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Hamilton Stone Review #34 Spring 2016
Jane Lazarre, Fiction Editor
One Boy's Story
Busted. That’s what the boy wrote for his status update on Facebook. Busted. He was caught smoking weed with two friends on the upstairs porch at his father’s house. The father lived in a little town that looked like every other white middle-class suburban town. The boy said that the town was the most boring place in the world.
Busted. The boy had just turned fourteen. He had a mop of sandy curls and an indescribably sweet smile.
The boy’s father went a little nuts. He grounded the boy with no end in sight. The aunt tried to stay out of it, even though she thought he was being extreme. “Sit down, please sit,” the father said when she finally stopped by his house.
She did not want to discuss this with him but she sat down. “The boy has a choice,” the father said, as though they’d been talking for hours. “The boy is going to have to choose whether he wants to be a good person who listens to his parents and does the right thing – or not.”
“Do you remember,” the aunt wanted to say, “that I knew you when you were the boy’s age? (The boy’s father was her nephew, the boy was her great nephew.) Do you remember that I knew you when you went to school stoned a couple of days every week? Every single week? Do you remember?”
“What are you talking about – be a good person?” was all she said. “The kid smoked a joint with his friends so you made him miss a great concert. Okay, that’s it.”
“Oh no, that is not the end of this. His stepmother is very upset and so am I. He is not going anywhere for a very long time. He is going to have to think about this.”
“Have you spoken with the boy?” the aunt asked. She was pretty sure no one had talked to him. “What did you say?”
“Well no, I haven’t said anything to him, not yet,” the father said.
“Are you planning to talk with him?”
“Not until he’s had a good long time to think about this.”
Busted. How can a beautiful boy be busted?
Their first home, when they all lived together in one house, was a yellow house on Chestnut Street. The dining room table was long, plain heavy wood. Many nights, and always on the weekends, there would be six or eight or more people sitting around the table.
The boy’s mother sat at the far end of the table. Gorgeous, eyes gleaming, curls flipping as she turned from one person to another, laughing, offering more. Her glow was intense. Fat glass globes were filled and refilled with red wine. Sometimes the men drank whiskey, neat, from squat heavy glasses.
The father was up and down, squeezing behind seated friends into the kitchen, passing the food, reaching to fill a wine glass. Dinner slid into long warm evenings, stories lingering at the table. At some point, somewhere in that rushing river of talk, someone might ask “Where’s the boy?” “Oh, he’s probably gone to bed,” the father would answer, pausing for a moment in the waterfall of talk. “He just does that.”
The boy would be in bed, upstairs, lying very still with the quilt pulled up under his chin so he could hear the buzz, story telling and arguing and laughing. The boy might have been three years old, or four. His curls made a little nest on the pillowcase, cradling his head. The family downstairs was a rushing stream, burbling, soothing. Everyone was home.
When the boy’s father was little, he lived in a low-slung pinkish stucco house surrounded by weird plants with enormous slick green leaves that grew bigger in the night. In the morning before school he would duck under the umbrella leaves that pressed up against the house, a ruffled skirt of green. One day he found a small snake, maybe seven inches long, pressed into the crack where the stucco wall rested on the ground. The snake was translucent, the color of honeydew. He named the snake Fred Astaire.
The boy sat at a gray formica table in the visiting room at the hospital. The father strode into the room. Tall, exhausted-looking. His hair, usually shiny, was dull. The aunt, who had been chatting with the boy, thought his face looked numb. “Hey,” he said to the boy. The boy did not respond. “Hey, how’s it going?” the father tried again.
The boy had spent the day before in the adult men’s psych ward, sitting all by himself on a hard plastic bench long into the evening. Grown men surrounded him, crazy men who talked to themselves, called out and cackled, stabbed their fingers in the air. He was a child, curled over like a small creature trying to hide. Alone.
Now the boy pushed his chair back from the table, barely glanced at the father. He pulled his gray hoodie up over his head, curls crushed, fingers fumbling under his chin. He couldn’t tie it because some aide who was just following the rules had removed the string. The boy’s shoulders hunched, his fingers tugged at the hood whenever it started to slip down.
The aunt had seen the boy for the first time when he was newborn. The father had been leaning over him, dusky circles under his eyes from the hours before the birth, sweaty hair plastered to his forehead; his index finger had rested against a minute patch of skin, somehow escaped from the swaddling. The aunt remembered the father, a few months later, brushing the baby boy’s curls so tenderly, his fingers longer than the tiny plastic brush he held. The father’s fingers had been unusually long when he was a baby. How many people were there, the aunt wondered, whose fingers she remembered from when they were newborn?
On Monday after the boy was released from the hospital, the aunt picked him up at school and they drove twenty minutes across town to the University Hospital. “What does IOP mean?” she asked in the car. “Individual Outpatient Program,” he said, as though she’d asked whether he was taking geometry or algebra two.
When they left the diner where they stopped for lunch he pushed the heavy glass door open for her. They stepped out into humid afternoon heat. The boy lifted his head: a dog catching a tantalizing scent. “Ahhhh,” he sighed.
“What’s that for?” the aunt asked.
“In the hospital you can’t tell what the weather is,” he said. “You know how much I love hot weather.”
“What was it like?” she ventured, since he had opened the subject. “What was it like in the hospital?”
“I liked it,” the boy said, musing. “I don’t usually say that – I guess it makes people nervous. My roommate was a weird guy, he’s into guns. But I liked it.”
“It was so calm,” he said. “I could hear myself think, and I could read, and go to bed whenever I wanted.”
The aunt found the evening star when she got home that night, a mere flicker in the overcast sky. She managed to hold the star’s glint just long enough. “I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight,” she whispered. “Just let the boy be okay -- just okay.” A slate blur of clouds flowed over the star.
The boy had been alone upstairs in his boxy little room at the father’s house, that hot summer’s night the year he turned fifteen. He must have thought about the message for a long time, that beautiful boy with the springy golden curls. His curls must have brushed his eyes as he looked down, moving his thumbs on the keys of his phone. The aunt would never be able to forget that message.
The father had been sitting on the white couch in the living room, absorbed in the work he’d brought home when he heard the brother shout from upstairs. “Hey, where’s the boy?” The father drove frantically up and down the streets of the boring little town, dashed to check the train station at the last minute. The boy sat on a hard station bench, waiting for the train, alone with his bike. His skinny arms were streaked, oozing blood.
What was there to hold onto, when a boy was in such trouble?
Fire Ants and Armadillo Holes
The grandmother always wanted everyone to gather around her at Christmas. That meant travel to a distant state where acres of seared tawny grasses were invaded by grasping vines with leaves as big as beach balls. The packed dry earth in those fields bumped up every so often: volcano-like baked dirt structures. Home to wicked fire ants.
A neighbor’s cows wandered across the grass in front of the house; every year or so one of the cows put a hoof in an armadillo hole. Then the neighbor had to ride out in his faded red Chevy pickup and shoot the cow.
Alligator eyes glowed red in the swampy dark when they were caught in the beam of a flashlight. The boy’s grandmother had a trick that she loved to show off for visitors. She would bend down and point the headlamp (she always had extras) into the night grass so the light bounced into the eyes of thousands of microscopic spiders. The spider eyes shone sapphire and ruby.
The grandmother called her son, the boy’s father, to discuss preparations for the visit. The father would be coming with his new family and the brothers, his sons from the other marriage. Any special food requirements? Did she need to get gates for the stairs or would the baby stay put?
“Get the gates.”
“And of course the brothers will be with you,” she continued.
“Umm, no,” the father said. “Just one. The boy won’t be coming this year.”
The grandmother felt that drug addiction was more acceptable than suicidal depression or cutting. When people she knew asked her about the boy, she told them that he was an addict. She usually added that it was “very sad.” But she was a little afraid of her son, the boy’s father, and things had been bad. Fire ants and armadillo holes. She said nothing further to her son. Instead, she called the boy.
“I can’t believe you won’t be here with us. What is so special,” she tried to restrain herself, “what’s so important that you decided not to come?”
The boy spoke calmly to his grandmother. “I know you like to have the whole family together for the holidays,” he said. “I’d love to join you, but I wasn’t invited.”
There was a plexiglass cage to the left just inside the door. A woman in a uniform reached through a slit in the cage to take the father’s driver’s license, then the mother’s. She handed them clip-on guest badges. Without a word, they went to sit on a black vinyl-covered bench across from the elevator. The boy’s parents had not sat next to each other for a long time.
When they stepped out of the elevator on Level Four a plump woman approached and introduced herself as the boy’s caseworker. She ushered them into a room almost entirely filled by a large conference table. There were no windows. They sat. The caseworker went out for a few minutes. When she returned she escorted a young-looking doctor in a short white coat, and the boy.
“I would like to start,” the father announced. “I have found a bed for my son at Grandrest. They have a six-week waiting list but if we move fast they’ll take him tonight. I had to call in a lot of favors for this -- they’re not going to hold it for more than twenty-four hours. We need to move this along quickly.”
“Oh No, No, No,” the mother broke in. “Wait just a minute!” Her dazzling curls swayed with waves of emotion. “Nobody is shipping him off to an institution, not my boy. You have no right,” her anguished voice rode to the peak of the waves. “We have a lot to talk about here and I’m not ready to let him go anywhere—certainly not to a residential program.”
“Oh?” said the father. “You aren’t ready? You let him buy pot – again. You yelled at him to the point where he climbed out on the roof and,” he stopped himself. The boy’s father was a man who prided himself on never losing control. “We don’t need to go over all of that now,” he resumed. “But you were the one who was ‘watching’ him when this happened.”
“That’s what you think?” The mother was shifting into a higher gear. “What I think happened is that you are always busy with your big job and your new family, I know, I know, you have a new baby, but you always have an excuse. You’re the one who told him he just has to shape up. He’s sixteen years old! Do you have any idea what it’s like to be responsible for a suicidal kid?”
“Now you wait just a minute,” the father said. “The only reason we’re here is to take care of these arrangements. The boy has to be in a facility where he will be under supervision. I’ve had to pull a lot of strings to make this happen and that’s where he needs to be.”
“You mean that’s where you can dump him,” she said.
The aunt remembered the day of the parents’ wedding. She had stood next to the father, their shoulders touching, waiting while people gathered. She remembered the exact moment when they saw the young bride slip into a room across the hall. “Isn’t she ravishing?” the father had said. Numbness descended on the father like a deathly flu when that ravishing girl left him, many years later.
“Hey,” the boy’s voice was low. “Hey. Do you people get it that this meeting is supposed to be about me?” He sat up straighter. His face was still, a forest animal alert to what might come.
The caseworker spoke next. “I hate to say this but I’m going to have to ask you to step out for a few minutes,” she said to the boy.
“I stood behind the door to listen,” he said later, his face cracking into a grin. “She told them, told my parents that they had no business fighting in front of me, that they were there to listen. No one talks to my father that way. No one! And my mom, she just talks over everyone so she just kept talking and then the caseworker said stop. It was like she was talking to a little kid, Stop. And my mom did!” The boy paused, as though he couldn’t believe his own words.
“She told them,” the boy’s speech had become slow and deliberate. “She told them that they had forfeited their right to act as my parents. She said that they would be notified when we have a plan.” The boy shook his head, left to right to left; his loose curls swung lightly.
Forfeited. How can a beautiful boy be forfeited?
