I Know this Much is True
One Saturday morning when my brother and I were ten, our family television set spontaneously combusted.
Thomas and I had spent most of that morning lolling around in our pajamas, watching cartoons and ignoring our mother's orders to go upstairs, take our baths, and put on our dungarees. We were supposed to help her outside with the window washing. Whenever Ray gave an order, my brother and I snapped to attention, but our stepfather was duck hunting that weekend with his friend Eddie Banas. Obeying Ma was optional.
She was outside looking in when it happened--standing in the geranium bed on a stool so she could reach the parlor windows. Her hair was in pincurls. Her coat pockets were stuffed with paper towels. As she Windexed and wiped the glass, her circular strokes gave the illusion that she was waving in at us. "We better get out there and help," Thomas said. "What if she tells Ray?"
"She won't tell," I said. "She never tells."
It was true. However angry we could make our mother, she would never have fed us to the five-foot-six-inch sleeping giant who snoozed upstairs weekdays in the spare room, rose to his alarm clock at three-thirty each afternoon, and built submarines at night. Electric Boat, third shift. At our house, you tiptoed and whispered during the day and became free each evening at nine-thirty when Eddie Banas, Ray's fellow third-shifter, pulled into the driveway and honked. I would wait for the sound of that horn. Hunger for it. With it came a loosening of limbs, a relaxation in the chest and hands, the ability to breathe deeply again. Some nights, my brother and I celebrated the slamming of Eddie's truck door by jumping in the dark on our mattresses. Freedom from Ray turned our beds into trampolines.
"Hey, look," Thomas said, staring with puzzlement at the television.
Then I saw it, too: a thin curl of smoke rising from the back of the set. The Howdy Doody Show was on, I remember. Clarabel the Clown was chasing someone with his seltzer bottle. The picture and sound went dead. Flames whooshed up the parlor wall.
I thought the Russians had done it--that Khrushchev had dropped the bomb at last. If the unthinkable ever happened, Ray had lectured us at the dinner table, the submarine base and Electric Boat were guaranteed targets. We'd feel the jolt nine miles up the road in Three Rivers. Fires would ignite everywhere. Then the worst of it: the meltdown. People's hands and legs and faces would melt like cheese.
"Duck and cover!" I yelled to my brother.
Thomas and I fell to the floor in the protective position the civil defense lady had made us practice at school. There was an explosion over by the television, a confusion of thick black smoke. The room rained glass.
The noise and smoke brought Ma, screaming, inside. Her shoes crunched glass as she ran toward us. She picked up Thomas in her arms and told me to climb onto her back.
"We can't go outside!" I shouted. "Fallout!"
"It's not the bomb!" she shouted back. "It's the TV!"
Outside, Ma ordered Thomas and me to run across the street and tell the Anthonys to call the fire department. While Mr. Anthony made the call, Mrs. Anthony brushed glass bits off the tops of our crewcuts with her whisk broom. We spat soot-flecked phlegm. By the time we returned to the front sidewalk, Ma was missing.
"Where's your mother?" Mr. Anthony shouted. "She didn't go back in there, did she? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!"
Thomas began to cry. Then Mrs. Anthony and I were crying, too. "Hurry up!" my brother shrieked to the distant sound of the fire siren. Through the parlor windows, I could see the flames shrivel our lace curtains.
A minute or so later, Ma emerged from the burning house, sobbing, clutching something against her chest. One of her pockets was ablaze from the paper towels; her coat was smoking.
Mr. Anthony yanked off Ma's coat and stomped on it. Fire trucks rounded the corner, sirens blaring. Neighbors hurried out of their houses to cluster and stare.
Ma stank. The fire had sizzled her eyebrows and given her a sooty face. When she reached out to pull Thomas and me to her body, several loose photographs spilled to the ground. That's when I realized why she'd gone back into the house: to rescue her photo album from its keeping place in the bottom drawer of the china closet.
"It's all right now," she kept saying. "It's all right, it's all right." And, for Ma, it was all right. The house her father had built would be saved. Her twins were within arm's reach. Her picture album had been rescued. Just last week, I dreamt my mother--dead from breast cancer since 1987--was standing at the picture window at Joy's and my condominium, looking in at me and mouthing that long-ago promise. "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right."
Sometime during Ma's endless opening and closing of that overstuffed photo album she loved so much, the two brass pins that attached the front and back covers first bent, then broke, causing most of the book's black construction paper pages to loosen and detach. The book had been broken for years when, in October of 1986, Ma herself was opened and closed on a surgical table at Yale-New Haven Hospital. After several months' worth of feeling tired and run down and contending with a cold that never quite went away, she had fingered a lump in her left breast. "No bigger than a pencil eraser," she told me over the phone. "But Lena Anthony thinks I should go to the doctor, so I'm going."
My mother's breast was removed. A week later, she was told that the cancer had metastasized--spread to her bone and lymph nodes. With luck and aggressive treatment, the oncologist told her, she could probably live another six to nine months.
My stepfather, my brother, and I struggled independently with our feelings about Ma's illness and pain--her death sentence. Each of us fumbled, in our own way, to make things up to her. Thomas set to work in the arts and crafts room down at the state hospital's Settle Building. While Ma lay in the hospital being scanned and probed and plied with cancer-killing poisons, he spent hours assembling and gluing and shellacking something called a "hodgepodge collage"--a busy arrangement of nuts, washers, buttons, macaroni, and dried peas that declared: god = love! Between hospital stays, Ma hung it on the kitchen wall where its hundreds of glued doodads seemed to pulsate like something alive--an organism under a microscope, molecules bouncing around in a science movie. It unnerved me to look at that thing.
My stepfather decided he would fix, once and for all, Ma's broken scrapbook. He took the album from the china closet and brought it out to the garage. There he jerry-rigged a solution, reinforcing the broken binding with strips of custom-cut aluminum sheeting and small metal bolts. "She's all set now," Ray told me when he showed me the rebound book. He held it at arm's length and opened it face down to the floor, flapping the covers back and forth as if they were the wings of a captured duck.
My own project for my dying mother was the most costly and ambitious. I would remodel her pink 1950s-era kitchen, Sheetrocking the cracked plaster walls, replacing the creaky cabinets with modern units, and installing a center island with built-in oven and cooktop. I conceived the idea, I think, to show Ma that I loved her best of all. Or that I was the most grateful of the three of us for all she'd endured on our behalf. Or that I was the sorriest that fate had given her first a volatile husband and then a schizophrenic son and then tapped her on the shoulder and handed her the "big C." What I proved, instead, was that I was the deepest in denial. If I was going to go to the trouble and expense of giving her a new kitchen, then she'd better live long enough to appreciate it.
I arrived with my toolbox at the old brick duplex early one Saturday morning, less than a week after her discharge from the hospital. Ray officially disapproved of the project and left in a huff when I got there. Looking pale and walking cautiously, Ma forced a smile and began carrying her canisters and knickknacks out of the kitchen to temporary storage. She watched from the pantry doorway as I committed my first act of renovation, tamping my flatbar with a hammer and wedging it between the wainscoting and the wall. Ma's hand was a fist at her mouth, tapping, tapping against her lip.
With the crack and groan of nails letting go their hold, the four-foot-wide piece of wainscoting was pried loose from the wall, revealing plaster and lath and an exposed joist where someone had written notes and calculations. "Look," I said, wanting to show her what I guessed was her father's handwriting. But when I turned around, I realized I was addressing the empty pantry.
I was thirty-six at the time, unhappily divorced for less than a year. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I'd still reach for Dessa, and her empty side of the bed would startle me awake. We'd been together for sixteen years.
I found my mother sitting in the front parlor, trying to hide her tears. The newly repaired photo album was in her lap.
"What's the matter?"
She shook her head, tapped her lip. "I don't know, Dominick. You go ahead. It's just that with everything that's happening right now . . ."
"You don't want a new kitchen?" I asked. The question came out like a threat.
"Honey, it's not that I don't appreciate it." She patted the sofa cushion next to her. "Come here. Sit down."
