A Better Place
Her immediate hope (outside of the elimination of pain) was that the nun wouldn't telephone her father about her wayward behavior. Her father was a nut about the Fifth Commandment or whichever was the one about obedience, and would send her to her room without supper or an episode of "The Mod Squad." But Sister Abalone's only punishment was to assign the girls to three nights of after-school reading. The subject matter was an ancient charm-school book, designed in the Forties or Fifties--sometime when their mothers were young. Florence and Judy had giggled over the old-fashioned drawings of women with hats and gloves, sitting with legs crossed at the ankles and sipping tea from china cups.
Florence was forty-five now, but the pain was sharp, clear, infallible as a photograph. She marveled at the clarity of it, how it triggered a memory she hadn't lit upon for a lifetime, just as a perfume scent or notes of a song would.
She got out of bed slowly, so as not to awaken her husband, who was still sleeping off the Christmas Eve toasts from the night before. She rotated her arm in its socket to limber it up. The pain neither worsened nor dissipated. The pain reminded her something else besides the coat rack incident--a fight? An accident?--she couldn't quite place it. She shoved her feet into her new pink slippers, courtesy of her eighty-five-year-old mother-in-law who lived with a pet monkey in Miami, and shuffled into the cold, dark living room. Such an uninviting apartment, uncomfortable, untended, with cabbage roses blooming out of dull brown wallpaper and warped wooden floors inadequately covered by frayed carpets. She switched on the Christmas tree. Its decorative nature clashed with the somberness of the room, making it look more forlorn than festive. She'd always hated the place, but since Jack was forced into early retirement(due to his back malformation and not from a drinking problem, no matter what her sister might think), there was no sense in dreaming about a house. The unspoken hope was that one or the other of their mothers would leave her house to them, but the two old women were healthy and spry as sparrows and determined not to die before their children if they could help it. Neither Jack nor Florence had the heart to find another apartment. It would be like admitting that this place wasn't at all temporary.
Florence plopped into her husband's old Barcalounger and tuned into the Home Shopping Network. Marie Osmond dolls. Fancy-schmancy ones, with complex hairdos and stiff, gaudy dresses. Now take Barbie--that was a proper doll, one you could dress up and accessorize and couple cozily with a dependable Ken. How she loved to assemble grand rooms for her Barbies, using tissue boxes for canopied honeymoon beds and heavy glass ashtrays for coy ponds. Florence switched to the "Today Show," which featured a man who lived in a house made of empty soda bottles. Sunshine sparked off it like bottle rockets. Film footage of the owner, toothless and inarticulate, mumbling about his life spent collecting Pepsi bottles with just the right shape. It was, he said, his dream house.
The phone shrieked, sounding much louder in the early morning, before the noise of the street traffic drifted like smoke from two stories below. Florence hurried to silence it before Jack awoke. When she reached for the receiver, pain electrified her arm like a bolt of lightning.
"Merry Christmas, Flo," came a prim, careful voice on the other end of the line. "I'm glad you're up--you were up, weren't you?"
Sheila! Florence gritted her teeth. She'd seen her sister less than twelve hours ago, her and her whole noisy brood: a sad, horsy girl, pompous ass of a husband, and a matched set of scrawny infants(compliments of the local fertility clinic). What in hell could she want so early on Christmas morning?
"I don't know about you, but I feel downright lackadaisical this morning."
Sheila was the type of person who used words like "lackadaisical" and "insouciant" but ate Little Debbies and picked her teeth with a match.
"Cut the crap, Sheila. What do you want?"
"Well, if you must know, I wanted to ask if you have the receipt for Missy's blouse. It's slightly too petite for her."
Missy, barely eight and already wearing women's sizes, was Sheila's daughter by her first marriage. It seemed to Florence that Missy understood she was a leftover. Maybe she just had to grow big enough to get somebody's attention.
"You mean you phoned me at this ungodly hour on Christmas Day, for Christ's sakes, about a stupid cash register receipt?"
