issue 34 > nonfiction > terranova
from Under the Sign of Leoby Elaine Terranova
My father is rough but very formal. He bathes twice a day and wears a fedora, carefully pinched. He lifts it to ladies he passes to say hello. He has on a three-piece suit he wears to work, gray or brown, which he changes for a mechanic's coverall to sit at the bench and grind "rough," the ugly stones that look like rock candy but that will shine and turn, chafed into diamonds. One circles on the wheel, a pumice about a foot in diameter, like a phonograph with arm and needle, only the needle is one point of the diamond. He holds a hand to the clamped diamond to steady it as it passes with its little whine and the other to raise a jeweler's loop to his right eye. He makes jokes and he laughs because this is his work, what he likes to do. Sometimes he disengages a hand to pour oil onto the rotating lathe so that it is not unnecessarily abrasive. Rough to smooth, that is my father's labor, that is my father.
After the first heart attack I go to the hospital and find a lotion that nurses use to massage his feet. I rub away calluses, roughness. It is a kind of anointing. My hands move, pressing gently, deeply into the fat pads of his feet, to the shiny scars that lace his ruined knee. It is strangely like stroking my own feet. I find things to say from long ago and he has to think to answer. He's unused to speaking at length. Just the jibes and wisecracks that are a reflex. But he has to answer even if he doesn't normally trust words. And many things he says are sweet and grateful. He wants to keep me there. There is nothing else for him to do beside read the paper and wait for the nurses. But there's more to it. I feel I am massaging his heart. Though I am married now, though I belong home with someone else.
There is a pleasure in remembering, but also a melancholy. I sit at the screened french door, smelling the passage of night animals in the woods, bitter smell but piquant, full, like the dark. Something knocks on the wood of the house, four paws, I don't know what. I'm listening to Boris Gudonov, the melting duet of tenor and baritone. Then the grasshoppers begin their jagged etchings on the night. The monk and the blindman. Boris sings and dies a martyr's death. Maybe it's a skunk I smell or only a raccoon. Animals close but unknowable. Something I can't see, but which probably sees me. Passing the leaves of a bush, taking a breath. I can't place that slow rasp. Uncertainty or hesitation. The way an animal is all choppy movement trying to gauge what's safe. Or the long, living death, something like a calculated sleep. I've seen squirrels and deer do it. Once a road-hit groundhog, pretending to die before it died. There was nothing to it, some instinct. Could we do it too? It broke my heart to watch.
I move to the banquette below the wall phone and everything changes. The force of that grasshopper chorus, the cadence of night. And meanwhile, the treat of picking up a book and breaking it to the middle where there are pictures.
4. Race. Fight.
The Race. The Fight. In our house, these were sacred words, demanding silence and attention. There might have been only one of each, though they happened every week. During the race, my father would be egging the TV on, as if it itself were doing the running, not the tiny spider animals, crossing left to right. And my two brothers beside him, Leo and Sidney, on the worn velvet couch, bawled out encouragement and insults. They were glad to sit with him, father, in the same awake, alive state without the curtain of the newspaper drawn around him. “Curly,” they called him, though there wasn’t a curl on his head, or sometimes, “Old Man.” But the effort it took, this lame, heavy man, to get back each workday to the tasseled lamp and easy chair. So what if I wanted to watch cowboys. So what if I jumped at the banging of screen doors all down the block. I still see the grid of sunlight our door made on the straw summer rug. The haze of voices and light. The wives not daring to leave hot kitchens until the race was run, the bugler bugled, the announcer became hoarse, the men disbursed.
One thing compared, only one. The Friday Night Fight. Gillette blades marching to their theme song. The gong and black blood on gray or black faces. Near nude men dancing, holding one another up. “Lookit that jab!” My dad again making a confederate of the TV, as if my brothers were not there. Sometimes he went to the arena and took my brothers too. I begged him to let me go. But he wouldn’t, ashamed maybe that he loved it so, to see the two men who scarcely knew one another punch away until one fell. How could he take his own little daughter to a savage place to watch people bleed? Blow bouncing off the sweet spot of someone’s skull.
Smiling, he told of managing fighters himself in the ’20s when he was a brash young man. And he pointed to the referee, our relative, Ruby. He loved that, that blood connection.
