So my father is going to be all right. That’s what my mother said as soon as we met at the airport. That’s what the doctor said when he came out of surgery. That’s what my father said himself, just before he went in, making it snappy over long distance: “This is costing you money.”
That’s what I thought all along.
He’s always been all right before.
Before. That would be ten years by now. The voice over the telephone sounded encouraging.
“Missus Howland? Bette Howland?”
Uh huh, he’s selling something, was my first thought. What’ll it be? Magazine subscriptions? Rug shampooing? I can never make up my mind what to do about telephone solicitors. Is it better to say no thanks and hang up on the spot, so they don’t waste any breath? Or to stand there, frowning, with the phone to your ear, and let them finish?
I stood there.
“This is Reverend Nightsong? Chaplain at Covenant Community Hospital?”
Didn’t I tell you? Collecting for charity. But what’s he calling me for? What does he want from me? How did he ever get hold of my name?
“I’m calling about your father? He had an accident?”
A grappling hook got tangled in seaweed.
“Now take it easy now. Don’t go getting all excited. There’s nothing to upset yourself about. He fell? Off a ladder? Fixing the roof? It looks like he maybe cracked a couple of ribs, he broke his nose. Things like that. We should know pretty soon. They’re still checking him over.”
Oh yes. Wasn’t that just like him? Easy to picture my father up on a ladder. The wide back and heavy shoulders. The polar bear neck. The legs powerful, foreshortened, condensed by their own strength and weight. That’s nothing new.
But wait a minute. What’s going on here? I don’t get it. My parents sold their house ages ago, before my father retired. What roof? What house? What business does the old man have—climbing ladders?
Reverend Nightsong spoke.
“We thought you might want to come down?”
I was still frowning. My father does that. Talks into the telephone as if he’s getting a bad connection or bad news. His thick forehead bunched; the phone squeezed to his raspy cheek; raising his voice to make himself heard in the next room, the next world. He says he can’t help it, he’s used to working in the plant, shouting over the machines. I believe him. I got sent every now and then to collect his paycheck. Through all the open transom windows the noise made a tunnel: clubbed, bludgeoned, plundered air.
He doesn’t know his own strength, says my mother.
We have the same deep vertical groove over one eyebrow; more than a frown—almost a scar.
“You mean right now?”
“Well, yes. Now. Now would be good. Now, that is, if it’s all right with you.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Okay. Now.”
It was a warm bright day. Earlier a pair of window washers had been at work, ropes and planks butting the cemented slabs of the building. I heard voices, looked out, down they came. Thick boots, army pants, cigarette butts in curly beards. The sponges slopped and blurted. Water slurred. It ran on the glass as over stones glazed in a stream.
The sky looked like that. Transparent. Luminous.
Out of the clear blue sky it came to me: what if my father was dead?
Why didn’t 1 think of it? That’s what they had called me for. That’s what it was all about. The Chaplain. No wonder. You know yourself how they are; they never tell you the truth. They don’t like to break the news over the phone.
I pictured a form under a white sheet; my father laid out like a large piece of furniture. The hulk of the chest, the humps and ridges of the toes, the heavy sloping head, the bump of the nose.
Didn’t that guy just say, though, that my father’s nose was broken? He wouldn’t say that, would he, if my father was dead? No, no one would say a thing like that. Not a broken nose.
He must be all right then.
He was going to be all right
I felt grateful to this Reverend Nightsong, whoever he was. My first guess had come pretty close. A one-time-only offer. Can’t last. Supplies-are-limited. Take-it-or-leave-it.
Now or never.
There was something I wanted to say to my father. I knew what it was, what it had to be. Everybody knows that. Only I wasn’t sure how to say it. But I always knew the time would come. Sooner or later. The stage would be set; the scene would be played; all of a sudden it would be easy.
All of a sudden I would mean it.
Still I dreaded seeing him like this. My father’s size and strength were more than physical. Mental, temperamental. Character traits. Mind Over Matter was his motto. Whenever anyone else got sick, he would tiptoe about the house, trying to speak softly—lowering his loud voice to sandpaper whispers—pulling down window shades, fetching glasses of water. He looked apologetic, respectful, almost—if such a word could be applied to him—scared; as if he had filled the glass too full and was afraid it might spill. He gave advice, pep talks, about keeping your head warm and your feet cool. And he meant it. Did he have a Hot Head? Cold Feet? But he knew it was no good. What was the use. Others didn’t have the benefit of his constitution—or, as he called it, his System—or his conscience; his maxims or his morals. To see him brought down, laid low—damaged, hurting, like any other injured creature—was to see him disgraced.
All of which is not to say that my father was ever a simple man. Only that he didn’t know his own strength.
But I did.
The Emergency Room was busy. The benches facing front, lined up like church pews; peaked caps moving up and down—nurses scribbling away behind a high counter. I spotted my mother standing and talking to a doctor. A large dark man in a Hawaiian sports shirt and tinted glasses; but I could tell he was a doctor from the beeper in his pocket and all the ballpoint pens clipped to it. My mother’s head came just about up to this row of pens on his chest; thrust at him—close—as if she wanted to take a bite out of him.
It surprises me how short my mother really is.
“He’ll be all right, won’t he?” she was saying. The doctor folded his arms, braced in steely watch-band.
She turned to me:
“Well he’s gone and done it now. Now he’s really gone and done it. He fixed himself up but good this time,” she said. “And I told him, too. I told him no more ladders. He’s not the man he was, you know. I begged him. Please. Don’t go climbing any ladders.”
“That’s what I don’t understand. I can’t figure it out. What in the world was he doing on a roof?”
“What was he doing? What do you think he was doing?”
She skimped up the arcs of two picked plucked little eyebrows—the only items little in that proud front, her face. Hair white; features dark; lipstick intense, vivid as a caste mark.
“Do you have to ask? Don’t you know your father by now? A favor, that’s what. For the neighbors, that’s who. Who else? You don’t suppose he’d be fixing anything for me, do you? Not him. Not if the ceiling was falling on our heads. He’s retired. I can’t get him to look up from the newspaper. I have to plead till I’m blue in the face. But the neighbors are never afraid to ask. All they have to do is knock on the door. ‘It’ll only take you a minute, Sam. It’s nothing for you.’ Oh no. Nothing. Some nothing. Go. Go take a look at him. Go see what’s nothing. I just hope he learned his lesson. Maybe next time he’ll listen to me for a change. That man. Talking to him is like talking to a wall.”
I followed the doctor down the corridor.
We were at a basement level; painted pipes in the ceiling, loud bare floors. His back was humped and husky in his flowery shirt, his arm swinging and flashing his watchband. I tried to picture a hospital room, a row of beds, and in one of them my father. His blue eyes looking out from a visor of bandages, a splinted nose.
My father spent his working years in a factory; he was a junk collector, a handyman—fixing and forcing. It wasn’t as if he wasn’t forever getting “clipped”; a chunk taken out of himself on something jagged or rusty; his hairy-backed hands daubed technicolor from stinging stains and dyes. Orange mercurochrome, purple permanganate, smelly yellow-brown iodine. His nails were bruised and black as clamshells (more decoration).
His eye would squint, his lip grip. Pain, effort, concentration: all the same to him.
But then, remembering his audience—my sister and/or me—and strictly for our benefit, he would give his thick curly head a shake—a shaggy shudder—a wet dog wagging; and pantomime a howl. A yowl. His mouth with its lead-weighted molars opening wide, wrapping all around the sound:
Only nothing came out.
“Sunnuvugun,” he’d say. “That was a Beaut.”
But where were we going? Why was it taking so long? Frosted glass doors, elevators doors, sliding doors. Doors with port-holed windows. The doctor’s arm kept swinging. Our heels clicked. Everyone knows the sound of heels clicking in hospital corridors. Everyone knows the tread of the heart.
He pushed a door. A long sheeted table was wheeled under a lamp. The purplish light sputtered. A nurse had been giving the patient a shot, and as she stepped aside, still fussing with the sheets, I caught a glimpse—just a glimpse—of something dark. Black as fur. A forbidden sight: the naked hairy loins of my father.
She tossed some bloody cotton in a bucket.
He had not been cleaned up, prettied up, bound up and bandaged. His nose was swollen and clotting; his cheeks, too—puffed up, punchy—like a boxer’s. His whole face was bigger than usual, a damp glistening gray, the color of steamed meat. And the sheets weren’t tidy either. They wrinkled and twisted.
I must have come closer. He opened his eyes.
“Oh, Bet,” he said.
He looked surprised. Most of the time my father looks surprised: it’s because his eyes are so blue. They stand out above the rough raw cheeks. They startle you too.
Say. What’re eyes like you doing in a face like this?
