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What shall we say of her? Why not call her a somber dowd? I would call her that affectionately, for one may be such a thing here, at this time of day, with grace and impunity. You will notice that her eyes are narrow, not the peepers they will be at dinnertime; they are merely hazel buttonholes the very color of her housecoat. You would not say that her kitchen abilities are extraordinary (even she will admit they are middling) but that is of no consequence here. Look how unselfishly she ministers to us. I ask you, is she not praiseworthy?

It is March. March fourth, I think. Not quite daylight yet. In here--(I want you to imagine this) in our modest kitchen suffused with soft, buttery light while the big tree out there shivers in the wind (swaying as you see it now against the dove-colored sky, the tree is a live silhouette of a ferocious old man with a beard; so said the older of my two boys some two or three Marches ago); the smells of ourselves, of our own collective musks, of our dedications to our habits; her slippers sniff-sniffing over the cold linoleum as I light up and smoke uncriticized--in here one may, if one wants, know absolutely nothing and know it with singular indulgence. We will not strain to be agreeable. We do not go in for phony optimism around here, and she has learned to pout with the best of us. For instance, I have just assured her that she does not have bags.

"The hell I don't," she says pulling an oblong face to plump the bluish thicknesses under each eye with her fingertip. "Satchels," she calls them wearily. "And don't say it becomes me, you."

So we have developed our warts, our lines and bags and all. This is not Paradise.

See how she tenders our coffee. I am accustomed to two cigarettes per serving. Sputter-sputter, puff-puff. It may be the middle of the day, any more, before she lights up: if this is an example she is setting then I am not moved, thus far, to follow it.

She says, "Vivaldi." Then, "Gotta be Vivaldi."

I allow that it could be. "But couldn't it be Francois Couperin? Who's to say? Bet it could even be Boccherini."

She doesn't need even this much encouragement. "Luigi is out. Purcell is out. Nope, I say Vivaldi."

She fancies herself the adept and should have the last word. To me it only matters that it's Baroque, which is after all the style one expects at this hour, though I wouldn't mind if they skipped ahead to some Mozart for a change. "Let's just say old reliable Father Bach and forget about it," I say.

"Never," she says.

Let me find my glasses. The calendar reads, yes, Tuesday, March the fourth. Marching forth!

There is an anomaly in here. Young son is asleep on the couch again instead of upstairs in his bed. The boy has troubles. We've seen him go from overeating to thievery. He dropped the weight, we think, on account of his adolescent hormones--perhaps he was even experiencing first love--but now he's taken to filching from people. It's likely a symptom of something. Eleven or twelve, I really am forgetting which, and insomnia already. Sleepwalking and grand larceny.

Keeping an eye on our toast--or are they biscuits?--she reminds me, "He's on the couch again."

And I acknowledge, sputter-puff, and so forth.

"If I were him--" she says to me, a little wider in the eye now, "with all he's going through, knowing what I know about it, having been through it myself as a girl and even now unable ever to forget a minute of what it was like--I'd kill myself," she puts across fatalistically. Believe me though, this is not a morbid but a sympathetic thing she is saying. If mighty circuitous.

The boy dislikes school intensely, is part of the problem. Likes staying home. Alone. If her memories of childhood are soured by melancholy then mine are too, especially with respect to the public schools, and as such I permit him all the school-skipping he can get away with. One day I was brought low with a fever and came home early. He had the "Firebird Suite" blaring; he had pudding scorching on the stove. He, or somebody else, had been trying to smoke my pipe. I had the sense that someone else had been here, someone older, maybe, whom he'd perhaps been naughty with. His beloved? I don't know why I thought this; there was no real evidence, unless you could read something into the fact that he had always been repulsed by pipe and cigarette smoke and had never shown the slightest interest in classical music. He was dancing.

Must have been something in the music, some giveaway, because she says, fingers to her forehead, working with certitude, "No, Vivaldi."

"How so sure?"

"Because he touches off certain thoughts. Couperin, other thoughts; and Boccherini, still others."

When I told her that our son had been dancing to the "Firebird," and was most immodestly clad to boot, she did not exhibit the least surprise. Neither did she seem distressed to learn that we might have a sissy on our hands. She merely asked, "Was he any good?"

