* * *
One night Phil talked about the rightness of slapping children.
He said it in such a methodical and thoughtful way. We were sitting at their dinner table, eating apple pie. I was maybe seven-years old at the time, getting antsy. It was dim inside their farmhouse and dark outside.
The crickets were whimpering in the hydrangea bush under the kitchen window. The adults were talking about fatherhood or something.
Phil tapped two fingers into the cup of his palm, and I felt fascinated and sick, watching that gesture. "You slap their hands just a little," he cooed, "but then you talk to them afterwards, and ask them very seriously, now why did daddy do that? You have a conversation about it."
I turned and observed my father. I thought with a sudden blaze, Why doesn't he come right out and disagree? His children were sitting in front of him.
But he was nodding. I thought his gaze looked subservient, ceremonial. His eyes were so pale they were almost colorless. He was staring at Phil, mesmerized and blue, if his soul were owned by the old man. Watching my father turn obeisant, I was startled -- betrayed.
"Do you want my crust?" my younger brother suddenly asked me.
I was momentarily cheered. We slid our plates across the table, because I always preferred the crust and he always preferred the filling.
But then I glanced down at David's plate and felt queasy again. I couldn't finish it after hearing my godfather. I stared at his empty shell for a long time, the minuscule details searing into my brain. There were opaque grains of sugar sitting on the rumpled crust. The shell was damp.
* * *
I had a secret habit in childhood.
Very often, when no one was upstairs, I went into my parents' bedroom and closed the door behind me.
Their bedroom smelled faintly like Tide detergent, because the laundry room was adjacent. It was large and trapped heat, and was painted a blinding white. It had a cathedral ceiling and skylights. It was flooded with sunshine and errant insects: ladybugs zipped madly through the air, tumbled, clicked into each other -- against the glass skylights. The hairs on the back of my neck would began to tickle, prickle, rise as soon as I stepped onto the plush carpet.
When I reached their bed, I sat on the floor in front of my father's bookshelf, which was on his side of the bed. (The duck-feather pillow was always bunched-in and crumpled up, and smelled like his Gillette shaving cream). The bookshelf had three shelves, with curlicue molding, and was colored a bruised cherry -- probably cherry wood, too, more wood than red. And I would read everything.
And I mean everything.
The Killer Angels, Dylan Thomas' poetry, Jack London. Trinity, science fiction, Angela's Ashes. I knew I was reading beyond my age and outside of my religion: I even once swore off returning to my father's shelf in the height of my fundamentalism. And when I was fourteen I made myself go to Confession after reading one Russian classic in particular. But I kept breaking my vow and returning.
As the ladybugs dreidel'd around me, I learned about Bunberrying and whiskies in Pamplona. Confederates spitting tobacco juice into cans, and treks across the Siberian tundra. The wording was excellent, more excellent than anything my own shelf contained. Mine was painted saint-white. It held the likes of Little Women and Little House on the Prairie.
But I returned again and again to my father's shelf, addicted to the words. When I opened one of Hemingway's novels, the gears in my brain started whirring. I was learning to recognize a particular writing style just by squinting my eyes, and assessing the shape of paragraphs. I loved H's march of quotation marks, his headless dialogue. A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, Winner Take Nothing each had the shape of austerity. My mind would peak, fall off a cliff, seeing those unending ladders of dialogue.
I also re-read the torture scene in Dune: that long-needled endurance on a purple planet, the almost-stupid repetition of the word "pain".
There was a Bible, too, mulberry-colored and falling apart -- but that belonged to my Protestant mother. It was the only piece of literature she owned at the time. I read it, and tasted Christ's charred fish and bread in my mouth.
And Frost's rocks became a part of me, his New Hampshire walls.
Another New England writer, I liked Emily Dickinson because her poetry did not read like English to me. I tried to decipher my father's even-more obscure notes, like blue inchworms. They were half-scribbles, and I often had to turn the book up and down, because his words had no linear direction. His thoughts ski-sloped between her lines. They tucked and slid and scrinched. Emily (as my father called her) was a purist and dark and illuminating.
There was a single tiger lily on her cover, and it was coffee-stained. Actually, most of my father's books were coffee-stained. Many of their spines were broken, too. My father roughed-up his favorite things in a senseless way, like he roughed-up his family. Often affectionate, often a bully, and inexcusably unthinking. He meant to be intimate, to be personal, but he never quite made the mark, and if he did come close, he came too close -- stepped so far that boundaries were crossed, my psyche invaded, as he shoved his whole self upon a daughter too young to take it, and not his equal. He did not give freely as a father: when he gave affection, he asked for the impossible in return -- for an adult companion in a slender leafy heart. And sometimes he took over. He was capable of breaking soul-spines.
