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Chapter Four 🏠

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I watched as she parked her stroller at the bus stop under the branches of a tree, and I estimated that she was my age or younger because she was wearing her reddish hair in two pigtails that stuck out from under her yellow halo of a rainhat like the rays a child will draw coming out of the sun with an orange crayon. She was also wearing jeans and a pea jacket, which placed her in college in the late sixties. She looked too thin to be friendly, and I ordinarily never bothered with people with red hair because they seem just a little unpeeled, but on the other hand, I couldn’t be all that choosy. If I could get to her before the other women did, if I could just get dressed in time and get out to the bus stop before she left, then everything would work out.

I jumped up from the table and moved away from my window and my tea, elbowed past Aunt Ruth, who was mutely rubbing in disgust at the spaghetti mess on the stove, and then I was running past the dining room, where out the window I saw her looking into Debbie’s rain-pinged lunch box, ripping off my slippers and babushka as I went. It was like high school, even grade school, all over again, but it always is, and always will be throughout life. In spite of everything I’ve done since that afternoon, I know I’ll always have to work hard to get friends, and worse, I’ll always have to work against extraordinary obstacles. Like now; as I was running down the hall, my raised foot and slipper caught on Toby’s tomato-pumper fire truck, on which I rolled forward for a long split second until I was stopped by the small but antique table which held my gargoyle, and it flew off and crashed against Toby’s door, and the piece of the wing that chipped off in a knife wedge was the one that sliced into the soft part of my palm when I fell on it. The truck, propelled by the push, moved away from me backward down the hall with a clicking sound, with the driver’s tomato head shaking from side to side.

I hate pain. I really hate pain. I feel so chastised, and invariably it’s because I was doing something wrong at the time: getting too close, trying too hard, going too fast. The whole point in living is to figure out how to skate and slide and duck around the burrs of the real world without getting hit. And pain always throbs with a hellish wrapping hug—and it always forces you to know that the real world indeed has identity, with pain as its gritty, pebbly calling card. Aunt Ruth says the more pain you have, the more you can stand. That the world is full of pain, make no mistake.

There was no mistaking the real world now as I huddled there in the hall. My blood was shiny on the wall, but nearly black on the plaid babushka, which had ripped in two when I fell. And then suddenly Toby cried out and began to clatter his leg brace against the side of the crib, and there was more throbbing and spurts on the way to the bathroom, where I tried to stop the bleeding before I ruined the sink and floor that I had already cleaned up once that day. Then the back door blew open with a gust of wind and rain and Debbie dropped her metal lunch box on the floor as the school bus squealed off its air brakes and pulled away without her.

“That lady out there says our classes are changed all this week to afternoon because of conferences,” she said.

“Stay away or I’ll bleed on you and ruin your new dress,” I said weakly. It’s amazing how having little children forces you to sound like John Wayne sometimes. “What time this afternoon? Did the lady say?”

“Twelve-thirty. She said be back at the bus stop at twelve-thirty.”

That gave me three hours to get ready.

“Mommy, she is really pretty! You should see … hey, what’s that? EEEuuuuuuuuyuck look at your fingers … eeeeuuuouu, you’ve got blood all over your nightgown!”

“Debbie, help your brother out of the crib and turn on the TV set … here—wait—take the top off this bottle for me, and then go get your brother … “

I knew the gargoyle had been made in some hot country where it was probably cured over a camel-dung fire, so my first idea after making a tourniquet from my Hers towel was to try and bubble out some of the pottery crumbs with peroxide, so that my hand wouldn’t rot off. I hate foreign objects in my body.

“Mommy, are you gonna come out to the bus stop with me and meet the lady?”

Toby’s screams, now that Debbie was running between his crib and the bathroom with messages, were coming in spurts, along with my blood, making an appropriate horror-movie background. Horror movies really bother me, especially their great dependence on irony. Here, for example, in this particular Monday-morning horror movie, I insisted on buying the weird gargoyle, which I then mysteriously tripped over, and which is now in my palm, and maybe, now, I AM THE GARGOYLE!!!

“Mommy! The lady wants to see you, she said! She’s Riva’s mother and she lets her wear ballet shoes to school.”

