Naked and Afraid

by Serge Bielanko

This is a chapter from a book I started writing about two years ago. I haven't finished it. I will someday. Or I'll die trying. Either way works for me. 

In the Valley of the Deerfoot Lamp.

That's the title.

It's a memoir, non-fiction thing, a book about this dude trying to figure his life out during the hardest, strangest days he's ever known. The story unfolds across the very first months of my separation from my Monica, who was my wife at the time, and who was pregnant with our third kid. We were headed for divorce, but I couldn't bring myself to believe or understand that at the time. 

I moved in with my mom and my stepdad for like six months right after New Year's. I was lost in all the ways you could possibly imagine. 

They didn't flinch though. They weren't leery of letting me and all my drama come around.. The two of them took me in and showed me so much love that I still don't even know what the fuck happened there.

In their guest bedroom, by the light of this musty lamp from the 60's made out of three real whitetail deer legs, I'd lie there awake at night staring at my two older kids. My older two crashed out across my legs; brand new Charlie, alway ten always minutes from waking up crying in a Pack-n-Play six feet away . 

The confusion and the overriding hopelessness was too much. I thought about killing myself every ten or fifteen minutes until it was internally embarrassing. I mean, killing yourself is one thing. But killing yourself over and over again up in your head is an entirely different kind of sad.

Looking back now, I know it was my mom who saved me. Sometimes she did it with long blasts of hot-winded hard luck wisdom, sometimes with a single word that grabbed my hand as I was going over the falls. I'm so lucky to have her. I always have been. I always will be. 

My kids are really lucky too. Their mom loves them so much. I can smel her hugs/kisses all up in their hair when they first roll into my joint from hers. That's a sign, I figure. All is right with what matters most. Or something like that. 

Anyhow. Happy Mother's Day to my mom. I love you so much, Mama. Thanks for always being there and believing in my sorry ass. And Happy Mother's Day to all you moms out there. And your moms too. 

There are no words, but whatever.

That's never stopped me from trying before. 


Naked and Afraid


In the evening, we sit in front of the TV.

It’s George to my left down the couch, a bowl of Butter Pecan on his lap, my mom to my right in the recliner that used to be George’s spot, but ever since her shoulder surgery she claimed it for her own. He let her have it, I figure; George knows how to treat a lady.

What we watch isn’t always a big deal since my mom can’t stop talking no matter what’s on. You could be watching that whole epic scene towards the end of The Godfather, when all those mob guys are being assassinated to the haunting sounds of that opera singer and my mom would just start saying stuff. 

“Oh my God, they’re killing all them guys?!”

“Ugh! I could never shoot someone with a machine gun, George!”

“Cannolis! Oh my God, I love cannolis! We used to buy them at the Italian Bakery on Saturday afternoons when I was a little girl. My Uncle Hap would take me down there in his big Plymouth and we’d get cannolis and eat them outside the bakery sitting on the front bumper.”

She can’t help it and as the years have rolled by, I’ve come to appreciate her random blabbering as a thing of beauty. It’s almost impressive, her ability to talk all over key moments of culture and art and breaking news and other people trying to talk. She can pummel you into dust with the herd of wild horses that rumble out of her mouth every time she has a thought, which is all the time.

Marlon Brando could be out there stumbling around in his tomato garden and my mom would explode with one-sided conversation, lightning bolts unleashed and flashing across her mind.

“Serge, whatever happened to that Italian guy that used to play the bass with you in the band? What was his name? Johnny? He was a nice guy, always so polite and smiling!”

Marlon Brando is falling down. 

The Godfather is dying.

“Is he dying?! Or is he dehydrated? Oh my God, last summer I was outside on one of them really hot days hanging some sheets on the line and all of the sudden I got so dizzy and everything started spinning around and the sweat was pouring off of me like a waterfall…”

The Godfather is dead. 

He’s fucking dead. 

“…and I hollered, ‘Geoooorge!’, but he was up in the garage and he didn’t hear me and I thought I was going to collapse, but luckily I made it into the house alright and the whole time I was just praying, Dear God, don’t let me have a heart attack today because everybody’s coming up here for the Fourth of July and…

She has no idea that she’s even talking. I think my mom might actually be able to watch stuff real intently and talk at the same time. I know that seems like a stretch but I’m totally serious. It’s multi-tasking, I think. She might be the original multi-tasker. The credits are rolling up the screen on one of the best movies ever made, but it doesn’t matter to her.

“… I don’t want to be stuck in the hospital or be frickin’ dead when they all get up here! Christ, they’ll be having my funeral the day after the bar-b-que!”

She pauses, considering her own demise.

“Hey, maybeyouse can bar-b-que me!? That’d be cool, huh, Serge?!  You like to cook. I’d feed everybody, I bet. There’s enough of my fat ass to go around! Hahahaha!”

