How to Stand Proud in Florida
At some point in recent history, the sculpture of fountains in the shape of urinating children, and the acquisition of said fountains, must have been declared unfashionable. Before that point—or more likely a considerable time after—a dozen or so of these hideous constructs found their way on the front lawn of the only house in the continental United States where they could be overshadowed by even tackier fare.
All things considered, they now remained in pretty pristine condition: chubby pre-pubescent cherubs, marble or granite, frozen in merriment as they waded in their round or shell-shaped pools, oblivious to their half-erections. Their Geppetto had a different body part in mind when he sculpted his Pinocchios, and was probably the sort of sorry pervert who subscribed to newsletters that would put him on watch lists today.
They looked even creepier when the water was turned off, but Leo was still grateful for it. For one thing, watching them all pee simultaneously always did a number to his own bladder, even as a child. Also, having them all be on at this moment would merely telegraph to Rosemarie the following: “This is a place where taste has come to die. Don’t bother trying to look past this.”
Their footsteps squished in the swampy mud. Images of child nudity, combined with the shitty smell of wet earth, sent dizzying thoughts dancing into Leo’s head. He danced them right out and put on his brave, indifferent face. He wondered if Rosemarie knew all his faces yet.
“This way,” he said congenially, taking her free hand into his own. “They wanted us to come around back.”
“Why?” asked Rosemarie, and Leo swallowed when he realized that she was already starting with the whys. This was going to be a long weekend.
“I don’t really know,” Leo responded hastily, leading her onto a footpath made from pink heart-shaped bricks. “Maybe it’s a local thing that local people do. Locally.”
“What’s the name of this town again?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “It’s Florida.”
The hearts sank deeper into the mud under the weight of the two travelers and their light luggage. They hopped over them with some brisk unspoken sense of danger, as if they were treading over a precarious volcano bridge in an old-fashioned movie.
“How long have they lived here again?” she asked. She was collecting information to impress his parents, unaware of the profound futility that accompanied such an endeavor.
“Not long, a few months. But it’s a family home. My great aunt lived here for a thousand years. My parents have a lot of work to do on the place. Don’t worry, the next time you see it, it’ll look a lot more normal.”
God, he hoped that was true. But he remembered his mother’s ceramic cow collection. He remembered all of the articles of clothing his father owned with the word “Dad” somewhere on them, all purchased when Leo was a child, none of it still fitting yet all still very much in circulation. Tack runs deep in some families, but his parents prided themselves as being classier then generations past. The sad thing was they were probably correct.
They had arrived at the sliding porch door, and as much as Leo didn’t want to, he had to take a pause when he saw his fiancé looking up at the tall, sprawling house laid out before them.
“What’s this color, exactly?” she asked. It was a legitimate question regarding the so-called paint job.
“No one alive can really say. My aunt used to call it ‘ambrosia,’ but we’re all pretty sure she just made that up. It’s getting painted this summer, or so they say. No, it is. It is getting painted. If I have to fly down here myself with fifteen hundred paint cans, this will be painted.”
He couldn’t read her accurately because she was wearing her bumblebee sunglasses and a wide straw hat. Who knows what was going through her head? She wasn’t like most girls. For starters, her name was Rosemarie, and she liked straw hats.
Leo suddenly wanted to gobble her up right there on the plastic patio table. It was a strange urge, but he often wanted to devour her in the most unlikely of places regardless. She had that effect on him. Then he remembered the peeing statues and the cows and his parents and everything went mercifully soft again.
He knocked on the screen door. As expected, it didn’t make much of a sound at all.
“We’re here,” he announced, his tired voice sounding froggy and boyish.
He cleared his throat. “Hello!” This was more forceful, but equally ineffective.
“For God’s sake,” he muttered, and yanked open the rickety screen.
He heard a woman’s scream inside, and knew it to be his father. Rosemarie jumped and grabbed Leo’s arm frightfully.
“Oh my God!” she shrieked. “What’s wrong, Leo? I’m afraid. Are they getting murdered?”
Leo’s dad met them halfway, in a fighting stance. As if there was a chance that Leo might forget who he was, the “#1 Dad” emblazoned on his soiled cooking apron served as a useful visual aid.