Still standing, I reminded her that she'd complained for decades about her lack of counter space. I described the new stoves I'd seen at Kitchen Depot--the ones where the burners are one continuous flat surface, a cinch for cleaning. I sounded just like the saleswoman who'd led me around from one showroom miracle to the next.
Ma said that she knew a new kitchen would be great, but that maybe what she really needed right now was for things to stay settled.
I sat. Sighed, defeated.
"If you want to give me something," she said, "give me something small."
"Okay, fine," I huffed. "I'll just make you one of those collage things like Thomas's. Except mine will say life sucks. Or jesus christ's a son of a bitch." My mother was a religious woman. I might as well have taken my flatbar and poked at her incision.
"Don't be bitter, honey," she said.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was crying--tears and strangled little barks that convulsed from the back of my throat. "I'm scared," I said.
"What are you scared of, Dominick? Tell me."
"I don't know," I said. "I'm scared for you." But it was myself I was scared for. Closing in on forty, I was wifeless, childless. Now I'd be motherless, too. Left with my crazy brother and Ray.
She reached over and rubbed my arm. "Well, honey," she said, "it's scary. But I accept it because it's what God wants for me."
"What God wants," I repeated, with a little snort of contempt. I dragged my sleeve across my eyes, cleared my throat.
"Give me something little," she repeated. "You remember that time last spring when you came over and said, 'Hey, Ma, get in the car and I'll buy you a hot fudge sundae'? That's the kind of thing I'd like. Just come visit. Look at my album with me."
Tucked in the inside front cover pocket of my mother's scrapbook are two pictures of Thomas and me, scissored four decades earlier from the Three Rivers Daily Record. The folded newsprint, stained brown with age, feels as light and brittle as dead skin. In the first photo, we're wrinkled newborns, our diapered bodies curved toward each other like opening and closing parentheses. identical twins ring out old, ring in new, the caption claims and goes on to explain that Thomas and Dominick Tempesta were born at the Daniel P. Shanley Memorial Hospital on December 31, 1949, and January 1, 1950, respectively--six minutes apart and in two different years. (The article makes no mention of our father and says only that our unnamed mother is "doing fine." We were bastards; our births would have been discreetly ignored by the newspaper had we not been the New Year's babies.) "Little Thomas arrived first, at 11:57 p.m.," the article explains. "His brother Dominick followed at 12:03 a.m. Between them, they straddle the f iii irst and second halves of the twentieth century!"
In the second newspaper photo, taken on January 24, 1954, my brother and I have become Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. We wear matching sailor hats and woolen pea jackets and salute the readers of the Daily Record. Mamie Eisenhower squats between us, one mink-coated arm wrapped around each of our waists. Mrs. Eisenhower, in her short bangs and flowered hat, beams directly at the camera. Thomas and I, age four, wear twin looks of bewildered obedience. This picture is captioned first lady gets a two-gun salute.
The President's wife was in Groton, Connecticut, that winter day to break champagne against the USS Nautilus, America's first nuclear-powered submarine. Our family stood in the crowd below the dignitaries' platform, ticket-holding guests by virtue of our new stepfather's job as a pipe fitter for Electric Boat. EB and the Navy were partners in the building of the Nautilus, America's best hope for containing Communism.
According to my mother, it had been cold and foggy the morning of the launch and then, just before the submarine's christening, the sun had burned through and lit up the celebration. Ma had prayed to Saint Anne for good weather and saw this sudden clearing as a small miracle, a further sign of what everybody knew already: that Heaven was on our side, was against the godless Communists who wanted to conquer the world and blow America to smithereens.
"It was the proudest day of my life, Dominick," she told me that morning when I started, then halted, the renovation of her kitchen and sat, instead, and looked. "Seeing you two boys with the President's wife. I remember it like it was yesterday. Mamie and some admiral's wife were up there on the VIP platform, waving down to the crowd, and I said to your father, 'Look, Ray. She's pointing right at the boys!' He said, 'Oh, go on. They're just putting on a show.' But I could tell she was looking at you two. It used to happen all the time. People get such a kick out of twins. You boys were always special."
Her happy remembrance of that long-ago day strengthened her voice, animated her gestures. The past, the old pictures, the sudden brilliance of the morning sun through the front windows: the mix made her joyful and took away, I think, a little of her pain.
"And then, next thing you know, the four of us were following some Secret Service men to the Officers' Club lounge. Ray took it in stride, of course, but I was scared skinny. I thought we were in trouble for something. Come to find out, we were following Mrs. Eisenhower's orders. She wanted her picture taken with my two boys!
"They treated us like big shots, too. Your father had a cocktail with Admiral Rickover and some of the other big brass. They asked him all about his service record. Then a waiter brought you and your brother orange sodas in frosted glasses almost as tall as you two were. I was scared one of you was going to spill soda all over Mamie."
"What did you and she have to drink?" I kidded her. "Couple of boilermakers?"
"Oh, honey, I didn't take a thing. I was a nervous wreck, standing that close to her. She ordered a Manhattan, I remember, and had some liver pate on a cracker. She was nice--very down to earth. She asked me if I'd sewn the little sailor suits you and Thomas were wearing. She told me she knitted some still when she and the President traveled, but she'd never had a talent for sewing. When she stooped down to have her picture taken with you two boys, she told you she had a grandson just a little older than you. David Eisenhower is who she was talking about. Julie Nixon's husband. Camp David."
Ma shook her head and smiled, in disbelief still. Then she pulled a Kleenex from the sleeve of her bathrobe and dabbed at her eyes. "Your grandfather just wouldn't have believed it," she said. "First he comes to this country with holes in his pockets, and then, the next thing you know, his two little grandsons are hobnobbing with the First Lady of the United States of America. Papa would have gotten a big kick out of that. He would have been proud as a peacock."
Domenico Onofrio Tempesta--my maternal grandfather, my namesake--is as prominent in my mother's photo album as he was in her life of service to him. He died during the summer of 1949, oblivious of the fact that the unmarried thirty-three-year-old daughter who kept his house--his only child--was pregnant with twins. Growing up, my brother and I knew Papa as a stern-faced paragon of accomplishment, the subject of a few dozen sepia-tinted photographs, the star of a hundred anecdotes. Each of the stories Ma told us about Papa reinforced the message that he was the boss, that he ruled the roost, that what he said went.
He had emigrated to America from Sicily in 1901 and gotten ahead because he was shrewd with his money and unafraid of hard work, lucky for us! He'd bought a half-acre lot from a farmer's widow and thus become the first Italian immigrant to own property in Three Rivers, Connecticut. Papa had put the roof over our heads, had built "with his own two hands" the brick Victorian duplex on Hollyhock Avenue where we'd lived as kids--where my mother had lived all her life. Papa had had a will of iron and a stubborn streak--just the traits he needed to raise a young daughter "all by his lonesome." If we thought Ray was strict, we should have seen Papa! Once when Ma was a girl, she was bellyaching about having to eat fried eggs for supper. Papa let her go on and on and then, without saying a word, reached over and pushed her face down in her plate. "I came up with egg yolk dripping off my hair and the tip of my nose and even my eyelashes. I was crying to beat the band. After that night, I just ate my eggs and shut up a bbb bout it!"
Another time, when Ma was a teenager working at the Rexall store, Papa found her secret package of cigarettes and marched himself right down to the drugstore where he made her eat one of her own Pall Malls. Right in front of the customers and her boss, Mr. Chase. And Claude Sminkey, the soda jerk she had such an awful crush on. After he left, Ma ran outside and had to throw up at the curb with people walking by and watching. She had to quit her job, she was so ashamed of herself. But she never smoked again--never even liked the smell of cigarettes after that. Papa had fixed her wagon, all right. She had defied him and then lived to regret it. The last thing Papa wanted was a sneak living under his own roof.
Sometime during our visit with the photo album that morning, my mother told me to wait there. She had something she wanted to get. With a soft sigh of pain, she was on her feet and heading for the front stairs.
