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In the Dear John letter Daddy left for Mother and me, on a Saturday afternoon in early June 1996, on the inlaid Florentine table in the front entry of our house, which we found that night upon returning from a day spent in the crème-colored light of Neiman’s, Daddy wrote that he was leaving us because Mother was crazy, and because she’d driven me crazy in a way that perfectly suited her own insanity.
We’d just been to the Dairy Queen. My mouth was full of hamburger when I found the letter. Mother still had on the Jackie O sunglasses I’d given her earlier that week for her forty-fifth birthday, and was fumbling on the wall for the light switch. I read through the letter once, fast, and then called to Mother, who read it over slowly, sitting down in one of the low white chairs that lined the hall. Mother didn’t sit as she typically sat, with her calves fixed before her like they were the pillars of her lap. The way Mother sat on the low white chair against the wall of the entry, willowy leaves of yellow legal paper drifting from her thin fingers, her calves looked as though they’d collapsed. She signaled with the letter to the shopping bags beside the front door, their tissue paper poking up like dorsal fins: “All that goes back tomorrow.”
My first reaction to Daddy’s leaving was relief. I was sixteen, and what I wanted most for my mother was a divorce. For years, I’d kept a stack of Mother’s old magazines under my bed, copies of Vanity Fair and Hello!, with dog-eared articles about Pamela Harriman, and ladies for whom the end of marriage was only the beginning of plastic surgery and happy new lives.
One afternoon, while watching Of Human Bondage on the Channel 13 Three O’Clock Million Dollar Movie, when Bette Davis told Leslie Howard, “It made me sick when I let you kiss me. . . . I used to wipe my mouth!” Mother said to me, “Hmm. That’s pretty much the way I feel about your father.”
So my dream was for Mother to leave Daddy. Then we could escape Nana and Papa’s horse ranch outside Petunia, a small town the settlers managed to chop out of The Great Piney Woods of East Texas a hundred miles north of Houston. Between the freeway being rerouted and the recent construction of a Super Wal-Mart outside town, Petunia wasn’t much more than a Dairy Queen, some gas stations, and a funeral home. White-columned and stately, Kahn’s Funeral Home on Main Street was, in fact, the prettiest thing about Petunia, which, in itself, was pretty depressing. “It figures you’d have to die in this town to experience beauty,” Mother said.
Mother spoke in quotable phrases, as though she intended her words to be embroidered. One of her great pleasures was thinking up new ways to describe just how ugly our town was, and the way she’d settled on in the summer of 1996 was to say that Petunia was Where God Stuck The Enema. We lived in what Mother called our South Will Rise Again house, a Greek Revival creation that stank of new money and was practically lacy with pillars and columns and porticos and little moldings of cherubim flying all over the place. It sat in the middle of a flat, empty pasture on my grandparents’ ranch, and in the summer our white house shone like a heat spot from the road.
With her divorce settlement, I dreamt that Mother would move us into a real neighborhood in the city of Houston, shady with fat, mossy live oaks; and I’d wear a blue-blazered uniform to St. John’s or Kincaid, the city’s swank prep schools, instead of attending the fundamentalist Lutheran school that was the best education Petunia had to offer. Once we’d moved, every day could be like our Saturdays at Neiman’s, where Mother and I went to get our hair and nails done at the salon and then go shopping.
But in all the time I’d spent daydreaming about my parents’ divorce, the idea had never occurred to me that Daddy, who looked like an Oscar in a baseball cap—six feet four, bald, and muscle-y, with skin permanently tanned golden brown from long days in the Texas sun—might leave my glamorous, blond Mother.
People thought she was a TV star. Shopgirls would say, “Aren’t you that lady on TV?” By which they meant no one in particular. Sometimes somebody would say Barbara Eden. Sometimes Suzanne Somers. Occasionally Connie Stevens. It’s not that Mother looked like these people—she just looked like someone special. Waiters at posh restaurants like Brennan’s and Tony’s often gave us free food, afraid Mother was a famous person they didn’t recognize who might have them fired for offering less than VIP service. And though by forty-five, Mother’s makeup had grown heavier to shade the tiny wrinkles around her eyes that looked like fractures in a windshield, men in pickup trucks still hung out of their windows to whistle at her on the freeway. “What makes me irresistible,” Mother once asked me, wearing an expression like she’d swallowed sour milk, “to a man in a pickup truck and a baseball cap?”
