How sharper than a serpent’s tooth
it is to have a thankless child!
Every evening I watched for my father to turn from the street to our apartment house, but the fox terrier always heard him first. She would spring to the couch and stretch toward the window, tiptoed against the sill, her scrawny bottom balanced on the crowned arch of the sofa top. Instead of barking, Mitzi would whine, wriggling and twisting, until Mother swatted at her with a dish towel, toppling her from the perch. Then down she would leap to the door and quiver there. She was always eager for him, regardless of his condition.
Mother and I were warier. We lived in a walk-up apartment house. The three of us would anticipate his footsteps, listening for them up the tiled stairs and across the tiled floor. He had a variety of walks: a confident, sober stride; a penitential limp; a self-assured, rocking swagger.
Tonight he hurried, heavy work shoes thumping past 2A, 2B, 2C, to our apartment. He never had his own keys (he lost them), so I rushed to yank the door open for him. As soon as I did, the sinuous terrier leaped at him, bounding to kiss his face, but he brushed her away and hugged me instead, slamming me against his clothing so that I was abraded by the steel grit on his sleeves, the blood smell of smoked and seared metal on his shirt. He kissed me on the cheek and I smelled the beer and whiskey already sour on his breath.
His voice was deep but rasping: the noise of a bastard file on soft alloy, coarsely resonant. “Here, Robert,” he said, stroking me roughly as you would a huge dog. “You son of a bitch, you bastard, were you good today?” One arm clamped me to him. “Goddam it, Robert, you better be.” He looked to Mother. “Was he? Was this little bastard a good boy?”
She had turned away as he reached for her. She still clutched the dish towel, her arm shielded before her. My mother was a thin woman with straight black hair, which was bobbed at the back so that it curled above the nape of her neck. When she was alone or with me she stood up straight but as soon as my father neared she hunched and crouched and, like Mitzi, was constantly in erratic, purposeful motion.
“I won’t have that language,” she said, pivoting toward him, her mouth pressed tight. “I won’t. I won’t have it.”
“Dammit, Lisbeth,” he said. “I don’t mean anything. I talk this way. This is my goddam way.” Abruptly he was angry and, as usual, I felt my heart begin battering away and my legs tremble. I knew what he wanted to do now. He still held me and, in order to keep him home, I put my arms around him. “Goddam it,” he said neutrally, “I don’t mean anything.”
“Then don’t talk that way.”
“All right,” he said. “I won’t” — he mimicked her — “talk that way. I’ll talk like a frig . . . I’ll talk like a . . . I won’t talk that way.” I loved the way he looked when he grinned, showing his tobacco-scarred teeth. His face was rugged. I had practiced imitating his grin but my skin was too pink and soft, my teeth too small and white, and my chin pointed; it became a sweet, weak smile when I did it.
Mother had turned away again, toward the kitchen, and my father hurried after her. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I got something to tell you.”
“Dinner’s on the stove.”
He followed her into the kitchen, tugging me along. His rough hands hurt me as he mauled me, although I never told him and bravely concealed my flinching. He was a metal worker, filing, grinding, sometimes welding steel and iron castings. Once, he had lost the sight of an eye for three days because a welding spark struck it; he was laid off an additional week then as punishment for not wearing the specified safety goggles. During that period he asked her if I could stay home from school along with him and I begged her but she said no. He cursed at her but she said no. “All right,” he said, and left the house. When he came back it was late Sunday: the patch over his eye was black with dirt; he stank. I had thought, with him home, I would at least have the long afternoons after school with him and eat breakfast with him at the table, but he stayed away until the Sunday before he could go back to work. When he did return, he was sheepish and he limped. He scrubbed the floor for Mother and put up new pantry shelves while I watched. I sought the tools he constantly misplaced.
He could do anything, my ten-year-old wisdom told me: fix anything in a real man’s way, cursing and slamming, battering wood, forcing delicate joints, wrenching screws, crushing with his bulging hands recalcitrant hooks. He was a banger; an artist with a sledge. But he made things work: the shelves stayed up. He drenched them with paint and even my mother approved. He wheedled himself back into her grudging grace.
“I got something to tell you,” he said to her back, busy now at the sink, bustling to the oven.
“Wash and sit down,” she said. “I’m ready with dinner.”