"I thought I was showing a little foresight. I don't know why you insist on being so pugnacious."
Florence pictured her sister on the other end of the line, mouth pinched, eyes dull and querulous.
"Sorry. It's just . . . well, I don't feel so good this morning."
She wasn't exaggerating for once, she thought, as fulgurous pain ricocheted up and down her arm.
"Well, don't blame me," Sheila said. "You did put away quite a bit of scotch last night. It isn't as if we didn't serve a decent dinner. It isn't as if we didn't offer soda pop or coffee. All those ludicrous toasts--to government holidays, Kennedy cousins. The new tax act--"
"Hell, your husband drank to that one."
"--that kind of behavior is disrespectful, to me, to my home, to my children. I thought I made myself perfectly lucent at Thanksgiving."
On that day Florence had forsaken the traditional turkey and spent two days cooking up a gourmet Chinese dinner: Peking duck, hand-rolled dumplings, beef and snow peas and bean sauce. Sheila, in a gold lamé jumpsuit and newly frosted pageboy, shimmering like a casino sign, refused to use the authentic chopsticks. Her mother complained that the sodium level would elevate her blood pressure, although Florence couldn't help noticing, she didn't object to sampling the wine, and her mother's boyfriend (even at seventy, her mother dated more than a high school cheerleader), an ex-Marine with a bad back, drowned everything in hot sauce, ate two times his share and joked how hungry he would be in two hours. "You know how it is with Chinese food," he said with a belch.
Sheila's husband--her third, in line after an alcoholic dry cleaner and a bipolar stockbroker--said at least with Peking duck he didn't have to deal with the white meat/dark meat controversy turkey presented. Kevin was a lawyer for the NAACP.
"You know what's racist?" he kept arguing. "Band-Aids. No, no seriously. They're supposed to disappear on the skin, right? Am I right?"
Florence and Jack had a good laugh over that one. With a family dinner like that, who could blame them if they got a little snoggered? Florence decided to change the subject.
"Guess who I thought of today. Sister Abalone! Remember her? That nun who caught me hanging on the coat rack?"
"Wasn't she the one who kept bothering us at dad's funeral?"
Now that Florence thought about it, there was a nun at her father's funeral. "I guess so," she said, "but I was remembering the time she caught me trying to walk on the ceiling."
"Ceiling? What ceiling? I don't understand a word of what you're saying."
"Grammar school! What in heaven's name made you think of grammar school?"
"I was in the girl's room, and I decided to climb on the coat racks and try to walk on the ceiling. I think I wanted to leave footprints up there. Like a movie star at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Or the moon."
"Well, well," Sheila's voice softened. "I guess that's understandable. You always did have an imagination, Florence. But what in heaven's name did that nun, that Sister Abalone, do when she caught you?"
"She made me read an etiquette book after school."
"You always did get into trouble," Sheila said, with that superior tone in her voice. Florence knew that tone. Sheila, the perfect one, the one whose hair ribbons never tangled, the one whose knees never scabbed. The eternally younger daughter and little sister, the baby, fair and graceful and always the one who fished candy out their daddy's pockets first. Florence's shoulder throbbed to the back of her skull. That's what this pain reminded her of--her father. And his big hands. Knuckling her head, pulling her arm, whacking her backside.
Sheila droned on, her voice chipper but brittle, like an old ornament. "How's Jack this morning? I suppose he's . . . under the weather, too?"
"What are you trying to say, exactly?"
"Nothing, nothing." Pause. "Only Jack does tend to put it away. I suppose he has--what did mother call it?--a hollow leg."
Florence could just picture her mother and sister, phoning each other after every family gathering and reviewing all of their bad behavior, play by play, like Olympic judges. Ridiculing Jack's back disability, which made him sprattle sometimes as if a large suitcase was strapped to his back. Mocking the fact that she was five inches taller(and fifty pounds heavier) than her husband. And their drinking, always the drinking. They could run down her like that, she was used to it, but she wouldn't let them hurt Jack.