"His dancing, I suppose you mean."


"Sort of a mincing antelope, I'd say."

"Paganish, would you say?"

Why had I been unable to tell her that he had been naked, that his loose skin, after his recent weight loss, mealy as tapioca in places, appeared draped over his delicate bones? I had not been shocked so much as embarrassed. "Very pagan, I should say," I told her.

Which seemed to conclude the matter, since the ballet had been conceived largely, she said, as an anthropomorphic thing.

We no longer live in the city. When we did, a certain unpleasant incident occurred which finally settled us on leaving. We worked like dogs there and rented. Complaining of our apartment I would often quote Stephen Crane: "Many a man," he said, "ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea." The incident I mention occurred to her. She had worked her way up to senior trade editor at one of the better publishing houses. Mainly, she made deals, starting at the top; that is, she gave most of her time to the telephone, to the bigshots and their quibbling agents; she spread herself as thinly as was decently affordable through the middle range, the "literaries," or what the executives and promotion people and sales reps called their "necessary evil." Only occasionally could she persuade the publishers to take on a nobody, a goose egg, but a goose egg of significant promise--"whose prose would resonate and whose hunger could be felt on every page." She meant this. She really did put out for these small fry. Accordingly I saw less and less of her: a minute or two in the morning, and then, later and later at night, the fag end.

"Slush pile, darling?"


She began carrying them home, these heavy boxesful that gave her backache. She lost sleep. And then she couldn't sleep. And then she was indifferent to my affection. And then she began to complain of chronic headache, blocked bowels. We went on in this way in the city for some tim. Finally, one day, a man burst into her office asking after his manuscript. He appeared to be very shaken, and he wished to know whether she'd looked at his book at all yet. When my wife began to explain, gently, that unsolicited manuscripts would first be handled by their readers, this rattled man started to cry. He wept openly, saying, "Don't you people know what I've been going through!" or sentiments to that effect. She did. She offered to find the man's work and read it, certain, she told me, that, from the way he was so pitifully crumbling, it would have to have been a good book. She found his frailty heroic and would have offered him a drink or a cup of coffee, but he continued swearing her out--and in such good taste, such heartfelt scorn. He hurled the word "invidious" at her, she remembered. Of course someone, a receptionist or secretary, had called security and the man was quickly, if not quietly, escorted from the building. She went down to the bar across the street and was melancholy for an hour. Back at her desk, she grew wretched and remorseful. Because of her, this man would surely be swinging by a rafter before sundown. That or waiting for her in the subway. An associate editor told her to not let it get to her. "These little guys are always cracking up." But she was nauseated, she said, for us all. So, acting on her scruple, we both accepted positions at an old college out here in the Midwest and left the city in good haste. Actually, I had been keen on leaving for some time.

And here, you see, we came, where we naturally let go of a good deal of our loftier ambitions, and where, comparatively speaking, the house we found was enormous. After three or four years we started a family.

Precipitately this moderate smoker, this winner--hands down--of the morning radio blindfold test, this bearer of biscuits, has smothered one of her biscuit-halves with real butter and bitten off half, saying, "Damn the consequences!" She is yumming with gratification. She sways, something like the tree out there in the March weather, only she sways to what she is sure is Vivaldi. Shall we add bulging hips and clogged arteries to the bags and warts?

Dr. Poole is penciled into the calendar for today. Our son's psychologist.

"Marching forth!" There, I said it out loud this time, and am told to explain myself. "An old friend of mine's birthday today. She used to say 'Marching forth.' That's how I always remember it. Gave the most charming birthday parties for herself. I remember one year in particular: her friends were lined up, all the way down the stairs to the street, waiting to give her presents, while she sat in a highbacked chair with a velvet cushion and received them and their presents, one at a time."

"This the same one that...dallied with you all that time in the bookstore?"

"Nope, I've never mentioned this one. Makes me too sad to remember."

"She your 'babe' or anything?"

"For a few months. To her undying regret, probably."

"Noble of you."

