The October People, Chapter Four: The Epiphonema
“Lying is a base vice that one of the ancients paints in its most shameful colors when he says that to lie is to give evidence of having contempt for God and at the same time fearing men…Since our understanding of one another is conveyed solely by means of the word, he who violates his word betrays society. It is the only tool by means of which our thoughts and wills communicate; it is the interpreter of our soul. If it fails us, we no longer have any knowledge of one another…”
“0f Giving the Lie”
“I was dressed in a suit, standing with my hands folded in front of me, looking down into a coffin. My mother was laid out dead in that coffin. I looked down at her for awhile. I knew I was expected to kiss her. I realized something with a quiet, sure, clarity.
“I can’t.” I said to myself. “I don’t love her.”
Instantaneously the corpse was transformed into a shrieking demon that lunged up from the coffin right into my face with a gaping beak full of long teeth and hot breath, its eyes huge and bulging with fury, its hair and feathers flying wild.
My initial reaction was to flinch back, but I caught myself and held my ground, motionless. It fell back into the coffin, then instantly lunged back up at me again. It didn’t reach quite so near me as the first time. It fell back into the casket again, then lunged at me once more, but rose even less this time before it fell back. Again and again it tried. But like a bouncing ball losing momentum, each lunge was weaker and weaker until it was gone, and there was only a corpse in the coffin.
I felt nothing but a quiet strength and a sense of deliverance.”
“One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.” Robertson Davies, Fifth Business
The next morning found us back at work trying to catch up. Our workdays, like any farmers’, were not ruled by the clock but by the length of the day. We started work as soon as it was light enough to see and stopped only when we couldn’t anymore. There were no days off, no holidays, no sick days and no vacations. No one becomes rich being a small farmer. You won’t make a killing; but you can make a living.
And there were compensations. Though we did work like hell for 8 months, we had the winter months relatively free in which to pursue our other interests. We were our own bosses and took no orders from any man. We enjoyed robust good health, the best tasting food on earth, and plenty of it.
In late September the emphasis shifts from planting and cultivating to harvesting and clean-up. It’s a sheer delight to be outdoors this time of year; the air is cooler, there are more breezes…and the deer flies are gone. It’s a season of incredible bounty, when everything seems to ripen all at once.
Hurricane Ivan would be upon us before Saturday’s market, so our first priority was to get as many raspberries picked as possible before the rains came. Raspberries were a very lucrative crop but great care was needed; damp raspberries in a basket will mold in one day. And the honey crop was now overdue to be taken. If we waited too long, the bees themselves would start consuming it.
On top of everything else, we had our own food stocks to replenish. Tomatoes had to become sauce, all the fruit would have to be either be dried, juiced, or become wine, preserves, or be stored fresh in the cellar. The potato crop had yet to be dug and brought in, there was pickling to be done, and the freezers had to be bulging with vegetables and meats.
While the work was grueling at times, it also was quiet work; work that you can think and talk while doing. I had a lot to think about, and we did a lot of talking, whether we were washing and bundling emerald and ivory scallions, fluorescent pink and white D’Avignon radishes, glowing, orange young carrots, or harvesting the slender French filet beans, the haricots vertes.
Picking beans is usually the bane of the vegetable farmer’s life; it’s backbreaking. We solved that problem to our satisfaction by growing pole beans instead of the low-growing bushbeans. In early May I’d set up posts and overheads in rows, one to each bed, and run twine from the ground to those overheads every foot and a half for the vines to clamber up. The plants grew to the top of the 7 foot tall supports and all the way back down the other side. All the picking was done standing upright, and lettuces, chard, kale, and radishes all thrived in the cool soil between the rows of beans.
Filet beans, especially the heirloom varieties we specialized in, require skilled, daily picking, so we were out there quite awhile each day. It was beautiful to be so intimate with those rows and rows of towering, lush green vines garnished their entire lengths with a profusion of lavender flowers. Inquisitive, jewel-like Hummingbirds kept us company, as did the swallows twittering close by overhead.
After a few days cathartic work in the fresh air, enough of the anger and humiliation had subsided so that I could begin to think clearly again. I was finally conscious that I had somehow, for some reason, tried to deny, ignore or make excuses for an increasingly contemptuous and hostile behavior toward us by my siblings. I couldn’t deny or ignore it any longer, not after what they did to us down there. I wanted an answer. I had to figure this out.
My fingers searched through the vines, pulling any beans they encountered forward into view to check them before picking. Melissa was working the next row down from me, totally hidden from view. Her voice floated up to me.
“You want to know what I’ve been thinking?”
