Issue 205, Summer 2013
Every Christmas Eve, my father used to drive us down to Uncle Wayne and Aunt Phyllis’s house: a two-bedroom box in a subdivision backed against the Connecticut Turnpike. They didn’t have kids, but they tethered an inflatable snowman in the yard; their cramped living room, with twin plaid recliners, velour couch, and a braided rug, smelled of cigarettes and their fat cocker spaniel. I remember asking my mother, as we were loading gifts into the trunk for them and Grandpa Davenport, how come we always had to go there. “I know,” she said, “but it’s only once a year. Be thankful you’re not the Christ Child.” She nodded at the life-size crèche on our neighbors’ lawn and said, “What a dump.”
Yet here I was at forty-three, living in Wayne’s house. He’d had to put Phyllis in a home—she no longer recognized him or knew her own name—and he’d driven to Arizona in pursuit of a brassy-haired widow he’d met at Mohegan Sun. “Just pay the lights and the cable and we’re good,” he told me. “Somebody might’s well be in there.” So spoke the voice of Christian charity. Surely, I e-mailed my mother, an unseen hand is a work. She wrote back, God is not mocked, followed by a frowny face.
I’d come back to Connecticut just once: to stand with my mother and Wayne—Phyllis was already a liability in public—at the veterans’ cemetery in Middletown. My mother sold our house in West Hartford, bought a condo in Santa Barbara, and told me she wanted her ashes scattered in the Pacific: better to end up among the sharks and the oil slicks than among the military.
I was still a graduate student when Sarah came to Berkeley as an assistant professor, with witch-black hair and Katharine Hepburn cheekbones, and we reinvented the traditional academic scandal; a few of her colleagues even came to our wedding, when she was already pregnant with Seth, the flower of our unprotection. What a bad boy I was, and what a bad girl I made her be. We had a cottage in Oakland, with the old Sears Roebuck gingerbread; during Seth’s nap time, we’d open our bedroom window to let in the scent of eucalyptus and edify the neighbors. If I’m sentimentalizing those days, bear with me. When Seth was eight, I started taking him to A’s games, and nobody gave us shit for not standing during the national anthem. My thesis (“Cattle Are Actors: Archetype and Artifice in Red River”) never got me a job there—who in the Bay Area didn’t want to teach film? But I made some money copyediting and reviewed movies for a free weekly, in a column I called Be Generous, Mr. Spade. My takedown of Titanic got more letters than any other piece in 1997.
But when Sarah got an offer from Yale, what could I say? They even sweetened the deal with a job of sorts for me, teaching composition alongside the TAs, and the weekly wanted me to keep sending in reviews. Like the good sport I think I hoped to be, I amused our acquaintances with a theory that New Haven wasn’t part of Connecticut really, but a free city like Danzig or Trieste—no, better, West Berlin way in the middle of East Germany. A realtor showed us a turreted stone palazzo in what might eventually become a safe neighborhood, where we could live like New York Review of Books dissidents under house arrest.
But Sarah had seen enough smashed car windows in Oakland, and those genteel towns up the shoreline called out to her: the Congregational churches, the white-clapboard colonials, the maple trees, and, God help us, the occasional American flag. Besides—cue the screechy shower music—Seth was starting high school. She found us a Federal house in Guilford, only a couple of exits from Clinton, where Wayne still lived, with foot-wide, honey-colored floorboards. “Just promise me we’ll never own a Volvo,” I said, and we never did. (See below.)
So how long would you give it? I handed my freshmen bad grades and they handed me bad evaluations, much as the daughters of Eve bruised the Serpent’s head while he bruised their heels. I quit my column after I overheard Sarah at a party telling one of her new colleagues that it was “a wonderful outlet for him.” We had her department chair and his partner over, and, many drinks into the evening, I’m afraid I went off on a thing about how the money boys had run the fucking school ever since Cotton Mather grabbed his ankles and bent over for old Elihu Yale. When the gents took their leave, Sarah asked me if I’d lost my mind. In fact, I was seeing a shrink by then. You see where this is heading. Picnic-lightning version: TA, Gene Tierney overbite.