“No, No, it’s fine, please sit,” the boy’s father insisted when the aunt said she couldn’t stay. It was the first time they had seen each other since the boy was released from the institution. “I want to tell you what happened.”
You want to tell me what happened? The aunt couldn’t believe her ears. Don’t you mean you want to tell me why you’re right? Right to punish this beautiful boy, your son who has done nothing except slide into a bottomless unhappiness that no sixteen-year-old should have to know, this boy whose golden curls you have shorn into a buzz cut that makes him look like an escapee from the bughouse.
All she said was, “I know you believe the boy took money from some lady’s purse when she was at your house, money to buy pot.”
“Wait, I haven’t finished,” the father interrupted.
“No, you can stop now, please just stop,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter what happened.”
He stared at her, brows shot up, a handsome serious-looking man in young middle age. Nobody in their family talked about bad feelings, never about a young person they loved who was in such trouble, or the nights when clouds obscured the moon. The entire family had always been painfully, cripplingly indirect.
The boy’s mother did not share this disability. “He said,” the mother’s voice had grown strangely calm as she told the aunt what had happened, “that man said right in front of the doctors, in front of his son, he said ‘The boy is not welcome in my home.’”
“It really doesn’t matter what happened,” the aunt said again, still speaking to the father. “What matters is that you have told your son he is not welcome in your home until he apologizes and repays the money.”
“Well yes,” the father said as he reached for his drink. “Of course he has to apologize. Don’t you agree?”
When the boy’s father was eight he had given the aunt a rubber chicken. It was a fabulous chicken: plucked and pimply as though ready to cook, maybe eighteen inches long, as skinny as the father had been when he was newborn, long and thin. The chicken’s beak was a peculiar pink. The father had been a solemn child, not given to practical jokes. The aunt had no idea where he had found that chicken or why he chose to give it to her. They both laughed whenever they remembered it.
“Stop,” the aunt said to the father now. “What I need to say, what matters is that you have to do something. Not the boy -- you. You have to get down on your knees and apologize to this beautiful boy and ask him to come home.”
In the photo, grainy and hard to make out, the boy was a bluish-gray sliver. Tall, skinny, seventeen years old, luminous. The pale boy wore an unfamiliar jacket, standing alone against white snow and ice and dead white sky. The boy’s eyes were sunk way back in his head. The eyes were blank. Panic? Or nothing.
“The boy has been spiraling down,” his mother wrote in the message that arrived with the photograph. “I have just dropped him off at a special winter camp in the mountains.”
The aunt remembered the small boy whose blue-gray eyes sparkled, whose curls shone with sunlight even inside the house. That frozen, vacant-looking figure was the same boy who used to put himself to bed, leaving the grown-ups laughing and drinking downstairs, hoisting himself up the stairs one step at a time: one foot, then the other foot, grabbing to hold onto the bannister with each step. The aunt remembered how everyone thought it was darling that the small boy would put himself to bed.
That same boy had been putting one foot in front of the other for a long, long time: two stays on the psych ward, multiple high schools, one camp for adolescents with drug problems and another program for so-called troubled teens. More drugs. Terrifying encounters with the police. More institutions. Somehow, the boy managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
What was there to hold onto, when a boy was in such trouble?
The Family Vacation
It was a big deal that the boy was invited to go on the trip to Europe; he still was not welcome in his father’s home. Then the aunt heard that the boy had come back early. That sounded bad, but she thought it must have been because he wasn’t having a good time. Too much, too soon.
The boy called late in the evening a few days after his return, sounding so messed up she thought he might be high. He mumbled as he told her the story. The stepmother had accused him of throwing away a bag of new clothes she had brought home from a shopping trip somewhere on the Mediterranean coast.
“Everyone was all over me,” the boy said. “I dunno, maybe I did it -- they told me to take the trash out and I just took everything. She was really mad.” He said he’d been so anxious that it was all fuzzy. “I wasn’t really sleeping much at all.”
The father had come into the room where the boy was in bed, supposedly asleep. It was 4 a.m. The air was damp and dense, cool before dawn.
“Don’t you agree that it would be best for you to go home now?” the boy’s father had said.
Agree? Best for whom? The father had already made arrangements for the boy to fly home later that day. The aunt could hardly take it in. Whatever the father thought, the boy had never traveled alone, much less outside the country, much less in the state he was in. How could he send him home alone? What could it have been like for the boy, thousands of miles from home in a place where he didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the food, didn’t have his friends or his music or his dog? To have been packed up, sensing danger, thrust into the crush of international air travel? Alone.
The father and the stepmother drove the boy to the airport. It was an endless miserable drive during which nobody spoke. Not one word. As they approached the highway exit, the stepmother fluffed herself up to speak.
“I know you must feel that coming on this trip was a test,” she said to the boy. “I have given this a great deal of thought and I just have to tell you something before you go. The only conclusion I can come to is that you do not want to be part of this family.”
What was there for this boy to hold onto?
“When I found the little envelope of white powder, the boy said it was his anti-anxiety meds,” the father told the aunt later. “I knew he was lying. I tried to figure out what it was, took a little bit and rubbed it on my gums, you know, to see if it had that chemical taste of prescription drugs. It didn’t. I think it was heroin.”
The boy’s mother had forgotten to fill the boy’s prescription before the vacation. She told him to crush the pills he had into powder so that they would last longer. How could she forget? And had she explained all this to the father only to have it slip away, leaving not a snakeskin of memory?
The boy somehow managed to get himself home. Alone. Then, still without sleep or any relief, he told his mom that he had to pee in a cup before anything else. The drug test was negative.
The aunt remembered a sun-filled day on the hilltop in the country where they went in the summertime. The boy had been very young, a small boy riding his father’s shoulders across the fields, small fingers clenched in the man’s shiny hair. She wished she could hold onto that day, hold it in her hand and in her heart. If only she could hold onto that glistening day, that taken-for-granted delightful day: the smell of a newly mown field, alfalfa and timothy and vetch, the father and the boy, almost one person, striding through the rows of fresh-cut grass and wildflowers.
As yet another year approached, the boy was a senior. It seemed miraculous. The boy asked the aunt if she would read his college essay. “Of course,” said the aunt, who was a college teacher.
The title of the essay was “A,B,C.” “Access, balance, and compression,” the boy explained. “Those are the three things you need to remember when you’re packing a sixty pound pack for wilderness camping in the winter.”
“Huh?” The aunt couldn’t help her reaction. “You wrote about that terrible time, the drug camp in the mountains, for your college essay?” That time, she couldn’t stop remembering, that time when your beautiful eyes looked frozen, icy white like the dead sky that surrounded you.
“Sure,” he said. “My brother (who was already in college) said anything goes except the three D’s. That’s divorce, disease, and death.” Actually, the boy’s story had all three D’s. The corners of his mouth turned up as he began to grin. “But it’s okay -- the letters I’m using for my essay are A,B,C so they probably won’t notice.” The boy’s eyes, the same blue-gray as his father’s eyes, were sparkling, filled with light.
Rumpled, tired and sung out, that’s how they finally arrived at their inn, each dragging a suitcase. The girl cradled her bag in both arms, untied shoe laces trailing behind. The boy, juice stains across both cheeks and down his striped blue tee shirt, dragged his across a tiled floor. Even their mother, always tidy and straightened, looked furrowed and soiled. She toted the largest suit case by the handle, its heft tilting her off beam. They made an odd trio crossing a pristine marble foyer under a sparkling chandelier, its soft glow headlining their flaws as they made their way to the sign-in desk, too tired to feel out of place. Brother and sister slumped into the soft, pink cushions of a settee. Their mother walked to the reception desk and rang a bell.
“Blake,” their mother said to the receptionist, giving the name they used for travel, but not their real name. The children knew that Blake was a so-called “pen name” and not their real name in the way that the movie star, Rock Hudson, was not really Rock Hudson.
“He’s Jewish,” her grandma whispered, covering her mouth, letting them know that names held secrets. “Blake,” was the name their father used when he wanted to fish at Lake Mahopac, a “restricted community,” where vendors didn’t rent rowboats to Jews. It was the name used once when traveling to Chicago to stop in motels that might not admit them. And it was their father’s “Communist Party name.” Back in the 1930s, many of her father’s associates had taken “party names,” changing their names to ones that sounded more American or less Jewish and immigrant. Joseph Cohen became Joe Clark. Saul Regenstreif became Johnny Gates, William Lazarovitch became Bill Lawrence, Abraham Richman became Al Richmond and her own father became George Blake, a name honoring a favorite poet.
“Blake? Blake?” The hotel’s receptionist’s glance was quick and practiced, as he studied this mother and her children on the settee. He opened his register, rustled crisp pages, twisted the top of a silver pen, and arranged his face into an expression of regret. “We’re sorry Madam, but we have no Blake on our hotel register for tonight.” He paused. “Or tomorrow night.”
“Of course you do,” their mother said. “We have a hotel confirmation letter.”
“There must be some mistake. Some other Heritage Inn,” he asserted, a dismissal with brittle sibilance.
“No, there is no mistake here. We are registered here… tonight… in this Heritage Inn.” Her words were distinct and patient, but not too patient, in just the tone she used to speak to errant children, ones trying to escape her clutches and not face the music. It was that tone that made the children bolt upright, as if the water level had just risen in the sea, the tide had turned, trouble was on its way. Sleepiness subsided with a rush. They were awake and tingling. At that moment, the girl wished her hair was straight or blond or not so curly. Or that her nose was snubbed, not pointy. Or that her brother’s skin was pale like the desk men. Or that her mother was not wearing yellow. Taking a look around her, the girl noticed a lack of bright colors, only her mother and the Negro workers had on bright colors. Dressed in beige, the girl thought, they’d have fit in perfectly and then the room, in the name of the beautiful poet, Blake, would be theirs.
“We are not leaving,” their mother said, in the voice they knew from experience as an immovable force.
“We are not done here,” she’d say to her children. It meant an honest explanation better come fast and not the cockamamie she was hearing. It meant clean up the mess including the things shoved under the bed; it meant no more wasting time and absolutely no more chances. And always in the end they complied. The brief period of resistance, for dignity’s sake, expired and then dutifully they made amends, revised their attitude or swept the room into immaculate order. So, when their mother said they were not leaving, sister and brother tensed their backsides into cushions to wait. And watch.
“May I be of some assistance?” a second starched man asked, appearing suddenly in vest and blue blazer. The girl noted his gold buttons. This second man seemed to the girl like an apparition who appeared from nowhere and without a sound. The original man pointed to the hotel register that did but didn’t register them and then pointed, not pointed as in pointing-is-rude-Judith, but signaled without so much as a word to convey “the problem.” Them.
“You claim…,” second man started to say when their mother, roused to full indignation, interrupted.
“I don’t claim,” the mother asserted crisping up her diction, stressing the other’s poor verb choice. “I have,” she instructed. “I have a confirmed reservation at this Heritage Inn.” She fixed him, the second man, with her corrective glare.
“My confirmation is here,” she stated, slicing him off and then before anyone could stop her, hoisting her bulky suitcase onto the surface of the spit-polished registration desk. Brochures toppled. A silver pen set flew to the floor. The children stared transfixed knowing there was more to come, knowing their mother had passed from tolerance to action. She turned the suitcase on its side, unzipping one compartment and then the other. Zip. Zip, the metal grated, creaking like a tired freight train on its cobbled track. And then with one hand, she reached in and yanked out a top garment, cycloned it out of its fold and into the air. It landed somewhere, as did the next and the next. A blouse, a pair of slacks, a scarf, and then to their horror, pink panties, a sheer nightgown and worse yet a brassiere. The items hovered, they sailed, they festooned and plummeted about the elegant lobby draping a wing chair, cloaking a lamp shade and sprawling across the open paged register where the Blake family had not, but now did, exist.