I have just been handed a bowl of half a dozen eggs. My job to crack, whisk and scramble. My job also to wake the boys. But I'll wait, for nothing spoils our fun like the sleep-mangled faces of our boys, rank and still gluey with spittle. Last night she and I met quite by accident in the downstairs bathroom. I had come down on the pretense of fetching something, she to let out the cat. It was well past midnight. When she barged in on me (protesting that it was an unwitting intrusion) I told her I had been in that erect state for hours, that I was hankering after a certain student of mine, and damned if l could come to any other terms with it. We have each had to make this admission. We have had to make it simultaneously even. Let's face it, this is something we all know about; it has been exhaustively documented; it is, assuming the normalcy of things, inevitable. We simply realize, she and I, the truth of the matter: that we no longer represent youthful beauty to each other, and that our students are, many of them, simply that. The fact that they are stupid, but far from innocent, is all the more beguiling. Our crushes have never come to fruition. What we do about it need not be mentioned, except to say that it is, in the end, rewarding, even life-affirming. Looking back on last night, though, I realize that we made enough rough-and-tumble to shake the entire downstairs, and who's to say young son was not already down here trying to escape the infernal sadness of his own thoughts? I am reminded too that, somewhere in the fracas, I lost my underpants; reminded that I am unprotected beneath my pajama bottom, because, as I whisk the eggs, my balls jangle together in an awfully silly way.

"Maybe," she says, making swift work of the birthday girl on the velvet chair cushion, "you should throw some cold water on it this time."

I will put off waking them yet. I'll wait until she has finished her bacon and I have done the eggs. Their faces will only decry the wholesomeness of this breakfast.

I suppose I find it difficult being their father--the father of boys. This is not some vague difficulty but one that can be explained simply by examining the precedent:

The last time I saw my father he was sitting way over in a corner of the front portico of the house where I grew up. I was twelve. He was in khaki shorts sitting on the reddish-brown tile floor, one bare knee up in the air. It was June, and I think, incidentally, that he had a bad case of poison ivy and the raised knee was plastered with Calamine lotion. He had been putting the finishing dabs to a giant urn with his fresco brush. The urn was filled with fresh earth and red geraniums and he was whistling something atonal (for his talent was all in the eye and did not extend to his ear) which signified, as I've defined it since, his fraudulent good cheer and optimism. Though he took the glass of shallow whiskey from my hand, he did not thank me for fetching it. He had just bought the two matching urns at auction; they were quite old and rare and very large--each standing almost up to his waist. Whistling, dabbing, owning extravagant, ostentatious objects like these, one would have thought him very happy. Not a bit of it. He blew his brains out that same afternoon with a round of no. 4 buckshot. He did it around back in the old soup house. Very pulpy.

To say the truth, I did not grieve. Indeed I was rather glad. Why that was so is perhaps another story. The upshot, I think, is that I have always been uneasy around the fathers of my friends, though happily most of these have become doddering and senile. But this uneasiness extends even to the fathers of my children's friends, especially if they are the sort who work around the house with power tools or take pride in a well-mown, fastidiously trimmed lawn or fly the American flag or follow the sports page. The thing is, I cannot stand a bully, and I imagine most of these men are bullies. My father, if you haven't guessed it, was one of the great bullies. Around here we take pains to ensure that we do not bully each other, and especially that we do not cultivate phony optimism. Our yard is a meadow, and we intend to keep it that way.

The point I'm trying to make, and which I will not reiterate, is that I have always been scared to death of being a father. I might have been less so with a daughter but, as you see, I have been blessed with the two boys. I think the fear stems from a notion that the tendency to self-destroy is inherited and that it will likely strike in alternate generations. More than a notion, really, for Science, I understand, has now isolated the gene.

I am not fearful for myself. I am quite sane. My wife is sane. There are no longer many of our sort around, we reckon. Which is why we bought the acreage and have no close neighbors and our yard is a meadow. No, I am frightened for the boys.

Number One Son, who is in his bed where he belongs, is not, I wouldn't say, precocious, but he is a good writer. He writes better--at, what is it, fifteen?--than most of my students. Here is something of his I found in the attic:

Ruth, why is it I write to you this way? You. Jeffrey writes you stories. It's not because of Jeffrey's stories for you, Ruth, that I am writing. Mine is not a story, mine is a confession. No doubt I have reason to confess, but why is it I write to you this way? I don't know what it is, exactly. I picked you.

