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The Immigrant's Daughter
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
She was thinking that it was exactly what she needed, a birthday party. Oh, yes indeed, it was just what she needed to remind herself that she was sixty years old. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I am sixty. That is something to write home about, isn't it? Here's my celebratory verse: It's nifty to be sixty and heavenly to be seventy. Stupid doggerel. Does one still weep at sixty? Or does the brine connote rheumy presenility? All thoughts of irresolute protest, and she was actually saying, "Please, let me be. Not that I don't want you to remind me, because I can't forget for a moment, and I can even face the fact that I am an old woman — yes, in spite of your indignant protests. Old? Since when is sixty old? You're still young and vital and beautiful and all the other assorted bullshit. I am old, and the truth is that I really don't give a damn about parties or any other kind of celebration."
The telephone rang.
Barbara Lavette picked up the telephone and spoke to her son, Sam, more formally Dr. Samuel Thomas Cohen, who kept the name of his father and who put together smashed hands and feet with great skill. In that crisp, knowledgeable tone that doctors assume, he informed his mother that he and Carla would stop by for her at about eleven. Something in Barbara always reacted to Carla and even to the mention of her name. She did not like Carla; howsoever much she tried, howsoever much she looked into herself, she could not bring herself to feel affection for her son's wife. This filled her with guilt. Carla was a Chicana, a Mexican but California born, out of five generations in California, more generations than Barbara could look back at, and, with good reason, proud, defensive and full of walls, safeguards and anticipatory hurts, an unfulfilled actress, who bridled when Barbara referred to her as an actor. "Don't give me that women's lib crap. I'm a Chicana and an actress."
She was a thorny woman, full-figured beautiful, a round face, round breasts, round limbs, yet tall enough to carry it with poise and dignity. But like a porcupine, there were quills of anger and resentment that bristled at a word, a suggestion, an intonation. Barbara prided herself that her relationship with Carla was easy, and that if no affection actually existed, at least a decent pretense of affection was maintained. Perhaps so. She was never entirely certain and never entirely free of the guilt she felt at not caring for her son's wife.
"Sam?" Barbara said.
He knew the tone of voice. "Mother, we want to stop by for you. I know you can drive out there by yourself."
"I wasn't thinking of driving out there by myself. I was thinking of not going. I just can't face it. Don't you understand, Sam, I simply can't face it?"
"Mother, it's seven months since Boyd died," he said, almost harshly. "You can't go on flagellating yourself. These are people who love you and want very much to see you."
She could imagine him looking at his watch while he spoke to her. Sam was always looking at his watch or listening to the tinkle that called him to the telephone. His day was precisely and carefully subdivided. Barbara's brother Joe was also a doctor, but one who lived easily. He might even forget his watch, leave it by his bedside; not Sam.
"I don't whip myself," Barbara said with annoyance. "And I don't enjoy it when you talk to me like that, Sam."
"I'm sorry, Mother. But please, please don't reject everyone. We love you. We've made so many preparations. May I pick you up?"
She sighed and said, "Yes. Very well."
She was aware that she was being childish and petulant. In all truth, she had no intention of avoiding her birthday party. She had never been cruel, and that would have been very cruel indeed, to fail to appear after the entire family had come together. It was a whimper; she admitted that to herself, underlining the fact that she had always despised whimperers, but in this case, a plea to Sam to see her, remember her, beg her. But he would look at her in astonishment if she told him that he had forgotten her. The whole world had forgotten her — or she had forgotten the whole world. That would simply evoke more astonishment. How could she explain what had happened inside herself?
Carla was being sweet. She could be endearing when she put herself to it. She embraced Barbara — unusual — and told Sam, "You drive, Doc. Barbara and I share the back, and I have things to tell her. And you look absolutely beautiful," she told Barbara, who was wearing a jacket of pale gray linen over a white silk blouse — a suit that would have fitted her just as neatly thirty years before. She had kept her figure; she had kept her firmness of body. "You're not going to let your hair go white," Carla added. Barbara wondered whether she was aware of her habit of taking with one hand as she gave with the other. There were pale streaks in Barbara's honey-colored hair, but it was far from white.
In the car, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to the Napa Valley, Carla said to Barbara, "I've been holding this because I'm just about ready to explode with it, and I'm not going to pretend to be cool. They've given me the part of Annabella — finally, finally, and it's a special showcase thing, six weeks at the center. Can you imagine, Barbara? Annabella!"
"Back a bit. It's wonderful, of course, but Annabella what?"
