Beyond the kitchen my mother lies in her bed reading and dozing. I can picture it easily. For my whole life she has never moved herself too far from a book. She has chair books, table books that share a stand with the newspaper, and bed books. I lie in her cozy guest room, before sleep, looking at the slatted blinds, because they are closed but lined with blue moonlight like kindergarten paper. The moon, full since New Year’s Eve, continued near-full for many nights, and I wanted such a slow waning for myself. Is it too much to hope that the scale not tip to the decline side before I have completed my list?
Two thirds of my life ago, I lay next to her in the big bed she had shared with my father. He lay in the hospital dying and she did not pick up her book. Instead, she kept placing her hand on the telephone and petting it lightly with her fingers like it was the back of a small animal that needed comforting. When the phone rang she lifted it gently and slowly from its cradle and placed it on her ear with her eyes closed. At least I saw it that way, her movements in suspended animation, her face trained to unbearable sorrow, perhaps because my heart sped up, my teeth clenched, and my stomach pressed up into my throat with a breathless nausea. My body didn’t care that I had known he would die. My body planned to relive that moment often in the months to follow. My body had a memory that wouldn’t quit. My stomach remembered. My heart had its own mind.
The hearse, the tears, the grave and the stone, the cards and the kind words all sifted out of my body and my mother’s body, eventually. We kept other pieces. My mother kept herself from any other man. I kept remains from the winking place that showed me how to live without him.
My brother, Ben, learned how to press the frets, stroke the strings and hug the curvy body of the polished Martin guitar he’d saved forever to buy, all on his own. Self-taught, he quickly got points for the same fret-pressing, string strumming and hugging of the women who called or came looking for him. The seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen year old sylphs never asked, nor did he disclose his age of fourteen. Though artists and poets have had their ways with the similarities between guitars and women since there were guitars, I suspect only my brother literally practiced parallel moves while he composed and made love.
My father, a crew cut Navy vet, with a concave scar in his back the size of a jack knife, found Ben’s long hair, hip hugger bell bottoms, and his slow, blue stoner eyes, one big objection. Ben didn’t care much for academics or for sports. He didn’t care much for curfews, or other stupid rules. Jammin’ with his band often went on late into the night, long past my parents’ waiting-up time. After working hard and fathering five children with the love of his life, Dad stirred up with one finger all the sad and bitter stories in a glass of Jim or Jack, and ice.
We moved to Israel, my mother told me much later, to cure my father of his demons. In the stucco house with the cool tiled floor, lemon trees fragrant by the line of sheets drying in the back yard, she thought he might return to something essential he had lost along the way. He might have been an engineer had his father not willed him the retail store. He might have avoided being the fat boy if his mother had not fed him so much love. He might not have beaten his own children had he not grown up with the belt. Or cheated on his wife. Or drank. Or invented his monumental and compensatory charisma.
I learned by way of his hand across my face, that if you met Dad at the door, coming in at night, or going out, you’d need to out-slick him in conversation. You would have to think like a drunk. Any question he asked, no matter how benign, resulted in your wrong and therefore punishable answer. If he asked, “Where are you going?” or “Where’re you comin’ back from?” the stated location would, de facto, contain a fatal flaw: not enough parental supervision, a dangerous location, an unfamiliar location or too far away. Likewise, if he asked who you had hung around with, the cast of friends always suffered in his estimation.
While I had little of Ben’s straightforward charm, I had developed enough analytical skills to beat my father at his own tongue-twisting game. Just like maneuvering the car around potholes in the less than perfect roads of the Holy Land, I found a couple of ways to tilt the axis of our dialogue in my favor.
One method involved beating him to the opening gambit. Hey Dad, I’m incredibly glad to see you. I have the most mind-bending question about a trigonometry problem. I couldn’t wait to get home to ask you. I’d quickly waltz up the front steps and cross the porch, opening the door to the house as he, taking another swig of good old Jack, processed what I’d just said.
A second fairly workable method, involved hearing his question, scratching my head, appearing to answer his question while in fact redirecting his attention. Dad, I’d say with the most awe struck voice, Look at those stars tonight. You can see every constellation! As he glanced overhead I’d slip inside. Maybe the star gazing helped in some way. With stars in his eyes he rarely came in looking for me, and I’d head to bed and pretend to sleep soundly, catastrophe averted.