“Goddam it,” he began, but caught himself. “All right,” he said with that rugged grin, and strode off to wash. He was a long time in the bathroom, and when he finally sat at the table and the food was served he grinned again, saying nothing, keeping a bubbling secret.
“Tell me,” I said.
He shook his head and waited for Mother to speak. “Ask me, Lisbeth,” he said. “It’s good, dammit.” He tried to wait her out, tried but couldn’t. “Dammit,” he said. “We’re going on a vacation.”
She stared at him, her hair pulled back severely off her small face. Because her hair was not used to frame or soften them, her features stood out: beaky, bony nose, lipstickless mouth. She had pallid, white skin, as if she never went outdoors, and there was no color to her cheeks, no pink or tan or tawny look. She rarely used makeup of any sort except pale powder. I was afraid of her. (I was afraid of my father, too, but I loved him.)
“We can’t go on a vacation,” she said. “We don’t have the money to squander. Were you laid off again?”
“I got money,” he said. He had rehearsed the gesture: his hand shot up suddenly, spilling a crumpled wad of twenties across the cloth. One of them fluttered into the lima beans and she snatched it away contemptuously.
“It’s dirty,” she said. She always warned me that money, touched by so many strangers, was filthy and must never be fingered or tasted or even examined at the dinner table.
“I won’t ask where you got it,” she said. She looked at him and at the clump of bills.
“I won it,” he said defiantly. “I had the double.” He turned to me to explicate further but I was staring down at the table. I had never seen so much money.
She shook her head. “We need a kitchen set.”
“Oh, Mama,” I cried.
“No matter how much is there,” she said, somewhat softened, “it can’t make up nearly what you’ve lost, day in, day out, or what you’ve wasted on other things. . . .”
He was still grinning.
“Eat your dinner,” she snapped. But then to my surprise they began to talk of where to go, and when, and how. She came from her end of the table to sit near him and they laughed together. I had to let Mitzi out and when I came back he had his arm around her and she was giggling. She lurched away when she saw me but he grabbed at her and then at me, so that the three of us clumped together in strained discomfort. I hugged them both, holding on tightly, although my leg was tortured and I wanted to scratch my nose.
We left Harrisburg in my uncle’s Pontiac. Mother drove. It was my first journey anywhere. I had never been out of Pennsylvania before, and I don’t think I had even been more than a few miles out of the capital. The concrete road opened before me like a movie. I refused to sit in the back seat but instead knelt between them in the front. I could not stop watching the white highway. I stared at the cars whipping toward me, exulted as Mother careened our sedan past the laggards on the right. Our tires thumped regularly at each expansion joint in the road, signaling our swift passage.
My father opened the wing window and turned it so that the fresh morning breeze blasted in at me. I caught the evanescent whiff of grass and the heavy dung smell of the cows and horses; we saw stodgy Anguses and dappled Guernseys and three dun-colored, thick-bodied horses. I saw a gray-bearded goat, too, and then a shiny black goat who stood attentively regarding a full herd of dingy, slate-colored sheep. I scarcely dared blink lest I miss an irrecoverable sight. Rolling Pennsylvania verdure began to flatten: my father showed me the state border.
He affected a drawl: “You in the South now,” he told me. “You in the goddam state of Mar’land, Robert.” He caressed me but his fierce, loving arm toppled me off balance and I shoved at it so that I could see again. There were rambling white fences now, trailing gently up the easy slopes, undulating with the land. The horses were sleek, dark brown, and some had white, bootlike feet. One ran along the fence as if racing us, keeping up with our forty-five-mile-per-hour speed for the length of the pasture.
My father’s eyes glistened. “I’d like to know that bugger’s name,” he said. “How fast were you going, Lisbeth? How fast?” He leaned across me to see the speedometer.
“Watch your language, please,” she said, pursing her lips thinly. As if to counteract his crudeness she informed me, “That was the Mason and Dixon line just now, when we crossed into Maryland.”
I didn’t know what she meant but her voice was pedantic. “Yes,” I said, keeping watch from side to side.
“If you lived here you could have owned slaves,” she said. “Not even ninety years ago. That’s what the Mason and Dixon line meant.”
“Oh,” I said. I was ten years old.
“Pennsylvania was on the North side, Maryland on the South, in the Civil War. You would have been an enemy here.”
I began to get interested. “Did they fight here?” I asked.
