My parents always had visitors. They would come in the evening and sit in folding chairs on the back porch of our small house in New Brunswick. They greeted me—an only child —with the warmth of aunts and uncles. “How are your studies proceeding, Manny? Are you making good progress in school?” Except “good” sounded like “goot” and “school” like “skoo.” I hated the name Manny, after my dead grandfather, and insisted everyone call me Matt, an all-American name for a boy born in 1954, but our visitors didn’t know or remember to do this. Speaking the language was hard enough for them in their accents that thickened on their tongues like cornstarch the longer and more intensely they talked through the night with my parents.
Every summer my mother and I would go to the Lake Kiniwa Hotel in the Catskills, outside Liberty, New York. My father would stay behind to run the grocery and come up on weekends. Dora, my mother, waited on tables at the hotel, and in 1970, when I was sixteen, I worked as her busboy. The guests who had once numbered in the hundreds amounted to less than sixty, two stations worth of customers. Few children stayed at the hotel anymore, perhaps just a grandchild or two coming up on weekends. Some of the guests were the same ones who had visited our house over the years. They would cup my chin when I came over to clear their plates and pinch my cheek for good luck, even though I was bigger than my father, which wasn’t saying much, since he was only six inches taller than my five-foot mother.
I was all too interested in money, according to my parents. My “preoccupation,” as they referred to it, came to a head early in the season that summer of 1970 when Mr. Borwitz, one of our guests, died of a heart attack after dinner. The next day his daughter arrived to claim her father’s things; I didn’t hesitate to mention that it was the end of the month and neither my mother nor I had been tipped for our services. Mr. Borwitz’s daughter, a tall blonde wearing a silk scarf, whipped out two one-hundred-dollar bills, a premium on what we could normally expect. I presented the money to my mother, who was not pleased. “How could you?” she asked. “You run up to a grieving woman with your hand out begging?”
“First of all,” I said, “I wasn’t begging. It’s our money—”
“It was a tip!” my father, Isaac, interrupted; he’d driven up for the weekend. “A gratuity, which, by the way, I don’t agree with. Either you pay someone what they deserve—”
“Second of all,” I said, stopping him before he went off on one of his lectures about the dignity of the worker, “she wasn’t grieving at all. She was all business, complaining about how much crap her father had brought up with him and how would she ever get it all in the trunk of her big fat gold-trimmed Cadillac!”
“Go to your room, Manny!” which was what they called me when they were mad or wanted to make me mad.
“I don’t have a friggin room!” I screamed back. I shared one with my parents on the third floor of the hotel.
“What’s happened to your compassion for others?” my mother implored.
“A khazer,” my father muttered.
I was a selfish person, not quite a goniff, a thief, but close, and although my secular parents scorned religion, the opiate of the masses, after all, they didn’t hesitate to employ old world Yiddish for its unmatched tonal accuracy in evoking disappointment.
“Bad move,” Irwin said, when I told him of the incident. I’d known Irwin all my life. He was the other waiter besides Dora at the hotel, and we’d been neighbors until he went off to college. Twenty years old, he’d just finished his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. He’d gotten a low number in the draft lottery and wasn’t sure what he was going to do; his student deferment would no longer keep him out of the army. “Maybe Canada,” he said, when I pressed him.
“What about being a conscientious objector?”
“That wouldn’t work for me. It’s the conscientious part they might have trouble with—I’m not the most peaceful person.” He looked grim when he said this.
“You should have just pocketed it,” Irwin said, when I told him about getting the money from Mr. Borwitz’s daughter. He gave my shoulder a squeeze.
Every Tuesday, Nick and I—Nick worked as Irwin’s busboy and was a local kid from Liberty—placed newspapers written in Russian on about half the seats of our stations. Though I couldn’t read it, I knew that this was the equivalent of the Daily Worker, only with less stateside news and more of the Mother Country. I can’t say how many of our guests were actually members of the Communist Party, but a number of them spoke Russian as fluently as Stalin, whom they still defended. I’d taken to arguing with Mr. Peach—yes, that was actually his name, though it had been changed from the original Petrosky—about how he could possibly support the killing of millions of citizens. Stalin’s crimes were well known by this time. Hadn’t even Khrushchev changed the eponymous city’s name to Volgograd, for good reason, since Stalin was a mass murderer?
“And what of the attacks on Negroes in this country, Manny? You haven’t seen the news? Fire hoses and dogs, bombings and beatings—you call this democracy?”
“At least we have the right to protest,” I said. “In Russia you’d be arrested and never heard from again.”
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Peach said, leaning on his cane. “The worst is yet to come.”
He tapped his cane on the hotel porch. Ten feet from us a card game went on, but no one paid attention to our argument. “I tell you this country will be ripped in two.”
I don’t think Mr. Peach was referring to the Vietnam War or racial strife. Rather it was his dream of the revolution: workers pouring into the streets and freeing the masses from capitalism, of which, sadly for my parents, I was its chief exponent.
I CAME close to drowning that summer. I’d gone down to the lake in the evening after I served dinner and shortly before dark. No one went to the lake anymore. Only frogs and water bugs disturbed its glassy surface. Dragonflies buzzed above me as the sun started to set behind the white oaks and birch trees, their branches casting shadows across the water. I hadn’t bothered bringing a bathing suit because I wasn’t planning to swim—just paddle a canoe around until I got tired and could sleep through my father’s snoring.
I took off my shirt and paddled in one smooth motion, enjoying the burning in my muscles. An old handball wall and a sagging badminton net stood on the opposite shore, nearly overgrown with chokecherry bushes. When I got to the lake’s center, I sat a moment, listening to the crickets and watching the flreflies come out, eating the handful of blackberries I’d picked on my way down the path. I lay back in the canoe, closed my eyes, and then opened them a minute later to see how much darker it had become. My hand strayed below. I thought about Sheri Savitz who had bent over to pick up her pencil in civics class. Her pink sweater had risen above the waist of her skirt and revealed the top of her matching pink panties. Not good—not up here at least, without any girls my age and only a summer of frustration ahead, so I stopped and stripped off the rest of my clothes and dove in the water to shake myself free of the memory.
I tried to exhaust myself swimming as furiously as I could in no particular direction. And when I wearied of that, I dove down to the slimy bottom of the lake, grabbed a hunk of muck, slapped it against my chest, and then shot back up like a missile piercing the water’s surface. I must have done this about fifty times. Finally after almost an hour and now tired enough to sleep, I looked for the canoe, but it was gone—having drifted back to the far side of the lake, a good hundred yards away. I turned on my back and tried to float and stay calm. I’d completed a Red Cross swim class, in case I wanted to be a lifeguard at the hotel, but of course our elderly guests rarely swam in the pool and the camp for kids had long ago been disbanded. So I knew what I had to do, yet when I looked behind me I saw that I’d gone in circles. In the dark I’d lost my reference point on the opposite shore. And then I got a terrible cramp in my leg that was so painful it affected my whole right side. I used my left arm, but that only made me go in even tighter circles. Panic set in. I started breathing faster and took water in my mouth from favoring my left side too much. You’re a strong swimmer, I kept telling myself, stay calm, breathe evenly. But when I checked my progress and saw how far I still remained from shore, fear washed over me. My leg, aching with pain, threatened to pull my whole body under.
“Hey! You okay out there?”
My body stiffened immediately. It was a girl’s voice, familiar but too distant to recognize.
“No,” I said.
“What’d you say?”
“HELP!” I shouted.
“Coming!” the voice said. I didn’t think about being naked. I didn’t care that I had no idea who was coming for me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the seconds passing. Then I heard the other canoe and grabbed hold of its solid bow.
ABOUT Irwin. We’d both come up to the area since we were young, attending the red-diaper summer camps and belting out the words to “Joe Hill,” “Union Maid,” and the “World Youth Song.” Once, when I was eight and Bobby Melk teased me about being skinny—he had called me Road Map because the veins showed through in my chest—Irwin, twelve years old, the same as Bobby, punched him in the nose. Irwin was “confined to quarters,” but when pressed as to why he had punched the boy, he wouldn’t say. He didn’t want to be seen as heroic in defending me, because this somehow diminished my stature, and he didn’t want to rat on the kid, because this diminished his. So he would only explain he’d done what was necessary. I finally told the counselors the story myself. Then we had a long group meeting at the baseball field about all of us being brothers and sisters and sharing beliefs in the common good and “from those with the most ability to those with the most need,” a variation of a speech I’d heard all my life. Bobby Melk mumbled an apology to me. Irwin was asked to apologize to Bobby—in front of the group. Irwin stood up and though we could have expected anything, he put two fingers in his mouth and blasted a whistle, at which Rusty, the camp’s Irish setter, came racing down the hill and sat at rigid attention in front of Irwin, an astonishing show of canine fealty.
“Irwin,” the counselor said, not knowing what to make of Rusty’s sudden presence, “don’t you have something to say to Bobby?” But Irwin snapped his fingers and Rusty twisted in the air like a hooked fish. Then Irwin put his hand out flat and motioned down, and Rusty put his snout on his front paws and crawled toward Irwin as if in jungle combat. We red-diaper campers cheered; Irwin must have been training him all along. The counselor’s plea for self-criticism and apology was drowned out, and Irwin, who had forgiven me for telling what happened, waved to us over his shoulder as he bolted into the woods with Rusty.
He was sent home the next morning to his parents, our neighbors. Of course that made him a martyr and started a movement of its own at the camp: Why had Irwin, our young comrade, been “expelled”? Why did he have to apologize to Bobby Melk, the camp bully (who later that summer wound up getting caught stealing)? Didn’t Irwin represent all the good things the camp was trying to teach us about fellowship? Indeed, just being associated with Irwin shot up my prestige at the camp, and in the absence of the real person, I mythicized his exploits, and invented some, by flashlight late at night.
So it was a great surprise to discover that my rescuer proved none other than Irwin’s fourteen-year-old sister, Julie, who’d just arrived that evening with her parents. She’d been sitting alone on the bank of the lake.
“You’re shivering,” she said when she reached me. “Get in.”
True, I was shivering, but not from cold as much as embarrassment at being saved by a fourteen-year-old girl who’d had a crush on me for the last several years. “I’m good here.”
“Don’t be silly, Manny.” When she leaned over I smelled peppermint chewing gum on her breath. I tried to rest my elbows on the side of the canoe, as if we were just having an idle conversation at the edge of a swimming pool. “I won’t look,” she promised, but there was more chance of me walking on water than getting into that boat naked with Julie. She’d obviously been watching me swim around, perhaps even followed me to the lake, and grateful as I was to be alive, I was irritated too.
Eventually Julie gave up trying to persuade me and paddled, as I held on to the stern and kicked along. When we got to shore, I asked her to turn away while I got my clothes from the other canoe, which had drifted to the lake bank. I had the distinct feeling she failed to obey my request as I streaked toward the boat, my buttocks flashing white in the moonlight.
THE next morning my mother fainted while serving breakfast. She dropped her service tray of twelve bowls of oatmeal. In the kitchen, I heard the loud crash and rushed out. I’d worried this would happen. For weeks, I’d pleaded with her to let me carry the tray, but she insisted she was strong enough. She would not, or could not, carry it one handed above her shoulder and had to hold the wide tray in front of her as if presenting a big birthday cake. Her face would turn red, she’d huff and puff, her back would creak under the strain, and she’d barely make it to the tray stand. I would chase after her, but she’d shoo me away: “This is my job, Manny. If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
“Don’t be stubborn,” I told her. But she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, even her son. For years she’d schlepped at the store helping my father, cashiering and pushing around stock. She was her father’s daughter, my grandfather a Russian Jew from Odessa, who’d made his living as a tailor and hadn’t stopped working even in his seventies when nearly sightless he could only sew by touch.
Irwin was already at my mother’s side when I got there. She’d recovered enough to sit up. All around her were the shattered bowls, the metal lids, and gobs of oatmeal. Seeing her there dazed, her white apron between her spread legs, terrified me.
“Mom,” I said, kneeling down. “What happened?”
“I got dizzy, Matty.” She never called me Matty. Manny, or maybe Matt when I reminded her. “I saw stars—just like they say! ” She tried to make a joke out of it, but nobody was laughing. The guests had gathered around.
“Please give Dora some air,” Irwin asked. They shuffled back a few paces.
“She needs a doctor,” said Mr. Drach. “Anybody a doctor?”
No one answered. They were all communists, no high rollers here.
I got up and went to the serving station and poured a big glass of water. I held it to her lips. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said. “I must be dehydrated.”
“You ready to stand up?” Irwin asked her. My mother nodded. Irwin motioned for me to get on her other side to help. Although my mother was a small woman, I was surprised at how heavy she was when we tried to lift her. Dead weight. She didn’t have any strength in her legs. We supported her until Mrs. Fishman pushed a chair under her, and she sat down again. “Just give me another moment,” she said. “Then I’ll be ready to go.” She drank some more water.
Irwin went to the kitchen for a mop. I kept my eye on Dora while the chef started to dish up more oatmeal. After a while, she stood up on her own. “I’ll take over, Mom,” I announced. I’d expected her to protest. I was only sixteen. But Miriam, the owner, who had come in from outside, nodded her consent. My mother didn’t argue.
SHE rested during the afternoon, while I served lunch without a hitch. Irwin’s busboy, Nick, the local kid from Liberty and sixteen like me, hustled between our stations and kept up with both jobs. But of all times, Miriam insisted that Nick and I polish two bus boxes full of flatware, a messy, smelly job. “Dora is ill,” I complained to her. “Can’t this wait?”
“It’s been waiting all summer. There’s nothing you can do for your mother right now. Let her have a good long rest.” Talk about your lapsed socialist. I’m not sure Miriam gave a damn for the Movement. She’d hosted the group for years, and despite their dwindling numbers, she counted on their core business. My mother was supposedly a distant cousin of hers, but we weren’t exactly treated like family. We had a small and hot room (I’d gotten two fans from the storeroom and put them near my mother to keep her cool) and were asked to work seven days a week. This was no union job. I didn’t care because I was young and glad for the work, any job, but I worried for my mother. It was no secret that my father’s grocery, in an increasingly downtrodden and crime-ridden section of New Brunswick, was barely making it, squeezed out by the larger supermarkets that had opened in the suburbs. His customers were the poor and elderly who walked to and from the store. They paid in food stamps, and when those ran out at the end of the month, my father extended them credit.
He prided himself on never being robbed and informed me the best protection a person can buy is generosity, but this didn’t keep his shelves from growing sparser, his creditors from leaning on him, and the other merchants from going out of business like swatted flies.
As Nick and I worked away at the silver, Julie came into the dining room, a moment I’d been dreading. She was wearing a red bikini and looking for a can to curl her hair. “You have one?” she asked pleasantly, her voice bright, her green eyes shining. I said I’d check in the kitchen. I dawdled a moment looking through the trash for an empty vegetable or fruit can the right size.
“Here you go,” I said, when I found one and came out with it.
“Thanks, Manny.” I shrugged. Matt, Manny, what did it matter? I’d almost drowned and was standing in front of my bikini- clad savior, her breasts substantially larger than when she used to come to my house and ask if she could play golf with me, a capitalistic sport if ever there was one that I’d taken up and devoutly played every Saturday. Or she’d come over with a plate of cookies. Or a quiz she wanted me to take in a teen magazine to determine if I was more a feeling or thinking person. This had been going on for the last two years, and now she was, as they say, developed, curvaceous and tanned, her lips a frosted pink. Nick dreamily rubbed a silver cream pitcher as he stared at her. Technically she and I, at this time of year, were only two years apart—her birthday in May, mine in July—but we were miles apart otherwise: I was going into eleventh grade, she into ninth, a huge gap in teenage time. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d watched her set up her stuffed animals in the backyard with nametags while she practiced gymnastics in front of them.
“I’d better get back to work,” I said.
“See ya,” Julie said. Barefoot, her hips wriggling in her low-slung bikini bottom, a scalloped shell of sun-bleached downy hair fanning out from the small of her back, and trying to balance the can on her head, she made her way out the door.
“Wow,” said Nick.
“She’s fourteen,” I said. “Just.”
Nick smirked. “Just right, you mean.”
“Not cool,” I warned him. I was grateful Julie hadn’t mentioned anything in front of Nick about saving me from drowning. “Let’s quit polishing,” I told him. “We’ve got to set up for tonight.” The hotel, more from tradition than demand, kept kosher, separate plates for lunch and dinner, no flayshadig with milchedig. And we had a few guests, mixed among our fellow travelers (and even some of those), who were observant. I set out the dinner plates and silverware, folded the linen napkins like swans tonight—I could do hares and doves too—and nestled them in the goblets, then I went to check on my mother.
BUT before I could get there, I became distracted by loud voices on the porch. Irwin, who had just come back from picking up clean tablecloths for breakfast because the laundry delivery truck had broken down, was going at it with Mr. Hower, also one of our visitors in New Brunswick, but someone I’d never cared for. He often drank and became loud and argumentative—obstreperous, my father called it. I’d gone to a number of protests with my parents, until I told them I didn’t want to go anymore, and Mr. Hower was always out in front. Usually we’d join a larger group, farm workers, strikers, civil rights marchers, and fit in alongside them, beefing up their numbers, until someone, specifically Mr. Hower, would unfurl the Communist Party banner. People would suddenly part from us as if the Red Sea had opened. Mr. Hower would inevitably call them weaklings or cowards or phony baloneys, or on one occasion, though my father disputed it, “proletarian pussies.” I knew I’d heard right. And I didn’t trust him.
Mr. Hower had stormed off and Irwin was breathing hard, as if he’d been in a fistfight, not just an argument. Mrs. Krantz and Mrs. Lieber, both widows, squinting up through their thick lenses at six-foot-two Irwin, were telling him not to pay any attention.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“What were you yelling about?” I wasn’t going to let it go. Between my mother’s fainting, my near drowning, and now this nasty argument, things were getting out of hand, especially considering the hotel’s usually arthritic pace.
“It was about those shootings,” said Mrs. Lieber. She meant Kent State, which had happened in May.
“What was Hower saying?”
“He thought the students were expendable,” Irwin said.
