A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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One morning a friend dropped me off at the train station, then rushed on to work. But the station wouldn’t open for another hour, the sign said. It was February; the temperature was in the twenties. It was so early it was still dark.
I stood for a few minutes, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, but soon I could feel the north wind blowing through my coat. I sat on the frosty cement steps, hugging my knees, but that was worse. The neighborhood wasn’t safe, and I was uneasy as well as cold. Then I remembered that the bus station was only a block away.
The place was clean, well-lighted, and warm. There were rows of seats and perhaps a half-dozen people sat in them, widely scattered. I bought coffee from a machine and sat down, glad to be inside.
After a few minutes, a man came in and looked around warily. He was wearing an old gray stocking cap, a short denim jacket over a red flannel shirt, jeans, and worn-out work boots. Beneath the stubble, his face was red and chapped. He sat down quickly, slouching, trying to make himself small and inconspicuous. But the security guard had spotted him.
“Do you have a ticket?” he said. “If you don’t have a ticket you can’t be in here.” Without a word the man got up and walked back out into that icy February dawn.
I sat there with my hot coffee, knowing the guard wouldn’t ask to see my ticket. He paid no attention to me. I wondered about the difference between that man and me.
We were both white, middle-aged. My clothes weren’t new or expensive, but they were clean and respectable-looking. I didn’t look like I might cause trouble or bother people.
But what was the real difference between us?
We had both come in to get warm, but I was allowed to stay without question while he was kicked out. I like to think of myself as tough and self-reliant, but a lifetime of living in relative material comfort shows on my unscarred face. I hadn’t been able to stand the prospect of one hour outside in the cold and the dark. What if, I wondered, I had to spend all night on the streets of Portland?
What probably set me apart from that man was that I was born into the middle class, raised in a safe, respectable suburb, and sent to college. When I’ve been in real trouble — broke, sick, depressed, unemployed — my family has been there to help me. At some turning point in his life, when it still could have gone either way, was no one there for him?
Today, two years later, as my own economic situation worsens, the distance separating us seems smaller. I walk down the street in Old Town and see the men and women lined up outside the Union Gospel Mission, and I see myself in that line — one of the others, with no ticket.
As I drive up to the house, I think it looks empty, but I get out and knock anyway. Through the open window I hear a female voice that sounds irritated.
She opens the door and I see she’s just a kid, maybe seventeen or eighteen, who looks more frazzled than hostile. She invites me in. We go into the living room where the TV is on, loud, tuned to a game show. The baby I’ve come to see is in one of those windup swings, with a bottle propped on some blankets in front of her. She’s pointed toward the TV. Two other kids, a boy and a girl, come into the room. They are both less than three years old.
The teenager yells at them to get back in the bedroom. She explains that she’s their aunt, that their mother is out picking raspberries. They’re going to be evicted at the end of the month and are trying to get money for the move. She asks if I know any cheap places. I tell her what I know, which doesn’t help.
She takes the baby out of the swing, apologizing for her wetness. The baby’s clothes and diaper are drenched in urine. As her aunt changes her, I see she has a very red bottom that looks sore.
The other kids drift back into the room. The little boy tells me about his older sister, who is four and was recently sent to live with Grandma in California. He says he misses her and wants her to come home. His aunt explains that they couldn’t afford one more kid and she was the most difficult.
I find out that the baby is eating two to three times the normal amount of formula for her age. She looks thin, and this accentuates her tight, rounded belly. I explain to the aunt what it takes for a baby to thrive and grow, while she yells at the other kids to shut up.
I see the utter exhaustion and futility in her face. I think about what she’s missing, of the burden of caring for three small children when she herself is so young. I feel the starkness around me, the absence of anything in the room that would provide a sense of comfort or belonging. No one’s needs are being met here.
I make another appointment and leave through the messy kitchen. I wonder what the kids will have for lunch. As I close the door, I hear the aunt yelling at the little boy again.
