damn thing!!!”
My sister’s eyes widen and she shakes her head silently and solemnly at me. We both know that the stepmother has other reasons for beckoning. I am twelve and lean and sinewy and lifting anything is not my forte. Running to get things, yes. Lifting things, not so much.
I drop the folded in half, folded in half towel and sprint up the basement stairs.
The very imposing and very scary stepmother is in the fancy living room. The living room that has the very expensive floral patterned sofa and love seat where I am expressly forbidden to sit if I have been outside and “sweating like a boy”. Before meeting this woman, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a “fancy” living room, nor that there was any other way to sweat.
There is also a fancy bathroom with decorative embroidered towels that I have been shrieked at for drying my hands on. Though I couldn’t make out everything that she shrieked, as I do not have the frequency range of a dog, I did catch that some towels are only meant to look at. Why anyone would want to look at a towel is astounding.
This woman and her fancy things thoroughly baffle me.
“Lift this thing,” she points at the standup vacuum cleaner as I bound to the top of the stairs. “I need to vacuum the cushions.”
“We’re going to vacuum the cou-”
“We’re going to vacuum the sofa with the vacuum?” I cannot help but think about how ridiculous it would look to vacuum the cushions of the couch- sofa- with an upright vacuum cleaner. I imagine myself standing on the cushions and carefully guiding the vacuum cleaner back and forth.
“Don’t be a smart ass! God, you kids,” she mumbles the last word and I’m fairly certain that she said “hicks” and not “kids”, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt because she’s closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose- a good indicator that her top is about to blow, Vesuvius-style, and lay waste to all children. She takes a deep breath and slowly exhales. “I’m going to use the hose, but it won’t reach unless you hold the main part up. I can’t do both at the same time.”
She removes the hose and the little attachment with the brush that I had always assumed was just there for looks and I strain to lift up the big part of the vacuum. Flicking the switch, she pours over the cushions, getting deep into the crevasses and sweeping wide swaths over the seat back. I’ve never seen anyone so detailed in my life.
I’m beginning to get panicky about dropping the vacuum cleaner when she finally decides that she’s satisfied and motions for me to put the thing down. I flip the switch with a sigh of relief.
“Do you need anything else?” I ask as she reattaches the hose and the little brush thing.
“Yeah, would you go and see what your dad is doing down there?”
“Go downstairs and see what your dad is doing.”
There’s a door to the garage in the basement and I slink back down the stairs. I know what he’s doing in the garage- I just don’t want to be the messenger that gets the fight started. Once the fight starts, it’s going to last the rest of the day. They’ll scream and they’ll shout and one of them will probably leave. Each of the children will have to pick a side and, if your side leaves, you’re expected to accompany them in the car and listen as they rant and rave and hurl insults at the other and the whole afternoon is ruined. The house goes on lockdown. No one goes anywhere- no friends, no baseball games on the side street, no riding bikes. Nothing.
And G-d help you if you choose the wrong side. There will be hell to pay when the fight is over.
“What are you doing?” my sister whispers as I walk past her and toward the garage door.
I nod toward the door.
“She told me to see what he’s doing.”
“Oh God,” she starts folding towels faster. My stepsister, equally fearful of what’s undoubtedly to come, begins dusting with a purpose as I walk to the door.
I take a deep breath and hold of the doorknob for a moment, steeling myself. It turns suddenly and the door bursts open toward me. The basement is abruptly flooded with Garth Brooks and the smell of cheap beer and grease. I leap back, flattening myself between the door and the wall so as not to be crushed by my dad as he barrels into the basement.
“What the fuck are you doing back there?” He pulls the door back and shouts over the din of “The Thunder Rolls”.
“Lezlie told me to come and see what you were doing.”
“Goddammit,” he huffs under his breath as I slink back over toward the pile of towels.
He slams the door and Garth and the thunder get sucked back into the black hole that is the man’s garage. He is a tinkerer and has an endless stream of half-finished projects and greasy used car parts and grand ideas that never make it out of the purgatory of his developmental process.
