The following story is the winner of the third annual Marguerite McGlinn National Fiction Prize. Visit www.philadelphiastories.org for details on the 2011 contest.
It seems like during a certain period of time no one in Delaware ever smiled.
They look out at me from terrible photographs, grim, frightened, their faces fucked by poverty. Most of them look like they expect to be punished. Father Peter Donaghy and his charges at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, built for the Irish workers at the famously exploding Dupont powder mill nearby, stand up against the wall as if facing a firing squad. The children have been told to cross their arms against their skinny chests, probably in an attempt to appear uniform and tidy; instead they look like sulky criminals. It’s 1890 and Father Peter, their protector, is unshaven and defiant in a Cockney-looking bowler hat. His pleasureless face still rings with childhood famine.
[img_assist|nid=7828|title=Fire in the Sky by Paul McMillan © 2011|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=300|height=198]Halfway into the 20th century, however, St. Joseph’s would become known as the fancy Catholic church in the area. Among the many other parishes in that mute, Catholic city, there was a second congregation called St. Joseph’s, on French Street, "in town" as they used to say to mean the City of Wilmington, a parish that had been founded in the Jim Crow days of segregation to serve the Negro community.
In the Fifties my mother was working for the Dupont company as a technical illustrator and being courted by a rich young man, a chemist, very Catholic just as she was. Each Friday he would say to her: Well, I’ll see you in church. She would smile and say yes. Each Sunday she would look for him, but never see him there. Then each Monday they would pass each other in the halls of Dupont and one of them would say, Well, I suppose you didn’t go to mass – ? And the other would say, How funny, because I was there. Mutual suspicion grew until my mother began cutting the man in the hallway. She was a moral young woman, almost insufferably prim actually, and could not abide liars. Only later did she realize that the young man had been going to the fancy St. Joseph’s, while she had been going to the humble St. Joseph’s in town all this time. It was too late by then, however, because she had already married my failure of a father, and so I grew up poor.
It seems strange to be haunted by such a mundane place.
I was a clueless young person, at once distracted and self-regarding, and – when I made the mistake of bringing myself back to earth to face a lousy reality – furious. I kept my head in permanent escape mode. My father always championed education, always told us how far a good education could take you but here he was with his numerous degrees from highly selective universities, the angriest man alive, raising his sullen, insulted children inside a crappy little house in a neighborhood of hard-luck white people.
I remember one family in particular who lived almost directly across the street, their house a bad mirror to our own. The parents were in a biker club called the Pagans, and their youngest kid, Jody, would do things like eat mud and walk around the neighborhood in his underpants. He had a deep leathery tan like a homeless person, even at the age of nine, and terrible scarring all over his tiny belly as if someone had squeezed him with barbeque tongs.
Up the street was the Mooney family. My sister and I were kind of friends with the youngest Mooney, Mickey, a large, unbright boy, and his sister Peg, but the oldest kid, Jacko, was a "bad element." Their mom was a beautician, their dad a fireman for the City of Wilmington. When the dad was killed in the line of duty, burnt to death in a house fire on the East Side, even though the man was an abusive s.o.b. much like our own father, Peg just went off. She would stand by her window for hours and try to hit you in the head with one of Mickey’s Hot Wheels if you attempted to get past the house. Jacko was heavy into drugs, and his life ended when he was babysitting for a friend downstate near Smyrna. The friend and his girl had been drinking and when they came back to their trailer, Jacko was asleep on the couch. The friend took out his gun, put it to Jacko’s head, jokingly cocked the trigger, and said, "Wake up, Jackie boy." Then he shot him in the head, an accident.
My mother carried her church around with her and I have no doubt she always believed she would one day escape this neighborhood, if only through death and her eternal reward in the garden of heaven. Her striving husband, our father, always had a foolish new scheme for getting us out, but each of these schemes crumbled in his hands. I had no doubt I would escape the whole sick life of Delaware, but I made no plans. Inertia pressed down on me from that chemical sky. All three of us kids went to Catholic school, all three of us hated it, but I was the youngest and probably the most fanciful and so instead of dealing in practical reality and applying to college or something like this, I sat and I waited. I fully expected some change to just happen to me. So 1986, eighteen years old and graduated from the all-girls’ Catholic high school that I hated, I found myself working as a file clerk at A.I. du Pont Institute, a children’s hospital.
