I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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© James Carroll
The thing Terry hates most about going back to England, even on vacations, is that it’s like coral: a living dead thing. There is sweet nothing to do. Football. Sky television. The cancer of the reminiscence. In the paper yesterday, below the page-three girl (“No fear! No silicone here!”), was Mrs. Thatcher, inducted into the prime ministers’ hall of fame to the left of Pitt the Younger at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Boring. Everybody smokes. Everybody smokes and drinks too much. All of it makes him completely miserable.
“Mr. Carter lives on bumpy roads. Brrrrump. Brrrrump,” says Elizabeth.
Her Wee Highness quits her running, collapses, then gets supine on the sidewalk, rolling one of Terry’s old toys, a red Matchbox Dinky E-type Jaguar, up and down the cobblestones, utterly fascinated by their smooth irregularity. The cobblestones peek out from under worn stretches of asphalt: Victorian memories.
Terry sits down on the edge of the pavement next to her and stares into the opaque shine of the stones. He can barely see himself — a vague, vaporous version of his English original — perhaps because there is no sun, only one vast shell of rain cloud over the city. He can see his broad forehead and its receding hairline, a square chin. The two boys playing football down the street are ghostlike, protoplasmic phantoms. It isn’t that he’d forgotten how much it rains in Manchester. That’s impossible. What he’d really forgotten was the lack of sunshine.
“Papí,” Elizabeth says, “Mr. Carter and I like it here. Even if they can’t say their aitches. Even if Mamí doesn’t because the sun never shines and the sky is so gray because it’s so dirty here.”
Terry looks sideways at his sweet little American munchkin as she chirrups away. The curve of her shoulder. The crook of her arm. Her mother’s dark Puerto Rican eyes. From her button nose to her miniature Bass Weejuns, Elizabeth Xíomara Price is the quintessential, precious, superprecocious, ever bestest five-and-a-half-year-old. He knows this is absolutely true, not because he can be objective, but because, starting from when he was about four up until he made the Vasco da Gama–like discovery of lust at eleven, he terrorized such little girls: put chewing gum in their hair, tied their pigtails to the seat rails of the school bus, pulled up their skirts to see what color their knickers were. Now he has one for a daughter. His mother says it’s justice in the what-goes-around-comes-around department.
Terry loves his little girl madly. Every day, every single day, he thinks about boys: boys like the one he once was, and just what violence he will perpetrate upon them — kneecappings, leg-breakings — should they come knocking upon his door asking permission to be within her royal vicinity.
“It’s not dirty ’ere anymore,” Terry says to Elizabeth. “It just looks dirty.”
“Sí, Papí,” she replies through pursed, heart-shaped ruby lips, “it only looks filthy here. Ay, bendito! Que tontería!” What foolishness.
Well, he is prattling on in a rather stupid way. “I know, sweetie, but when I was a kid in the fifties and sixties, it was really filthy. Soot everywhere. On everything. You’d ’ang a white sheet on the line, and it would be filthy in minutes. Leftovers from the Industrial Revolution.” Elizabeth gives him a confused look. Sometimes he forgets she’s only a little girl. “Compared to the old days, it’s rather nice now,” he explains. “It’s sort of relative, innit?”
“It’s ‘isn’t it,’ not ‘innit.’ ”
Terry bobs his head sheepishly.
“Why would you hang a sheet, Papí?”
“We were poor. We didn’t own a dryer.” He gnaws on the cuticle flesh of his thumb. “We ’ad a primitive sort of washing machine with a wringer on it. I used to ’ang washing on the line when I were a little boy.”
Pitiless, she rolls her black eyes and goes back to playing with the car. Her life is the antithesis of her parents’ childhoods. Terry and his wife, Mercedes, were seen and not heard. Now they treat Elizabeth as an adult, although they sometimes pay for it later, when their swearing or prejudices come back to them.
Terry thinks about sex, then cigarettes, then the way the cancer makes his dad look like a monkey. How, this morning, when he went to visit his dying father at the hospital, he saw a man walking stiffly through the waiting room like a cowboy just out of the saddle. Sex is what Terry needs to help him forget. If he can’t put his penis to good use, he gets depressed. Sex will heal him; Mercedes will heal him, he thinks. The kicked football makes an echoey thud against the wall of someone’s house.
“Papí, what’s a gobshite?”
“ ’Oo said that?”
She points toward the two boys taking turns kicking the football in the middle of the street. “It’s a bad word, Lizzy. Your mother’ll kill me. She made me promise. She said, ‘No teaching of lewd obscenities to our Shirley Temple impersonator.’ ”
She grabs her father’s face in both hands and kisses it. “The way you drop your aitches when you’re here bothers Mamí, but I defend you. It’s your roots . . . innit?”
Terry capitulates instantly. “Your ‘gob’ is your mouth, see? And ‘shite’ is shit with an e on the end.”
“Boca de mierda?” she says, repeating the insult in Spanish. Then she giggles and giggles, as if she’s just said the single naughtiest thing ever.
“It’s a colloquialism, innit? Don’t you dare say it at the dinner table.”
“You fookin’ cunt!” one kid screams joyfully at the other as the football gets away from him. “Fookin’ useless cunt.”
The other kid barks back: Cunt this, cunt that. Cunt, cunt, cunt.
