The October People. Chapter 12: The Golden Pig
The Golden Pig
“There’s something out there! Your grandfather did something! He took it away from those two creeps, whatever it was she expected! He bypassed Al, and made you the head of the family! And somehow he stopped them from killing you to boot! But Loony Lily thought she could get her hands on it, or get your Grandmother to change it somehow!” Melissa excitedly declared.
“Whoa! Whoa! How can you say that!?...Maybe you’re right, but maybe you’re wrong! I can’t form a conclusion from snippets like that!” I sputtered. “How the hell could she be so sure when I can’t be?”
“What other explanation is there?” she confidently demanded with a wide smile.
“I don’t know! But I can’t accept this. It’s too insane! And if I did ‘inherit’ something, where is it? You see anything? I don’t.”
“Didn’t you even listen to what you’d told me you remembered? Don’t you see how Al and Lily’s behavior all fits now? It all fits!”
“Yeah, yeah, it seems to. But any facts will seem to fit once you accept the premise, then ‘all else flows’. And I can’t accept this premise. This is all circumstantial. Yeah, it fits your ‘theory’, so in that sense it’s ‘valid’. But valid does not equal ‘true’ in the ‘Scientific Method’. There could be any number of other theories that fit the evidence just as well.”
“Okay: Name one.”
“I can’t right now....But where is it then?”
“Why are you so unwilling to trust your own memories? I think that you just refuse to accept that something good could ever happen to you, that’s all.”
“Yeah, well, maybe...But I still think its nuts...Okay. Listen: if it turns out you are right, the first thing I’ll do is buy you a case of your favorite Liqueur, how’s that? Fair?”
“Fair...Grand Marnier, thank you. And you will owe me, because I’m right. Nothing else explains your ‘family’s’ behaviors.”
“Yeah, well...We’ll see.”
We repeated this debate over many days, weeks, months. In the end we agreed to disagree. I hoped she was right of course but it all sounded too ‘Cinderella-ish’. I was worried this was some form of dangerous delusion that was going to end up making a fool out of me.
The ‘Real World’ does not operate like that. Nobody helps you. Everything I’d experienced showed me that the world was hard, cruel and out to get you.
I could not, would not, allow myself to believe in a ‘fairy tale’.
But I was unwilling to just give up on what seemed like the one ‘good’ memory I had unearthed, so I privately kept digging at what I dubbed ‘The Golden Pig’ memories. I purposely didn’t tell Melissa what I was working on because I thought she was getting carried away.
Odd that we’d switched roles in a sense. Normally I’m the one who relies on facts and forms conclusions based on where they point, and she’s the one who instinctively goes from the heart or her gut. But now she says she’s going by the facts, and I’m balking instinctively.
And even though I figured it was too good to be true, I did seem to remember it. And if it were true this would be an unbelievable twist of fate. But before I let myself believe it, I had to be able to decide if it was true or not, and to do that I needed more details if I could get them.
I worked these memories by writing down everything I did recall, then wrote what I thought was said over and over in slightly different permutations. I did that until one version would ‘click’ somehow and I felt sure I had it. Another indicator that I ‘had it’ was that more details would then suddenly ‘trickle’ out.
The whole time I was obsessed to guard intently against wishful thinking. I knew the grave danger of letting wish-fulfillment ‘guide’ your thoughts so I was rigidly rigorous in my demands on myself.
What I found emerging was an overlay of memories on memories. I noticed that different sensations accompanied different statements I remembered Dede making.
Some of what he said I associated with a red tablecloth, nighttime, it being Christmas, the ‘Triad’ glaring at me, and with Dede seated at the head of the table.
Others I saw as being broad daylight, warmer, a white tablecloth, with Uncle Ralph there, and Dede sitting opposite me, and no ‘Triad’.
That’s when it hit me like a thunderbolt: There were two meetings with Dede about my being designated the head of the family, not one. There was one at Christmas, and one the following Easter.
Because Kathy wasn’t there and George was a toddler, my guess was that I was almost 10. That would make it 1961. In neither meeting did I utter a word that I can recall.
In both of those ‘meetings’ he said numbers, years. They had to do with when I would get something. But to a 10 year old they were meaningless numbers. My sense was I understood it as an eternity, older than my father but younger than Dede: ‘50’ or ‘60’ years or something.
But I couldn’t remember exactly what the damn numbers were. Was it to be in 50 years when I was 60? 50 or 60 years? 53 years? 66 years? Any combination? What!!?
This is what, in the end, I remember:
Fourth grade, in the fall of 1961, brought an interesting change for me. I was put back up in the highest level class, having done well in the 3rd grade. The number of schoolchildren in the district on Long Island had grown too large, too fast, for the available classrooms so the school day was split into 2 sessions. I was assigned to the early shift. School began at 6:30am and was over at 1:30.
I thought it was great; when I got out of school there was more time to play before dark; and I loved the predawn hours. It was still and quiet while the rest of the world slept. It was as if I were the invisible man walking to the bus-stop. I found something special too, in the air of the early mornings; a calmness, a sense of something beyond myself. And I felt blessedly not rushed, like I had a head-start over those who still slumbered.
Before this change happened Al had already left for work at the Post Office before any of the rest of us got up. Now I was up before he left.
When I came into the kitchen a couple of times while he was still hunched over his tea, his eyes went white all the way around.
“Git back ta bed. I don’t want no company. Lee me alone…G’wan! Git outta here”
After a few tries I got the message and gave up on the idea and stayed in our room until he left.
