A Family Vacation
There was no way of telling that we had passed from Alabama into Georgia except for the sign by the highway. The landscape was the same. Still, I wasn't really looking at the landscape as much as what was in it: I was counting cows, or alternately, other cars by colors. This was a game we played when travelling. I was ten--a good age, I thought--and we included my parents in the front seat and the rest of us, three and all girls, the younger two in the middle, and me in the whole back of the station wagon.
Sometimes I liked to sleep, lying in this part of the car when it was folded out, on its strip of carpet. The motor's vibration under me would lull me into a slumber that was just at the borders of consciousness, for even in sleep I was aware of when the car was moving or stopped. But now, in the early afternoon, I was alert and wide-awake. In our family, a family vacation was a rare event.
Our destination was Camellia Gardens, a "vacation community," where my father had rented a cottage for a week. Every weekday morning there was a circus day camp for children taught by members of the troupe at F.S.U. There was also a lake for swimming and taking out paddleboats. I had read about all this in the brochure back home lying on my mother's dresser.
It was not too far from the state line to Camellia Gardens. We turned off from the highway onto a smaller road, and then onto another. The entrance to Camellia Gardens went through a pine woods, and the shade was pleasant after the relentless sun over the highway. Here the light came down through the trees in splotches on the ground and looked kind and welcoming.
"God damn it, I'm hot," said my mother.
Her remark seemed gratuitous now that we were almost there and in fact had passed under the cooling shade, but she liked to complain to no one in particular, and sometimes we picked it up.
"I'm hot, too," said Shelley.
"I want a drink," said Rachel.
"My legs are tired of sitting," I said.
"Shut up all of you," snarled my father, turning his head back to us.
"Morris, watch the driving," my mother commanded. "You'll kill us."
He did not answer but drove and parked the car beside a cottage at the foot of the road we had driven down, that was marked "Office."
"You get out and get the keys," said my mother. "We'll stay here."
"I want to stretch my legs," I said.
"Why?" I grumbled the question to myself and sulked in silence. In the middle seat, my two little sisters were fighting over a plastic pig. My mother took it away from them.
"No, no," they screamed. "Give it back."
"Shut the fuck up," screamed my mother, louder than they, "or I'm going to give you what you'll never forget."
My ears burned. Her window was half-rolled down and someone might have heard her yelling that word at us. Her high-pitched curses were a frequent occurrence that I always hated and never got used to.
My father came out of the office with keys and a map. I saw he was sweating. He opened the door of the car and slid behind the driver's seat. "We're in Tupelo Grove," he said. We had to go past the other "groves" to get there, each with a section of houses exactly alike. We almost missed the turn; my mother criticized my father, and then we were there.
Tupelo Grove was a group of A-frame cottages, with decks in front, each equipped with a barbecue grill. Our cottage had a blue door, light sky blue. We all were anxious to see the inside. Even our mother did not make us unpack the car first.
In reality the cottage was dingier and smaller than it had appeared in the photograph in the brochure. I felt a kind of disappointment that I swallowed back; I would try to find something to like.
The cottage was advertised to sleep six; we were five in crowded quarters. The kitchen was built against the wall where we walked in, with a table and chairs in front of it. The space led back without a partition to an arrangement of a sofa, coffee table, and easy chairs. Over this "living area" was a sleeping loft and, to the side of it, a bedroom. There was a bathroom and a half--a sink and toilet behind the kitchen and a larger room with a shower stall that was reached through the bedroom.
The first thing I did was climb the built-in ladder to the loft. "I'll sleep here," I said, knowing I was expected to. Actually, I had already found something to like--the roof coming to a V above the loft and the way it was possible to look down on whoever was sitting on the sofa or chairs. The space was just large enough for three twin beds--two along one side and then another across--and a chest of drawers. Shelley climbed up right behind me and claimed a bed, too, but Rachel, who was youngest and frightened of the ladder, said she'd sleep downstairs instead, on a cot that was against the wall just before the entrance to the bedroom. The atmosphere was stifling, close, and warm; my mother put on the air-conditioning, but it never quite cooled the sleeping loft. I would not have minded if there had been a window to open, but there wasn't.
We had to help carry the belongings from the car and unpack. I was told to make my bed and to oversee Shelley, which meant I had to make up Shelley's bed, too. I resented this because, having seen the interior of the cottage, I was anxious to have a look round outside. I wanted to see where the lake was, and the circus tent. But I would have to wait.
I had a secret, unspoken to anyone, that was my fantasy and my wish. More than anything, what I wanted from the vacation was to make a friend. As I unpacked my shorts and shirts and folded them into a drawer of the chest, I imagined this friend, how I would recognize her and what I would say to her. For there did not seem to me to be any doubt that I would know here when I first saw her.