There are additional meanderings. Then:

I was in the house. It was Christmas week. Things happen here, Ruth, I'm sure you understand. One day Dad came home with a big crate in the back of his truck. He came in for a while to warm his hands. He stood around in the kitchen mashing his gloved hands together; then he said to everyone, "I've got to get. I'm putting a plane together."

"A plane!" everyone said.

"What do you mean?" Mom asked.

Dad said, "That's a thing with wings, darling."

"Well I know that. But do you mean a toy one, or one you fly?"

Dad said, "Yes."

"Well?" Mom said.

"Yes," Dad said. "A toy I'm going to fly."

It strains a bit, but it has economy and I think she would agree, were I to share it with her, that it shows promise. The epistle went on, and I was relieved to have the assurance that this one is heterosexual at least; but he never got to the confession part. Presumably he feels compelled to tell Ruth something and to put it across in this parochial way, though it really only amounts to so much pretext. But just in case, I can tell you that I've been doubly cautious with every step in the construction of my plane. No, I cannot believe he really intends to sabotage me; he just has difficulty circumventing the irrelevancies and honing in on the stuff that matters. No, I think this one is all right; he will fail or triumph and, either way, it will seem destined and complete.

Now the other one--he does not write, and certainly there is no precocity in his dancing. But he is remarkably inscrutable and thieves like a Gypsy. Therefore what it really comes down to is that I am worried for this one alone. It is one of the few things she and I are not entirely agreed upon. Where this one is concerned I believe she has a definite blind spot. I've noticed that she is that niggling instructor who counts points to determine her students' grades. So many points for typographical neatness, for proper footnoting style; she claims it is her responsibility, their obligation. None of her students are exempt from her hard scrutiny; yet she still bathes our youngest. "Leave this one to me," she said some time ago, meaning that he was her baby boy and the last she would have until and unless she is a grandmother. It bothers me to see her still bathe him. It bothers me that, when he does not bring his sleeplessness down to the couch he will bring it in to us--to her, rather--and she will put him in to snuggle between us. It was not until quite recently that she came to recognize that it was the least bit peculiar her giving him an enema for the odd bellyache.

His sleep tells us more than he would dare volunteer--more, perhaps, than we want to know. He both walks and talks in his sleep. My theory is that the things he does during the day work their way out in his active subconscious. For instance, late one night, when she and I were sitting up reading, he came downstairs. He appeared to be on the verge of telling her he couldn't sleep again or had another stomach ache--that is, he looked perfectly normal--until he lowered himself to his hands and knees and went searching for something underneath the furniture. He looked under the ottoman then crawled to the coffee table; he inspected on his stomach the entire length of the couch; he finally scuttled over to my chair, lifted its skirt and peered right between my feet. It was her finally asking what he was looking for that brought him out of it. His head wrenched around violently and pulled up and we watched his face come over with a sudden depravity that made me stop laughing immediately. That time he ran back upstairs before we could recover our equanimity.

The next time he did this we were ready for him. When we saw him on the landing our plan went into action. We started up what had the appearance, the nuance, of casual conversation, hoping in this way to ease the boy into disclosing his intentions. He seemed to glide in that strange somnambulistic way down the stairs, and when he stepped onto the rug he halted. He was in canary-yellow pajamas and his left hand appeared to be holding something: the upper arm clenched tight against his ribs and the hand cupped with the side of it pressed to his stomach as if trying to prevent whatever he carried from falling out or spilling over. But his hand was empty.

She had been mouthing some mellow, agreeable nonsense--"...the cow jumped over the moon..."--but ceased when he began to whisper. "Stay close," he repeated deliberately, intensely to each of us.

It was a warm night and we followed him through the door and out into the back meadow. One path leads to our east border, to an old tack shed that was originally attached to a barn. When the boys were younger they shared this outbuilding for a club house, but they eventually claimed separate places--the elder staked out the attic, while this one retained the shed--for they had developed a preference of absolute secrecy over collective privacy and they each swore to observe the other's sanctuary. As soon as we struck off on the east path we knew his destination. We proceeded single-file, our son in the lead, and we were joined now by the dog and cat. He threaded gingerly so as to prevent dropping or spilling whatever he dreamed that he was carrying.

