Dont Tell Anyoneby Frederick Busch
An eloquent and poignant work of fiction about the soul of the American family, and about storytelling itself, by one of our country's most important writers.
The parents and children in these stories are driven to speak by the hungers of love and the fear of time. Tender, funny, sometimes heartbreaking, Busch captures our need to connect, the failures that make
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An eloquent and poignant work of fiction about the soul of the American family, and about storytelling itself, by one of our country's most important writers.
The parents and children in these stories are driven to speak by the hungers of love and the fear of time. Tender, funny, sometimes heartbreaking, Busch captures our need to connect, the failures that make us human, and the triumphs that make us splendid.
In "Heads" a mother is haunted by her own past when her daughter is accused of a murder. In "Malvasia" a daughter gives her bereaved father the gift to go on living. A father suffers over his inability to save his grown son from heartbreak in "Passengers." "The Joy of Cooking" is a tour de force about a failed marriage. Called a "first-rate American storyteller," and a "master craftsman" by the New York Times Book Review, Busch delivers a moving portrait of the American family.
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Did I tell you she was raped?
And not by the man she stabbed?
If you could do ... somethingI couldn't remember whatthen you'd be able to do something else. I couldn't remember that, either. I knew it was the poem they quote at commencements and at civic-awards ceremonies in small upstate communities like mine. I remembered the rhythm of its lines, but I couldn't remember the words.
My head was a hive of half-remembered words, tatters of statement, halves of stories, the litter of alibis, confessions, supplications, and demands, the aftereffects, perhaps, of the time I spent standing beside my grown, or half-grown, ungrown, ingrown child in a courtroom. She trembled, and I tried to situate myself, standing as we were before the clerks' desk, which was before and below the bench of the judge, so that she could lean her thin, shivering body on mine, at least a shoulder or forearm, at least the comfort I could offer with the heft of my hand against the hard, cold, bony fingers of hers. But she would not accept the heat of my flesh or the weight I wished she might prop herself on. The trial for the crime had never taken place, because our lawyer convinced usAlec, my daughter, and methat she should plead nolo contendere: guilty, in a word. She had, as they say, copped a plea. She'd bargained down. She and the victim and the Manhattan district attorney's office had agreed to change the shape of events. We would say that Alec did not incise three small cuts in the skin ofVictor Petrekis's face with a stainless-steel pocket knife brought to her from England by her father when she was small. She and our lawyer, Petrekis and the assistant district attorney, had constructed a language to make her crime the attempt of the deed she had in fact done. And we were before the judge to hear the sentence he would pass.
Petrekis and the assistant district attorney stood at our left, the judge's right. The two clerks periodically bent to write on forms. The marshals behind us, their belts creaking with the weight of their guns, their lapel radios hissing static, waited to learn if they would take her to jail. I had been warned that they put your child in handcuffs right there, as she stands beside you, and they take her off. The heavier clerk, her face a kind of mild mask, was the one who swore us in, ending her questionwhether we would tell the truth before this courtwith the warning that we must remember how on that great day, when all would be judged, our falsehoods would be weighed against us. It seemed to me she expected us all to lie and was trying, with her impassivity, not to show her disappointment in our dishonesty. But we all said, and in unison, "I do," as if the ceremony were about marriage and not the dissolution of whatever you might namerest, comfort, household, and, surely, freedom.
Alec wore a suit she had bought for law school. It was too large, like everything she owned, and its eggplant color, once so interesting with her red-gold hair, now seemed to overpower her complexion. It made her look gray. Her hair was thin and muddy-looking, cropped so short I could see, from beside her, the bone of her skull behind her ear. Her head looked vulnerable to the temperature of the air, and of course to the world of cruel surfaces before which her head was naked now. Even the sleeves of the suit seemed too long, as if her body had diminished in length as well as breadth.
The judge had a wattle of chin and a thick, long nose. The flesh of his face was pitted and loose, his scalp very broad and shiny. But his eyes were of a rich, dark blue, and he spoke with an urgency, a sense of concern, in which I believed. He read from sentencing guidelines and asked the assistant district attorney and our lawyer, Sylvia Stern, if they agreed with his understanding of the rules. The ADA, as Sylvia called him, nodded. Sylvia said, "Yes, Judge." I found myself nodding, too, though of course I knew nothing. I knew nothing.
