Roger was thinking aloud about how writers like Charles Dickens once published in weekly installments in periodicals. The idea stuck, if for no other reason, because it harnessed me with some discipline and, for the first time ever, relieved me of isolation of treading all the way from cover to cover alone.
If this idea doesn't appeal to you, blame Roger or, better, yet find and buy one of his terrific books, which you can find by clicking here. You can also find my bakers dozen and their ebook siblings, all finished and waiting to help you pass the summer, by clicking here.
We're past the halfway point now, and all the cautions are dropped. I guarantee you that I will finish this book by the end of summer. So, jump aboard and enjoy. If you'd like to start from the beginning and follow the links, chapter to chapter, feel free to start here.
“I don’t know if he cared about the money, but I think he decided to fight paying the bills just because she ran them up,” my brother mused, decades down the road.
In the weeks before our funky Florida caravan, Mom ran up long distance telephone bills like a foreign diplomat, ones she could never pay, launching a practice she kept up until plunging rates took the risk out of it.
“Who do you think she was calling?”
The code of silence meant the details were vaulted, even while the battle went public.
“I don’t know, but it was a lot, and Dad wasn’t going to pay for it unless they forced him to.”
Dad, who one of my brothers later anointed “the old bull,” a nickname with such visceral resonance it stuck, refused to pay the long distance bills until the telephone company sued in court. His lawyer probably cost more than the charges, but there we were, all five of us like a hayseed royal court, out of school for the one day trial.
We know that memory is a capricious partner, sometimes a friend, others an adversary. With a kid who’s been damaged, memory struggles to play its part in the duet between what is and what can be retained. I remember all of two things from that day in court.
I remember a beautiful new belt Dad bought me to wear with spruced up clothes. I loved that belt, plastic and rainbow colored. Come to think about it, it might have been a girl’s belt, but it was the prettiest thing I owned. It stood out sweetly in a gray world.
The other thing I remember is weird. A juror in the pool, during questioning, admitted that she knew Dad slightly from attending the same Methodist church. Remembering that, among all the losses that year, seems as likely as being struck by lightning and finding out it doesn’t hurt.
I turned to Val.
“Are you taking me through this for a reason? It’s old stuff. We don’t even make jokes about it anymore.”
“Your family made a lot of jokes, didn’t they?”
“Two of my brothers were pretty funny. They set a wise ass tone around the house.”
“You know that was armor, right?”
“Of course,” I said, “too some extent. Humor often comes from pain, but they were also cool observers who found life pretty funny, objectively, sometimes.”
“More absurd than funny for me. If I watch closely and really honestly, most people seem lost, feeling around in a dark they can’t admit. The funny part drains out.”
“Can I play doctor for a minute?” Val asked with a small laugh.
“I’d rather you played nurse.”
“No, you wouldn’t. We went over that. What I wanted to say is that, as your psychiatrist…” We both laughed here. “As your amateur psychiatrist, I thought I should point out that, when you do that, look closely I mean, what you’re doing is calling up yourself.”
“I am my own darkness, Val?”
“Got a good grip on the handles there, have you? Or are you feeling your way along too?”
“Not so much anymore, I don’t think.”
“Hm.” She looked up. “Well, the jokes, especially when you were kids, were armor. You went through a pretty strange home life, which explains a lot, but that’s not what did the most damage. Your injuries came from the thirty years war your mother and father fought. The kept at each other from a distance. No pitched battles, but your father stuck with his heroic silence and your mother had her ragged anger. Neither one gave up.”
“I don’t agree with that, Val. Once the ridiculous hope that she’d come back and we’d be normal again was gone, it was like, who cares? It was between them to let it gnaw away at their new lives.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
This was a little annoying.
“Okay, what did we get so wrong, keeping in mind that you never met any of us but me?”
“Are you ready?”
“Their long battle showed that they had more passion for each other than they had for any of you. Neglect’s as damaging, maybe more, as anything else. How does a mother leave five little kids behind without fighting like crazy? How does a father do whatever he can to prevent their reuniting — including refusing even to have a telephone in the house? Just to beat the other…”
“Let’s put it in your words — they fucked their children over, just to sink daggers into each other.”