It used to be called the Hospital for Crippled Children, way back before my time. I had found the job through a placement agency and, since in my mind a job was a job and they all stank, I didn’t think too much about what working at a pediatric hospital would entail – I’d only be biding my time there until life came to claim me, anyway. So I was completely unprepared for the parade of sick children I saw coming through the hospital’s doors day after day. There were little girls with bruised-looking eyes, kerchiefs on their bald heads, their bodies wrecked with chemo. Boys with extensive braces all up their legs, crutching themselves down the long cement walkway, their frames spasmodic with exertion. The children with Cystic Fibrosis, permanently exhausted, shuffling slowly in, fighting for their breath. They were like flocks of tiny sparrows. You could only look away.
All of them shared a kind of ancient resignation, the same thousand-yard stare.
The records department had about a dozen employees as I remember it, big men in suits behind closed doors and women out "on the floor" in workstations. The women were nice to me, perhaps out of pity because I was so young and clueless. I saw them as figures in a benign but boring film, or as a kind of vaudeville backdrop being reeled behind me as I pantomimed walking in place. My head was where I lived, where my mythic self soared. The highlight of my workday was lunch, when I would walk out of the building, a utilitarian, Pentagon-like place, then down the grass-flanked walkway and across the parking lot to my car. I would drive to Route 202, Concord Pike, which was where all the fast-food places were, and take out some edible trash from places like Arby’s or Taco Bell. Then, instead of staying and eating, I would drive around as I ate, mentally exploding all the buildings I passed. I would blow up the Concord Mall, the ugly Methodist church, little brick-building accountancies, the Arby’s whose warm bacon-cheeseburger I was grinding to bits in my hot little mouth. I had a special hatred for something called the Rollins building, an oddly tall tower protected by an oversized, moat-like green. It was like a giant dick on an otherwise flat landscape.
Of course I always had to go back to work after lunch. One of the nice older ladies would always ask me what I had for lunch, and I’d lie just because I could. The lies were meaningless – Oh, Mickey D’s, I’d say, when I’d actually had Wendy’s. Lying was something to do. One day when I did this, I heard a sharp intake of breath from the other file clerk, a woman named Keesha who was, after me, the second youngest person there, about twenty-four; she was the A-M file clerk, I was the N-Z. Keesha and I were civil but didn’t really have anything to say to each other. I always got the feeling around Black people that I didn’t hold any interest for them, that their society was closed, and that I wouldn’t know how to talk with them anyhow.
Later, when it was just us, Keesha said to me, "I seen you at Wendy’s."
I was so shocked to have been found out in my meaningless lie that I immediately lied again.
"You did not," I said, haughtily.
We looked at each other. I noticed Keesha now, as if I hadn’t really looked at her before. She had seemed like a dry young church lady to me when I’d first shaken her hand, but now I saw she had a canny look about her. She kept her hair severely pulled flat in a charmless plastic clip, but her face was shapely and unusual, with a smattering of freckles across high cheekbones and wide-set, watching eyes. And there was amusement in those eyes, a boundless amusement.
"OK, the fuck, I was at Wendy’s," I finally said.
"What is that mouth?" she said.
I closed the file drawer I was working on and wheeled my cart away. Behind me I could hear her making a sound like tch!
I began to be curious about Keesha.
She dressed about fifty years older than she was, in dowdy acrylic cardigans, "sensible" polyester slacks, and an eternal pair of crepe-soled puckered shoes in a terrible light ocher color. On her sweaters was a procession of novelty brooches, of the kind you would see heaped in cheap little gift boxes in big bargain bins at the front of discount stores like the Almart’s on Kirkwood Highway. I pictured Keesha there, at Almart’s, tenderly looking through the many cheap gift boxes of one-dollar jewelry until she found the brooch that spoke to her. This scenario that I had invented for Keesha in my head depressed me beyond belief, but the horrendous, sad-hilarious brooches – the rhinestone-studded Jack-in-the-Box, the pseudo-marcasite daisy, the cat with "emerald" eyes – also somehow made me like her. Most of the young Black women I saw around dressed very stylishly, very flash, with shingled hair and sleek red leather and enormous shrimp earrings in eighteen-carrot gold, and so Keesha’s old-lady ways marked her for me as a serious, unfrivolous person. An emissary from another era, if not another planet, truth be told. She looked like no one I’d ever seen.
I’m not sure exactly how it was we started talking one day. It wasn’t long after the Wendy’s episode, I do remember, and we’d drawn our carts up next to each other, on either side of the M-N divide. In my mind, she just opened her mouth and began. She had a kind of offhand, buzzy delivery, and would always start very softly with a series of throwaway words; it was as if she had every expectation to be ignored and so wanted to give the other person an easy out if that person didn’t choose to pick up the dialog.