“I’ve been thinking that you couldn’t get that many people to feel so strongly about us in just 1 or 2 days. This had started some time ago. It had to have. I mean, it must have taken time for so many different people to be convinced of whatever they were told and get so worked up.”
“I agree. I think it has been building, and spreading. Remember what I told you happened at Rosa’s funeral last April? Same pattern of behavior from the siblings, but nobody else that time, and not as blatant. Except for Jake. And even he was trying to keep it hid. But I sensed he was pissed at me about something…It was like I had screwed something up for him. He was sulking, resentful.. As usual, I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
“What about the others?”
“Funny…It was like I had screwed something up for him…Hunh? Sorry. The others? Let’s see…George acted friendly, but he had hid from me in his car when I got there, and if I hadn’t seen him, he would have stayed hid, and not come out to join me. I had the sense that he too was hiding something from me. And he kept trying to paint me as some sort of psychotic street fighter to Kathy’s son.”
“Humph... I’ll be damned…When I arrived at the restaurant to meet them before going on to the funeral home; she hurried out to meet me like she was trying to head me off, just like she did at Jake’s. But other than that, she stayed away from me too.”
“You said it was just your siblings. But what about that doctor and your father? What was his name?”
“Uncle Ben…That’s true.” “Uncle Ben’ was not our uncle. I had met him once, when I was about 12. They were living in Red Hook at that time in a big old farmhouse. His wife was my father’s cousin, Marta. They had the first fireplace I’d ever seen and the biggest dog I’d ever seen; an Airedale named Tracy. I remember being very impressed by being able to sit in a big stuffed chair all alone by the fireplace with a huge dog to pet.
At the funeral home, as my siblings were conspicuously avoiding me and surrounding Jake, I was sitting quietly by myself at the back of the Viewing Room. I watched as Uncle Ben, a natty, arrogant, little surgeon, entered the room and walked over to my father. Turning to watch him was the first I was aware that my father had been standing there, about a dozen feet away behind me. Uncle Ben quietly expressed his condolences to Pop, and then turned to face forward. Raising his nose imperiously, he thrust his fingers into his vest pockets and scanned the room scornfully.
“So…” he asked Pop in a loud voice dripping with contempt, “Who’s the FARMER?”
“Interesting.” I thought, “The ‘good doctor’ is apparently unaware that the ‘FARMER’ is sitting just a few feet away, looking right at him.” I stood up, walked over, and extended my hand.
“That…would be me.”, I calmly told him. “How do you do, Uncle Ben?” He was obviously taken aback, and mutely shook hands with the ‘FARMER’. An awkward silence ensued. I attempted to make conversation to bridge the gap. “Do you know, I still remember when we visited you. I was about 12. It was in that house, the one with the fireplace. You remember Tracy…”
“Of course I remember!” he snorted derisively, looking over at Pop as a partner in his scorn. “Do you think I wouldn’t remember my own dog!?”
My father suddenly found his shoes very interesting. I clamped my jaw. This is a funeral. Say nothing. I turned and walked away.
But just four months after Rosa’s funeral, Jake’s attitude toward me had undergone a curious transformation. For the first time in years he and his family had come up to EmeraldLake with the others. When I drove over for my customary visit, I was surprised to see him, and even more surprised to see the whole bunch of them assembled at my parents’ camp site waiting for me. As I got out of the truck, they moved to form a large circle around me. I hadn’t even finished greeting everyone yet when, without preamble, my mother stepped in front of me.
“What eva happened ta you an Jacob?” she demanded of me. “You two use ta be so close.” She waited confrontationally for a reply, boring into me with those eyes.
I was caught completely off-guard. Before I could respond, Jake had jumped in.
“Then he found out I been screwin him all dese years!” he blurted out in a high-pitched nervous burst followed by a forced falsetto laugh.
She had let it drop.
His face, his, tone and that laugh meant he was guilty of something. So why ask me? Whatever it was he did, it wasn’t pursued. Had she made her point? What was it? It hadn’t been lost on me that no one had contradicted him either. So it was common knowledge?
I looked at him, puzzled. His face was almost unrecognizable, it was so twisted with anxiety. So it was true? He had been screwing me all these years? How? And why?
I had shut that incident out of my mind instantly and never thought about it again until now.
Having finished the row, I walked down to begin the next.
“Why did I forget that? Because it hurt? Or was it something else?”
I recalled the time a few years back when I finally got my parents to agree to loan me the VCR tapes they had made of their old 8mm home movies. It was like pulling teeth to get them to do that.