I get into my car and think about looking for another job. I feel sad and empty. I think about the little girl in California, about her brother who is yelled at constantly. I see the baby staring at the TV, sucking on a bottle no one holds. I feel the mother’s desperation as she tries to make enough money to pay rent.
The next time I visit, the house is empty. I poke around the yard, wondering where they are. I feel relief and profound sadness. I know that if I can’t find this family, at least I won’t have to feel their pain.
I think again about getting another job, one where people come to my office and talk about relationship problems. I find a station on the radio that plays oldies and sing as loud as I can all the way home.
I was my parents’ lost cause.
When I was small, I conformed to their ideal. I was a good girl. I was also shy, tongue-tied.
Once, in church, I couldn’t get the nickel for the collection out of my knotted handkerchief, and I cried quietly, facing damnation. When a family friend tried more than once to molest me, I didn’t tell my parents. I lived in fear, finding ways to escape him. Then one day my mother told me, gently, afraid I might grieve, that he’d died. “He passed away quietly in his sleep,” she said. I didn’t show my joy.
Eventually, I had to rebel. To frighten me out of it, at age sixteen, they said, “We’ve already had one narrow escape with you.” They asked if I remembered that man. “He was charged with molesting one of his piano students. He committed suicide to avoid going to prison.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were too young.”
Why hadn’t I told them? Why couldn’t I tell them now?
I got a scholarship to go to college that fall. I fell in love with the first man who coaxed me to talk — and into bed. He was Jewish, and a “radical.” My parents forbade me to see him.
After graduation I ran away and married him. My parents crossed me out of the family Bible. Five years later, when I was expecting my first child, we were reconciled by mail.
Thirteen years later, when I got a divorce, I brought more shame to them. No one in our family, not even family friends, had ever gotten a divorce.
I went home to look after my father when he was ninety-four. For the first time in our lives, we talked.
One day, he had me bring him two pictures from his bottom bureau drawer. One was of his beloved horse. I had watched him the night he’d had to shoot her. I was only four, but I still remember him sitting, bent over, hands clasped, holding the sorrow in. The other photo was of a beautiful woman he had loved before my mother. He’d been married to and loved my mother for more than sixty years. She had died in the hospital six days before this conversation.
Three days before he died, my father said, “I’ve been wondering. Would it have helped your marriage if we’d accepted Morris? His father was a good man. How must he have felt? I keep thinking — what if he’d been the Christian, and I the Jew?”
A farmer once told me that his wife continued to can produce long after their children had left home. He described the rows of canned beans, tomatoes, and grape jelly from previous years stacked in the cellar. He, of course, kept on growing the stuff; it takes two to tango.
My plight is similar, only worse. I work doggedly each year to handle the cornucopia produced by that most successful of gardeners, my husband.
“I only planted two bean plants,” he protests. “You can’t have just one.” (In my innocence I was unaware that there are boy beans and girl beans.) So I dutifully freeze, can, and marinate. After a while the refrigerator becomes too full to hold less important foods like milk, meat, or butter.
I’ve contemplated pinching off the bean flowers, but that would seem nothing short of murder. Besides, my husband is retired, so he is always in the garden.
I retrieve my marinated vegetables, and finding them too vinegary, throw them in the trash. “Why don’t you just pick them and wash them,” I suggest, “and then I’ll throw them out. It’ll save time.”
The zucchini and cucumbers, meanwhile, are also ganging up on me. I share them with our friends and neighbors, who are beginning to hide when they see me coming.
One day I try to process the tomatoes and freeze the beets at the same time, to get it over with. I find that I need another large canner because the beets will take hours to cook, and I’m ready to put the tomato sauce in its bath. I go out to the farm store in my old shorts and large straw hat, looking the part if not playing it well.
“I can’t get my beets to come up,” complains the storekeeper. Lucky man.
Goldsboro, North Carolina
My youngest sister called to tell me she saw bruises on my mother’s neck, ugly blue and purple marks left by my father’s hands. In my mind, I could see them, too, and hear his angry voice from across the years. I explained to my sister that this is the dance they silently agree to share.
