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Authors: Brando Skyhorse

Take This Man

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Mom & Grandma

I wish I had a better memory

“We only love just once, you know.”

—SERGEI ESENIN

I
was three years old when my father abandoned me and my mother in my grandmother's house atop a crooked hill on Portia Street in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Echo Park. My mother, Maria Teresa, a Mexican who wanted to be an American Indian, transformed me into Brando Skyhorse, a full-blooded American Indian brave. I became the son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, an American Indian activist incarcerated for armed robbery who my mother met through the mail. She became Running Deer Skyhorse, a full-blooded “squaw” who traded in her most common of Mexican names for the most stereotypical of Indian ones.

My mother was mesmerizing and could make crazy schemes and lies sound electric and honest. Her deception was so good, or so obvious, she fooled each of her five husbands, our neighbors, her friends, my elementary school vice principal, even me. I lived most of my childhood without knowing who I really was. All I knew was the power in my own name:
“Brando Skyhorse? That's beautiful.”

My biological father, Candido Ulloa (
oooh-YO-ahh
), was replaced by a chain of boyfriends and five fathers—one new dad about every three years. Along with Paul, whom I first met while he was in prison, there was Robert, a restless, habitual Aleutian Indian thief; Pat, a restaurant chef with a penchant for disappearing; Rudy, a man who answered a singles ad from a homeless shelter; and Frank, a Mexican-­American office “straight” (what Maria called men who worked actual jobs) who wanted a son but could not marry my mother. The only way to keep them straight was to imagine what actors would play them in a movie made from my life:

Paul Skyhorse Johnson: Will Sampson, the American Indian “Chief” from
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
.

Robert: Esai Morales. A “hot” Esai Morales.
La Bamba
Esai Morales.

Pat:
Roseanne
-era John Goodman.

Rudy: Present day Robin Williams. Plus thirty pounds.

Frank: I've known him the longest so I can't imagine him in caricature. If he were asked, he'd say Chris Noth from
Law & Order
or Michael Nouri from the movie
Flashdance
. In that order.

These men were never simply my mother's “boyfriends” or “partners.” They weren't “surrogate dads” or “stepfathers.” I couldn't call them by their first names, nor was I allowed to speak about any past father in the presence of a new one. My mother made it clear that these men, trying to
be
men, were my
fathers
, absorbed instantly into our tiny clan of mother, grandmother, and me, so we could be, or pose as, a family. Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First I was forced to accept them, then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them.

Then they left.

“Some boys don't have
any
father in their life,” my mother would say, bucking me up. “You've had
five
. Plenty for one boy.”

I was father rich but family poor. Our house shook as if it were filled with people—brothers, sisters, a chorus of screaming children—but really belonged to just two angry women who were five foot and change tall. We shopped at the Smart & Final warehouse for commissary-sized Shake 'N Bake and restaurant-style cartons of frozen burgers, purchasing family-size packs in gross for a family that could fit in a hatchback.

We were a triangle trying to fill a circle.

When I grew out of that circle, I tried searching for the true ends of my mother's stories; ends I thought explained who my father was. Who
I
was. Each father took a piece of me when he left, leaving a hole that got bigger as I got older. I wanted those pieces back. I wanted that hole filled.

My mother would say, “I can't tell you what
really
happened,” as if she were protecting someone else's truth and not her own exaggerated version of it. Her stories had ominous detours and switchbacks, contradicting prior layers of her own facts. When cornered, my mother hissed, sizzled, and exploded like fireworks, and then offered, by way of explanation or apology, five words I'd come to know by heart.

I found out I was Mexican when I was around twelve or thirteen. My mother forbade me from telling anyone our story. I kept our secret long after I needed to because my mother's lie had become my whole truth.

It would be thirty-three years from the time he left before I tried to find my biological father, Candido Ulloa, in earnest. By then I'd had so many fathers that even the idea of a father—the very word
father
—seemed absurd, like a joke whose punch line had to be explained to me. I'd grown proud of my wounded independence—
I stand here as my own man—
because I'd built it myself from the wreckage each father left behind, shred by abandoned shred. I didn't believe that understanding my biological father's abandonment and vanishing could offer me anything except explanations I claimed I no longer needed or a reconciliation I bragged I wasn't interested in. Daddies were for children, not grown men. All I had of Candido were some pictures and the Mexican surname he'd left behind. (My mother had much less from her own Mexican biological father; she was raised by her Filipino stepfather, Emilio.) Years of speculation and misdirection led me to imagine every sort of fantastical reason for Candido's disappearance: amnesia, murder, abduction back to Mexico. I knew he'd stay lost if I didn't search for him, and I suspected already how little of my father there'd be left for me if I
did
find him. I'd been prepped by books and movies for how long and impossible a search for an estranged father was.