We drove by the lake that evening, after hamburgers cooked by my mother and heated-up baked beans from a can. What we saw in the dying light was a disappointment, a sign prohibiting swimming. "Why?" I wondered, but of course none of us knew. There was a contraption sticking out of the middle of the water, a machine that was utterly still, like a huge stationary sculpture. This, we were to learn the next day, was the circulation system of the man-made lake, and it wasn't working, hence the warning against swimming. By the light of that next day, the color of the water was green-brown and stagnant, but it was hard for me to find any body of water unwelcoming; my sisters and I would still play on the muddy, sandy beach and wet our calves splashing in the shallows.
That first night it seemed I was as much a witness of my sisters' sleeping as asleep myself. I kept waking up and falling back into dreams, and I wasn't sure in which state it was that I saw my sister Shelley sit up in bed and then lie back down, not quite a sleepwalker. The image of her face, sightless and expectant, haunted me all through the night, while below me I heard rustles and mutterings, the restless sleep of my sister Rachel.
Our unease became something else the next morning. My mother, looking hollow-eyed and tired, was standing at the stove making coffee and boiling water while we selected brands of cereal from the Variety-Pak. "If you snore like that again, Morris, you'll have to sleep out on the couch. I can't stand it," she snapped to my father who had just walked into the kitchen area.
"But I'm in the living room," protested Rachel.
"Well, you'll just have to sleep upstairs."
"But I'm afraid to climb the ladder."
"Then you can just stay on the cot, and you can endure your father."
My father said nothing to all of this. He took his glass of juice from the table and downed it in a single gulp. He was wearing a robe over his pajamas and slippers. My mother was in what she called her housecoat. Only we were already dressed in shorts and t-shirts, for right after breakfast we were going for our first day at the circus day cam. My father opened a package of cream of wheat, poured it into a bowl, and sat at the table. He was waiting for the water to boil.
My mother poured the water into his bowl, and he stirred it. "Can't you measure it?" he said. "It's too runny."
"You put breakfast on the table then, if you don't like it."
"All we're having is cereal," I said.
My mother turned to me with a glare. "And you, miss, can shut your mouth up, or it will be shut for you." She poured out her coffee, and sat down, too, lightening it with milk and sweetening it with saccharin. We had already poured milk on our cereal; I was listening to the snap! crackle! pop! of my Rice Krispies before I ate them. Back in my mouth, a tooth was becoming loose, and I worried it with my tongue.
My father suddenly let out wind. We all heard it. "Morris, must you fart, too?" my mother complained instantly. We giggled into our cereals. My father looked sheepish, embarrassed; my mother looked pleased. This was what I had been born into; she would criticize, and he would say nothing, but eventually something would explode, and we would be caught in it.
I wanted to escape, and with me were my sisters. I looked at the nurse's watch on my wrist. It was eight thirty-five. "Hurry up," I ordered Shelley and Rachel, "or we'll be late."
"Morris, you take them," my mother said. "they don't know the way."
We'll find it," I said, "It's all right."
"Are you sure?" asked my father. He wanted to finish his cream of wheat, drink a cup of coffee, and go to the bathroom. We all knew his routine.
"Yes," I said impatiently. It was as much for the reason that I did not want to be seen chaperoned by my father as that I did not want to wait for him to dress that I was anxious to be gone. Laboriously, he began to describe the directions to the circus tent. I always found his explanations hard to follow because they took so long I got lost on the way.
"It's okay," I interrupted. "I noticed some signs."
"All right then." He sighed heavily. "Have a good time."
The day camp was an activity for children designed to give parents time alone together. But my parents never seemed to want time alone together--at least not at the same time--or to know what to do when they had it. Running out from the deck with Shelley and Rachel following, it occurred to me to wonder what they would talk about when we were gone. I assumed we would be part of their conversation and worried briefly, and then forgot about it, for, taking Shelley and Rachel along the paths to the circus tent, my mind began to fill with what was awaiting me.
To be honest, even before I knew what they would be, I was dreading the circus lessons. I believed that I would inevitably disgrace myself in any activity that required physical powers. Three years ago, my father had told me I was "uncoordinated," and, in fact, had enrolled me in a Saturday morning gymnastics class at the Y.M.C.A. to correct this defect. I learned how to climb a rope; to execute forward and backward rolls on a mat; and jump, sit down, and jump up again on a trampoline, but I never learned how to do handstands, walkovers, or cartwheels, which other children my own age performed so effortlessly, and I was afraid of the rings, the balance beam, and the parallel bars. I remembered Bel Lowry, a tall girl in first grade, who would always climb to the very top of the jungle gym and stand astraddle the bars, without holding on to anything, in easy balance. I admired her greatly but would never have followed her.