The teacher, Mrs. Falconer, told the class on the first day of the term that we’d need to buy 2 notebooks; one would be just for compositions. That simple comment raised a red flag of alarm for me. I had just gotten the “We’re broke” lecture from Lily again when she told me that the looseleaf binder, 2 pencils and a pen were all I was going to get for the year, so I’d better take care of them. As soon as I had a chance, I approached the teacher and seriously informed her that I was sorry, but we were too broke for me to be able to get that other notebook.
“Alright.”, she said, looking startled.
Before the end of the day she gave me a note and told me to give it to my mother. I found out later that in it she insisted that the extra notebook was necessary, and she offered to buy it herself for me if we couldn’t afford it. Lily went through the roof.
“What goes on in nis house is nobody’s business but ar business! Ya don’t tell nobody nuthin dat’s said in nis house! Nuthin! Ya unnerstan?! What goes on in nis house is ar business!”
I was taken completely aback. I thought I had done well by acting according to what I had constantly heard from her. All she did was go on and on about how broke we were because of all the bills, the bills, the bills. I didn’t think there was anything embarrassing about being ‘broke’; it was just a misfortune, like getting sick.
At home dinners had become a constant siege of tension, and it was only me that was always getting bitched out about something. My stomach hurt and headaches were frequent and intense once again. I took to sneaking ‘Baby aspirin’ and eating them like candy.
But Christmas was coming, the season of magic. I heard some of the kids talking about making some money by shoveling driveways if it snowed. I decided I was going to do that too, because then I could buy Christmas gifts for people.
I lay in bed at night and watched the snow fall past the Christmas lights on the eaves, praying there’d be no school. It took 8 inches for the school to be canceled.
Like an answered prayer, that December was unusually snowy for the Island. The going rate to shovel a driveway was one dollar; and a buck and a half for the driveway, walks, and stairs. Everytime it snowed; I shoveled. I had to do our house first, gratis of course, but then I stayed out till dinnertime at it. On Saturdays I shoveled all day. When I got home, my fingers had been frozen into claws; I couldn’t unbend them. It was an agony to hold them under hot water to thaw them out like Al and Lily told me to.
But by the week before Christmas I had $40.
Starting that year, I bought Christmas presents for my parents, both sets of grandparents, and Rosa and Ralph. It gave me a wonderful feeling to do something so adult as to buy my own wrapping paper, tags and tape. The women all got costume jewelry, bath oils, and perfumed soaps. The men got aftershave and handtools.
I held nothing back, bought nothing for myself, and was flat broke when I was done. But I loved the feeling of being able to give to others. That’s what Christmas was all about: Kindness and the joy of giving.
I knew it was, because I saw it on T.V.
Christmas Eve was always spent at Grandma’s in Woodside. It was a tradition that my cousins and I loved and cherished. The four families arrived in time for dinnertime. It was the dinner which actually marked the beginning of the ritual, which never varied. In that tiny, tiny kitchen, Grandma cooked up a meal of breaded fried white fish, mashed potatoes, and green peas. All the children ate on card tables set up in the front bedroom. Homemade apple strudel and pie followed, with coffee for the adults.
When the dishes were done, Grandma went into the shut-up living room to “tawk wit Santy Claws” behind the closed door.
When she was ready for us, we kids lined up in size order, smallest first. She’d open the door and then we’d ceremoniously file in. A small, beautiful Christmas tree was in the little room, and 4 presents for each of us lay around it in piles. After the joyous mayhem of opening the presents, the adults retired back to the dining room to drink until it was time for some of them to walk down to the St. Jacob’s on the corner for a midnight service.
Afterwards, everyone staggered into their cars to return to their homes in the wee hours.
Christmas Day was always spent with Albert’s side of the family. Every other year we went up to Saratoga, and every other year they came down to the Island. This was a year when it was our turn to go up there.
Tension crackled in the air as we drove. Jake and I kept getting snapped at, and as we went “under the apartments” on the way to the George Washington Bridge, Al suddenly swung back at us, sending the car lurching. Lily barked at him and us, while horns blared all around us.
After an absolutely delicious dinner served on a festive, rich red tablecloth, Rosa helped Babi clear off the dishes. She was trying to act normal but she was nervous. She said something quickly about her, Ralph, and Agnes going over to the neighbor’s now for a Christmas visit. She went into the kitchen and didn’t return. As if cued, the plump blonde prima donna Agnes got up and left the table too.
Ralph was the last to leave. He got up casually, and as he passed Dede at the head of the table, he put his hand lightly on his shoulder for a moment.
“Okay, Pop…It’s all yours.” he said laconically. As he left the room, he looked back at me and remarked dryly, “Congratulations, ‘Fritz’”. Then he too was gone.
Something had obviously been prearranged and Lily and Al weren’t in on it. She was sitting bolt upright now, her neck out-stretched, suspicious eyes darting all over, trying to figure out what was happening.
Babi continued bustling in and out of the room, finishing picking things up. She didn’t look at anyone, but like Rosa, she too was tense. When the table was completely cleared off, she left and stayed out of sight in the kitchen next door.
Dede sat nearest the kitchen. Al was to his left. Jake sat between him and Lily, and George was in the highchair off to her left. I was on the opposite side of the table from them all.
I was suddenly, strongly, aware of being isolated and alone. Alarmed, I realized something was up.