I pleaded with and counseled my mother for years, to no avail. Her empty eyes stared at me when I told her that liquor makes him a stranger, crazy and dangerous. She didn’t understand these words. No language — not even pain — carries the message. This game they have invented is too complicated for me to understand, no matter how many twelve-step meetings I attend.
I left my sorrow on the swing in the back yard, with other reminders of childhood which, mercifully, I have outgrown. Breathe deeply and let go, I tell my sister. Some things you cannot fix.
It used to infuriate my father when I started having seizures; he was sure I was either being lazy or just smarting off. No one in my family — including me — had the slightest idea what epilepsy was, and we spent more than a year going from one doctor to another, in and out of hospitals, trying to find a way to control my wild convulsions, so I wouldn’t, as my father said, “act like a goddamn clown.”
He didn’t want the black sheep of the family to be unmarried and childless, as if it reflected badly on his own manhood. My father — a Lutheran tenant farmer — used to tell me that someday I’d make “more money than a cat’s got ass.” This wasn’t meant as an encouraging prediction: it was his bitter command. If I didn’t have a lot of children, I would have a lot of money instead.
The biggest punch I threw him, however, came when I told him I couldn’t be godfather to one of his grandchildren because I was agnostic.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
I spent most of the day trying to explain my feelings and beliefs to my father, knowing that the rift between us would never be fully mended. From his view, in rejecting his religion, I was rejecting him.
For years, whenever I called home, I dreaded that my father would answer the phone. We never knew what to say to each other beyond talking about the weather. There would always be long, uncomfortable stretches of silence between us before he would finally say, “Here’s your mother.”
One day I decided to take a chance. I knew that my father was disappointed in how I’d turned out, but I thought of how good he must have felt the day I was born — the hopes he’d had for his newborn son. I wondered if he blamed himself for how things now were between us.
So I wrote him a letter, thanking him for all the chances he’d given me. I told him that I loved him.
Weeks later, when I asked him if he’d received the letter, his face reddened and he turned away, pretending not to have heard me.
The knock came at 7:05 on a frosty November morning. I opened the door to two-year-old Andrew, a neighbor’s child. Yesterday’s disposable diaper still hung from his hips, the sodden lining puffing out through tears in the plastic covering. He wore no other clothes, and his skin was splotched bright red and bloodless white from exposure. The accumulated grime of several days’ hard play covered his arms and legs. His lips were crusted with dried blood from a nighttime nosebleed.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, using the name many neglected children apply indiscriminately to every female over four-and-a-half feet tall who appears to have any possibility of providing a moment’s nurturing.
“Good morning, Andrew.” I flicked up the lock and held the screen door open for him. His eyes found mine. As always in his presence, I felt a strong sense of admiration for him, and a sense of privilege in knowing him. “You’re looking cold,” I said. “How about a warm bath?”
He nodded solemnly, still shivering. I picked him up and wrapped the throw from the couch around him. He subsided at once into my arms, his body suddenly heavy with more than his own small weight.
It was my second marriage. I had believed in it with all my misguided heart, but within a year the strain was obvious. He agreed to couples therapy; progress was slow. I felt a desperate terror that this marriage, too, would fail.
Finally, in one therapy session, I found the words I’d been seeking — not words of complaint or anger or need, but the clear, direct words of longing for what I wanted our marriage to be. They were good words, the right words. They poured from my heart, bypassing my brain altogether. He opened to me like a morning glory to the sun. Even the therapist’s eyes glistened. I thought an irrevocable movement toward wholeness had occurred.
After the session, as I fanned the car door back and forth to let hot summer air escape, he put the key in the ignition and leaned toward me. All he said was, “I will never go there with you again.” He never did.
Ann Bender Mattingley
Since childhood, I’ve been a cause-oriented person, an organizer, a fixer of the broken. I organized the neighborhood gang and the junior high school girls’ volleyball team. As an adult, I burned my bra, saved the whales, stood in abortion-rights lines, and worked as an advocate for abused women and children.
