One-Sided

Mr. Murray Mendels was having a difficult conversation with his father. It was difficult because it was entirely one-sided, and Murray wanted advice. He wasn’t getting any. He could feel the anger hot behind his eyes and tight in his clenched hands, but he tried to keep his frustration under control. Of course, showing that he was angry wouldn’t help a bit. Nothing would, really, but he kept talking anyway. He was very determined about it, and had been having one-sided conversations with his father for quite a long time. He had a lot of practice by now.

He tried again. “Listen, Papa, I just want to know what you think I should do. I’m at my wit’s end here, I really am, and there’s nothing I would love more than to hear your opinion. It’s about to get serious.”

His father stayed silent.

“Oh, for goodness’s sake, Papa, I know this is practically the same problem I’ve had for ages, and it’s probably very dull to hear me talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about it. But all that talking isn’t getting me anywhere, and I’m supposed to pay the rent last Saturday, and it’s a big problem! Big! I just don’t know. That woman at the shop, she must know that I’m not going to do anything about it, but I should. I have to. If she just gave me some of what she owes me, I mean never mind that, if she just gave me the interest I’m owed and I’d have half my rent already, I mean really.”

Still, his father was quiet. He spoke no words of counsel or reassurance.

“But what should I do? That’s the question. I mean, do I write her a letter? A strongly worded one. Dear Madam, To Whom It May Concern, You have owed me seven hundred dollars for the last two years and I need some of it back now, please. If you don’t mind, you see it’s important, in that I’m broke. Flat-out couldn’t-be-broker broke. The brokest of broke. I’m not asking because I’m impatient, really I’m not, I wouldn’t even care, it’s just that I need to pay rent by a week ago and would you please. Oh, God almighty I’m no good at strongly worded, this is the kind of thing you should help me with, Papa. You were always very good at getting people to listen to, your whole life. and I haven’t got that kind of facility with persuasion, I’m more of a wheedle and plead kind of guy. Not very convincing unless you’ve got some extra pity to use up and I’m the closest one around. What should I say, how should I say it?”

Murray’s father did not speak.

“And you know that the landlord’s not going to give me much longer. So what am I going to do, get evicted out of this crappy place because I can’t talk to the pretty girl down the street? I’m a pushover, I really am, she asks me for hundreds of dollars as a quick loan, she’ll get it right back to me, aren’t I a dear. And then nothing! Not for ages. Not a word to me, barely an acknowledgement. Maybe she’s embarrassed. No, that’s silly, because she smiles at me every time she sees me.” Murray stood up, pushing the chair back, where it hit his pile of cleanish laundry. “She knows exactly what she’s doing, the minx! Oh for heaven’s sake. This is ridiculous.”

His father probably agreed, but did not say so.

“Come on, Papa, just tell me. What if I tell the landlord that she owes the money? No, he would never buy that, not for a minute. It’s my responsibility. That’s what you always told me, you do what you gotta do, right? This is what I gotta do. I have to march right in there and say— well, something. What?”

Murray’s father offered no helpful words here either.

“This is the least helpful conversation I think I’ve ever had. I’m trying to talk myself into solving my own problems, for all the good you’re doing me. This is useless. You’re not telling me anything, I’m going to have to figure it out for myself just like I did my whole life, same as always. I mean, I didn’t exactly expect you to be there for me. You’re not here, you know, and you never were there for me at all anyway. Even when you were alive, nothing. Why should I expect any different from you now?”

His father did not answer.

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Contradictions

My parents are like children. They are not so old yet that their hands shake when they move and not so young that they have all their memories still neatly ordered. They spend a lot of their time sorting through the supermarket coupons in front of a reality show about cooking or carpentry. When I visit them, I throw out the expired coupons and take out the trash. I make sure they’ve paid all their bills and check that the cat’s still alive. I’ve been living away from them for only two years and already I can’t remember their house feeling like my home. It’s the place where I remember being a child and the place where I am suddenly, wearingly, painfully too adult for my age.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, my mom wanted to make macaroni and cheese for me, to celebrate my being there. It was my old favorite dish when I was young and so she thought it would be special. She left the pot on the stove for half an hour after it boiled and the water had shrunk away while we weren’t watching. She had forgotten to buy extra cheese. She didn’t preheat the oven until eight. I stood in the kitchen and practiced my methodical patience. No, it’s okay, Mom. I got it. Don’t worry, it’ll start cooking while the oven heats up. That dish will be fine, we’re only three people, you can just stick the other half in the fridge and we’ll make it tomorrow. Okay, sure, I’ll grab a container. I’m perfectly calm and using my most tolerant voice so that you won’t accuse me of all the seething that itches under my skin.

