WITH THE HELP of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazine, my father—a mechanic and all-around handyman—finished the basement of our three-bedroom brick ranch just south of Montauk Highway (Merrick Road, to the locals) in the blue-collar suburb of Lindenhurst, New York, the year I was born, 1962. Featuring real wood paneling, asbestos “miracle” floor tiles, a suspended ceiling, and storage cabinets built into a long wall, the basement quickly became our family room because that’s where the TV was, and my family would rather watch TV than interact.
Eight years later we paint a large, fanciful landscape across the cabinet doors. Little multicolored trolls frolic on rolling hills beneath puffy clouds. The largest troll resembles Cousin It from the Addams Family and holds a sign, a large piece of oak tag stapled to the cabinet door and titled Municipal Asylum. Nearby hangs a blue ballpoint on a string. Over the last five years the oak tag fills with the signatures of my brother’s and sister’s friends. Joanne Kuehnel, Diana’s friend, writes War Is Bad for Children and Other Living Things above her name. My sister Joanie’s friend Marie Green inscribes Today Is the First Day of the Rest of your Life beneath hers. I experiment signing my name three times, three different ways. Chris Tsakis with a blue ballpoint. Then uppercase CHRIS TSAKIS in heavy red Sharpie. And finally CHRIS in extra-wide black Magic Marker. My mother, coming down to do laundry, finally takes notice and says, “Knock it off! You’re taking up too much room!”
Taking up too much room has become an issue. I’m fat. The rest of my family is not. My parents shuffle me to several doctors who find nothing wrong. No thyroid disease. No metabolism issues. No medical reason. In one waiting room my father whispers to my mother, “He just eats too damn much!” My parents cranked out five children in five years and found there wasn’t enough of anything to go around. Though they are not, food is always there for me. I’m scared, weak, and undisciplined. You can tell just by looking at me, at what my grandmother calls “your big belly.”
Now that I’m thirteen and my parents are divorcing, the family is fighting every day. I never know against whom I’ll square off but usually it’s my brother Marc because he’s closest to me in age. Marc came home late from school yesterday (detention) and when he found no warm meal waiting, yelled, “How come that fat bastard gets his dinner?” Then he marched through the dining room and pounded on the green louvered door of my tiny room, a space carved from above the garage. My father built the First Mate’s Quarters (so says the sign attached to the door) when my brother Mario insisted he was too old to live in the same room with Marc and me. Dad put in a twin-sized captain’s bed, a closet just opposite, a small chest of drawers with a mirror atop, a radiator, and a long shelf suspended from chains attached to the wall above the bed. Now that Mario’s moved out to “the barn” (a two-story storage shed in our backyard, the upstairs of which is an unheated “apartment”), I’ve moved in. That lone shelf holds the essentials: my TV, my stereo, and my models.
I lie on the bed listening to Beatles ’65 through headphones, ignoring Marc’s banging and cursing. Then the lower corner of The Who poster on my side of the door comes loose and the kickstand gives way on my Harley-Davidson chopper model. It crashes over on its side as I lift up one of the earpieces on my headphones to hear, “Open the fucking door, you fat piece of shit!”
I spring from the bed, nearly breaking my neck as the headphone cord is stretched to its limit. I fling off the headphones, throw open the door and yell, “What? What the fuck do you want?” I must show no fear.
Scowling, Marc yells, “Did you eat the last of the fucking lasagna, fatso?” I go on the offensive, though I know he won’t believe me. “No, I didn’t eat the last of the fucking lasagna!” I slam the door in his face. The banging begins again.
POOM POOM POOM.
POOM POOM POOM.
From just behind the door I scream “What?” through the louvers.
“Then where the fuck is the lasagna?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
Marc storms off, screaming “Ma? Ma? Where the fuck is the rest of the lasagna?”
“How the fuck should I know?” my mother yells back from her bedroom. She’s watching an ice-skating show. My mother loves ice-skating. She used to be a majorette in Amityville High School. Years ago she told us, “I could really twirl! I’d throw the baton high up in the air, catch it behind my back after spinning around… I could do the whole routine. And I tap-danced…” I try to imagine my mother doing any of these things and I fail. Even before the divorce her favorite line, whenever one of us misbehaves, is “Howdja like your teeth punched down your throat?”
Marc bangs the oven door shut for the tenth time. Then the door to the refrigerator takes its punishment. The whole time he’s yelling at his African Gray parrot: “Eggy! What did you do? Is this your shit?”