In the midst of their mother’s choreographed search for her evidence, the lobby, once deserted, filled. There were people waiting to sign in. There were guests passing from the dining room to the circular stairway. There were dark-skinned men in red trimmed uniforms poised mid-errand as their mother stood her ground.
The boy whispered to his sister, “Let’s just get outta here. I hate it here. It stinks. Inns are stinky places.” His voice seemed too low for anyone else to hear, yet didn’t their mother, for just a second glance over her shoulder and fasten them with a direct stare? In a flash, her message was clear: WE don’t back down, a look to remind her boy that he was no quitter. No, they weren’t going anywhere, even though they couldn’t wait to get out of there.
At such times, such sorry and humiliating times, the girl’s mind grew giddy and ran away. It ran bowlegged to the toilet as she squeezed her thighs tight to prevent seepage, it ran to her tummy as she was certain to sick up the grape soda and devil dogs consumed in the car, it ran to distractions of song and poem, and it ran smack dab into her father, to one of his comedic performances. In the midst of a serious ceremony, he’d recite what he called, “The Bronx Trilogy” beginning with:
Spring has sprung
The boid is on the wing
But that’s absoid
The wing is on the boid.
With that recitation racing through the girl’s mind, and her mother’s dangling stockings, a dam broke inside, then spilled out of tearing eyes and nose into cascades of giggles. She held her stomach, she doubled over, she fell to the floor and still she laughed in fits of rolling, rollicking, breathless sound. And soon her brother joined her collapsed body on the marble floor, next to their own smaller suitcases adorned with their mother’s slip. So perhaps that is why the children missed the important part. “There was a room. There were in fact two rooms,” the hotel manager said, when her mother produced the document. They missed the part where her mother actually refused the gift of rooms. She wanted her rightful room, the one that was her due, the one that she had reserved. They missed the final testimony and final persuasion. They missed seeing workers scoop up the garments, and gracefully return them to the suitcase, leaving nothing more in the storm’s wake. They were summoned off the floor, handed their own key, and were now making their way across the lobby, up the curvaceous stairway, down a carpeted corridor to a room which opened onto a large four poster bed with a movie star canopy.
“I hate it here,” the boy repeated.
“We’re not leaving,” their mother said one last time.
Bentwood: A Romance (Excerpt)
When a writer calls his work a romance, he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a novel. –Nathaniel Hawthorne
Chapter One: Pammy Hodge
I was cleaning the bathroom in the main dorm, a worse job than usual. It looked like the students had been partying again, they'd done some serious praying to the porcelain god and left me a nasty mess to wipe off the toilets. When I stood up to give my knees a rest, I peeked out the window and saw Steve from Security pull up in the dinky electric go-cart the college went and bought him. “Sustainable Stevie,” we yell when we spot him in that thing, it gets a rise out of him. It does look funny to see a man Stevie’s size in a vehicle like that. Bet you he’s chomping at the bit for snow to fall so he can tool around in his new Nissan pickup till mud season’s over.
“Hey,” I said, “don’t tell me. Has there been another sighting?”
He shook his head, his cheek all puffed out with a plug of tobacco. “Nuh-uh.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess.”
“Good as it gets. With all the jobs on my checklist, it’s not like I needed the Ghost Busters detail.”
“Did they really claim that thing molested them?”
We’d been having some issues for the past week. It was the fall Gathering for the creative writing program, and on Day Three, one of these gals comes up with a story about waking up in her dorm room in the middle of the night and feeling some sort of spooky entity right there under her covers. First thing you know, more students are up in arms, claiming they encountered this, that and the other. Heard a rapping or a tapping in the wall, saw a flame swooping around like a candle near the ceiling. Student Life hollered for all hands on deck. They had Bentwood Campus Safety checking the dorms every hour on the hour.
“Molested!” Steve snorted.”That’s one way to put it.”
“How else would you put it?”
“Well, according to her—look, Pammy, you sure you want to hear this?” He stepped up to one of the waste baskets that I hadn’t gotten around to emptying yet, and spit out his chaw.
“I ain’t squeamish,” I told him. Steve rarely cracks a smile, but he did have that glint in his eyes, which are small and round and seem kind of lost in the broadness of his face.
“Said this thing—she calls it an ink-you-something, bub or bug or butt-- stuck his fingers up inside her.”
“You’re making that up.”
"I meant about the fingers."
"Cross my heart. She said it."
“At breakfast, in the cafeteria line. I went back for seconds on bacon. You ask Irene, she was dishing up the eggs. We both of us heard it.”
“I’m glad I wasn’t there, Jeezum Crow! I’d've lost my appetite.”
“Not squeamish, huh?”
“You want to see who’s squeamish? Grab a rag. ‘Cause I could use a hand scrubbing puke off these toilets.” I made like I was ready to throw my sponge his way.
Steve played along, making stop signs with his hands. “Thanks but no thanks. I got my own work to do. But look, the boss wants to see you in the office.”
“Really? This minute?”
“Well. When you finish in here, I guess.”
Steve ambled off to his overgrown golf cart—he moves slow, but Steve’s a good guy, works as hard as anybody—and left me wondering. I wasn’t worried, exactly. I know my job and I do my job. From time to time I end up doing other people’s job, and I show up on the dot, even in a blizzard or a flood I show up, because I live right up the road, so I can always make it in, short of a tornado or a mud slide. I haven’t called in sick since I had the adult mumps. I may not be full of smiles and honey-sticky-sweet, like Heidi Reynolds in the Business Office, but I don’t make trouble, I don’t make enemies, and I’ve been employed steady at Bentwood College going on 26 years. Still, it was strange, and I wondered what was up.
When President Vampant first came on campus, not too much changed, but as time wore on, a tenseness crept into the atmosphere. You couldn't put your finger on anything specific, it was more a feeling like somebody had decided our old ways of doing things needed an upgrade. She'd hired some brand new people, plus that consulting firm. Part of it was how they dressed up for work. They looked like they’d probably woken up that morning in one of those big old houses in Mont Peculiar (that's Montpelier, our state capital, a half hour drive from here--there's this funny lady on the faculty who calls it Mont Peculiar, which I think is sort of cute). You know those houses I mean, with the gingerbread, the wraparound porch and all the other charming Vermont trimmings, stuff the flatlanders who move up here with a few bucks, or more than a few, typically drool over. Provided there’s solar panels on the roof, and the kitchen done over with shiny appliances. So anyway, with these senior staff types, it’s like they’d toddle over to their walk-in closets and forget they weren’t headed to the Capitol Building, but out to the North Branch campus, where everyone from the President on down went around in snow boots and down vests and flannels. Jeans, in the summertime. Instead, these new people took their cue from Doctor Vampant (and she liked to hear that title, by the way, where the guy we had before her always went by Wayne), with that blunt-cut hairdo, all glossy and nicely tinted, tipping and slipping on mud or black ice in her spike-heel pumps and long leather boots. Josiah from Food Service, who's in charge of breakfast prep, and needs something to keep his mind busy when he’s here at 4 a.m., joked about keeping a log of all her footgear.
But she had style, and that was something. It caught our interest. It even looked like her touch of pizzazz might be a wakeup call for Bentwood.
But then, with these new hires, there was a way they spoke to you. Impersonal, like they'd do to a maid in a hotel, or a clerk in that Costco over by Colchester. Not like you were a human person they ran into every day. We even heard her new finance guy calling people “miss” and “sir.”
I'm not saying all of that was in the front of my mind, but it was in the back of it, anyway, while I peeled off my rubber gloves, grabbed my windbreaker, and headed out to see what the boss wanted. It was a real fresh day, leaves coming off the trees, but I saw this one maple, flaming red on the right side but shading off to goldish on the left, and it lifted me up, so glorious a sight, like the turning trees can do. I always think the leaf peepers miss a lot, because they never live around it.
Roger was sitting at his computer, typing one-handed with his left arm in a sling. He’d broke his elbow falling off the roof of his garage, trying to fix a drainpipe. The sun was slanting through the dusty window and falling on more dust and piles of papers. We joked around a little, like you have to do with Rog. He was getting on my case about where were my hearts, because I'm famous around Bentwood for showing up to work always wearing something with a heart design on it, but today I had on one of my son’s old T-shirts, that said Green Mountain Hardass under a green smiley face. There’s students and faculty members who never know my name is Pammy, since all they hear is people calling me the Heart Lady. Sometimes once a Gathering is over, when I'm cleaning in the dorms, somebody will have left a thank-you card. All they’ll do is draw a heart on the envelope, and I know it’s meant for me. I take care of my own: that's my main motto. People tend to appreciate it.
“Of course I got my hearts,” I told Rog, “I’m just keeping 'em under wraps.” I hiked up my pants to show my Cupid socks, and then we could talk business.
"Look here, Pammy," he says, "I've gotten a kind of unusual request from the President's Office, and it's about your job...don't look like that! It's all good. I think."
Then he tells me I'm being transferred to work exclusively in the Manor. That's Bentwood Manor, our quaint looking mansion that people drive miles out of their way just to see. It’s where the President's Office relocated to, from a modern building on the other side of campus. President Benita announced the new location at the end of what she called her Listening Tour, her first month on the job. She wrote this long e-mail to the whole community, explaining she’d realized how important it is for the President to not cut herself off. She needed to be in the “navel of the world,” was how she expressed it, meaning the thick of things. So the Manor got turned into mostly staff offices, though they still used the Maple Leaf Room for student receptions. They'd put Marek Rast, the new finance guy, right next to the formal garden. When the weather was warm, you could see him in the hedge maze, stomping around and vaping like mad.
Naturally I asked why they wanted me over there, since the Manor used to be cleaned twice a month by whichever of us from Housekeeping could best be spared at the time. Roger wasn’t much help.
"All I know is, the President's new Chief of Staff, what's her name, Lenora, Lanera?--called yesterday. Says President B. wants somebody from Housekeeping who's absolutely efficient and reliable to take charge of the Manor. I said, Pammy Hodge is a darn solid worker, and hasn't missed a day since--when was it, Pammy?"
"There you go."
"But 'take charge'--what's that supposed to mean? There isn't more than a day and a half a week--two days, tops--worth of stuff to do in there. Did somebody find dust kitties in the hall?"
"I honestly couldn't tell you. Far as I know, President Benita just wants to make sure that everything's bright and beautiful in the vicinity of her office. Don't forget, that building is where she brings potential donors. Where she meets the trustees. Politicians, too. I hear she’s trying to rope the Governor in. Get him up to campus for some kind of shindig."
Governor Delvin, I should have been impressed. But everyone knows that Delvin has a girlfriend in Boisvert, not far from here. Him and her turn up once in a while at the Three Crows in North Branch. I bet you won’t find too many places where you meet some guy at your dinky local tavern, ask what he does and he tells you, "Oh, I'm the Governor of the State." I heard he won a prize on Trivia Night, too. That’s Vermont for you—no place to hide.
I should’ve been glad about the new assignment, since my boss made it sound like some type of honor, but I wondered: where’s the catch? "So I'll still be cleaning dorms and all the regular stuff, the rest of the time?"