One Sunday afternoon Ben came home from a jam session, took out his guitar and showed me some riffs. We sat in the dining room with the chairs casually pushed back from the table, me rocking mine back and forth on the back legs, something mom hated because we might fall back and smash our heads or, at the very least, loosen legs. Dad came in from doing errands, some plastic bags and mail in his hands, to find the trash overflowing. Rage climbed up his neck in red spasms. The gray rag of his face knotted into a grimace, and in that moment his eyes blocked out all light. Glassy and dark, they shrank back into his head.
I stood frozen, an acrid pit odor greasing my nostrils. I did not even try to speak as dad deftly lifted the guitar from Ben’s hands, and placed its body with utmost delicacy on the dining room table, its mother-of-pearl ringed mouth open to the ceiling light.
He yanked Ben out of his chair by the neck, the chair crashing back, and hurled him into the wall. The momentum threw me off balance. I saw the moment reiteratively, my mind stuttering like a scratched record.
The moment stretched, bent, and finally broke as Ben screamed, “Stop, stop, you asshole, stop.”
My father’s rage built higher. “Who’s the asshole?” He screamed, poising his foot over Ben’s hip. Ben just lay curled, his arms covering his head. But the stamping and kicking didn’t stop, even though I’d reentered my own body, screaming, “Don’t, don’t.”
I grabbed my father’s shirt and pulled down and back hard. It ripped, but he didn’t feel it. I ran to the kitchen and pulled the knife drawer all the way out of the cabinet by the sink. My phobia of sharp things notwithstanding, I grabbed the large butcher knife among the clatter and clang of all the others that scattered on the floor in runes as portentous of things to come as tea leaves in a china cup.
I ran back to the dining room and kicked our father in the back, high up, near the scar, and when he turned, startled, I held the knife against my own chest, pushing in, just slightly.
“Kill me, kill me; if you have to kill someone make it me.” I said that. I did. And he stopped, his hands dropping, his eyes turning their ice blue color, the fatal darkness receding.
“Never, ever,” I said to him, staring straight into his eyes, “touch him again.”
I threw the knife onto the tile and the point broke off, skittering somewhere. He tried to move past me to get to Ben but I screamed, “Stay back.”
I wrapped my arms around Ben, lifting him, lifting him. And all his parts held. Curled forward, blood oozed from his nose and stained his teeth. Dad backed away, confused. I knew that later on he would knock on my door, kneel down, plead for forgiveness, his plea a spreading stain. But this time he had gone too far. I would hold on to what he wanted and not give it back.
I brought Ben into my bedroom and locked the door. I laid him on his side on my bed and docked down behind him, my fingers quietly counting his ribs. I wondered where my mother had gone, not for the first time.
At the Independence Day races in Orchard Hills, dad was the fastest swimmer of all the dads. He never practiced the crawl or the butterfly but his thick arms clobbered the water when he sped, lap after lap, while barely breathing.
Bobbie Sanchez asked me and Ben where dad got the bayonet wound in his back, and had he been in the war? I had no idea what a bayonet was and Ben was just six and barely knew any constellations except the Big Dipper. What would he know about bayonets?
Later I asked mom about the scar, and she said that the doctors had had to drain his lung during the year Dad spent in the sanitarium. When mom told us, “Dad will be staying in a sanitarium with TB for awhile,” I had thought TB must be his war buddy and cried that he would prefer a friend over me and Ben and mom. But, at the time, I didn’t know that the scar had a connection to the sanitarium, so, when Bobbie Sanchez asked me about the bayonet wound and the war, I said, “Yeah, my dad got that scar in the war.” And Bobbie Sanchez said, “Cool, man.”
When he went over to Timmy Donaldson and John Bingham and started pointing at dad and whispering in an excited way, I felt proud of my dad, for fighting in the war and living with a wound in his back, even though it was only true for the minute that I thought it might be true.
My recollection had made of that whole year dad was in the sanitarium, a single day. I was five and Ben only three at the time. Boston’s four seasons seemed like a single season, and of our hundred and something visits there at roughly two times a week, I can remember one day only, or all the days merged into one. I don’t know why that day, because nothing particularly remarkable happened. I remember standing in the shade of the brick building, strands of light brown hair blowing across my mouth. Mom stands next to me holding a stroller in one hand and Ben’s hand in the other. The little guy looks at the cracks in the sidewalk and slides the toe of his untied sneaker over one of them, making a gravelly sound. Dad looks outside from a window above us, with his light blue eyes and big forehead. He waves and we wave back. He winks and we wink back. He blows us kisses and we blow back, only Ben kisses his hand and leaves it over his mouth until I yank it away and he cries and mom gets mad and tells me, “Stop.” Then she looks up at Dad and mouths the words “I love you,” and puts her hand over her heart, the one that was holding the stroller. She never lets go of Ben’s hand because the cars whiz by on the street sometimes and grit flies into our faces when we turn to look and see about the color and make of the car, or if it’s a truck. Ben likes trucks. But mom holds his sweaty little hand tightly because kids are like dogs and might chase balls or dreams or squirrels into streets even when cars could kill them. “They don’t have good judgment yet,” mom says.
