Work In Progress

For gerontologists and migrant workers, my birthplace and childhood home was ripe with professional opportunity and social reward. For a single mother whose son shared names with his deadbeat dad and her two-timing ex-husband, Bradenton counted only disappointment and Tropicana orange juice among its cash crops. During one particularly hot summer of her discontent, mom decided migration to the golden shores of Palm Beach Country on Florida’s Atlantic coast might sate her thirst for personal and financial freedom. While she stretched her professional wings across the Sunshine State, I lived with my aunt and uncle and their two daughters in Sarasota, Florida.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Ringling Brothers pitched their big top mere blocks from the old-money neighborhood Aunt Dianne and Uncle Greg called home. Rich Presbyterians and retired circus freaks considered Sarasota a Utopia. Art-school cynics and drunken gamblers at the city’s dog track called it Clown Town.

Except for the couple years mom and I lived with a British upholstery worker and her troublesome teenaged daughter, I’d always been a latchkey kid. The freedom of this distinction was intoxicating, not unlike the Cutty Sark mom quaffed during her nightly freelance speed-typing marathons. Dysfunctional though we may have seemed to outsiders, what little mom and I could muster on our own beat the hell out of everything Aunt Dianne and Uncle Greg deigned to lavish upon me. Truth be told, I never wanted a shotgun or a fishing boat—I just wanted someone to watch me race my bike.

Though the part I played in my aunt’s family drama was a short one, my triple role as surrogate son, underprivileged nephew and big brother was simultaneously frustrating and illuminating. Uncle Greg may have been the breadwinner in his patriarchy, but Aunt Dianne ruled her showcase home with cast-iron fists. How she could hide those heavy hands inside such pristine white gloves of Pollyannaism while Uncle Greg cast his theological judgments on family and society was something I grew to find revolting. To his credit, Uncle Greg was happy to be the Dad I Never Had, as long as the life we were living was his own. That meant deer hunting in South Carolina, bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee and church on Sunday morning. While Aunt Dianne’s private demeanor seemed merely quaint compared to my mother’s insouciance, her civility and decorum were downright puritanical. For a boy who masturbated in the bathroom of a Manatee county judge’s beach house on more than one occasion, the scene was hard to swallow. While my cousins Tracy and Jennifer may have been the little sisters I never had, Aunt Dianne and Uncle Greg were sometimes the dogmatic parents I never wanted. Mom wasn’t the only one who needed a change of scenery.

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