Maybe my insides are beginning to harden, even now, my organs turning into brittle lumps of clay, my arteries into pottery … I’m a little teapot, short and stout …

“The lady says I can take dancing lessons with Riva, if you say yes. It’s on Saturday … “

First, I’ll notice a stark grayness around my eyes, then harsh lines will appear until I’m a shrunken apple face on a hunched-over body with a proclivity for the top of the downspout …

“All I need is two leotards and practice slippers, she said. Please say yes, say yes, please!”

Each time I looked up from the blood, Debbie was a voice in Toby’s room, and now she was back at the bathroom door, this time dragging him, still in his brace, as he sucked on his blanket for breath. He was screaming limply every now and then as she propped him against the clothes hamper, and then she climbed up on the tub to watch me closer.

“You should see the lady’s baby,” she began, and then stopped when she saw the cut, now with all the blood bleached out.

“Mommy! That’s really sickening! Put some Band-Aids on it! That lady says she wants to meet you, and her baby can play with Toby. She said she’s got a bean-bag chair in her house.”

Now ordinarily I try to avoid using Band-Aids as much as possible, because they only prolong the inevitable pain of exposure. “Make yourself tough,” Aunt Ruth always used to say. “Then nothing can hurt you.” But I had to use Band-Aids and cover this cut up because it looked so ugly—just like one of my stuffed pork chops, where I slice into the soft pink meat in the middle of the chop, lift up the flap, and stuff some bread crumbs in between.

“Why don’t you go eat your Tastykake from your lunch box while I take a bath,” I suggested to Debbie over the running water. “And bring Toby some toys.” I always put the hamper in front of the door to keep Anthony Perkins out and to keep Toby in so he won’t put a fork in an electrical outlet while I’m in the tub. I’m sure Debbie can be trusted for the ten minutes or so that I’m under water. Of course, there are always the exceptions—I read in the paper where a mother was taking a shower and her four-year-old was playing with matches and burned the whole house down all around the poor woman, except for the shower, where she was still standing when the firemen came. They always make it a point to tell you in those stories what the mother was doing wrong—she just ran to the store for a pack of cigarettes—she just dozed off for a minute—she was talking on the phone when the kid, who was jumping on the bed, flew out of the tenth-story window. So I simply keep the kids with me all the time. And I’m afraid I do read a lot, all the time, every chance I get. I was the second smartest in grade school, and by high school, the nuns thought it was such a shame that I couldn’t go to college, in this day and age, but we needed the money, so I got a job.

I used to like to bathe alone. It was the only time I could be sure of some privacy, because as long as she thought I was cleaning myself, Aunt Ruth wouldn’t bother me in the bathroom.

“Can I watch you take a bath? I can eat my Tastykake in here—it’s already wet from the rain when I opened my lunchbox to show Riva’s mother what I had to eat … “

Riva’s mother, Riva’s mother! I can’t even think about myself, alone here in the bathroom, without Riva’s mother crowding in. I used to like to fill the tub with the hottest water I could get into, and then play and read there, content even without a shower massage, secure in the knowledge that Aunt Ruth would do anything not to have to look at my nicely budding body floating naked in the suds and just about 99 and 44/100 percent as pure. She used to say she could see an invisible film of dirt on everything, even if no one else could, so she expected me to take a long time in the tub. I used to imagine that the other 56/100 percent part that wasn’t so pure was so unnamefully filthy, so black and sticky and tarlike, so rotten and festering and licorice, that all the washing in the world didn’t matter. Nothing would ever clean it up, change it, take it away, except to ignore it, pretend it didn’t exist; which is why they had to take Marilyn Chambers off the Ivory Soap box. Officially, of course, this part is called Original Sin: unofficially, I thought it might be something like a swirl of fudge ripple through vanilla ice cream.

I remember the last bath I took in Aunt Ruth’s house before I got married, when the more I thought about Jack and the wedding, the more I scrubbed, until my back and the bottoms of my feet were raw. Jack told me later that he did the same thing, spit-shining his army shoes until he wore a hole in the handkerchief he was using to rub them with. He even polished the soles, because he knew he’d be kneeling up there at the altar in front of his captain from the reserves, and so everyone saw the shiny soles and I was the only one who could see that his index finger on the white satin kneeler was still completely black from the indelible shoe polish.