However, it was not until I entered therapy that I was able to apply my cause orientation to myself. I assumed that once I was fixed, all the people around me would be fixed too, or at least would want to be. It never occurred to me that my cause was just that — my cause.
My father, an alcoholic, was physically abusive at times, and my family was raised on violence. My mother had always been unable to protect me from my father, and I had equated this with a lack of love. I had spent years of my life performing and trying to get her to say she loved me.
Soon after I had this realization, my parents came for a visit. I decided this was a perfect opportunity to tell my mother outright what I needed. I asked her to sit on the porch swing with me because I had something to talk to her about. She hated confrontations, but eventually she agreed. I told her how scared I was of my father and how hurt I’d been by his behavior. I told her that it had been very difficult growing up in an alcoholic family. I explained that I needed to ask an important question and get a definite answer. We rocked softly for a moment. Finally, I said, “Mom, I want to know, really know, if you love me. I need to hear you say you love me.”
I was breathless by the time I finished. The swing rocked back and forth. I was filled with anticipation. Back and forth, back and forth, we swung in silence — my child self hanging in the balance. My mother stared straight ahead. The silence grew uncomfortable.
Finally, she took a deep breath. I sat bolt upright, watching her expression carefully. Slowly, she said, “Leslie? Do you see that blue light over there?” I looked in the direction she was staring, and then quickly looked back to her face: I waited, certain there would be a lesson about love in the blue light. When I didn’t answer she said, “I wonder what that could be?” Back and forth, back and forth we rocked. Still, I waited for my mother to create some kind of story about the light. Instead, she murmured quietly, “Well, I reckon we better go inside and fix supper.”
I didn’t cry, nor did I pursue the subject further. We slowly got up, went inside, and began to fix supper.
Men are a lost cause. Even though it worries me to say this, having two sons, I believe it is true.
Relationships are a lost cause — a youthful folly of trust betrayed in middle age.
Marriage is a lost cause, a bitter reminder of one of the sad patterns that repeats itself throughout my life, a dark tapestry where men always leave, where I am always left.
It’s twilight here in the city of my brain. I’m sitting at a cafe, coffee cups on the table, beret tilted over one eye, chain-smoking Gauloises, saying goodbye to my moody lover before I go off to the Spanish Civil War. No. I’ve made a dress out of what’s left of a Confederate flag; tiny starving children gather around my knees as I stand on the veranda and bargain with hostile Yankees. Not that either. I get dressed carefully, brushing out what is surely very long, shiny hair. The humidity and hot sun pulse against my skin. Soon I’ll glide down the stairs , head and shoulders back, to stand with Gordon at Khartoum.
“I had no idea adult life was going to be so ad hoc,” my husband says, snapping me out of Brain City. The phone is ringing, the electrician is at my door, my four cats howl for food and attention, and there’s no time to decide what any of it means. Am I winning or losing?
The world comes at me obliquely like sun slanting through the blinds. I’m ready to take a shower when the phone rings again. It’s a girl I’ve never met from another city. She’s got a crack pipe, a bottle of vodka, and a boyfriend with AIDS; mostly, she’s very tired. We talk for a while and in my head is an image of a paper airplane zooming through the atmosphere. What’s our destination? Is it enough to crack some jokes? Help her laugh? She’s a loser right now, but that could flip-flop like a spinning coin. I hold on to that idea.
My husband points out a nest over the security lights on the garage.
“Have you seen the bird?” I ask, squinting up at the tight mix of straw and grass. My husband has poked a clamshell into it for decoration.
“Yeah. He’s the tiniest bird you ever saw. He came flapping out of there as hard as he could. Well, this’ll never work. It’s a lost cause.”
“How come? I think it’s great. Look, the cats can’t get to him, the squirrels can’t either, the jays won’t take it over.”
“But the garage door goes up and down all the time. It makes a real racket and, besides, if one of the babies falls, it’ll smash on the concrete.”
He’s right, I think.
After a while, he says, “Maybe we can rig a little net under it.”
