Home Mom & Dad 1943
It’s cold and the city is browned out because of the war, and I feel like crap. It’s a few days after Christmas, which wasn’t a terrific day for me. Phyllis and me are sitting on a bench near what use to be the playground. We’re close together for warmth, but for other stuff, too, you know. Like necking and all. The air raid sirens start up and the city blacks out pretty fast, except for a few hold-out lights, which disappear when the wardens begin with all the whistles and the yelling baloney. The super of our building is a warden and he struts around in the dark, blowing his whistle, like he’s the friggin’ king of the world. We’re supposed to head for a shelter, but we don’t. The Army anti-aircraft guys in the playground scramble to man their guns and switch on the whopping searchlight, which kind of crackles and hums. It’s all so unreal, like everything in my life for the past eleven days.
We’re in Washington Heights, really high up, so we see searchlights switching on all over the city, most of them dogging an airliner coming out of LaGuardia. I almost wish it was a Nazi bomber that could blow me out of my friggin’ misery.
One of the things I’m doing here--which I admit I’m only partly in the mood for--is trying to hold onto Phyllis’s breast, which I ain’t getting too far with. For the fourth time, she’s says, “Joey, stop!” and pulls my hand out from between her blouse and her bra like it’s a dead rat or something. And it wasn’t easy getting past her coat and scarf, squiggling up under her sweater and between the buttons of her blouse. Naturally, what I’d really like to do is reach up past her stockings to no man’s land, but she’d probably crush my hand with her knees. Of course this is as far as I’ve ever gotten with any girl, and only because she’s feeling sorry for me. I know this because she told me so, which kind of pisses me, but I also feel a little guilty about what I’m doing so soon after what happened. Actually I feel like a real shit. But I’m only trying to forget everything, and can’t help it if what I’m doing to forget is making me a little horny as well as guilty. All my feelings are so totally screwed up ’cause my mom is dead. A friggin’ blood clot, for pete’s sake.
When we buried Grandpa, my dad’s father, a year ago, My mom said, “It’s pretty here. A nice place to be buried.” It’s across the G. W. Bridge, over the Hudson, on this hillside in Fort Lee New Jersey where there is lots of woods. And she got her wish at age forty-four, in the same plot, except on her day it wasn’t pretty. It was windy, cold and rainy sleet, with icy slush everywhere. Anybody crying tears had a frozen face. But I thought it was friggin’ perfect. If it was in the spring with everything green and flowers and birds and all the rest of that crap, I would’ve puked. Like guys in the war getting killed on a beautiful day, for cripe’s sake. One of God’s jokes.
When I saw Dad, when he came back from the hospital with Henry who lives across the hall, I nearly lost it like Sis. I mean this Dad was somebody I didn’t know. Blubbering like a little baby. This tough guy with his wise guy grin who all the time talks about the war he fought, in nineteen-eighteen. Like he won it all by himself, and who called me a friggin’ sissy for crying when I was nine or ten. So until my mom died I tried never to cry about anything. Except maybe when she hauled off at me with her open hand, always in the face. But anyway, even if you’re the crying type, which I ain’t, it’s not something you ordinarily do at fifteen. Especially with the neighbors still in our apartment. Sis who’s married with a kid, just flat out bawled in front of everyone. A girl can get away with that. Not me. So I went down the hallway to our only bedroom, and sat with the usual pile of dirty laundry in the closet, with my face in a ball of sheets, you know, so nobody would hear.
But anyway it was finally over. I never thought that wake stuff would end, all those people. Grownup relatives like Uncle Jim, Aunt Ruth and Aunt Ginny, and friends like Ida and Ed and Millie and Frank, some others from Mom’s vaudeville circuit days; my close buddies, some kids from the neighborhood I didn’t even like who probably wanted to see a dead person; and our really good neighbors who lent us some decent furniture and drapes for the three days and two nights it took. And other grownups I didn’t know. So many faces crowded into our one bedroom apartment, the door unlocked and propped like it was an everybody welcome kind of party. Even the liquor store guy, and the grocer, and Harry Wong the Chinese laundry guy, all came to pay respects. You know: “I’m sorry, so sorry, a nice lady,” and to remind Dad that Mom still owed bucks on their tabs.