“’Lo, Bet,” he said.
At the last minute, feeling that the ladder was slipping and giving way beneath him, he had had the presence of mind, the force, to hurl himself forward. So he had landed, not on the concrete, on the back of his head (and from the height of two stories and more I guess that woud have been that), but on the soft earth, on his face.
He had been wearing his new glasses; so new, no one had had a chance to get used to them yet. The wire rims. The eyes expanded, blinking. They were safety glass and didn’t smash, but the impact had left their impression on his face—an exact copy.
There they were: two circles in his cheeks, a deep dent over the bridge of his nose.
The eyes opened; they shut.
The eyes opened; they shut.
He seemed to be staring at me through a pair of specs.
He looked very large, he looked formidable; winding sheets, swollen face, broken chest. It was moving, but not up and down.—
And a little higher.
A boulder being pushed uphill.
He seemed to be concentrating on the effort.
His lids were violet, an odd cosmetic effect. His lip gripped—stiffened—things better left unsaid.
This wasn’t what I was expecting. Not what I feared, but not what I hoped. Clearly this was more than a case of a couple of cracked ribs and a broken nose. This wasn’t going to be so easy. No one was going to get off that lightly. The sheets were wrapped and wrung about him. They clung to him. They were the pain.
He nodded, eyes shut, chin to his chest.
“’S all right, Bet.”
What did he mean, it’s all right?
That he was going to be all right?
That things were all right between us? (Just like that?)
Or only that it was all right, I had done my duty, shown my face; now I could go.
One thing for sure. I was dismissed This wasn’t the time, and there was nothing to say. It was an old story. I had come to ask, to seek, to plead—and not to give.
I backed out, shut the door.
“Gone . . . done it. . . .” I heard him mutter.
The doctor was passing; I caught up with him.
“He’ll be all right, won’t he?”
He folded his arms. It was hard to hold his eyes, in the tinted glasses.
“We have to wait and see.”
“But he’ll be all right? He’s going to be all right?”
He didn’t seem to know what I was asking.
Well? What are we waiting for? We know what’s coming, don’t we? We know what direction it’s coming from? Is it a secret? Is it a rumor? We know what has to happen some time. Why do we keep putting it off?
Now? You mean right now?
The woman sitting next to me on the plane was on her way to see her folks in Florida, too.
“I’m dreading this,” she told me.
Her parents were in their eighties, had been living in Florida the past ten or a dozen years. Up to a few months ago their health had been holding up pretty well; then both had broken down at once. Between them they had just about everything wrong; cancer, heart, kidneys, cataracts, diabetes, “You name it.” There was no hope, of course; no question of recovery. The only question was how long. She still hadn’t made up her mind what she was going to do with them. She didn’t know what she would find when we finally got on the ground. She wasn’t sorry the plane had been delayed.
“Though I guess I have to face it some time.”
There had been a freak spring storm, clear across the country—taking more or less the route we were covering now—dumping ice and sleet, cracking trees, downing power lines. The world was a snow swamp: the Everglades turned white. Knee-deep drifts, rafting logs, broken branches; limbs bent low under loads of snow like lush tropical vegetation. Everything bowed down in silence.
Now we were flying over yet another snowy landscape; three-dimensional cut-out clouds. The plane was packed; stewardesses in ascots and aprons pushing carts, passing out drinks, paper napkins, sliding stacked snack trays over our seats. Their faces leaned and smiled, sunny with makeup. Ice cubes faintly tinkled in plastic glasses. Smokers in the rear section had lighted up, cigarette fumes seeping through the compartment; stale traces, a bluish tinge, leaking like the trail of a dye-marker.
The aisle was lit with a wintry brightness.
“It’s awfully bad luck,” she kept saying. “It’s really a very bad break.”
Somehow she had been expecting to deal with these matters one at a time.
She was in her fifties (I’d say); round face, pouchy chin, small neat-tipped mobile nose. Bifocals. Frizzy gray hairs straggling from a smooth dark bun. (By no means as much tinsel as I have. Premature gray runs in my mother’s family. We like to call it premature.)
She picked up her sandwich in plump ringed fingers and eyed it suspiciously. “Wonder what’s in this? Ugh. Don’t you hate airplane food?”
She put it back on her plate and began to dissect it with her fork.
I told her that my parents had only recently moved to Florida, after talking about it for years.
“Mine were that way, too,” she said. “Kept putting it off.”
Now they loved it; they were only sorry they hadn’t made the move much sooner.
“Just like mine,” she said. “Same with mine. Don’t I know.”
Luckily they were barely seventy; still in good health; still plenty able to enjoy themselves.
“Oh, mine were, too,” she said. “Mine were, too.”
She was glancing at the window, not really looking out, the light settled—a kind of sediment—in the thick bottoms of her lenses. She didn’t need to look; she knew the terrain. She had been here before, she had covered this ground. She was drawing me a map.
Each time she spoke, she nodded and swallowed—as if given permission—and poked at her lips with the paper napkin:
“Mine too. Mine too.”
I didn’t say that my father had undergone surgery that morning.
It was an emergency. A couple of nights before he had started to hemorrhage. He was in bed; he got up and put his pants on and drove himself and my mother to the hospital. She drives now; but not with him in the car. By the time they got there, some twenty minutes later, the pants, the front seat, and the assortment of rags he keeps in the car for old times’ sake (torn blankets, discarded beach towels; there’s not much place for his junk in their new apartment, their new lives) were soaked through; sticky-bright; red with burst blood. He had almost no pulse. He had been on intravenous feedings and transfusions. The doctors were expecting to remove a section of the colon. They were pretty sure it would be malignant. But if all went well and there were no complications, they were pretty sure he would be cured completely.
Who knows why they kept putting it off?
My father had been retired for years, had elected to take an early retirement first chance he got. It was something new. Now there are bonuses; then there were penalties. It meant a considerable sacrifice of pensions and benefits. But he didn’t want to be one of those, as he put it—as he was bound to—Living On Borrowed Time. Besides, he had always hated his job. Not that he ever said so. Not that he had to.
I used to wake to the trudge of a shovel: my father scraping the coal pile, getting the fire going in the furnace, in the basement. Hollow pipes carried it all through the house. The hoarse flinty rumbles had something of the ring and register—the grumbling resonance—of his voice, and I would think of him as down there talking to himself.
Down in the damps.
That was not just a figure of speech, with my father.
Outside it would still be dark. The snow on roofs, gutters, fences, clotheslines, nothing but gloom. The air was black-and-blue with cold.
That was when we lived on the West Side of Chicago, a neighborhood of two story houses, mostly frame. In winter the sidewalks were blasted black from the dust of coal delivery trucks, clinkers and ashes sprinkled on snow and ice; in summer, from the squashed juices of the mulberry trees. Our house faced west, windows smeared with angry red sunsets. I remember the day we moved in. I mean the day my father moved us in; everybody else watched, neighbors old and new. Hauling it all down three flights from our old flat, tying it up on top of his car, hauling it back up those skinny steps, the porch on stilts. Crushing his burdens to himself, hugged and squeezed in his hairy arms, with his crouching legs and a familiar grim gripping look on his face, he might have been in a wrestling match. A contest of wills.
I wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that my father was ever a showoff, a musclebound type, like those body-builders and pumpers of iron in the slick magazines; arms and chests molded in epoxy. You didn’t notice his muscles. Width. Heft. Pelted neck. Hairy withers. Ruddy flesh—almost raw. Smell of head sweat. (It was running from the roots of his curly hair in shining creeks.) And always, always that impression he gave, and still gives, of being laden with strength. Loaded down with it.
When everything was piled up in what was going to be our new front room—all our misplaced, mismated store: boxes, bedsprings, bureau drawers, chairs upside down on the table, all looking pretty dismal and discouraging, dashed with light from bare dirty windows—my father took my sister on one knee and me on the other. He made a speech:
From Now On. Got to Get Organized. Turn Over a New Leaf. All Pitch In. Do Our Part. Listen to Your Mother. Treat Each Other Right. Make a Fresh Start.
The dresser with the tilted mirror found its way upstairs to the bedroom; the wooden ice-chest wound up in the kitchen; everything else stayed where it was. If not those self-same boxes and drawers, headless lamps, black-bagged vacuum cleaners (why three Hoover uprights and no rugs? not that any of them worked), then others. There was always more where that came from. Still, my mother talked about “redoing”—as if anything had ever been done. That was what everybody else said, and she wanted to be like everybody else. From my friends’ houses I knew the sort of thing she had in mind. Carpets you couldn’t walk on, sofas you couldn’t sit on, drapes you couldn’t draw (the sun might fade the carpets and upholstery). Something too good for us to use. When she got her carpets, she said, “The Traffic” would take their shoes off at the door. When she got her towels, “The Traffic” would dry their hands on paper. When she got her bedspreads, “The Traffic” would hang up their clothes.