“If they had more sense, they would have made themselves part of a larger movement, been better organized and kept their focus on the greater good. No one should mistake themselves for being indispensable. What bullshit. He was trying to bait me. And I let him.”
“No surprise you lit into him,” I said.
Mrs. Krantz said, “He’s a very pushy man.”
“Yes, he is,” Mrs. Lieber agreed.
“He likes to get people’s goat,” Mrs. Krantz added.
“Does he ever!” Mrs. Lieber echoed.
“We’ll stick up for you,” Mrs. Krantz said, “if anyone gives you the business.”
They adored Irwin, who had grown a beard at school but had shaved it off to work at the hotel, as well as cut his dark curly hair. He’d promised his mother that he would help out Miriam, though he could have made more money at one of the bigger hotels, the Concord, Browns, the Flagler, the Pines, even Grossingers.
“Er toig nit,” Mrs. Lieber said, which I understood well enough to mean Mr. Hower was a loser.
I SERVED dinner that evening while my mother rested. As soon as I’d swept my station, I went up to see how she was doing. My father, who’d just arrived, a day early to be with my mother, was sitting in bed with her, both of them in their stocking feet. “See?” my mother said, patting the top of her head as if it were a good puppy. “All better.” She looked pleased, and the color had come back into her face.
My father wiggled his toes at me like sock puppets. “We’re very proud of you.”
“We are,” my mother said. “People stopped by and told me how well you’ve been taking care of them.”
“You’re growing up, son.”
They looked tiny, if happy and relieved, sitting in that small double bed (I slept on a cot the size of a strip of bacon). They’d surely forgiven me for whatever disappointment I’d caused them over Mr. Borwitz’s daughter.
“Sit, sit,” my father asked. “Tell me what you’ve been doing all week.”
“You know,” I said, looking at my watch, “I think I’m going to take a walk.”
“You just came upstairs! It’s getting late.”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m not sleepy yet.”
“I’m sorry, son,” my father said. “We should have insisted on getting you your own room.”
“That’s okay.” I knew they’d done it to save money. One room was free, a second would have meant a deduction from our meager pay. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I told my mother.
“Thank you, darling. You were a wonderful help.”
I went downstairs to the kitchen. Sometimes I would sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and just sit on a covered plastic bucket of floating pear halves and eat everything in sight: hardboiled eggs, salami, herring, grapefruit, olives, potato salad, cheesecake . . . I was always famished. My face had become leaner, my shoulders and chest broader, and I could barely close the top button of my white shirt to snap on my busboy’s bow tie. Like any growing adolescent I was on intimate terms with a refrigerator, in this case an entire walk-in, and considered it my rightful compensation for seven days of labor at seventy-five cents an hour, which didn’t include set-up time.
But when I sat there this evening, chilled as a beer glass, the cooler’s fan silencing any noise outside of my own thoughts, I didn’t eat. I just wondered if my mother would ever be able to stop working and if my father had expected this hard life, striving all hours of the day and justifying it by always saying he was “just one of the little people” trying to survive. It was as though he secretly believed his life meant more if he suffered as an example than if he succeeded as an exception. But who was I to blame them for the life they’d chosen? Sitting next to each other in bed, sharing some grand dream of a better world, planning to picket for fair housing, debating excitedly whether they should fork out the cash to print leaflets this time around or use a mimeograph machine, my father the treasurer, my mother the secretary of a nearly penniless and shrinking organization . . . and could I ever have made them happier, with any academic accomplishment or extracurricular achievement, than when I came home in second grade and reported that I’d refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it contained the words “one nation under God”? Who was to say their illusions were any worse than the ones I would collect over the years and lose? I felt too young to know something so disappointing, but I did.
I went outside and walked in back of the hotel to the casino, closed years ago. Julie and Irwin were there talking in the dark. I sat down next to them on the peeling wooden steps of the casino. Bats regularly flew around inside; pounds of guano were rumored to be above the rafters.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Just talking,” Irwin said. Julie was wearing white shorts, all the better to show off her tan legs. Not one to be out of step with the times either, she had on a blossom-bursting, tie-dyed tank top.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“We’ve pretty much wrapped it up, right Jules?” If her sulking look was any indication, Julie didn’t seem to agree.
“Really, I can leave,” I offered.
“Stay. In fact, you kids talk,” Irwin said like an uncle. “Give me a hug, Jules?” He put his long arms around her and she weakly reciprocated. He got up and left.
“What was that about?” I asked. “You look crushed.”
“He makes me so mad.” She put her head down between her knees.
After a long silence, I said, “Are you going to tell me why?”
“He won’t tell me what’s going on. He’s arguing with Mom and Dad about not going back to college. He’s got more important things on his mind than college, he says. So I keep asking him what’s wrong, and he goes, ‘Nothing’s wrong, Jules.’ ‘Is it the draft?’ I ask him. ‘No.’ ‘Did you get a girl in trouble?’ He grunted. I guess that meant no. He’s always told me everything before, everything.”
“Maybe he’s just trying to figure things out for himself.”
Julie lifted her head and looked at me. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “About the lake.”
Now that she’d brought it up I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. “I was embarrassed out there. I could hardly face you, let alone thank you.”
“You would have made it. I just gave a lift, was all. Anyway, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I almost drowned once in Cape May. Irwin had to pull me out.”
“He’s good at saving people too. You’ve got a regular family franchise going.”
“Stop it,” Julie said, slapping my arm, but letting her hand linger there. “Don’t tease. I’m not in the mood for it. My brother’s treating me like a complete child. Everything’s so ‘personal.’ He actually used that word when I asked him what exactly his plans were for next year. He’s never been like that around me.”
I was listening, but I was also wondering if she was right. Would some survival instinct have finally propelled me safely to shore on my own?
“My parents are bugging me, too,” she said. “They won’t let me go to Long Island for a week. My friend Cindy’s parents have a house on Fire Island. We’d be there by ourselves for a couple of days while her parents traveled. I made the mistake of telling my mom that part, too—dope that I am.”
“It does sound a little unsupervised.”
“I knew you’d say that.” She brushed the ground with the toe of her sandal. Her nails were polished a pearly white. “Forget it,” she said. “Everyone’s turning against me anyway.”
“Nobody’s turning against you. Irwin’s in a bind, worried about being drafted—”
“He won’t even discuss it. He just keeps saying to leave him alone. He has to figure out what to do. Go to a psychiatrist and get a letter, I told him. ‘I’ve never been saner about things,’ he told me, but he was incredibly angry when he said it.”
I thought about Irwin’s explosion on the porch today. Julie was right about his anger, but I’d seen something else too—fear.
She put her hand on my thigh. “Let’s stop talking about my brother,” she said. “How’s your mother doing?”
“Better, thanks.” She let her hand drop further over my thigh and leaned her head on my shoulder. I thought about her lining up the stuffed animals in her backyard. She was still a skinny little girl then, using a deodorant can as a microphone to sing to those same stuffed animals, and though that shouldn’t have mattered now, our bodies having regenerated their cells several times over according to my tenth grade biology book, I couldn’t do what every new cell and engorged muscle in my body wanted to. “It’s getting late,” I said. “I’ve got to get up early and serve breakfast.”
“I don’t eat breakfast,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about breakfast.”
“I have to,” I said. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Then go. Leave. Desert me like everybody else,” she said, pouting and pointing her finger away, as if casting me out from the garden.
IN the morning, my mother was back at work, with my father’s help. At one point, they both carried the tray out, Mother on one side, Father on the other, as if moving a sofa across the room. “Come on, let me do that,” I said.
My father took me aside in the kitchen. “Leave your mother alone about the tray. She doesn’t want to look helpless.”
“But that’s exactly how she looks carrying it like that.” “Please,” he said, “she wants to do it this way.”
So I kept my mouth shut. Irwin went about serving, but I noticed during a lull he was standing at his station drinking coffee, which we weren’t supposed to do. After breakfast, he took me aside. He looked as if he’d lost weight since he’d first gotten here.
“What did my sister tell you last night?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Just that she was worried about you.”
“She didn’t tell you anything else?”
“No. What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer me. Not directly at least. “I want you to do something for me. If I’m not here tomorrow . . .”
“Wait—what do you mean, if I’m not here?”
“Just listen. I want you to tell my parents I’m okay. Can you do that?”
“Where are you going? Is this about the draft?”
Irwin took me to the end of the porch. Mr. Abrams, who once had to “disappear” for a few weeks after being subpoenaed during the McCarthy hearings, was playing a game of solitaire and occasionally glancing up at us. Irwin lowered his voice, just a bit. “I’m going to South America, all right? But you can’t tell anyone. I’ll be fine. I’ll contact people as soon as I can.”
“What are you talking about? Where in South America? Are you in trouble?”
“Take it easy,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just as he had his sister last night, and hugged me hard. “And take care of everyone, okay?”
“Julie’s very upset—”
“Keep an eye out for her most of all.”
“Irwin, you just can’t leave—what about your guests?”
He laughed and shook his head. “You would worry about that. The least of my problems, Matt.”
By the next morning he was gone. Everyone was looking for him. Miriam told me to check his room to see if he’d overslept, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. When there was no answer, she got a key and opened the door—an empty room, all his stuff missing. “What’s going on?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
His parents came down next. Mr. Winterstein was a tall man, like his son, and Irwin’s mother was built more like her daughter, curvy; the ever-creepy Mr. Hower had always leered at her when she came to our house. I told them the same thing I’d told Miriam, and now my parents too, who had lined up in the hallway outside Irwin’s room: I knew nothing. But Mr. Abrams had mentioned I’d been talking to Irwin on the porch and that we were “whispering.”
“You must tell us,” my mother said, “if you know anything.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“Why would he take off like this?” Irwin’s father asked. “We were arguing, yes, about his going back to school, but this isn’t like him.”
Meanwhile, our guests were clamoring for breakfast. “We have people waiting,” I told the group jamming the hallway as if we were in a Marx Brothers movie. “I’ll take over Irwin’s station,” I announced, and that’s what I did, for the rest of the summer.
JUST before the season ended on Labor Day, we had a visitor at the hotel, a balding man with thick black glasses, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt. He spent time speaking with Miriam in her office. I was down by the pool, cleaning it, and thinking that I wouldn’t come back next summer, that I didn’t want to work with my mother and see her sweating and grunting over this job, and that if I refused to return, money or no money, maybe she would too. My name was paged over the PA system: Manny Heffer- man, please come to the hotel lobby.
“This gentleman would like to speak with you, Manny,” Miriam said. My father was back in New Brunswick, and my mother had gone shopping in Monticello. “He’s with the FBI.”
“My parents aren’t here,” I said.
Ken Boyer, that’s what he said his name was, clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s just talk for a couple of minutes. No big deal, Manny, right?” The term “super-friendly” came to mind, not in a good way.
“Why don’t I sit in too,” Miriam said. For once she seemed to be on my side and concerned about me.
“Sure, no problem,” said Agent Boyer—as I would later refer to him. “But I think Manny’s a big enough fellow to have a private chat. Aren’t you, Manny?” It felt patronizing, his appealing to my pride and maturity, as if he were talking to a child, but there was a threatening edge to his good cheer that also backed Miriam down, and she left us alone in her office.
He placed a legal pad on the desk in front of him and laid his fountain pen—gray with marble swirling—across it. “So how’s your summer going, Manny? You enjoying working up here? I understand you’re a waiter now.”
Since I was only sixteen and there were limited numbers of hours I could work, I just nodded vaguely.
“Got some good fishing around here, too, I hear. You fish down at that lake?”
“Used to,” I said, “when I was five.”
“Brookies, bass, walleyes . . . how’s your friend Irwin doing?”
“Irwin. You and he are buddies, right? Heard from him lately?” Agent Boyer spun his marbled pen on the pad, a big smile on his face.
“I haven’t,” I said.
“I was hoping you could help me out, Manny.” It bothered me that he used my name so much. “He spoke with you before he left here, didn’t he?”
“Who told you that?”
“All I want to do is talk with your friend.”
“I really think I should have my parents here. They wouldn’t like me meeting alone with you. I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m only sixteen—”
“Seventeen,” Agent Boyer corrected.
“Just a few days ago.”
“You’re not a kid who lies, are you, Manny?”
“I’m not lying—”
“You just did about your age.”
“I forgot . . . I’m so used to being sixteen.”
Agent Boyer rubbed his hands together as if trying to start a fire. “A little cold back here,” he said. “Fall will be around before you know it. So what was it exactly that Irwin told you before he left?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“I think he did, Manny. In fact, we know he did.”
It was the first time he’d used the word “we,” and it sent a shudder through me. “I want to call my father.”
“You want to get your father involved in this?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
He smiled without amusement, his eyes flat. “Just what I said.”
“My father had nothing to do with this!”
“With what? Oh, you mean with this?” Agent Boyer opened his briefcase and laid out a photograph of Irwin in a crowd of college students. He was holding a rock in his hand and facing a row of police with gasmasks on.
“I don’t know anything about it,” I said, and I didn’t.
Agent Boyer nodded agreeably. “Okay, how about this one?” He slipped a larger glossy photograph out of a manila envelope. My breath caught. It was a photograph of Irwin talking with my father outside his grocery in New Brunswick. Irwin had a beard then that dated the photograph, but I didn’t know how far back. It could have been as much as a year. “Irwin was our next door neighbor,” I said. “He came to the store all the time. Where did you get that picture?”
Agent Boyer put the photographs away without answering and knit his fingers into a ball. “You seem to know a great deal about his whereabouts, Manny. I’m sure you can think harder about them now.”
THE following winter my mother died. She’d had several more dizzy spells. Her doctors had advised her just to rest. It was most likely her diabetes or high blood pressure, they said. But one night after we all went to see the movie Mash, and allowed ourselves a good, if dark, laugh on a cold evening, she curled up in the back seat of our Plymouth on the ride home, claiming she was suddenly tired. She let out a sharp whimper that we thought was a sleep noise. By the time we reached our driveway, she’d died of a brain hemorrhage.
Many of the same visitors who’d come to our house over the years attended the funeral. Mr. Peach was there and Mr. Abrams, as well as Mrs. Lieber and Mrs. Krantz, although Mr. Hower was notably absent. They talked amongst themselves, offered their condolences, and told me how wonderful a person my mother was —not an enemy in the world. They drank the coffee and ate the knishes and kugel we had put out for them. My father, who hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah (that I’d insisted on, not for the least of reasons being money), sat shiva and asked me to join him. He was worried about me, a seventeen-year-old boy and only child losing his mother. I smoked my grief away, and when cigarettes didn’t do the trick anymore, I took up grass and kept myself stoned for my year of mourning. If anyone asked how I was doing, I said great, and believed it.
Julie and her parents were at the funeral, of course, but not Irwin. No one knew where he was. People suspected Canada, but I’d perhaps thrown the FBI off the track by telling them South America. “You haven’t heard anything from him?” I asked Julie.
“No, nothing, zip,” she said, and dropped her head. I could see the clean pink line of her parted brown hair that hung straight down her back now. She looked sophisticated in her black dress and a single strand of gold around her neck. Her parents were sick with worry about Irwin and still believed I was holding something back.
“Are you?” her eyes pleaded. “You can tell me now, if you are. It would give us all some peace of mind, no matter what.”
“He said he was going to South America—the same as I told the FBI.” I didn’t tell her that I feared for my father and mother if I didn’t cooperate, and that Agent Boyer had made it clear he knew everything about them—and me—and that he somehow knew, too, this was my greatest childhood fear: my parents would be taken away and executed like the Rosenbergs. I’d never quite outgrown it.
I turned away from her eyes, which were wide open with expectation. “He’s fine,” I said.
Julie put her hand on my arm, a steadying touch for her. “What are you saying?”
“Just that Irwin could always take care of himself. We both know that.”
“I want him back,” Julie said. “I can’t stand not knowing where he is and if he’s okay. Sometimes I feel crazy. Oh, God, your lovely mother just died and look at me going on about my problems.”
I put my arm around her shoulder. She kissed me lightly on the cheek and said to stay in touch, such an adult phrase. I was almost—or yes, I was at that moment—in love with her. “I’m so sorry about your mother, Manny.” It didn’t matter now. Irwin was the only one who remembered to call me Matt, anyway. I would be Manny from hereon, the name my mother had died calling me. Honor your name; name no names, my father had always told me.
I got a scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Northwest. The summer of my freshman year I went camping with a student group in the Three Sisters Wilderness. One night, I wept uncontrollably for my mother. A girl from my economics class, Sandra, sat by me, and didn’t ask what was wrong, for which I was grateful. She seemed instinctively to understand I couldn’t do anything but weep, after years of not doing so. In the morning I decided when I went back in the fall I’d switch majors from marketing to history and would become a high school teacher.
Years later, when I was married to Sandra and living in Portland with our first child, a daughter named Daria after my mother, my father called to say he’d heard from Irwin’s family, who had moved to Florida. Julie had gone into broadcasting and was an anchor on a New Jersey TV station, married to, my father didn’t fail to mention, a lawyer for the ACLU. “You won’t believe it, Manny. Irwin’s been right above us all this time.”
“Canada! Under an alias. Michael Winn. All these years and his parents didn’t know a thing!” Irwin was coming home to serve an agreed upon sentence for the bombing of a ROTC building on campus. No one had been hurt in the incident, but it was a federal building and he would have to face the consequences. Amnesty had been granted to those draftees who fled to Canada but not to radicals who took action into their own hands. My father didn’t approve of such violence, but he could certainly understand the frustration that led to Irwin’s act.
I felt enormous relief, mostly because I could stop hiding what I’d kept secret all these years, telling no one, not even Sandra —that I’d been sending Irwin money from the part of my mother’s life insurance left to me. Nor was it for purely educational reasons that I’d gone to college in the Northwest. I’d cross the border into British Columbia, zigzag through the province, and meet him in remote places to bring him any news I had of the family. When the war ended and the threat of discovery and prosecution lessened, we eventually lost touch and I destroyed the phone numbers I had used to contact him.
That day on the porch at the hotel, after mentioning loud enough for Mr. Abrams to hear that he was going to South America, Irwin had whispered the first of these numbers and told me to memorize it, swearing me to silence. “Remember me,” he said. He bent his head down and rested his damp forehead on my shoulder, adjuring me to forgive him for what we were about to do.