"You always pick on Jack. You and mother." The shoulder pain ate into her neck. "He's my husband. He loves me. Which is more than I can say for my own fucking relatives."
"Let's not get into that again," Sheila said, as if she were bored.
"Then get into this." Florence clicked off the phone as authoritatively as she could. That was the trouble with cordless phones--you couldn't do a really good hang-up. Sheila most certainly got the message anyway. What a pain in the ass.
She popped three aspirin (one for good measure) from the economy-sized bottle in the kitchen cabinet, put on the coffeepot and fixed some bloody Marys--after all, Jack would be wanting one when he woke up--and checked on Jack before she shuffled back into the living room. The drink was cool and soothing, but the effort of hoisting it caused a muscle spasm from shoulder to elbow. She switched it to her other hand and then pressed the cold glass against her forehead. The pain was getting worse. She didn't remember it lasting this long--Sister Abalone had made her write on the board in a math class that very day, and she recalled only a stiffening in her shoulder.
Sister Abalone! Florence closed her eyes to picture her: small and of a dark extraction (Armenian? Albanian? Could she as a child have confused her name with her ethnic origin?) with a fleshy mole on her chin. She'd be dead now, or a hundred.
It was Sister Abalone who arranged flowers on the altar for her father's funeral mass. She must have been the nun who'd approached her after the service, stooping over her like a shadow, holding her close. Her rosary beads clicked softly, like little teeth, when she moved. She could feel the sturdy legs beneath the habit's folds, smell the freshness of the cloth. "Your father has gone to a better place," the sister whispered to her. Florence wanted to believe it.
At the time, she imagined a better place meant something upscale, like a Hollywood version of the world. Her father, buffed and shined like a diamond, in an elegant silken suit, commanding a palace of pink walls and color televisions in every room.
Now Florence couldn't conceive of such a thing. What would any existence be, if you hadn't any loved ones to share it?
Jack stirred in the bedroom. He might actually get up before noon. Then she heard his body falling onto bed stiff, as if a child had leaped into a haystack. Florence sighed. She was lonesome for her husband. Yes, they spent every day together, yes, he was right in the next room. None of the facts mattered--she missed him whenever he was not present.
She sipped at the bloody Mary, waiting for the vodka to dull her aching arm. The "Today Show" ran a story on the weather, more snow, more ice. Thank God she'd stocked up on cold cuts and beer. She longed to tell Jack of how they'd be snowbound today. He wouldn't want to drive after last night! Slipping and sliding through four inches of slushy snow, all the way from Sheila's house in the suburbs, both of them madly laughing when the car careened into a mailbox belonging to one of Sheila's neighbors. They'd left the mangled steel corpse in the arms of a snowman some kids had built.
Pain bloomed outward from her neck, branching into her collarbone and rooting there. God, the mightiness of it! How had she suffered it as a little girl? She didn't remember crying. She would never have cried in front of Sister Abalone or Judy Hoffman. She didn't even cry at her father's funeral. Only afterward, in bed, after everyone else had gone to sleep, did she cry; and then it was more out of fright as to what would happen to her family now that they had no money coming in. Her memory of him hadn't even outlasted the funeral, it dissolved the minute they'd piled in their cousin's Cadillac (the nicest car in the family) and driven out of the cemetery. Even when Florence looked at photographs she barely recognized her father's bland unsmiling face, the slicked dark hair (just like Missy's). She could not remember what type of person he was, happy or sad or smart or funny. She recalled odd things, how he smelled of cigarettes and motor oil, how his hands were oversized for his slight body, big as a football player's. Lionel Greenwald, the number-one mechanic in the neighborhood.
She hadn't thought about her father in years.
She gulped down the rest of her drink. On TV a movie star and the TV host smiled their fatuous, white smiles at each other as if they were in love.
Florence picked up the phone. She figured her mother would be awake--she rose at the crack of dawn. She probably had the whole house cleaned by now. Would her mother laugh at Florence, asking who her father was?