“The Traffic”: that was us.
She was giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
We must have lived in that house a dozen years (which surprises me; I thought it was a hundred), and all that time it looked as if we had just moved—or were just about to. How could she ever “have anything”?
After they sold the house and my father retired, they moved a lot: Lock Stock & Barrel; which was about all they had to their name. They were like fugitives keeping just one jump ahead of the law. So when they decided, after years of this, to move to Florida, everyone pooh-poohed:
A Retirement Village? Were they out of their minds? All those old people? Phooey. And what would they do with themselves? Sit around and play cards? And the houses—all alike. How can you tell them apart? (A good thing they don’t drink; they’d never find their way home.) Like living in a fishbowl. No privacy. Everybody knows everybody’s business. They’ll get tired of it. Don’t worry. Just like all the other times. They’ll be back.
When it comes to decisions, my parents like to change their minds a few times; otherwise they don’t feel right about it; same way a dog likes to turn around and around before it lies down.
But they put a couple of boxes in somebody’s basement, and a couple more in somebody’s attic, and piled the pots and pans and the portable TV into the back of the car and drove down. To Live Happily Ever After. From Now On.
All at once the clouds ended. Came skidding to a halt, at an edge of blue sky, as banks of snow and ice stop at the blue edge of the sea. I saw a curved shore, a stiff-frozen surf. I knew it was an illusion, but the illusion was complete. The plane was moving through light as a boat through water. The air was vibrating with clarity and brightness; the nose cones of the jets were tingling with it—ringing out—as if they had been struck with tuning forks.
The engines roar.
The light is loud and clear.
“Bad luck,” she said. “A very bad break.”
Sometimes I wonder what we look like, to stewardesses? Passengers, strapped into our seats, our trays down in front of us? Infants in high chairs, maybe? Clamoring to be fed? Here we were, side by side, the two dutiful daughters—she with her prompt, obedient manners, close-mouthed possessive nibbles that made me think of a squirrel in the grass; me with my napkin tucked under my chin (where it belongs).
So here I am at last. This is it; this is what it’s like; I finally made it. Not just what I expected though. Hard to say just what that was. Maybe I thought the scenery would be better? Panoramic? Valleys, vistas, mountain peaks? Pearly clouds, purple distances? The sun sending down planks of light? Yes. That’s right. A view. This is pretty flat, you know. Will this be me in ten years’ time? Then what? What if I am in her shoes? And is there any reason to think that I won’t be? She doesn’t know what to do because she doesn’t want to do it. Easy for me to say. But what will I do?
“I know it sounds awful,” she said. “It’s a terrible thing to say. And yet. Right now. If one of them, at least. Isn’t it crazy? You always think it’s the worst thing that can possibly happen. And then all of a sudden it seems like the best thing.”
It’s just the only thing.
“But my parents are very happy,” I said.
She nodded and swallowed and patted her lips: Give ’em ten years.
And now for the hard part. My father and I were not on the best of terms, not on the worst. No finalities, no formal estrangements. Words had been spoken—plenty of words; but not the most bitter. Not the Last. Nothing that couldn’t be taken back.
We hadn’t shot all the arrows in our quivers.
In his heart of hearts (I truly believe) my father held this against himself. Does a man have to live in this way? Should a man put up with such things? Disappointment, disaffection, disobedience? Unnaturalness between parents and children? Strictly observant Orthodox Jews have ways of dealing with offenders, settling matters once and for all. They know how to cut their losses. An offspring who has transgressed, sinned against the tribe and tradition, can be read off—cast out—given up for dead.
The prayers are recited; the period of mourning is observed; the tears are shed.
Goodbye and good riddance.
My father admired these methods, and had long been threatening to use them. He had been threatening as long as I could remember. How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth It Is to Have a Thankless Child. That was one of his favorite expressions. (I could tell from his lofty look he wasn’t making it up, either.) If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, and never without a thrill—a shiver—of guilt and shame; a sense of my destiny. This was prophecy.
Wasn’t it his right? Wasn’t it his duty? Give him one good reason why he shouldn’t.
Was he a Jew for nothing?
There was only one hitch. My father is not a strictly observant Orthodox Jew. He does as others do. Sometimes he Observes. Sometimes he Looks the Other Way.
He observes—when he observes—in the Orthodox fashion. He walks to the synagogue in skullcap and prayer shawl and stands up and prays with the book in his hands. The small smooth circle on his head and the sprinkled drops of his brilliantine make him look stiff and anointed. His hoarse gristly throat locked in necktie and collar, his eyes blue and blinking above grouty cheeks. The room sways; fringes quiver; my father’s rough raspy voice gets rougher and louder. When he turns the page, or loses his place, it drops to a mutter; his chin drops to his chest.
His lip is full, solemn—exposed.
Even these days, down in Florida, he insists on walking to the synagogue: two or three miles of heat, open highway, diesel trucks, pot holes, exploding tires; mag-wheeled pick-ups sporting the spokes of the Confederate flag on their bumpers, and horns that hoot ‘n toot and whistle “Dixie.” He persists: there is no Orthodox synagogue to walk to. And my mother comes stumbling after, in billowy skirts and high heels, scared to death he will get knocked down and run over if she’s not there to keep an eye on him. What a target. His broad, brunt-bearing shoulders draped in stripes and white silk, his curly hair whitened, thickened; the glasses pressing his cheeks. Every few minutes she stops to lean on him for support, to rattle the stones out of her shoes, to ask an old question:
Why can’t he take the car and drive?
Why can’t he be like everybody else?
But this went on only a few days out of the year: on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and those occasions (ever increasing) when my father recited prayers for the dead. Of other holidays, my sister and I scarcely heard the names. We fasted on Yom Kippur, kept Passover faithfully, didn’t mix meat and milk at the table or eat of “any abominable thing.” But we didn’t keep kosher. No separate sets of dishes, no meat ritually slaughtered, no chickens hanging by their feet in the kosher butcher’s window—in dishonor—with twisted necks and pincered wings. My parents lighted candles in memory of the dead; pink-labeled glasses filled with a white wax that sizzled. Afterward we used them for drinking glasses; they matched and made a set. (Just about the only thing that did.) But in our house prayers and blessings were not said. I never saw my mother light candles on Friday night. Her own mother did. The old lady would mutter the prayer hastily to herself, under her breath, holding both hands up to her face: as if, I thought, the flames might be too bright for her. They never seemed that bright to me. Still I saw their reflection—refraction—in her eyes.
Once, on a trip, we visited the family of my uncle’s bride; Pennsylvania Dutch Quakers living in the Lebanon Valley. They were plain, but not like the Amish farmers we had seen along the way, with their clip-clop-ping horses and tipping buggy whips. Mr. K. wore buttons on his pants, drove a car, used farm machinery. He was a tall wide old man and his hair had the solid whiteness of a salt lick. And his wife, for all her starched cap and long apron, did not look as reticent as the Amish wives—sheltered under their bonnets and wagon canopies, the horses waiting, horse-patient, with black flies on their eyelids and black blinders. She was robust and smiling and her cheeks were broad and bright as crockery. (They really did remind me of all those cups and bowls, glazed and blazoned with slogans, selling at every roadside stand: “Too Soon Old and Too Late Smart,” “The Butter Is All.”)
It was August, and it was hot. The cows were mud puddles under a tree. The grass was so blurred with heat it didn’t look cool: gassy, rather, effervescent, something like the green light burping up the sides of juke boxes, or that sweet soda pop, in vogue at the time, called Green River.
The house seemed lighter inside than out. Crisscrossed windows, white cloth, China cabinets gleaming with glass, silver, pewter that had been in the family two hundred years. Platters heaped with fresh tomatoes, fresh peaches—sliced, juicy running with their own ripeness—and dark sizzling meat.
We sat down to eat.
The meat had a strange flavor I had not tasted before. As soon as I bit in I knew something was wrong. I stopped and looked up, mouth full, head over my plate. I wasn’t the only one; my mother and my little sister were looking up too. We glanced at each other and we glanced at my father. He wasn’t looking at anyone. His fork was lifted and his eyes were lowered. He seemed to crouch over the table, his head so low between his big shoulders I could see the back of his neck—which was as wide as a brick; and his ears—which were as red.
Curtains fidgeted at the windows. An electric fan blew on us as on hot soup. Our host and hostess were fanning us too, flapping at our faces with fly swatters, dish towels, anything that came to hand. Their glasses beamed—almost urgently solicitous. Beads of sweat prospered on their brows.