*Steven Schwartz, “The Last Communist” from Little Raw Souls. Copyright © 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org
A cat was lying in the ditch by the exit road to Skogså, one of those long, strange autumn days when I’d just entered seventh grade but mostly tried to learn about magic, if any occult powers existed and if so which ones they were. When our car came closer I saw it lying stretched out on its side with eyes closed, right at the desolate end of the carriageway with the forest on one side and the rubbish tip on the other. It looked like it was sleeping. Just next to the shrubs that took over behind the dirty, yellow containers. At the bottom of the ditch ran a greenish sludge, a sluggish brook, and here and there gleamed small splinters of glass from the big clock-shaped COLOURED GLASS bin some distance away. I saw the cat first but didn’t even have to say anything to Mum. I just perceived it inside myself, and then she saw it too. Mum told Dad to stop the car and when he had done it both she and I went out. We went out under the restless cloudy sky vaulting above our heads. I hoped it was dead. The speed limit was sixty, most of them died immediately. You saw them along the roadside when you went to town. Mostly squirrels and foxes. Hares, birds. A badger once, striped and beautiful as an extraterrestrial. Some managed to get into the thicket to die in peace. But they all died.
When we got closer we saw blood running out of one ear. A narrow bright red trickle that was already drying. Both Mum and I recognised her. It was the homeless one. She had no name, but her tortoiseshell fur was black and luminous silver. Most of the time she used to be fat or have a kitten at her heels. But now she was small and empty. Her ribs could be seen through the fur.
The cat had lived outside since her owner returned to the town a few years before. He was one of the summer visitors, one of those who came and went. Who had a cabin near the bog and probably thought it was nice to have a kitten during the holiday, something for the kids to have fun with. Assumed it would manage just fine, and then driven away. That’s what Mum had said. Someone in town had tried to take the cat home when she saw it wandering around town without a collar, since there would be winter soon. Several people had got involved. Mum too would probably have taken it, if Dad wasn’t so allergic. But it was as if the cat became feral as soon as she didn’t have anything to do with people. No one succeeded in catching her. Two winters the cat had survived on her own, as by a miracle. And it wasn’t the winter that took her after all, but the road.
But the cat wasn’t dead. When we were just steps away from her, she opened her eyes. One of her eyelids couldn’t quite keep up. But the whites of her eyes gleamed from fear. She tried to crawl away, dragging her hind legs along the ground. I stopped, couldn’t look at her at all, how she tried to flee from us, what could I do, nothing. The cat could even be dangerous, scratch and bite. But Mum reached it in a second. A choked sound came out of her which made something shift in my body, as if all liquid had run out and just left some shrunken shells that rubbed against each other inside.
– Come back here now, shouted Jimmy from the backseat and knocked on the car window with his hockey club. Mum didn’t seem to notice. She had squatted down and put her hand on the cat, light enough as to hardly touch it. This seemed to calm it a little, or maybe it was too weak to react anymore. The lowest part of its back ended in a strange way. The increasing drizzle made Dad switch on the windscreen wipers behind us. Mum shook her head slowly, she didn’t look as big either now, when she looked at it.
Jimmy knocked on the window pane again. He was late for his training, that’s why he was making a fuss. The sludge in the ditch smelled sour and toxic. It had probably been drawn out of all the metal and plastic lying behind the grating up there on the ground. The greenest of the colour had gathered in a slimy band floating on top of the clay. Not a single blade of grass grew on the slope, everything was dead. Just gravel and soil and poison.
– Her back is broken, said Mum.
The eyes of the cat had slid shut again. Its breathing was weak, hardly noticeable. Its tail matted by clay. Mum looked around, her face totally calm, as when she was at home and tried to remember where she had put the newspaper and methodically ruled out alternatives one by one. To the right, at an angle behind her, lay a coarse stone half covered by tightly compressed gravel. Her fingertips whitened when she started rocking it back and forth until the soil let go of it. Rain dripped from her fingers and forehead as she raised her hand. It happened so quickly, the single strike, I turned away but still saw it. Stone in fur. Stone against flesh and bone. She took off her jacket, wrapped it around the cat and lifted her up. On our way back to the car I saw Jimmy rolling his eyes as he pointed at his wristwatch. Dad wound down the window.
– Not inside the car! he shouted.
She stopped, for just a moment, and turned to me. Maybe the change had already happened, because I remember that her eyes were shining, of something.
– Will you open the hatch?
It was the same day me and Mum buried the cat under the old willow that she moved up to the attic. Everything happened so suddenly that no one understood where she had taken off to. I went out and looked in the yard. But when I came back inside Jimmy said where she had gone. And that the door was locked. She had collected a few things, the folding bed, the little armchair from the living room, some of my books that were hers to begin with. Now and then she came downstairs to eat, otherwise we hardly saw her. Apart from the hockey, Jimmy was still grounded, but he kept to his room. The house fell silent. Dad didn’t say a word. Not at first. I heard him mentioning it to one of his friends on the phone. He laughed, but there was something new, kind of nervous, in his voice, as if there was a small, wet and hairy animal in his throat that he couldn’t swallow.
We waited for her to make one of her famous “statements.” She was an old hippie, Mum. That’s what Dad used to say, anyway. “One week it’s the government, the next we can’t eat meat and the third there’s some war she’s read a report about in the paper.” I knew that what he said about Mum was mostly for fun, because he liked her ideas most of the time. As long as he didn’t have to do anything, like coming with her to demonstrations, signing petitions, stapling information to notice boards or standing outside the liquor store to collect money to save the old railway bridge no one used anymore. But it wasn’t at all as fleeting as Dad made it sound, Mum had always been political. Previously, her statements could come almost anytime and become quite heated. When me and my brother were younger we had mostly listened and soaked up her words with varying attention, but lately it had changed so that Dad and he formed a united front and started arguing with her. Sometimes there would be trouble. My brother used to giggle at Mum when she got fired up and then she got hopping mad. Daddy loved it. I usually didn’t say much. I agreed with Mum in most things, actually, but if I said so both Dad and Jimmy would tease me to death. So I kept quiet. Sometimes she would cry a whole day about something she had read. Like this latest war. She had asked Dad if we could be the foster family of one of the refugee children. But he said no, that we didn’t have room. Or time. And Mum did work all the time, as did he. She nagged and nagged, no one could nag like her. Then someone from the police called and told about Jimmy, and after that she hadn’t nagged at all. All her energy went into speaking with Jimmy. She went into his room and closed the door and stayed for a long time. Then she wanted Dad in there too, but he thought she was better at things like that. They started arguing, mostly she. Don’t you understand? she yelled one night, I heard it straight through the door and all the way to the depths of my body. Don’t you understand what they’ve done? But later she stopped yelling. Stopped arguing too.
She had become so quiet that everything was strange, and then left me behind down there in the strangeness and gone upstairs and locked herself inside.
Since Mum moved upstairs it had become Dad’s responsibility to take care of everything at home, a responsibility he didn’t shoulder quietly. He needed to get a recipe for the simplest things and complained about me and Jimmy that we never helped out, that he was like a slave in his own home and that we were the most spoiled kids in the world. Jimmy was as good as Mum at slinking out of the kitchen, so I had to do everything instead. I tried to protest, but Dad had always been indulgent with Jimmy. Let him rest a bit, he just got back from training, Dad would say if I pointed at the piles of dishes. And I didn’t have the energy to keep nagging, I wasn’t like her. But every time I gave in it felt like I was losing something, that something was running out of my hands and down the drain with the dishwater, that something was being pulled out of my body, making the ground toxic.
When Mum hadn’t stopped after more than a week Dad got fed up. Made up errands up there and looked for things that weren’t even there. He knocked till Mum asked what he wanted. and when she offered to bring what he wanted downstairs if she found it he got even more annoyed.
– Open the door now, Ingrid, he said. You behave like a child.
But she refused, so he kept knocking for minutes. It could be heard all over the house, I couldn’t focus on my math. But she didn’t seem to care. Finally he gave up and came swearing down the stairs, started rummaging in the cupboard for an extra key without finding any. When he saw me standing in the doorway he shut the cupboard immediately.
– Don’t look at me like that, he said. Nothing of this is my fault.
Then he left. The sound of shots from Jimmy’s video game was the only thing that could be heard.
It turned out that she had quit her job at the hospital. I was the first one to notice. It was in October, and a water leak had forced the head teacher to close the school for the day, so I went home to cram. Most in my class had gone to the café they always went to after school or if we had a free period. I didn’t drink coffee yet. Ever since they let me skip fifth grade and change class I hadn’t had anyone to be with, and during breaks I mostly sat staring at my pen, trying to make it move by the force of thought. This was the way it was. More than a year had passed now, so I was used to it.
On my way home I saw that Klara was back, she came from the ninth-grade corridor with her friends. Although she passed me in the entrance hall at just a few meters’ distance she didn’t say hello. Even though she had been at our house twice. She had cut off all her hair. Madde in 9A stared at me, with a black look in her eyes. Apparently she had found Klara, on the top floor in the bedroom of Danne’s parents. Her dress over her head, passed out. They even pumped her stomach. I thought that would feel like being turned inside out, twisted, drained, stretched. Like an old shirt.
Mum heard the bang when all my school books landed on the hallway floor before she came out of the kitchen. It was a pretty comical sight. A big scrap of meat of some kind was hanging out of her mouth (which was strange since she was a vegetarian) and she looked a bit guilty. Maybe because I had surprised her at large in the house.
– You’re so early, was the only thing she said, chewing.
– There was a water leak at school, I said. Why aren’t you at work?
And then I got to know that she had quit.
It wasn’t the same downstairs without her. Dad had some sort of allergic reaction and was whinier than usual, he walked around sniffling and rubbing his eyes. Or else he just watched TV. She used to come to my room in the evening when I sat with my homework, to stroke my hair and ask me if I wanted something to eat. Said that I’ve done enough for today, I don’t have to be best at everything. I even missed all her outbursts about things Dad thought were small potatoes. Ever since I was little she and I had had our own private jokes, as when we pressed the tongue against the inside of the lower lip, crossed the eyes and said whatswrongwithyouthen? And then we laughed like maniacs. Jimmy thought we were incredibly childish, so we always made sure to do it when he had his friends over. She knew how to listen, and she always had the right things to say. But most of all she knew when to be silent. When saying anything didn’t help, because it was just the way things were, in class, or when Dad just wanted to tease. Then it felt great that she actually didn’t say anything, but just kept quiet for a while. Afterwards she always had some suggestion. It didn’t have to be anything special, maybe just a crossword she needed some help with.
And at night when I lay in bed without being able to sleep I thought about how she too was lying there, right above my room in the rickety folding bed, and then it was like someone went into my body. That another body went into mine and filled it up, so big that it stretched my skin, my head, and all my thoughts started teeming until it got unbearable. But I could hardly move, because the other body was heavy as lead inside my own. And when I finally fell asleep, I dreamt the same dream I always dreamt. That I was in a black space, being squeezed between the golden cog wheels of a huge clockwork. I tried to get out of there, but my sweaty hands slid off the metal. And the ticking made me almost insane. I had taught myself the technique of waking up before it was too late, before I got squeezed to death. And then I stood up straight on the floor, made the sign and pronounced the right words to see the truth. Then I walked three rounds counter-clockwise to avoid coming back to the same place when I fall asleep again. I had read about this in one of Mum’s books. Sometimes it worked. At other times I woke up in another dream instead, in which my room was similar but still different. So similar that I thought it was really my own room and walked three more rounds even there. Sometimes the room was empty apart from the bed, as if to say that there was nowhere else to go, and then I fell asleep back in the first dream, or in a new, strange dream I couldn’t remember later. Once I tried to resist the dream room and sat down on the floor in a corner instead of returning to the bed and going to sleep there, but when I leaned against the wall it gave way and I started falling and falling. After this happened, my rebellions in the second dream room stopped.
Before Mum moved upstairs I had reported all this to her, and she had said that processing your feelings at night was good, since you didn’t have to worry so much about them during the day. And this was true in a way. I worried less about what I processed at night, but in their turn the dreams led to new things to consider. Would the dream room ever become so real that I could continue living there without suspecting anything? In a parallel world, where a similar Mum existed, a similar brother, a similar school, similar books and similar things to worry about. And finally: would that be any easier?
One Saturday I pulled on my winter coat and went outside to sit on a garden chair I had carried out from the storage shed. I set it down in the heap of leaves inside the picket fence and angled it towards the attic window. Then I sat there staring. The window up there was open and I could hear her playing music, her old LP records from the seventies. The record player that used to be in the living room had disappeared a few days after she had moved. She was singing a strange melody, not at all the same as on the record, with odd words I didn’t understand. Words of different types. As if she was singing in a thousand languages. Maybe she was dancing. She used to do that sometimes while cooking, on the mat in the kitchen. With rolled up trouser legs. I waited for her to see me sitting there, or call for me to come up. But she never looked out.
Later that day, as we were sitting around the dinner table, some of Dad’s friends came over. Mum disappeared quickly as usual, after saying hello and kissing Dad on the mouth. It was Jörgen from Dad’s old job and then Olof and Rickard who he had met during military service. Just as she was heading upstairs she looked at me and there was a flash of something in her eyes, I don’t know what. I opened my mouth to say something, anything. But nothing came out, and she was gone.
Dad’s friends punched Jimmy on the back and greeted me on my way to the sink. Then they sat down at the kitchen table.
– So it’s true what we heard, said Jörgen. That your wife has taken a lover up there in the attic?
Everyone started laughing and Dad took out glasses from the cupboard and laughed too, but I saw that his face was completely stiff. Jimmy, who had stayed put, answered for him.
– Yes, we think she’s doing some voodoo up there, or has a mysterious women’s club.
Which made them laugh even more, and Jörgen turned to me.
– Then you at least should be let in.
His face was reddish, flaky and rough as a stone.
– I don’t want to be in any weird club, I said.
I felt ashamed at once and regretted it, it felt almost like they were laughing at Mum. But they hadn’t noticed what I said.
– You look bloody awful, said Rickard to Dad. Have you caught a virus or something?
Dad sat down at the short end of the table.
– It’s some kind of allergy, he said.
– Maybe you’re allergic to all the housework, said Jörgen and everyone started guffawing again, Jimmy too. He sat next to the window and spun his mobile around with his index finger. Lately I had hardly been able to look at him, his hands had become so big and chunky, just two flabby fins, really, and his face was as coarse as a large pig’s. He probably weighed eighty kilos now, I used to run faster than him, but now I wouldn’t have a chance, he had gained muscle, and his voice just got deeper and deeper every day. He sounded like Dad and the others now. And a few days ago as he passed me the potatoes his hand brushed against mine and I could feel how it was completely moist from sweat and I felt like I was going to puke then, get turned inside out, and then I got different pictures of him in my mind of what he looked like naked, both when he looked like a grown-up and when he was in that yucky in-between stage of down and smirk and dandruff and pimples. Previously he had been smooth just like me, now it was like a lardy thick film had been laid over him. It had happened that we played together when we were younger, of course, and sometimes we had bathed in the same tub. Just the thought of all that could almost make me cry. As if someone would force me to bathe with him now, as if he could climb into the bathtub when I was there without asking me, and what I would do then. A heavy machine of sweat and flesh. He would just grin at me, like he did at everything, and give me an Indian burn until my arm fell off or the skin got ripped to shreds.
When I had done the dishes, I dried my hands on the kitchen towel and left the kitchen. All my homework was finished already, which was a minor miracle. I knew that Dad and his friends would play cards and drink beer all night. Jimmy would probably play computer games as usual. No one would disturb me.
I took out my portable CD player and sat down on the bed. Soon the whole universe was filled by The Cure, not the least sound from the kitchen penetrated the music. I stretched out on the bed with my hands on my tummy and closed my eyes. Started yoga breathing as Mum had taught me and tried to enter that special, almost meditative state I sometimes could end up in when I listened to some specific music. Even before I got sleepy I had fallen asleep.
When I woke up the record was finished. It was past one o’clock. Through the wall I heard that there were still people in the kitchen, even though I knew that Dad was getting up early in the morning to drive to the garage with the car. I had to pee, so I pulled out the earphones and put the CD player on the chest of drawers. When I had peed and brushed my teeth I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Everyone was still there, Jimmy too.
– Hi and hello, said Jörgen when I came in.
I could see they were drunk, since their outlines were kind of vague and Dad was a bit red in the face. The windows were steamy and the table was full of beer cans. I asked idiotically enough what they were doing, with a cheeky voice I didn’t recognize. Everything looked a little blurred, as if I could see all the particles in the air, how they floated slowly around, in and out of all the wet mouths, down in the lungs and then back up and into me.
– We’re sitting here talking about life, pet, said Jörgen.
– Weren’t you going to hang up the laundry, I said to Jimmy. But I was ashamed, felt so proper, just like at school when everybody rolled their eyes at me raising my hand. Jimmy had a beer in front of him, held tightly in his hand.
– Will do it later, he said.
– Jimmy is sitting here to get some words of wisdom from us who’ve been around a while, said Jörgen.
– Some beer too, I see, said I, unable to control myself, as I took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water.
– A little beer can’t be that bad, said Dad. He’ll be eighteen soon, you know.
– He is sixteen, I said.
– And how old are you now? asked Jörgen, a little sluggishly.
– She is thirteen, said Jimmy.
– Oh dear, we’d better behave then, said Jörgen to Olof and nudged him with his elbow.
– I hope you aren’t a spy for Big Sister up there? said Olof.
I began saying that I wasn’t anything, but Dad interrupted me.
– As long as she’s up there, I’m in charge down here, he said. And I don’t think a beer or two is anything to moan about.
– Sure, I said and left the kitchen.
They started laughing again.