I feared circus day camp would be all too similar to those Saturday gymnastics classes, demonstrations of what I did not want to attempt, the pressure to attempt it, and my subsequent failure. Yet, when we arrived at the tent, it was so gaily striped and inviting that Shelley, Rachel, and I immediately wanted to enter it.
I inhaled the odor of the sawdust that covered the floor and a fainter smell left by the animals that weren't there while camp was in session. Inside, we were met by counselors who divided us into groups by age. Shelley and Rachel were in one group together, and I in another.
The tent seemed huge--so much so that I felt completely separated from my sisters. We were all taken to areas around the edge, away from the two performing rings. I was led to a small group of five or six gathered around a trapeze that had been set up rather low, obviously for our purposes. "We'll wait a few minutes more to see if others arrive," our counselor said. I don't remember what the counselor looked like because I was realizing I was seeing her--the one I knew I wanted to be my friend. There she was waiting like I was, in a light-blue shorts outfit with a matching sleeveless top. Her limbs were lightly muscled and deeply tanned. She had blond hair cut short in a pixie haircut, a style I'd wanted which my mother had forbidden me to have.
Normally I was shy, but she wasn't talking to anyone, and I went up to her and asked her her name.
"Margie. What's yours?"
The class was just beginning, which cut off our exchange. I knew that Margie would be agile on the trapeze, and so she was; and, the first day at least, I did not have to make a fool of myself. Although I held all teachers in awe and was nervous, I was only required to mount and dismount, and I didn't volunteer to do anything more.
After the trapeze, while we were waiting for another group to vacate the trampoline, I resumed my conversation with Margie. She told me she was from Georgia, and that she had a younger brother and sister, whom she was required to watch as I had to watch Shelley and Rachel. This discovery was our first bond.
That afternoon I saw her at the lake with her brother and sister. This was after we'd learned about the problem with the circulation system, and I was feeling terribly disappointed, because it was so hot, and all that water was there, and I couldn't go into it.
"When will it be fixed?" I asked the lifeguard, whose job it was now to keep people out of the deep part of the lake.
"In a couple of weeks."
"That's too late," I said. "We'll be gone."
He shrugged his shoulders, and behind him, I saw Margie approaching. I ran off towards her.
"Do you know about the lake?" I said.
"Yes," she said. "We play on the beach, and anyway they let you wade in the water." It seemed natural after that for us to play together. In fact, with our siblings with us, I had the fantasy that Margie and I were two young mothers, and they were our children. My parents were farther back on the beach, lying on deck chairs with closed eyes, their skins shiny with suntan oil. My mother had not been so disappointed about the lake, because she never swam anyway, and now she wasn't obliged to watch us, for she never trusted lifeguards, and claimed our father wouldn't notice if we drowned.
I took little notice of my parents that afternoon; I was too interested in Margie, and I had to pay attention anyway to Shelley and Rachel. We were building sandcastles. Because this was a lake and not a tidal ocean, we had to transport the water for our moat. I liked giving Shelley and Rachel tasks to do, and they were young enough--six and five--to like to fulfill them. I watched them go down to the water's edge with buckets. Margie's sister and brother were filling buckets with sand that got muddier as it went deeper. I don;t know why it occurred to me then to ask Margie her religion.
"Oh, what kind?" I asked.
"A Christian," she repeated, emphasizing it.
"I mean kinds, like Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian," I rattled them off. I was not being raised in the Bible Belt for nothing.
"I'm not any kind. I'm just a Christian."
"But you have to be."
"No, I don't. What are you?"
"I'm not Christian. I'm Jewish."
"Oh." She seemed uninterested, and I wondered if she knew what being Jewish was, since she seemed to know so little about her own religion. I thought I knew all the different churches from classmates back home, but now I wondered if Margie was ignorant, or if hers was an entirely new and strange church I'd never heard of.
At any rate, it seemed fruitless to pursue it. I went back to our sandcastles. After we tired of them, Rachel ran off to find our parents, and came back, puffed with self-importance, to tell Shelley and me we were leaving.
"Mom said to tell you to come right away or else."
"Okay." I felt a little embarrassed to have to go so abruptly, when Margie's parents were not around and seemed not to care how long she stayed. She had puzzled me with her pronouncement about being a Christian, but I still liked her a lot, and was proud that on my first day I'd found the person I wanted to be my friend.
I looked forward to seeing her the next day, in spite of my worry that day camp was bound to get harder, and she'd soon see how bad I was at what she was good at. But Margie did not appear in our group the next morning; I was distracted all through the session, watching for her. At lunch that day, Rachel and Shelley were vocal, and I was quiet. Shelley, who was much more fearless an athlete than I was, was detailing her accomplishments, while Rachel interrupted and corrected her.
"No, that was after we did the somersaults that we jumped through the hoops."