When we wave “goodbye,” to dad, we do it the same way as when we said “hello.” I move my hand back and forth like a windshield wiper blade, but Ben opens and closes his hand like he is trying to grab the air. I think, “This is how people speak sign language. We know how to speak sign language.”
Sometime after dad died, when he was forty four and I was nineteen, I wondered whether we had always spoken sign language, on opposite sides of a pane of glass, he floating several stories up, and me bolted to the ground.
Light blue eyes in the pale face, his hair receding early, that’s how I remember my father in that winking place.
Dad’s birth, in my Grandmother’s mind, was not the lone feat of an incompetent cervix, but a lucky prize in the sweepstakes of survival, the pot having grown more impressive over the course of the seven sad miscarriages. Her prince had incorporated, into his flesh and his mind, all the virtues of those others who had not made it past bits of flesh and bone with bulging eyes and fast beating hearts.
Not a birthmark or a hair would escape her ministrations. Because her precious baby had come prematurely and lay in an incubator for a month, barely touched, his vision thankfully undiminished, she intended to make up for that by bathing him with her until he was six, and feeding him with her own buttery fingers until he blew up into a fat boy. Granny got Dad a scruffy terrier for a friend, and when the dog died, substituted a foster boy from Germany who was older and more curious and whose hands loved pockets and pocketing and secretly roamed everywhere, even between the sheets in the bed where Dad lay in the premature body of his dreams.
A white haired woman looks up as I approach the circular, wood grain Formica information desk and ask for him. She points to the bank of elevators, her whole shoulder lifting to lift her thin arm. For a moment, her arm sticks straight out like a scarecrow’s arm.
The gray concrete floor, to either side of the rubberized roll-out rugs, shows off its buffed waxy surface. Though thick and solid enough for the bottom floor of the hospital, in fact it has stories below it where rooms without windows stand along undecorated corridors. The morgue resides at the lowest point in the ground, with its cold, stainless steel boxes.
Even the cadavers have names I suppose. Switching their tags would constitute as much of an offense as switching the names of newborns. As I head toward him, and his time is near, I know that we all want to hold onto our names even into the next world, even if there is no other world. I head up, entering the steel marionette of the elevator with its hungry, robotic mouth, the whole thing hanging by wires. And, as we rise and stop several times before the fifth floor, I welcome the shimmy of the cables through my body. My stomach briefly lurches as the momentum stops, the elevator falling slightly into place, the cables stretching infinitesimally. I yawn and lift my arms above my head as I step out and look for ‘531.’ He would have a bed in a room of odd prime numbers counting backward by two, to oblivion.
I see signs of morning as Zodiacal rising signs: the drawl of steaming coffee with its slow wake, individual boxes of Raisin Bran, cartons of milk, eggs hiding under aluminum helmets on white china plates that clank along on cantaloupe colored plastic trays slid onto wheeled carts. The wheeler-people have nets on their heads and laminated identifiers hang from their necks.
I grab the oatmeal and applesauce intended for him. I enter the room and a shrugging, yellow odor, without excuses, meets me just beyond the doorway. I see his shape but do not look at his details yet, not until I’ve managed to glide the tray onto the cluttered surface of the side table where a full pitcher of water sits untouched, next to newspapers, tissues, a vase of flowers, cards. And then he holds my hand, opening his eyes for a few seconds at a time. A half a smile sits in each corner of his mouth, like cats crouching under the oxygen mask. Lilly he whispers, each syllable of my name distinct, his cyanotic face and hands portraying a robustness long gone. But I remember his strength for him.
How the community pool closed at six but didn’t stop dad. He would march me and Ben up the dirt path, take a running leap, grab the points of the stockade fence and hurl himself to the inside. Unlocking the gate we would file in, excited to have the pool to ourselves. There I learned to swim, whether I liked it or not. Dad heaved me onto his shoulders, climbed up to the diving board, took three steps and jumped off.
