We called him Pop because he hated the word dad—or so said my mother. I never thought to ask him why he hated the word dad. It seemed pretty obvious given that he never wanted to pick up the tab for one kid let alone three. Another reason I never asked him “Why?” was because he never responded to a direct question or even looked you in the eye. When you played your hand well, he’d say you had a “good eye,” but the only eye he knew was a poker eye. Or maybe he was more like a lizard that looked out from both sides of its head and saw two different worlds. In one eye Pop saw his life reflected in the rear-view mirror; in the other he saw our lives. But the two views never came together in one integrated pattern.
People in town said that Pop was nicely groomed and well-liked when young, but I only knew him as a usually drunk and derelict-looking gambler who failed to get us a house much less anything else (food, for instance). We called the rundown apartment where we lived with him above his mother “The Apartment,” as if the world had only one. That summer we finally moved out of there and into a rented house across town was the most significant event of my uneventful young life. That Pop chose to stay behind with his mean old mother was probably because she still had the money to get him out of financial scrapes. He hadn’t completely drained her dry.
Even though Pop’s favorite pastime was what my mother called “running around,” he never ran off. We could never figure that one out. Nor could we figure out why my mother was terrified of taking any action to get us out of her terrible marriage. It wasn’t like Pop would ever physically hurt anyone. That would require some degree of engagement with our world. If my mother divorced him, he would have done nothing, including give anyone any money. But my mother converted to Catholicism when she married Pop, and when he turned out to be a terrible husband, Catholicism was all she had. She grew up so poor that she couldn’t say the word “Christmas” without crying. When her twin brother was killed in a construction site accident at eighteen, her family couldn’t afford a cemetery plot so they buried him on property owned by his girlfriend’s family. When that family’s German shepherd died, they buried the dog next to my uncle, and eventually it became a pet cemetery.
There was an unspoken assumption among my mother, my sister, my brother, and me that you moved through life as though you weren’t poor. That was hard to do without money; it meant making up the rules as you went along. But despite her sad life, my mother managed to make her three kids believe that we had a high bar when it came to respectability. She was the adult, but the three of us all assumed that we were already smarter, and collectively more so. Maybe it wasn’t being smarter, but we didn’t have that baggage of living through those really bad times from her past.
That summer we finally moved coincided with the start of Pop’s downfall at The Company. That he never got fired was a great mystery. He had worked in a shirt and tie in the division that sold television tubes in Asia, but he did some crazy things in the office so they sent him for two weeks of psychiatric evaluation at a hospital in the next city. After that they assigned him to the four-to-midnight shift at the Pressware factory. We had no idea what he did there, and we never learned the results of his psychiatric evaluation. All I know is that he got my mother to lie to the doctor about his behavior (drinking, gambling, etc.) because he said that if he lost his job we’d all be locked up.
The one good thing about Pop working the four-to-midnight shift was that he sometimes let us use his car—a junky red Pinto—while he was at work. Never once did we address the fact that we called it Pop’s car and not ours. But it was definitely his. My mother loved to finally get out from work and have a car waiting for her. My sixteen-year-old sister would take the wheel after we dropped Pop off at four and pick my mother up at 4:30. We really didn’t have anywhere to go in the Pinto beyond the disappointment of the grocery store, but the four of us nevertheless drove around together, which I admit was strange. We’d often wind up at the pet cemetery on the hill where my mother’s twin brother was buried; less frequently (and for lack of funds) it was Ramblers Rest for soft ice cream and the putt-putt golf course (just to watch) near the county airport. We’d swing by the one shopping mall and various discount stores where we never had the money to buy anything save for cartons of malted milk balls and (once a year) poor-quality four-player badminton sets.
That summer of the move and the start of Pop’s downfall was also the summer that Lee and her three best friends were discovered by popular boys at the other high school. Their high school—the one I was soon to attend—was ruled by country-club membership. Country-club membership was like Nasdaq or the Dow in our company town. It was hard to be popular outside this demographic: 26 percent were country club and the remaining 74 percent were middling-to-trash. Not all of the 26 percent were necessarily popular, but you definitely couldn’t be part of the 74 percent and be officially popular without special dispensation. You’d think that because many people were trash, certain aspects of being trash would generate some kind of value. But this was tyranny of the minority. The other high school was much more democratic (and the boys much cuter), but there was no middle ground at my sister’s school.