“What’s wrong with you, dummy?” he demanded. The man’s voice was nails on the chalkboard when he was agitated. The voice always reminded Leo of the witch from Oz, and it was the reason he stopped inviting his parents to school sporting events.
Leo turned to Rosemarie, whose death grip on his arm began to loosen only ever-so-slightly.
“Still unmurdered, it seems,” he whispered to her.
His father still seemed shaken, but took his son in a weak embrace. He had always been proud of being able to show public displays of affection, unlike his own parents, but in truth he had the strength and presence of a premature infant.
“Come in, come in,” the man cackled. “Knock next time, but come in for now.”
Leo bit his tongue and led Rosemarie into the house. He absently dropped his bags into a bare corner.
“You’ve got bags,” his father said, looking genuinely puzzled. Leo wanted to slap him.
“Yes, of course we have bags, Dad.”
His father balked. “What? I’m just saying. They’re nice bags, that’s all. You’ve got the money to blow on a set of matching luggage, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Ugh,” was all Leo could say to that. He glanced at Rosemarie, who rustled shyly in the doorway, waiting for something to happen that would pull the moment forward.
“Dad, this is Rosemarie.”
Rosemarie removed her bumblebee sunglasses and held out her tiny hand. Her eyes flittered and she reminded Leo of a newly-captive kitten in a cage.
His father took her hand and appeared to shake it vigorously, but Leo knew that he was just watching two arms flapping with palms barely touching.
“I’m Gerald. Have a seat, there’s hot dogs and carrots on the grill. You guys are so early, so, sit for a minute.”
“We’re exactly on time, Dad.”
“Sit, sit, I’ll get your mother.” And he was off in a streak of nervous energy.
Leo and Rosemarie sat on a wicker couch. Rosemarie was taking in the house. Leo was putting mental blocks all over the place so he wouldn’t have to actually process the interior items. Perhaps he could fill in the blanks later with normal furnishings and turn this into a pleasant memory. Perhaps he could paste an image of Charles Bronson over his father to paint an even happier picture.
“I’m making a bad impression already,” he heard Rosemarie whisper mournfully. Leo wanted to burn the whole place down, drag her out, and get her on the next flight to anywhere.
“He’s a nervous man,” Leo assured her with his deep-sincere tone. “Always has been. He is sure that the house is haunted. Now I think he’s pretending that he isn’t completely crazy. That’s a compliment to you.”
Rosemarie flashed him a half-smile. Leo felt that they were suddenly having a moment, a calm before the storm.
Then the hurricane bustled in, taking the form of a sixty-two year-old tanned woman zipped up in a strange yellow jumpsuit. The moment was over.
“Look who it is!” The Long Island nasal Jewishness remained intact. She raced over to her son and death-gripped his head in her vice-arms, smothering his balding scalp with kisses. This caught Leo off-guard, but he didn’t know why. His mother was always the showy one of the family, overcompensating for Gerald’s distant squeamishness.
Well, at least this type of reaction from one’s long-unseen mother fell within the lines of normalcy. There was hope for this visit yet.
“Mom, this is Rosemarie,” Leo squawked, squirming his head free.
Like a locust swarm, his mother passed over to Rosemarie and gave her the same headlock and scalp kissing. This played incredibly awkwardly, and Rosemarie trembled in fearful confusion as the older woman went to work on her.
“Mom, sit,” Leo commanded.
“I’m just so excited!” his mother shouted to no one in particular. She finally did sit in a wicker lounge chair, a comfortable distance across from their couch, but she could not remain still. Leo diagnosed her with ADD long ago. She was a bull, and the world was the china shop.
His father now hovered behind her, looking ready to dash away at any minute.
“So Rosemarie, let me see the ring!” his mother shouted.
Blushing, she produced it.
“Oh, it’s so simple! Gerald, look how simple it is!”
“Simple,” his father quietly agreed. Leo groaned.
“It’s tasteful, that’s what I mean. Tasteful! Look at you, Leo. So touchy!”
Leo felt the gears in his head turning. He knew this visit had been inevitable, but he couldn’t get around the notion that this had been a bad idea. An appropriate exit strategy was needed.
