Life? or Theatre?
The recurring prayer of my childhood was more of a proposition: Get us a house, any house, and I won’t want anything else.
That I had no qualms about bargaining may account for God’s failure to deliver. But then the summer we finally did move into a house, I failed to honor my end of the deal. I still longed for many other things—a tan, the right kind of canvas espadrilles, a lifeguard job at the country club pool. I never was so brazen as to pray for a tan or a lifeguard job or even better espadrilles, but I suppose I should’ve made a pitch for “new father.”
I realized fairly early in life that total abandonment by our family provider was unattainable. Even though Pop’s favorite pastime was what my mother called “running around,” he never ran off for more than a three-day weekend. But it also never occurred to him that he should provide us with a house, let alone clothing and food.
We called the cramped, rundown apartment above where my grandmother lived The Apartment, as if there were only one in the world. Our delivery from its years-long tether came with a catch: we were only renting this house, and because the rent—in combination with multiple preexisting debts—wiped out my mother’s paycheck, we had to rely on Poppa for food—hardly a prayer-come-true.
He stayed behind in The Apartment after we moved to the rented house across town, but that didn’t mean we saw him any less. Pop chose The Apartment over us because he liked living in a shambles and because he liked living upstairs from the nearly deaf and halfway crazy mother who’d bailed him out from more than a few jail-worthy financial scrapes.
Pop was said to be a nicely groomed, well-liked guy when he was young, but my only knowledge of him was as a derelict-looking gambler. We called him Poppa because he hated the word Dad. Each of us had an unspoken agenda that consisted of pretending this guy who didn’t want to be called Dad wasn’t your father, but Pop had the keys to The Family Car, and life required a lift. In truth, I could never see my mother getting a divorce and then a new father for us. She made no effort to leave Pop and The Family Car because she was afraid of the world. When I was in second grade she got a job, but all that changed was her becoming a working person afraid of the world.
Our family provider happened to be a card-player always in need of a wad of bills. To get these bills he’d write bad checks at supermarkets to get cash back for amounts he didn’t have in his numerous checking accounts. These were the days before ATMs and credit card advances, which would’ve made Pop’s corruption more acute. Still, his scheme of using anticipated winnings to cover the checks before they cleared was elaborate. I always assumed that the government would someday come and take him away, like Eliot Ness did to mobsters in his favorite old-time television show. But then I’d turn around and cry into my pillow thinking of him being thrown in with hardened criminals.
That summer we moved out of The Apartment coincided with the start of Pop’s downfall at The Company. Perhaps the only mystery that loomed larger than what made Pop tick was why he never got fired. He’d been put on medical leave that spring when his pants fell down in Accounts Payable. I guess they thought he was an exhibitionist for whom there might be a cure, but anyone who knew him knew that his pants were always falling down because he had a beach-ball stomach and he hated wearing belts. Still, the women in Accounts Payable were horrified, so The Company sent him for two weeks of psychiatric evaluation at a hospital in the next city. He was supposedly confined to the hospital during this time, but he snuck out at night to cash bad checks and play cards.
It was hard having a father who’d never look you in the eye. When you played your hand well he’d say you had a “good eye,” but the only eye he knew was a poker eye. Or maybe he was more like a lizard that looked out from both sides of its head and saw two different worlds. It seemed as though through one of his lizard eyes Pop saw his life reflected in the rear-view mirror, and through the other he saw our lives, but the two views never came together in one integrated pattern. Before his pants fell down, he’d worked in a shirt and tie in the division that sold television tubes in Asia. After the psychiatric evaluation The Company assigned him to the four-to-midnight shift at Pressware, a factory on the city’s seedy fringe. We had no idea what he did there at Pressware. We never did find out the results of his psychiatric observation; all I know is that he got my mother to lie to the doctor about his behavior because he said that if they thought he was crazy he’d lose his job and we’d all be locked up.
