Take This Man
I was three years old when my father abandoned me and my mother in my grandmother's house atop a crooked hill on Portia Street in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Echo Park. My mother, Maria Teresa, a Mexican who wanted to be an American Indian, transformed me into Brando Skyhorse, a full-blooded American Indian brave. I became the son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, an American Indian activist incarcerated for armed robbery who my mother met through the mail. She became Running Deer Skyhorse, a full-blooded "squaw" who traded in her most common of Mexican names for the most stereotypical of Indian ones.
My mother was mesmerizing and could make crazy schemes and lies sound electric and honest. Her deception was so good, or so obvious, she fooled each of her five husbands, our neighbors, her friends, my elementary school vice principal, even me. I lived most of my childhood without knowing who I really was. All I knew was the power in my own name: "Brando Skyhorse? That's beautiful."
My biological father, Candido Ulloa (oooh-YO-ahh), was replaced by a chain of boyfriends and five fathersone new dad about every three years. Along with Paul, whom I first met while he was in prison, there was Robert, a restless, habitual Aleutian Indian thief; Pat, a restaurant chef with a penchant for disappearing; Rudy, a man who answered a singles ad from a homeless shelter; and Frank, a Mexican-American office "straight" (what Maria called men who worked actual jobs) who wanted a son but could not marry my mother. The only way to keep them straight was to imagine what actors would play them in a movie made from my life:
Paul Skyhorse Johnson: Will Sampson, the American Indian "Chief" from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Robert: Esai Morales. A "hot" Esai Morales. La Bamba Esai Morales.
Pat: Roseanne-era John Goodman.
Rudy: Present day Robin Williams. Plus thirty pounds.
Frank: I've known him the longest so I can't imagine him in caricature. If he were asked, he'd say Chris Noth from Law & Order or Michael Nouri from the movie Flashdance. In that order.
These men were never simply my mother's "boyfriends" or "partners." They weren't "surrogate dads" or "stepfathers." I couldn't call them by their first names, nor was I allowed to speak about any past father in the presence of a new one. My mother made it clear that these men, trying to be men, were my fathers, absorbed instantly into our tiny clan of mother, grandmother, and me, so we could be, or pose as, a family. Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First I was forced to accept them, then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them.
Then they left.
"Some boys don't have any father in their life," my mother would say, bucking me up. "You've had five. Plenty for one boy."
I was father rich but family poor. Our house shook as if it were filled with peoplebrothers, sisters, a chorus of screaming childrenbut really belonged to just two angry women who were five foot and change tall. We shopped at the Smart & Final warehouse for commissary-sized Shake 'N Bake and restaurant-style cartons of frozen burgers, purchasing family-size packs in gross for a family that could fit in a hatchback.
We were a triangle trying to fill a circle.
When I grew out of that circle, I tried searching for the true ends of my mother's stories; ends I thought explained who my father was. Who I was. Each father took a piece of me when he left, leaving a hole that got bigger as I got older. I wanted those pieces back. I wanted that hole filled.
My mother would say, "I can't tell you what really happened," as if she were protecting someone else's truth and not her own exaggerated version of it. Her stories had ominous detours and switchbacks, contradicting prior layers of her own facts. When cornered, my mother hissed, sizzled, and exploded like fireworks, and then offered, by way of explanation or apology, five words I'd come to know by heart.
Excerpted from Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse. Copyright © 2014 by Brando Skyhorse. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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