The October People. Chapter Two: The Journey South
“…the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts; now, if any one said the thing which was NOT, these ends were defeated, because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving information, that he leaves me worse than in ignorance; for I am led to believe a thing black, when it is white, and short, when it is long.”
It was a sunny, hot day for the ride down. As always, we took turns driving. The scenery rolled by as we drank coffee, smoked and talked. We enjoyed talking together.
That was something new for me. I had never let my guard down with others before. People could not be trusted: The more they knew about you, the more they would use against you, and I had no defense against guile.
But with Melissa it was different. I found over the years that I could trust her completely. Her honesty and kindness were as natural to her as breathing. I had become more myself with her than with anyone else I’d known.
Glancing over at her as she drove I mused that she and Ann were antipodes in so many ways. Ann had been intensely extroverted and had lived gustily with her volume cranked to the max. She partied, and partied hard.
Melissa on the other hand is quiet. She told me once that she used to love the “May Day” holiday as a girl because as she put it “I got to make the May Baskets, then give them away by sneaking up to people’s doors and leaving them there, ringing the doorbell then running away so they wouldn’t know who left it.” It was no wonder she loved it. It contained the three essential parts of her personality: She loves to create, she loves to give, but she wants to do it anonymously.
She’s an artist, a true artist. Characteristically though, she distains the pretensions of titles or labels: She just does what she does. And what she does is immerse herself in the work of creating with a silent, joyous contentment. It’s what she was born to do. She has something rare; a marvelous synergy of all the aspects needed in a true artist.
Until she gets to know someone and trust them she’s shy, which often looks like reserve to others. She’s also extremely perceptive. Which is why after her first trip with me down to the Island for Christmas 20 years ago, she politely but firmly refused to ever go down there again.
After supper she had walked into the kitchen and accidentally surprised my mother and Kathy dissecting her with conspiratorial bitchiness. Just after she had described Melissa as a “cold fish “, Kathy had looked up and saw her standing there; she at least had felt enough embarrassment to blush.
My mother did not. She met Melissa’s gaze for a moment, then looked away, nonplussed.
“’Merry Christmas’, huh? Well…That’s enough of that.” Mel had told herself. She knew after that visit that she didn’t belong there and would never be accepted. She knew it, they all knew it, and she acted on it. I was the only one who couldn’t see.
I lit another cigarette. Seems paradoxical doesn’t it, for a graying old longhair, a “Mr. Natural” to smoke? Well; it was Organic tobacco after all. And I have to admit I seem to have taken a perverse pride in being a paragon of paradox. Now that everyone wore their hair short; mine was again down to the middle of my back. While I was running 20 miles a week, bench pressing 305 pounds and dead-lifting 500, I was smoking a pack a day.
I was fiercely, Cock-of-the-Walk, proud of this physique. Nobody gave it to me; I earned it. I started out as skinnier than skinny. But because of maniacally driven workouts I had kept growing in size and power long after my contemporaries had gone to seed and rot.
Otherwise; I guess I’ve been told I’ve got honest eyes and a good smile, but an often forbidding demeanor...and a temper.
I don’t know about having a “temper”. It’s not like I explode all the time. And I’ve never hit a woman or my kids. Actually I think I keep a lid on it pretty good. It’s only when it gets to the “Popeye’ point, when “I’ve taken all I can stands, cause I can’t stands no more” do I let it rip: And then they deserve it.
But I haven’t hit anybody in decades now. I’ve destroyed a lot of heavy bags instead.
Okay, so it’s probably true. I have a lot of anger in me, I guess. I don’t know why.
It took me a long time to even admit it, let alone start trying to probe why, and I hadn’t made much head-way yet. I think that anger was a big reason for my smoking. When sanctimonious fools would arrogantly demand to know why I smoked, I’d lean forward, staring them down and rumble: “Because it keeps me from strangling people.” There was a grain of truth in that. It did enable me to endure people better. I don’t much care for people.
We both agreed that this had been a really strange year; even before this tragedy. It was only a month ago that my mother had that accident in the campground bathroom. She said she had blacked out and fallen down. Quite a job she did on herself. I’ve been in more than my share of street fights in my time and seen many others. I know what I’m saying when I say she looked like someone worked her over with a baseball bat.
