Even while our landlord yelled at Harold, it was Mr. Klesmer’s wife I watched.
“We have a year’s lease.” My husband’s voice was quiet, but I knew he was angry. The Klesmers had come by to tell us they were about to close a sale on the condominium we were renting from them. It was Mr. Klesmer’s idea to deliver the apartment over without tenants, or, as he put it, “unencumbered.” He had offered us a thousand dollars to vacate within 30 days, but Harold had told him that I had just begun a teaching job at the local liberal arts college and we could not drop everything to move.
“Two of the trustees for Midland are friends of mine. They like employees to be team players.” Klesmer’s voice had swelled to occupy more space. I could sense his wife calculating how far it would carry; could the people in the next condo hear? Mrs. Klesmer was a distinguished woman in her sixties. She stood quietly behind her belligerent husband, withdrawn from the scene in a way that implied her disapproval. She had startling blue eyes, but she had chosen a charcoal eye shadow rather than the obvious blue. Her carefully tailored grey suit outlined what would be called in the 19th-century novels I taught a handsome figure. One noticed not her beauty but her grooming. She was the sort of woman my mother had taught me to admire: a lady. I sympathized with her. I hate to hear men yell, too.
Harold stood up from his chair. “I don’t like threats,” he said.
Klesmer’s chin came up, and he stepped toward Harold. I put my hand on my husband’s arm. I could feel the physical surge, his hope that the retired baseball commissioner would take a swing at him so that Harold would be justified in landing one nicely placed right to the landlord’s jaw.
It was then that Mrs. Klesmer looked at me in a way that assumed our alliance. She closed her eyes and spoke for the first time since the two of them had entered the condominium. “Jack,” she said, “I can’t stand this.”
My mother used to say this, too, but only as a last resort when my father and my brother were at loggerheads. My father had a violent temper. He could be sensible, loving, even funny, but when a black mood came on him he frightened us. My mother and Alex and I took an emotional reading whenever he walked in the house; his moods constituted the weather of our household. I do not mean that he ever beat my mother or anything like that. He was like one of those 16th-century monarchs whose nobles watched them carefully to see which way the wind blew. Even the fool had to sense how much license he could take on a particular day. The other courtiers must have been very grateful when the fool made such a ruler laugh and defused some growing tension.
Sometimes my father came home and swung my mother in the air, calling, “Everyone who wants to go out for pizza has five minutes to get ready!” My mother fumbled through her purse for a comb, pretending to complain because he wouldn’t give her time to change her blouse. “Really, Stan, I’ll die if we see anybody we know. I look awful!” Alex made fun of her while I raced for my coat. He threw his hand in front of his eyes, pretending to stagger at the sight of her. We were all happy, because Sally’s made the best pizza in the world and because this wasn’t going to be one of the nights my father came home looking for trouble.
We could tell those nights before he ever got in the house. He might stop the Buick halfway up the drive and wheel my brother’s bike up to the carport door. “How many times have I told you not to leave your bike where somebody can hit it?”
My brother, sensibly, would say nothing.
“How many times do you suppose I’ve told you? A hundred? Five hundred?” I turned on the faucet to wash my hands, but I could still hear him. “Answer me.”
“I don’t know.”
Then he’d brandish the bike at our mother. “Frances, I can’t be around here all day. You’ve got to keep an eye out. Do you know I almost crashed into this thing?”
The worst was not anything he said but the way he’d crush any attempt at normal relations for the rest of the evening. Once or twice at dinner my mother would try gallantly to get a conversation going. “I saw Myra Prendergast downtown yesterday, and she said Billy’s going to the state finals in debating.”
My father would let the remark hang in the air just long enough for us to feel the strain. My mother would repeat herself. “Billy Prendergast is going to the state finals in debating.”
“OK, Frances, I heard you. Billy Prendergast is going to the state finals in debating. That doesn’t seem to call for any comment.”
For the rest of the meal we’d talk determinedly among ourselves. Mother would ask me if I’d finished my zipper that day in home ec. The whole time I was explaining how I’d had to redo the underarm facing on the shift I was making I wouldn’t be thinking about what I was saying but about the noises my father made when he chewed and about the click of his knife on the plate. He’d be done in ten minutes. As soon as he finished eating, he’d scrape back his chair and stalk off down the hall without a word to us.
Most of the time we wouldn’t talk about it, but occasionally Alex would ask, “What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him,” my mother would insist. It upset her when we criticized our father. “You shouldn’t have left your bike in the drive. You know better.”