I had discovered something by accident in those movies: Jake had long harbored a secret resentment toward me. As I watched the grainy video, I saw him glaring at me from behind my back with angry jealousy. It had hit me like a gut punch. I had never seen that before, but it must have always been there in that footage.
“I couldn’t have not seen it before. It was on the film and I’d seen that film before. So what did I do? ‘Forget’ about that too? How could I do that?”
But why was he so jealous? Our parents treated us all equally; I didn’t get any preferential treatment even if I was older. “Everyone gets da same. Everyone is equal”. I was no achiever or scholar as a kid; I was nothing but silent skin and bones in thick glasses. And I always looked after him. Not only was he my brother, I thought he was my friend. Our mother had charged me with the responsibility of watching out for him; and I did. We all knew he was a coward and lost his head in a crisis, but I was told that was something he couldn’t help.
Was he jealous because he wanted to be the eldest? Why would he care that much? No perks came with that ‘position’. I always had to break the ice on my own, to feel my way through growing up with no one to help. As far as I was concerned he could act like he was the eldest if it made him feel better, but short of dying there was nothing I could do to change the fact that I was the eldest.
I had gone out of my way over the years to show him I considered him an equal, like I was taught. Against nagging inner voices, I had asked him to be our tax preparer and accountant, despite what I knew of his personal ethics. I felt bad about those doubts.
But after all, it was he who had bragged to me about his check-kiting, of playing credit cards off one another, about outwitting the Repo-men, of stiffing his creditors. He was the one who told me he’d had bad credit and no credit. He was the one who told me he kept failing the ethics portion of the Bar exam he kept taking. He was the one who had advised his father-in-law to invest his nest egg in the ‘dot coms’ just before the crash.
These are not qualities one looks for in one’s tax preparer and accountant. Yet I had put my trust in him so he would understand I viewed him as my brother, not his rival, and that I trusted him. Apparently to no avail. Ironic that our mother chose to name him Jacob: “The Usurper.”
Did that make me Esau somehow?
I suddenly grasped the reason for a long series of strange ‘coincidences’ over the years. It always puzzled me how something I’d mentioned to Jake or my folks would later turn up as a ‘joke’ at my expense, a mocking denigration of something I’d done or said and 180 degrees from Jake’s opinion.
Now it was clear, but still totally incomprehensible: They sought out things that Jake could use to run me down and to grandstand his opposition to me. All behind my back. Why would anyone waste their time on something like that? What was the point? I wasn’t competing with him, and it’s generally not considered admirable to build yourself up by calumnously running someone else down; so why? It made no sense.
Especially because he was the pampered, spoiled, and protected one, bottle-fed till he was 4. Somewhere I’d always known that too, otherwise all the bitter tasting memories that were now bubbling up wouldn’t be there.
I had just never looked at it or felt it. Somehow I had blotted it out. It was a reality that was denied existence by willful blindness. Was it willful? I didn’t know. I only knew that I did know it somewhere all along.
How could I know it but not know it?
And why then, if he were so favored and knew he was, would he be so resentful and jealous of me? It didn’t make any sense. If he had it all, so to speak, why did he feel the need to calumniously destroy me in the eyes of the others?
So clearly, as if it had actually happened somewhere, I kept starkly seeing my parents and Jacob across a table from me; a Triad. I was not one of them and I could see and feel the hate in their eyes. George and Kathy were on the same side of the room as the Triad, but off to the side.
They were not part of the main dynamic; which was those three united against me. All my life.
“You know? I’m beginning to think it was Jake; Jake was behind it.” I called over to where I thought Mel might be hidden behind those massive vines. “I just never saw it…No; that’s not true. I saw it, but I didn’t see it.”
“Wait a minute. What are you talking about? What was Jake?”
“He wasn’t kidding: He had been ‘screwing’ me all these years. Smiling to my face, but stabbing me in the back. He must have felt perfectly safe spreading any stories about me he wanted to. How was I going to ever find out? I never went down there anymore. But then the unexpected happened: Ann died. And I did the unexpected: I came down for the wake…At first you know, I thought all that anger and hate was because we didn’t come down quickly enough, and stay long enough. But that didn’t fit what we actually saw. They didn’t want us there at all.”
“But that doesn’t answer the questions: Why didn’t they want us there; and why the hate? Maybe it explains who was behind it, but not what they were told that made them see us that way.”
“No. You’re right. It doesn’t, does it? And it sure as hell doesn’t explain why they treated you the way you were. What the hell could you have ever done to them? We’re missing something. We still haven’t posed the problem clearly.”
