Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here
-Back to the Future
Fred wished Rosie were at home more. She sucked up all the air in the room, but she also kept the attention focused away. She was someone else his father could be disappointed with. And his father was so hard to deal with these days, always pissed off, looking for fights. So Fred spent as much time in his room as possible, but sometimes he needed a break. It was usually safe to watch Oprah with his mother. His father was usually at work then.
Fred and Susan Bulstrode had slipped into a rhythm. Fred would come into the TV room with a coke for himself and a Perrier for Susan. They’d sit on opposite ends of the couch and Susan would remind Fred of today’s Oprah topic.
During commercials, they’d discuss whatever Oprah was discussing. Sometimes, she interviewed movie stars. Sometimes she talked about domestic violence. She talked about her weight a lot. Fred decided not to be embarrassed about his daily Oprah sessions with his mother. It was about the only time he didn’t think of how bored he was at school, what crap he was at law, or how Mary remained cordial, but not close. Instead, he just thought Oprah thoughts.
Susan enjoyed the time with her son. Fred was handsome and sweet and easy to be with. She had no doubt that he would finish school, become a lawyer, find a nice young woman to settle down with and then there would be grandchildren. Eventually things would settle down with Rosie too. Maybe she’d marry that nice Tré boy. He seemed to be a hard worker and on his way to a good future. Her friends would be scandalized by the interracial couple, but Susan could show how liberal and above it all she was by smiling at the match. Once married, Rosie would give up her crazy clothes and makeup and then everyone would see how beautiful she was. And those biracial kids are gorgeous!
Susan, as was her wont, thought everything was just fine.
Isn’t that annoying? Susan’s propensity for manufacturing alternate reality is the stuff of legend. Her daughter had just that morning been weeping in a diner, paralyzed by fear of striking out alone. Her son has given on any hope of finding his own path, is miserable in his unrequited love for Mary and growing more and more resentful of his father every day. Her husband, whom she should know was not nearly as virtuous as he pretends to be, was being blackmailed. But she managed to imagine all this unhappiness away. She lived in an artificial reality, craven and meager.
But, if you’d been watching Oprah with Fred and Susan, you’d have been almost as content as Susan was. Her determined sense that absolutely everything was all right permeated so intensely from her that she somehow made every environment she was in as peaceful and harmonious as she imagined it to be.
Oprah could have done a whole hour on this unique talent.
After all these years together, however, Bulstrode had developed a sometime immunity to Susan’s peace mongering. It all depended on his mood. Some days, he just went with it (like Fred did during his morning Oprah sessions) and enjoyed the pretense. Other days, his stress level wouldn’t allow it. And these days, Bulstrode was stressed the fuck out. The cocaine thing had seemed like something he’d be able to use. But no opportunity for cashing in on that had presented itself. Instead, he kept doling out dollars to Raff in drips and drabs, managing, by the skin of his teeth, to keep Rafferty from exposing him while insisting all the while on The March.
He couldn’t give up his flagship bar. It was impossible.
Bulstrode was home this morning, having tried to sleep through a bad stress headache which had been exacerbated by too many whiskeys before bed. He wandered past the TV room, and looked in silently. He was hungover and annoyed. Seeing Fred lounging in front of the TV sent him careening into rage.
This fucking kid is drinking the pop that I fucking paid for and watching that ridiculous TV show. He’s not at work, he’s not studying. What the fuck did I do wrong that some black kid from god only knows where has more work fucking ethic and drive than my own fucking son? I gave him and Rosie too much and now they’re worthless.
Even though his back was to the doorway, Fred knew his father was there. And he knew exactly what was running through his head. If Susan had a talent for generating peace, Bulstrode had one for fomenting enmity. So while Bulstrode stood in his doorway, focusing his rage on Fred, Fred stared at Oprah and focused his right back.
I am so fucking sick of trying to live his fucking life. I am IN fucking school. I am getting GOOD fucking grades. I’m doing EXACTLY what he fucking told me to do and it’s still not good enough.
Bulstrode interrupted his thoughts by saying, sarcastically, “Having a productive morning, Fred?”
“I’m having a great morning, Dad,” spat Fred. “Just watching Oprah with Mom.”
“Why are you two so grumpy,” said Susan. “It’s a perfectly lovely day.”
“Especially if you have no place to be,” said Bulstrode. “Especially for a grown man still living off his parents.”
“Oh, great, Dad,” said Fred. “Just fucking great. I go to school, I get good grades, I’m doing the goddamn summer internship. I’m following your plans exactly as you laid them out and you’re still not happy. There’s nothing I can do to make you happy. So, fuck off and let me be.”
“Fred!” said Susan. “Don’t talk to your father that way.”
“You could have done something to make me happy,” said Bulstrode. “You should be practicing law now. You’re 26 and just finishing up an undergrad. That’s pitiful.”
“Bully!” Susan cried. “What is going on with you?”
“I’m not the pitiful one,” said Fred. “You fake everything. You’ve faked your whole life and now you’re pissed off because I don’t fit into your little narrative. Me and Rosie. We were never your children. We were just footnotes to your own fucking greatness.”
“I guess that makes me a shitty writer,” said Bulstrode. “My daughter is a freakshow and you’re a lazy little boy.”
“Rosie is not a freakshow,” said Fred. “And I am working hard. There’s no pleasing you because you’re a miserable person.”
“Oh, right,” said Bulstrode. “It’s all my fucking fault. I should just…”
“Stop it right fucking now,” said Susan.
Bulstrode and Fred stopped, shocked.
“Well, I figured the only want to get your attention was by cursing,” she said. “So I cursed. You two apologize.”
They stood silently and glared. Susan sighed.
“Bully,” she said. “Sometimes it takes people a little longer to get started. Fred is trying. He’ll be fine. And, Fred, sometimes a father gets impatient with his children because he wants the best for you. Now, you two shake hands.”
Fred look at his mother sadly, shook his head, and left the room. Bulstrode looked at Susan as if to
say, “See what I mean?”
And this made it official: all of the Bulstrodes were miserable. Not even Oprah could make it better.