Back in my room I lay down on the bed and pulled the duvet up to my chin but knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Couldn’t get Jimmy’s bloody arrogant look out of my head. The one he had when I thought about what had happened, which I didn’t even know anything about, really. The whole school knew more about it than I, since no one ever told me anything. Not even Mum. All of them just looked at me, or looked away. Disconnected pieces were all I had. And I had never been at Danne’s house, where the party had been. There were often parties there, apparently, maybe his parents travelled a lot. But even though I’d never been over at Danne’s, or even at any party at all, I could see the door in front of me. I could see everything, through time and space. I could see through walls. How the living room is full of beer cans, how the windows are steaming up and people are standing everywhere. They’re snogging, and yell to make themselves heard over the music that has blown out the loudspeakers that have started scratching just like Jimmy’s speakers scratch because he never takes care and does whatever he wants to. Some are smoking cigarettes, maybe even indoors. A few are on the veranda. A blonde girl is throwing up in the flowerbed, it looks like bloody chunks. But I turn my eyes away and force them to look upwards, towards the door on the top floor. Up there everything is quiet, the door to the bedroom is that to the right of the staircase, painted white. It is ajar. The music from the apartment below is subdued and sounds hollow and wailing, as if played backwards. The corridor light falls into the darkened room, the double bed is made, but the coverlet is crumpled and pulled down from the pillows. And there lies Klara. Sleeping, in the middle of the light cone from the door. As if she has gone up to rest, to get away from everybody for a while. Maybe she has fought with Madde, otherwise they would have been together, as they always were at school. But Klara had probably got so drunk that she had gone to bed. Everyone in school said that Klara loved to party. That Klara would always “pass out.” Her face is turned away, it’s hard for me to see her properly. I can see through all other walls but not through these, here I can only see the crack, and my eyes lose their foothold into the darkness at the sides. Klara is lying there, and her long hair has spilled out across the bed. It disappears down into the fold of the coverlet, making it look extremely long, and reaches down over the sides of the bed. Klara is the prettiest of all the girls in the whole school, even when she has passed out she is more beautiful than all of them as she is lying in the light falling in from the corridor. But it’s so dark in the corners of the room. A darkness that swells and shrinks back but grows a little bigger all the time. It takes over everything. And then it is like everything disappears for me, kind of sinks a bit farther away in my field of vision. The stripe of light from the door wobbles, someone has walked past. Something moves in the blackness. The light is broken again. There is someone else in the room.
Maybe they did it for the fun of it, I don’t know. I can just see a large hand pulling up her dress and then I can’t see anything more, the light starts flickering and fluttering and becomes all grainy until I have to look away, and then the whole picture disappears. But I know that Jimmy was there. I know it, because in science class I heard Mikaela tell Linnea that Madde had said that Klara had told it to the police. Before she withdrew her report, she said to the police that Jimmy and Danne and Robin and Ante had been inside there. Even though she was so drunk that she was asleep, she had noticed them being there. And maybe she had seen Jimmy’s grin, his idiotic bloody expression, maybe that’s what she had seen then. The same as he had in the kitchen now, as if nothing had happened. Nothing at all.
And out there sat Jimmy and Dad and Olof and Jörgen and Rickard laughing. I could hear it all the way to my room. Perhaps Mum heard them too, or maybe she was sleeping, it didn’t matter much anymore, because she didn’t do anything, just let them laugh as they pleased.
After maybe twenty minutes I heard the kitchen chairs scraping against the floor. Shortly afterwards Jörgen and the others were walking on the street past my window, their voices getting lower and lower until they finally disappeared. And then there was silence for a while. Nobody went to the toilet to brush his teeth, both Dad and Jimmy remained in the kitchen. I saw them while looking straight through the walls, they spoke quietly with one another, excited, bombastic. But I couldn’t make out anything they said, I just saw them, how they sat closely together, striking their beer cans together in a toast before gulping down the rest. A few minutes later the entrance door opened and closed. I sat upright on the bed, switched off the bedside lamp to be able to see outside in the dark. It was Jimmy, on his way to the garden shed. I saw the door resist a little when he pulled the handle, like it used to in winter when the ground frost forced the threshold upwards. He jerked it open and disappeared inside. After a while he came out again with something narrow and oblong in his hand. I went to the window and looked out from behind the curtain, but couldn’t see what it was. He got into the house again and I heard him and Dad talking, but not what they said. They laughed a little, and one of them hushed the other.
It got quiet again. Then I heard the stairs creaking. Suddenly I understood. It was the crowbar. They wanted to enter the room.
I almost ran to the door, felt that I had to stop them. But I halted. What did it matter if they forced that door open? They only wanted to have some fun with Mum. It’s just for the fun of it.
But a strange light shone inside me. And I knew that just shouting wouldn’t do. To stop them I had to take the crowbar from them with my own hands. That was the only way.
So I opened the door and entered the corridor, but as I started running upstairs, I heard how they, with a sound that resembled a tormented animal, bent open the door and shouted something to Mum. I froze in the middle of my movement. Suddenly everything fell completely silent. Something ice-cold ran slowly through my body. I could feel it as it found its way through my throat, down my stomach, out to the sides and down over my thighs till it gathered in my knees in two whirls. Then I heard someone crying.
It gained strength, she wailed and almost started howling, no, not howling, it sounded hollower. Long, moaning sounds from the depths of a body. They grew louder, so loud that I didn’t even hear Dad and Jimmy returning down the stairs. They said nothing when they passed me where I was still standing, ready to run. Their eyes looked completely empty as they disappeared to their rooms, but I remained standing without going upstairs to comfort her.
The day after I woke up late, remained in bed for a moment, listening. Dust moved in dreamlike patterns above my face. The house was quiet. I went upstairs, fumbling. It felt so empty everywhere. The door to Jimmy’s room was open. The bed wasn’t made.
The stairs to the attic were dim, the wood of the worn-down steps felt smooth against my feet. I went as soundlessly as I could, halfway up I saw the attic room door standing ajar. Clear marks of the crowbar. Broken-up bright wounds in the door frame. The light streamed out onto my feet.
I pushed open the door.
That she had managed to tidy up so much was incredible. I remembered the room as being crammed, dark and filthy. Dirt-encrusted windows, a thick layer of dust on heavy rubbish bags and long-forgotten furniture. But now it looked like any other room, smelled weakly of citrus, wood and incense. Between two purple lengths of curtain the mild winter light fell onto a desk full of books. In the middle stood a gleaming typewriter with an empty sheet of paper. The folding bed was made, and on the floor next to it was a glass half-full of water. A few thin, downy strands of hair had fastened to the sides of the glass, the water was a little dusty. I took a few steps that way, but stopped again. A sound, like a thump. Or a hollow note struck somewhere in the house, dampened by the journey through the walls but reaching me at the exact moment I stopped. I stood in silence, listening. The distant rattle of a magpie outside the window. Nothing else. It was colder up here, and I was barefoot on the wooden floor. A few centimetres from my toes I saw that someone had drawn a white crayon line that disappeared under the red oriental rug on the floor in front of me. My hand trembled slightly as I hid it behind my back. I was right at the edge now, of something. Very slowly, as if not to show it, I opened my mouth a little. The rest of my body was still, which was decisive. I made the sign with a quick movement of my hand next to the spine, it was hardly visible. The intense concentration made the skin of my face tighten across my forehead and temples. I said the word very quietly, almost inaudibly, and very calmly, in almost complete silence. Even so, it would probably be heard. Then I took the first counter-clockwise steps of the circle. When I was ready I halted. My whole body felt numb, my eyes looking around, searching. But nothing happened. Not even the magpie could be heard now. I turned around to leave. But halfway out of the room I could see a billowing movement in the corner of my eye. It came from the floor, behind the curtain of the nearest window. As if something had been sitting there for a while, but now was on its way out.
His heart suddenly flipped over in his chest. “Just like a carp in the kitchen sink,” Grigory Katz thought. To calm himself down, he stuck his nose into his scarf and breathed in his own warm air for a few seconds. Then he began to watch the tracks where a train ought to appear, but it was late and instead he ended up watching, like an eager child, another train pulling up to the next platform. Since he was untroubled by the trifling concerns of passengers, Katz was already enjoying the sight of that other train slithering along like a gray snake, adroitly swerving like mercury around the bend and then pulling up to the platform with inexorable stately majesty, like a wave, and just like a wave — iridescent — the lights of Tel Aviv were reflected on it. The train was gone, but Grigory Katz’s curiosity, like a warm wasp, had awakened and hung in the air, quivering, somewhere to the side, and then, with a sense of relief finally descended into someone’s bag. Katz saw a man’s swarthy hands groping around for something in the bag, then taking out a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush and putting them into a backpack. This was clearly well thought-out beforehand: the man had already known where the bag would be and that the backpack was close by, and for some reason Katz felt contented to be privy to the other person’s minor logistical considerations. The young man looked like an Indian. What awaited him today — a night in a stranger’s house, a stay in a hostel or a night flight? No matter what it was, Katz knew that there would be people and places the fellow didn’t know, and it would take place just before night fall, which concerned and agitated the man slightly; Katz envied his anxiety, and he happily and tenderly imagined the other man’s evening. But then he immediately felt sad. He was like a stray dog that walked alongside people, taking a few steps with everyone who went by. When will I finally have a home? He did have a home, but after the loss of his daughter and the death of his wife, for some reason he constantly forgot it.
But he had something better. He had the street. He now looked at the poor and homeless in a different way. He recalled hearing that some of them stubbornly refused to go into the warmth, to sleep with a roof over their heads, and now he understood that some of them felt more comfortable on the street. He couldn’t decide if grief had made him hard, or if a slice of life had been revealed to him — truly opened to him — and so it no longer seemed as dreadful as it had in the past. Now when he saw a homeless person on a bench, he saw in this unremarkable form a person whose kettle was just about to come to a boil on the stove. And sometimes he was right. Maybe not about the kettle, but look, for example, at the two men playing chess with a plastic cup instead of a queen. Next to them a bottle of cola, half-drunk, stood on an old advertisement. Now Katz never agonized over whether or not to give a hand-out. He could grope around in his pockets for a long time, looking for the exact coin he wanted to give, and then secret the rest of his money back in his pocket without being embarrassed. Did he feel like one of them, was the street his home? Of course not. Katz loved warmth and comfort, but it was on the street that he was able to have his “rooms” — that’s what he called the small but perceptible spaces that sometimes appeared during his brief contact with strangers.
His housing — a clean little corner apartment in a freshly built house that he moved into after his wife’s death — had frozen and turned into something ethereal and transparent. The plastic drop cloths that he had left up after the walls were whitewashed certainly added to the apartment’s unsubstantial aura, but there were more tangible signs. From time to time the apartment gave up to him its airy fauna: pale lice, ants with rickets (both of them were weak, semi-transparent). There were completely extraordinary little spiders with bead-like bodies and the most delicate, awkward legs — he was terrified of hitting them with his mop. Sometimes he found their fragile, white cocoons in the corner. Then ethereal flora appeared. In the sink where he once washed his clay-covered boots with reckless bachelor abandon, a tiny lavender flower on a white stem grew out of the drain, and next to it another one sprung up, this one with a bud curled inward, like a large-headed fetus. Perhaps all of those creatures were waiting for him to buy a lampshade to cover the bare lightbulb, and then, in soft interior lighting, they’d warm up, take on whatever it was they should have had — fuzzy legs, whiskers, or pigmentation for heaven’s sake… But Grigory Katz didn’t buy a lampshade. He quickly walked down the bare winter street that smelled of porridge, then of rubber, and then for some reason of magic markers, and he stopped at the crosswalk; on the other side of the street a woman waited at the crosswalk just like him, and then they were walking in opposite directions across the black and white stripes, and their movement toward each other had an extraordinary painterly quality, a kind of symmetry fraught with meaning, and Katz lost heart and wanted to shamble along clumsily to shake off the solemnity of the movement, but he didn’t give in to it and passed her without speeding up or looking at her, sensing how a room took shape: an entire life lived with that woman — the room hung over the intersection… but like an architect testing the durability and beauty of a structure, he walked down the sidewalk and strode on, led by the beacon of a yellow orange in the mesh pocket of a big strapping fellow, but then he immediately forgot about it because the shawarma vendor had put speakers on the street playing whooping and hooting, and Katz had already become a gangster crossing Harlem at night: he did the first take, and that very first take was a good one — he could tell — and walked along under the gaze of the cameramen and make-up artists, walked across dozens of monitors, walked, slouched and bounced along, and he forgot that he had meant to sit at a table and have a bite to eat, but it was too late – he’d already moved on, he never ate on the set, the king of hip-hop needed a light empty stomach so no shawarma for him now — and then he’d gone by, it was history now.
He loved being outside his house more and more and began to live only in his street “rooms.” He stretched out his walks when he had somewhere to go, and if he had nowhere to go, he organized fake forays on errands with meticulously invented legends. But no one asked him about them, and no one had any intention of catching him in the act. But most important — and this was amazing — his morbid, insatiable curiosity went absolutely unpunished. People didn’t notice his attentive gaze, probably because his body’s overall benign contour was immediately perceived as non-threatening. That was certainly true, but for some reason he still felt like he was a scout on reconnaissance, or maybe — however embarrassing to admit — a secret agent. Someone whose life was in danger because “he knew too much.”
Because, actually, he did know too much. All he had to do was get on the tram and he already knew about the love between the tall, gray-haired man and the older woman sitting up front. When they got off and a student carrying a cardboard portfolio sat in their place, Katz again somehow knew that this boy, an artist, was, unfortunately, completely without talent. “Why is he without talent?” he asked himself sternly. “How can you say that, off the top of your head?” “I can,” someone very calm and merciless replied, and deigned to explain. “His portfolio is too thin. The boy is a slacker. And on top of it, he doesn’t have drive.” (The artist thoughtfully itched his long neck which had a boil coming to a head at the spot where the chain of his feeble, scrawny vertebrae began.) “Go on, take a good look,” the same merciless voice said to Katz, indicating the boil as if it were incontrovertible proof of mediocrity. “Look! What did I tell you?!”
Katz suspected that his grief was to blame for all this. It was his grief that gave him this stern new way of seeing, this new person to talk to, whom he both loved and hated. If he turned that gaze on his wife or daughter, what would he have seen? Would he have begun to loathe them or would he have loved them even more? Suddenly he wanted to look there, into the past, using his new lens. He squinted, expecting to see at least something that would tug at the edge of memory, like pulling the corner of a silk scarf.
He recalled, of course, some bit of nonsense. He remembered blindly groping in her handbag. (She had asked him to get money to pay the gas bill — her hands were covered with flour.) He was amazed by the black sateen lining. He recalled the handbags of his mother and grandmother from his childhood, after the war, with red satin or dark blue velvet mouths exhaling warm breath that smelled of the theater. His wife’s handbag — actually not a handbag but a shoulder bag, to be exact — was spacious and empty. He groped around until he found her wallet and one other thing, which surprised his blind hand. It was a vial — a glass pyramid. He held the vial in his hand, it was a perfume bottle, probably French. The black obelisk shimmered wickedly and seemed to have been specially made to be awkward — no matter how you turned it, it wouldn’t lie in your hand. He said, it seems, to his wife then, “This thing — you could kill someone with it. Do you really carry it around with you?” “That’s why I carry it,” his wife laughed, “For self-defense.” But his mother and grandmother never carried perfume in their purses. They stood in front of the mirror and tapped out several drops onto a handkerchief. But it would have been stupid to tell her that; fashions change. Now that he thought of it, how did it smell, her perfume? He couldn’t remember. She never put on perfume at home in front of the mirror. She put it on somewhere else, at work. In the cloakroom? The ladies’ room? Where? And for whom, by the way? Should he try to direct his new gaze on the black pyramid, screaming at it soundlessly “Attack!”? But he didn’t want to. He wanted to remember how pleasantly squat the base of the bottle was, how he peered at the glass in the ashy half-light. And his heart flipped over again and he thought, “like a carp,” and realized the similarity: although the heart beats constantly, we don’t notice it, but when we do, we get scared, as if it were bad to be beating, although it’s the opposite — it’s a good thing. Those carp were called “live fish,” but they were dead, and everyone knew that they were dead, and that’s why people were scared when a fish flipped over — it was unexpectedly alive and it frightened them. He leaned against the wall, unwinding his scarf, and, smiling, remembering how the carp slapped his tail and grandmother and mother squealed and jumped back from the sink.
His father was now his mother but he was still an epic asshole.
“He won’t even let me get a tattoo,” Josh said. “He gets his whole dick cut off and he won’t even let me get a tattoo.”
Josh hated being forced to sit here at family therapy every week, the therapist and his parents waiting for him to miraculously be okay with the fact that his asshole father was now his asshole second mother or something. What a freak show.
“Call me Goat Boy,” Josh said. “From this day forth, my name is Goat Boy. If he can change from a man to a woman, from Joe to Heidi, then I can do the same. I am officially changing my name to Goat Boy and my gender to half goat, half boy.”
“I’m not paying good money for you to mutilate your body with tattoos like all the other losers,” Heidi said.
“But you can mutilate your body and we’re supposed to be all happy for you,” Josh said.
“We’re not here to talk about tattoos, Josh.” “Goat Boy.”
“There’s no such thing. But there is such a thing as a woman born into a man’s body. We’ve been through this. You’re fourteen, not some baby,” said Heidi. She patted and stroked her long hair as she talked.
He looks stupid patting his hair like that. He stinks at this. Josh pictured Ashlee in his Spanish class, the sexy way she tugged on her ponytail when she smiled at him. Now that was how a real girl handled her hair. He felt an immediate erection rise up and gathered his coat over his lap to cover it.
“Maa-maa. Maa-maa. Goat Boy is bleating,” Josh said.
“Knock it off, Josh,” said his mother, Sue Ann. “It’s not easy for me either but you don’t see me bleating.”
“Maa-maa, I was born into a goat body and you’ll just have to accept me as I am,” Josh said. “If I have to accept him as a she-male, he has to accept me as a goat boy. Maa-maa.”
“She-male is not an acceptable way to describe Heidi, Josh,” the therapist said.
“Josh is not an acceptable way to address Goat Boy,” Josh said. “Heidi is still the same person,” the therapist said. “I’d like you to try something, Josh. Just for a minute. Turn your whole body toward Heidi and look her right in the eyes.”
Josh turned his whole body to face his father. He looked him right in the eyes and held his gaze for a full minute, forcing himself to wait before he spoke.