"Ma, whatever it is, let me get it for you," I called out.
"That's okay, honey," she called back down the stairs. "I know right where it is."
I flipped quickly through the pages as I waited--made my family a jerky, imperfect movie. It struck me that my mother had compiled mostly a book of her father, Thomas, and me. Others make appearances: Ray, Dessa, the Anthonys from across the street, the Tusia sisters from next door. But my grandfather, my brother, and I are the stars of my mother's book. Ma herself, camera-shy and self-conscious about her cleft lip, appears only twice in the family album. In the first picture, she's one of a line of dour-faced schoolchildren posed on the front step of St. Mary of Jesus Christ Grammar School. (A couple of years ago, the parish sold that dilapidated old schoolhouse to a developer from Massachusetts who converted it into apartments. I bid on the inside painting, but Paint Plus came in under me.) In the second photograph, Ma looks about nine or ten. She stands beside her lanky father on the front porch of the house on Hollyhock Avenue, wearing a sacklike dress and a sober look that matches Papa's. In both of the sss se photos, my mother holds a loose fist to her face to cover her defective mouth.
It was a gesture she had apparently learned early and practiced all her life: the hiding of her cleft lip with her right fist--her perpetual apology to the world for a birth defect over which she'd had no control. The lip, split just to the left of her front teeth, exposed a half-inch gash of gum and gave the illusion that she was sneering. But Ma never sneered. She apologized. She put her fist to her mouth for store clerks and door-to-door salesmen, for mailmen and teachers on parents' visiting day, for neighbors, for her husband, and even, sometimes, for herself when she sat in the parlor watching TV, her image reflected on the screen.
She had made reference to her harelip only once, a day in 1964 when she sat across from me in an optometrist's office. A month earlier, my ninth-grade algebra teacher had caught me squinting at the blackboard and called to advise my mother to get my eyes tested. But I'd balked. Glasses were for brains, for losers and finky kids. I was furious because Thomas had developed no twin case of myopia--no identical need to wear stupid faggy glasses like me. He was the jerk, the brownnoser at school. He should be the nearsighted one. If she made me get glasses, I told her, I just wouldn't wear them.
But Ma had talked to Ray, and Ray had issued one of his supper table ultimatums. So I'd gone to Dr. Wisdo's office, acted my surliest, and flunked the freaking wall chart. Now, two weeks later, my black plastic frames were being fitted to my face in a fluorescent-lit room with too many mirrors.
"Well, I think they make you look handsome, Dominick," Ma offered. "Distinguished. He looks like a young Ray Milland. Doesn't he, Doctor?"
Dr. Wisdo didn't like me because of my bad attitude during the first visit. "Well," he mumbled reluctantly, "now that you mention it."
This all occurred during the fever of puberty and Beatlemania. The summer before, at the basketball courts at Fitz Field, a kid named Billy Grillo had shown me and Marty Overturf a stack of rain-wrinkled paperbacks he'd found out in the woods in a plastic bag: Sensuous Sisters, Lusty Days & Lusty Nights, The Technician of Ecstasy. I'd swiped a couple of those mildewed books and taken them out past the picnic tables where I read page after faded page, simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the things men did to women, the things women did to themselves and each other. It flabbergasted me, for instance, that a man might put his dick inside a woman's mouth and have her "hungrily gulp down his creamy nectar." That a woman might cram a glass bottle up between another woman's legs and that this would make both "scream and undulate with pleasure." I'd gone home from basketball that day, flopped onto my bed and fallen asleep, awakening in the middle of my first wet dream. Shortly after that, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Behind the locked bathroom door, I began combing my bangs forward and beating off to my dirty fantasies about all those girls who screamed for the Beatles--what those same girls would do to me, what they'd let me do to them. So the last person I wanted to look like was Ray Milland, one of my mother's old fart movie stars.
"Could you just shut up, please?" I told Ma, right in front of Dr. Wisdo.
"Hey, hey, hey, come on now. Enough is enough," Dr. Wisdo protested. "What kind of boy says 'Shut up' to his own mother?"
Ma put her fist to her mouth and told the doctor it was all right. I was just upset. This wasn't the way I really was.
As if she knew the way I really was, I thought to myself, smiling inwardly.
Dr. Wisdo told me he had to leave the room for a few minutes, and by the time he got back, he hoped I would have apologized to my poor mother.
Neither of us said anything for a minute or more. I just sat there, smirking defiantly at her, triumphant and miserable. Then Ma took me by complete surprise. "You think glasses are bad," she said. "You should try having what I have. At least you can take your glasses off."
I knew immediately what she meant--her harelip--but her abrupt reference to it hit me like a snowball in the eye. Of all the forbidden subjects in our house, the two most forbidden were the identification of Thomas's and my biological father and our mother's disfigurement. We had never asked about either--had somehow been raised not to ask and had honored the near-sacredness of the silence. Now Ma herself was breaking one of the two cardinal rules. I looked away, shocked, embarrassed, but Ma wouldn't stop talking.
"One time," she said, "a boy in my class, a mean boy named Harold Kettlety, started calling me 'Rabbit Face.' I hadn't done anything to him. Not a thing. I never bothered anyone at all--I was scared of my own shadow. He just thought up that name one day and decided it was funny. 'Hello there, Rabbit Face,' he used to whisper to me across the aisle. After a while, some of the other boys took it up, too. They used to chase me at recess and call me 'Rabbit Face.' "
I sat there, pumping my leg up and down, wanting her to stop--wanting Harold Kettlety to still be a kid so I could find him and rip his fucking face off for him.
"And so I told the teacher, and she sent me to the principal. Mother Agnes, her name was. She was a stern thing." Ma's fingers twisted her pocketbook strap as she spoke. "She told me to stop making a mountain out of a molehill. I was making things worse, she said, by calling it to everyone's attention. I should just ignore it. . . . Then more boys got on the bandwagon, even boys from other grades. It got so bad, I used to get the dry heaves before school every morning. You didn't stay home sick in our house unless you had something like the measles or the chicken pox. That's the last thing Papa would have stood for--me home all day long just because some stinker was calling me a name."
I needed her to stop. Needed not to hear the pain in her voice--to see the way she was twisting that pocketbook strap. If she kept talking, she might break down and tell me everything. "I don't see how any of this sob story stuff has anything to do with me," I said. "Are you planning to get to the point before I die of old age?"
She shut up after that, silenced, I guess, by the fact that her own son had joined forces with Harold Kettlety. On the drive home from the optometrist's, I chose to sit in the backseat and not speak to her. Somewhere en route, I drew my new glasses from their brown plastic clip-to-your-pocket case, rubbed the lenses with the silicone-impregnated cleaning cloth, and slipped them on. I looked out the window, privately dazzled by a world more sharp and clear than I remembered. I said nothing about this, spoke no apologies, offered no concessions.
"Ma's crying downstairs," Thomas informed me later, up in our bedroom. I was lifting weights, shirt off, glasses on.
"So what am I supposed to do about it?" I said. "Hold a snot rag to her nose?"
"Just try being decent to her," he said. "She's your mother, Dominick. Sometimes you treat her like s-h-i-t."
I stared at myself in our bedroom mirror as I lifted the weights, studying the muscle definition I'd begun to acquire and which I could now see clearly, thanks to my glasses. "Why don't you say the word instead of spelling it," I smirked. "Go ahead. Say 'shit.' Give yourself a thrill."
He'd been changing out of his school clothes as we spoke. Now he stood there, hands on his hips, wearing just his underpants, his socks, and one of those fake-turtleneck dickey things that were popular with all the goody-goody kids at our school. Thomas had them in four or five different colors. God, I hated those dickeys of his.
I looked at the two of us, side by side, in the mirror. Next to me, Thomas was a scrawny joke. Mr. Pep Squad Captain. Mr. Goody-Goody Boy.
"I mean it, Dominick," he said. "You better treat her right or I'll say something to Ray. I will. Don't think I wouldn't."
