‘Creating a better future starts with the ability to envision it,’ was written on the poster in the
admissions office. The picture showed the open ocean at dawn, and with a little imagination it
looked like Buffalo’s downtown marina. If you went up to the lighthouse, Lake Erie seemed just
as vast as the sea.
I had a job sitting in a booth and giving information to visitors and prospective students, who were all eager to imagine their dorm life, the parties, the jobs they would get after graduation. It was already August and I had been offered to stay on as a junior advisor. While my own future still seemed foggy to me, my present had started to take shape. The year before I had finally finished my degree in American Studies with the help of my mother, who had paid my debts so I could enroll again. I had an apartment, an old car, and a counselor. I was twenty-eight.
Our office had no windows, but during lunch break, I sat on the blue or brown chairs of the
cafeteria and stared out the window where the students were walking by and talked to each other about the classes they were taking. They were guys from the Bulls team, who had to make up for missed or failed classes, and girls with the tiniest tops and pierced belly buttons. They knew they had a place in life nobody could take away from them, because their parents were proud of them or even not so proud, but they all knew that college was their time. They discovered sex and lots of sex and they giggled as they told their friends who they had been making out with last night and everyone’s mouth had whipped cream smeared all over from eating this huge college cake that was their life.
Maybe it was the poster that reminded me of Grandma. When my grandparents were still alive, Grandma often told fairy-tales to me she had learned in her childhood in Europe, but none as frequent as “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs.” After my grandfather’s death, she moved into our house in Kenmore. Many nights she would pack a bag and beg my father in her old language to take her away, to leave the house behind and escape. We wouldn’t survive until we kept moving.
When Grandmother was a young woman in East Prussia and heard the rumors of the Russian army advancing, she packed all her things and took her two kids and left the village where her family had lived for five generations, and – her husband shot dead in the early years of the war – she didn’t stop until she reached the ocean.
Even in the New World, she never lost the feeling that she had to escape, and when she grew old, my parents often left the house at night to search for her, who was meandering among the houses in North Buffalo. In later years, grandmother managed to go downtown. Maybe she took the bus, maybe someone felt that she was lost and gave her a ride. The police found her in LaSalle Park, opposite of the Lighthouse. When the police found her, they didn’t understand what she was asking them. By then, she had unlearned English, which she had been able to speak fluently, and I often laughed at her dark-sounding sentences. She would keep telling me fairy-tales in her language, and I understood them, because I had listened to them so often.
Mike, my counselor, had a basement office with lots of pillows and strange items such as Whiffle ball bats, stuffed bears and Barbie dolls, boxing gloves and tennis rackets. Every Tuesday and Thursday I came to see him. He worked at the community center, which I had visited two years before to do a variety of tests, from Myers-Briggs to aptitude ones. I was living hand to mouth, had lost my apartment and my job as a gas station attendant. The social workers had suggested counseling to “sort things out,” and the center was paying most of the charges. At first I had no idea what counseling was to do for me. I knew my life was a mess, but I’d always felt that I was able to manage, that my failures in jobs and in college were only due to not finding the right thing. But I liked the idea of having a person to talk to. Usually I was talked to; it always seemed that I was listening to others without adding anything to the conversation. But Mike was paid to listen to me. I liked the fact that he received money for this. If listening to me bothered or bored him, at least I wasn’t wasting his time.
Mike had curly dark hair, which was thinning in the front and back. He was short, a bit pudgy, and wore a smile that I often wanted to take off his face. It was a Garfield smile, coming from behind gold-rimmed glasses, the smile of a fat, self-satisfied cat who has a solution or a smart answer to everything. Mike sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, and I heard the minutes ticking away. He sat quietly, contemplating the next meal or his evening and I was supposed to do the talking. I had lots to talk about, years of a post-adolescent period with days measured in beer, pot, TV and dead-end jobs, divorced parents, and money problems, but when I got into those topics he interrupted me.