"Hello, Mom? It's Flo." Now why did she identify herself like a telemarketing representative? "Nothing's wrong, I know I just saw you and all." She forestalled her original question. "Oh, guess who called this morning? Sheila." A Sheila anecdote was always good for a laugh. "Guess what about? She has to exchange Missy's blouse. Guess why? Because it's TOO SMALL."
Her mother cackled. She frequently joked about Missy's horsiness. She didn't exclude children from her general mocking of the human race--not when Florence was a kid, not now.
"You'll never guess who I thought of this morning." She paused. Her mother didn't respond. "Sister Abalone. Remember her? My teacher from St. Jonas?"
"She taught Sheila, didn't she? I thought her name was Sister Avalon."
"That old biddy. She was the one who insulted me at your father's funeral."
"What?" The paroxysms infected Florence's lower left leg, fingering shin and thigh before boring straight into the bone. She uncrossed her legs and stomped her feet to improve the circulation. "I don't remember that."
"Oh, she wouldn't have had the nerve to say it in front of you kids. All that sadistic Catholic crap. Like unbaptized babies sitting in limbo. Why would God be so cruel as to send little babies all by themselves for all eternity to some empty place just because their mamas were too slow about getting them baptized? I burn up every time I think about it." Her mother groaned.
Another sharp spasm sawed through her neck. Florence gritted her teeth to avoid crying aloud. "What does limbo have to do with Sister Abalone insulting you at dad's funeral?"
"She came up to me--before the service, mind you--and whispered that she prayed for his immortal soul," her mother said. "All suicides were stuck in purgatory forever. That's what she said! All suicides were forgotten and lost and she would have to pray for his immortal soul. Her exact words. Horrible old biddy. What made you think of her?"
Florence, flustered about the purgatory reference, couldn't think of a simple answer. "Oh, you know how the holidays always makes you remember the past." Pain ratcheted down into her left kneecap. Her mouth was dry. She couldn't articulate her thoughts. "Sometimes it feels like father never existed at all."
Not even Lionel's wife visited his grave; she didn't drive, she was too tired from bingo, she was too busy working double shifts at the grocery store where she had finally secured a cashier's job because the owner had taken his Cadillac to Lionel's auto repair shop every year for ten years. Those frantic, high-strung days marked the time Florence dreamed of saving her family. She spent hours with Sheila's chemistry set, trying to invent something, anything to make them rich: a new stain remover (which bleached Sheila's hair to snow for seven weeks), a fabulous perfume (the best she produced smelled like fingernail polish), a sure cure for hangovers (her mother could not be persuaded to try it).
Her mother sighed. "Your father wasn't around much. That's just the way men were in those days."
"The only things I can remember are silly things," Florence said. "Small things. Like the acne scars on the left side of his face. Or how he refused to answer the phone. Answered it all day at work, he'd say."
Or how he whistled "A Taste of Honey" while he tinkered with the car, said her mother.
"What about the hunting cap he wore in the winter, the one with the side flaps?"
Her mother had forgotten about the hunting cap.
"His hands were huge," Florence said. "Giant hands, like catcher's mitts."
"No larger than any other man's."
"I do remember something else. He spanked me."
"Now that's just plain silly."
"--I forget why, bad report cards or spilling things--and I remember thinking, clear as day, how those hands would just send me sailing across the room."
"If anyone spanked you," her mother said, "it would have been me."
"I don't remember if it hurt or if I cried or anything else about it. Just those big, pink hands coming at me like two hams."
"Florence, you do like to exaggerate."
She suddenly recalled the time he made Florence roll up sanitary napkins in newspaper and carry them out to the alley. She remembered as if her father were sitting in front of her now, talking in embarrassed whispers in between rounds of iced tea (he would touch caffeine, never alcohol) and a boxing match on TV. She wasn't to tell mother, he said, it would upset her, he said, but Florence was a lady now and shouldn't play with boys. He cheered as one of the boxers, sturdy and round as an oak tree, flogged the younger, slimmer opponent. "Use your brain," he'd said, knocking on her skull with his knuckles. Not six months later he was dead. Shot in the head.