The knife was about three and a half inches long when folded shut. Its single blade was short and thin. Barry had gone to the north of England on a buying trip. He ordered printed cottons to be sold to dressmakers in the States, and he brought home cloth for me and a print of Stonehenge that he said was designed by Turner though etched and inked by someone else, and a little pocket knife for Alec, who was going through a boy phase that year and was pining for a left-handed first baseman's mitt, an aluminum bat, and the kind of knife that guys carried in the pocket of their jeans.
She kept it in her purse during Barry's dying, and through the end of college in the zipper pocket of her rucksack, and in her one semester of law school it was in a compartment of Barry's attaché case, in which she hauled her work between her apartment on 113th Street and the library and classrooms of Columbia Law.
Did I say that she was raped?
The question's rhetorical, of course: the ploy of a woman on a back porch alone, shielded from her neighbors by a waist-high wall, lighting cigarettes and blowing the smoke at black flies surrounding her head in a cloud, thick as the words in court, as she tries to startle the black night or circumstance itself that hovers about her. She surely, on the other hand, was raped, and by a student she knew, and in the comfort and convenience of her own furnished apartment. He, too, had his time in court, he, too, pleaded guilty after first contesting her claim. He, too, was sentenced, and Alec stood at the left of the bar, the judge's right, and said, once more, her grievance. The man, for whom she was making coffee as they prepared together for a test, had wept, and so had she. She should have howled her rage, though I believe, and so do her doctors, that nothing would have prevented what they came to call the break.
He raped her because he loved her, because he detested her, because he was jealous of her grade in the course, or because, when he was little, it was just this side of possible, his lawyer had claimed at first, that he was abused by a man who led the Cub Scouts. Perhaps each possibility was true. It never mattered to me. I wanted him gelded. I wanted the wound sealed with boiling pitch, with concentrated lime, and bound with barbed wire. It didn't matter to Alec either, though she spoke at first about friendship, and she wondered whether she had led him on. She soon enough stopped.
She soon enough stopped calling home. She soon enough, when I was able to catch her on the phone, spoke with no inflection. Soon, she mostly wept. And of course I should have gone at once, at the first hint of a sign of damage, to the city to rescue her. I should have stolen her. I should have fetched my baby home. But I waited, because I was leading my life, after all. I was teaching high school students how to distinguish between Babylon and Byzantium, Arafat and Attaturk, and I was failing, as were they, but that was how we were required to consume our days, and life was a storm of consequences with which one had to deal, and Alec in New York was only tense about her studies.
"It's the work, Mommy," she said. "I have too much of it."
"Maybe it's the wrong work."
"You sound so Jewish, Mommy."
"I think of you in New York, and I remember myself in New York, and I sound city," I said.
"You're in the foothills of Harlem and you can say that?"
"I'm in the foothills of fuck up."
"Gotta go. Gotta go. I'm doing permutations of collateral estoppel, and I can't stop."
"Al, I think maybe you ought to stop."
"`Bill till you drop. Don't stop.' Bye, Mommy."
"Feel good and be careful? Please? Oh, say hello to Coriander," I said, but she'd hung up.
Barry and I had lived together in New York for the first few years of our marriage. He was a student at Cooper Union, and I was a dancer, and it's like watching a balloon that leaks while it zips in circles over your head, but in very slow motion, to see how those ambitions were mostly wishes and breath. But we were there when we were young, and on the afternoon of our first married day, in the room-plus-bathroom that we described as almost on University Place, I woke up next to my tall, hairy husband with his elegant, long, slender feet, and I didn't know which hunger banged from inside at my ribsneed for food, or need for Barry. Food won, but we hadn't very much. There were crackers and a wad of multipurpose processed cheese on the table seven feet from our bed. But there was a cake, prepared on upper Broadway to the specifications of Barry's mother, and I was assailed by a need for sweets, and the cake was, for reasons we couldn't ever remember, on the little square table from the Workbench that Barry's best man had given us. So I reached out and plucked the three-or-four-inch-high couple, made of sugar in black and white, the bride in her broad white gown, the groom in his morning coat and striped trousers, each with a genderless face of white with periods under black carats for eyes, a dash for a mouth, and I bitwithout planning to, and never knowing what I'd meant to signifyat the head of the little groom.
That was how we came to spend our first married afternoon in the office of a dentist named Echaissy on Eighth Street, because the darling couple were made of plaster, and I had cracked a tooth. The groom suffered only a chip to his glossy pompadour. We carried them with us to our next apartment, on Seventeenth Street, and then to Mamaroneck, and then upstate, where Barry took over a factory and I took over a classroom, and where Barry's lungs filled with fibers of cloth, and his body devoured itself. We were married in City Hall, our witnesses had no camera, and the imperfect painted plaster couple are the embodiment and souvenir of what Barry and I and two witnesses had seen. We kept the bride and groom on a bookshelf in our living room, and there they remain, less the same of course, but standing watch over what you might call history.