We were eating tuna fish sandwiches. I would always leave the crusts, and my father would say, "That's the best part," and I would say, "You eat them then," and he would start lecturing about waste and how hard he worked to feed us, until my mother said, "Don't be ridiculous, Morris," and then he'd eat the crusts himself, muttering about how ungrateful we were, and how things were different when he was young.
Interchanges like this made me feel trapped and impatient; all I wanted to do was leave. Why didn't I just take the easy way out and swallow the crusts, or whatever it was that was at issue? Afterwards, I would always feel guilty, but when the next time, came, I would still find myself unable to do as I was told, and not think twice about it.
Family life was a constant war, with continually shifting allegiances between the participants. From one skirmish to another, I never knew who was with me and who was against. I never knew whom to trust. In contrast, the outside world seemed easier, a relief compared to this one.
"Can we go to the lake again this afternoon?" I asked my parents.
"Yes, yes," my sisters chimed. But my parents did not want to come. What surprised me was their willingness to let us go alone. For them it was unusual, though it was what we all wanted, and so none of us questioned it. I was hoping to find Margie there, since I hadn't seen her at day camp. Neither Shelley, Rachel, nor I felt industrious enough today for sandcastles; instead we brought along a big, blow-up plastic beach ball, as multi-colored as the circus tent, that we were playing with.
In between one of our volleys, I suddenly noticed Margie a distance away, down by the edge of the water. She was with her brother and sister. They weren't approaching; I couldn't tell what they were doing. I could just distinguish her features; she looked tan and elfin, with her light, short hair.
I left Shelley and Rachel with the ball and rushed down to meet her. "Margie," I called from several yards away, "where were you this morning?" Before my own eyes, I saw her not look at me, but turn away and begin walking off in the opposite direction. I stood dumbfounded. What had I done? "Margie," I called again. She did not stop. I started to follow her, and then I heard what she said to her brother and sister just as I saw she was hurrying them away. "Mommy says we're not supposed to speak to Jews."
I heard her say this, and I stopped in my tracks. I trudged back to my sisters. I did not tell them what Margie had said, why she would no longer play with us. I knew about prejudice and anti-Semitism, but never before had they been applied to me. In my silence, I experienced my fantasy of friendship in ruins. I felt a terrible loss. During the rest of the vacation, I did not try to make another friend. Margie did not reappear in our day camp group, and I learned she had switched into another, I assumed to avoid me.
On Wednesday night we all went to the circus tent to see the F.S.U. students perform. It was a festive atmosphere, with peanuts, popcorn and cotton candy, clowns on unicycles, trained monkeys, and tumblers, and one rather lugubrious elephant. There were no tigers or lions, but there was a trapeze act, first played over a net, and then the net was taken away. I could feel the audience quicken with tension and excitement. A woman in a sequinned costume stood on a platform high in the eaves of the tent. She held the bar of the trapeze, jumped up, and swung out in a great arc. Across from her, a man swung out to meet her, hanging by his knees. She let go. He caught her. A tremor went through me. They swung freely. Their connected bodies whipped through the air. They went higher. A second man standing on the platform helped the woman to dismount. The audience broke into applause. I clapped, too, my chest still tight with fear.
The performance was repeated the following night, with a slightly different program. Again, we were in attendance. But this time there was a mishap. During the first act, while there was still a net below the trapeze, the woman fell, plunging into its meshes, where she bounced and then was held. She crawled to the edge of the net and let herself down, and again she mounted the ladder to the platform, while the spectators applauded in encouragement. The net remained beneath her for the entire performance.
After the trapeze act there was a call for volunteers from the audience to participate in a clown race. "You go, Morris, " my mother teased, who would have never thought of volunteering herself.
"No," my father refused. "I don't want to."
"Yes, Daddy, go," we all urged him. "We want to see you."
He hesitated. We continued to press him.
"Oh, all right." Embarrassed by our clamor, he got to his feet and made his way down the bleachers into the ring where the volunteers were gathering. They were led to the edge of the ring and lined up side by side. The M.C. announced the rules of the race: at the signal the contenders were to run through the ring down to where there were boxes filled with clown costumes. These they were to slip on over their own clothes, then run back to the starting line, touching it; then change direction back to the boxes, take off the costumes and deposit them there; and then race back to the starting line. There was a prize for the winner, and a booby prize.
I thought the race sounded silly, but I still craned my neck to see how my father would take it. "On your mark, get set, go." They were off. They were all men, the fathers of families. Some of them were making a show of it, but I could see my father was in earnest; he wanted to win . He was rushing as fast as he could, yet he was clumsy, putting on the floppy pants, and shirt, and floppy hat. He stumbled in the costume and almost fell, but he caught himself and then speeded up, gaining on two men ahead of him. He touched the line and headed back for the boxes. We were all cheering, I and my sisters and mother. His back was angled to us as he bent to take off the clown pants, and so we got as good a view as anyone of the two white rounds of his buttocks like twin moons shining at us as he tugged at the pants. He had pulled off more than he meant to.