“I’m folding the fuckin’ towels!” he shouts up the stairs and comes over to where my sister and I- his children, G-d help us- are. He brusquely grabs a towel.
There is black grease on his hands, but I keep quiet.
“You don’t fold the fucking towels!!!” She shrieks down at him. We can hear a bucket being dropped and a mop handle hit the rail of the kitchen counter. We, the children, cross our collective fingers and toes that this momentary gust will not flare up into a full-fledged storm.
“I can fold the goddamn towels, damnit!” He shouts as he fumbles around with the corners of one of the decorative towels.
“Dad,” I say as meekly as I can. “That’s one of the fancy ones. We can’t-”
“Fuck her I can’t,” he says as he continues to fumble. The golden embroidery on the cranberry red towel looks like a flare for help that I know isn’t coming. I cross my toes harder.
“Fine,” she sighs from upstairs. “Do whatever you want.”
“That’s right,” he puffs up his chest with pride. “Remember that, Cyle. Men do whatever they want.”
My sister looks up at him. She is eight and so cocksure of herself that I wonder how we are related sometimes. Because he is looking down at me, preening like a peacock, he does not see her precipitously raised eyebrow. Her mouth hangs agape and the right side of her face is scrunched in disbelief as her chin juts forward. She picks up another towel, mocks how he fumbles with the corners as she silently mouths, “Men do whatever they want” and goes back to folding.
I half nod, but say nothing. Fold it in half, fold it in half, fold in third, third, third.
“You know,” he says as he puts the diagonal corners of the towel together, makes a triangle and then another and another. “I actually do know how to fold a towel like you guys do.”
We both look up at him. He is not a big man, his beer gut being the exception to that. He just seems big because he is so unpredictable. His dark, hooded eyes look down at us from beneath a cap that promotes some tool brand and he smiles a little.
He picks up a large bath towel and, with a flourish, folds it in half, folds it in half again and then into crisp thirds. He tosses it gently onto the pile we have made and it comes to rest there perfectly and pristinely. We compare his folded towel to our own and realize, with some disbelief, that his is better.
He does this sometimes. Despite the perpetual beer breath and the foul smell he emits when he sweats (he, inexplicably, is allowed on the fancy couches), he has these moments of complete clarity and perfect skill wherein my sister and I are convinced that he could do anything that he chose to. In such moments, I would not be surprised to see him levitate. He can catch a fish on first cast, turn donuts in his jeep in empty parking lots, shoot an empty and crushed beer can into a trash can fifty feet away. I’ve even seen him, despite the beer gut that ought to give him gravitational pull, do a handstand on my skateboard while going down the short sloped driveway.
“See?” He says. “But that’s the secret, you guys. You have to pretend that you don’t know what you’re doing so that she won’t make you do it.”
“But doesn’t she try to teach you?” We ask.
“Sure, but I always play stupid. Like I’m a fuckin’ retard who can’t figure out what she’s saying. It takes a few minutes, but then she always gets mad and sends me out to the garage,” he smiles, pleased and proud of the great wisdom he’s just distilled to his young progeny.
He turns and heads back out to the garage, slamming the door behind him.
“Cyyyyyyyyyyyle!” she shrieks from upstairs. “Refold the ones he did!”
Normally, I can’t stand these guys, but they’re the only thing on, so I’m sort of forced to listen to “Car Talk” as the hosts cackle and chortle at every insipid pun and stupid play on words they make while trying to solve people’s car troubles on NPR.
“You’re on Car Talk,” the Boston hard consonant and warbling vowel invites another guest to explain to the Tappett brothers some vehicular malady.
“Hi, I’m Jed and I’m in Woodland Hills, California,” the caller introduces himself. He sounds young.
“How old are you, kid?”
“I’m fourteen,” Jed says, sounding fairly uncertain that he’s consulting the right people. I don’t much blame him.
“Fourteen! Wow! What’s your trouble, Jed? You’re too young to drive?” The brothers laugh. No one else thinks it’s funny.
