Covenant A Story
I met Felix—that’s Seligman, I called him in our conversation—on the twenty-third of December, 1966. I remember the date because it was the date of my wedding. A blizzard had hit Virginia about ten in the morning, so when Felix walked into my parents’ gold-papered hallway, he was splattered with snow-flakes, lugging a suitcase with one hand and holding a wet gone-out cigar in the other. He’s a big man, you know, but the girl he ushered in with him was smaller than I am. Abby wore a black dress. This disturbed me, though later I learned it ought not to have: black is not the color of mourning among Jews.
Felix was our best man. He’d been best friends with my husband since they were both ten years old in Flatbush. In 1966 Felix was one year into the business of getting a divorce from his wife, who, as Ezra explained it to me, had quit sleeping with him six months after they were married, because he’d given up his sales job in order to become a cameraman. He started out nonunion, of course, and earned about fifty dollars a week. Now Felix makes in the neighborhood of fifty thousand a year, but now he screws around with heroin. Anyway, the marriage, his marriage, lasted for five years, and then his wife locked him out one night and he moved in with my husband for a while and then he met Abby. Abby is gone from the scene these days, too; I mean, neither Felix nor I see her, but by her choice. But she was pretty and dark and pretentious, and I liked her. My parents also liked her, and adored Felix on sight, and if they’d insisted beforehand that no unwed couple was going to stay overnight in one room in their lovely house that they’d worked all their lives for, as soon as they set eyes on this good-looking pair of people, they changed their minds, and whispered to me that it was okay. I should have been so attractive—the world would open up, don’t kid yourself. Only Felix and his Abigail didn’t stay, after all, because they could afford to be appalled at the prospect of being stranded in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia.
If even I can’t mistake the crossness that has crept into my tone of voice, it is because what I am trying to tell you is that so long ago, in that instant when Felix stepped into the house in Richmond, with Ezra grinning from ear to ear, so easily triumphant, with me in a state of panic, I knew I wanted to go to bed with him. Knew is maybe not quite the right word. I didn’t acknowledge the notion, didn’t dwell on it, but it was there, there in my body if not my brain, even as Ezra took him aside and handed him the thin white-gold band that would be urged onto my finger in a few hours. But you won’t read this rightly if you don’t recognize that both Ezra and I were well-taught children of the Age of Liberalism, prone to psychoanalysis, magnanimously tolerant of fantasy. Why not? Our fantasies were private and could not possibly wreak any effect on a world as incurious or unconcerned as we’d early enough concluded ours was. So the sensitivities of my own rather severe bosom could scarcely disturb my equilibrium, and when Felix flattered me or mocked me with a low drawl, it was only a game. Three years went by before I saw it’d sneaked up on reality. The night was cold, it was late February in New York, and after dinner—chicken breasts in a wine-and-mushroom sauce; how helplessly pleased I was with myself for having learned to cook at last—over coffee, my husband and Felix, each interrupting the other, broached me with the suggestion that I spend a week with Felix at his place in upstate New York. My husband said I needed a vacation. “It will be good for you,” he said, “to get away from me for a while.” My hands trembled. When I looked at Felix, he reached for the celery sticks: hungry and blithe, he was, seemed oblivious. But Ezra stiffened and I was afraid of the fast smile he challenged me with. He confused me. I didn’t know whether to be insulted that I was so sexually harmless, or alarmed at my own ungovernability, or suspicious. My husband was so clever at uncovering guile in others that I assumed he was not incapable of a certain deviousness himself.
Two hours earlier, in the kitchen, as Felix was hanging up his coat, Ezra had caught me by the elbow. Because now that I write this, I remember it was not late February; it was Valentine’s Day. That’s marvelous. I suppose you had thought to discover in this letter some secret by which to interpret me, content me, but now you see that I am no more than the contemporary female forced by circumstance to deny her inclination toward sentimentality. But you are arrogant and I do not love you. “Happy Valentine’s,” Ezra said. The present he gave me was a beautiful little Greek vase copy from the Metropolitan Museum; I have kept it still. But the card read, “Will you be mine?” And when you opened it up, it asked, “Or must I take you by force?” I kissed him for the vase. Then I asked him what the card meant: haltingly. He only laughed. “It seemed appropriate,” he said. I quickly put them away before Felix returned. It was dinnertime.
We sat in the living room, lamplight reflecting from the snow mounded on the windowsills outside, the aroma of red wine running from the bowl of bones on the table. Felix stretched out in the armchair that had been my husband’s before we were married. Was it too ostentatiously that I curled up on the couch next to Ezra and tried to hold his hand? But his face had gone black and he rose to fetch a story I’d done, a story in which the young husband painted his pregnant wife orange. The scene stemmed from Ezra, as so many of my story ideas were his. He showed the story to Felix. I occupied myself with cleaning up, clearing the dishes, while Felix read it, his giggles and snorts exaggerating Ezra’s uncharacteristic silence, paining my ears. This story was set in his farmhouse in upstate New York; that had been Ezra’s doing too.
“You don’t really have the feel of it,” Felix said. “You haven’t been there often enough.”
Three weeks later my husband was still at me, wanting me to go up there, and that was one reason I agreed to the separation when he instead suggested that. There were other reasons that played into it. Ezra, who’d been himself pretty much raised by his analyst, had been sending me to a psychiatrist at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, a fat and bearded dullard determined to abide by the rulebook to the point where we wasted fifteen minutes each session until I volunteered some stupid matter for discussion. “It’s cold out,” I said. He said, “Tell me why the cold makes you uncomfortable.” But the weather was what we ought to have had in common. I was lonely, and he merely made me lonelier. So I said to Ezra, “Enough. If I’m sick, this is no way to get well.”
He said nothing at first. He put a cigarette in his mouth, reached for my lighter; the flame swelled up like a volcano and a tremor ran up his arm and he dropped the lighter. I jumped for it, smothered the fire with my boot. “Goddamn you,” he cried, “it’s our one chance, don’t you see that?” He’d cursed me before, but always we met in bed. I was crazy for his energy, which fed me, and this night was no different from the others. But in the morning, a letter came from my parents, addressed to us both, and he opened it first. It pointed out that if I worked a few months in Richmond, living with them, I could give Ezra the extra year he wanted in New York. “It’ll give us time to think in,” he said, “and they won’t have to know the real reason behind the separation.” Well, it fairly kills my soul to admit that the first thing I thought of was the midterm coming up in the night school Greek lit class I was taking; I wasn’t prepared for it, and this would be a way out. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t terrified. “I’ll go back to therapy,” I said. “Anything.” He called my parents and told them I was coming home that night. Then he called the airline and made a reservation, and called a taxi, and packed my things, and took me there, and sent me off. I swore and said he was an efficient bastard. But when we were picking up the ticket, a black woman with a child stood in line in front of us. “Thirty-two fifty,” the clerk told her. “All I has got is thirty dollars,” she said. She started to weep. Ezra dug the difference out of his pocket and put it on the counter and smiled at her. I was heartbroken.