I saw his naked ass frozen in everyone's view; I heard the voice of ridicule, loud and triumphant, next to me. It was my mother, risen to her feet, pointing her finger, and shouting, "Look at Daddy's tushy! Look at Daddy's tushy!" The audience was laughing; Shelley and Rachel were laughing. In that whole space, it seemed only I and my father were silent.
He had realized his mistake and pulled up his pants, while the laughter continued around him. Still he stood there foolishly, while the race was already won. Then, as if not knowing what else to do, he tore at the clown costume, yanking it off--only it, this time--and then, though the outcome was no longer in doubt, in fits and starts, he went all the way to the finish line, which was the race's starting point--loping and sprinting and loping, in an uncertain run.
He was the last to cross the finish, but he couldn't yet leave. It was the moment for the awards ceremony. The M.C. was having a great time. "The first prize goes to Lightfoot Lee over here," he said, giving a little silver loving cup to the winner, a lean, young-looking man with lank, dark hair. "What's your name, sir?" The M.C. moved the microphone to the winner's face.
"Charles Nellums." The M.C. repeated the name into the mike. "Congratulations. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the second prize that I know you've all been waiting for. The booby prize goes to the greatest booby of them all, the Unmasked Marvel over here. What's your name?" the M.C. asked my father, and I noticed he did not say "sir."
My father's face was as red as the cheeks of his ass had been white. "Morris Fisher," he said into the mike.
"Morris Fisher," the M.C. boomed after him. He handed my father what looked like an ugly plastic doll. "A hand, ladies and gentlemen, if you please, for our winner, Charles Nellums, and our prize booby, Morris Fisher;" and the clapping and laughter swelled again.
After my mother's shouting at the moment of my father's exposure, she had sat back down, but her merriment continued. I saw it on her face, hard and malicious, that met him when he mounted the bleachers back to us. He looked like he often did- sheepish, hesitant, and embarrassed--only more so. I saw them face each other, and their attitudes fixed them in my eyes.
"You looked so ridiculous," she said, narrowing her eyes and baring her teeth. "It was a scream." Then she looked away, disowning him.
"I saw Daddy's tushy," said Rachel. She was echoing my mother, as if this was expected of her.
My mother laughed. "The booby prize," she said. "You're a booby." She looked pleased; it was as clear as day. She would lord it over him, adding insult to insult.
"What's the prize?" Shelley said suddenly. "Let's see it;" and silently he handed it over. I looked at it in her lap: a squat, plastic figure with a long shock of hair and ugly, leering face. There was a sign around its neck that said "Booby."
"Why, it's a troll doll," said Shelley. "Can I have it, Daddy?"
"You want it?" This was a new note for my father--what was despised might be desired. He was still standing in the aisle, though below us the circus had resumed. "Sit down, Morris," my mother said, but she did not move to make room for him. Instead he passed in front of us, my mother, Rachel, Shelley, and then me, and sat down beside me. My parents were ranged at two ends, with their children between them.
"Can I have it, Daddy?" Shelley repeated.
"I guess so."
"That’s not fair. I want it," said Rachel, quick to lay her claim after Shelley. "That's not fair of you to give it to her."
My father sighed heavily. "We'll talk about it when we get home." He turned to me. "I guess I looked pretty funny out there." He laid his hand on my leg and stroked my knee.
I squirmed away. "Don't," I said, "don't touch me."
My mother leaned across us and spoke to my father in a fierce whisper. "How often must I tell you, Morris, not to manhandle these girls? They don't like it."
I stared straight ahead but saw nothing of the circus. I was rigid with shame and anger. All through me, I felt the humiliation--my father's humiliation. It mortified me to see my father stupid and exposed and to see my mother's pleasure in it. I saw her again pointing and screaming like a child, and I was horrified, remembering, too, how Shelley and Rachel had chimed in after her. They were five and six and might not know any better, but I was ten, and I did.
It seemed to me my father would rather lie to himself, and pretend the humiliation did not exist; and so I did not want any part of it, not his shame, nor his caresses. Did I understand then that he came to us for what she didn't give him, and that she helped us to refuse him? The following morning he would say at breakfast, "Well, I won a prize," as if he had somehow succeeded in convincing himself that it was something he should be proud of. He was speaking to me, but I remained unmoved and stony-faced. "Shelley and Rachel like it," he said, justifying himself.
