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I'll Tell them I Remember You
By William Peter Blatty
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1973 William Peter Blatty
All rights reserved.
We are testing weapons for use on the moon. In 1921 when my mother and father came to America from Lebanon on a cattle boat, a loaf of bread cost a nickel and an ad for one of Webster's new dictionaries asked, "Have you been introduced to these new words? Here are samples: Realtor, photostat, vitamin ..." Tennis professional Bill Tilden called out, "Peach!" on opponents' good shots. It was very long ago: a time of innocence, of unheeding naïveté. Eddie Cantor was rolling his eyes at the Shubert. On screen, Douglas Fairbanks was leaping from balconies and "Yes, We Have No Bananas" the people sang cheerily, whistled, in the streets. In the dark. While the Unknown Soldier was brought back from France.
The magazine ads sum up the age with the full brief diction of a prologue by Shakespeare:
"Electricity needs you! I will train you at home. This is your opportunity. Electricity is calling you!"
"If you were dying tonight and I offered you something that would add ten years to your life, would you take it? You'd grab it. Well, fellows, I've got it, but don't wait until you're dying. It will then be too late. I'm not a medical doctor, but I'll put you in such condition that the doctor will starve to death waiting for you to take sick. Can you imagine a mosquito trying to bite a brick wall? A fine chance."
"It pays to look your best at all times. Upon the impression you constantly make rests the failure or success of your life. Which is to be your ultimate destiny? My newest, greatly improved, superior nose shaper, 'Tradose Model 25,' U.S. Patent, corrects all ill-shaped noses without operation, quickly, safely, comfortably and permanently. (Diseased cases excepted.) It has six adjustable pressure regulators, is made of light, polished metal, is firm and fits every nose comfortably. The inside is upholstered in a fine chamois. The above illustration represents my trademark and shows my first and oldest nose shaper. It is not a replica of my latest, superior model No. 25!"
And everywhere, ads offered aid in getting patents: the hope of brave men lay in handfuls of dreams that they snipped with a scissors from a magazine.
For while pickles swam juicy and fat in great casks, New York City was a poorhouse. In the windows of grocery stores blossomed signs that offered "War Department Canned Meat for Sale! A Whole Family Can Dine for a Dollar a Day!" The New York Times began soliciting donations that year for the "hundred neediest cases." One of them was anchored off Ellis Island.
In February, typhus careened through Manhattan like a press gang marauding through the unexpecting streets, seizing innocents at random for service on a death ship. The epidemic was imputed to "vermin-laden immigrants" ("Well, fellows, I've got it, but don't wait until you're dying") and a quarantine vessel bobbed frantic in the harbor. Aboard it were my parents, Peter and Mary, and their babies, Michael, Alyce, and Maurice, aged six, four, and two, with their eyes big and dark and bewildered and cloudy on the open upper deck where their breaths were coming frosty and warm and blending white with the fumes of a noxious delousing spray, though no one thought to delouse and spray the cattle, I notice, which of course would stand pretty much to reason, I suppose, as my family looked more suspicious than the steers. Than the goddam cattle. "Fine chance." Never mind. We cannot have everything.
They had nothing. They had only my father's six dollars a week. Dear Papa with the pixie blue eyes that never held you, that brushed you once softly like a cattail, like a ghost, then fell shyly to the ground and some inner contemplation too sad to be touched by a tender thought or the delicate brush of another's care. He was light italics. Quiet and diffident, he wore a small mustache that made him look like Charlie Chaplin, and he even seemed to walk with a sweet, funny list. He had worked in Lebanon as a carpenter, but here he walked subway tracks, a bag slung over his shoulders and a stick with a spike at its point in his hand. He used the stick to spear litter and put it in the bag. I never saw him at that task, but I often imagine him so, the Little Tramp in City Lights, undaunted, receding down endless tracks into darkening tunnels, as mysterious and lovable as when he lived.
* * *
By the time my brother Edward squalled into this world, and I joined him much later in 1928, my father had already departed the subway system and shuffled to better things: a job as a cutter in a garment factory. It paid him seven dollars per week. And sometimes, after he'd left home—which he did in 1934—and I went to visit him at the factory, I would watch him at his work, watch him evening the layers of cloth on the table with the greatest care and minutest precision; then saw him lay the translucent pattern on the pile and cut along the lines of the dress designer's blueprint with a whine of the cutter blades engaged. He wore a white sailor's cap, and the butt of a cigar was always clenched between his teeth, although I never saw a full one or a long one; just a butt. He rarely spoke. On his half-hour lunch, he never ate, except for a Breyer's ice cream Dixie Cup. And then he would play straight rummy. Then even the layers and slice out the cloth. I thought that God had forgotten his name.