“What are you so afraid off?”
“What do you mean?”
“What are you so afraid off?”
“I’m not, well, I’m afraid I’ll have no job…”
And then my speech failed me, and it felt as if I were going far away. He let me sit like that for a while, then asked what was happening.
The truth was that the better I was doing on the outside, the more depressed I felt. It felt as if the relative security I had gained over the last year invited schools of piranhas into my thoughts. Disaffected, my mother said, I had been, spending time observing rather than connecting, but if I was more connected now, I also felt weakened and anxious.
“Do you know “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs?”
He didn’t laugh as I had feared, didn’t even flinch. “No,” he said.
“I’m not sure it has anything to do with anything, but somehow it does. I just don’t know how.” And then I told him the fairy-tale of the young boy who, in order to marry the King’s only daughter, goes to hell to steal the devil’s three golden hairs. On his way, a ferryman asks the young hero why he has to row to and fro without ever being released.
The young man finds his way to hell, and the Devil’s grandmother takes a liking to the beautiful boy and promises to help him. When the Devil comes home at night, she pulls out his hairs in his sleep. The devil, getting angry at her, is calmed by her assurance that she only pulled his hair because she is having nightmares. And she asks the devil what the young man has told her about the ferryman. The devil answers her, and the young man, hidden under a bench, listens carefully.
So when the young man returns to the ferryboat, he tells the man to put the oars into the hands of the next client, and he’ll be free.
The ferryman thanks the young man, and it is the King who, after angrily agreeing to the
marriage, and thinking of how to secretly get rid of his daughter’s bridegroom, comes to the ferryman and asks to be set over the river. The ferryman puts the oars into the King’s hands, jumps onto the shore and runs away.
“Why are you telling me this?” Mike asked, but not in a nasty way. He asked it matter-of-factly, he wanted to know.
“The fairy-tale isn’t about the ferryman, but he is the last character shown in the tale, and
somehow he seems more haunted, more important than anybody else. The King is punished for his vanity, the young man marries the princess and lives happily ever after, but what becomes of the ferryman?”
“What do you think?”
The question had bothered me as a seven-year old and it bothered me again. I had never been more than a few weeks away from Buffalo, and even though I could not imagine my future in this city, I also couldn’t leave. Where had the ferryman gone? When had he gone far enough to feel that he would never have to go back to the ferryboat? When did he feel safe? How had the ferryman managed to leave the only place he’d ever known?
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I had a dream about my father,” I finally said. I threw that sentence at him the way you throw a stick for a dog to fetch. I’d had the dream every other night, and sometimes would wake up trying to scream. I was naked and my father about to rape me. He was smiling, there was no aggression visible on his face, only smiling lust. But I was afraid of telling Mike about it. I wasn’t in the mood for crying or going into my problems. At the same time I didn’t want to steal his time. I got those sessions for next-to-nothing and I felt guilty whenever I wasn’t really using them.
“What kind of dream?”
“He fucked me.” I had woken up that morning with a scream blocking my throat.
“How did he do that?”
“I’m not going to tell you.” He fell silent, sat quiet across from me until I said, “He held my legs apart, as if I were a woman, and whispered something nice.” I didn’t stop, just blurted
everything out. When I was done I felt ridiculous and humiliated.
Mike came over to where I sat. He spread my legs and smiled and rubbed his crotch against my ass. We had an agreement that I could scream and shout and tell him to go to hell, but unless I said ‘stop’ he would continue with his role-plays. When he started to moan softly and I saw his big grin, I wanted to tell him to fuck off, to leave me be, but I couldn’t. He played out my dream and had his way with me and I couldn’t say a word.
Sunday evenings I spent watching the X-files with my mother. She had lost weight in the years after the divorce. Her jaw jutted out, the skin wound tight over her cheekbones and forehead. Her already fine hair had thinned, and she looked windswept at all times.
