The powers of love and memory collide with broken hearts, broken minds, and the cultural dissonance of growing up Jewish in the South in this poignant portrait of family and identity.
- Avalon Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.79(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.12(d)
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I've never understood what people fall in love with--or what they protect after they do--if they don't first fall in love with each other's stories. Most of my own stories hinge on what I like to think of as rhyming events, and if somebody responds to one of them as nothing more than an interesting coincidence, I make up my mind pretty quickly that love isn't going to be much of an issue between us.
For instance: My assigned roommate at the University of Georgia is an aggressively cheerful Campus Crusader for Christ who seems to believe Jesus personally arranged for us to live together so that I could be saved. On the first day of class, I sit down in World Drama behind a husky-voiced girl who turns out to be my once-adored but long-lost summer camp bunkmate. She not only lives in my dormitory, but her roommate didn't show up at all, and so I move in with her that very afternoon.
For instance: After buying a Chinese rug at a New York flea market one morning, I leave it behind in a taxicab. I recall the driver's name--Morris Bromberg--from his license and when the rug doesn't turn up at lost and found, I call every single Morris Bromberg in five boroughs, failing to locate the right one. When it's time to catch my evening train, I hail a cab that turns out to be Morris Bromberg's; he was working back-to-back shifts and wanted to pick up one last fare before dropping off my rug, now beside him on the front seat.
For instance: I meet a man from Seattle, then spend weeks brooding over whether or not I should write him. When I finally do, our letters cross in midair and arrive on the same day.
See, those are just a few examples. But they help explain why Paul, that man from Seattle, came to conceive of my life as a series of Venn diagrams with endlessly overlapping sectors. That seemed right to me. I could easily see how my main measure of significance, whether of people or events, might be interpreted as the degree to which overlap occurred. If the degree was low, things tended to blur. But if it was high, well, then I remembered everything.
As I stood at the bay window of Paul's small apartment and inhaled the low-tide tang, I saw a trio of fish-shaped kites in the park below, all flying from a single stake. There was a big salmon-shaped kite swooping above a smaller replica, and off to the side, a spinning tubular fish that was smaller still. Their colors were magenta, yellow, and cyan. Paul had taught me that these were the subtractive primary colors, the colors that printers mix, sometimes with black, to come up with every other color. I picked up a pair of binoculars that were on the windowsill for a closer look. The kite-flyer came into my sights as he ran to the edge of the bay, where he stopped to light a cigarette. Then he did a goofy little sailor's dance. I couldn't see his face but the way he crouched down low and flung his legs out to the side made me think of Groucho Marx, and of how Jody used to imitate him when we were kids.
I was spending the summer in Seattle, a kind of test-run to see if I could bring myself to move here. Could I freelance enough articles from the West Coast to avoid having to get a real job? After two years of Paul and me flying back and forth from one Washington to the other, was I ready to live with him? Those were the questions noodling through my mind that morning. I wasn't looking for Jody or anyone else.
As far as I knew, Jody was still in South Carolina, working as a cashier in the underwear outlet that his parents continued to finance solely because it gave him something to do. My stomach churned at the picture of him ringing up sales and counting out change. I didn't like that feeling. So I drifted back to when we set up a front yard stand to sell our old comic books for a nickel each, then back further still, to when Jody began calling me Mashie instead of Marsha. Nobody had called me Mashie for a very long time. Thinking of this now filled me with a longing for the Jody that used to be, for the sweetness so incompatible with all my secondhand perceptions of his condition I had practically forgotten it had ever been his. Deep inside the longing, I imagined that Jody had gone off his medication and run away, something I knew he once did on a regular basis. And what if he had? The longing dissolved into fear. Would I ever know the right thing to do?
I tried to talk myself out of this story. It was ridiculous, really, even in light of the Venn diagram effect. I hadn't seen Jody for over ten years, not since the first time he was hospitalized and his doctor made it clear that "no visitors" applied most especially to me. Here I was, goose flesh on my arms in the middle of June, not only romantically reprieved from another swampy summer in Washington, D.C., but with a view spread out before me that even the most ordinary Seattle restaurants could use to justify expensive menus--ferry boats crossing paths in the foreground and, off in the distance, where the sun set at this time of year, the phantomlike, snowcapped Olympic Mountain peaks. And instead of enjoying all this, I was summoning a ghost sticky with the residue of another time entirely. Conjuring Jody. Out of a silly step that was hardly unique to him. Out of thin air, practically.
I dialed my mother in South Carolina, expecting her to verify the extent of my error. She answered in her distinctive way, a tiny hum preceding "hello," as if setting the pitch of her voice.
"Hi," I began, "I'm in Seattle."
She laughed. "I'm not that bad a mother, I know where you are."
