The October People. Chapter Five: The Arrival of the October People
The black frost of October 6th put an end to all tender plants for the year. Three days later my parent’s Buick Electra pulled into our driveway under the autumn shade of the fluorescent, hoary Sugar Maple: ‘The October People’ had arrived.
The pattern of these visits was ritualistically choreographed. First my father exited the car, tugging on his cap. He’d utter a flat “Hi.” and move to the trunk to start removing their luggage if they were staying the night. If they weren’t, as in this case, he’d just stand there on the driver’s side and wait for my mother to slowly, oh, so slowly and painfully, extricate herself from the car.
That was my cue. This was all theatre and by now I knew my role well. I went down to the car and helped her stand up. She invariably acted as if she were terminally failing that very moment and wore a studied look of long suffering weariness and martyrdom.
After she was safely on her ‘unsteady’ feet, I would dutifully kiss her cheek. She would never kiss or embrace me…ever. There was no joy, no smiles from either of them. I gave her my arm and helped her walk the 20 feet to the house. Every 3 feet we’d have to stop so she could “rest”.
However once inside she shrugged off her exhaustion miraculously and headed with alacrity for “Melissa’s chair”. She played this little dominance game each visit. She set it up years ago by ‘innocently’ asking Melissa which was “her” chair. Melissa explained that she usually sat in this one…And that was as far as she got. My mother immediately sat down on the indicated chair and never left it. As she did ever since.
She’d used these visits to hammer on a theme. She never did this when we saw them in August or around Christmas: Only on that one evening’s visit in October. Usually this Leitmotif was puzzling if not downright bizarre, and more often than not the subject would be dropped after just that one time. But she’d work it to death, until by the end of that visit we’d be ready to scream. Then the next visit up here in October would bring another weird topic.
Whenever she delivered these deliberately emphasized monologues, she would watch me intently. She must have spent a great deal of time before each visit thinking about what she was going to say. And if that was the case, it meant these rehearsed discourses were important, which means there was a reason why she was doing this. But for the life of me I couldn’t see any commonality between them or discern a reason why she’d go through so much trouble.
My father never participated in them. His arms were always tightly folded across his chest as he silently stared fixedly at the tabletop. At times he would secretively, nervously scuff the rug under his chair so much so that we’d find piles of rug pillings there. Or he’d shred a napkin or book of matches into confetti.
I think this all started in the mid to late 90’s. I distinctly remember that it was in October of 1999 that she had emptied her house of anything pertaining to my childhood that was still there and dumped them off here.
Pointedly, she drew my attention to my old elementary school report cards. Over and over she repeated that these were all of them. Then for the rest of that visit, and the next one, her talk constantly came back to how crazy it was making her not to be able to find one of her own elementary school report cards…and was I sure I wasn’t missing one of mine?
On another October visit around then that she developed a fear that persons unknown were going to get their hands on the old bills she had saved since she was married and somehow obtain useful information from them.
I had tried to assure her that no one was interested in bills from when we lived in Woodside in the 1950’s. But she wouldn’t be mollified: It all had to go. Her past had to be destroyed before it fell into the wrong hands.
She had my father buy a shredder, and to hear her talk more shredding was done in that little backyard than in Watergate and Irancontra combined.
Another time it was the suddenly acquired phobia of waking up and finding you’d been buried alive and how horrible that must feel. Again; I tried to reason with her. I told her that was impossible now. She’d never make it out of the mortuary alive because they drain off your blood as part of the process.
She just stared at me with an unreadable expression. Then she announced that she had Pop promise to never “pull the plug” on her, for fear she’d still be alive “in nere” but be unable to communicate. He said nothing.
Though in the past she had often brought up that ‘doctors’ had told her she had something wrong with her throat, an extra flap or something down there that made her clear her throat all the time and have to take care not to choke on things, she only brought up the “lump” on her lung during one visit. She said that in an X-ray “they’d” seen a lump on her upper right lung and said that it may have been scarring from childhood Tuberculosis. When I asked her if she’d ever had Tuberculosis, she replied that “they” told her she could have and never knew it.