“But I left it there before, and he never acted like that.”
My mother would retreat. Without being able to explain it, we sensed her admission of something she would still deny. “Don’t blame him,” she’d say. “He’s under a strain at the plant.” Our father worked in the front office of a foundry that made manhole covers. Especially when we visited other cities it thrilled us to see manhole covers bearing the name of my father’s company.
We were deeply joined by our unspoken awareness of my father’s temper. Once my mother had a minor accident while she was driving Alex and me home from school. She got back in the car after talking to the other driver and said his car was fine but ours had a dent in the side. “What is Daddy going to say?” Alex asked. My mother leaned her elbows on the steering wheel and put her head in her hands.
Any show of defiance angered my father more than anything else. Like many Southerners raised in rural areas, he believed children should obey. Proudly he told us about his own father, a tobacco farmer. “When he said “Jump,” we jumped,” he told us. “And we only asked how high on the way down.” Once when Alex was five my father told him to stop whistling. Alex did, but in a few minutes he forgot and resumed whistling under his breath. My father slapped him hard. He thought the boy was deliberately defying him. Alex was so shocked he didn’t start crying for what seemed a long time. Then we couldn’t get him to stop.
Right from the beginning it seemed Alex irritated my father. Alex was a crying baby, and sometimes nothing my mother did could comfort him. He had a bad time teething and then he had croup. One night when Alex had been crying for 20 minutes my father left for the Sunset Motel. It was the second night in a row that my brother had kept us all awake. Alex was almost two, and I was four. I remember my father yelling at my mother, “Can’t you stop that kid from crying?” I heard my mother stumble out of bed and go into Alex’s room. My brother continued to wail. “I don’t care what you have to do,” my father shouted, “Just stop him.” Two minutes later I heard him jerk the clock out of the electric socket and throw it against the wall. I was too scared to get up even after I heard the front door slam.
The next day was Saturday, and my mother made us blueberry pancakes. We talked in low voices, as it seemed the house had already absorbed too much loud noise. When we heard my father’s car pull into the drive, we stopped eating and looked at each other. We heard him lie down on the couch in the living room without coming into the kitchen where we were.
“Your Daddy’s home,” my mother said to me, “Why don’t you go show him how you can turn a somersault?”
My father was lying with his face turned toward me when I came in. Very solemnly I turned my back to him, spread my legs, and leaned over to plant my hands on the floor. I have seen pictures of myself from this period. My mother dressed me in little ruffled panties, and I had chubby, dimpled knees. When I had executed my somersault, my father sat up and opened his arms to me. He was smiling. “Frances,” he called out as he swept me into his lap, “Where did we get this acrobat?” He carried me into the kitchen upside down under his arm and made us all laugh while he ate two helpings of my mother’s pancakes.
Perhaps I have made my mother sound weak because she never took on my father. It is true that confrontations made her acutely uncomfortable, but she could be forceful in her own way. She organized the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the town where I grew up. I never knew when I would come home to find 15 Southern ladies perched in our living room, their pink or yellow skirts garish against the Williamsburg prints of our good chairs. On these occasions the ratio of dishes and cutlery to actual food was extraordinarily high; what with cream pitchers and sugar shells, those women could generate a full dishwasher just by having cake and coffee. To look at them you would think it was a bridge club or a meeting of the Junior League. But they got things done, those ladies. In two years they, and others like them, had somehow terrorized the North Carolina legislators into locking up first-time offenders and were well on their way toward having the legal drinking age raised.
My mother herself is a powerful and emotional speaker in this cause. And she is never better than when she describes how our whole family was almost destroyed by an intoxicated driver. Listening to her, I could understand why she swept those state representatives before her. On all other subjects, my mother is a retiring person, even shy, but not when she thinks of that drunken man hurtling towards us on 70 East. Somehow the driver is always a man, though in truth none of us ever saw him and he was never arrested.
We invoke the accident on more private occasions too. At least once or twice a year we like to recall how our family was almost wiped out by that drunk. It is an exciting story, and so perhaps our friends do not mind that they have heard it all many times before. The more polite of our acquaintances will urge my father to tell it again—they are not quite so shameless as to say they have not heard it, but they will ask to be refreshed on the details. “Now were you coming back from Raleigh, or was it Winston-Salem?” a neighbor will ask. The women especially are patient with this repetition, seeming to understand the place such ceremonial retellings hold in family life.