"So I was reading, the other day, in a library book about the Second World War Two," she said, "about the Fas-kists, and how they come to power, and everyone like them at first because the country was a plain mess, and how the main guy, Mussoli, was a strong, powerful leader and they had one central person they could look up to now, and so everyone want to be a Fas-kist too."
I was holding a file in my hand, its edge marked with a bright red N sticker, staring at the letter and trying to figure out how I was supposed to respond. All sorts of things flashed through my mind. Was she bringing this up because I had an Italian last name? Was she making fun of me?
"It makes a soft sound, ‘Fascist,’" I said.
"Fascist," she said loudly.
Was she calling me a Fascist?
"Yeah, I don’t much like them," I said.
She asked me why not.
I said something about not liking people who insisted you only see their way. Hating intolerant, brutal people. Hating tyrants.
"Uh-huh," she said, edging her cart back up the alphabet, away from me.
I zoomed after her with my own cart, well out of my letter group, and found myself asking her if she’d seen a photograph, a famous photograph of Mussolini – and I was careful to pronounce the name slowly, to articulate all the syllables – had she ever seen that photograph of Mussolini, of his corpse actually, when they strung up him and his lover, strung them up upside-down from a beam in front of a gas station? Their arms were flying out in front of them, as if they were diving from a high ledge. They had tied up his lover’s skirt, because otherwise it would flop down over her face and be even more indecent. They’d strung him up there in that place because he had ordered the killing of a group of partisans, I said, resistance fighters, anti-Fascists – the Fascists had killed them and dumped their bodies in that same place, and so hanging him there was a reprisal.
"A reprisal," Keesha repeated.
"Yeah, like what goes around comes around," I said.
We were staring deeply at each other. People in the records department generally talked about television, Weight Watchers, drug store purchases. Here I was telling a Black woman about a lynching.
"I’d best get back," I said, wheeling down the alphabet.
I’m not exactly sure how we started eating lunch together.
I had a crap car, a late ’70s lemon, which my father had bought at an auto auction for two hundred dollars cash. It was tan, seriously uncool, and had a muffler that would come undone and scrape the ground if I hit a pothole, of which there were many in the City of Wilmington as I remember it. Once you got out of the city, however, the roads changed. Once you got north to the area through which the Brandywine Creek wended its way – once you got to the part of New Castle County actually called "chateau country," which was studded with Dupont estates – everything stank of Champagne and caviar. In my mind greater Wilmington was like a cartoon from the Great Depression: here were we poor people, crammed into shitty little houses and itty-bitty apartments in and around the City of Wilmington, dressed in our rags and our beat-up bonnets and our boots with our toes sticking out of them – while, sprawling to the north and west, were the rich in their fat French houses, turned out in silk top-hats and evening clothes. They stood in the drawing rooms of their mansions lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills, their enormous bellies and Margaret Dumont bosoms filled with surety over the natural order of things. The houses of chateau country were usually hidden by walls or trees but they would show themselves to you, along routes like Kennett Pike or Montchanin Road, in cunning, winking ways. The slate top of a stucco wall would lower just slightly to give a view of the mansard-roofed manor house, a stone wall would interrupt itself with a wrought-iron fence to frame an up-sloping greensward: these were the gracious bones thrown to the commoners. The message being, Look, but don’t touch. As I child I looked and looked and I ate my heart out over it. As a furious teenager, I only wanted to burn it all down.
Keesha didn’t have a car and the one time she saw me at Wendy’s her mother had taken her there for a birthday treat, it turned out. Otherwise Keesha was thrifty and always packed her lunch. Her mother, I learned, worked nearby, as a stocker at a chain drugstore on Concord Pike, and would drop her off each morning at the hospital; on the day her mother was off, Keesha would take the bus and then hoof it down the long skinny road that lead to Alfred I. Keesha called her mother by her first name, Carla.
"Why don’t you call your mom ‘mom?’" I asked her one day, as we ate our lunch together, Keesha with her home-brought stuff and me with some kind of vaguely food-like bag of shit from McDonald’s.
"Because my mom one nasty piece of work," Keesha said, "and she don’t much like me."
"Isn’t she religious?" I found myself asking.
"She about as religious as a bull dyke can get."
"Your mother’s GAY?" I gasped. I had never encountered such a thing before.
"If you call it that," she said, "but she not frilly at all."
