Happy Together By Kate O’Grady

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Our father was a big-wig at the Oregon Fish Commission, and the freezer in our spacious mock Tudor home in Clackamas was always chock full with wild salmon and bull trout. My twin brother Jake and I gorged on the rich bouillabaisse and fricassee dishes that our mother served up each evening at exactly seven p.m. The four of us ate these suppers in silence, while all around us clocks ticked and furniture creaked and the dark wood panelling on the walls of the dining room seemed as though it was slowly closing in, and would eventually crush us all to death.

Jake and I always devoured our food in seconds, and then we would rise in unison from the table and dash out to meet our best friends Freddie and Kyle Ackerman, another set of identical twin brothers who lived down the street.  We preferred to be out of the house as much as possible. “Don’t be late boys,” our mother would call out as we sprinted to the back door and made our escape.  There was always a catch in her voice when she said this, a choked fear, as if we might never return.“I want you back here by nine,” our father yelled.  “Nine, do you hear me?” We mumbled our assurances over our shoulders, and then we marched out into the evening sunshine like refugees fleeing a war torn country.  This was the summer of 1968, and Jake and I were 12 years old.

On those warm nights, Jake, Freddie, Kyle and I would wander the hills and woods of Clackamas looking for small town adventure and trading gripes about our respective fathers.  Freddie and Kyle’s dad was the Chief Executive Officer at Daimler Trucks.  A tall, florid faced man, with a hair trigger temper according to his sons.  In his youth he had harboured ambitions of being on the stage.  The closest he’d come to realising this dream however had been weekend performances as a clown at local children’s birthday parties. Jake and I had vague memories of being six years old and reaching for balloon giraffes extended to us from the hands of a large man wearing thick, lurid make up and yellow tartan trousers.   The clowning was a short lived venture for Mr. Ackerman.  He focused solely now on truck manufacture and bellowing at underlings. “He didn’t have the disposition to be around that many children at once,” Kyle said.  “He can barely stand being around the two of us.” Traipsing through dense woodland, looking for something to kick or climb, Jake, Freddie, Kyle and I pondered the fractious nature of men.

“He’s a bore and a bully,” Jake said, referring to dad.

“He shouts a lot,” I said. “It’s scary.”

“Yeah”, Freddie said. “But didja ever get smacked by a clown though?” He stared long and hard, first at Jake and then at me.  We had to admit that we hadn’t.

“Well we have,” Kyle said, his eyes wide and green.  “And it’s terrifying”.

“Yeah, come back and tell us about scary when your dad runs at you screaming and cursing and wearing a crazy curly blue wig and red lipstick,” Freddie said.

We turned then to our second favourite subject of conversation, the many flaws of our home town.  Jake said it was the town that time forgot.  We knew there was another world out there, but it was light years away from where we lived.  The Times They Were A-Changin, but not in Clackamas. In Clackamas the times they were a-stayin the same. Protest songs reached us from the radio, and we had seen images on T.V. of anti-war rallies, and Be-ins in various parts of the country, but activism and consciousness raising was not big in our community.  Clackamas was not known for political or social change. It was known for its wealth, its manicured lawns, and the disproportionately high ratio of male twins born in the mid 1950s.

Minutes before nine p.m. Jake and I would wave goodbye to the Ackermans and then we would shuffle back home. After dinner our parents spent their time in separate rooms at opposite ends of the house; our father retiring to his study where he read books about Arctic explorers, our mother lingering for hours in the music room listening to Billie Holiday records. The forlorn sight of her sitting there in semi darkness, her head bent, her hands clasped in her lap, made me want to gouge out my eyes. Her face always lit up when we crossed the threshold to say good night to her. “My boys,” she’d say.  “You’re back.” Standing with outstretched arms, she would draw us to her, and we’d catch the heady scent of the rose perfume she’d worn for as long as we could remember.  With heavy hearts we rested our heads briefly on her shoulder, while in the background Billie crooned soft and low about poor weather conditions.

Later, in our shared bedroom, Jake and I liked to imitate her. “It’s ruined,” he would bleat, mimicking her high pitched wail in the kitchen when the souffles hadn’t risen or the salmon rissoles had burnt to a crisp. “It’s all gone wrong,” I’d say in a theatrical, quavering voice.  We’d repeat these words until we were both laughing so hard we had to place pillows over our faces to stifle the noise.  We could not tolerate our worried love for her, and so we liked to mock her. We’d also not yet fully forgiven her the bowl cuts and matching powder blue suits she’d dressed us in when we were too little to say or do anything about it.

Sometimes, in the dark, our conversations turned reflective and melancholy.

“Do you think she was ever happy?” I’d ask.

“Maybe, before us.”

“Before us and dad?”

“Yes.”

We’d lie in silence then, on opposite sides of the room, imagining our mother, young and unencumbered, and laughing.

Every morning our father would drive to the Fish Commission in Portland and every evening he’d return home sour faced and complaining bitterly about the degenerates who consistently failed to follow the state angling rules and regulations. Jake and I were skilled at avoiding him during these homecomings. We slipped in and out of rooms with the speed and alacrity of star athletes. Getting cornered meant being regaled for at least fifteen minutes on a multitude of infractions. When one of us failed to out-dodge him, the other would stand a safe distance behind, grinning and gurning, and throwing pretend fishing lines into invisible rivers, then silently straining and staggering in Chaplinesque fashion as we reeled in an imaginary big one.