For the last 20 years in mid August my folks drove up with their camper for a 2 week stay at the Diamond Lake Campgrounds in Vermont. I never could figure out why. Neither of them liked the outdoors, not even the ‘outdoors’ you got in that parking-lot style of camping. They never hiked, boated, fished, bird watched or even stargazed. They sat in the campsite, shopped at the outlet stores, and they’d come over for a visit and dinner to our house just once, no more.
They were both about 77 now; lower middle class Republican and Lutheran. By the way they presented themselves the first words that would pop into someone’s head who had just met them would be “Church Lady” and “Church Mouse”.
My mother had been obese in middle age, but a few years ago her girth suddenly fell away. Who knew why? Perhaps it was some change in the cornucopia of drugs she loved to hate to take for whatever she could.
Now her withered frame was draped with about the same amount of weight as when she got married, albeit distributed differently. It probably made her grotesque ritual of squeezing most of herself into her wedding gown every 5 years somewhat easier.
Her once lush dark hair had become a wispy yellowish-gray. I’ve often heard it said that most boys consider their mothers to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Not me. I never liked her eyes either. They’ve always reminded me of the Witch in Disney’s “Snow White”.
My father, Albert Novak, was a retired Postal Worker. A rather small man, his hair was now only sparse white bristles. With his stubby physique and ever-present baseball cap, he had a perfectly un-notable appearance.
That is except for 2 things. Whenever he grinned or grimaced, he revealed gaps between all his teeth. The other thing only clearly showed itself from time to time, usually when he was worked up. Then you saw that the whites of his eyes were visible all the way around the irises. For some reason both these things disquieted me.
He had the pity, but not the respect of his children. For to all appearances he was his wife’s slave. She treated him with contempt; barking orders and demands. And he meekly hopped to without protest beyond fuming occasionally, when well out of her hearing, that “No one knows what I go through wit ya Mutha.”
They never seemed to have loved each other. In all my life I could only recall one display of affection: I saw him hug her once when I was 12.
It wasn’t reciprocated by her.
When they were due to arrive at the campground, Mel and I had driven over as always so I could help my father set up their camper. It was one of those old, heavy pop-up types. He preferred to use me to bull it into place by hand rather than jockeying it into position with the car.
And this positioning of the camper was critically important to my mother. She was extraordinarily anal about it. She insisted on having the same campsite each year and having that camper set up in that site on the exact same spot, down to the half inch, every time. Sometimes I thought I could see how she could have gotten her nickname, “Loony Lily”.
“Loony Lily”. You don’t get a nickname like that unearned. So what did she do to get it? She said that others had always thought of her as weird. The kids at school, the women she worked with, her family, friends and her own mother had all called her Loony Lily with the easy familiarity of long usage.
Whenever I’d ask her why they would all do that; she’d wildly shrug with eyes like a crazed colt and in a very weird, strained voice insist she had no idea, that they just did, that’s all. She would never discuss her childhood. She claimed she couldn’t remember anything about it.
There were a few eccentricities; I’d guess you’d call them, which seemed at odds with the prim ‘Church Lady” image. But nothing that would get you labeled ‘loony’. There was her ‘Witch Thing’ for instance. She gloried in being thought of as having Witch-like powers, just like her mother had. She reveled in knowing that some of her own grandchildren were scared of her and openly thought she was a witch.
She loved to tell the story about how she scared the hell out of a woman she worked with by threatening to put a curse on her.
“She’s I-talian…Dey believe in nat, dey really do! She was so scared I was gonna do it, she came an begged me not ta!” She’d gloat.
And she seemed to have this idea that she was lacking blood. Whenever she cut her finger, she’d thrust it under your nose and crow triumphantly: “See!? I got no blood! Anybody else’d be bleedin all ova!” Maybe that was why she loved rare meat. “I gotta have my meat!” she kept saying, which was odd because when I was growing up we very rarely had meat.
After finally getting their camper onto the mystic spot only my mother could see, I helped my father level and brace it As always the next thing he did was try to light the pilot on their cobbed-up LP camper fridge. And each year he’d curse under his breath, using match after match because it wouldn’t stay lit.
Years ago I tried to tell him what the problem was. It wasn’t rocket-science; the thermocouple just needed to be slightly re-positioned. I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass; I was trying to help. I did know what I was talking about; I had built several kins and their burner systems before. But he ignored me, acting as if I weren’t there.