The usual routine we’d fallen into had us talking about history, sparked by the World at War series still endlessly running on Channel 12, WHYY in Philadelphia, in those days, as well as the succession of books Keesha took out from the main library in town. It was basically extra-personal, talking about history, talking about books. I felt awkward getting into family stuff because, how can I put this, I had an idea she didn’t want to share personal Black stuff with me. Because that might reveal too much, or call out our differences. So when we got to Keesha’s gay mother, though I was plenty curious (where was her father? I wondered) I looked for something else to turn the subject to.
"That sandwich looks good," I said. "What is it?"
"This here’s hummus," she said, showing it to me, "which I make myself with those canned chickpeas, and a lot of spices in it, like this stuff the people of Lebanon and those folks eat, which is a nice kind of brick color. I put it on Roman Meal, with the bean sprouts."
"That’s all the stuff my mother likes," I said. It didn’t need saying that I disdained all the stuff my mother liked – the wheat germ and miso and herbal teas that smelled like potting soil. As a kid I had once seen my mother comb the beach at Indian River Inlet for the perfect piece of seaweed, rinse it with her eternal jug of spring water, and crunch it right there in her mouth for all to see. I could have lost my shit I was so embarrassed.
"That stuff you eating there, that mystery meat?" Keesha told me, "that stuff’ll kill you."
"Whatever," I said. I remember thinking, God, she is one bossy Black woman – why is she telling me what to do?
At the end of that day, driving home, I passed Keesha waiting for the bus. Standing very straight, library book held up in front of her face, large and unlikely vinyl purse hanging from the crook of her arm like a tea-social old lady.
I was embarrassed about my shit car. Keep going, I said to myself. I looked in the rear-view mirror, Keesha’s figure spooling away from me. But then something made me pull over.
I backed up in the bus lane and pushed open the passenger door.
"Want a ride?" I called out.
She had looked away, expecting some creep no doubt, but then she leaned forward and saw me.
"Oh! It’s you," she said.
And then: she smiled. Which was a previously unseen event.
She was uncommonly beautiful, I realized.
"Get in – I’ll drive you home," I said, taken by a sudden kind of happiness.
"I’m good," she said.
"What?" I said. "The bus takes fucking forever."
"Hey, mouth!" she said.
But she got in. I told her she had to lift the door as she closed it, since it was a little out of whack. She did this flawlessly, then put on her seatbelt, and looked around the car.
"Nice ride," she said.
"Huh?" I said. "What? Which way is nice?"
"You got a nice car," she said.
"This piece of shit?" I said.
"You got a car."
"Such as it is," I said.
"How much you pay?"
"My dad bought it for me," I said.
"That’s a nice dad," she said.
This – the richest joke ever – made me snort.
"SO not the case," I said.
And then there was a pause.
And I thought, she is thinking: You got a dad.
"Stay on 202 here," she said.
I hadn’t even thought to ask, Where do you live? She lived where Black people lived, my mind had figured. Going "home" to where I lived, to the luckless white people area, I would first turn from Concord Pike onto a route called the Augustine Cutoff, and have a moment of driving through Alapocas, an area of beautiful old stone houses, and then past the John Wanamaker’s with its landscaped parking lot tiered like a wedding cake. From there the cutoff became a truss bridge passing over Brandywine Creek, which flowed down from chateau country, bringing its largesse into the City of Wilmington. And that place, down below the bridge, in the parkland beside the Brandywine, held a kind of magic for me. Strange to say. It was beautiful there, and it was a beauty you could touch. It was a public park, but special. I would drive over the Augustine Bridge and picture what was below, that nineteenth-century park so perfectly made, with its winding paths that revealed, then hid, then revealed vistas so surprising and dreamlike. I think of the place we called Josephine Gardens, where there was an allée of cherry trees, blooming like pink heaven in early spring, that led to a fountain that seemed to me so wistful, a fountain with a statue of a woman with her head bowed, as if in mourning.
We stayed on 202 instead, and Concord Pike became Concord Avenue and then we were rolling through the City of Wilmington. We were rolling far over on the East Side, a place I never ventured. We chatted about this and that but my eyes roved all over the landscape. We kept going further out, further east, further over than where I’d imagined Keesha living. The road bent to the left, its name changed again, we made a turn onto another street and I felt my head contracting in a way that felt like ignorance, or fear.
Then we caught a red light and Keesha told me she’d get out right there.
"We’re here?" I asked. I ducked to look out the window, seeing a block of row houses with second-floor bays. Some vinyl-shingled, some the old brick, some with enclosed porches with improvised windows. Much like the neighborhood where I lived. But Black.
"Yeah, it’s fine," she said. She already had her hand on the door-handle, her purse clutched to her chest.