“Hold your nose,” he screamed as we arced into the air and fell into the chill aqua water, sunlight scattering from its surface.
“See? That was fun wasn’t it?” And all my gut clenching monosyllables slid back down my throat so I’d laugh, my eyes only wet from the swim. He threw me in the deep end without warning so I’d find my arms. Or my balance with the one-push bicycle lesson. And the transmission when I drove the VW station wagon for the first time.
“I have something to ask you,” he said, straining to keep his eyes open, the blips and bleeps of the machines chanting behind his head. “I’ll probably be out of here in a few days. But just in case I don’t make it, know that I love you and Ben, and I’m sorry.” He took my hand and closed it as if he’d given me something to hold.
“Let me feed you some of this lovely oatmeal before it gets too cold.” I got that out of my mouth before the tightness in my throat strangled me.
“Just say you’ll be happy and get outta here. You’ve got better things to do on a day like this.”
“OK,” I said. “Done.”
I bent over his shrunken chest. His heart fluttered between tiny squeezed breaths, in a tangle of plastic tubes. I inhaled the odor of his lost war, his resignation and I left him then. I turned to look at him one more time at the doorway, but he had closed his eyes so they wouldn’t touch mine. I left the door open. I found the red exit sign, the heavy steel door, and raced down five flights of stairs. And then I called my mother. “You better get here soon,” I said.
But this is not what happened because I never got to the hospital. This is my sister Susan’s story. She was the one who came to our father’s side, as often as she could, and right before he died. She was the one he spoke to while he still could. I stayed away. Ben stayed away. I waited. I figured I would, God damn it, wait for the right day.
I galloped down Blackberry Lane because my best friend Tricia loved her horses and I wanted to be one. I’d stayed late at her house, the way end of summer days stay, cattails of light thickening into dusk. Even mom’s dinner bell rang unheard in the quieted neighborhood. Wires on the telephone poles stretched like a musical staff across measures of dirt road hemmed by tall grass. Wild grapes, strung more opportunistically among the willing trees, flashed their fragrance. Their evening-purple globes reminded me of Christmas lights and ping pong balls, and marbles with tigers’ eyes in them.
Though barefoot, I succeeded in nearly touching the tops of the telephone poles, each time I leapt into the air, or so I imagined. The lights of the lampposts came on as if to say so. And their glow led down the hill to home. The air chilled and gradually seeped into my bare feet, making the road hard. As I walked, the shadow approaching me on the road turned into my father, but to take my mind off meeting up with him, I thought of Tricia. How earlier that day we had played in my yard, under the great willow tree. We sat underneath it and made up stories, or climbed onto the lowest branch and balanced there with no hands. The slow fall of leaves made a veil between us and the beyond.
When we got hungry I yelled for Ben to make us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He brought them out on a teetering paper plate, walking on an imaginary tightrope across the yard so as not to drop them. We clapped for him and Tricia’s braids wagged. We all ate on the ground and told Ben they were the best sandwiches ever. The great willow sank its roots ever more deeply underneath us and spread out to net the entire yard, so it could hold all our sweetness together. I didn’t know what or who God was, but when we leaned our heads back against the willow tree I thought, God must be holding my head.
But here dad was, only one telephone pole away. He said nothing but his eyes shot red-hot holes in the dusk. I hung my head and clasped hands behind my back. He tore pale leaves from a willow branch and flicked it. He lifted it like a baton before he spoke.
“Where were you?” he said.
“Mom rang the dinner bell.”
“I didn’t hear it. I was having too much fun.”
“It was getting dark.”
“I’m coming home now and it isn’t even all the way dark yet.”
“Ben managed to hear the bell.”
“I will definitely notice next time.”
“Ben noticed it was getting dark. He came home for dinner. But not you. What, are you special? With a special excuse?”
“No. I’m not special at all.”
“I’ll show you special,” he said, as if I had not answered him.
Peeling the remaining leaves from his willow branch, running blunt fingers over its smooth skin, he bent and straightened it, whipped it loosely. Night air fluted between us and stung me. Shrill pond sounds lifted above the thrum of bull frogs. My heart lost its place.
“Get going,” he said, stepping to the side so I could pass him.
I smelled the drink on him and heard the willow snap as it sliced across my wrists, which I held behind me. Again he whipped me, across the backs of my legs. So I let my arms hang by my sides, and I walked. One foot and then the other. But not hurried. Not fast. Not special. I walked in front of him.