After a few years trying, I got the message and just shut up. I learn, but slowly. Every year since I’d silently squat next to him as he did the same thing over and over and grew more and more frustrated.
In between matches this year he brought up out of the blue what a “pain in na ass” I’d been when he had that load of scrap lumber dropped off at their house back in the 70’s. He had assigned the job of pulling nails out of the wood to either George or Jake.
Whichever one it was must have given him a hard time about it. But it wasn’t me, and I’d told him that numerous times already. Somehow or other he’d gotten it stuck in his brain that it was me and apparently nothing was going to dislodge it.
“It wasn’t me, Pop.” I told him again, inwardly sighing in resignation.
He said nothing but glared at me, the whites of his eyes surrounding his irises. That look made me instantly flare up inside.
“It wasn’t me. I was already married to Carolyn and living up here when you got that lumber and built that shed. Look at the photos in the album if you don’t believe me. Look at the date.”
One of my mother’s obsessions was photo-documenting everything. She ordered him to take a photo of every holiday gathering, project, ceremony, or birthday and who was there. Line up everybody. There was absolutely nothing aesthetic about them; they were the most banal, ugly photos you’ll ever see. She even had him take mug-shots of all her injuries down through the years. They had piles of photo albums that made the top shelf in their hall closet groan.
Once most of the physical work of setting up their site was over, we were expected to leave promptly after a brief chat. We understood that; we had been taught well over the years.
This year though there seemed to be a peculiar tension in the air. As we were making ready to leave, my mother abruptly, coldly, informed us that they had gotten a check for $10,000 from my father’s older sister Rosa, who had died the year before. She told us it had been in an envelope on her dresser top that contained instructions in the event of her death.
“She must have known her time was short.” I thought to myself.
“Isn’t that sweet!” Melissa exclaimed, delighted for them because my mother was always complaining that they had no money. “She didn’t forget her little brother!”
It was extraordinary that she would have left him a cash gift like that. She had not been a wealthy widow and I considered it most unusual for a brother to inherit cash when her daughter Agnes should have gotten anything Rosa had to leave. Agnes had in fact gotten everything else. For Rosa to have set this aside for my father meant it was something special.
Melissa was startled to see my mother shoot her a look of naked hate, jarring in its intensity.
“Rosastole Babi’s money!” she snapped, bitterly furious.
“Babi” was Czech for Grandma, and referred to my father and Rosa’s mother. It had been a few decades now since I heard that. It always shook me to hear her spit that out in its angry, frustrated tone of greed. I had first heard it right after Babi had died.
My father said nothing as usual. He just stared at the ground with an unreadable expression.
“What the hell was the connection between him being left $10,000 and the accusation that Rosa had stolen Babi’s money? What money? She didn’t have any money.” I thought uncomfortably. I didn’t want to know about any of this.
My folks had brought their 2 dogs up with them as always. The little terrier called “Tiny” was dying and it was obvious she was suffering greatly. I couldn’t believe they’d drag her up here like this. Why didn’t they postpone the trip?
It was no real surprise when I got a call 3 days later telling me that Tiny had died. By now my brothers had arrived with their families to join them camping. The dog had been left in their care while my parents had gone shopping in the Manchester outlet stores. While they were gone she had gone into convulsions and died. The folks had driven down to the Island to bury her in their backyard and then came back up.
I let the farm work go another day and went back to the campground. Usually it was George, his kids and some of their friends that came up camping for a week while our parents were there. This year Jacob and Ann, with Macon their youngest and Shantee their eldest had also come up for a week. That was unusual, and the fact that this was the 2nd year in a row made it even more unusual.
As always, young Macon avoided me but silently watched me with wide eyes. Ever since they were little all of Jake’s children seemed scared of me. I never could understand why they would act that way; I’d never done anything to them. No other kids acted like that toward me, matter of fact, kids liked me. My mother always said it was because I was “so big”. But that made no sense to me. Jake was only a couple inches shorter than my six foot four inches, and was much heavier.
I was grateful to see that Shantee, now a college sophomore, actually approached me as if glad to see me.
“You’ve become a beautiful young lady!” I told her. She smiled shyly, blushing lightly, but seemed pleased. Turning toward her parents, I jokingly asked: “You’re not too proud of her, are you? You have every right to be, you know.”
Ann beamed with pride, but oddly Jake looked like he’d just bit down on a lemon.