She had stayed in the family home in Kenmore and replaced the minivan with a Honda Prelude. Her coats had grown shorter and shorter, and she wore dresses again. While my father had married again in ’96 – I could not think of him other than as a husband being cooked and cared for – my mother was in her third relationship with a married man.
“Convenient,” she once had said, laughing. “You don’t have to drag them around to everything.”
Most Sundays, Mom ordered pizza and we ate and watched TV. She asked about my work, I asked about her job as a real estate agent, and by eleven, we had nothing left to tell one another. I slept either in my old room, which she used for painting, or drove back to my apartment on Lexington. Rarely she gave me a hug. Then her hands grabbed me, and since she was a small woman, I had a hard time avoiding her body coming too close to mine. She sighed repeatedly and she held me until the silence between us grew awkward.
“Have you heard of your father?” she asked one night just as Moulder was wading through chicken slime in a food factory.
“No-o,” I said.
“Does he not call?”
“No, that’s not it.”
“So what is it?”
“I’m just never home.”
“Huh,” she said, looking at her next bite of pizza with disgusted eyes. “Is he ever writing you?”
The past year I had not returned any of my dad’s calls, had not answered his two letters, not even opened them. “He lives in East Aurora.”
“He could drive over,” I said.
“I guess.” She sounded pleased with my answers.
I felt loyal to my mother in Kenmore, her fake late-Victorian townhouse, but I admired my father secretly for leaving her. Or rather, I was glad for him. Mom had chosen Dad back in ’69, I was sure, not the other way round. Yet the moment he gave in to her, she assumed she could have done better, for which goal we achieve is worth our efforts?
Dad had struggled for twenty-two years, although he’d been no victim. He’d been happy to be rejected by his wife, to take a lover, to be greeted back – since Mom only acknowledged his worth if proven by successful affairs – and to be rejected again out of jealousy and contempt. It had almost been a perpetuum mobile, a self-powered machine. Only when the fights became violent – I remembered Mom with a screwdriver in her hand and hurling a crystal vase at Dad – had this engine broken down.
“How’s your stepmom?” Mom’s voice had grown squeaky and energetic over the years. I couldn’t remember if her voice had ever been fuller, or if she had never spoken loudly enough as a housewife to bring out the squeaks.
“Okay. I haven’t seen them in a long time.
“Will you tell me why?”
For the rest of the evening she pouted, keeping quiet or answering my questions with one-liners. I had always felt strangely older than my parents, more mature even as a teen. Of course they had more money, better homes and cars, but Mom, angry I didn’t use her as a confidante, reminded me of a small kid who doesn’t get to stay up late.
That night, when I left, she stood by the entrance in black pants and a black velvet jacket with golden borders, closing the door, against her custom, before I had gotten into my car.
Mike said it couldn’t hurt to visit my father. I had asked him if it would help clear up what those dreams were about, but he wouldn’t say. “It can’t hurt,” was all he told me.
My Dad was not an imposing man, but had luck with women. At least that’s what he wanted me to believe. When he divorced Mom, he got married again right away. My stepmother, Nancy, was Mom’s age, but smaller. She wore a lot of make-up and dark suits; she was the principal of an elementary school in East Aurora. Her auburn hair she combed every five minutes, as if she had to straighten it out in order to hide a bald spot, though she wasn’t balding.
My father was an insurance agent, but one who’d made it. He never had to go to his office anymore, but had hired a manager. He traveled to insurance meetings of the New York State chapter and worked out of his home. He had taken up hunting, yet I had a hard time imagining him with a gun and clad in orange garb – there had never been a gun in our house in Kenmore. Dad had also taken up golf, which was easier to understand, yet equally loathsome in my mind.
He had sounded excited on the phone when I told him I would come to visit. “How do you get here?” he asked.
“I have a car.”
“An ’86 Horizon.”
“That’s not so good.”
“I guess.” It might seem strange, but I loved the car and was disappointed by his reaction.
