December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

20. Female Trouble: Things Fall Apart

By |2023-10-12T18:11:01+02:00September 22nd, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
Photograph by Bernard Jaubert.

f the end of the Jurassic Period marked the beginning of the end for the dinosaurs, my twelfth birthday (two years after our return from Madrid to Washington) began what I came to call the “The Era of Female Trouble.” Its events were varied and tumultuous, and though no one died and no species went extinct, let alone women, considerable shrieking made its way into a life I had somehow managed to keep vanilla milkshake-calm.

These events had an order and were not connected, but in my memory they insist on a chronology that begins with Mrs. Wheelock going mad, which came not long after Mrs. Gorman’s husband left her, and she shut herself in the house until the police had to come and pry her out, citing public nuisance laws because she wailed incessantly from the windows of her squat, stucco house at the corner.

It was my father who spoke of the stucco house, and, not knowing what it meant and knowing that the Gorman and Wheelock houses were similar, I assumed stucco was a mental condition that induced female wailing.

My father was ill and unhappy at work. The halcyon days of lizards and batidos were gone.

The spoiling of my innocence was not helped by the likes of The Rolling Stones, who, in the Wheelock-Gorman year had a hit called “19th Nervous Breakdown.”

My mother’s own nervous breakdown was just around the corner, but let’s stick to the two principals I mentioned at the start.

Our return from Spain was rocky. I did poorly at school, feeding my homework to imaginary wolves. My father was ill and unhappy at work. The halcyon days of lizards and batidos were gone.

Instead, Helen Wheelock, a Colombian woman with a Canadian husband, decided he, the husband, was cheating. This occurred in part because they both drank too much, this according to my father, and their son Tony was kissing and fondling girls in the neighborhood — going so far as to leave kissing and fondling behind for other territory, which to me was like Columbus’s ships falling off the edge of the flat earth. I had no idea what these “other” transgressions might be. But I’ll leave Tony for another time.

Helen Wheelock shouted both inside and outside her house, calling her husband a bastard and occasionally accusing local squirrels of working with him to undermine the natural order. When she’d see me playing with my tennis ball, which I would throw against the wall, pretending I was a baseball pitcher, she’d say, “Go ahead, throw it, as if it makes any difference. And while you’re at it, wreck a marriage.” My tennis balls struggled with these insults.

Matters descended into chaos when Mr. Wheelock returned from work and they would begin to scream insults at each other. I’d hear plates and glasses smash. One day Mr. Wheelock appeared on the veranda with a fork in his shoulder. He took it out and went back inside to continue this ferocious carnival of rage.

To which my father would say only, “Well, they’re probably good in bed,” which meant nothing to me. I feared for the bed and wondered about the state of their pillows. DiDi in Madrid might have taught me the meaning of a crush, or that a girl could make a boy momentarily lose his mind, but she’d never screamed or done whatever was being done with pillows after drinking, and in bed, no less.

Mr. Wheelock finally moved out, making Tony into more of a rogue, but at least his mother contained her rages, focusing her tirades on “my son who’s busy fucking anything that moves.” I had never heard this word. My mother was outraged beyond comprehension. Tony was fourteen and simply laughed. I assumed this fucking had something to do with his own kind of hunting, perhaps squirrels instead of lizards, or maybe he went door-to-door disconcerting domestic pets.

The case of Mrs. Gorman was stranger and more unsettling, because after her outbursts she’d settle into her house and remain silent for months. No one would see her and my small tribe of neighborhood friends assumed she might be dead. This, of course, made us want to sneak into her basement, but we never did. We merely stood outside her (stucco) home and waited for events that never happened, until, of course, the fire department came after she attempted suicide.

Depression, my father said, leaving it at that, perhaps assuming The Rolling Stones would tell me the rest. I could think only of the thing doctors stuck in your mouth to push your tongue down, which I once heard was called a tongue depressor. Maybe Mrs. Gorman had somehow gotten one stuck in her throat in a way only the fire department could rectify.

“Go ahead, throw it, as if it makes any difference. And while you’re at it, wreck a marriage.”

We all watched from a distance as they wheeled her to an ambulance, looking thin with huge eyes and a terrifying smile. After that, the stucco house was the “mad” house, and when she got back, we stayed away.

I asked again and again for explanations of what exactly might be happening to Mrs. Wheelock, who lived next door, and Mrs. Gorman, a few houses away, but my small family’s resident authority on feelings and wreckage and all things apocalyptic, my father, was mum. He came home and read newspapers, saying next to nothing to my mother. This, I sensed, meant serious trouble but I couldn’t measure it, not in the way you might a fever. I continued to throw away my homework. I was nearly expelled from school, and one day I saw Tony with our next door neighbor Sarah in a position so strange – they were in our garage – that it defied nature. When they saw me, only Sarah was startled and quickly covered herself and put her finger to her lips. This I understood, though it was just the start of the Tony-Sarah havoc. I wanted so much to better understand their odd rites, but before I could, it happened:

My mother announced she was leaving. Mrs. Wheelock, when she heard, was thrilled: “Serves the bastard right.”

Now I was genuinely lost in space, a small astronaut cut loose literally from his mother ship and not a lizard field in sight in that outer space.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.