Then there was the visit when she told about pestering my father to buy her a Jewelers’ Loupe until, of course, he did. She wanted it to be able to inspect photos closely. She never explained why she’d want to examine photos that closely, or what photos could be that interesting. But she asked me over and over if I ever did anything like that myself. I told her no. That topic was never brought up again.
I was oddly affected by her description on another visit of a locale somewhere in upstate New York where water was released at regular intervals from a lake and about the warning siren that was used to alert people of the impending discharge. I had a dim, puzzling sense of knowing of such a place, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. For the life of me I can’t remember now where she said it was, or even if she did
“Wasn’t it dangerous for anyone who happened to be in the way of that water?” I had asked her.
“Dat’s jest da way it was done.” she shrugged. Pop was particularly tense during the telling of that story.
Another time, she questioned us closely about house fires. Did we have an escape plan? What was it? What were our escape routes? Which way did we think we’d go if there were a fire, say; here? Or there? What would we grab first? It was nice to think she was so concerned, but she was goddamn persistent and nosey.
Occasionally she’d bring me a book and insist that I read it because she found it so wonderful or interesting. She’d make such a fuss that I’d agree just to shut her up and not hurt her feelings. I’d skim them to have some idea of the plot so I could lie and tell her I read them. She never seemed pleased though.
When I was a kid, despite her claim to be an intellectual, the only books she read were paperback murder mysteries, and she devoured those. We might not have milk for our breakfast cereal but she’d have a new Agatha Christie.
These books I’m talking about now were, to a one, highly unlikely reading material for ‘The Church Lady’.
The one thing each of these books had in common was at least one scene that stopped me dead cold, leaving me with a nasty, queasy feeling. I put them out of mind, and got them out of my house, as quickly as possible.
Two of them that I can easily recall were both from popular mass fiction. In one, there was a scene where a boy walks in on his mother having paid sex with a man and then has sex with the boy. The other was about a man whose father was a psychotic torturer and killer who had slashed the boy when he was young; leaving a long, thin white scar that ran down his cheek.
Why all of a sudden she developed such an interest in the origin of “The Golden Pig” I had no idea. I did remember her suddenly starting to do it when I was a boy, but only for a couple of years before it was dropped unmissed. I always thought it was silly. Now, after 40 years, she suddenly gets curious about its origins?
That October she drove us absolutely crazy with it. She kept repeating it over and over again, always using the exact same wording, like it was a memorized incantation:
“On New Year’s Eve the Golden Pig flies through the air, and leaves 12 shiny new pennies, and they have to be that year’s, on the windowsill for each child.”
That was it: That was all there was to it. She said no other family did that, and she wanted to know where it came from. She claimed her grandmother had brought it over from Czechoslovakia with her, but that no one over there did anything like this.
My offers to research it or suggestions where else she might look were frustratedly rejected out of hand. She was extremely insistent and openly irritated by my responses.
No matter when they came over, she would use the occasion to inculcate the “Officially Sanctioned Version of Family History”, because as she never tired of repeating: “We all gotta think alike. We all gotta think da same.”
This October visit’s theme was: “The Official Version of the Funeral”.
As soon as she was settled in ‘her’ chair we began to hear how magnificent it was, how strong Jacob and his kids were. My father related in hushed, awed tones how much Jacob was loved and admired by everyone done there, because so many people came to the wake. Nodding sanctimoniously my mother concurred and brought up repeatedly that the line of viewers went right outside the building and down the block.
They pointed to all the donated food as another indication of his popularity.
There was not so word about Ann, the woman whose untimely death was the reason for the funeral. Not so much as a word about sorrow or grief felt or expressed for her. It was stunningly, embarrassingly, absent.