That Lee and her friends should be discovered only stood to reason given that they were pretty. All three friends were Italian and had two names—Mary Kay, Mary Jo, Mary Beth. Mary Kay lived with her mother in the town’s divorcee apartment complex that looked like a non-chain kind of beach motel. My sister and the Marys spent the summer sunbathing by the apartment complex pool. According to Lee, they had the run of the place during the day save for “a few horny phone guys who look like Joe Cocker.” Lee and the Marys would douse themselves with Coppertone coconut suntan oil via a squirt bottle for misting plants and make blender drinks using Mary Kay’s mother’s booze. Mai-tais and margaritas and a joint or two, cigarette laughs followed by short fits of coughing—that was the Marys. Their bikinis alone—the leopard prints, the phosphorescent Hawaiian colors, the large plastic rings and gold buckles—provided a major fear factor for someone like me. They were always looking for an excuse to bend over around the pool so that the boobs barely contained in their bikini halters would swing like cooking pots on a wagon train.
Midway through August that summer of so much change, my various desires reached critical mass in the form of a haircut from Good Head in Johnson City. Layers were the specialty of a guy named Jay, who would cut and blow-dry your hair for twenty-two dollars. He’d already worked his magic on Lee—the understood reason for her date with the captain of the lacrosse team at the other high school. Lee had money that summer because she got a job working at the front desk of the YMCA when she wasn’t sunbathing with the Marys. Randy had money, too—always off cutting someone’s grass with a mower he paid ten dollars for at a police auction.
Ever the mediator, Lee volunteered to cut my hair in layers, the way that Jay had cut hers. Foolishly I agreed, and the outcome was disastrous—chopped off cleanly in different lengths, bangs maliciously short. She had a laughing fit after I screamed in the bathroom mirror and starting bawling. When Randy suggested that I go into hiding for the two weeks before school started, Lee exclaimed, “She’s in hiding already!” That really hurt.
“You can always wear a wig like Mrs. Carpenter,” she added, to make me laugh. But that hurt as well.
Mrs. Carpenter was the substitute cultural arts teacher who worked the area’s parochial schools. She was a childless window in her fifties who wore a wig in a shag hairstyle and would run her orange lipstick right over a cold sore whenever she had one (which was often). She drove from school to school in her black Camaro, showing up once in a while to teach us French, once in a while to talk about “Masterpieces of World Art.” It was said that before hitting our company town she taught drama for many years at a high school near Buffalo—a rumor I took to be true given that her car had a bumper sticker that said “Life? or Theatre?”
“What was it she was always saying in French?” Lee asked.
“Faites attention!” I yelled through snot and tears.
“Oh, Christ,” she shouted, “you already are Mrs. Carpenter!”
“I thought you watched Phil Donahue,” I said, trying to blow my nose with a paper towel. “I thought you knew how to make people feel better.”
She tried to amuse me with television comedy bits—the spastic way that Burt from Soap would snap his fingers and cross his arms and think he was invisible, or the way that Carol Burnett walked across the room when she was playing Mrs. Wiggins. She finally serenaded me like I was Charlie Haggers and she Loretta Haggers from Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!
By the time I gave up feeling sorry for myself, Lee had made me an appointment with Jay and lined up Mary Kay to drive us to Johnson City in her mother’s boyfriend’s car. Lee would bankroll the excursion—twenty-two dollars of her hard-earned YMCA money on account of my head. “And know what, Farrah? You can hang with me and the Marys at Ramblers Rest tonight. You can have a cigarette.”
Here, finally, was the invitation I’d wanted all summer—to sit on the hood with Lee and the Marys, drink black raspberry milkshakes, and smoke Marlborough 100s—and it comes when I was in such deep hiding that I might as well have disappeared.
I didn’t want people to see me because when school was out that year I had entered into a feud with my only two friends. These girls treated me like dirt before the feud, so I suppose I should’ve considered the severed relations a blessing. The feud was over something stupid (as most are), but because it was the two of them ganging up on me, I couldn’t recant. Perhaps it was their attitude that made me stand my ground—that they were making this enormous concession to tolerate me as a friend because of the kind of family I was from. They would call The Apartment “Dogpatch, U.S.A,” after where the hillbillies in the L’il Abner comic strip lived. We had seen a high school production of the musical L’il Abner with our Girl Scout troop, and one of the songs went “It’s a typical day in Dogpatch, U.S.A.” These two girls seized right on this, as did the scout leader and eventually the pimply seventh-grade science teacher who for mysterious reasons despised me. So I had these two girls plus these two adults always chiding me, “How are things in Dogpatch?”