It took Google about ten minutes to find my father. There he was one winter night in 2010 on WhitePages.com. His home was a half-hour drive from the neighborhood where I was born and raised.

I'd found him. What now?

I'm a writer. I write to understand what I don't know. So I wrote my father a letter. And I started to write this book.

My letter was unremarkable and efficient, accompanied with a Spanish translation, and signed with my current legally changed name. (The name my father gave me was in a parenthetical.) Attached were five scanned photographs from my childhood that had miraculously survived my mother's habitual purging of the past; the idea of that, I think, was to make it easier for her to carry only the truths she wanted into the future. I also included a recent photograph of me as an adult. I imagined this picture might have resembled the kind of man my father was at my age, though I had no photos of him after 1976. He had been twenty-six years old when he left our family for good. I was thirty-six when I sent him my letter.

I chose these pictures to rend heartstrings and appeal to a conscience that my mother, and thirty-three years of silence, had led me to expect didn't exist. There'd been no letters, birthday phone calls, Christmas cards, or a penny in child support. How could my father be anything but a coward and a monster? Yet there he is in a photograph spoon-feeding me in an outdoor café on Olvera Street, cradling my infant head. Or carting me like a chubby pillow to a sleepover while my mother, in a goofy wool cap, vine-clings to his arm with a flirtatious daddy's girl smile. Another photo is from my third birthday party, and it's the last picture my father and I took together. My cake has Indians and a teepee on it, which I'm sure my mother picked out. The camera cuts off most of my father. He leans in from the side, holding me at arm's length so I won't follow him out of the frame. Later my mother would caption this picture on its back, “Brando Skyhorse Johnson and Uncle Candy.”

I'd spent my whole life trying to follow Candido out of that photograph, through lies, misdirections, and detours in other men. I was searching for a father and for who I was. When you're a child, you think your family works in a straight line. Then you get older and find out where the curves are. What I found was a lesson about how a broken home can make a whole family but not until I was willing to listen to the
whole
story. Patience helps you put the pieces together. Sifting through my mother's lies, I discovered she'd told me one real thing over and over again—five true words—if only I'd paid attention:

“At least it's never boring.”

1

M
y grandmother's breath. Racing across my baby shoulders like western clouds. I'm propped against the sofa between my grandmother's thick varicose calves dressed just in toddler shorts, like an oversized stuffed bear. A phalanx of whirring plastic fans don't cool the soupy air as much as shuffle it in a circle around us.

“Shhh,” Grandma says, and blows on my hot neck, rustling the pouty tips of my shoulder-length hair off my back. Some days my grandmother's breath blots out the violent heat. Some days it blows the storms ashore.

My mother's voice forms over our mountain range of a couch. It could shower a loving rain, tickle me with a sing-along for the summer ants crawling up my legs, or change the air above into a “run home to Mama” sky like a russet storm.

“Where's my
Pappas
?” Mom asks, shoveling me into her arms and blowing a raspberry on my tummy.
Pappas
means “potatoes” in Spanish.

“Shhh, be
quiet
,” my grandmother says. “And hold him
like
a mother
.”

My grandmother's breath. My mother's voice. My whole world. My every happiness.

• • •

I was born and raised in Echo Park, California, with my mother, grandmother June, and my Filipino step-grandfather Emilio. I can see my old neighborhood like an iris-in movie shot, a pinprick of Southern California light so bright it'd crease your corneas, opening up into a fragile tapestry of shaggy green lawns and sunbaked terra-­cotta roof tiles. White flight transformed Echo Park by the 1970s into a Latino oasis with sizable Vietnamese and Filipino enclaves, but its history was awash in silver nitrate. Mack Sennett built Keystone Pictures Studios here in 1912, and many of its early Keystone Cops comedy shorts were shot in Echo Park's loping emerald green hills and valleys. Its silent era stars migrated west (wealth always moves west in California, to the ocean), but the land stayed behind, its colors bleeding into a grainy seventies movie patina of tall, open fields of weeds bleached to a white wine finish and palm trees, their fronds beckoning with a campfire sizzle in the strong Santa Ana winds. In a documentary about the legendary Sunset Boulevard, the beginnings of which run through the neighborhood, Echo Park was pronounced “the most beautiful ghetto in America.”

We lived midway up Portia Street, mispronounced to rhyme with
tortilla
by neighbors and impatient bus drivers. Like its Shakespearian counterpart, our Portia offered a choice of three distinct directions, connecting at one end with Sunset Boulevard, which snaked into Hollywood and Beverly Hills and ended at the coast in Pacific Palisades, a town as wealthy as it sounds; Scott Avenue at the other end, a short cut-slash-escape route from Dodger Stadium to the freeways that led to the season ticket holders' suburban homes in the San Fernando Valley; and Galveston, a slug of a street that jutted up at a 30-degree angle toward the hills and oozed its way through gang territory, where each street seemed to be its own treacherous canyon. Two or three times a week, shots rang out and police helicopters rumbled overhead, slicing the night open with powerful search beams, scouring the area my grandmother called “the Steps,” an outdoor staircase by Laveta Terrace that, when the cops came,
cholos
used as a getaway slide down to Sunset.