“Goddam well right they did,” said my father. “Fought like hell all up and down here, Maryland, Pennsylvania, down to Gettysburg, all through here.”
The grass was deep blue-green, luxuriant, and on the gentle slope easing up from the highway, two young horses were playing. One was a glittering auburn with a jet mane that streamed behind and caught in the air like his tail; it streaked as he bounded and twisted and leaped.
“Fought like buggers right here,” said my father. “Up and down the sides of this road, potshots, sniping.”
I saw it as a series of playground battles: thin fists flailing first at arms and elbows, then at the bodies and, after a punch had stung or a blow surprised, the demonic lashing-out at the mouth, bony fingers cracking against a cheek, or across soft lips. Then blood and, usually, a truce or a surrender.
“Did you fight?” I asked, suddenly aware of war.
“You goddam little bugger, Robert,” said my father, rocking my head with his fingers clamped on the back of my neck. “Jesus Christ, how old you think your old man is?”
“He doesn’t know how very long ago it was, John. Ninety years, Robert,” she explained. “Long before you were born.”
“We’ll show him Gettysburg when we come back,” Mother said, talking in front of me.
“I want to see the cave,” I said.
“That’s today. You’ll see the caverns today. This afternoon. First we’ll get settled and then we’ll all go out to see the cave.”
From his blue canvas track bag, a ragged, zippered case like athletes used, my father extracted a full bottle of whiskey in the motel room. He removed his razor, the old-fashioned lather stick, and his set of military hairbrushes, arranging them on the single shelf in the bathroom. The whiskey he displayed brashly on the glass-and-ice tray that stood upon the dresser.
“At least put it out of sight,” Mother said, her lips flat as a coin.
“It’s my goddam vacation too,” said my father. Even I could see that he had prepared a declaration. “I’m going to enjoy myself. I’m going to celebrate. I got the money for this trip. . . .”
But Mother had slipped into the bathroom and closed the door. He started to rezip the bag but used her absence to swig from the bottle, turning so that his back was toward me. Then he closed his bag and tucked it away. As she emerged he asked, “What do you say? Have one with me? One for the cave?”
Silently we watched him pour off a quarter tumbler and gulp it. “Goddam good stuff,” he said. Then he hugged me again and I felt the familiar melange of coarse masculine clutch and rye whiskey.
The cavern dismayed me. We were part of a large group shepherded by a flat-faced, stocky lady with heavy round eyeglasses. She had a small microphone and disciplined us as we edged down the sharp slope two by two, avoiding the slithery stone walls. The sides were of soft, glossy rock and they oozed. All the other people were chattering, and one couple — a thin, sallow man and a heavily dressed girl with a fur around her neck — were bumping into each other. When the guide extinguished the lights abruptly, to show us how totally and hopelessly in the dark we were, the man must have pinched his girl, for she let out a shriek and then cackled.
I held Mother’s hand, keeping away from the dripping sides; the guide flipped electric switches just ahead of us and doused them just behind so that we were always a small, quick group, encased in void. She snapped a light ahead of us and we stood in the mouth of an enormous, towering room. The immensity shook me; I had a sense of great fear. A few years later, when I saw that great whale suspended in the New York museum, I felt the same panic: let me get away, I felt. Let me go back to enclosed spaces and reasonable ceilings.
“The throne room,” said the guide. “Note the magnificent ice sculptures, like organ pipes.” And pointing upward, “The celestial hanging gardens.”
She showed us the bridal chapel where, she said, they often performed marriages, and a niche with a vague religious resemblance, before which we all paused, seemingly transfixed, while an unseen phonograph rasped a truncated “Ave Maria.”
I do not know what I had expected. I do not know what I thought a cave might be, any more than I could visualize the Civil War’s heroism and drama from the unraveling, white concrete highway stitched through green horse pastures. Perhaps I thought it would have more action, more story: it was like the lead soldiers my father had cast for me, having discovered a mold in his prodigious tool chest. Once the armies were set up, arrayed in serried military pomp . . . then nothing. Nothing at all. They became a sterile pageant and I stood next to them idle, bored. I felt I was failing my father; his surprises, his vacations, his toys, so enormously promising, only disappointed me, leaving me at once dissatisfied and guilty.