That’s how it’s always been with Jack—to an observer, there is never anything you could find wrong with him—it is his job to have no obvious flaws, because first he must sell himself, and then the antipollution devices. It is only when he comes home that he is allowed to husk off the dusty shoes and peel off his sweaty socks; to pick at the pimples that will be gone by morning; to exchange a stained, wrinkled suit for another one that isn’t. If he falls into bed exhausted at six-thirty in the evening, he will nonetheless be up and glowing with good health at six-thirty the next morning. I see the detritus and the calluses, of course, and the secretaries and clients see the crisp Rooster tie dangling under his nearly effortless smile.

It was his smile that sold me—he has had only two fillings in his life—and when he said, “Let’s do it, let’s get hitched up!” I did it, even though Aunt Ruth needed my paychecks more than she wanted to be rid of me, I think. I felt the same way then about getting married that I feel now when I’m considering buying something I really want but don’t think we can afford: It’s a risk, but you can only move ahead with a risk.

“Is Daddy flying yet?” Debbie asked, from under the sink, where she was reading.

“He’s been up for about ten minutes now.”

“Did you pray him up?”

“Of course I did.” I’m not crazy. While I was cleaning my hand, I pictured his airplane rising safely through the steely rain and shooting him into Indianapolis. Even though I hate being alone again and again, I always synchronize my watch with his before he leaves and then think him aloft about the time of his takeoff, just for luck. As it happened this morning, he took off at 9:25 am, at precisely the moment when the blue deodorant Dial squeezed out of my good hand like a wet watermelon seed and plodded flat against the floor by the sink, and I suddenly realized in horror, from the tub, that he was still there, in the soap under the pipes by Debbie’s lunch box.

“Debbie, sweetie, could you hand me the soap there by you?” I asked her casually enough. She put the soap into the back of Toby’s melon dumper and rolled it over to the tub, without looking up from her book. I rubbed the hairs off it and tried to calm my panic at being alone again.

I had already wiped his urine and curly pubic hairs off the white rim of the toilet and slammed the seat down, where it would stay for the week. The first day alone is always the hardest, until his toothbrush dries. When I rinsed his whisker peppers out of the sink for the last time that week, I forgave him for leaking, and when I swished his blood and red-polka-dot toilet-paper patches down the drain, I forgave him for leaving, I think. I lifted his plane safely above the Philly smog and let him float away to make money for us in peace. That was our agreement, the first of the unspoken Golden Great Truths that we created when we got married. I should support him in supporting us, and I do. Gamely, cheerfully, bravely, creatively, unrelentingly. My first job is to take care of him so he can take care of us. What he doesn’t know, of course, is that I have rules of my own as well, my stainless-steel ones, the first of which is that I would have agreed to anything with him just to be able to get out of the house and away from Aunt Ruth.

Now, of course, there is really no getting away from Aunt Ruth, except in the bath, so I stay in the water as long as possible, rather than face her somewhere else in the house. Once on Hawaii Five-0, they tortured McGarrett by totally depriving him of all sensory stimulation, sort of the opposite of a think tank, I would imagine. They blindfolded him, plugged up his ears, stripped him naked, shaved him all over, and then floated him in a tank of still water that was heated to precisely 98.6 degrees. Have I forgotten any senses? His nose was clamped into an oxygen unit, and the point was that, with no sensory information coming new and fast from the outside world, he would smoothly go crazy and tell all his secrets to Wo Fat, the enemy.

“Men have to keep moving, or they go crazy,” Jack is always telling me, and so we found a pediatrician who would give Toby a brace to sleep in that would force his legs to grow straight, because Jack reasoned that if Toby can’t walk straight, he won’t be able to run. On the other hand, I think that slow, hardly perceptible movement has its own kind of thrill, too; like when I’m in my car in the parking lot and the car beside me starts to pull out and I have the sudden moment of fear that it’s me that’s moving, rolling backward into the street. Jack may like the whir and hum of a spinning top, but I like the slow blurry picture that comes crawling off it when someone is pumping it at top speed. Einstein was right, napping on the deck of his sailboat there in the calm and saying that here was spin enough for him—it’s all relative.