"What rest of the time? Wasn’t I clear? The Manor will be your beat. That's all you'll be taking care of."
I told Rog straight out I didn't know what the heck I was going to do in Bentwood Manor forty hours a week. He said give it a try, spruce things up, do a workout with the furniture polish, maybe take down the curtains and send them out to be cleaned, sponge out the cupboards in the kitchen and refresh the shelf paper; he was sure those kind of chores hadn't been tackled recently. If I got through all that, and couldn't fill up my time, I should let him know and he'd see what he could do. I said okay, but still with that fluttery feeling, like this puzzle was missing pieces.
"And Pammy, one more thing." He looked sheepish now. And nobody looks more sheepish than Rog when he's embarrassed. I could see him ruing the day he ever made supervisor.
"Linera or Lonira—I cannot get it straight!-- says President Vampant said you're to wear a uniform."
I just looked at him, like: this can't be happening! "Where would I even get a uniform?" I blurted, thinking back to that job I worked once, at the doughnut shop in White River Junction, where you had to buy your own. Those things are not cheap.
Roger said not to worry, he'd take care of it, just tell him my sizes and he'd place the order. So I wrote it down, what else am I going to do, but I'm thinking, does my boss really need to know my bust measurement? It wasn't until I was heading back to the dorms that I realized other things I should have asked, like why make me wear some special outfit, and what was supposed to happen to my hearts? The way I figured, I could still wear heart-themed accessories, like my heart pin and pendant, or the Cupid socks. But nobody would call me the Heart Lady anymore. Heck, for however long I was stuck there in the Manor, I probably wouldn't even see the students but once in a blue moon. And it's not like I talk to them all of the time, but here and there, there's a few that I bond with. There was this one girl, a scrawny little thing with a purple streak in her hair and a snake eating its tail tattooed around her neck. She was a cutter, and I talked to her, and she told me later that it helped pull her through to where she got professional counseling. She even thanked me at graduation, it meant so much to her.
I decided I was going to be super efficient in getting through the busy work Roger had in mind. Maybe when President Benita saw how good I could make the Manor look with a day or two a week of vacuuming and dusting, she'd let me go back to spending the bulk of my time scrubbing upchuck off the fixtures.
After work, I headed up Frederick Farm Road driving my old clunker, my usual route home. I stopped at a pullout between Frost Heave Farm and the Frederick place, next to the Frederick family burial plot, where I go to think sometimes. My own place is quiet, and good for thinking too, but I like this other spot for some reason. Maybe because I’m not responsible for anything out there—no laundry to hang, no dahlias to weed. I can just be. I pulled a plastic tarp out of the trunk, zipped up my jacket, and walked around to the back of the tiny graveyard, where I could sit leaned up against the dry-laid granite wall. I had a view from there, looking out across the valley to where the sun was going down behind the hills that had passed their peak, but still looked colorful enough to have the bed and breakfast crowd ooing and ahing. I pulled out my Newports—down to the last two, but that was okay, I’d save one for after supper.
I'd spilled the beans to Marcia about my new assignment on our afternoon break, and she tried to convince me to go straight back to Roger and tell him I'd changed my mind. She said Bentwood owed me better than that. After all my faithful service, there was no way they should stick me in a building that’s full up with negative energy, and dangerous to health, whether physical or mental. She repeated the usual stories--the one about the man in an antique wooden wheelchair, holding a child on his lap all bundled like a mummy, and the girl in a nightgown that people say they see, walking either a goose or a fox on a string. Marcia believes it goes to show that something real bad must have happened in the Manor once upon a time. I said with any place as ancient as that, there's room for lots to have happened, and the same could be said of any old house. I asked her if she ever saw any of those sights, and she said no, but then she barely goes in there, because all she has to do is step foot in the foyer and her arms and legs start itching like mad.
I told her I wouldn't like to say no to Rog. Number one, he's the boss, and two, he's treated me decent. I wouldn’t be in the Manor outside of daylight hours, and anyway I wasn't afraid of things that go bump in the night--unless it was a bat like the one that walked out of the fireplace that time, during a student's thesis presentation. But that was before they did the chimney work.
Marcia said she hoped I wouldn't be sorry. "And you've got to talk to Rog if you see anything that spooks you."
"I won't see anything," I said.
"How can you be sure?"
I could have said why--I don't see things, I hear them--but I felt like I’d already said too much to Marcia. It looked like I’d been asking her advice, and now she'd go around to other staff, repeating her notions about the danger I was in. Marcia means well. There's no spite in her, but she likes to feel important.
With my cigarette burned down and my bones starting to ache from the chill under that tarp, I got around to thinking how I really felt about the new assignment.
On the plus side, it did make me proud that Roger chose me when the President asked. And I wouldn't mind changing my routine around. At my age it’s harder, always being on your feet, plus all the bending down and lifting. And after that bout I had with the frozen shoulder, it never did get back to where it was. Working in the Manor at least a couple days a week, I could ease up on the scrubbing, and there’s no beds to change.
The one thing that worried me was the Lookout—that’s what they call the arch-windowed tower that sets up there like a crown on the mansion. There’s a corkscrew of real narrow stairs going up, and I'm afraid of heights. Speaking of which, I did feel surprised that Marcia hadn't mentioned the Spirit of the Lookout, which is the name people call that white ghostly face, with a hand holding a candle up beside it, that flits around and around, from one window to the next, like a person driven frantic. It’s supposed to mean trouble-- you can believe that if you want, but I’ve noticed that the folks who pass on these stories never can tell you any actual disasters predicted by this vision.
There was another plus to the new assignment. I had a kind of feeling about President Vampant. I couldn't tell you to this day if it was a good or a bad feeling. But from what I could see, just by watching her on the job, she was the type of woman to make things happen. Which attracted me, that spark, because I'm the opposite. I watch and I listen, I think what I think, but nobody would take me for a mover and a shaker. Working in the Manor, I’d have a front-row seat for the Benita Vampant show, was one way to put it.
Brash and bumptious as she was, I hoped she wouldn't mess around with the Powers of Bentwood --which is just my private name for the spirit of this place, almost like the land has a mind of its own. Like the raw rocks got soaked in sort of a potent energy. I'm not a real old Vermonter (I was born out of state), but I've lived here long enough to know a thing or two. Marcia would say I had a screw loose, forgetting I was just the cleaning lady, but it looked like Benita was a stranger in the land and could maybe use some help. If that was so, I might be the one to help her.
Have a Nice Tomorrow
(Excerpt from a novel, Every Body Has a Story)
In the bar mirror between whiskey bottles hang the faces of his late night companions; no one he cares to engage with. He’s heard enough about lost jobs and foreclosed houses to last past his lifetime. It’s what the guys at the plant chew on. What’s done is done. He’s made his move and not a nickel more in his pay. Six welders on his team let go so he could stay on. That fact is surely not going to win him friends on Monday. He’d love to give the owners the finger and walk out. Then do what? Go where?
Get in the car, Stu, that’s where, find another bar with better faces, that’s what. He drops a bill on the counter and takes off.
Where he’s driving will be the next surprise. He likes surprises; they remind him there are forces out there stirring the shit. Where he’s not heading is home, which is behind him on the other side of the lane. He’s on Boston Post Road, the old Route 1 that wobbles through the Bronx. There are one, two, three bars somewhere along here. It would be kind to call Dory, let her know he’s alive and on his way to oblivion, except she wouldn’t be happy to hear that, now, would she? Anyway she’s probably asleep, fine lady that she is, a lady who truly demands respect, who loves him without question, a lady he lately can’t breath around.
He switches on the radio loud enough to turn drivers’ heads, but there aren’t any around that he can see. Everyone is at home with loved ones, cuddling ass to ass or belly to ass, or however couples find comfort in the dark. He and Dory share a king-size space. He finds it restful not having to inhale her sweet-smelling hair that doesn’t turn him on anymore. Okay, he’s thinking like a drunk. Stop thinking. Sing. Then he spies a familiar neon sign in a window and speeds toward it because they could shut down before he gets there. The place is open, son-of-a-gun. His car makes number three in the small lot.
He remembers to drop the car keys in his pocket. See, Dory, not that drunk, and hurries inside through the cold. Music from an old jukebox in the rear where a hunched over sack of a man sits. There’s a woman on a barstool that spins around to see him. He returns her smile full front, surprised to see her slip off the stool to walk behind the stubby, wooden counter. Place could fit in his living room. He’s come up in the world.
“Wild Turkey on the rocks, and how are you this night?”
Uncanny resemblance to Lena, amazing, dark hair, pale skin, wide black eyes, no, wait, Lena’s eyes … greenish-brown with orange flecks when he’s sober. She doesn’t have Lena’s never-wavering small, square chin either. And what color are Dory’s eyes? Light blue? Gray. Okay, passed the test of a good husband. Good husbands have a lot to accomplish. Good husbands comment favorably when their wives return from the beauty salon; respond to special meals cooked for them; know the color of the house trim. By normal standards he’s a good husband. Except he’s not normal in the normal way, is he? Two swigs and the glass empties. He taps it on the counter for another.
“So how late are you kept busy by this place,” he asks her, wanting to see if maybe she sounds like Lena as well.
“Another half-hour and I shut it down.” She refills his glass.
No, she’s a smoker, the gravely, hoarse tone, nothing like Lena’s full-throated voice that’s so proprietary.
He sips at the drink; his head a bit spacey now. It’s a feeling he likes. It removes hard surfaces, doesn’t levitate him exactly but provides a more cloud-like stillness. He remembers the hash pipe he and his buddies passed back and forth in the sand infested tents, not a promising place or time of life for him to visit.
“So can I buy you a drink?” He hears himself ask.
“Nah. It’ll keep me awake,” she says.
“Lots to do when you’re awake.” The words echo back at him.
She stares at him considering, then turns away. “I bet.” A brush off, thank god. He takes down the rest of the drink. “Have a nice tomorrow,” he tells her, laying a twenty on the counter. Big shot.
The prickly, burning numbness in the arm under his head enters his consciousness. He allows the cold piece of flesh to drop to his side then squeezes the fingers open and shut. His legs sprawl in some jigsaw design across the seat. Whatever cramped position he collapsed in has left its marks. He hoists himself to sitting. A cold wind blows in through the open window, daylight. Drunk and asleep in a car, not a good sign. He scrambles out, jumps up and down a few times to get the bloods going, realizes he’s not wearing a jacket. Did he leave it at the bar? Crap. A quick search finds it under the rear seat. How the hell did it get there? The jacket reeks of whiskey. Did he spill on himself? Has he become that kind of drunk? His father always smelled of drink even after a shower, which was weird. He slips his not quite thawed arm into the downy warmth, slides back behind the steering wheel and turns up the heat. The neon bar sign is dead. His is the only car in the lot.
He stares at a few leafless trees in the center island that separates two sides of a boulevard. He knows which side will take him home, though not necessarily where he wants to go. Zack tells him he needs a vacation from marriage not a separation from Dory. No doubt Zack would handle it that way. Then, again, Zack would never leave Lena. He listens to her prattle without batting an eye. A few concerned sentences from Dory and he feels his insides clutch. He takes a deep breath, senses a slight rattle in his chest. It’s the result of good living, right? A man needs to enjoy his life, doesn’t he? Dory, I have to get away from marriage for a while. Don’t know why. Don’t know where. Don’t know for how long. I just need to live alone. I’ll call you as soon as I figure things out. Okay, he can handle saying that. Maybe. After twenty years, questions will surely arise. Why are you doing this? Why now? Is it something I’ve done? Are you sick? What’s changed? Even if he wanted to respond, he wouldn’t know how. Could he say I’ve always felt this way? But is that true? It would be so much easier if she’d hear him then get fucking out of her head raging mad and chase him out. Instead she’ll stand there with brimming eyes in her quiet disappointed pretty little face. The thing is, he’s dying, sort of.