“Well, my parents hire me to clean their car-”
“Because they can’t getcha to clean your room?!” More chortling.
“Well, no. Because I asked them if I could do it to make some money.”
The brothers quiet down. “Really?” They say. “You asked them for a job? And cleaning their car?”
“Yeah, I’m saving up to buy a guitar.”
“Really? Are you going to play bluegrass?”
“Well, then we don’t want to talk to you.” More chortling. “No, but seriously, Jed. Good for you. You’re living the American Dream. Starting from the bottom and moving up, yeah? So what’s the trouble?”
“Well, it’s the paint-”
“Oh, Gawd. Didja scratch it?”
“Didja you bash it?”
“Didja tisket and tasket a green and yellow basket?!” Explosive chortling.
Good lord, gentlemen. Let the kid speak his peace.
“No, no- I can’t get it to shine right,” Jed says. I think I hear them wiping tears from their eyes.
“Wha-?!” The brothers stop chortling in unison.
“I said that I can’t get it to shine right. I scrub and I scrub and I polish it how the directions say to, but I always leave one or two streaks.”
“One or two, you say?”
“Yeah, it’s really irritating. I’ve spent hours trying to figure out ways to leave it streak-free, but I can’t seem to get at anything and I wonder if you guys could help me.”
“WOW! Jed, you’re quite a guy, here. What kinda car do your parents drive?”
“Well, it’s the RX that’s the problem.”
“So tell us how you’re cleaning it now.”
“Well, I hose it off and then scrub using a soapy water bucket and a clean water bucket-”
“Whaddya scrub with?”
“A sheepskin mitt.”
“Man, Jed- you’ve really got your act together!”
“Well, I researched it on Google first.”
“Ah, Google, knower of all knows.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So you scrub and you rinse and do you polish and dry?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“‘Of course’ he says. And you use Armor All for the wheels and whatnot?”
“And when you put the detailer on, are you making like the Karate Kid?”
“Wax on, wax off?” the kid is starting to enjoy their little repartee.
“Yeah, yeah. Wax on, wax off.”
“Well, kid, I’ve got some advice for you,” the guy pauses for a second, ostensibly to build up the drama of the moment. “Stop what you’re doing right now.”
“Just stop it. You’re doing too good a job! If you keep doing this good a job, imagine the expectation you’ll build up for yourself!” The chortling begins again.
“Yeah,” the brother sees where the other is going. “And just think about how you’re making the other fourteen year olds look! I betcha that there are parents up and down your street that hit their fourteen year olds over the head and point at you and say, ‘Now look at Jed! He details his parent’s cars! Why don’t YOU ever detail MY car?!’ And the other fourteen year olds HATE you, Jed! They hate you because you make ’em look bad!”
“Yeah yeah yeah!” the other brother says. “You’re makin’ ’em look bad and they hate you! And just think about what’ll happen when you get a wife and you start cleaning her car like this! She’ll have you makin’ dinner and doin’ the dishes and the laundry and all sorts of things that you don’t want to do! Ya gotta stop now, kid. You’re settin’ yourself up for a lifetime of work!” The chortling is so loud and so enthusiastic that I wonder if one or the other- or both- will pass out from lack of oxygen.
“So the moral of the story, Jed,” one brother calms down a bit to distill some wisdom. “Is to embrace mediocrity. Embrace it and live it and then, when your day comes to be married and have a wife, you can just stay out in the garage or on the couch or playing your guitar totally unbothered by her. Embrace it, Jed. Lower your expectations, don’t jump over the bar. Leave a few streaks here and there and your life will be all the better for it.”
As the brothers chortle and laugh at their joke, I consider the irony of striving for mediocrity, chortle to myself alone in my car, and turn the radio off.
Reader- The depiction of the Dad in this essay may strike some of you as remarkably different than the way that I normally speak of my Dad. There is good reason for this. The Dad in this essay is my biological father whom I usually refer to as “Father” (if I refer to him at all). My Dad (or, the man I refer to as Dad) is actually my stepfather, but he is most assuredly my Dad. My apologies for any confusion. -c.