"John Ford's play," Sam said from the driver's seat. "'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Annabella's the lead part — you know, Mother, falls in love with her brother —"
"I know the play," Barbara said. "In fact, we did it a hundred years ago at Sarah Lawrence. Oh, no fear," she assured Carla, "I did not do the role of Annabella. No, I played a nurse or something of the sort. There is a nurse in it, isn't there?"
"Carla, I think it's wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. It's what you've been working for, isn't it? And at the center. When? When is the opening?"
Mollified, Carla informed her that there would be six weeks of rehearsal, with an opening just after New Year's. "Of course, nobody does 'Tis Pity the way it was written. Ford was no Shakespeare, you know, and parts of the original script are sheer confusion. Our director, Stan Lewis, is rewriting and restructuring —" and thus she went, on and on. Barbara listened, trying to nod appropriately and listen and then look past her to the green hills of Marin County. It was about two years since she had been out to the Higate Winery in the Napa Valley, a place bound up and threaded through with the lives and memories of the two families that had their beginnings in the partnership of her father, Dan Lavette, and Mark Levy; and it was disturbing to be without any feeling of anticipation. For most of her adult life, the Napa Valley, and the old winery that Jake Levy had purchased following his discharge from the army after World War I, had been a sort of a glowing garden in Barbara's mind. Not that she spent much time there; its existence was enough, a place she could reach for when she was weary or when she had looked too much at the rest of the world. But this had changed. Boyd had died, and everything had changed.
The world turned gray. For three weeks, she left her home only to buy the few things she needed to survive. She had been subject to depression in the past, and, knowing this, her brother Joe had warned her in very careful medical terms that, in a manner, she was committing suicide. "Do you actually want to die?" he had asked her, exercising, as Barbara thought, the physician's right to ask any question, no matter how intimate or demeaning. She was more provoked than such a question demanded.
"Don't be a fool!"
"I think I can guess," Joe said, in that very gentle manner that he took with his patients, "where the guilt comes from. You're so ridden with guilt, Barbara."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"Guess! I don't give a damn!" She would forget that he was half Chinese, her brother Joseph, her half brother, actually, born out of their father's second marriage, to a Chinese woman named May Ling, and then he would suddenly look so very Chinese, in spite of his great bulk, two hundred and twenty pounds and six feet two inches tall. It made her smile; anger at Joe Lavette. No one was angry with Joe. How could you be angry with a large, intelligent Saint Bernard dog?
"You've been reading statistics: married men less subject to heart attack. Statistics are a marvelous substitute for mind, but the fact of the matter is that Boyd had been walking around with a bad heart, a very bad heart, for years. If you had married him, nothing would have been different. I didn't recommend the bypass surgery. I didn't think he could take it in his condition, but he insisted. He knew that he was at the end of his rope, and the thought that the surgery might give him five more years with you was worth a tilt with death. He was a good man, and he adored you."
She was crying. "If I had married him," she began, her voice breaking through the tears. "He wanted that so much."
"You were better together than any married people I know. All right, it's good to be sad and tears are a kind of therapy, but not guilty. Guilt kills the appetite. How much weight have you lost?"
"I don't know. I don't weigh myself."
"I'd say too much. You're not the anorexic type. Let me take you home to Napa. Baked ham for dinner."
She had refused the invitation, thinking to herself that her brother could be a very weird, spooky kind of Chinese, but the talk with him helped to shake her loose from the shroud of self-pity she was constructing. Her dear friend Eloise, coming by to see her a day or two later, put it wistfully: "I knew you wouldn't get bogged down with self-pity, Barbara. It's the kind of thing I used to do with these dreadful headaches that no doctor could do anything about, and then when Josh was wounded in Vietnam and came home without a leg, I wept and wallowed in self-pity and guilt until no one could tolerate me except you and poor dear Adam, but then it goes away. The pain goes away."
Barbara had often been tempted to say that nothing very much changed with Eloise, and then a second look would quell the temptation. A great deal changed with Eloise. She had gone through life with a round, lovely face, blue eyes and naturally blond hair and a small, soft voice that deceived people. No one who looked like Eloise and sounded like her could have a brain in her head, except that Eloise was wise and quick-witted and had lived for years with a very painful incurable disease that she had never allowed to dominate or defeat her. She had been married to Barbara's brother Thomas, unhappily, and then had divorced him to marry Adam Levy, who was the grandson of Mark Levy, Barbara's father's partner. So her thoughts went, loose, disordered, reaching out here and there, while Carla babbled along, spelling out the plot of Ford's play, her own role, and what she planned to do with it. Barbara nodded appropriately, but no longer heard; she was in the well of her own thoughts, unraveling the connections and memories stirred up by the visit to the winery.
