Sunday, July 31, 2011
Water Behind Us: Chapter 2 (Autumn)
Sitting under a tree, a maple that I thought of as my own, I watched the down slope of a hill in Lincoln Park on the day before Halloween. A man was carrying a baby, and two young children, girls, ran in front of them, one of them in a tall black witch hat. The ground was coated with leaves, red and orange, and I could hear the sound of their feet from across the slope. As they walked down, the two girls ran ahead towards a pile of leaves and began throwing the leaves at one another. Still on the pathway, the parents stopped and watched them. I imagined that they were savoring the moment, taking a snapshot of youth. I was doing the same.
Every year, when I was in Chicago, I sat under that tree on the day before halloween. There was a picture of me there as an infant, dressed up as a tiny devil, in my mother's arms, asleep. My new ambivalence towards children made me aware of the small faces in the grocery store, station wagons and strollers. Their lives seemed so precarious, their parents so lackadaisical, and their essence so mysterious; they were to me the flash of a motorcyclist on a rainy night.
The world of children was one which I was forced to observe from a distance. My neighborhood, which had seemed to teem with children when I was small, now seemed to house those who were too old or too busy to have children around; others had been priced out of Kenilworth.
After several minutes, I lifted myself off the ground and brushed myself off. I looked up at the tree, which was a golden yellow with tinges of red. My car was parked under a similarly bedazzling oak, and I picked a few of the leaves off of the hood to save between the pages of a book.
Driving back to Kenilworth, I passed a school where the doors were propped open on the side nearest the street. The sign outside identified it as the "Inter-American School", but I had no idea what that meant. I pulled over across the street from the school and waited for someone to pass in or out, to see what sort of person would have business to take care of at an inter-american school.
I soon found out. A small boy walked out the open door, crying. His fists were to his eyes, and his head was bent, and I could hear his sobs. He was dressed as a pilgrim-- a big black hat hung lopsided on his head and he struggled along in big black shoes with white paper buckles. One of the buckles was knocked off his shoe as he slumped down against the brick wall. In a few minutes a woman came out-- the principal, it seemed. She was wearing a bright red sweater. She came through the open door, and looked both ways before she spotted the crumpled form against the wall. Going to him, she sat down on the hard cement beside him. I couldn't hear them, but I saw him nod, then wipe off his face. The principal reached over and reattached the paper buckle to his shoe, and the two of them walked back into the school, the principal slightly behind with her hands lightly touching his back.
The principal seemed to have a magic touch at her job; I wanted to rush in and ask her about it. I wanted out of the pace of the world I lived in, and remembered what a Lebanese man whom I had known had said before leaving Chicago to return to his village: "What is wrong with this place is so many people drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups in their cars."
* * *
The day before Thanksgiving always seemed like a distinct and precious holiday to me, the day of cross-continental homecomings. I even liked the jammed airports and trains; the expectant people scanning the crowd for their own kin.
I had done my share of travel on that Wednesday, and my memories were, with one exception, warm ones. From college, I had taken the train down to Washington, in the days before my Aunt returned to Chicago when the family gathered at her house in the woods by the Potomac. The train was so crowded that students were packed even onto the platforms between the swaying cars, and the aisles became home to small clumps of us, beer in hand. For the occasion, Amtrak resuscitated the oldest of its rolling stock, ancient pullman and coach cars with square windows and the still visible markings of the Penn Central or New York & New Haven lines. To sit on such a train returning to school was to see an overture of the eastern educational establishment; a Northbound train travelled successively through the homes of William & Mary, Randolph-Macon, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Princeton, Rutgers, Columbia, Yale, Brown, and finally, Harvard. At each stop, a new and distinct group would alight upon the already overburdened cars, their initial frustration apparent as they looked for seats or a clear space in which to sit. I had loved that about the East; the towns were crowded together, creating a feeling of shared intimacy of place after a few beers on a bright silver train.
The memory of those train rides were fresh and whole as I waited for the work day to end. In the morning, I filed papers in the state courthouse, and in the afternoon my single service was on a gentleman so embarrassed at the fact that he had become involved in litigation that he insisted on picking up the subpoena at the firm's offices when I called him on the phone. In the afternoon, many of the residents of the basement corridor took an early leave, and those of us who remained shared a brief camaraderie. In the cubicle next to mine, Rita the word processor was talking animatedly on the phone in Lithuanian. Her words tripped out excitedly and rythymically, and it became a sort of background music for me as I did some file work and rearranged the papers on my desk into piles corresponding to their relative importance. On top of the pile in the front was the slip from Tenerife Baker, with "see me" written twice on it, and underlined.
Rita finished her call and left, calling out to me as she pushed the door open with her back, her hands full of bakery boxes. At four, I stepped out the door myself, and walked alone across the lobby. As I touched the stone skin of the building and entered the chill air of Lasalle Street, I noticed a few tiny, frail wisps of snow trailing down from the sky between the behemoth buildings which formed the concrete canyon. I caught one on my tongue discreetly, and crunched the tiny crystal between my tongue and teeth as I crossed the street to the tiny delicatessen in the opposite building.
