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.