I’d come home from an interview at Midlothian High School, where the principal queried me on my opinion of Catcher in the Rye and asked how long my husband, doing his doctorate “up there,” wore his hair. My own, I’d cut short for the sake of this interview. I knew Ezra wouldn’t’ve approved, but in the Southern sunshine I was living in, all life seemed simpler and earthier, more practical, than he would have it. Now I went into my room, put my purse down on the ingenious, long desk my father had built so willingly across one wall, and the telephone rang. It was Ezra. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “This is my plan. Come back to New York, find a job, take an apartment of your own, undergo intensive, long-term therapy. I’ll work part-time and pay our bills. If you can become financially and emotionally independent of me, a self-sufficient adult, then it is possible that at some later time we may try living together again.” He must have memorized it, and the self-righteousness and the vanity of it stung me to the quick. “No! No! No!” I screamed. My voice flew out of me as if it had been caged. “Oh, God, no.”
“Then you want a divorce,” he said, still matter-of-fact.
“Oh, God, no,” I screamed again, but I could hardly believe that it was I whose shrillness filled the room. I cried and pleaded and he hung up. I laid my head down on the desk next to my purse.
My parents are musicians; my mother’s hands are rough, the fingertips callused, but her bones have a graceful precision, a long, fine line I still would like to have learned. Gently she knocked on the door. “I think,” she said, “you’d better tell us what’s wrong, now.” What Southern delicacy! . . . Insisting I should assume the subordinate position I wanted. What outrage followed, when they learned what was going on. But I would not listen to them. I called Ezra back and told him that I submitted to his plan. “It’s too late,” he said. “You don’t really care about me.” Nor did all my tears avail.
Then I wrote to his analyst, a careful, honest letter that he never acknowledged. I called my own analyst, who said, “If that’s the way the man feels about you, I can’t change his mind.” I called Ezra’s brother and sister-in-law. They had been my closest friends in New York: “We don’t want to mix in,” they said. “Our only part in all this is to offer moral support to Ezra.” I called Abby. “Men,” she said, “they’re all nuts.” But Abby never called me.
The sole person from that hub of the world who was troubled to get in touch with me was Felix, and he, in his monosyllabic manner, with that hip shrug I could see long-distance, assured me that I was not, indeed, “no ‘count”—the mockery was discreet—nor was I so uselessly deluded as Ezra had said or so bothersome as I feared. He wrote me a letter which I saved, since it took off from divorce in general and sailed into a description of his current summertime ménage à trois in Woodstock and concluded with a dream sequence wherein he seduced some gaunt lady roundheels from Larchmont, an attorney’s wife, mounting all his loathings and his fears on her apocalyptically avocado-carpeted floor. I welcomed that letter for its friendliness, and resented it too, because it confined me so closely to the arena of simple friendship. We talked a few times on the telephone. He was in favor of my returning to New York. But that was all. And I accepted the indignity of his disinterest, for if I was guilty of adultery, that sin was not only not palpable, a slight waywardness of the imagination, but had been committed not with him but with the composer in Russia whom I’d once promised to marry. I’d broken that promise in order to marry my husband. Then perhaps the adultery was done with my husband in violence upon the pledge, even upon the very outlandishness of the pledge, I’d contracted in a cemetery in Riga to my brilliant and sentimental Russian, who, sick with music and hope, loved me more truly than I felt free at the time to give him credit for, disbelieving his intent because I knew I wasn’t worth it. In this way one succeeds in wondering whether Ezra hadn’t failed to trust me out of his mistrust of himself, but I can recognize a rationalization when I see one; and surely that kind of melancholic twisting and turning is so far from being true that it was instead the locus of the sickness my husband, probing my psyche even more assiduously than the recesses of my body, stirred in me. In any case, I saw Felix just once right after I returned to New York. Oh, he was hugely altered. His hair was shaggy and unruly, he’d lost thirty pounds, he was dropping acid, he was filming subtle and arch little obscenities for distribution by Evergreen, and if he was in bad shape, I was in worse, and we met at the Esquire on Broadway for breakfast and went our separate ways.
Sickness: I am and have always been at the core dogmatic as hell and pitted against the rest of the world but baffled by how ever to make that definition visible, much less viable. You said I am not a woman. You should be able to do better than that. If the accusation is true, it holds for every one of us, including your wife, and if it is true, it is also tired, a ploy, and a threat. “Look here,” this man tells me; “you’re not a woman until I acknowledge you as one.” You can take your sanctions, sweetheart, and shove them. I don’t need them. Nor will I allow you to equate my existence with a generality, I am not the womb but only contain one, and my problems are particular and only resemble those of my sisters. Let me tell you something. I went underground quite consciously when I was seven or so; it seemed the only way to preserve one’s sanity in a family which was utterlv charming, bright, and dedicated to doom. My husband, Ezra Solomon—his father was a small-time judge riddled with ambition—tried to tutor me into an anger with them that should have freed me, but, you see, they are likeable. Just as he was. And what none of them—he because he believed in “love”—would understand or even accept was really me, is that I simply did not feel the need for any radical reconstruction of our mortal souls. I still don’t for the life of me understand why people should not be permitted to feel hatred and sexual desire and ambition and envy and guilt and sentimentality and any other thing they care to feel, since what is conveyed is all that has any effect, or maybe here what I do mean is affect.
I believe in manners. In appearances. In superficiality, if you will.
But this passion is off the point and incoherent to boot. What I started to say, to tell you, is that I am depressed when I see myself aging, and whether I look fifteen or not is beside the point because I know where the wrinkles are and I know where my limbs are losing elasticity and I know how the chances for childbearing daily decrease: when I see myself aging and yet retaining some undefeatable, some so help me almost unavoidable, childlike incapacity to translate what I know into how I reason. How easy it would be if I were only faced with translating what I think into what I do, but the problem is deeper, and shows even in a certain translucence of the eye, which I spotted in my mother ages ago and answer to now in the mirror, a certain openness which reveals not, haplessly, vacuity, but an incredibly crazy knack for tolerating anomaly after anomaly, if that’s the word I want, for sustaining contradictions without end. And in fact if I do have any talent at all it is reducible to this, that I can assume any number of personalities on paper, which has been my means of survival, and is also the deathtrap in which that core of dogmatism, me at age seven hearing God in my head telling me to put aside all argument and go about my work, which was prophecy (I never told that to my bearded friend; it’s too simple to analyze away), has locked itself. Don’t you dare choke on this. You asked for my letter. “I am waiting,” you said.