The dashboard’s flickering green digits read, 6:35. The old TV news query plays in his head, “Do you know where your children are?” Except they don’t have any and if they did would it change anything?
He pats his jacket pockets. Phone, where are you? Leans his head back on the seat as if that will jog his memory. He tries to visualize where last he used it. The first bar? No. Second bar? No. Did he even have it with him? He’ll go home, tell her the truth, got drunk and fell asleep in the car. Will he add he’s thinking of leaving…? He’ll run it by Zack first in order to hear how it sounds. Maybe between then and now a wave of sanity will take hold of his miserable self. Or maybe he needs to try harder to feel what he doesn’t feel anymore.
The car rolls slowly toward the corner where the journey home begins. At the light the wind tosses up a plastic bag. A few taxis pass by before he realizes his foot is still on the brake
Dory takes the elevator down to the nuclear/radiology department in the hospital’s sub-basement. She gives her name to a woman who couldn’t care less that it’s taken her all these months to make an appointment. But she’s hopeful; viruses last ridiculously long. At work a strain of stomach flu puts her nursing home charges out of commission for weeks then when they seem well they’re suddenly back on the potty. Though it isn’t exactly the runs that sent her here but the nausea and stabbing headaches she can’t dim even with aspirin.
In the waiting room, mirrors on one wall enlarge the space. There are comfy leather chairs, an oak wood coffee table with neatly arranged magazines; a water cooler, hot water for tea, a coffee urn for god sakes. The room couldn’t be more pleasant. But her mood prefers a dark space without frills, light arriving only after she’s done with the test.
She’s told no one about this morning’s MRI, doesn’t want anyone praying or fretting her outcome. Some journeys must be taken alone. This is one of them, though neither Stu nor Lena would agree. Alone provides opportunity to treat event and outcome on her terms without seeing either reflected in the eyes of others. She’s susceptible … she is, to what people believe or fear. Doesn’t want to be treated in that sweet syrupy way that brings death to mind. It’s what she does at work, chooses cheery phrases for people who know this is the last place they’ll ever inhabit.
A young woman with a stunned expression sits across from her. The woman’s fingers rake through stringy, long hair seemingly without her knowledge. No more than twenty or so, her large gray eyes fastened on some vision beyond anyone’s grasp. Her presence feels sad, hopeless, and Dory refuses to see it as an omen. She considers saying something, anything to distract her, when a technician arrives to lead the woman somewhere behind the waiting room.
As she picks up a magazine, which is what people do in places like this to avoid speculating, the breakfast at Lena’s comes to mind. The tension around the table was palpable. Of course Zack’s plan is ridiculous. Even if he recruits ten men plus Stu, who is suddenly gung-ho to participate, the men will end up staring down the cops, no more, no less. They’re not about to go viral, get violent; cop cars won’t burn. So how exactly does Zack expect to stop the foreclosure? Questions Lena should have voiced instead of her one-word utterances as if she were having an out-of-body experience or facing down some mental deficit. When she said as much to Stu that night, in bed, he mumbled let them go through the motions. Then held the pillow close to his chest in his I’m ready to sleep, don’t bother me position. The things wives learn about their husbands.
Before she can flip more than a few pages, her name is called. She follows the technician’s white-clad broad back to a tiny cave-like room where a machine that brings to mind pictures of an ancient iron lung sits ready to televise slices of her brain. On the adjacent wall above the machine is a small glass enclosure where the radiologist watches the procedure. The technician warns her the MRI makes a lot of noise, hands her two waxy earplugs and a ball to squeeze if it gets too much for her.
She has no intention of squeezing the ball. When did she ever cry “uncle?” But stuffs the plugs in her ears, climbs in the tunnel and decides she’s claustrophobic. Even with plugged ears the rattling and banging sound as loud as her old radiator trying to send up heat.
Okay, best not to focus on the narrow space or noise, better to go over her mental checklist, the one she’s added to and subtracted from since the initial episode. As of this morning she still enjoys eating, drinking, has energy, no trouble sleeping, would enjoy sex if it was offered, and her cardio and respiratory systems are good to go. Thus the test will most likely be negative though she knows better than to count on it. Because MRIs, CAT scans, and the like find abnormalities that may never affect a person adversely yet once discovered are hard to ignore. Every body contains some congenital fuckup. This she believes. Before machines provided 3-D pictures of bodily spaces, people lived with their imperfections. So why is she here? No answer.
Her mind wanders to Stu as it often does these days. Last night he went out for the newspapers. She assumed he’d stop at a bar for a few, his usual detour. But unlike the night before when he didn’t get home until the morning—nearly driving her out of her mind-- he was back in minutes, antsy, irritable, almost testy, making her wish he had stopped for a drink. She’s read about dry drunks. Is he really a drunk? His drinking has increased in the last year, yes, but the man wouldn’t touch a drop during work. She knows it’s been difficult at the plant and that for Stu holding on to his job is proof not of success but of the avoidance of failure. Early in their marriage he confessed he’d be devastated if he were fired from that or any job. He’s been at the plant since he was a kid and worked his ass off, he...
“Don’t move, ma’am,” a serious voice echoes eerily inside the chamber. Is this a significant moment, the final take, the part of the brain where problems reside? She doesn’t think she’s moved a muscle. Is she supposed to stop breathing? Closing her eyes tight enough to see colors, her cold palms flat against the thin mat, she concentrates on her charge, Mrs. Z., who never gives up hope.
(This is an excerpt from the first chapter of a novel about a Jewish psychoanalyst and his patient, an estranged Hassidic Jew, whose emergence as a gay man during the treatment throws both their lives into disarray as they struggle with the consequences of faith and freedom.)
Ethan Schwartz, a balding 49 year old New York psychoanalyst, returned from his August hiatus to find an envelope wedged into the iron gate at the street entrance to his office. Inside, was a neatly folded check wrapped in a sheet of plain white paper. The large block letters leapt out at him.
THANKS A LOT DR. SCHWARTZ – YOU’VE RUINED MY LIFE
The last time Ethan had seen Isaac Fuldstein was in late July when his once favorite patient had stomped out of the office, slamming the door. So much for Isaac’s love and gratitude. Was this the same man who just months before had declared, You saved my life, Dr. Schwartz. I really mean it. I can never repay you? This kind of about-face was not uncommon in borderlines and bi-polar patients but he had sat with Isaac for hundred of hours and hadn’t detected a trace of those pathologies. After Isaac’s stormy exit, Ethan wondered if he’d ever see Isaac Fuldstein again.
While waiting for his first patient to arrive, Ethan noticed the flashing red light on his answering machine:
“Dr. Schwartz, this is Dr. Smithson from the psych unit at New York Hospital. Your patient, Isaac Fuldstein, asked us to contact you. Could you give us a call as soon as possible?” Ethan’s heart began to pound as he dialed the number. Within minutes, his world collapsed. The psychiatrist informed him that Isaac had made a serious suicide attempt and was receiving life support in the ICU.
Now the words of the letter seemed to glower at Ethan, dread coursed though his body. Was this Isaac’s suicide note? Had he delivered it by hand before going home to swallow the pills the ICU had just pumped out of his stomach? Ethan hadn’t been in his office since the end of July. He had spent the last month in a cottage abutting an olive grove, surrounded by his wife and kids, cooking, reading and cycling through the Tuscan countryside. The respite was sweetened by the distance from Isaac, his former patient, who had attacked his once beloved doctor so viciously in their final session – and you told me you could help me! Blaming me for ruining his life, Ethan reflected as he stared at the note, yet again.
With a free hour until his next patient, he grabbed his cell phone, donned a grey linen jacket, and dashed into the park. He found his favorite bench overlooking the river and dialed his wife Emily:
“Remember Isaac? The guy who accused me of ruining his life, just before we left on vacation? Well, he just tried to kill himself!” Suddenly aware he was shouting, Ethan lowered his voice. “I just got a call from the hospital…from a doctor in the fucking ICU!
“Oh my God Ethan I was worried something like this might happen. He blamed you for everything and now he’s back home. The whole situation was crazy…it's unbelievable. You can’t just go from Hassidic Jew to happy homosexual.”
“I know, I know. And he could’ve died. Luckily he was back home in Boro Park. One of the Rebbe’s students had summoned him to evening prayer; found him passed out next to a bottle of vodka and an empty vial of Valium. They whisked him off to the ER, pumped his stomach. I’m praying he’s gonna be okay.”
“Could there be brain damage?”
“Please…let’s not go there. Not yet. Hopefully, never. Okay, I’ve got to run back to the office. I’ll talk to the psychiatrist later. I’ll keep you posted.”
Returning to his office to face a full day of patients, Ethan climbed up a flight of steps and picked up his mail suddenly realizing he was still clutching Isaac’s note. Back in his office he promptly filed it in a folder labeled I.F., as if it were just another clinical document.
Later that day, he called Dr. Smithson, who told him that a note had been added to the chart prohibiting any further contact with Dr. Ethan Schwartz.
“I’m sorry Dr. Schwartz, I know this must be tough for you. But I’m sure you understand. We’re bound to follow our patient’s wishes. But just between us, it looks like he’s going to pull through.”
A week later, another letter arrived. The stationary was a thick cream-colored bond that had the feel of currency:
Dear Dr. Schwartz:
We have been informed that you, Dr. Ethan Schwartz, a psychoanalyst practicing in the State of New York, have been treating our client, Yitzchok Fuldstein in a thrice-weekly psychoanalysis from March 1996 through July 2000. Mr. Fuldstein asserts that he sought your help because he was suffering from an acute depression accompanied by severe anxiety. He reports that on several occasions he informed you of suicidal thoughts that arose whenever he felt the urge to act on what were clearly homosexual impulses. Mr. Fuldstein claims that he received no help whatsoever for any of these difficulties. In fact, his condition seriously deteriorated while in your care. Ultimately, his depression deepened and despite your protestations, fortunately he found the strength to flee treatment. Recently he made a serious suicide attempt, was rushed to the ICU and required life support. It still remains unclear as to whether he has suffered irreversible brain damage. Mr. Fuldstein is currently enrolled in a rehabilitation program at Mt. Zion Hospital, in Provo, Utah.
Mr. Fuldstein claims that not only did you ignore his cries for help, but you actually encouraged him to experiment by engaging in a “homosexual lifestyle.” My client claims you told him: “You need to be kind to yourself, to accept yourself for who you are.”
Your patient’s attempt to take his life testifies to the severity of your negligence. In view of your patently unprofessional and deleterious actions, we are asking you to cease and desist the practice of psychoanalysis and intend to bring a malpractice action against you, seeking recompense for all the harm you have caused our client. You will be asked to reimburse all of his current medical expenses, the fees he paid you over the course of treatment, and not less than five million dollars in restitution for the considerable pain and suffering he experienced while under your care. We will be contacting you shortly.
Colin Haversham, Managing Partner
Haversham, Lewis, Caldwell and Jones, Attorneys-at-law
His heart racing, Schwartz paced around the office, holding the letter at arms length, as if it could bite him. He looked out the large bay window that faced his garden. The driving rain turned the worn gray decking slick and dark.