She can’t help it and so it’s not even annoying to me at all, really. If she were to try and go, say, ten or fifteen waking seconds without speaking or singing to herself or whatever, I think her mind would pop.

So we sit there, the three of us, never in silence. The sound of their voices pulls me in. This is their house and they’ve opened it up so wide for me to walk right in here, heartbroken and confused. So hearing them talking to each other, and to me, and to Pete, their 12-year-old yellow lab who catches popcorn on the fly and stares at you like a hawk the entire time you are either preparing food or eating food or walking by the fridge where there is food and he knows it and he knows that you know it, it’s comforting in ways that are both ancient and welcome.

Tonight we’re watching this reality show called Naked and Afraid. It’s one of our favorites. The gist is that they take two strangers, always a man and a woman, and they drop them off out in the middle of nowhere, in the jungle or the desert or some God-forsaken place like that, and they have to depend on their own survival skills to live out there for three weeks.

It’s a good show. I get a kick out of watching it with my mom and George because it’s basically three people who are about as comfortable and set-up as anybody in the world could be watching two other people fight for their lives in the worst places on Earth. 

George eats his second bowl of ice cream as my mom and me work on our second glasses of cheapo boxed Cabernet Sauvignon. The two people on the TV pull leeches off of their privates and get all excited when they find a couple of grub worms that they straight-up gobble down raw while they’re huddled under a leaky lean-to and being attacked by twenty million stinging gnats. 

“Jeez, I wouldn’t stay out in that rain like that,” my mom says. “I’d go find a cave to sleep in.”

George lets his spoon drop into his bowl.

“Oh yeah, well where you gonna find a cave if there are no caves, Marian?” he says to her. “They’re in the rain jungle. They’re might not be a cave for thousands of miles down there.”

My mom’s body is half-covered by her favorite blanket, her end of the day -recliner-sitting TV-watching wine-guzzling blanket. It’s a leopard skin pattern, which I think is kind of funny. It s something Keith Richards might sit down on the backstage floor on to smoke a thimble full of crazytown hash. It hangs off both sides of her, the tarp on the firewood, and it covers a lot. You can see her head and whatever shirt she’s wearing and her arms, but from the middle of her chest down, she’s a husky leopard. 

“I’d be afraid to eat them worms like that,” she comments as the people on the screen try and get a miniscule amount of protein in their starving bodies. 

“Why?” asks George, ice cream dribbling down his chin.

“What if they’re poisonous? These people don’t know anything about poison worms. Before I went there I’d have to really Google that.  I’d Google ‘poison worms and worms you can eat whatever forest or jungle they’re going to’ and then I’d memorize what the ones you can eat look like.”

She says this matter-of-factly, as if there was even the slightest chance that someday she might decide to take the plunge and find herself packing her suitcase for three weeks of Naked and Afraid adventure. 

What the hell. I see an opening and I go for it. I chime in. 

“I’m sure they probably do some serious Googling before they leave home, but still, the truth is when you’re out there in the middle of nowhere and you’re actually IN THAT PLACE and you’re super hungry, you probably don’t even remember what the hell the right worms or plants or anything even look like, you know?”

They both show me massive respect by pondering my thoughts in silence for a second or two and I feel a tinge of love for both of them. I’m their 42-year-old son/step-son who is going through a hard time and they want me to feel comfortable here and to understand that they will do whatever they need to do to make sure that I’m as okay as I can be through all of this. That’s the thing that wells up inside me while they consider my ideas about Googling poison worms. 

But the TV is the TV and the show is the show and the conversation is the conversation and that’s all separate from the rest of the world as we sit here in this warm American house downing big calories and judging other people’s survival skills.

“I’d print it out.” That’s what my mom says. “I’d print out the pictures of the good worms so I could tell.”

This isn’t a bad idea at all, but I don’t think it’ll work.

“I don’t think they’re allowed to take anything with them, though. That’s the whole point. They drop them off out there totally naked and they each only get one burlap sack and one tool of their choice to take with them, like these two took a sharp machete and a fire starter tool.”

My mom struggles a little to get her wine glass back onto the lamp table between me and her. There’s hardly any room on the thing because most of its surface is covered with the lamp anda short stack of old issues of Country Living magazine and some random mail and I’ve got my small juice glass of wine wedged in there a little wobbly, half on a piece of the white doily and half off it, so there’s not much room to land her glass up there at all. Plus, she is more horizontal in her chair than verticle so the very act of actually getting her wine glass from out of her hand and landing it in the small clearing she had cleared for it a little earlier requires a bit of sitting up and motivated movement. 

She grunts and twists and tries not to spill any and finally she gets the glass to the table and then flops back fast into position with a slight tug of the leopard skin, making sure that it’s not bunched up anywhere. 

“Well, I’d find a way to take them,” she says. 

“No you wouldn’t, Marian.” George tells her in his tired I’m-Going-Up-Pretty-Soon voice. 