Felix and I talked on the phone occasionally during the year. After October, it was always I who called: October was when he informed me that my husband had flown to Mexico, compliments of his brother’s money, and obtained a divorce from me. I was divorced for a week before I knew it. Felix tried to placate me, saying, “What good is living with someone who doesn’t love you? You’re better off out of it. Come on, luv,” he said, and giggled, “be a big girl and roll with the punches.” But I went on bawling and he said he was sorry. Then after a while, along about March, when Ezra married again, I stopped calling Felix, and it wasn’t until almost summer that he rang to say he’d seen my husband who was full of crap and how was my love life. I was surprised. But not entirely. I had, after all, mailed him a poem I’d done about him, which I hoped would set up some echoes in his head. It did, though I knew muse-baiting was an inferior sport. He suggested that we get together sometime. Oh, dear Jesus, was I nonchalant. “Sure,” I said, as a year of lukewarm affairs had taught me to hold my tongue in these matters. But that, you see, didn’t stop me from glancing at the telephone every time I walked past it.
Then the following week he did phone, and he was in town, and again I met him for breakfast—this was June, and the Esquire had gone out of business and we met at Stark’s on 90th—and we went back to my place and turned on with some stuff I had stashed there and then drove to Riverside Park and 96th, where a five-year-old boy black as the Queen of Spades was peeing over the railing. I was too high to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, so whenever I pulled myself back from watching the remnants of cloud that skirted the sun, I found my hemline inching up. Felix climbed a tree. We went somewhere for lunch. I forget where. On the way we passed a young girl selling hotdogs on the street; she was sitting on a stool, and Felix, with the privileges that he was entitled to as a bright and beautiful male making it in Fun City, bent over and patted her knee, but I just smiled at her right alongside him. In the restaurant he said, “Come to the country for a couple of days.” He added, “After Bonny leaves.” I asked him who Bonny was. “She’s been living there,” he said, “and she has this kid I’m crazy about. You should have had a kid.”
“Are you living with her?” Because one never knew for sure.
“Goddamn! Living? Living with her? I call living with someone when you live with someone for a few years and have a goddamn kid by someone.”
He was shaking his head as if he’d like to shatter the air around him, and the motive for his fury escaped me. “What happened between you and Ezra?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
But he was deeply hurt because my husband refused to countenance his interest in yoga and the I Ching, my husband the arch-rationalist, direct descendant of Elijah Gaon of Vilna who never slept and burned the bad books of the Hasidim, and he felt that my husband was throwing away twenty-some years of friendship. “Christ,” Felix said, “friends are for arguing with, aren’t they?” Tentatively, I nodded my head, but he wasn’t looking at me. “I love him,” he said, “and that doesn’t seem to mean anything.” I would have liked to ask him about Ezra’s second wife, but was afraid to. I figured, you see, that he’d just been divorced from my husband and was getting back at him by going to bed with me, but loathed myself for thinking this because it is the kind of deviousness built on self-contempt that I am afraid healthy people don’t operate on.
As a matter of fact, when I was seventeen and at New Mexico Tech, a misfit if ever there was one, my closest friend was an older man named Will who said to me that he thought I might someday be the single real woman he knew of if I could rid myself of my deviousness. That is the kind of thing I always took to heart, took to bed, and brooded over. Will later gave up mathematics, it was topology or something, for bear-hunting in Alaska. So I tried to lay psychology aside and came on very friendly but calm and Felix was stunned when back at my apartment I seduced him.
It was that, because, like any man, his view of relationships resists expansion, and if I was his surrogate, I was still his ex-best-friend’s ex-wife. He knew only what he wanted to do, not what he was willing to do. But for God’s sake, accept this much about me: I knew that it was too late to wound Ezra by sleeping with Felix. Both Felix and I, in our different ways, had early on transgressed the things that Ezra only toyed with, and we hankered after some conventionality which seemed forever just beyond our reach. Felix sat in my line of sight, across from me, at the desk, licking the edge of a reefer he was rolling, and he has a small wart tucked into the side of his nose that is unaccountably attractive. “What I do like about you,” I told him, “is the way you move. It’s masculine.”
He was as flattered as the most innocent of savages. And why shouldn’t he have been? It was sincere enough. He giggled. “I always thought my best qualities were really kind of feminine,” he said. “Effeminate.”
“Oh, they are.”
I sat on the bed. “Why not bring that thing over here,” I said, and if I wasn’t elegant, at least I wasn’t coy. So we sat together on the bed, smoking another cigarette, and the speckles of dust that swam in the sunlight washing over us from my windows grew as enormous as planets. “It’s the Milky Way,” I laughed, because I was in the one place where the shadow of my mother’s smartness couldn’t reach me. I was in the one place where no man’s wit or coldness could tyrannize me: it’s been years since I broke the first taboo, and since then no man can put out my fire. The heat of my body is sufficient to support the cosmos, yes, damn you, to generate stars and suns. I might have spoken aloud, “Try it, Felix, try to pin me down here, try to swing your weight over me and beat me down here, the way you do with your shrugs and your girls and your dope. The way Ezra did with words.” He would not even have heard me. He was lost in space already. First I kneaded his thighs, slowly, slowly, and then I sucked the skin of his shoulders, making moons, and touched my tongue to his small teeth, and I revolved around him like earth’s solitary moon, slowly, gazing on his blue, glassy eyes until they closed.
He was good, the best I’d ever had, and when we’d done, he kissed my throat, and said, “Well, it was worth waiting for.” Such gentleness took me off my guard. I stroked his face. All my energy was spent, and oh lord, oh lord, I knew for how little. I wanted to take it all back, gather it up in my hands, put it to some intelligent, real use. But it was useless, and always was; my energy derives from a stingy source which will not allow a long-term investment. These metaphors were a misery to me, and I turned away from Felix, but not before he caught the cloudiness on my face, so that he held me in his arms for a moment. Then, “I have to be going,” he said.
“Right on,” I said.
He hugged me.
I had cut a religion class I was supposed to be sitting in on, a doctor appointment, and that was also the first day since I started tutoring her that I begged off on a session with Valerie. She’s got cerebral palsy—well, you know—a radiant face, dark brown hair blown around her face like the emblem of our era, and I was wrong to skip our session because she has been to me no less than what the child on the farm was to Felix. When Felix repeated that he wanted me to come up to the farm, then, still full of his hug, I soared. Even when he explained that it had to be worked in between when Bonny, the current girl, was taking off for Mexico, and the following weekend, which was the Fourth of July and he was going to Woodstock to drop an anniversary tab with the girl of last summer, or girls, I said you bet and was tickled to death at being listed in the stable of a hopelessly inarticulate but perfectly fine moviemaker. He did a film of the subway strike so lyrical, so lovely, it would break your heart to see it. I showed him out the door and stood in the doorway and he touched my cheek. His fingers were as swift as rain.