After muddling distractedly though his next session, he dashed off to meet his wife at a small, narrow coffeehouse that he frequented for take-out soup and caffeine.
Emily was sitting in the back clutching a mug of hot tea.
“Hey Em, we’ve left the frying pan and entered the inferno.” He reached into his leather portfolio, pulled out a lush ivory sheet and pushed it across the glass bistro table. “Take a look at this.”
She scrunched up her nose as she held the letter close. “Oh my God, five million dollars? This is insane.” She moved forward in her chair and took off her rain jacket. “I’ve been threatened a few times, but no one’s ever actually sued me. But this guy actually tried to kill himself… though I suppose he’s not technically your patient anymore. And you felt so good about the work you did.”
“So did he. Said I saved his life…more than once.”
“Look, this kid is descended from a long line of Rebbes. After I ate that bacon cheeseburger,my dad didn’t talk to me for a year. And my parents were nothing compared to those Fuldsteins.” She looked at Ethan and shook her head, dropping her voice. “You got so wrapped up in that patient. He became your personal project...even the kids knew it. You messed with five thousand years of history and tradition…you messed with the holy word of the Almighty. And now here we are.” Her anger had returned. “Reb Fuldstein is determined to mess with you. Dammit where are my reading glasses?”
Ethan stared down at the table, shaking his head.
Failing to dig up her spectacles, Emily pulled the letter closer to her face. “Ethan… this sounds like they really mean business. I know that firm. I had a patient who did a summer internship there; they make the big bucks…they even hold wine tasting seminars for summer associates. And now you’ve got those masters of the universe gunning for you. This Reb Fuldstein is a rock star; people stand on long lines to get his advice – should I get married, should I start talking to my awful sister-in-law? They don’t make a move without the powerful father’s okay. He clearly screwed up his own kid, but in his world, he’s infallible – just like the Pope. And now he’s going after you.” She looked frightened.
Ethan tried to keep his voice low. “And all because I helped his son to be happy for the first time in his life? To be himself, not who he was told to be. Isaac was so grateful. Remember those stunning paintings he gave me — what a gifted artist. I feel absolutely awful about what happened to the poor guy. Now he’s supposed to go back to the shtetl? After living as a gay man? He could’ve mourned his mother and kept his freedom. It’s not all or nothing. Not in our world. Come on Em…you know that.”
Emily tossed the lawyer’s letter on the table. “Yes, I do, but Isaac doesn’t come from our world.”
Ethan felt his teeth start to grind – thank God for night guards, he thought. “This so-called pillar of his community had abandoned his son. The great Rebbe sat shiva for his son…now that’s a real loving father.”
“Call a lawyer, Ethan…right away. This guy wants to destroy you.”
Ethan took a sip of his cappuccino - it was cold. “So what’s behind this hospitalization in Utah? Why the hell would an orthodox Jew who moves in the highest circles send his kid to a place in Provo, Utah?”
With some help from the World Wide Web, Ethan learned that Provo, Utah was the center of the sexual preference conversion world. The hospital, Mt. Zion, had treatment units specifically geared to the arduous process of convincing boys-who-liked-boys to like girls. The research Ethan uncovered not only cast grave doubts about the method’s efficacy, but highlighted serious consequences for patients during and after the treatment process. Many sexual conversion patients had attempted suicide during and after treatment - many had been successful. And what was being “treated” anyway? Even the conservative APA had determined that homosexuality was not an illness and that was way back in 1973.
Ethan had worked long and hard to detoxify Isaac’s self-hatred – the very self-hatred that fueled the treatment program in Utah. Love the sinner, hate the sin. How does that fit in with the death by stoning thing? While the Mt. Zion program had initially been funded by the Mormon church, a group called JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality) had recently established a separate program with a Glatt kosher kitchen to feed those souls who, according to Reb Fuldstein, a former chairman of JONAH’s board, “sought to be someone other than whom God intended them to be.” After a month-long hospitalization, patients were transferred to a rehab facility in the foothills of the snow covered Wasatch Mountains for as long as a year, undergoing a strict treatment regimen of group therapy and Bible Study. During the treatment process, patients had no outside contact, except for occasional family therapy sessions.
The lawyer’s letter was just the beginning. Later that week, as Ethan sat waiting for his four o’clock patient, the phone rang. Lucy, the administrator of the psychoanalytic institute where he had been teaching for the past ten years, informed him that a man who identified himself as an investigator with the State Education Department’s Consumer Protection Division claimed he had received numerous complaints about the treatment practices of a Dr. Ethan Schwartz.
Ethan was always worried about getting into trouble. Despite inheriting his father Milton’s view that he was too special to play by rules that are set for and by schmucks, he could never quite eradicate the lingering doubts that his father never seemed to entertain. What would the judge and jury think of his “treatment notes” (mandated by state law) - a few scribbled lines on foolscap surrounded by elaborate doodles that looked like they belonged on the side of a subway car, not in a clinical case record? And the worries continued to mount.
Later that week Dr. Schwartz received a similar call from the departmental administrator at the University where he taught, then one from the Medical School where he supervised interns. Same story. Someone from a licensing board investigating unspecified complaints and serious allegations. Ethan suddenly realized anyone could say anything over the phone. Could it have been one of Fuldstein’s minions?
Two weeks later on a dusky October evening, briefcase in hand, Ethan Schwartz ambled down a handsome block lined with stately Georgian townhouses, and over to the Institute to teach his class on Visions of the Self in Contemporary Psychoanalysis. Outside the Institute’s entrance several dozen thickly bearded men, all identically dressed in black suits, white shirts and broad brimmed black hats were marching in a circle holding placards affixed to long wooden sticks:
“Psychoanalysis = Immorality” “Stop Poisoning our Children”, “Freud was a Pervert” “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”
Ethan made his way through the group and climbed the broad stone steps that led up to the building. Just as he was reaching for the door, he noticed the Institute director standing across the street, huddled with two board members. Ethan’s stomach tightened; maybe his boss had already been served with the subpoena that the “state investigator” had threatened to deliver. As he pulled open the heavy iron door at the entrance to the brownstone that housed the Institute, a pale white hand thrust a professionally printed leaflet in his face.
PSYCHOANALYSIS REVEALED by Rabbi Shlomo Fuldstein.
Resisting the urge to plant his fist in the demonstrator’s pasty face, Ethan dashed into a tiny bathroom on the first floor and quickly scanned the text. Words leapt off the page: Freud, Shabbatai Zvi, unspeakable acts and on page 4, there he was, Dr. Ethan Schwartz. He glanced at his watch…7:25…class began in five minutes. He stuffed the pamphlet into his jacket pocket as he noticed Herb Brown, a senior analyst who taught the intro Freud course, holding the document at arms length despite the half-glasses perched on the tip of his nose.
“Hey Ethan, what the hell’s going on outside. Hassids demonstrating against Freud – I felt like I was walking into a dream. I thought we were practicing The Jewish Science - the Nazis hated psychoanalysis.” Brown shook his head as he folded up the document.
Had Herb Brown seen his name inside? “I don’t know Herb – seems like a bunch of religious right-wing fanatics – old Freud’s getting bashed from all sides these days.” He forced a smile as he bounded up the stairs, two at a time. As he entered the room, he suddenly realized that all of his students must have walked through that same picket line – that they too had been handed Reb Fuldstein’s screed. How could he possibly explain what was going on? Even though those fanatics had bullied their way into his world, his life, his career, he was ethically, even legally bound to keep Isaac’s confidences. He had been tried and convicted and now couldn’t utter a word in his own defense.
The class went as planned – his students made no mention of the protest outside the building. His topic that night was The Development of the Self. Usually, he taught by leading a free wheeling discussion. But on that night, unable to stop thinking about Fuldstein and his outrageous tactics, he stuck gratefully close to his lecture notes. According to Reb Fuldstein, a psychoanalyst had destroyed Isaac; and now he, Dr. Ethan Schwartz, needed to be destroyed in kind. Pure Old Testament. To the mighty Rebbe and his followers each individual was a holy vessel—a vessel that Isaac, aided and abetted by Ethan, had fouled.
When he left the Institute at nine PM, there remained no evidence of the fracas that had occurred just two hours before, like a dream that fades without leaving a trace. He set off for home on foot, needing time to think. Could he have been responsible for Isaac trying to take his life? Had he abandoned Isaac in their last session? He heard Isaac’s words again: You told me you could help me…that I could be happy. Worn down by his patient’s barrage, Ethan had tried to put the ball back in Isaac’s court. Don’t blame me for making you gay Isaac. That was what you wanted. You’ve felt gay since you were five. And then telling him that if he was so unhappy living as a homosexual, to go back in the closet. Was that when he stomped out of the office? How could I have said that - especially when he was feeling so tortured? With a queasy midsection and accelerating thoughts, Ethan headed over to Broadway, needing to be surrounded by people and retail establishments.
He pulled his scarf tight against the chill, recalling the scruffy youth who had arrived at his doorstep four years ago. Depressed, isolated, enraged; he had been entertaining thoughts of suicide and begging for relief. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in his family for years. And a couple of years later, this same man was finally comfortable in his own skin. The wraith-like back office drone had emerged a handsome man, beswathed in silk and linen. If all my cases went this well, he had thought, I’d be the one people waited on line to talk to.
As he turned the corner onto the brightly lit avenue, he reminded himself that he had come to idealize Isaac. He supposed he even envied his young patient’s bravery. Ethan’s own small victories paled in comparison. So what if he had done some drugs and gone to some anti-war demonstrations? His parents hadn’t even known what he was up to. All they really cared about was that he got enough good grades to enter that sliver of society they had yearned to be a part of. And he had succeeded, fulfilling his parents’ dream. Isaac, on the other hand, had found the courage to do what no Fuldstein had ever done before.
Usually, his beloved street bestowed a sense of calm – a reminder that he, Ethan Schwartz, had been able to establish himself and his family in a large, book filled apartment filled with artwork collected over many summers spent in the Italian countryside. But now he barely noticed the familiar stolid prewar edifices that lined an avenue he liked to think of as Parisian. Shivering in the sharp gust of wind, the prospect of an imperiled career filled Ethan with dread.
Those blasted leaflets handed out in front of the Institute mentioned him by name, and he was certain that the civil suit (Five Million Dollars in Damages!) was soon to follow. The Director and the Board of Trustees were forever preoccupied with petty issues of risk management and culpability, “what if” scenarios that only paranoiacs and personal injury lawyers took seriously. Well, now they had a real problem that was really happening and it was all Ethan Schwartz’s fault!
He entered his building, took the wood paneled cage elevator up to his apartment and traded his suit for a worn tee shirt and khakis. Then he poked his head in to greet his children in their respective rooms pecking away at their iMacs and proceeded to the dining room, taking a bottle of wine from the old pine cabinet.
Emily stood by the stove waiting for the teakettle to boil.
“Oh my God Em. You’re not going to believe what happened at the Institute tonight. I’m totally screwed.”
She poured steaming water into a lime green mug. “So what happened?”
As Ethan filled an oversized goblet with Chianti, he described the scene: the fifty marching Hassidic men carrying placards accosting his colleagues in front of the Institute.
“Wow, first the lawsuit and now this. It’s tough when you’re bound to God’s word, chapter and verse.” She walked into the living room and with a big sigh, flopped down on the couch.