Sarah kept the house and the Saab; I kept my old Subaru, took Seth on alternate weekends, and wrote her a check every month. She could have made sure my job didn’t get renewed, but the Gene Tierney episode had given her a taste for the moral high ground, if that’s not too pissy to say. Had it not been for Wayne’s kindness (pride, fall) I might have stayed at my weekly-rates refuge up near the Wilbur Cross until Seth finished high school. And when Wayne came back . . . but this is a sentence God alone could finish.
By now you must be wondering about this God talk, so let’s get Him covered. My grandfather—a Swamp-Yankee Nobodaddy who was always roaring, “Well by God this” and “Well by Jesus that”—became convicted, as he put it, of a sense of sin when I was in fourth grade. God must have been laying for him all his life. I remember Thanksgiving dinners when Gramp would rise and freestyle a grace in King Jamesese, his palms heavenward. I’d look over at my mother, who would make her thumb the lower jaw of a nattering mouth. My father never saw these transactions: his eyes were closed—in embarrassment, I first assumed. He was a VP at Pratt & Whitney and paid to stash Gramp in a trailer near Wayne and Phyllis. But by God’s grace, he, too, was convicted of sin—though he didn’t mind working for a defense contractor—when he was about the age I am now. My mother called it the Curse of the Davenports. This was the one thing I couldn’t talk about with my shrink—unlike, say, my sexual imaginings (see above) and my issues with women. To his credit, he got the joke when I said my only issue with women had been Seth. But this kindly rationalist wouldn’t have understood my God dread, not that it rose to the level of dread. And enough about that.
I moved into Wayne’s house last October; now it was almost summer again and still no word of his coming back. From what I could gather, the widow was playing him against a richer, feebler retiree; but even if he crapped out with her, she couldn’t be the only hot senior in the Sunbelt. I put the welcome mat, which still read the davenports, out in the garage, where he had his machine shop and kept his restored Plymouth Duster under a tarp. Every few weeks, I got the key from its peg in the kitchen, took the tarp off, and ran the Duster up to Killingworth and back; they fall to shit fast, he told me, if you let them sit. I slept alone on the driver’s side of the king-size bed that took up most of Wayne’s bedroom, Gene Tierney having long since bestowed the sweets of her unhappiness on another married man. And I kept the photographs of Aunt Phyllis and the Mohegan Sun Goddess side by side on the nightstand, just as he’d left them. I’d promised myself not to put them in the drawer until I’d attained his perfect sanity.
Sarah would be dropping Seth off for Memorial Day weekend, so Friday afternoon I mowed the lawn before the rain could start, washed dishes that had been sitting in the sink, and stood in line at Stop & Shop among carts overloaded with hot dogs and soda. I’d suggested to Seth that we take a road trip to, oh, wherever—since he had his learner’s permit, we could split the driving. But he said he’d rather just hang out; maybe Kendra could come over? Not what I’d had in mind, but what had I had in mind? I’d asked Sarah about this new girlfriend, and she’d said, “Well, you’d probably like her,” which I understood was not an endorsement. But in order to put my best foot forward, I worked out a mnemonic involving Ken Russell and Sandra Dee. The name wasn’t her fault.
I put the groceries away and jammed the plastic bags up the skirt of a knitted old lady hanging next to the refrigerator: one of Phyllis’s homemaking touches that I’d kept for the kitschy fun of it, along with the rooster clock and the pegboard with the legend all “keyed up.” As I minced garlic and listened to Marketplace, the sky boomed straight in front of me, from the direction of the turnpike—had it been the Promised End, it would have come from the direction of New York City—and rain started rattling in the gutters. Usually Sarah dropped Seth at the corner of Bayberry Drive: walking the rest of the way, he said, made the “passage” easier. But surely in such a downpour she’d bring him to the house.
I heard a car pull up to the kitchen door and Seth burst in with Sarah behind him, black hair pasted to her head, man’s white shirt pasted to her body.
“Come on in,” I said. “Let me get you a towel.”
“Don’t bother. I just thought you might have that check.”
“Hell,” I said. “I put it in the mail this morning. You should have it Tuesday.” And so she should, if I went out and mailed it tonight. “You have time for a drink?”
“I’ve got to get back,” she said. “I’m having people over. I thought you’d stopped.”