“Will it make the trip?”
“It’s only an hour.”
“Alright. Sorry. We’re looking forward to you coming.”
I never liked arriving, not anywhere. I love going on trips, but even as a kid I wanted to keep on driving, even beyond our destination. The car was a safe haven for our lives, the confines of the Chevrolets and later the Lincolns seemed to turn us invulnerable. They turned us into a family. Once we arrived, we’d be scattered, left to different duties, pleasures and responsibilities.
When I got out of the car in my father’s driveway, I tried to shake off the disappointment. My dad’s house, the one he’d bought after the divorce, was part of an aging subdivision that now, after ten or fifteen years, was loosing the stark looks of new developments. The trees had grown respectable, and the lawns, though still ten notches above Buffalo average, had lost their pedantic hue.
The house was big, but none of the monsters that were going up around Buffalo that year. It tried to look ‘solid brick’ or ‘English country house.’ I didn’t even know if country houses looked like this in England, but the goal of the architects had been clearly to make people forget that they lived in a subdivision in upstate New York.
Dad appeared in the entrance in dark leather slippers, his graying hair cropped short, his eyes behind the glasses beaming. He was almost a foot shorter than me, but held himself erect and was proud of his good looks. He took short steps toward me, like a woman who has difficulty walking in a tight, long skirt. He put his arms around me and pressed his head to my chest, hugged me closer and then reached for my face to plant a kiss on my cheek.
That’s how he was. He’d always done these elaborate greetings. All my friends in high school, especially the female ones, were hugged and kissed. European style, he told me when I said that other parents didn’t make such a fuss. His mother, who lived with us until her death when I was a sophomore, had come from Germany to America. Dad was four at that time, and she refused to speak German with him. She wanted him to grow up American, and he couldn’t remember any of the words of his childhood.
“Come in,” he said and put his arm under mine, leading me past the three-car garage to the kitchen door. He was wearing a three-piece suit.
Nancy was cooking in high heels and flower-patterned stockings, which looked strange on a women of fifty-two cooking in her own kitchen.
“Hi Don.” She smiled and came over to hug me too. “Dinner is almost ready.” She blushed as if she had said something inappropriate.
“Sit down,” Dad said. “Can I take your jacket?”
“I’m fine,” I said. We’d always sat in the kitchen, it seemed, when I was a kid. The living room had been something to show to guests or to watch television in, but no place to talk. Whenever there was family business to take care of – planning of a trip, discussing my grades, discussing my girlfriends’ virtues or lack thereof – we sat around the kitchen table, sauces and mashed potatoes drying on our plates.
“What are you guys dressed up for?” I asked.
“We have to go to a dinner at the Ferroa Club – business,” my dad said, a frown hiding his pleasure at feeling important.
“But we wanted to have dinner with you first,” Nancy added. When she was done cooking, she took off her embroidered apron. She wore a purple blouse, and you could see her black bra shining through just so, and I blushed. For the rest of our dinner, roast beef and beans and herb potatoes, whenever she addressed me, I kept my gaze on her eyes and mouth.
Before they left, Nancy led me upstairs. “I’ve prepared our guest room for you. Have a look. Where’s your bag?” Her fingers combed her hair, her high-heeled feet swayed helplessly on the thick carpet.
“I’ve got some things in the car. I’ll get them later,” I said, having only a brown bag from Wegman’s with another shirt and socks in the passenger seat.
“Here it is.” She stopped in the door frame, stretching out her arm in a proud gesture. “We’re so glad you’ve come,” she said.
Two chocolates sat diligently on my pillow, and the small room smelled fresh and crisp, as if bed, closet, desk and lamps had been perfumed. “Feel at home,” Nancy said. “We’ll talk tomorrow.” She kissed my cheek goodbye, then held her own up to me. She did it gingerly, like a woman who knows that her make-up will have to last an entire evening.