Pop’s beat-up Pinto was integral to our cross-town move because it was how every salvageable thing we owned got from The Apartment to the rented house. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford to hire a professional moving company or even rent a U-Haul—which we probably couldn’t in the cash-flow sense—but with Pop no logical action was ever an option. He moved everything himself, with the Pinto in the middle of the night, and it took him the entire summer to do so. He probably could’ve taken less than the entire summer for this task, but he had his running-around schedule to maintain. And besides that he always had a quart bottle of Carling Black Label nestled in his crotch. He tied things to the roof of the Pinto with clothesline and would leave whatever he brought on the patio, along with sacks of junk-food groceries. The “grocery shopping” aspect of his check-cashing enterprise was to fill up the cart but not spend more than ten bucks, so he’d buy horrendous things like week-old beehive doughnuts from the bin near the deli—the dregs even within the junk-food genre—and deliver them to us after they’d sat in his trunk for a few days.
The one good thing about Pop working the four-to-midnight shift was that he let us use the Pinto while he was at work. Though my mother would take the wheel after we picked her up at 3:55 and dropped Pop off at four, it was my sixteen-year-old sister, Lee, who did all the driving. We really didn’t have anywhere to go—Lee, my mother, my brother Randy, and me—but still we drove around as if somehow we might come across a legitimate destination. We’d often wind up on the hill where my mother’s twin brother was buried; less frequently (and for lack of funds) it was Ramblers Rest for soft ice cream and the putt-putt golf course (just to watch) near the county airport. We’d swing by the one shopping mall and various discount stores where we never had the money to buy anything save for cartons of malted milk balls and (once a year) poor-quality four-player badminton sets.
Coincident with Pop’s downfall and the move across town was the discovery of Lee and her three best friends by popular boys at the other high school. Their high school—the one I was soon to attend—was ruled by country-club membership. Country-club membership was like Nasdaq or the Dow in our company town. It was hard to be popular outside this demographic: 26 percent were country club and the remaining 74 percent were middling-to-trash. Not all of the 26 percent were necessarily popular, but you definitely couldn’t be part of the 74 percent and be officially popular without special dispensation. You’d think that because many people were trash, certain aspects of being trash would generate some kind of value. But this was tyranny of the minority. The other high school was much more democratic (and the boys much cuter), but there was no middle ground at my sister’s school.
That Lee and her friends should be “discovered” only stood to reason given that they were pretty. All three friends were Italian and had two names—Mary Kay, Mary Jo, Mary Beth. Mary Kay lived with her mother in the town’s divorcee apartment complex that looked like a non-chain kind of beach motel. My sister and the Marys spent the summer sunbathing by the apartment complex pool. According to Lee, they had the run of the place during the day save for “a few horny phone guys who look like Joe Cocker.” Lee and the Marys would douse themselves with Coppertone coconut suntan oil via a squirt bottle for misting plants and make blender drinks using Mary Kay’s mother’s booze. Mai-tais and margaritas and a joint or two, cigarette laughs followed by short fits of coughing—that was the Marys. Their bikinis alone—the leopard prints, the phosphorescent Hawaiian colors, the large plastic rings and gold buckles—provided a major fear factor for someone like me. They were always looking for an excuse to bend over around the pool so that the boobs barely contained in their bikini halters would swing like cooking pots on a wagon train.
Midway through August that eventful summer, my various desires reached critical mass in the form of a haircut from Good Head in Johnson City. Layers were the specialty of a guy named Jay, who would cut and blow-dry your hair for twenty-two dollars. He’d already worked his magic on Lee—the understood reason for her date with the captain of the lacrosse team at the other high school. Lee had money that summer because she got a job working at the front desk of the YMCA when she wasn’t sunbathing with her friends. Randy had money, too—he was always off cutting someone’s grass with a mower he paid ten dollars for at a police auction. Despite my pressing need, my mother ruled out twenty-two-dollar haircuts if I wanted the luxury of a Penney’s wardrobe after my Catholic-school wilderness of white blouses and plaid jumpers.
Ever the mediator, Lee volunteered to cut my hair in layers, the way that Jay had cut hers. Reluctantly I agreed, and the outcome was disastrous—chopped off cleanly in different lengths, bangs maliciously short. She had a laughing fit after I screamed in the bathroom mirror and starting bawling. When Randy suggested that I go into hiding for the two weeks before school started, Lee exclaimed, “She’s in hiding already!” That really hurt.
“You can always wear a wig like Mrs. Carpenter,” she added, to make me laugh. But that hurt as well.