I had often thought of going to this deli, which was actually more of a soda fountain. It was made of wood and marble, and had an aura of faded grandeur, even when full of suited men at lunch. I had looked through the glass and seen them in there, and gone on to a place with fewer professionals jamming their briefcases into the nooks and crannies. On the day before Thanksgiving, I knew that the hordes would be gone and that I could see it at leisure.
I ordered an egg cream and drank it at the marble-topped counter. It was my first egg cream. I resisted the impulse of asking the counterman what exactly an egg cream consisted of. It came out of metal canister, like a milk shake, and had the tinny bite of cold and metal.
There was one other customer in the delicatessen, a young woman with striking dark hair. She wore a beautiful wool coat which was buttoned up against the weather. Browsing the shelves briefly, she chose a box of chocolates. Her hair might not have been so striking and her coat so beautiful if not for the snow which clung lightly to her, the first snow of the year. I watched her intently until she passed close to me at the end of the counter, at which point I turned away self-consciously. After she left, I paid for my food with a brief smile at the counterman, and crossed the street again to retrieve my car in the snow.
The roads were quiet, and in Kenilworth there were a few anxious residents who were already out with shovels and brooms to address the first few flakes of the season. Smoke rose from chimneys, and in certain driveways, visiting cars crowded the residents' vehicles onto the street.
Walking into the house, I was surprised to find my Father sitting at the breakfast table looking out over the yard, only a cup of coffee before him. It was the first time in my life that I could remember my Father returning from work before five, or sitting at the table by himself without some sort of reading material before him. It seemed that he shared my mood, a deep-seated contentedness that required no further stimulation.
When I think of my father now, that is how I think of him: Sitting at the breakfast table, relaxed, with a gentle smile as he looked out at the backyard and the snow beginning to come down. Its funny that I remember him that way, because it was not at all typical; after my Mother's death, he had been in constant motion.
I went to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. I dropped in two cubes of sugar, carried it to the table, and sat next to my dad. For a while we both just sat there, looking out at the snow, which now was forming a soft blanket over the grass and muffled the sounds of the town and city in the distance.
"Buddy," he said in even tones, "you don't drink coffee."
It was true. I had always refused coffee when it was offered, though I found the taste agreeable enough. It didn't seem worth the effort, for one thing. Buying, grinding, brewing, pouring-- the process consumed much of the lives of some people I knew.
I shrugged in response to his question. I wanted to share that moment with him, and the steaming cup seemed like a part of it. I took a sip of the coffee and savored the taste, the warmth of it. My father looked over at me, smiling.
"I like this job, Pop. At first, it was mostly grunt work, but now I'm starting to get some things where I can use a little imagination. The hard part is the paperwork."
My father nodded knowingly.
I dug for more. "Have you heard anything, you know, about how I'm doing?"
"Good things, Buddy. I hear good things," my father said, looking down towards his coffee. He seemed to want to say something, maybe something about my work or the snow or our family, but he remained silent. I waited, but his words came very slowly.
"Do you think I've been a good father?"
The question was incomprehensible and shocking. I couldn't answer, never having thought of how my father could have been different than he was. He had seemed immutable, permanent, and the issue of different behavior had never crossed my mind.
"I know you and your brother seem happy, and I know that I'm proud of the things you've done. But there has been a lot of loss in your lives, people you knew and people you didn't. Your mother, my brother Ennis, all of your grandparents, all gone. There's a lot of things they could have taught you."
"It's not like you killed them, Dad," I said stupidly.
He laughed. "No. It's just hard to be the only one." He looked far away, the way his Aunt would look when she talked about South Carolina. For the first time, I thought of him as lonely. He had always seemed so stoic and upbeat, when no one else would have been. Loneliness was simply not a feeling I ever thought that he had, but in the early winter light I could see it.
Seeing that in his eyes triggered a vestigial pain of my own. "I don't know about the rest of them, but I know that I miss Mom sometimes," I said. "I go sit in her studio, and it seems like she should come back. I'm still waiting after awhile with my eyes closed, just sort of smelling and feeling that room. That's when I feel it."
What I didn't share was the most painful memory of my Mother. I visited her for the last time in her room two nights before she died. She seemed very thin. I was a small child, and I tried to crawl up on her bed to look at her face, which was turned away because she was asleep. I slipped off, and knocked a vase of flowers off of the bedstand. The vase shattered on the ground with a loud repercussion, and my Mother awoke. With her tired eyes she looked at the pieces of the vase on the ground and simply said, "Oh. Oh no." Then she turned away and I was taken out of the room for the last time. She was gone. When I thought of it, even that day with my father, I felt like scratching at my own face until I felt blood on my hands.
The anger I felt towards myself had never directed itself towards my father. I didn't have the same problems with him that many of my friends had with their own fathers. Red Trigg never yelled at his sons, never chastised us publicly, never beat us, never scorned us or humiliated us, or divorced our mother, or died. Red Trigg fathered the same way that he lawyered; with an air of quiet strength that brooked no fools. Yet I felt a lack, a certain starvation for an emotional reaction. I had seen too much muted pride and sadness, and longed for an emotional outburst. As a child, one of my fantasies was to be part of an Italian family in a small house which always faintly smelled of spaghetti. The father, Gino, would make wine in the basement and serve it to the whole family with meals, at which everyone would talk at once. When Gino was angry he screamed, but when his children had pleased him he would sweep them up into his arms and kiss their cheeks.