Teenage sisters living nearby came first, doing lightweight duty. When we tumbled off the school bus, one of them was waiting. In summer, they fixed us peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwiches for lunch, loaded and unloaded baskets of laundry and swept the bare wood floors where Mom once encouraged us to take running slides to buff up fresh wax. The sisters gave way to a neighborhood eccentric named Roadster. Image the giddy parents putting their heads together to come up with that name. Maybe they hoped she would grow up to become a vehicle. Everything about Roadster was forgettable, except that she once flushed an unsuccessful cake down our toilet while my brothers watched in awe.
Within a year, Dad realized full time help was needed. My sister was just five, my oldest brother eleven. A live-in housekeeper had to be recruited. Speculation continues about where he found these women in an era long before you could find almost anything, including much you wish you couldn’t, on Craig’s List. His methods were never revealed, a consistent pattern of needless secrecy imposed. Evidence suggests there was not then a waiting pool of retired soccer moms or polished European nannies from which to cherry pick. He scrambled contacts to find who he could.
When Dad drove off alone one Sunday, he didn’t prepare us for the stranger who came to live in our home as a kind of loopy, just the basics pseudo-mom. Our rambunctious rattling around in the place was probably beginning to thrust sharp bumps onto its outer surfaces. Mom, it seems, reveled in the coltish behavior of young boys and did little to discourage it. Into a cramped milieu, a larger than life misfit was inserted.
Marion, an enthusiastic, overweight brunette, was lively, loud and pretty much nuts. She lacked the mechanism that comes standard in most human models, gracing us with the power to stop talking and let our minds race on in silence, as appropriate. She never shut up and refused to be limited to topics in which she had anything worthwhile to say. She annoyed and confused us.
One of her outlets, when the reservoir feeding her talking threatened to overflow, was attacking the upright piano that sat against the back wall or our so-called living room, next to our tiny bathroom. The only reason we had a piano, as far as I can guess, is that it came with the house and was considered too big to move. None of us ever took a lesson. But Marion seized it like a virtuoso possessed with a satanic demand to play. She seemed unfortunately to never have taken a lesson.
A large, exceptionally pale woman, she parked her ample bottom on the bench and began hammering the keys without self-consciousness or inhibition, both of which were unnecessary exclusions because her bellowing of My Wild Irish Rose was plenty loud enough to block all other sounds from interfering. Her singing was nearly a cappella by default.
“Where did he get her? She was in and out of the loony bin, right?”
We were reminiscing, many years after those singular years.
“That’s what we heard,” my brother said. “She was supposed to be a cousin or something of one of the aunts and in and out the psychiatric center. For depression or something like that though, not as an ax murderer.”
“Maybe a piano murderer? A music killer?”
“Who knows, though? She certainly wasn’t right there on the cusp of normal.”
Marion departed abruptly, without details of course, and Dad’s next choice differed from her as if he were trying to neutralize a looming crazy epidemic within our borders. His preference shifted from bombast to a curious remoteness.
We never got to know Clara well, which seemed fine with her, but who could tell? Her arrival brought with it some unintended comedy.
How far Dad traveled to fetch Clara and her things we never knew, of course. By the time he returned, it was late enough on Sunday, a school night, that we’d switched off the TV and gone to bed. Two of my brothers slept in separated bunkbeds in one room upstairs, my other brother and I on a salvaged army cot across the hall. We all faked sleep when Dad brought our next nanny noisily upstairs on a tour. She had to hit the ground running in the morning.
They paused in the darkened threshold of my brothers’ room.
“The beds are a little rough,” Dad confided with a rare mix of pride and apology, “but the boys don’t mind.”
“Were we asked?” one brother wryly reminisced.
The old bunkbeds, hauled over from our old house out on Route 11, the place with the witch next door, really were held together in places with baling wire, decades before the cliche, the multi-purpose precursor of duct tape. My recollection is that some lavishly applied glue also kept certain wooden ornaments from falling off as the next boy ran by.