I went outside to the deck. It was early morning, but the heat was already shimmering in the grass; the early coolness of the air was growing thick, dull, and moist. It was the last day of day camp, and I was glad. Then we'd have one more day, Saturday, and on Sunday we'd be driving home. I wiggled my loose tooth with the top of my tongue. It was looser, but it wasn't yet ready to come out. I was always afraid of pulling out a loose tooth. I liked it to get so loose that it seemed it was hanging by a single thread, so loose that it would just fall out by itself if I moved it with my tongue. There was less blood this way, and less pain. It made me afraid, but all the same I couldn't help nudging it, pressing it, feeling its give with uncertainty, discomfort, and fascination.
Outside, by myself, I could almost believe that the evening before was a bad dream. I tried to put my parents out of my mind. I'd rather be worried by my tooth, by thoughts of Margie, by anything. It was her mother's attitude Margie was adopting, her mother she was obeying. I tried to imagine the conversation between Margie and her mother, when she had been forbidden to speak to me, but I had never seen this woman who was so distressed by my being Jewish, and did not know how to picture her, or what she said.
"I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me:" in Sunday School I had won a prize for being the first to learn and recite the Ten Commandments. I had rattled them off before the teacher and the assembled class and received a glitter paint set with pictures of heroes and heroines. Memorization came easy to me, and I wondered about what I had memorized. The part about "visiting the iniquity" troubled me. It was in reference to worshipping God and keeping His commandments, but it was possible to worship wrongly and not to know it. It was possible to live wrongly and not to know it. It had seemed unfair that the children should be afflicted. Would Margie have to suffer for the sins of her parents? Would I have to suffer for the sins of mine?
That morning I took refuge in anonymity. No one knew that it was my parents who had disgraced themselves the evening before. As a treat for the last day, the counselors brought in the monkeys and let us feed them peanuts. I was entranced by their swift hands, by the way they ate the peanuts, shells and all. This day I would have stayed, but lunchtime came and we were delivered back to our families. Our parents, Shelley and Rachel and I discovered, had been making plans.
My father wanted to play golf the next day and have a cookout for dinner, a real one with thick juicy steaks on the charcoal grill. "I haven't played golf yet," my father said, in advance of any censure, "and I understand there's a fine course." He already looked aggrieved.
My mother did, too. She knew how to be a martyr. "We go on vacation, and you leave me with the children. Well, make sure you're back in time to start the grill."
"I'll be back at four," my father promised.
We played jacks on the deck that Saturday morning while my mother remained in bed. We saw our father go. He drove off in the car, we said, "Goodbye," and went back to our game. After awhile we got restless and played, "Red light, Green light" on the stretch of ground in front of the cottage. I turned my back and covered my eyes: "Green light, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, Red light." I whirled around. "Gotcha, Rachel, gotcha. You have to go back. I saw you move."
Rachel protested, but went back. After three tries, I caught Shelley, and she was It. "Green light, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, Red light. I saw you! I saw you," she shouted at me.
Our mother came out on the deck, in her housecoat. "Must you make so much noise?"
"We're playing a game," said Shelley.
"You left a mess in the kitchen. Come and clean it up right now, and make your beds."
"Oh, Mom," we trudged in the house, objecting. This routine was familiar to us all. She did not want to walk anywhere, and we had no car, so we stayed around the house all day, playing every game we knew of, until we had exhausted them all. We had hot dogs for lunch. My mother put the steaks out to defrost and sprinkled them with seasoned salt and powdered garlic. We were excited about the cookout. We were going to bake potatoes inside the oven and have instant rolls and a salad. There were four steaks. My sisters and I talked about how much we'd eat.
At four o'clock we were waiting for my father, but he did not arrive. Four-thirty went by, and five. Then five-thirty. "I don't know where your father is. I guess he doesn't care if we starve." At six o'clock we begged her to start the grill, but she refused. "It takes a long time for the charcoal to burn down. Let's just start without him. We're hungry," I pleaded. We were out on the deck, looking at the lowering light through the pine trees and behind the other cottages, and at the sack of charcoal next to us, and the cold, empty grill.
"Tell that to your father then when he comes home. If he comes home." Abruptly she went into the house and slammed the door. We heard her pacing inside, muttering, slamming things down on counters. I looked at the charcoal and at my sisters. "I'm not allowed to use fire," I said. "She'd get mad at me if I tried to start it."
I was simply stating aloud what we already knew. "I wonder where he is," Shelley said. Our worry began to grow and consume us. By seven o'clock, my mother's rage had hardened. She was implacable.
"I'm starving. Can I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?" Rachel's voice was a whine; she looked about to cry.
My mother eyed her narrowly. "I don't care what you have. But it won't be steak."
It seemed like we were being punished for our father's transgressions. We could tell our mother was ready to go on a rampage, and though we felt anxious and reproachful towards our father, and worried about him, we were afraid now of what would happen when he finally did come home.
"Do you want a sandwich, too?" Rachel asked me.
"Okay," I said. "I might as well."