Finally standing, my father went into the kitchen for more coffee. His voice came to the breakfast room: "I don't know if your brother is coming today or tomorrow. It depends on his flight and work." Returning to the round table, he continued, "Your brother seems a little full of himself these days."
"He's a big New York lawyer now. My brother, the rising star."
"New York is a strange place, Buddy. New York changes people."
"I know. Michael's still a good guy. We talk about things." I wondered whether to break my father's illusion that Michael and I were close.
I wanted my father to pry; wanted my father to want to know what it was that had gone wrong. I didn't raise it, though; he had taught me too well.
"Who's coming this year, Pop?"
"Eight..., no, nine," Red said, counting on his fingers against the table. "Me, you, Michael, your Aunt and Uncle and Bobby and Seve, and your Aunt Sam. I think a few homeless attorneys, too. They'll call tonight."
Thus we left behind that moment where I glimpsed his loneliness. We talked about the Holiday. I had my usual duties. First, it fell to me to make a turkey, a fifteen-pound bird, and some stuffing. The other accoutrements were to be provided by the guests. The foursome from Madison were to bring salads, a term they used loosely to include things like trail mix and pudding, and Aunt Sam would arrive with her predictable execrable sweet potato pie. The pie had become the stuff of legends, as Aunt Sam stuck to tradition and continued to provide the sulfurous desert, though we ate it purely out of politeness, and in only the smallest possible pieces. No one knew how she made the pie, but it always bore the faint smell of a smoke bomb, and was encased in a hardened shell.
The homeless attorneys had also become something of a Trigg family tradition. First year associates often had come from other parts of the country to work at Toth, Taylor & Moore, and were too overburdened with work to make it back for Thanksgiving. Red Trigg had begun several years before to invite these unfortunates to our dinner. Invariably, the young attorneys were too formal in both accepting and attending the dinner, but loosened up once they became comfortable with the atmosphere of our home. At least one young attorney had attended four years in a row, and I suspected that she found being an adopted orphan preferable to the atmosphere at her own home.
The large number of guests was the source of my second, and more sacred, ritual, the finding, erection and placement of the "kid's table." It was an old card table in the back of the front hall closet, hauled out once a year for the big meal. It was not a pretty table, but reaching back into the closet through the coats and the ski suits and the blankets brought an intense and inchoate rush of nostalgia.
As my father washed the two coffee cups, I performed my duty, the smell of old wool rushing up to meet me. With effort, I took the old table out of the closet, and carried it into the dining room. I caught a finger in the locking mechanism of one of the legs, and was sucking on the injured digit as I walked into the kitchen where my father was taking dishes out of the dishwasher.
Returning again to what I viewed as a happy topic, I leaned back against the counter and said, "I really do like this job. Today I was down in the basement after everyone else had left, and I really sort of felt like there was a peace to it. I mean, I know I'm not articulating this very well, but I just felt like it was the right place to be."
My father looked vaguely uncomfortable. "Actually, it's funny. I was talking to Tenerife Baker, and she told me about some work she wanted you to do."
I nodded. "She mentioned it awhile ago; something about a prison case. I haven't heard back from her."
"What do you think of her, Buddy?"
"She's confident, and that seems to be about three-quarters of the battle to be a good lawyer right there, and she's smart." I paused apprehensively. "Why, did she goof up or something?"
"No, no, not at all. We think she's great. The case is a good one for her, but if she asks you again, I'd rather you not get involved in it. I took the case as sort of a political favor, and one Trigg being involved is enough."
"Pop, you took a prison case as a political favor? Makes me wonder who out there you owe debts to!"
We laughed gently, and the topic dropped. I disliked being warned off, but decided to wait for another moment to bring the problem up, and question my father further about the case. I didn't want to break the contentedness that I saw in him.
We waited until midnight for Michael. He finally called from work to say that he would be there first thing in the morning. I knew that my brother's life reminded my father of his own years as a young attorney, of the years he lost with the wife that he thought would always be there.
With only the slightest of smiles he said good-night, touched my head with his fingertips as he passed, and went up the steps. He turned and looked at me halfway up the stairs. He looked old, suddenly. "Well, good-night Buddy," he said again, and continued up the stairs.
After he turned the corner, I stood wearily from my own chair, and walked to the back doors. Unlocking one, I stepped out onto the steps over the lawn. His lawn. Her lawn, still. The snow was coming down through the light coming from the bay window, fat apple-cider flakes. I caught one on my tongue, and felt the cold air on my face as Thanksgiving Day arrived silently.
* * *
The morning dawned sharp and cold and white. At exactly 8:00 the clock radio clicked on, and at precisely that moment a man's voice leapt from it, declaring "It's Bears weather!"
The room was cold, and when I emerged from bed I ran from the room to the shower a few feet away, and turned on the warm spray. Downstairs, I heard the coffee brewing in the old Mr. Coffee. Dad never replaced the stained, barely-functioning machine for a newer model, confirming a phenomenon I had noticed: My friends with the least money, living in a tiny apartment, invariably possessed a sleek matte-black German coffeemaker, while the affluent suburbanites I grew up around were strangely devoted to their creaking antique machines.
Still wet from the shower and wearing hastily thrown-on sweats, I trotted downstairs and poured myself some of the fresh coffee.