Which was bullshit and we both knew it.
I grabbed my barbell wrench, banged extra weights onto the bar, lifted them. Fink. Pansy Ass Dickey Boy. "Oh, geez, I'm nervous," I told him. "I'm so scared, I'll probably shit my p-a-n-t-s."
He stood there, just like Ma, his look of indignation melting into forgiveness. "Just cool it, is all I'm saying, Dominick," he said. "Oh, by the way, I like your glasses."
When Ma came back down the stairs on that day of failed kitchen renovation, she was carrying a gray metal strongbox. I put down the picture album, stood, and walked toward her. "Here, honey," she said. "This is for you. Phew, kind of heavy."
"Ma, I told you I'd get it." I took it from her. "What's in it, anyways?"
"Open it and see," she said.
She had masking-taped the key to the side of the box; I kidded her about it--told her it was a good thing she didn't work for Fort Knox. She watched my fingers peel the key free, put it in the lock, and turn. In anticipation of my opening the strongbox, she didn't even seem to hear my teasing.
Inside the box was a large manila envelope curled around a small coverless dictionary and held in place with an elastic band that broke as soon as I touched it. The envelope held a thick sheaf of paper--a manuscript of some kind. The first ten or fifteen pages were typewritten--originals and carbon copies. The rest had been written in longhand--a scrawling, ornate script in blue fountain-pen ink. "It's Italian, right?" I asked. "What is it?"
"It's my father's life story," she said. "He dictated it the summer he died."
As I fanned through the thing, its mildewy aroma went up my nose. "Dictated it to who?" I asked her. "You?"
"Oh, gosh, no," she said. Did I remember the Mastronunzios from church? Tootsie and Ida Mastronunzio? My mother was always doing that: assuming that my mental database of all the Italians in Three Rivers was as extensive as hers was.
"Uh-uh," I said.
Sure I did, she insisted. They drove that big white car to Mass? Ida worked at the dry cleaner's? Walked with a little bit of a limp? Well, anyway, Tootsie had a cousin who came over from Italy right after the war. Angelo Nardi, his name was. He'd been a courtroom stenographer in Palermo. "He was a handsome fella, too--very dashing. He was looking for work."
Her father had been saying for years how, someday, he was going to sit down and tell the story of his life for the benefit of siciliani. He thought boys and young men back in the Old Country would want to read about how one of their own had come to America and made good. Gotten ahead in life. Papa thought it might inspire them to do likewise. So when he met Tootsie's cousin one day over at the Italian Club, he came up with a big idea. He would tell Angelo his story--have Angelo write it all down as he spoke and then type it up on the typewriter.
The project had begun as something of an extravaganza, according to my mother. "Careful with his money" his whole life, Papa now spared no expense at first on his inspirational autobiography. He cleared some of the furniture out of the parlor and rented a typewriter for Angelo. "Things were hunky-dory for the first couple of days," Ma said. "But after that, there were problems."
Papa decided he could not tell his story as freely with Angelo in the room--that he would be able to remember things better if he was by himself. "So the next thing you know, he was on the telephone with a bunch of office equipment companies--making all these long-distance calls, which I could hardly believe he was doing, Dominick, because he'd never even call his cousins down in Brooklyn to wish them a Merry Christmas or a Happy Easter. They always had to call us every year because Papa didn't want to waste his money. But for that project of his, he called all over creation. He ended up renting this Dictaphone machine from some place all the way down in Bridgeport." Ma shook her head, wonder-struck still. "Jeepers, you should have seen that contraption when it got here! I almost fell over the day they lugged that thing into the house."
Two machines sat on rolling carts, she said--one for the person dictating, the other for the stenographer who would turn the recorded sounds first into squiggles and then into typewritten words. They set it up in the front parlor and moved Angelo's typewriter into the spare room. "Poor Angelo," Ma said. "I don't think he knew what he was getting himself into."
Neither Angelo nor Papa could figure out how to run the Dictaphone at first, Ma said. They tried and tried. That whole day, Papa swore a blue streak! He finally made Angelo take the bus down to Bridgeport so that he could learn how to operate the foolish thing. "And here the poor guy could just barely speak English, Dominick. He'd just gotten over here from the Old Country. But anyway, when he came back again, he knew how to run it--how to make everything work.
"Every morning, Angelo would set things up--get everything ready--and then he'd have to leave Papa alone. That was the rule. Papa got so he wouldn't dictate a word of it until he was alone. Angelo used to come out in the kitchen and wait. So I got to know him a little. He was a nice man, Dominick, and so handsome. I'd make him coffee and we'd talk about this and that--his life back in Palermo, his family. I used to help him a little with his English. He was smart, too; you'd explain something to him and he'd pick it up just like that. You could just tell he was going places."
The Dictaphone had red plastic belts, Ma said; that was what the voice was recorded on, if she remembered right. Papa would stay in there for two or three hours at a time and then, when he was finished, he'd call Angelo and Angelo would have to go running. He'd wheel the cart into the back room where the typewriter was. Listen to whatever was recorded on the belts and take it down in shorthand. Then he'd type it up. "But my father hated the sound of typewriting, see? He didn't want that clickety-clacking all over the house after he'd finished his end of things for the day. All that remembering made him cranky."
"I don't get it," I said. "Why didn't he just dictate it to him directly?"
"I don't know. He was just nervous, I guess." She reached over and touched the manuscript--passed her fingers across her father's words. She herself didn't dare to go anywhere near that parlor when Papa was speaking into the Dictaphone, she said. He was so serious about it. He probably would have shot her on sight!
Ma told me that the complicated system her father had devised --stenographer, Dictaphone, private rooms for dictator and dictatee--had worked for about a week and then that, too, had fallen apart. First of all, there had been a misunderstanding about the rental price for the recording equipment. Papa had thought he was paying eight dollars per week to rent the Dictaphone but then learned that he was being charged eight dollars a day. Forty dollars a week! "So he told the rental company where they could go, and he and Angelo wheeled the carts onto the front porch. Those machines were parked out there for two whole days before someone drove up from Bridgeport and picked them up. I was a nervous wreck with those contraptions just sitting out there. I couldn't even sleep. What if it had rained? What if someone had come along and snitched them?
"But anyway, Papa went back to dictating his story directly to Angelo. But that didn't go any better than it had the first time. Things got worse and worse. Papa started accusing Angelo of poking around in his business--asking him to clear up this thing or that thing when Papa had told him exactly as much as he wanted to tell him and nothing more. Oh, he could be a stubborn son of a gun, my father. He started accusing poor Angelo of changing around some of the things that he had said--of deliberately trying to portray my father in a bad light. Angelo got fed up, the poor guy. The two of them started fighting like cats and dogs."
Somewhere in the middle of July, Papa fired Angelo, my mother said. Then, after a few days, he cooled down and rehired him. But the day after Angelo came back, Papa fired him all over again. When he tried to rehire him a second time, Angelo refused to come back again. "He moved away pretty soon after that," she said. "Out west to the Chicago area. He wrote me one letter and I wrote back and then that was that. But after all that business with Angelo and the Dictaphone and everything--all that rigmarole--Papa finally just went up to the backyard and wrote the rest of his story himself. He worked on it all the rest of that summer. He'd climb up the back stairs every morning, right after breakfast, unless it was raining or he didn't feel well. He'd sit up there at his little metal table with his paper and his fountain pen. Writing away, all by his lonesome."
I leafed again through the musty manuscript--those pages and pages of foreign words. "You ever read it?" I asked her.
She shook her head. We lost eye contact.
"Oh, I don't know, Dominick. I peeked at it a couple of times, I guess. But I just never felt right about it. My Italian's too rusty. You forget a lot of it if you don't use it."
We sat there, side by side on the couch, neither of us speaking. In less than a year, I thought, she'll be dead.
