Laugh Track

Laugh Track

by David Galef



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578064229
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Publication date: 02/27/2002
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.85(d)

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Chapter One


IT'S A WARM DAY in July, swelling toward the heat of noon, and your mother is hanging the wash out to dry. The sheets go on the line stretched between the maple and the fence, while the clothing gets draped over the lattice-shaped hanger in the backyard. The scene is familiar enough, your mother humming a Rodgers & Hart song, "Blue Room," as she hangs and pins, but she moves with a grace unknown to you. She is wearing a white sleeveless blouse, her bare arms flashing in the sun. Her blue-checked skirt looks new and swings left and right as she moves. The array of damp wash is slowly spread out like a carefully worked-out pattern, colored shirts and white socks against the darker hues of trousers. The proportion of clothes to clothespins happens to work out perfectly, a neat serendipitous touch.

    Your mother steps back to survey her handiwork, looking around her as if there were laundry thieves about. She really just likes to make sure of her surroundings, you remember that. She stands in a rectangle of green, a white picket fence skirting the prim lawn. The sign sagging on the bough of the maple reads #929. Along Pierce Avenue runs a double row of elm trees, shading the pavement like green umbrellas. Cobblestones poke through the pavement where the tar has worn through. A plane drones lazily through a patch of sky. The sound hangs in the air long after the plane has disappeared into the sun.

    The job is done, and your mother picks up the basket and walks back into the house. She and your father live on the second floor, the bottom floor being occupied by afamily named Bisquet. The kitchen has a four-burner range and a refrigerator that doesn't keep ice well on a hot day like this. The bedroom is cooler, the blue shades drawn, casting blue darkness. The double bed is in the exact center of the room, flanked by twin night tables: a jar of cold cream and a paperback novel facedown on the right one, an ashtray and some loose change on the left. Hanging above the dresser is a 1958 calendar, with the words "FEDERAL INSURANCE" and a pastel of lilacs above the month.

    The time in the kitchen reads 10:30, the second hand gliding over the face of the clock like a golden needle. A breeze arises from nowhere, and through the open window comes the scent of midsummer leaves mingled with the smell of hot tar. A neutral wave of heat follows. Your mother opens the refrigerator, extracts what ice is salvageable, and uses it to stir up some lemonade. She sits there at the kitchen table, savoring the tart sweetness, lifting the glass to press against her forehead. The house is strangely quiet, as if it lacked some familiar presence.

    At noon, she goes out to shop, carrying a string bag for groceries. She is shorter than you remember her, probably because she is walking in tennis shoes, though she holds herself youthfully erect. By now, the heat of the day has slowed things down to a crawl: people stand under awnings, away from the glare of the sidewalks, waiting for cars to pass in a soft shudder of wind. At the store, there is casual talk about the weather and upcoming vacations (no one is going anywhere, but everyone knows someone who is). The frozen food section, with its change of climate, attracts a lot of customers.

    What to buy, what to make? Rib roast is 69 cents a pound, but a heavy dinner like that would be unbearable on a day like this. She picks up a package of rice, some salad greens, a can of consommé—jellied consommé will go down just right on a night like this—and maybe some cold ham. She also has some items written down on a list, but the list has gotten lost somewhere, so she improvises. Spaghetti, lemons, toothpaste. At the checkout, the bill comes to $3.69, not cheap but affordable.

    A few years ago, your father and mother were living in a cramped apartment in the Chicago Loop while he attended medical school there, and the room was so small that the bed had to be shifted every time the door was opened, but things are different now. They moved to this address in the Bronx two years ago, when your father began his psychiatric residency at Einstein Hospital, a short commute in a blue Plymouth they have just bought. Prosperity, jokes your father, who was born in 1929, is just around the corner.

    On the way home from Williamsbridge Road, your mother buys a packet of loose-leaf paper for a notebook: she is taking education courses at the Bank Street School in Manhattan two days a week, and she has already filled sixty pages with seamlessly cursive writing. When she gets back, the consommé and ham go in the refrigerator, the rice goes into the airless cupboard, and she goes into the bedroom to change into another blouse. She glances at the paperback novel on the night table, O'Hara's Butterfield 8, but decides in favor of virtue: the education text for her course Problems in Teaching the Disadvantaged Student. The book, a hardcover monstrosity, is for some reason in the bathroom, on top of a copy of Bazaar. Outside, she appropriates the backyard hammock—it is really the Bisquets'—and lies down to study.

