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The Medicine Burns
By Adam Klein
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1995 Adam Klein
All rights reserved.
My mother and I were both born with club feet. For thirteen years she wore a cast on her left leg, and I imagine the current stiffness in her gait is what she learned from wearing the cumbersome iron. Advances in surgery, and perhaps even in the casts themselves, enabled me to overcome my deformity in only three years of my childhood. I don't remember the episodes my mother told of how I used my cast to bust open the door of my parents' bedroom, or how I loved to climb, and how I could swing that cast over any piece of furniture, always leaving a tear in the upholstery or scratches in the wood. I really don't remember it at all until I look down at my bare feet—a difference of three sizes between them. They're not handsome feet, but neither are they impaired in any way.
And I only mention the feet because no matter what other features I share in common with my mother, it is our feet, with the aberrations now corrected, that seem to express our bond most adequately. I remember rubbing calamine lotion into her arches and heels while she lay in bed watching "Redd Buttons" or "The Honeymooners." She would croon, "my son, the podiatrist."
Maybe I could have found some interest in that occupation if all the feet I encountered were as bad as hers, because I did enjoy bending back each of her claw-like toes, pulling off the dead skin from her heels, and watching the cracks fill in with calamine. Her feet were particularly ravaged, not simply because of the long years they were bound in casts, but also because she never wore a closed shoe, wearing instead Dr. Scholl's sandals during the years of her compulsive gardening.
After my first surgery, the doctors explained to my parents that I might not ever walk with grace, that dancing was just about out of the question. I'm still unsure whose determination, my mother's or my own, enables me to dance as gracefully as I do today. I suppose I'm lucky; there has always been a strong determination to conform in my family. And there is always the possibility that my dancing really has nothing to do with determination, that it was merely the improved technology around club feet that is responsible for the miracle. Maybe, as my mother would come to accuse me, it all came too easy, I never had to suffer the way she did.
I'm afraid I've already misrepresented her. She would claim that, in fact, she had never suffered, that thirteen years of wearing that cast on her leg (which would never share the shapeliness of the other) were survival years, not years of vanity. The stories she told of her childhood were as scarce as the food she'd had in her house. Her father committed suicide during the depression. She was born a month after they found his body on a railroad track. She was born into a family with an older sister and three older brothers. All of the children were forced to help their mother provide.
When my mother tells a story, she tells it to make a point. Her stories are used to exemplify what she considers to be a suitable response to the inevitable difficulties of life. They are like the spotlit moments when a character in the Bible converses with God or an angel. And though she is not a religious woman, the analogy is still apt; her stories always advance a moral. They are not stories that are told to engage the imagination; rather, they are used to correct what might have been imagined incorrectly.
So I am hesitant to talk about her past, to reiterate the few moments of her adolescence that she shared with me, enormously confident that her stories would not suffer by interpretation. I have already betrayed her, but not without some justification. Betrayal, like our club feet, has also been a bond between us. I nonetheless believe that her stories are a part of my past.
But I'll begin with a story of my own: I was fifteen years old, tall and too thin, with a horrible complexion. I still hoped that I might be considered beautiful by someone besides my mother. Even my parents shared this dream, and bought me clothes that I am now sure were out of their reach. My thirst for love was a challenge undertaken by the whole family, and my mother always had the names of one young girl or another who might fulfill the task of loving me. But at fifteen, I was already striking out on my own.
We were living in Miami, where my parents had moved just after my father had come back from the Korean War. He was a war photographer who kept his personal records of the carnage in old scrapbooks with rubber bands holding them closed. They bought a house in South Miami, spacious enough to hide the army lockers he couldn't quite part with. These and his photographs were stored in the crawlspace with the hurricane supplies.
Their quiet residential experience wasn't mine. A flotilla escalated changes that had for years been occurring in Miami. By the time I was fifteen, my entire circle of friends was Cuban. We shared an obsession for clothes, social life, and for freedom. Throughout the city, warehouses were opened up as large dance clubs. There were always quinces to attend, coming-out parties for fifteen-year-old Cuban girls, staged with more daring and more money than I'd ever seen at a bar mitzvah. Once I saw a girl lowered to the stage in a spacecraft, while a group of Cuban boys danced with glow-in-the-dark stars. Even the YMHA, where my parents had taught me to swim (I was four years old when they threw me into the pool), was converted into a Cuban nightclub.