It was Boyd's death that had changed everything for Barbara. The solid shape of reality had shimmered and collapsed. Life and death suddenly were no longer separated. When she had wept, she had wept for all the love and beauty that had gone away forever.
"Carla!" Sam said sharply.
Barbara realized that Carla had not broken her account.
"I talk too much," Carla said. "Well, I don't talk too much. But now that I have something to talk about — Did it ever occur to you, Sam, how many hours I sat and listened to you and your smartass doctor friends talk about doing your thing? But that's important. Being an actress is not important. Absolutely not; it only keeps me from getting pregnant and bringing some more Lavettes into the world —"
"Carla, I didn't mean that, I didn't mean that at all. Please, don't make this into another fight."
"Why not? Because Barbara's here?"
The coiled spring of a fight began to tighten. Barbara had been here before, and now she shrank back in dread. Outbursts of fury on the part of her son bewildered and terrified her, and Carla would rise to his anger with a Latin intensity that matched Sam's rage. Barbara sometimes felt that the marriage should never have been, and she surmised that the only force keeping it together was the transformation of the anger into a sexual passion on the same level as the rage. It was an uneasy surmise on her part; son and mother maintained notions of mutual purity that matched each other in unreality.
It was then, at this moment, that she saw the school bus lose its right rear wheel. They had passed Schellville, driving east toward Napa, when Sam found himself behind the school bus. Driving automatically, his attention concentrated on the developing fight with his wife, he made no attempt to pass the bus, which was moving at about forty miles an hour. Actually, he was almost tailgating. Then Barbara saw the school bus lose its wheel, and she screamed, "Sam — for God's sake, look! The bus!"
She saw the rest as if it were being played on a film screen in slow motion. It was an old yellow school bus, half filled with children, eleven or twelve children, for even in those fractions of a second that spelled out the impending tragedy, Barbara was able to estimate the number of children. The wheel rolled off the road, the school bus lurched to the right, and then, seeking to bring it under control, the driver twisted the bus to the left, where it crossed into the opposite lane and crashed head on into an oncoming gardener's truck. Sam's foot on the brakes of his own car brought them to a screeching halt just short of the two wrecked vehicles.
Sam was out of his car the moment he brought it to a halt, telling Carla, "My bag, in the trunk." He threw the keys of the car to her as he ran toward the school bus. Carla got the trunk open; Barbara ran after Sam without waiting for Carla to get the bag and a package of dressings that Sam always carried in the trunk of his car. Sam was shouting to Carla, "Dressings — package next to the bag."
Then he pulled open the back door of the bus and plunged inside. Barbara followed him, a veritable agony of sound greeting her, cries of terror and pain.
Smoke filled the bus, and Sam shouted, "Get them outside, Mom! Never mind the trauma — just get them outside! The bus is burning!"
She pushed two children who could walk past her. "Outside, darlings!" or something of the sort. "And run from the bus!" not knowing whether they understood. Carla squeezed past her with Sam's bag. A child lay crumpled in her seat, bleeding from a head wound. The children were seven or eight years old. Barbara picked up the unconscious child.
"Don't move her if she's hurt," Carla said.
"Sam wants them out of the bus."
"Up here!" Sam shouted to Carla. "Get up here! I need help!"
Outside the bus, someone screamed in pain. Barbara ran about fifty feet before she laid the child down off the road and then she herded children away from the accident. Carla climbed out of the bus with another child in her arms, and then Sam handed still another bleeding child to Barbara.
A car stopped and the driver came running to help. A black man. He plunged into the burning bus without a word. He came out with a child in his arms, followed by Sam, who carried another child.
"Two more inside." He handed the child to Carla. Barbara was back in the bus. One of two hurt little boys could walk. The other screamed in agony as Barbara tried to pull him out from where he was wedged under a seat.
"Let me," the black man said.
Together they managed to get him loose. Barbara half started toward the driver. Her eyes were burning from the smoke.
"Mother, get out of there!" Sam yelled. "The driver's dead!"
Thick smoke as she felt her way to the exit door. Sam and Carla fairly plucked her out of the bus, both of them shouting, "Run! Run!"
Excerpted from The Immigrant's Daughter by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1985 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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