That night, I rode my bike out of Red Hook to Tam’s, passing through the quiet streets and across the BQE. She lived in Cobble Hill, which at one time had been incredibly affordable, but recently had become clogged with baby-strollers and mean-eyed Jamaican and Polish nannies who surged down sidewalks as if they owned them. I had keys to Tam’s apartment, which she’d given me a couple months before, not out of any romantic impulse but out of pure, practicable need; when she went out of town, on tour with the band, I went over to water her plants and collect her mail. I grabbed her mail now — bills mostly for Tamara Wing, a card for Tamara Pulaski. She’d changed her last name long ago as a way to rid herself of the final vestiges of her family in Pittsburgh. The card was from her mother, Marjorie.
My father believed that the gap between us began the year I turned thirteen though, in truth, it merely widened then. An absentee parent, he had left me in the charge of an elderly German woman from an early age. Ortrud Randersacker cooked and cleaned with venomous efficiency, never indulged my nonsense and fell asleep in front of the television every afternoon soon after I arrived home from school. When, in my twelfth year, she died of heart failure during the daytime soaps, I waited until The Sonny and Cher Variety Show had ended before I called for help. I feared Ortrud’s wrath more than I feared her dead body. At her funeral, a somber affair followed by booze and polkas, I was the only person who wept.
Joe missed sitting on the stoop with Hoover and Lou in the old neighborhood, drinking Ballantines and watching the parade of humanity up and down Dekalb Street. They would chuckle at the packs of roaming teenage boys, their restlessness palpable, some of whom they could remember in diapers. He had grown nostalgic for the pleasant hum of voices from the streets mingled with distant music from apartments and passing cars. He also missed his former students at Adlai Stevenson High where he had taught history for twenty-eight years before his retirement last year. Even though most of them were going nowhere, their exuberance had made him feel young. The wrinkled faces that now surrounded him sent him to the mirror to examine the lines that crisscrossed his own at unpredictable angles.
My father called one spring night from Brooklyn and said, “Anatole, you up for a drive?” I hadn't spoken to him in over twelve years. I thought it was a prank and hung up. He called back, repeated the question. “Nothing urgent,” he added. “Aw, well, that's a lie. Put a fork in me; I'm dying.” And in between the silences, my chest moved, and I broke.
The new year was not starting any better than the last had ended. It was only the second of January, but already Maggie felt the strain of despair making its home squarely between her shoulder blades, a tight pain blooming closer and closer to her ribs with each wet shovel of snow she heaved aside. In the last twenty-four hours, thirteen inches had been dumped on her driveway. And it wasn't the calm winter wonderland floating kind of snow either, not the kind that made you want to pull a chair up to the bay window with a mug of cocoa and watch it blanketing the stiff grass.
"Tell me about when I was a baby," I say to my mother. I'm back for a visit, and I want to hear the story of my life, from the beginning. "What?" my mother calls from the kitchen. "You know I can't hear you when I'm in here, and you're out there." I rise from my spot on the sofa -- how many times have we had this go-around?
The spiders must be coming for the ants. The ants are in my housedress. I can't kill all of them. I have killed some of them, and their blotches dot my elbows and arms. The spiders are big, and I'm not afraid of them. They are more interesting to watch than the ants. They are following the ants to the big carcass. Tom Brokaw is in the other room, saying that concern is growing about some war. There have been so many wars. It is not America's war, or Tom Brokaw's war. I didn't expect him to be on already, but it is reassuring that the important matters of the world continue without me. They always have. It's me who needs the world, not the other way around. When I can walk, I wipe up armies of ants with a wet rag. I wash them down the drain. They are moving dirt.
I used to have these ideas that Carmen said were crazy, and she would spin her finger around her temple and look up into the air the way people do, to clearly distinguish those crazy people from the normal you and me. “People who spin their finger around like that are the really crazy ones,” I said back to her through a mouthful of curly fries. Everyone knew that you could tell things about people by the gestures they made, by some of their word choices, like people who use the word “cuckoo” or the word “splendid” or “hari-kari.”
When one of the sequins began to crawl across her bodice, Livi realized it was a beetle. Delicately she picked it off and sent it scuttling over the floorboards. The black sequined dress was a favorite; she loved the way it snaked and shimmered over her hips and flowed into a glistening pool. A fleet of evening gowns, an exuberance of satin and velvet, of Lurex sheaths and beaded boleros, swung on rails that ran the length of the attic, waiting to be inhabited. Livi would try them on in turn before the long cheval mirror, knowing that without her care they'd be speckled with dust and mould, nibbled by mice or moth grubs.
Always, when I saw the boy Salmos away from St. Agnes Catholic School, he was in his backyard. Always, he lay on his side in the shaggy bed of bluegrass, one ear cuddled to the ground as if listening to the earth breathe. But he wasn’t listening. He was looking, as closely as a suitor looks into the eyes of his intended.