“Now take a look at this.” Ethan settled himself next to her. “Buckle your seatbelt; we’re way beyond the lawsuit.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the slim pamphlet, handing it to Emily.
“From the pen of the holy man himself,” Ethan said as he leaned back and settled his legs on the wooden coffee table.
PSYCHOANALYSIS REVEALED – by Rabbi Shlomo Fuldstein
Our forefathers were the fortunate beneficiaries of the freedoms America promised. George Washington himself welcomed “the children of the Stock of Abraham.” The founding fathers sought to assure that citizens of this new nation would be free to live, work and worship. Now if freedom is such a good thing, is more freedom an even better thing? Beware! Free love was a rallying cry for young people in the late 60’s. That meant you could (should??) have sex with whomever you want, whenever you wanted to. The more pleasure, the better!
Around the turn of the century, this new religion of freedom, of licentiousness and sexual expression, was given the imprimatur of science by Dr. Sigmund Freud. This man who proudly called himself an “infidel Jew” preached that religion was infantile, foreign to reality, an illusion, a childhood neurosis that one passes through on the way to maturity. If Freud does not believe in G-d, what does he believe in? His Doctrine of Psychoanalysis asserts that sexuality is the centerpiece of human life –that bisexuality is a normal aspect of development and that the very perversions that G-d has decreed as transgressions punishable by death - are normal and healthy! Like the Israelites, in the shadow of Mount Sinai impatiently waiting for Moses, the Freudians worship a false deity of free sexual expression.
My own son, my dearest Yitzchok, had fallen prey to the evils of Freudianism. Yitzchok had lost his way. He had become unmoored from customs and rituals that have kept our people alive against all odds, surviving hardship after hardship, oppression after oppression. He left the cheder to attend a prestigious American university - a member of the so-called Ivy League. Yitzchok was wandering in the spiritual desert of contemporary American life.
And then a guide appeared to offer help. This psychoanalyst, Dr. Ethan Schwartz, this Shabbetai Zevi, took my Yitzchok on a journey down into the depths of degradation encouraging him to submit to his basest impulses and commit unspeakable acts – to be himself, as the psychoanalysts like to call it. Our people, dispersed all over the globe, have observed our neighbors “be themselves” over the past two thousand years. Drunkenness, debauchery, adultery, sodomy. Do these abominations represent our true selves, lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization?
Our Lord knows that the very restraints that psychoanalysts see as responsible for human misery are essential to our survival! We can see the serpent in secular culture, images worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah! We must resist! The righteous must prevail.
Emily tossed the pamphlet down on the coffee table. Her face tightened. “It’s horrible,” she fumed. But suddenly her tone changed. “But most Hassidic Jews are totally reasonable; they work hard, raise families, play with their kids. I know, I grew up with some of them. They take terrific care of one another; we should be so lucky when we get old. But of course we’re not demons, luring our patients into orgies. It’s just that they believe the bible is the word of God and we don’t. It’s kept them going for centuries.” She’d gotten up and began pacing the room.
Ethan interrupted her. “Sit down Em.” He reached out and took her hand. “I’m not blaming anyone. But it was hard for Isaac to follow those rules. And I suppose I told him he didn’t have to; that he was allowed to choose to do what he wanted.”
“Well that’s our religion, Ethan,” she said, more calmly now. “Helping people face what’s buried deep down inside, helping them see it’s not so bad. And then, to take charge of their lives.”
“And for believing that, we might lose everything.” He surveyed his living room: cozy green velvet couches, a capacious leather armchair and the variegated wall of books that flanked a soapstone fireplace. “Remember, the serpent in the garden was condemned to crawl on its belly and eat dust.”
The Magpie Sings Both Songs
(An Excerpt from a Novel)
It had seemed endless. Miles and miles of treeless expanse. A few windmills barely turning, with skinny sheep huddled around the water tanks at their base. Lines of telegraph poles vanishing into the distance. Pink and grey galahs dotting the wires, rising up in pink clouds as the bus rattled past. Their sponsors, the Stevensons, had said Geraldton was a town of nine thousand people. But the empty land had shaken his confidence, had made him wonder what they were heading toward. Had he made a mistake? His attempts to reassure Maggie sounded hollow even to himself.
“We haven’t passed any real towns in ages,” she’d said as they drove through yet another small settlement clustered on the main road, a silo and water tank at the railroad siding, a squat verandahed hotel opposite, and a couple of small houses down a dusty side track. Even when the bus pulled into a slightly bigger settlement – a named town though he doesn’t recall what it was – and the driver announced lunch could be bought in the general store, which also served as tea rooms and petrol station, there were few people around. A couple of mangy dogs fighting over scraps and a few barefoot children playing hopscotch in the dust. The further behind they left Perth, the smaller and farther apart the settlements became. Maggie grew silent, the girls fell asleep and, though he kept reminding himself that their sponsoring family would be waiting for them at their journey’s end, his own misgivings grew.
“It’ll just be temporary, Maggie. Till we get established. Get our bearings and decide where we’ll settle,” he had tried to reassure her. “We might move to a city. Maybe Perth – it looked nice as we drove through it this morning, didn’t it?” But she did not respond.
Even when the driver announced they were only forty-five minutes from Geraldton, she remained silent, staring out the window, her expression as impenetrable as the empty dark void outside.
That was in June, and now it was late January and the year had turned – 1957 – twelve years since the war’s end.
Dave pauses to wipe the sweat from his brow. He puts the last box of new auto parts away on the shelf and tidies up before joining his boss, Jim, in the front office of the garage for afternoon tea.
He has to admit he had been as relieved as she was to see the glowing sky and rows of lights on the horizon when they finally approached Geraldton, and relieved to discover it was in fact a busy fishing port, a commercial center with plenty of shops and businesses, though living in one small bedroom with the children for several months was very cramped. But now she seems okay. The girls are settled in school, he and Maggie in their jobs. Still, he wishes she’d say that she is happy with their decision to migrate and give him some credit. Instead, her moodiness, her homesickness leave him feeling accused.
Jim was pouring out their tea as Dave entered the crowded office and sat in the spare chair.
“By the way, Jim, I saw a line of ships waiting to come into the harbor yesterday. What were they about, do you think?”
“Probably grain ships, there’s a big harvest after all last year’s winter rains. You can see the wheat dust billowing off the conveyor belts as they load them up at this time of year. But they might have been coming in for the mineral sands – that export is really picking up now.” Jim took a biscuit from the tin his wife kept stocked with homemade goods and passed the tin to Dave. “It’s definitely time to expand the wharf – we have a proposal in front of Council about it now for consideration.”
“Expanding the wharf? They’re expecting a lot more trade coming through then?”
“The rumor is iron ore. Some deposits were found not far from here and there’s more exploration going on up north. It’s the minerals that are really going to put Geraldton on the map!”
Dave had immediately liked Jim MacInerny when he took the job as his spare parts salesman. Though sure it would only be temporary, till he got on his feet, he was comfortable with him. He liked that he too was an immigrant, from Scotland, and liked his enthusiasm and optimism about the future growth of Geraldton. It confirmed his sense that he and Maggie had made the right decision.
It’s impressive, he thinks as he sips his tea, that Jim won election to the Council after only four years in the town. His age and experience must have helped, the fact that he has his own business, and maybe his war experience in the Australian Army too. He had learned of that within a few weeks of working with him - the day when Jim was in pain, needed to go home and asked Dave to manage the pumps as well as the shop.
“Old war injuries,” he’d told him the next day.
“Sorry to hear it, where did you serve?” Dave had asked him.
“Well, I was in Singapore – didn’t get out in time when the Japs came.”
Dave had heard some details of starving, emaciated, hollow-eyed prisoners of the Japanese from Maggie’s brother who had been involved in organizing demobilization transports out of Singapore after the war. They were the ones who survived. “Changi?” he asked, not sure how much Jim wanted to reveal.
“Changi at first. I would have been fine if I could have stayed there – we called it the Resort. Prisoners pretty much ran it themselves. But I wasn’t there long. They sent me on to the Burma Siam railway.”
It was hard to picture this round, healthy cheerful man as one of those brutalized starving prisoners on the railway. But the conversation had stopped there and Dave knew not to bring it up again. There was a lot of respect for the POW’s - tough, resilient men – but they rarely spoke of their experiences under the Japanese.
When Dave arrived home from work later that afternoon, Maggie was on her knees scrubbing at the layers of grime embedded in the worn and cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor. He quickly changed into old clothes and continued removing the rubbish they had found stuffed in the house and about the yard. The previous weekend, they had moved from the Sharp family’s verandah into this temporary rental, a repossessed fisherman’s cottage on Whitfield Street in the Beachlands area.“God it’s hot,” he said, pausing before he picked up another box of rubbish to carry out to the used car he had recently bought from one of Jim’s customers. “But you know, you can just smell the optimism in this town! Jim says this is the only big port north of Perth so all of this mineral ore we keep hearing about is going to be exported through Geraldton. You know what that means, Maggie. More businesses, more people. More opportunities for us.”
When he came back in, he watched Maggie empty the blackened water from her bucket and refill it. Then he added, “and by the way, the MacInerny’s have invited us to their mid-day Sunday dinner, with the kids, next weekend. I accepted. They’ve been such a help to us.”
Maggie sat back on her haunches and wiped her brow with her gloved hand. She looked around the small kitchen at the grease and filth on walls, cabinets, in the corners. Looked at the work still to be done to make the house livable. A week from Sunday? It was difficult for her to think beyond her days working at Russo’s Fish and Chip Shop, the long walk home each evening with the children, the hours after dinner spent scrubbing, cleaning.
“I thought we were hoping to paint the walls next weekend,” she said as she returned to her scrubbing. “We’ve got so much to do here.”
“Well, it’s just for dinner. I don’t think we should say no. It’ll be a nice break. I’ll get the first coat on the walls probably Thursday night. We’ll do the second coat on Saturday and finish up Sunday afternoon when we get back from their place. Don’t worry – we’ll get it done.” He picked up another box. “Is this the last of the rubbish from here?”
Maggie nodded, and went on with her scrubbing. She was tired. But - and she sat back again briefly and looked around - if she doesn’t look at the filth, the grime streaking the wall, if she doesn’t even open the door of that dirty grease-laden oven with the mouse dirt, if instead she just looks at the space, at the separate rooms, at her wash hanging on the clothes hoist out back, and at the front door that they can lock, that’s when she sees it. What this house means. Their own private space. The first since they left Leeds eight months ago. Even if only temporary – their place.
The following Sunday, upon their return from the mid-day dinner at the MacInerny’s home, they prepare to paint the girls’ room. Draping discarded shirts over the girls’ clothes, Maggie hands a small paintbrush to five years old Susie and, holding her hand over hers, dips it into the can of pink paint.
“Now, wipe your brush up and down the wall like this.” She guides her hand, then gives a brush to her older daughter, Jackie. “You paint this part, Jackie.”
Turning to the opposite wall she begins to paint with a long handled roller. “Do you think this will be enough to cover those marks?” she asks Dave as he paints around the window. “I can still see stains through the undercoat.”
“It’ll have to be. We’ll be all out after this coat. Susie! Watch how much you are dripping on the floor.”
Maggie shows Susie how to wipe off excess paint on the side of the can. The newspaper covering the floor is now covered in drips and lines of pink paint, but she knows the girls are thrilled to help with this final step, painting their room. The house is as clean as she can get it, the rooms all freshly painted. They have the basic furniture – four chairs and a table, beds – though it will be good to get a second bed for the girls, and a refrigerator - the butter and milk go off so quickly in this heat, even though she keeps replacing the water in the sink.
