Knowing We'll Be Mostly Wrong.
We never had a meal alone ever, alone just us. We might have, but
the memory is gone. When I see you eating we're never there, me,
Gary, or Mum.
It's always you and Claudette. It's always late, quiet, no
buses. Every now and then a motorbike muttering up the road.
The rest of us have eaten, done homework, traveled the planet once again
through View-Masters, tonged puppy doodoo from the garden, watered the
common hibiscus and crotons, washed our feet and gone to bed.
The food has been fridged. Fricassee chicken, or stew beef with carrots,
or pig trotters with broad beans, or macaroni with mince.
You're too drunk to take what's been set apart for you, to
negotiate each thing without over-knocking bottles, to prime the stove,
light each burner, set the knobs correctly for the blue beneath the pot.
Yes, somewhere in some other country there were microwaves and
frozen courses for drunk husbands,
but when your outside woman didn't feed you you were left out on
You and Claudette are pulling at the quilty bread you've brought
under your arm, smearing the off-white with pink bully beef,
Libby's or Grace smutted with tan fat and bronze jelly.
She's twelve and already plumping from eating two dinners,
already using nighties and dusters and house frocks to fog her shape.
Your knee is unsteady when she sits. You know you can't ask her to
ease up. You kiss her cheek, hand-feed her, let her bring the raw Scotch
Bonnet to your mustache, line it up for you to crunch it while she
pinches at the stalk.
My son, who's ten years older than I was when I last saw you, will
soon leave for school, a downhill walk from the heights of Providence,
downtown through its sad reaching for recovery, across an interstate
that mainlines to Boston. He goes to Classical High.
It's the last day of the term. I am up before him as always, and
not because I am good but because he needs direction,
watching, coaching step by step into the sweet how of simple
things, like getting up and getting dressed, keeping track of time,
checking off reminders-- the small bits of habit that if multiplied can
bring him bounty.
He's sixteen, but young, tender-hearted, and has just one friend, a
good one, has never tried Facebook, doesn't see the need to tweet,
makes elaborate illustrations in Moleskine only, and takes his
medication now without embarrassment, no longer uses their official
name, just the pills,
which make him feel the way he does after a hard lap swim--
relaxed, even and balanced, not like he's about to drown
from all this everything, or walk on water fire just to dazzle everybody
with his light.
At his age you were farming. In that red ground district that's all
there was to do, spade and hoe and scatter corn to gray pigs and hand
off seeds to the wind to do the rest, make rough note of which black
goats which boy was herding down which trail toward which common, which
I should have said, because all boys in red ground districts then were
shirtless and walked on flat ground with bent knees from the practice of
rolling with the hills, had toes spread wide like fingers, and were
short for their age.
Your grandson is tall, slender in the way of his mother and her ilk, but
not petty and vindictive. Open and forgiving-- like you--of other
people, but also of himself, which can be its own concern.
This morning, over sugared coffee concentrated in a German press, I
gazed at my son from one end of a short table covered with a cloth
decorated with yellow zigzags, something I picked up at Home Goods
because the wood is good, Italian, and he still spills milk and juice.
On this, his last day of school he is happy, not because school
is ending but because he is midway into a season of waking up and going
to bed with no reason to consider not wanting more life.
As I look at him, thinking of the cape of sad he drew around him when he
moved here in the New Year of an awful winter, he asks why I'd been
laughing in my room.
I feel put upon. I wasn't even aware I'd been laughing, and
then I remember, but it's about one of those things you find funny
for reasons you can't explain, so I keep saying Oh it's
nothing and he keeps asking, and I want him to leave me alone and go
back to feeling lonely and just go to school. Live his own damned life.
Then I remember you and your daughter, my sister, at a table sharing
time and something simple for the stomach, and imagine with the clarity
of middle age how those nights when you came home drunk and she'd
waited up for you, times I might have glimpsed while going to the
bathroom after wetting the bed, times it was just the two of you at the
gray and white Formica table with the green creeper reaching out and
over the clear glass bowl, the holster slung over a chair, the brown
horse neck of the black revolver, all of this lit soft by accident
because low watts were all we could afford, the air outside fuzzy with
warm dampness and the furry atmospherics of dry leaves stirred by mice,
mongooses, and insomniac bugs were perhaps the last things she thought
of that evening a few years ago when her heart stuttered on her way home
from working at a halfway house in Pittsburgh, where she taught men
who'd done time time and time again what it meant, what it felt
like, or could, to have a simple meal, in humble light, with a person
who had failed and would fail again.
This morning, as my son leaves for school in his turquoise polo shirt
and gray drawstrings, hair mown and edged off, he thanks me for the
waffles and the coffee, and for taking the time to explain the joke. It
is clear from his face he doesn't get it, that it's so
personal it can't be explained.
Perhaps I failed at the telling, but he is smiling, for the time at the
table, and maybe for the light spreading on the meadow he is off to
enter, unaware of all the ways I have already let him down, aware too of
some ways I'm not tuned into so can't mention, but I know the
list is long, but I also know he's loving, is likely to be gracious
in assessment--I hope-- this boy who was manhandled out of anger,
written off and given up on, in the end abandoned, the exile different
from yours in execution but still a cut, a wound, a wound familiar to me
to us, Gary, Claudette, that fat girl in the house frock who'd
always wait for you, who died riding in an ambulance, alone.
We begin to fail the second we invest in the speck that makes the
children. We do right, knowing we'll be mostly wrong.