"Which one is it?" I said.
"I just gotta get a little something, and then it’s close from here." She seemed to be gesturing to a small grocery on the opposite corner.
"I can wait," I said, "I’m fine to drive you to your door."
[img_assist|nid=7829|title=Courting by Jayne Surrena© 2011|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=267]"Thanks, girl," she said, already out of the car. She had remembered about the door, and lifted and closed it with a click, then pressed it firmly to make sure it stayed closed. She leaned down at the window, and looked at me, a sort of privacy in her eyes. Then she turned and crossed the street.
There were no other cars on the avenue, so I swooped the car around. The store had a big window, but I didn’t see Keesha there. How could she already be gone? But then as I drove away, I thought I saw her walking straight down the way, further out, further east. So far to keep walking! In my mind I held a speculative map of that place, Wilmington, with its neighborhoods and "hundreds" and boundaries and very rich and very poor, and Keesha was walking toward the neighborhood most unknown by me, a place to be glimpsed only from the train, a scanty, wretched, starveling collection of dead-end streets. Can’t even call it a neighborhood. Later I would look at a map and see that the only street that continued past that way was East 12th, which led to Gander Hill Prison.
But she wasn’t going to the prison, I knew. Nothing that complicated. She just wanted to keep me away from the sight of her shitty little house. I knew, I smelled this in her, because – you can drop me here – I did it all the time.
Butt up against the children’s hospital was a former Dupont estate, Nemours.
Not sure if it was because of this or because of the hospital, but the grounds around Alfred I. were enclosed by a stone wall, high and fearsome, that actually had shards of ancient broken glass embedded into the top of it. It looked like something out of Dickens. Driving along the course of that wall – which ran the length of Powder Mill Road, as I remember it – I would wonder: is it to keep people out, or to keep them in?
I shared this thought with Keesha one afternoon as we sat eating our lunch by the big plate-glass window, watching a scene unfold on the lawn outside.
"I did read that writer, Charles Dickenson, and I do know what you mean," she said. "All those poor little waste kids in Victorian England."
"My favorite book by Charles Dickens is probably Great Expectations," I said. I would always do this thing, repeat a word the right way to her rather than outright correct her. Keesha had by now told me she’d never finished high school.
"I like the book with the dust heaps," she said, "where they always digging through the dust heaps."
"Wow, Our Mutual Friend? You read Our Mutual Friend?" I was fascinated. "Even I haven’t read Our Mutual Friend."
Keesha had finished her sandwich and was carefully folding up the aluminum foil she’d wrapped it in, to save for the next day’s sandwich. She did this every lunch, and reused the foil until it was so creased and holey it almost looked like metallic lace.
She seemed to be weighing something in her head.
"You know," she said, "you a little hoity sometimes."
Let it be said that the scene we were looking at outside was a busload of Amish come down from Lancaster County. You would see this, and though you saw it numerous times, it would always do something to your heart. One child was sick, one among their numbers, and the whole clan would come down in support of that child. You would see fifty, sixty people. They couldn’t take the buggies that far and probably they were too small, so they came by bus, driven by a Mennonite or just some regular-looking guy in a baseball cap. The child would be brought into Alfred I. and all the rest of the clan, for some reason, just stayed outside. They brought picnic baskets and blankets and spread out on the grassy expanses outside our window. Sometimes they seemed to just be praying out there. They seemed so peaceable and unlikely, the women in their long pinafores, thick black stockings, and gauzy, heart-shaped plain caps, the men in their broad-brimmed straw hats and black trousers and suspenders. Their shirts and dresses would be of a kind of cornflower blue or an odd sort of mauve, as if made by strong vegetable dyes. They were like apparitions there on the grass outside our utilitarian pentagon, collective hallucinations. And we were free to stare at them, because we looked at them through one-way glass, but if they tried to look in, all they would see was a distorted mirror of themselves.
You a little hoity sometimes rang in my ears.
I was chewing a cheese-covered chicken sandwich thing and it was turning to elastic in my mouth. My first reaction was, Did I ask you to be my friend? Did I? I chewed and chewed my disgusting expanding chicken gum and I realized tears were starting to come into my eyes. I was chewing and looking away from Keesha and out the window at the Amish, who suddenly seemed to me like a bunch of art-directed simpletons, extras from a freak movie. So many people for one child, what is the stupidity of this, why so many people for just one child? Why are you showing off for us like this? Then Keesha leaned forward and blocked my view.
"You like a soft little mouse," she said to me, not unkindly.