Through the screen I could see fields wavering vaguely in the heat, and the raised hackles of the hills.
My father laid down his fork and raised up his eyes.
“Very good,” he said, reaching for the water glass.
He nodded. He gulped.
His jaws moved on their haunches; his molars collided. At once, as at a signal, we all began to chew. Life was going to continue.
Naturally, we knew better than to bring up this subject when we got back to the car. (Just as we knew not to talk when my father was shifting gears: there was something wrong with the transmission.) And what was there to say? That he had eaten ham—pig—for that is what it was; had permitted his wife and daughters to eat, rather than to give offense? No, there was more to it. For himself, my father would not have been so touchy. What he couldn’t bring himself to do was to let on—let these good kind people know that they were the ones who had given offense.
God knows they never intended. Their daughter had up and married a Jew; she had gone off to live in the big city; of that much they were aware, but they had a pretty hazy notion of what it might mean. They were different, too. The world was divided into town folk and country folk, and those who were plain and those who were not; and they had trouble enough keeping track of what set them apart from everybody else—without worrying about every quibbling little distinction, what the fuss was about, among all the rest.
So far so good. That much a Jew could understand. But there was something else. I felt it then, and I can try to say it now. The china cabinets, the criss-crossed windows; the white farmhouses, bricked chimneys; the fenced fields; the animals harbored under the trees. (Through the screen there was the stillness of a canvas someone had painted on in numbers.) They had all that to uphold them in their ways, sustain them in their differences. Our connection seemed more puzzling. We had nothing but this: the grip of our rituals.
Sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to do.
I’m sure my father held this against himself also. And yet he had no use for Conservative, much less Reform, practices which would at least have let him off the hook. There are some rules that are no good if you make them up as you go along.
And still, you see what comes of it, living with compromise. (As if it is his fault that there are things we have to live with—and things we have to live without.) Let that be a lesson. If only he had been religious enough—righteous enough—man enough—mad enough. But who was he to perform such sonorous rites over me? Chanting Prayers for the Dead? Weeping and rocking and tearing his beard?
How would it look?
What would he tear?
He doesn’t even have a beard.
So my father remains at a loss to express his dissatisfaction. He tries. When he wrote his will, he cut me out of it. (I know; he showed me; he couldn’t wait.) Not What a Daughter Should Be, read the clause, in a style I think I recognize by now. That was when at long last it dawned on me.—Dummy! I am, and always have been, just the sort of daughter he wanted.
What with one thing and another, all things considered—the times we live in, the Spirit of the Age—I am What a Daughter Should Be. Just What a Daughter Should Be. Just that and no more.
It’s nothing to brag about
It was raining a little, a fresh scented drizzle; it might have been salt spray blowing from the ocean. The breeze felt soft as a scarf. I saw it drifting round my mother as she stood in front of the spotlighted palms, floating through the folds of her skirt, the white filaments of her hair. The trees leaned, inside out like beach umbrellas. People were rushing to make their planes, lugging armloads of grapefruit. Grapefruit grapefruit everywhere. In string bags, in plastic, packed in crates on crinkly green cellophane. Bald, thick-skinned grapefruit; yellow, uniform; perfect spheres. That was how to tell who was coming from who was going. The ones trying to take home replicas of the sun.
My mother looks like someone in disguise.
She is stained teak-color from the Florida sun, so tan her lipstick seems to be glowing in the dark. (Purple-pink; bougainvillaea). Her hair is cut short, shingled, clinging to her cheeks—her face enclosed in its white petals—like the fancy rubber bathing caps ladies wear down here. Her shoulders stoop. (Since when?) Her elbows stick out. (How long has this been going on?) Her legs, big knee-knobs, are two thick black bones.
I recognized her anyhow. I always have, so far.
It was late—too late to go to the hospital tonight—the air so thick, spongy, saturated, I felt I could stop right then and there and peel it off me in layers, like the Northern sweaters I was wearing. But my mother was hurrying to the car. She walks fast—especially now; luggage or no luggage it would be hard to keep up with her. Her high heels were striking the sidewalk. She wears steel taps on her heels; it emphasizes her pace. Each step rings out—announcing her. I’ve been hearing this for years without reckoning why you can hear her coming. It’s a practical matter, though; it saves shoe leather. All foresight, that’s my mother. Alas, no hindsight.
She stopped. “I don’t want you to say anything about that.”
“About what?” I said.
“About that. You know what. What you just said. I don’t want you saying anything about it to him.”
The biopsy report wasn’t back yet.
“But what do you mean? Is there something else? Is there something wrong? There’s nothing to hide?”
“Never mind. I just don’t want him worrying, that’s all. He doesn’t need to know anything about it.”
“But Mother,” I said.
“No buts about it,” she said. “You’re not to say anything, and that’s that. That’s all there is to it.”
My mother may be short, but she has the manner, the bearing, the imperious white head and noble features (Roman coin? Indianhead nickel?) of a woman who is used to getting what she wants. Having her own way. And she has the reputation, besides. “Won’t take NO for an answer.” And yet—as far as I know—and except in the most trivial circumstances—she never gets what she wants; she never has her own way (whatever that is). Nobody ever listens to her.
She doesn’t lei that stop her. There’s no harm in trying. And maybe, if she can just keep it up long enough—. Meanwhile, it’s true, she doesn’t take NO for an answer. She doesn’t take answers.
She went tap-tapping on, elbows sharp and crooked and ready at her sides, head thrust forward—sleuth-like, I thought—its whiteness all but phosphorescent under the eerie purple of the arc lamps. In the spotlights, the palms dipped their green pennants. Her heels clipped the cement. Her pleated skirts whipped where her hips used to be. The drummer no one is marching to.
She glanced at me over the hill of her back: “You’ll do as I say,” she told me.
Once, when my sister and I came downstairs to go to school, my father was still sitting at the table, stirring stirring the spoon in his coffee, one arm white with bandages, in a sling. He had cut his wrist on the power saw; the blood came up in black bullets, sputtered the ceiling; he knew he had hit an artery.
He tied the arm in a tourniquet—tightened it in his teeth—and drove to the Emergency Room.
“That was a Close Call,” he said, shaking his head. “Thought I was a Goner.”
(He did not smoke or drink or use what he called “terminology.” “There’ll be no terminology in this house!” But he had plenty of terms of his own. Customers, Characters, Fakers, Jokers, Bellyachers, Stinkers, Schemers, Dreamers, Screwballs, So-and-Sos, and Yo-Yos. Just to give an idea; a partial listing. But the greatest of these was Goner. Goner! Goner! The very word was like a bell.)
And he widened his blue eyes and whistled appreciatively and went on stirring. (He was awfully fond of sugar; kept heaping it in until there was nothing left in his cup but silt—sand—glittering sludge.)
Later my mother took me aside.
“You didn’t even say you’re sorry,” she said. “Daddy was very hurt. What’s the matter with you? Haven’t you got a mouth on you? Can’t you talk? I’m sorry you hurt yourself, Daddy. Is that too much to say? I want you to go to him. Right this minute. I want you to tell him. Say you’re sorry you didn’t say you’re sorry.”
My mother of course was the family interpreter. She translated—explained—excused us to each other. That was her job, and she had her work cut out for her; but I used to think she made most of it up:
He doesn’t mean it.
This hurts him more than it hurts you.
You know he really loves you.
He’s still your father!
You see what I mean. Who’d fall for that?
And just because she said something was so didn’t mean it was so. Maybe my father had said something, and maybe he hadn’t. Maybe she thought he was hurt. Maybe—and this most likely—she thought he ought to be hurt. Because it wasn’t just that my mother put words in our mouths; she wanted to “redo” us.
She’s so sensitive.
That was her excuse for me. That was how she sought to put an end to their quarrels. “Can’t you see she’s sensitive?” But I knew I wasn’t sensitive; unless it meant throwing up. And I didn’t want their quarrels to end, not in that way. I wanted an end that would be an end, for a change; something dramatic, drastic, I didn’t care what or how.
“Don’t provoke him.” That was another one. I guess she liked to think that he could be provoked, because that implied an opposite. But my sister and I knew better; we knew there was no opposite. Our father’s wrath was made of sterner stuff. We had simply got in the way of it; we were too small for it, it preceded us. Not that that didn’t make us feel smaller.
“You’re asking for it. You’ve got one coming. You’re going to get a going over.”
He leaned on his elbows over his newspaper, not bothering to lift his eyes from the page. We could see the blue roving from the bottom of one column to the top of the next. When he wasn’t shouting at the top of his voice, stretching his throat and straining his vocal cords, his tone was something more felt than heard: a vibration in the floor, through the soles of your feet, like the grunts coming up from the basement.
Sure, don’t provoke him. Go tell the trees not to provoke the wind. All that quaking makes it nervous.