It happened like this. The fall of my senior year, my father had trouble with his eyes. He had to drive to Raleigh to see an opthalmologist. We all went along—my mother liked to shop at Ivey’s, and my father insisted that Alex make the trip to visit State and a few other local colleges. Alex was only a sophomore, and he didn’t want to go. He was even insisting that he intended to apprentice himself to a carpenter in our home town rather than go on to college. My mother refused to comment, knowing that he’d change his mind in two years.
My father, though, was not in the mood to let things pass. He was being eased out of the foundry. He had only a few more years to go to 65, and he wanted to keep his seat on the town council. No one said it, but we were all sure he would lose when he came up for reelection later in the fall—it was his position at the foundry that had given him a local political base. And at this touchy time Alex was beginning to rebel. He refused to cater to my father’s temper, so their quarrels were getting worse. My mother tried to explain their antagonism as a sign of some fundamental affinity. “They’re just so much alike,” she always said. It was true that my father could be pleased by my brother’s sturdy defiance when it was directed at somebody else. “That kid doesn’t take nothing off nobody,” he told his friends. He loved to tell his buddies how Alex had defied my mother at the age of four. “Alex,” my mother had asked, sweetly and wearily after he refused to take a bath, “Are you trying to give me a hard time?” My brother looked her in the eye. “I wouldn’t give you nuttin’,” he said.
But I didn’t believe my mother. It was clear to me that she was trying to avert something volatile in our household. Other times she attributed the increasingly ugly scenes between Alex and my father to our being what she called a “late” family. She and my father had spent nearly 15 years making trips to the best fertility clinics, and my father was in his late forties when Alex and I were finally born in quick succession. I couldn’t see how this had anything to do with the fights. My mother was the feeble thinker in the family, and I saw how love—or, more properly, her devotion to family harmony—clouded her logic in a way that was maddening to me.
It was maddening to me, but I understood. I hated it when Alex and my father yelled at each other. I can remember setting the table while their voices escalated in the next room. My mother had taught me to set a formal table; it was the first job I had learned as a small girl. The plates, my grandmother’s rose china, were set exactly one inch from the edge of the table. I nested the bread plates squarely in the space above the two forks.
“I’ve explained to you I don’t think you can manage football practice and a job at Burger King, too. Your grades will suffer. Now, that’s the end of the matter, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.”
I turned the blade of the knife inward toward the plate, while the water goblets, leaded crystal, went slightly to the right of its tip.
“How do you know what I can manage? You won’t even let me try. If my grades go down, I’ll quit.”
I folded the linen napkins so that the four corners opened together on the side nearest the plate. Over the years I had learned that I could accomplish this by starting with the embroidered rose on the lower left.
“Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to hear any more about it?”
Last I distributed the cut glass relish dishes, divided into thirds containing pickled peaches, watermelon rind pickles, and corn relish.
“But you haven’t given me one single real reason. You can’t just order me around without giving me a reason.”
Always when I finished I stepped back to admire the completed table; its exact arrangement both forbade and subtly provoked potential disturbance like a surface of unbroken snow. It seemed to me that the spatial precision I had reenacted among the polished family objects must hold those at the table in their customary relations.
“I’ve tried to explain at least ten times. If you’re too stubborn to listen, you’ll just have to do as I say. I’m warning you, Alex, don’t say another word.”
“You’re the one that’s stubborn!”
“Go to your room!” I heard the door to the coat closet open, then my father’s voice. “If you go out that door, you’re not going to get back in.”
My mother appeared in the doorway. I thought of my Latin teacher’s monologues on the lares and penates as my mother invoked our household gods. “Let’s all go in to dinner,” she said. I buttered my father an extra piece of cornbread and chattered to him in the way that he liked, so gradually he came around.
So when my brother stated his intention of going to work for the carpenter, it was just the last in a series of escalating scenes. September is a summer month in North Carolina, and my father and Alex were outside, washing the windows with a vinegar and water solution. My father climbed up on the tall ladder, while Alex stood on the kitchen stepladder to do the lower windows. My mother and I followed them about inside the house, cleaning the inside of each window as they did the outside. She said this was the only way to see whether a pane was really clean. It was early evening, but we were still on daylight savings time, so the sun was bright enough to illuminate all the streaks on the glass. My mother worked silently, stepping back every now and then to eye the pane for smudges. My father was nagging Alex about sending off for college applications. “You’ll get an idea of what they’re looking for,” he said. Something about the way his voice came from the other side of the window, punctuated by squeaks as he dried the glass with the cotton rags my mother had torn from old sheets, made the remark seem even more annoying than it was.