“He really has,” Seth said.
“Oh,” she said. “Well. Everything you know is wrong and now that’s wrong.”
The wet shirt showed brassiere that showed nipple. Had she put on a little weight? “I thought we weren’t using civilians for cover,” I said. “So who all is coming over?”
“No one you know.”
“One assumes that,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “you boys have a good time.” You see what I was saying about the moral high ground.
As she backed out of the driveway, Seth said, “You guys need to stop.” He sat on the step stool and began taking off his wet running shoes. “How come you’re listening to this shit?” Marketplace was playing “We’re in the Money,” betokening a gladsome day in the stock market. He peeled off a sock and threw it at the radio. “Like we’re supposed to be all happy for the rich people?”
“I just keep it on for company,” I said. “Does that sound pathetic?”
He got up and picked the wet sock off the counter. “Sorry. I need to work on impulse control.”
“No, turn it off, would you? I hate it too.” The jocular shills for capitalism left off midbanter. No sound but the rain. “So you getting hungry?” I said. “I’m making pasta à la usuelle.”
“Oh, hey, and I got us some movies.” I pointed a thumb at the stack of DVDs; I’d put Fail-Safe in the middle, but sticking out, as if forcing a card.
“Is there anything that’s not black and white?”
“Now there’s a hanging curve,” I said. “But yeah, come to think of it. You’ve never seen The Boys from Brazil, right?” This was my second choice: Olivier, Gregory Peck, and James Mason all at their over-the-hill worst.
“So what is it, subtitles?”
“I wouldn’t do that to you again,” I said. “It’s about Nazis. Actually, if you’d rather, the Mets are on in a minute.” I’d driven him down to Shea for a few games when we first came East and he was still in his baseball phase.
“I know I’m being a pain in the ass, okay? Can I just go lay down for a little bit?”
“Are you all right?” I said.
“Yeah. I just need to have the passage, you know?”
I wish I had a picture of what he looked like at that moment: His shaved head, because he said any hairstyle was a style. His crooked nose, broken by a pitch when he was in ninth grade and which he refused to have fixed because it was part of his life. So much for the theory—favored by wife and shrink alike—that what was wrong with me was an inability to love.
“You’re a good person,” I said.
“Why are you saying that?” he said. “I don’t even know what that means.”
During a rain delay after the first inning, they killed time by giving the scores, and I thought one might amuse Seth: Mariners nothing, Marlins nothing. His class had been reading The Old Man and the Sea. I eased down the hall and stood outside the spare room, across from Wayne’s bedroom. I’d allowed Seth to tape a poster of the Dalai Lama to the hollow-core door—that bare arm could have used some toning, not that I was beach-ready myself—and I heard him in there talking on his cell. Okay, time to crack a cold one. Seth’s door opened in the top of the eighth, the bathroom door closed, the toilet flushed, and his door closed again. After the postgame show I still wasn’t sleepy, which was why the Good Lord made Tylenol PM. I read synopses of failed movies in Halliwell’s Film Guide, under the two ladies’ unjudging eyes, until beer and antihistamine took me down.
When I came to the next morning, it was hot and stuffy in the bedroom; I opened the sash and raised the shade just enough to let fresh air in and keep out the light. Seth’s door was still closed and the Dalai Lama was still giving me that look: I’m all about compassion, but you smell. I made coffee, brought my laptop out to the concrete slab Wayne had poured for a patio, and toweled off a lawn chair. Beyond the concrete, a lumpy patch of grass that used to be Phyllis’s garden; beyond that, a chain-link fence woven with strips of green plastic, then a stand of trees, then the turnpike. What Wayne said about how you stop hearing it after a while? Not true.
My mother had sent an e-mail at three a.m. California time: Are you going up there on Monday?
Sorry, I typed. Slow on the uptake this morning. Clarify?
She answered within a minute. Had she been up all night? Hello? she wrote. Mem Day? I can’t stand to think of nobody visiting him.
I’d never been back to the grave; as far as I knew, neither had she. For serious? I typed. Do we really think he’s been hanging out in his casket all these years? I changed his casket to Middletown, Conn.
Another minute, no more. Could you just go?