I'd be tempted to call this God's country except that my grandmother didn't rent out to God. We lived in
her
house. It squatted atop a steep, exhausting hill accessible by a crooked winding staircase: slabs of uneven concrete blocks spiraling down to the street like a row of dominoes. Emilio bought June the single-family house in 1952 for twelve thousand dollars. Built in 1921, it was a one-story, 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath Mediterranean-style home. When my grandparents moved in, a neighbor asked June to sign a petition to remove a black mailman from their route. My grandmother, a lightish mix of Mexican, Spanish, and Swiss, refused. In retaliation, the neighbor set a crank-style Victrola record player in a side window abutting our shared fence and put on at a high volume, “The Band Played On,” a waltz she played again and again, on, and on, and on.

“If I hear about that ‘strawberry blonde' bitch once more,” my grandmother said, “I'm gonna smash that record to pieces. I don't want her ‘white' music in
my
house.”

Out front a virile jacaranda tree made a lifelong enemy of my grandmother, shedding pulpy blossoms that stained the staircase black. Armed with a push broom, a transistor radio, and a Dodgers cap, she'd sweep through thick lavender rainstorms twice a week. There was also a lemon tree in back, honey-colored kitchen cabinets, and exterior stucco walls painted cornbread yellow.

“All this damn yellow,” my grandmother said. “Looks like cowards live here.”

• • •

My grandmother was “the man of the house.” She was overseer of chores, washer and clothesline hanger of garments, food shopper (with a personal two-wheeled basket trolley she pulled up the stairs), head chef and dishwasher, payer of utilities, trimmer of hedges, sweeper of our front staircase, and controller of the single television in the living room complete with a cable hookup and an oversized recliner that Emilio had originally bought for him and June to share. Well into his midsixties, Emilio dressed for work in a suit jacket, tie, and fedora. He rode the bus almost an hour to and from his job as a line cook in a Glendale delicatessen and came home exhausted. After feeding our dogs fermented chicken and liver dinner leftovers from a greasy paper bag, he wanted nothing more than to watch television in a comfortable chair. Instead, Emilio floated like a ghost across my grandmother's line of television sight without a kiss or a greeting to his own separate bedroom. (My mother, grandmother, and grandfather each took the three small bedrooms in our house; I shared my grandmother's bed until I was sixteen because my mother wanted to save her bed for husbands.) No matter how late he came home or tired he was, out of respect, Emilio never sat in that recliner. That was his
wife's
chair.

June's beat started with a predawn coffee. On Sundays before church at La Placita on Olvera Street, she'd splash in some Kahlúa. “I know God is bullshit, but it makes me feel better for an hour,” she'd say, sipping from an oversized mug.

A pink, smog-tinged sunrise melted atop an endless field of marzipan streetlight while she readied me like a mother for school. My mother, Maria, was elsewhere, getting herself ready for work. She
hated
mothering me.

“Don't run too fast on the playground,” Grandma said while tying my shoes, “because you still can't tie your laces. Make sure you have your lunch tickets with the right date on them,” she said, and patted down my pockets, “or else you won't eat.” I “blech”-ed out my tongue, imagining my government-sponsored school lunch choices: sloppy joe paste on spongy hamburger buns, shellacked pizza toast, and fruit that tasted like old toothpaste.

“Don't be spoiled,” my grandmother said. “And don't untuck your shirt like a cholo,” she said, slipping a Le Tigre shirt over me. “Make friends with them.
They
know how to fight. Now take my hand,” she said, “and walk on the outside, near the street. So men won't think I'm a whore.”

I pulled my hand away from hers in fourth grade and then at her escort to the bus stop in seventh grade; after that, she settled on her crow's nest of a front porch. The vantage point was wide enough that she could watch me walk down the entire length of Portia Street to the corner, where I'd wave good-bye from the front of Little Joy Jr.

“It's a gay bar,” my grandmother said. “Go inside if any pervert follows you. It's the safest place in the neighborhood.”

When I was off to school, it was time to start
her
day.