“There’ll be plenty of time if I want to do them.”
“What do you mean, if?”
“I mean maybe there’re other things I might like to do.” Alex’s voice on the other side of the pane seemed far away, as if he were shouting from inside a box. “Chuck said he thought there’d be enough work for the two of us if I stuck around here.” Chuck Snypes was the carpenter Alex sometimes helped on weekends.
“That’s a fine idea.” My father’s rag squeaked as he bore down on a resistant streak. “You can work half-days and spend all your afternoons chewing tobacco at the speedway like Chuck. Then nights you can go to Bobby’s Chicken King and see how many beers you and the other over-grown dropouts can polish off.”
Alex had stopped working. I saw his sponge drop into the bucket. “I told Chuck I’d think about it, and I will.”
“This is the craziest of all the half-baked schemes you’ve come up with, and I’ve heard you come up with some pretty wild ones.”
Alex said something under his breath.
“What did you say?”
“I heard what you said.”
“Then why’d you ask me.”
“I want an apology. Now.”
My father started down his ladder, a step at a time. My mother had stopped washing the inside window and was staring towards the pane as if my father’s descending head were a particularly troublesome smudge. Looking down, I saw that Alex had stepped off his own ladder to meet my father. My father was 62, a good head shorter than Alex, and there was something almost comical about the confident way this figure approached my husky brother, obviously expecting him to give way. Suddenly I knew that this time Alex wasn’t going to back down.
My mother raised the clean window and put her head out. “Stan,” she said, “Alex, I can’t stand this.”
That night Alex refused to come down to dinner, and I went to his room. He was rocking on his skateboard in the middle of the bedroom, something he had been forbidden to do.
“What do you want?” he asked.
I was hurt. I felt he was classing me with our parents, when all I wanted was to make peace. “I came to see if you wanted something to eat. There’s a piece of baked chicken left. It’s the thigh.”
“They’ll know if it’s gone.”
“I’ll say I ate it.”
“Nah, they’ll know. I’m not hungry anyway.” But he was softened. “Can you believe what he said to me?” Alex burst out It occurred to me that my father was probably asking this same question of my mother downstairs.
“I think he’s worried about you,” I said.
“He’s not worried about me. He just wants to show I have to do what he says. Do you think it’s fair for him to order me around like I’m five years old?”
For some reason it was hard for me to focus on this question. I didn’t know what was fair. It was not that I saw two sides to the question; I simply had no opinion on the issue at all. It hadn’t occurred to me until Alex asked that I ought to have one. All I knew was that I wanted the two of them to stop upsetting the whole house. “Do what you want,” I said. “Just don’t rile him. You know how he is.”
When I went downstairs to get the chicken thigh, my mother was pouring a gin and tonic. It was my father’s favorite drink on warm nights. “How’s Alex,” she said evenly.
“He’s OK.” I opened the refrigerator and got out the Pyrex dish with the leftovers, and my mother got out a spatula to lift the thigh onto one of the rose plates. “I think he’s calmed down.”
My mother looked at me and nodded.
It may not have been Mrs. Klesmer’s appeal to her husband that reminded me of my mother after all. Maybe it was the way she assumed a complicity between the two of us.
The next day the opthalmologist put drops in my father’s eyes. My mother was nervous. “Maybe you’d better let Alex drive,” she said. Alex had just gotten his license, and I knew he wanted to drive. But he wouldn’t ask. He resented the way my father held the use of the car over his head.
“I told you I’m fine.”
“Maybe we should ask the doctor,” said my mother, “just to be sure.”
“I’m perfectly capable of judging whether or not I can see.”
My mother didn’t dare to object. No one else ever drove when my father was in the car.
