The Great Escape

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“The Bohemian Love Diaries” and its laugh-out-loud perversity conjure Jonathan Ames and Augusten Burroughs with a tender edge.
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He holds an open can of Schlitz in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. With his thick black beard and roadkill clothing, he looks like a cross between Ringo Starr and Daniel Boone.

The Bohemian Love Diaries: A Memoir(Lyons Press, 2013) is an irresistibly weird and wonderful tale of a boy’s upbringing in a warped but warm-hearted household of eccentric artists. Hilarious and profound, Slash Coleman comes to terms with his father, a genius sculptor and volatile alcoholic, and his mother, a Holocaust survivor who makes him promise never to reveal that he’s Jewish. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “The Great Escape.”

The Great Escape

Chesterfield, Virginia
July 11, 1974

It’s seven minutes after midnight, and I’m standing in a silver shopping cart with a bad wheel in Harvey’s Meat Market and Grocery, facing a Standoff Sandwich.

My dad stands to one side, shirtless, wearing bleach-spotted jeans with a deerskin loincloth on the front and his Nazi soldier helmet with fake pigtails on his head. He holds an open can of Schlitz in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. With his thick black beard and roadkill clothing, he looks like a cross between Ringo Starr and Daniel Boone.

Harvey, with his crazy red hair and greasy face, stands on the other side, the rest of my father’s case of Schlitz under his arm, a cigarette also in his mouth.

A cashier–a Mexican woman with a red and white name tag that says Rosario–stands between them. She resembles a stick of beef jerky in a maroon apron and is chewing a big wad of bright pink gum. She holds a phone receiver in one hand, her other hand frozen on the rotary dial, ready to call the policía when given the signal. I open the black cover on my Moleskine sketchbook and write her name down with my pencil.

At this exact moment, the scene is silent except for the Muzak: Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” My father’s chest heaves up and down to the synthesizer and soft drumbeat while spittle drips from his beard. Harvey hums with revenge. As a John Wayne devotee, I know exactly what’s going on here. Neither side is willing to shoot for fear of being shot in return, yet neither side wants to relinquish his weapon for fear that his opponent will shoot. If my dad attempts to grab the case of beer, the manager may take off running, leaving Rosario free to call the policía–which will put a damper on our trip to Alaska.

I’m not thinking about where my sisters are or where my mom is or how many times I’ve been in this same exact place before. For all I know, this is how every seven-year-­old kid across America spends Saturday nights with his father, and I’m determined to make the most of it.

My bets are placed on a preemptive strike by my father because, with him, after midnight all bets are off when it comes to diplomacy and surrender. Harvey follows the No Beer on Sunday law to the letter. But he also knows what my father is capable of doing. Last month, the argument ended with the stock boy flying into the candy rack. His price gun flew through the air in slow motion, and all the Mars bars and Juicy Fruit gum and People magazines fell on his head.

I’m wearing my orange, glitter­-flaked motorcycle helmet with a plastic orange visor snapped on the front. My father decoupaged a loin-clothed, sword-­toting, muscle-­bound Conan the Barbarian on the back of the helmet with a naked woman and a large skull at his feet. Because of the visor, my entire world is orange: orange soup cans, orange cereal boxes, orange Standoff Sandwich. I tighten my grip on the grocery cart.

“Why do you always come in here and want to cause a scene?” Harvey says.

“Why do I always come in here and want to cause a scene??” my father repeats, agitated.

“You know that is what he already said,” Rosario says. Her eyes shift from side to side, watching the tennis match of wills between them.

“Yeah, why do you always come in here and want to cause a scene?” Harvey says a little louder.

Yeah? Why do I always come in here and want to cause a scene?” my father says louder yet.

“I want you both to stop it right now,” Rosario says. She smiles at me. I smile back. This beats the hell out of getting dropped off at my grandparents’ ?house, which is what my mom usually does with me and my sisters when Dad decides to drink in the afternoon.

“You want me to call the policía, Mister Harvey?” Rosario asks.

Suddenly Harvey swipes the open can of beer out of my dad’s hand and makes a run for it. My father dashes after his beer. I turn to the page near the back of my sketchbook where I’ve drawn a map of the store beside the page where I write down the license plate numbers of suspected murderers and kidnappers. Ever since the book Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders ended up on our kitchen table, I’ve been extremely suspicious of all adults. I often fantasize about turning my sketchbook over to the policía to become the world’s youngest hero.

“Kiss my honkey ass!” my father yells in hot pursuit.

This is the dumbest thing ever. My father can’t run at all, and he has a huge plumber’s butt. Rosario hangs up the phone, looks at me, lights a cigarette, and ducks down under the counter. Her orange head vanishes behind plumes of orange smoke.

Near the back of the store, Harvey yells something as he crashes, and my dad yells something else as he crashes, then someone from another part of the store yells something and crashes. After a sharp but short silence, Harvey shouts in a high-­pitched voice, “Sell him the goddamn beer, Rosie!?” Rosie quickly stands and throws her cigarette to the floor. I follow my father’s return with my finger on the map. He has just entered the frozen meat section and is about to approach the cereal section. He rounds the jars of peanut butter and jelly, smiling and sipping from his can of Schlitz, his case of beer tucked under one arm.