And the open coffin in the front room, for pete’s sake, with a few rows of rented folding chairs, because we couldn’t afford the funeral parlor up on St. Nicholas Avenue; with Dad stretching the truth a bit to everyone: “I just wanted Grace home with us. Right here, where we can look after her. It’s just too impersonal the other way, you see.” And after the funeral guys placed the coffin in front of the window and closed the borrowed drapes, they opened the lid and Dad said to Sis and me, “Well here she is, kids,” like she was a new car or something. Then he started bawling and told us, “They fixed her hair a little different,” which was like the friggin’ understatement of the century.
First of all, she looked really, really dead. Second, I didn’t know this lady. It was like my mom shot up to heaven from the hospital, soon as she died, and they had to find a substitute in a hurry. I mean Mom had a lot of lines and wrinkles in her face, and she always wore her hair pulled back in a bun, you know, and when she wasn’t sleeping she wore a house dress, for pete’s sake. And she never wore lipstick unless she was going to the store. This lady’s hair was all curled with sort of reddish tints, and she had rosy cheeks and darker eyelashes, and looked ten or fifteen years younger than Mom. And she was wearing this really fancy blue velvet dress with lace, which, when Mom was still walking around, wouldn‘t have been seen dead in it. And we had to get down on the kneeling bench like we were gonna receive communion, and say a prayer to the One who killed her in the first place, for pete’s sake.
And then about fifty morons were telling me how grand she looked, which was total garbage. Also what a lovely person she was, and that she was in a better place with God, and I should be strong for my father. Cripes!
And since most of them were Irish American, they passed around a couple of bottles. There was the smell of whisky and cigarette smoke, like it was Paddy’s Bar And Grill on Amsterdam Avenue. And they told a few jokes on the sly and had a laugh or two, and I thought for sure they’d start singing Oh Danny Boy, or some other dumb mick crap. I wanted to bash them with anything handy, but instead I went for a walk around the block and had a smoke.
I came back in time to see Grandma Roberta and Aunt Agnes, and my cousin Helen, Agnes’ married daughter, coming through the door. Grandma and Aunt Agnes live on Home Relief or something, in The Bronx, in a one room place halfway below street level; so when you look out all you see is people’s feet, cats and dogs and poop, and whatever bugs are crawling by. My grandmother is seventy-five and used to be rich, and I once dreamed of her wearing some sort of gold crown with a lot of diamonds on it.
She was fanning the air with her hand because of the smoke, which was like showing disapproval, you know, which I figured ticked off Dad who was a serious smoker. Then she pecked Dad, Sis and me on our cheeks and said, “I’m sorry, dears, she was much too young. I saw this coming. If only she’d have taken better care of her health. Too much smoking. Too much--”
She didn’t finish, but I knew what the too much was all about. Her eyes looked a little watery for a few moments, but I noticed she never shed a tear, not once. Dad said about a hundred times, she was cold, and that her husband, my very mysterious other grandfather, ran off and disappeared when my mom was fifteen, which is what I am right now. But I have no complaints. Grandma Roberta always treated me okay. And she makes a terrific chocolate cake for an ex-rich lady who used to have servants, and now practically lives in a cellar, for pete’s sake. Truth is, If I was her I’d be pissed from here to next year and beyond about losing all those bucks. Anyway, she kind of won over Dad for at least a little while, because she looked him straight in the eyes, you know, looking real sincere, and asked him how he was holding up. Since her concern was totally out of left field, his eyes got all wet and he went to the bathroom, which was his hiding place,
According to Dad, he didn’t like Grandma ‘cause she never truly appreciated the fact he’d taken in the three of them, plus Maggie, on two occasions during the Depression, and a third time just her and Agnes, about two years ago. In this place. Talk about crowded. Jeez. But Dad mostly didn’t like her ‘cause she didn’t approve of Mom marrying him. And according to him, she didn’t approve of Mom, her own daughter; liked her spoiled granddaughter--cousin Helen--better, because Mom ran off and went into vaudeville when she was seventeen; all of it like some kind of treason to the crown, I guess. Which was long before the Crash when they still had all this money everybody talked about, when Mom and Aunt Agnes and Uncle Jack were kids, and had fancy birthday parties at the Plaza Hotel in a place they called the Palm Court, which I heard about but never saw. So big friggin’ deal, as far as my life is concerned.