The whip cracked my back and then my legs again. The lines burned into me and widened until all my skin was on fire. I knew I was not special, but he must have thought me bad. Was it possible to be bad and not know it, to not remember it every day? I walked slowly until I got to the bottom of the hill. I wanted to run, sure, but something in me would not let me go.
A half moon sorted itself out from behind clouds and cooled my shadow on the road. I could not see his shadow. I did not hear his voice. I only heard the little gasps of air as he swung the willow whip and then the slick crack of it. Near home I walked on the air, higher than telephone poles, and felt nothing.
“Wait,” he said, at the front door.
But I did not wait. I was not special. The hallway seemed long, leading to the kitchen where Ben and Mom sat on the high-backed orange banquette, their plates half gone. Behind their backs the tiny trenches of etched vinyl patterns looked black. The shadowy remains of former dinners rose above their heads in dark halos. Mom had a napkin in her lap, her fork poised. They did not look at me when I entered the room. My father walked over to the hungry end of the table and lifted his fork before he sat down. He was a man ready to strike. The fluffy mashed potatoes, now congealed, plowed onto his fork in a stiff mound. He could chew through mountains.
I sat down though I could not sit down. My fork trembled slightly under a small wad of meatloaf. I ate a few bites, but the food had no taste. Everything stung and quivered. My body disintegrated and rose in tiny particles, almost dust motes above the familiar faces of my family.
Later Ben asked if I would tell him what happened and I said, “No.”
Later dad knelt by my bed and asked, “Will you forgive me for hurting you?”
But I said nothing.
“Come on, baby, I didn’t mean it. You know I love you more than anything.”
Then tears poured down his face and he set his glass down by my bed. His heavy hand rested on my back and I cringed. His words came out wet and stuck together.
“Yes,” I said, my throat clogged with stones. “Yes, I forgive you.” I said in a willow voice.
“Do you love me?” he demanded.
“Yes, I love you, Dad.”
As I fell asleep, the willow whispered apologies and asked nothing in return. Nothing at all.
The infant lies on a Tide-washed flannel blanket with pink flowers. Mid-May, the oaks have unclenched their fists and small young leaves taste the wind. Lilly presses her head and chest up on her fat hands to look out the picture window. To her left the glass-topped Noguchi table, scoured by sunlight, reveals its small scratches and a fine coating of dust near a coaster, a glass vase of carnations, and a photo album.
In the channel of light, dust motes float, and Lilly watches, reaching out to feel them. They feel like nothing, of course, but their dance inspires. To three month old Lilly, dust will not, for a long time, turn into one of many things tagged for removal. Nothing has become unacceptable yet; nothing is dirty. She puts the world into her mouth to learn its many names.
The fine hair on Lilly’s head sticks up like strands of milkweed and disappears into the wash of bright sunlight. Also, the edges of her body seep into the rug’s whiteness except where one arm casts a shadow. Now, as the camera moves you can see some dog hairs on her face around the wet mouth, her tongue moving back and forth, tasting.
Only after some time has passed does she turn her head from the window to see her mother gazing at her. She wants to see her smiling father holding the sixteen millimeter movie camera, although the film does not show him, of course, because he is making the movie of his first child. To accomplish this she has to roll onto her back. Her mother claps. The tympani thunder in Lilly’s brain as new synapses forge the connections necessary for such a major feat as rolling over.
I don’t remember any of this, of course, not that spring or the picture window, or rolling for the first time, or how either of my young parents looked, in their new house with their new baby. But I remember the light on my face, the altar of it, to which I always return.
Watching the movie, I wish I could have held onto my mother’s dedicated gaze that day, and my father’s hands adjusting the lens of the camera. But everything presented itself to me without names.
My first memory is what I want to remember, the way love lit my face and I rolled over to bathe in it.
On a Fall Saturday morning the gray skies, having poured down heavy rain, stopped. Afterward, an even grayer gathering of clouds produced hail. The hail stones looked gigantic to me and to Ben, as we stood on his bed and placed our chins on our arms which reached the casement window sill in Ben’s basement room. The hail stones must have been the size of golf balls. At the very least, the largest sort of marble. They clacked and thudded, clonking the window occasionally in the wind.