“Actually, Mom,” he began, “Rosemarie and I are pretty tired. We had a long flight. And a long cab ride. Lots of long, terrible things. I hope you don’t mind if we take a little power nap?”
“A nap?” his mother screamed, adding an exclamation point to her question mark. “You just got here! Gerald, they just got here!”
“There’s carrots and hot dogs on the grill,” Gerald muttered, stuck in a vortex.
“We won’t be long,” Leo replied, standing once more, sea legs wobbling. He offered a hand to Rosemarie, but she remained seated and still.
“I’m fine, Leo,” she whispered meekly.
Defeated, Leo slowly plopped down again. Rosemarie was gaining confidence, feeling her way through. Why shatter her good work now, Leo thought. Let her think that this was normal.
“It’s a very interesting house you have, Mrs. Furman,” Rosemarie continued with a casual change of beat.
The yellow and orange woman cackled. If Gerald’s voice was fingernails on a chalkboard, Louise’s laugh was a TNT explosion of a condemned slate factory.
“Oh, honey, it’s tacky, tacky, tacky. We have a lot of work to do. Didn’t you see those statues? Oh my. And the paintjob? What color is that, exactly?
“I’m sure Leo told you, we’re remodeling. Extreme home makeover. There’s blueprints. Show them the blueprints, Gerald!”
Gerald gave her look like she just declared that the world was flat.
“But those are in the attic,” he declared.
Louise shook her head and flashed a not-so-secret smile to her visitors.
“Ghosts,” she stage-whispered.
Leo heard a gulp in Rosemarie’s throat, and realized it was in tandem with his own gulping.
Quickly, Leo resumed the driver’s wheel of this conversation and steered it far away from this insanely awkward lull. Perfunctory subjects were covered in quicksilver speed: weather, jobs, retirement, schooling, relatives, neighbors, the prices of things, weather again, politics, the old days, the future. Leo knew that the best strategy was to constantly change the subject, as lingering on a topic would invite the crazy and the crass. This took them through a good hour, and when all was said and done, Leo was legitimately tired. When Rosemarie finally rose, he assumed that she was ready to take him up on that power nap.
“I’d love a tour, Mrs. Furman,” she cooed.
Leo did a double-take. He felt a sensation like his body was being showered in acupuncture needles.
Louise and Gerald flashed each other a silent “Uh-Oh” expression, about as subtle as a pair of 1920’s film stars.
“The front of the house isn’t ready yet,” Louise quickly interjected with the fear of God. “We’ve been living in the back rooms. There’s not much to see, really. In fact, you should take the back staircase to go up.”
Rosemarie’s nose crinkled beneath her heavy lenses. Leo knew that crinkle. Rosemarie was in detective mode, feeling her inner Nancy Drew. He had to stop her.
“Is there a bathroom I can use?” she asked.
Gerald suddenly began flailing his pointing fingers like an air traffic controller. “This way! This way!” he shouted. He led her off down the narrow hall, and as he did so Leo finally realized that the living room was partitioned off and rendered invisible by a hanging sheet displaying a checkerboard of cartoon cows doing farm work.
When they were gone, Leo flashed his mother the deepest scowl he was capable of.
“What is wrong with you two?” he growled under his breath. “You’re acting even crazier than usual. You’re gonna send my fiancé running in the swamps to drown herself if you keep this up!”
Louise rolled her eyes dismissively.
“Oh, you and you’re embarrassments,” she said. “Honestly, I thought you would’ve grown out of that by now. My family was embarrassing too, and oh God, don’t get me started on your father’s.
“And what about you? My thirty-three year old, balding, unmarried son, renting in an awful neighborhood, making no money, hanging out with teenagers, smoking drugs like he’s one of them, wearing thrift store clothes that smell like ketchup, never coming to visit because of rock concerts and poetry readings… how do you think that all looks on the family newsletter?”
When faced with his mother’s occasional bluntness, Leo often found himself pining for the bizarre misdirections that annoyed him on every other occasion. He glumly slumped back into his seat.
“Well, I’m engaged now,” he mumbled.
Louise brightened. “Yes, and that’s wonderful, dear! We’re so happy for you, you’re father and I. And we want this to work out. She seems lovely. It’s just the timing that’s bad. You came at a bad time.”