The Marys had ruled that I sit inside Pop’s car at Ramblers Rest that night and not with them on the hood. When any car consisting of two-plus guys pulled into the parking lot, Mary Jo would holler into the window, “Down, Ethel!” and my sister would say, “Oh, come off it.”
It amazed me that my sister was as normal as she was, as optimistic and resourceful as she was considering the situation of Pop. I was astounded that the Marys were willing to cruise around town in Pop’s junker, but then Lee had a long history of making the unsavory wrapper of any bad circumstance melt away. She almost got a job that summer as the Monday-Wednesday-Friday A.M. lifeguard at the country club pool—which would’ve been an Olympian achievement given that no teenager who wasn’t a member was allowed to pass through the gates, even if it was to save drowning lives.
Mary Jo was the clique’s ringleader, which wasn’t surprising considering that her family owned a successful pizza parlor that was known to have mafia connections. She lived in an enormous brand-new house that had a kitchen on each of its three floors—lived there with an extended family that included a lot of tiny old ladies dressed in black, who, according to my sister, slept during the day, fully clothed and encased by crocheted shawls, on fold-up beds.
“Why didn’t you bring her a hat or something?” Mary Jo asked Lee.
“Because it’s not cold,” Lee said, blowing smoke out her nose.
“Oh, you are so fucking funny!” Mary Beth yelled, hugging my sister like she was drunk already.
“Get with it, bitch,” Mary Kay said to my sister, bumping her shoulder against Lee’s. “If you want to be us you gotta change your name to Mary Lee.”
“I don’t want to be Mary anything.”
“You have to be Mary something!” the Marys persisted, each stretching out and posing the hand holding the cigarette.
“Mary Hartman!” I yelled from inside the car.
“Ew!” the Marys squealed.
“Your sister’s such a freakin’ freak,” Mary Jo said, shaking her head.
“No, she’s not,” said Lee, turning around to smile at me sitting behind the wheel.
Fearing the Marys would really light into me, I rolled up both windows. I watched them on the other side of the windshield as they laughed and leaned into each other and swayed with their long, sun-bleached hair, like a children’s book illustration I remember in which mermaids sit on a rock combing one another’s “golden tresses.”
I did feel like a freak because of the haircut, and I did feel like crying because of everything that had happened in my life up to that point. But more so I felt like a fake, because sealed inside Pop’s Pinto I remembered to remember that Lee, like Randy, thoroughly believed that I was smart—book-smart—and because she thought I was smart she wasn’t that embarrassed about my being called a freak by her pretty friends. It scared me in a deep way to think of her discovering that I wasn’t really book-smart. She would be so let down, and I couldn’t bear that.
I had set out that summer to read Great Expectations as compensation for my shoddy education. These were the days before Catholic schools became “private” schools—when they were still parochial, free, and academically terrible. I was afraid of not keeping pace with my new, better-educated peers. But even after two months, I had failed to get past the first fifteen pages—failed to get past Pip in the swamp. What Lee and Randy failed to realize was that I was just as good at pretending to be smart as I was at pretending not to be poor. My grade-school achievement was a cheat-sheet way of reading library synopses and the last sentence of each chapter in a novel to cough up an A+ book report.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t read, but I had a strange attitude toward the nature of study. Though I failed to get past fifteen pages of the novel, I’d read every ancillary piece contained in the bulky paperback on extended library loan. In “Dickens and the Industrial Revolution,” for instance, I learned that when the writer was a boy, his entire family was sent to debtor’s prison because of his father’s “improvidence”—just like Pop said would happen to us if my mother spilled the beans to the shrink. This seemed to me like a relevant historical continuum, because I’d recently learned from PBS that when a pharaoh of ancient Egypt died, the rest of his family were often knocked off to mummify alongside him—wife, kids, domestic pets, and even a few crocodiles. Although I lived in an age when the government was not going to mummify or haul off to jail whole families and their pets for the sins or expiration of the father, a similar though unwritten law seemed applicable to a family like us living in a company town at that time. After all, why would my mother not tell the truth about the way my father behaved if she didn’t believe that we all were in some way at fault?