"Have you heard anything about Jody?"
"Jody?" She said his name with evident consternation. "Are you all right?"
"Don't worry, Joyce, I'm fine."
"Good. I'll call you back when the rates go down, I don't want you spending your money. What's your number there?"
"Never mind!" Then, more casually, "How's he doing, do you know?"
"Well," she said slowly, "he's had his own apartment for a while, did I tell you that?"
"No." I generally avoided talking about Jody, mainly because I found it difficult to hear him discussed as a bundle of symptoms and tics, and equally hard to hide that difficulty from my mother. Whenever I went home to visit, it was always over the same holidays when, without fail, Jody was either in the hospital or gone for some other reason--at his sister Nancy's house in Atlanta, his parents' vacation place in Florida. I never regarded this as a coincidence, although I did sometimes wonder if I was being paranoid. Paranoid, a word that was part of Jody's first official diagnosis, right before schizophrenic.
"He's in one of those townhouses at Riverbend," Joyce went on. "I saw him a while back at the mall, just staring out into space. The other week he got arrested there for loitering, poor thing. Usually, they just escort him out to his car, but this policeman was new. Still, I don't understand how it happened. It's not as if he looks bad. Except, I mean, for the staring."
From what I could tell, whenever my mother saw Jody it was always by chance--eating barbecue at the Little Pigs, maybe, or filling up his car at the gas station. These sounded like very substantial activities to me. How strange could he be if he went out for barbecue and pumped gas? Looking through the binoculars, I watched the person who most likely wasn't Jody reel in his kites.
"So he hasn't run away?"
"Oh, I doubt it. Of course, we don't see the Lurreys much anymore."
She paused for a moment then rushed on, as though hoping to keep me from mentioning that I didn't see them at all anymore. "I'm sure he hasn't done anything like that lately, not for years. Not since he was wearing that beret. Not since, you know, he thought he was Pablo Picasso. The last time was when he ran off to Hawaii and got a job in a pineapple factory. I forget how they found him. I think after he got fired he was arrested for panhandling. Or maybe he used one of his parents' credit cards. One thing I could never figure out was what pineapples had to do with Picasso."
"It probably doesn't work like that," I said.
"Oh. Anyway, that was when they still had him on Thorazine. He must be on something different now. He isn't bloated anymore, but he still smokes all the time. Have you quit yet?"
"Eileen put smoke detectors up all over the place, she's so worried Jody will fall asleep with one still going. I put them up here, too. Your father's liable to do the same thing to me."
I noticed that the kite-flyer in Myrtle Edwards Park was now faced in my direction, head thrown back and gazing upward, the focus of his attention uncertain enough at this distance that he seemed to be fixed on the window where I stood. I put down the binoculars. "Could you call the Lurreys and see if he's there?"
The obvious answer was that I didn't want to call them myself. How would I address them? Mr. and Mrs.? Pretty formal for people who used to be Aunt Eileen and Uncle Sol, honorary relatives I knew better than any of my real ones. They'd probably hate me using their first names, which is something I often did with my own parents. My mother enjoyed this as proof of how close we were, but my father, for whom it was a sad day when I stopped calling him Daddy, always objected when he heard Daniel coming out of my mouth. On the phone with Joyce, though, I stuck to the flimsy facts. I told her there was someone in the park who might be Jody, but I wasn't close enough to make a positive identification. I was beginning to sound like a cop.
Just then, I heard my father in the background, asking who was on the line. "It's Marsha," my mother said, covering the receiver. "She thinks Jody might be out there, but she couldn't see his face."
"What?" My father's voice boomed past her hand. "Has she lost her mind now, too? Let me talk to her."
"Not now, Daniel." Her volume rose to match his.
"But what you just told me doesn't make sense!"
"Nothing I say makes sense to you. Nothing any woman says makes sense to you."
"Just tell him you'll explain later," I urged my mother. But she was off and running. "If you want to speak with Marsha," she told my father, "try calling her yourself sometime. That's what I do. She's calling on her nickel now, so leave us alone."
There came the sound of my father sneezing, blowing his nose, and finally, a long sigh from my mother when he left as directed. "He's home with a cold," she said, "watching baseball games and following me around the house. He's driving me crazy."
"Will you call them, Mom?"
"I'm sure it's nothing."
"You're probably right. But do it anyway, okay?"
After I said goodbye and hung up, it occurred to me that one of Seattle's major selling points was its location--as far away from where I was raised as you could get without leaving the continental United States.
It would have been bad enough if Jody were the only one. But he wasn't.
