Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Family: Chapter Eleven- Girl Trouble

I hold a cold wash cloth to the swelling just above her bruised eye. She winces.

“I wish it hadn’t come to this.”
“Well it has,” she spits. “I filed an assault charge.”
“Assault?”
“Well yeah!”
“Okay, okay.” Gingerly I touch the welt on her brow.
“Ouch! What are you doing? Be careful!”
“It doesn’t look that bad.”
“I think my nose is broken.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What are you, a doctor?”
“I’m telling you, it’s not broken.”
“I broke it once before, you know. And it felt a lot like this. How would you know if it’s broken or not?”
“It would be more swollen, for one thing.”

She pushes me aside and stands up, fuming. “You don’t know a goddam thing.” She undresses furiously tossing her clothes in a heap in the corner of my bedroom. First her heavy woolen sweater, then her blue turtleneck, her gray slacks. She unfastens her brassiere and throws it with a frown. She drops her panties to the floor. I watch her, transfixed. She’s got a fantastic body.

“What are you looking at?” she wants to know.
“Aren’t you going to take off your socks?”

She pulls back the blankets and starts smoothing out a sleeping space. “They keep my feet warm.”

“Are you staying?” lately her parents have been on her case about spending the night at my place.
“No, but I can stay till pretty late. I’ve gotta get some sleep, though.” She climbs between the sheets.

I turn off the light and walk to the stereo in the dark. I select an album by moonlight, Boston’s first. “Something About You” crackles to life.

“What am I going to do about her?” she asks.
“I don’t know…. I really have given up on her. But I never thought she’d turn to violence.”
“This goes back much farther than you two – back to my first boyfriend john.” She sighs heavily. “We always fought over him, too.”
“Whatever happened to him, anyway?”
“Ah, after that accident with his father, he sort of changed…. Things just didn’t work out.”
“What accident?”
“You don’t know?”
“No.”
“His father owned a body shop, they were always fooling with cars. Apparently one night, he was working late. Alone. I don’t know all of the story but something happened and a car slipped off of its jack and pinned his legs against a tow truck.”
“Ugh!”
“Yeah, no one even found him ‘til the next day. He’d bled to death by then of course. John always blamed himself and he never even really talked to me anymore after that.”
“Was it his fault?”
“No, of course not! He was with Carrie though, that night, so you can see why….”
“Boy this feud of yours goes back some way!”
“Yeah.”

She snuggles into her pillow and begins dozing. I reach over to the nightstand and grab a cigarette. As I light it I realize the album has stopped playing. My return arm is broken so the turntable is still turning, softly crackling and popping, in the darkness.

I think back, reflecting on the things that make females hate one another. To me they seem vague, tenuous. But what do I know.

I rise and go to the window to close the drapes. Outside it’s still snowing like crazy. I sit on the sill and watch the street fill up with snow. It’s almost too quiet. A Penn dot truck rumbles past spraying salt, I hear chains clinking softly.

I stub out my cigarette and head downstairs and outside to start clearing off her car. It’s cold but not too cold. I should buy a pair of gloves. I reach into the backseat of her Honda for a scraper. I brush off the five or six inches of accumulated snow before going back inside. She’ll be leaving soon.

She’s already awake when I get back.
“Where were you?” she says, yawning.
“I cleaned off your car.”
“Is it still snowing?”
“Yeah.”
She stretches and starts getting dressed. She doesn’t say much when she’s sleepy.

“Sue….” I say.
“Hmmm?”
“Was that a true story? About John’s dad?”
“As far as I know. Why?”
“It’s just…. I don’t know, what of a hell of a way to go.”
“Oh yeah. I see.”
“You know what I mean?”
She blinks, “Sure.” She slides her turtleneck on.” But I guess everybody has to die sometime.”
I nod slowly. “That’s not the way I’m going.” I ponder the strange relationship between John’s father’s demise and Sue’s fight with Carrie. Are they somehow linked, I wonder? “I mean, how would you go; that is, if you could choose?”
Suddenly she’s wide awake. “Jesus, I don’t know! That’s a little morbid isn’t it?” She goes to the bathroom mirror and starts brushing her hair. “Why do you ask a question like that? How do you want to go?”
“Well I’m not sure. I used to think that I’d like to have a heart attack during sex.”
“Hah! That figures….”
“No, you know, die with a smile and all that. But in thinking about it, it seems like it would be too embarrassing.”
“To say the least. I guess if I had to choose, I’d want to go peacefully, in my sleep. That sounds nice.”
“Nah…. too mundane.” I think for a moment. “What if I crashed an eighteen wheeler propane truck into a big tank of pressurized nitrogen? With a bang, you know.” I smile at her horrified expression. “Now that’s the way I wanna go.” She just shakes her head.
“What’s wrong with you,” she says.