I stared at her, my mouth chewing, tears rolling out of my eyes.
"I’m so sorry I made you upset," she said.
"You didn’t," I choked out.
"Yes I did, and I’m sorry. You talk a good game but now I see."
"What do you see?" I asked her, my voice finally breaking.
She sat back. She was wearing a pin on her sweater shaped like a parallelogram, and she raised her hand and touched it. She turned away.
"You’re like me," she said. "You sad, like me."
Autumn came and I realized I was expecting school to start again. When it didn’t I was somehow offended.
When was life coming to fetch me? I knew it was only a matter of time, but I was sick of the boring job, sick of being stuck in the house with my parents, sick of the shit life of Wilmington. My route to work took me by a municipal sign that marked the spot where the city began, the kind of thing made of pretend redwood with rustic lettering and inevitably flanked by hearty, ugly mums. The sign read: Wilmington, A Place To Be Somebody. Someone even angrier than I was had shot it full of BB pellets.
I hated that I was nineteen years old but that my parents insisted that I still eat with them at the table for dinner. It had always been the family custom, I always hated it, and it always left us kids open for any sort of abuse, mental or physical, that my father felt like dishing out. He would light into my brother or crack my sister across the face or pick up a plate and bring it down on the lip of the table, smashing it to pieces and sending melamine shards into the lentil stew we were all trying to choke down. It was because my Asperger’s brother had got a B in calculus or my sister had said something "smart" or my defeated mother had made the same crap-tasting dinner again for the fourteenth time in a row, because how could you really feed a family of five on twenty-two-thousand dollars a year? My brilliant father, our provider, Master of Education, Doctor of Laws, master of nothing.
He was always so angry, so quick to blame and yell and strike. But as the days grew shorter something different seemed to be happening. My sister had lost her job and come "home" that November, until she got back on her feet. This was a bad idea and there were the usual screaming matches and bullshit – and then she was quickly gone again. I still see her in my mind, standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, giving my dad the finger. It was freezing cold and she was so hot and angry it was like I could see steam coming off her in furious waves.
What had changed was that our father didn’t have the strength to hit us anymore.
My strategy had always been to steer clear of him, to creep around and avoid detection. My sister had been the screamer, the provoker. But now it seemed like all he could do was let her scream, and yell and bluster back. When he raised his fist, she was too strong for him now.
After my sister was out of the house again, a strange new atmosphere settled over it. My brother was long gone and maybe my father sensed that I was all he and my mother had left. I saw him trying to summon up a new, mild tone for me. He tried to be "understanding." I only wanted him to fuck off, but I evolved a way of dealing with him, answering when spoken to but mostly treating him like a flickering shadow on the wall. Dinners were no longer violent or dramatic; instead, my father leaned toward me as if supplicating, and asked me endless questions. How was work? What was new with the hospital? Had I read a certain article in the News Journal? I gave him short, clipped answers. My mother, a defeated woman who had stood by while her own children were beaten by her husband on an almost daily basis for twenty years, had long ago gone into eternal-rewards retreat and mostly just listened. If I were in a good mood, which was a rarity, I would offer a bit more, perhaps make a joke. To such things they would respond with an almost pathetic amount of laughter.
One evening, after dinner, I heard a knock on the door to my basement room.
The bedrooms upstairs were empty now, but I preferred to stay in the basement. Years before my father had tried to make it into a rec room, but had given up after covering about half of it in imitation wood paneling. The idea was that we’d be moving out of that house anyway, moving out of that house soon, to our rightful place in a development in north Wilmington, maybe to Alapocas with its beautiful stone houses. That was the idea. The basement was a horrible place, damp and musty, cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but it was mine. It was my lair and in it were my books and my records and the things I loved. After I turned eighteen my parents weren’t allowed in it – that was part of the deal – and had even installed a Radio Shack intercom as a means to summon me to dinner. So when I heard a knock on the old metal door, I jumped.
"What do you want?" I yelled.
"Honey?" It was my father.
I got up and ripped open the door.
"What do you WANT?" I yelled in his face.
He flinched. He reeled back. My tough-assed father cringed from his youngest child. He stood blinking at me, and I think of the look in his blue eyes, those oddly inappropriate, sensitive-looking blue eyes of his. He looked like a little old dog.
"May I come in?" he actually said.
I pushed the door open, turned, and sat at my desk.
The only other chair in the room was a small, cushioned one with a seat that slanted back, and he sat in it. It made him lower than me, which I liked. He wanted to talk about something but looked at my stereo. I made an exasperated sigh and turned it off.
"OK," I said.