The bird is named Eggy. I’m not sure why. It lives in a huge cage near the radiator in the dining room, not ten feet from my bedroom door. When it’s not figuring out how to shit outside its cage, it’s making this god-awful Brraaak sound and crying “Marc!” five hundred fucking times a day. Brraaak! Marc! Brraaak! Marc! Eggy sounds like the winged version of my mother. If its wings weren’t clipped I’d open the cage door, then the nearest window and wave bye-bye.
My brother eventually finds the rest of the lasagna, wrapped in tinfoil, pushed to the back of the crisper drawer. “What the fuck is it doing back there?” he yells, to no one in particular. Knowing I’ll have no peace until he eats and leaves, I head to the basement, where I can usually be found unless Mario comes down with one of his pothead friends to listen to records or Marc decides to lift weights with Jimmy.
Marc began bodybuilding a year ago and converted the eight-by-eight-foot square at the bottom of the stairs into a weight room. It’s got a homemade wooden bench, various dumbbells, barbells, and probably three hundred pounds of free weights. Marc and his lifting partner Jimmy also put up a mirror over the low cabinet opposite the weight bench, so they can watch themselves as they work out. They compliment each other, push each other on, shout encouragement:
“You can do this!”
“Just one more!”
“Stop being a pussy!”
They tear photos of bodybuilders from Muscle magazine and tape them to the paneling. Big, bulging, greased men stare back at you everywhere you look. Men with names like Federico and Herman and Klaus. Victorious, powerful men, they pose under the lights, tensing up their gluts and pecs and abs, flexing for maximum definition. Many of them hold trophies aloft, smiling. There’s an occasional woman in the photos, usually a tanned blonde in a tiny bikini.
Marc’s undisputed favorite is the Arnold Schwarzenegger, the number one bodybuilder in the world. Marc wants to be like him, so he works out all the time. He takes great pride in how he looks and despises me because I don’t. I take pride in nothing, except maybe my models. I’m an excellent model-builder. I can sit at the dining room table for hours, wielding glue, paint, and patience to build hot rods, military aircraft, motorcycles, famous monsters—you name it. The local hobby shop has even purchased completed models of mine, to display as inspiration.
I wonder if all the weightlifting has anything to do with Marc being a former bed-wetter? Until I was eleven, I’d often wake up to an awful smell from the bunk bed above mine. Nothing ever leaked through, and he stopped eventually. Then came the head banging. He’d rhythmically slam his head down on the bed (sometimes the headboard)—bang, uh, bang, uh, bang, uh—until he fell asleep.
Marc and I are always fighting over stupid shit, like who was supposed to mow the lawn or wash the station wagon or who broke what and who would tell my mother first. I’ve been reading Mad magazine’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions and have gotten good at frustrating him with a great comeback line. His typical response is: “Oh yeah, smartass? When I get done with you, you won’t be so smart.” So I hide in the basement, playing my guitar or watching TV until one of my brothers shows up.
The basement is “L” shaped. Just beyond the weights and before the bend in the “L” you’ll find a large color console TV, a long couch opposite, a beat-up coffee table, and two large wooden wire spools liberated from the phone company serving as end tables. Atop each wire spool is an olive green ceramic lamp with a large, battered lampshade. In the far corner near my mother’s sewing machine is a sump pump, keeping everything dry. Just before the sewing area is the door to my father’s workshop—a long, narrow space behind the wall of cabinets, accessible only through a locked door and strictly off-limits to the family. My mother and sisters have absolutely no interest in what goes on in there. My brothers and I sneak in constantly.
The workshop smells of grease and sawdust and features a large workbench with drawers full of every kind of fastener and tool. There’s another bench with a table saw, a band saw, and a grinder/polisher. At the end, beneath a casement window, is the double work sink. When we were little, my father—tired of locking and unlocking the door to his workshop—told us, “There’s a monster down there and if you go in there one more time, he’ll eat you.” That keeps us out for a while. Before long we’re back, working on one half-assed childhood project or another, always putting the tools back in the wrong place or leaving plainly visible signs of improper usage. Usually, we get my dad’s right hand across our faces or his belt across our behinds for our transgressions.
It being a modern finished basement, my father also installed an intercom system on the wall running behind the couch. My oldest brother, Mario, discovered you could sneak down behind this wall and the outer foundation of the house via a small opening at the end of the workshop. Halfway through the twenty-five-foot passage you’d see the yellowish glow from the hot tubes and you’d sidle past the back of the intercom. A few more feet, a right turn, and you’re in the space under the stairs. Snug, like Apollo 11, you’d have to hunch over or sit down to fit. My brothers and I outfitted the space with a battery-operated lantern, a sleeping bag, and a small radio.