Even to outsiders, the incidence of crack-ups among my peers back home might be considered fairly noteworthy. At last count, four former Temple Israel Sunday School classmates had been institutionalized, nearly a quarter of the student body. For a while, whenever I sounded the least bit depressed Joyce would inquire whether I'd been in the vicinity of marijuana. She had taken to blaming it for "ruining" Jody, forgetting that she tried the stuff with me once herself with no more alarming result than a terribly specific craving for a hollowed-out banana filled with crunchy peanut butter. I was home from college then and nothing, so far as we knew, was wrong with Jody. It was a pleasant night, kind of like old times, when Joyce took an unabashed, almost regal pride in being different from all the other mothers, in being a painter who was trained at the Chicago Art Institute, in being South Carolina's very own answer to Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan--although not many people in our town, much less the state, knew or cared who they were.
It still seems strange to me that the place where I'm from is now considered a real city. There used to be lots of civic bragging about Sparta being the Textile Capital of the World. For a while the chamber of commerce even promoted Sparta as the Airlift Capital of the World, but that had to stop when the air force base shut down. Really, it was just a burgeoning mill town with the sort of inferiority complex you might expect from a place that, being nestled in the twangy Blue Ridge foothills, had forever suffered by comparison to Charleston's elegant coastal drawl. Growth, when it came, tended toward the generic. But even before the sprawling tentacles of two-lane highways widened to major thoroughfares, even before the names of residential subdivisions began to resemble those of plantations--or worse, English manors--even then, somehow it was always too large a town and too small a shtetl to offer much in the way of comfort to anyone who was noticeably different.
As a rule, we were considered not so much strange as Biblically Significant. With religiously inclined black people, this sometimes amounted to an ancient sense of recognition, almost as if Mr. Abraham down at the Army-Navy store had been transported directly here from the Old Testament, descended from slaves, like them. With the white people it was trickier. It got to be almost interesting to observe the deft manner, a sort of sideways sociability, with which acceptance gave way to exclusion at certain mysterious junctures, leaving you to wonder if it was really because they were dumb enough to think you had something to do with killing Christ.
When fundamentalist street preachers would accost us downtown and demand to know if we had found Jesus, Jody's idea of a joke was to swoon in mock concern and ask if He was lost, then tell the red-faced proselytizer that, yes, come to think of it, he did see someone who looked a whole lot like Jesus over on Crescent Avenue, where everyone--even out-of-state students at the local Bible-beating Baptist college--knew the temple was located.
It was too distressing to think of Jody as someone who might be given to accosting people on downtown streets. Or in Myrtle Edwards Park. I tried not to as I waited for Joyce to call back, busying myself instead with tidying the bed on which Paul and I had made urgent love before he left for the studio, neither one of us used to the idea that we had weeks together stretching out before us instead of the usual few days. The nights were still cool enough that we slept beneath a billowy down quilt. I fluffed the quilt and then, forgetting that I had, sat on it to entertain another distraction; how would I ever fit all my stuff into such a small space, much less get it up five flights without an elevator? Maybe if I moved out here we'd have to give up the view, a view that just now, I noticed, included a troop of slate-colored clouds marching in from the south.
What was taking Joyce so long?
Maybe she had to cover for the rudeness of the question I'd forced on her with a lot of polite conversation. Maybe she was receiving instructions for me from Eileen. Or maybe she was just sitting there, waiting for enough time to pass before she could call back to say sorry, she couldn't reach anyone, and didn't I have better things to be doing with my time? The phone rang.
"Marsha, he's been gone for five days."
"Who did you talk to?"
"Juanita, the Lurreys are our of town." Juanita was the Lurreys' maid. "His car's gone, Nancy's filed a missing person report. Just let the police take care of it, do you hear?"
"Look, he's never done anything worse than loiter and panhandle. Aren't you overreacting just a little bit?"
"Marsha," she said, "I suspect I know more than you think."
Either that, I wanted to say, or you suspect more than you know. But splitting hairs and arguing were pointless now, so I got off the phone and hurried to finish dressing. While I was tying my sneakers, the phone rang again. Thinking it was Joyce with more warnings, I let the machine answer. "Are you there?" I heard Paul say. "Are you working? Are you naked in the bathtub? I was thinking lunch out on the pier, on those benches by the Happy Hooker. Call me."
His voice sounded so warm and cozy I wanted to curl up inside of it like a squirrel. But if I started talking to him now, I might lose track of my kite-flyer. I grabbed the keys to Paul's pickup, reluctant to waste any more time walking, and ran down the wide wood stairwell. Outside, on the longest side of this triangular-shaped building, was a painted advertisement for a seafood restaurant. The pickup was parked just beneath the restaurant's motto, "Keep Clam."
I pulled out into traffic and glanced at the sky again while I waited for the light to change at the intersection of Broad and Western. If it wasn't Jody in the park, I could still make it to the studio for lunch. But unless the wind changed, it would probably be raining by then.
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