He felt sick at what he saw. He wasn’t used to it at all, even though his father had started dressing like a woman months before his surgeries. It was still disgusting and wrong and ugly. His father had been a regular looking man, kind of nerdy, with square glasses and a normal dad haircut. He had been a skinny guy, clean-shaven always. He said he couldn’t stand the scruffy look that so many movie stars and singers had. They look dirty with that stubble on their faces, he had said. Look at that bum, why would it be a fashion to look like a dirty bum.
Now Josh saw the strangest man when he looked at his father. Puffy face. Long straight blonde hair. Red lipstick! Eyes ringed with brown eyeliner, fluttering long eyelashes. Contact lenses instead of glasses. He didn’t know how to dress like a woman. Nothing fit him right. His blouse was all bunchy and his skirt started way high above his waist and hung below his knees, like it belonged on an old nun. To Josh, he looked like he was in a cheap Halloween costume or like he was one of those gross female impersonator guys in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade strutting down the street with big red lips and a ruffled umbrella. He was a fake woman with fake breasts and a fake vagina and nothing would change that.
There was a family story about the first time Josh saw his dad’s penis, but Josh was too young to actually remember. He had heard his mom tell the story to girlfriends cackling around the kitchen table and to tipsy aunts at family parties. His dad had been trying to teach Josh to pee in the toilet while standing up. Toddler Josh looked at his dad’s penis, pointed to it, and said one of the few words he knew, “big.” Josh wished he didn’t have a picture of that story in his mind. He would give anything to be able to take a penknife to his brain and cut it away.
Josh saw an eager look on his dad’s face, like he was waiting to hear a compliment. Like he actually thought Josh would be one molecule of okay with this. Fuck that shit.
“Hey Dad, how are you doing in there? You can come out now. Admit it was all a crazy mistake. Take off the makeup and stockings, chop off that hair, stop taking hormones because that’s a losing battle. Hate to break it to you, Dad, but you still look like a dude. Your big feet and hands—dead giveaway. What are you going to do—chop them off too? I don’t think so. Period, end of story,” Josh said.
His dad looked away, his face reddening. Josh felt his heart thumping like a drummer was flailing wildly around on his rib cage. He wanted to ask his mother if she was going to stay married to this asshole. Did she even want to be married to a woman? She didn’t sign up for this. Poor Mom.
“Can we wrap this up?” Sue Ann said. “I’ve had about as much of this as I can take for one day.”
“We have ten more minutes on the clock,” Heidi said.
“Un. Fucking. Believable. He wants to get his money’s worth,” Josh said.
“Why do you let him dominate these sessions?” Heidi said to the therapist. “It’s outrageous. Everything is not about him.”
“I said I’m done, Joe,” Sue Ann said. “I mean Heidi.” It was the same voice she used to order Josh and the farm animals around. No nonsense.
Josh loved when his mom cracked. When she called him Joe. When she said “my husband.” It meant he wasn’t the only one who looked at Heidi and still saw Joe in there.
“I have my own money,” Josh said. “I’m getting a tattoo with my own money.”
In the front seat of the truck, his parents exchanged a look. It was too fast. He couldn’t tell what was going on up there.
“It’s not about the money,” Sue Ann said. “We don’t want you to do something you’ll be sorry about later in life.”
“Like you never did that.”
“Yeah, we did stupid shit, Josh,” Sue Ann said. “So we feel like that’s our job, to save you from doing stupid shit, all right? Enough. Get off it.”
Josh felt a rage so huge he wanted to pound his fists against the truck windows and break out of there like Superman, roar out into the corn fields and knock down everything in his path—barns, cows, fences, tractors—smash it all down.
“I hate you,” he cried. “You suck. I don’t know why I was even born. Do you know what kind of shit I have to endure every day of my life, having a she-male for a father? Do you know what happens to me at school every day? Anyone else would have blown their brains out by now. And all I ask is one thing. I want a fucking tattoo on my arm. And I am getting one, no matter what you say or do. If I have to go to an illegal place where they don’t ask for the stinking permission form because I’m underage, I will. And if I die from an infection because you made me go to a butcher tattoo shop, that’s fine. I’ll be better off dead anyway.”
His parents looked at each other again. They did that thing married people do, talk with their eyes. Josh hated when they did that. It wasn’t fair to send thoughts to each other instead of having to say them out loud so he could hear.
Finally Sue Ann said, “We said get off it, Josh.” But her voice wavered and Josh knew that meant his parents were weakening.
“All you care about is yourselves. You don’t even care what I go through. I have a right to my own life. I have a right to get a tattoo. It’s my body. Luke got a tattoo when he was eleven. Stevie got his first one when he was twelve and now he has like ten of them all over him. All my friends have tattoos. I’m the only one without one.” He wasn’t going to bring up Ashlee, who had a purple rose tattoo on her lower back and a pierced belly button.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Heidi said finally. She still drove like a guy, one arm draped over the top of the steering wheel.
“There is no later,” Josh said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sue Ann said.
“I’m doing it this weekend. Or else.”
“You don’t speak to us like that,” Sue Ann said. “You don’t tell us what to do and when.” But she didn’t sound like herself. She sounded like a new mom, who was not quite sure of what she was supposed to say. His normal mom was a bellower. When she yelled at you, you moved. She got lots of practice yelling at the cows, who were good at getting out of the pasture and milling around in the middle of the road. When she yelled at the pigs, they jerked around and followed her.
“I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you what I’m going to do. This weekend.”
Everything Josh had said about school was a lie. His friends were great. They said the right thing when they heard about his dad. They said they were sorry. It was like a dad dying, wasn’t it? Like what you say to a guy whose dad dies. Sorry for your loss.
Just one guy gave him a hard time. Bernardo wanted to be a film-maker and he would not shut up about making a documentary about Joe/Heidi. Every time Josh saw Bernardo coming, he ran. He was sick of hearing how important the film project was, how it would go viral, how Josh would be famous for having a tranny dad. He hated the stupid questions Bernardo kept asking. What exactly did they do with his dick after they cut it off? Does he keep it in a jar like my uncle’s kidney stones? Is he a lesbian now, because he’s still married to your mom? Bernardo said, Don’t you see, it’s like a story of America, here in lower Delaware, all these farms and shit, and there’s your dad, walking in a corn field with her long blond hair blowing in the wind, no city around him to protect him, nobody else like him.
His friends said they would lean on Bernardo to shut him up, if Josh wanted. But Josh said no. He was trying to keep a low profile. If he got in trouble at school, those fucking family therapy sessions might go on forever.
The tattoo guy was a girl. Josh didn’t expect that. She was covered with tattoos herself, her arms and legs a sea of colors and pictures. She looked like a cartoon that you wanted to read, with a story line that led you up one arm and down her back, down her leg and up her other arm.
She barely glanced at his forged permission form and didn’t even ask him for i.d. Josh could not believe his good luck. He actually thought they would throw him right out the front door and tell him to come back in a few years.
She didn’t look directly at him, but gestured for him to sit down in her chair and stood over him silently.
“I want a real big one,” he said. He pulled out a picture of a huge bull with red angry eyes and black flared nostrils. It was an intricate beautiful design, with curly plumes of smoke coming out of the bull’s nose and his legs kicking up in the air. “On my right arm. Like I want his tail to end up in my armpit and the rest of him all over my whole arm. And when I move my arm, can it look like the bull is pawing on the ground?”
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “I knew it. I knew someone would ask for something really, really hard on my first day. I might as well quit right now. I’m sorry, man.” Her face scrunched up and her eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask for something hard,” Josh said.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. Everything I touch turns to total crap. I try so hard,” she cried.
Josh felt totally helpless. He didn’t know what to do or say to make her stop. He stood up.
“It’s okay. I don’t even need it. I can go,” Josh said.
“No. No. No,” she said. “I have to do this. I can’t keep fucking up my whole entire useless life.”
“Are you sure? I’m cool with not doing it. I swear,” Josh said. “Fake it till you make it. Fake it till you make it,” she chanted under her breath. Her hands shook as she groped for her tattoo gun. Josh turned around, reached out, and touched her hand with one finger. He was trying to settle her down, the way he laid his hands softly on the farm animals when they were scared. When it was time to inseminate the heifers, he was the one who stroked their backs to keep them calm and held the tail up in the air while his mom reached deep inside them to thread the insemination rod into the uterus and pump the bull semen in. He had the magic touch, his mom said.
The tattoo girl still didn’t look him in the eyes but she opened her palm and took his hand, breathing heavily like she was trying to catch her breath. She held on tight, like she was bobbing in choppy water and he was her lifeline.
He was so happy holding her hand. He had forgotten what happy felt like. It was like he just ate a warm, oozy brownie where the taste stayed in his mouth and filled him up everywhere. It was like waking up after a wonderful dream where a girl put her mouth right on his penis and her soft long hair fell all over his naked body. Wow.
The tattoo girl whispered, “You’re a good guy, you know that? Thanks for being so super nice to me.”
“It’s nothing. Everyone should always be nice to you all the time. Don’t even worry about it. You won’t be nervous forever. It’s only your first day,” Josh said.
“Come here, you,” she said, pulling him close. She hugged him so fiercely and for so long that he almost fainted with pleasure. She smelled so incredibly good. “Let’s try again. I think I’m ready now.” Josh smiled and sat down in her tattoo chair. He took off his shirt, hoping he didn’t smell of cows or sweat. She studied his picture, made a stencil of the bull, then wiped his arm and armpit with rubbing alcohol. The gentle way she swabbed him down and the feel of her hands on him were so wonderful that he had to stop himself from laughing out loud.
When the first stab of the needle in the tattoo gun landed under his armpit, Josh cried out in shock. It felt like the needle reached all the way to his bone, like she was stabbing him with a jagged knife, ripping him open. Was this normal? Or was he a baby who couldn’t stand a little pain?
She continued, panting a little and murmuring under her breath, like she was remembering the steps and repeating them to herself. She stabbed so hard and so fast, Josh couldn’t even find words to stop her. The pain paralyzed him. Finally his nose started gushing blood and he vomited and fainted almost at the exact same time. As he slid from the chair to the floor, he saw the air turn a gorgeous shimmering green all around him. Isn’t that amazing, there’s all this green hidden under the air, was his last thought before blacking out.
Someday he would tell his wife about the first woman who got under his skin. He would describe it all—the bull, the green cloud that enveloped him, the ink that remained under his armpit in a trail that went nowhere. How that was the moment he knew his childhood was over. He would tell his wife he was born into his manhood covered with blood and vomit and paralyzed by pain. Try having a baby claw its way out of you and then we’ll talk, she would say, laughing.
When Josh woke up in the emergency room and saw two faces looming over him, his first thought was, Who’s that lady with my mom? Then he saw Heidi reach her long, hairy arm with her big man’s hands around his mom’s shoulder and he knew. He closed his eyes again, but he could feel her there, waiting.
*This story was published in: Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson, Autumn House Press, 2016.
*Copyright © 2016 by Kathy Anderson.
*Image: Alon Braier
On the third day after they moved to the country he came walking back from the village carrying a basket of groceries and a twenty-four-yard coil of rope. She came out to meet him, wiping her hands on her green smock. Her hair was tumbled, her nose was scarlet with sunburn; he told her that already she looked like a born country woman. His gray flannel shirt stuck to him, his heavy shoes were dusty. She assured him he looked like a rural character in a play.
Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.
Gosh, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough. Suppose they ran out of cigarettes? Then she saw the rope. What was that for? Well, he thought it might do to hang clothes on, or something. Naturally she asked him if he thought they were going to run a laundry? They already had a fifty-foot line hanging right before his eyes? Why, hadn’t he noticed it, really? It was a blot on the landscape to her.
He thought there were a lot of things a rope might come in handy for. She wanted to know what, for instance. He thought a few seconds, but nothing occurred. They could wait and see, couldn’t they? You need all sorts of strange odds and ends around a place in the country. She said, yes, that was so; but she thought just at that time when every penny counted, it seemed funny to buy more rope. That was all. She hadn’t meant anything else. She hadn’t just seen, not at first, why he felt it was necessary.
Well, thunder, he had bought it because he wanted to, and that was all there was to it. She thought that was reason enough, and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t said so, at first. Undoubtedly it would be useful, twenty-four yards of rope, there were hundreds of things, she couldn’t think of any at the moment, but it would come in. Of course. As he had said, things always did in the country.
But she was a little disappointed about the coffee, and oh, look, look, look at the eggs! Oh, my, they’re all running! What had he put on top of them? Hadn’t he known eggs mustn’t be squeezed? Squeezed, who had squeezed them, he wanted to know. What a silly thing to say. He had simply brought them along in the basket with the other things. If they got broke it was the grocer’s fault. He should know better than to put heavy things on top of eggs.
She believed it was the rope. That was the heaviest thing in the pack, she saw him plainly when he came in from the road, the rope was a big package on top of everything. He desired the whole wide world to witness that this was not a fact. He had carried the rope in one hand and the basket in the other, and what was the use of her having eyes if that was the best they could do for her?
Well, anyhow, she could see one thing plain: no eggs for breakfast. They’d have to scramble them now, for supper. It was too damned bad. She had planned to have steak for supper. No ice, meat wouldn’t keep. He wanted to know why she couldn’t finish breaking the eggs in a bowl and set them in a cool place.
Cool place! If he could find one for her, she’d be glad to set them there. Well, then, it seemed to him they might very well cook the meat at the same time they cooked the eggs and then warm up the meat for tomorrow. The idea simply choked her. Warmed-over meat, when they might as well have had it fresh. Second best and scraps and makeshifts, even to the meat! He rubbed her shoulder a little. It doesn’t really matter so much, does it, darling? Sometimes when they were playful, he would rub her shoulder and she would arch and purr. This time she hissed and almost clawed. He was getting ready to say that they could surely manage somehow when she turned on him and said, if he told her they could manage somehow she would certainly slap his face.
He swallowed the words red hot, his face burned. He picked up the rope and started to put it on the top shelf. She would not have it on the top shelf, the jars and tins belonged there; positively she would not have the top shelf cluttered up with a lot of rope. She had borne all the clutter she meant to bear in the flat in town, there was space here at least and she meant to keep things in order.
Well, in that case, he wanted to know what the hammer and nails were doing up there? And why had she put them there when she knew very well he needed that hammer and those nails upstairs to fix the window sashes? She simply slowed down everything and made double work on the place with her insane habit of changing things around and hiding them.
She was sure she begged his pardon, and if she had had any reason to believe he was going to fix the sashes this summer she would have left the hammer and nails right where he put them; in the middle of the bedroom floor where they could step on them in the dark. And now if he didn’t clear the whole mess out of there she would throw them down the well.
Oh, all right, all right – could he put them in the closet? Naturally not, there were brooms and mops and dustpans in the closet, and why couldn’t he find a place for his rope outside her kitchen? Had he stopped to consider there were seven God-forsaken rooms in the house, and only one kitchen?
He wanted to know what of it? And did she realize she was making a complete fool of herself? And what did she take him for, a three-year-old idiot? The whole trouble with her was she needed something weaker than she was to heckle and tyrannize over. He wished to God now they had a couple of children she could take it out on. Maybe he’d get some rest.
Her face changed at this, she reminded him he had forgot the coffee and had bought a worthless piece of rope. And when she thought of all the things they actually needed to make the place even decently fit to live in, well, she could cry, that was all. She looked so forlorn, so lost and despairing he couldn’t believe it was only a piece of rope that was causing all the racket. What was the matter, for God’s sake?
Oh, would he please hush and go away, and stay away, if he could, for five minutes? By all means, yes, he would. He’d stay away indefinitely if she wished. Lord, yes, there was nothing he’d like better than to clear out and never come back. She couldn’t for the life of her see what was holding him, then. It was a swell time. Here she was, stuck, miles from a railroad, with a half-empty house on her hands, and not a penny in her pocket, and everything on earth to do; it seemed the God-sent moment for him to get out from under. She was surprised he hadn’t stayed in town as it was until she had come out and done the work and got things straightened out. It was his usual trick.
It appeared to him that this was going a little far. Just a touch out of bounds, if she didn’t mind his saying so. Why the hell had he stayed in town the summer before? To do a half-dozen extra jobs to get the money he had sent her. That was it. She knew perfectly well they couldn’t have done it otherwise. She had agreed with him at the time. And that was the only time so help him he had ever left her to do anything by herself.
Oh, he could tell that to his great-grandmother. She had her notion of what had kept him in town. Considerably more than a notion, if he wanted to know. So, she was going to bring all that up again, was she? Well, she could just think what she pleased. He was tired of explaining. It may have looked funny but he had simply got hooked in, and what could he do? It was impossible to believe that she was going to take it seriously. Yes, yes, she knew how it was with a man: if he was left by himself a minute, some woman was certain to kidnap him. And naturally he couldn’t hurt her feelings by refusing!
Well, what was she raving about? Did she forget she had told him those two weeks alone in the country were the happiest she had known for four years? And how long had they been married when she said that? All right, shut up! If she thought that hadn’t stuck in his craw.
She hadn’t meant she was happy because she was away from him. She meant she was happy getting the devilish house nice and ready for him. That was what she had meant, and now look! Bringing up something she had said a year ago simply to justify himself for forgetting her coffee and breaking the eggs and buying a wretched piece of rope they couldn’t afford. She really thought it was time to drop the subject, and now she wanted only two things in the world. She wanted him to get that rope from underfoot, and go back to the village and get her coffee, and if he could remember it, he might bring a metal mitt for the skillets, and two more curtain rods, and if there were any rubber gloves in the village, her hands were simply raw, and a bottle of milk of magnesia from the drugstore.
He looked out at the dark blue afternoon sweltering on the slopes, and mopped his forehead and sighed heavily and said, if only she could wait a minute for anything, he was going back. He had said so, hadn’t he, the very instant they found he had overlooked it?
Oh, yes, well . . . run along. She was going to wash windows. The country was so beautiful! She doubted they’d have a moment to enjoy it. He meant to go, but he could not until he had said that if she wasn’t such a hopeless melancholiac she might see that this was only for a few days. Couldn’t she remember anything pleasant about the other summers? Hadn’t they ever had any fun? She hadn’t time to talk about it, and now would he please not leave that rope lying around for her to trip on? He picked it up, somehow it had toppled off the table, and walked out with it under his arm.