I don't know what went wrong between my parents. I never found out. Mama never says. And the only argument that my brethren remember had to do with my father's ability to read; for my mother, though exceptionally intelligent, had long been baffled in her far too sporadic and impatient attempts to learn written English, and was jealous of my father, who had mastered it quickly; and Papa had a trick of deliberately infuriating Mama by coming home wearily from work, sighing, sinking down into an overstuffed chair, and then luxuriously rustling and unfolding a newspaper and apparently reading it.
"Looka him!" my mother would roar in a fury. "Looka the devil! He's a devil!" She was right: he was rustling the paper, by all accounts, just a little bit louder than was absolutely necessary. I've wondered if he was avenging something; or someone. Maybe it was Tae-Tae, Papa's mother, a slight old woman with cat green eyes under slick white hair that she wore in a bun. She was tiny and neat and a little bit hunchbacked. She always wore black. She was living with us then. She always had a broom in her hand, was always sweeping. When you went to the bathroom, she would enter when you'd finished, use the "johnny mop," then sweep along the path where you'd walked, all the while softly cursing beneath her breath. This frosted my mother, as you might well imagine, for Tae-Tae used the broom in rebuke of Mama's housekeeping. Anyway, that's the way my mother saw the matter. When Tae-Tae died at the age of eighty, my mother took the news with a deadpan expression, opening an eye from an afternoon doze to inquire, "Did they bury her with her broom?"
Tae-Tae couldn't speak any English at all, and as a consequence she never dared leave the apartment building unaccompanied for fear of getting lost. But then my mother came up with the notion of putting a chalkmark, something distinctive, on the front of our building as Tae-Tae's beacon. It seemed to work well, until an unknown assailant put identical markings on all the other buildings. Then Tae-Tae went out one day and wasn't found until two days later in a local police station where a patrolman had deposited her after finding her, dazed and weeping, endlessly wandering up and down along the row of identical markings. She was heard at the time to cry out "Chara!" several times in an anguished, frustrated voice. I don't know what it means.
The "phantom marker" was never unmasked. Papa was convinced it was an inside job. Maurice was suspected for a while. He didn't do it. I'm practically certain it was my mother.
Maybe that's why Papa kept rustling his paper. Though you never know; as I said, he was a pixie. Whatever the reason, one day he folded his copy of the Times and stole ever so silently away. I missed him.
* * *
Now Mama was left to support five children, a task not beyond her indomitable will. She also had certain other assets that were useful in pursuit of, not gracious, but flexible living. One was an aura of goodness about her that made you want to help her if you possibly could. Another was a preternatural gift of rhetoric that, failing to persuade, would always charm. And of course there was her beauty; for even in her tatters she looked like a queen and I can tell you with a certain measure of confidence that the number of credit managers likely to place a check in the "YES" box next to the question, "Are queens ever deadbeats?" is far too small to be considered significant.
Thus it was that in 1936, a year in which a seaman named Christoffersen strangled on a piece of bread that he had begged, my mother talked a Ford dealer into selling her a brand new car on credit. True, they hadn't gotten to discussing down payments, but we did get the car on a two-week trial, long enough for Mama to learn how to drive without a license. She took lessons from a wild Puerto Rican named Felipe. We went driving on a country road one day and were being held up by a hay truck when Mama said grimly, "I wanna pass dat'a truck." Moments later we wound up in a ditch in the attempt. Mama also hit a truck from behind coming home and then sideswiped a girder of the elevated railway, returning the demolished car to the dealer with the comment that it steered a little "funny" for her liking; could she see something better? Next to ventures like this, mere support of five children was no more than a test of my mother's patience. She could have supported the cast of Oklahoma. "You Mama take care of you, Will-yam."
She in fact had a number of ways of accomplishing this. The first, and our mainstay of life since my mother had taken to punching social workers, was to outfit me in undersized, tattered knickers and drag me by the hand to that beautiful fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where all day she made darting sorties in and out among the halted motor traffic, peddling jelly from her brown paper shopping bag to dowagers and men in homburgs seated in the plush back seats of limousines. Her other great territory was anywhere along Park Avenue. When there, she would park me in a grassy divider where I used to pass the time, at age four, picking daisies and flowers of chance, and because of that Mama had nicknamed me "Daisy." (The first one who calls me that gets it. Understand?) That lasted for years, until I dreamed about the Christ Child, whereon Mama dropped "Daisy" and took now to calling me "Baby Jesus," usually in front of those girls I was impressing whom she'd just finished telling, "You very fat," though I must say, she always tried to give me a buildup. "When he was baby, my Willie, he never dirty his diaper!" was one of her more incredible brags, and if true it would explain a few tics that I have. I will certainly remember to mention all this if I ever plead insanity in traffic court again.