My father feigned amazement. "Two cups in two days? You may never sleep again!" He shook his head and retreated into the breakfast room as I grunted and hauled the turkey out of the refrigerator and pondered my basting technique.
My Mother having departed without leaving instructions on how to baste a turkey, I had in the past resorted to some novel and sometimes horrifying devices before my discovery of the basting brush. Had the guests known, they would have been thankful that the years of a turkey basted with a bare finger, paper towel, or piece of mozzarella cheese were over. Actually, the year I had used cheese was an unusual success; no one identified the faint, odd but pleasant taste. I have since been tempted to try that one again.
Slowly, as the afternoon brought the light into the kitchen, the cast assembled. First to arrive, shortly after one, was Aunt Sam, the sister of David Baxten Trigg, my deceased grandfather. They had grown up on a South Carolina plantation, and Samantha Trigg had never married and had never abandoned the political and social ideals of South Carolina. She continued to speak with a perceptible Southern accent, and dressed the part of Southern matron on a brief visit to the alien Northern city, generally wearing two or three layers of clothing more than most Chicagoans would consider adequate. Thanksgiving was no exception, as she arrived at the front door wearing not only a wool jacket, but a long fur coat.
"Buddy!" the maiden Aunt exclaimed, giving me a predictable but unappreciated kiss on the cheek. "Help me with my things."
Aunt Sam's "things" were a small pastry shop box, which she had placed in the middle of the trunk of the Oldsmobile like a large suitcase. "I didn't have time to make my pie this year, so I got something at Mr. Pastry," she explained, "I feel like such a laze-about!" With that, she bustled past me to her nephew, who stood at the top of the front hall stairs awaiting her.
"Samuel!" It is so hard to get used to you being grown up!" Unlike me, my Father knew how to handle his Aunt, and hustled her off to the den, where the television was playing the traditional Detroit-Chicago Thanksgiving Day football game. Sam had a peculiar passion for the Bears, an affiliation which mystified only those who were unable to pierce her artifice of Southern gentility.
Once she was settled in, my father and I met in the kitchen. "Pastry!" he, opening the box to see four neat little eclairs lined up, nestled in white paper.
"Ten people, four eclairs-- she must assume that our affection for all desserts is in proportion to the demand for her pie," I noted, closing the box.
My father laughed, then gently reproached me. "Your Aunt may be a little strange, but don't forget that she's responsible for the family coming North. If it wasn't for her, you might be driving a tractor in Frogmore, South Carolina."
I didn't need to be told, having heard the story many times of how Aunt Sam, enamored of the city, convinced her brother to leave the decaying farm in South Carolina and come to Chicago. Aunt Sam was successful in insurance. She sold fire insurance to whites on the North Side and funeral insurance to blacks on the South Side. Her secret was a combination of a shrewd business mind and a soft drawl that customers trusted. It didn't work on me-- I had never trusted her, or anyone with a southern accent. It always seemed as if they must be faking it.
Next to arrive was the Madison contingent. Aunt Ericka and Uncle Gordon arrived with their two sons, Bobby and Seve, each of whom were in their early twenties. In fact, if one was to judge the family solely in terms of behavior, each member could be taken to be in their early twenties. Aunt Ericka, my mother's little sister, taught at a nursery school, while Gordon owned a company which made wood stoves. The parents wore long hair and loose clothes, and had schooled their children at home. Predictably, their two sons had become Republican in appearance, politics, and dress, much to the irritation of the parents. Seve, the elder of the two cousins, was finishing his MBA at Dartmouth, while Bobby had that fall entered law school at the University of Virginia.
When I heard them pull up I went out to the driveway to help, and exchanged handshakes with my cousins, both of whom gave me a firm, businesslike handshake. Ericka and Gordon nodded genially. Once inside, Bobby and Seve joined Aunt Sam in front of the football game, while Ericka, Gordon and my father talked in the kitchen as I continued to prepare the meal. The secret to a good turkey, I had found, was to cook it for a very long time over low heat and pick bits off and eat them as it gets close to being ready. Also, remember to be sure that all the plastic wrapping comes off the bird before it goes into the oven (a lesson I learned early on).
The doorbell rang again, and I left the turkey to answer it, thinking it might be Michael. At the door were two young Chicago lawyers, a woman younger than me and a 30-ish man.
The man spoke nervously. "I'm David Sands. Mr. Trigg invited us for dinner." He was a thin, owlish guy, with a demeanor that seemed eager to please. His shoes looked freshly polished.
With David Sand was a woman, with shoulder-length blond hair and a sideways smile that seemed unrehearsed. She stuck out her hand, shook mine, and said, "I'm Lisa Diamond. You look like your Dad."
"I'll take that as a compliment," I said. There was an undefinable quality about her that drew me in, something that was both genuine and bold.
I escorted them into the living room and introduced them to the assembled group. Bobby's eyes hung on Lisa Diamond, while David Sand said a short, nervous piece about being very glad to have the chance to be there.
Watching them, I smelled the turkey, and hurried into the kitchen. It was ready to be carved, and I hauled it out of the oven with both hands, wonderful fragrant steam rising up off of the bird. I picked off bits of the skin with tender meat clinging underneath and popped them into my mouth.
After a few minutes, Bobby came into the kitchen interrupting my private feast.
"So, who's this Lisa Diamond, Buddy?"