She finishes dressing in silence and bundles up under a heavy parka and gloves. She looks at the clock and nods.

“You’d better get going.” I concede.

As we descend the stairs my words feel clumsy and useless, but I know I should say something.

“Look,” I begin, “I’m really sorry about Carrie. I never realized the depth of your rivalry. I’m through with her….”
“Forget it,” she interrupts, “it’s not your fault.” She won’t look at me.
We go out into the street. She kisses me.
“Thanks for cleaning off my car.” She says, and climbs in. “See ya tomorrow.”
“Right,” I say, “Drive careful.” She eases the Civic into the street.

As she sits waiting at the light I watch her noticing every detail. The buoyant curl of her hair, the stitching of her gloves as she grips the wheel, the plume of her Honda’s exhaust curling up into the snow-filled sky. Then the traffic light changes and she is gone.
In the sudden silence I can only imagine John’s father.

Family: Chapter Two- The Neighbor

Come midnight there is a rapping at our back door, insistent and aggravating. I awake with a start- for the summer I have moved a cot onto the back porch and the noise is right outside my little window. I huddle under the covers, too frightened to answer. The rapping continues, perhaps growing even louder.
Before long my father strides into the room, slamming doors behind him. He wears white cut off shorts and stands shirtless in the summer heat. His white hair stands up in volcanic tufts. Grumbling, he answers the door.
A huddled shape enters; together they argue in hushed voices at the foot of my bed. Perhaps sensing my presence, the two men adjourn to the nearby kitchen.
Harsh words carry from the adjacent room, and I strain in the darkness to see what is the matter. Through the door's milky glass I dimly see my father growling at our next-door neighbor, who attended a party here earlier tonight. The figures of the two men are distorted by the coated windowpane, they are ivory silhouettes moving slowly in a cloudy ocean.
Soon they are shouting; I recognize the dull fury of my father’s voice. Scuffling sounds ensue, are they fighting? A glass breaks.
The neighbor throws the door open and stumbles past me, his mouth a red smear. He fumbles clumsily with the latch on he back door, then escapes out into the starry night.
My father follows slowly, gently locking the door behind the intruder.
“Daddy?” I squeak in the darkness, voice bright with fear. He sits down heavily beside me on the bed.
“Shhh….” he whispers, ruffling my hair with one huge hand. “Everything’s all right now.” His eyes are bleary with drink, and his breath smells like stale peaches.
“What’s happening?” I ask, feeling very small under his great paw.
As he speaks, his eyes look away. ”He wants your mother….” he mutters under his breath, and a strange, primal longing rises in me, although I do not understand the nature of his revelation. “Sleep now….” he mumbles, and kisses my forehead roughly, his course beard sandpapering my skin. Sniffing, he trundles off to bed.
I lie awake, listening to his heavy footfalls growing fainter and fainter, as they fade into the distant mystery of the upstairs. Cool moonlight spills across my pillow from the window beside my bed. Outside an owl hoots, and I find myself thinking of the neighbor.
I wonder if he is still out there?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Family: Chapter Ten- Moonrise