“Oy!” Terry interrupts. “Keep your sewer mouths to your miserable, poxy selves.”
They stare at him and sulk. Lighting cigarettes out of Park Drive packets of ten, they puff away like professionals: dragging it in hard, breathing it out through their noses, then sucking snot from their sinus cavities and spitting it onto the street. They proceed to stare and sulk some more. Dark blond and anemic, they can’t be more than nine or ten. Although they keep kicking the ball, the fact is that he has impinged upon their fun.
“Lizzie! Terry!” his mother bellows. “Tea up! Supper!”
Terry picks Elizabeth up, lifts her over his head, and piggybacks her into the house. His mother, Sadie, stands there in a familiar pose: arms folded, back against the yellow wallpaper, a cigarette glued to her bottom lip, the smoke from it forcing her eyes into two pinched little paper cuts. A framed photograph of Keir Hardie and Ramsey MacDonald — the ghosts of socialism — hangs just above her left shoulder, like Long John Silver’s parrot. Terry and Elizabeth each give her a polite kiss on the cheek, the merest touch of the lips against her stubble and powder.
Sadie coughs after inhaling the bitter end of her cigarette. “ ’Ow’s me little dolly daydream?”
“Just splendid, Grandma.”
“You can call me Bubba; that’s Yiddish for Grandma.” Terry’s mother winks at him, or maybe there’s something wrong with her eye.
“I’m just perfectly splendid, Bubba,” Elizabeth says.
Sadie reaches and squeezes the girl’s cheek between two fingers and a thumb. “A doll-faced Spanish angel is what she is.”
“Elizabeth is not Spanish, Mother. She’s half Puerto Rican, half Jewish. Mercedes gets sensitive when you —”
“Bloody ’ell!” Sadie barks. “They speak Spanish, don’t they?”
“Don’t be narrow-minded, Bubba,” says the precocious one. “Puerto Ricans are a mixture of Spanish and Taino and black and lots of other stuff. The Spaniards were our oppressors.”
Sadie tut-tuts and lights a new cigarette. A looker when she was young, she now wears too much makeup, and the turban thing on her head is hideous. All that dyeing and perming has left her hair like acrylic fiber, and she has to hide it.
“Atkinson and Slansky are going to be there tonight, Terry,” she says.
“So?” His father’s sidekicks are a familiar presence.
“So don’t crack any cracks about Lenin and the Labour Party, fashtaist?”
Yes, he understands. Fucking communists still have no sense of humor.
At supper, Sadie insists on filling everybody’s plate. Hyper as a ferret trapped in a box, she moves around and around the table, unable to be still until their mouths are filled with food. Then she sits down, serves herself, and begins stabbing at a Brussels sprout as if it might attempt to escape. Somewhere in the willow pattern on her plate, there’s a memory swimming in the trees. She pinches at her cheek to keep from crying.
“Are you all right?” Terry asks. It’s a stupid question. What are you supposed to say when your father is dying?
“Got hit op di naronim!” she says dramatically.
Elizabeth asks what it means, and Terry tells her: God watches out for fools.
He hasn’t spoken Yiddish in years. At home in Chicago, they speak Spanglish. Here, it’s Lancashire Yinglish. His life is composed of compartmentalized bits, each with its own language adjustments. Dropped aitches. Assholes; arseholes. Take your pick. Adjust to suit your audience. The way of life shtups you right between the nalgitas: a kosher salami right between your cheeks. Life is funny, innit? Isn’t it?
A wishy-washy socialist all her life — what Mao Tse-tung referred to as a “radish”: red on the outside, white on the inside — Sadie now brings up God. Terry indeed feels the urge to crack a crack, but he thinks about his child, that he ought to be respectful to his mother in her presence. Oh, God, he thinks as he stares at the Left Labour shrine above the fireplace: A picture of Nat, his father, with Sonia Orwell. A cozy little family snapshot of himself, Mam, and Dad standing with Manny Shinwell at the Trades Union Congress convention back when Sexy Sadie’s beehive was the color of a bloody mary.
“Your father wants to be cremated.”
“Does ’e? Then you can put ’im in an urn, ey? Up on the mantelpiece between Gaitskell and Bevan.”
“It’s against our religion, Terry.”
“I know that, Mum. I am aware. But then, we were never really religious in the traditional sense, were we?”
“I wouldn’t let you get a tattoo. Do you recall? Your dad called the rabbi.” Sadie is kind of cry-laughing. “The rabbi said ’e wouldn’t bury a Jewish corpse with a tattoo.”
“There was a time,” Terry explains to Elizabeth, “that I almost got a tattoo on me arm.”
“Tattoos are disgusting,” Elizabeth says, sticking out her tongue.
“Your grandfather got very serious. Took off ’is belt, ’e did. Told me ’e’d beat me bum black and blue.”
“He beat you?” The little girl’s face takes on a look of distaste.
“No, it were — it was like a pantomime ’e went through to show your bubba ’oo was boss.”
Elizabeth looks at him suspiciously, sniffing for adult lies. Her mother is a refugee from a far more violent world, where parental authority was enforced with the aid of fists and metal coat hangers.
“Your grandfather never actually beat me,” Terry says. “Not once. Not ever. Your grandfather were — was so gentle, ’e ended up giving me twenty quid not to get the tattoo.”