Dede had the air as always of the one in command; not arrogant, hostile or domineering, but firm and sure of himself. There was a short exchange in Czech between him and Al. Looking down at the table in front of him, Al answered with one word replies, arms folded across his chest. He had just heard something he half expected to, but wasn’t happy to have.
Right then, at that table on Christmas night of 1961 Al found out he was not going to get anything from his father; not then, not ever… He was disinherited for what he and she had done. Lily was silent, as she knew she had to be, but she looked like she was going to explode. She didn’t understand Czech but she knew body language.
It was then that Dede turned toward me. His eyes turned tender and earnest as he looked into mine.
With a surge of panic I knew, somehow I knew, that he was about to speak of that which may not even be thought. What that was I had no idea, but something in me knew this was real danger. The masquerade, pretending that nothing had ever happened, was about to come to an end.
He began to speak to me. My mind immediately began to swim and reel drunkenly, everything inside seemed to come loose and out of my control. Desperate alarms were going off in me screaming danger, DANGER!
“Frankie…I have something I want to tell you. I have made my decision: You are going to be the next head of the family…I know you don’t understand now. But you will one day. You are your father’s eldest son, and it always goes to the eldest son. I am leaving it all to you…”
He continued to speak but I lost all the words in the roaring in my ears.
“…One day you will be the head of this family, and then you’ll know why I’m leaving it to you. I know you don’t remember now, but I promise you: You will…Frankie… Hold on, Frankie, hold on. Did you hear me? Did you hear what I said?”
I nodded jerkily, my eyes swimming in tears. ‘I’ didn’t understand at all what his words meant, or even why ‘I’ was reacting so strongly to them. But those words were heard inside of me somewhere. A part of me was silently crying, aching in memory of all I’d gone through and all that had been taken from me, and because Dede did not forget, he believed me. I was reeling, I couldn’t see clearly through the tears. Emotions clashed violently, filling my bony chest to bursting with their tumult. Self-pity, pride, fear, gratitude and confusion swirled wildly around and through each other.
At the same instant, ‘I’ knew for sure that his words meant danger.
Al, Lily, and Jakey were glaring at me with murder in their eyes.
The impact of their eyes on me as Dede was speaking was overwhelming, a physical force. I could feel the eruption of hate and anger from those three. It hit me like the hot wind from a blast furnace. It seemed to alter the light in the room, to make it shimmer like a heat wave does. I had retained the knowledge in me somewhere of what looks that raw in hate meant: I was dead meat.
Dede sat back then with a smile and turned to the kitchen, saying something to Babi in Czech. She had apparently been awaiting her cue, because she promptly appeared with a Bundt Pound Cake. He seemed pleased and relaxed. Not so Al and Lily: He was silent and she was silently seething. They both constantly shot me surreptitious looks of hatred.
Dede explained to Jakey and me that in Czechoslovakia it was believed that on Christmas Eve the Golden Pig came to each house and hid coins in a cake, just like this one. When it was served, if your slice had a coin in it you were going to have good luck all year.
This particular cake was set up well in advance, because Jakey and I both got a coin; I got a penny, and he got a nickel. And I’m sure I’m recalling that correctly, because I remember being jealous. As far as I was concerned, he always got everything.
I could barely, painfully, swallow the cake because my mouth was so dry and there was such a huge lump in my throat.
Babi and Dede earnestly tried to assuage any jealousy Jakey might have by making a big show of how lucky he was to have gotten a whole nickel, not just a penny. It made me feel worse but he sat there scowling morosely. At 5 ½, I doubt he really understood what had just happened… But then again, he may have.
As I climbed into that frigid, dank car for the long ride home, fear and desolation were all I felt. We hadn’t even backed out of the driveway yet when Lily uncorked her bottle of bile and flung it around.
“I don’t like dat! I don’t like dat! It shouldn’t be fa jest one! Everyone should get equal! Everyone should get da same!” she spat. “I don’t like dat! Everyone should get equal! I don’t like dat!”
To make sure there was no doubt how she felt, those same phrases were screeched over and over and over.
I was seated right behind her. The anger and hate was palpable, I could feel it swirling in the air like a Banshee, barely restrained from violence. I kept real quiet: I had no intention of giving them an excuse.
I didn’t feel good at all. The tension made me sick to my stomach and I suddenly had a feverish headache. I leaned my forehead against the window. The icy chill felt good against my hot brow.
The whole time Al said nothing. In the cold dark he was just a silent, sulking menace behind the wheel. Jakey said nothing, just stared out his window.
Before the Christmas vacation I had been informed I was being dropped down to a lower 4th grade class. I had been dreading it because I didn’t want to leave the girls I loved unrequitedly.
But…strangely,I can’t remember anything from between Christmas and New Year’s; except for being told I was going to be taken into the City to see an ‘Eye Doctor’.
Only Al, Lily and I went. I was nervous and distrustful; I didn’t recognize the parts of the City we drove through. I don’t remember seeing any eye doctor or anything else, it’s a total blank.
The next thing I remember, I was starting in my new class later than the others, and I can’t remember almost all the remainder of that school year. Out of all my teachers, this one is the only one whose name or appearance I can’t pull back at all. All I know was that she was female.
It was as if I had no existence. I have no clear memories again until we went upstate again for Easter dinner.
After the dinner, as we were all getting up and leaving the table, Ralph called me back. He said Dede wanted to talk with me because as I was one day going to be the head of the family, there were some things he wanted to tell me about that.
Everyone suddenly stopped and fell silent. I sensed the others were looking at me. For a moment, I felt very proud and grown-up.