But still I liked the look of his books: they visibly had an owner. They were fingerprinted and mussed-up, and their keeper's presence, his time spent holding them, had left physical marks. They were gritty from lying on the floor of his truck. Rain-swollen if left outside. Pages buckling if he read in the bathtub: The Old Man and the Sea was particularly wavy.
I wondered why the fishermen and soldiers and the adults drank so much in these stories; why my father secretly drank so much. I read the volumes with demi-comprehension. I speculated about everything. I questioned how an Irish child could vomit God into the grass. And when he went to Confession, Frank McCourt's tropes were so subtle that I did not notice that the priest was laughing in his sleeve at the boy. I wondered what an ashplant felt like landing on a student's palm. (I experimented with a beech switch one day to find out.) I was bewildered that a teacher could give starving children only his apple peels. I was puzzled by how the winner could take nothing. How a guilty teenage boy could take his own life. How a kiss could feel like a hot strawberry. No, I actually went to Confession twice: with the scent of musty paper on my brain.
* * *
Sitting in front of the fireplace, I lowered "The Death of the Beekeeper".
"It's good," I exclaimed to my father. "It's so good."
"Oh, I don't know about that." He was fingering a pignut between his two blunt thumbs.
"No, it's so well-written. And it's so honest!"
The pignut was shelled, and looked like balsam wood.
"Thank you," my father shrugged, "but it's nothing, really. Writing in general is just dross."
"This is something." The yellow paper felt precious in my hand. "This is good."
“Thanks, Sary. Did you, know," he added, "your godfather helped me make the choice to marry your mother."
"I know," I said.
“He told me to do what was right. That's what he said," my father told me. "He was from the old world. The kind that doesn't exist these days. You know, in those first years when you kids were young, I honestly kind of wished I had my own father with me." His eyes turned glassy. They had a faraway look, and in their reflection I saw a white house, a basketball court, a pool, a deathbed I never saw, a man that I had forgotten. He was only twenty-six when his father died of cancer. I saw morphine drips, and the way he squeezed his sons' hands goodbyes. Four squeezes, for his four sons.
"But maybe," my father stammered, "maybe I shouldn't worry you about this kind of thing."
"No, no." I leaned forward. "Keep going."
"I don't know. It was just hard for me, in so many ways, Sary. You kids don't know about these kind of things."
"I know about a lot of things," I said wryly.
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do," but then I felt unsure.
"Not as much as you think, pumpkin. You're still really young." He gave me an omniscient smile. "You have no idea what adults go really through. You don't know what it is like to be on your own.”
I turned my head away. Politely: "I guess that's true."
"But, look," my father amended, "maybe you could help me with this piece. It needs another pair of eyes."
Then I pitied him: I believed he did not have a special person with whom to talk. I was also lonely, because my peers never engaged in the conversations I wanted to have: sophisticated, transcendent. About ideas. And I knew his life partner, my mother, was very quiet. Verbally barren.
"No, it doesn't need that much work," I assured him. I cradled the notebook. “Don't be disparaging about it. And I actually think Phil would want to see it," I added almost shyly. "It would make him really happy. You should show it to him.”
I sensed my father's spirit again. Now his heart was radiating through the center of his green-flanneled chest, and it was open and very tender.
"Well," he said, picking up the hammer again, "it needs to be edited,” -- tapping it against a pignut. He crushed it fully. "No one can see it until it is."
So my tone turned brisk. "All right. I don't know if I'll be able to do much" -- I slipped the pencil back between my teeth -- "but I can try." I leaned the pad of paper against my knees. My eyes ran over the verses.
My pulse quickened. A primordial juice started flowing up my veins, into my mind, turning stalks to quicksilver. My heightened energy was a herald: the shadow-wings of a calling, the delight of a child-potter when she feels clay in her hands, but before she learns to throw.
* * *
I didn't like my godparents' house.
At all. It was dim. Angular.
Cranky. When I walked on the floor, it made brittle sounds like I might snap the boards.
I also didn't like their blocks in a corner, kept there for children. The wood was unpainted and blunt. And the blocks smelled sour -- because wood can.
I especially did not like the aroma of their stuffed rabbit, which sat on a parlor chair. It was fish-gray, and had thin fur. It had zombie button eyes. It smelled like curdled milk. But I couldn't help picking up that stiff rabbit and smelling its sour fur, every single time. I was aware of the scent of everything.
I even was aware of the fragrance of a chalkboard, in a dark hallway off their kitchen. The kitchen was mildew and burned apples. The chalkboard had the fragrance of wet stone, like a basement foundation. But I liked the thin colored chalk in my hands, and I drew pictures every visit. The chalk was scented like talcum.
* * *
Observing my chalkboard drawings, Phil approved of my artistic ability.