Thursday. A week has gone by since I began this, and I still don’t know what you hope to gain by it. Or I do—you in your unoffensively assertive suit, laced shoes, peeking through this keyhole into the drug culture, I detest your compartmentalizing, long to do the same. “Tell me,” you said, “why you feel guilty about being unhappy.” That was the most splendid excuse I had ever heard: I wanted to pick it up and raise it like an umbrella over our heads and with the rain pitching down on all sides I’d let you kiss my hands and face at least until the sun shone again. Well, as my father used to say, we’ll see. Three minor incidents keep urging themselves onto this paper, and you may as well have them too.
The first is that a few days ago I received a note from Dan Atkinson, a writer whom I knew rather formally in Greensboro. He’s thirty-one, married, has two little boys, and from what I gather off the grapevine, conducts his life with a bit more honor than most of us who were there at the time. I thought him a good writer; and he’s the only one of the bunch who has had less success than I. To his note he added a postscript: “I keep on sending stories out, but each time they sit on them just long enough for my hairline to recede another one-sixteenth of an inch, and then they send them back without any comment.”
It’s a struggle for power. When we were in Greensboro, I wrote a story, still unpublished, titled “Portraits.” The hero was Jakob, a Dutch painter of ambiguous aims. I’d always pictured my Jakob with blond spun-out hair, a pool of hazy sunshine. One night in Brooklyn, my husband, who is as dark and mole-pocked as any Mediterranean nomad, showed me that nowhere in the story did I indeed specify the color of Jakob’s hair. Ezra was smiling when he pointed this out to me, but it was not a malicious smile, or at least I didn’t think it was, but it was one which delighted in recognizing something I hadn’t, and sometimes still, on the subway or in the store, I think I see his thick lips pulled down like a drapery of flesh over an unspeakably vast and verboten abyss. He loved to link things which I would otherwise see as disparate, until it seemed he was weaving a web around my mind, and it was hopeless to argue or struggle against it.
The third thing is not unrelated, though it has to do with Jamaica. Of course I thought about you in Jamaica, in August, but I had an affair there, with the twenty-one-year-old Hindu who managed the hotel in-bond store. His name was Johnny, and except that he had no chin, he was the image of my husband. But the only reading matter in his apartment was a paperback titled Married Men Make the Best Lovers, and a stack of comic books, and he knew almost nothing about sex and approached the subject with a scientific mien that was ofttimes unnerving. But he was a nice youth, and he bore me no grudge, and I loved the excellence with which he ran his shop. We stretched out on the sand of the public beach, crossing our legs over each other, listening to the static on his transistor radio. John Crow zeroed in close over our heads, and our heads were buzzing from the ganja. I burrowed my fingers in the sand while he explained to me that the necklace he wore was given to him by his widowed mother in Kingston: it bore the image of a guru and kept the bad spirits away. He carried me back to the hotel on his scooter about one, and when I got into the room I switched on the lamp between Valerie’s mother’s bed and mine, because I thought I might do some reading. She sensed the light was on and reached up to turn it off, but she was full of sleeping pills, and when she reached up, her pillow slid off, and then she began to slide out from bed after the pillow. She fell asleep again in the middle of all this action, and there she hung, suspended between the bed and the floor, between, I vow, time and space. So I went over and picked her up and swung her back onto the bed. I tucked her in and then started to slip the pillow under her. Suddenly she raised both her arms, her wrists making little clasping motions, and her face was so white and expressionless that in an instant my position was transformed, and I was guilty, I was responsible, I was that damned survivor the corpse clutches at in the hour of silence. What dreams we have. When I was nine and not yet brainwashed by civilization, I dreamed of an ancient wooden house. The outside staircase climbed to the attic. I stood at the foot of the stairs, grasping the banister, and as I stood there, I saw my family in their various stations along the staircase shed their skin in flakes like flakes of snow, until to my huge, crying sorrow their bones showed and shimmered, turning in the pale, courteous light of the stars as if they were semiprecious stones.
Here is why I tutor Valerie: I make her laugh, my innocence, as she is pleased to call it, amuses her. Here is why I do not understand the books you patronize me with, Kierkegaard and Saint Augustine and the rest. All arguments convince only a believer. To the nonbeliever, the universe is discrete, insane, purposelessly proliferous, vain and futile. Say that last word with a long i. Every burst of flower, shock of aroma, every high mass sung or thought conceived or love survived, is made irredeemably ugly, is made disgusting, by the death of a child, and every death is the death of a child. There is no time in the world alone. There is no trust, because nothing is trustworthy, nor is there any sharing. Pessimism is the only intelligent response to fact; and the only fact is the fact of evil. But what I’m trying to say is that if you ask me to define God in twenty-five words or less, I’m game, and I say that what God is, is the possibility of goodness. The possibility. But it is alas the perception of that possibility which without reflection commands us, binds us in covenant, wrenches us from our natural posture, and sucks up our energy in an unending effort to bring into being what can never endure until the End of Days, or if you will the Day of Judgment, and that is what profound is, for without personality there is no morality. Somewhere God and Eros meet. (But it is not in Dr. Freud’s room. I was there and I can vouch for that.) In return for our unholy anguish we receive hope, history, and once in a blue moon, communication, but this tension, this covenant, is the bleeding hardest bargain anybody ever drove; selling your soul to the devil and being sued for gypping him is easy by comparison, and sometimes I just really wish to hell that somebody would bother to say this without whitewashing it into terms of conviction or faith or whatever. What it is, is revelation, and having consented to recognize the revelation, there is no answer open to you but yes. Maturity? Maturity is for people who don’t have the good goddamn sense to tremble with terror every blessed moment of their existence, who don’t recognize the enormity of the debt of gratitude we owe to God.
So I went upstate, and Felix met me at the bus stop in Hudson, which is not far from Tangle-wood.
Too bad for me, he’d got things ordered in his head before I got up there, and as soon as I stepped off the bus he cut me down by asking what I was doing wearing city clothes. We picked up his laundry and when we got to the farmhouse I changed into my jeans and a T-shirt and work shoes. He was wearing wonderfully filthy white pants and the new moustache that made him look down and out in Paris and London. The first thing we did of course was light up and go for a walk in the meadow. “You have to watch out for the gopher holes,” he warned me, “you could break a leg.”
The sun was bright, the grass was green all over, that gorgeous air sinks in deep. I was glad to see Happy Jack Dog again, and said so. “Son of a bitch killed a gopher last week and brought it in by its neck. Don’t want nobody to call him Happy any more,” said Felix. I tripped. “I told you, you got to watch out for four-legged dangerous dogs.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” I said.