The phone clicked, as if her mother were picking her teeth. "I don't recall any such thing, and if anyone would remember, it would be me. I'm the mother, aren't I?"
After they chatted some more about how they would spend Christmas Day (her mother intended to entertain her latest beau) and hung up, Florence became present again to the pain. It bolted through both legs now, coursing its route over and under sockets and joints, scorching her bones and inflaming her muscles and skin, setting her blood to boil. A rancid smell of morning coffee filtered to her, nauseating, inescapable.
She breathed, waves of pain flooding and receding at each breath, cold and frothy and churning with memories: cocktail parties, her father's laugh harmonizing with the murmuring of other men and women and her mother's high-pitched laughter rising above it all, cigarette smoke mingling with ladies' perfume, the slap of shuffled decks against the vinyl-covered card table. Her father ushering at Sunday mass, collecting money in baskets with long, bamboo handles, winking at her as she deposited the dollar he had given her before mass, her mother kneeling in a pew, eyes closed, mouth pursed in prayer, a white lace scarf floating atop her light wavy hair like a light sprinkling of snow.
It was all coming back to her now.
Summer barbecues, hot dogs and watermelon and running after fireflies in the dark until her mother called them in. Sheila laughing at her welts of mosquito bites, dabbed pink with calamine lotion, Sheila with her perfect tan and flawless skin. Her father consoling her with quarters, watching TV westerns in the dark, in his undershirt, her mother, asleep on the sofa in the front parlor where it was cooler in the summer.
He was mostly a quiet man.
The coil around her neck and shoulder tightened. The pain was real. She shivered in the teeth of it.
She wished Jack would wake up, finally, and hold her.
She couldn't wait to tell him about Sister Abalone and the coat rack. Imagine! Married for fifteen years, and she never mentioned it. That was the good thing between her and Jack, they never ran out of stories, no, not once, not ever.
She'd wait until he had his drink, maybe they'd watch Divorce Court, if Jack woke up in time. They'd both be holding their coffee cups, and she would tell him. And, being Jack, he'd asked her how she came about remembering such an odd story and she'd tell him about the pain in her arm, and he'd hold her arm and kiss it, up and down the length of it, and say maybe a little whiskey in the coffee wouldn't hurt and they'd laugh and laugh and laugh.
She would tell him about Sister Abalone and the footprints and her chemistry set. I was a girl, she'd say, who had wanted to leave her mark, to make the world a better place.
Maybe, someday, she would tell him about her father. Not the cruel one, the secret one, who existed only in her past and not in any others. She would talk of the father who winked at her in mass and whistled "A Taste of Honey" and gave her a quarter for every mosquito bite.
There were so many stories to tell.
Somehow she rose from the Barcalounger. She found she could not stand and sank to the floor, in a rush, all folded up, as a coat fallen from a hanger. She lay, in a heap, bewildered, feeling the scratch of the carpet against her cheek, smelling the mustiness of it. Bemused, she noticed the fat TV weatherman, grinning, mincing, pointing to a neon map filled with flat pale clouds and tiny animated snowflakes. Jack sighed, far away, in his sleep. The pain spilled into her chest now, her ribs expanding like sponges to soak it all up. From somewhere beyond, the weatherman issued a warning. A storm was upon them. It was, he said, the storm to end all storms. She whispered her husband's name. Her body felt like a distance; the only thing left to her now was wonder at seeing her life whole for the first time and an unblunted regret, as a mountain climber who finally scales the peak but has no time to savor the view.
With a crack the panes iced over, white as a blind eye, sealing her and her singular world from the lesser part of an infinite universe. This was it, she thought as sleet sheeted the windows, this was the better place. Just before her heart seized up she heard hail shuttling down the roof like little diamonds.
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