The year I was ten I went under the stairs and lived there for two days. I couldn’t take my family anymore. I was tired of being the object of constant teasing about my weight. I wanted to be alone. I took a pillow, a pile of Mad magazines, a tuna sandwich, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and some Hawaiian Punch and went under the stairs, unnoticed. I heard people pound up and down the carpeted treads and laughed to myself, knowing they’d never find me. I loved it under the stairs. With my radio, reading material, food and drink, I was warm and cozy. I wasn’t at all claustrophobic. I would’ve lived there. I stayed under the stairs until I heard my mother’s panicked “Where the hell is Chris?” one too many times. And I’d run out of sandwiches and Hawaiian Punch.
When I got too big to squeeze between the walls and go under the stairs I’d hang out on the basement couch watching TV. Friday night’s line-up was the best: Nanny and the Professor, The Brady Brunch, and The Partridge Family. All these sun-dappled California families, all far better than mine. Often, I’d fall asleep in the basement.
I woke up this morning and told my mother I had a stomach-ache and thought I’d stay home. I’m not actually sick but I don’t like school. They make fun of me there, too. Even though there are other fat kids, I get special abuse because everyone knows my brothers and sisters and can see they aren’t fat. So there must be something wrong with me: something worthy of constant name-calling. I’ve heard every variation of the old reliable “fatso” along with “fat ass,” the variation “lard ass,” the old reliable “fat slob,” and the vaguely commercial “Hey, it’s the Goodyear blimp!”
“You better not be faking!” my mother screams before climbing into her Impala and heading off to her bookkeeper job. She’s new to the work force because of the divorce. Most evenings, we all get to hear her complain about it to her boyfriend Justin, as they sit on opposite sides of the living room, listening to Tom Jones while downing multiple Screwdrivers or Vodka tonics until they’re both bleary-eyed and slurring.
After she’s gone, I make myself a tuna sandwich, pour some RC Cola in a tall glass, and slip down to the basement, intending to see what’s on TV. I notice Mario’s left out a stack of records. On the top is Led Zeppelin II. I’ve only heard it through the floor. I don’t own any records of my own. My sisters own boxes of 45s, all with their names in flowery script: The Jackson 5, Bobby Sherman, anything in the Top 40. They like to dance. I don’t. My brothers own albums by The Doors, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, and Zeppelin.
I’ve been handed an opportunity and I know what I need to do. I grab Marc’s BSR turntable, put it on an old wrought-iron plant stand and—with a Radio Shack adapter—I patch from the BSR’s stereo RCA plugs to a quarter-inch mono plug. I insert that into the Record input of the Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder Mario liberated from the high school. Then, using a guitar cable, I patch the output of the Wollensak into my Univox guitar amp. I switch on the BSR, the Univox, and the Wollensak, in that order. There’s a healthy hum emanating from the Univox. I lift up the Wollensak’s cream-colored cover and set it aside. A seven-inch reel of tape holds one hour of sound, if I record on the slowest speed. No one else bothers with the Wollensak anymore. We used to set it on the dining room table and pass the microphone around, singing songs or just saying whatever came into our heads. We haven’t done that since my father absconded. There’s nothing on this tape worth saving.
Half of the tape is on the take-up reel. I hit the rewind lever and back it all up onto the feed reel. Then I pull the album from its jacket and set it down on the BSR. I push down the Play and Record buttons on the Wollensak, then lift up the tonearm of the BSR, setting it down on track one. There’s a crackle, a laugh that sounds like a cough, and then this mean guitar riff kicks in. The bass soon echoes the riff. Then: “You need coolin’…Baby, I’m not foolin’…”
What the hell is this? This is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. How are they making those sounds? What’s with the drums, coming in on the chorus like that and dragging behind the beat? What’s that jet-plane sound? Who is this guy going to give his love to? Then there’s all that high-hat and ride cymbal and those bongos…. and the song becomes positively evil. What’s that croaking noise? Is that thunder crashing? We’re on a journey somewhere.
Minutes later there’s a long yell, some vicious, door-slamming drums, a snotty lead guitar break, and the riff kicks back in, more glorious than before.
Through side one I sit mesmerized, staring at the little bulb on the Wollensak that flashes along with the volume. When side one ends, I leave the tape running and flip the album over. Then the tape breaks. Oh crap. No big deal. I’m used to this. I’ve gotten good at splicing it myself. But we have no splicing block or splicing tape. My brother didn’t think to steal those along with the Wollensak. I need Scotch tape and scissors.