It’s all in how you look at it, I’ve discovered. Perspective is one of the most important things in life. It helps me not to feel sorry for myself when Jack leaves if I look at my situation from different angles. Sometimes I think I’m pinned down here like a caught insect, stuck to this empty house while he flies free above the clouds, and sometimes I’m grateful for the privacy away from another adult that these weeks alone give me, although God knows I get a little spooky from the solitude after a while. When I was taking my last unmarried bath, I put in enough bubble solution to last the whole bath, I thought, and I also thought Jack and I would share everything after that night. But when he started going away for whole weeks at a time, I couldn’t cope with the volume of unshared words that piled up, and to tell him everything would take weeks and weeks. So a pocket of privacy was created, the way the soap makes the bubbles die out and you have a hole of water in the bath. Now I’m afraid that if I get too much more privacy, the very consistency of the thing we’re sitting in is going to change, as each week alone eats into the bubbly dream I used to have of honeymoon togetherness. Yet I’ve always liked being alone more than anything. When Aunt Ruth knocked on the bathroom door to hurry me along, I used to want to go swimming down the drain with the escaping bath water, leaving only my dirty clothes behind. To go away and see new worlds and not have to wash the dishes any more.

Now it wasn’t as if I had it all that bad growing up—not at all. It’s just that the life I did have fell so short of all the other lives I saw. In my reader, the little girl always wore clean ankle socks that never got stuck down on her heel, her school had a cafeteria and she had money to buy little bowls of red Jell-O, and she had a young mother who wore pearls and was happy to see her come home. The mother on Lassie baked peanut-butter cookies while Jeff went out berry-picking … I could go on and on, but what’s the use? Like everybody else, I find myself pulling away from my own past with a hard look in my eye. I know I should be grateful that I had an aunt who cared enough to raise me when nobody else would, who gave up her life as a single woman when she was too old to really bother to share all her free time with a troublesome child, to go to work to support me, and where’s the law that says if one kid wears monogrammed cashmere sweaters to college, everybody else should? And look how lucky I am now, to have a house and family in this nice, tree-lined neighborhood, to have my health—enough! I believe! In it all! I should never have eaten the hot dog, I should never have dozed off and left the kids unattended or bought the Avon stuff. I should have stayed with Aunt Ruth and worked and not gotten married. And I’m a rotten ingrate who’s been in the bathtub too long, feeling sorry for myself, and all I’ve got to show for it is five white raisins for fingertips on my good hand and a smoky sauna for a bathroom. Okay, okay, I’ll be good …

“Mom! Mommy! Toby’s drinking out of the bathtub again, and you didn’t see him.” Let me just draw a window here on this fogged-up bathroom mirror so I can see what there is to work with. I’ll wipe the fog away, and the past away, too … Except for one more little thing that this mirror reminds me of, the thing I wanted the most and now can never have because I don’t believe in it any more. It was a Winky Dink screen. God, did I want a Winky Dink screen.

When I think about it, I really did have a deprived childhood, but everybody needs a childhood deprived of certain essentials so that they can look for them when they grow up, making life a long scavenger hunt. I probably wouldn’t be the kind of person I am today if I had been tucked gently into kindergarten like the other kids, playing, as I imagined they did, with a hundred Lincoln Logs on a red carpet in the sunlight, instead of stretching out full length, as I did, on the cold gray concrete stoop of our apartment building when it was my turn to be patient for Richard Murphey.

I had a deprived childhood and nothing will ever make up for the things I missed. My bones are set now, and I’m too big and clumsy for dancing lessons to do any good. The rabbit hole through which you crawl to follow the yellow speckled summer-afternoon laughter at Camp Winnie Ha-Ha has winked shut, and I no longer believe in the magic that by coloring in some lines I will change anything for Winky Dink. You see, you had to draw with a crayon on a piece of plastic film that you spread over your TV screen and you could then create certain real props in the cartoon story, like a bridge between two mountaintops, a wobbly arc that Winky Dink would run across and, with your help, he could escape the baddies.

If you didn’t have a Winky Dink screen, what you did have instead was the inescapable knowledge that Winky Dink was a fake. You never drew the bridge in … yet he still ran across.

“Use your imagination, it’s free,” Aunt Ruth used to say, walking past the TV set with her hangers full of ironed shirts.

But I don’t want to talk about this any more, or stay in this bathroom any more. There is something about Winky Dink that bothers me more than nearly anything else I can imagine, but I’ll think about it some other time, or forget about it, because it’s starting to give me a headache.

“This isn’t hard to hold!” … Debbie was picking up the can of hair spray and putting it down, picking it up and putting it down.

Wait a minute! It was common sense! That was the sense I forgot in the McGarrett story. Wo Fat couldn’t plug that one up, and the slippery McGarrett floated free. 🏠

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next *☞ Chapter Five 🏠