Thursday, July 24, 2003
THE DAY MY SISTER, GILLIAN, DECIDED TO PRONOUNCE her name with a hard
was, coincidentally, the same day my mother returned, early and alone, from her honeymoon. Neither of these things surprised me. Gillian, who was between her third and fourth years at Barnard, was dating a “language theory” professor named Rainer Maria Schultz and had consequently become a bit of a linguistic zealot, often ranting about something called “pure” language, of which Gillian with a hard
was supposedly an example. My mother, on the other hand, had rather rashly decided to marry an odd man named Barry Rogers. Gillian—Gillian—and I had both suspected that this marriage (my mother’s third) would not last very long, but we assumed it would survive its honeymoon, although when we heard they were planning a honeymoon in Las Vegas our skepticism grew. My mother, who has spent her entire life avoiding places like Las Vegas and merrily disdaining anyone who visited, or even contemplated visiting, such places, had announced, in a disturbing brainwashy way, that a honeymoon in Las Vegas would be “fun” and a nice change from her previous honeymoons (Italy with my father and the Galápagos Islands with her second husband). Whenever my mother said anything was, or would be, “fun” you could take it as a warning that said thing was not nor would be at all fun, and when I reminded my mother of this—I used the example of her telling me that the sailing camp she had forced me to attend the summer I was twelve would be “fun”—she admitted that sailing camp had not been fun for me but that was no reason why a honeymoon in Las Vegas would not be fun for her. Such is the ability adults—well, my mother, at least—have to deceive themselves.
Gillian and I were eating lunch, or some midday meal approximate to lunch, when my mother untimely returned from her honeymoon. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. Gillian sat at the kitchen table doing the
New York Times
crossword, which we were not allowed to do when my mother was home because, as she often told us, it was the only dependable pleasure in her life. I was eating a fried egg sandwich. I was supposed to have been working at the art gallery which my mother owned but which was effectively run by a young man named John Webster, but John had sensibly decided that since my mother was safely out of town, preoccupied with whatever unthinkable activities preoccupy a fifty-three-year-old woman in Las Vegas on her third honeymoon, and since it was July, and no one had set foot in the gallery for several days, he would close the gallery and go and stay with friends in Amagansett, and I could do whatever I wanted for the rest of the week. I was not, of course, to tell my mother about this hiatus, for she believed that at any moment someone might walk in off the street and buy a garbage can decoupaged with pages torn out of varied editions of the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran (for $16,000). My mother opened the gallery about two years ago after she divorced her second husband, because she wanted to “do” something, which you might have thought meant work, but did not: “doing” something entailed buying a lot of new clothes (very expensive clothes that had been “deconstructed,” which as far as I could tell meant some of the seams had been ripped out or zippers had been put where God did not intend zippers to go) because gallery directors had to look like gallery directors, and having lunches at very expensive restaurants with curators and corporate art consultants or, occasionally, an actual artist. My mother had had a fairly successful career editing art books until she married her second husband, and apparently once you stop working legitimately it is impossible to start again. “Oh, I could never go back to that work, it’s so dreary and the last thing the world needs is another coffee table book,” I had heard her say more than once. When I asked her if she thought the world needed an aluminum garbage can decoupaged with pages torn from the King James Bible she said, No, the world didn’t need that, which was exactly what made it art. And then I said, Well, if the world doesn’t need coffee table books then they must be art, too—what was the difference? My mother said the difference was the world
it needed coffee table books, the world
coffee table books, but the world didn’t think it needed decoupaged garbage cans.
And so Gillian and I were sitting in the kitchen, she intent on the crossword and I enjoying my fried egg sandwich, when we heard the front door unlocking—or actually locking, for we had carelessly left it unlocked, so it was first locked and then unlocked—which took a moment during which my sister and I just looked at each other and said nothing, for we instinctually knew who was opening the door. My father has keys to our apartment, and it would have made sense—well, more sense—that it was he arriving, seeing as how my mother was supposed to be honeymooning in Las Vegas, but for some reason both Gillian and I knew immediately it was our mother. We heard her drag her rolling suitcase over the threshold (my mother does not travel lightly, especially on honeymoons) and then we heard it topple over, and then we heard her chucking the books and magazines and other debris that had accumulated on the couch in her absence to the floor, and then we heard her collapse on the couch, and say, rather quietly and poignantly, “Shit.”