These scenes are lapped by lurid flames of memory.
I seem to recall them taking place down in the basement, next to the coal pile. Spiders spilling down the walls, the pipes furred with dust, his head banging into the dangling light bulb so it swayed violently on its wire. The furnace swelling and glowing with cast-iron heat, orange as the fire inside it. But I know darn well that can’t be; it was never that way. It all took place in the kitchen, only the kitchen; the smell of wiped oilcloth, still wet; dishes slanting in the drainboard; the pink-labeled glasses rinsed out and turned down. The light as dull as waxed linoleum.
I was the older one, so I went first. My little sister would cling to my mother’s legs, hiding her face in my mother’s apron and pleading:
Don’t hit her! Don’t hit her!
She kept peeping out to look and hiding again.
But what earnestness. What passion. What big beautiful tears slipped and spilled down her big beautiful cheeks. Oh, how she sparkled. She was weeping zircons.
Meanwhile, my father would be counting the strokes of the strap with words: lip gripping, eye squinting, forehead bunched in a frown. A man taking aim, taking measure, playing a hunch:
Let . . . That . . . Be . . . Lesson . . . Next Time . . . Know Better. . . .
At least I hoped he was counting.
The strap cracked and snapped against the leg of the table, the chair. That scared me. I could hear how hard he was hitting. And that just went to show how he was restraining himself. It was understood he was forever restraining himself, his a power that must be held in check:
This hurts him more than it hurts you!
He was a man who didn’t know his own strength.
Then we changed places. Now it was my little sister’s turn to bend over; mine to cling to my mother’s legs and plead.
Don’t hit her. Don’t hit her.
How half-hearted it sounded, even to my ears. I never put up the defense for her that she put up for me. The most I could manage was a few snotty sniffles and a couple of sticky hiccupy secondhand tears.
Why do I keep saying little? My sister was younger, yes; and she must have been little when she was born; but all I know is, when I had the mumps, my parents thought I was her—because my face got so fat—and switched us in our cribs. She was bigger and stronger and at five or six more precocious; not only did she paint her nails magenta (my mother hoped it would keep her from biting them, which it didn’t), she shaved her legs. That was her own idea; by that time we shared a bed, and crude stubble scratched me to pieces. She was a great climber of trees and swinger from branches, and naturally, as the tomboy, our father’s favorite. He had been disappointed when his first-born did not turn out to be a boy. That was an open secret. On the other hand, I had a secret of my own. I knew I had spared him a much greater disappointment. Such a boy as I would have been.
Toward books his attitude was lofty; as of something he had sworn off, a reformed zealot. He had read a book or two himself, namely Oliver Twist and The Merchant of Venice—high-school requirements—and he had a theory about the great and famous writers. Therefore, whenever he spotted me, sitting over the hot-air register (the only warm place in the house; the grill left red welts on my legs, checks and boxes just like the ones we used to draw for the game of X-and-O, and I figured people would be able to play on them for the rest of my life)—whenever he spotted me, with yet another pile of pages open on my lap—he would hitch up a mighty eyebrow and bunch up his forehead:
“What now? Not another anti-Semite?”
And yet he liked to quote poetry: Shakespeare, Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and James Whitcomb Riley; slogans, famous last words, scraps of wisdom from Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin’s Almanac. We liked especially one lively version. You know how it goes:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
But he never stopped there. He went on. And on. A roaring voice, a rising pitch, a rousing rhythm; brows rollicking, carousing, even his eyes razzle-dazzle, as when he teased us:
The battle was lost.
The war was lost.
The country was lost.
The Cause was lost.
My sister and I listened with thralled faces. (One of the reasons we were so crazy about him—for of course we were crazy about him—one of the reasons, strange to say, was he was no disciplinarian. He gave us our lickings once a week almost without fail, but he never told us to go to bed.) After all the hoarseness, the shouting, the excitement of battle, his voice would drop to a rumble—all the way to the basement. Rumbling, shuddering. Everything came tumbling down:
The Cause! The Cause!
(We had no idea what a Cause was.)
And all . . .
For want . . .
Of a nail.
It would be nice to be able to report that my mother’s accusations were unfair; that I had been struck dumb from depth of emotion, sympathy for my father, fear for his injuries. But no one would fall for that either. The fact is, it had never even crossed my mind that my father could hurt himself. Let alone that anyone else could. Let alone that I could. It never even crossed my mind that he could ask—want—need my sympathy.
There was a diagonal wriggling thing on the inside of his forearm—a fat shiny pink scar-worm—from his wrist halfway to his elbow, for years and years. For all I know it’s there still.
All night it rained.
A newsreel rain; so I saw it in my sleep. Rain slashing through the dark, slanting against the windows, lashing the glass like the shackled leaves of the palm trees. Rain hosing down red tile and pink stucco and wrought-iron balconies; capsizing boats; swatting shutters; stropping trailer camps and truck farms and sousing ten thousand lonely gas pumps. The palms and palmettos were kneeling in the rain. Everything turned inside out—even the waves.
The morning was dark; the sky low and gray, the streets sleek and streaked with light. It took me a minute or two to realize they were flooded. The parked cars covered up to hubcaps, even bumpers. The neighbors were standing out on stairs and porches, squinting up at the sky. Helicopters were flying low, blades beating; the air was thick with sound. They were like boats out fishing.
The first floor neighbors were busy—dragging out soggy, swollen, rolled-up carpets, putting out kitchen chairs to dry.
A car was coming through slowly, nudging the sluggish water. Everyone clapped. It got slower and slower and chugged to a stop in the middle of the street. The driver got out—naked legs, eddies of wet hair, pants to his knees—and ran off, plinking and plunking in and out of puddles, hiding, holding the shoulders of his jacket up over his head, like a mobster or a convicted public official, trying to duck the newsreel cameras.
The palm trees swayed, waving sliced streamers, tattered banners. Each and every leaf—notch—blade—was dripping light-sap. Tipped with pods of light.
There was some discussion of the relative advantages of first floors and second floors.
On the first floor you get more dampness, more bugs, more noise, and—as you see—you can expect now and then a little excitement. On the second floor, you can’t use the screen porch as an outside entrance, and it might be a little hotter: it is believed that the builders skimped on the roofing insulation. (It is believed that builders skimp where they can, wherever you can’t see, wherever they can get away with it. That is the nature of builders, especially in South Florida.)
In spite of that, it is clear that the second floor would have the advantage over the first, but for one thing. It’s the second floor. You have to walk up. That’s fine for now. But for how long?
Builders in South Florida are like God in the universe. Their handiwork is everywhere, but they are nowhere to be seen. They move on, leaving their paradise never quite finished.
The helicopters kept passing through misty swamp. The sun had disappeared; favors withdrawn. They had discovered a leak in the roof; another defect in the plans.
This particular development is now five years old; the ones who have been here that long are the old-timers. It started out as a row of single-story, white-stuccoed duplexes. They were prefabs, and must have looked pretty bare to begin with. I wouldn’t be surprised if—in spite of wear and tear, water stains, dry rot, mildew—they look better now. Because now they are drenched in green; bunches and clusters of thick subtropical vegetation; names like seagrape, nickerbean, cocoplum, cabbage palm. (I’ve been reading the botanical labels on the nature trails again. Strange bed-fellows.)
And there is plenty of space. They are on the canals, which are everywhere in South Florida; from muddy ditches, humble fishing holes—hardly enough for an alligator to wallow in (if that’s what alligators do)—to the Intracoastals, wide enough for drawbridges and seagoing vessels. People drive their golf balls into them and sometimes their cars.
But that was before The Boom. The new developers (the first had gone broke and everyone seems to think it served them right) put up two-story structures; now there were four to each unit. And they built them closer. Pretty soon they weren’t prefabs any more; but they kept getting closer. They didn’t face any canals, either; they faced each other: over archways, walkways, stairways; and there was less and less space in between for anything green. Crimson hibiscus; spikey Spanish bayonet; the feathery shaft of the coconut palm.
Now you pay extra for a view. The golf course, with its mounds and flags and thistled grass; or the distant stands of gray-green scrub oak and pine. The scrawny scruffy forest primeval of Florida. They look as if they might have been trees once, but drowned and died and these are their ghosts.
Still, the crows seem to think they are trees.
Someone will buy them and chop them down too.
The sections have names like Seville, Tuscany, Isle of Capri. Each condo has a letter, each apartment a number. So it is no wonder, what with fourteen thousand people living here, if some visitors have a hard time finding their way. Everyone has stories of would-be guests who drive through the gates, past the guards in their kiosks, into the midst of all the look-alike buildings, parked cars, gridded streets, white lines, yellow stanchions; shiny brown Dempster Dumpster on each and every corner. And pretty soon they get lost; they give up; they go home. Maybe they call next day to apologize.