The laundry is hot and white, nearly smoking from the dryer. A bleach smell, heady as bath oil, wafts up from the T-shirts. The phone rings again. We have a different bell on each phone and this is the one that rings with a loud newborn shout. The man on the other end has been trying to get sober for seven years. He got out of a treatment center last month; he’s drinking around the clock. He’s drunk now. I fold clothes and say ummm a lot. He tells me he just can’t do it. He tells me maybe he’s a lost cause.
This goddamn book is a lost cause, I think, staring a hole in the word-processor screen. This clunky machine looks like a toaster-oven but I’ve kept it against the black day when my computer would give a wheezing electrical sigh and die. It happened last week. Lightning struck my house. What clearer sign do I need? God Doesn’t Want Me To Write This Book. Today the words come to me as reluctant as whipped dogs. It’s a heave through thick mud. Why was I born so stupid? I feel like howling at the heavens like a mad king on the heath. The phone at my elbow rings; this is the one that chirps like a cricket.
“There’s not a stick of furniture left in the house,” says the woman on the other end. “He’s on a run. He’s been shooting smack for a week. I think he’s gonna leave the state. Should I call his probation officer and have him picked up?” I think she shouldn’t get in the way of his spiritual path, as spiritual paths lead in odd, meandering ways. I say, “You need to get out of there. You got someplace to go?” My heart, that old bandit, thuds like a basketball. Can the Lords of Karma make sense of this one more time?
Our yard man whacks the bushes right down to the nubbin. He hacks flowers and weeds in double handfuls and mows the grass to a spiky stubble. His kids sit, sticky and confused, in the bashed-up car he’s parked by the curb. He’s a skinny guy with light crazy eyes and jailhouse tattoos. The insides of his arms are tracked up from shooting bathtub dope. My husband’s putting an eclectic bunch of canned goods in a sack. He’s just dropped in enchiladas and smoked oysters.
“Why are we doing this?” I ask, meaning the groceries, the gummy kids, our scalped grass, and the yard man who sometimes doesn’t show up.
“You know how you have a Filipino foster child?” my husband asks, getting down some red beans and a can of pineapple. I nod doubtfully.
“Well, this is my Filipino foster child.”
The mail brings a hand-drawn post card from our painter friend in New Mexico. There’s a line or two about a busted-up romance. I feel bored and frightened is the last sentence.
“Jeez, what a horrible way to feel,” I say. “I can’t think of a worse combination.”
“It’s god-awful,” my husband agrees. “He’s probably feeling down because his romance didn’t work out.”
I snort. “He’s just getting too set in his ways. There’s a point of no return with bachelorhood. You can only go so far and then all you’re equipped for is a bride from Cherry Blossoms. I’ve seen it happen.”
“You could be right,” he says. “I’d just hate to think he’s a lost cause.”
“It’s a great drawing,” I say, looking at the front of the card.
I’m alone in our big bed, two pillows filched from his side added to my own. The reading lamp sends a puddle of hot gold light over my lap, and I’m darting from one paperback to the next. My smallest cat, Rita, is trying to ram herself under the blankets like she did when she was a kitten.
“Face it,” I tell her, “you’re too old to be a bed lump.” The phone rings with a hard brrrrrr. It’s an airline freight pilot who’s been calling me for two years. He usually calls around eleven-thirty. I’ve never met him and I’m not sure of his name. He’s doing a lot better, he tells me. He’s down to about a six-pack a day, and he thinks that’s pretty good. We talk about secrecy for a while, then anger, then fear. We talk about the icy terror that only a raw jolt of booze or a hit of dope can stop. He tells me about a girl he once knew in Laredo.
Much later, just before sleeping, I wonder, Will these bones live? Will I know the end of all the stories? Will I ever understand what life brings: this big pile that stacks up at the end of a day? I suspect not. I think to myself, This is what we get: a bunch of snapshots. A pile of incandescent laundry. My cat twirled tight as a turban. New-cut grass. A shell wedged in a nest. A postcard from far away.