During the second week of my unemployment I experience a bizarre phenomenon. It happens on a Tuesday night, or more accurately, a Wednesday morning. All rational people are sleeping soundly. I have drenched the sofa in sweat while watching the Last Samurai, a movie I have seen several times. Sleep escapes as usual. I pace. I look out the window. I imagine the neighbors, placid, comfortable, snoring their way towards a normal day. Brilliant light streams in the window. This can’t be right, I think. I open the back door and stumble outside.
The largest moon I have ever seen hangs in a bitter empty sky. No trace of cloud shields the moonrise. The moon is literally the size of a skull. It’s so bright now you could read the newspaper. I shiver. I’ve never seen anything like it. I walk around to the front of the house. My shadow stretches before me. I stare unbelieving, and measure the length of my shadow with footfalls. Seven paces. I look at my bare feet. Approximately seven feet. What does it mean? For two days prior rain and lightning have punished my garden, creating stillness in the air that seems odd. Silent, unforgiving. The moon stares down as a bullfrog croaks. Bullfrogs are not supposed to sound like that. He sounds like a drunken fat man burping after eating too much spaghetti. Why can’t he croak like a normal frog, or at least like the funny ones in that Bud commercial? It’s freaking me out. The scene reminds me of the strange landscapes featured on album covers from the 70’s, something from Yes or maybe Rush. For a moment the album cover seems real, or worse, more than real. Everything seems so far away.
The thought occurs to me, no one but me will witness this strange atmospheric phenomenon. I have lived for forty-one years and never seen anything close to it. It’s as if the moon is mocking me, illuminating my despair. I look at the sky and wonder.
I tiptoe back through the door and slide quietly into the bedroom. My wife and daughter are asleep in my bed. Quietly I open the shade. The light spills in, splashing the family with an obscene blue light. I am engrossed in thought. What dreams fill their slumber? They look so peaceful. It’s as if they are carved from alabaster. Don’t they know what is happening? Don’t they sense the desperation of the man before them, a man unsure of what his future holds, a man that casts a seven foot shadow in the savage moonlight? I lean forward, hearing the softness of their breath in the small hours. In, out. In, out. They sleep the sleep of the just. One day I will sleep like that. One day the moonrise will be gone, and soon after that, the memory of the moonrise will be gone. I alone have seen it. My ears are ringing. I cannot sleep. Moon, forgive me. Have mercy on those I love. Do not wake the family. I don’t want them to see the terror of this endless night and its impossible sky. I don’t want them to see the creature I have become, skulking around measuring shadows in the small hours. Watching, wondering, worrying.
A large koi slaps at the water of the pond as the moon stares down. I cannot sleep.

Family: Chapter Nine- Bookends

They are holding hands. The girl looks at the boy with laughter in her eyes. He smiles back, unlocking the door of the car that will drive to Stone Harbor. Together they drive, heedless of the world, understanding only love. The radio blares as their car winds through the countryside.
Fall arrives. The phone in the finance office rings. I’m pregnant, she says, and I sit heavily. I feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach. Are you sure, I say. I’m sure, she says, and starts crying with happiness. Damn, I say.
Winter comes. A child is born, a daughter. The daughter screams into the middle of the night, kicking the sides of her crib. The mother soothes her, feeling frazzled, the mother’s hair a red explosion of curls. The father waits, restless, work is coming tomorrow. In the morning he holds the daughter in the blue rocking chair, watching Little Bear on an old television. “It’s going to be alright” he tells the daughter, and the daughter senses his truth.
Soon it is Summer. The family is on the patio, drinking and smoking. Sunlight reflects on the water. The daughter takes the training wheels off her bicycle. Her helmet is too big. Pink streamers flap at her handlebars. Look at me, she says. Look at me.
It is the first day of school. She wears a High School Musical back pack. She argues with her parents. She waves from the back window as the bus drives off. She shares a secret with her best friend. We watch the bus dwindle to a speck in the distance before walking home.
We dress up to watch the school play, a musical called the King and I. The daughter has a small part, a speaking role, as one of the King’s daughters. She radiates in her little Thai costume, a pint-sized Oriental princess, more valuable than any pearl. Before the lights come up the father cries a little.
There is an argument. How can we afford college if you’re going to spend like this, the father says. It’s not my fault, the wife says. It’s not anybody’s fault, the father yells, it’s just math, for God’s sake. We’ll find a way, she says. The daughter, angry and frustrated, spends the night at her friend’s house.
I teach the daughter to drive. She backs over a curb and I pretend I’m angry. Pay attention, I say. She asks if she can borrow the car to pick up her friend, but I refuse. You don’t trust me she says. I do, I say, I do. She makes a face at me, the face her mother makes when I drink too much. I recognize the face.
The daughter graduates from college. She is far more poised, far more intelligent, and far more beautiful than any of her cap wearing classmates. There is a great cheer as they all toss their black caps into a cloudless sky. She smiles and I see the whiteness of her teeth. They look like diamonds in the sun. That’s my daughter, I say to a stranger, pointing. That’s her right there.
I’m moving out, she says. What the Hell do you mean you’re moving out, you’re just a child for Christ’s sake. The daughter wears the expensive suit that I purchased for her job interview. She is cool, confident. I am losing my temper for some reason. The wife looks at me and suddenly I realize. Outside a bitter wind blows. The window rattles in it’s pane. For a long time no one says anything.
Together they stand and read the stones. The daughter thinks back, remembering the life and laughter of those who came before, remembering the most important thing. Her husband stands beside her, nervous, thinking only of the baby that is coming. They are holding hands.