My dad sat at the kitchen table and read a magazine for the two hours that this went on. I brought him a beer. He nodded without looking up. When we finally sat down, my mother had to ask him twice before he would look up from the pages and realize, bashful, that we were only waiting for him. While we ate, my parents asked me chipper questions about the job I’d left four months before.

I don’t remember anymore if my parents were grownups when I was small. I couldn’t have noticed, in the same way, if they brought the shopping list to the grocery store or if they ever got back into the car without unhooking the gas pump. Everything was funnier then, anyway. Now I take it seriously and it makes me want to laugh. What else can I do?

I try to visit less and then I worry that they can’t get on without me. If they’d never had a child at all, I wonder if they’d be able to take care of themselves. I wonder how they ever took care of me, or if they did. Now when I go back to the place where I am a child, I take care of my parents.

Colossal Mistakes

Ellie crossed the street the way she did absolutely nothing else. She left the curb and plunged into traffic, ignoring green lights and headlights and the warning voice of her mind telling her to please not get splattered across the sidewalk. She dove into the swarming cars as though nothing could possibly go wrong. When she climbed stairs, or made phone calls, or typed memos out for her boss, she was never reckless. She was meticulous and grammatically correct. Nobody ever had a reason to swear at her or click their tongue impatiently or roll their eyes. But when she crossed the street, the falling wails of car horns washed over her and she just didn’t care. Nothing else felt that safe, for her to put herself in danger.

Sometimes her boss sent her on weekend trips to meet somebody upstate. That was the only time Ellie ever drove a car herself. She would rent one for a couple of days and keep the receipts for expense reports, and drive on the winding highways until she got somewhere that she’d probably been before. In the car herself, she knew the impotent rage of the drivers watching somebody cross the street in front of them. Until she got out of the city, she tugged at the steering wheel and screeched while people blithely stepped in front of her car, as though they couldn’t see her coming and didn’t care about the tons of metal barreling toward their unprotected bodies. People are so soft, she thought, and they don’t realize that when you hit them they might break open. Her phone rang promptly as soon as she got onto the highway, past the red lights and out into a stretch of speed that felt like unbending muscles into the air. Ellie glanced at her phone, just to see, and nearly swerved. Her father’s name was on her screen for probably the first time, ever, that she could remember. Since she’d been old enough to have her own phone. She turned her eyes back to the road and fastened her fingers on the wheel. She didn’t ever answer her phone while she was driving. It was far too risky and irresponsible. She would think about calling him when she got to Croton or wherever it was that the GPS was telling her to go, when she got out of the car, when she had started to believe that her father had called her.

The robotic voice telling her that she had reached her destination startled her. She’d been thinking about her father for what felt like hours, and she’d barely paid attention to the route. The GPS directed her, and her body moved to answer it without her brain interfering. Ellie hadn’t spoken to her father in more than a year, since last Christmas when he stopped by her aunt’s to say hello and then left just as abruptly. She hadn’t called him since she was in college, when she’d been in the hospital and thought she’d needed him. He hadn’t called her, she didn’t think, since he’d told her he couldn’t make it, he was sorry, work was bad, she understood of course. In between obligatory family holidays she almost forgot the halting rasp of his voice.

Ellie got out of the car and put quarters into the meter, mechanical, reaching into her purse and feeling for the coin slot while her eyes rested farther away, unfocused. She turned and pulled her phone out to check for the address. Her boss’s name was on the screen under her father’s. She had a voicemail. She clicked on it expecting, somehow, that it would be her father’s message, but it was just her boss. Some halfway through the message she registered what he was telling her. “I’m sorry, El, I sent you up there for nothing, it was really last minute, of course the company will still cover the car and everything, if you want to stay the night because the reservation is there already you might as well, think of it as a paid vacation or something, I hear there’s a really good bar. Can you send me that report from Thursday sometime today?”