Mrs. Carpenter was the substitute cultural arts teacher who worked the area’s parochial schools. She was a childless window in her fifties who wore a wig in a shag hairstyle and would run her orange lipstick right over a cold sore whenever she had one (which was often). She drove from school to school in her black Camaro, showing up once in a while to teach us French, once in a while to talk about “Masterpieces of World Art.” It was said that before hitting our company town she taught drama for many years at a high school near Buffalo—a rumor I took to be true given that her car had a bumper sticker that said “Life? or Theatre?”
“What was it she was always saying in French?” Lee asked.
“Faites attention!” I yelled through snot and tears.
“Oh, Christ,” she shouted, “you already are Mrs. Carpenter!”
“I thought you watched Phil Donahue,” I said, trying to blow my nose with a paper towel. “I thought you knew how to make people feel better.”
She tried to amuse me with television comedy bits—the spastic way that Burt from Soap would snap his fingers and cross his arms and think he was invisible, or the way that Carol Burnett walked across the room when she was playing Mrs. Wiggins. She finally serenaded me like I was Charlie Haggers and she Loretta Haggers from Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!
By the time I gave up the strenuous work of feeling sorry for myself, Lee had made me an appointment with Jay and lined up Mary Kay to drive us to Johnson City in her mother’s boyfriend’s car. Lee would bankroll the excursion—twenty-two dollars of her hard-earned YMCA money on account of my head. And not only that: “Know what, Farrah? You can hang with me and the Marys at Ramblers Rest tonight. You can have a cigarette.”
Here, finally, was the invitation I’d wanted all summer—to sit on the hood of Pop’s Pinto with Lee and the Marys, drink black raspberry milkshakes, and smoke Marlborough 100s—and it comes when I was in such deep hiding that I might as well have disappeared.
I didn’t want people to see me because when school was out that year I had entered into a feud with my only two friends. I never really had legitimate friends, so this loss of pal-around types was not new territory. These girls treated me like dirt before the feud, so I suppose I should’ve considered the severed relations a blessing. The feud was over something stupid (as most are), but because it was the two of them ganging up on me, I couldn’t recant, regardless of how much recanting was in my best interest. Perhaps it was their attitude that made me stand my ground—that they were making this enormous concession to tolerate me as a friend because of the kind of family I was from. They would call our apartment “Dogpatch, U.S.A,” after where the hillbillies in the L’il Abner comic strip lived. We had seen a high school production of the musical L’il Abner with our Girl Scout troop, and one of the songs went “It’s a typical day in Dogpatch, U.S.A.” These two girls seized right on this, as did the scout leader and eventually the pimply seventh-grade science teacher who for mysterious reasons despised me. So I had these two girls plus these two adults always chiding me, “How are things in Dogpatch?”
To make good with my time in hiding that summer I tried to fix up the ramshackle rented house (to no avail) and get a tan by lying on a faded Budweiser beach towel in the backyard (also to no avail). I painted everything with nasty-colored industrial paints that Pop pinched from some construction site in the middle of the night. Gray and beige comprised my palette—the colors of church basement floors and correctional facility corridors. I painted indoors and outdoors and even the junk that was our furniture. Each morning when my mother woke me before she left for work she’d say, “Surprise me when I get home.”
My mother needed some good surprises to counteract the base-level misery of being married to Pop. She grew up so poor that she couldn’t say the word “Christmas” without crying. When her twin brother was killed in a construction site accident at eighteen, her family couldn’t even afford a cemetery plot, so they buried him on some hilltop property owned by his girlfriend’s family. A few years later, when that family’s German shepherd died, they buried the dog next to my uncle, and eventually it became a pet cemetery. My mother attributed her pack-rat nature to being so dreadfully poor and then having lost her twin. She had issues of Better Homes & Gardens from as far back as 1966; she still had all of our baby and toddler clothes stuffed into a big box that had once held a new hot water heater.
The Marys had mandated that I sit inside Pop’s car at Ramblers Rest that night and not with them on the hood. When any car consisting of two-plus guys pulled into the parking lot, Mary Jo would holler into the window, “Duck down, Ethel!” and my sister would say, “Oh, come off it.”