"It's funny, though," she said. "It was kind of out of character for Papa to do something like that. Write things down. He'd always been so private about everything. Sometimes I'd ask him about the Old Country--about his mother and father or the village where he'd grown up--and he'd say, oh, he didn't even remember that stuff anymore. Or he'd tell me Sicilians kept their eyes open and their mouths shut. . . . But then, that summer: he hired Angelo, rented that contraption. . . . Some mornings I'd hear him crying up there. Up in the backyard. Or speaking out loud--kind of arguing with himself about something. Papa had had a lot of tragedy in his life, see? Both his brothers who he came over here with had died young. And his wife. All he had was me, really. It was just the two of us."
The first page of the manuscript was hand-lettered in blue fountain-pen ink, lots of flourishes and curlicues. "I can read his name," I said. "What does the rest say?"
"Let's see. It says, 'The History of Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Great Man from . . ." Umile? Umile? Humble! . . . 'The History of Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Great Man from Humble Beginnings.' "
I had to smile. "He had a pretty good idea of himself, didn't he?"
Her eyes brimmed with tears. "He was a wonderful man, Dominick."
"Yeah, right. As long as you ate your eggs. And your cigarettes."
Ma stroked the small, coverless dictionary. "I've been meaning to give you this stuff for a long time, honey," she said. "You take it with you when you go. It's for Thomas, too, if he ever wants to look at it, but I wanted to give it to you, especially, because you were the one who always used to ask about Papa."
She nodded. "When you were little. See this dictionary? This is the one he used right after he came over from the Old Country--the one he learned his English from."
I opened the tattered book. Its onionskin pages were stained with grease from his fingers. On one page, I covered his thumbprint with my thumb and considered for the first time that Papa might have been more than just old pictures--old, repeated stories.
I took my mother into the kitchen and showed her the pencil marks written onto the joist. "Yup, that's his writing!" she said. "I'll be a son of a gun. Look at that! It almost brings him right back again."
I reached out and rubbed her shoulder, the cloth of her bathrobe, the skin and bone. "You know what I think?" I said. "I think you should translate that story of his."
Ma shook her head. "Oh, honey, I can't. I told you, I've forgotten more Italian than I remember. I never learned it that good to begin with. It was confusing. Sometimes he'd speak the Italian he'd learned in school--up in the North--and sometimes he'd speak Sicilian. I used to get them mixed up. . . . And anyway, it's like I said. I just don't think he wanted me to read it. Whenever I'd go out into the yard to hang the clothes or bring him a cold drink, he'd get so mad at me. Shout at me, shoo me away. 'Stay out of my business!' he'd say. I'm telling you, he was a regular J. Edgar Hoover about that project of his."
"But, Ma, he's dead," I reminded her. "He's been dead for almost forty years."
She stopped, was quiet. She seemed lost in thought.
"What?" I said. "What are you thinking about?"
"Oh, nothing, really. I was just remembering the day he died. He was all alone out there, all by himself when he had that stroke." She drew her Kleenex from her sleeve. Wiped her eyes. "That same morning, while he was eating his breakfast, he told me he was almost done with it. It took me back a little--him giving me a progress report like that--because up until then, he had never said one word to me about it. Not directly, I mean. . . . And so I asked him, I said, 'What are you going to do with it, Papa, once you're finished?' I thought he was going to start writing away to some publishers back in Italy. Try to get it made into a book like he'd said. But you know what he told me? He said maybe he'd just throw it into the ash barrel and put a match to it. Burn the whole thing up once he was finished writing it. It just wasn't the answer I was expecting. After all that trouble he'd gone to to get it down. . . . I heard him sobbing up there a couple of times that last morning--really wailing one time. It was t eee errible. And I wanted to go up to him, Dominick, but I thought it would have made him mad if I did. Made things worse. He'd been so private about it.
"And then, later on, when I went out there with his lunch, there he was. Slumped over, his head on the table. These pages were all over the place: stuck in the hedges, stuck against the chicken coop. They'd blown all over the yard.
"And so I ran back down inside and called the police. And the priest. Your grandfather wasn't a churchgoer--he had a kind of a grudge against St. Mary's for some reason--but I figured, well, I'd call the priest anyway. . . . It was awful, Dominick. I was so scared. I was shaking like a leaf. And here I was, carrying your brother and you. . . ."
I reached over. Put my arm around her.
"After I made those two phone calls, I just went back out there and waited. Went back up the stairs. I stood there, about ten or twelve feet away from him, watching him. I knew he was dead, but I kept watching him, hoping maybe I'd see him blink or yawn. Hoping and praying that I was mistaken. But I knew I wasn't. He hadn't moved a muscle." She passed her hand again over Papa's manuscript. "And so I went around the yard, picking up this thing. It was all I could think of to do for him, Dominick. Pick up the pages of his history."
The room filled up with silence. The sun had shifted--had cast us both in shadow.
"Well, anyway," she said. "That was a long time ago."
Before I left, I tapped the wainscoting back into place, covering once again Domenico's notes and calculations. I walked out the door and down the front porch steps, balancing my toolbox, the strongbox, and several foil-wrapped packages of frozen leftovers. ("I worry about you in that apartment all by yourself, honey. Your face looks too thin. I can tell you're not eating the way you should. Here, take these.") At the door of the truck, I heard her calling and went back up the steps.
"You forgot this," she said. I put my hand out, palm up, and she opened her fist. The strongbox key fell into my hand. "La chiave," she said.
"La chiave. Your key. The word for it just came back to me."
"La chiave," I repeated, and dropped the key into my pocket.
That night, I awoke from a sound sleep with the idea: the perfect gift for my dying mother. It was so simple and right that its obviousness had eluded me until 2:00 a.m. I'd have her father's life story translated, printed, and bound for her to read.
I drove up to the university and found the Department of Romance Languages office tucked into the top floor of a stone building dwarfed by two massive, leafless beech trees. The secretary drew up a list of possibilities for me to try. After an hour's worth of false leads and locked doors, I walked the narrow steps to a half-landing and knocked at the office door of Nedra Frank, the last person on my list.
She looked about forty, but it's hard to tell with those hair-yanked-back, glasses-on-a-chain types. As she leafed through my grandfather's pages, I checked out her breasts (nice ones), the mole on her neck, her gnawed-down cuticles. She shared the office with another grad student; her sloppy desk and his neat one were a study in opposites.
"Some of this is written in standard Italian," she said. "And some of it's . . . it looks like peasant Sicilian. What was he--schizo or something?"
Okay, bitch, thanks anyway. Give it the fuck back to me and I'll be on my way.
"I'm a scholar," she said, looking up. She handed me back the manuscript. "What you're asking me to do is roughly the same as trying to commission a serious artist to paint you something that goes with the sofa and drapes."
"Oh," I said. "Okay." Already, I'd begun backing out of her low-ceilinged office--a glorified closet, really, and not all that glorified.
She sighed. "Let me see it again." I handed it back and she scanned several pages, frowning. "The typed pages are single-spaced," she said. "That's twice as much work."
"Yeah, well . . ."
"The penmanship's legible, at least. . . . I could do the handwritten material for eight dollars a page. I'd have to charge sixteen for the typed ones. More on the ones where explanatory footnotes were necessary."
"How much more?"
"Oh, let's say five dollars per footnote. I mean, fair is fair, right? If I'm actually generating text instead of just translating and interpreting, I should be paid more. Shouldn't I?"
I nodded. Did the math in my head. Somewhere between eight hundred and a thousand bucks without the footnotes. More than I thought it would be, but a lot less than a kitchen renovation. "Are you saying you'll do it then?"
She sighed, kept me waiting for several seconds. "All right," she finally said. "To be perfectly honest, I have no interest in the project, but I need money for my car. Can you believe it? A year and a half old and the tranny's already got problems."
It struck me funny: this Marian the Librarian using gearhead lingo. "Why are you smiling?" she asked.
I shrugged. "No reason, really. What kind of car is it?"
"A Yugo," she said. "I suppose that's funny, too?"