He was an Accountant, and in keeping with his desire to showcase his role as the family’s successful professional, he was the only man I knew who wore dress slacks, a polo shirt, loafers and an expensive-looking watch when camping.
He had a heavyset, soft physique and had always let it be known that he was contemptuous of labor and exertion. Actually, we all knew he quailed at physical effort and feared pain.
He cultivated an air of what he thought came across as self-confidence, but unfortunately his small eyes altered it into just an expression of shrewd piggishness.
I kept glancing at Ann. She was a short woman, constantly fighting her tendency to gain weight. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but there was something different about her. She looked older, as if gravity was pulling harder on her, but that wasn’t it. Then I had it. It was her color: It was grayish under her tan.
After a few minutes, I excused myself and strolled on down to George’s campsite. There I was greeted by the sight of a gypsy-like colony of colorful nylon tents, tarps, and flys scattered about, all held up by a maze of cords festooned with drying towels that crisscrossed the site from stakes in the ground or from trees. Unlike Jake, George usually wore his old work jeans and T-shirts while camping. He and his son Shawn were there when I arrived. His daughter Eliza and her friends were off somewhere.
When George’s kids were little they really seemed to enjoy being with us. But by the time they were in their teens something had changed. At first, I just chalked it up to adolescence, with its covert smirking at the ‘unhip’ older generation. However, I slowly began to realize it was personal and getting worse, especially against Melissa for some reason, and all behind my back.
Shawn was 18, intelligent, taller and heavier than his father. From when he was a boy he’d had an abiding interest in Zoology, particularly reptiles. In his father’s apartment he kept a menagerie of exotic pets; which included snakes, scorpions, and a tarantula. And he seemed to have inherited from George a nasty streak that was passed off as ‘just a sense of humor’.
As if it were yesterday, I can remember the first time I became aware of that mean streak in George. I was standing in the doorway of the little ‘Nursery Room’ on Long Island and watched as little Jake went up to the crib.
George, only about a year or so old, was standing at the rail, supporting himself with one hand. The other was held out of sight behind his back. It was the glint in his eyes and the tight smile that had caught my attention and made me stop and watch.
When Jake had gotten right up to the crib railing that was the moment when George suddenly whipped out the wooden mallet he had been hiding and smashed it down on top of Jake’s head. Jakey screamed continuously while jumping around in little circles holding his head. George’s smile just widened.
Right now it was his son that was itching to get something going. As soon as I walked in to the site he danced forward, face flushed, and eyes gleaming.
“Dad an Uncle Jake took bets on when Tiny’d die!” he blurted out gleefully. He knew how Melissa and I felt about dogs.
I shot a black look sideways at George. He frantically took 3 long, quick strides away from me, almost falling over backwards in his haste.
“Dat was Jake!!” he yelled, waving his hands at me palms forward, his eyes wide. “He was da one dat wanted ta give er da anti-freeze!!’
“They were bettin on when she’d die!’ Shawn repeated.
I stared at George silently for a moment in disgust.
“Now I’m gonna have ta kill both of you.”
“Whoa, whoa! Wait, wait, wait!” He hastened to explain.
Not long after the folks had gone shopping, Tiny had begun her death struggle. George and Jake sat there and watched her die. After awhile the two of them began to speculate on how long it would take. They had differing opinions, so they bet on it.
He explained that the winner would get to steal their parents’ firewood before they got back from town. That was the firewood I had cut, split, delivered, and stacked for them. All the while the little dog was whining the high-pitched keening of an animal in the agony of her death throes, writhing and convulsing spasmodically.
It looked like she might still hold onto life long enough for the parents to get back, so Jake wanted to pour anti-freeze down her throat to speed things up a bit. But George objected that would guarantee Jake would win.
In the end George won. But Jake went ahead and stole the firewood anyway. So as a consolation prize George stole his father’s 2 bottles of Scotch; that I had bought Pop for his birthday.
When he finished he just stood there smirking, acting as if proud of what they did. I stared at him in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it; not a shred of remorse or shame. Scum does things like that, not my family.
I restrained the urge to drop him, turned on my heel, and walked away. I went up the tarmac lane to my parents’ campsite, musing that I was going to have to stay away from those brothers of mine for awhile till I cooled down. But the main thing was that our folks must never, ever, hear of their sons behaving like that. It would kill them.