Ben got the idea that we should put a chair on top of his bed to push us higher, get an umbrella, and push open the window so we could go outside and collect the hail stones in plastic buckets. Small and determined then, I was six and Ben four, we inched our way out the tight angle of the window’s opening in our bare feet, our pajamas instantly soaked, our feet freezing in the icy puddles between the grassy bulges of the yard. I had a red bucket and he a blue and we gathered hail, trying to share the umbrella, each of us jumping out to find the biggest ones before racing back. We popped those globes of ice in our mouths and crunched them, felt them melting on our hot, happy tongues until our tongues froze and neither of us could talk without slurring.
“I’m tasting the sky,” Ben yelled, stretching his arms out and letting the umbrella fall. While picking it up the hail started hitting my head. “Ouch, it hurts. I can’t believe they hurt so much,” I said.
“Whaddya think,” Ben laughed, getting pelted himself, but bearing the bruises by covering his head with his hands. “They’re coming all the way from the sky.”
Looking up I yelled, “Stop sky, stop. We’ve had enough.” And in the momentary yawn between two clouds, the hail thinning, we believed the sky cared. At the time we played in a yard at the crossroads of Barberry and Field Roads and they crossed each other at the exact center of the universe. Everything, the orchard to our left when we faced the gravel road, the willows to our right, the woods behind, and the two streets crosshatching the green hills with their old stone walls meandering like long serpents, the serpents inching their way along, slumbering until moss grew on their skins, until chipmunks and larvae made homes in their crevices, grew up around us. They were the arms and the legs of our childhood. The hills filled our faces and the resinous smell of the pines our sleep.
The brief indulgence of the sky now over, the hail pelted us even harder. I got two bruises on my arm and a bump on my head. Still, when I looked up at the sky, at its fathomless face of blue, or at the shape shifting clouds spelling their forecast, I thought the punishments brief, then over, something done for our benefit. Undone for the same reason. It was so much better than hairbrushes or belt buckles.
Ben and I, shimmying back inside the house, sliding down the bedroom wall from the window in our rain-soaked pajamas, handing each other our buckets of hail, had everything, and we had gotten it all by ourselves.
“Love doesn’t conquer all, you know, or even anything. It’s just what’s left after everything else gets incinerated. It’s the bit of bone and hair peaking from the ash.” I might have said that to him if the clever things to say sounded like writing and didn’t take a few hours down the hair-raising highway to materialize, all the while noticing a Mack truck in the rearview mirror gaining ground fast enough for me to change lanes and drive further away from dad for the last time.
So many times after that meeting, in the shower, on a walk, or in the car, I saw him standing there in the Cathedral of Pines where he took me after I had picked him up from the halfway house where he tried for the umpteenth time to sober up and stay that way. I drove to meet him in his former VW bug, and had had it long enough by then that it smelled like me.
I never passed along what he told me, to my mother, what he had said about loving her still and always and hoping they could get back together. I don’t know why he thought me the appropriate emissary or imagined that I could put together anything his Jack Daniels had burned to the ground. But the truth is that I didn’t want him to come home any more, to find him passed out on the living room floor where he had fallen after gashing his forehead somewhere, while out the night before. I didn’t want to see his belt, hanging from the waist of his pants where it had been too restless to stay when Ben and I were younger.
She never knew what he told me in the Cathedral of Pines. Sometimes, even though it’s a crazy long shot, since he died, I wonder if that would have been the abracadabra.
Lying in my small Japanese bed in the basement room of our first house in Orchard Hills, I looked out the bare casement window at the milky moon and stars with only the flutter of my eyelids for blinds. The moonlit and lightless nights, both, made of the pane a blank page.
I loved listening to the grown-ups in their cocktail dresses and high heels, upstairs on New Year’s eve or on a Saturday night in mid-summer, their sounds all lit up and sparkling, their talk blending with Billie Holiday and the blues, and their glasses clinking toasts. I would sleep, knowing I was sleeping, in the blanket of their heat, and awaken easily when Dad came downstairs as he inevitably would, to check in on me. Sitting at the foot of my bed, he would light a fresh cigarette and take a long drag of it, before setting his tumbler of Jack on the floor and placing a hand on my leg.
With the glowing nib of his cigarette, he would burn a hole in the darkness and snake it into figure eights and squiggles, all fluid and fascinating. He sang “Watch out, watch out, watch out for Jimmy Valentine, watch out!” in a baritone chant that scared me in a way I loved to have him scare me. It was all sorcery and fire. He took a sip of his drink, sucking air through his teeth. And when he left the room I could always taste his smoke.