Like a boom of thunder, Lee’s hand slapped the windshield. “Isn’t that one of your friends?” she mouthed. I was startled to find myself behind the greasy steering wheel of Pop’s car. Wasn’t that one of my friends? my two and only former bogus friends?
Yes, it was definitely the absurdly pear-shaped Teresa Pondalu. They were all shaped like Bartlett pears, her family of eight: They’d make a big production of entering church on Sunday and squeezing their bulbous forms into a single pew. Today Teresa was with some geeky boy with a faceful of zits, and trailing behind the two was Teresa’s pear-shaped mother, wearing her signature footwear of Peds with sandals. Mrs. Pondalu’s mouth was always hanging open in a way that made you want to ask, “Catch any flies?” She was an ICU nurse who rigged their house so that there was nowhere she couldn’t grab a pack of cigarettes and some matches.
My only other “friend,” Andrea McFeeney, was a nerd of equal proportion—overweight, with the voice of a grownup overweight woman high on diet pills. Andrea’s mother went through two paperback romance novels a week and then gave the books to Andrea, who read them at a slower rate but kept a scrapbook in which she did pastel sketches of the book-cover’s hero modeling Wrangler and Landlubber jeans. Andrea’s father owned a pharmacy and paid for a weekly fifteen-minute AM radio spot in which members of his family sang songs from Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow.
I didn’t know the boy Teresa was with; he wasn’t from St. Cecilia’s. At first I thought he must be a cousin, but then I saw that they were holding hands as well as cones. Observing them made me feel like I was in one of those drive-through safari zoos where the wild animals roam free as you stay locked in your car. I wanted to be shocked that Teresa, this bogus friend, had settled for such a boy, but from my newly objective vantage point he seemed perfect—her exact nerd equivalent, willing to go on some kind of ice cream date under the watchful eye of her fly-catching mother. And then I realized that because Teresa was one of my only two friends, I was of the same caliber. Or maybe this wasn’t even my caliber, because you could tell this boy was smart. Maybe my caliber was a boy who looked just like him but couldn’t spell or add and because of this was in a vo-tech program learning how to put brake pads on the cars of cheap and stupid people.
The Marys put up a ruckus when Lee ditched them at Mary Jo’s pizza parlor so that she could go home with me to fetch Randy and then turn the car over to Pop. They each gave us the double finger as we sped off, and as I turned to stare at them being raunchy and pretty in unison, I bitterly thought that if you had looked upon the scene with a fresh pair of eyes, you might think that it was each and every character who was happy and carefree.
“How can you stand to sit in the driver’s seat after Pop sat there?” I snapped when I turned back around.
“Like what,” she said with a laugh, “I’m gonna sit on the passenger side and steer from there?’
“That steering wheel is gross.”
“OK, yeah,” Lee said with mock concern, “so maybe we should just stay home and never go anywhere. Maybe we all should be like you.”
“Lay off me for a change.”
“You’ve gotta stop being like a rabbit in your rabbit hole, Alice.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I want to see you having some kind of life,” she said. Then she laughed. “Christ Almighty you keep making me look bad in this town!”
When we had picked up Randy and his mower that hardly fit in the hatch and were waiting at Pressware for Pop, we could see from his stride that he was already drunk. Being drunk at work was a new one. Was it worth upsetting my mother about? Most days she came home from work and immediately took a nap, lying on her side atop the chenille bedspread with her lipstick and glasses still on. She was so tired that summer of the move. The rent for the house wiped out her entire check, so she really had to beg Pop for food money. She was also upset because she could never part with the things from our childhoods we had long outgrown. She still had all of our baby and toddler clothes stuffed into a big box that had once held a new hot water heater. And she also had to deal with the fact that a lot of our stuff was still in The Apartment because Pop was moving everything all by himself, with the Pinto in the middle of the night.
“Pop,” Randy said from the backseat, “I still need to pay back Impy forty bucks for basketball camp. Can I get ten?”
Lee turned to smile at Randy. “Hit him up while he’s smiling!”
“When you’re smilin’,” Pope sang. “When you’re smilin’. The whole world laughs at you.”
“Pop,” Lee began, “you gotta give Randy at least part of the money. Impy’s dad paid for him going to the camp. It makes Randy look bad.”