So I found myself across the table from Dede again. This time it was daylight, the tablecloth was white, and he was sitting in a different place. Ralph sat at his usual place at the far end of the table. It was just the three of us. Behind me, I could hear some people in the living room, and women bustling in the kitchen.
“Ya really lucky. This is a big thing that ya Dede has done fa ya, ya know.” Ralph told me in a serious tone that indicated he thought I was undeserving of it. He turned to Dede. “Gaw head, Pop.”
Something was going on that I didn’t understand.
“What was he talking about?” I had absolutely no memory of what he told me at Christmas just 4 months earlier: Somehow I had ‘lost’ it. So what he was now telling me had no context in which to couch it. It was as if I had entered into a conversation that had started earlier without me. But as soon as his eyes met mine and he began to speak my mind began to spin in panic again.
The extent of what I understood was that he was going to invest money for me, but I wouldn’t be able to have it for a long time. I would have to work hard on my own up till then. But at the peak of my life, in ‘about’ 50 years, when I was in my 60’s, it would be mine. And then it would be up to me to take care of everybody: They would have to come to me then and it would be my responsibility to take care of them because I would be the head of the family.
This was followed by a dry, pedantic attempt by Ralph to explain the mathematics of how this was all going to work. My sense of it was that he tried to explain how the initial investment would be increased over time. He said he personally would have preferred that Dede invested it in bonds, but that was up to Dede.
I couldn’t understand or follow it.
He then gave me a “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” lecture, extolling the salutary effects of hard work on your moral fiber.
I pretended to be listening but my mind was elsewhere, my cheeks burning. I could feel the resentment of the Triad behind me.
It was all too confusing. At the same time I was being lectured to about having to work hard, I felt from all of them that I wasn’t up to it. Yet it was presented as if it were somehow a great gift to me. But from what I understood it was like I’d just heard my future read, my fate pronounced, and it didn’t sound good; it sounded bleak: A long, hard life of struggle on my own and then when I’m old, I’m going to have to take care of everybody else too?
Who’s everybody? And how was I supposed to? I wasn’t even 10 yet, I didn’t know how I was going to “work hard all my life”. At what? Snow shoveling?
Nor could I conceive of being the age he mentioned, only ‘now’ existed for me. I saw myself as 10 years old, working like a slave to ‘take care’ of a horde of people. Yet there was a definite sense in Dede’s words of my being rewarded, esteemed like a King or something, and that like Cinderella’s sisters they’d all have to come to me as their ruler. But that was not what I focused on.
Frankly, I don’t think I impressed anyone that day.
After that Christmas Lily, who was never anything like the mothers I saw on T.V. anyway, became a terror. All she did was complain angrily through clenched teeth about her lousy lot in life. She’d bitterly go on and on about how little she had, and how she was never going to have anything ‘nice’, and that it was all our fault. We had ruined her life and she hated her life with us. And all the while she was always glaring at me.
She threatened angrily and often to run away, to just leave us all, to throw it all away and just go. During these frequent tirades none of us said a word to beg her not to.
It was while I was working on these memories that I realized there was a third meeting and there was an entirely different tone to this one.
Once again, the intervening month between the 2nd and the 3rd meeting is a strange blank, only the prospect of Chinese food broke through that fog and left a memory to pick up the story again with.
Toward the end of the week leading up to my 10th birthday in May, I learned that on Saturday we were going out to eat at a Chinese Restaurant with Babi, Dede, Rosa, and Ralph. Though I hid it out of necessity, I was excited as hell. This would be the first real restaurant I ever ate in.
We drove down to meet them at the “Jinde Zhu”, on the corner of Jericho and 110, on Saturday. I was struck and awed by the abrupt change from the sunny, hot tarmac parking lot to the cool interior of the restaurant, fragrant with strangely familiar aromas. The décor was tasteful, the booths and tables clean and fresh-looking.
It was only after we were all seated together that I learned from Rosa that Babi and Dede were treating us all to this dinner because it was my birthday. Lily had neglected to mention that little detail, and judging by the look on her face she would have preferred Rosa had as well. This was the only time my grandparents came to the Island for my birthday, or anyone else’s for that matter.
I noticed that Babi and Dede were deliberately ignoring Al and Lily. Curious, I clandestinely observed Ralph and Rosa. They didn’t seem to be shunning them, yet I sensed there a certain distance toward Al and Lily too.
But all that was peripheral for me. I was delighted to be here, and couldn’t wait for the food to arrive. The colorful paper place mats in front of us were printed with a description of the Chinese Zodiac and the Chinese New Year Holiday.
Each New Year, which began with the new moon in late January or February, was represented by one of 12 symbolic animals. You were thought to exhibit the qualities attributed to the animal of the year you were born in. Dede pointed out that he and I were both born in the year of the Dragon. He mentioned how amazing it was that the Chinese had a ‘Golden Pig’ too. There was something said about it not coming often though, but when it did it was really special, and the next time it came was when ‘it’ would be ready.
I was only half-listening as my stomach growled impatiently. Finally the food arrived, and, ah…It was delicious. Each dish arrived at the table covered, atop a gleaming stainless steel pedestal. Each time a lid was removed, a new, incredibly rich aroma was released.
“So this is Chinese food.” I thought, as I savored every wolfish mouthful, “I love it.”
