Paul Lisicky remembers being not much like other boys his age, but rather the awkward thirteen-year-old with "arms thick as drinking straws," who composes tunes in his head that he might later send to Folk Mass Today or to the producers of The Partridge Family. Born into a family whose incremental success bumps them up a notch from their immigrant upbringing and into suburban America, Paul puts his creative, undaunted energy into drawing intricate housing development plans and writing liturgical music.
In the lively, loving essays contained in Famous Builder, Lisicky explores the constant impulse to rebuild the self. With gracious, thoughtful candor and pitch-perfect humor, he explores the very personal realms of childhood dreams and ambitions, adolescent sexual awakenings, and adult realities.
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By Paul Lisicky
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2002 Paul Lisicky
All rights reserved.
I try to project my name toward the ridged roof of my mouth. I try to keep my jaw loose, my eyes animated, secure. I think: Smith, Stevens, Bishop.
"Li-sick-y," I say again. "Paul Lisicky."
How do you spell that?
I note the hushed quality of the bank teller's voice, the tender, quizzical lift of her penciled-in brow. She leans in closer to me, palms flattened against the counter as if I've just told her my condition is terminal.
In 1970, at the Bret Harte School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a substitute teacher with flame-bright hair and an exhausted, gullible demeanor walked into her assigned fifth-grade classroom and dropped a violet, bullet-shaped purse on the desk. It took but two minutes for us to size her up. She took out a creased sheet from its blue satin lining, called out "Samuel Agresta," and after a pause, Barry Lem raised his hand. Then "Allegra Asher," who was answered instantly by Marguerite Keating and "Brian Boguslaw" by Wendell Waties. In no time at all, others joined in, as steely and determined as plain-clothes soldiers walking through the markets of a corrupt village.
I was Kevin Navins. I huddled over my desk, surprised by the ease with which my hand moved across the paper, my brain supplying me with ready answers to the multiplication tables. I hadn't so much taken on the characteristics of the real Kevin, who cooled his agitated face against the windowpane, longing to be anywhere but in this world of paste jars, milk tickets, and old oranges souring the depths of desks, but rather of someone tranquil and collected, content to live in his skin. When I glanced up at the blond Ewart Greet, who was Paul Lisicky for the morning, I was surprised to see his gray-green eyes fixed to the assignment. He didn't worry that he'd just recovered from another strep throat and missed the last two weeks of school. Nor did he fret about the lunchtime game in which he'd inevitably be struck in the face with a heavy white ball. His forehead pinked with vitality, good cheer.
But it didn't stop there. Two hours later, after we'd come in from the snowy blacktop, and Mrs. Balotin had been summoned by the principal's office to correct the inacuracies on her roll sheet, she called out our names again. Soon Kevin Navins was Carol Campiglia, Mona Chase was Damean Osisek, David Monshaw Marguerite Keating, until everyone had so many identities, no one knew who anyone was for sure. Mrs. Balotin massaged the freckled bridge of her nose between her forefinger and thumb. She glared and let out a raspy laugh. "You kids." She wagged her head back and forth, ripped the roll sheet in half, and tossed it into the waste basket.