“You invited us!” Leo shouted, louder than he would have wished.
But before she could answer, a sharp scream shot through the house, followed by another after the beat. The first was Rosemarie’s, the second unmistakably Gerald’s.
Leo sprang up immediately, heart racing. What the hell was happening? What did the house do to Rosemarie? Oh God, what did she find in there?
The screams had come through the main part of the house, so up he went, across the hall, barreling through the cow sheet. Sensory overload nearly choked him as he found himself aloft in a sea of boxes and unpackaged piles of hideous ornaments and furnishings, some of which were painfully familiar, others mournfully unrecognizable.
“Rosemarie!” he called out into the ruckus. No response.
His mother had crept up behind him.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she whispered. “Probably a mouse, or something. Let’s give her a minute.”
“Mom, you’re nuts!” Leo shouted back. “My fiancé is screaming somewhere in your house!”
“I’ll go find her,” Louise replied, shuffling off casually with hunched shoulders towards the main stairwell. Leo rammed passed her and flew up the stairs, making a right into Great Uncle Ivan and Aunt Millie’s library, a room that he hadn’t seen since he was a small child, but remembered it to be blessedly normal. Classy, even. The sort of Victorian classiness one would expect to find themselves when entering a house of this model. At any rate, that’s definitely where her screams came from.
The room was dark, lit only by an old-fashioned, heavy-looking desk lamp from a small side table. Gerald stood a few paces before Leo, scratching his head sheepishly. He heard his mother quietly step in place behind him, and heard her sigh deeply.
Rosemarie was in statuesque stillness, gaping up at another man, who stood naked on a pedestal, arms outstretched in a frozen gesture of welcome, glass eyes cold with inhumanity. The old man’s pecker was fully erect with a thick bushel of pubic grey.
“Aaaaaaaaa!” Leo screamed, not much less theatrically then the screams that came before. “Aaaaa! Ugh! Ugh! Uncle Ivan! What in the hell? That’s Uncle Ivan! Mom, Dad, that’s dead Uncle Ivan! What the hell is wrong with you?”
Gerald and Louise met halfway, standing right in front of nude patriarch, close enough to brush against his nethers. Their expressions as they faced each other crossed several emotions, humiliation and resignation not the least of which.
“I just assumed it was a ghost,” Rosemarie whimpered, still obviously fixated on Uncle Ivan.
“Not a ghost,” Gerald grumbled, “not this one.”
“Explain,” Leo shrieked. He had lost control over his own pitch at this point. “Explain, explain, explain.”
Louise let out another sigh, and her head shook grimly like a pendulum as she began.
“It’s taxidermy. His last request. Right there in his will. He was a nudist, and this was his favorite room. His heirs would get everything, as long as he stayed here. There’s no loopholes, believe me, we looked. It’s law. Aunt Mildred lived with him in here like this for the last eight years of her life. I think it brought her comfort.”
Louise looked at her husband again, who, after a moment, nodded. She smiled at him.
“It’s kind of sweet, in a way.”
Leo felt his mouth gape open, but there were obviously no words. He glanced over at Rosemarie, who was drying her hands absently with a little cow hand towel, most likely recovered from her legitimate bathroom trip prior to her sleuthing. After a moment of meeting his gaze with her own unreadable mask beneath the bug glasses, she crossed lightly into the center of the room, between Leo’s mooning parents and Uncle Ivan.
Uncle Ivan looked down at them through his glass eyes. Even though he was dead, the man stank of pride, of shamelessness. There were worse things he could stink of, Leo thought.
After pondering him for a moment longer, Rosemarie finally finished drying her hands on the small towel and hung it on Uncle Ivan’s erection, censoring it. This seemed to satisfy her, as the movement was accompanied by her nod of approval and a half-smile, as if she just some benign household chore.
She turned to the surviving members of the Furman family.
“I’m famished,” she told them. “Should we return to the patio?”
Without waiting for a response, Rosemarie headed back downstairs, casually as can be.
Leo and his parents were left looking at Uncle Ivan, then each other, than back at Ivan and his little towel accessory.
“I should’ve made hamburgers instead of hot dogs,” Leo heard his father say.