ANGELS: Shock & Awe

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Chapter 29

According to our parents, neither Gareth nor I spoke more than a few words of English until we were nearly four years old: “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “okay,” and especially “no.” But we talked all the time—to each other, in what my father called “twinnish,” but my mom dubbed “twinspeak.” I’ve seen the videos; the two of us just babbling away, apparently understanding each other completely. It’s both hilarious and a little creepy, even to me. Mom became so fascinated with it that she ultimately wrote a book on the subject. While not exactly a bestseller, TwinSpeak was huge as research papers combining social and linguistic anthropology go, and Mom enjoyed her fifteen minutes of fame—she was even once featured on Oprah—and her guest-lecturer calendar filled to capacity for three or four years.

But because we were her own children, Gareth and I were not a part of her official research, and didn’t get so much as a mention in the book, except obliquely in the dedication. Her primary research took her to, no kidding, Twinsburg, Ohio, where there is, or was, an annual event called the “Twins Days Festival” every August. Mom went two or three years in a row as she was writing, but we weren’t invited.

After her book was published, Mom had no more need to haunt Twinsburg, and she didn’t even mention it that August. But early the next summer she declared she’d been invited back, and since this would likely be the last time she’d have a chance to see many of her study twins—there were quite a few, in various age groups—she was inclined to go.

Gareth and I had been fascinated with the idea of a whole town full of twins ever since we’d heard of it, but Mom stood foursquare against “mixing business with pleasure,” so we’d never been allowed to go before. But Gareth was quick to sense that we might now have a way past the usual rule on the grounds that this time it wasn’t strictly business anymore. So when Mom said to us (including Dad), “You boys think you can look after yourselves again for a week, one last time?” Gareth fired his first salvo:

“Well, sure, we could, but…” He let it hang there, that “but.”

I caught a tiny look between Mom and Dad. “But what?” Mom said.

Gareth had tried all sorts of convoluted arguments in past years trying to wriggle past Mom’s defenses, but he’d never even come close. Just now, he tried the old “answer every question with a question” dodge. “Buuuut,” he drawled, “why should we have to?”

Mom was always good for a few rounds of Question/Question: “What choice do you have?”

“Are you saying we actually have a choice?”

Et cetera. This went on for a while, Dad and I both shaking our heads. Mom and Gareth were enjoying themselves. Everybody now understood that we were all going to Ohio, unless Gareth blew it with a bungled volley. Finally, Mom caved. “Fine! You win. We’re all going to Twinsburg. Just remember, mister,” she said to a beaming Gareth, “be careful what you wish for.”

Gareth and I were twelve years old, I think. We had been on summer trips all our lives, but had only been outside of California once before, on a pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon when were six or seven. (And that’s not me waxing grandiloquent; it was Dad who dubbed it a “pilgrimage,” and as always he had chosen precisely the word he intended.) This journey to Ohio was shaping up to be quite the family adventure: we were borrowing Grandpa and Grandma K’s Suburban and embarking on a two-week road trip. Four days out with no special interim agenda, two days at the festival, three days visiting various Ohio tourist attractions, then five days travelling back, with a scheduled day in St. Louis, where Dad would be catching up with his “Aunt” Dede, who was Grandma Kate’s dearest, oldest (emphasis on the “old”) friend.

Our family dynamic on lengthy road trips was well established: Mom would (mostly) sleep, Gareth would read (another of his abilities I’ve always envied—if I read so much as a postcard in a car, my stomach flip-flops like a professional politician), and Dad and I would keep up a running stream-of-consciousness dialogue on everything from the scarcity of green cars to the black hole at the center of the galaxy. This trip followed the formula, except that even Mom couldn’t sleep that much, and she would wake up from time to time and jump into the conversation midstream. She never asked what we were talking about, and it wasn’t always immediately obvious, but that was no deterrent to Mom—if her contributions were non sequiturs, Dad and I would just take the required tack and go with the new flow until Mom nodded off again.