Elizabeth screws up her face. “What’s ‘quid’?”
“English pounds, angel,” Sadie says before she starts to weep again. There is an audible plunking noise as her tears hit the tablecloth. To survive at this selfsame dinner table when Terry was growing up, you had to be sudden. Boom-boom-boom with the repartée. Once they ended rationing in 1954, all that meat went to their heads. It was like Stalingrad in here. Sarcasm central.
“You’ve been chewing on your nails, Terry. It looks awful.”
He was less than Lizzie’s age when he knew the score, what was going on behind his mother’s back. The same old smoke comes out of Sadie’s nose today, but now it’s forced through thick, bristly hair. She’s old. It’s weird. Sadie, Sadie, tough old Jewish lady! The thumb is indeed sore and bloody.
Elizabeth plays with the food on her plate. She turns it into a sort of shell game, moving the roast potatoes, sprouts, and fish fingers from place to place, taking a nibble every now and again when her grandmother stares at her. Terry loves everything his daughter does. It’s like an ache or an abscess. His mother and father, did they ever love him that much? His life is very complex, he thinks. His relationship with his parents is sort of inexplicable — at least, it seems that way when it comes to explaining family politics to Mercedes. Good trips into bad, and vice versa. He is like a staggering drunk with one foot in the melancholy widow’s flower bed and the other slowly sinking up to the knee in an unsown patch of manure.
“Natty wants to be cremated.”
“Well, Mum, if that’s what the old bugger wants.”
“No!” barks Sadie. “It’s against our religion.”
Terry and Nat are alone together, sort of. A curtain surrounds them, but the ward has thirty beds in it. The old man really does look like a shriveled-monkey facsimile of his former self. Terry takes Nat’s hand and squeezes. Rolled up sideways into a ball, Nat presses his chin into a consoling shoulder and shivers from the drugs. Then he begins shooting out the Princess Di jokes that are all the rage right now — dark, mean humor. “Terry, what did the Paris coroner find when ’e opened up ’er rectum during the postmortem?”
“I don’t know, Tateh. What’d ’e find?”
“Lord Lucan” — Britain’s most famous fugitive.
“That,” Terry replies, “is about as funny as cancer.”
They both laugh. Ha, ha, ho, ho. The way it’s always been. No quarter. No holds barred. Nat and Terry. Terry and Nat. His father’s Romanian eyes have that bloodshot, pharmaceutical look. Eyes he’s donated to the cornea bank. Heart he’s donated to the heart hut, or wherever they take them. The appropriate permissions have been signed, sealed, and delivered. Somewhere in the basement of Crumpsall Hospital, Terry is sure, they are waiting with their scalpels and coolers.
“Dad, let Mummy bury you, ey?”
“Princess Di arrives in ’ell, right?”
Terry nods. “Right.”
“It’s ’ot like Arizona, and the streets are covered in shit, like peanut butter shmeared on a bagel, but even there they recognize a major courva, a Rolls-Royce of prostitutes. And there she is, stagger-stagger down the street, when ’oo does she run into but Sir James Goldsmith. . . .”
Terry looks at his watch. It’s getting late. He does the unforgivable: he interrupts a joke. “Tateh,” he says, “they’ll be ’ere soon.”
“Lay off, Terry. I want to be cremated.”
“Do what she wants. Make Sadie smile.”
“What your mother doesn’t understand, Terry,” he says, “is that it’s my choice . . . and I don’t want to let me corpse be fed upon by maggots and other insects. The thought of it bothers me. So I want you to fight for me to be cremated.”
“It’s against our religion, innit?”
Nat gestures like John Barrymore. “That is my desire.”
“All right,” Terry says, his voice whinier than he means for it to be. “You’re the one that’s gonna snuff it, Dad. You always did get —”
“You think I’m a bastard?”
“You are a bastard, Nat. Soon I’ll be able to say you were a bastard.”
“To think I got you your first sex. You should be grateful.”
“A brothel on Oldham Street. A whore named Phyllis.” Terry gestures dramatically, like Nat. “I learned about sex from prostitutes.”
“Other men’s children would be grateful.”
“It’s taken me years to get over you and the bizarre fifties shit you embedded in me noggin.”
“ ‘Fifties shit’? Gevalt! God save me. Such expressions the Yanks have. Shit as a noun and a verb. I wish I’d put in the shitting and shtupping time Sinatra and Hefner did.” The old man winces in pain, and Terry does as his mother does: pinches viciously at his cheeks. “Now, that Sinatra: ’e fooked a lot of women.” Terry’s eye-rolling outrages Nat. “I embarrass you? Ha! I drove a cab for all those fookin’ years so you could end up a gadget salesman?”
“A software representative.”
“A prostitute is more useful to humanity.”
“The money’s all right. I get to spend quality time with me kid.”
“ ‘Quality time.’ What does that mean?” the shriveled monkey sneers. “I were ’ardly there . . . so when I were there, it was quality time, right?”
“You mean when you were out there attempting to be the broke Hugh Hefner?”
“I never needed money to get girls.”
“Admirable. The fifties were supposed to be repressed. You were a one-man, pre-pill, pre-AIDS experiment in promiscuity. You were never faithful to me mother.”