“All about the money,” said Pop. “Where’s my money? Where’s my lucky star?”
“Randy’s buying a bike,” I yelled. “He’s buying a bike with his own money. Mom laid it away.”
“He’s got to pick it up by the end of September,” said Lee. “They won’t hold it longer than that.”
“My Mama done laid it away,” Pop sang to some schmaltzy tune he was making up on the spot.
Numerous cars honked as he swerved at an intersection and muttered “character.” Whenever he thought someone was pompous or uppity or whatever constituted his conception of weird, he’d call that person a “character.” The shrink at the hospital was a character. His old boss who drank ouzo was a character. Our former neighbor who wore suspenders was a character. That Pop would have room to call anyone a “character” was absurd, but now it seemed criminal.
“Why do you call people character?” I yelled from the backseat. It was as if I’d broken that fourth wall, invading his life of evasion. “Why?” I yelled louder.
Also, why was the back of my throat suddenly burning with shame? Here was a man who was taking the entire summer to move his family’s paltry possessions in the middle of the night with a Pinto and clothesline and a quart bottle of Carling Black Label nestled in his crotch.
“Why can’t you ever answer a question?” I demanded. “What do you do at work when people ask you a question? Do you just sing them songs?”
Because nobody said anything, I kept going. “What do you mean by character anyway? A character is somebody in a book. A character is somebody who’s going somewhere.”
He continued to drive in his slow, inebriated way.
“You always leave us with no money but then you always come back,” I yelled. “Why do you always come back? We never want you to come back. Why don’t you go away and stay away?”
Lee and Randy were shocked into silence. Pop should’ve been shocked, but who could say what he was thinking? I suppose it was embarrassing for both him and me. He started singing one of his old songs—“I’ve told every little star in the sky how nice you are.” He really liked the lyric “Why haven’t you told me?”
He stopped in front of our rented house long enough for us to get out, and then he drove off in the cocoon of his impairment.
“You hurt Pop’s feelings!” Lee yelled, yanking my arm.
“What feelings?” I shouted back, shaking off her grip. “He’s drunk—he can’t feel anything.”
“He’s our father,” she answered as Randy quietly pushed his mower across the yard. “You don’t talk like that to our father.”
“I don’t want him to be my father, OK? I want him to leave—leave town. To go away and leave us alone. To go away and never come back. I want a new father, a real father.”
“You can’t pick these things!”
“I say, everyone says. There are rules.”
“I don’t give a shit about rules!”
“You have to give a shit!”
“You have to care about people’s feelings.”
“I don’t care about anyone’s feelings!”
“You have to care! You have to be nice to people. Don’t you know that? Why can’t you be nice to people for a change? If you were nice to people you’d have some friends.”
I ran into the house and up the stairs because I didn’t want to hear it—didn’t want to hear “Dogpatch, U.S.A.” and the Marys calling me a freak and now my sister telling me that I had to be nice to a drunken father to have any friends. I was so sick of the sights and sounds of that summer—especially the AM radio station playing any song from Hotel California as if that was the only music there was to life.
I felt too unsettled to even cry myself to sleep. I kept thinking of being sealed inside Pop’s Pinto, where the outside belonged to the free-roaming animals. That meant that I was the exact opposite—the locked-up kind of animal, the sheep kind of animal, like the plastic ones in our Woolworth’s nativity set. It was the plastic sheep I always messed with—sticking them on the ox’s horns or in the manger’s swaddling indentation. But regardless of the chaos I might inflict, the scene was always set to right the next time I looked. I knew it was my mother’s doing, but I still envisioned God’s knuckles nudging things back where they belonged.
I got angry thinking of the prayer that went Dear Jesus will you please lean down and listen while I pray and coyly declared I like to feel you very near and not so far away. I thought how I never once felt Jesus being “very near.” To me, Jesus was always “far away,” like the Carole King song. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore? Jesus was indeed a character—somebody in a book who was going somewhere, going on to the next book and the next one until he got back to his father’s cloud.