Mother wanted to dine at the motel, for it had a simple, rustic dining room and a neat, hand-lettered sign that said: “Home Cooking.”
“Nah,” said my father. (There was no bar.) “Goddam it, Lisbeth, this is a vacation. If I wanted home cooking I’d’ve stayed home and had it.” He reached out to clasp her. “Yours is the best anyway.” But she scurried away. That irritated him. “Jesus Christ, Lisbeth,” he said, angry enough to ignore me. “Goddamit, I’m just being friendly. I ain’t going to. . . .” He tilted the bottle so that more whiskey gurgled into the glass. He snapped it down, flipping his head back so that he swallowed it in one gulp. He poured more, covertly watching her and deliberately, this time, filling his glass to half the previous level. He sipped this.
“You don’t know where to go,” she said.
“Plenty places,” he said. “We’ll head downtown.”
“I’ll ask at the desk,” she said.
“Nah. They’ll just tell you to eat here.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said. I sensed catastrophe.
“Then stay home, Robert, goddam it,” said my father. In the cave he had said, “Look at that!” when we saw the throne room, and had jogged me at the religious icon, but I had not oohed and exulted with the newlyweds and the rest of the group. I supposed I had offended him.
“He will not stay home,” declared Mother.
“Let’s eat here,” I said.
“We’re going out,” said my father loudly. “We’re going downtown. All of us. You too, Robert. If you don’t want to eat, don’t. But we’re all going downtown.”
Mother put on her hat. She did not look at him but stuck out the keys to the car.
“You drive,” he said.
“I’m not driving in the traffic when I don’t know where I’m going,” said Mother. She extended the keys until he took them. It turned out to be a jolly restaurant and the waitress was so friendly that we all three began to laugh and joke with each other. My father had two more drinks and, although Mother frowned, she said nothing. He became gruffer and his voice became louder but he was kinder, too; and, as he stroked and patted me, his touch was softer.
The road back to the motel was direct but my father wanted to see the town — to explore it, he said. So we drove through downtown and then, unexpectedly, into a series of grimy white shacks on a dirt street. In the fast-darkening evening we knew it was the colored section, different here in Virginia from our Pennsylvania slums, more spacious, less crowded and harsh. The homes had unscreened porches extending before them, the flat flooring only a few inches off the ground. There were hordes of children playing between the houses, and dogs zigzagged through alleys and across the narrow dirt lane.
“Slower,” said Mother. “Be careful.”
Two dogs rushed the car, their barking a massive detonation over the subdued street sounds, the distant Southern mumble, the far-off yapping. Startled, my father twisted the wheel. The car, lurching, struck one of the dogs. We felt a thud first, then there was a muted, cut-off yelp, another crunching thump. Behind us, through the narrow back window, in the dusty brown street, in the darkening evening, I saw a brown dog somersault over and over in the dirt. My father did not stop; he speeded up and we returned to the motel room.
There he finished the bottle, swiftly, holding it on his knee with the glass in his other hand. He drank, paused, refilled, and drank. In a short while he put the empty bottle on the dresser, mumbled, and slipped across the bed, breathing raucously. He slept. I didn’t.
If we had gone back, or had stopped, I would at least have known what happened to that brown dog. Perhaps he had only been grazed, I told myself, and was sleeping now, groaning a little, but essentially intact, in front of a bellied stove. But I didn’t know; I knew only the tumbling, dusty flopping and tumbling, which I saw all through that night, staring again through the narrow back window of the old Pontiac sedan.
We left as early as we could in the morning, Mother prodding him out of bed, unshaven, into the car. She drove now; it was dreary. The white highways were muddied from intermittent rain showers; the cows huddled, their backs turned like a ring of covered wagons against the chill drizzle.
Breakfast was brief, in a diner. We sat on stools with me placed between them as a buffer. I had milk with my toast but Mother did not offer to flavor it with her coffee. My father held his head. He shuffled when he walked. Repeatedly he blew his nose into a dirty red cloth.
When we were in the outskirts of Harrisburg, we had to stop at a red light.
Abruptly, my father said, “OK,” and got out of the car. All the way up from Virginia and Maryland he had slouched across the back seat, snoring occasionally and moaning softly. He slammed the car door, rocking it and holding it for a moment first, seeking a farewell declamation. But the light changed and she loosened her foot on the clutch so he had to swing it shut. I watched him out of the narrowing back window. The last I saw was his broad, stained teeth as he offered us a sardonic farewell grin.