    It is impossible, or nearly so, to take notes in a hammock. The ropes creak and sway, the fabric curls around her in a tipsy embrace and threatens to dump her every time she makes any sudden moves with her pencil. Finally, she gives up and lies very still, looking up at the sky where a whale-shaped cloud is passing with the slowness of a barge. In the bushes, the cicadas are vibrating at the frequency of the heat, plus or is it minus forty?—something your father told her. Something she will one day tell you, but you never will get the formula straight.

    A car passes on the street; the scuffing of shoes on the sidewalk approaches, and a neighbor's doorbell rings: a two-tone chime, carried aloft by the lightest of breezes. The humpbacked cloud is now directly overhead, obscuring the sun, the cicadas wailing as if in sudden alarm. But the figure in the hammock ties still, with one. hand trailing down, invisibly connected to the book lying on the grass. Your mother has fallen asleep.

   Though she has a plain face, a snub nose and a mouth a bit too wide for the contours of her face, there is a certain serenity to her features, a calmness which in sleep is heightened to a thing of beauty. Her eyes are delicately shut, her throat an arch of white bared to the sun. Her flanks are held firmly in place by the hug of the hammock; her breast rises and falls in a slow curve. It is three o'clock.

    And what about your father? At about this time, he is in an ivory-white room, interviewing a patient who exhibits symptoms of schizophrenic withdrawal. The patient, a man named Halloran, has been admitted to Ward B, which designates psychiatric problems of a medium severity. At the moment, Halloran is staring down at the twisted knots of his fingers, having made his last comment two minutes ago. Your father waits, placing his own hands face-down on the desk. The soft burr of a table fan blows through the office, an unprepossessing interior with a few padded chairs, a rack of books, and the desk. This year, your father is one of the chief residents, meaning that he supervises other residents on their cases. Short-term work is what he does most of, since the rule of patient-stay at Einstein is a few months at most, followed by discharge or transfer to state facilities. The work is challenging enough, but as a third-year resident he is thinking more and more of starting his own practice.

    From the corridor comes the sound of a door slamming, which seems to wake Halloran. He looks across the desk as if calculating the distance between himself and the doctor. He mutters that he feels damn low, and your father nods, referring to a sheet in front of him. Halloran has been out of work since he divorced his wife, and before hospitalization spent most of his time on the street outside his apartment. Removing him to the relative calm of the ward has helped, but he shows no real sign of improvement.

    Your father sighs. After this session he will wander down to the residents' lounge and pour himself some iced coffee from the thermos your mother packed for him this morning. In winter, hot coffee with a little sugar mixed in; in summer, iced coffee with milk. The question is, how does the thermos know to keep one cold and the other hot? This is a standing joke between your mother and father, eventually shortened to How does it know? and one of a growing number of tag lines that will fly about you during your childhood.

    At four, your father meets with a second-year resident named Kaufman to discuss the progress of a woman convinced she is pregnant, though all tests show negative. The other residents seem to like your father: he is matter-of-fact but sympathetic, and he works hard to gain the trust of people. In his tie and shirtsleeves, he presents a professional front nonetheless amenable to social pursuits—on several occasions, the Kaufmans have been invited over for drinks.

    The fan whirs on, the glare of the day subsiding to a bright rust on the blinds by five o'clock. As a rule, your father keeps the room a shade darker than outside to relax his patients, but more than once he has gone to the window to see what he is missing. In between patients, he looks out from the fourth floor of the nursing residence: his landscape includes a hot-dog vendor on a stretch of sidewalk, and the Pelham Parkway half-hidden behind greenery.

    At five-thirty he signs out, driving home in the Plymouth with a pride of ownership that borders on true joy. It is the first non-used car he has ever owned, without any wondering where those cigarette burns in the upholstery came from, or who made those nicks in the dashboard. Any marks of experience on this car will be his and his alone—or his wife's. He has promised to teach her how to drive, maybe in August when he has two weeks off. He thinks of her at home, starting the laundry as he left for work, and speculates as to what she is doing now. The day is already cooling down, the Bronx air blowing through the open car window, and he thinks maybe he will surprise her. They can go out to dinner, maybe to that new Italian restaurant that just opened on White Plains Road.

    Your mother has just started boiling the water for the rice when she hears the car pull up by the curb. The car door slams with its own peculiar shoonk, and in a minute he comes into the kitchen, his tie loosened, his jacket over his shoulder, his brown hair appealingly swept back from the car ride.

    The scene is more formal and at the same time more affectionate than it will be in later years. He carefully drapes his jacket over the kitchen stool; she puts down the can opener. He opens his arms wide enough for a battleship to come cruising in, and she flows toward him. A long hug and a kiss, or LH & K, as your father calls it, a panacea for life's blues. He says the boiling water smells heavenly, but it needs a touch of something. She says just wait for the canned ham, which she bought with her own two hands. Actually, her sense of humor is much better than her cooking, and it was your father who taught her how to prepare her first omelette, on a defective hotplate in Chicago. He nibbles on her ear, murmuring something about hors d'oeuvres—you used to think he was actually eating her ear and would scream for him to stop.