It amazed me that my sister was as normal as she was, as optimistic and resourceful as she was considering the situation of Pop. I was astounded that the Marys were willing to cruise around town in Pop’s junker, but then Lee had a long history of making the unsavory wrapper of any bad circumstance melt away. She almost got a job that summer as the Monday-Wednesday-Friday A.M. lifeguard at the country club pool—which would’ve been an Olympian achievement given that no teenager who wasn’t a member was allowed to pass through the gates, even if it was to save drowning lives.
Mary Jo was the clique’s ringleader, which wasn’t surprising considering that her family owned a successful pizza parlor that was known to have mafia connections. She lived in an enormous brand-new house that had a kitchen on each of its three floors—lived there with an extended family that included a lot of tiny old ladies dressed in black, who, according to my sister, slept during the day, fully clothed and encased by crocheted shawls, on fold-up beds.
“Why didn’t you bring her a hat or something?” Mary Jo asked Lee.
“Because it’s not cold,” Lee said, blowing smoke out her nose.
“Oh, you are so fucking funny!” Mary Beth yelled, hugging my sister like she was drunk already.
“Get with it, bitch,” Mary Kay said to my sister, bumping her shoulder against Lee’s. “If you want to be us you’ve got to change your name to Mary Lee.”
“I don’t want to be Mary anything.”
“You have to be Mary something!” the Marys persisted, each stretching out and posing the hand holding the cigarette.
“Mary Hartman!” I yelled from inside the car.
“Ew!” the Marys squealed.
“Your sister’s such a freakin’ freak,” Mary Jo said, shaking her head.
“No, she’s not,” said Lee, turning around to smile at me sitting behind the wheel.
Fearing the Marys would really light into me, I rolled up both windows. I watched them on the other side of the windshield as they laughed and leaned into each other and swayed with their long, sun-bleached hair, like a children’s book illustration I remember in which mermaids sit on a rock combing one another’s “golden tresses.”
I did feel like a freak because of the haircut, and I did feel like crying because of everything that had happened in my life up to that point. But more so I felt like a fake, because sealed inside Pop’s Pinto I remembered to remember that Lee, like Randy, thoroughly believed that I was smart—book-smart—and because she thought I was smart she wasn’t that embarrassed about my being called a freak by her pretty friends. It scared me immensely to think of her discovering that I wasn’t really book-smart. She would be so let down, and I couldn’t bear that.
That summer of my father’s downfall and my sister’s discovery I set out to read Great Expectations—mostly as compensation for my shoddy Catholic school education but also as a preemptive strike, to get a jump on my high school peers. I was much too lazy to be an overachiever, but I was nonetheless disturbed by rumors holding that the whole ninth grade consisted of substitute teachers, a lot of them the wives of junior VPs at The Company. Someone said that Track 1 English was being taught by the stupid mother of a stupid popular girl, and that all the while this stupid mother should’ve been discussing Great Expectations she complained about not being able get the pleats to stay in her daughter’s cheerleading uniform.
Two months into summer vacation I had failed to get past the first fifteen pages of Great Expectations. What Lee and Randy failed to realize was that I only pretended I was smart, as a strategy to deflect attention from my chronic inability to make friends with nice people. My grade-school achievement was a cheat-sheet way of reading library synopses and the last sentence of each chapter in a novel to cough up an A+ book report. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t read, but I had a strange attitude toward the nature of study. I never liked to do the schoolwork I was assigned, because so far life had taught me that doing the assignment (or praying the prayer) didn’t get you any closer to what you wanted.
Though I had failed to get past fifteen pages of Dickens I read every ancillary piece contained in the bulky paperback on extended library loan. In “Dickens and the Industrial Revolution,” for instance, I learned that when the writer was a boy, his entire family was sent to debtor’s prison because of his father’s “improvidence”—just like Pop said would happen to us if my mother spilled the beans to the company shrink. This seemed to me like a relevant historical continuum, because I’d recently learned from PBS that when a pharaoh of ancient Egypt died, the rest of his family were often knocked off to mummify alongside him—wife, kids, domestic pets, and even a few crocodiles. Although I lived in an age when the government was not going to mummify or haul off to jail whole families and their pets for the sins or expiration of the father, a similar though unwritten law seemed applicable to a family like us living in a company town at that time. After all, why would my mother not tell the truth about the way my father behaved if she didn’t believe that we all were in some way at fault?