We did not see or hear of him again for a few days. On Wednesday, I was sitting in the kitchen with a graham cracker and a glass of milk, Mitzi wriggling, poised at my knee. She was watching the cracker hopefully. I ate it slowly, nibbling.
A policeman came to the door. He talked to Mother quietly, holding his left hand near her shoulder as if to pat it reassuringly.
“What’s the matter?” I said. The milk was a cold trickle, down my throat, through my chest, balling in my stomach. My toes were cold. In between my legs the skin tightened and everything — muscles, flesh, skin — everything became taut and chill.
“I have to go with the policeman,” said Mother. Her face was set, her mouth two flat discs.
“Is it my father?”
“Well, son,” said the policeman. “We don’t really know for sure.” In his hand he held a black wallet, one end ragged and frayed. I recognized it. “Be open with him,” he advised Mother. “Believe me, it’s the best way.”
“I have to go with the policeman,” she repeated.
“It’s his,” I said. “I want to come.”
Mother looked down at me. She was shaking, but so slightly that only I could see it. She was trembling very quickly, vibrating, like a spinning top just beginning to lose its momentum.
“Just as well he come,” said the policeman. “He can wait in the front or sit with my partner in the car.”
But when we got to the funeral home Mother was quivering so relentlessly that the cushion of the seat shook. She held me tighter even than my father had, and her fingers, like talons, clawed into my shoulder. “Hit and run,” said the policeman. He was a kind man and he held her other arm as we walked together up the gray wooden porch of the old-fashioned frame house.
“I can’t,” said Mother. “I can’t do it.” She sounded simply exasperated; her tone was the same as when my father lurched in, arrogantly drunk.
“Who else could I call?” asked the policeman, but she shook her head. “I can’t,” she said, but together we entered the dim funerary shrine anyway.
I had never been in a place like this before. The door had been left ajar for us but the room we entered was pitch black. Then the electric light was snapped on by a fat man with little pushed-in features and horn-rimmed black glasses. The light revealed the chamber: a high ceiling; niches for simpering statues; heavy, plush armchairs and an overstuffed couch along one gloomy wall; rows of folding camp chairs. These, like my lead soldiers, waited, bored, static. It was all neat but I was afraid I would touch something; like the walls of the cave, the room was laden with unseen dirt — microscopic, sooty, crawling.
It was all so neat. The guide led us through the main chapel (his word) to a small door at the rear. The heavy flower smell followed us, immanent as dust, ubiquitous, polluted.
“Wait here, son,” said the policeman. The others went through the door.
I was all tight and cold. In the alcove it was shadowy and, in the short glimpse I had when the door was opened, I had seen white, clean, sparkling tile. I waited, fearful, tense, the atmosphere pushing at me, assailing my nose with odor, pressing slippery powdered particles at me, like the exhaled breath of a despised person, close to you, speaking into your mouth. I broke through the door to escape.
The embalming room was all white tile lined with white wooden cabinets on one wall. In the middle, on a slightly tilting white enamel table, lay the gruff figure of a man. His head was at the higher end and I entered from behind him. His pants looked like my father’s, dirty; he had only an undershirt; his hair was longer than my father’s.
The tray he lay upon, like a meat-carving board, had channels along the side and a deep basin at the foot. The tile floor had drains inset. There were medical instruments on a smaller adjoining table, and what looked like a pump. Mother stood at the foot. I walked around to her and stared at the man. The smell in here was medicinal, pungent, and repulsive.
He had hair too long and the mouth that grinned was shut: the lips were thinner and the stubble of the chin disguised its firm, sturdy outline. Mother was crying. She was shaking her head. She no longer trembled.
“Is it?” asked the policeman.
But I answered for her. I don’t know why I did. After all, I knew my father, his every swagger, the tone and color of his skin, the ripple of man muscle, the redness of his whiskeyed face, the glint of his pinioning eyes. I don’t know why I said, “Yes. That’s him.”
I’ll never know why I said it. It wasn’t my father. It was just some other drunk with my father’s wallet. It wasn’t him at all.
Mother corrected me.
“No,” said my mother to the policeman and the patient mortician. “No,” she said. “The boy’s wrong. This is not my John. I’m sorry.”