When the main dishes were finished, Dede beckoned to the young Chinese waiter in black slacks and vest, and talked briefly with him. The young man nodded and left. He returned shortly with a very small, round, single layer chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. Babi had baked it and brought it down with them, knowing the Chinese don’t bake cakes like that. They had made arrangements to have it stored in the restaurant kitchen.
She took out a butter knife wrapped in a linen napkin from her purse. Candles were set into the cake and lit. To a chorus of “Happy Birthday”, I blew out them out. Babi cut the little cake into 3 slices for me, Jakey, and George.
When we were done, Dede looked across the table at me with a happy twinkle in his sky-blue eyes. He took an envelope closed with a string wound around 2 paper buttons from his inside jacket pocket. Opening it, he removed some papers, folded up the blue cover paper, and held them up for me to see. He was silhouetted against the sunny window across the room, so I only could see clearly when someone passed by and blocked the light. There was maybe a half-dozen pages bound together at the top. They had been folded in thirds to fit in the envelope. I could see it had a blue ink heading, and all the rest was in black print. A blue border line was on either side of the one page that I could see.
“Happy Birthday, Frankie!” he told me, holding the papers aloft. “Here it is! This is what I told you I was going to do. It is done. After around 50 years you can live like a king!”
I think he said something about “a window” during which I could get it early if they told me the truth themselves. No more lies. They had until that year, and it had to be by that year. If they didn’t; it was all mine later.
Rosa and Ralph congratulated me, with a bit of restraint in deference to Al and Lily’s discomfiture. My parents didn’t congratulate me. Jake stared morosely at his plate.
I had no idea either what those papers were or that they were connected to the 2 meetings that I could no longer remember having happened.
But from his demeanor, and the quiet congratulations I gathered that they guaranteed something; like a promise that couldn’t be broken. I definitely felt it was an honor, but I didn’t know how, why, or for what. And I didn’t want to know because I also sensed from the Triad’s behavior that this was dangerous for me.
There was some talk about how if you are patient; money that is saved and not used can increase magically. Rosa tried to draw Lily and Al into the conversation, and she succeeded to an extent with Al, who was always glad to get out from under tension. Lily stayed stiff and frosty. Neither of them looked at me, yet I sensed I was still in trouble.
On the way home in the car there was thankfully only muted hostility from the Triad. Lily was clearly frustrated and angry, but she limited herself to lecturing loudly that horoscopes are “nuttin but supa-stitchen, an against God! Da Bible sez so!”
I paid no attention. Before we parted, Babi and Dede had given me another box of seashells. I was partly absorbed in seeing what was in the box, and partly using it as a cover for trying to figure out what Dede had been talking about.
That Sunday afternoon was warm and sunny. Everything was ready for my party. We were all waiting outside for the arrival of the relatives from Grandma’s side. When I saw an opportunity, I slipped away to our room and quickly fished a piece of paper out of my schoolbag. This was the first chance I had to be alone and figure out what this mysterious time in the future was that Dede talked about yesterday. He and Babi were so enigmatic. I saw them so rarely, but each time I did, potent things happened.
I lay on the floor and tried to see what year it would be in 50 years. Soon I began to think I should have paid more attention in school. I kept making the same kind of mistake over and over, but I couldn’t find where my mistake was. No matter how carefully I did the arithmetic, when I added 50 to 1962, I kept coming up with a year that began with a ‘20’ instead of a ‘19’. And everyone knows years all begin with a ‘19’.
I had to be secretive about this effort, because since yesterday, Lily had let it be known excruciatingly clearly that she hated “one “ being favored other “da ottas”, though she avoided saying how this “one” was being favored. I was forbidden to talk about it, ask about it, or mention it. I was to forget about it because of how it would make my “brothas feel”.
So as I worked, I kept an ear cocked. Suddenly, I heard her footsteps coming straight for our room with determined stride. She’d be on me in no time; I had to move fast. I hastily stuffed the paper into the bottom of the schoolbag and stood up quickly just as she appeared. My forced nonchalance didn’t fool her.
“Whattya doin in here?! Gawon outside! De’re gonna be here soon!”
Her cold voice and the look in her eyes told me she knew I was up to something. Then she looked right down at the schoolbag. I felt my stomach tighten, but held still. I left the room, hating to leave her alone with that bag, because I knew she was going to search it. And she did.
The next day after dinner I went to our room to do my homework as required. When I had finished and came back out, she was ready for me. She demanded to know if I had done all of it. I assured her I had.
“Lemme see.” She ordered. Those eyes.
My ears were hot and my back and shoulders tensed unconsciously waiting for a blow as she followed me into the bedroom. This was all a ploy by her, a set-up, and I knew it, but there was nothing else I could do but play out the game. I pulled my homework out of the schoolbag and held it out to her. She dismissively glanced at it.
“What else ya got in nere? Ya got otta homework? Tests? Lemme see. Empty it out…All of it…Look at da mess…Take it all outa dere…I said all of it!.....What’s dis?!! Hah?!!”
She pounced unerringly on the crumbled piece of paper I had been laboring over.
“So: Dis is whattcha been doin, heh?! Ya should be ashamed a yaself! Ya think ya betterin anyone else?! Hah?!”
She violently harangued me over my selfishness, about not sharing, about how it made my brothers feel for me to be singled out, like I was better than them or something. By the time she marched indignantly righteous out of the room, she had made me feel small, dirty, guilty, and not one of them: I felt like a piece of sh*t. Yet she never said what I’d done, or what I was going to supposedly get that I supposedly wasn’t sharing with my brothers, or what I should be ashamed of other than not sharing something I didn’t have.