My every disappointment and failure of the summer had coalesced into a heavy veil of defectiveness—my inability to get past Pip in the marsh with the convict and my inability to get a tan and my inability to surprise my mother when she got home by spreading around the gray and beige. The lousy espadrilles under the bed and the AM radio station playing any song from Hotel California as if that was the only music there was to life—co-conspirators in this plot to bring me down.
Like a boom of thunder, Lee’s hand slapped the windshield to get my attention. “Isn’t that one of your friends?” she mouthed at me. I was startled to find myself behind the greasy steering wheel of Pop’s car. Wasn’t that one of my friends? One of my two and only former bogus friends?
Yes, it was definitely Teresa Pondalu, whose big claim to fame was having been serenaded by Don Ho at some kind of Tikki Room in Honolulu when her family made the big Hawaii trip like the Brady Bunch. Teresa was absurdly pear-shaped. They were all shaped like Bartlett pears, her family of eight: They’d make a big production of entering church on Sunday and squeezing their bulbous forms into a single pew. Today Teresa was with some geeky boy with a faceful of zits, and trailing behind the two was Teresa’s pear-shaped mother, wearing her signature footwear of Peds with sandals. Mrs. Pondalu’s mouth was always hanging open in a way that made you want to ask, “Catch any flies?” She was an ICU nurse who rigged their house so that there was nowhere she couldn’t grab a pack of cigarettes and some matches.
My only other “friend,” Andrea McFeeney, was a nerd of equal proportion—overweight, with the voice of a grownup overweight woman high on diet pills. Andrea’s mother went through two paperback romance novels a week and then gave the books to Andrea, who read them at a slower rate but kept a scrapbook in which she did pastel sketches of the book-cover’s hero modeling Wrangler and Landlubber jeans. Andrea’s father owned a pharmacy and paid for a weekly fifteen-minute AM radio spot in which members of his family sang songs from Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow.
I didn’t know the boy Teresa was with; he wasn’t from St. Cecilia’s. At first I thought he must be a cousin, but then I saw that they were holding hands as well as cones. Observing Teresa and the boy made me feel like I was in one of those drive-through safari zoos where the wild animals roam free as you stay locked inside your car. I wanted to be shocked that Teresa, this bogus friend of mine, had settled for such a boy, but from my newly objective vantage point he seemed perfect for her—her exact nerd equivalent, willing to go on some kind of ice cream date under the watchful eye of her fly-catching mother. And then I realized that because Teresa was one of my only two friends, I was of the same caliber, so this boy was my caliber. Or maybe this wasn’t even my caliber, because this boy was smart—you could tell he was smart. Maybe my caliber was a boy who looked just like him but couldn’t spell or add and because of this was in a vo-tech program learning how to put brake pads on the cars of cheap and stupid people.
Everyone except me seemed to be a wild animal roaming free on the outside—Lee and the Marys were the lionesses smoking on the hood, Teresa and the boy the jackals skulking about the Pondalus’ VW van. And if the outside belonged to the free-roaming wild animals, then I, sealed inside Pop’s Pinto, was the exact opposite—the tame and locked-up kind of animal, the sheep kind of animal, like the plastic ones in our Woolworth’s nativity set. It was the sheep I always messed with—sticking them on the ox’s horns or in the manger’s swaddling indentation. But regardless of the chaos I might inflict, the scene was always set to right the next time I looked. I knew it was my mother’s doing, but I still envisioned God’s knuckles nudging things where they belonged. He was the arranger, and you couldn’t mess with his plan.
The Marys put up a ruckus when Lee ditched them at Mary Jo’s pizza parlor so that she could go home with me to fetch Randy and then turn the car over to Pop. They each gave us the double finger as we sped off, and as I turned to stare at them being raunchy and pretty in unison, I bitterly thought that if you had looked upon the scene with a fresh pair of eyes, you might think that it was each and every character who was happy and carefree.
“How can you stand to sit in the driver’s seat after Pop sat there?” I snapped at Lee when I turned back around.
“Like what,” she said with a laugh, “I’m gonna sit on the passenger side and steer from there?’
“The steering wheel is gross—it’s all greasy.”
“OK, yeah,” Lee said with mock concern, “so maybe we should just stay home and never go anywhere. Maybe we all should be like you.”