What if I just turned “bad,” I wondered—ten times worse than the Marys? No more of that “all for one and one for all” crap that had somehow kept eighty percent of our family intact. Abandoning the family seemed a cruel thing to do to my mother, as she had not much else in the world but the three of us. Lee hadn’t done this even after having been discovered by popular boys at the other high school. But I couldn’t be as strong or as good as my sister. I was the weak link; this was becoming apparent that eventful summer. I was walking through that fourth wall, the one where you pretend you’re not poor and you keep playing the game. Why was I always going along with this game? Why didn’t we ever discuss the game to determine whether it was worth continuing?
Because I couldn’t sleep, I was the one to hear the knock at the door. It was a policeman who, via Little League and State Farm Insurance, knew the better elements of my father’s family. In a near-whisper, he explained to Randy that he didn’t want to startle us by ringing the doorbell. “There’s been an accident,” he said, “a collision.” His name was Comstock, and he had come to collect my mother, but being the kind of people we were, we all piled into the cruiser.
I knew that my mother in the front seat was more terrified at having to make idle chitchat than she was worried about Pop. Even though the cop had more than once assured us, “Appears to be OK but we can’t get him out of the car,” Lee and Randy kept shooting each other panicked glances that I intercepted as meaning, “What if Pop’s pinned under the steering wheel?” They were sitting to my right and left, envisioning Jaws of Life scenarios and ignoring me because they must’ve thought I precipitated this situation by wishing to be rid of Pop.
We soon saw that the accident had occurred smack dab in the middle of the Centerway Bridge, and that the thing into which Pop had collided was a black Camaro—and not just any black Camaro. It was the Camaro of our former French and art teacher Mrs. Carpenter. The cops couldn’t get Pop out of the car not because he was pinned behind the wheel but because he refused to evacuate; he sat there inside the Pinto, staring into space. If you didn’t know Pop you might’ve charitably thought “shock” rather than “dazed drunk.” But it wasn’t Pop and the Pinto or Mrs. Carpenter and the Camaro that caused our mouths to hang as wide open as Mrs. Pondalu’s: it was our baby clothes that had been packed and saved by my mother in an old water heater box and were now strewn across Centerway Bridge. This was the last of it, our old stuff from The Apartment. Apparently Pop had tied the box to the Pinto’s roof, and when his car hit Mrs. Carpenter’s (or vice versa) the box went flying.
I thought my mother was going to die from this public mess that was our tawdry hoarded possessions. The good news that no one was hurt did not seem to assuage her despair. Two other cruisers with flashing lights were parked so as to close off Centerway, and there were two bystanders even though it was the middle of the night. Under the enormous lights the suspension bridge felt like a Rockettes-caliber stage where every small action was magnified by a thousand. I remembered crossing that bridge in one of Pop’s clunkers when I was little and wondering why they needed such bright lights. Now the answer was obvious: So that the whole world could see our old clothes looking shoddy and neglected, the bright colors of babyhood laundered to death amid splotches of petticoat and other small but sad garments.
We’d all got out of the cruiser but clung to the vehicle as if to indicate “we’re with this team.” My mother hid her face in her hands, apparently hoping that this was the part of the dream where she woke up on her chenille bedspread. Mrs. Carpenter was so upset that she didn’t even recognize us. He wig was askew in a way that would have been hilarious under any other circumstance. She had with her some very drunk old guy who sat on the ground, propped up by the Camaro, singing the line “To dream the impossible dream” repeatedly in different octaves. Mrs. Carpenter was telling one of the cops that she and this guy, Ralston, had been driving home from Geneva where they’d seen a production of Man of La Mancha. Then Ralston piped in about it being a lousy two-bit show and added something about John Cameron Swayze in relation to dreaming the impossible dream.
Even though Pop was staring into space with the door of his smacked-up car dangling open, the police gave the impression that they thought Mrs. Carpenter was the driver at fault—perhaps simply because her passenger was so vocally drunk. Randy made an offhanded attempt to get Pop’s attention, as if he could surreptitiously give and get the high-five of OK-ness. But Pop’s mind—his inner lizard poker eye—had obviously drifted off to some universal Do Not Disturb zone. I noticed one cop smile at another and shake his head, and then this cop did the same to the next, like the baton movement in a relay race to indicate that one bunch of freaks always seems to hook up with the like in the way that every old sock meets an old shoe.