The only time she was mentioned at all was when they related the problem over her cremated remains. She had wanted her ashes scattered into the sea but her parents wanted them somewhere they could visit them. A solution that would have appalled Solomon was proposed and accepted: Half her ashes were to go into the sea, half to her parents.
My mother stressed that, during the funeral “Everyone helped. Everyone…Everyone did so much, everyone, Kathy, George…even you two kids.”
We did nothing and she knew it. Every time we had tried to help out we were rebuffed. What was the point of telling us something we were perfectly aware wasn’t true? To tidy up the “Official Version”?
Melissa remembered we had picked up a box of Science Fiction novels for Macon at a used book sale. She got the box and put it on the floor near their stuff.
“Would you please give these to Macon? If he doesn’t want them you can give them to Shawn. I know he likes them too.” she told her. “He couldn’t wait to get away from me at the wake, but at least I managed to find out he likes Science Fiction.”
At the mention of his avoiding Melissa, my mother involuntarily stiffened with a jerk. Her head retracted a bit between her shoulders as she stole a worried glance at my father.
Changing the subject quickly, they talked about how the work was progressing turning the garage into Jacob’s new office. He hadn’t had to lift a finger; the ‘men’ were taking care of everything, vying with each other to do the most.
They also said that Jake should be hearing soon whether he passed the California Bar Exam or not this time.
He was trying to become a lawyer without the disagreeable necessity of attending a LawSchool. In California, all you had to do was pay the $600 fee and you could take the exam. He’d failed it 5 times already, but as my father proudly proclaimed: “When ya Brotha sez he’s gonna do sumpthin, he does it.”
When she was alone later with Melissa at the table my mother began doggedly pressing her on a strange topic. “Tell me about your death...Ann did.”
Melissa noticed that her fingernails were somehow different. She realized that they were a strong triangular shape, and came to sharp points. “They look like claws; like weapons.” she thought.
She insisted on being told how Melissa wanted to be buried and what sort of funeral she wanted. But she went beyond just that.
“What are ya scared a dying of? Eh? What kind a death terrifies ya? What’s ya worse nightmare of dyin? What terrifies ya? Eh?..Yuh should tell me.Yuh should…Ann did.”
“Oh, really?” Melissa replied coldly. “And look what happened to her? What is she trying to do?” She stood up and walked away leaving her sitting there.
“For 20 years,” she reflected, “all I’ve been to those two is a domestic servant who saw to their needs whenever they came up and cleaned up after them. Now all of a sudden she’s interested in my death?”
Usually, these visits deteriorated markedly in tone by the end, no matter what we did. This one was no exception. Not long before they were going to leave, my mother asked if she could take my picture.
This was another predictable game. On every visit she’d ask that and then take my picture in a different part of the ground floor. Then each time, she’d raise an eyebrow and rhetorically ask Melissa if she still did not want her photo taken. And each time Melissa would reply that she did not want her photo taken. She had told her that from the start and every time since. That was not acceptable to my mother however, though she maintained otherwise with feigned wounded dignity.
“Thas awright, if she don’t want her pitcha taken…I don’t unnerstan…But it’s her right. I’ll respect her wishes, even though I don’t unnerstan.”
Then she’d proceed to sneak a picture of her when I wasn’t looking. But she’d make damn sure Melissa knew.
This time, after taking my grim portrait she ‘wandered’ into the kitchen where Melissa was doing the dishes at the sink. She held her camera in front of her at waist height, pointed right at Melissa’s back.
“Oh…Is dis thing on?” she asked innocently, and then tripped the shutter when Melissa glanced back to see what she was talking about.
Though flames were coming out of her ears, Mel bided her time silently. When she saw her chance she snatched up the camera unseen and took it with her to the back of the house. She was so incensed she almost flushed it down the toilet. She briefly considered smashing it to bits but then had a more elegant idea.
She took it outside into the bright October sunshine and opened the back, exposing the whole roll of film. Unnoticed, she replaced the camera.
She felt much better.
“Only one more to go.” we told each other as we watched them drive off. We went back inside and shut the door.