He looked around the room, studying my things: my posters, my books, the small, artful items I had bought at thrift shops. All the evidence of my dreamlife.
"Pretty nice set-up you’ve got here," he said.
"Right," I said. I didn’t want him eyeing my things, I didn’t want him near me at all. He tried to sit up in the slanting chair, but wasn’t successful. I was bored and annoyed and only wanted him to leave.
"You know I want you to be happy, don’t you?" my father said.
"What?" I said.
"I just want you to be happy in your life," he said.
"What are you asking?" I said.
"I love you," he said.
I shot up from my desk and was standing in the middle of the room.
"What do you need to know?" I shouted at him.
"Nothing, honey, I just want you to – "
"Want me to WHAT?" I said. I leaned over him, in his face, and I spewed out:
"What, dad? What, dad? What, dad? What, dad? What, dad?"
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he finally said.
He stood up and came at me. A flash of the old fear leapt up. I stumbled back. He stopped. He corrected himself. He was supposed to be kind now.
"Honey – " he said.
"We’re done," I said.
He stood, supplicating. He looked miserable and shrunken to me. He had never been that big, but had strong arms, big fists. But now he looked so stooped and so small. I realized: he shrank as we grew. We grew and we grew and he shrank.
"I love my kids," he said in high-pitched, womanish, strangulated voice. "You know I love my kids."
I walked around him and went to the metal door and opened it. I waited outside until he had gone.
You pathetic little man, I thought.
If I had seen better, if I had eyes that could see, I would have realized that my father really was shrinking. His body was riddled with cancer; stage four, several kinds. All this would kill him by spring. What is funny with this was that I didn’t cry at all.
When I went back to work everyone was so nice to me. All the older ladies and Keesha took me out to the Bennigan’s on Concord Pike for lunch. I remember eating puffy breadsticks. I ate and ate, as much as I could stuff down. It was somehow surprising to me to see that during my weeks off folks had missed me. Keesha especially was full of new things to tell me, and it was a great comfort to me to fall back into our routine. We went back to eating our lunches at the window, at the large glass that overlooked the hospital grounds, which were becoming green again with spring.
So this is the way people live, was a thought that came to me. Sometimes when we were sitting there eating I’d become aware of silence, and realize that Keesha had asked me something and I hadn’t been listening at all. I had floated away. I was floating away, looking at life even more abstractly than before, when I thought I would be rescued. There could be no expectations. Click! My mind had been recalibrated. I was a new mild person. I was beyond disappointment. I think Keesha was trying to summon me back but the most real thing for me was a new kind of blinking dream that I kept in my head. In this new dream it was I in my castle, untouchable, alone, beguiled by a piece of cut glass I held in my hand.
The food that I had craved and eaten for so long now became disgusting to me. Meat began to smell of death. I tried eating the things that Keesha liked. That didn’t taste exactly good, but they were not disgusting. I tried all kinds of things and then I was packing my lunch and eating the same thing every day, smoked gouda on whole-wheat pita bread with Roma tomatoes and Dijon mustard. That was a kind of craving I had. I would wake up in the middle of the night and crave this sandwich. I was thinking of my mother, alone two floors up, and wondering could she sleep? When I was home from work she would follow me around the house, talking at me, but I ignored her. I started staying out, did not eat dinner with her anymore. She was a flawed religious character anyway. Foolish family. I went to sleep dreaming of deeper sleep. Every morning when I woke up I was disappointed.
One of the nice older women pulled me aside and told me I had to clean up a bit, I was beginning to look slovenly. I knew Keesha had been trying to talk me back from this place where I was but her voice was like a thin echo, not applicable to where I was.
It was a day in April when Keesha and I were sitting at the window eating our lunch. I am not sure how we saw it at the same time, but both of us became riveted on a bird, flying in toward the hospital from way off. We both locked eyes on the bird and it was really nuts because we both knew the bird was sailing right toward the plate-glass window. We leapt up from our seats and we ran around either side of the table and we were both at the window jumping up and down and waving our arms and yelling. Bird, bird! Look out, bird, stop it, look out! We were frantic and yelling but the bird couldn’t see us at all – was it looking at itself, sailing in to meet itself, seeing itself as a lover who would greet it? We were yelling. The bird sailed into the mirror glass and banged so hard it was like the glass buckled. The bird bounced right off and fell to the grass, dead.
I was aware of a terrible noise and I realized it was myself, screaming. I couldn’t stop the noise coming off me. Keesha was bundling me in her arms and pressing my face into her sweater. The noise quit. There was some kind of thing and then the older ladies had got her something and she had my bag and my spring coat and we were in the parking lot. She was going to drive me home.