“Lay off me for a change.”
“You’ve gotta stop being like a rabbit in your rabbit hole, Alice.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I want to see you having some kind of life,” she said. Then she laughed. “Christ Almighty you keep making me look bad in this town!”
When we had picked up Randy and were waiting in the car for Pop, we could see from the way he walked he was already drunk. Being drunk at work was a new one. Was it worth upsetting my mother about? Most days she came home from work and immediately took a nap, lying on her side atop the chenille bedspread with her lipstick and glasses still on. She’d often exclaim, “If I had a nickel for every time your father drove us around drunk!” We had long ago adjusted to being driven by a drunk, but a father who got drunk at work was a father who probably would not keep his job.
“Pop,” Randy said from the backseat, “I still need that forty bucks to pay back Impy for basketball camp.”
Lee turned to smile at Randy. “Hit him up while he’s smiling!”
“You’re not gettin’ no money out of your old Pop.”
“Pop,” Lee began, “you gotta give Randy the money. Impy’s dad paid for him going to the camp. It makes Randy look bad.”
“We all need money,” said Pop. “How’s about you kids giving me some money for a change? You got better incomes.”
“Randy’s buying a bike,” I yelled. “He’s buying a bike with his own money. Mom laid it away.”
“He’s got to pick it up by the end of September,” Lee said. “They won’t hold it longer than that.”
“My Mama done laid it away,” Pop sang to some schmaltzy tune he was making up on the spot.
Numerous cars honked as he swerved at an intersection and muttered “character.” Whenever he thought someone was pompous or uppity or whatever constituted his conception of weird, he’d call that person a “character.” The shrink at the hospital was a character. His old boss who drank ouzo was a character. Our former neighbor who wore suspenders was a character. That Pop would have room to call anyone a “character” was absurd, but now it seemed criminal.
“Why do you call people character?” I yelled from the backseat. Because nobody said anything, I plowed ahead. “What do you mean by character anyway? Nobody understands you, and nobody cares. Know what? Nobody cares what you think! It’s you who’s the character!”
Lee and Randy were shocked; Pop should’ve been shocked, but who could say what he was thinking? I suppose it was embarrassing for both him and me. He started singing one of his old songs—I’ve told every little star in the sky how nice you are. He really liked the lyric Why haven’t you told me?
He stopped in front of our rented house long enough for us to get out, and then he drove off slowly, his operational mode when drunk.
“You hurt Pop’s feelings!” Lee yelled, yanking my arm.
“What feelings?” I shouted back, shaking off her grip. “He’s drunk—he can’t feel anything.”
“He’s our father,” she answered as Randy quietly disappeared across the yard. “You don’t talk like that to your father.”
“I don’t want him to be my father, OK? I want him to leave—leave town. To go away and leave us alone. To go away and never come back. I want a new father, a real father.”
“You can’t pick these things!”
“I say, everyone says. There are rules.”
“I don’t give a shit about rules!”
“You have to give a shit!”
“You have to care about people’s feelings.”
“I don’t care about anyone’s feelings!”
“You have to care! You have to be nice to people. Don’t you know that? Why can’t you be nice to people for a change? If you were nice to people you’d have some friends.”
I ran into the house and up the stairs because I didn’t want to hear it—didn’t want to hear “Dogpatch, U.S.A.” and the Marys calling me a freak and now my sister telling me that I had to be nice to a drunk father to have any friends.
Trying to fall asleep that night, I decided that I would have to stop hoping for some kind of reconstituted family and start concentrating on having fun, become cutthroat in my boy-craziness—douse myself with musk oil, go to keg parties in the woods, zip and unzip my jeans from one backseat to the next. What if I just turned “bad,” I wondered—ten times worse than the Marys? No more of that “all for one and one for all” crap that had somehow kept eighty percent of our family intact. Abandoning them seemed a cruel thing to do to my mother, as she had not much else in her life but the three of us. Lee hadn’t done this even after having been discovered by popular boys at the other high school. But I couldn’t be as strong or as good as my sister.
As I lie there it made me angry thinking of the prayer than went “Dear Jesus will you please lean down and listen while I pray” and coyly declared “I like to feel you very near and not so far away.” I thought how I never once felt Jesus being “very near.” To me, Jesus was always “far away” if he was anywhere, just like the Carole King song that asks, Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?
