Backstory — Part I: Extended Family
In the old days, novels were often serialized in magazines. This is a long short story, serialized in a blog. I don’t know how long it will go on. Like many of those earlier authors, the first parts were published before the conclusions were even written. Wish me luck.
PART ONE: EXTENDED FAMILY
He reached over her shoulder to the other side of the bed and turned the light back on.
She said, “What the hell was that?”
“Beats me,” he answered, with an edge to his nonchalance, “I’ll go check.”
She pulled her blouse back around her and began rebuttoning and he stood up slowly so as not to surprise any organs.
They heard it again. A sound like a slamming door downstairs. He had just gotten to the point he could pretend that they hadn’t really heard anything at all when the second noise came.
He moved slowly to the hall and tried to tiptoe while not letting his thighs get too close together. Another door slammed; this time it was a refrigerator followed by the pfft of a beer can being opened.
“Stuart? Is that you?” He tried to shake his aching scrotum into a looser part of his pants.
“Hey, Bob. You still up?” The downstairs light clicked on, drowning the scene. Stuart stood squinting in the kitchen door with a can of beer in one hand and a large stuffed animal in the other. He held up the bear, a parody female stuffed bear with furry boobs and blond rayon hair, and said, a little too loudly, “I brought this home for Mia. She can mate it with T-Boar …” T-Boar was Mia’s teddy bear and as obviously male, in Mia’s eyes, as this bear was female in Stuart’s. Mia was nine then. Her mother, buttoned up and walking down the stairs, was 32 and her relationship with Stuart was ambiguous. They were married.
Bob looked at Stuart and then at Esther and tried to figure out where he now stood. “I thought you were going to be gone for a week. What happened to the interview?”
He was about to blurt out, “It’s not what you think,” but it was.
“He died before I ever got there. It was in the papers.”
Stuart took another slug of his Bud. Bob waited for him to say something but he never did.
“Where’s Mia?” Stuart addressed Esther.
“She’s with Dan for the weekend.” Dan was Mia’s father.
Seemingly satisfied with the answer, but a bit disappointed, he dropped the bear on the table and asked, “Is there anything left to eat?”
“Some chili in the fridge. I’ll heat it up if you want.”
“Thanks, Muffin. I’ll do it myself.” Bob still said nothing. He thought it best not to press the matter.
A month later, he still hadn’t pressed the matter, but he had moved in. At first, Esther slept most nights with Stuart, but increasingly, she went to Bob’s room. It got to be something of a game, or rather a cross between a game and a social custom. Esther always went to bed first. Some nights, she walked toward the front of the house — good news for Bob — some nights, she walked toward the back bedroom and Bob would make a little grimace. Stuart never showed anything one way or the other, and that’s what finally decided the matter for Esther.
Stuart walked out of his bedroom early on Saturday, stretching his arms wildly, like he needed to yank himself from sleep. The clock said 5. He could hear Bob snoring in his room with Esther, but that made no impression on him. It was two months now since Esther had spent a full night with him, and he seemed to be getting used to it.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Stuart filled the coffeepot and stretched some lardy bacon rashers into a frypan. Outside, the yellow on the eastern horizon made a band in which the crescent moon was frying, spattering stars like grease across the night. Out of the rattle of refrigerator steerage, he pulled a carton of orange juice and poured a glass and downed it and poured another.
As he turned the bacon and counted out a couple of eggs, Mia walked into the room carrying the morning paper from the front steps.
“I didn’t hear you get up,” he said to Mia.
She didn’t say anything.
“No school today, is there?”
“Want some breakfast?”
She sat down and pulled her legs up to her chest and held her knees against her face.
“We got bacon and eggs …”
“Why is Mama doing it?”
“… You like your coffee black?” Stuart tried to avoid the question.
“Doesn’t she like you anymore?”
“Mia, have some juice.”
“Bob is such a nerd.” Stuart wasn’t sure what to say. Bob was a nerd as far as he was concerned, but since Bob was likely to become Mia’s newest live-in father figure, he didn’t want to say anything prejudicial.
The two of them sat there in the kitchen and Stuart thought of how close he felt to Mia, how she always made him smile and how Bob now treated her. Bob had no use for kids. Bob looked forward to those weekends Mia spent with her father; Stuart dreaded them.
“Let me put some vodka in your juice; that’ll make you feel better,” he said. Mia turned her head to him and giggled.
We need to talk a little bit about Bob, because he will soon disappear from this story. He was six feet tall, with sandy hair and slightly wide hips. He walked with a swagger which Stuart thought was unearned. The part he played in Mia’s upbringing was negligible, except as a negative example. He was an accountant. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; many nice people are accountants.
But Bob was a very ordinary man. He paid his taxes and wore a white shirt and tie. This was for Esther the very soul of his attractiveness. But it was also the reason he would be out the door by the end of the year.
Stuart lifted up Esther’s arm and threw it over his shoulder.
She knew what he wanted and wrapped her other arm around his other shoulder and pulled his face in to hers and puffed lightly on his beard.