It was at one of these clubs that I met Phil Marie. I saw him drawing a car on a napkin at the bar. He wore a Batman T-shirt under a jacket. He was beautiful. I walked up to him, spoke to him. He was an artist whose concern was "the deception of the image." He was very straightforward in his work about deception; he cut styrofoam to look like stones: slate, limestone, coral even. He would cover their surfaces with glue and pour sand over the cut mold. Then he would paint the forms. They always looked like new rocks. He was tied up when I met him, waiting to speak to the owner of the bar about an installation. He was hoping to install a faux waterfall. This was going to be a challenge, he told me, as he'd never created fake water before.
I let him charm me with the sketches he penned and passed to me, evaluating each one and tucking it away in my shirt pocket. "You'd make a great illustrator," I told him, but he took offense.
"My commercial work is rocks, but my drawings and paintings are fine art," he said firmly.
He'd gotten drunk waiting for the owner to emerge out of the back room, and had gone through a stack of napkins. The bartender finally suggested he try back again the following day. Reluctantly, he turned to me and asked if I'd like to leave with him. Outside was the red Studebaker he drove. He told me he had no money except for that car. He loved that car. There were roses he'd left under the windshield wipers.
He was renting a small cottage in Coconut Grove. There was a dark path that led to it, and I remember thinking it was perfect for him, a real hideaway. He opened the screen door for me and we were on the porch under a torn, paper lantern. I remember him blindly kissing my face and tearing the buttons on my shirt, and how, blindly, I kissed him back.
When we went inside, there was only a mattress and a couple of boxes he was using as a table. "Once I get some work in this city I'll be able to set this place up," he said. "In the meantime, it's just you, me, and a bed."
"I don't need anything else," I told him, but of course I did.
I started to spend all my time with him. I brought him lunches, dinners, things he needed around the house. I thought nothing at the time about taking things from my parents' storage space. When they weren't home, I'd go into the crawlspace and blow the dust off their wedding gifts. There were lamps and pots and pans still in boxes, even the stereo my sister had left when she'd gone off to college. The night I brought that over, we listened to an album I'd found up there, Musk for havers, compiled by Jackie Gleason. We danced together on the porch, and in the silence between songs, we could hear the lizards scrambling through the dead leaves.
Phil would stay in all day working on his paintings. I couldn't help it—to me, they looked like illustrations. He took them directly from young boys' magazines. Paintings of fire trucks, sports cars, and airplanes. I'd walk in and find him with his work scattered in front of him, and he looked just like a boy himself. I was startled when he told me he was forty-one.
I would be sixteen in two weeks. When he offered to have a party at the cottage, I was thrilled by the idea. "Invite your friends," he suggested.
Three days before the party, he told me casually that of course he had no money, but that he would create something special for me. I financed the party by theft. I took liquor from my parents' bar, money from my mother's purse. I wanted all my friends to see how he'd gone all-out for me. There were cheese spreads, crackers, breads, wine, pâté. I took a string of lights from my parents' storage and hung them from the trees in the yard. By the time the guests began to arrive, I was exhausted.
Phil did all the entertaining. He made sure glasses were full. It didn't matter that he never bothered to refill my glass. I wasn't a guest. I was certainly independent enough to pour my own drinks.
The party seemed to be going on without me, and I was drunk enough to consider the possibility that may have been happening all the time. No one seemed to notice when I lay down on the grass and fell asleep.
When I woke up, the lights I'd strung in the trees were turned off. The party had dispersed. I staggered up to the cottage and let myself in. Phil was naked on the bed with my friend, Raul. They had a candle burning and the Music for Lovers record playing on the stolen stereo. I'd hoped for the comic moment when they'd both scramble for clothes, or tell me I was drunk and misinterpreting what I was seeing. But neither of them moved, except to turn and look at me, as though I was a maid who hadn't noticed the "Do Not Disturb" sign.
I guess I thought, if they're not going to be the spectacle, I'll just have to do that, too. I started to grab everything I'd stolen and brought to Phil. I pulled out the stereo and gathered up the bedside lamp, blankets, and chairs. And when it dawned on me that I could never carry it out of there, I left it all in the corner of the room like a surrogate me, an imposing totem of my generosity and their indebtedness.
When I lost my patience with Phil, I lost it for my parents and home life as well. It wasn't innocence, but some kind of faith that I'd lost. I let my parents know I was miserable, but I kept my reasons from them. I told my friends the whole story, except the parts about my stealing all that stuff. I guess I didn't trust them with that blackmail material. No doubt, my mother would have trusted any source who claimed to know the truth about her fine china, missing then for at least a week.