Everybody laughs at such tales. They know what it looks like: like every other development. Construction is everywhere, speading westward, from the ocean, the Intracoastals, the Interstate; the setting sun winks and shimmers in the empty eye-holes of new buildings. White. That is the color of Florida. In spite of the blue of ocean and sky, and the green of practically everything else. The white of limestone and fossilized seashell, that’s what the whole state is made of. It gets dug up, crushed for lime and cement, for roads and bridges, for sparkling white high-rises from the strip of Miami Beach to the rim of Lake Worth. It is the color of clouds and golf balls and gulls’ gliding wings; of concave sails and pretty white yachts leaving pretty white wakes. And Florida is so flat; it seems intentional. God must have meant it for condominiums. All those raw roofs rising where the spooky trees used to grow; almost, like them, a mirage—the white dust scarcely settled. And all those billboards, promising that the Best Is Yet To Be.
So what! This is Florida.
What could be easier than to heal this landscape; repair the breach, the damage and disruption, cranes, bulldozers, quick construction, transplanted population? The flora down here are nothing like what you expect up North: shy crocuses, shrinking violets, all those tendrils so bashfully wrapped up in themselves, peeping from leaves. These are tropical plants; they know how to compete. They shriek green; they screech it. You can see they belong to a more primitive age—when reptiles flew; pterodactyl plants, ridged and spiny, still can’t make up their minds whether to wear feathers or fins. And none of your pale bulbs, either, that never see the light of day, and roots reaching deeply, secretively underground. In Florida, plants carry their roots with them, a whole forest crawling on its belly, recumbent trunks with roots that noose and lasso. They have claws, tusks, fangs, beaks. They can take anchor anywhere—the shallowest places; an inch or two of soil; on water; on other plants; on nothing at all—on air. The Spanish moss that beards the scenery—all those hanks of gray hair hanging like scalps from arthritic trees—that’s an air plant. And so is that thing that might be the greasy-green cluster on top of a pineapple; it favors and festoons the gawky cypress. And what about the mangrove? Its roots grow up, not down; creep, crawl, grope, feel, latching onto whatever happens to come along—treasure troves of drift and debris. The Strangler Fig does what you might expect. And the banyan—the beautiful, beautiful banyan (said to be the tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment, and why not?)—the banyan, with its tiers of leaves, puts down roots like trunks, porticoes; a verandah-tree, spreading green dominions. Looped, coiled, draped, doubled; enough rope to hang itself, or to let down a ladder from heaven.
But the palm, the palm, is the original prefab plant. Height means nothing; the roots are only a handful, bunches of grass yanked up by the hair. All you have to do is dig a hole and aim a spotlight at it.
It’s not true, what people say, about the toilets and the telephones. You can hear the phones ringing, sure, if the windows are open; and if the speaker happens to be a woman—the gravelly, abrasive, mannish voice some women get as they grow older (seagulls on social security?)—yeah, sure, you can hear that too. But you don’t hear the plumbing. Absolutely not. That’s a lie.
I’ll tell you what you do hear. You hear everyone getting up in the middle of the night. Everyone has to, at least once.
Maybe you hear creaking: footsteps. A thud: the seat going up. Silence. Then you wait. A drip. . . . A drop. . . . An experimental dribble. . . . More silence. Hey you. You up there. What happened? What are you waiting for? Did you fall back to sleep? Do you have to, or don’t you? Are you going to do something and get it over with, or are you just going to stand there and think about it? Ah. That’s right. That’s better. That’s more like it.—Did you get out of bed for nothing?
What’s public about that? What could be more private? Just people minding their own business. We have heard the chimes at midnight.
The guards in their kiosks with their caps and badges, waving you on with their clipboards, are a necessity, yes. People here are from the urban North; lower-middle, middle-middle class Jews, Italians, Poles, other so-called ethnics—and they know all about it. That’s the way we live now. In the older retirement areas, down in Miami, built before the days of guards, and gates, the residents are sitting ducks. They may as well be on a Game Preserve. They are attacked—as the old are everywhere—with a ferocity that suggests other intentions: a kind of desecration, a destruction, of our symbols (no matter how decrepit).
Nowhere are there more old people than in South Florida. And nowhere is the contrast greater between youth and age; I don’t know why. It’s instructive to watch the aged, sitting on benches at the beach, watching the youth go by. They come down for spring vacation with their surfboards under their arms—chained, fettered to them. So tall, so tan, so firm of flesh, so sound of limb, so white and solid of tooth and bone. Their sun-bleached, moon-blanched, wheaty-blond hair; their eyes as blue as their cut-off jeans. Meanwhile, here sit all the old ladies with freckled arms and wattled elbows and crimped blue hair that looks, I swear, as if they get it done in funeral parlors. And all the old gents lined up, with their hooked backs, their shoulders squatting at their ears. All the plastic teeth, the pink rinds for gums, the glasses so thick they give off a black vindictive sparkle. Pelicans perched on the shore—scythey necks sunk into their feathers, beaks buried in their breasts.
The waves roll in in generations, heaping up entangled sealife. Oozy weeds, unmolded jellyfish, driftwood and pickle jars toothed with barnacles, the deflated balloons—blue plastic bubbles, on strings—of the man-of-war. Also: styrofoam buoys, hairy coconut noggins, frisbees, light bulbs, bottles, gym shoes. Bottles I can understand (but how come no notes in them?), and maybe gym shoes; but light bulbs? Why light bulbs?
The air is bright, particulate; the glint and grit of white sand. The gulls flap up, spilling wings—scraps of light—glittering currents. The sky scatters blessings.
You have to understand. It’s not just that the climate is nice, the weather sunny and warm—blue-skied, cloud-scudded. It’s the air: it floats. One sniff and you’re grateful. It smells of orange groves and salt water and, best of all, earth, pungent and potent as under the glass roofs of greenhouses. It’s not just balmy: it is balm. Healing. A restorative. Heart’s ease. Help for pain.
Who can blame them? Who would want to leave this?
We get it all wrong. Beauty is here to stay. Beauty doesn’t vanish. We do.
The guards at this development tend to be older than the residents. That is a fact. My father gave a lift to one who—taking off his cap and rubbing his white hair first this way and then that—owned up to eighty-six. He said he was getting “mighty sick and tired of retirement.” Since then my father has been considering: what to do in case of emergency? What if violence should threaten? What if there should be an attack? How will he, my father, protect these poor old souls—the guards—and come to their rescue?
The guards in their kiosks are a necessity, maybe; but first and foremost, they are symbolic. Everybody knows it. The residents themselves call all this “The Reservation.” This is the line of demarcation, the border. “How long are you here for?” “What’s the weather doing back there?” That’s what they all want to know. Because it’s nothing down here; that’s not what they’re keeping out. It’s what’s back there; something they have left behind them.
More than dirt, crime, crowding, corruption; more than hard winters, blithering snows, icy streets; cars that won’t start, sidewalks that need shovelling. It’s a notion of life. Something they want to forget. Something bleak and somber they have traded in for things undreamt of in their philosophy.
It’s The Future.
All their lives they believed in The Future; they struggled and slaved and sacrificed for The Future. Not that they had much choice; it was understood they had been born too soon. Things were going to get better.—In The Future. The Everlasting Future. And now all of a sudden they see the truth. The Future? What Future? Is there even going to be such a thing? For the first time in their lives—for once and once only—it’s an advantage to have been born too soon. They won’t have to stick around for The Future. They leave it to us. See how we like it. Right here, right now, right inside these gates—this thin line of trees—they have just as much of The Future as they want. They have caught up at last with American life, and they are going no farther.
The Future stops here.
Enough is enough.
My mother was on the telephone saying something about a flood. In her shortie nightgown, shoulders lifted, shrugging—the better to keep the thin straps up—her back a pair of brown water wings. The white curls were clipped to her cheeks. When she saw me coming she put her hand up in front of her mouth. She can’t help it; it’s a reflex, an instinct; she hides her mouth when her teeth are out.
It makes her look timid, flinching, someone stifling a scream, warding off a blow.
“It’s true. I really mean it,” she said. “It’s not just here. It’s not just us. It’s everyone. Everywhere. No one can get anywhere, today.—I don’t think he believes me,” she said to me, talking behind her hand. “Right away he blames me. He thinks there’s something the matter with the car.”
This is something new, so I guess the teeth must be too. A complete upper plate? When did this happen? Her lip is pinched, puckered; she is trying to hold a bunch of pins in her mouth.
That’s the way she talks: lips mincing, afraid to move; afraid she’ll lose all her pins.