Gareth was oblivious to all of this as he read, especially on this trip, since on top of being deeply rapt to the point of obsession in a weighty tome, he was also cocooned by a pair of headsets attached to Mom’s old Walkman cassette player. As it happens, we had both recently discovered J. Hal Merriman. Amongst his prodigious body of work, he had produced several juvenile series, including a dozen or so short sci-fi novels featuring a square-jawed, iron-fisted hero named Gil Graham. (You might even remember the short-lived Chad Everett TV show, Graham of Ganymede.) They were the typical Merriman pulps, a pastiche of Tom Swift, Flash Gordon, and the Grey Lensman, really not good at all, but since the hero shared my name (and his first name was short for Gilgamesh—how cool was that?), naturally I read them as fast as I could find them (which wasn’t always easy; they were twenty years old and mostly out of print). Of course, Gareth hardly shared my enthusiasm for Graham, but he had stumbled upon Merriman’s magnum opus, the “Wars of Old Earth” trilogy, a centuries-spanning epic of nearly four thousand pages, featuring towering aliens, toppled empires (sound familiar?), and the origins of everything from Greek mythology to the Bible to—of course—Scientificism.

While my interest in the chronicles of Graham of Ganymede was strictly casual (and more than a little egotistical), Gareth was seriously hooked by “WOE”; he had even tracked down the cassettes of synthesized background music that supposedly enhanced the experience, hence the headphones. Except when Mom or Dad made him take a break, he spent the entire road trip out to Ohio buried in Book Two (The Millennium of Fire), the tinny score thumping along, barely audible to the rest of us over the road noise.

Mom “joked” that she wondered what kind of subliminal message was being injected into Gareth’s brain; I didn’t find it all that funny. For a while, it seemed to me that my brother was in fact being turned into some kind of pod person. But I should have known better—half the reason that he had attacked the trilogy with such a vengeance in the first place was because Mom had scoffed at him taking on such a huge pile of words. (“Hell’s bells,” she’d said. “You never even finished a Hardy Boys, and now you’re going to read this monstrosity? I’ll believe it when I see it.” Gareth had just glared at her. “That’s because the Hardy Boys suck,” he’d muttered, but only I had heard him. Mom may or may not have intended to throw down any kind of gauntlet, but she’d already laughed and left the room.)

It turned out to be the beginning of Gareth’s life-long interest in Merriman. By the time he was fourteen, he had thoroughly dismissed Merriman the writer as a hack, but was fascinated with the man himself. He thought Scientificism ranked right up there with the Trojan Horse as one of the greatest cons ever pulled, and Merriman the biggest humbug since P.T. Barnum. But ultimately Gareth couldn’t help but admire him.

Finally, we made it to Twinsburg, and for two days Gareth forgot all about “WOE” as we found ourselves lost in a vast sea of doppelgangers. I still remember the official count: 2,680 sets of twins! Now, Gareth and I had met other twins before—Chip and Chet McVee at school, and a couple of sets of younger kids that were part of our mother’s research—but this was something else again, by several orders of magnitude. I know I found myself thoroughly disoriented, almost dizzy, as I tried to wrap my mind around so many doubles. And when I looked over at Gareth, I knew that for once even he was thoroughly nonplussed.

I’ve never been able to explain to a “single” what it means to be a twin. It’s not like anything else. I can’t speak for all twins everywhere, but from an early age I understood that Gareth and I were different. It wasn’t too big a leap to start to consider ourselves special, which is to say, frankly, better. We had remnants of “twinspeak” available only to us as we grew up. We were always considered, particularly by adults, as a combined unit. We were Grahamengareth, or Garethengraham. (Mom especially always made a conscious effort not to settle on one billing over the other; if she’d had her way, she would have withheld our birth order from us, but Dad enjoyed telling the story too much, the irony of tiny little Gareth being firstborn, the “big brother,” followed seconds later by a “little brother” almost twice his size.)

If anything, I also believed that our “non-identical” status—especially since we were so different—made us even more special. After all, identicals were just that, genetic copies of each other. Gareth and I were twins but opposites—Yin and Yang, although which was which was an open question. (Older folks inevitably referred to us as Mutt and Jeff, which greatly offended Gareth until he understood that Mutt was the tall one.)

So our sudden exposure to nearly six thousand twins—many of whom were also fraternal—staggered us. Rocked our world. Forced us into a paradigm shift. For two days we walked around saying hello when prompted, eating when fed, sleeping when the lights went out, and for the first time uncertain of our specialness.