We kept butting up against that wall. To be subjected to such behavior, the only explanation we could see was that we must be perceived as having done something absolutely terrible and unforgivable. And if we had done something that reprehensible, wouldn’t someone have at least mentioned it? But in reviewing everything we had seen and heard we couldn’t unearth anything that could explain it.
Despite my anger at the clan in general, I felt bad for Jake’s kids. While all this other stuff was important to me; for them it had to be the loss of their mother. Forcing myself to sound as if nothing had occurred I called Jake a dozen times over the course of the month to see how his kids were doing.
He told me brusquely they were all fine. He thought Sandra missed her some but otherwise; “No problem”. He himself apparently didn’t need any consolation. He was stiff, unconcerned and anxious to get off the line each time.
“Gotta go. Tawk ta ya later.”
It was even more difficult to deal civilly with my parents, but I did. When they called to make arrangements to come over one evening during their annual weekend trip in October, I went through the ritual by rote. For as long as I’d been living up here, they had always come up to Vermont in mid-October. They didn’t come up here to be with us. Nor did they do it for the foliage; they usually missed it and maintained that didn’t matter.
No, they spent their weekend going to ‘Tag Sales’, and on one evening they’d come over for dinner. When they did, we just sat. We sat and listened to the “Topic of the Year”, sat at the table, heard the news of the ‘family’, and sat.
It was so odd and so unvarying; I took to referring to them as “The October People”.
“I can’t get out of my head how bizarre it all was; that so many people were apparently feeling the same way about us.” I told Melissa a week or so later as once again we were out harvesting haricots vertes.
The production of beans was slowing down. Once the nights dropped into the 40’s, there were less flowers, hence less beans. What ones there were, were often misshapen. It was growing harder and harder to find perfect ones.
“There had to have been a lot of talk…And those kids: Why on earth would they look at me like that?”
“I don’t know. All I know is it’s not your fault...or mine.” her voice wafted up through the green wall. “Every time we tried to do something for those kids we got shot down. Even so, we never forgot a birthday. Maybe we couldn’t afford big gifts, but we never forgot them. We even tried to be pen pals, remember? And we tried to find out what they were interested in from their parents. Did any of them write back? How were they going to get to know us? They couldn’t. Their parents saw to that.”
“Yeah, but that still doesn’t explain the contempt, the derision, the hate I saw in some of those kids’ eyes, and that you felt and saw too.” I argued. “Kids react to people they don’t know with either curiosity or they ignore them. These kids had an opinion about us without knowing us themselves. There’s only one way that could have happened: They must have heard their parents all bad-mouthing us.”
We were both lost in thought for awhile. Only the distant calls of geese heading south broke the silence. Then her head appeared at the end of the row I was working. I was about to say something but her expression arrested me. It was one of someone who had just had a sobering, illuminating realization.
“You know what?” she said slowly and clearly. “None of this could have happened without your parents knowing about it.”
“Explain. Talk to me.”
“Alright…you know how they all get together down there for every holiday, and almost every weekend; your parents, brothers, and their kids…Right? Well; those kids could only have heard that your siblings agreed about how they saw us when they were all together and they heard bad-mouthing about us. Right? You’ve already said as much…Your parents would have been there too, heard that talk, and did nothing to stop it.”
“Goddamn…You’re right…It follows.”
Her deduction was clear and logical. Pieces felt like they were falling into place with the almost audible clunks of unquestionable surety. And as they did, I saw another faulty premise of mine, another blind spot.
It wasn’t simply that my parents favored Jacob, and the others, over me: They did not even like me. There was no love for me, no home for me, and no family. There never was.
All that crap about loving us “all equally, everyone getting the same”, was all nothing more than meaningless mouthings.
”No: It was a lie. Call it what it was for once. A deliberate lie. That deliberate lie is still being used on me, and only on me. Why?”
What “Everyone gets equal, everyone gets the same” really meant was: “Jacob gets everything you get”. That’s the way it was when we were kids. Anything I had; he had to have too. I didn’t give a rat’s ass then and don’t now. But then why hasn’t that lie just been dropped now that we’re grown and it’s meaningless? Because it still has meaning some how?
Sunlight was flooding into parts of my life that had never seen daylight before. I wasn’t happy about even the little I was beginning to see in that harsh glare.
Kant had said that for others he only wished happiness; but for himself he wanted the truth, whether it brought him pleasure or pain. I had thought that admirable. I too, was interested in the Truth.
But this wasn’t what I had in mind. I was interested in the ‘Big’ questions, not what might be hid in the messy entrails of personal relationships and childhood crap. I really hated where this all seemed to be leading. I hated the idea of having to deal with things like this. I’m a grown man, for Christ’s sakes. Why do I have to go back to childhood things? It’s demeaning, beneath my dignity, and it made me feel queasy…Yet somehow this was vitally, crucially important.