“Sure I do.”
“You said you could break a leg in one of these holes. They’re mouseholes,” I said, “holes in the earth. I’m up on holes because I’m doing ‘Notes from Underground’ with Valerie.”
“I have this feeling, well, I do, that she must be beautiful,” he said.
“I read Dostoevsky once. But I wasn’t sixteen, I was younger yet. My mother thought she’d improve my mind by checking out books from the Brooklyn Public Library.”
“I never realized you had a mother.”
“I’m a son of a bitch.”
I said, “It’s true you’re much too tough for me.”
We took off our shoes. The pressure of the sun pushed our feet to the earth. Happy Jack Dog nuzzled my feet. “Scram,” Felix said, and Happy Jack ran for the woods.
“You’re a mean one,” I told him, when I tried to kiss him and he pushed me away.
“People drive by, even on this dirt road. You got to watch out for people.”
“I know, I know. They’re two-legged dangerous dogs.”
“If you call him Happy again, I’ll strangle you. I used to love him, and that’s what you don’t understand.” He put his big hands on my neck and we walked back to the house. . . . Which is beautiful.
It’s fifty bucks a month and he did the insulation himself. A fireplace, a potbellied stove, a darkroom and an upstairs, and the entirety so fragile you feel like you’re living on the ground and the whole thing so sturdy you can stay there the year through. Hell, yes, I was there a year. Maybe it was the weed, but I like grass: it is usually fun and it is sensuous and the ritual in its use is peace-making for the mind, even when you are alone. I grant you, I never heard of anybody’s getting a good idea on it; but you do sometimes stumble onto interesting notions if you’re smoking with someone, because the way conversation works when you’re high is that statement A is satisfactorily coherent, statement B is coherent, but B picks up one word or image from A and replies to that, not to the sense of the sentence as a whole. It’s like shooting at ducks tangentially.
But Felix and I didn’t talk much. Everything we might have said to each other would have rung in a third party, Ezra’s ghost. So he loaded his rifle and went out again, this time to take a couple of potshots at rabbits, and the blasts shook me as I rocked in the rocking chair in the living room. There are different kinds of long weekends, and I knew by now that this one was going to be longer than most. My grandmother would have said, “Trouble always comes in three’s.” My mother says, “When trouble comes, it comes in spades.” As soon as I’d entered the house that morning, I saw the book on Cézanne, and knew by the tear on the slipcover that it was my ex-husband’s. Felix had left it on the coffee table. He must have known, I think, or ought to have known, that I would recognize it; he knew the slipcover was torn when I hurled the book at Ezra the day he sneered and said my taste in art was “literary.” I retorted: “It’s not me who’s doing a hubristic paper on lithos of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, of all things.” Our battles were very intellectual and straight. But I at least knew that for, or in, all his puffed-up rationalism, he saw himself less as King Solomon and more as the handsome and clever Joseph, Mann’s lovable unlicked cub, purely oblivious to fleshly lures which would evilly sway him from his righteous administration. I knew that when Potiphar’s wife, who would be running to a shameful fullness, but harsh with herself, not promiscuous, not oversure, but frightened and bored, said, “Dear young boy, I am sick with the weariness in my womb and desire to teach you the pleasures that are already beginning to graduate from me,” Joseph answered without mercy: “What have I to learn from you?” He would not risk Potiphar’s sword; neither would he leave Potiphar’s house in peace. And with his soft looks and scowl, his curls that whispered when they brushed against her sleeve in the dusk, he drove that woman into madness.
I turned my mind inside out for him, combing all the crumbs of ambivalence from my imagination. When I was clean, he walked away.
The screendoor slammed on Felix’s entrance. He had with him some stuff from the pot plants he cultivates in between the cucumbers. He’d dried out the tops of some of the plants the day before, and that stuff especially was strong. We smoked it and started to mess around and then he sort of maneuvered me outside into the bushes next to the garage. I didn’t altogether comprehend the reason for his grin, since I’d gladly screw in the sunshine any day of the week, but I was afraid to say anything. I could smell his body and it was like the ground. He’d brought the rifle with him and set it down by the inflated plastic mattress we lay on. He knew his way around the country, all right, the route was mapped. We stripped, not touching each other, and the sun sparkled on the hairs of his legs. For the first time, I paid attention to the freckles on his chest; they wiped me out. I wanted to say something nice to him, then, because he was so defenseless against the sky, rooted there like a sapling, bending over me as if compelled to by the wind, but the sun kept shifting, striking first here and then there, so that I was at a loss, I was losing ground. The sun burned up my insides; he stoked away at me as if I were a furnace. His mouth was a glowing coal, I could scarcely catch my breath. The sun beat on the backs of my thighs, and the world kept turning over and over, and then I came, and couldn’t stop coming, and for what seemed like forever I had everything I’d ever wanted, because I forgot myself, forgot who I was, forgot him, and was ready to die.
As though it were a rose, he plucked from the nearest bush a straw hat with a short brim and set it on the back of his head. “Oh,” I said, “that looks wonderful.”
“It belongs to Ezra’s wife,” he said.
I looked at him in terror. Then I opened his fist and put my mouth to his palm.
“It’s too bad, isn’t it,” he said, “that it doesn’t mean anything.”
Supper was foul: soup made of radishes, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, I think, and a salad of unadorned lettuce leaves. I suppose had a girl tried to get me to eat that I’d have laughed at her and fixed myself a hamburger, which means Women’s Lib still has some work to do on me, but on the other hand, who needs a hassle. You should have tasted the bread he’d baked, the boy’s not going to put Sara Lee out of business. I swallowed what I could, wishing I dared to assert myself, lay claim to the kitchen and bake a blueberry cake. But to my left hung the pegboard Abby had contributed, and the flowers on the table were from the border she’d seeded when Felix first bought the place; or they may have been Bonny’s flowers. So I kept myself to myself, and afterward, in the living room, I waited in a corner while he taped himself on a dobro, drums, and the harmonica. He majored in composition at New York University, and he knows rhythm, but somewhere along the line he has lost track of what music was meant to be, or maybe he is shy of it these days, and he pounded on those instruments until the echoes in my head mightily ripped it apart. But that is not right, I am being much too crude here. He was hunched over the bongos, the cymbals, the dobro, balling himself into one long roll of sound, and if I felt he’d banished me from the scene, it was my own fault, because he handed me a brass flute, and said, Pan tempting Midas to profane Apollo’s godly playing, “Hey, chicken, goof on this with me.” I was afraid. I was always afraid. Eventually we went upstairs to sleep.
The silence of the country oppressed me.
In the morning, Felix wanted to find a Sears store, so we got into the car and toked up and started off. We weren’t thinking too clearly and soon discovered we were headed toward Albany. It seemed to make sense to continue toward the destination we had evidently begun with.