“Listen, I tried. I did the best I could.” Nat rolls out of his ball and lies there spread out like Jesus. “You and your goo-er-met cooking and your fifty thousand a year and your pretty little feminist wife and your self-rehabilitated house. I swear, your success is so fookin’ sublime I want to be fookin’ sick.”
“Seventy-four thousand a year.”
“Fook off, Terry.”
“All right, Tateh.” Terry shrugs. “I’ll take care of it, but there’ll be dirty old dybbuks coming around in Sadie’s dreams every night, you know. Widowers wreaking vengeance.”
The old man starts to laugh uproariously. Then he winces, caving in on himself, pushing his elbows hard into his ribs: pain to drown out pain. “I’ve just shit myself.”
“I’ll get a nurse.”
His father gives him a miserable look, his eyes a shiny purple-black, like the pulp of crushed grapes. The crease in his forehead would make for a fine piggy bank. “Your Rolls-Royce of a wife were willing to wipe me bloody arse. I don’t see why you can’t.”
“My wife’s name is Mercedes,” Terry says. “She’s experienced. Did it for ’er own dad already.”
“Lovely bit o’ Spanish that girl is. Won’t stand for any dirty joke where the vagina gets mentioned, though, will she?” He winces, makes a clenched fist. “One o’ them Yank feminists. Looks Spanish, talks American.”
“When she gave birth, did she . . . you know, eat the blue gel?”
“The . . . the blue jelly gear. The afterbirth.”
“Honest to God, Dad, I’ve no clue what you’re talking about. Afterbirth’s brown, innit? You know, like liver and onions.”
“I wouldn’t bleedin’ know.”
“But I would, because I were actually there when my child were born, not sitting in a pub with me mates discussing Lenin at the Finland fookin’ Station, trying to shtup Nelly the barmaid.”
“I did fook ’er. Lovely, fat, striated thighs on that girl. Anita was ’er name, though, not Nelly.” Nat reaches for Terry’s face and holds on to it tight. “Your mother always forgave me; why can’t you?”
“Shut up. You lie like breathing.”
“I’m not lying.” Nat looks hurt beyond the cancer. “I only lied to your mother at a given moment. I always told Sadie the facts after the fact, if you know what I mean.”
“Bollocks! Double bleedin’ bollocks.”
“I swear. Anyway, there were a documentary. Bloody BBC-2.” Nat nods, enjoying this moment of intellectual rigor. “There were this woman in northern California: non-lipstick-wearing, feminist, toe-rag slag. Large, mooish cow. Nietzsche in a skirt. She ’ad a baby and then ate the bleedin’ afterbirth.”
Terry shakes his head. “No, Dad, Mercedes didn’t eat ’er afterbirth.”
“Lovely girl. She would’ve been better in For Whom the Bell Tolls than Ingrid bloody Bergman, ey?”
So Terry does it: pulls up the old man’s gown, reaches under the bed, gets the bedpan, cloths, and towels, and goes at it — cleans him up just like changing Elizabeth’s diapers. “It’s yellow like a baby’s, innit?” Terry observes. “Born a baby, die a baby.”
“It’s the bland food. I’d give me left ball for a lamb vindaloo and a pint o’ Boddington’s.” And then Nat starts to cry, his tightened eyelids all wrinkled and blue. “Death is not fookin’ dignified, is it, Terry?”
There is a rattling noise, and Elizabeth’s small head peeks around the screen. “Zeyda,” she sighs, “Daddy said you’re a silly old gobshite.”
Terry gives her a dirty look, but the old man starts to laugh. “Hello, little brat,” he says.
They all show up then: Mercedes, Sadie, Atkinson, Slansky. Sadie leans over to give Nat a kiss. Her sable coat stinks of naphthalene and the storage closet. Atkinson and Slansky look just as Terry remembered them, only older. Misbegotten, sad-sack taxi drivers, they stand there like a couple of stuffed dummies. Atkinson wears a vinyl motorcycle jacket that squeaks as he shakes Terry’s hand.
“Your wife is lovely, and —” Atkinson leans over to whisper in Terry’s ear, bushy eyebrows raised as if he, too, is privy to the secret of Lord Lucan’s whereabouts — “dead clever.”
Despite Mercedes’ sunglasses, Terry can see a side view of her eyes, dark and large with thought as she chats with the nurse. She is stoic and strong. He is weak and meek. I want sex, he conveys to her telepathically as Slansky makes conversation. I need sex.
“Yes,” Terry replies to whatever Slansky has said. “Mm-hmm.”
“You really think Nat Price can be replaced in the union?” Slansky sucks in his breath through dry, chicken-liver-colored lips, as if he’s about to dive into deep water before speaking. “I believe Nat’s irreplaceable. I don’t know who’ll negotiate for us now. I feel like Kamenev when Lenin were dying.”
“That would make you sort of like Zinoviev in the pecking order, wouldn’t it?” Terry says to Atkinson, reaching out to squeeze the plastic coat sleeve.
Atkinson, he realizes too late, is crying. His eyes are a dark amber color, like a beer bottle floating in the sea with a crumpled message inside. Elizabeth is waving at Terry. He waves back.
“But, like, you know,” Slansky goes on, “the stakes are a bit smaller. The turf’s a wee bit tinier.”
I want sex. I need sex.