We’d done this drive home from Raleigh a million times. The empty farm produce stands and tobacco barns disappeared as it got darker, and I was impressed finally by the distances between the lights of dwellings which our passing car failed to draw together. It is impossible for me to say I was not asleep when our car swerved off the road. A light screeched going by us and my mother’s hand shot out to shield me as we jolted down an embankment. She used to do that when I was a toddler and my father slammed on brakes at a stop sign. I felt a flash of irritation at her futile reflex; didn’t she understand that there was nothing any of us could do? A tree rose in the headlights. My father spun the wheel but the car plunged straight on. A sudden rise of ground bucked us to the left, and we stopped just beyond the pine. It was quiet. I touched my chest, then my thigh. My father must have been yelling at Alex for some time when I finally focused on his words. At first I only heard the sound of his voice: high-pitched, like an old man’s. “Don’t you ever do that again,” he was saying. “What were you trying to do, grabbing the wheel like that? Don’t you know you almost got us all killed?”
“I almost got us killed? Another two seconds and we’d have hit that car head-on if I hadn’t got us out of his lane.”
My father turned around to stare at my mother and me. “Frances,” he said to my mother, “You saw what happened. Tell him.”
Alex turned around too; they were both staring at us. “Yeah, Ma, tell what happened.”
Later when they produced coherent stories, my father claimed that Alex had suddenly reached over, grabbed the steering wheel and turned us down the embankment, endangering my mother and me for no reason at all. Alex said my father had let the car drift to the wrong side of the road—my brother had jerked the wheel himself just in time to avert a head-on collision. At first no one was interested in my account, and later I said I had been asleep, which might as well have been true. I remember nothing of the minutes preceding the accident and very little of the event itself. After all these years I have almost forgotten the words my father yelled at my brother, and the accusations Alex hurled back. What sticks with me, however, is the face of my mother, called to judge between her husband and son and determined somehow still to be a bridge between them.
She said my father had been in the right lane—the other driver had drifted to the wrong side of the road. So my brother’s intervention had been necessary, but my father had not been at fault. All the way home her voice filled the silence between my father and Alex. She took the other driver to task, berated his carelessness. “Can you believe that they let people like that out on the road?” she demanded of us. Probably, she said, he was drunk. By the time we turned into our drive she had made him real for the four of us—an intoxicated fool who had almost killed us all. I resented him myself, fiercely.
Shortly after that my mother founded the Stanton chapter of MADD. For ten years now I have occasionally found myself at some ladies’ group, listening to my mother. It is our responsibility as women, she tells us, to protect our families. No one else is going to prevent harm to those we love. Are we prepared, she asks us, to do what is necessary to lock men like that up where they belong?
When the phone rang that night, Harold was telling me again what he was going to do to Klesmer. Harold was going to see a lawyer first thing in the morning, that is, if he didn’t haul off and hit the guy first.
“He’s an old man,” I said.
“He’s a bully,” said Harold. “He’s spent his life pushing pitchers around, playing hardball on contracts. You can tell.”
Of course it was Mrs. Klesmer. “I’ll get my husband,” I said. I knew she wanted to talk to me, but I wanted to hear what she would say.
She was straight in her own way, you had to give her that. “Actually,” she said, “I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to say how sorry I was that things got out of hand this afternoon. And I wanted you to know that there’s really no question of our asking you to move before your time is up. Of course you must stay through the end of your lease.” She paused. “Jack gets carried away sometimes and says things that he really doesn’t mean.”
I felt sorry for her. “Of course,” I said, “I understand.”
This encouraged her to get down to the hard part. “I thought you would understand. Jack gets riled, and it sometimes takes awhile for him to calm down. You know men.” I wondered if I did. “He’s still so charged up”—here she gave a charming laugh, modulated and well-bred—”that I’ve thought it’s better not to say too much to him right now. We’ll give him a chance to cool down. It would help if nothing more happened to get his back up. I thought you might talk to your husband and explain to him that it’s best just to let some things go by.” She left me an opening here, which I ignored. “I can assure both of you,” Mrs. Klesmer said, “that things will work out in the end. The condominium actually belongs to me, you know, even though Jack has always handled all our business arrangements.”
Mrs. Klesmer sounded so natural and easy that I wondered what it had actually cost her to go behind her husband’s back in this fashion. To apologize indirectly for his behavior without actually saying that the man was overbearing. Klesmer didn’t deserve any consideration, but surely her delicacy did. All I had to do was somehow stop Harold from lashing out at Klesmer’s unfairness. I didn’t want to do this, but it seemed impossible to ignore her appeal. I started to assure her that I would see what I could do.
But then I got angry. And not at Klesmer. At her. What right did she have to front for her bully of a husband? What right did she have to put me in this position? I fairly shook with an old rage which died as I pictured her kind, pleading face. I had said the necessary thing so many times that I was no longer sure what was true.