I always liked when people didn’t go out of their way to please me, and she was glad I had come, but didn’t expect me to make her day. She’d never had kids of her own, and it showed. I was a guest, not a child. I thought her cheek was beautiful.
Belle mère. Did the French like stepmothers better than Americans did theirs? From the fairy tales I remembered listening to as a child, stepmothers were evil, harassing children and getting rid of them. Cinderella was a first wife’s child and was treated with scorn and jealousy. Snow White was assaulted and nearly killed by her witch stepmother. Yet belle mère? Did the French realize that stepmothers were younger and more beautiful? Or did they know that mothers were taboo for fantasizing adolescents, stepmothers however not?
Belle mère. Nancy looked vaguely similar to Mom, short, not slim, yet the sharp lines that sometimes gave my mother a tortured look were missing. Nancy’s eyes were gentle, quick as a squirrel’s, and her slightly rounded shoulders and few extra pounds she wore lightly. They exuded a sexy comfortableness, not the burden of accumulated age. She was spreading, not fading.
When Nancy and my dad were gone, I watched television at first, making sure they didn’t come back to pick up a forgotten gift or pillbox. Then I went through the whole house and stood a long time in their bedroom. It had a king-size bed, with a mattress and box spring so high, it seemed uncomfortable to get in and out of the bed.
There was a vanity, and the closet doors were all mirrors. The carpet was a brownish pink, and vanity and bed were of auburn wood. The room smelled stuffy the way a furniture store smells; no body smells lingered, only the faint odor of my father’s aftershave.
I went to his office in the basement, and I spent some minutes in what seemed to be Nancy’s room. The sparse furniture was made of blonde wood, and the giant desk was filled with books on pedagogy and accounting.
Whenever I came to a family’s house, I got excited. I still felt that way in our old house in Kenmore, and at friends’ homes, and I felt my skin prickle there in the empty house. Stories I’d read as an adolescent in borrowed and dog-eared books seemed to materialize. Stories of tender cousins and lonely aunts, of boys turned into men by longing widows and understanding housewives. Only I didn’t want to be reminded of them in East Aurora. The excitement opened you and also made you helpless. Pot can do that to you, and when you’re with the wrong people, it freaks you out.
Yet against better judgment I searched the bookshelves in the living room and found two old acquaintances, two small volumes entitled Orchid Nights, and More Orchid Nights. I read them again, all of the stories, which hadn’t left me since I was thirteen and looking for a Playboy calendar I knew my father had been given by a business associate. It was distressing how little my fantasies had been altered by girlfriends and affairs, and how strangely intact and satisfying the world of the fantastic encounters of the Orchid Nights still seemed.
Later, I got my bag from the car, then showered. I watched the Mets lose to the Braves, ate some cold roast beef and went to bed.
I was still lying awake on the unfamiliar, too soft mattress when my dad’s Lincoln pulled into the driveway.
Moments later I heard it knock gently on my door and he came in.
“Are you sleeping?” he asked.
“Almost,” I said and switched on the little lamp on the nightstand, pushing the two books under the bed, but not quickly enough for my Dad not to notice.
“What are you reading?” He sat down on the edge of the bed and fished for the books. “I like those too.” He smiled as he leafed through Orchid Nights. “The one with the schoolteacher is my favorite. “Emily” it’s called.
Where the boy does it with his new teacher, in the summer. Yeah, I like that one.”
I didn’t say anything, hoping he would leave. The stories were mine, stolen many years ago for secret pleasures, and they belonged to the flushed-cheeks boy who filled the empty space on the shelf with Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t want to hear my dad’s opinion on sex, didn’t want to think that he was thinking of boys and schoolteachers while sleeping next to Nancy.
“When you were little,” he said, “and we would come home late, we’d always go to your room, you mom and I. Sometimes you didn’t wake up, but you would smile at our voices with your eyes closed and answer our good-nights in your sleep.”