Anyway, each night, the way my dad arranged it, Sis would go to a neighbor’s with the baby, while Dad and me took turns sitting up with the lady in the coffin who was supposed to be my mom.
“We don’t want her being alone, kiddo, do we?” he said to me.
“Well…” I said, trying not to whine.
“Well what?” he said. He didn’t raise his voice really loud like he usually did when he was annoyed. This time he was so miserable and on the verge of tears, he was reasonable, which is worse when you don’t want to do something. Although when my dad was really pissed and yelled at me to do something like, “Dammit, Joey!” I really hopped to it. You have to understand, my dad, unlike my mom, never laid a hand on me. It’s just he acted tough and was bulky and solid and had these really large hands, and he was like the major last resort threat in our family.
He said, “You’re not a little kid anymore, Joey. You should be willing to share this with your dad. For your mom’s sake, right?”
“I’m not sure I like the idea,” I told him, letting a little whine creep in.
Still close to weepy, he was only a little testy. “Well, how about showing a little respect and not being a baby, and doin’ what I ask. Huh?”
Baby was like sissy, which is like the big friggin’ challenge. Also, even though he’s this tough wise guy New Yorker who likes himself better than anyone else, and has about ten-thousand other faults I could name, one being that I can’t entirely trust him anymore than I could my mom, Dad is this otherwise reliable type in a suit and tie and fedora; so since I could see he was kind of used up by losing Mom and everything, the thought of mister dependable really losing it scared the shit outa me. I nodded okay.
When it was my turn, in the middle of the night, I sat on one of the rented folding chairs like I was gonna see a school play or something. I sat there quietly with respect, which is hard for me to do, sitting still I mean. Not just there in front of a coffin, but anyplace. My hands, my feet, it’s like I gotta move. Run someplace. But especially just sitting there looking at her profile. The only light was three votive candles burning at either end of the coffin, like a spooky Boris Karloff movie. Beyond her, beyond the drapes and the window, was Audubon Avenue, and there wasn’t a sound. It was like the rest of the world was dead, too. It made me so friggin’ scared my eyes started playing tricks and I thought I saw her head lift a little, you know. Not to mention I swore her eyes opened, once. And after an hour or so she just sat straight up in the damn coffin and turned to look at me, square in the friggin’ eyes, and I jumped back and banged my chair into the one behind me, all of which woke me up but good.
It was about then, I guess, I knew I was acting like a stupid jerk and finally admitted that the lady in the coffin was my really my dead mom, and I felt sick to my stomach.
So Mom is gone. Buried. It’s like all of a sudden there’s this big dark crack in the world, that’s opened up and sucked the floor from under nearly every friggin’ thing I know.
Last night I was in the bedroom. Dad was on the other side of the wall, in the bathroom, talking to God about her. I swear, talking out loud. Sitting on thetoilet lid, I know, ’cause I heard it slam. And he wanted to know why God did this to him. Made his wife die. And I’m thinking, considering what I know about him and Mom, there’s a lot I don’t understand about grownups, how they can still love each other in spite of all the jumbo crap in their lives.
Anyway, poor guy, he was having this regular conversation with Him. Between sobs, you know. Telling God what a good Catholic he’s been all his life. It scared the crap outa me. It’s like he believed he was gonna talk God out of what He’s done, for pete’s sake. And get her back. I mean he was so into this, you’d swear there was this actual person with a white beard, and a white robe, leaning against the friggin’ sink or sitting on the edge of the tub, listening. Like God would care, dammit. I know better, from way back when.
Jeez, I mean you got all these guys from the neighborhood fighting in the war. Some of them killed already. You think their wives and mothers ain’t praying like crazy, too? And you think God’s listening? Bull! Like Harry Wong our laundryman said to me, when I used to deliver his wet wash and stuff, “God same as Santa. Too many place to be, same time. No can do.”
It scares me to think about it. Feels too big. Like even the war we got right now is looking small up against my mom just dying like that. Especially since the last regular conversation we had was the pits. And the other thing is--and it’s hard to explain--I mean she wasn’t always there, really there. And when she was, she sometimes wasn’t the person I wanted. But only eleven days ago my mom--whatever she was or wasn‘t--was there. Filling up this space. You know?