"I'll eat one," said Shelley. "Mom, do you want one, too?"
She did not answer, but left the kitchen, slamming the door to the deck between us again. We made our sandwiches and ate them, and hardly said a word. We listened for cars outside, but none stopped; none carried our father. The deck light was on. It was after eight o'clock and nearly dark when headlights shone on the cottage, and our car pulled up, and stopped. Its lights went off.
Before he was out of the car, she had started. "Son of a bitch, son of a bitch! Where the hell have you been?"
He stood in the door of the car, his golf clubs over his shoulder. On his face was the furtive, guilty look I knew so well.
"Where were you, Daddy?" said Rachel, and started to cry.
"We waited for you," said Shelley.
He looked from my mother to us. "I was playing golf," he said. "Eighteen holes. It took longer than I thought. I assumed you'd start without me." He shut the door and began to walk to the cottage. We can cook indoors then if it's too late for outside."
"Bitch! Bastard! Your children are hungry, and you can just fucking blame yourself! Fuck, shit, screw! Asshole!" She spat those words out at him, as he approached the circle of deck light around us. His face went white, then red, as her screaming filled the air. For a moment I thought he'd say nothing, like he often did, but in the light I saw the color of his face deepened until it was like the raw meat lying inside on the kitchen counter. His nostrils flared.
"God damn it," he said. "God damn it, I can play golf when I damn well please."
"No, you can't. No, you fucking can't."
It seemed that sparks were about to fly out of his nose. His language was not as offensive as hers, but his voice was louder. He was about to explode. I took my sisters by the hand and brought them inside. I did not want them or me to have to see any more. I climbed the ladder to the loft and lay huddled on one of the beds. Shelley and Rachel crouched together on the sofa. Outside, they were still screaming at each other.
Our mother came in once, choking with rage, the tears streaming down her face, and grabbed the platter of steaks. "I'll show you what I'll do with these steaks! I'll show you what I'll do with them!" and she disappeared, but left the door open behind her.
There was a sound of protest, then more screaming. "You bitch!" It was my father. Shelley had crept behind the door to watch, and then climbed the loft ladder up to me. "You won't believe this," she said. "She just threw the steaks in the dirt. I was hoping we'd still eat them." Rachel was whimpering below at the foot of the ladder. "I'll help her come up," Shelley said.
Shelley went down and talked to Rachel; and they climbed up, Rachel first and Shelley right behind, encouraging her. I waited at the landing and pulled Rachel up.
"Hey, it's kind of neat up here," said Rachel, looking around.
"It's not so hard to get up, is it," said Shelley, "when you try."
"Sleep up here tonight," I said, "you better."
"Okay," said Rachel, and broke into a flood of tears. Shelley walked listlessly down the narrow aisle between the beds and looked down into the empty living room, scattered with our things. I sat on the edge of my bed, disconsolate.
I felt sick for my sisters and me. Outside, I knew, our parents were still fighting, and I felt powerless to stop it, helpless in the pain of it.
I thought to myself, I have to make them stop, I have to. If I can only make them stop. I felt a kind of panic to come up with something, I racked my brains, and then an idea occurred to me. It was my only recourse.
Rachel's crying was more muffled, but had not ceased. Shelley stood with her back turned to us. Without a word to either one of my sisters, I descended the ladder and crept into the downstairs half-bathroom.
I turned on the light and shut the door and locked it. I stared into the medicine cabinet mirror over the sink. I had to stand on my toes to see my whole face. I opened my mouth wide and wiggled my loose tooth with my thumb and forefinger. I wiggled it, trying to make it looser.
It would have to come out. I pictured myself running out to my parents, telling them I'd lost my tooth, and their stopping their fighting to look at it. Maybe it was a pitiful possibility; maybe they'd only stop screaming long enough to scream at me to go away, but it might work. I had to try it.
But I was afraid. The tooth wasn't ready to come out, certainly not by my standards. I rocked it back and forth, a little roughly. I jerked at it, and stopped in pain, and blood trickled down from my gum. I shrank. I couldn't go through with it. I would just have to give up.
But I couldn't give up. I had to force myself. I steeled myself, and then I weakened again, and then I steeled myself again. I wavered back and forth, in indecision; and from outside I heard a thud and my father's voice, "That does it, you bitch, you're asking for it now," and my mother's answering scream, an elongated "Fu-u-uck yo-o-ou!"
My heart was racing. I stared into my open mouth in the mirror again, and this time I was resolute. I held my tooth pressed between my two fingers, and I yanked as hard as I could, ignoring pain. And then, all of a sudden, it was out and in my hand, and the blood was streaming from my mouth. It was all over the sink.