“Can you put a sock in it?” his old man, arms spread and chest out, like a disheveled rooster, shouts from his bed. “I’ll be glad to bleedin’ snuff it, just to get away from you.”
“You mean old bugger,” Sadie barks, half laughing. “You’re not dead yet.”
Mameh and Tateh, Mummy and Daddy, bickering about nothing: nostalgia.
And, like a miracle, Mercedes takes off her shades and looks at Terry and says (telepathically, of course) that she will do her utmost to keep all the promises that shine in her eyes.
Mercedes has a smile of triumph on her sulky lips as Terry lies there, all postorgasmic, while she wipes up the mess with a Kleenex.
“Did you think of England?”
“No,” he says. “Manchester United.”
Mercedes particularly likes the name of United’s tiny, redheaded midfielder, Nicky Butt. Terry didn’t actually know he was in love with her until, one miserable Chicago winter morning five years ago, he asked her if she would care to partake in the shared viewing of a football match — Manchester United versus Liverpool — via satellite at a certain Irish pub where the drinking began at eight in the morning. What he didn’t know was that she had an anthropology degree. To her, watching a bunch of middle-aged, exiled yuppie Englishmen and Irishmen — most of whom hadn’t lived in Blighty for at least twenty years — jumping up and down in official facsimile football shirts that cost $160 a pop (two of them in Liverpool gear actually head-butting the bar in masochistic, Bushmill’s-fed frustration when United scored) was like a trip to the zoo. The British, she insisted later as he was working his way up her thigh, had been “decivilized.” Right then and there, he fell for her. They still go to the pub whenever there’s the fated convergence of a United game on the satellite and a baby sitter available. She is friendship and solace and passion. Without her, he is nothing.
They kiss: A delicious one. One you could photograph and place in a heart-shaped frame. “You’re dealing with this better than I am,” he says. “I want to be an adult. My intentions are pure and chivalrous and all that, but my mam and dad are . . .”
“Two big babies?”
His prick is getting hard again. She hits it sideways with her fist, the way you’d hit a speed bag. Her eyes are a dark, pellucid gray and shine like rained-upon slate between the fringes of her long black lashes.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says.
“ ’Bout what?”
“Me dad’s bullshit. Me mother’s whining.”
Mercedes sighs as he broaches the subject in his oblique, insidious way. She shuffles forward like a caterpillar across the eiderdown, takes a comb, and begins running it through her thick, shiny hair. “Which bullshit,” she says, “amongst all the bullshit? Within which bullshit are you mentally mired, querido?”
“Many of me dad’s women’re gonna show up.”
“You think, or you know?”
“Deal with it, Terry.”
“Oh, ‘Deal with it, Terry,’ ” he mocks, smashing his breastbone with the meat of his fist, “ ‘like un hombre.’ ”
Mercedes shakes her head. “The man’s a public menace. Scores of women weeping. The Internationale playing in the background. He’s humiliating her, don’t you see?” She plays with his hair. “So you want your mother to be a laughing stock? A public martyr? Jews can be martyrs, right? You don’t have to act like a macho man to be in control.”
Another shrug. Mom and Dad. Mameh und Tateh. He thinks of how, even after he’d grown up, a room, a town, a city seemed small with the two of them in it — and, when they had gone, as tiny as emptiness itself. He’d read Malatesta at six. Marx at seven. Lucy Parsons’ account of her husband’s hanging at eight. A tiny Marxist, only slightly less precocious than his daughter, he’d always tried to please them.
“Tonto!” his stern angel says, as if he is the only crazy person around.
He knows something about Latinos. Their olé and hola and ojala were all stolen from the Arabs invoking Allah. Not one phrase on a par, linguistic quality-wise, with oy vey!
There’s a knock at the door. It opens. Elizabeth. Finally, someone who’s not claiming to be in charge, but actually is.
“Cover up your tetas!” she shouts at her mother. “What if Bubba comes in?”
“She won’t,” Terry sighs. “Anyway, she’s been there. Ask ’er what she was doing while the Luftwaffe were dropping bombs on Manchester.”
Elizabeth climbs up on the bed. “Grandma heard you two making lots and lots of noise. I said it was normal, that you do it all the time.” She slides backward between her mother’s legs, lies on her back, and watches as Mercedes applies makeup. “Bubba says you two are pretty borjee.”
“You mean ‘petit bourgeois,’ ” Mercedes says.
“I wouldn’t know,” Elizabeth snorts. “Now will you please cover up your breasts?”
Can you inherit prudish genes? Sadie — who has to have been a reasonably sexual person to have kept his father interested — was always one for puritan socialist rhetoric. Any show of affection was “bourgeois.” She tortured Nat and Terry both with the ice picks, pliers, and electrodes of prudery — instruments supplied by her parents, people of faith.
Terry looks at the skin of his wife’s back, shining gold beneath the hard yellow of the lampshade, the bloom of soft down on her bare arms like the skin of a peach. His daughter, jammed between her legs, is the sum of them: an echo, perhaps, but not fated to become them.
“There!” Slansky shouts into Terry’s ear, pointing vaguely.
“Where? Which one?”
“The one with the white-blond hair.”