I never tried to do that arithmetic again.
Something about the year I was to turn 13, 1965, was important to Lily based on her behavior: A deadline of some sort. Perhaps something was to be legally transferred into my name, I don’t know. But on New Year’s Day that year she suddenly started a ‘new tradition’ of our going out to the “Jinde Zhu” Chinese Restaurant for dinner. It was a clever way of confusing any lingering memory of talk in that restaurant about the “Chinese having a New Year’s” with “having Chinese on New Year’s”.
Lily had told Mel and I that at my 13th birthday party everyone kept telling me I was a “teen-ager” now. She said she noticed I looked upset and asked me what was the matter. She said I blurted out ”I don’t know what to do!”, meaning according to her that I didn’t know how to “be” a teenager, how to act. I remember nothing like that. I do remember people congratulating me on becoming a teen-ager, but I felt no different, so what was the big deal?
This is what I remember happening.
In early May we had company in the house after the first Slet of the new Sokol. The formation of a new Sokol was a big event for the “Stary Gardy”, the “Old Guard”, from the City, and many came out to attend. Babi, Dede, Rosa, and Ralph were there along with Ralph’s mother, Babi’s sister and her daughter. Al and Lily had invited them over to the house afterwards. They were all quietly seated stiffly in the living room.
As I came through the kitchen something on the counter next to the ‘fridge’ caught my eye. It was 2 folders of files or something. The green one was thick with identical-looking papers, like invoices or records. The other one was a bulging manila folder. I peered closer at them.
“Neva mind dat! Leave it alone! Come say hello to everyone.”
Lily’s voice made me jump. I looked up to see her staring at me from the hall by the front door. She looked tense and irritated. Dede was looking at me too. I went in, said my hellos, and then was dismissed by her. I had the strangest sense at the time that they were all waiting for something.
A little while later, she came and said she wanted to talk to me…outside. She never went outside, so I knew this was important. I followed her outside to the back fence. It was a sunny afternoon, and the leaves on the young maples were a fresh, bright green. Whatever she wanted to talk to me about, she didn’t want to be heard by anyone else. She positioned herself so she was facing the house. Her eyes, those eyes, kept flicking up to the house over my left shoulder.
“You know what you have ta do.”, she began menacingly.
“You know!” Don’t fool with me! her eyes said.
“What!? What do I have to do!?”
“I don’t! What?! Tell me!”
“No! Ya shouldn’t have ta be told! You know! Jest do it!” You know I can’t spell this out!
“I don’t know!”
“If ya don’t know, I’m not gonna tell ya!” Stop pretending!
“Then how am I supposed ta know?!”
“You know!” Stop jerking me around!
“You do! Think!...Rememba?!” This is as CLOSE as I can get to it and you KNOW it!
“I can’t! Rememba what?!”
“Think!!!...You know!!” You’re LYING, I know it!
“Think!! You know what you gotta do now!” Now I KNOW you remember, I’m SURE of it!!
“I don’t!! Do what?!!”
“You DO know!!” You’ll pay for this, OHHHH, you’ll pay for this!
Only now do I understand that far, far underground, in a deep place hidden away from ‘myself’ by myself, I did know.
She had got all of them to the house by saying I had something I wanted to tell them. She wanted me to publicly exonerate her and Al. She wanted me to tell my grandparents and the others that I remembered now, and that I had been wrong, that it was not my parents who had done those unspeakably horrible things to me.
She was gambling that her suspicions were correct: That I really did remember and was pretending I didn’t in order to get it all for myself. She was gambling that she could bluff, and force me to recant.
But it was completely honest for me to say ‘I’ didn’t know what I had to do, because ‘I’ really did not remember, nor was ‘I’ supposed to be able to remember for some reason. Yet somewhere I did know and remember.
I got my revenge: She couldn’t actually tell me, couldn’t spell it all out, because if I didn’t really know, it would risk awakening the truth of what happened and undo all that expensive work. In our own way each of us did a dance around something that couldn’t be spoken of. The irony was wonderful. All that effort to kill off the past, and now she wanted it back, but on her terms: But I wasn’t supposed to be able to remember what it was she wanted me to say I remembered they didn’t do.
She didn’t get her way that day, and Dede left with those two bundles of files or whatever they were. Payback began on that 13th birthday. I was informed there were going to be some “changes” now. I was no longer a child, I was an adult and was going to be treated as one, and I was expected to start acting like one.
I was told I was now going to start working, and from now on for the rest of my life that was never going to end: It was going to be work, period. Though I didn’t like the sound of it at all, I assumed this happened to everyone when they became an ‘adult’.
I simply thought the world and existence itself was an awful mistake. Neither while I lived through it, nor looking back on it later, did I ever think of my Long Island childhood as ‘bad’. I thought it hard, and I wasn’t happy, but I thought that was my own fault. I always heard “Ya don’t know how easy you got it.”
If life was grinding me up; it was my fault, I wasn’t measuring up. It’s not Life’s fault if you’re too weak or stupid: It’s yours. You have no right to complain; that only makes you more contemptible.
The bleak future that had been predicted had arrived. And they took a vindictive delight in painting the barrenness of that future for me. The only talent they had to grudgingly admit I had was an artistic one, but I was told that it was worthless: Artists starved. No one ever makes a living as an artist. For me there was nothing to look forward to but work, menial work: No college, no career, no trade. Just work.