The air was muggy and there was no moon, and the further away from the house we went, the darker it became. When we could no longer make out his yellow shape ahead of us but could only follow the panting and sniffing of the dog, I whispered to her that I was going back for the flashlight.

I am not a man who stores things in anticipation of emergencies. I looked in all the likely places, through every kitchen cabinet and drawer, the broom and linen closets, the tool box. Our flashlight is an item we seldom have need for, and in my mind I could see it everywhere, like the fur-lined gloves I must hunt up every November. But it would not materialize. I finally found it in the glove compartment of my truck, but the switch was in the on position and the batteries were long since drained.

Back on the trail I hurried and at the same time tried to listen--since I could not see my hand in front of my face---for obstacles ahead, pretending, I suppose, that I had adapted the faculty of echolocation. He must have been standing as still as a post, because I slammed into him and knocked him down. When I helped him up he felt limp and was mumbling incoherently. He found it hard to stand on his legs. "Where is your mother?" I asked. But he was wholly disoriented, helpless to say.

Then I heard the distinct yelping of the dog and looked up the path. I could see, out there, the tiny flicker of light. In no time it grew to a flame. And when he saw it too he screamed and took out in its direction. Coming closer I could make out her silhouette wildly fanning the flames with what turned out to be an old fragment of tarpaper. By the time we reached it the shed was fully engulfed.

Later she gave me two explanations. The first was that the fire was an accident. She told me that he had stealthily unpadlocked the door with a key he wore around his neck and she had stepped in behind him. While, from the sound of it, he seemed to know just where he was going, she could see even less than before. She swung her arms slowly around her. She could touch things but was afraid to feel them. She described the sensation as one of suffocating apprehension, yet also of unmitigated curiosity. She felt for the matches down in her skirt pocket and lit one. What little she could see was nothing, she said, that an ordinary ten-year-old wouldn't hoard in his backyard hermitage. She was no more specific. She had watched him open an empty box and add to its emptiness his imaginary booty. Then the match had burnt down to her fingers and she had flung it, and it was when she was fumbling with another that she accidentally set off the whole book, and the sudden flash had frightened her and she had innocently dropped that too; hence the resultant conflagration.

"Fiddlesticks!" I told her. "You were fanning the flames when I caught up to you. Sorry, dear, but it was clear and obvious."

Her revised explanation ran the same up to the striking of the first match. She had instantly recognized then the alligator overnight bag he was bending over and had his hands in. It had been missing since she had, some time or other, packed for a visit to her sister's in the city. And while he had added nothing to it, the suitcase had been far from empty. When the match burned her she hissed and let go, and after she struck another she saw that he had straightened up and was walking out. He ordered her to stand guard and left the door hanging open. She had a look around, at all that he had secreted in there, and then she started the fire with the remainder of the matchbook and a stack of old curtain linings.

"So what was it?" I asked her. "His plunder. What did he have in there?"

She swore that she loved me, maintained that I was her husband and the father of our children and that of course it was wholly within my province to ask, to insist, even to badger her as to the unspeakable inventory our son had sacked and squirreled away in that shed. But she declared that she would never tell. She had burned it to the ground and, as far as she was concerned, all relevant discussion along with it. As a consolation, though, she promised me greater latitude, from that moment on, in managing our son's upbringing.

But when I tried to get it out of the boy, all he produced were a gray smile and a few bitter tears and a child's enigmatic denial: You didn't see it and can't prove anything, so you can believe whatever you want.

While the grease drains from her bacon and spreads a yellow blot in its bed of white toweling and my eggs have reached their climax of moist fluffiness, we observe that the biscuits are drying out in the oven and the news has come on, a signal that we are running late. It is past time to get them up.

The sight of him breaks my heart. The place where he is sleeping looks as if violence had been done, as if there had been a struggle here and he had been bruised and broken and left lying as he dropped, to perish, for the blanket is baled at his feet and the pillow from his bed has slipped out onto the floor. He is mostly on his stomach, one arm twisted underneath him and the other hanging dead over the side. Both pajama legs are bunched up at the knees as though, lying there, he had had a nightmare of an encroaching monster and to escape involved a futile footrace.