I perked up when I saw that my kids had arrived as we had arranged. My elation only lasted a moment as I unwillingly recalled that I only saw them once a year now; right here at this campground. They were just killing 2 unpleasant birds with one annual stone: They saw both their father and their pain-in-the-ass grandparents. Two visits gotten out of the way nice and quick. I didn’t understand how it happened: I loved those kids. They had been the center of my life.
I know, everyone has problems with their kids. But I never figured I would. When their mother took them to Rhode Island it was as if they fell off the earth. I went out alone into the woods the night they left and bawled my eyes out, bellowing like a stricken bull. But the worst for me was yet to come.
Unbelievably, for years I couldn’t get them to respond to my calls or letters. Finally, in angry frustration I mailed them each a self-addressed, stamped postcard with instructions to check off the appropriate box to explain why they wouldn’t talk to me anymore, with a series of options that ranged from “Sorry, been real busy.” to “I don’t want you in my life anymore, A*shole!” That didn’t work either.
I finally began to see them once in awhile again after both were out of High School. But something had changed. Our rare visits became painful for me, not pleasurable. Though I tried to avoid saying to myself what I was seeing, there was thinly veiled contempt of not only me, but Melissa, our old farmhouse, our views, and our voluntary simplicity.
Like all aging Hippies, I was fully aware that my values were no longer current coin, if they ever really were. But it couldn’t be just that, could it? I never expected to be mocked behind my back by my own children. Worse; it was only lightly hidden, as if that level of subterfuge was sufficient to be effective. Did they really see me as that dimwitted?
Nonetheless, they were my kids and I really was glad to see them, even if for a little while, and catch up on what was going on in their lives. After hugs all around, we kept our conversation light, focusing on current events and them. Neither asked anything about either me or Melissa, and I volunteered nothing. After an hour or two they said their goodbyes and left for another year.
While talking with my kids I sensed a tension in the air with my parents and brothers; something seething just below the surface.
I had a meager, wretched dinner alone with my parents. All my attempts at conversation were met with strangely stilted, short rejoinders. I forced myself to sound satisfied and thanked them repeatedly for providing me with such a good dinner. In truth I would have been embarrassed to ever feed a guest a white bread sandwich of mayonnaise and onion with a little tuna mixed in, a runny potato salad from canned potatoes and browning Iceberg lettuce drenched with bottled French dressing.
After they had all finished their dinners my brothers and their families ritualistically assembled at my parents’ campsite and sat grimly around the fire with sullen eyes. There was still that sense of hidden, resentful anger hovering in the air.
The ‘conversations’ that evening I found to be extremely mean-spirited and quarrelsome. I watched, grinding my teeth, as George’s daughter and one of her friends ganged up on another of her friends, almost reducing her to tears.
And it was impossible even for me not to see that my parents kept trying to goad me into a fight over politics. Also that night for the first time I became aware I had somehow become the bearer of my brothers’ childhood misdeeds and pranks; like the torching of Kathy’s Barbie dolls. I kept trying to set the record straight, but it left me puzzled and irritated. “Was this what my nieces and nephews were being taught about me?”
I made myself endure it until 9, at which time I was inwardly thoroughly relieved to announce my departure. As I drove home through the night-shrouded hills and farmlands I consciously tried to make myself relax. I told myself that it would be a couple of months now until the next visit. As usual I was wrong. The very next day I got a call from my father.
“I’m here at da Clinic in town in Vermont. Ya Mutha blacked out an fell down in na baatroom an hit her head.” he told me matter-of-factly.
“Jesus!” I blurted. “Is she alright!?”
“She got a cut on er head, an na Docta sez maybe a broken arm. Dey jest took her in na ambulance ta Bennington Hospital.” he continued flatly. “I got da otta dawg wit me. Ya wanna meet me here at da Clinic? We can drive ta da hospital tagetha…You can folla me.”
I told him of course; we’d be there as soon as we could. I invited him to stay with us if Mom had to stay in the hospital. He curtly refused. As we drove there both Melissa and I were silently wondering the same things.
“Why did we have to meet him, and then drive to the hospital? Doing it this way added almost another hour before he got there. I knew how to get to that hospital. Wasn’t he anxious to get there?”
When we arrived at the clinic, he was walking the “otta dawg”, Baby, around the parking lot. I was surprised by how neatly he was dressed...and by how pissy he was towards us.