“All right, all right. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Terry is sitting shiva, the Jewish act of mourning. His chair, its legs sheared off, allows him a wonderful view of assorted thighs. Even women with heavy legs look good in those thick tights and blocky shoes that are all the rage now. Drinks are brought to him on a conveyor belt of goodwill. He and his mother, both slightly buzzed on Johnnie Walker Black, hold hands, smile at each other, and silently hold court. People bend over to talk to Terry, their faces reddening as they wish him long life. The smart ones crouch.
Oh, the endless hyperbole about the wonderfulness of the departed. Beloved of Jew and gentile alike; beatified by rabbis, priests, imams, vicars, and policemen; sanctified by black, white, Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian cabbies; wept over by union bigwigs from London. The life of Nathan Itzhak Price: it was like a bad novel transformed by philistine producers into a worse, but successful, movie.
Thank God for Uncle Mendy. He arrives at the house drunk and suitably disheveled, smelling of homemade plum brandy and cigarettes and sweat. His supercreased suit looks like something sat upon by seven Sydney Greenstreet impersonators. There are tears running down his cheeks: “So, Terrilech, the old Romanian horse prick is driving a hack in hell.”
“No doubt,” Terry replies, smiling.
“I’ll wager he’s shtupping Elena Ceausescu up der tuchis as we speak.”
When Sadie’s choreography of grief is interfered with, she becomes territorial and mean. “Mendy,” she barks, “gib zich a shokel!” Go fuck yourself. “If you can only speak filth, you should go home.”
Mendy won’t be dismissed that easily, though. That old doughy gray face of his, molded by thousands of airless days at a factory sewing machine, takes on a determined mien. He breathes hard on her, as if blowing on a hot potato. “Malach Hamaveteh,” he calls Sadie — the female angel of death, the wicked wife.
Sadie’s eyes pop wide open with rage. “Go to ’ell, Mendy.”
“All right, OK, Sadie.” He lifts up both hands and waves them, palms spread like Al Jolson singing “Mammy.” “You know, Sadie, me darf nit zein shain; me darf hoben chain!” You don’t have to be pretty if you have charm.
Slansky is back. “Terry, please.” He looks so miserable that Terry feels pity for him. “I can’t get rid of ’er.”
“The blond tart.”
The room is filled with blond women. It was a generational fetish: Marilyn Monroe, Stella Stevens, Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors. The walls in the old man’s den — Terry’s former bedroom — are covered with yellowing old Playboy pinups of them all. It seems as though every woman in attendance from his parents’ generation is either a brassy custard blonde, a slightly less slutty platinum blonde, or a token Rhonda Fleming redhead. All, naturally, coifed in black, they look like tarts.
“That one.” Slansky points, his finger wobbling.
“Go on,” Sadie whispers in Terry’s ear. “Get rid of that bloody toe-rag courva before I kill ’er.” Courva, nafkah, pirgah, k’nishech: the Yids have a lot of words for a whore.
Maybe it’s the Scotch, but Terry doesn’t have a clue which one they’re talking about. He slowly rises to his feet, takes a sexy gold pack of Benson & Hedges from Slansky’s suit pocket, extracts a cigarette, and lets his dad’s flunky light it. As he’s sucking in the smoke, the gorgeous taste of tobacco is like a long, lingering, sweet kiss; at the same time, although he can’t see them, Terry feels the condemning eyes of his wife and daughter. Then Slansky and Atkinson, standing on either side of him like the secret police, take him by the wrists and lead him forward. Six steps later, they let go.
Three blondes stand in front of him: a zaftig mother-and-daughter team and another woman, petite and expensively dressed. This third woman seems familiar somehow. A sweet, sandalwood fragrance surrounds her. What is this thing his dad had for big breasts and thighs?
“Terry,” she says, her voice gentle yet slightly raspy, “what a ’andsome man you grew up to be.”
His mouth opens, but nothing comes out. He remembers her as she grabs him, eyes level with his chest, and begins squeezing. She reaches up and kneads his earlobe in a familiar way he does not like. “Your pooor, poo-wer dad.” Her tears soak through his shirt. “Nat were such a lovely, lovely man.”
The perfume. Which one was she? He remembers her standing next to a painting of the hunt and wearing a pillbox hat. Was it 1962? ’63? He doesn’t remember her name. There was a large television in her house: watching football and Doctor Who late Saturday afternoons while they bonked upstairs. Joan? There were a lot of women named Joan then. The names have fallen away; it’s as if the threads holding his mind together are disintegrating, and he’s flaking off into a puddle of opaque vagueness. There really were a lot of them, and he’s terrible with names. “Would you mind if I asked to talk to you outside, Jo . . . ?”
“Jocelyn. Josie. You remember, don’t you?”
“Sort of. There were . . .” So many, he was about to say, and so similar.
“You know, love, you look as unhappy now as you did then.”
Terry feels a push at his back. Mercedes is standing behind him with her arms folded. “Is there a problem?” she asks.
“This is Josie,” he says, “an old friend o’ me father.”
Mercedes leans over and says in a low tone, “I’m only going to ask you one time. Will you please leave?”
“Beg pardon?” says Josie. “ ’Oo? What?”
“You come here and insult my family, you fucking puta.” Mercedes gets on her tiptoes. She is psyched to start throwing hooks. Terry is holding the pin of a live grenade. “Get out of here!”