Family: Chapter Four- Christmas Eve 2006

I see a man reflected dimly in the bathroom mirror, a gray ghost emptying a warm glass of milk into the sink. I think I know this man. I’ve seen him in this same mirror every Christmas Eve for the last eight years or so. He looks different now, a little older, maybe a little less hair, but it’s definitely him. He wears a different expression tonight, one that I do not recognize. It’s not quite sorrow and not quite resignation. It is the expression of a man finishing a long race, a race that he does not want to stop running. No one has told him that this race is over, but in his heart he knows. This will be his last Christmas Eve as Santa Claus in the heart of a child. The child has grown too clever now, and too full of questions. She is faster and more analytical than ever.
This year in particular was a challenge. My daughter has memorized the story I told her so many times, the story about my brother and I growing up in Macedon, New York. I was not much younger than she is now.
My parents are downstairs....I can hear glasses clinking, my father laughing his boisterous laugh, the sound of a man still years away from divorcing his wife.
My window shades are drawn wide and the moonlight streams into our bedroom. I crawl quietly down from the top bunk and approach the sill. I look down into the yard.
“Rick, Rick....” I whisper, waking my little brother.
“I’m awake.” He joins me at the window. I knew he wasn’t sleeping.
We can see the yard, the snow illuminated by a brilliant full moon. There is the swing set and my uncle George’s toboggan propped against the garage. But there is something else- something I can’t quite identify- just around the corner of the house.
“Do you see it?” I ask my brother.
“Yeah.”
“What is it?”
“I think it’s the back of a sleigh.”
Suddenly in the sky there is a red light, clearly a sign of some sort. There is a noise on the stairs.
“It’s Dad!” Rick says under his breath, and we both scramble for our bunks. The feet of my pajama bottoms whiff against the ladder of my bunk and he hears.
“Hey! Back into bed, the both of you! Don’t you know that Santa is coming?”
We both erupt into excitement.
“Dad we saw him we saw him! The sleigh is by the side of the house and it’s....”
“Shhhh....it’s almost midnight. Both of you go to sleep. He won’t come if you are still awake.”
“But....”
“No buts!” He draws the shade and darkness takes the room. “Sleep! I mean it....don’t make me come back up here.” As he closes the door I see his face silhouetted against the dim light of the hall. He pulls the door closed with a soft click. As I lay awake I hear them downstairs, talking. Why aren’t they in bed? Don’t they know Santa is outside?
This is the story I told my daughter. I have told it so many years that she now tells her own version of a personal Santa encounter at her own window, with a few minor embellishments. She tells of her experience with great enthusiasm, thoroughly convinced of the concrete reality of Santa’s head leaning in her bedroom door. She only peeked for a second, you see, just long enough for a glimpse of a red suit. It’s her story now....and she tells it well. In many ways, her story is better than my own.
As I look at the man in the mirror holding an empty milk glass, the truth occurs to me. This the last time I will see this man. In the shifting shadows his features swirl and then come into focus. My eyes mist as I prepare to say goodbye to the man I now recognize.
It was me all along.