That day I walked home from the bus stop with a brisk step, the bottoms of my sneakers skating across black ice. Later, I'd come down with another sore throat, but at that moment, I could have been anything: the spaniel tearing through the hollies, the water sparkling in his deep blue bowl.CHAPTER 2
My father won't sit still. He walks to the sliding glass door, stares out at the lagoon. He paces the bare tile floors of our summerhouse with a solemn, abstracted expression. His footsteps shake the rafters, shake us to the root. He stands in the kitchen, pulls out a sheet of paper, and writes a To Do list in his firm cursive:
—New tailpipe for station wagon
—New roof shingles
—Wire burglar alarm
—Pump out crawl space
—Jack up porch slab
—Jalousie windows for porch
—Pour concrete sidewalk
—Pour concrete driveway
—Pour concrete patio
—Build outdoor shower enclosure
The raft, however, rises to the top of the list. The orange foam beneath it has lost its buoyancy after two years in saltwater. "We should have bought the good stuff," he says, shaking his head. "They saw us coming." It doesn't seem to faze him that it's ninety-two degrees, the Friday before Fourth-of-July weekend. We trudge outside behind him. Two houses down the Sendrow girls lie facedown on their towels, the backs of their legs basted with Bain de Soleil. Next door Mr. Forte and his friend Fisher, just back from the Inlet, clean flounder, wrap soft filets in aluminum foil. Perspiration creeps through my hair. I touch my scalp just to make sure it's not ... beetles? My father kneels below us on the raft, fastening the rope to a pitted ring in the corner. Bobby and I stand on top of the bulkhead. Soon enough he jumps up beside us and the three of us pull and strain with all our might. The veins in my neck thicken. I'm not even sure my exertions affect anything: I'm thirteen years old, my arms thick as drinking straws. Although Bobby is stronger, he's not doing much better. Still, just as the rope skins the flesh of my palms, just as I'm ready to let go, to say aloud that we're a doomed, foolish family giving ourselves over to chores we can't possibly complete — why can't we ever hire somebody? — we manage to get the wooden behemoth up onto the grass, turning it over on its back. The three of us suck in our breaths. Its underside is encrusted with the physical symbols of shame: greasy mussels, prehistoric white barnacles, and rich green seaweed. The foam has faded to a bleached pink. Exposed to sunlight, it smells like an emptied can of fish chowder.
"Holy Mackerel," says Mr. Forte, who walks over to get a look.
I lie on the grass, breathing, breathing, listening to my beating heart. My eyes follow the tiny plane towing an advertising banner overhead: FOR SUNBURN PAIN TRY SOLARCAINE. Its engine putters, then fades. My father and Bobby sit off to the side, their brows sweaty, their faces the russet of our brick patio. (What does my face look like? Surely, they've been responsible for most of the hefting.) Only after my heart has stilled, only after I've made a reasonable demonstration of my willingness to help, do I rise to my feet and brush off the loose grass blades sticking to the backs of my legs.
"I have to pee," I declare.
Inside, I walk past my mother, close the bathroom door, and sit on the cool tile floor. How good it feels to be by myself, to be silent, to be still again. A tingling comes back into the tips of my fingers. I'm no longer part of the larger body of my father and my family, but I'm my own body again. There is a splinter buried in the heel of my hand, which I squeeze till I wince. Things are happening inside my head. One minute I work on a new song, which I'm planning to send to the producers of The Partridge Family, the next I think about the street names in Cambridge Park, a development under construction near our house in Cherry Hill. Everyone who knows me knows that I want to be a builder, a famous builder, like Bill Levitt, when I'm older. I want those who drive through my communities to be socked in the head with the sheer beauty of all they see.
I huddle in the coolish bathroom and murmur, moving my lips as if I'm reciting the rosary: Pageant Lane, Pennypacker Drive, Poppy Turn, Pershing Lane.
Footsteps heavy on the living-room floor. I rumble the toilet-paper roll, throw the unused sheets in the trash, then flush.
"Where's Paul?" my father asks gravely.
His tone says it all: I'm not serious or helpful, I have a deep, self-absorbed streak. There's a heat in my stomach, a small contraction. My mother stirs a boiling pot on the other side of the wall and makes macaroni salad for lunch.
"He's in the bathroom."
I slip out into the back hall, where I grab a broom and pretend to sweep the floor around the water heater. (His usual expression every time he catches us at rest: "What are you doing, sitting around with your teeth in your mouth?" Or worse: "CLEAN UP THIS PLACE!")
Beach sand flies up against the laundry tub, pinging.
"I need your help," says my father. He's taken off his shirt. He looks down at his nicked, bleeding hands.
"But I thought we were done."
"Done?" he says, with a soft incredulousness. "Done?"
I follow him out to the dock, attempting to mask my disappointment, but my face has fallen for sure. Certainly I want to help. Certainly I want to be a good boy, a generous, benevolent, dutiful son, but I want to be myself, too. I don't understand why we don't get to fix up our house and make things of beauty like our neighbors: the Foxes' wooden Japanese bridge, the Moores' garden of herbs and wildflowers. Even worse, why is it that we never finish anything? Although we'll work on the raft every Saturday for the rest of the summer (replacing the top boards with fresh lumber, shining the rusty bolts), it will sit on the lawn for two years until the boards silver, until the grass dies in a gray-brown rectangle beneath it.