She stared at her phone. It faded and went to black, and she looked at it in her hand without seeing it, and then she got back into the car. In the driver’s seat she leaned against the steering wheel, resting her forehead against the leather, and touched her father’s name. Maybe it was important, she thought, what the hell. If she was careful and didn’t call him, she would never know. The phone rang against her ear and Ellie braced herself for his voice, the tone of surprise or accusation when he picked up, whatever it was that made him call her in the first place. It rang, and she tensed, and then it ended. He didn’t even have a voicemail set up. Ellie stayed in her car with her head pressed to the wheel for a long time before she straightened and carefully, methodically, painstakingly maneuvered back onto the street and turned for home.

Probability

There is a 98% chance that you are not the reader this is intended for. From this statement you can deduce a variety of things. For one, that my paltry words, scribbled in this mangy journal, are going to be read by a very small subset of people. More importantly, there is only one person for whom I have scribbled them. Most importantly, I am almost certain that you are not him.

Let’s see, then. That would have to mean that if there is one reader, then there will be forty-nine people reading this who aren’t him. That’s fairly nasty odds, I think, though pretty good that all those people are reading this right now. Are you one of the forty-nine? How did you stumble across this tattered book, then?

If you are he, then here is the message I wanted to send to you. You, my 2% chance, my uneven odds. You used to tell me what you learned in school. Do you remember that? You would march into the kitchen and announce, “i is an imaginary number!” Can you believe that? You were ten years old and learning about imaginary numbers. Though, I suppose, you always did live more in your head than you did anywhere else.

When you left I stayed in the house for days. Weeks, probably. I became a sullen shadow until your father threw up his hands in disgust and walked out too. Don’t worry, baby, he was back eventually. I know you didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can still hear the sharp sound of my own voice, can still see the round shapes of your eyes because you were afraid of me. Perhaps you close your eyes and hear it too. I hope not. You’re seventeen now, your birthday was two weeks ago. Did you celebrate with anyone? Did you have cake? I would have made you a cake, you know. You would have said it was silly and rolled your eyes and huffed your breath out like any seventeen-year-old, and I would have waited until your back was turned to roll my eyes too at your antics. Instead, I curled up in the bedroom while your father reorganized the kitchen. He clanged pots and pans to such a cacophony that he didn’t hear me, even when I called.

It’s been months since you’ve been gone. If you’re reading this, maybe you’re back. I probably won’t show it to you when you get back, though. I’m going to start keeping up some kind of journal because Dr. Bachman told me to try it. She said it would help. I don’t think it will, most likely. Yesterday the phone rang and I knew it was you. Nobody spoke on the line. There wasn’t even breathing audible, but I knew. It had to be you. Didn’t it?

You are supposed to be old enough for empathy. I read something about the stages of children’s development once. Around nine or ten, children move past the egocentric stage, that solipsistic phase when they think that it is impossible to be anyone but themselves. I used to joke that they also develop self-awareness around then, and as teenagers become so self-aware that they forget about everyone else all over again. You, though, at seventeen. You should know better. You are supposed to have the kind of sympathy for other people’s pain that means that you are just not supposed to do this kind of shit. You should know better, and you don’t. I guess I’m kind of angry that you don’t care, or that you don’t care enough to do anything about it.

I know that’s not fair. Probably you tried to come back, but you can’t afford the bus ticket. Or you’re, I don’t know, the hostage of a psychopath in some basement somewhere. You can’t understand how I worry, how it eats at me. You’re not supposed to. Somewhere I didn’t do my job right. I didn’t teach you to care how I felt, and I didn’t make sure you’d be safe, and I didn’t make you feel loved enough that you wanted to stay home with me.

There is a 2% chance that if you’re reading this, I’m talking to you. I’m not sure if I’m giving myself good odds or bad ones with that. Maybe the chance is slimmer than that. I don’t know. I can’t know. I hope you come home and you never have to read this, because I’m sure you’ve had plenty of your own grief to hold. I’m going to go now, I’ll write more tomorrow. My hand is cramping, and I think I hear someone at the door.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.