Family: Chapter Eight- Forward, then Back

My daughter and I visit my father in upstate New York. It is early spring, but still chilly enough for a jacket in the Finger Lakes. My father had a stroke recently- he claims he is fine- but I go to check on him anyway. The visit is pleasant and we spend the first few days cooking out and talking about how old everyone has become. I don’t want to talk about my illness, and anyway this story is not about that. My daughter, the aspiring gymnast, spends most of her long weekend upside-down in some way. At the barbecue, relatives exchange the usual pleasantries. Over the years my father and I have grown more alike than I would like to admit. It troubles me to think of his passing, and I realize I am wrestling with guilt about this for some reason. In any event, we enjoy each other’s company, drinking too much and laughing at each other’s racist jokes.
In the morning we plan a project together. We begin assembling a patio umbrella in the bright April sunshine. It’s early for me and I’m a little hung over from the previous day’s party. Like all respectable men, we completely ignore the instruction sheet.
“No, no....” he says, “the wide end goes on top.”
“Oh!” He’s right. “Shit, I already bolted it.”
“Just bend it....” he suggests. He’s in a good mood.
“Hold on....if we lay the plastic part in the sunlight.... maybe it will be easier then....”
“Ah! No wonder you make the big bucks!”
“I don’t know about all that....”
“At Toyota they tell you not to read the instructions?”
“Not when they’re in fucking Chinese!”
I yank the plastic base free with a loud snap. Miraculously it does not break.
“See? I told ya....”
Some hours later, quite pleased with ourselves, we enjoy a beer beneath the new deck umbrella. After a brief lunch, I sense the house is becoming smaller. That is to say, I feel as though we all could use a little break from each other. I imagine it’s not east having me underfoot for three days straight.
It’s only a short drive to my uncle’s house in Phelps so we leave right after lunch. Upon arriving my daughter rudely insists on going to the park; my uncle’s cool so we head up the street.
About three blocks up, there’s a place called Redfield Park, I used to play there when I was a boy. I know every step of this walk; the uneven sidewalk beside the abandoned vineyard, the shattered slate walkway at the corner, even the faded steeple of the church.
Few things have changed in the three decades since I played here, a new slide, a jungle gym..... But still the park I could walk blindfold. It was set aside as a common area by settlers in the 1890’s, I think. There’s a marble obelisk that says so, anyway.
“Let’s go daddy, let’s go....” She runs off toward the swings.
“Hold on!” I say but she ignores me. By the time I catch up she’s already swinging. She’s nine now, strong and agile, a kid far beyond the need for a push from Dad.
“Get on!” she says, and I comply.
“I am too fat,” I insist, but start anyway.
I lean forward, then back; gaining momentum. It seems so familiar.... as my height increases, I try to touch the tree branch with my toes as I have always done. My shadow lengthens on the ground. I swing into my shadow, then out. The black shadow spills on the ground like a cartoon version of me. My mind races back and I can hear my own father, his voice muffled by the years. Push me I say. You can do it he says. It’s easy. You can do it. Use your body weight. Forward, then back.
“Look Daddy!” my daughter says, “I’m winning!”
“You punk kid! I’m way higher than you.”
“That’s cause you’re bigger.”
“Fatter you mean.” My heart pounds. It’s 1973 again; my dad is drinking Genesee Cream Ale with his brother George in the yard. I go higher, higher, racing the little girl. She says something but I can’t quite hear it.
Later we make the walk down Main Street to my Grandmother’s house, passing the liquor store where my cousin and I did shots after the Sauerkraut Parade. The waterfall roars.
“We’re almost there....”
“Aren’t you glad we walked?”
I touch her head. “I’m just glad I am with you honey.”
After a brief visit with my aunt and grandmother, Sarah and I go outside. She wants to see the graveyard next door. It’s a little morbid but she likes to read the stones. What can I say?
“Let’s go before it gets dark.”
We walk between the stones holding hands. Some are legible and some are not. This cemetery is old and full of important town names. Some of the dates are from the early 1800’s, men and women who died before the Civil War. Towering obelisks dot the grassy field, crumbling memorials to important yet forgotten men.
“Hey, this one has a poem.” We read it together; it’s a threnody eulogizing a father, husband and friend. A large crack runs between the rhymes. The long years have almost erased his epitaph. The sun is going down.
“Look! Look!” she cries.
I walk over. She has found something fascinating.
It’s a faded grey stone, hard to read. The inscription bears the name Sarah Elizabeth.
“Hey that’s my name!”
I look closer and run my fingers over the engraving.
“1822-1831.... that can’t be right.” My mind reels at the bizarre coincidence. “She was nine.”
“I’m nine,” she says. “That’s creepy.”
Suddenly I hear a noise, the sound of great wings beating. This can’t be, I think to myself. I look up and I can see my grandmother’s house. My car is parked on her lawn. A dizzying rush of images comes. My daughter’s fourth birthday. My father inflating a rubber raft. My uncle loading a potato gun. The swing set at Redfield Park. One day my name will be on a stone like this. Who will take care of my family?
I can hear a voice, closer now. You can do it, he says. It’s easy. Forward, then back.