Little boys have little notion of a parent's virtues. And I bitterly complained about our quincing act. Mama answered me, "Peddlin', nothin' wrong with it." The only form of counterattack I had, which I used against her shamelessly when we were quincing, was to make her laugh on certain occasions when I knew that she had to go to the bathroom. She would first start to giggle and then to shake and my mother knew and I knew she couldn't hold her water. I did this to her once when I wanted to be home to hear "The Shadow" on the radio. Mama wouldn't have it. She wanted to work. When I kept on whining she looked me in the eye and recited a proverb in Lebanese: "Better a handful of dry dates, and content therewith, than to own the Gate of Peacocks and be kicked in the eye by a broody camel, Willie." It suffers in translation, but Mama's delivery was grim, if not ominous, and I shut my mouth and bided my time.
We had started the day in front of the Plaza, then moved to Radio City Music Hall for the Sunday matinee crowds. Something nice happened there: it was March and windy and a gust blew a dollar bill straight at my chest. Mama didn't confiscate it, and so I was anxious to spend it. It was late afternoon and the weekend besides. But Mama moved on and we worked Park Avenue servants' entries, looking for food, especially delicious rich white home-baked bread, when I saw by a movement of Mama's body as she rang another doorbell that this time she was going to ask to use their bathroom. Nobody answered, and when possibly another ten seconds went by and I saw my mother's body start violently shaking, I decided to strike. ("The Shadow knows ... heh heh heh heh!") "I wanna pass dat'a truck," I said.
"Willie, you stop!" Mama bade me, giggling. How mightily she dreaded my awesome power, my almost Svengali-like control of her kidneys.
"I gonna pass dat'a truck," I repeated as my mother rang the bell again frantically.
"Willie, I kill you!" she threatened me, weak and convulsed with laughter.
I covered a grin with my hand and that did it.
At the end of the day, she still gave me all the pennies she'd collected, as always. I'm glad that she wasn't the type to hold a grudge. She was also the type not to ever pay rent. I speak of her famed "locked landlord" gambit.
In a strategy worthy of Clausewitz, my mother would pay a month's rent in advance whenever we moved to a new apartment, then repel all future demands for payment with cries of "You shurrup, you crookit landlord! I know all about you!", a maneuver that was based on the old country point of view that at Christmastime landlords all jumped in their sleds and distributed napalm to the poor: they had something to hide; and while the landlord tossed in his sleep and worried over what my mother "knew" about him, we lived rent-free for anywhere from three to six months, on the average, depending on how long it took the landlord to make up his mind that my mother was not a mentalist and to take the required legal action necessary to evict us.
In the space of ten years, we lived at twenty-eight different addresses and I'm not complaining, mind you, as I certainly think we should all see America first, and I haven't a doubt but that travel is broadening. We did meet some interesting people this way. Once, for example, when we stayed two weeks at a West Side fleatrap hotel called The Lido, my mother befriended an aged woman who told us her son was an actor in Hollywood. In the lobby, one day, she proudly showed us his picture. It was candid and recent. And apparently had just arrived in the mail. On the back her son had written, "Hi Mom. Here I am on the set of Romance of the Seven Seas. It's going swell." It wasn't signed, but the man in the photograph was Clark Gable. After Gone with the Wind I guess Clark must have taken his mother out of there. I hope so. If we'd had to pay rent, we wouldn't have stayed.
In the meantime, we were famous in a way, I suppose, for we were surely the only nomadic tribe in Manhattan, and had there been an Ed Sullivan Show in those day, I am reasonably confident we would have been on it. But along with this heady fame, there were problems. One was my frequent change of schools, which resulted in my giving a recitation in the front of the room, then returning absent-mindedly to a desk position I had held in the previous school. Things got even worse, for at times I would attempt to wrest the desk away by force from its current occupant. The result was often a fistfight and word got around among my schoolmates, then, to "Look out for that crazy bastard!"
Excerpted from I'll Tell them I Remember You by William Peter Blatty. Copyright © 1973 William Peter Blatty. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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