Nedra Frank told me she wanted four hundred dollars up front and estimated the translation would take her a month or two to complete, given her schedule, which she described as "oppressive." Her detachment annoyed me; she had looked twice at her wall clock as I spoke of my grandfather's accomplishments, my mother's lymphoma. I wrote her a check, worrying that she might summarize or skip pages--shortchange me in spite of what she was charging. I left her office feeling vulnerable--subject to her abbreviations and interpretations, her sourpuss way of seeing the world. Still, the project was under way.
I called her several times over the next few weeks, wanting to check her progress or to see if she had any questions. But all I ever got was an unanswered ring.
Whenever my mother underwent her chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Yale-New Haven, Ray drove her down there, kept her company, ate his meals in the cafeteria downstairs, and catnapped in the chair beside her bed. By early evening, he'd get back on the road, driving north on I-95 in time for his shift at Electric Boat. When I suggested that maybe he was taking on too much, he shrugged and asked me what the hell else he was supposed to do.
Did he want to talk about it?
What was there to talk about?
Was there anything I could do for him?
I should worry about my mother, not him. He could take care of himself.
I tried to make it down to New Haven two or three times a week. I brought Thomas with me when I could, usually on Sundays. It was hard to gauge how well or poorly Thomas was handling Ma's dying. As was usually the case with him, the pendulum swung irregularly. Sometimes he seemed resigned and accepting. "It's God's will," he'd sigh, echoing Ma herself. "We have to be strong for each other." Sometimes he'd sob and pound his fists on my dashboard. At other times, he was pumped up with hope. "I know she's going to beat this thing," he told me one afternoon over the phone. "I'm praying every day to Saint Agatha."
"Saint who?" I said, immediately sorry I'd asked.
"Saint Agatha," he repeated. "The patron saint invoked against fire and volcanoes and cancer." He rambled on and on about his stupid saint: a virgin whose jilted suitor had had her breasts severed, her body burned at the stake. Agatha had stopped the eruption of a volcano, had died a Bride of Christ, blah blah blah.
One morning at 6:00 a.m., Thomas woke me up with the theory that the Special K our mother ate for breakfast every day had been deliberately impregnated with carcinogens. The Kellogg's Cereal Company was secretly owned by the Soviets, he said. "They target the relatives of the people they're really after. I'm on their hit list because I do God's bidding." Now that he was on to them, he said, he was considering exposing Kellogg's--rubbing it right in their corporate face. He would probably end up as Time magazine's Man of the Year and have to go into hiding. Stalkers followed famous people. Look what had happened to poor John Lennon. Did I remember the song "Instant Karma"? John had written it specifically for him, to encourage him to do good in the world after he'd gone. "Listen!" my brother said. "It's so obvious, it's pathetic!" He broke out into a combination of song and shouting.
Instant karma's gonna get you--gonna look you right in the FACE
You better recognize your BROTHER and join the HUMAN RACE!
One Sunday afternoon when Thomas and I drove down to visit Ma, her bed was empty. We found her in the solarium, illuminated by a column of sun coming through the skylight, sitting by herself among clusters of other people's visitors. By then, the chemo had stained her skin and turned her hair to duck fluff--had given her, once again, the singed look she'd had that day she emerged from the burning parlor on Hollyhock Avenue. Somehow, bald and shrunken in her quilted pink robe, she looked beautiful to me.
Thomas sat slumped and uncommunicative through that whole visit. He had wanted me to stop at McDonald's on the way down and I'd told him no--that maybe we could go there on the ride back. In the solarium, he pouted and stared trancelike at the TV and ignored Ma's questions and efforts at conversation. He refused to take off his coat. He wouldn't stop checking his watch.
I was angry by the time we left, angrier still when, during the drive home, he interrupted my speech about his selfishness to ask if we were still going to McDonald's. "Don't you get it, asshole?" I shouted. "Don't you even come up for air when your own goddamned mother's dying?" He undid his seatbelt and climbed over the front seat. Squatting on the backseat floor, he assumed a modified version of the old duck-and-cover.
I pulled the car into the breakdown lane, threw her into neutral, and told him to get the fuck back in front--that I was sick and tired of his bullshit, fed up with his crap on top of everything else I was trying to juggle. When he refused to get up, I yanked him up and out of the car. He pulled free and bolted, running across the interstate without even looking. Horns wailed, cars swerved wildly. Don't ask me how he made it across. And by the time I got across the highway myself, Thomas had disappeared. I ran, panic-stricken, through woods and yards, imagining the ugly thump of impact, Thomas ripped in half, his blood splattered all over the road.
I found him lying in the tall grass at the side of the highway about a quarter of a mile up from where the car was. His eyes were closed, his mouth smiling up at the sun. When I helped him up, the grass was dented in the shape of his body. Like a visual aid at a crime scene. Like one of those angels he and I used to make in new snow. . . . Back in the car, I gripped the wheel to steady my hands and tried not to hear and see those cars that had swerved out of his way. In Madison, I pulled into a McDonald's and got him a large fries, a Quarter Pounder with cheese, a strawberry shake. If he was not exactly happy for the rest of the trip, he was at least quiet and full.
That evening, Nedra Frank picked up on the first ring.
"I know you're busy," I said. I told her what Ray had just called and told me: that my mother's condition had gotten worse.
"I'm working on it right now, as a matter of fact," she said. "I've decided to leave some of the Italian words and phrases intact to give you some sense of the music."
"Italian is such a musical language. I didn't want to translate the manuscript to death. But you'll recognize the words I've left untouched--either contextually or phonetically. Or both. And some of the proverbs he uses are virtually untranslatable. I've left them in whole but provided parenthetical notations--approximations. Now, I'm preserving very little of the Sicilian, on the assumption that one weeds the garden. Right?"
"Yeah," I said. "Whatever. It's the English I'm more interested in, anyway." She sure didn't have a whole lot of use for Sicily. "So . . . what's he like?" I asked.
There was a pause. "What's he like?"
"Yeah. I mean, you know the guy better than I do at this point. I'm just curious. Do you like him?"
"A translator's position should be an objective one. An emotional reaction might get in the way of--"
The day had been brutal. I had no patience with her scholarly detachment. "Well, just this once, treat yourself to an emotional reaction," I said. "For my sake."
There was dead air on the other end for the next several seconds. Then I got what I had asked for. "I don't like him, actually, no. Far from it. He's pompous, misogynistic. He's horrible, really."
Now the silence was coming from my end.
"You see?" she said. "Now you're offended. I knew I shouldn't have relinquished my objectivity."
"I'm not offended," I said. "I'm just impatient. I just want it to get done before she's too sick to enjoy it."
"Well, I'm doing the best I can. I told you about my schedule. And anyway, I think you'd better read it first before you decide to share it with her. If I were you, I wouldn't talk it up just yet."
Now her lack of objectivity was pissing me off. What right did she have to tell me what I should or shouldn't do? Screw you, I wanted to tell her. You're just the translator.
Ma's third round of chemo made her too sick to eat. In February, she landed back in the hospital weighing in at ninety-four pounds and looking like an ad for famine relief. By then, I'd stopped bringing Thomas to see her. The incident on the highway had scared me shitless, had kept me up more nights than one.
"This may jab a little going in, sweetie pie," the nurse said, her intravenous needle poised in front of my mother's pale face.
Ma managed a nod, a weak smile.
"I'm having a little trouble locating a good vein on you. Let's try it again, okay? You ready, sweetheart?"
The insertion was a failure. The next one, too. "I'm going to try one more time," she said. "And if that doesn't work, I'm going to have to call my supervisor."
"Jesus fucking Christ," I mumbled. Walked over to the window.
The nurse turned toward me, red-faced. "Would you rather step outside until we're finished?" she said.
"No," I said. "I'd rather you stopped treating her like she's a friggin' pincushion. And as long as you're asking, I'd just as soon you stop calling her 'honey' and 'sweetie pie' like we're all on fucking Sesame Street or something."
Ma began to cry--over my behavior, not her own pain. I've got this talent for making bad situations worse. "Later, Ma," I said, grabbing my jacket. "I'll call you."