Coriander was the name we'd given a stuffed tan cat with which Alec had slept since her second or third year. Barry told her stories about Coriander, and the saga had become the subject of Alec's first and only novel, three sheets of paper stapled together, all six sides bearing crayon drawings of adventures about which she had written in thick, tall capitals. I remember one "Aha!" in messy blue letters, and I remember Barry crooning it to Alec months earlier, one weekend night at bedtime. "Aha!" he'd called, "Aha!" she'd echoed, on a Sunday night when, to keep the next morning's class from arriving unmediated, and to demonstrate what I could not adequately say about that father and his child connected by the victorious shout of a make-believe cat, I had seduced him on a little armless rocking chair, outside on our porch, hidden from our neighbors by the porch's waist-high wall. Coriander had been washed, mended, tossed and mauled and embraced in every house we'd lived in, in each of Alec's dormitory rooms, and she had continued to be resident childhood fetish in Alec's place on Broadway and 113th. That was where I went after Alec called to wish me happy birthday.
"Darling," I said. "Al."
"Al, it isn't my birthday."
"Sure it is. Today's the eleventh, dingbat."
I didn't know what else to say' "But that's Daddy's birthday, remember? It isn't mine for a month, I'm afraid."
"It's Daddy's birthday? Today? But it can't be his birthday. He's dead."
"Yes," I said. "Where are you, honey? Are you home?"
"What difference could that make? When am I is more like it. God. Daddy's dead and you don't even have a birthday now. When's mine?"
"Your birthday? Alec, are you in your apartment?"
"Yes. I'm here in the kitchen thing. Ette. Kitchenette. I was looking at the ingredients and everything in the cupboard to see if I could make you a cake, you know, or something, but of course that would be so stupid. I can't bake at all, as we both know perfectly well. And the cake I'd have to can't bake would have to be for Daddy, not you, and he's dead. You aren't, right? No. I really meant to ask: Am I?"
She said, very breezily, "What's your best bet?" Then all I heard was the sound of stoppered crying, someone's mouth and nose cupped shut while they tried not to weep and they failed.
I said, "Al."
"Oh," she said, "I don't think I'm strong enough anymore, Mommy. I don't think I can do this anymore."
"No," I said, "I'm leaving now. I'm coming. Promise me to stay in your apartment. Can you call someone?"
"Sure. What should I call them?" She laughed while she cried.
"Get some friends over, Al. Anyone you trust."
"Well, he's in jail for raping me, actually."
"He's the one who won't see me anymore."
"I don't think I know who you mean."
"Obviously, a man I saw and I don't see him because he refuses to see me."
"Is he afriend?"
"Don't `ah' me, Mommy, all right? I'm old enough to have a lover."
"Of course. Yes. I don't remember"
"No," she said. "I never talked about him. We didn't last long enough for me to find a short enough word that could describe how lousy it got so fast. A woman is allowed to want a man at the just about end of the twentieth century, may I point out. I keep waiting for a kind of sign or something, but he will not stand up for me. He isn't what you'd call a stand-up guy. I tried telling him that. Because someone will punish him. Someone, of course, is going to demonstrate how you're either a stand-up guya man, you know?the geniune article, or you're hollow. If you're a dummy, I said, don't come around here. But I didn't know he'd do what I said to do or not to do. It's pretty clear-cut, though, you know? You'd know. You got around a little when you were dancing, right? Man lets you down, you stick a pin in his balloon, right? His name is Victor Petrekis. He's Greek. He's what you would call a classical piece of ass, but hollow. Like those statues they make of the real statues, not in the museum. He can't be there when I need him to be. You know, when it's tough. It's very tough, Mommy."
It took me four hours to drive to Manhattan. I double-parked on 113th, and at a very sloppy angle, effectively sealing off the street, I later saw. She sat on the floor, leaning against a wall. The telephone was on the floor beside her. Her legs were crossed at the ankle, and her arms were folded on her chest. She looked as if she were sleeping, but then her eyes opened undramatically, and she said, "How was the drive?" We took her purse and Barry's attaché case filled with law books, I grabbed what mail I could find, and her address book, and she put some clothing in a bag with a carrying strap. She moved slowly, as if her joints were very sore. She was pale and skinny and vacant of expression. Then she seemed to grow angry with me for having come, angry at my insisting she leave.
