1.1 – 1984
Father’s body was paralyzed on the left side. His face sagged. A tube snaked from his mouth. Saliva slid over his slack lips and down his chin, onto his neck. The stroke had rendered him helpless, he was strapped to his bed, yet I expected him at any moment to bolt up in a rage to seek revenge on the nurses who supervised his detention. I imagined that they, who wiped the spittle from his face, changed his bags and measured his bodily fluids, turned and bathed him, kept him alive, would experience his wrath if they were tending to him when he awoke.
His body jerked violently before it settled down to its unceasing shaking. I felt a tinge of pity for him, but little else except guilt for not feeling something more appropriate.
I pondered the long evening ahead.
“Maybe some music will help us make it through the night,” I said.
I looked at Dad, half expecting a response. Getting none, I plugged in my tape player and moved close to his bed.
“We’re listening to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. He had a commission to write the piece, you know, but told his wife that it would be played at his own funeral. He was, unfortunately, right. It was the last thing he wrote.”
I took a wicked delight in talking to my father this way, knew he would rather die right now than listen to anything by Mozart. I turned up the volume as much as is prudent in intensive care, closed my eyes and spoke over the music.
“Be sure to listen for the trombone solo in the Third Movement. It’s called the Tuba Mirum.” I played the Requiem throughout the night. Very late, with the chorus soaring, I dozed off.
I was awakened by a cacophony of loud beeps, alarms and footsteps as nurses rushed into the room. In a flurry of activity, they checked Dad’s blood pressure and pulse, put a light to his eyes. They called for a doctor who repeated everything they had just done. Finally, the doctor shook his head, indicating the battle was over.
He pulled the sheet over my dad’s face. “I’m sorry. We did all we could. We’ll leave you two alone now.”
The room was silent. Dad was still. I felt nothing. Tentatively, I slid my chair to his bedside and pulled the sheet from his face. His eyes, open, revealed not a trace of the smirk or disdain that I expected. He seemed peaceful, his face untainted by anger or remorse.
I can still feel her coming to get me out of bed, the trailer shuddering with each footstep as she comes clomping from the kitchen. I can feel her desire to help me break away, though she has but a vague idea of how to go about it, never having escaped herself. This seemingly ordinary day was to be a pivotal one for me and, except for the fact that my mother had a lofty but unformed vision for my future, I might never have gotten out of bed that morning.
“This is the third and last time I’m telling you to get up.” She jerked the blanket off me. “Now.”
I smashed my fist into the mattress. “I hate school and I ain’t going.”
“Don’t you be saying ‘ain’t’ when you’re talking to me,” she snarled. “And in case you think a nine-year-old kid makes his own decisions around here, think again.”
She spun around to leave, still talking. “One thing I know for sure is you won’t be making any new friends here in bed.”
She rattled pans in the kitchen so nobody could sleep even if they wanted to. I plopped down at the table, ate a plate-sized pancake and asked for another before trudging down the dirt road. The school bell was ringing as I slipped in at the back of the line just in time to have to listen to some older kid who started out his bragging the minute I arrived.
“Guess what I get to do?”
Nobody answered or even cared but he kept on.
“I’m going to the City to hear a man play his violin.” He lowered his head and glanced at me, smiled an ugly smile. “Probably none of you ever even saw a violin.”
He took a chocolate bar out of his pocket and held it up so we could all get a good look. He unwrapped it slow-like and took a bite.
“Anyway,” he went on, “my dad says that nobody in this one-horse town would care anything about a symphony concert or even that Tchaikovsky will be there.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Chai – coff – skee,” he said, looking me over good. “But they don’t let fruit-picking trash like you in concert halls.”
“Just shut up.” I shoved him hard out of line. “I can go anywhere I want to.”
“Liar!” he said, pointing at me. “You don’t even have any shoes.”
I punched him in the face and kicked him. When his chocolate bar fell to the ground, I tromped on it, squishing it through my toes. “You’re a piss-pot, turd face,” I yelled just before the teacher grabbed me.
“Maurice! Joey! What’s going on here?”
“He started it,” I said, struggling to free myself.
“Did not!” Maurice the bragger pointed to the melting chocolate mess in the dirt. “Look what he just did.”
“Joey! Just a few days here and you’re in trouble already.” She yanked me inside and stuck me in the corner for the rest of the morning without even listening to my side.