Because I couldn’t sleep I was the one to hear the knock at the door. It was a policeman who, via Little League and State Farm Insurance, knew the better elements of my father’s family. In a near-whisper, he explained to Randy that he didn’t want to startle us by ringing the doorbell. “There’s been an accident,” he said, “a collision.” His name was Comstock, and he had come to collect my mother, but being the kind of people we were, we all piled into the cruiser.
I knew that my mother in the front seat was more terrified at having to make idle chitchat than she was worried about Pop. Even though the cop had more than once assured us, “Appears to be OK but we can’t get him out of the car,” Lee and Randy kept shooting each other panicked glances that I intercepted as meaning, “What if Pop’s pinned under the steering wheel?” They were sitting to my right and left, envisioning Jaws of Life scenarios and ignoring me because they must’ve thought I precipitated this situation by wishing to be rid of Pop.
We soon saw that the accident had occurred smack dab in the middle of the Centerway Bridge, and that the thing into which Pop had collided was a black Camaro—and not just any black Camaro. It was the Camaro of our former French and art teacher Mrs. Carpenter. The cops couldn’t get Pop out of the car not because he was pinned behind the wheel but because he refused to evacuate; he sat there inside the Pinto, staring into space. If you didn’t know Pop you might’ve charitably thought “shock” rather than “dazed drunk.” But it wasn’t Pop and the Pinto or Mrs. Carpenter and the Camaro that caused our mouths to hang as wide open as Mrs. Pondalu’s: it was our baby clothes that had been packed and saved by my mother in an old water heater box and were now strewn across Centerway Bridge. This was the last of it, our old stuff from The Apartment. Apparently Pop had tied the box to the Pinto’s roof, and when his car hit Mrs. Carpenter’s (or vice versa) the box went flying.
I thought my mother was going to die from this public mess that was our tawdry hoarded possessions. The good news that no one was hurt did not seem to assuage her despair. Two other cruisers with flashing lights were parked so as to close off Centerway, and there were two bystanders even though it was the middle of the night. Under the enormous lights the suspension bridge felt like a Rockette-caliber stage where every small action was magnified by a thousand. I remembered crossing that bridge in one of Pop’s clunkers when I was little and wondering why they needed such bright lights. Now the answer was obvious: So that the whole world could see our old clothes looking shoddy and neglected, the bright colors of babyhood laundered to death amid splotches of petticoat and other small but sad garments.
We’d all got out of the cruiser but clung to the vehicle as if to indicate “we’re with this team.” My mother hid her face in her hands, apparently hoping that this was the part of the dream where she woke up on her chenille bedspread. Mrs. Carpenter was so upset that she didn’t even recognize us. He wig was askew in a way that would have been hilarious under any other circumstance. She had with her some very drunk old guy who sat on the ground, propped up by the Camaro, singing the line “To dream the impossible dream” repeatedly in different octaves. Mrs. Carpenter was telling one of the cops that she and this guy, Ralston, had been driving home from Geneva where they’d seen a production of Man of La Mancha. Then Ralston piped in about it being a lousy two-bit show and added something about John Cameron Swayze in relation to dreaming the impossible dream.
Even though Pop was staring into space with the door of his smacked-up car dangling open, the police gave the impression that they thought Mrs. Carpenter was the driver at fault—perhaps simply because her passenger was so vocally drunk. Randy made an offhanded attempt to get Pop’s attention, as if he could surreptitiously give and get the high-five of OK-ness. But Pop’s mind—his inner lizard poker eye—had obviously drifted off to some universal Do Not Disturb zone. I noticed one cop smile at another and shake his head, and then this cop did the same to the next, like the baton movement in a relay race to indicate that one bunch of freaks always seems to hook up with the like in the way that every old sock meets an old shoe.