For a moment all seems peaceful - the rhythm of her arm pushing the roller up and down, the swish of the girls’ brushes, the warmth of the afternoon, the hush. Maggie pauses and lets out a long breath. A magpie warbles in the old tamarisc tree bordering the lot, its sweet liquid tones arousing a kaleidoscope of the new sights and sounds that have met her senses since arriving in Australia almost eight months ago. The pungent smell of eucalyptus. The lovely peppery fragrance and brilliant red and yellow colors of the gum tree flowers. The beautiful peeling cream trunks and grey leaves of the paper-barks that overhang the streams and billabongs. And when they took that drive inland in October in search of the district’s famous wildflowers, paused for afternoon tea at the side of a pool, they were serenaded by the whistles of colorful parakeets, the liquid melodies of the magpies flickering through the trees. But suddenly the magpie in the yard screeches like a crow, the pleasant sensations are banished and she is reminded of her tension earlier that afternoon at the MacInerny’s. There too, the magpie had sung both songs.
She had felt uncomfortable as soon as they arrived. Intimidated when she saw their gardens, their large old stone house. She had never been inside such a beautiful home. Jane MacInerny’s walls were covered in photographs, paintings, mirrors. Her floors in carpets. The big stone house was cool. Dark too. The smell of flowers and furniture polish - so clean, yet lived in, full of their lives, of them. Was it the photographs - pictures of their children, their travels? Or the piano which Jane said she has taken with her whenever she has moved? The whole house seemed to whisper their memories.
“You missed a bit of your wall.” Dave brings her back to the present as he points to a white strip she’s overlooked. He is painting the wall above the girls’ small sections of pink where they had been working side by side. “Looks like we’ll have just enough.”
“What are we having for tea tonight, Mummy?” Jackie asks.
“You’re hungry already? After that big dinner at Mrs. MacInerny’s? After all that cake?” The smell is beginning to irritate her as she paints the strip she had missed. What if it doesn’t dry in time – where would the girls sleep tonight?
She had been surprised at Jane’s interest in the girls and her kindness, encouraging them to play in her garden while the adults talked on the verandah and, after dinner, with her big dollhouse. The generous second helpings of cake too – not that she was so pleased with the girls having so much sweets but what could she say? She can never repay them and was embarrassed when Jane said she had heard that the Whitfield Street house was left in terrible condition. She would have been horrified if Jane had known what it was really like, the filth on the floors and walls, the rubbish everywhere. The grease. The mice. She tried to make light of it.
“It wasn’t too bad. A bit of elbow grease and some paint was all it needed. Besides – we won’t be there long. We are on the list for a State Housing Commission rental.”
“There are so many going up now out in Beachlands. Let’s hope you won’t have to wait long,” Jane had said.
Dave’s voice interrupts her thoughts again. “I think fish and chips at the beach might be in order. What do you think, Maggie? We can get out and watch the sunset at the foreshore and have tea while the paint dries.”
“Ooh goodie!” Susie squeals and drops her paintbrush on the newspaper. “Oh, sorry,” she turns quickly to her father, but he continues to paint. Fascinated by the pattern of pink splotches on the paper she pats the tip of her brush up and down, making circles of pink around herself.
“We’ll leave the windows open while we’re gone then. There’s quite a breeze- it’ll help the paint dry,” Maggie adds as she steps back and inspects the walls. Taking the small brush from Susie, she touches up a few areas. She likes the idea of eating tea at the beach – she isn’t hungry but she will enjoy walking along the sand, getting the paint fumes out of her head, unwinding a bit.
She wanted to be more relaxed with Jim and Jane, but found it difficult. She supposes she is a bit shy, though they certainly did their best to make them comfortable. Perhaps it wasn’t just that they are better off, but that they are older, more experienced – more educated too, at least Jane is, having been a teacher. And then there’s Jim having been a POW. She’s heard such horrible stories of what the Japanese did - people being skinned alive, having fingernails torn off, being electrocuted. When Jane said they moved to Geraldton because the wetter weather down south was bad for his war wounds, she didn’t know what to say. It didn’t seem polite to ask about his injuries or about anything to do with the war. It surprised her that he didn’t sound at all bitter, that he was so comfortable talking about trade with the Japanese. In fact, it was the main thing he and Dave talked about. And Dave was obviously very interested in it all.
“You definitely picked a good time to come, Dave,” Jim had said - as if they had chosen the time and place rather than it all being a matter of luck, of where they could find a sponsoring family, of when they were approved for assisted passage. “Now that the wharf is scheduled for growth. Deepening the harbor too.” She can picture Dave’s face as he listened – flushed, excited. “The science is just coming in – but it appears Western Australia is sitting on a fortune of minerals. If I were you, now, starting out - I’d be setting my sights high.” Jim was smiling as he filled his pipe.
Dave had grinned at her then. “You hear that Maggie? Business is really going to take off in this town.”
“He’s right, Lass.” Jim had turned to her. “At the last Rotary meeting they said Geraldton could double in size in ten years.” She can see his smile, his bushy eyebrows raised and his creased, moustached face as he pointed his pipe at Dave. But doubling in only ten years? She is just beginning to like the smallness of the town. Easy to get from one part to another, even on foot - faces becoming familiar - people saying hello.
“I won’t be expecting you to stay on as my spare parts manager forever, Laddie,” Jim had gone on. “You’re bound for bigger things, I can see that about you. We’ll be keeping our eyes open for you, won’t we Jane?” She had just come back out onto the verandah to invite them into the dining room – dinner was ready. Dave’s eyes had really lit up as they entered the grand house; Maggie knew he was already looking ahead, planning, dreaming of future steps, maybe one day owning a house like this. But all the talk of change had only made her more nervous.
The girls throw left-over chips to the seagulls and Dave walks out on the breakwater toward a fisherman. She strolls along the water’s edge toward the wharf where the tall cranes and silos are silhouetted against the pale blue and crimson-gold sky. She sees a ship, high out of the water, black against the gold-rimmed horizon, heading toward the harbor’s entrance and wonders what cargo it will be loading.
“You can’t stop progress,” Jim had said. “But people are scared of opening up to Japanese trade. There’s a lot of opposition to their ships at the wharf, Jap seamen walking around town.” They were all seated at Jane’s beautiful dining table eating the roast beef dinner. “But of course we’ve got to let their ships in. They’re second only to the Greeks now in commercial shipping. And their manufacturing is starting to boom – that’s where the demand is for our minerals now.”
“I didn’t realize there was still that much anti-Jap sentiment,” Dave had said.
“Oh sure! Your average Aussie thought the Japs were going to invade, and now think they’re invading with their cheap goods. They did bomb Darwin, you know. Got their subs into Sydney harbor. They even torpedoed Port Gregory just up the coast here! The main aim was to cut us off from the Allies, to stop the Americans from resupplying. They wanted their Asian Empire – along the lines of the British Empire.” He laughed. “But I doubt they planned to invade Australia – just wanted us to co-operate.”
Maggie stands at the end of the beach, trying to make out the name of a ship docked at the wharf, wondering if it is Japanese, but the lowering sun has cast it into deep shadow. What would co-operating with the Japanese have meant? Would it have been like Appeasement? She was only twelve when Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact – hadn’t really understood what was involved other than that it meant no war. The day all the newspaper headlines screamed Appeasement, Peace in Our Time in big black letters, they had traveled to Kidby to see her Dad’s sister. Perhaps she saw the words on the billboards at the newsagent as they left the station. She’s sure that’s when she first suspected her mother was pregnant again because she heard her say to Aunt Beatrice that she didn’t want a baby if there was going to be a war on. She hadn’t known the adults were worried about a new war until she heard their relief about Appeasement. A new war, a new baby, the big black word Appeasement - all seem tangled up with the memory of her aunt’s fading hollyhocks – they used to be so colorful, so straight but on that day they were all drooping over, their brown flower heads almost bent to the ground. As her mother’s belly swelled, Appeasement fell apart. Britain was at war and Timmy was born in March, 1939. But that’s a world away now. Here – what she heard today about Australia and the war – it’s all new to her.
“It was the sinking of the Sydney right off the coast here in ’42 that really brought the war to Geraldton’s doorstep,” Jim had said. “Over six hundred men lost at sea that day - the biggest allied naval loss in one ship.”
“I remember that,“ Dave had said. It didn’t surprise her that he knew about it – even as a teenager he had been so eager to follow the details of the war. “Britain was being bombarded then – I was itching to get into the forces but I was still in high school at that point. The German ship sank too didn’t it?”
“Yes. It was because a few German survivors made it to the coast, that we knew the Sydney sank somewhere south of Carnarvon, probably around Shark Bay. But it still hasn’t been found.” Jim sounded very confident when he added, “the point is, despite all this suspicion of anything German or Japanese, progress will go on. We’ll get that harbor deepened and the wharf expanded. Trade with Japan will take off – I don’t have a doubt about it.”
Maggie looked up again at the ship on the horizon, now moored outside the harbor, still and black against the golden glow of the sky. The orange globe of the sun appeared to rest momentarily on the sea before slipping slowly down and casting a widening palette of brilliant color across the sky and a crimson-orange path across the sea toward her feet. She watched the sinking sun’s reflection appear in the wet sand each time the small waves retreated until it was gone, leaving just a dappled red glow. Then all of it gradually changed, darkened, until the clouds were wispy purple silhouettes against a soft violet and green sky. The sea’s stirring ceased, as though pausing between tides, and the gentle evening air began to cool. She looked across at Dave and the girls, now silhouetted against the sky and sea. They were bent over the bucket of a fisherman who had just walked in from the breakwater with his catch.
As she glanced at the last rosy glow on the horizon, she was reminded of the pink shade of the girls’ bedroom. How thrilled they had been when it was finished. How Jackie had insisted on lying in their bed once she and Dave carried it in and placed the little lamp on the wooden crate nearby.
“We have to try out the room before we go to the beach,” she had said to her sister, who lay down next to her.
“It’s like a princess’s room,” Susie had whispered, eyes wide. Maggie had laughed, but their two heads side by side on the pillow had transported her back.
She and Alice – lying there on the small bed in the back room. Alice was only eight – the same age as Jackie is now – when the bombing started. The sirens. When she’d pull her down the stairs to the air-raid shelter in the middle of the night. When she’d wrap her arms around her every time a plane rumbled overhead. When, after Alice fell asleep, she’d lie there, waiting, listening, dreading. This afternoon, she worried that the talk of war, of the Japanese, of bombing in Australia had scared Jackie for she had seen her stare back and forth at Jim, at her father as they spoke, forgetting to eat. And as they were driving home she had asked if the Japanese were still the enemy, if their ships were really coming to Geraldton.
Stars are emerging in the deep violet sky as Maggie heads back toward the family. Dave is squatting beside the girls, directing their attention along his pointing arm to the Southern Cross. She pauses to watch them, mere black shapes now, barely distinguishable from the inky indigo of the sea. The misgivings she felt earlier – at the contrast between their circumstances and those of Jane and Jim, at Dave’s excitement spurred by Jim’s encouragement, his ambition for change and the disruptions she fears, and at her own flicker of envy – have all faded. Here – with the sky, the sea, the stars, the family together, and the little house to go home to, she can feel happy and secure – at least for now.