“What? The doctor was there? Well good for him. Can I help it if the doctor was there? Maybe there’s no flood where he is. Maybe he came in a boat. He can afford it, I’m sure. He said what? Back already? So soon? Oh, it was? Oh, it was. Oh. It was.”
She held out the phone, her hand to her mouth, pumping up her little scarified eyebrows, biting down on her pins. Her hand is large and bumpy; she wears knuckles as other women wear rings.
“’S all right. ‘S all right.”
A deep basement grunt.—The old repercussions.
Don’t keep saying it’s all right. It’s not all right. We want to be with you.
“Take your time,” he told me.
My mother hides her mouth; I don’t know where she hides her teeth. I haven’t seen anything pink-and-white blooming in water glasses. Maybe she keeps them under her pillow? Even while she sleeps, she hides her mouth; she pulls the covers to her nose, lying on her back, her hands—pawlike—gripping the sheets. I don’t call this vanity. It’s not the ugliness of old age she wants to keep to herself, it’s the affliction.
There is such a thing as self-defense.
I didn’t mean to pry, but I saw. I saw anyway. I looked in while she was sleeping. The covers had slipped down, her mouth had slipped open; sagged to one side—ajar—the way it does when she sleeps. It’s funny, you don’t realize how much of a face is mouth: the armature, the support. It was the rest of her face that had collapsed; almost her whole face was the mouth—the dreadful minced lips. It looked big, bigger than ever.
It looked like an exit.
“I told you not to say anything,” she said. “I told you not to. Who asked you to?”
Her eyes are light brown, a yellowish tinge. Now that her skin is so tan, they are the same color as her face. The part—behind her hand—that is illuminated, moving.
I get a funny feeling in my parents’ new home. Everything is new. Carpets, drapes, end-tables with lamps on them; sofas with arms for cozying up to, cushions to get chummy with. There is even a china cabinet—glass doors, shelves for displaying knick-knacks (what people down here call “momentoes”). Things that rattle and chink and catch the light. Candlesticks, candy dishes, figurines, a wine decanter. But where did it all come from? That is the question. Your guess is as good as mine.
People “redo” when they move to Florida; it’s part of the ritual. I thought at first there were no cemeteries in the state; there are, you don’t see them. They look like the farm fields they were just the other day; still standing, right next to them, surrounding them, without fences, the crops planted in parallel rows. (The cemetery gates, with their “Green”-this and “Garden”-that, pass easily for the promise of new developments.) Instead, you see warehouses, whole blocks of them, windowless white boxes. Some people bring all their worldly possessions—according to my mother—all that dark ugly old furniture, all their dark heavy winter clothes. And then: “Who needs it?” They put it all in these warehouses, and store it—as she says—“forever.”
So I feel the way I would if I didn’t know the people who live here. Not sure where to sit, what to touch. I walk around looking for things familiar to me. The pots and pans, heavy hammered aluminum (they never looked new, so they don’t look old); the portable TV (a suitable “momento,” it does nothing but snow). Pictures of weddings and graduations. The decanter has a gold star pattern, it must be from Israel, where my sister lives now. (She’ll be back; she moves around as much as I do.) Maybe those demitasse cups were housewarming gifts, like—I’m sure—the two bottles of Sabra they take out when company comes, and put back when company leaves.
I keep looking at the things in the china cabinet. I look so much, I make them nervous.
—Psst. Watch out. Knock it off. Here she comes again.
—What? Her? Oh no, not again. What’s she up to, anyhow?
—She wants to see if we’re worth anything, dope.
—Of all the nerve! I like that!
So that’s the way it is? That’s a fine how-do-you-do. My parents are getting on in years, they’re living in a Retirement Village. My father is lying at this moment in a hospital bed—they just took out half his gut; here is my mother, hands nailed together atop her breast, napping on the couch, with a mouth like a punctured tire. The Last Act.—And I’m inspecting their possessions? Looking it all over, to see how I like it?
So that’s the kind of person I am.
That’s nice to know.
All of a sudden I caught on: my parents have never had things before.
Not like other people have; not like everybody else; possessions, acquisitions, matters of taste—choice—pleasure—pride. Considerations of a sort which rarely entered our lives. No wonder all this is new to me; no wonder it’s such a strange sensation. I’m not used to looking upon their belongings as anything of value, sentimental or otherwise. But especially sentimental. As anything to be kept; worth keeping; to be passed on; potentially mine.
Some day, in the ordinary course of events, it will fall to my lot to get rid of all this. And what am I supposed to do with it? Will someone please tell me? Where can I put it? How can I keep it? I have no place of my own. I’ve been storing belongings in this one’s basement, that one’s attic, for years. And I don’t want to get rid of it; dispose—disperse—give away—I don’t want to separate it—any of it. I want it all just as it is, every last bit. Intact.
This is the scene of their happiness.
Maybe I can rent a warehouse?
What funny people. My parents. Still don’t understand my sister and me. How come we live the way we do. Why we don’t “have anything”; never seem to settle down. (Why we can’t be like other people’s children, acquiring things, habits, for a lifetime). The same way they can’t understand why and how come we never learned to speak Yiddish.
Our grandparents spoke a crude and broken English, and we thought that that other language they spoke—harsh, guttural, to us—was crude and broken too. Our parents spoke Yiddish for privacy’s sake. How else could they conduct this grim business of their grownup lives? They talked about us in Yiddish, all the time; but never to us. Sitting at the table in morning darkness, my father dragging the spoon through his cup, stirring the sand in his coffee. Oh, we knew what they were saying all right. Someone had gotten sick, or died. Someone had lost money, or a job. Someone had done something wrong—though she didn’t know what; and was going to get a licking—though she wouldn’t know why.
Like oars thick in weeds, the sound of their voices slapped in our ears, tangled in sleep.
They had learned Yiddish at home; their first language, the primary language, the expression of feeling and family life. For them it meant a separation between that life and the rest. (What they called “this cockeyed world.”) But for us it meant a division within the family itself; barriers between parents and children; bitterness fated; something banished and denied.
And yet I knew all along that Yiddish was the primary language, an original tongue. All other speech would never be more than a polite translation. This was the Source. Tilings were named by their rightful names, names that could hurt: given their true weight and force. Nothing could be taken back. It was all Last Words.
My mother, for all she looks like a stabbing victim, is making a purring noise, humming to herself—her motor left running. If this is old age, she sounds contented. And I forgot to say: we took off our shoes when we came in the door.
Family. What a discovery.
There is nothing here I would ever choose—and nothing I can ever part with.
So. Here we go again. The distant, the steadfast, the enduring. My father’s stern and rockbound features. Elevated. Snoring. His head is huge—precipitous. Steep banked brow. Broken nose. Quarried cheeks. The skin not so much pocked and pitted as granular, eroded; the mica flash of whiskers beneath.
A pile of sandstone on a high white pillow.
His lips are smooth in his rough face.
My father’s snoring is an old scenario. Action-packed adventure. Good guys vs. bad guys. Hair-raising rescues, narrow escapes. Also: storms at sea, sword duels, catapult and cannon. All this and more, courtesy of Liberty Comics—Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, and The League of Justice; James Fenimore Cooper and Victor Hugo in Classic Comics editions; fairy tales dramatized over Saturday morning radio to the whistle and swoon of sound effects; and all those mealy-papered, close-printed books that began with dashes—and took my breath away: “One day in the year 177—, in the village of M—”.
My father was David and Goliath. Samson and the Philistines. Jack and the Giant. Daniel and the whole damn den.
And to think he had been such a puny kid.
At the time of his Bar Mitzvah, almost fourteen, he was still the shortest in his class. He posed for his photo in cap, knickers, prayer shawl, some tome open on the lectern table beside him; and you can see how he has to hoist his elbow and hitch it up in order to lean against the table. The face is already his face: a mug, a muzzle, a kisser. It’s as if he had stuck his head through a hole in a cardboard poster, like those trick shots you take at carnivals and amusement parks.
He sprouted, in the proverbial manner, overnight. It took the rest of him a while to catch up. At the time of his marriage, ten years later, he weighed one-hundred-eighty-five pounds and looked gaunt. Starved. The heavy-boned, hollowed cheeks, the lumpy throat and cliffy brow of the young Abe Lincoln. There are props in this one too; his white bowtie, the white carnation in his buttonhole, the stiff paper cone of his bride’s bouquet and the swirling train of her veil (a curtain someone swiped off a window)—all belong to the photographer. Like the studio backdrop they are standing in front of: a waterfall, a stream, frothy bushes, frills of trees. After this is over, after the click, after he yanks his head out of the box, he’s going to take it all back.