I was now responsible for earning the money for any clothes or foods I wanted. If I wanted a car, first I had to have a steady job so I could afford my own insurance, then I could get a car if I had the money. I was icily informed that there was no way they were going to carry someone like me on their insurance. They just knew I’d have an accident and cause their rates to go up.
However, my siblings were all deemed fit when their times came. Jake promptly totaled their car the first week he had his license, and in his first week George got ticketed for doing 75 in a 25 mph zone while drag-racing.
I got my Social Security card and had a savings account opened in my name. Lily told me any checks or cash I might get from any relatives for Christmas or my birthday would be deposited there. I never saw that happen, they simply vanished.
I was told to get my ‘Working Papers’. I failed my first physical for them due to: “Poor physical condition: Grossly Underweight.” I had to wait 6 months before I could take the physical again, and in November I barely passed it. I never went to a doctor, eye doctor, or dentist until the school ordered it as a result of those school physicals. It was the school that told Al and Lily to bring me to a dentist, as my mouth was full of cavities.
At 13, the only job legally open to me was a newspaper deliveryboy. I did that until at 15 I was old enough to take a job at a supermarket close enough for me to hike to. I always had a job, whether it was as a dishwasher, short-order or snackbar cook, selling Christmas trees, a stockboy, on a road crew with the Highway department, or as a bouncer at a Drive-In among many others.
But for now, I was delivering “Newsday” in the afternoons. My route was in a different school district. During my first week, the newsboy who had had that route just before I did, a blonde hood a couple of years older than me named “Willy” and one of his dull, thuggish buddies ambushed me on a corner. They stepped out in front of me, and held my bike fast. He demanded I come up with the $1.65 he said he was still owed by some customers who had stiffed him. His pal pulled a knife and threatened to cut off one of my fingers if I didn’t come up with it. That set the tone for the next few years nicely.
The route was a long one for only 40 customers; it covered one ‘development’, then down Larkfield road, and extended down Jericho Turnpike. It was drudgery and constant threats for very little money. I froze in the winters, got drenched by rains, chased by dogs, and harassed by gangs. I damn near got drowned by a semi hitting a backed up sewer drain in a storm, I lost my glasses and couldn’t find my submerged bike for awhile. Papers were ruined of course.
I often walked the route. I couldn’t keep my bike in working condition, mainly because all I had to use to tighten bolts was an old pair of pliers, which rapidly rounded off the nuts.
Al refused to help, loan me tools, or tell me anything. It was the same way with the old lawnmowers he picked up at curbside on his postal route. It was my job to keep those old clunkers running somehow.
I really didn’t mind walking the paper route though. It kept me out of the house longer, and I didn’t have to worry about leaving a bike unattended whenever I ducked in somewhere to buy food for myself. I was eating much better now that I was working.
One summer “Burger King”, sent out coupons for free “Whoppers” in each paper a couple of times. My customers never saw a one of them… I ate free ‘Whoppers’ all summer.
One day in January of 1966, I had changed as usual when I got home from school, and was about to go out on my route. Lily stopped me on my way to the back door in the kitchen. She never simply talked to me: I was talked at, snapped at. It wasn’t even scolding. Scolding implies, at least to me, that you somehow care about the person, hence the need for a correction. She was constantly picking a fight.
“I want cha ta know sumpthin…” she accosted me, eyes flashing. “Ya think ya gonna get sumpthin from Dede don’t cha?”
‘I’ didn’t remember anything, her words only touched something in me like the wisp of a forgotten dream, something not real.
“Uh…Well, uh, I don’t rememba. Uh, what did he…”
“Yeah? Well, ya ain’t remembering right! Whattya think he told ya, huh?! Sumpthin about being da head of da family?
“Uh, I tink…”
“Dere! See! Dat ain’t right!“ She seized the moral high ground. “He should neva told ya sumpthin like dat, cuz ya too young ta unnerstan! Whattya think, ya sumpthin special?! Ya tink ya betterin anyone else?!”
“Ya fatha and me are da head a dis family, not him! It ain’t right fa jest one ta get! It ain’t right!”
“He had no right ta do dat! An no one is gonna tell me how I gotta do things! Nuthin’s gonna be given ta you dat ain’t given ta da othas!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t…”
“He don’t say what happens in nis family! Nobody tells me what I gotta do!...He told cha dat when we die, you’re gonna be da next head a da family, cuz ya da oldest, an we’re gonna leave it up ta you ta split it up wit da othas, cuz den you’ll be da head na da family…Right?!”
“No… I don’t tink I rememba dat.…”
“See?! Ya too young! Ya didn’t unnerstan cuz ya was too young! When we die, ya ain’t gonna be da head a da family, cuz everyone’s gonna get equal, cuz dat’s da right way ta do things! But we ain’t gonna have nuthin, cause we didn’t get nuthin, so dere ain’t gonna be nuthin left up ta ya!”
I understood nothing of what she was ranting about except that somehow I was wrong about everything. I hadn’t understood correctly something vitally important. Had something been promised me? She made it sound like I had thought something was. Had there been something once, or was it was all a mistake? She said I was wrong about it all.
I couldn’t remember whether or not I was, but I still felt crushed.
In English, we had been assigned Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. As far as I was concerned, there couldn’t have been a worse selection. The Joker that was running this universe must have been splitting his sides laughing at me. My memories of that book are impregnated with cold, nausea, and desolation.