Despite his Houston Astros cap and his old Dodge pickup, Mother would never have left my father. The reason she’d stayed with him, and the reason his leaving us meant bad trouble, was because Daddy, by himself, had no money. Which was something I always forgot while reading Vanity Fair. Daddy didn’t have any money, because Papa, Daddy’s rich father, had a Bonanza fantasy, to keep his son on his horse ranch at all costs. Nana and Papa paid Daddy a crazy-huge allowance throughout my parents’ marriage, so he would stay on their ranch and use his vet degree to breed and doctor Papa’s champion racehorses. They footed my parents’ bills, bought Mother and Daddy’s cars, and paid off their charge accounts. So, on paper, Daddy was a poor man. And our tacky white house was the only thing in the world my parents really owned, which meant that any divorce settlement would be pitifully small.
Some twenty years earlier, Daddy had fallen in love with Mother at a Steve McQueen movie at the Texas A&M student union, and they’d married while he was still in veterinary school. Mother had been a campus celebrity. She’d earned extra money modeling clothes on local television for Lester’s department store—where her job had been to stare into the camera and whisper “Lester’s” in a way that sounded mysterious and sexy. As a young girl at A&M, Mother had married Daddy, believing his rich parents would eventually make him rich, too, either by setting him up with a trust fund or a business to run. And when that hadn’t happened, she’d stayed for Nana and Papa’s money.
Mother let Daddy’s letter fall to the floor, twisting her engagement ring around her finger. “Jesus God,” she said. “This is a pig fuck.”
“Pig Fuck” was Mother’s phrase for the absolute nadir of something. Lycra was, for instance, the pig fuck of fabrics, with English toile, pimento loaf, Japanese cars, and Miracle Whip serving as further examples. And because Mother was an extreme person, whose circumstances tended to swerve from the best to the worst, our life involved lots of pig fucks. (“There is no such thing,” she once told me, “as a happy medium.”) As a small boy, I’d even seen Mother wrap her white mink around the rickety shoulders of a shivering girl waiting in a January slush outside the Petunia post office. And over the years, Mother had spent every dollar that passed through her checkbook on clothes, jewelry, and luxury vacations. So when Daddy left, taking Nana and Papa’s money with him, Mother and I quickly realized we were nouveau poor. Which was the pig fuck of all time. “As of this minute, Robert,” Mother said, “we have one hundred and twenty-seven dollars in the bank.”
I started to feel queasy, as if the tomato aspic and tiny cucumber sandwiches Mother and I had eaten earlier that afternoon at Neiman’s tearoom were reacting poorly with the Belt Buster I’d gotten at the Dairy Queen. “You’re right,” I told Mother. “This is a pig fuck.”
Mother reread Daddy’s letter a couple of times, then took off her heels, and shrank four inches in five seconds. “He just loves us so much he had to go right out and leave us. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. What can you expect when you cast pearls at swine?” Then Mother went to the kitchen, and filled an Evian bottle with vodka—something she often did when she was depressed but wanted to appear concerned with physical fitness. “I’m going to bed to watch my movie,” she said.
I knew from long experience that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was Mother’s movie. The VCR was invented for my mother, because if something was good, then more of it was better. When Mother was fond of a movie, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she couldn’t watch it too many times. That VHS tape was among the great stabilizing influences of her life; she tended to fall back on it whenever her emotions swung too far in any direction, and particularly when she was depressed. That night, Mother looked like she needed Breakfast at Tiffany’s badly.
I don’t know what I’d expected in a letter from my father explaining the necessity of his leaving me, but Daddy’s letter was, nevertheless, a disappointment. It filled four wandering, rumpled pages, in an ink too bright for its purpose, and was peppered with the same humdrum gripes that filled his regular fights with Mother. That Mother and I hated, and were abjectly humiliated by, his family. That she was never satisfied, and had taught me to be never satisfied, too, and that we both spent his money with disregard. “Nothing’s ever good enough for you two,” Daddy wrote, before starting a sputtering list of the various occasions he’d found our behavior odd, or, rather “unnormal.” Daddy carped that Mother had become obsessed with preserving her youth and beauty. That she’d had her face lifted and hadn’t told him; and that we’d spent his birthday in Rome, and their wedding anniversary in Paris, and hadn’t even telephoned. But soon after Daddy began listing his grievances, the wattage of his fight fell low, and he shortly wound down to signing, “Your Loving Father and Husband, Bob O’Doole.”