At least this might give me something to do with Seth on Monday. But longer range, I’d better see what sort of a fare I could get to LA. I was due for a visit anyway, and didn’t this come under the heading of Sudden Personality Change?
I knocked on Seth’s door so he wouldn’t sleep the day away, then opened it a crack and saw a dark-haired girl sitting on his bed, knees up, barefoot with black-painted toenails, a book open on her chest. Pretty little round face, a bruise below her eye. Her skirt let me see too far up her pale thighs.
“Sorry,” I said. “So you must be . . . ”
“Kendra?” she said.
“Right, Seth told me you might be coming over. I just didn’t expect—I’m Seth’s dad. I mean, obviously.”
“He went out for his run,” she said. “Is it okay for me to be here?”
“You’re certainly welcome. You just took me by surprise.”
“We tried to be quiet,” she said. “You look like Seth. Yeah well, duh.” She dog-eared the page, set the book aside, and hugged her knees, from which I intuited—I see that this sounds crazy—that she let Seth fuck her.
“I always thought he looked like his mother,” I said.
“Yeah, but not so much,” she said. “Anyway she doesn’t like me. Listen, before he comes in? You know he worries about you, right?”
“That’s just him,” I said. “But I’m glad he talks to you.”
“Doesn’t he to you? Sorry, that sounded bad. I didn’t mean it like, you don’t communicate.” She took a breath. “I talk too much, that’s a big problem I have.”
“No, I appreciate your saying something,” I said. “Anyway, it’s good to have you here.”
“You don’t really know that,” she said. “But thanks. I like your house.”
“Actually, it’s not really—”
“I know, Seth told me, but it just feels like it’s a home, you know? Like my aunt’s house, I mean they’re real poor and everything, like my cousins have to share a bedroom, but it’s like, I don’t know, I don’t even know what I’m basing that on.” She shook her head. “You don’t have to keep listening to me. Is it okay if I just stay here till he gets back?”
I was pouring more coffee when Seth came in the kitchen door, his tank top sweated through. I pointed back outside, mindful of Wayne’s thin walls, and shut the door behind us. “So,” I said. “I wasn’t prepared to find your friend here. When did she arrive on the scene?”
“I don’t know, you were asleep. I just told her, if things got weird she could come here. Could you not call her “your friend”? She has a name.”
“I know. She had to introduce herself. Now what’s the deal?”
“Okay, so her mom’s seeing this guy. Who’s like married? And the guy’s wife keeps calling their house, and so last night Kendra picks up the phone and the wife is like, ‘You’re going to die.’ Like, ‘I know who you are and you’re going to die.’ ”
“And where was her mother?”
“I don’t know, I guess with the guy?”
“So I take it the father’s not in the picture.”
“Kendra thinks he’s in Montana or something,” Seth said. “She said not to tell you any of this.”
“Has she tried to reach her mother?”
“Good luck with that,” he said.
“So her mother doesn’t know where she is. Did she call the police?”
“Are you kidding? Her mom would beat the shit out of her.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Here, can we sit a minute?” I took the top step; Seth folded himself down into lotus position on the concrete and turned up his soles. “How did she even get here?”
“Yeah, I knew you’d ask that.”
“You didn’t take my car keys?”
“It was only over to—”
“Good Christ,” I said. “You know you can’t be driving without an adult. When was this?”
“I don’t know, late.”
“And so she slept in your room,” I said.
“Yeah, well, it’s not like she slept very much.”
“Okay,” I said. “You realize this isn’t cool, right?”
“So what was I supposed to do? Listen, can she just stay here until she gets ahold of her aunt?”
“That’s fucked up,” he said. “What about when you didn’t have anyplace to go? Sorry I said ‘fuck.’ ”
“How old is she? Is she even sixteen?”
“She’s going to be.”
“Sweet,” I said. “Well we’re not getting in the middle of this. She needs to keep trying her mother—at least let her know she’s safe.”
“You don’t get it.” He unfolded himself and stood up. “Look, she’s freaking out, I have to go talk to her.”
I waited until I heard his door close in the house, then took out my cell and got Sarah’s voice mail. “Listen, I hate to interrupt your weekend. Everybody’s fine, but call when you get this, okay? We’ve got sort of a situation here with the girlfriend.”