Over the next few days, no matter what I was doing, no matter where I was, I gnawed on that bone. I was not going to let it drop.
I felt stranger inside than I could ever remember. It was as if I was composed of layers. Floating on top was the calm clarity of crisp, incisive thinking. Throbbing underneath was a sea of turmoil.
I followed the scent step by step. There was no way the siblings’ behavior could have occurred unless it was condoned by my parents; of that there was no doubt...
Carry it further...
It couldn’t have occurred unless it was both condoned and encouraged...
It was my mother that controlled that whole family, as well as their opinions, with an inflexible grip. Even I was aware that all of us eventually did whatever she wanted because she’d raise an unholy stink and keep escalating it until we backed down and did her bidding...
So; it was not only condoned and encouraged, it had to have been instigated and created by her...
This hadn’t just begun. It had just finally escalated to the point where even I could no longer avoid seeing it. She was the one who taught Jacob his resentment and jealousy. It could never have existed in her favorite unless she put it there. Nor could my father behave as he did unless she allowed it. It was she who put all this in motion.
What I still lacked was the reason for it all. What had I done so far back in time that when Jacob was little he had already adopted the secretive hatred he saw his parents view me with? Why secretive? What was it I was guilty of?
Having gained at least this amount of insight, and for once refusing to pretend I didn’t, the question naturally presented itself: “What are you going to do about it?” I’ve never had trouble making a move once I understood the problem.
On a sunny afternoon I went to find Melissa. I told her I’d made a decision.
“Right or wrong, I want to let a year go by for the mourning period. That’s tradition. I’m not going to let them label me as insensitive to a grieving family and divert attention from themselves and what they’ve done that way. After that year: There are going to be no more visits by any of them.
It’s over. None of my brothers or sister ever call me or come up for visits anymore anyway, so there’s no need for action right now. I simply don’t have siblings anymore: Period.
As far as my ‘parents’ go; when they come up to Emerald Lake next August, I’m going to go over there and tell them to their face that there are not going to be anymore visits and why. The ‘Game’ is over.”
She stood stock-still in the autumn light as I spoke. Her eyes never left mine.
“I have been waiting and hoping so long to hear you say something like that.”
By the immense relief in her voice it was evident an enormous, painful, burden had been lifted from her. A shock of chagrin smacked me.
“I’m so sorry it took until now. I’ve been blind, and I’m really embarrassed that you, especially you, had to put up with all that for so long.”
“You’d just been trying to do the right thing as best you could, trying to do the honorable thing. Maybe being blind is an embarrassment; but the dishonor lies with them.”
The way I wanted to work this meant we would still have to endure two more visits before August. And as my ‘mother’ had been becoming more and more vindictive toward Melissa, these visits had become increasingly difficult for her. We told ourselves we would not stoop to their level; we would be civil, but we’d accept no more insults. The end was in sight.
I believed that I had thought through the repercussions of what I was intending. Nevertheless, after a few days I realized I had overlooked something. It didn’t alter my intentions one iota; rather, it increased my resolve. To change my mind because of this would be craven, despicable.
“There is something you really should be aware of you know.” I told her as we picked raspberries. “It occurred to me that I will be forfeiting anything that might be in their Will when they died. You should be aware that I will be costing us by doing this.”
I never expected her response. I never doubted she’d say that didn’t bother her, but she still surprised me.
“What ‘Will’?” she laughed merrily. “Did you really think you were ever going to see anything from a ‘Will’ if Jacob is their Executor?”
I was speechless for a moment. Of course she was right. I was still thinking from the same faulty premises.
I was not a member of that family. I hadn’t taken into account the real reason Jacob was named Executor instead of me, the eldest. It was on the October visit in 1998 that my mother announced it as we sat around the table after dinner. It came out of the blue as usual.
“Ya fatha an me asked Jacob ta be da Eggs-sek-u-ter of our ‘Estate’”, she primly announced. For his part my father sat silently, arms tightly folded, staring down at the table. “We know ya don’t care about dose tings…things like dat.”
At the time, hurt and puzzled, I said nothing. If it made Jake feel important, well, then I guessed it was alright. It was up to them anyway.
At the time I had utterly ‘forgotten’ that a month before I turned 21, my father at the behest of my mother had meekly disinherited me and told me I was no longer a member of that family. I had forgotten it: They hadn’t.
From that day on they had considered Jacob their eldest.