* * *
Just as soon as our car has climbed the mountain, we go down, down into the heart of Allentown, home to all my cousins, home to more Lisickys per capita than any other place outside Slovakia. From our vantage point it twinkles with thousands of lights through a scrim of flurries, a landscape with the quality of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. I already hear the local accent (which my father has mysteriously lost), the vowels infused with a catch in the throat, a lilt, the slightest hint of a yodel, sentences invariably rising on the last word. There's a ridged cylindrical gas tank, at least fifteen stories tall, topped with something like a flattened beret. Aunt Mary and Uncle John live behind it. To the left of that is the only skyscraper in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Power and Light tower, known locally as the PP&L, a squat version of the Empire State Building, its crowned top bathed in crimson light. The redness of those lights reminds me of an interior human organ exposed to the elements, and sure enough, I feel a contained heat inside my chest in response. To the west, out of the range of our vision, there's Dorney Park, home of the oldest running wooden roller coaster in America, where I'll come down with the first symptoms of chicken pox three years in the future. But the row houses really snare my attention. We pass blocks and blocks and blocks of them (joyless, joyless), none of which seem to be individuated. Although the temperature is in the thirties, it feels like the coldest place in the world. All of it seems impossibly old, musty, dense with the smells of upholstery and cooking: holubky; apple butter; tuna, onions, and vinegar. The place says one thing alone to me: You will always be you here.
We stop at a red light, watching a window across the street. At the Harugari, the Hungarian club, people with beer bottles in one hand wipe off their florid faces with handkerchiefs. Hands are clapped, and a middle-aged couple in the center of the floor whirls to — I can only imagine it — a manic accordion. They dance so fast that I swear their shoes are in the air more than they're actually touching the floor. "Now that's dancing," says my father. "Not like the crap you kids like." And he takes his hands off the wheel, chugs his forearms like a go-go dancer with a brain injury.
My stomach groans with the same sensation that keeps me from eating my bowl of cereal on certain school days. If he really loves this place as much as he says he does, if he really feels the sting of its absence, then why have we been raised as if we haven't a history, in a township named for its shopping mall filled with ficus, coconut palm, and cages of leering tropical monkeys showing us the pink of their gums?
* * *
My father is a storm. His presence charges the air with abstract particles: guilt, duty, fear of failure, fear of death. If he were a painting, he'd be a Jackson Pollack, all splash and squiggle, no open spaces, no room to breathe. If he were a piece of music, he'd be a Shostakovich symphony, brash, shot through with bursts of tympany and horn. I could keep going on like this. I could keep trying to count the instances in which he simply sat down to rest his weary bones, in which he didn't read the stock-market page while shining his shoes then run down the hall to sweep off the porch, then go back to his shoes again.
The house of his childhood. 333 North Second Street, a narrow brick row house with two second-floor windows and a wide front porch, no lawn, no plants, no intimation of adornment. A sign hangs on the wooden porch rail (MODERN SHOE REPAIR), the name of my late grandfather's business, which is later taken over by my uncle Steve, then his son, Stevie. On the block all the houses are similarly sparse, with no defining characteristics other than cleanliness. The front steps sparkle in the weak sunlight that's offered. So clean, my aunt Mary says, that "you could eat right off them."
I close my eyes and hear loud, lilting voices. They shift back and forth between Slovak and English, even the occasional Hungarian and Yiddish, all rivaling for attention. Seven children live in these rooms: Anna, Mary, Steve, Joe, Catherine, Francie, and Tony, my father, the middle child. Their quarters are so cramped that several share the same bed. A modern bathroom with pink fixtures glows in the darkness. Aunt Catherine and Uncle Joe (who later move out to a newer row house close to the fairgrounds) do everything possible to make it cheery (doilies on the backs of the sofas, new curtains), but it feels as if the walls are about to compress all the life out of you.