On Sundays, one autumn, my parents took me to the gypsies. They lived in storefronts on South St., behind glass like goldfish. They cooked and ate and slept there. We stood looking in as if these were the rooms of a dollhouse. The men wore hats even inside, wide fedoras, maybe they were cold, and suit pants and shiny jackets that didn't match. The women had on party clothes and the children were only miniatures of their parents. Sometimes a boy waved or a man made a menacing gesture and turned his back. Once a lady in a salmon-pink satin dress came out and took my hand. She told my future: a red-haired man and money. My father pulled me away. They might try to steal me. My mother, though, had known them from childhood. In Hungary her father drove her in a horsecart past their campfires. When the music began they stopped to watch them dance. At school on Halloween that year she dressed me in a white blouse and her own skirt. She wound three flowered kerchiefs over my head and my shoulders and around my waist and made me put on the heavy wood beads I had strung from a kit. When we next went to South Street we couldn’t find them. They were gone as if overnight, leaving only dust and emptiness like a departed army.
New Jersey was always the other side. It was summer there and that’s when I did my growing. We boarded the ferry, mother, father, brothers, I, passage to another world. A bootblack stropped with his cloth my father’s high crippled shoe, finding a rhythm, back and forth. The grown-ups quarreled and complained. Do you have the lunch, do you have your hat, do you have to go to the bathroom? We tugged straw suitcases in our wake. Then, like a musical command, fast but not too much, we breached the water and came to Camden where we paid again and climbed up to the waiting railway carriage. It took off with its fat head of steam, wobbling on skinny steel tracks. No one to wave or see us off, Mommie, Daddy, Leo, Sidney, the Baby, all accounted for, a family, a set.
At the Guest House in the Inlet, we had kitchen privileges. Because of the damp from the ocean, bread from the breadbox was blue where you cut it. A Spanish family gave me orzo and hot sauce to try. The father for fun colored photographs that brought the dead faces to life. The air smelled of salt. My skin tasted salty when I licked my hand. The landlady’s twins, Gert and Flo, were middle-aged and didn’t look alike. Sometimes they combed their mother’s wavy gray hair while she sat with closed eyes, spread and stolid as the sea. Sometimes they washed the porch and I had to raise my feet. Inside it was dark and cool. It stayed that way if you didn’t move anything, even yourself. Once my parents’ friend, an old rich businessman, pulled me into his room, and smoothed his big hands over me. I pushed him hard, as if he was a bureau, and got away. I wasn’t supposed to tell. A couple slept in a room off the porch. I came out each day past their rumpled sheets.
When the wash was done and the rooms straight, the youngest daughter, Olympia, carried with her to the beach a portable record player, closed up like a satchel. She made me help set it up on a chair where the sand was damp and the water did its own singing. She wound it and put on her favorites, “Jealousy,” “Love is Where you Find It,” “Temptation.” She sang a strong coloratura and made wide gestures with her arms like the lady who sang on Heinz's pier and gave out pickles. Soon a circle of bored sunbathers pulled up beach towels and chenille bedspreads. Flustered and blushing, I sang too where she asked me to come in. I knew all the words. “Love is where you find it, don’t be blinded, it’s around you, everywhere.”
10. Afternoon, 1943
I am in my sun suit with its bib and short pants, its pattern of lady bugs. My chubby thighs are red where they rub, with prickly heat. On my feet are high-laced white baby shoes. Leo has just come in from work. I run to him. Here, pull my finger, he says. I put my pudgy hand around his index finger and yank. He burps. It's an old trick but I laugh. He goes upstairs to wash. I follow him and dash unannounced into the front room where Sidney is doing his homework. I don't worry about interrupting him. I think I am like sunshine, that everyone will always be glad to see me. I even ask him for a story, and he doesn't say, "Get lost," as I must be expecting. Instead, he starts to tell me his favorite, "Hansel and Gretel in Germany." I'm up on my toes, not knowing if I could still turn around.
"Hansel and Gretel are lost in the woods," he begins.
And I'm caught. "Where is their mommy and daddy?"
"They have no mommy and daddy.'
"How did they get lost?"
"They left a trail of cookie crumbs, like you do. But you know what? They could never find the way back."
"Because the birds ate them."
"Is this scary? Is there a witch?"
"Sh. Listen and you'll find out." There's a kind of glint in his eye about now. "They come to a beautiful house, a gingerbread house and the columns outside are candy canes and the windows are sheets of sugar and the door is chocolate Turkish taffy, that gunk you're always slobbering over."
"They come up close because they're hungry and greedy. But all of a sudden, an old lady sticks her head out of the window. She is a witch and not only a witch but a Nazi. And before they can get away, she runs outside and grabs them."
It will get even worse.
"Then she sticks them in the oven and gasses them. You want to know why? Because they're fat little Jewish children like you."
And I run away crying, as always.