June 15, 2012 by The Citron Review
My earliest memory is of watching the 1931 version of Frankenstein with my father when I was two years old. A small black and white TV sits on the dresser at the foot of the bed. When I become frightened, I snuggle next to my father, pull a blanket over my head, and close my eyes. But what I imagine is way scarier than whatever Boris Karloff is doing on screen. I take this as a lesson that it is better to confront fear.
At my grandfather’s farm (where we lived before the divorce), my father teaches me, my brother, and my cousins a game called “Rodeo,” which involves us kids—ages 5 to 10—riding on the open tailgate of an old beat-up pick-up. My father rams around the pasture—randomly swerving and hitting the brakes hard—in an effort to knock us off. The only rule is that we have to keep our hands in the air. Grabbing the truck or holding onto other people isn’t allowed. While rodeo-ing, we howl, cuss, and cackle wildly, especially if someone gets bucked onto a cow patty. The kid that manages to stay on the longest wins.
When my father comes to visit, watching scary movies is one of our favorite past times. My mother hates this—claiming that the films give my brother, who is three years younger, nightmares. After that, my father and I wait until my brother falls asleep to watch, making the viewing of the films seem even more dangerous and illicit.
My father mails me a package of VHS tapes, slipping The Hunger in-between The Secret Garden and National Velvet. For my mother, I pretend to appreciate Shirley Temple, but I am no Pollyanna.
Dracula, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Omen, Poltergeist, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, Children of the Corn, Agnes of God, The Shining, Jaws…we’d watched them all before I was twelve years old.
I mention before dinner that I’m not very hungry. My stepfather piles twice as much food as normal onto a plate and shoves it at me. “Don’t leave the table until it’s clean.” Five hours later I sit staring at pork chops, green beans, and mashed potatoes. My mother walks by, shrugs, and whispers, “I just don’t want to fight.”
My great uncle is a truck driver. He likes to brag about how he once hauled the mechanical shark used in the movie Jaws cross-country. He is also known for sudden, abusive verbal outbursts. When he does this in public, and brandishes a gun, he gets institutionalized for a while.
After dinner my stepfather throws my brother across the kitchen. As he draws back his fist, I leap between them and say, “Go ahead. But if you hit me, you’re gonna have to kill me. Because as soon as I’m able, I’m calling the police.” A look of shock. The slap of the screen door. The grinding of gravel as his truck spins from the driveway. I am frightened because I don’t know where that voice came from, and because of how cold I feel inside.
In the midst of a fight, my mother says, “Sometimes I think I’ve created a monster.” And I reply, “What can I say? Children learn by example.”
I work two summer jobs. Many nights, after I close at Pizza Hut, I drive out to my grandparents’ house and swim in their pool. At two a.m., as I dive into the darkened deep-end, I imagine myself swimming away from Jaws.
In my early twenties, a couple years after my father’s death, I find work as a nanny. Per their parents’ instructions, the children I care for eat organic, sugar-free snacks. They are not allowed to watch television. I strap them into helmets and knee-pads required for bike riding.
I am the manager of a library. I have an office. A desk. Business cards. Employees. My friend Kahlil, who’s a poet, comes from New York to visit, give a reading, and lead writing workshops for young people. I am thirty-one years old, just six months his elder. Kahlil shakes his head, looks me straight in the eye, and asks, “Melba, how does it feel to be a grownup?”
The shark as metaphor is problematic. Unless the shark represents fear itself.
When parents complain that the film version of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are is too frightening for children, Sendak tells them to “go to hell.”
During “shark week” on the Discovery Channel, I learn that scientists have discovered that Great White sharks breach as they hunt for seal. Approaching their nimble targets at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, the 20-foot predators launch themselves 10 to 15 feet out of the water when they strike.
In restaurants, I sit with my back to the wall.
“When you came in the air went out. And every shadow filled up with doubt…” True Blood’s theme song gets stuck in my head, and I think of my father. How he would have loved Lafayette.
I’ve become obsessed with the idea of going cage diving with Great White sharks. Unable to imagine anything more exhilarating, I invite a couple of my most adventurous friends to join me. One asks if I am on drugs, and the other suggests I go back to seeing my therapist. I call my brother and say, “Hey, wanna go cage diving with Great White sharks off the coast of South Africa with me?” “Hell yes,” he exclaims without hesitation, “as long as all I have to do is throw a bucket of chum in the water for ya.” And I think, Awesome. That’s exactly what family’s for.
Melba Major recently received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is pursuing an MA in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition. When not reading and writing, Melba enjoys gallivanting with her phenomenal canine companion Nikita.