Amid the flashing lights and my mother’s palpable shame I noticed on Mrs. Carpenter’s car the “Life? or Theatre?” bumper sticker. You could tell that the end of the sticker that had faded depicted twin Janus masks, though at that time I’d never have known “Janus masks.” They were to me happy-and-sad faces, and visible on Mrs. Carpenter’s bumper was the sad one. Here we were, major characters in a scene of chaos, and yet an eerie order seemed to prevail, as if that knuckle-nudging God had orchestrated all of this as part of some elaborate nativity set. Mary was hiding her face and Joseph was shit-faced; the shepherds were scribbling things in carbon-copy notebooks, two of the kings had made it in from La Mancha. I suppose Lee and Randy and I were the sheep figurines plunked down just so. But where, you had to wonder, where was the baby Jesus amid this mass display of swaddling clothes?
Total chaos cannot last forever—I knew that—and Lee was already reminding us about tomorrow. She was picking up the clothes piece by piece, walking and bending and plucking like our clothes were wildflowers in abundant bloom, ripe for the taking. A rhythm took hold; I could feel it as she scooped up something lone and crocheted, leaning and reaching with her shimmering layers. There was something glamorous about her movement under the enormous lights—not exposure but amplification. Even on so unforgiving a stage she did not seem lost, but rather the impersonal expanse seemed relieved to have been colonized, tamed, at last. I was stupefied into not even feeling my overlapping agonies. Go pick up your clothes with your sister! my conscience demanded. But I wasn’t like Lee—I wasn’t brave and beautiful in equal measure. OK, then just start walking—walking and walking through the police cruiser barricade and across Market Street and the other streets and over the backs of the hills of sleeping elephants. But I didn’t even have the aptitude to run off and go bad.
“Aaaaaah!” Mrs. Carpenter shouted in her brusque classroom projection. “C’est la jolie Lee! Ma chérie Lee!”
The woman was in quite a stew, but she always loved my sister—most teachers did despite Lee’s mediocre grades and penchant for skipping class—and obviously appreciated the scene for the very reason it had stunned me.
“Bravo! Bravo!” she hollered, clapping as if at a theatrical production. “Bravo! Bravo, Cassandre!”
Lee laughed and bowed as she continued to pick up our clothes. Was this funny? I wondered—and was Mrs. Carpenter drunk, too?
“Faites attention! Faites attention!” Mrs. Carpenter yelled, clapping twice after each command and turning on her heels. She was addressing the entire assembly, and she was most definitely drunk—but she was a lot happier about it than my father.
“Pour tu, Lee, un poème lyrique de Ronsard, le chef de la Pléiade!”
“Give me a Pleiade or give me death!” Ralston yelled from the side of the Camaro, thrusting up an arm like he was motioning forth the Light Brigade.
“Oh brother,” a cop groaned while another kept trying to secure Mrs. Carpenter’s attention with “Ma’am?”
“Mignonne, allons voir si la rose,” Mrs. Carpenter recited.
“A Pleiade in peddle-pushers,” Ralston continued, “with pompoms and ponytails.”
“Jesus Christ!” another cop said with a laugh.
“Qui se matin avait déclose, Sa robe de pourpre au soleil . . . ”
“Son, why don’t you try to get your dad out of the car,” Officer Comstock said to Randy, nodding him in the direction of the Pinto.
“A point perdu, cette vêprée, Les plis de sa robe pourprée . . .”
Another cop had opened the trunk of the cruiser and indicated to Lee that she should dump the armfuls of clothes in there.
“Et son teint au vôtre pareil.”
“And you,” Officer Comstock said to me, “why not see to your mother?”
I looked at my distraught mother and immediately had to look away, for she was like a magnetic coil of sadness drawing out every scrap of sadness within me. And then I glanced at Randy tugging at my father’s limp arm, and I had to look away from that, too, because whatever constituted Pop’s magnetic coil drew only anger out of me.
Yet something on this improvisational stage gave reason to love—Lee, of course, but what Lee was doing made it feel like there was more than just her, some glistening element that, had I been kidnapped by pirates and taken halfway around the world, I would fight to the death to get home to. And then I remembered the important fact that Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations with two endings—a sad one that he thought was the truth, and a more promising one that people wanted to read.
You could read both and you could believe either, but there was no higher authority, no standard edition to say which was right. And I thought that maybe everything in all of life had two endings—two endings always happening at the same time—and that maybe there was no higher authority to tell you which one to choose, that it was up to you to decide between the debits and the credits, the happy and sad faces, the things that would always be very near, and those that would remain so far away. §