Was he going this minute? He certainly was. She thought so. Sometimes it seemed to her he had second sight about the precisely perfect moment to leave her ditched. She had meant to put the mattresses out to sun, if they put them out this minute they would get at least three hours, he must have heard her say that morning she meant to put them out. So of course he would walk off and leave her to it. She supposed he thought the exercise would do her good.
Well, he was merely going to get her coffee. A four-mile walk for two pounds of coffee was ridiculous, but he was perfectly willing to do it. The habit was making a wreck of her, but if she wanted to wreck herself there was nothing he could do about it. If he thought it was coffee that was making a wreck of her, she congratulated him: he must have a damned easy conscience.
Conscience or no conscience, he didn’t see why the mattresses couldn’t very well wait until tomorrow. And anyhow, for God’s sake, were they living in the house, or were they going to let the house ride them to death? She paled at this, her face grew livid about the mouth, she looked quite dangerous, and reminded him that housekeeping was no more her work than it was his: she had other work to do as well, and when did he think she was going to find time to do it at this rate?
Was she going to start on that again? She knew as well as he did that his work brought in the regular money, hers was only occasional, if they depended on what she made – and she might as well get straight on this question once for all!
That was positively not the point. The question was, when both of them were working on their own time, was there going to be a division of the housework, or wasn’t there? She merely wanted to know, she had to make her plans. Why, he thought that was all arranged. It was understood that he was to help. Hadn’t he always, in summers?
Hadn’t he, though? Oh, just hadn’t he? And when, and where, and doing what? Lord, what an uproarious joke!
It was such a very uproarious joke that her face turned slightly purple, and she screamed with laughter. She laughed so hard she had to sit down, and finally a rush of tears spurted from her eyes and poured down into the lifted corners of her mouth. He dashed towards her and dragged her up to her feet and tried to pour water on her head. The dipper hung by a string on a nail and he broke it loose. Then he tried to pump water with one hand while she struggled in the other. So he gave it up and shook her instead.
She wrenched away, crying out for him to take his rope and go to hell, she had simply given him up: and ran. He heard her high-heeled bedroom slippers clattering and stumbling on the stairs.
He went out around the house and into the lane; he suddenly realized he had a blister on his heel and his shirt felt as if it were on fire. Things broke so suddenly you didn’t know where you were. She could work herself into a fury about simply nothing. She was terrible, damn it: not an ounce of reason. You might as well talk to a sieve as that woman when she got going. Damned if he’d spend his life humoring her! Well, what to do now? He would take back the rope and exchange it for something else. Things accumulated, things were mountainous, you couldn’t move them or sort them out or get rid of them. They just lay and rotted around. He’d take it back. Hell, why should he? He wanted it. What was it anyhow? A piece of rope. Imagine anybody caring more about a piece of rope than about a man’s feelings. What earthly right had she to say a word about it? He remembered all the useless, meaningless things she bought for herself: Why? because I wanted it, that’s why! He stopped and selected a large stone by the road. He would put the rope behind it. He would put it in the tool-box when he got back. He’d heard enough about it to last him a life-time.
When he came back she was leaning against the post box beside the road waiting. It was pretty late, the smell of broiled steak floated nose high in the cooling air. Her face was young and smooth and fresh-looking. Her unmanageable funny black hair was all on end. She waved to him from a distance, and he speeded up. She called out that supper was ready and waiting, was he starved?
You bet he was starved. Here was the coffee. He waved it at her. She looked at his other hand. What was that he had there?
Well, it was the rope again. He stopped short. He had meant to exchange it but forgot. She wanted to know why he should exchange it, if it was something he really wanted. Wasn’t the air sweet now, and wasn’t it fine to be here?
She walked beside him with one hand hooked into his leather belt. She pulled and jostled him a little as he walked, and leaned against him. He put his arm clear around her and patted her stomach. They exchanged wary smiles. Coffee, coffee for the Ootsum-Wootsums! He felt as if he were bringing her a beautiful present.
He was a love, she firmly believed, and if she had had her coffee in the morning, she wouldn’t have behaved so funny . . . There was a whippoorwill still coming back, imagine, clear out of season, sitting in the crab-apple tree calling all by himself. Maybe his girl stood him up. Maybe she did. She hoped to hear him once more, she loved whippoorwills . . . He knew how she was, didn’t he?
Sure, he knew how she was.
Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
Yuda is banging the wall with his pillow; Moishe is switching the lights off and on again. I lay silent, not involved in the nightly disturbance. “He’s coming!” calls Zvika, the sun-shield watcher. We get under our blankets, pretending to be asleep. The door is opened, and my father peeps in. He stands silent in the doorway, listening. A loud girl’s laugh is coming from the room by the showers. He leaves the door open and rushes there. Moishe goes to the door, looks left and whispers: “He’s in the girls’ room.” Zvika takes off his blanket, stands up and signals Hai through the sun-shields that it’s their turn now. The stamping of the iron bed’s legs on the tiles thunders and then stops abruptly as my father’s footsteps rush there. I can visualize the ongoing signals through the sun-shield. “Give up, please.” I send a telepathic plea to my dad, “for the both of us.”
My father is on duty tonight, for the first time in this building, trying to enforce the “all lights out” policy. It’s a thankless job, trying to overcome 24 nine year old kids in six rooms who are not willing to go to sleep yet. In addition to the numerical advantage and youthful energy, the sun-shield advantage is on our side. It’s an elongated niche along the entire building. Blinds were probably not available at the time, so they built a concrete casing around the windows to keep away the sunlight. They did not realize that they created a back door corridor for us to send signals and crawl on all fours from one room to another.
In the short silence I pray that the revolt will end. My father has no chance against us. We the kids have already defeated: Berman, the smart electrician, who pulled out the fuse, Waxman, the lenient, who left after five minutes, and even Zuckerman, the cruel, who had no dilemma about tweaking someone even without a proof. Some fathers use a moment of silence to give up and leave, but my father is strict. Zvika checks the sun-shield and whispers: “It’s our turn now.” The room is dark but I can feel the looks of my three roommates. “Come on,” Yuda whispers. I feel bad for dad, but I have no choice. Any kid who does not take part in the disturbance when his father is on duty is boycotted for an entire month. Esther is the only one who does not have to participate in the nightly disturbances. Her family joined the Kibbutz only six months ago. Every night, when everyone finally goes to sleep, she cries in the sun-shield. She knows that her parents reside nearby and surely can hear her cry, and she can’t understand why they are not coming to comfort her.
I get out my whistle, tucked between the mattress and the wall, and blow my short angry contribution. The blinking light through the sunshield confirms that my signal is received in the girls’ room. I put the whistle back and pretend to be asleep while my father’s steps rush there. After a few silent minutes my father returns. He pauses in the doorway before he comes near my bed. My eyes are shut and my breathing is slow, but my heart beat is wild. Dad leans over me, straightens my pillow. His right hand presses hard on my left shoulder. I grit my teeth to stand the pain while my dad leans closer and whispers in my ear: “I know that you took part in it.” He leaves the room and closes the door. A minute later I hear the entrance door slammed.
A few minutes later all the lights are on and the hustle is everywhere. Pillows are flying, faces peep from the sun-shield and the yelling and ball thumps from the corridor declare that a “Stanga” game is on. Tonight, I don’t feel like joining the celebration. I ignore the noisy buzz around me, silently lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.
My hatred for Agnes led directly to our family’s appearance on Oprah. You’d say, oh, you didn’t hate her; she was just your older sister. But she was not my older sister. She looked older, but I was the elder by two years. No matter. People thought she was prettier, older, smarter. It didn’t matter that I got better grades, that I was three classes ahead of her. It didn’t matter, for example, that the Antropolis was my idea.
Everyone credited Agnes with the Antropolis, even my parents and Uncle Hayward, but I made it up one night as I read Kid’s Life with a penlight under my covers. I lifted a corner of the blanket so I could see Agnes where she sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, braiding her long hair.
I said, “You know what’s a good idea, Agnes?” “What, Hannah?”
“If we made ant farms and sold them for twice as much money.” She wrinkled her nose, disgusted. “Ants are grody.”
Grody. That was her word, direct quote. But the next day she was telling Uncle Hayward all about it. He had arrived recently from the city to settle what he called “rambunctious nerves.” He thought the ants were a brilliant idea. He ordered the kits, which included special soil and food, a thin plastic farm, and about twenty-five Western-Harvester ants per purchase. He opened one door of our four-door garage and for days we swept and organized. He read us the directions for taking care of the ants, and even though I understood them from the get-go, Agnes had him repeat everything at least three times.
“But why do they die so fast?” she whined. She didn’t like that the ants only lived a month or so in the farms, and I admit I didn’t like it either, but while I understood this as merely a fact of life, Agnes was practically slitting her wrists over it.
“Without a queen,” Uncle Hayward said, “they just don’t live as long.” From where I stood next to the garage’s chest freezer, I sighed and scratched at my elbow. Hayward was my favorite uncle, but he could be so annoyingly patient with Agnes.
He continued, “The company that we order the ants from doesn’t permit us to order queens.”
“But why not?” Agnes continued, even though he’d already explained this earlier that week.
“Because, stupid,” I said, “they might run rampant and then cause severe ecological damage.” I was good at quoting pamphlets directly. It was a photographic trait that drove my teachers and peers nuts. “Like fire ants, for example, or killer bees in Texas.”
Hayward patted my head in a way that made me feel less smart than I sounded. “Maybe if you girls learn something from these ant-kits, you can start digging up your own ants and find a queen, yourselves.”
I liked this idea. I foresaw huge glimmering dollar signs. “Don’t order any more ants,” I told Hayward. “I’ll supply the ants from now on.”
At first, our parents were skeptical of the whole ant farm idea. Hayward argued for us.
“It’s a great summer project. The girls will learn a ton.”
Though Dad respected Hayward as a businessman, he questioned his rationality. “I don’t want ants all over my garage,” he growled.
“There are ants all over your garage. Only these ants will be in tightly-sealed cases.”
Dad shook his head.
Hayward pressed, “Don’t you want the girls to learn fiscal responsibility? Customer-service relations? Respect for God’s creatures?”
Mom said to him, “What do you care, Brett? You’re never home anyway.”
Dad sold medical equipment to hospitals all over the nation. He was making us, as Mom often said, “rich but unfulfilled.” Mom, herself, believed that parenting consisted of greeting us after school and sitting with us on the couch while she stared glassy-eyed at the television. She wanted us to benefit from the womanly genius of Oprah, the only black person Mom had ever regarded seriously, aside from a kid named Eldridge that I had met at Jolly Cheezers and had played with in the ball crawl. The whole way home from Jolly Cheezers, Mom had applauded herself for not being a racist. “I was happy you were playing with that child,” she told me. “I was ecstatic.” She glowed over dinner and told Dad the whole story, too, and he said, “Good for you, Martha, good for you” This was always the encouragement he gave her when his mind had wandered elsewhere.
But yes, there was Oprah, and Mom would talk to us about the virtues discussed on the show, and then there was Springer, and Mom would tsk-tsk and sigh and tell us how pitiable these lower class people could be (the poor things have never learned a modicum of morality. I mean, they have no time to think of such things). Despite her disgust, I don’t think Agnes bleeding from her ears on the couch would have torn Mom’s eyes away from the brutality of that television set. I also believe, at the time, that she thought Springer was a hottie. Once he had embraced a pear-shaped, middle-aged woman not unlike herself, who was weeping because her husband had cheated on her yet again. With a passionate gasp, Mom sank her fingers into my forearm. When she let go, there were long white claw marks where the blood used to be. I was hoping that these would turn into bruises so that I could tell the school counselor the next day. Maybe I would get invited to the Springer show myself. Or even better, because it would destroy my mother, Oprah would call and ask me to share my dreadful experiences with her. But within minutes my arm was back to normal.
At first, Mom gushed about how Uncle Hayward’s appearance in the house would be “absolutely grand.” I think she assumed he would take her side on all things, especially where her husband was concerned. But while Hayward doted on Agnes and me, he gave my parents little attention. “Your concerns are your concerns,” he told my mother, and when she retorted that his involvement with the Antropolis idea was “a stupid, horrible sign of how horribly immature” he always had been and still very much was, Uncle Hayward just laughed. Dad didn’t seem to mind Hayward’s presence so much, although sometimes he muttered things like, “Hayward seems more than a little off,” and “What sort of a man doesn’t enjoy beer?” These statements arrived at odd moments, like when he was shaving, or when he sitting by himself with the newspaper. They were always said to no one in particular. Mom said that Dad’s talking to himself was the surest sign of his megalomania.
The week before school ended, Agnes and I went around the hallways taping up hand-scrawled flyers advertising “The Antropolis!!!” I had come up with the name after rifling through hundreds of variations: Anttastic, Ant You Happy, Ants in Your Pants. Agnes had come up with one lousy name, “Antsville,” which Hayward feigned to like until I belted out, Antropolis! Agnes started crying. Hayward patted her back and said things like, “She wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t said ‘Antsville,’” which was a total lie, and that “Those who succeed stand upon the shoulders of giants,” which made her a giant and me a total shrimp. I saw an ant glide beneath me on the cool pavement. I put my foot to it and wiped its guts into a sweeping frown. “Is it Antropolis or not?” I asked. Hayward nodded at me but also put a finger to his lips. I stomped into the house. Later, prompted by Hayward, Mom visited me in my room and told me not to be upset by his giving Agnes more attention. “She’s younger than you and more sensitive,” Mom said. But what she meant was “She’s stupider than you and more attractive.” I told Mom to stuff it and thus martyred myself out of a fried-chicken dinner. Dad snuck a piece to me later. He knew it was my favorite.
The week after school finished, we had a flurry of customers. The neighborhood mothers found Hayward handsome, and they couldn’t wait to sidle up to him, stroking the pearls that grew like pale tumors from their necks and wrists, and purr about what a “deliciously adorable thing” he’d done, helping darling Agnes and that (“What’s her name again? Oh yes, of course”) Hannah with such a “cute” project. I ignored these distractions. With every passing hour I grew more and more attached to my ants. A dollop of honey on the driveway lured a herd of them from the Bermuda Triangle of our lawn. Old Popsicle sticks worked well for the transfer into large mason jars. I stabbed holes in the top with needles, and sometimes you could see the little legs poking through. “Ew,” Agnes said, “grody.” Despite her fragile stomach, she helped me transplant the ants into their new homes. Occasionally we crushed them between our fingers, or smashed them with the Popsicle sticks, and then we would have a solemn ten seconds of silence for each little death. But for the most part, everything went smoothly.
It was in one of my ant-fueled reveries, wondering what made one ant happy and the next sluggish, that I discovered Custom Ant-farm Creation. I explained this to a boy from my class, a boy named Viktor who had ridden his bike all the way from the valley to see what we were doing.
“What does that mean?” he asked me, picking up a farm and shaking it like an etch-a-sketch.
“Don’t do that, please,” I said. “It agitates them.” “What does custom creation mean?”
“Well,” I explained, delighted to find an interested patron, “let’s say you don’t want any old ant farm. Let’s say you want one where the ants are happier than regular ants, like a sort of Ant Playground or something, or let’s say you want one where the ants are super hard workers, three times as fast or something. You can place the order with me. Within a week I’ll make your ant farm happy, or fast, or jumpy, or whatever.”
Viktor seemed to like this idea. He looked at my sister, who sat beside me at the table fiddling with a pencil and staring up at him like he was made of gold. “What about horny ants,” he said.
“Oh, Viktor,” I laughed, “don’t say that in front of Agnes.”
Agnes blushed and Viktor smiled. Then he said to me, “It’s not Victor. It’s Viktor.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you didn’t. You say it wrong. I’m Vick-TOR, and you say it ‘Vick-TER’.”
I looked confused. “What’s the difference?” “The difference,” Agnes said, “is the TOR.” My knuckles itched.
“It’s Russian,” Viktor said. “I’m a direct descendant of the Tsar.” “What Tsar?” I asked.
“What, you stupid or something?” Viktor said. Agnes giggled.
“You her older sister?” he asked her.
“She’s two years younger than me, Vick-TOR.” He whistled. “Could have fooled me.”
The thing was, I had always liked Viktor. I liked that in class he didn’t speak a lot, and that some of the other kids seemed to find him annoying. They treated him sort of the same way they treated me, as if he had a cow’s head sprouting from one shoulder. We were both skinny and pale, too. In the right light we looked translucent. I daydreamed about how our children would come out of our mansion squinting into the light, all wormy and bone-white, bitter and smart.
Agnes, of course, had pink cheeks and actual boobs. She had gotten her period a year before I’d had mine. This made her somewhat awkward in her own year, I’d noticed, but had also given her a sort of other-worldly appeal. It had been the disgrace of my life this last spring when, having discovered blood during a routine bathroom break at school, I’d had to ask my little sister for a maxi pad. She’d been friendly enough about it, but I could never shake the feeling that in the race to womanhood, I hadn’t even made the B-squad.
Boys loved Agnes, of course. A few of them, some from her class, some older, skidded their bicycles to a stop on our driveway and glanced shyly into the garage. For the next several weeks, they treated our home like the parking lot in front of Jolly Cheezers, laughing loudly and exchanging jokes and ultimately pretending not to notice Agnes when any old idiot knew they were thinking of nothing else. Agnes poured soil into the plastic farms and ignored them just as efficiently. One of those short, bratty-looking boys said, without even trying to conceal his high voice, “They can’t be sisters. Hannah’s ugly as a horse,” and then he blew such a huge snot-rocket onto the pavement that the other boys exclaimed, “Wicked!” Agnes’s head snapped toward me and she said, “They suck. Nobody likes them.” But I knew this was a lie. They were the most popular boys at school. The fact that they sought her out like so many heat-seeking missiles meant only one thing: she was the most popular girl. Over the summer, the shame, like the heat, only thickened.
After the first few weeks, the numbers of interested parties grew scarce. Uncle Hayward didn’t return the lonely mothers’ and housewives’ flirtations, so they eventually retreated back into their expensive homes. The boys on their bikes still stopped by, but having less of a people-screen to hide behind, they grew skittish like lambs and stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time. Agnes and I still spent most of our days in the garage or on the driveway. I wore bruises into my knees and palms from foraging the pavement for more ants. There were now mason jars swarming with them. I had yet to find a queen.
