Excerpt | RERUN ERA / OR, THE DISLOCATIONS, by Joanna Howard
Fascinating and dynamic, Rerun Era is a memoir that focuses on growing up in the economically and environmentally deprived rural flat plainlands of Oklahoma, experiencing backlashes of personal memory and events taking place in pop culture, to a family being pushed into a period of lost love and illness that finds common ground through television. Coming out from McSweeney’s Publishing, and told from writer Joanna Howard’s perspective from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, Rerun Era is divided by the fascinating psyches of three characters throughout the memoir: Howard’s teamster truck-driving father, her women-liberated mother, and her eccentric little teenage brother, a rodeo bull-riding skateboarder. Flaunt is pleased to share an excerpt from the book, having just been released.
TO KILL THEMSELVES
My father has a friend called Gene who was in Vietnam. My father fell between the wars, and he had done his conscription already so he wasn’t drafted. Gene was just enough younger than my dad to be drafted. Gene is an oddball, my father says, because of Vietnam. How so? My father says they dropped agent orange right on him, and that he walked through the jungle drenched in agent orange, and that affects a guy in the head.
How does it affect a guy in the head? This is unclear to me as a kid. Gene is funny, and when he comes over he tells me jokes and acts like he sees kids. So many of the old timers just don’t even see the kids, so when the odd balls come around I like how they tell jokes and entertain me and heap attention upon me, because I am hammy and I like all the attention. Gene is cousins with several of my dad’s other friends including Urban, who is an old-timer, and Tommy who has a terrifying chicken farm. My dad takes me once to Tommy’s and I step into the chicken house, and see all the zillions of chickens kind of piled up on top of each other, screeching and smelling to high heaven, and entangled in a bunch of net-cage, and it’s hard to tell where the one chicken begins and the next chicken ends and I think, O holy hell, no way am I going back in that chicken house, and I scream and cry a little, and have to be assuaged with a peacock. The peacock is a novelty bird and he walks around loose on the ground rather than being semi-caged and piled high into an oversized stinking Quonset hut, and so I can follow the peacock at a discreet distance without panicking myself or others and eventually someone ’s wife (Tommy’s?) brings me a feather she has collected from him, and I feel assuaged from the chicken trauma.
So I don’t like Tommy much, and I like Urban fine, but he is an old-timer and not long for this world. Gene is the best of the bunch, I think. He is also friends with my dad’s brother Fuzz and all of them dress in camouflage and go to the woods on their off days together and hunt squirrels or get in the speed boat and go to the lake, or get in the at bottom boat and fish, or sit together at the cafe, though this I think of as happening later, after the stroke when things have changed.
(The cafes where my dad and his friends and all their old timers sit and drink coffee and eat sweet rolls is not quite the same as the cafes in France where you go and drink coffee or drink a Diablo menthe. However, they are both places where old men and medium-old men and even youngish men go to sit for hours and drink coffee and mingle with each other, and they are both places that seem to close up in the evening time. The cafes where my dad goes have the hard-faced waitresses however, and you don’t have to find a guy to pay the bill after you are finished like you do in the French type cafes. Also the hard-faced waitresses are supposed to come and pour a million cups of coffee endlessly where as in the French type cafes you buy one coffee and if you want another coffee you have to find a guy and ask for another coffee. But all this I learn much later, when later there are other places I have been.)
But I have to be careful to stay on track, because this is the story of how Gene just suddenly was dead, after a hunting accident, on a Saturday morning when my dad is out fishing or in the woods, and while I am watching inane cartoons. This is before the Ewoks, I think, so I have been watching a cartoon where there are all these dogs that travel around Europe and parts elsewhere in a pack led by a spotty dog called Petey who is looking for a little boy who owned him once. I like the taller dog call Bandit who wears a neckerchief and is scrappy. Petey is more the intellectual of the group, and he is always just almost finding his boy, but his boy is such a world traveller, and the two have been separated by nefarious means, obviously, and so there is a lot of near miss, and then in the mean time Petey will solve a crime or help out a child in some way while also learning something about history, such as in the episode I’ve just been watching in which Petey and the gang stow away on a passenger boat and arrive in Berlin in search of Petey’s boy, and they see him, like at a distance across the docks, but then he gets carried off, and instead they have to help a little girl who is on one side of the Berlin wall reach her grandmother who is perhaps sick or in danger on the other side of the wall, and this involves all the dogs swimming a lot. Perhaps the Berlin wall is on the edge of a river? Or perhaps Berlin is on the ocean? A lot is unclear about the further adventures of this dog called Petey. It’s my favorite inane program.
Then, just as Fat Albert is about to begin, my mom comes in and says Gene has been killed in a terrible hunting accident while on a hunting trip with Uncle Fuzz in Germany, and we must be careful how we tell dad. How we tell dad? Yes, we must be careful. Then dad comes in from the woods, and is still in his camouflage which smells of Deep Woods Off, and still carrying his gun case when my mother shout-blurts that Gene has had a terrible hunting accident and is now dead and my father says without much energy, ‘That was no accident’ and then has to sit down. He sits down and holds his head for a bit, and scrunches his face like perhaps he is going to cry but doesn’t and this is the way I often picture my dad crying in a dry, scrunchy way, and so in later years when I remember an image of my dad crying, like after we are fighting or after Vesta dies or after he finds out things he doesn’t want to find out, I picture this moment, but perhaps he was not scrunch crying in those other moments, but was in this moment, or perhaps he scrunch cried in those other moments but not in this moment.
I would like to be taken to the miniature golf course, please, but it is not going to happen, so instead my mom takes me and my brother to a department store in Pittsburg, Kansas which has a third floor balcony with a couch on it that overlooks the whole store and there is a basket of picture books by this couch which I like, and my mom can shop on the ground floor for lots of Garanimals outfits for me, while I sit on the couch, and periodically she waves up to me, or makes me come down to try on outfits. My brother leaves and goes to a music store downtown and he comes back later with a bag of strings and sheet music and then sits in the back of the car. After the shopping is done, and we are driving back the 40 minutes from Pittsburg, Kansas, my mom says that we have to be careful about what we say about Gene having killed himself, because Dad’s dad killed himself but he doesn’t remember and we have to be careful about that.
If dad doesn’t remember, my brother asks, then how do you even know?
Because Vesta told me, my mom says, and that is that, and now we all know that some folks tend to kill themselves, and that it is possible to forget, and that such things are a delicate matter
"Folks Tend to Kill Themselves" is used by permission from Rerun Era (McSweeneys, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Joanna Howard.