I shrugged. "Works in the office I guess," I said, trying not to reflect my own interest. I was no good at this type of banter, though I was sure that my desire was more aroused than my cousin's. There was a time when I had sat around with friends like bears in a cave comparing women's assets, but that time had passed. "How's school?" I asked him.
"Pretty great," Bobby reported, "not really that different than college, only people seem more mature. I don't know-- we'll see when grades come out if it's the sort of place where you can study hard and play hard."
"UVA's got a good reputation."
"I'll get a job, I know that. So, what do you do now? I heard you quit the thing in DC."
I hated this part of a conversation with relatives, and resented the moment's intrusion into my meat-based reverie. My four years in Washington had been rocky, and had ended traumatically. "Right now, I'm just working at Dad's firm for a while."
"Sort of a paralegal?"
I was in no mood to explain. "Yeah, sort of."
"Hey, no problem with that. Nothing's better to get into law school that paralegal stuff. A lot of the people in my class did that. You going to apply this year?"
I had no intention of going to law school. "Maybe. I don't know."
Bobby shrugged. "Think about UVA. Good party school. Duke too."
As Bobby returned to the den, I cursed under my breath. There was something unfair about the way in which Bobby, with absolutely no adjustments in his lifestyle, would be able to step into a job, good money, and a house, while most of those with whom I had worked in the Peace Corps could not cope with their return to Western civilization, many taking several years to find so much as a steady job. As I had been trained by my father, I swallowed my resentfulness and pulled out the turkey. Underneath it all, however, lay the strong desire to destroy something, to do malice with explosives.
Few things attract a crowd like a hot, golden brown turkey. The first cut of the carving knife into the white breast drew the others into the kitchen, before my father shepherded them into the dining room and arranged the food on a buffet. To enter such a room was a powerful instant, a sort of feast ritual that touched a primal chord.
Three places were set at the kids table, and were promptly snapped up by Gordon, Seve, and the silent and nervous David Sand. Red Trigg sat at the head of the large table, with Ericka and Bobby to his left, Lisa Diamond and I to his right, and Aunt Sam at the far end of the table. Bobby watched Lisa sit down next to him, the curve of her breast obvious under the white silk shirt. I looked down at my place setting after I in turn sat next to her.
As chairs were pulled in, a nervous moment approached. It was the tradition of the family to pray before dinner, but the art of the public prayer was a skill unmastered by any of us. Making the moment worse was the awful tradition of my father choosing someone to lead the prayer with no forewarning. In those moments before the patriarch picked the reluctant leader, I had at times said a silent prayer of my own.
"Ericka, would you like to say the prayer?"
I breathed out, pardoned and relieved.
Before Ericka could begin, Aunt Sam spoke. "Should we join hands?"
"We don't usually," my father responded.
"I just thought it would be nice."
Another awkward moment ensued in which the group slowly held hands around the two tables. I took Lisa Diamond's left hand in my right, and wondered if it was noticeably sweaty. Her hand was soft but firm, a sensual hand. I clenched my eyes and mouth shut and looked down. The others did likewise as Ericka began the prayer.
"Dear God, our Father and Mother... thank you for the last year, and for the good things that happened to us, and for the things that we learned things from... help us remember those who couldn't be here-- my parents, Samuel's parents, Ellie, Ennis... thank you for bringing us all together here so we can... be together... thank you for the world around us, for the ecology... for the trees that gives us back oxygen that we need, and for the whales and for the dolphins and the birds... thank you for all of the plants and animals, and everything else. Amen."
After the prayer, as always, Aunt Sam with quivering hand raised her wine glass reverently before her. I reached for my glass and held it in front of me over my plate. As the others raised theirs as well, the matron made her toast in an uncharacteristic low, quiet voice. "To Old Sedalia," she said, and the others nodded and drank.
Suddenly conscious that I had not yet released it, I slowly let go of Lisa Diamond's hand without looking at her. It was one of those moments where I realized I had unknowingly done something stupid or embarrassing, and laughed nervously and waved my hand. She seemed unperturbed. During the first part of the prayer, I had felt as if there was energy surging into me from her hand. It had been over six months since I had held hands with a woman, and perhaps because of this absence it seemed a tremendously intimate act. As Aunt Sam closed her toast and as I let go of Lisa's hand, I became aware of Michael's presence in the room.
As usual, he didn't need to say anything to draw the group's attention. Standing in the corner of the doorway to the dining room was Michael, wearing blue jeans and a green and blue sweater. "Sorry about the lateness thing," he explained as the others turned towards him. Michael had always had a certain magical quality about him, a quiet ability to appear unnoticed in a room and suddenly become the most noticeable thing there.
"Michael!" Aunt Sam exclaimed, sighting her favorite. A tablesetting was added to the children's table, and Michael settled into one of the small wooden chairs as he told the enraptured group how his plane had sat on the ground at LaGuardia for nearly three hours before being towed back to the gate as unworthy to fly. Aunt Sam was particularly impressed by Michael and his interesting Manhattan life, and pressed him for details on his apartment, his job travels, and his girlfriend. It was at these times that I felt most isolated and alienated from my brother, who not only was different from me, but seemed to inhabit a world of privilege that made me jealous; jealous of Michael's independence and freedom and the accessibility of his success, which all could see and admire. The fact that Michael's successes were so easy to explain made mine seem inchoate and latent.