I figured that meant he was anxious to get to the hospital. But then why hadn’t he gone on ahead? He could have called us from there.
Before we left in our separate vehicles, he asked us if we’d take Baby to stay with us. We assured him we’d love to, and I again asked him to stay with us too. Again, he rudely, flat-out refused.
He told us a little more about what happened though. He said at first after the accident she seemed to have lost her memory. She couldn’t remember anything about the last 3 days.
“…By da time I got er cleaned up, an was drivin er ta da Clinic, she was still askin about Tiny!” His tone was irritated, as if her memory loss was a pain in his ass.
“I kept tellin er: ‘Tiny’s dead! Rememba!?”
When we got to the ER I was stunned to be told that they couldn’t find my mother. I told them they just brought her in from that ambulance outside, what did they mean they couldn’t find her? More unbelievably, they wouldn’t let us in to help identify her for them. Instead we were told to wait outside and they locked the damn doors on us!
I couldn’t believe what was happening. But those doors stayed locked for almost an hour and they wouldn’t discuss it with me. My father stayed quietly in the background the whole time.
Finally, they ‘found’ her: All that time she had been in one of the only two rooms just off of the ER. And they had been already treating her.
When we were let in to see her she was propped up in bed and in obvious pain. Her wounds were amazing. Her left wrist was broken. All the fingers of her left hand were swollen like sausages and several of them had ragged lacerations across their backs. Ribs on her left side were bruised and possibly broken. Her left cheekbone was broken and there was a nasty 4 inch long gash up in the hairline area of her left upper forehead. She was in a neck brace and kept complaining that her front teeth ached. We could see they were smeared with her lipstick.
She was lucid and said she could remember everything now…except for the half an hour before and after the accident, and the accident itself: A total blank she insisted. She was very testy and kept insisting that it was “Okay now”, that Melissa and I should go…now.
Naturally, I insisted on staying.
She seemed particularly short with Pop. She really snapped at him once and it was pretty stupid of him. I don’t know why he was so insistent on trying to rub the lipstick off her teeth like that when she was complaining about how much they hurt her. When he persisted, she fended him off roughly with her good arm, her eyes crackling with a sudden flaring that looked like hate.
It was only when she had been taken off to be X-rayed that Pop finally told us in more detail what had happened just after George, Jake and their families had left to return to the Island.
“If only dis’d happened a hour earlier, ya brothas woulda bin around ta help.” he lamented stiffly, looking away from us out the doorway.
“He didn’t try their cell phones? They would have been just down the road. He didn’t call 911 either? She was hurt this bad and he called no one for three hours?” I stared at him in amazement.
He told us they had a late breakfast, and were planning to go to Manchester again to shop. My mother went off to the campground’s bathrooms about 30 feet away.
“She was gone fa a long time, but I didn tink nuthin of it…Ya know ya Mutha…She don take a crap very often, an when she does, it takes a long time.”
She was gone about 25 or 45 minutes, depending on which time he repeated the story.
“Den some little girl come ova ta our campsite, an sez, she sez:’Ya wife sez she needs ya help in na baatroom’”.
When he went into the Ladies’ Room he said he found her sitting on the floor in a pool of blood just outside the stall, covered with blood. He told us he cleaned her up and got the gore out of her hair. Then he gathered the dog’s food and stuff together, put it in the trunk, and drove her to the Clinic.
I looked at him closely: He must have washed up and changed too because he didn’t have a drop of blood on him. Upon my asking he said he still hadn’t called Jake or George. I told him I would when we got home.
After my mother was brought back the attending physician, a slim young woman with a long, dark ponytail, informed us that Mom was going to be kept in the hospital for a couple of days.
Again, I offered Pop our home to stay in. He again brusquely refused with no explanation. He repeated that he did want us to take Baby though, and not to go to the campsite: he had everything the dog needed in his car.
All this time my mother was talking over him, telling us we should go, we should go, we should go. I finally had to tell her firmly that we were staying until we saw she was settled into a room for the night.
“I just don’t understand…” Melissa abruptly broke her silence, unable to contain her puzzlement any longer. “There’s nothing she could have fallen and hit herself on in that bathroom! Nothing!”
The Doctor had been trying to explain to my mother what they were going to be doing for her. She stopped in mid-sentence, turned and listened intently.