Keesha closed the passenger door on me with a soft click.
I put my hands on my face and my eyes were crying.
She got in and started the car.
"I don’t want to go home," I said.
We had smoothly rolled out of the parking lot.
"Where you want to go to?" she said.
We passed beneath the trees and I looked out the window and thought how clear life was up here, in these rich private places.
"I want to go to the garden," I said to her.
She asked me what garden was that? As if there could be more than one garden. I told her I’d show her. How to get to the garden. She should bear right and go down the hill. There was a turn and it seemed like you were going the wrong way but then you were actually on the right path and it was only a question of finding a place to park. She would park. It would be spring of 1969, it is April, Easter Sunday, and my father has taken us to the garden to see the cherry trees in blossom. It is a fine clear day. We stand close together as if delighting in one another’s company, and we are beautifully dressed, my mother in hat with a veil and a burgundy suit, my brother in a tiny blazer with a crest on its pocket and a miniature bow tie, my sister in a velvet coat, white stockings, white mary-janes, and bows in her hair. My father wears his best suit, a sharkskin suit about fifteen years out of date, but impeccable. And he is cradling the baby, who has been dressed in pale pink, bonnet, coat, stockings. He holds the baby so tenderly, cradling her in his arms. I reach my arms out oddly, as if I am expecting to fly. Behind us, the cherry trees are in blossom. Who has taken this picture? Someone else has taken this picture, to give to my father or mother so that years later they could look on it and wonder: were we actually happy then? Were we once actually happy?
"I don’t know this place," Keesha said when we stopped the car.
"It’s not that far," I said.
We got out and walked down the hill. Below us would be the park, which led to the garden with its fountain and cherry trees. As we got closer I couldn’t wait and I grabbed Keesha’s hand and ran her down to the garden. I ran her toward it and it was before we got there when I saw the fountain from afar, the cloaked woman atop the fountain, and I realized we were too late. The trees had already bloomed and shed their blossoms. We had missed it.
And now we walked slowly, toward the fountain, toward the garden.
"It’s beautiful here," Keesha said.
She didn’t know how it should look, I thought, so to her it looks just fine.
"It was supposed to be in bloom," I told her, feeling anguish filling my mouth. "The cherry trees are supposed to be in bloom, but we missed it."
She looked at the trees above us.
"No," she said. "We didn’t miss it – we just too early." She pointed up. There were buds in the trees. She looked back down to me and smiled her beautiful smile, bestowed so gracefully and so rarely.
What kind of dream life goes on with you? I wondered. What dream of self got her through her days? I felt my legs giving out under me and then I was kneeling in the muddy grass, banging my fists on the ground. Keesha was over me, her hands under my arms, trying to pull me up. I was like a stone to the earth, banging my fists on the ground. And then she just let go and she crouched in front of me, her face up against mine, watching me way up close. She crouched in front of me and it was like I was counting her freckles as I banged and banged my fists to the ground and when my arms started to fatigue she banged the earth and said, More! She banged the earth again and said, More! And I banged my fists on the ground and she said, More, more, more, stupid ground, screw you, stupid ground, that’s the stuff, that’s it.
And then I remember her pulling me to my feet and buttoning up my coat for me like I was her child. She took an old tissue from her pocket, spat softly on it, and cleaned my hands with it. And I felt like she must really love me, she must really love me after all, to share her spit like this with no embarrassment. I collapsed into her with gratitude.
"You got to get it together," she told me, pushing me off in a moment. "I can’t be your facilitator. I can’t be your savior."
And with this she led me back up the hill.
After this I would go home. I would go home and see my mother sitting alone at the dining room table, her small defeated hands cradling a cup of tea. I was raised to respect my husband, to believe my husband is always right, she would say to me. We would speak in a way we had not been able to before. I would make myself forgive her in some way. I would pity her but not enough to stay with her in that place.
I would forgive her enough to finally leave. No vindication, no day of triumph. Just finally putting that corrupted dream life behind me, and walking out the door.
The Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction is made possible by the generous support of the McGlinn family and the Dry Family Foundation.
B.G. Firmani lives in New York City, where she works as a proposal writer for an architecture firm and writes a blog about Italian-American literature, Forte e Gentile (www.forte-e-gentile.blogspot.com). She has published fiction in the Bellevue Literary Review, BOMB, and the Kenyon Review, is a graduate of Barnard College and Brown University, and is currently working on a novel, The Ear and the Tail.