We sat there for a moment in stunned silence. It was almost as if we thought if we remained silent and undetected, she might reverse herself—get off the couch, replace the debris, right her suitcase, toddle it out the door, fly back to Las Vegas, and resume her honeymoon.
But of course that did not happen. After a moment we heard her get up and walk toward the kitchen.
“Oh good Lord,” my mother said, when she entered the kitchen and saw us, “what are you two doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” asked Gillian.
My mother went to the sink and scowled disapprovingly at the dirty dishes and glasses. She opened the cupboard that housed glasses, but it was empty, for Gillian and I had been favoring the technique of rinsing and reusing glasses rather than washing, storing, and reusing. “My God,” my mother said, “all I want is a drink of water. A simple drink of water! That is all I want. And that, like everything else I have ever wanted, appears to be denied me.”
Gillian arose and found a fairly clean glass in the sink and rinsed it and then filled it with water from the tap. “Here,” she said, and handed it to our mother.
“Bless you,” my mother said. My mother is not a religious person and her use of this language disquieted me. Or further disquieted me, as her unexpected arrival had already achieved that effect.
“Whatever,” Gillian said, and sat back down.
My mother stood at the sink, taking odd, birdlike sips from the glass of water. I thought about how I had once learned that birds cannot swallow and so must tip their heads back to ingest water, and how if in a rainstorm their beaks are left open and their heads tilted back they will drown, although why they would have their beaks open and heads thrown back during a rainstorm is a mystery to me. My mother finally finished drinking her water in this odd manner and then made what seemed to me to be a great show of rinsing out the glass and putting it in the dishwasher, which of course was not an easy thing to do as the dishwasher was already full of (dirty) dishes.
“What happened?” asked Gillian.
“Yes,” said Gillian. “Why are you home? Where is Mr. Rogers?” Both my sister and I enjoyed calling our mother’s new husband by his surname, even though we had been urged repeatedly to call him Barry.
“I neither know nor care to know where that man is,” my mother said. “I hope that I never see Barry again in my life.”
“Well, best to discover that now,” said Gillian. “Although I suppose it would have been best to discover that before you married him. Or before you agreed to marry him. Or before you met him.”
“Gillian!” my mother said. “Please.”
“It’s Gillian,” said Gillian.
“What?” my mother asked.
“My name is Gillian,” said Gillian. “My name has been mispronounced long enough. I have decided that from now on I will only answer to Gillian. Rainer Maria says naming a child and then mispronouncing that name is a subtle and insidious form of child abuse.”
“Well, that’s not my style. If I were going to abuse you, there’d be nothing subtle or insidious about it.” My mother looked at me. “And you,” she said, “why aren’t you at the gallery?”
“John didn’t need me today,” I said.
“That is not the point,” said my mother. “John never needs you. You do not go there because you are needed. You go there because I pay you to go there so you will have a summer job and learn the value of a dollar and know what responsibility is all about.”
“I’ll go tomorrow,” I said.
My mother sat at the table. She took the half-finished crossword puzzle away from Gillian. “Please remove that plate,” she said to me. “There is nothing more disgusting than a plate on which a fried egg sandwich has been eaten.” My mother is very particular about what people around her eat. She cannot stand to watch anyone eat a banana, unless they peel the whole thing and break it into attractive bite-sized pieces.
I got up and rinsed the plate and put it in the dishwasher. I filled the dishwasher with detergent and started the cycle. This act was too transparently ingratiating for anyone to acknowledge, yet it seemed to have a softening effect upon my mother: she sighed and rested her head on her arms, which were crossed before her on the table.
“What happened?” asked Gillian.
My mother did not answer. I realized she was crying. Gillian stood up and moved behind her, reached down and embraced her, and held her while she sobbed.
I went down the hall into the living room and called John in Amagansett. A woman answered the phone. “Hello?” she said.