If every ghetto has a hierarchy, my grandmother June was the unofficial mayor of Echo Park. She collected our neighborhood stories and bartered them with everyone, whatever their language. She could float with uncommon ease among Echo Park's different worlds and ethnicities, telling dirty jokes to the blood-cloaked Mexican butchers at Roy's Market who'd pull me
chicharrones
(fried pork rinds) from heaven; the beautiful azure-smocked Latina cashiers at Pioneer Market (my first crush was a black-haired Pioneer cashier named Felicia); the Korean-run video stores in the 1980s that smelled of boiled cabbage whose owners called her Grandma; the Italians at Capra's Deli who made the mistake of putting an underwhelming Snoopy fondant on my birthday cake: “I don't know what the hell that
thing
on my grandson's cake is, but that ain't Snoopy!”; and the Jewish owners of Gerry's Department Store, one of several local businesses that extended our family in-store credit for years of loyal patronage despite, sometimes, periods of absence punctuated by a grotesque fight, like the one with the store's matriarch, Shauna, over ten dollars.

“Now I knew why Hitler shoved all the Jews into ovens,” my grandmother said, clutching my hand tight, “and it's a shame he missed you, too!”

“Grandma!” I said outside the store. “I don't think you should have said that.”

“Oh, I was just making her day interesting,” my grandmother said. “Stop taking everything I say so goddamn seriously.” No apologies later, in a month or two we were back there shopping like nothing had happened.

When the “politicians downtown” refused to put up a stoplight on Sunset after a child died crossing the boulevard, June rounded up my mother and a friend in a three-woman protest and began randomly stepping out into traffic disruptively until a light was installed.

This was how the mayor did business.

• • •

My grandmother loved the movies. She'd switch on cable in the morning like she was checking with a good friend on the day's gossip. If nothing good was playing, she'd take the bus downtown to dilapidated one-dollar-a-ticket movie palaces that'd become makeshift homeless hotels, staving off bums with her house keys in the bathrooms. Her favorite memories were of watching movies in those same theaters with her mother, Lucille. She died in 1941, but my grandmother spoke of her daily, as if she'd just gotten off the phone with her. Lucille often needed “time away” from being a mother, and she'd send June, whom she nicknamed Eek for her inability to speak in a clear voice, to a series of convents and reform schools, including the Ventura School for Girls. They'd celebrate June's releases by going to the movies. When she was eleven, Lucille took June to the premiere of
City Lights
, standing outside the Los Angeles theater downtown as part of a teeming mass of twenty-five thousand fans lining Broadway, tiptoeing and flamingo-necking for a glimpse of Charlie Chaplin. When the churning crowd almost crushed June, her mother beat her with a belt for being clumsy. Once, June was released to the custody of a family friend who accompanied her to Long Beach, where her mother was living. She arrived on the day of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake that killed over one hundred people. Lucille said, “You brought the damn earthquake with you, Eek!”

Gone With the Wind
was the last film she and her mother saw together. When Clark Gable said, “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!” there was a collective audience gasp.

Lucille stood up and shouted, “You tell her, Rhett!”

My grandmother valued the dead. On her always-on TV, June catalogued the opening credits of black-and-whites with a
Hollywood Babylon
encyclopedic knowledge of every deceased actor's sordid backstory: “Gable, he's dead. Womanizer. Monroe, she OD'd; beautiful but no talent. Montgomery Clift, he died a drunk. My God, they're
all
dead! Clift was such a gorgeous man but liked to swing both ways.” (Confused look from a six-year-old me.) “You know, he liked women
and
men!”

Like many of the women in my family, my grandmother rooted for the bad girls in movies. Every month, cable played the same twelve movies multiple times a week; an endless loop of my grandmother's favorite roles. Shirley MacLaine tearing up her “ungrateful” daughter Debra Winger in
Terms of Endearment
. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in
Mommie Dearest,
my grandmother shouting in unison with Joan from her oversized recliner, “Don't
fuck
with me,
fellas
!” Susan Hayward played Barbara Graham in one of my grandmother's favorites, the “based on a true story” potboiler
I Want to Live!
My grandmother told me again and again that Graham lived behind our property for a few months before she was arrested in 1953 for pistol whipping an elderly woman to death in a botched robbery and sent to die in San Quentin State Prison's gas chamber.

“What a woman!” my grandmother said.

I'd walk up to the thicket of trees and bushes that separated our backyard from Graham's former house to see what ghosts this pretty murderess had left behind. What I found were swarms of cats the house's current owner hosted, fed, and watered. When he died, the cats mewed for days as they succumbed to malnutrition. By the time the stragglers crawled through the chain-link fence to our yard looking for food and water, most of the cats had died. Solemn, I rattled kibble in pie tins for the survivors but my grandmother said it was hopeless.

“It's the Graham curse,” she said. (John Waters would have loved my grandmother.)

Floating above them all in my grandmother's canon was Saint Bette Davis. When Davis's daughter wrote
My Mother's Keeper
in 1985
,
a
Mommie Dearest–
style memoir, my grandmother was as indignant as if the book had been written about her.

“What a disgraceful, ungrateful child, telling all her family's secrets for money,” she said (writing this sentence, I nod uncomfortably) and was moved enough to write Davis a fan letter pledging her support through this difficult time.

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