Aunt Sam turned her attentions to me, as if to reinforce my sudden relative inadequacy. "Buddy, do you have a girl now? You're not seeing that Jewish girl now, are you? Your father told me that was over."
I felt hot-- physically warm, and angry, and the tension within me was hard to conceal. "No, Aunt Sam, no significant other in my life right now."
The Aunt did not relent. "No what? I asked about a girl, not some 'other'! What are you talking about? Is it that Jewish girl?"
Steaming, I tried to maintain my even tone. "No, Aunt Sam, I'm not seeing anyone right now."
"It's nothing against the Jews, after all they've been through, it's just that I don't think it would make you happy in the end. I know one boy who married a Jewish girl, and her mother..."
She was cut off abruptly by her nephew. "Sam, I don't think we really need to talk about this right now." My father froze her with an ice-blue stare that pounded home his point. Aunt Sam looked down at her plate and cut her turkey. There was absolute silence in the room. David Sand was sitting motionless, his mouth slightly open.
It was unusual for my father to cut off a conversation or reprimand anyone in public; in fact, I could not remember having seen it before, though I had often hoped that he would rise up to defend me. While the realization that my father had finally taken up a sword for me began to form, it was just as quickly dashed. Looking to my right, I saw that it was not me that my father sought to protect. Lisa Diamond looked down at her food, her lips pursed and her smile gone.
Michael, saving the moment, told about his recent trip to Los Angeles, and the bizarre lifestyle of some of his friends there. The tension left the room in tiny increments, like the slow leakage of fans in the late innings of a baseball game.
I retreated from the room. The fingers of my right hand touched lightly the old wood of the table as I rose. On it were faint markings; not words, but gentle indentations that seemed to be made by a knowing hand long ago. It was slightly uneven under my fingertips, each bump and groove made by those of my blood.
I excused myself from the table and went into the kitchen, my palms down on the counter. Feeling the cold air coming through the milk chute, I opened the side door and stepped out into the cold night air. It was crisp in a way that a spring day of the same temperature cannot be, and leaves rustled under my feet. Crossing my arms against the cold, I walked slowly down the driveway and sat on the stone wall across the street from the house, sitting on my hands and looking down at the rough fieldstones. Slowly, I looked up at the house. Out of the windows of the dining room suffused a beautiful yellow light, candlelight. Inside, bathed in the light was my family, all of us Triggs who were left. It was like standing outside of a dance hall, able to see the dancers without hearing the music. The diners leaned over their plates, their hands arcing in front of them. The light, viewed from outside, was transformative of those inside, taking off the hard edges of their voices and the imperfections in complexion; the light made the very people who could so anger me look uniformly beautiful. I was angry at my Aunt for being crass, at my father for doing for someone else what he had never done for me, at Lisa Diamond for not already loving and trusting me, and for not taking my hand again so that I could share her pain. But the anger was a part of the light, and I sat in the cold air for the better part of a half hour, taking warmth from it.
Looking down the block, I saw the edges of similar scenes. A man carrying a plate. Two children wrestling. An elderly woman in a chair.
In my own house, I could see Michael talking to Bobby, gesturing with his hands. My father swept into the room, clearing plates and pouring water. David Sand, ramrod straight in his chair, was discussing something with Ericka, lover of all creatures. At the end of the table, the candles playing off their light hair, were Aunt Sam and Lisa Diamond. The younger woman was making a forceful point, the flat of her hand paralleling the table as she finished a sentence. Her gestures suggested a person on the near edge of control. She did not need me to protect her from Aunt Sam. But perhaps she needed me.
The cold became too much, and I jammed my fingers further into my pockets and returned to the house. Michael was in the kitchen, picking bits off of the turkey.
"Hey, brother," I said, my hands jammed into my pockets and my cheeks flushed.
"Hey," he said, "little cold out for a walk, huh?"
For some reason I felt the urge to tell where I had been to this brother who knew so little about me. "I went outside to look into the window. You know, see everybody eating under the candlelight and everything."
He nodded knowingly. "That's pretty much our culture in there, isn't it? A little bit of family, a little bit of privilege, a healthy measure of decadence and comfort. That's where we came from."
As usual, I marvelled at his ability to articulate. Maybe what he had said was what I had been thinking, sort of, but I wasn't sure anymore. "It's just sort of a beautiful thing," I muttered.
"Hey, Buddy, I wanted to tell you that I'm thinking about coming back to Chicago. Maybe go work with Dad."
It took me a few moments to let his words sink in. "That would be great," I said, managing a wan smile. "All of us in one place again. I mean, almost all of us. Wow."
"I just think it might work out better for me here. Nothing against New York, but home is home. I guess you already knew that, huh?" He smiled again, his smile of painless confidence.
"Sure, that's why I'm here. This is home. Well, that and Sarah. You know, that woman in D.C. It was just sort of time to move."
"I remember her," he said abruptly, the raw edge of his impatience with my lack of excitement beginning to show. "So, do your have a plan yet?"
"A plan for what?"
"A plan for doing something besides being a runner for a law firm." He stood there, waiting for an answer.
"Do I have to have some sort of plan?"
