We lived on Long Sought for Pond Road, narrow and winding with houses on one side and trees on the other. Out back was a big swamp, blueberry bushes and catbirds. Down the street, not surprisingly, was Long Sought for Pond. Our mother did watercolors. Our father went to work. One day, Dave and I skipped school, the snow falling through the trees. We hid in the woods between the lake and our house, sitting there on that granite ledge of rock. After we were sure the bus was gone, we hiked through the woods up to the BP station and spent seventy-five cents on a pack of cigarettes. We bought Benson and Hedges 100s because they were bigger and we figured it was a better deal. There was also a machine in the gas station that sold little cans of soup, but we couldn’t afford the soup after we bought the cigarettes. Later in the morning, the snow let up but the sky was still slate gray and it wasn’t very warm. We hadn’t thought ahead. We took a diversion on the way to the bus stop on a whim and now here we were. In the woods. In the snow. Gray sky. I thought of the tent then. A tent would be nice, I thought. But it would be even nicer if we had a way of heating it. I thought about this for a while and finally I came up with an idea. I’d sneak a cord into the woods and steal the little oscillating fan in our parents’ bedroom. I’d set the fan up inside the tent and then I’d put a blanket over the fan so it’d blow warm air. I figured we could live in the woods for a while and nobody would know where we were. I was tired of people knowing where we were.
I brought six or eight books with me when I came east to Vermont this time. A Handful of Dust was one of them. I started it the first night. And then I quit reading and I never did read anything else. There was no time. My mother keeps a rigid schedule. She takes up all the time in the day. It’s a big deal to take a trip to Costco or the Stop and Shop. In the mornings, she assembles a bowl of fruit for herself and my father and me and serves it with coffee. Before she’s finished, I wheel my father to the bathroom in the wheelchair and help him with his diapers. I stop near the sink so he can wash his hands. Then we wait for the fruit and coffee. Then we eat fruit and drink coffee and look out the window at the Vermont trees and hills. Then my mother asks what we might want for breakfast. I usually tell her I’m not hungry. And then she makes breakfast anyway. And we wait for that. I wheel dad into the bathroom again. Then Dad takes a nap on the couch while I clean up the dishes. I bought my father a book the first day. I thought it would be nice if I could read to him. I was going to buy a Harry Potter book, but the bookstore didn’t have any so I bought Foundations of the Earth by Ken Follett. I read the prologue and the first chapter. Then my father went to sleep. It was very nice. We were inside that comfortable house and we had hot tea and I was reading about a mason traveling through the forest with his family a few hundred years ago. The book is quite long and I thought we might have days or weeks ahead of us. The next day, when I sat down with the book, my father said he didn’t want to listen anymore. “It’s too much for me,” he said. “Concentrating, you know. I can’t.”
Lunch is a sandwich and a glass of Pepsi with ice. “Don’t take the ice from there,” says my mother, opening the refrigerator and showing me the ice machine. “See? It’s small. So, we worry about running out. So, take the ice from down here.” She opens the freezer and shows me a small, plastic bowl with two cubes in it. “Use this first. Then, if you want, you can get more from here. And then what’s left over goes back down there. In the bowl. We don’t want to run out. I’ve had trouble with it before.” Then she tells me about the meat in the meat drawer and the cheese, which is Cabot. Made right here in Vermont. Just like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Had I ever heard of that flavor, Schweddy Balls? “There was a big uproar about it up here,” she says. “It was based on a Saturday Night Live skit. With that guy. Baldwin. Alec. They had to pull it off the shelves! It didn’t sound very appetizing.” Then she leaves for the Stop and Shop to pick something up.
I cut the sandwich in half and then I cut a pickle in half and I pour half the Pepsi in one glass and half in another and I eat lunch with my father, him on the couch and I sitting in his wheelchair. He loves pickles. “Aren’t these the best pickles?” he says. They’re Clausen’s.
“They’re good,” I say. “Aren’t they Kosher?”
“I don’t know,” says my father.
“So,” I say, after chewing a mouthful of sandwich and washing it down with a sip of Pepsi, “you don’t want me to read.”