“Hello. Is John Webster there?”
“Who’s calling?” the woman asked, in a hostile, challenging fashion intended no doubt to discourage telemarketers.
“This is Bryce Canyon,” I said. I always refuse to give my real name when someone demands to know “Who’s calling?” They should say “May I ask who’s calling?” or “May I tell him who’s calling?”
“He’s not available at the moment, Mr. Canyon. Can I give him a message?”
“Yes,” I said. “You may. Please tell Mr. Webster that Marjorie Dunfour has returned unexpectedly from her honeymoon and if Mr. Webster values his livelihood he should return to the city posthaste.”
“Post what?” the woman asked.
“Haste,” I said. “Posthaste. Without delay. Immediately.”
“Perhaps you’d better talk to him yourself.”
“I thought he was unavailable.”
“He was,” said the woman, “but he has appeared.”
After a moment John said, “Hello.”
“John, it’s me,” I said.
“James,” he said. “What’s up?”
“My mother is here,” I said. “She just arrived. I thought you might like to know.”
“Oh shit,” he said. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but Mr. Rogers seems to be history.”
“Oh, the poor thing,” said John. “So soon. Well, I suppose it’s all for the best, to figure it out sooner than later.”
“That is what we told her,” I said.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll take the jitney back tonight. You don’t think she’ll call the gallery this afternoon, do you? Or, God forbid, go in?”
“I doubt it. She seems preoccupied with her misfortune.”
“You’re so heartless, James. It’s unnatural. I worry for you.”
“I think you should worry about yourself. If she finds out you closed the gallery she might get a little heartless herself.”
“I’m on my way,” said John. “I’m packing my bags as we speak.”
I thought that under the circumstances the best thing to do might be to get out of the house, so I took our dog, a black standard poodle named Miró, to the dog run in Washington Square. Miró, who seems to think he is human, doesn’t really enjoy the dog run, but he will sit patiently on the bench beside me, observing the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension.
Right outside of our building is a tree well filled with impatiens and English ivy with two plaques attached to the little iron trellis around its base. One reads IN MEMORY OF HOWARD MORRIS SHULEVITZ, BLOCK PRESIDENT 1980–1993. HE LOVED THIS BLOCK. When I first saw this plaque, about six years ago when my parents divorced (my mother sold the apartment we lived in on West Seventy-ninth Street and we moved downtown; my father moved into an awful Trump building on the Upper East Side. He has one of those hideous apartments with huge curved windows you can’t open and fake gold faucets and weird men in costumes in the elevator in case you don’t know how to push a button), I misinterpreted it, thinking that the dates supplied were Howard Morris Shulevitz’s dates of birth and death, and that he had been a little boy who had died some tragic early death and as a consequence had been given the posthumous honorific title of Block President. I had very tender feelings about the boy, who had died at approximately the age I was then, and felt in some way that I must be his successor, and so I vowed to love the block with Howard’s ardency, and I even had fantasies about dying young myself—I thought about throwing myself out our living room window so that I would land on the sidewalk in front of the tree well. I would get my own plaque then, beside Howard’s: JAMES DUNFOUR SVECK, SECOND BLOCK PRESIDENT, 1985–1997. HE LOVED THIS BLOCK TOO. I made the mistake of mentioning this little fantasy to my mother, who informed me that Howard Morris Shulevitz had probably been an old man, a petty tyrant who had nothing better to do than annoy his neighbors with building code violations. The second plaque on the trellis emphatically states CURB YOUR DOG. I don’t remember exactly when this one was appended to the railing, but one can only imagine why it was necessary, and now seeing those adjacent plaques never fails to depress me, for even if Howard Morris Shulevitz was, as per my mother’s imagining, an unpleasant person, did he really deserve to have his name, and memory, evoked beside a CURB YOUR DOG sign? I find this whole phenomenon of naming things after the deceased disconcerting. I don’t like to sit on a bench that is a memorial to someone’s life. It seems disrespectful. I think if you want to memorialize someone you should either erect a proper memorial, like the Lincoln Memorial, or leave well enough alone.