One evening in late September Jake and I overheard our father muttering to himself when we passed the study door. “God damn those Sohappys,” he hissed.  He was staring at a scatter of paperwork on his desk. I darted Jake a glance and he gave a shrug. “Did he say ‘God damn those Sohappys?” I asked later. “It sounded like that was what he said,” Jake replied.

It turned out the Sohappys were members of a tribe of Wanapam Indians who lived on the Yakima reservation and they had filed a lawsuit against the Oregon Fish Commission to protect their treaty rights to fish unimpeded in the Columbia River without state regulation. The Sohappy family of five, along with nine other tribe members, had claimed their ancestors were fishing the local rivers before the State, before the Commission, and before the white man came and took away their land.  Talk like that made our father fighting mad, and he vowed to take the Sohappys down.  “God damn those Sohappys,” “Those bastard Sohappys,” and “Who do those Sohappy Indians think they are?” were angry utterances we became familiar with as he prepared for the impending court case.

We saw little of him that Fall. He would come home after 9 p.m. and then continue to work late into the night. Jake and I, anxious post dinner shut-ins now owing to the fading light and the approach of winter, compiled our own dossier on the Sohappy family. Secretly rooting for them to win, we collected photos and newspaper articles that we slipped into plastic covers and inserted into a large binder. In the black and white grainy images, the Sohappys stood side by side, the Cascade mountains looming behind them. Self conscious in front of the camera, wearing shy, determined smiles and colourful chimayo jackets, they moved us in a way we could not articulate.  The father, David, had kind eyes and broad shoulders. His two sons, not much older than Jake and I, were called Aleck and Richard, and their long dark hair whipped around their faces in the wind.

As October turned to November, and the Oregon roads grew icy and treacherous, Jake, Freddie, Kyle and I sat in the back row of the big yellow school bus that brought us home at the end of the day. Careening down the hills of Clackamas we talked about life and death.

“Didja know that this state is the suicide capital of the world for teenage boys?” Freddie Ackerman once enquired, gazing out the window, one palm extended towards the snow covered Douglas firs that lined each side of the road.

“Nope,” we said, shaking our heads. “We didn’t know that.”

“Well, it is,” Kyle said, pointing two fingers at his temple, closing his eyes, and letting a quick burst of air escape his lips.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, our father spent most of his time at home in the study, and Jake, our mother and I took to eating supper in the living room together.  Our mother had bought several balls of purple mohair wool, and she set about making Jake and I matching sweaters.  Each evening, after we had chowed down on fish pies, she would get out her needles and pick up where she had left off the night before.   “Those sweaters will keep us warm Ma,” I said, and Jake rolled his eyes at me. Always the bolder brother, Jake would sometimes saunter past the open door of our father’s study, hands in pockets, quietly singing the words of a popular song from the year before entitled “Happy Together.”  Then he would dash back into the living room, a huge grin on his face. “I hear ya, you little shit,” dad would call out. During those long dark weeks stuck indoors, Jake and I found solace in the burning log fire, the full feeling of a belly stuffed with trout and sitting at our mother’s feet helping her spool and untangle wool.

It was Christmas Eve when the judge ruled in favour of the Sohappys. Jake, our mother and I listened to the verdict on the afternoon radio news, and the three of us whooped with delight and pumped our fists in the air.  Wearing our itchy oversized purple pullovers, Jake and I ran outside into the garden and rolled about in the snow like puppies, ecstatic with joy that the Sohappys had won.  When we switched on the TV, there they were, smiling proudly in front of the Oregon District Court while camera bulbs flashed and reporters held microphones up to their faces.  David Sohappy stood between his two sons, an arm around each of their shoulders.  At home Jake and I drank cups of egg-nog and awaited our father’s return.

Many years later, after Jake and I had left home and gone to colleges on different coasts, after the Ackerman brothers had moved to Wyoming and started a successful dude ranch, after our mother had retrained as a teacher, and after dad had the first of a series of heart attacks that would eventually kill him, I would call Jake to chat and catch up.  “Hey,” I’d sometimes say when he picked up the phone, “Didja ever get smacked by a clown?”  I’d imagine the smile I knew he was wearing, and then wait for him to say, “No, I did not.”

When they allowed us into the hospital room to see dad the first time his heart gave out, Jake and I stood at the door unable for a moment to move forwards.  We had never seen him vulnerable. His skin was the colour of chalk and the blue flowered gown looked all wrong on him.  The bed had been half raised so that he was in a sitting position, and his eyes were closed.   When he opened them and saw us standing there he bit his lip.  “My boys,” he said, and tapped his palms softly on the blankets.  Jake and I moved towards him.  We perched on either side of the bed and took one of his hands in our own. We patted and stroked it as we would a small animal, something we loved and cared for, and wanted to love us back.

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Kate O’Grady

Kate O’Grady lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire.  Her short stories have been long listed/short listed or placed in Bath Flash Fiction Competition, Reflex Fiction Flash Fiction Competition, The Phare Short Story Competition, Exeter Short Story Competition, Gloucester Writers Network competition, Stroud Book Festival Short Story competition, and published in Stroud Short Stories Anthology, The Phare Literary Magazine, and Bath Flash Fiction Anthology: Volume 5.

Image by Khalid Mehmood on Pixabay

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