All too keenly, I understood “Pip’s” homelife; how everything was always twisted so as to be against him. That malicious, vengefully destructive old woman in the wedding gown, “Miss Havisham”, I always saw wearing Lily’s features, and her grotesquely eerie ritual of squeezing most of herself into that wedding gown on major anniversaries added to the blending of the two.
And to this day, when I think of Pip’s benefactor, “Abe Magwitch”, I see Dede. Like Pip, it seemed I might have been promised something, only to have it snatched away, leaving me hopeless and hollow. A cruel hoax had been played on me without my knowledge and I wasn’t told about it until it was no more.
At the furthest extent of my route, along a barren stretch of the turnpike, I saw a cat lying dead on the shoulder of the road the next day. My heart bled at the sight of that sweet little animal crudely discarded by heartless Life.
Every day I passed it. Within 2 days it was no longer pitiable but repulsive. It rotted unperceptively day by day, until by spring it was only a dirty smear of hair.
No miracles. No hope. No help.
Those were the longest, loneliest, most unhappy years of my remembered life.
I understand that there are many people for whom their High School years stand out as the high point of their lives, four years they look back on wistfully, longingly. I don’t belong to that group. There is no point in relating now the angst, anguish, confusion, and rare sweet joys of those years. I was no more than one of a legion of young people who struggled alone through the hormonally-induced psychosis called adolescence, and stumbled blindly and stupidly into their futures.
My interactions with the family dwindled. I felt like, and was treated like, an unwelcome boarder. I stayed away as much and as long as I could, and though at the time I didn’t admit it to myself, I realized they preferred that. It worked better for all concerned if I stayed away.
I went to school, then to gymnastics practice, walked home, had dinner, walked to work, walked home, went to bed.
Whenever I wasn’t working, I was lifting weights in the cellar or garage. Because I was now buying my own ‘extra’ food, I began to put on muscle. I went from 97 pounds on a 5 foot 6 inch frame to 160 pounds on 6 foot 4 inches in just 2 years. I had no relations with the opposite sex at all until I was 16. From then on, as limited as my social life was, and as non-existent as my sex life was, that’s what took up all my ‘thoughts’.
When I turned 17, I was bluntly told that in a year from now I had 3 choices: The army, college, or move out. There was no mincing of words: At 18 they wanted me out of their house. I didn’t take it personally; I thought that was what happened to everybody. I even told my own son the same thing. Lily had repeatedly told me they could not, would not pay for a college education for me.
However, to my surprise, I won a Regent’s scholarship to a State University that would cover my tuition. To pay for my board, I took out federally guaranteed loans that didn’t need parental co-signatures.
The only problem was that I had no idea what to go to college for. I never planned for it because I never thought it possible and the Guidance department was a joke. They only spent time with the ‘promising’ students. In 4 years of High School, I saw a guidance ‘counselor’ once, for ten minutes.
I settled on Physical Education as my major because I thought I might be able to help the children who were like me when I was younger; the runts and the weaklings. They were the ones who needed the most help, and got the least from the gym teachers, who only fawned over the ‘star’ athletes.
And I saw this as an unexpected chance to escape; and I intended to take it. Some inner voice had been nagging me for years to get away as far as I could and I listened to it. I picked the furthest college from Long Island with a good Phys. Ed. Program. I was sure that I was also going to learn in college the Truth; those secrets that would finally make sense of life for me.
Just before I left Lily told me that she could afford to put $10 into my checking account every two weeks for spending money while I was at college. If I needed more than that, I should get a job up there.
I hadn’t expected anything from them, nor was I surprised when that “$10” was dropped quietly forever well before the Thanksgiving vacation of my freshman year. I took a part-time job in the cafeteria and worked in area restaurants as a dishwasher. Working in restaurants was always my preference because I could eat for free. During the summers I worked a fulltime job during the day, and then another part-time one at night.
I loved college life. Though I quickly learned that there was not going to be any ‘Truth’ revealed to me there, I was awakened in many ways. My mind was opened to so many new worlds of ideas and experiences, and I learned there were other ways of perceiving rather than my own. And I found friends there, and lovers. I had a fresh start; people had no preconceptions of me and took me as I was: I actually found myself popular.
In the summer before my Junior year, the year after Dede died, a governmental budgetary squabble held up the disbursement of the Regents’ scholarship money. I wouldn’t get the money until it was too late for that semester. I wasn’t worried about it; I‘d just sit out that term, take my chances with the draft, and pick school back up again with the spring semester.
But the ‘family’ apparently didn’t want me around. Lily took me aside one afternoon.
“Dere is ‘sumpthin’ we can use fa ya school, if we hafta…But it’d hafta be a real emergency. We…uh, we had ‘sumpthin’ left fa us, an we can use it, but if we did, there wouldn’t be as much later, like if we waited. If we don’t touch it, dere’ll be a lot more later fa all you kids when we’re gone.” The way she was speaking to me, as a peer taken into her confidence, was new to me. She was asking me to help her by not asking her to tap this ‘sumpthin’. To be spoken to like that, as a fellow adult, made me feel inclined to be magnanimous. “Da othas don’t know about…”dis”. Dey ain’t old enough yet. An we wanna keep it dat way. It’ll be a surprise fa dem when…dey’re olda. You’re olda, you can unnerstan, but if dey knew, dey’d wanna spend it all too early.”
Despite her talking to me as an ‘equal’, I understood she was also talking to me as ‘not one of them’. I understood I was expected to do the ‘noble thing’, the right thing, and agree that they shouldn’t touch this ‘sumpthin’. And I did. I told her not to touch it, I’d get by.