This story appeared in The St. Petersburg Review, Issue 3.
My mom moved us back to Miami from London a few weeks after my sixth birthday. The idea’d been to hide from my old man post-divorce. Dad told a guy named Chiles how he might go at mom with pruning shears if she tried to strongarm him for alimony. Chiles being my dad’s best bud. Chiles being a legal client. Chiles, three times acquitted for the attempted murder of his three wives, acquitted with the help of my old man, an up-and-coming Florida defense lawyer. My old man, one of six adopted sons of Florida’s most celebrated defense lawyer. The grandpa who croaked with a joint in his mouth in his living room chair grinning while we lived cozy in a London suburb. A lawyer for rock stars and boxers immortalized on screen. My old man, not Jewish, but lead counsel for Miami Beach’s biggest Jewish mob kingpin. Jewish like my mom and me. Me, six years old with an imported English accent I wouldn’t shed for a year.
My three London memories: a field full of pre-schoolers pretending to be doctors and jabbing me in the eyes with twigs and sticking blades of grass up my nose. Telling me how the dead don’t cry. A week later mom dumps me there and a little girl pulls my hand and says let’s play dead again. I begged. I clasped her hand. Mom said, “Go play dead, Josh.”
So I played.
Two: Dad shows up at our doorstep. Mom goes all night-light colored. I say who’s that. He stubs his cigarette, puts it in his pants pocket and cabs it back to Heathrow. Three: Mom loves fame. Mom’s engaged to millionaire producer of London band with an animal’s name. They have their own show on the telly. This producer knew Elvis and still grieves. This producer gives me a foot-long wooden matchstick that’s really a lighter for my fifth birthday. This producer poses no threat to my mom, so we pack it up and fly home after three years and change overseas. Escaping my murderous old man as long excursion abroad. My old man told Chiles about carving and hacking, Chiles the attempted wife murderer. Chiles, my mom’s pre-emptive rebound in the final year of marriage. Chiles and my old man: Best buds to this day.
Now six with a London accent, friendless in a South Miami suburb. My mom grabs the first kid she sees, a messy blond bespectacled runt named Christopher. Mom tells his mom our sons should be friends. Christopher lives with mom, grandma, and grandpa in a house half the size of ours. They have a pool in back the color of lentil soup.
Mom finds another rebound at the law firm she types at. Thirty years older with a habit. Step Lawyer tries to play nice. He rubs my head real hard every time he says hello. He says let’s go play catch with your Nerf and wings the ball at my face every time. Step Lawyer says, “Tell her and we use a baseball.”
I go over to Christpoher’s and show him the Step Lawyer version of catch with my Nerf. His glasses break and he hauls ass crying to his grandma. She makes Christopher keep playing with me. I say, “Let’s see your pool.”
Christopher tells me, “I can’t swim.” Christopher says, “And it’s too dirty anyway. And there’s tadpoles.”
“Let’s catch some tadpoles,” I say.
Christopher says yeah, and even has a net we can use.
Step Lawyer knows my old man. My old man moved his practice to Jacksonville after his main client passed on. My old man, a lawyer sans the coke habit, and a Kentucky orphan until the age of twelve, used as farm labor and other activities. One of six adopted kids of Counselor Grandpa and wife Ellen. Six years left to begin his childhood. Me: six when I commit my first attempted murder.
Christopher holds the net and leans over the edge of the soup pool with me holding his waist. He can’t swim. Here’s me responsible. Here’s me, British and fading, and one with God. Here’s me pushing Christopher into the garbage soup. He flails and sinks, comes back up spewing lentils and tadpoles. “Only kidding,” I’m thinking. Just wanted to see what would happen. He reaches. I pull him onto the cement. Christopher coughs, cries and tells me how the pool really should be drained, but his mom can’t afford it. We walk around to the front door and my cold guilt shivers wane because Christopher says nothing until grandma sees him and asks what happened.
“Josh pushed me,” ends it.
I tell his grandma we were playing dead.
Grandma screams and shakes me and starts backhanding. Here comes grandpa. Six-foot-two, hairy, and shirtless. Now he’s coming at me with balled fists. I hightail it to my house hearing threats of arrest all the way down the street.
It’s Saturday so mom’s home, yoga-posed at the foot of the couch under a blow dryer the size of eighthelmets.
She shuts it off. “You’re white as a sheet,” she says.
“I didn’t do it,” I say.
“What didn’t you do?” She covers herself with her robe.
“He slipped. We were playing dead.”
Mom winces. I tell her the cops are coming. She tells me go play and continues reading her legal digest. In a few minutes the doorbell rings. I answer it. I yell for mom, “They’re here.”
My mom says stop screwing around. The cops are smiling. My mom walks up and starts fixing her hair. The cops are smiling.
The cops leave. Mom calls my grandma, rants about our neighbors, and us maybe moving back to London. I ask mom if you lie to the cops, do you go to hell. She says yeah and keeps yelling at the phone. I head for my room, where it hits me I tried to murder my only friend. No one else on the block ever talks to me. One asked me, “Are you Cuban?” when he heard my accent.
My mom married my dad who left his first wife for her while she was pregnant with my half-sister. She lives in Alabama and will never know me or how I tried to drown my best friend in his garbage pool. My old man said the upshot was he could never be faithful. Mom was barely twenty and thought she could change him. Mom gets knocked up with me. Pops bags waitresses in front of her. Mom plops me out and shacks with a judge who hates dad, followed by Chiles. My old man goes section eight and bones her best bud. Mom files. Mom moves upstate into her parents’ farm mansion. The old man stalks. Mom’s dad hires a mercenary to guard us. Mercenary disappears in the night. Dad says he took him to Tampa, fed him to a shark who lived in his main client’s swimming pool and mom puts us on a plane for Europe, takes weekends in Wales with said musical producer, and makes me play dead with toddling Brits who want to torture me, and do.
At seven, I dream my old man visits me. We take Christopher out to the Everglades and my old man makes me shoot him in the heart. Then I dream this was no dream at all, until my old man stops by on my birthday with a smokin’ Eastern Airlines stewardess in tow, shakes my hand and asks if I’m going to remember him this time. Stewardess squeals how my old man talks about me and keeps two photos on his desk. Mom sits on the couch next to me shooting looks at Step Lawyer who grinds his jaw. Dad says they’re late for a ball game. Mom walks them out. Step Lawyer sits me in his lap, rubs my hair, kisses my forehead, and rocks me in his arms as he sniffles.