Even though I protested, Uncle Hayward forced us to slow production. We could search for queens, he said, but we didn’t need more ants. He also suggested we keep the ants in a shadier place. “They’ll fry like bacon,” he warned. I pinned up signs in the coolest corner of the garage. They read, in alphabetical order, “Eager Farms,” “Happy Farms,” “Hardworking Farms,” “Super Farms,” “Wonderful Farms.” Hayward asked, “What’s the difference? They’re all the same.”
I knew that was baloney. “Believe me,” I told him. “Every ant has its own personality.”
Hayward laughed and ruffled my hair. “Don’t take yourself too seriously, kiddo.”
It took all of my newfound benevolence to just grit my teeth and smile.
The good thing, at first, was that Viktor kept stopping by. One day, I showed him the Horny Ant Farm I had made (without, of course, Hayward’s knowing). When he lifted it off of my workstation and peered through the plastic walls, he only said, “Nah. There’s no humping.”
I laughed, despite feeling hurt. How was I supposed to know there should be humping? I told him, “Take it anyway. It’s a gift.”
For the first time ever, he looked straight at me. “Wow, really?
Thanks.” He tucked the farm under his arm and asked, “Where’s Agnes?” I frowned. “Who cares?” Viktor clucked his tongue and stared off into the distance. “I’m in love with her,” he said dreamily.
“You’re stupid,” I hollered at him, much louder than necessary. “She’s stupid and you’re stupider.”
Viktor frowned. “What’s your prob? You jealous? Jealous that your sister’s pretty? Jealous you’re such a rat?”
Hayward heard the yelling and came over from the yard, where he had been sunning himself and listening to the radio.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I was just leaving,” Viktor said, and shoved the ant farm at me. I took it from him, about to cry. “I don’t want your stupid farm. They aren’t Horny Ants. They’re Stupid Ants. Those are the only ants you can make, Hannah.”
He cycled away.
Hayward said, “Horny ants?”
“He hates me,” I wailed. Hayward sat down next to me and patted his knee. I perched there and wiped at my face. It was strange sitting on a grown man’s knee. I hadn’t sat on my own father’s knee in years.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Hayward said. “He probably has a crush on you. That’s how boys act.”
I shook my head. “Viktor likes Agnes,” I said. “All the boys do. He said,” I started crying again, “he said I was a rat.”
Hayward hugged me and kissed the back of my head. “Now, now. You don’t believe that, do you? It’s not true.” His breath smelled of Altoids and cigarettes.
“He likes her,” I said resolutely. Hayward let me go and I stood up. “He does. Just ask her.”
Hayward looked troubled. “She’s so young,” he said. “Not to him.”
“Maybe I should say something.” Hayward looked at me as though wanting my approval.
“Yes. Definitely. You should.”
I hoped a boy-related conversation with Uncle Hayward would humiliate Agnes. At least a little bit.
Then Agnes appeared on her bike, looping slowly around the driveway. “What’s wrong?” she called.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Let’s look for a queen.” She dismounted and let the bike crash to the pavement.
I wiped at my face and said okay. Even Hayward helped. I knelt at a small hole in the yard from where I had seen some ants emerge, and I waited. “There’s a queen down there,” I whispered. I was going to find her and capture her and make an ant-farm immortal. Viktor would read about me in the papers, when I had become a famous entomologist, and he would regret his terrible behavior. He would call me up and I would laugh. Then I would tell him – but right then I saw a long, strange, winged ant. It moved sluggishly from the small hole and into the light. My heart thudded. I put my hand gingerly over it. “I’ve got one!” I screamed. “I’ve got a queen!” Agnes was impressed. “That’s so cool,” she said, after we had transferred it to a farm. I was beaming. Uncle Hayward patted me on the back. “See?” he said. “Life’s not so bad.”
I shrugged. But right then, life did feel pretty great.
Later that night, the phone rang during dinner. Dad hated it when the phone rang. “For the love of Christopher,” he said, standing, “can’t a man enjoy his dinner without being interrupted?”
“You could turn the ringer off,” Mom suggested. She always suggested this.
“It could be Elias. ”This was always Dad’s reply. Elias was Dad’s boss. Moments later, Dad returned from the den. “That was some snotty-sounding kid for Agnes. A Victor or something?” “Viktor, Dad,” Agnes corrected.
“Aren’t you, what, ten years old?” Dad said. “What’s with the opposite-sex phone calls?”
Agnes looked embarrassed. “I dunno. He’s never called before.” She saw me glowering at her and said over a forkful of peas, “What, Hannah? I think he’s stupid.”
“Ha,” I said. “So do I. Too bad he loves you.”
Mom said, “Is this the little Russian boy from your class, Hannah? I find the Russians so fascinating.”
“He’s not a Russian, Mom. He’s a liar.”
“Hannah,” she scolded, “it’s not polite to disallow someone their cultural heritage.”
The whole time, Hayward sat there regarding Agnes with his face all scrunched up. His concern gathered when Dad handed her an index card complete with Viktor’s misspelled name and telephone number.
“Is this such a good idea?” Hayward asked the table. “She’s a ten-year-old girl. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea. If this boy is pursuing her, after all.”
I loved Hayward for saying this.
“Oh please, Hayward,” Dad boomed, “what sort of twelve-year-old boy could even recognize his dick in a line-up?”
Mom gasped. “Brett, please!” Then she peered closer at the index card. “Oh!” she gasped delightedly. “That’s a downtown number. You should call him, Agnes, and invite him over tomorrow. The poor thing doesn’t breathe a drop of fresh air in that neighborhood.”
Hayward put his hands over his face. I could tell he was on my side.
Later that night, while Dad snored in front of the television and Mom went to take one of her lengthy peach-smelling baths, I went to the garage to read comics with my penlight on the old sofa Hayward had stored in one corner. I had just been getting to a great scene where Antzilla crushes all those who have ever tried to smash her, when light from the kitchen fell in a yellow rectangle across the hood of Dad’s car. Hayward and Agnes entered, Hayward shutting the door softly behind them. I catapulted over the back of the couch with my comic book, and then sat cross-legged against the couch’s moldy spine. I shut off my penlight. For some reason, Hayward did not switch on the overhead lamp.
On the way to the couch, they bumped into things. Agnes said, “I’m sorta afraid of the dark.”
Uncle Hayward replied in no more than a whisper, “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” They sat down. I could smell the rising dust.
At first, I was impressed with what Hayward was saying. He told Agnes, “It’s not right, that boy with you. It’s just not.”
“Cause he’s in Hannah’s class?”
“Well, that, and that he wants to take advantage of you.”
I imagined that Agnes was, per usual, confused by Hayward’s remarks.
“Look,” Hayward said, “some boys are nice boys. Some are mean. That Viktor. He’s a bad seed. He does not want to be nice to you, do you see? I think he wants to be mean to you.”
“But Hannah likes him,” Agnes said. After a moment’s pause, she suggested, “Maybe she should date him.”
“Sure, sure. Hannah should date him. But you’re too lovely for those boys.” I heard, then, the sound of one body snuggling closer to the other. Then Hayward grunted as if he were lifting something. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. It took me a moment to figure out that Agnes was now seated squarely on Hayward’s lap, both of them facing away from me.
In the dark, her head appeared to be growing from out of his right shoulder.
“I want to be nice to you,” he said. “You’re always nice, Uncle Hayward.” “Do you want me to be nice to you?”
“Well, sure.” Agnes’s voice sounded tighter now, almost annoyed. Then she said, as though eager for a subject change, “Isn’t it cool that Hannah found a queen?”
Hayward’s voice was muffled, in her hair or something. “That wasn’t a queen. I didn’t want to tell her, the poor thing, but that was just a young male ant. You need to dig up a queen, you know. They look almost the same, I guess, but you’re not going to find some queen just randomly roaming around.”
“Oh,” Agnes said. “Sucky.”
“Our little secret, though, right?” Hayward whispered this. I could hear his hands groping.
The tips of my ears flushed hot. I thought about the winged ant, something that looks special, but really is not. I bit my lip to keep from bawling. I wanted to believe that Hayward was wrong, but some dark part of me knew that he was right.
A“That tickles,” Agnes said. I could see that she was squirming.
“Just be quiet for a moment. Let me be nice to you.” He shuffled around on the couch again. “The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing.”
I hated him so much. The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing. I groped around for something, anything, to hurt him with, and what I came up with was one of my mason jars filled with about three-hundred ants. I unscrewed the jar. The lid made a rasping sound, the air escaping in one soft sigh, smelling sour like pee. Agnes said, “What was that?” but Uncle Hayward panted loudly in her ear, “I should stop. I should really stop,” and she said, sounding bored, “This is sorta weird. I want to go in now, Uncle Hayward.” I squatted behind them and turned over the jar right above the dark heavy line of his shoulders. The next second they were up on their feet, and he was screaming. The garage flooded with light. Dad stood at the top of the stairs, gaping. When my eyes adjusted, I saw Agnes standing there calmly, blinking, with part of her t-shirt pushed over the top of her right boob. Hayward was shaking himself and tearing off his shirt and begging for help.
“What’s going on here?” Dad roared.
“Hayward was being nice to me,” Agnes said, not without disgust. Ants glided from the open mason jar onto my fingers and up my arm. Dad stared, silent. Hayward wept and squirmed. Mom materialized and the sounds grew loud and sharp. Somehow Agnes and I were ushered inside. We sat on the floor of my bedroom together and said nothing. She picked an ant out of my hair and asked if I wanted to play cards. I said okay.
That was the last time we ever saw Hayward. The next day, while Mom continued to panic and make doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment for Agnes, Dad tossed out all of our ant farms. I asked if I could keep even one, the one with the winged ant, and he said “No.” Agnes tried to come to my defense. “But the ants were what saved me,” she said. But even her perfect charm failed. Dad would have none of it.
Agnes, of course, was fine. “He only kissed my neck and touched my boob,” Agnes said. I said to her, and also to Mom, “He kissed me, too.” Mom didn’t seem too worried about me. She wrote a letter to Oprah, describing how her brother had molested her littlest daughter without her even realizing it. “And under my own roof, Oprah!” One of Oprah’s representatives called a couple of weeks later and asked if they’d come on a special show, “Blind Mothers, Molested Daughters.” Mom was ecstatic. I asked if I was going to be on the show, too. She said no.
Dad and I flew to Chicago with them, anyway. We watched the show from a fancy hotel. Dad seemed embarrassed, seeing them on-screen. Mom was so excited that she couldn’t stop grinning, even when Agnes told Oprah, “Then he touched my boob and kissed my neck.”
Dad said, “Your mother looks psychotic.”
When they came back, we all went for a walk on the lake. Mom and Dad sat on a park bench and watched us from afar.
“Did you see the show?” Agnes asked. She was sullen. “Yeah.”
“Did you hear what I said about you?” I shook my head.
“Maybe they cut it. I told them you saved me. You and the ants.” “Really?”
We walked along silently, kicking at stones. “I guess it must kind of suck for you,” I said.
“Nah. One of the girls on the show I felt so sorry for. Some dude stuck his wiener in her!”
“Ick,” I said. We kind of laughed.
“I can’t believe they cut that,” she said, “what I said about you.”
I didn’t exactly trust her, but it made me kinder toward her. Even if she hadn’t told Oprah that I was her hero, she had at least admitted it to me. I would always have one-up on her for that.
We stood at the water’s edge and let it lick the tips of our sandals. “This water smells like bird poop,” I said.
“I wish I could lop these things off and toss them into the waves.” She was looking down at her breasts.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell if this was all a performance or not.
We went back to the hotel and ordered cokes and chicken-strips and French fries with extra ketchup through room service. When we had successfully pigged-out, Agnes and I put on our pajamas and brushed our teeth. Mom and Dad went to the bar downstairs, saying they’d be back soon. “Don’t let anyone in here,” Mom warned. The heavy door locked squarely behind them.
Alone, we flipped through all of the channels that we weren’t supposed to watch. In the scratchy grayness of one station, the screen swarming with herds of black ants, we could hear moans, and we could see a thigh here, a breast there, slightly unfamiliar game pieces of shuddering bodies.
“Shut it off,” Agnes said. I did.
I wouldn’t mind taking orders from her sometimes. If I could be her hero, then that meant she was salvageable. It wasn’t too hard to accept surrender then. But there were times, following, when out of either anger or pity I almost admitted, Hey, I saved you for all the wrong reasons.
*This story is taken from: Favorite Monster © 2012 by Sharma Shields, Autumn House Press.
My mother said to me: ‘You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.’ There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: ‘You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.’ My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: ‘Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.’ A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were.
I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of that kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: ‘This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!’
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: ‘What do you want here?’
‘Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.’
‘You?’ He started to laugh. ‘Look at that skirt on her! Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?’
‘I will study! I will come to school, I will!’
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school – that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with gold roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would pave the way for other Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: ‘Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.’ And so I only dared to go into the village when there were several of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the boys and girls filed into the class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and seated their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed where I was, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. ‘Who put you there?’ She dragged me up, and sent me to sit at the back. ‘That’ll be your place.’ In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was for the Romani kids. ‘The gypsy desk.’ Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone had sat next to me. But I was alone, all by myself.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: ‘so how was school?’
‘Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.’ My mother slapped me. ‘Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going, so they don’t take your father and lock him up.’
The next day, I washed my feet again and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my favourite. At night, I was unable to fall asleep because the seven-times table kept dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: ‘Go on, count!’ And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: ‘What do they cultivate in Hungary?’ I knew. Peppers, melons.
‘You are not stupid,’ said the teacher. ‘If you had a reader and an exercise book and a pencil, you could learn something. Why doesn’t your mother buy you a reader?’
‘My mother has no money.’
‘Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!’
‘There are many of us at home, and there is no work.’
Then, one day, I did not go to school. ‘Where were you?’ asked the teacher when I returned.
‘You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.’ The teacher’s eyes popped out. ‘I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.’
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One day an order was given that all ‘gypsy’ children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: ‘Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you don’t go! Who’ll support us?’
The children went. They all put on their ‘very best’ clothes – their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. ‘Go on, run, you gypsy rabble!’
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jigged up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. ‘How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,’ he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: ‘You go there, you there, you there ’ So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beži, who was a year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. ‘Where will I put you!’ At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children so that we wouldn’t fight with them. We couldn’t study.
Once, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: ‘I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.’
Bango said: ‘We don’t eat in the morning, either,’ which was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: ‘What have you eaten?’
‘Wow!’ my eyes opened as wide as stars. ‘If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake …!’
‘How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?’ the teacher interrupted. ‘Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!’
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: ‘I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.’
The teacher went red, said nothing and walked away.
A year went by. Everyone said I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There wasn’t a single C grade on it. And I was very proud!
I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: ‘Mummy, I only have As and Bs.’
‘I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!’ That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour my heart out to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: ‘Listen, you go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!’
I said: ‘How can I go, if we don’t have any money?’
And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.’
We went over to the church. In front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money at it. And Šulo said: ‘What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.’ They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. ‘Bango, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,’ said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
‘The priest is coming!’ I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. ‘Swallow it! Get it down!’ I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me on the back.
‘What are you doing here, you devils?’ said the priest.
‘We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,’ lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: ‘Come here, let me give you a bit of holy water.’ He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
Bango said: ‘We need to think of a way of getting the money.’ But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo who had chickens. ‘Do you know what?’ the boys said, ‘You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.’
I did not know what to do. ‘Bango, you go!’ I said.
‘Alright,’ the boys said. ‘You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.’
I climbed the pear tree – the dog didn’t bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen-house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do. But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! He came straight for me. ‘Is that how you thank me for giving you work?’ He picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I looked to see whether Bango and Šulo would run out of the hen-house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it didn’t go into my leg, but it tore my skirt at the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. ‘We need a patch to sew it up!’ said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
‘Do you know what,’ said Bango, ‘you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no one will see your bottom.’ So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. ‘What on earth is that? Look! She’s with a boy! Stuck right up against him! Does an honest girl walk like that?’ (I was about seven or eight years old.) As I came nearer, my mother said: ‘Is that how you go about, my girl?!’ She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: ‘You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?’ We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, ‘Wait, we’ll do it somehow.’ She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother had tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: ‘What kind of chickens do you have?’ Their shells were very thin. ‘You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.’ The Jew would not buy the eggs from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: ‘Oh! I am so disappointed! I’ll never go anywhere. I’m going home.’
‘Aha!’ said the boys. ‘So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!’ Šulo caught me by the ear. ‘Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.’ But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
‘Let’s go and see what we can do,’ said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was, and it was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: ‘Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.’ Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: ‘Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!’
The circus manager pushed me forward: ‘Hop in! Run off, then!’ I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my mind, I did everything alongside her. I’d show the boys a thing or two!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I could do a flip, as well. There was one thing I couldn’t do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first lesson was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: ‘You were at the circus, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!’
I said: ‘The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.’
‘Tell me how our great God was born.’
‘I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.’
‘Come out from behind your desk! You’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!’
‘Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!’ I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
A week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: ‘Come with me.’ I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to show them what the circus was like. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
‘So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them circus acts. Wait here!’ I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It’s buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. ‘Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?’
‘There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!’
‘So I will take all the Romani children!’ said the new teacher. ‘But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!’
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the ‘gypsies’. Not a single gadjo had ever visited us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: ‘Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!’ He even said ‘aven avri’, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. ‘Get going, get going, run along to school!’ When we got to the classroom, he asked: ‘Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.’ He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed our hair.
‘Why haven’t you combed your hair?’
‘We don’t have any combs.’
‘Have you washed?’
‘We don’t have any towels.’ One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have.
‘Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!’
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
‘Who hasn’t eaten anything?’
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: ‘Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.’ At midday, he bought food for us again, bread and margarine. He asked us: ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’
‘I want to dance and sing!’ I said.
He slapped me. ‘You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.’ Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Me – a blacksmith.’
‘Good, you will be a blacksmith.’
‘I want to be a musician like my dad.’
‘That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.’
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said:
‘Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!’ He asked me: ‘Do you know how to sing?’
I sang a very amorous love song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
‘Who taught you that?’ the teacher asked.
‘My father sings that to my mother at night,’ I said.
‘Which of you can recite a poem?’
‘Meeeeee!’ I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.’