“I mean…I’ve been in there. I know what’s there. There’s only the toilet paper dispenser, and that’s inside the stall, not outside it. There is absolutely nothing there for her to have hit.”
The Doctor never said another word, but her expression plainly indicated that she found what Melissa had said significant.
When my mother had been taken off somewhere again and Melissa had gone to check on Baby, I was alone with my father for the first time. He seemed uncomfortable, fidgety. He sat leaning forward, resting his forearms on his knees, studiously avoiding looking at me. All of a sudden he began to talk quietly in a halting, tentative way.
“I dunno…I was worried dat…maybe…dere was a madman had bin waitin fa her in da baatroom…an maybe…dose are dee-fen-sive cuts on er fingas.” he muttered cautiously, staring at the ground between his feet.
I stared at the back of his head incredulously. By his tone I could tell he was advancing a theory to see what I thought of it. It took me aback.
“A Madman? Where the hell did that come from? Shouldn’t he be worried about a stroke or something? A Madman? How come he didn’t call the police then or tell the Doctors if that’s what he was worried about? If there was a ‘Madman’ loose in a Vermont Campground, running amok and striking down old ladies in public bathrooms on a Sunday morning, didn’t he think someone should be notified? He couldn’t be serious.”
I told him as reassuringly as I could that I didn’t think there was any madman; she just fell, that was all. He never looked at me or said a word, just looked at the ground.
Four days of tests revealed nothing. They never did say why they thought my mother blacked out and fell. All my calls to my father to stay with us continued to be bluntly refused. Neither he nor my mother wanted us at the hospital either, and were so adamant about it we acquiesced rather than get into a heated argument. We tried to keep in touch by phone, but they didn’t want to talk, saying our phone bill was going to be too high.
On Thursday Pop called to tell me Mom was being discharged Friday morning and that Jacob was driving up. He was going to pull their camper back to Long Island for them, as his SUV had a hitch. They’d follow in their car. I asked why that was necessary; after all, they had driven up with the camper, why couldn’t they drive back with it? He answered that my mother was nervous about it.
“All of a sudden she’s nervous? Why?”
Besides, he said, Jake could help him pack up the camper. I repeated that there was no need for Jake to drive all the way up here for that. I was right here, and I’d be glad to help him. He refused.
None of this was making any sense to me. From start to finish nothing was fitting. Why was Pop so weird about not wanting to stay with us or letting me help him? Why didn’t they want us visiting them at the hospital or going to the campsite? Nobody was behaving as I would have expected.
Then he told me that now he wanted me to come to the campground…that night, after dinner to drop Baby back off to him. He was very specific about when I should come over.
So, I dutifully went over at the appointed time. It was growing dark.
Jake was there but still seemed unfriendly and sullen. Pop seemed agitated again, restless. He didn’t sit down, just kept wandering around nervously. I had the gnawing sense of something wrong; a danger somehow. I glanced all around me. I didn’t see anything. The campground was deserted.
If my danger sensors would have gone off like that on a dark street or in a bar, I’d have paid more attention to it.
I sat down by the fire pit across from Jake.
Pop quietly disappeared behind my back.
I pulled out a knife and began casually whittling a fire stick.
“You know how ta make dose?” Jake suddenly asked, quickly leaning forward toward me and acting as if interested.
It struck me as peculiar; an obviously phony fascination that only lasted a moment and then was gone.
Pop came back into my view.
I had brought along a 6 pack of my home brew thinking that the three of us could enjoy a couple of beers together.
Wrong. Before I even finished half a bottle I got the message: They didn’t want me there. Must be they wanted to bond or something.
“Okay, no problem.” I thought.
Only while I was driving home did it strike me. Jake had been trying to distract me from seeing what Pop was doing behind me. That was why the blatantly false interest in my carving. But why? What had he been doing that I wasn’t supposed to see?
We were getting closer to the city now; time for less talking and more attention to the road. On the approach to the Throg’s NeckBridge the traffic on the New England Turnpike was very heavy; for awhile it was bumper-to bumper in the hot afternoon sun.
As we sat motionless, I gazed at the tall weeds that filled every open piece of ground no matter how small. They even pushed up through cracks in the concrete or Tarmac. I admired such unstoppable determination. Idly, I listed the ones I recognized; Ragweed, Sweet Annie, Burdock, Mugwort, Sow thistle...