Late that same afternoon, I was standing at the picture window in my apartment, watching unpredicted snow fall, when Nedra Frank pulled up unexpectedly in her orange Yugo, hopping the curb and coming to a sliding stop. She'd parked half on the sidewalk, half in the road.
"Come in, come in," I said. She was wearing a down vest, sweatshirt, denim skirt, sneakers--clothes I never would have predicted. She carried a bulging briefcase.
"So it's finished?"
"What?" Her eyes followed mine to the briefcase. "Oh, no," she said. "This is my doctoral thesis. The apartment house where I live was broken into last week, so I'm carrying this wherever I go. But I'm working on your project. It's coming along." She asked me nothing about my mother's condition.
"How did you know where I live?" I asked.
"Why? Is it a deep, dark secret or something?"
"No, I just--"
"From your check. I copied your address down before I cashed it. In case I had to get ahold of you. Then I was just out for a drive--I've been so stressed out lately--and I just happened to pass by your street sign and I remembered it. Hillyndale Drive. It's such an unusual spelling. Was someone trying to be quaint or something? Faux British?"
I shrugged, jingled the change in my pockets. "Couldn't tell you," I said.
"I'd been meaning to call you anyway. About the manuscript. Your grandfather used a lot of proverbs--country sayings--and they don't lend themselves to translation. I thought I'd just leave them as is and then paraphrase them in the endnotes. If that's okay. I mean, it's your money."
Hadn't we already had this conversation once? She was just out for a drive, my ass. "That would be fine," I said.
I offered her a beer; she accepted.
"So why are you stressed out?" I said.
For one thing, she said, the two undergraduate classes they made her teach were certifiably "brain-dead." They didn't want to learn anything; they just wanted A's. And for another thing, her department chair was threatened by her knowledge of Dante, which was superior to his. And for a third thing, her office mate had disgusting personal habits. He flossed his teeth right there at his desk. Manicured his fingernails with a nail clipper that sent everything flying over to her side. Just that day she had found two fingernails on her desk blotter, after she had told him. . . . She was sick to death of academic men, she said--sucking, forever, on the breast of the university so that they wouldn't have to get on with real life. "What do you do for a living?"
"I paint houses," I said.
"A housepainter!" she groaned, flopping down on my couch. "Perfect!"
She finished her beer, said yes to another. When I came back in with it, she was over at my bookcase, cocking her head diagonally to read the spines. "Garcia Marquez, Styron, Solzhenitsyn," she said. "I must say, Mr. Housepainter, I'm impressed."
"Yeah," I said. "You'd think a dumb fuck like me would be reading--what?--Mickey Spillane? Hustler?"
"Or this," she said. She took my boxed James M. Cain trilogy from the shelf, waving it like a damning piece of evidence. She walked over to the picture window. "Is this snow supposed to amount to anything? I never follow the forecast."
"It wasn't forecast," I said. "Let's see what they're saying." I clicked on the little weather radio I keep in the bookcase. The staticky announcer said three to five inches. Oh, great, I thought. Snowed in with this supercilious bitch. Just what I needed.
Nedra picked up the weather radio, looked at it front and back, clicked it on and off. "So you're a real fan of weather?" she said.
"I'm not a fan of it," I said. "But you need to know what it's going to be doing out there when you're in the painting business. In season. You have to stay on top of it."
"You have to stay on top," she repeated. "God, you men are all alike." She laughed--a fingernails-down-the-blackboard kind of shriek--asked me if I wanted a beer. If I was planning to feed her or just get her drunk and then push her back out in the snow.
I told her I didn't have much of anything, unless she liked chicken broth or Honey Nut Cheerios.
"We could order a pizza," she said.
"I'm a vegetarian, though. If that changes anything."
The kid from Domino's arrived two beers later. I'd ordered a large mushroom and olive, but ours was the last stop before his shift ended, he said, and all he had left in his vinyl warmer bag was two medium pepperonis. "I'm sure it's my retarded manager's fault, not yours," he said. Snowflakes lit on the fur collar of his jacket, on the brim of his dorky Domino's hat. "Here," he said. "Free of charge. I'm quitting anyways."
When I closed the door and turned around again, I saw my quilt draped around Nedra Frank's shoulders. Which meant she'd been in my bedroom.
At the kitchen table, she picked off all the pepperoni slices and stacked them like poker chips, then blotted the tops of the pizzas with paper towels. We opened a second six-pack.
It must have been a Thursday night because later Cheers was on--a show Nedra said offended her politically because all the women characters were either bimbos or bitches. She'd come late to feminism, she said, after having been daddy's little girl, then a majorette in high school, then a slave to a chauvinist husband and a Dutch colonial on Lornadale Road. "I had to go into therapy for three years just to give myself permission to get my Ph.D.," she said. "Take this!" She aimed the remote control at Ted Danson, deadening the TV.
"My wife was in Ms. magazine once," I said. "She and her friend Jocelyn."
"You have a wife?"
"My ex-wife, I meant. She and this friend of hers organized day care for women welders down at El
ectric Boat. Then they got the honchos down there to put into writing a policy about on-the-job harassment from the male workers. It was a year or two after EB started hiring women to work in the shipyard."
"You were married to a welder?" she asked, a smirk on her face.
"Her friend was a welder. Dessa ran the day care center. 'Kids, Unlimited!' it was called. Exclamation mark at the end."
"Fascinating," Nedra said. Except she didn't sound too fascinated. She was attacking that pizza like the shark in Jaws. "My ex-husband's a psychiatrist," she said. "He's an administrator down at the state hospital."
I almost told her about Thomas, but didn't want to encourage any wow-what-a-small-world connections between the two of us. Besides, she'd made that crack about my grandfather being "schizo." I kept hoping she'd leave before those bald tires of hers closed out leaving as one of her options. It frosted me a little that she'd just gone into my room and taken the quilt. Who knew what kind of liberties she was taking with my grandfather's story? What else she was weeding out of that thing besides his "peasant Sicilian"?
"Todd's crazier than the inmates, though," Nedra said. "Vicious, too. It was sort of like being married to the Marquis de Sade, except that it was all pain, no pleasure."
"Oh," I said. "Todd de Sade."
That screechy laugh again. I turned the TV back on. "God," I said. "L.A. Law's on already. It must be after ten. I can drive you back in my truck if you don't want to chance it in this snow. It's four-wheel drive."
"You tell time by the television shows?" she said. "Amazing." I let her keep assuming what she assumed: that I was just some uneducated goober she could use to get herself through a lonely evening. Back when I was teaching high school, I never would have called a class "brain-dead."
"So do you want me to? Drive you home?"
"Oh, I get it," she said. "You're the big four-wheel-drive hero and I'm the damsel in distress, right? Thanks but no thanks."
She lifted my quilt off her shoulders and tossed it on the sofa. "Let's listen to some music," she said. Before I could say yes or no, she hit the power switch on my tuner and went searching for a station. I'd have pegged her for a classical music type, but she settled on Tina Turner: What's love got to do, got to do with it?
She turned around and smiled. "Hello, there, Mr. Housepainter." She walked over to me. Kissed me. Took my hands in hers and put them against her hips. Her tongue flicked around inside my mouth.
"Is this a turn-on, Mr. Housepainter?" she whispered. "Am I making you feel good?" I couldn't tell if she was being daddy's little girl or a majorette or what. I pretended I was kissing Dessa, but she was thicker than Dessa, damp to the touch no matter where I touched. I hadn't been with a woman since the divorce--had imagined it happening pretty differently. Had imagined being more a part of the decision process, for one thing. I found Nedra a little scary, to tell the truth. The last thing I needed in my life was another nutcase. I wanted my wife.
"Um, this is very nice," I said, "but sort of unexpected. I'm not sure I'm really ready for--"
"I have one," she said. "Relax. Touch me."
She slid my hand down to her butt, placed my other hand up under her sweatshirt. Then suddenly, right in the middle of kissing her, I started laughing. A few little nervous burps of laughter at first that I tried to swallow back. Then worse: full-throttle, out-of-control stuff--the kind of laughing that turns into a coughing attack.