"Don't blame me if I flunk out," she said, walking down the single flight in front of me. Her bag rasped along the wall of the staircase, and the case clunked on the wrought-iron banister. "They don't make excuses here, understand? A little fruitcake is not an excuse, and anyway no one makes them. Can't you just leave me alone?"
We emerged to the sound of eight kinds of car horn. I set the baggage on the backseat, fastened her belt as if she were very little or very old, and I think that she was both, and I drove us away, pursued by the outraged driver of a yellow cab.
We were on the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge when I thought to say, "Alec? Have you got Coriander?"
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Mommy! Can't you think of something else besides a doll?"
"But have you got her?"
We saw a psychologist in the area, and she was worried. She said the word I expected, "depression." She used another word, "psychotic," and I chewed at the inside of my cheek to keep from crying. She referred Alec to a psychiatrist, who referred her to another one, in Cooperstown, and this one, a tall man whose hair was almost the color of Alec's hair, persuaded her to be signed into the psychiatric center. He used the word "medicate," and he said "stabilize." Alec used the word "okay," but I couldn't find one.
Then Alec used the word "no," and we went home. The doctor telephoned her, and then spoke to me, and we struck an agreement: I would bring Alec the next morning to the psychiatric unit of the Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, New York, and she would receive "medication" and "stability" and "tests." Alec slept the rest of that day. I didn't. I looked at photographs in our albums, avoiding Barry's face when I could because I missed him when I saw him because when I looked up from the pictures I could never see him again unless I once again looked down. I was trying to find, in photos of Alec as an infant and child and young adult, a clue, in the droop of an eyelid or the tone of her skin, to what all these new words"depression," "psychosis," "medication"were about. I saw how often in her pictures she looked serious, or worried, or alert as if to a threat.
So we ought to have known, right?
I had asked this of the doctor, and he'd said, "No, ma'am. No. Forget any words like `should' and `ought.' I have astonishing news for you. I want you to memorize what I say. You did not cause this disease andyou ready?you can't cure it. Didn't cause, can't cure. Hug her when she lets you, and don't get mad at her. It isn't her fault, either. Well, you will get mad, but try and not show it."
I said, "But how can you have a problem and it isn't someone's fault."
He laughed. "I'm Jewish, too," he said, "but you can get used to it. No-fault disease."
* * *
I made coffee in the early morning, put the photo albums away, found my stomach too upset for coffee, and went upstairs to wake Alec for the drive to Cooperstown. She sat on her bed, her back against the wall, the covers wrapped around her as if she had just been rescued from a wreck at sea. Her face looked almost yellow, and the shadows under her eyes looked brown. She hadn't slept a lot of the night. She had wakened and, sitting before the mirror on her dressing table, she had cut off her hair. It lay on the floor around her chair. She had given herself a crew cut.
"Interesting hair," I said.
"Hair today," she answered, "gone tomorrow. It's tomorrow."
"We need to leave as soon as you shower," I said.
"I'm not going." Her eyes were dark with anger. Looking into them was like looking into the upstairs window of a high, old house. Someone, you suddenly realize with fright, is looking out of the window at you, and their expression has to do with disgust and with mockery.
I tried to say it to myself: I didn't ... I can't ... But I forgot the doctor's words.
"Sure, Alec. Yes. Absolutely. We have to go."
"Why do we have to go?"
"So you can get better."
"Better," she said.
"It's your life, Al. You need to do this."
"Need," she said.
"Al." I remembered his injunction against anger. I thought: Hey, you use your tranquillity when it's your kid. "Goddamn it, Alec. This is for your health."
She said, as I knew she would, "Health."
Then I realized what I had seen. I went to her dressing table and got down on my hands and knees. Coriander lay among the long, looped shafts and shorter curls of hair, and she lay down there in two pieces. Using her shears, Alec had severed the stuffed head from its stuffed body.
I squatted there, then turned to face her. The terrible face appeared in the window and looked down the length of the room to me.
"Oh, Alec," I said.
She said, "Oh, Mommy. It's only a household pet."
The doctor had given me one more set of instructions, and I remembered them quite well.
I said, "I'm going to call the state police. They'll force you to the hospital, Alec. It'll, I don't know, go on your record. You'll be a lawyer with a note on your record: `State Police,' it'll say."
"They can't," she said, "and don't pretend they can. You think you can put the whammy over on a law student? And what record, you Jew-mother jerk."
"I'm going to tell them I feel threatened. They'll do it."
"Threatened," she said. "Only if you're a household pet," she said, "or if you're named Petrekis."