I looked at my father, who put the books on the nightstand. His hand came to lie on my chest. “Good night.” He pursed his lips in a blown kiss. “See you in the morning.”
“So, what are your plans for today?” Dad asked at the breakfast table. There had never been a morning in my childhood that started past eight o’clock, and neither had this one. He had knocked on my door and shouted boisterously that the breakfast was ready.
My father’s question meant he didn’t figure in whatever plans I had made. Mornings he kept like a checkbook to himself, and only in the afternoon was he ever able to dispense some of his time.
Nancy had cooked eggs and bacon and made waffles, and she looked tired and sweet in a black satin robe.
Her brown legs were bare, her feet stuck in black plush slippers.
“You want to help me with the groceries?” she asked.
“If you two are leaving, I’ll put in some time in my den,” my father said, satisfied at how easy he had escaped.
In the car, a new Toyota Camry, Nancy asked if I would mind going to the mall with her. “Would that be boring for you?”
“Which one?” I asked.
“The Galleria. In Buffalo.”
“It’s a long drive.”
“Do you mind?”
It was a strange ride. Buffalo was my city, yet in Nancy’s car, I felt like a visitor, a tourist. Nancy’s perfume was something light, yet spicy, and it lent the Toyota a luxurious ambiance. For the first time in years, I saw the city through someone else’s eyes, and I immediately wished it were nicer. Whatever I was missing in my life, status, good moods, charms, Buffalo didn’t have either. And although both of us were hoping to get out of where we were stuck, we didn’t accuse each other of not having reached our goals yet. Yet now I was glad that we didn’t stop downtown, didn’t have a closer look at the crumpling or boarded-up buildings. I was glad we went to the mall and its expensive copper light.
“I need some comfortable shoes,” Nancy said. “Sensible ones. And a coat for the fall. My old one looks shabby and your dad doesn’t like when I look shabby. I won’t take a long time.”
Nancy’s figure displayed a laziness that comes with age and desk jobs and responsibilities. They wear at your flesh, soften it. Yet her position as a principal caught her soft body like a safety net. Nancy looked assured and fond of herself.
“What do you think of those?” she asked, putting a mauve-stockinged foot into a brown patent leather shoe. Her feet looked tired, like pudgy kids, angry and pouting.
“Should I get them in black?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think?”
“Brown, black – why don’t you try the red ones there, maybe?”
Nancy really went to the rack I pointed to and asked the clerk to bring a pair her size.
“You like them?” She wiggled her foot for me to see.
“Sure. How are they?” I was embarrassed that she wanted my opinion. I’d never advised anyone on their clothes, and Nancy was my father’s wife.
“I’ll take them.”
We left the store, and she took my arm as if I were dear to her and she proud to be seen with me. We went to Banana Republic and she insisted on buying me a beige sweater that was real soft. “You look so nice in it,” she said.
“I don’t know. I don’t wear turtlenecks, not really.”
“You don’t like them?”
“No, it’s just…”
“I like you in it. You chose my shoes, and I’ll choose a sweater.” In that moment she looked old, a bit more like Mom, and I couldn’t help but feel like a kid, and for a moment I wished I hadn’t come. She also bought boots for me, yellow ones, which she insisted everyone had these days, and when we sat down for lunch at the Pizzeria Uno, I had lost my appetite.
She ordered wine, and in the green, red and brown darkness of our booth, her eyes sparkled. She had small hands, nicely padded hands and fingers, and her nails were done in dark red. She told me about her work, the children’s sicknesses, angry parents and the East Aurora mafia, who let no one from outside town use their parks and golf courses. Our pizza came, and Nancy drank more wine. Her cheeks flushed and she took off her thin cardigan and was wearing a sleeveless shirt. I saw where her bra cut into her flesh and stared at her bare arms.
“It’s nice to have you with us,” she said.
“Umh,” I mumbled.