I cannot think what good my having a greater hand in his upbringing has done. I think, in some ways, the boy's life has worsened. For one thing, he must no longer miss as much school as I think reasonable; for another, he may no longer have a secret place. Except on the days when he sees Dr. Poole, he has been instructed to come straight home on the school bus rather than hang around in town with constant temptation over his head. It is customary that, on the days he sees Dr. Poole, I pick him up at the drug store on my way home from my office in the history department. On one such occasion last month I had been in a meeting with my colleagues all afternoon. It is another widely chronicled aspect of college teaching that, among the various strata of faculty, there will invariably occur equal amounts of grasping and pandering; these discreet treacheries are perhaps more prevalent even than student crushes, and, while I may harbor deep-seated emotions regarding both, I find it far wiser to sit rather than act upon them. One need only see the havoc such intrigues can wreak. And how do you account for it in a history department? But because I had encountered no dearth of petty chicanery that day, and especially since they will not allow me to smoke, I found myself growing impatient, stubborn, and finally resentful. It's not minds like steel traps, it's who can be more generous was what I felt with ever greater conviction. But afterwards, as I was saying, my son and I drove out through a terrible blizzard. Navigating us home was most hazardous, what with the icy snowfall angling in from all directions and drifting and sticking to the windshield, and so neither of us spoke a word. Twice I narrowly escaped disaster on the county road. My nerves were terribly shattered when we came in. As we were taking our coats off in the hallway something slapped down on the bare wood floor. It was a handsome black rectangular jeweler's box, the kind that might contain a bracelet or necklace. It had fallen from his coat pocket. He swooped down and retrieved the box from where it had struck the floor between his feet like (and this was exactly how I saw it at the time) like a wide, dark turd. Then he tried to cover it and get away in such a craven manner that I actually pulled him back by the hair. "Nothing!" he shouted as I shouted, "What is it! What have you done now!" and stopped his flailing arms at the wrists. "Nothing!" He kicked me. His eyes filled and turned red and his breathing began to rattle with hatred. "What is it!" "Nothing!" I finally got him down and pried the box from his fingers. It was a costly pen and pencil set.

The outburst had brought my wife running terrified from the kitchen.

When we had calmed down and regained our rationality he told us that it had been Dr. Poole's suggestion--that, since they were not making very satisfactory progress in his therapy, Dr. Poole had told him it might be a good idea if he started writing things down.

"Goddammnit!" my wife said, "I thought this Dr. Poole was supposed to be a specialist in childhood disorders!"

"She is," I told her. "She didn't tell him to go out and steal a goldplated pen and pencil set. For Christ's sake, she just told him to write."

"Write! Write what! What is this Dr. Poole fishing for! I suppose she wants to know all the dirt she can get on us! All the terrible things he's subjected to at home. I suppose she picks up volumes of that from children. She'll probably make a goddamn book out of it!"

He had been sitting close beside her on the couch and he was sniveling and alternately rubbing both his wrists where, in our struggle, I had twisted them. My wife pushed his hair back and sympathetically stroked his hot cheek with the back of her index finger. "Come on," she said, "let's get you upstairs and give you a bath."

Sometimes I will stand over our shipwrecked son so wildly and ambiguously inert, and I will stare at him actually thinking him a stranger, some friend of hers staying over, sleeping down here because we have no room for him upstairs with us. And then I will admit that I have looked down and thought him not just dead but violently dead, vaguely imagined that his tossed and mangled image is exactly what it seems and that he is far beyond our exalting strings and oboe and the satisfying smell of our bacon. I may actually start to grieve. But then I must quickly bend close and listen for his breathing until I have felt it blow across my cheek like the soft beat of warm feathers. Usually, by then, he knows. And then you will watch that tiny smile break, and the eye will roll down under its lid and the limbs will begin to stretch; and you will wonder what the smile is all about, what it really might be saying, just what it thinks it has on you. And you find yourself backing away slightly, a little bit repulsed, I suppose, before you tell him to get upstairs and wake his malingering brother and let him know breakfast is on the table.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Brown, Michael David
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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