"Right, Buddy, no one has to have a plan. We can all just get old and live in Dad's house, right?" There was a long pause as I looked at the turkey and refused to answer. "Anyway," he said finally, "I'd better get out there and straighten out Aunt Sam about this whole Jewish thing, huh?" He lightly punched my shoulder and walked out.
I felt sick to my stomach. I had never considered the thought of his coming back. There was in me the strong feeling of being robbed again, this time of the little psychic change I had managed to gather in my pocket from my none-too-impressive job.
Feeling rotten already, my mood was not improved by Bobby's reappearance in the kitchen. "Hey, where've you been?"
"Went for a little walk. It's beautiful out."
"Huh. I don't think anyone noticed. You missed some great stuff, though. Aunt Sam tried to recover by asking everyone to go around the table and say how they felt about abortion."
"Man," I said, "this is some kind of a new record."
"She's on a roll, all right. It's something about the South, Buddy, I swear. People down at UVA, they all have relatives like that, the ones from the South. Your Dad's family... I don't know. All that South Carolina stuff. I mean, your Dad's all right and everything. What the heck is an Old Sedalia, anyways?"
"It's an old house, I think," I responded.
"Lot of talk for an old house."
"From what I hear," I said, "it's a pretty incredible old house. Down on the water near a swamp, and surrounded by these little houses. My Dad told me a little about it years ago."
I looked out at my family. Such a small little group; there was something pervasively sad to me about that. On holidays, there was always a time where I caught my father with a look that reflected his thoughts—heartsick that my Mother was not there, no doubt freighted with memories of other holidays. It made me want to hug him or something, but that wasn’t the way of our family. Our way was just to leave a person alone with their own private thoughts. What could I say? I know that on that day, not only his wife died, but also his sense of order in the world, of a loving God, of a world which made much sense. While in other men this mix of feelings might have come out in violence or anger, in him they turned inward to form a simple and overpowering sadness.
As he sat alone with his thoughts, Aunt Sam was pontificating again on her favorite topic. “The difference between people in the South and people in the North is that in the South people have respect for tradition. Up here, people are considered advanced if they remember who their own parents are. In South Carolina, you learned as a young child the history of your house, the story of the plantation and the people who lived there. Knowing the history gives meaning to people's lives, stability. You know, South Carolina started the civil war because they saw that the North didn't respect their traditions."
Michael broke in on her righteousness, the only one of us who could have done so. "Aunt Sam, it's hard to respect a tradition of slavery."
"It wasn't just slavery, it was everything that was going to have to change, the whole structure. Tradition was the pride of the South."
"Tradition was the tragedy of the South," Michael responded, "it seems that they couldn't distinguish good traditions from immoral ones, or tradition from habit. I just don't see the value of preserving an immoral tradition."
"That's because you aren't from South Carolina."
"Hmmm-- that's a novel argument, Aunt Sam. Anyways, if it's so great in South Carolina, why did you leave?" Michael parried.
"I went to Chicago for a boy. It was a mistake." Shaking her spoon at Lisa Diamond, she added, "don't ever move anyplace for a boy unless you are married to him."
"I wouldn't," Lisa Diamond said with surprising conviction. She and Aunt Sam had found common ground.
Closing her pontification, Aunt Sam made a flourish with her spoon, and a drop of coffee flew over the tablecloth. "All men are trustworthy, if you make it worth their while to be trustworthy."
Lisa Diamond and Aunt Sam shared a laugh over this, and Michael joined in. I was still trying to sort out Aunt Sam's advice, which Lisa had seemed to understand instantaneously. Across the room, David Sand stood up and looked around expectantly. Everything he did annoyed me. I suppose some of my feelings were born of simple jealousy, in that his place in the professional world was so much clearer than mine, but I also sensed too much pride in that status. He refused to speak until people looked at him, and until then would just stand like a none-too-patient owl. Looking at his watch once the majority of those in the room were looking at him, he said, "well, looks like it's time to go. It really has been an interesting evening."
Lisa shot him a look that said "you're a dork." But only briefly; she stood and began her good-byes.
I watched her leave in the Midwestern stages of departure: Pleasantries at the door, in the driveway next to the car, through the car window with the engine running. I participated only in the first stage, feeling self-conscious about being near to her. They sped down the street just as another car pulled up. There was a knock at the door, and Michael leapt to answer it.
From the dining room, I could hear the unique har-har-har laugh of Mark L., and soon my friend bounded into the room and embraced my Aunt Sam, a maneuver he loved because it so shocked her. That done, he sat down in the seat vacated by Lisa Diamond, and greeted the assembled family members, each of whom he was familiar with.
Michael stood up and stretched. "Sorry, folks, but that's about it for me. I've got to go back to the city tonight."
"The city?" Mark L. Davis asked. "What is Chicago to you, some sort of rural crossroads?" Mark and Michael had never gotten along, and Mark went out of his way to antagonize my brother.
"Hey, sorry. Wish I could stay and chat, but LaGuardia calls." He smiled pleasantly, depriving Mark of the little victory he sought.
Michael and our father walked out to the rental car Michael had picked up at the airport. Through the window, I could see them talk as Michael held the open door.
"Jerk," Mark said under his breath after my elder sibling had left and we retreated to the living room. "And those cousins of yours-- they just get more bizarre every year. They look like College Republican Vice-Presidents. I guess that's what happens when Mom makes the oatmeal with leftover bongwater."