“We’re old enough to get around this stepmother-stepson thing, aren’t we? It’s nice to see Helmut’s son.”
We had met at the wedding of course, and two or three other times, but never alone.
“Are you seeing someone?” she asked. “You should bring her over. Helmut was very upset when you hung up on him and didn’t answer his letters.”
“I’m not seeing anyone.”
“We don’t have to talk about that.”
“Did he send you to the mall with me?”
“No, that was my idea.”
“The pizza is pretty bad.”
“Do you want to go somewhere else?”
“You mean, not eat this?” I pointed to my plate.
I laughed. I wouldn’t have had the money to pay for wine and pizza, and now she suggested dumping our food and pay again somewhere else. “Okay,” I said.
She paid and walked ahead of me out of the restaurant. Without touching me, she went to the car, and I got in next to her.
“So, where do you want us to go?”
I laughed again. This freedom shocked me, and I couldn’t come up with anything. I knew places like the Great Wall, Pano’s, and Mykonos, but I couldn’t imagine Nancy in those places.
“You like hot-dogs?” I asked.
“At LaSalle Park, there’s a Ted’s. Near the Peace Bridge.”
Nancy put the car in gear – it wasn’t an automatic – and she turned onto the 33 and drove downtown. Maybe it was the wine, maybe the fact that I started to feel more comfortable next to her, but Buffalo didn’t look as shabby as it had on our arrival. It was still the same decrepit steel-town, yet sitting in the Camry, I saw the Peace Bridge and the run-down Westside through more benign eyes.
Seagulls greeted us in front of Ted’s. The benches outside were spotted white and black, and the air smelled of garbage, late summer warmth, and echoed with the birds’ angry voices. In the stark dining-room, I poured vinegar over Nancy’s fries, and she said she liked it.
“This is fun,” she said. “I’ve never been here.”
“Why didn’t you call? Were you angry at him for marrying me?”
It would have been convenient for me to say yes, see her face cloud and lighten up again, to turn this into a pancake of a movie-scene, warm and fluffy. Yet I shook my head.
How can you tell your father’s wife that you’re having a dream about him, a dream in which he rapes you, and that you hate the way he touches you? She likes to be touched by him, lives with him every day, and you don’t even know whether your dream is memory or a mirage.
What I did remember was my mother sleeping naked and myself crawling into bed every morning after Dad had left for work. I remembered weekend mornings when they were both naked and laughing at my curiosity. That is what I remember: my mother laughing at my small hands that seek out her dark nipples, my father watching and laughing too. My mother lifting me over her belly with its soft skin and deep navel over to my father, who received me and stuffed me under the covers next to him. I remember having to massage his back and legs, and his obvious pleasure, his groans and moans, his hairiness. I hated having to touch him so I could stay with them in bed.
Back in the car, Nancy looked at me concerned because I hadn’t answered her question and maybe because I looked older now and like the bust that I was. I gazed at her mauve legs, and her auburn hair might as well have been dyed. I looked into her brown, quick eyes which seemed to understand, if only because I wanted them to.
I put my head in her lap, and she put her fingers in my hair and was quiet. God, she was quiet and didn’t move, held me without a word, held still as long as I had my head next to her small belly, until I grew self-conscious and sat back up. “Thanks,” I said.
My father sat at a desk at the far end of the living room, college football muted on the screen.
“I thought you had gone off into the sunset and left me.” He laughed and embraced me like I’d seen coaches embrace their prize-fighters after a victory. We had a whiskey, the manly afternoon drink, and I told him about the fairy-tale I remembered from my childhood. By that time I was asking myself why I had come and how I had ever expected to find out if my dreams were just that, dreams, or if they were memories. I wanted to talk about the past and didn’t know how to bring it up.
“Do you know “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs?”
“Where did you and Nancy go?”
“What is it? A story?”
“A fairy-tale. Grimms’ tales.”
“Why? Was it fun to go shopping? Nancy is a great shopper.”