 

Maybe

It was Tuesday that it happened. Or actually, maybe it was Thursday. I know it definitely wasn’t Sunday though. Anyway, it was sometime in the morning and I had just gotten out of the house. I saw Mr. Rowland when I was walking down the street, and he waved at me. Or Mrs. Rowland. One of them had the little girl trailing along like a little piece of cotton, caught on an adult’s hand and dragging a bit on the snarls in the road. Megan, I think her name is, right? She waved at me with her free hand in kind of a desperate grab at the air, though I think I’m a stranger to her. I waved, saluted back in a way I guess.

I didn’t see anyone else I knew til I got to the school to pick up Patrick, early, because he was sick. He had a headache. Or a stomachache. Wait, no, I definitely saw Ellen running home with all her grocery store bags slung over her arm. She always walks, because the store’s only a block away–two blocks–and then she piles herself with cans and bags and hobbles home, trying to get everything unloaded before she strains something. She was so harried and shiny that she didn’t even kiss me on the way, just gave a bit of a nod. Though she might’ve said something.

When I got to the school, there must have been at least two police cars in the lot, their lights all flashing. Four cars. Lots of police officers. They were all milling about like ants swarming on something sweet. You could practically see their mandibles clicking. Do ants have mandibles? Anyway, I edged past them and tried to go inside, and someone stopped me, a policeman. A policewoman, and she said–he said, “Excuse me, this is a crime scene. We can’t let you past.”

I felt the ground waver under me and I said, in a voice gone high with fright, “You don’t understand, my son is inside. I have to get in. You have to let me in, my kid’s in there. Please.”

She shook her head, but she was uncertain. I said “Please,” again and she turned to ask. I ran in, like I was sneaking in, my heart pounding too fast and my brain blurred with panic. I shoved through the doors and ran, and my feet pounded as fast as my heart down the linoleum hallways of the school. I could hear the buzz of voices in some nearby corridor, down the English wing. Or math. It must’ve been science, actually, I think I remember the wasp wings or frogs and skulls or whatever it is in lacy tufts and clunks of bone, all caught in jars that lined the shelves running down the hall.

I rounded a corner and there was a whole gaggle of people crowded around a body on the floor, my god there was blood streaking the cheerful dull tiles and limbs crooked and there was Patrick’s face in the crowd peering over and my god, my heart skidded and thumped and then picked up its ragged rhythm. I thought all my bones might just let go and clatter on the floor. He saw me and he ran to me. He elbowed his way through the crowd of kids and teachers and the shrill words, “Everyone, it’s okay, he’s going to be fine, it was an accident. Back up–Sarah get back right now or you are staying in detention for a week. Back up.” Patrick landed in my arms and I don’t know what they were all saying or what the other kids were doing or what was happening with the kid on the floor or the cops who were filtering through, saying things like “The ambulance is on its way, ma’am, has someone heard from his parents?”

My kid’s arms were locked around my neck and he was shaking a little, just a tiny shuddering in his shoulders, and I held him while he tried not to cry and I felt so immensely hugely scared and relieved and certain, for a moment, that holding onto Patrick meant everything was going to be okay. I remember that.

About My Dad

My dad reads the paper, and he expects me to do the same. He doesn’t read a whole lot else – Consumer Report, maybe a Sports Illustrated here and there – but every time I visit home there’s a gray stack waiting for me, The Times getting old on the kitchen table. There’s always a lot to catch up on. I make a point of seeing my parents every couple of months, but that leaves a huge pile waiting for me. If I let it go any longer, the pile trickles down to the floor and makes my mother complain. More than usual, anyway

That’s my memory, my association with getting home. It’s walking in to see the papers towering, just sitting there for me to unfold them again. Then, once she hears the door shut behind me, my mother’s voice makes a strident nasal edge in the air. “He’s had the paper, just sitting there like always, gathering dust, making the table impossible to clean, uncomfortable to eat at, and we never know when you’re coming for a visit – when you’re coming home. Not that we don’t like when you visit, Helen, you know we’re happy to have you, it’s fine that you come so often, but maybe just let us know so that we can make some plans of our own, so we’re not always waiting for you.”

That’s the part where my dad will lumber forward with a hug, wrapping his arms around me so that I have something to hold onto and don’t drown in the icy torrent of her words. He’ll say something like, “Karen, honey, let her put her bags down. Hi, sweetie, good to see you.” When he lets go of me my mother will come over to clasp me, briefly and perfunctorily, against her skeletal self before letting me go again. It’s always the same afterthought.