She stood there, smiling, humiliated. "What's so funny?" she kept asking. "What?"
I couldn't answer her. Couldn't stop laughing.
Nedra headed for the bathroom. She stayed in there for a good fifteen minutes, long enough for me to begin to wonder if a person could commit suicide by overdosing on Nyquil, by cutting her wrists with a nail clipper. She emerged, red-eyed. Without a word, she went for her coat and briefcase. I told her I'd just been nervous--that I was still getting over things. That I was really, really sorry.
"Sorry for what?" she said. "For getting your kicks by degrading women? Don't apologize. You're born to the breed."
"Hey, look," I said. "I didn't--"
"Oh, please! Not another word! I beg of you!"
At the door, she stopped. "Maybe I should call your ex-wife," she said. "We could commiserate about sexual harassment." She pronounced it in that alternative way--William Henry Harassment.
"Hey, wait a minute. You put the moves on me. How did I harass you?"
"What's her number, anyway? Maybe I'll call her. Maybe she and I can have our picture in Ms. magazine."
"Hey, listen. All I ever contracted you for was an overpriced translation. The rest of this was your idea. Leave my wife out of it."
"Overpriced? Overpriced? That work is painstaking, you bastard! You unappreciative--!" Instead of finishing her sentence, she swung her briefcase at me, whacked me in the leg with her freaking twenty-pound doctoral thesis.
She slammed the door behind her and I yanked it open again--scooped up some snow, packed it, and let it fly. It thunked against her Yugo.
She gave me the finger, then got into her car and revved up for takeoff. Oblivious of the road conditions, she gunned it all the way down the street, slipping and sliding and nearly front-ending a honking city plow.
"Your lights!" I kept yelling at her. "Put on your lights!"
By March, the oncology team at Yale had begun to sound like snake oil salesmen. Ma was in near-constant pain; what little comfort she was getting was coming from an old Polish priest and the hospice volunteers. Painting season had begun, jump-started by an early spring that I couldn't afford not to take advantage of. It was mid-April before I got the time and the stomach to drive back to the university and walk the steps up to Nedra Frank's little cubicle. Finished or not, I wanted my grandfather's story back.
Nedra's office buddy told me she'd withdrawn from the degree program. "Personal reasons," he said, rolling his eyes. Her desk was a clean slate, the bulletin board behind her stripped to bare cork.
"But she's got something of mine," I protested. "Something important. How can I get ahold of her?"
The head of the department shrugged, too.
The head of humanities told me she would attempt to locate Ms. Frank and share my concerns, but that she couldn't promise I'd be contacted. The agreement we had made was between the two of us, she reminded me; it had nothing whatsoever to do with the university. Under no circumstances could she release Nedra Frank's forwarding address.
My mother slipped out of consciousness on May 1, 1987. Ray and I kept a vigil through the night, watching her labored, ragged breathing and thwarting, until the very end, her continual attempts to pull the oxygen mask from her mouth. "There's a strong possibility that someone in a coma can hear and understand," the hospice worker had told us the evening before. "If it feels right to you, you might want to give her permission to go." It hadn't felt right to Ray; he'd balked at such an idea. But ten minutes before she expired, while Ray was down the hall in the men's room, I leaned close to my mother's ear and whispered, "I love you, Ma. Don't worry. I'll take care of him. You can go now."
Her death was different from the melodramatic versions I'd imagined during those final months. She never got to read her father's history. She never sat up in her deathbed and revealed the name of the man with whom she'd conceived my brother and me. From early childhood, I had formed theories about who our "real" father was: Buffalo Bob; Vic Morrow from Combat; my seventh-grade shop teacher, Mr. Nettleson; Mr. Anthony from across the street. By the time of Ma's death, my suspicions had fallen on Angelo Nardi, the dashing, displaced courtroom stenographer who had been hired to transcribe my grandfather's life story. But that, too, was just a theory. I told myself it didn't really matter.
After the hospital paperwork had been gotten through, Ray and I drove to the funeral parlor to make final arrangements, then drove back to Hollyhock Avenue and drank Ray's good Scotch. The old photo album was out, sitting there on the dining room table. I couldn't open it up--couldn't look inside the thing--but on impulse, I took it with me when we went down to the hospital to tell my brother the news.
Tears welled up in Thomas's eyes when he heard, but there was no scene--no difficult overreaction, as I'd imagined. Dreaded. When Ray asked Thomas if he had any questions, he had two. Had she suffered at the end? Could Thomas have his god = love! collage back now?
Ray left after half an hour or so, but I stayed behind. If Thomas was going to have a delayed bad reaction, I told myself, then I wanted to be there to help him through it. But that wasn't entirely true. I stayed there because I needed to--needed on the morning of our mother's death to be with my twin, my other half, no matter who he had become, no matter where my life--our lives--were careening.
"I'm sorry, Thomas," I said.
"It's not your fault," he said. "You didn't give her the cancer. God gave it to her." With grim relief, I noted that he was no longer blaming the Kellogg's Cereal Company.
"I mean, I'm sorry for blowing up at you. That time we visited her? In the car on the way home? I shouldn't have lost my cool like that. I should have been more patient."
He shrugged, bit at a fingernail. "That's okay. You didn't mean it."
"Yeah, I did. I meant it at the time. That's always my problem. I let stuff eat away and eat away inside of me and then--bam!--it just explodes. I do it with you, I did it with Ma, with Dessa. Why do you think she left me? Because of my anger, that's why."
"You're like our old TV," Thomas sighed.
"You're like our old TV. The one that exploded. One minute we were watching a show and the next minute--ka-boom!"
"Ka-boom," I repeated, softly. For a minute or more, neither of us spoke.
"Do you remember when she came running out of the house that day?" Thomas finally said. He reached over and grabbed the photo album, touched its leather cover. "She was holding this."
I nodded. "Her coat was smoking. The fire had burned off her eyebrows."
"She looked just like Agatha."
"Agatha. The saint I prayed to while Ma was sick." He got up and took his dog-eared book from the bottom drawer of his nightstand. Lives of the Martyred Saints. Flipped through the lurid color paintings of bizarre suffering: the faithful, besieged by hideous demons; afflicted martyrs gazing Heavenward, bleeding from gaping Technicolor wounds. He found Agatha's full-page illustration and held it up. Dressed in a nun's habit, she stood serene amidst chaos, holding a tray that bore two women's breasts. Behind her, a volcano erupted. Snakes fell out of the sky. Her body was outlined in orange flame.
Thomas shuddered twice and began to cry.
"It's all right," I said. "It's all right. It's all right." I reached back for the scrapbook. Opened it. We looked in silence, together.
When Ray had repaired my mother's broken book, he'd made no effort to restore the loose pages to their proper chronological order. The result was a book of anachronisms: Instamatic snapshots from the sixties opposite turn-of-the-century studio portraits; time shuffled up and bolted. Here were Thomas and I in front of the Unisphere at the 1964 World's Fair; Ray in his Navy uniform; Papa in a greased handlebar mustache, arm in arm with his young bride who, later, would drown at Rosemark's Pond. Though my grandfather had died several months before Thomas and I were born, in Ma's book we met him face-to-face. Stupidly, carelessly, I had lost Domenico's dictated story, but my mother had entered the fire and rescued his image.
Thomas unfolded the old newspaper clipping of the two of us in our sailor suits, saluting the camera and flanking Mamie Eisenhower. Despite my sadness, I had to smile at those two bewildered faces.
Thomas told me he had no recollection whatsoever of that day when the Nautilus, America's first nuclear submarine, eased down the greased ways and into the Thames River to help save the world from Communism. As for me, my memories are fragments--sounds and sensations that may have more to do with my mother's retelling of the story than with any electrical firings in my own brain. What I seem to recall is this: the crack of the water as the flag-draped submarine hits the river, the prickle of orange soda bubbles against my lip, the tickle of Mamie's mink.