Somewhere on this side of it, a policeman stopped us, a young cop, skinny and hesitant. We must have looked freaky by that time, all right, anybody who could read the signs could tell we were bombed: I was wearing sunglasses and Felix’s fatigue jacket, and there was a tin of about a dozen reefers in the jacket, and Felix’s light brown hair curled out uncombed, and the stubble on his face gleamed with sweat. Felix got out of the car. The kid cop said, “May I see your license, please?”
Felix pulled it out of his pocket.
“I see,” the kid said. “And where do you live, Felix?”
Felix told him.
Then Felix asked if we’d done anything wrong.
“Oh, no, no. But we’re expecting a shipment of two pounds of hash soon, you see, somewhere in the vicinity. Ever use hash, Felix?”
“Well, I’ll tell you the truth,” Felix said, “now and then, but only by way of experiment.”
“That’s so. . . . Now I admit we may have toked up for our journey, just a little grass, but wouldn’t you?”
The kid snorted.
Felix said, “God knows it’s a long trip to anywhere.”
“Just a little pot?”
“That’s so, to be sure,” Felix said.
I held my breath as the policeman approached me, but he only said, “Excuse me, ma’am,” and searched the glove compartment in a perfunctory way. “Well,” he spoke again, turning back to Felix, “you know how it is. We don’t want any strong stuff coming in here, do we?”
“I should say not, to be sure.” I was going to murder him if he said “to be sure” one more time.
The kid smiled, then, and handed the license back to Felix. “Have a good trip, now,” he said, and beamed when Felix, cool Felix, gave him the victory sign.
We were approaching Albany. “This reminds me,” he said to me, “of a trip I took with Ezra when we were seventeen.” I knew the story already, but I didn’t forestall him. “Would you believe we drove way the hell up here from Brooklyn, looking for whores to lose our virginity with?” In Ezra’s mind, that search had assumed the parodic proportions of a 19th-century Brautshau. They’d piled into the judge’s car on a rainy night, flushed with success before it was theirs, and when they got to Albany, they’d combed every back alley the town had to offer. “We didn’t find any, of course; drove home as lily-white as when we left.” But Ezra thought that night was full of laughs, and reminisced about it often, or used to, because distance allowed him to treasure so rare a lapse into spontaneity which was not serious. “It made us blood brothers. My brother, Ezra,” Felix said. “I’ll bet he doesn’t even remember how it was. How else could he do this to me?”
“I told him he was acting the same way his old man acted, tyrannical. I thought he’d understand that kind of language. Psychological.”
“So? His second marriage won’t last, you know,” I said, shaking.
“What do you know about it? Do you know Susan Alexander? Hell, no, you don’t know about her. You’re talking through your hat,” he raged. “She’s a real fine woman.”
“I know he didn’t take any time after me to find out anything about himself.” It was a shot in the dark, but I had to defend myself.
“Oh, to be sure,” he mumbled. But when some time had passed, he said, “That mother was always blessed: even with his name; he could always cut the child in half and still have both halves. May he rot in hell.”
And that floored me. I’d always thought that if there was envy in their relationship, it must have been Ezra’s envy for this laconic, shuffling, successful man whose hands were so competent and flexible, who sat beside me, puffing away at a thin stick, the heavy smoke enshrouding my heavy head. I smirked. “Such an expenditure of energy, Felix; that’s not like you.”
He laughed. “No, it’s not. But it’s pretty funny, isn’t it, that after all these years I should come again to Albany, and with his ex-wife, at that?”
“Well, you wouldn’t understand. I’ve noticed one thing about you,” he said. “You get expectations about things. And when things don’t live up to your expectations, you feel cheated.”
He was right on target. There wasn’t much I could say, except, maybe, “No foolin’,” milking the South for all it was worth.
“Yeah, luv,” he said. “No fooling.”
We were in Albany, and we bought some peanuts and then asked directions to Sears and I went with him. The garden shop was a broad expanse of concrete wrinkled with potted plants and plastic swimming pools. Everywhere we walked, we passed these pools, brimming with stale water, and pretty soon we started running by them, weaving in and out around the plastic, which was red and blue and yellow, skidding, splashing our hands in the water, sprinkling the concrete with the water, until some clerk stopped us short, but deferentially. Straight people never know, not even you would know, and Felix came on grave as a churchman, and the clerk led him away to the tool department. I found my way back out to the car and let myself in and started to cry. I was crying because I was thinking about how Ezra had divorced me, and I was thinking about the divorce because of Felix, because the book, and the hat, and the blanket that had been a wedding present from my Aunt May, that I’d seen sitting on a shelf in the open closet in Felix’s bedroom, told me, no matter whether it was what Felix wanted me to hear or not, that my husband and his real, fine wife, Susan Alexander, had been living in the farmhouse as early as late last summer, all the time I kept hoping, not without encouragement from him, that he’d come to his senses and see what he was throwing away, me, and I was a fool. When Felix came back to the car, he’d charged about two hundred dollars worth of power equipment, everything he’d “always wanted,” he said, “since I was a boy in Flatbush.” I was still crying, but I had on my sunglasses, and anyway, he was too worked up over his drills and saws to notice. “Hey, Felix,” I said, “give me a kiss before we start.”
His eyes flashed, blue eyes, and he roared at me the way Ezra used to: “Goddamn!” he cried. “Goddamn! Sometimes . . . sometimes you really embarrass me,” he said, “sometimes you just about put me too uptight to take.”
I shivered and clutched at his coat; pulled it closer to my chest.
But I was too hurt not to fight back. I said, “It’s only a kiss. It doesn’t mean anything, and if it doesn’t mean anything, why should you mind?” I struck my knee with my fist. “You lie, Felix, you lie. You’re as loyal as Happy Jack, and you’re bruised all over, or else you wouldn’t work so hard at keeping your distance.”
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think you’re crazy. Ezra said you were sick. Oh, dear lord,” he moaned, “don’t you see, baby, don’t you see everyone walks around with his little bag of shit on his back, and you can’t just walk up to them, without any goddamn preamble, walk up to them without even introducing yourself, like you were God or somebody, and take away what’s theirs? My load is mine.”
It was drizzling, a cold, stupid rain. We drove in silence. When we were beyond the city limits, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned toward me and I gave him the victory sign he’d given to our kid cop. He giggled. “To be sure,” he said.