“ ’Ow dare you?” Josie screams as Terry pulls her away in as gentle and deliberate a manner as possible. They go out to the street, past the chain smokers on the porch. “What’s a ‘pewter’?” she wants to know.
“Pewter’s a metal, innit?”
He attempts to release her, but she keeps ahold of him, her breath sweet with gin and something else. “I may’ve been somebody’s mistress for donkey’s years, Terry Price, but I’m not daft.” People stare at her; she brazenly stares back. “When I were in Spain with me daughters, they called us ‘pewters’ there. So I’ve got a good idea.”
Outside, the sun is shining in a tubercular sort of way. He is sweating whiskey. She has thin, shiny red lips — a look popularized by Kathy Kirby in approximately 1962; a layer of Vaseline over the lipstick. Terry looks away from her to the privet hedge: a perfect rectangle of green. “I sort of do remember you, but . . .”
He drops the one in his hand, steps on it, and takes another. A Marlboro. Josie’s hands, although she obviously takes care of them, are purple veined and slightly distorted by arthritis. “I remember late Saturday afternoons. Early in the evening. The first Doctor Who. You made a lot of noise. I thought ’e were killing you.”
She starts to cry. “We switched to Tuesdays. Thirty-four fookin’ years of Tuesdays.”
“Faithful in ’is own way, ey?”
“Nat were very proud o’ you, Terry. Selling soft toys to the Yanks.”
She shrugs. “I s’pose your mam’s upset ’cos I came?”
“Did you expect otherwise?”
Down the street, the same kids are kicking their football against a wall. The clear white sky carries gray pillows of cloud. Eventually, it will rain, and they’ll have to go back inside.
“I ’ad a right to go to the funeral,” Josie says. “Jews give such a lovely send-off. I mean, they’re not like my people. Anglicans, I mean. There’s no feeling there, is there?” She takes his hand and squeezes. “I loved me Natty. That man were the love o’ me miserable life.”
“I know you did,” Terry says, sucking in the nicotine, blowing smoke out through his nose, “but you still shouldn’t’ve come to wave it in Sadie’s face.”
Hurt, she stares at and through him, and he recalls it. Yom Kippur 1962. They made a secret day of it. Nat and Terry. Terry and Nat. “We’ll tell a wee white lie to your mum,” old Natty Dread said. “Our little secret.”
Instead of a day of atonement and inner ablutions, they went to the art gallery. And in that gallery, in a room of Gainsboroughs, Nat spied his prey, looked at it from different angles: small and young and confident; the perfume and the coral pink lipstick and the swaying hips. They followed her to the Botticellis. “Isn’t that a lovely bit o’ stuff?” Nat said, his chin digging into Terry’s shoulder. “Terrence,” Nat whispered in his son’s ear, “the secret of the whole universe lies underneath that pretty woman’s dress: help me learn it.”
As instructed, Terry approached the woman.
“Me dad’s got a big crush on you,” he said, all breathless — as per the coach. “You give ’im the collywobbles, but ’e’s too shy to say ’ow beautiful you are. So I guess it’s up to me.”
“ ’Ow old are you?” Josie said.
“Where’s your mother?”
And, trained monkey, minipimp that he already was, little Terry Price shrugged and wiggled his long eyelashes, all the while staring, hypnotized, into her creamy bust line. “Don’t know,” he said. “Gone off with some geezer with more money than me dad.”
“Terry!” he hears now. It’s Atkinson. “Terr-ee!”
“I don’t know why your wife should be so upset,” Josie says, biting her lower lip. “I were only making good on the promise I were coerced into: Nat insisted that I make an appearance.”
Nat. What a bastard. Terry can see it all: The old man holding court in the ward, going through his little black book. No stone left unturned. Not one single old girlfriend consigned to the scrapheap. A tidal wave of tarts, trollops, and toe-rags the rum old bugger managed to call from his deathbed.
“It really bothered Natty that you were an only child. That there were no brothers or sisters for you to play with.” Josie worries her lower lip with her upper incisors, gets a little lipstick on her tooth. “I never understood why the man . . .”
“Stuck with me mam?”
“Aye. Your dad were so proud that you were away in America, not trapped in England, with all its class distinctions.” She wipes her eyes, lights another cigarette. “Showed me these lovely photographs o’ you, your wife, your daughter.”
Someone taps Terry on the shoulder. Mercedes is standing there holding an armload of women’s coats. Avoiding eye contact, Nat’s Tuesday piece of arse searches through the clumped pile until she finds a raccoon-collared navy blue camel’s-hair coat. Josie hands it to Terry, who shakes it, lifts it up, and assists her in putting it on. Her perfume rises and intoxicates him, as if this were all a dream.
“Do you remember introducing us, Terry?” Josie asks.
“Not really,” he lies.
Josie stands there crying through squeezed-together eyelids. Terry kisses her like a penitent, a soft goodbye on the cheek. She kisses him back, on the lips. Mercedes stands there, fuming.
“Ya veo que vamos a tener un problema, Papí!” (Already I see we’re going to have a problem.)
He looks down to see his daughter, sent as a messenger to tell him he’s in trouble. She’s wearing shades, like a miniature paid killer, and Terry can see himself — and Nat, the satyr — reflected in her lenses. She grabs the hands of her mother and her father.
