by Chelsea Lowe
Mother sold our old house for a condo on the shore. "The neighborhood's changing," my mother had said. Long Beach, New York, with its art deco buildings and World War II homes. She chooses Connecticut--partly, she says, to be nearer to us.
Joey and I go to help and retrieve any lingering things. I meet my brother at his home, the smallest apartment in Queens. He sleeps beneath his piano on a mattress on the floor. I don't know how he even got the instrument in there. It seems to squeeze out all the light.
Something crazy's playing on his radio: a song in a language I don't think I've heard.
"What is this?" I ask.
"I dunno. Some college station. I almost never hear a DJ--which is good, because they're really terrible. But they play the most energizing music."
"What in the hell are they singing?"
"I dunno." Joey smiles. I shake my head.
My father tells a Depression story: Twelve or so, going to the grocery with a sack of deposit bottles, he spotted a hobo rooting through trash. He gave the man his cache--then turned in time to see him trying to suck
the last drops from a pop bottle.
I wonder if my father and brother and mother and I are really a dream. I cry in my sleep, then wake up wondering what I must have seen.
Joey jokes about "the ancestral condo," and lets me drive his van. We don't know why our mother kept the house once our father was gone. We wanted to move to a new place. Other kids accepted what had happened--but
when new kids came to school, it was the first thing that they learned.
Looking straight ahead makes some things easier to say. We talk the way we sometimes do, and laugh about our past.
"Remember," he says, "the pounding you got when you called him a Bolshevik?"
"I had no idea what that even meant--and I never thought he could hear me."
"He always heard us. It was like this amazing--"
"He always heard me. I think Dad just liked you. He didn't like me."
"When he died, you cried more than I did."
"Because it was too late."
Joey smokes, stares out the window.
"That's going to kill you, you know."
"Yeah, I've heard."
But my brother forgets things, as I do. He says he can barely remember what happened that bad afternoon. (He remembers the Kennedy murder, though he was only seven then.) I remember almost everything about our
father's death, but forget other things. Together, we can recreate events like one. Maybe if we had another brother, we'd do better still.
1963. Running through front yards, horrible pain in my side, blinded to logic by fear. I've hit a ball through my window. Only my father is home.
After I can't run anymore, I force myself to walk, to explore unknown corners of town. Neighbors engage me in conversation. Polite and quiet and shy, I smile. God in your heaven, why have you done this to me?
Outside the firehouse, firemen stand around, smirking, it seems. I drag past the candy store. Closed for the day. Work up the courage to walk past my house--at least from across the street. Peer at the driveway to see if
she's home. The driveway is empty.
My father is watching and waiting for me. My father is yelling.
"Get over here. Now."
Flashes in my stomach go running to my head. I march stoically into the house. He wants to know about the window. He wants to know right now.
"I did it. I didn't mean to." I shut my eyes tightly against what's to come.
"What?" My eyes have opened.
"Look. These things happen. Be more careful next time." Sudden relief overpowers composure. My hands almost frantically fly to my eyes, trying to hide them, my mouth and my nose. I need something to lean against, something to hug. He offers me something to cry about. Thanks, I think, I have enough.
I shake my head silently but a quick sob leaves me. I rush up the stairs to my room, shut the door and sit quickly on my bed, pressing a sweater against my face. If I must cry, I must cry quietly.
Grandma's dog, Sunny, brings back sticks and licks me; grips slippers in her teeth and tugs. Sunny runs to me and I hug her.
Our old house is stripped. I feel distant, unmoved. My collected memories fit in a carton, not much larger than the milk bottle box that still stands on the stoop.
We walk into the kitchen. Joey slides into a chair, sits drumming on a place mat at the table. I bend down to kiss my little mother, realize she's edging toward seventy.
"How's 'The Katestress'?" she asks, referring to my playful name for Kate. I sit down next to her.
"OK," I say. "She seems to be over the worst."
"You never get over the death of a mother."
"I'm sure you don't." I reach over to put an arm around her.
"And you. What's with you?" she asks Joey.
She still has bread and lettuce, pareve margarine and tuna.
"Come on, Ma. I'm taking us out to the diner."
"I have food here."
"They have food there."
But my mother makes us tuna sandwiches on toast. An apple each. I half expect a glass of milk.
I ask how she feels about leaving this house. She says, "Feelings are socks that got lost in the dryer. You never know when they'll pop out."
I take in her mail and by chance find a letter. To David (my first name; David for my father's father. Neil, because my mother liked it) and Joseph and Mrs. Glass. (Not sure how he got our proper names.) What irony. She
isn't Mrs. anybody now. Written by Steven G. Freid, the man who killed our father. Now a balding lawyer (matte photo enclosed), once a skinny kid with thick, wavy sand-colored hair (I remember from the trial) who said that he never intended to kill. I believe him. So what? He destroyed us. Left me with unanswered questions, regret. Left everything forever unresolved. He's married, a parent. In the picture, he's holding a kid. Infant.
Smiling child. Baby boy. At first, I feel nothing. I try to keep that pain away, but, sure enough, it comes.
Blue glide pen on heavy yellow legal paper:
"I don't expect forgiveness. I just wanted you to know how deeply I regret the hurt I caused." He has religion now, he's doing good. Working with "at-risk" kids. "On the right path" after half a lifetime spent in jail. "I'll pray for you," the letter says. I'll pray for you. Dear God. He sends his address. Does he want absolution? Trembling, I fold up the letter again and again. Fold it as fast as I can. Stick it into a
pocket and, straight-faced, give my mother the rest of the mail.
"What took you so long?"
"I wanted to look at the house." I turn my attention to the kitchen counter, then the yards outside the window. Wonder whether she's had letters from this man before. I can't ask. Maybe I'll tell Joey in the car. He'll come back and help with the actual move in a week. He says he doesn't need me there. I'll fly back to Boston tonight.
I haul my box of art supplies and marbles, baseball cards and paintings to the van. In a hoarse whisper, I intone, "Rosebud. . ." Joey chuckles. So do I.
Joey lights a cigarette and lets me drive again. Her new place, I tell him, is woefully small. "She wouldn't have room for a boyfriend in there."
"Only if he's got a little dick."
"I wouldn't talk if I were you. She's got more space than you do."
"So--what are you saying?" He smiles and laughs and coughs a little, almost all at once.
The phrase keeps returning to me: I'll pray for you. I'll pray for you. The idiot, I think.
Think of the letter incessantly. Can't write back for real. I ended up shredding the letter and envelope, threw them away at the curb.
Riding to the airport in the back seat of a cab, I write back to Steven G. Freid in my mind. Dear stupid fuck, I ought to be praying for you, you dumb prick. In the sky, on the plane, I write back again, without paper or
pen, calmer now.
To the man who killed my father:
As hard as I'm sure it was for you to write to our family, that's how hard it has been for my brother and me to lose our father with so much of our conflict unresolved. So much I wanted to ask him about. You robbed me of possibility, deprived my mother of all she wanted--a husband, a home and a regular life...
Clouds out the window, ground far below. I see none. Worked up. My throat hurts. The man next to me pokes my arm, points to the attendant in the aisle offering a beverage from her cart. I flinch first and then have to smile for the people. Shake my head, smiling and silent, turn fast to the window again.
About the author:
Chelsea Lowe writes frequently for the Boston Globe and other publications.