“I hope this is going to be alright.” Melissa said quietly, looking out over the rows of shining car roofs.
“Why shouldn’t it be?”
“We’re not one of them. Remember what they did to us with your parents’ 50th anniversary?”
“I’m not likely to forget that; no.”
A year before the parents’ 50th, we had suggested to the others that we all get together and plan something for Mom and Pop. We heard nothing until 2 months before their anniversary in September.
I was gone when Jacob called and talked to Melissa. He had told her flatly: This is the date, the time, and the place. They had already decided, and they’d already shown the place to Mom and she loved it. They had booked it…and here’s your share of the bill.
When I got home and heard that amount, my jaw dropped. At the time we were earning a living by doing the Art and Craft fair circuit, selling our pottery and sculpture. It was seasonal work, like farming. We never started showing a net profit until August. We didn’t have anything like that amount. I called him up.
“Jake! You never said a word to us!? You just call up and say:’ here’s your bill!?’ “I protested incredulously. “I can’t afford that right now! And how am I supposed to get there? I’m doing a show that weekend! And we got crops to get in, fa Chrissakes!”
“Well…We gotta do Sumthin for them…”
“Jake! I can’t afford that!”
“Take out a loan.”
I don’t know who had to eat our share of that, but someone did. And I had a suspicion that the amount I was told was my share, was a lot more than my share. I saw photos of the place later. No place that looked like that costs that many grand for a couple of hours, not even on that inflated Island.
They had set the date for when I couldn’t go because we had long ago booked and paid up for that show. And because I was unable to contribute financially, I wouldn’t go even if I could get there.
I expected hysteria and a firestorm when I had to call my own parents and tell them I would not be attending their 50th wedding anniversary party.
“We knew ya probably had a show dat weekend.” Mom told me unconcernedly, almost yawning.
Though relieved to have avoided the expected tantrums, I was again stunned. Their eldest son was not able to attend and it didn’t upset them? They had figured I wouldn’t? This had me in agita with a burning stomach and sleepless nights, but not them?
Struggling to control my voice I told them that Melissa and I would pay for a weekend at their favorite motel instead. I made no mention of my dispute with the others to them. No sense ruining their celebration with our bickering.
Once we got off the bridge onto the Island and picked up the Long Island Expressway the ride became drearily monotonous. The bucolic market garden for New York City that Long Island once was had been transformed in the span of one generation into an inexcusably ugly, metastic growth of baking tarmac, tawdry strip malls and drearily uninspired repetitious housing, all stewing in a brownish haze of auto fumes.
I’m well aware that millions of people are perfectly happy to call Long Island their home. They’re welcome to it. I had left as soon as I could. I didn’t examine why; I just left. I know there was something about getting away from my mother mixed up in that. Kathy had told me just before she and her husband moved to Virginia, that the main reason she was going was to get away from her too.
My mother…I loved her, but I just…Goddamn it, she just got on everybody’s nerves. She often said that what she always, really, really, really wanted was to have all her children and grandchildren living all around close by. The way she said it indicated it was not merely a wistful wish, but an order that she was never going to stop trying to implement.
I couldn’t help it; that ‘wish’ of hers only evoked in me the image of a giant spider in the center of her web. I hated it when those things came into my head. I mean, she was my mother. But Jesus...
According to the tiny road marker we just passed, we were now in “Shirley”. I searched all the strip malls we passed to see where Jake’s office was. Pop said I couldn’t miss it. He said it had a huge sign: “JACOB NOVAK, CPA”. He had gushed effusively and endlessly about how huge the offices were that Jake had rented.
Jake loved that sort of thing. He craved the glittery trappings associated with material success. He needed it for some reason and took every opportunity to use them to bolster his image in the eyes of others... and himself. They were often a bit tacky; like renting a limo to come home from the airport like he was Donald Trump, throwing over-the-top parties, or gathering letters to print behind his name on his business cards.
It was all there in him from early childhood. In first grade all the kids in his class were given a little membership card with their names printed on them for a government-sponsored school program called “People to People”. For days afterward he took it everywhere with him; he slept with it.
Over and over he’d step out in front of people, drawing his pudgy little body up all formal and stiff and intone solemnly: “Jacob A. Novak…People to People…My card.”, and flash his little piece of paper. I thought it was funny as hell. He didn’t. He was dead serious.
I couldn’t find the sign... Odd.