My mother proffered comfort with one of her own stories, and I believe it was told with a number of intents, some of which she was unaware of. In retrospect, it seems her sharing this story was the way she tried to induce me to share mine. But I think she was skeptical that it would work, and so her story, by the end of her telling it, became something of a parable on the self-indulgence of suffering.
She began by claiming that she never felt pretty or desired by anyone. She was fifteen, and the cast on her leg had become more of a cage in which she lived.
It was her older sister, Evie, who first began to adorn herself with makeup and jewelry, and whose figure could make the plain dresses she wore receive undue attention. They were living in New York during World War II, and though men in uniform were a common sight, my mother thought of them all as young heroes, and she described a line of white-suited sailors with their perfect black shoes standing along the piers like a contingent of angels. She and Evie walked past them with a bag of groceries they were bringing home; the men circled around Evie and took the bag from her hands, and with her burden lifted, they coaxed her down to the beach.
Three of the sailors, the most handsome of them, wanted to walk with Evie along the shore. My mother, with her iron cast, could barely manage to walk across the sand. Evie asked her to stand by the rocks. The sailor with the grocery bag placed it down beside her and told my mother to keep her eye on it, then winked at her before he ran off to join the others at the surf.
She watched them disappear under the piers, and it was a long while before they returned. I can't imagine what she thought about while they were gone, perhaps that they had taken her sister to heaven. But when they returned, more than an hour later, she was still standing where they'd left her. There was sand on the men's uniforms and in her sister's hair. After trudging up the beach, one sailor had his arm around Evie's shoulder, his fingers dangerously close to her breast.
Before the sailor gathered up the sack of groceries to carry back to the house, he made an attempt to lift my mother up and spin her around. But while my mother had stood in the sun, the cast had grown searing hot, and when the sailor touched it, it scalded his hand. The others laughed as he clutched his hand between his legs, cursing and whining.
That same year, Evie got pregnant and disclosed to my mother that she wasn't sure who the father was. If it was the man she suspected it was, he was probably at sea. They went to my grandmother who found someone to perform the abortion. Evie hemorrhaged. She eventually healed, but could not have children.
My mother's embarrassment and suffering was temporary, like a hand withdrawn from a flame. But Evie's misery was like a cast for life, and made my mother's cast seem a small inconvenience. In fact, my mother claimed her cast had protected her from devils disguised as angels.
I don't claim to have told the story the way she did. She was much more frugal with words. But I've told it the way I remembered it. I remember it as a story she benefited from by telling, and that is what makes me doubt she ever told it truthfully.
At the time, I certainly doubted that all misfortune has its benefits. I didn't think that my friend, Raul, might also be betrayed by my lover, and that would somehow compensate for my humiliation. I doubted, also, that every story deserves another story. My mother sat back with her arms folded across her stomach and waited. When she discovered my story was not forthcoming, she finally asked me why I had become so morbid. That was the term she used, not depressed, which was a word she would not fathom. That was a word for shrinks and people who depended on them.
I don't think it was in the spirit of rebellion that I concealed it from her. I believed then, as I do now, that some stories are our own, and that by telling them too soon, we limit their effect on us. I admit, I wanted to experience the full, protracted suffering I associated with the loss of a lover. I was also sure that my mother was not interested in understanding, but in remedying my problem. We sat at a deadlock; she urging my divulgence, me denying her, until she became exasperated and went in to bed.
My mother once said, "A mother knows everything." She meant for me to understand that as her responsibility. I'll tell you how I luridly imagined what happened as a result of this precept: frustrated by my silence, she must have lain awake long after my father had fallen asleep, and some inkling of intuition or suspicion led her to believe that I possessed something that would answer her questions.
She waited until I left the house before she began a thorough cleaning of my room. She found what she was looking for in my dresser, but she must have turned over several pungent jockstraps, none of which were mine. (At the time I had weekend employment at a Jewish country club where I was as able a locker-room attendant as my mother was a housecleaner.) I'm still disturbed today by her oversight. Had she recognized the use I made of those jocks, she might have been embarrassed from further inquiry. But rummaging further, she found the letter, and it was the letter that enabled her to launch her inquisition without having to imagine a thing.
She was setting the table for a game of mahjong. Her friends would be arriving in a couple of hours. She was filling ceramic bowls with candy and nuts. When I arrived home, she looked up as though she was startled. Perhaps she was; I'm sure she could not help but to have seen me differently.
Excerpted from The Medicine Burns by Adam Klein. Copyright © 1995 Adam Klein. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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
The Medicine Burns,