Once he wrote a children's story, and he stapled the pages together, and asked me to illustrate it.
It was about a lanky deer who wandered the forest alone for years. One day, however, he met an unlikely soulmate: a meek and whispery mouse. She was plain to behold, but the deer was shot-through with light and warmth. He sidled up to her and won her friendship. The mouse rode on his neck and barely came up to his ankle joint, but their lonely days were over. They married brazenly, in spite of woodland protest and interracial prejudice. Later they had four babies: looking like little pink jelly beans. (Somehow with no antlers.)
I was disinterested in the story. But Phil had penciled some concept art for me -- the sketches shaky and cross-hatched -- and handed the book to my mother, who delivered it to me.
I stood in the kitchen, fingering the yellow oilcloth on the table, and squirming under the weight of the request. I was picking at some fuzz that was poking through the cloth and I did not want to say no. But twenty illustrations of a book was a lot. My mother had communicated the proposal to me in a hesitant way: probably because she was an artist herself.
"I don't really want to," I finally admitted. Then I smiled guiltily.
My mother did not exactly reprove me, but she warned, "All right, but Phil is getting old." She did not extrapolate, but I felt the weight of my godparent's age once again.
So I attempted to summon up everything gracious and noble within. "I can try," I offered. Even as I said it, my promise felt empty. Phil was relayed my assent.
I let his storybook stay on the art table for months. I was twelve and felt ashamed of my lack of integrity. After almost a year, I decided I wanted to keep my word sterling. Guilt was tearing at me, and pity for my ancient godfather. So I sat down and forced myself to make a drawing: a deer with large ears, wandering through the forest. I replicated Phil's criss-crossing style. I layered colors in the deer's hide, weed-green and pink. But I forget to add antlers. I drew another picture, a terrible illustration of a mouse in a veil. Then my small gusto spiraled out and deflated.
I ignored the book ultimately. It lay on our art table for years and years.
* * *
When Jean died a decade after Phil, somehow my family forgot to tell me.
In my twenties I had moved away to Ireland, and I learned of her passing only because one of my letters was returned to me. I had airmailed a card to my godmother for Easter, and four weeks later, my letter was returned to me unopened: stamped with Return to Sender. Addressee No Longer at Address.
I studied the stamp on the envelope for a moment and then surprised myself by bursting into tears. I knelt in front of my bed and put my head down on the white comforter.
It wasn't a long cry: just a spurt, to mark a life. "I thought you knew," my mother said later.
"I knew she had been sick," I replied.
My tears had surprised me, but I was thinking about this: every year on my birthday, Jean had mailed me a birthday card. And every year, she slipped a five-dollar bill inside the card. Jean's wispy schoolteacher cursive would say: "Get yourself something nice, Sarah. Pencils, or some treat for school."
I would re-read this several times, letting the words charm me with their peculiarity, antiquity. Pencils.
But when I got older, the five-dollar bill purely hurt me. It seemed so small and so sweet. It always looked crisp and flat, like Jean ritualistically laid the bill on an ironing board and had ironed it.
And in my 18th birthday card, Jean wrote to me: "Be careful at college parties, Sarah. I heard that boys these days sometimes spike the punch."
Her lettering had become like her voice: attenuated, twiggy.
"You can't be too careful. The sad truth," she concluded, "is that girls get pregnant. Be like your mother."
-- Except, I thought (with a laugh, offended by her warning and somewhat disgruntled that my card was not devoted entirely to me: Jean fawned on my mother, for her pies and cakes and other gracious acts) -- my unwed mother had given birth to me in college. I wondered if Jean had forgotten that I had been a year-old baby at my parents' wedding. I looked a fat round peach, all in silk.
A few years later I had been dressed up for another sacrament. When my Protestant mother converted to my father's religion, I was baptized at the age of four -- outrageously old for a child with one Catholic parent.
So, instead of being held over the baptismal font in a trailing white gown, I stood on my own: wearing a homemade dress, on tippy-toes in Mary-Janes. The baptismal font was imitation marble, a mossy-yellow. My hands were folded over the edge. My head was bent near the basin, my eyes swept-closed, as the water poured down my silky hair. My forehead glistened with chrism oil. My new godparents stood straight behind me, holding lighted tapers, looking like skeletons. Ironically, my godmother was Catholic, and my godfather was Protestant.
As the years went by, my five younger brothers were also baptized and appointed their own godparents. I became jealous that they were each assigned aunts and uncles, strong-hipped and robust, who wore flip-flops and went on vacation to Disney World. I tortured myself with the fantasy that if my parents died, my brothers would go to my cousins' and I would be shipped to the creaky farmhouse to live with frailty. Maybe to be slapped in a thoughtful way, or made to dance like a rabbit.
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