“No,” says my father. “I want to talk to you. I want you to tell me what your plans for the future are. And what you think about the past.”
“Okay,” I say.
While I’m washing the lunch dishes, my mother comes home. “What are you doing?” she says.
“Washing these dishes,” I say.
“Your Aunt Virginia was the only one who knew how to load a dishwasher. She was the only one who would remove the dishes and put them in so they all fit. And your father and sister take offense when I do that. They think I’m judging them or something.”
“I won’t think you’re judging me,” I say.
“What are you and your father doing?”
“We’re going to talk,” I say.
My mother gives me a look.
“He said he wanted to talk about my future and our past and all that. So, we’re going to talk.”
“Am I not invited?”
“Of course you are!” I say.
My mother makes a move for the cabinet where she keeps the Canadian Club and my heart sinks at the prospect of what will happen next.
“You can read me one of your essays,” says my father. “That’s a good way to know what you’re thinking.” I tell him I’ll read one. I’m honored that he wants to hear one of my essays and I scan through them trying to find one that might impress him. I come to an essay about a guy at work who shoots a rooster with an arrow from forty yards and then eats it. My mother, now sitting near the couch in a wooden dining room chair with her beautiful Manhattan, beautiful color, beautiful glass, tells us a story about Greenie, a rooster she had when she was a girl and Greenie was very mean and nobody liked Greenie except my mother and her sister, Barbara, was the only one who would kill roosters. She’d swing them around by their legs and then cut their heads off. Her father would never ever kill an animal. He was a very gentle soul. But one time, Virginia’s son’s wife told my mother that Virginia’s son, whom she abandoned like she did all her children (what kind of a person does that? How can you just do that to your children? And the only baby she really wanted was Gerry’s baby, and Gerry was going to be a priest until he met Virginia, and then he really wanted a boy, so Virginia got pregnant and carried that child all nine months and then the child was stillborn and that broke Gerry’s heart.) Anyway, she told my mother that Virginia’s son had seen my mother’s father paint a kitten with blue paint one time until it died. And her father would never do something like that. “Never ever,” she says, “because he was such a gentle person. . .”
We never circle back to Greenie. And I never say another word to my father about my future or our past or any of the rest of it. My father takes a nap. My mother heats up leftovers for dinner. She’s going to cook something else, but she has now decided we’ll have leftovers and I don’t care. I just want to get through it. No time to read or retreat or be anonymous or have shelter of any kind. I wait for dinner. And wheel my father to the bathroom. And pick out dinner music, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Dinner is served and it’s very good. I decide I am hungry after all and I’m Hoovering up some dish that involves hamburger and gravy and my mother has a full Manhattan on her placemat – cherry and all – and she’s talking about my brother, David, with whom, some time ago, I skipped school and sat in the woods discussing tents and fans and blankets. “He’s so smart,” my mother is saying.
“He is,” I say.
“And he’s so. . .artistic. I don’t know why he refuses to succeed.”
“I don’t know if I’d say he’s not succeeding,” I say.
“He’s not. He’s not,” says my mother. “He’s living at home and not even making any money. His wife is supporting him. And he’s got children.”
“He’s making some good art,” I say. “I’ve never seen him make better art than he’s doing right now. And something’s going to come of it. Have you seen his stuff now? It’s really. . .”
“So many people really appreciated him,” says my mother. “Those guys at the boat shop? They really appreciated him. They came to his wedding you know.”
(Of course, I wouldn’t know this and my mother knows I wouldn’t know this because I had just started my business and I absolutely couldn’t get away. I reasoned with myself that it was his second wedding after all and he already had chosen a best man other than me, but it wasn’t okay. In retrospect it wasn’t okay that I missed his second wedding and my mother didn’t think it was okay either.)