I lift the tonearm up and head to the chest beneath my brother’s posing mirror. I pull open the top drawer, crammed with, among other items, nuts and bolts, screws, pieces of scrap paper, batteries, a pair of scissors, rulers, glue, Scotch tape and—whoa!—what’s this? Something wrapped in butcher paper. Something big.
I pick it up. It has heft. I lift it to my nose. It smells like mayonnaise and meat. I look around. Nobody. There’s only one person who could’ve put this here. Marc. He must be stashing it for when he gets home from school. Was that him I heard banging through the back door while I was lying on my bed listening to music? He’s hiding it. He doesn’t want anyone to know he went to Queeny’s and put it on my mother’s tab. He doesn’t want it discovered in the refrigerator.
I unwrap it slowly. Lord, look at that! Roast beef and Swiss, with lettuce and mayo. On Italian bread. My favorite sandwich. I hold it aloft and stare at it. Christ, I want some. I lie to myself: This isn’t your brother’s sandwich. This isn’t your weightlifting, hyper-violent brother’s sandwich. It’s no one’s sandwich. It’s my sandwich.
I close my eyes and bite down hard. Oh God, it’s so good! The meat and cheese are fresh. There’s some black pepper. I take another bite. And another. I want more but I’m pushing my luck. There’s already a big hunk missing. Rooting around in the drawer, I find a table knife and attempt to make a clean cut. Such lunacy. I wrap the sandwich up as carefully as possible and place it back in the drawer. Then I find the scissors and Scotch tape and set about splicing the reel back together.
When I’m done, I set the Wollensak into Record again and plop the needle of the BSR back onto side two. Heartbreaker kicks in. Jesus, what a cool riff! I turn the Univox up as loud as it will go and find I’m rocking my head back and forth in rhythm and banging my right foot. Halfway through the first lead guitar break, just as Jimmy Page launches into that second fusillade of notes, there’s a pair of legs descending the staircase. I lunge for the volume knob of the Univox and turn it down but it’s too late. Marc is home early from school. He’s cut class. Again.
I try to pretend nothing’s wrong, that it’s perfectly fine for me to be down here taping Mario’s album. Marc sees me and says, “What the hell are you doing, tons of fun?”
That might be the worst one. Not only are you a ton, you’re several tons. And somehow it’s fun.
“Nothing…” I say, my adrenalin pumping wildly.
“Is that Mario’s?” Marc asks, grabbing the Led Zeppelin II album jacket. I say nothing. I hit Stop on the Wollensak and pull the tonearm up on the BSR. I try to grab the jacket from my brother’s hand but he waves it over his head, playing keep-away. “He’s gonna kill you…” he sneers. Then he tosses the album cover at me. I’m able to trap it between my palms before it hits the ground. I hurriedly slide the LP back into its sleeve and sheepishly say, “You don’t have to tell him…”
“Yeah, right…” my brother laughs.
I rewind the tape on the Wollensak and put the album back on top of the pile where I found it. Out of the corner of my eye I see Marc slide open the top drawer of the chest. He lifts out the wrapped sandwich, pulls off the butcher paper, and yells, “Who ate my fuckin’ sandwich?” Who ate a huge fuckin’ piece of my fucking sandwich?”
He examines it like it’s a medical specimen. “Was it you, you fat fuck? Was it you, you fat fuckin’ pig? Did you eat my fuckin’ sandwich?”
Spittle is flying everywhere. He’s red with rage. “Why don’t you get your own fucking sandwich, you fat fuckin’ bastard?” I stand there, silent, and then brilliantly decide I’ll deny everything. “It wasn’t me!” I pound the Stop button on the Wollensak for emphasis.
“So who the fuck else would eat my fuckin’ sandwich!”
Trembling, I again yell “It wasn’t me!” hoping volume will somehow carry the day.
“You make me fuckin’ sick!”
On sick, my brother punches me hard in the stomach. I double over and go to my knees. Then he punches me on the side of my head. I collapse on my side, unable to breathe. Charging up the stairs with his sandwich, Marc yells, “I told you to stay away from my fuckin’ shit! You touch my shit one more fuckin’ time and I will fuckin’ kill you, you fat piece of shit!”
I lie there gasping for air, looking up at a picture of Arnold and some blonde. She hangs off his bicep. He has a huge smile on his face and a tiny bulge in his swimsuit.
I begin to cry, wondering why Arnold’s pictures inspire my brother to work on his body but make me wish I were dead. I am a joke and I know it. Waves of shame wash over me. I wish I could crawl back under the stairs. I wish I could be Jimmy Page. I don’t want anyone to hear my sobbing so I stagger to my feet, turn the Univox all the way up, and hit Play on the Wollensak.