We were still a far cry from home. I sat on my end of the seat. I was remembering the wedding blanket. Remembering how my husband and I used to lie under it back-to-back, with him reading Saul Bellow and me reading Thomas Hardy and each of us interrupting the other to quote nice sentences. We’d have to turn the temperature down—the blanket was electric—when we made love and then had to turn it up again because he was always as cold as I was. His black hair, wired in an Afro, spiraled above me like some wild flower sprung from hell, an orchid accidental, improbable, violent, intended for the tropics; when we made love, he held himself apart from me, the veins of his arms swollen and thick, gorged, and if I cried out, he never did. But afterward he’d shiver, he was cold, and he was afraid to go to sleep unless I left the light on for him. Oh, yes, I knew he suffered, and I will not have you say he didn’t, or that I didn’t know it, because if I renounce that knowledge, I am no better, no more sensitive, than he is, and I must, I shall, be better. But I was stoned. I said to Felix, “Am I better than your other girls?” Which was a silly mistake, the kind of thing I should have learned not to do long ago. He laughed. “You’re all of you different,” he said, “so how can I compare?”
“You’re such a sweetheart,” I said, and was surprised at how truly tough it sounded.
“Ah, but the loveliest girl of all is Mary Jane.”
Dusk had fallen; had dropped over the dirt road we now entered, the fields, the Berkshires behind us, the garage.
I was depressed. “Felix,” I began, “I’m riding a bummer.”
“Do you want to talk to me about it?”
He was sitting at the kitchen table, puffing away at a pipe, and at once the way he switched, from cigar to cigarette to pipe, lacking any discrimination, bugged me terribly, and I said, “No.”
“Then why did you have to tell me about it in the first place?”
That was only too fair, so I went into the living room and put an old Jefferson Airplane on the stereo and smoked some hash. He had a sewing basket on the bookcase; there was grass in it, and hash, and roaches, and pills, which I have never gotten in to, and a couple of hundred caps, and envelopes of the white horse that he said was pleasant to pet and fondle. The only thing he wasn’t doing was mainlining, and maybe he was doing that. “You’ve got quite a stash here,” I called. There was no answer from the kitchen. He was reading the I Ching, reading with such utter earnestness that I felt sorry for him. I knew the book: Decay augurs sublime success and the advantage of crossing the great river. What has happened once will surely happen again. . . . When darkness falls, the Superior Man goes within and rests peacefully. There was a mattress on the floor of the living room, which I sat on, and when the record was over, I played the flip side. Felix came in.
“Want to see some films?” he asked, shortly.
“From last winter.”
He set about putting up the projection equipment—he had equipment for this and that, for everything—and I kept to my place on the mattress. And then out of the blue he crossed the room and bent over me and kissed me on my ear, a friendly kiss, a light kiss, an uncomplicated kiss, and looked into my eyes and danced away back to the other end of the room, astonishing us both; and in the hush that ensued, I heard the Jefferson Airplane flying high, out of sight, winging at full volume that insufferable, that brilliant, driving, last stanza to “White Rabbit,” which is Alice’s song:
And the white knight is talking backwards.
And the Red Queen’s all in her head. . . .
Remember what the Dormouse said:
Keep your head!
Keep your head!
I forced myself to focus: it was fifteen minutes of filmed water he showed: spring water, sea water, rain water, winter water. Ice floes split and crashed and crumbled; at the shoreline, crystals of ice reflected each other like a hall of mirrors. The sun on the screen sugared the snow, and I felt the chill settling on my legs going numb. In the final shot, snowflakes fell, and I fell with them, falling, falling past the projector’s light that grazed Felix’s face, falling past Felix, spinning, hurtling through space, far past the sun’s edge, far out to the outer reaches of the mind’s eye, where I can see still before me my darkling father at his polished red-gold violin. When he turns to me, there are tears looped along his lashes, and the tendons of his hands blacken in pain. He needs me, he is calling to me, and I will hasten to him. I run, I ran, toward him, and from his mouth there gusted over me a river of lava, and the current of that so brutal heat blasted me back and forth among all the various worlds, ringed and unringed. How I detested my father then, hated him, as he gathered the space around him like leaves of manuscript inadvertently let loose, shutting away his sorrow, confounding me, and abandoned me to this other, deadly, cold, cold void. Oh, yes! Oh, yes! I did cry for myself, and cry for myself today, and I am not ashamed, beloved, because this I knew in the beginning: that if I fail to do the very thing on my own behalf, there exists no one else who can.
I left Felix and went upstairs to sleep. I was cold. I went to the closet and removed the quilt that lay atop the wedding blanket, thinking, He won’t know whether I recognized the blanket and did not care, or did not recognize it at all; he won’t know whether he succeeded. But I was still cold, so I wound myself in the sheets and the quilt and went to sleep with my sweaters on. After a while, he came up too, and I woke up and listened to him shed his clothes. He peeled the quilt and the sheets from my back, and I heaved upward in spite of myself, loathing my flesh for its willfulness, its tyranny; his flesh slicing into mine was wounding me, and when mine closed over his, sealing it in like a throbbing sore, I was feverish. I pitched over, and he was moving in and out, beating on me, inflaming me, the skin of his chest igniting me like a flint, balls of wool from my sweaters sticking like ash to his chest and armpits. I ran my fingers down his spine over the small of his back. His waist was as defined as a girl’s, the fullness of his buns angered me. “Oh, Jesus,” he said, “I like to ball.” He said, “Anything. Man, woman, beast.” I dug my nails in. He laughed. “That’s the spirit,” he said. Sweat dropped from his forehead onto my face and rained on my clouded eyes and after ages we went together into a cadence of twitching, groaning, speeding, skidding past each other, shooting. “Felix, Felix, Felix,” I wept, “I hate you!” He buried his head under my sweaters, his cheek on my breasts, and asked me why. I wanted to say: because of the loneliness you taunt me with. But the words filled up my mouth like feathers and refused to fly free. I pushed him away and reached for the grass sprouting like an oasis by the side of the bed.
“By the way,” his voice followed me, “are you on the pill?”
I began to hit him then, slapped his face forehand and back, pummeled him with my fists, choked and coughed, and I was crying when he caught my wrists and held me still.
“No,” I said.
“I see,” he said.
“What do you see?” I answered, because I was calmer now. “I’m not likely to get pregnant. And if I were to become pregnant, it would not be your business but mine.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“No.” How could relationships be that rigidly defined, when Valerie’s so softly burnished beauty so plainly showed me that I was her keeper. Ezra never knew her.
“Did you want him to knock you up?”
“And he wouldn’t.”
He lit a candle. He held it up to my face and set it down again.
“I said to Ezra, ‘Let’s have a kid,’ and he looked at me as if I were crazy, and said, ‘If we have a kid, you’ll make me wipe its nose, you’ll make me stop in the middle of my work and drive the kid to his piano lesson.’ Would you believe that, Felix? The kid might have turned out tone-deaf, for all we knew. Whenever Ezra got into a car, he crashed. Finally I said I didn’t care, didn’t care so long as I could have him. He said it was too late.”