Then I carry my things, bags and suitcases that pull my heavy shoulders to the ground, up to my musty-smelling old bedroom. She’s still nattering in the background. I settle back onto my bed with the familiar whine of her voice scraping at my ears. The familiar atmosphere of home.

I have a hard time with figuring out when and how often to get home. For every morning I want to spend with my dad, sitting across the bleached-wood table with the sun washing everything to bright and nothing but the quiet of a new day – each of those moments, I have to counter with a, “Well I’m sorry it’s not good enough, Helen,” and gusty sigh. Those are the worst, my mother’s sighs. She inhales, gathering all the disappointment and resentment she can fit into her lungs, and then she blows it into my face in a foul-smelling mess of uncomfortable emotion.

Home beckons, because my dad is there. He’s waiting, making me scrambled eggs and toast and pushing my orange juice toward me. He’s sitting across the table staring at the chair I usually occupy, and his eyes are sad. I can hear it in his voice when I call and get him on the phone. “Hey, bunny. How are things going with you? I miss you. You’ve got a whole lot of newspaper to catch up on.” My dad is home, reading the paper by himself and then placing it carefully on the growing stack so that when I get back, I can catch up on what the world’s been doing while I’ve been gone. It hurts my heart to think of all that paper, so patient for me to just flip through it for a weekend and then toss it in the recycling bin on my way out.

But when I do go home, my mother is there. She’ll say, “Oh, how good to see you. Sweetie.” She’s gotten better lately, and her tacked-on endearments almost sound like she meant to say them in the first place. She’ll say, “Please stop being so nasty, Helen dear,” as if the extra words meant anything. She’ll give me a look acknowledging that she really just thinks I’m nasty, and then she’ll smile like it’s all fine. She’ll say, “No, it’s all fine, really,” and let me walk off wallowing in the guilt she’s emanating. She tells me it’s fine until I’m curled in the corner trying to cry quietly, and then she wonders what she ever did wrong.

My dad almost married someone else. Some woman named Laura, I think, something with an L. I learned about that when I was seven, and was wide-eyed and confused for weeks. It was very strange to me that I could not have been born at all, if only things had worked out a little better. Laura was flighty and high-spirited, by all accounts. She didn’t have the time or the patience for my father, and she got bored halfway through planning a wedding. The one virtue my mother has is patience, and she puts up with my plodding-slow father in exchange for his careful silence while she rails or rants.

When I get home, I go to bed tired. I get up early, though, because my dad’s always waiting downstairs with my breakfast and the oldest paper. He insists I go in chronological order, because that way I’ll get a real sense of what’s been happening all this time. I start with December and work my way up to April, reading about last season’s hurricanes, elections and business deals. My dad will occasionally read a headline to me, or I’ll interrupt him to ask about an article I want more background about. He watches the news a lot, so he paraphrases some news anchor until I understand.

I eat my scrambled eggs while flipping pages, sometimes eyeing my dad sidelong as he eats and reads too. While I’m supposed to be reading up on the tragedy in Brooklyn, he almost misses his mouth with the fork because he’s so engrossed in yesterday’s news. I never read the news when I’m on my own. It’s too depressing. I think my dad gets a certain kind of comfort from it, though. He likes seeing all the horrible or awe-inspiring things neatly encapsulated in an article, all in the same typeface on the same newsprint, with a photo to prove that it happened. I think about this while I’m buttering the toast, or drinking the last sip of orange juice. I look at him and think, and pretend that I’m concentrating on the trade problems of Mozambique or something.

I think about how he lives his quiet life, reading the paper with breakfast. Sometimes he looks up and smiles at me, so I smile back at him. Seeing the surprised look on his face when he catches me looking at him nearly breaks my heart. He smiles as if he’s delighted that someone noticed he was there. Eventually my mother comes down into the kitchen, pours herself some cereal, and maybe starts talking. I check my watch, the calendar, anything that tells me the time. I have to make sure that it’s not too long before I leave. I’ll be gone, the papers hidden away again and a new stack starting. I’ll be gone and things will carry on just as they are. My mother will fill the house with high-pitched complaints and accusations. My dad will still sit, alone now at the breakfast table, with the black-and-white safety of the world’s disasters.