The boys brought violins and basses and whatever they could from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: ‘Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?’
‘Wow! I’d love that.’
‘Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot get angry with those who treat you in such a way, so I have to vent my anger on you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honourable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.’
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: ‘Now let me introduce my pupils to you.’ The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. ‘We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.’ Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I did three years of school.
*This Story is taken from: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.
“Where do you want the marquee put, mother?”
“My dear child, it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.
“You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.”
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn’t possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, “Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?”
“That’s right, miss,” said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. “That’s about it.”
His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. “Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn’t mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.
“Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?”
And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn’t hold the bread-and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.
“I don’t fancy it,” said he. “Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee,” and he turned to Laura in his easy way, “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me.”
Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.
“A corner of the tennis-court,” she suggested. “But the band’s going to be in one corner.”
“H’m, going to have a band, are you?” said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
“Only a very small band,” said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.
“Look here, miss, that’s the place. Against those trees. Over there. That’ll do fine.”
Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?
They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom… And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
“Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!” a voice cried from the house.
“Coming!” Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.
“I say, Laura,” said Laurie very fast, “you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing.”
“I will,” said she. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. “Oh, I do love parties, don’t you?” gasped Laura.
“Ra-ther,” said Laurie’s warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. “Dash off to the telephone, old girl.”
The telephone. “Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal—just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what’s left over. Yes, isn’t it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment—hold the line. Mother’s calling.” And Laura sat back. “What, mother? Can’t hear.”
Mrs. Sheridan’s voice floated down the stairs. “Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.”
“Mother says you’re to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o’clock. Bye-bye.”
Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. “Huh,” she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.
The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie’s print skirt on the stairs. A man’s voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, “I’m sure I don’t know. Wait. I’ll ask Mrs Sheridan.”
“What is it, Sadie?” Laura came into the hall.
“It’s the florist, Miss Laura.”
It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
“O-oh, Sadie!” said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“It’s some mistake,” she said faintly. “Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother.”
But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.
“It’s quite right,” she said calmly. “Yes, I ordered them. Aren’t they lovely?” She pressed Laura’s arm. “I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t mean to interfere,” said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist’s man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.
“My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother, would you? Don’t do that. Here’s the man.”
He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.
“Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“Oh, I do, mother.”
In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.
“Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don’t you think?”
“Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and—one moment, Hans—” Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. “Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.
“Very good, Miss Jose.”
She turned to Meg. “I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I’m asked to sing this afternoon. Let’s try over ‘This life is Weary.’”
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose’s face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then… Good-bye!”
But at the word “Good-bye,” and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
“Aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
But now Sadie interrupted them. “What is it, Sadie?”
“If you please, m’m, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?”
“The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?” echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn’t got them. “Let me see.” And she said to Sadie firmly, “Tell cook I’ll let her have them in ten minutes.”
“Now, Laura,” said her mother quickly, “come with me into the smoking-room. I’ve got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You’ll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I’m terrified of her this morning.”
The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.
“One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly—cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?”
“Egg and—” Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. “It looks like mice. It can’t be mice, can it?”
“Olive, pet,” said Laura, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive.”
They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.
“I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches,” said Jose’s rapturous voice. “How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?”
“Fifteen, Miss Jose.”
“Well, cook, I congratulate you.”
Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.
“Godber’s has come,” announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
“Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,” ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
“Don’t they carry one back to all one’s parties?” said Laura.
“I suppose they do,” said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. “They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say.”
“Have one each, my dears,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.
“Let’s go into the garden, out by the back way,” suggested Laura. “I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They’re such awfully nice men.”
But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber’s man and Hans.
Something had happened.
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans’s face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber’s man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a horrible accident,” said Cook. “A man killed.”
“A man killed! Where? How? When?”
But Godber’s man wasn’t going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
“Know those little cottages just below here, miss?” Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there’s a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber’s man.
“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”
“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”
“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman,” said Laura.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life. I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, “I’m going straight up to tell mother.”
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
“Mother, can I come into your room?” Laura turned the big glass door-knob.
“Of course, child. Why, what’s the matter? What’s given you such a colour?” And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”
To Laura’s astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.
“But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
“Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It’s made for you. It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
“But, mother,” Laura began again. She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
“You are being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan…
Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.
“My dear!” trilled Kitty Maitland, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.”
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.
“Hallo!” He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. “My word, Laura! You do look stunning,” said Laurie. “What an absolutely topping hat!”
Laura said faintly “Is it?” and smiled up at Laurie, and didn’t tell him after all.
Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans’ garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
“Darling Laura, how well you look!”
“What a becoming hat, child!”
“Laura, you look quite Spanish. I’ve never seen you look so striking.”
And Laura, glowing, answered softly, “Have you had tea? Won’t you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special.” She ran to her father and begged him. “Daddy darling, can’t the band have something to drink?”
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
“Never a more delightful garden-party… “ “The greatest success… ” “Quite the most… ”
Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.
“All over, all over, thank heaven,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Round up the others, Laura. Let’s go and have some fresh coffee. I’m exhausted. Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!” And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
“Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. “I suppose you didn’t hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?” he said.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, “we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.”
“Oh, mother!” Laura didn’t want to be teased about it.
“It was a horrible affair all the same,” said Mr. Sheridan. “The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.”
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father…
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s make up a basket. Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don’t you agree? And she’s sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!” She jumped up. “Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard.”
“But, mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?” said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
“Of course! What’s the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now—”
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.
“Take it yourself, darling,” said she. “Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
“The stems will ruin her lace frock,” said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. “Only the basket, then. And, Laura!”—her mother followed her out of the marquee—“don’t on any account—”
No, better not put such ideas into the child’s head! “Nothing! Run along.”
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realize it. Why couldn’t she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, “Yes, it was the most successful party.”
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, “Is this Mrs. Scott’s house?” and the woman, smiling queerly, said, “It is, my lass.”
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, “Help me, God,” as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women’s shawls even. I’ll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan’t even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.
Laura said, “Are you Mrs. Scott?” But to her horror the woman answered, “Walk in please, miss,” and she was shut in the passage.
“No,” said Laura, “I don’t want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent—”
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
“Em,” said the little creature who had let her in. “Em! It’s a young lady.” She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, “I’m ‘er sister, miss. You’ll excuse ‘er, won’t you?”
“Oh, but of course!” said Laura. “Please, please don’t disturb her. I—I only want to leave—”
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn’t understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.
“All right, my dear,” said the other. “I’ll thenk the young lady.”
And again she began, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure,” and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.
“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,”—and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet—“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”
“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.
“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”
“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie—” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.
That night we were having guests for dinner, and Ines had been in a frenzy all week. She hunted down innovative recipes on the internet and buried my desk in sheets of paper as she printed them out. I’m a psychiatrist, so I like order, and I can’t stand it if my space is invaded for no good reason. However, I was reasonable and tried to get Ines to see things from my patients’ perspective. How would you feel if you arrived at a session and found piles of paper all over the office? I knew my persuasive tactics lost their effectiveness the day she stopped being my patient and became my wife, but in the end I managed to get her to pick it all up before the session with my Friday patient, a workaholic beyond repair.
In recent years we’d stopped inviting our friends over as much, so our friends, in turn, had stopped extending invitations or accepting our evermore sporadic ones. Since the twins were born there had been so little time for social interaction. But recently, after the girls turned seven magical years old, we decided it was time to get back in touch with the friends we’d neglected as we focused on the little ones. We started going out more regularly. But we were responsible parents, you could say.
That night we’d invited a couple over; they were a little older than us, but the age difference was hardly noticeable. They didn’t have kids. We’d known them forever. In fact, Ines was some sort of cousin to Eduardo, who’d met his wife Adela at our wedding. Adela had been a classmate of mine at university, and there’d been one episode after a night of partying that we never spoke of again.
Two weeks prior, Adela had called me from the hospital to invite me to dinner with them at their new town house. When I told her, Ines went crazy and thought of nothing other than returning the invitation. I remember that night at Adela and Eduardo’s house, she wouldn’t stop praising the food and the décor. She did it in an exaggerated and awkward way, insisting repeatedly that the colonial-style furniture our friends had picked out looked exactly like the authentic pieces she and I had seen on our honeymoon in Thailand.
During dinner at their house we jumped from topic to topic. At some points Eduardo and I conversed on our own; at another I asked Adela about her cases, and she wanted to know about mine. We liked to exchange funny stories in which our patients came out looking terrible. Then we ended up arguing over what Adela called the feudal privileges of private psychiatry over public. Adela had a sharp and sparkling way of speaking that still strongly attracted me despite all the time that had passed. At points, Eduardo was clearly bored. He looked at the clock on the wall, and you could tell that deep down he wanted us to finish our wine. Ines took the opportunity to get up and go into the kitchen alone, carrying away the dirty plates as if it were her own home. Adela let her do it; she wasn’t even paying attention. Ines seemed more like the maid than my wife.
We didn’t leave until late. Eduardo had perked up, he was excited about showing me his collection of fountain pens. He explained that the new house finally gave him enough space to display them in their custom-built case. His collections didn’t interest me in the slightest. Collecting is something I’d classify as obsessive behavior. I looked at the floor as he showed off a mother-of-pearl inlay, and I noticed one of his shoelaces had come untied, but I didn’t tell him.
At the door, the women kissed goodbye loudly and Eduardo and I exchanged a firm handshake that turned into a half-hearted hug. I thought it had been the final goodbye; however, at the last minute Ines noticed some geraniums, the color of which could barely be made out in the darkness, and I had to turn around and walk back. Adela insisted that Ines should take a cutting, and Ines insisted even more fervently that she shouldn’t trouble herself, but she ended up accepting a branch after making something of a song and dance out of the whole matter. As this was going on I feared that Eduardo would start back up with the pens, but his gaze held only a desire to put his pajamas on and get into his big colonial-style bed.
Ever since that night, Ines has thought of nothing other than Adela and Eduardo’s visit to our house. When we got into the car and started the engine, thinking about the best route home, I saw her sitting there beside me, how she smiled with her eyes wide open but without seeing anything. She looked like a martyr facing the firing squad. With her right hand tightly gripping the geranium. I noticed she’d caught her skirt in the car door without realizing it. We didn’t say a word the whole way home. Ines was in a daze, even though she hadn’t drunk much wine, and I was just driving, trying to think about my patients, whom I’d been increasingly neglecting.
When I parked in front of our house, Ines rested her face on my shoulder, burst into tears, and thanked me several times. At first I was frightened, mentally running through the kinds of psychiatric disorders that could cause such behavior. Then she calmed down, stopped crying, and asked me for permission to invite Eduardo and Adela over for dinner. I agreed, more because I wanted to end the scene than because I liked the idea. She looked at me with her red and excited eyes for a minute then fixed her gaze on the night sky, as before. I sat looking at her profile. I’d forgotten how her curls fell over her forehead. I didn’t want to get out of the car or go anywhere.
The days that followed were smooth as silk. My patients seemed willing to give sanity another try and stopped moaning about their tragedies. Maybe it was because the nights were shorter and they had less time to contemplate suicide. I thought about what would happen if they all got well. I wouldn’t make any money, and I’d be forced to look for new, even more degenerate patients. Or maybe my fame would grow to an international level, and I’d have to start studying English to treat Hollywood celebrities with their delusions of grandeur and depression. As I imagined these things, my appointments flew by.
At the same time, the twins were less annoying because summer was coming and they were playing outside more. Ines assured me that she’d take care of all the dinner preparations, that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. For my part, I hadn’t asked any questions or offered to do anything, but she wouldn’t stop insisting all the same. When the office was empty, Ines spent hours with her elbows on the desk, studying websites about serving protocol or how to fold napkins to look like birds. Later she tried to put this into practice with the table linen we kept in the living-room cabinets, but the napkins wouldn’t stand up. Some nights I’d turn off my bedside light, and she’d still be sitting on the other side of the bed typing terms into Google, ten tabs open at the same time. I started to worry she might be going into chat rooms and talking to strangers who were anxious to give her their phone numbers and ask what color panties she had on. She reminded me of a patient who, two years after she thought she’d gotten over her addiction to chat rooms, still believed that the man of her dreams was in there, waiting for her inside her laptop.
The day of the dinner party started off badly. The geranium cutting that Adela had given Ines fell twisted and dead from the vase. When she saw it, Ines had an attack of hysterics, and I had to make her lie down for a few minutes on the couch my patients used. The armrests were worn out. It seemed sad and undignified for a practice of my standing. Ines was convinced that the flower’s death was a bad omen, and I repeated that it wasn’t, but I still couldn’t get her out of there. She insisted on getting a geranium to give to Adela at all costs. I found geraniums absolutely repulsive. Somehow I ended up offering to help, to lend a hand with the cooking as if it were a joint effort, and she started to calm down. I would have preferred to just give her a tranquilizer, but I took the risk and opened Pandora’s box.
My idea of helping was to go downtown, leave the car double parked with the hazards on, and buy something in a deli, but Ines had knives, cutting boards, and gadgets in the kitchen that I knew nothing about, let alone how to use, and she slipped an apron over my head like someone putting a collar on a dog. My suggestion of ready-made food was a disgusting abomination and an insult to our friends. It all embarrassed me a little, the apron and my dirty hands. It reminded me of one of those cooking shows where a housewife with misplaced maternal instincts tries unsuccessfully to teach a bachelor how to peel a potato. Luckily, with all those stupendous gadgets, I didn’t have to do much, and Ines took care of the more difficult or sticky tasks.
In the middle of the ordeal the twins came into the kitchen and asked for a snack. They looked at me and laughed. Their laughter was loud. It sounded like dry leaves that crackle when you step on them. I don’t know if they were laughing at me in the apron or if they were just happy because they were going to spend the night at their aunt’s house.
Ines made some sandwiches, and the girls ate as I lectured them about the importance of getting along. It’s crucial that the girls begin to become aware of their moods and emotions, and I talk to them a lot about it in the hope that it will help them later on. Also, I was tired of making melon balls. The twins listened politely then bit into their sandwiches, looked at each other and laughed, and it sounded like crackling. Ines wasn’t paying any attention to me. She was too busy. She was scrubbing things that immediately got dirty again.
Even though they hadn’t finished their snack, Ines was in a hurry to drop them off at my sister’s house. I took off the apron and went to get dressed. I had to do their hair myself. One of their ponytails leaned to the left, the other one’s ponytail leaned to the right, and since they looked so much alike, my lack of skill was all the more evident. I looked at them in the mirror and patted their ponytails. They ran off. I looked at myself in the mirror and then closed my eyes. I imagined myself somewhere else, somewhere far away, but when I opened my eyes again I was still there. I pulled down the medicine chest and counted to check there wasn’t too much of anything missing. Then I left the house.
I wrangled the twins into the car. At the last minute they’d decided they weren’t going to go, that they wanted to stay with Mom and Dad and that they didn’t want the old people (Eduardo and Adela, they meant) to come over. I thought it was funny, and I felt proud to have shaped such strong personalities with such an ability to assert themselves. I thought of going back in and telling Ines, with a straight face, that, given how the girls were behaving, the best thing to do would be to cancel the dinner. Then I worried she might react too violently and murder her own children. I smiled mischievously.
I drove fast down the highway. The girls didn’t talk. They stared symmetrically at the cars that we passed or that passed us. When we got there, my sister was surprised; she was expecting us an hour later based on what Ines had told her on the phone. She seemed annoyed.
“It’s fine,” she said finally.
She invited me to come in.
“It’s been a long time since we talked,” said my sister. “And I have a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen.”
I wondered if she wanted to talk to her brother or to a psychiatrist. I could recommend a few good ones.
“I have to go,” I said. “Ines is waiting for me, and there’s a lot left to do.”
I didn’t apologize. We didn’t agree on a time to pick the twins up the next day either. I wanted to say goodbye to the girls, but before I knew it they’d disappeared, and I supposed they were in some other room antagonizing the cat.
On my way home I took some streets I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t remember my sister’s neighborhood very well at all, and it was starting to get dark. I thought I was going to get lost and that if I got lost I’d be late for dinner and that if I was late for dinner Ines might cry in front of the guests. Still in motion, I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and opened the glove box with my right. The GPS wasn’t there. Just packs of Kleenex that no one ever used and several CDs of kids’ music. As I closed the glove box I lost balance and gave the wheel a sharp jerk. It was a miracle I didn’t go up onto the central reservation.
There was no one on the street I could ask for directions. I turned the corner and saw a bar, so I parked and got out of the car. I went in with every intention of asking someone how to get out of the neighborhood, but instead I ordered a glass of wine and sat on a stool at the bar. I looked at my watch and confirmed that I had plenty of time for another glass.
The waiter served me the first of the two glasses I planned on having. His face looked familiar. As I drank, I realized he reminded me of the top student in my class at school, a boy named Ignacio Alcalde, very intelligent and hardworking but marred by an unfortunate tic. With that uncontrollable movement of his mouth, no one could see a future for him in this profession where patients never take their eyes off you and you’re obliged to worry about your appearance. I hadn’t thought about Ignacio for many years, until I arrived, not really knowing how, at that bar and came across that waiter. It could easily be him, the best doctor in the class of ’78, lost and forgotten.
I left my wine half drunk and asked for directions. It scared me to think that Ignacio had ended up there, and I wanted to leave immediately. I asked for the check like I was in a restaurant, and the waiter gave me a strange look, unsure whether I wanted to know how much or if I also wanted a receipt. I paid, and the waiter—or Ignacio—gave me the directions I needed. His voice was deep and gravelly, completely different from the voice I remembered, and I felt relieved. Then I thought about how cigarettes, among other factors, could change the tone of a person’s voice.
I started the car and quickly found my way. I tried to picture the name of the bar in case I ever drove by again in the light of day. I’d sat for a few seconds looking at the lit sign before I went in, but now I was unable to remember it. A gust of wind blew a spiky leaf onto the windshield, and it gleamed with a bluish reflection. My cell phone rang. I moved into fifth and then felt around for my phone in the pocket of my blazer. The spiky leaf disappeared like a butterfly scared off by a puppy. It was a message from Ines. It said where are you, hurry up or we’re going to start without you.
As if unconsciously, I lifted my foot off the accelerator and stopped trying to pass the car in front of me.