“He won’t be having any kids with Susan. She’s forty years old.”
“She’s Potiphar’s wife, Felix. Didn’t you know that? He tried to get me to play Potiphar’s wife, but I was too dumb to catch on.”
“If you’d known, would you have done it?”
“Nobody knows. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” he sang. He touched me. “You’re a lot like me,” he said.
I didn’t see how.
“When I got married,” he said, “we had a caterer and a photographer. The whole scene. Did Ezra tell you?”
“Is she married again?”
“I tried and tried, but, yes, she’s married again. She was such a cold damn. . . .”
And the man began to cry. He was out of practice, and his face pinched up and twisted, unaccustomed to that posture, seeming alien and worn in the candle’s unforgiving flame. I held his hand and asked him if he were doing any filming and he said No and asked me if I were writing and I said No. “I think I’ll go to England,” he said, “see what’s happening over there.”
“Do you want to marry again?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he wept, “yes, yes, yes. It terrifies me.”
I circled my arms around his neck. “I think I’m going to be able to convert to Judaism at last,” I told him; “or at least come to some kind of truce with God. I’m working out an agreement.” I was whispering. “Don’t you want to know why?”
“It’s all the same, sweetheart,” he said, but then after a while he said, “Well, I won’t knock it. I don’t know, nirvana makes more sense to me.” He pressed me to him. “Beautiful nirvana.” He giggled. “Nirvana’s all right, a real good lady. She’s got golden hair, magical golden hair, and your Ezra and I spent one night together in Albany, years ago, looking all over town for her. I wonder where she’d gone,” he said, and sighed. It struck me that he was a simple man, much simpler than Ezra, and I was grateful to him for that. He moved over to the opposite edge of the bed and asked me to snuff out the candle. I did. I got under the covers and closed my eyes. I thought it was all over, there would be nothing more.
But he pulled me to him, and said, “Put your arms around me, baby, please.”
What tenderness was in the way he cradled himself in my arms, I cannot tell you, nor how happy I was and privileged. So the wind moved through the trees beyond our window, music in the air, and I rocked him easily to sleep.
The next morning he drove me in to the bus stop. I had asked if Happy Jack could come along with us, and Felix let him, but he had to stay in the car while we stood un-stoned in the clean air. The bus came. “Hey,” said Felix, shuffling his feet and nervously punching my arm. He would drive to Woodstock that afternoon. “I’ll call you sometime. Well, you know, sometime when the wheel rolls around, and it’s time.”
How could I hurt this gentle person? But also, how could I let him hurt me? Calling on that convoluted, wrung humor that my family taught me, that Northerners do not commonly grasp, that serves me from time to time, I said to him, “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” and waited for him to kiss me goodbye.
He didn’t. I got on the bus, and our bus driver, may his soul be blessed for ever, let me off on the Upper West Side without making me go all the way in to Port Authority. I let myself into my apartment. The bed was unmade, my old stories that I’d been justifying myself with were strewn around the room, my tongue was thick, my eyes kept drooping, and I kept seeing, wherever I looked, old Aunt May’s wedding blanket in the closet in Felix’s bedroom. I swallowed some Seconal and lay down, until once more I went to sleep.
Aunt may is my mother’s eldest sister. She was a librarian, wed late in life, and thereafter has largely devoted her life to covered-dish luncheons sponsored by the Presbyterian church. She’s built like the Rock of Gibraltar, and has always looked on our branch of the family with grave mistrust. Her husband, Harold Flagg, made and lost more money in oil and oranges than the rest of us have ever seen, but wound up quite comfortably off; even so, Aunt May with her drawstring mentality was capable of giving my brother, who was then fifteen and very hungry for all the things boys want, a pants hanger for Christmas. Her marriage present to my mother—they despised each other and never forgot their manners—was a meat grinder.
May bore Harold three children. The girl, a kleptomaniac Girl Scout leader, married a Cadwallader from Cocoa; the last I heard from her, she was eager to remove her own daughter to Belgium for a year that she might learn French before the “mimic-center” in her brain closed off at the age of six. The elder boy, Rick, is retarded. May and Harold have set him up with a Seven-Eleven store in Florida; but May, though she is at least seventy by now, has to do all the bookkeeping for him.
Their younger son, Oliver Bob, was my age. The year we lived on a farm outside Richmond, they all came to visit us, and I was humiliated to discover that Oliver Bob played the piano much better than I did. And he had wit even then; I couldn’t help liking him, though I tried. We fashioned a tree house in the woods that veered off from the side of the farm; and we bicycled down the hill. He went on to a small college where he majored in Sacred Music, and then, after twenty-one years, he fled the South. Aunt May and Uncle Harold saw no recourse but to employ detectives; but that’s usual enough. When they located him, he was renting an apartment in New York City, done all in white with white wall-to-wall carpeting, and he wore a diamond ring on the little finger of his left hand.
They cut off his money and brought him home. He went to work with his brother Rick for a while, stowing groceries in brown bags and taking inventory, and then one day during the dog days he sat down in the armchair in his parents’ living room and put a pistol to his temple and blew his brains out. It was Uncle Harold who found him; he picked up the telephone and dialed Aunt May at her church and said, “Mama, I think you might better come on home right now. Babe’s in bad trouble.” When she asked what was wrong, the old man said, “Babe’s in bad trouble, Mama; he won’t talk to me. Come on home now, you hear?” She went home.
So sad an excuse for a woman, my Aunt May, torments me, because, for all her paucity of imagination, for all her ill-disguised resentment toward the world, that eternal Mississippi Protestant, like my mother she grew up with, knew enough to know that when your niece marries a Yankee Jew, the only decent thing to do is to send a wedding present; and she had so help me God somewhere in her stubborn heart the humanity to choose for that present a wool, electric blanket dyed to a muted mustard, the same hot sweet shade of the strip of sand that used to line the coast from Biloxi to on beyond Pass Christian before the hurricane, I think it was Camille, ripped it all to hell last year. It was one beautiful blanket, believe me, far lovelier than ever my husband dreamed or understood, nor was it ever meant for Susan Alexander to lie under. It was never even meant for Felix. Ah, baby, sweet baby, so in your heart are you covenanted to your wife. Like it or not. Whether I love or have loved you or not.
Whether it’s daytime or nighttime.
This fool heater is on the blink again and my fingers are blue. Last week Valerie looked at me, we’d done with tutoring for the night, and said, “I’m leaving, I’m going to a school in Maine.” I wanted to tear the smile from her face and shove it down her throat. Then she smiled again and this time I wasn’t angry. Or mad. Who can dare that effrontery? Even God, spurned by his own loveliest children, set aside for the sake of a mere image, was moved to repent and restore the two tablets of the law that we might live long in the land of our enemies.