It was the stock story; told in all those comic books. Superman, Captain Marvel (there was a whole Marvel family, and I’m not sure but what there may have been a Marvel dog), and all the rest, had ordinary everyday identities; but when they tore off their shirts, or their specs, or shouted out the magic word (Shazam!) they became their true selves—hero selves—and invincible. A story retold in the smudgy back pages as well. Those ads featuring the famous “97 lb. weakling,” in his roomy bathing shorts, with legs like white worms, and two little—oh pitiful little!—dots on his chest. On the beach he is mocked by bullies; they laugh at him and kick sand on his blanket. He sends for the Charles Atlas Course; and the next time those wise guys show up, are they in for a shocker! They get the surprise of their life.
There would be a photo (actual) of Charles Atlas himself; legs solid in skimpy trunks, chest massy, head bowed; looking all in all surprisingly like my father—something grim-lipped, stoical in this self-made strength. What had worked for him could work for you.
Mind Over Matter.
There was a moral to these stories. (Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know it by heart?) All those pip-squeaking, four-eyed, timorous alter egos; all those heroes who could fly through the air, who laughed at bullets. Escape! Escape from the weak and helpless condition of childhood. Growing up was growing invulnerable. That’s what we thought.
My father used to emerge from these struggles victorious. Now it seems from the rattles and sighs and phlegm catching in his throat—those two noisy excavations, his nostrils—that he might be getting the worst of it; taking his lumps. I hear blows.
The room overlooked the entrance to the hospital—three or four stories of pink stucco, sticking out for miles around. The usual landscaping outside the glass doors; grass laid down in patches—squares—rough green toupees; spindly, scantily-clad palms bending and bowing in colored spotlights. (These were buttressed with poles as thin as they were.) And the usual digging seemed to be going on: a new wing being added, the parking lot expanded, white mounds and pits all over the place. Today the holes were water and clay. The roads were still slimy with mud, the grass and fields blubbering with it. Everywhere, stranded tractors, bulldozers, trailers, and the rusty beat-up trucks of the migrant workers. The green peppers stood row on row, polished to ripeness. But the bosses weren’t taking any chances on sending their equipment into all that muck; they were afraid of ruining their machinery. They walked up and down in squelching boots, talking here and there to angry pickers. Most of the pickers weren’t talking to anybody; not even to each other. They sprawled on the trucks they had come in. Some of them seemed to be wet—soaked to the skin—as if they had spent the night out in the rain. It was their stocking-hats and processed hair, stuck to their heads like large wet leaves.
All along the roads lay frayed flattened shoelaces that turned out to be dead snakes. Hundreds of dead snakes, and pale pink blood-prints.
My father quarreled with his mother. Never mind the whole story—because what’s the whole story?—but anyone would have said he was in the right. For all the good. And shouldn’t he—of all people—have known better? Who was it who was forever telling me? Might Made Right. Two Wrongs Didn’t. Sleeping Dogs Lied.
He had been the dutiful son; he had shown respect. (One of the truly mystical phrases of my childhood. I had never seen any respect.) How was he supposed to know she would make so much of it? Backs turned; doors slammed; telephones banged onto receivers; letters torn up and sent back in shreds.—How was he to know she would die suddenly, the result of a bus accident?
The passengers were taken to the hospital. The old woman complained of pain, but they said she was only bruised and shaken up, and they sent her home. Some time during the night she tried to get out of bed and a broken rib pierced her lung.
The phone call. The rush to the house. The trucks standing outside. A long red fire truck, a hook-and-ladder, motor running—shuddering—pumping noise by the gallon. The street seemed flooded and dammed.
It was a stone-fronted two-flat with a brief front lawn and on the steps a couple of plaster urns for geraniums. All the doors and windows were open. My father ran up the steps. A fireman in shovel helmet and hip boots was coming out backward, an ax at his belt, carrying one end of something. Black rubber or oil cloth, same as his slicker. Two men were holding up the other end and they shouted directions at him as he came backing and bumping down the stairs.
Keep Going—Watch Out—Easy Does It—Keep Going.
He glanced over his shoulder.
His boots sank in soft mud and sprinkled grass seed.
The next morning I heard my father getting up. He always rose mute, with a mouthful of phlegm, and headed straight for the bathroom—holding up his pants, holding out his lip—looking neither left nor right until he’d had a chance to spit. I heard the floors resounding under his heavy bare feet, then the hoarse rash hawking. First thing he always did.
That had been the hardest blow of my father’s life. He told me so himself. (Sometimes he forgets when he’s talking to me and when he’s not. And who wouldn’t get confused, off-and-on, on-and-off, after all these years?) It had been a dark period, he said; it had seemed like a lifetime. Why he would want to pass on such pain; why he should be so bound and determined to inflict this bitterness—I can’t say. But we have to pass on something, don’t we? Otherwise, what’s the good? What are children for?
A plastic bag was slowly slowly seeping light-sap, one clear liquid bead leaked at a time, into a plastic tube. Another, larger bag, clipped to the side of the bed, was sudsing and slushing. His arms over the covers hairy and sunburned; a circle of sunburned skin round his neck. A sprinkle of grizzled hairs—singed, frizzed—they’d crumble if you touched them. The width, the depth of his chest—the rough sheet-blanket stretched across it, arm to arm—seems pretty much what it has always been; the forearms still viny with tendon and vein. But the upper arms and shoulders don’t bear the load as they used to, don’t pull their own weight. They seem to slope and slump from the humped muscles of the neck.
His hair is cocoon white, and of that texture. It looks frivolous above porous yellow earthworks.
An eyebrow tugs.
A lid lifts.
I see blue.
“Oh, Bet. Well well well. Look who’s here. ‘Lo, Bet.”
His voice is unexpectedly hoarse, almost a whisper.
“So you made it, I see? So you got here all right? Everything all right, then?” An iron door scraping on its hinges. “Where’s your mother at?”
A little trouble with the car. I’m not supposed to mention, among other things, cars and floods.
“She’s coming. Don’t worry. How do you feel?”
“Aw, this? This is nothing. A Rough Customer, that’s all.”
“But who’s the Rough Customer, Daddy? It or you?”
“Oh oh. My daughter’s here. She’s ribbing me. She’s giving me the business.”
Still looking at me out of one eye. Lip stiff, as if he has to spit.
There is a deep deep dent over the bridge of his nose, right between the eyes. From the accident, still? Or is this from his specs? We’re used to the spectacles by now; so used to them we forget. We think it’s the lenses that make his eyes so blue—blinking—on the brink. The truth of the matter is, the new nose is an improvement. Not so rough-hewn. High-crested, flattened at the tip. Abrupt. Abutting. If you’ll pardon the expression, a real butte.
I put my hand on the middle of his forehead. (The middle of his forehead is the size of my hand; a slope, a saddle.) Damp but cool, smelling of head-sweat. In his mortared face the niche of blue eye is like a glimpse of the sky in whiskered stone walls; monuments or ruins.
I see what it is. I see what it is. With my mother age is a disguise. She puts it on with a wink. (Some joke.) But with my father it is another matter altogether. Age is revealing him; the essential in him; completing the job. It scares me. Hacked, chipped, chiseled—gouged. The mark of the craftsman’s hand, the craftman’s tools.
The heavy ridge over each brow smoothed as with the stroke of a thumb.
He doesn’t mean it.
This hurts him more than it hurts you.
You know he really loves you.
He’s still your father!
Who would have thought? That all those things my mother said would turn out to be true.
This is the way my father shows his love.
What’s more. What’s more. This is the way he feels it.
I saw her coming, her white head moving along briskly with the rhythm of her step. Florida white. White as gulls’ wings. Her arms abrupt and swinging, alternating at her sides. She was wearing slacks and flats and turning out her feet smartly, the way she does. Such conviction in her step I could see the soles of her shoes.
Whaddayaknow. Taps on her toes.
And she shall have music wherever she goes.
I opened the vent. “Here she comes now.”
Very distinctly the taps could be heard, singing out on the sidewalk—announcing and identifying. Arms, legs, elbows, shoulders, smooth brown cheekbones, Indianhead-nickel nose—all of her seemed to be pointing one way, heading in the right direction.
My father must have heard the sound, familiar enough to him; and it must have brought to mind what I was seeing. And a whole lot more. Because he shut his eyes and laughed to himself, his chin and his voice in his chest. His thick forehead bunched in a frown, as if it hurt him some, all the same:
“Know her anywhere.”
The glass doors glided open; she glided through.
Puddles were beginning to gleam in the parking lot. In the colored spotlights the palm trees bent their bundled sheaves. Over the chilled dried racketing of the air conditioner the night air was coming in: mammal warm. You could all but catch it and keep it.
I put my hand out. I shut my eyes too.
Yes. Please. Give them ten years.