I was baffled. I couldn’t imagine him writing such a letter. You could tell Daddy had taken his time in writing it, because sometimes the ink changed color, from blue to black, even in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes his handwriting was hard-pressed and jagged, sometimes faint, as though his words could hardly stand to touch the paper. I tried to imagine Daddy writing—angry, by the cab light of his old pickup that danced with diesel and George Jones songs, or sad, sitting in an empty bathtub in the middle of the night. But I couldn’t, because in my whole life, I’d never seen him write anything longer than a check. And because, while Daddy had plenty of grounds for divorce, I found it deeply peculiar that he’d choose to leave us for a string of petty grievances, instead of one big, overarching outrage. Daddy had always seemed to have the lowest threshold for satisfaction of anybody I’d ever known. As long as he got to spend his days with Papa and the horses, I couldn’t imagine him making big changes in his life, particularly something this drastic. He wasn’t constantly distracted, like Mother and I, by desire. Daddy was living proof of the Buddha’s claim that desire only makes you miserable, but he also proved my belief that desire is the only thing that makes you interesting. My father didn’t want anything, and he was not interesting.
“Ahh,” Daddy had sighed, when I told him, on the night Mother and I returned from our first trip to Manhattan, that when I grew up, I wanted to be a star of New York City; that I wanted to make best friends with Dina Merrill and Kitty Carlisle Hart (who were the two people I’d most often seen photographed in Town & Country, which was another magazine Mother subscribed to); and that I wanted us all to go tap dancing together under the Eloise portrait at the Plaza Hotel, singing “New York, New York” with Liza Minnelli while riding in a carriage through Central Park on our way to Bloomingdale’s. “You’ll grow out of all that,” he said. And then he grinned. Daddy was a grinner. You could watch him idling across Papa’s land, his Astros cap tipped back, and always that same dumb grin. “One day, you’ll realize that everything good about life’s right here. Just like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.” It drove me crazy whenever Daddy used It’s a Wonderful Life as a parable. His whole life, he’d had one favorite color (blue, which is practically everybody’s favorite color) and one favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, because it confirmed his perception of the world: that anything that really mattered could be found at your own front door, which in our case was in the middle of Papa’s pasture.
So, as the next few days passed and we didn’t hear from Daddy, I walked around in a state of furious disbelief, wondering how I could have gotten my father so wrong; how a man who seemed as satisfied as he did could suddenly pick up and leave his life. It was positively confounding. But then something happened that made me realize that in his letter Daddy hadn’t expressed a forthright position. Something happened that made me understand that the reason he left Mother and me while we were gone to Neiman Marcus and the Dairy Queen had little to do with however unnormal we happened to be. Daddy decided to leave us because he’d found something new. And Something New was pregnant.
The following week, when Daddy brought Something New, brought Pam, to my mother’s house to pick up his remaining things, a day Mother referred to as The Sacking of Troy, and Pam wore a draping man’s flannel shirt that just revealed a bulging belly too firm for fat, it became quite clear that Daddy’s departure wasn’t nearly so sudden as it seemed, and that he’d considered it, at the very least, since February.
That afternoon Mother didn’t go downstairs, insisting it was beneath her dignity to confront her husband’s mistress in her own front hall. “If your father thinks he’s going to humiliate me in front of That Woman, then he’d just better think again.” I stayed upstairs with Mother, and we both peeked down, from a place on the landing where we knew we wouldn’t be seen. “Let’s see the merchandise they’re peddling these days, Robert,” Mother told me.
While my father rummaged, Pam waited in the front hall. Every part of her body was wiry and hungry looking, except for her huge stomach—which pooched out before her like a python that had swallowed a rabbit. “Look at her,” Mother said, eyeing Pam’s stomach. “Full as a money bag. Full as a deposit slip. . . .
“You know, you stay in a marriage,” she said. “Even when you know it doesn’t work, because . . . it works in the way it doesn’t work. In a way that starting over . . . from scratch . . . does not work.
“Oh, Robert,” said Mother, “it is time for me to start over from scratch.”
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Leleux. All rights reserved.