We never talked about it. We didn’t have to. When we went to SeaWorld the following day, we would catch each other’s eye as we both kept looking over our shoulders, wondering if there were any other twins there. And as we went into Mama Rosa’s for lunch, sure enough we almost bumped into a couple of giggling fourteen-year-old identicals. They were coltish, freckle-faced redheads, with mouths full of braces and brand new sunburns on their identical noses. Very cute, really. Matching Shamu t-shirts. They recognized us from the festival and said, “Oh, hi!” in unison. Gareth and I couldn’t shuffle past them fast enough. Mom turned around and spoke to them for a minute, no doubt apologizing for her boys being boys, bonding over their redheadedness, and making sure their feelings weren’t hurt. Gareth and I looked at each other over our menus. He rolled his eyes. I snorted a muffled chuckle. By the time Mom got to the table, we were laughing like maniacs.

The twin-overload curse was broken, and Gareth and I were finally able to start enjoying our Ohio vacation. We went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Mom’s idea; none of us boys really cared that much about football, but we enjoyed it anyway); next, up to Sandusky on Lake Erie to “the roller coaster capital of the world,” an old park called Cedar Point, where Dad and I opted out while Mom and Gareth rode coasters that made me woozy just watching them. Then we headed south to Cincinnati and King’s Island for more of the same, and finally, after three days that included all this plus such wonders as the Merry-Go-Round Museum and the McKinley Birthplace, we headed west to St. Louis.

Aunt Dede must have been over seventy then, and unless the Trumps did her in (and I sincerely doubt it) she’s no doubt still alive now, well into her nineties. She’s a tiny little dynamo who has buried any number of husbands, though at the time of our visit that summer was temporarily unattached. She’d lived in the same little brick house in Benton Park her entire adult life. Dad considered it one of life’s constants, and had been promising a family visit for years. Gareth and I only knew Aunt Dede from photo albums and Christmas cards, and we knew from even that scant evidence that she was not one of those little old ladies that who’d pinch our cheeks and tell us how handsome we were and offer us cookies and milk.

We liked her. She treated us kids the same way she treated adults; talked to us like people, dismissed us if we were acting foolish, and assumed that if we wanted something we’d ask for it. She also understood that it was torture to keep us inside, especially since she was just getting over a “wicked summer cold,” as she put it, and her house was like an oven. Once we had gotten past a sufficient span to be polite, we were each given a big tumbler of extra-sweet iced tea and sent out into the back yard to fend for ourselves.

Even before we left, Aunt Dede had already directed Mom to the bar and asked her to mix up a martini pitcher. Mom was still drinking then, and only too happy to oblige. The two of them were probably capable of professional status in a drinking competition, but the Professor was way out of his league. He was far too wise to attempt to match the ladies drink for drink; he probably only had one. But it was ninety degrees outdoors that day, and even warmer inside Aunt Dede’s house. Mom was essentially immune to the vagaries of temperature, but Dad…

The shadows were getting long when Mom appeared in the doorway and called out for us to come in and say our goodbyes. Gareth had been humiliating me at lawn darts, and we hurried into the house. Aunt Dede was wrapped in a red-white-and-blue afghan she’d made herself; Mom was straightening up the bar, and Dad was sitting on a green leather hassock looking like he’d showered with his clothes on.

Gareth and I made the required noises, gave Aunt Dede a hug, and boomed on out the front door to wait in the car. After a few minutes, Mom came out and was opening the passenger door when Dad stepped outside. He held the rail as he stepped down the two or three stairs, then seemed to misjudge the direction of the car. He took one wayward step, began to list to his left, and with his next step keeled over.

I had thought that our sojourn in Twinsburg had been life altering. But seeing my father collapse... If gravity had suddenly failed I couldn’t have been more profoundly shocked. Still, I was immediately out of the car, Mom right behind me. Dad had managed to fall onto the narrow strip of grass between the curb and the sidewalk, and by the time we reached him was already sitting up. Mom sent Gareth back into the house for a cold cloth and a glass of water, and she and I helped Dad over to the car.

It turned out to be no big deal; a little heatstroke, nothing more. Dad was fine. Dehydration combined with the heat and the martini. He was embarrassed, or at least as close to embarrassed as Dad could manage, but he really was fine.

I don’t think either Gareth or I slept a wink that night. We were sharing a double bed in a Holiday Inn and we lay there all night talking quietly about everything but seeing Dad collapse. We’ve never talked about it. So I can’t speak for him, but for me, well, the world was never quite the same. The Professor was vulnerable; capable of fainting. He was, in a word, mortal. Once I finally processed that, some part of me understood that my childhood was over.

Given recent events, it might seem odd that that relatively innocuous event still looms so large in my mind. But it does; maybe now more than ever…

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