“Sadie, Emma, wake up.” The sun isn’t even up yet. “C’mon girls, let’s go.” It’s Henry jumping around trying to stir enthusiasm, so we get dressed in zombie mode. Our house on Chestnut Street is walking distance to the Penguin Feather, a dusty record store that my stepfather visits often and where Sadie just bought Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. There are hundreds of rock ‘n’ roll stickers and buttons on the wall, and behind the glass are miniature versions of the caterpillar’s hookah from Alice in Wonderland. This morning the store is the site of a live broadcast for WHFS. Weasel, the morning D.J., has asked his listeners to bring him chicken bones and banana peels. Henry is a huge fan and just the sort of person who would do something this weird. Sadie and I are recruited as his sidekicks. We fill two sandwich bags with the requested food waste and head across the street to join the masses of weirdoes who have done the same.
Henry is a bona fide Dead Head and has been around since before I can remember. He met my mother in the same bar where my mother met my father and my father met my stepmother, in the same suburb of Washington D.C. where they all grew up and went to the same high school. The story goes: he left my mother a note under her windshield wiper on Valentine’s Day that was signed ‘Your secret admirer, Henry.’
At that point, she was twenty-three and already divorced with us two girls. He was nineteen and head over heels. They called the place a dive, though I remember it fondly as Happy Hour. A broken mechanical bull collected dust in the corner, and the bartender, Sammy, let me and Sadie sit at the bar and drink Shirley Temples while the adults were shooting darts. Sammy said everyone was in love with my mom.
My mother claims to have been originally very put off by Henry. He is giddy like a little kid at home and hops around like a monkey at the Grateful Dead concerts, where the air smells sweet like cigars. The hippie girls dance in dizzying circles with their long skirts flowing around them, and Woodstock-looking people walk around the parking lot sucking air out of balloons and holding up their pointer finger for a miracle. That means they can’t afford a ticket and hope someone will be nice and just give them one.
At the last concert in Raleigh, the parking lot people kept jumping over the fence at the back of the stadium trying to run down the steep grassy hill, but they were always tackled by a guard and thrown out. Finally, after it started raining, one man tried to slide down on the wet grass, and guard after guard jumped on him in a pile, all of them sliding down the hill together while hundreds of fans climbed over the fence and slid down behind them. The guards were outnumbered and just gave up, so the whole audience cheered. It was awesome.
Henry plays bootlegged cassette tapes of the concerts on the living room speakers during all waking hours and has every live recording back as far as 1970, ordered by date against the back wall of the closet. I get to sneak the tape deck into the shows because they never check the kids. At home we play back the concerts, singing and dancing around the living room to “Fire on the Mountain.”
Henry’s best friend from high school, Teddy, has the same shaggy hair and is just as much fun. He always taps his cheek for a little kiss from my mother and then turns his head at the last second to steal a quick peck from the lips. With Teddy comes Peter, the guy on crutches with a wooden leg, and a handful of others soon follow, so Sadie and I are sent to bed while they all laugh and listen to music.
Henry is the leader of our home and always has the three of us in tow. He cooks on the grill every day in the summer – always in his favorite pair of board shorts with the stripe down the side and no shirt – and rescued me and Sadie from the microwavable dinners that my mother was serving in the apartment. I am wakened religiously by him in the wee hours of the morning and ushered down the hall to use the bathroom so I won’t wet the bed. He never sleeps at night; only naps in the recliner during the day with his sunglasses on.
Every Friday night we go as a family to the restaurant where Teddy’s girlfriend works. If she’s not there, we get stuck with a ditsy waitress who Henry calls Vera even though that’s not what her name tag says. He teases her the whole time but she never seems to notice. After we stuff ourselves with all-you-can-eat seafood, he gives us a handful of quarters and says not to run as we run to the other room where the Ms. Pacman arcade game is. While waiting my turn, I become hypnotized by the exotic fish in a tank that takes up the whole wall.
Henry has zero tolerance for disrespect towards my mother. He thinks everything we say is back talk. His father is a World War II veteran who shaved their heads for misbehaving and made them sit on the edge of their chairs so as not to slouch at the table. When Henry did something wrong Pops would ask, “What kind of cluck are you?” to which he was to respond, “A dumb cluck, sir,” before being knocked on the head with Pops’ knuckles. Everyone laughs when he tells that story.