    I know you're already boiling—the water, I mean—but how about eating out? That new Italian place.

    She takes almost half a second before saying yes. The boiling water gets dumped in the sink, and the two of them go out to the car. It's a short drive to the restaurant, almost too short to warrant the use of a car, but 1) your father likes maneuvering in the new car, and 2) he has promised to go over the functions of the car bit by bit. Tonight he demonstrates the clutch as she takes mental notes (she will turn out to be a far better driver than he, a supremacy he never learns to accept).

    The restaurant is called Adolfo's, the lettering in red icing script on the neat Neapolitan awning. They are seated by a red-aproned waiter with slicked-back hair and given red plastic menus with an improbably long list of items. She chooses lasagna and he decides on the spaghetti marinara, with an antipasto first. She picks out the black olives and the artichoke hearts while he gets the salami and anchovies. The entrees arrive suspiciously soon, both swimming in a sea of red sauce. This may be the first of what your father will call, as he inserts his fork, the parting of the Red Sea. Still, at the time they are both pleased and decide they will come back some night, maybe with the Kaufmans. Spumoni for dessert, and mock-espresso—your mother grew up in New York City and knows the real thing from the times her father would take her to Little Italy, but says nothing.

    As usual, she is able to locate at least one intriguing fellow diner, in this case a balding gentleman with a balloon of a head and three stiffly waxed mustaches, tucking into a platter of clams. Your mother has the habit of people-watching, and an amazing facility for starting conversations with people. Before your father pays the check, she has found out that the man is a bus driver on the B6 route, though he also sings semi-professionally. He even gives lessons, but she regretfully refuses: she is studying to be a teacher. Of what kind? For disturbed children. Difficult, he murmurs into his napkin. And your husband? A doctor. He nods over this wise choice. You will have a fine family, he predicts. When they leave, he stops eating to wave goodbye.

    The sun has already gone down, but there are still threads of light around the trees when they get out of the car at home. Your father gallantly opens the screen door for her as she fumbles for her keys, as she will fumble before every keyhole in her life. Once inside, she generously shares the last of her refrigerated lemonade with your father. He makes an exaggerated pucker—he likes it with more sugar—and enters the bedroom.

    All the laundry lies neatly on the bed: your mother had time to bring it in and fold it, but then she had to start dinner. Slowly, your father starts putting away shirts, socks, pants, and skirts. He halts before a brassiere and is fingering it absently as your mother walks in. He turns. Will the owner of a white Maidenform bra, size ... 36 C, please report to the bed?

    He can be flippant about anything. It makes him charming; it makes him infuriating. Just now your mother succumbs to his charm, sliding onto the bed with practiced ease, her skirt hiking up to show the sweep of her thighs. The night is warm, inviting. He reaches out to stroke her leg, and she draws his hand upwards. Shifting so that he lies alongside her, he unbuttons the top of her blouse. Her arm goes around the back of his neck, feeling the bristles on his nape where he had his hair cut last week. He bends over to kiss her, her tongue invading his mouth, the warmth of her like the day's heat in the shape of a woman.

    A shirt, a blouse, a skirt, and a pair of pants land on top of the laundry piles, which get shoved aside. The blue curtains part for a night breeze, street air that plays over their bodies, making the skin delightful to the touch. Your father traces beautiful patterns on your mother's back. She reaches around to tickle his inner thighs, then his groin. In the course of their play, a bra identical to the one on the laundry pile goes sailing onto the floor. A pair of men's Jockey briefs, waist 32, flies in the opposite direction, followed by a pair of white bloomers. She still wears that type, after all these years.

    The bed creaks pleasantly under their combined weight, as she yields with his movements, the two of them intertwined, with the cracked beige ceiling above them and the Bisquet family below them, the laundry about their feet, and after it's over he rolls off her stomach and says what next?

    Nine months later, you are born in Jacoby Hospital. March 27, 1959, at three in the afternoon. As for all the rest, it can be figured out later.

Excerpted from LAUGH TRACK by David Galef. Copyright © 2002 by David Galef. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Portrait of a Portrayal29
The Jury63
Laugh Track85
The Web of Mobius99
And Dwelt in a Separate House113
All Cretans123
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction131
The Inner Child143
Dear, Dirty Paris159
The Art of the Interview181
The Landlord213

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