After school, I left there quick, running. As I got close to our trailer, I stopped by the wooden storage shed dad had cobbled together just so I could savor the yeasty, wonderful smell of fresh baked bread. The shed stood with its door hanging open, padlock dangling. A 25-pound sack of flour was leaning against the wall, its top slashed open, a measuring cup and sifter poking out of the soft, white contents. On a small shelf alongside the half full bag of flour were two more neatly folded empty bags with blue and yellow flowers on them.
Knowing I’d have to tell her about the fight with Mr. Stuck Up Asshole Turd Face, I opened the screen door, knowing she would be standing there with her apron on, sprinkling flour over the small wooden table and no longer mad at me. She smiled as I opened the screen door.
I figured I’d get it over with right away. “I got in a fight today, but I didn’t start it.”
She put down her rolling pin. A frown replaced her smile.
“Some kid was making fun of me,” I cried. “He called me trash and said I couldn’t go to a concert like him because I don’t have any shoes and I said I could, too. So can I?”
“Chai – koff – skee,” I said, proud of myself for remembering. “He has a violin. It’s a symphony concert in the City.”
“You can’t get blood out of a turnip, Joey. We barely have enough food to eat and you want to go to some concert.” She pushed her hair back from her face, leaving a smudge of flour on her forehead. “How do you think we’d pay for it?”
“You hide money sometimes.”
“Not for wasting.” She wiped her hands on her apron, looked at me. “In my whole life, I’ve never been to any kind of concert. I doubt if you’ll even like the symphony.”
“I will, too, like it!”
“And San Francisco’s got traffic and cable cars everywhere.” She sounded impatient. “And hills so steep you think you’re going to roll off the earth.”
“Maurice is a crappy jerk and he was making fun of me. I had to say I could go.” I clenched my fists and pounded on my hips. “Take me just this once. I promise I’ll never ask for anything ever again.”
“You’ve got to be the most persistent kid in the world.” She plopped the dough on the table. “I need to make a pie now.”
“No.” I yanked on her apron. “Not yet. You didn’t say you’d take me.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“That means you’re not going to do it. ” I stomped away, my throat tight, eyes burning.
“You don’t need to be walking away from me like that.” She came after me, knelt down, wiped away my tears with her fingers.
“Listen, now. For the life of me, I don’t understand why this is so important to you.” She shook her head a little, stood. “But since I can see it is, I’ll try to find a way to get us there, if it’s not too much money.”
I’d won. I put my arms around her waist, hugged her tight. “They won’t let me in barefoot.”
“There’s a rummage sale this weekend,” she said, rumpling my hair. “Looks like I’d better cut that thick mop of yours, too.” She put her finger in front of her lips. “Let’s keep this just between the two of us for now,” she whispered, though there wasn’t anybody else around. “I’ll tell Vernon when the time is right.”
My older brother and I shared a tiny room off the kitchen, with one bed on either side of the short passageway that led to the not-much-bigger bedroom at the back end of the trailer where my parents slept, just a sliding door between the rooms. John had taped a photograph of dad to the wall over his bed. In it, dad’s head was tilted slightly, his lips curled into a barely discernible smile, his nearly-black hair slicked neatly back. He was shirtless, holding a beer in one hand. On the wall over my bed, I had taped dozens of puppy photos torn from old magazines – collies, German shepherds, retrievers, terriers, mutts – as many photos lapped over each other as would fit on the wall from my pillow to the ceiling.
On the night mom chose to tell dad about our concert in San Francisco, she wore a dress with little blue and yellow flowers on it. She had sewed a ruffle around the hem and designed a belt that tied around her waist and made a bow in the back. She put on lipstick, pinched her cheeks, let her long, wavy hair hang loose.
Dad took notice. “Well, look at you.” He put his hands around her waist as she put a cold beer on the weather-worn table. He patted his thighs, grinned, and said, “Sit yourself here for awhile.”
Mom laughed her flirty laugh as she put her arms around his neck, sat on his lap, laid her head on his shoulder. “So you like my new dress?” She snuggled her face into his neck.
“You don’t look like no mom of two boys, I’ll say that.”
She kissed him on the lips before she scooted off his lap. She went inside and brought out a loaf of bread hot from the oven, corn on the cob and baked potatoes piled onto a plate, fried Spam, sliced tomatoes. And, she had filled the icebox with Pabst Blue Ribbon.
She winked at Dad. “Let’s eat now. Later, John can take his little brother into town to watch the free movie tonight.”
“I’m thinking that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Dad said, reaching for his beer.