My mom lashes back with fake fury. 

“Yes I would, George! Don’t tell me! I’d make copies of those pictures of the poison worms and the good worms and I’d stick ‘em right up my ass and keep them there when they dropped us off in the forest and no one would know it!”

She’s looking over at him now and as she does that she catches my eye and her face is flushed and alive and she smiles a little at me through her frustrated façade. George knows how to play this game though. He loves winding her up and so he just doesn’t even meet her glare. He lowers his spoon into what thin film of Butter Pecan soup is left in his bowl and he rubs it around down in there and then raises it back up, flipping it over halfway so that the bottom of the dripping spoon is now the top, and he sticks it into his mouth with the sly grin he gets when he’s got her going.

“No you wouldn’t, Marian,” he tells her. He taps my ribs with his elbow when he says that. “You wouldn’t survive ten minutes in one of these places.”

“Whatever, George!,” she hollers at him. “I’d freaking survive longer than you would, I know that! I’d drink the other person’s pee if I had to and I’d find a cave somewhere and kill a fucking bird or a snake with a stick and I’d survive!”

George is giggling and tapping my thigh like, ‘Watch this!”

“I doubt that, hon” he says. “You’d take three steps in your bare feet and you’d get a pricker in your foot and you’d have to come home.”

I am laughing now, caught up in this show which is even better than the real show. If this show were on TV right now, people would dig it, I think. We’d be famous, probably. 

My mom is all worked up and she ruffles her fleece leopard skin to help calm herself down and she sighs like an athlete, resigned to the fact that this guy who she loves so much and who loves her so much back, this man who treats her like a queen has been messing with her mind just because he really enjoys the back-and-forth of this daily pageant of faux bickering they pull off at least two or three times a day. My mom loves it too. I can see it all now, same as I always see it, as I take a chug of wine and spot the curls of the grin she’s trying to hide away as part of the game.

The dog is on the floor, uninterested in their raised voices. He’s totally comfortable with all of it and so am I. To any stranger who might have wandered upon us, the whole last few minutes might have seemed Crazy Town, but I know better.

There is this defused moment of calm in the air now. The three of us don’t say anything as things settle back into place, the show moving along, the wine glasses pretty empty, the melted ice cream all but gone.

I try and pick back up on what’s happening to the people in the rainforest, but I don’t really care. When this is over I’m going up, up to my room in somebody else’s home. I sit there on the couch and look at the clock on the wall and it’s almost nine and I think about my kids back at the house. I think about how they’re probably in their bunk beds now and wearing their pajamas which they only put on after Monica had to tell them to put them on for like five or six times.

I figure that Monica is probably in her room, her TV on, just like us. But she’s probably watching some other show and not the same one we’ve been watching. I try and picture her sitting there on her bed, her back against the barn wood headboard I made her a couple years ago, tapping away at her laptop, at her Facebook or whatever. 

I picture Charlie sleeping silently down in his little nest of pillows by his mom’s side and I imagine that Monica probably leans forward and hisses, “Lay down!” when one of the dogs hops up on the bed, so that they don’t wake up the kid. 

Naked and Afraid ends and there’s a sense of finality now. The show is done and the party is breaking up, that’s the feeling. George stands up and walks over to kiss my mom goodnight. I can’t remember the last time me and Monica kissed like that, or at all really. It makes me sad to have that pop into my mind, but it’s the way things are and so that’s it. I’d kiss her again if I could, but she probably wouldn’t want me to; I’m sure she wouldn’t. And it would be awkward as hell anyway. 

I guess there’s a really good chance we won’t kiss each other ever again, huh? That seems so weird to me, even if kissing each other wasn’t something we’d done much of for a long time. 

George says his good nights and now it’s just me and my mom. 

“Did you write today?” she asks me. 

I did, I tell her. I wrote a lot. 

I wrote tons. 

I feel so alive out there in the garage, just writing and writing and writing.

“That’s awesome, honey!” she says, and I know she’s really happy for me.

Then, after a few last minutes of chit-chat, I start to head up to bed myself, but before I make it up three steps she’s calling me back.

“Hey, come here, Serge,” she says and I stop and wander back over to her in her chair, the remote control in her hand and her legs all up under her leopard skin blanket.

“What?” I say.

She props herself forward as much as she can manage spreads her arms out, still holding the remote in her one hand, and she says,”Gimme a hug, honey. I love you so much and I want to just give you a hug.”

So we hug. She pulls me in hard and I can feel the rolls of her back bubbling out from under her bra strap and she smells a tiny bit like wine and thirteen hour old perfume.

“I love you sweetheart,” she tells me as we finally let go. “You’re a good man. I want you to know that.”

And with that, I smile at her and tell her goodnight and then I head slowly back up into my room and shut the door. Then, without even thinking about it, I take off my shirt and stare at my abs in the antique vanity mirror that cuts off my own fucking head.

This book is writing itself.