I'd pulled the tooth out. I couldn't believe it. I stared at it in my palm, a small, white lump. Its roots were shallow. One more baby tooth gone. After all my hesitation, the extraction itself was a swift operation. Still, I had not expected there would be so much blood. Just for a second, I swayed weakly, and steadied myself at the edge of the sink, the little tooth still gripped tight in my fist. A sense of triumph washed over me; it propelled me to the front door, to confront my parents.
I didn't even look up to see them, but rushed out shouting, "Guess what! Guess what! My tooth came out! I just lost my tooth!" I heard in my voice the thrill and excitement, and none of my long indecision, my terror, or my dismay; and I had my moment: I saw my parents stop their denunciations in mid-sentence and look up at me in surprise and curiosity.
They both stared at me. My mother said, "Baby, are you all right?" It was the first note of tenderness that I had heard coming from her in quite a long time.
"I'm okay," I said. "It just came out. Do you want to see it?" and opened my rather grubby palm, like an oyster shell revealing its pearl.
"There's blood on your face," said my father. He stated the obvious and stopped at that.
"We better wash you up," said my mother. She didn't touch me, but she led the way back inside and I followed her. "Oh my," she said when she saw the bathroom. She had me rinse out my mouth with warm salt water. Her ministrations at times like these were the essence of her mothering; this was care she knew how to give, and liked giving. In my submission to it, I felt powerful. The emergency I created in pulling my tooth not only interrupted their fight; it actually stopped it.
It never occurred to either of my parents to question me as to how the tooth had come out; this was another source of satisfaction to me, for I do not know what I would have told them. They simply accepted the evidence at face value. My mother did not linger long with me. I cleaned the bathroom and myself up.
Shelley and Rachel crowded round me to see the tooth. They eyed it with awe, as if it were a magic object, a kind of talisman. Shelley had just begun to lose her teeth, Rachel not yet. They also did not know that what had happened in the bathroom was deliberate, but the relief on both their faces was evident.
I don't know which of my parents picked up the pieces afterwards--the steaks lying in the dirt, the bag of charcoal flung by my mother that had made the thud we heard and enraged my father. The rage between them was ongoing; we had been born into it and were growing up with it. While we were still children, there could be no life for us apart from it.
My parents were tense, white-faced. Tonight for certain my father would sleep in the living room. My mother was in the kitchen; my father was somewhere else. Her movements putting up the dishes were slow but trembling. We were all exhausted. With the tip of my tongue, I gingerly felt the tender spot where the tooth had been. It had begun to ache dully.
"Should I put the tooth under my pillow?" I asked my mother.
"If you want the Tooth Fairy to come," she answered in the practiced voice of the parent.
"I didn't know if the Tooth Fairy could come up to my bed," I said pointedly. "Besides I want to keep my tooth. Would the Tooth Fairy let me keep it?"
"If you keep your tooth, you won't get any money."
"All I ever get is a dime anyway. All of my friends get dollars."
"Don't get huffy with me, young lady," said my mother, leaving one role for another. "A dime is plenty of money for a tooth."
"No, it isn't. Anyway, I think I'll just keep my tooth instead."
"It's up to you. Though I don't know why you'd want to keep such a nasty thing."
"I just do."
I slept uneasily, disturbed by dreams of fairies--not of the Tooth Fairy, for she was a charade I had never believed in--but of the true fairies, the ones my grandmother had told me about. One twilight I had been walking with her around the block and had looked up at the trees and been certain I'd caught a glimpse of them in a twinkling at the treetops, dark as ink against the dim, white sky. "Look! Look!" I said to my grandmother, pointing. "I see the fairies."
"I see," my grandmother said, regarding me and not the trees. "I see you do."
In my dream I saw the fairies again in the twinkling of their wands in the treetops, and then my dream deepened; it became a dream of seeing God. This same grandmother had told me that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, it is possible that God will reveal himself to Jews. In my dream, it was Yom Kippur, and for the first time, I was attending the adult service. The morning stint was over; it was early afternoon, and we had to go home and get Shelley and Rachel to bring them back to the children's service. In my dream, I shook the rabbi's hand and walked out of the synagogue; and, while my parents lingered on the steps to greet acquaintances, I looked up at the sky. There were great clouds blowing over. As I watched, I saw a parting at the center of the sky and the sun burst through in a brilliant shaft. It shone over me; it changed the whole world- trees and street and cars parked down it--and I felt awed and blessed, certain that I was witnessing the radiance of God.
My dream was so vivid that I was startled to wake in the sleeping loft in Camellia Gardens in the white, still pre-dawn. At first it was quiet; then I heard the crows outside screaming for the day to come.
I had proved to myself the night before that I wasn't always helpless. I had found some relief, even if I had not made myself happy. Granted a temporary cease-fire, I lay in bed and listened, my tooth still under my pillow, to the cacophonous crows heralding that our vacation was over.
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 10.11.2009
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