“Um, this is me daughter, Elizabeth,” he says to Josie.
The woman smiles at Elizabeth. The little girl frowns back. “We have to go back in, Daddy. Lots to do.”
The lover, the mistress — Terry wonders if that word is still in use — hung out to dry, glares contemptuously at the rat-faced socialist friends, lifts an open hand, curls it in a wave, backs slowly away, and walks off.
Taking Elizabeth’s tiny hand, Terry makes his way back to the house. There are too many people for him to thread his way directly back through to the shiva chairs. He lifts Elizabeth up to his shoulder and nods at people who pat him and wish him a long life. The Scotch is wearing off, and he’s not certain as to whether he wants buckets more or abstention.
Sadie gets up slowly — like a news clip of a condemned building destroyed by demolition experts, only played backward, in slow motion — her head surrounded by a halo of cigarette smoke. “Me little Spanish angel’s gorgeous, ey?”
“Puerto Rican American.”
“What?” Sadie simply looks puzzled, the misery hanging off her like the underside of a fat lady’s arm. “Pardon?”
With her four packs of cigarettes per day and the disappointments caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, Tony Blair, Bibi Netanyahu, dear departed Dad, and the brave new postcommunist world, Terry realizes he’ll be back to bury her soon. She has obsolesced. This harsh woman who bathed him in the sink when they were poor. This creature of solicitude and rectitude, need and etiquette, who once gave him Das Kapital for Hanukkah. This finicky woman who never put him in the secondhand care of a baby sitter, and never let him forget it. Oh, the shit — noun, verb, adjective — that his rotten, wandering father put her through. Nat and Sadie were always hard on each other and referred to it as “honesty.” And when those jagged truths flew, Terry — the pit, seed, stone, nut of the fruit of their union — ducked. “Cómo aguantamos,” Mercedes says of the comedy of family: what we put up with.
“I’m sorry,” Sadie says to her scowling granddaughter. “Puerto Rican American.”
Small, stately, and ever so slightly sanctimonious, Sadie sucks in her jowls and stares at Terry while tears crawl like worms out of her eyes. He really ought to love her more, he knows.
“Can somebody bring me some Scotch?” he asks of no one in particular.
Atkinson is there in a jiffy, his always pale face downright ashen. Terry takes a drink.
“You gonna run for the union, Mr. A.?” Terry asks.
Atkinson shrugs. “I really don’t know, Terry. Sussing it out.”
“Me dad used to say that you buy people by weight: street coppers and shop stewards for five Cs; sergeants, solicitors, and elected union leaders for a grand; all the way up to barristers, magistrates, and the president of the TUC: five, ten, fifteen, twenty.”
“Shhh!” says Atkinson.
“You come to America, and I’ll get you a job selling soft toys,” he says.
© Jon Caputo
“Sinvergüenza!” Mercedes sneers. Scoundrel.
“Sí, sinvergüenza!” Elizabeth adds.
“What did I do?” Terry asks.
“You shamed your mother in front of everybody. She looked like a fool.”
“No, I didn’t. Everyone there knows what Nat was like.”
“I should have kicked her monkey rubia ass,” says Mercedes.
Terry rolls his eyes. His wife is a woman of iron will. Mercedes sees truth and goodness as a flag on the horizon that you march forward to. For him, however, the world is a globe: you are allowed to turn around and walk in the opposite direction to get to the same point.
When Mercedes was a little girl, her sister once framed her for something she had not done. Her mother, having worn herself out earlier in the day beating her brother for whatever sucio dirty-boy magpie crime he’d committed, made Mercedes kneel on uncooked beans for hours. Innocent, wrongly accused, and condemned, Laura Mercedes Ruiz Gutierez Price became the living embodiment of the concept of aguantando. Aguantando means “putting up with,” but that’s accurate only in the sense that the Yiddish tsoris actually means “trouble.” Jews need tsoris, and Latinos need aguantando.
“I can’t stand it when you’re spineless,” she says. “You should defend your family, no matter what.”
“Men are stupid, Mamí. Didn’t you tell me that? Muy estupido.” Elizabeth jumps on Terry and pulls at his hair. “A woman like that, a puta rubia, could never steal away my daddy.”
“No,” he agrees, “never.” And, in some way, this is true. Hasn’t he religiously avoided dating slutty blondes all his life?
Mercedes joins in, squeezes his ears. It’s a love sandwich, but there’s a look of hurt there in those dark gray eyes.
A woman, too bendable to break, puts up with her husband’s unfaithfulness. A daughter takes her beating. The son — the husband — remains complicit in his father’s infidelity and pays the price. Apparently, he should eat slowly at the mousetrap and die fast of a broken back. He should have dismissed the brazen mistress — or, better yet, beaten her blue, then black, then blue again.
It starts to rain. A diagonal torrent whips at the window. Terry leans forward and steals a kiss from Mercedes before she can resist.
“I love you,” he says, going forehead to forehead with her, so that their eyelashes clash. “I’m sorry.”
“Cómo aguantamos,” Mercedes mumbles, then kisses him back.
“Yuk!” Elizabeth yelps. “I’ll bet Papí tastes of whiskey and cigarettes.”
They kiss and kiss and kiss some more, the way their parents never did in front of them.
Ivor S. Irwin