“If his brain was in his asshole, he’d know where it was,” my father mumbles. He puts the beer in the cart with me, smiles, and pushes us up to the register. I smile back, pretending like I’ve succeeded at some great task while he was away. I feel the exact same way when he asks me to hold the ladder for him or hand him a nail when he’s fixing something.

I put the beer and the rest of our goods onto the orange register belt, which slowly moves them toward Rosario: a box of orange banana-­flavored Frosted Flakes, a bag of orange red­rope licorice, a box of orange instant potatoes, and a jar of ?Tang.

“You know, I think you dye your beard, don’t you?” Rosario says, eyeing my father.

“Pardon?” he says, adjusting his crooked helmet.

“I notice it last time. Your beard is not the same color as you hair,” she says. She reaches out and tugs at one of my father’s pigtails. He swats her hand away but catches it at the last minute and brings it to his lips. They look at each other for a moment while she rings up the beer with one hand. This thing that my father does with women forever gives me a stomachache. She hands him the bag. My dad gives her the money, hands me the bag, and pushes us away.

“What’s your name, cutie?” Rosario calls to me.

I tilt my head back so when I look at her under my visor she’s no longer orange. “Fuck you,” I say and then blow her a kiss.

My father knocks my helmet askew with the back of his hand.

Out in the parking lot, he lights another cigarette and loads the food into the saddlebags on the chopper.

“We’ll live up in the Yukon,” he slurs, “in an ol’ skewl bus. We’ll hunt for Kodiaks, fish for Kings, and make a killin’ working on the pipeline.”

I want to believe him because he’s my father, but the farthest we’ve gotten to the Yukon is the Fredericksburg rest stop, about an hour away. This is where my dad invariably pulls over before he passes out. As a result, I’ve grown used to living the Yukon life vicariously both through his consistent promises to get us there and through my Yukon Jack comic books about an Indian superhero who wears a Speedo and has the power to emit light from his hand due to telekinetic bone manipulation.

“What?” he says.

I shrug my shoulders. He doesn’t say anything else, just hands me the bag of licorice and puffs away on his cigarette.

I stare at him. He acts differently when he drinks; he slumps more, and slurs more, and his eyes appear darker, and something happens to his hands, but I only know it by my mother’s reaction to him. “Get your hands away from me,” she always yells, wiggling her hands away from his. He always responds by trying harder to grab her hands.

She always refuses. She hates holding his hand when he drinks. To him, her reaction is a full-­blown insult. As a sculptor, who creates everything with his hands, he shows his love that way. She screams at his hands when he drinks, then he gets offended and tries to grab her hands and screams back at her until she cries, which makes my twin sisters cry, and then the air in our house becomes so thick that escaping to the Yukon seems like the only reasonable option.

He stares down the empty highway like he’s looking across a river. Neon signs flash like stars as far as the eye can see. He rearranges his painting easel on the back of the bike and straps the case of beer to it with a rubber cord. When I was younger, their fights used to scare me. I’d lie awake with eyes squeezed shut and try to make it all go away. Then my father left for days. Now that I’m older, he always yells for me to get my shit–which means my helmet and coat and my sketchbook–and he always takes me with him.

He kick­starts the bike, and we pull away. Just beyond the foot peg, the lines in the road blur beside me, my jacket pressed flat with the wind, and my thoughts weave in and out through the constant drone of the engine. There is no visible sign that my father feels triumphant in any way. But I know with a son’s intuition that he is proud of himself for his accomplishments in the store and proud of me for the “fuck you” to Rosario at the very end. I am proud of both of us as well.

Many years later, when I end up sleeping in the streets of Chicago for a few weeks, he’ll hide that same sense of pride–as if having a son who is living like a bum equals having one accepted to Harvard Law School. We are bohemians. It’s an unspoken understanding that will remain an important part of our connection.

The Yukon. Our destination sounds so big, so vast, so full of possibility. It creates the template for travel that I will carry with me through the rest of my life: one saturated with abandon and testosterone and bound with some kind of twisted love plot. Eventually I find a map of the Yukon in an old National Geographic and redraw it in my sketchbook.

Until I finish high school, my father keeps me stocked with black Moleskine sketchbooks. He continually tells me two important things about the sketchbooks: first, that tiny moles shed their skins for the sake of artists the world over, and, second, that Pablo Picasso wrote down his thoughts and sketched out his ideas in the same kind of book and that, if he had had a father who understood the importance of art and creativity half as much as Picasso’s did, he wouldn’t have gotten stuck in Chesterfield, Virginia, with a wife and kids and an art studio in the basement of a rancher house.

He guns the bike to pass an eighteen­wheeler. The motorcycle howls, and I tighten my arms around him. I feel my sketchbook, squeezed into the front of my jacket, wiggle. The pigtails on my dad’s helmet fling out behind him and flap against mine. I rest my head against his back and feel safe. I fall asleep within minutes.

Reprinted with permission from The Bohemian Love Diaries: A Memoir, by Slash Coleman, published by © Lyons Press, 2013.

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