I have to see it from the street again. I imagine my grandparents gazing out the two upper windows, my elusive grandparents about whom I know next to nothing. Alexander, my grandfather, stands in the left window, a man of medium height, utilitarian wire-frame glasses over his broad face, above thin Eastern European lips, a glass of red wine in his hand, the same wine he makes from the grapes of the backyard arbor. (He stores huge vats of it in the cellar.) Is his smile tinged with sadness because he doesn't know how he ended up in this gritty, industrial city, so far from the vineyards of his birthplace? He takes another sip of wine (why did this batch turn out so sour?), putting off work for another few minutes. It's so hot in his workshop that he sweats profusely, and in order to keep at this pace, he eats salt by the fistful to replace what he's lost. He hears his wife, Mary, who's straightening up the contents of the drawers, folding clothes in the next room. He doesn't even remember their quarrel anymore, but he's aimed his trademark screw-you gesture at her — he sticks out his tongue, placing his thumbs in his ears and fluttering his fingers — in full sight of the children. Tonight they'll sleep in separate beds, separate rooms, though the truth is that they haven't spent a full night together for longer than he can remember. (At some point, it will be a joke among his children that they managed to produce so many offspring. "Immaculate conceptions," says my father.) Alexander dies at least six years before I'm born and is rarely brought up at family gatherings.
My grandmother stands at the other window. She wears a light blue dress patterned with nasturtiums; she's doughy and pale in the arms. A babushka is tied beneath her chin. With her thick gray brows — she wears no lipstick or makeup or jewelry — she looks like an earthier, heavier Georgia O'Keeffe. Like Alexander, there is a tinge of sadness in her expression, but her sadness seems to run deeper, with complex chords in it. Is it that she's been fighting with her husband, who's been drinking, spending too much time playing poker with his friends? Is it that he's been indifferent to the children, and abdicated his responsibility to Steve, the oldest male child, who's begun to administer the spankings? Or is it that she, too, feels homesick and doesn't want to learn this new grammar with its irregular verbs, its blends of consonants almost impossible to pronounce? (Years later, my parents will think she's cursing until they realize that the asshole she keeps referring to is, in fact, our next-door neighbor, Ethel Friedman, whom she's taken a shine to.) The weather feels foreign and sticky on her skin. The air doesn't smell as it should. Where, where is the Danube? What are they doing so far from the Danube?
In the fall of 1998, at a Chinese restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, I ask my father a few questions about the grandmother who's been nothing but an outline to me. To my surprise, I learn that she actually left my grandfather for a time. Back in Baltimore, their first home in this country, she wasn't happy with the crowd Alexander was in (reportedly, there was even a shooting at their wedding reception), so she packed up Anna and Mary to stay with her sister, Tetka, in Allentown.
He stood guarding the door. "And what about me?"
"You can come live with us only when you're good and ready," she told him.
The lo mien on the buffet table across the room practically glows beneath the copper hood. For the briefest moment, I feel a presence — a warmth, pulse — then gone.
* * *
"Who do you think you are?"
My father weeps over his trig homework.
"I said, who do think you are?" Steve walks past the humble desk on the second floor, then sits on the bed, hunching forward. He crosses his arms. "You think you're better than we are?"
"No," says my father.
"You think you're smart or something?"
My father hangs his head.
"It's just —"
"You should be out helping the family."
"You're a car mechanic, okay? You're just a Slovak. You're no better than the rest of us."
Excerpted from Famous Builder by Paul Lisicky. Copyright © 2002 Paul Lisicky. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Famous Builder 1,
Luck Be a Lady,
Famous Builder 2,
Wisdom Has Built Herself a House,
Captain St. Lucifer,
Afternoon with Canals,
Famous Builder 3,
Refuge of the Roads,
What People are Saying About This
This book shows all the vital signs of genius. In Famous Builder, Paul Lisicky asks the tragic American question . . .
How difficult it is to make the familiar fresh again! Yet that's exactly what Lisicky does . . .
Deliciously wacky and lyric . . . A charmed love letter to American life.