Mark waved his hand dismissively. "Never mind."
I tugged at my own bit of white hair over my temple. "I think it's cool, even if it is a little skunk-like." Mark nodded conspiratorily. Then he sat for a moment, watching me intently. He was quite a student of my moods, and could read me like a map.
"What?" he asked.
"What do you mean, what?"
"What's going on? What got to you tonight?"
There were no secrets from Mark. He could tell there was something new. I shrugged. "Woman. Works with my Dad."
Mark grimaced. "God, Buddy, not this again. Remember the last time you got like this? Now you can't go back to the East Coast. You're not going to do that whole Sarah-obsession scene again, are you?"
There was nothing else to tell him-- he already knew. That he could see, and that was plenty.
Mark looked suddenly serious, which was unusual for him. "You know what you need, Buddy?" He looked at me intently.
"Hey, I know what I want."
Mark ignored me. "You have to find your prophet, Buddy. Like that professor told you. You find your prophet, then you can deal with all these other people."
"Maybe," I said, looking beyond him to where my father was doing dishes. "I know that my brother makes me feel like an incredible ne'er-do-well. Not that I would want to be like him. I think he might move back here. I have to get out of here, Mark."
Mark shook his head sadly and changed the topic. "Your Aunt do anything good this year?"
"The usual South Carolina crap," I said, skipping over the worst of it. "She's into the football game now, I think. My cousin told me about a sexual escapade he had with some sorority girl. The usual." I had made the part about my cousin up; I don't know why. It seemed to fit.
We sat for a while in silence, the clanking of plates in the sink not far off. Mark looked lost in thought before turning back to me. Mark was a master of the non-sequitur, and I knew that a real doozy was coming up. He picked at one of his fingers, then looked up at me. "You ever do anything really bad?"
Just the normal adolescent episodes of violence, I guess. Except for them occurring through age 28, nothing too unusual."
Mark sat up, intrigued. "Like what?"
"I don't know. Stupid stuff. I've told you about this stuff before. One year... geez, it must have been about five years ago. I was walking down the street at about three in the morning. I was walking my bike, actually, through this town in Maryland that Sarah and I had gone out to ride bikes around in. I broke one of the struts on the bike riding around in the dark after we had a big fight. The strut actually broke completely off, and I was holding it in my hand. Anyways, I was pretty pissed, and was walking down the street with this strut. There was one of those little storefront Dianetics centers on the main street. You know, those L. Ron Hubbard joints with the weird literature?"
"So I'm walking along thinking about Sarah and holding this strut, and I see the big plate glass window with the dianetics sign on it, like it was some sort of harmless pharmacy or something. So I took the broken part of the strut and scratched the glass. It wasn't a big scratch, but it was noticeable, right over the lettering. It felt really good to do that. Anyways, I stood back and looked at it, and then I threw the bike through the bottom of the window. It was sort of weird, because the glass didn't shatter; instead it just dropped to the ground with this intense noise. Just kept on walking."
"That counts as an incident of violence," Mark said quietly.
Telling the story exhausted me. I had not revealed part of the story, knowing Mark’s skepticism of my sometimes faith. When I threw the bike I had yelled “heresy!” It felt great at the moment, then incredibly stupid the next. I had no orthodoxy, after all—my sense of God was not then any more formed than that of the people meeting in that storefront.
We sat again in silence on the big leather couches, slouched against the backs. My father started to whistle in the kitchen. He was a good whistler, one of the few people I knew whom you could listen to and tell what it was they were whistling. He was whistling "Silent Night."
Mark looked about ready to fade. "My family was incredibly normal this year," he said lethargically. "Holidays are pretty boring now that we all get along. In fact, it's so boring that I might even go back there now." His cynicism was transparent, and I was glad to hear once again that the dark years had ended. I walked him out to his car, which was at the foot of the driveway.
"Hey, you still need me to go with you on that job thing?" he called out the car window.
I had forgotten about the job, which was the mysterious assignment for Tenerife Baker. "I have to talk to her. Next week."
"Right," he said, and drove off. We had the stability in our friendship that allowed good-byes to be brief, a marking place in a continuous whole rather than a breaking off. I sat on the wall and watched the car go down the street, stopping at the sign at the end of the block, then turning right, perpendicular to the lake.
Turning, I looked in to see the warm light still emanating from the dining room in the front of the house. It was my job, as always, to blow out the candles once the day was over. It was an old tradition, from the days that my Mother couldn't blow out the candles because it made her too sad.
Entering through the side door, I heard laughter. Looking through the dining room door, I saw my father and great-aunt hunched over the electric football game, a gift from Mark a previous Christmas and ceremoniously hauled out for each holiday: My Aunt clutching a handful of Green Bay Packers and arguing that it should count as a touchdown if any of the players crossed the goal line. I watched them, outlined against the reddish wall lit by the embers from the fireplace, my father reaching out to place his players in a line, his face intent on the task. At times like this, I missed him already. Not that he was gone; it was more that I realized the fragility of his life.
Resisting first the urge to join them and then the desire to sit for a moment on the day bed in the studio, I turned towards the dining room and cleared the last of the silverware, as the candle flames reached the silver, which held them like the palm of a hand.