"What about him?"
"You heard me."
"Alec, did you do something to Petrekis?"
"To punish him?"
"For hit-and-run foreplay? It is a punishable offense. For hit-and-run soixante-neuf compounded by simply yet absolutely Not. Being. A. Stand. Up. Guy."
"Alec, what? What happened?"
"Okay. I'm calling the police. Have a happy morning." I went to the foot of the stairs and found the number in the phone book and dialed it. My hand was shaking, and my voice, when I spoke to a woman who called herself sergeant something, wobbled and wavered. I said, "I'm calling from outside of ... no, it's really in the township ... Hell. I'm a little nervous. Sorry." Take a breath, ma'am, take your time, are you all right, etc. And I was saying, "My daughter has had what I guess you'd call a nervous breakdown. I need to ..."
Alec walked downstairs, wearing flannel pajama bottoms, a dirty white T-shirt, and slippers without socks. She shook a blanket out like a cape and wrapped it around her shoulders. She went around the corner into the living room, and I heard noises but closed my eyes and took a breath so I could tell the sergeant what I needed.
Alec reappeared. She was red-faced, and I was grateful for any relief of her pallor, even though she was the color of her anger at me.
"Whore," she said. "Candy-assed Jew whore and your pimp doctor cop friends."
She walked past me and out the back door.
"A second," I said to the sergeant.
I heard my car door slam.
"I'm sorry," I said, swallowing against what I think would have been sobs. "I think it might be all right. I'll call you back if there's a problem. Thank you. I'm very sorry for this."
I didn't and I can't.
I took a jacket and keys and my wallet and went outside to drive her to the hospital. That was where they finally came, a couple of days later, when I was in the visitors' lounge, taking a break from Alec's complaints and her anger at what she called my betrayal. It was a new word to hear from Alec about myself, and I was chewing on it, really tasting its possibilities for me. A man in a wrinkled gray uniform was directed to me in the washed-out light of the beige waiting room, and he presented me with what he called a bench warrantI had never heard the wordsfor Alec's arrest, sworn out by a magistrate in Manhattan because she had fled the county to avoid prosecution for stabbing Victor Petrekis in the face.
The information about the face came from the sheriff's deputy who served the warrant. The warrant used the following words: "felonious" and "assault." Neither it nor the deputy conveyed the information that the weapon was the small stainless pocket knife imported by the assailant's father and given to her so she could be, for a little while, one of the fellows. The deputy left, and then I left. I needed to talk to lawyers, and Alec did not need to deal with one more fact served up by the world.
At home, I spent about an hour making chicken salad for a sandwich. I had no bread in the house, so I spent a while longer defrosting some rolls, then slicing and toasting one. I made myself a big sandwich with lots of lettuce, and I carried it into the living room. I wanted to sit with a book and find some language that would do me some good. I drifted along the shelves looking at titles, soon enough coming to the conclusion that I hadn't the energy to read a paragraph of anyone's book. I looked at a stack of CDs. I didn't want music either. I wanted silence, sleep, and somebody, when I woke up, who would manage the claims for health insurance, the bills from the landlord in New York, the conversation with the lawyer I would have to hire to represent Alec in court.
I realized that I was staring not at dust jackets but at the objects in front of them: the bride and groom, who had more or less outlasted Barry and me, despite the nick I'd left on the head of the groom, and who had served to demonstrate, Barry liked to say, how dangerous my appetites had always been. When he spoke about sex, he would leer, I told him, like a peasant in the countryside. And he was pleased to serve as the local life force.
I said, "Barry!"
Their heads were off. She had battered them against the edge of the shelf. Fragments lay there and on the floor, and it came to me then: the poem they recite at you during graduations and the presentation of trophies to injured athletes. It was about how if you could keep your head while all about you were losing theirs and blaming it on you, you'd own the world.
I saw that each figure had a metal rod around which it was molded, so the little couple would probably not crumble further, and would stand, adhering to their little skeletons, for as long as I left them on the shelf. I chewed at my chicken salad sandwich, looking back into their faceless stare.
I let myself pretend that Barry would walk into the living room then and ask me what I was doing.
I let myself pretend I would answer.
"Owning the world," I would say around a mouthful of sandwich.
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Meet the Author
Frederick Busch (1941–2006) was the recipient of many honors, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award, a National Jewish Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award. The prolific author of sixteen novels and six collections of short stories, Busch is renowned for his writing’s emotional nuance and minimal, plainspoken style. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he lived most of his life in upstate New York, where he worked for forty years as a professor at Colgate University.
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