Amid the flashing lights and my mother’s palpable shame I noticed on Mrs. Carpenter’s car the “Life? or Theatre?” bumper sticker. You could tell that the end of the sticker that had faded depicted twin Janus masks, though at that time I’d never have known “Janus masks.” They were to me happy-and-sad faces, and only the sad one was left on Mrs. Carpenter’s bumper. Here we were, major characters in a scene of chaos, and yet an eerie order seemed to prevail, as if that knuckle-nudging God had orchestrated all of this as part of some elaborate nativity set. Mary was hiding her face and Joseph was shit-faced; the shepherds were scribbling things in carbon-copy notebooks, two of the kings had made it in from La Mancha. I suppose Lee and Randy and I were the plastic sheep plunked down just so. But where, you had to wonder, where was the baby Jesus amid this mass display of swaddling clothes?
Total chaos cannot last forever—I knew that—and Lee was already reminding us about tomorrow. She was picking up the clothes piece by piece, walking and bending and plucking like our clothes were wildflowers in abundant bloom. A rhythm took hold; I could feel it as she scooped up something lone and crocheted, leaning and reaching with her shimmering layers. There was something glamorous about her movement under the enormous lights—not exposure but amplification. Even on so unforgiving a stage, she did not seem lost, but rather the impersonal expanse seemed relieved to have been colonized, tamed, at last. I was stupefied into not even feeling my overlapping agonies. Go pick up your clothes with your sister! my conscience demanded. But I wasn’t like Lee—I wasn’t brave and beautiful in equal measure. OK, then just start walking—walking and walking through the police cruiser barricade and across Market Street and the other streets and over the backs of the hills of sleeping elephants. But I didn’t have the aptitude to run off and go bad.
“Aaaaaah!” Mrs. Carpenter shouted in her brusque classroom projection. “C’est la jolie Lee! Ma chérie Lee!”
The woman was in quite a stew, but she always loved my sister—most teachers did despite Lee’s mediocre grades and penchant for skipping class—and obviously appreciated the scene for the very reason it had stunned me.
“Bravo! Bravo!” she hollered, clapping as if at a theatrical production. “Bravo! Bravo, Cassandre!”
Lee laughed and bowed as she continued to pick up our clothes. Was this funny? I wondered—and was Mrs. Carpenter drunk, too?
“Faites attention! Faites attention!” Mrs. Carpenter yelled, clapping twice after each command and turning on her heels. She was addressing the entire assembly, and she was most definitely drunk—but she was a lot happier about it than my father.
“Pour tu, Lee, un poème lyrique de Ronsard, le chef de la Pléiade!”
“Give me a Pleiade or give me death!” Ralston yelled from the side of the Camaro, thrusting up an arm like he was motioning forth the Light Brigade.
“Oh brother,” a cop groaned while another kept trying to secure Mrs. Carpenter’s attention with “Ma’am?”
“Mignonne, allons voir si la rose,” Mrs. Carpenter recited.
“A Pleiade in peddle-pushers,” Ralston continued, “with pompoms and ponytails.”
“Jesus Christ!” another cop said with a laugh.
“Qui se matin avait déclose, Sa robe de pourpre au soleil . . . ”
“Son, why don’t you try to get your dad out of the car,” Officer Comstock said to Randy, nodding him in the direction of the Pinto.
“A point perdu, cette vêprée, Les plis de sa robe pourprée . . .”
Another cop had opened the trunk of the cruiser and indicated to Lee that she should dump the armfuls of clothes in there.
“Et son teint au vôtre pareil.”
“And you,” Officer Comstock said to me, “why not see to your mother?”
I looked at my distraught mother and immediately had to look away, for she was like a magnetic coil of sadness drawing out every scrap of sadness within me. And then I glanced at Randy tugging at my father’s limp arm, and I had to look away from that, too, because whatever constituted Pop’s magnetic coil drew only anger out of me.
Yet something on this improvisational stage gave reason to love—Lee, of course, but what Lee was doing made it feel like there was more than just her, some glistening element that, had I been kidnapped by pirates and taken halfway around the world, I would fight to the death to get home to. And then I remembered the important fact that Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations with two endings—a sad one that he thought was the truth, and a more promising one that people wanted to read.
You could read both and you could believe either, but there was no higher authority, no standard edition to say which was right. And I thought that maybe everything in all of life had two endings—two endings always happening at the same time—and that maybe there was no higher authority to tell you which one to choose, that it was up to you to decide between the debits and the credits, the happy and sad faces, the things that would always be very near, and those that would remain so far away. §