“Dad. The tale. Grandma read it to me.”
He looked at me, he suppressed a laugh, waited for me to say more, to explain myself.
“She told it again and again.”
He didn’t remember the fairy-tale, but he wanted to understand, although he didn’t. We heard Nancy’s busy feet in the kitchen. She was baking Pillsbury cookies we had picked up on our way home.
“We’re – don’t take offense – we’re worried about you. No, no, please, we know you can fend for yourself, but not hearing from you was hard.” He came over to where I sat in a green overstuffed armchair and put a hand on my arm, a hand that looked like mine with its long fingers and slightly crooked nails.
“I don’t like the way you touch me,” I said.
He stepped back, his face drawn, shocked. He was hurt, but didn’t attack. He sat back down and stared at the carpet in front of him.
“The fairy-tale,” he said, cautiously, as if he expected me to jump him.
“It’s about a boy born in a lucky skin, and to marry the King’s daughter, he has to go to hell and get the Devil’s three golden hairs.”
“I’m not sure we have that book.”
I groaned, feeling more and more stupid with every word I said. How could I talk about fairy-tales no one in my family remembered anyway?
“Is that the reason?”
“The reason for what?” I asked.
“I talked with Nancy about you. Often. She really likes you.”
He sighed. “We’re just old and worry about you.”
“The reason for what?” I shouted.
“You have to…I mean everyone needs a job, a place to live…”
“I want to understand, but…what is this story about?”
“You freak me out,” I said. “You give me the creeps.” And then I became too afraid of what he might have to say or what he would ask and that in the end I would be laughed at again, and I ran up the stairs, got my things and rushed to the entrance.
He stood there, small, a slight man with graying, impeccably cut hair, trim, wealthy and hurt.
“I don’t comprehend. What did I do?” he asked. Nancy stood in the kitchen door looking at me, my stepmother the principal, looking out into the school corridor with professionally concerned eyes.
I needed my silent exit, I felt I needed my stoic silence to be able to walk to my car, but on my way home to Buffalo, I knew that I was left with an empty feeling, that of a fighter who didn’t try. I had everything going for me, but how can a child talk to his daddy when the child is twenty-eight and the father fifty-four and no one remembers? It was this: I couldn’t talk to someone who did not exist anymore. The six-year old did not exist and the thirty-five year old was gone. He didn’t know what tale I was talking about, for him it had never existed.
I had been afraid to stay one moment longer in my father’s house, for if I had uttered one more word in my dad’s presence, I would have believed in his ignorance, believed that what had been important to me only existed in my crooked mind.
“It didn’t work,” I said to Mike and told him about the weekend.
“What didn’t work?” he asked.
“It. The weekend. I couldn’t speak. I’m talking about kid’s tales and ferrymen and my dad thinks I’m nuts. I couldn’t say another word. I didn’t have a voice.”
Mike went to a corner of the room, picked up two pairs of boxing gloves from behind a few Raggedy Ann dolls, and threw one of them at me. He carefully took of his gold-rimmed glasses. Without them, his eyes looked big and helpless. Mike looked like a mole, pudgy, furry and soft and blind.
I punched him, he punched back. I hit him, he hit me back. I got angry; I was taller than him and threw punches that I thought should make him wince, but he punched me, and it was me who cringed. He seemed to enjoy this, his smile was carved into his face. He hit me harder until I stood against one wall, only blocking his punches. My voice was a squeak when I said, “Leave me alone.” I thought of the ferryman when he put the oars into the greedy king’s hands. What had he said? What had broken the spell?
Mike stopped and looked at me intently. Then he asked, “Who said that?”
Stefan Kiesbye is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl (Low Fidelity Press, 2005). His stories have appeared/are forthcoming in Hobart, The Stickman Review, Pindeldyboz, and Stumbling and Raging, an anthology edited by Stephen Elliott. He lives with his wife Sanaz in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.skiesbye.com