“You weren’t there, but they were there,” says my mother. “They really appreciated him! They knew he did a good job! He could have succeeded there. And then, that famous architect he worked for. He was really doing well there. And we paid for him to go to that architecture school, BAC, and I told him when he was working on that final project that he should really read what they wanted him to do and follow what they wanted and he didn’t do it. He said, ‘If they don’t know how good this is, then fuck them.’ And he got a C on it and he quit. He could have finished that program. He could have done what they wanted him to do and he could have been an architect. And that woman he dated at BAC? You met her. We invited them to dinner. And Dave was married at the time; I don’t know what he was doing with her. Fucking her I’m sure. But she said that we treated him horrendously. She thought we were horrid to your brother. She thought he was worth more than that. But he was so smart and so artistic. And then he went to that expensive school, RISD, and we said, ‘No way! We’re not paying for that!’ But he designed that beautiful car!”
“Made out of bamboo,” I say.
“It was a beautiful car!”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t. I just said it was made of bamboo.”
“It was beautiful! And you know those electric car designers he was working for used that design! You know they did! And that other woman he went to school with, she made these ridiculous sex toys! Cars with penises on them and stuff like that! And Dave designed this beautiful car! He never stayed with anything. And you know him better than I do. Even though I gave birth to him and raised him. You know him better. Can you tell me why? Do you know why?”
My mother’s mouth is very close to my face. Normally, in this circumstance, I would be repulsed by my mother. I would feel that she had it all wrong. And I’d be furious with her and I wouldn’t know why. But now, for some reason, I know why. I’m repulsed by her and furious with her because she needs something from me and needs it so badly she can’t hide it. She needs conversation from me. Some kind of meaningful feedback. And what I need to do, now at this very moment, is to forgive her her inability to stay focused upon any decipherable path of logic and forgive her for anything she might have said that might offend me or might offend my sense of loyalty to my brother. I needed to forgive her. I cannot argue about her definition of success. This argument is for children. I need to accept her. Forgive her. And think along with her instead of plotting my defense.
“It might be that he was afraid to stick with any of those things,” I say. “And he might have been afraid for good reason. Those things weren’t for him. What’s for him is what he’s doing right now. It took him all this time to find it. To admit to himself that he’s an artist. And that’s what he is. And now, I think, is when he begins to be great.”
My mother doesn’t buy this. And she begins talking about my father’s father, how he always said that he invented the automatic headlight dimmers before the auto industry did. “I knew how to do that!” he used to say. And then she talked about how my father did the same thing. “And they never did anything!” she says.
My father is leaning back in his wheelchair. He looks extremely tired. I know he needs to go to the bathroom again. “And what did you do?” I say. I don’t know why I say this. After all my ideas of forgiving my mother and all that. I’m blowing it now. Now will be World War III.
“What did you do? What was your. . .big plan?”
“I didn’t have any big plan,” she says.
“So, then you couldn’t really fail I guess.”
“So, do you feel good about yourself?”
“I feel fine about myself.”
“I’m glad you do.”
“I don’t feel fine about myself most of the time,” I say. “But I’m trying. And so is Dave. Shouldn’t we be able to feel good about ourselves, mom?”
“Even though he never sticks with anything and you failed at your business?”
“How did I fail at my business?”
“Well. . .you moved to Newton. And then you had to go back to Iowa with your tail between your legs.”
I picture a lonely mountain overlooking a still lake, like the place where Crazy Horse went to see his vision. The sun setting. The fall approaching. I picture a lonely tent. A lonely fire. I am reading aloud from a book. I am reading to someone I love. Someone who loves me. It’s strange to think that I’ve have had an entire childhood and an entire young adulthood and an entire adulthood. And I’m tempted to have a sore part right in the middle of me, that pit of despair the comes along with the realization of some enormous loss, but I’m saved, as I wake early and set off on the 20 hour drive home from Vermont, stopping at Dunkin Donuts at five a.m., still pitch black outside, for a cup of coffee, I’m saved by Bob Seger who is singing about those soft summer nights of his youth. “Ain’t it funny how the night moves?” And I feel my soul growing in strength because I’m not alone in the world. “When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose?” And who would guess it would be Bob Seger who is my brother? “Strange how the night moves,” sings my brother, “with autumn closing in.”