“A goal can play an essential role in the psychological situation without being clearly
present in consciousness.”
I. Early Indications of Asynchronous Development
Half-year older than John-John, when he saluted his late daddy, Gee-Gee still drank from a bottle, refusing cups, although she’d said her first full sentence, in response to a question, at nine months. (Exasperated Dad to crying infant: “Baby, what do you want?” Gee-Gee: “I want my Mama!”)
Now Mama, watching the funeral on TV, sobbed in the living room, Dad characteristically helpless to console. Bottles were glass in 1963, and down for her nap in the nursery, Gee-Gee, imperious princess, flung hers at the wall, summoning parents, shocked, scared, then giddy with relief, their sadness paused.
Everyone moved on. (President Johnson! Mandatory cup-drinking!)
Decades later, in the grad school change management class she would read Kurt Lewin and remember what she’d already known at three when she killed multiple birds with one glass bottle while burning a bridge when she came to it: “There are no bad interventions, as long as there is good timing.”
II. Further Explorations of Covert Influence in Family Systems
Mom got me drunk the first time, on the Everclear and lemonade she was mixing for the
Bicentennial party. I was 16 and indifferent; we’d been bickering about Dad as if he were not three feet away organizing his project. He loved fireworks, meaning the contraband he would buy on the black market and set off at our cabin by the river, mostly bottle rockets and Roman candles, which at least were pretty, and the cherry bombs I hated because they were much louder and even more dangerous than firecrackers.
Something about the way Mom handed me that white styrofoam cup told me to drink, not overthink.
She was ahead of her time when it came to her attitude toward Dad’s antics: trying to sneak us into the All-Iowa Fair without paying, showing up like an uninvited chaperone at school social events, going outside in the morning to grab the newspaper in his briefs. I’d plead with her to stop him and she’d say she had no control over him—that if she did, she’d make him go to the dentist; he’d had a bad experience in the Army and ever since had numbed his teeth with liquor.
His Bicentennial scheme was to make even relatively harmless, legal sparklers into something utterly terrifying.
Next to our cabin was a working railroad bridge across the river, spanning steep hills on each side, about a quarter-mile across. The freights whizzed by a few times a day, and night, occasionally waking us up; the Amtrak passenger trains were a rarer sight, and my mother would always wave to them, at least once while sunbathing topless.
There was a walkway and railing on the bridge, put in after two teenagers, a boy and a
girl, had been up there when a train came upon them, and they had jumped onto the rocky hill next to what would become our property and died. This happened before I was born and the story lacked satisfying detail. If they were in the middle, why did they not jump into the river? If they were too near the hill for that, why were they not able to scramble to the level ground at the end of the bridge in time?
Still, I thought of them every time a train went by.
And having been on that hill where the bridge began when trains sped past, we all knew that the wind it generated would render the narrow walkway and flimsy guardrail useless. Yet my dad was on a mission to stick a lit sparkler into the wood of log post, all the way across.
Rendering his gory death inevitable.
But via the miracle of the medicinal administration of Everclear, I dozed through it all. My dad survived nearly three more decades, long enough to lose his every tooth, one by one; and the Polaroids my parents’ friends took that night from the banks of the river, featuring a glowing, patriotic grin, all the way across, were stunning.
Julie Benesh’s writing has been in Tin House Magazine, Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Gulf Stream, Berkeley Fiction Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other places, and has earned an Illinois Arts Council Grant. Julie got her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, lives in Chicago with two cats and a lot of books, and works day jobs as a professor of organizational leadership and management consultant. In her spare time she is polishing her first story collection, “Habits of Happiness and Other Conundra.”