“Mom must’ve let us beat the living shit out of the place.”
My brother, the only one blessed with a forgiving nature, shrugged.
“She was a child herself, most of that time. What was she, twenty-five with five kids to take care of already?”
Our first unsupervised contact with Clara was memorable. My brothers and I, like cows coming home, wandered back from a morning playing baseball in the state fields, our summer ritual, three games every day with meal breaks. Clara waited on the cement block landing outside our back porch, launch pad for kick-the-can on summer nights.
“You boys rehyaheet?” Clara called out.
One astute brother turned toward the rest of us after a few seconds and translated, “Ready to eat.”
“How did you get that?”
“My stomach said it must be true.”
All that summer, we learned to be rehyaheet at the same time every day.
At least for us, Clara was distant and unknowable, strange in her way but without an unlikable quality of any kind. She left her mark not with noise or intrusion but with harmless habits that left their historic mark, unlike anyone else’s.
Like all our live-in housekeepers, Clara joined us at the table for dinner. All seven of us ate in the kitchen, refrigerator and stove reachable without getting up. Rowdy as we inevitably were, powering down milk and staples competitively, Clara’s deep silences stood out as pools of concentrated calm, but there was one other thing.
Clara stared for minutes at a time at unexceptional objects, the penetration of her gaze suggesting an effort to decode its quantum substructure. Soon, we began watching her like entertainment, which seemed to have no effect. Her gaze broke only after she produced a dry sucking sound at the side of her mouth, sounding like spfit. Twice. Then, we all resumed eating.
Living alone in that small house with us must have been hard on our housekeepers, since none stayed for long, so it was a surprise when Marion returned to replace Clara.
Marion seemed more settled, this time around. Instead of piano bashing, she demonstrated a skill for making a kind of harmonica by wrapping waxed paper around a comb and blowing on it to make music. She was happier too because she was in love. Her unfortunate choice, however, was Dad. Her second tour of duty, my guess is, she saw as encouragement or at least a second chance.
Did Dad stray into her embrace? It seemed beyond the realm of possibility, but most of his life was a mystery to us, the bulk spent outside our observation. The opportunity certainly existed. How we knew, I don’t know, probably from Marion’s uncensored babbling, but there was no doubt that she hoped to rope the old man in.
Old man to us, that is. To the outside world, Dad was a catch, a handsome man with a steady job and no wife to interfere. There were the five brats to take into account, though. Doubtless, we darkened his marital prospects.
Unsettling was the idea of Marion as stepmom. It resonated more as joke than possibility. We weren’t disappointed when the match came to a head on Marion’s birthday.
Dad came home from work to find Marion not leaning over the stove, spoon in hand, fixing dinner for the gang. She’d left the house earlier, something she seldom did. Her not having food ready wasn’t just rare, it was a breach, but as she explained when she finally wobbled home, it was her birthday. She deserved to celebrate.
Marion was what we called tipsy then, lightly, but not sloppily intoxicated, a chaotic quality for a person who woke each day with a screw or two lose already. Her condition brought out an interesting quality in Dad. The wilder things got around him, the more unmovable he grew. From upstairs, we heard the confrontation, Marion demanding to know if he was in love with her and planned to marry.
His answers crisp and controlled, Dad let her drain herself of all paranoia and delusion, sitting in his favorite chair, the one next to the radiator, undoubtedly smoking a cigarette or two. When Marion lost her enthusiasm for a fight she’d never win, Dad calmly told her she would have to go, her tenure short this time and heartbreaking.
I don’t know what became of Marion, but in the Fifties we were less tolerant and more afraid of mental illness. The unstable, erratic or depressed had few places to turn. If there was no room in the family’s home or the demands for care too high, you got handed over to the state.
Whole lives were spent behind walls in grinding Dickensian conditions by people who committed the crime of being strange, if not dangerous. Marion was guilty of that misdemeanor.
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