“Do you want a divorce?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I could just leave. Maybe check back in six months.”
“I don’t know.”
“Has Bob said anything?”
“Yeah, he wants me to kick you out.”
“Makes me want to kick him out.”
She started rubbing his back. He reached around her and began rubbing his thumbnail gently up and down the crease along her backbone.
“He thinks I should decide for him and leave you off. But I don’t know if I really want him.”
“Well, I dunno … You’ve seen how hard he works, and have you ever heard him laugh? I mean, really laugh. Life isn’t all play and bumming around like it is for you. But maybe if he played a little.”
She let go of Stuart.
“You don’t sound very happy with either of us.”
“Maybe not,” she said.
“I still love you,” he said, regretting it instantly.
“What you say?”
“Well, I, uh … I, I still, uh, love mmm uh … you.”
“Why didn’t you say that months ago?” She smiled. Not at him, but just smiled.
“I didn’t want to, well, uh, influence you or …”
“Don’t be a shithead.”
Esther untied her bathrobe and shared with Stuart what he loved.
Mia never was too happy with the arrangement. Not that the adults argued: just the opposite. No one said anything and Mia didn’t know what to expect next. Stuart was her only adult friend and she felt in danger of losing him. Esther never talked about it.
Stuart didn’t either, but he was funny.
“What makes human beings different from animals,” he asked.
“They have names,” Mia said.
“Animals have names, too,” Stuart said.
“I don’t know,” she said, twisting her head back with a goofy sort of smile.
“When I was your age, I learned that what separated us from the monkeys was that we made tools.”
“But some years later, Jane Goodall ruined that theory when she discovered chimpanzees poked sticks down termite nests to pull out a tasty gob of bugs to eat.”
“When I was in college, a stuffed shirt teacher told me that humans were the only animals that used language.
“But now, not only are some gorillas using sign language — and more articulately than many politicians — but scientists are striving to learn the languages of dolphins and whales.”
“Whales can talk?”
“What do they say?”
“I don’t know. Maybe, ‘Here I am, come get me,’ or ‘Haven’t I seen you here before?’
“And Honeybees dance to talk.”
Mia considered this bit of information while Stuart circled in for a landing at his main point.
“But there is something that humans do that nothing else in the universe, so far as we know, can duplicate.
“Human beings are crazy to poke sticks into the ground.”
“Look around you. There are sticks everywhere. Streetlights. Traffic signs. Mile markers.
“Go to the most godforsaken plain in North Dakota and you will see lines of fence poles stretching out to the horizons.
“We are a species mad about sticks.
“Flags on golf greens. Citronella poles in back yards. Surveyors’ stakes. Bean poles and tomato stakes. Crosses in front of churches. Maypoles.
“We can hardly play a game without plunging a pole into the ground: goal posts, foul poles, supports for basketball hoops and tennis nets. You can’t even play croquet without sticks in the ground.
“And it’s not just now I’m talking about. In the Bible, Aaron’s rod was stuck into the ground and sprouted. Sioux Indians had to place a pole in the ground for their Sun Dance. Hey, and digging sticks. Totem Poles. Prayer sticks…
“We travel 169,000 miles to the moon and what do we do? Plop down a flagpole and take our photo beside it.
“You can’t walk 30 yards in this town and not see some pole drilled into the dirt: street signs; business signs.
“We have turned our planet into a porcupine.”
Mia laughed. She liked to laugh at Stuart. She didn’t always know what he was talking about, but she knew he was funny.
“But didn’t you say chimpanzees stick sticks in the ground for termites?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I’m wrong, then. Never mind.”
Mia had her own theory.
“Human beings are the only animals who use toilet paper,” she said.
That seemed to make Stuart happy. He would steal that line.
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.
“No,” said Mia.
“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck.
“But it isn’t always love that dies,” he said.
“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” Mia asked. Now just in high school, she was reading Shakespeare.
“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”
“But can’t love end happily?” Mia wanted that possibility, perhaps because in her life, she had seen love die for her mother too many times. It shouldn’t be like that.
“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other or both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”
“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”
“No, Mia, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.”
“But Romeo didn’t have to die,” Mia said.
“Yes, he did,” Stuart thought Mia would have caught on. She is very bright. Gets good grades. Gets his jokes.
“Romeo didn’t have to die like he did,” he admitted, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”
It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart never saw a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.
The one thing that separated Stuart most from the Bobs of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life. The sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.
The joke was, of course, that it is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.
“That is truly depressing,” Mia made a sour face.
Esther now lived with Wayne. Wayne was an actor. Or thought he was. Bob didn’t last out the summer when Mia was nine. Bob was too dull for anyone.
It was a few months later that Esther found Will. Will was in real estate.
After Will, there was Ed, the cabbie, another Ed, the teacher, a second Bob, but he liked to be called Robert, and finally, Wayne.
Love died often for Esther. Mia never had time to settle comfortably with any of these unofficial stepfathers. Stuart remained the closest thing she had to a stable male influence in her short life, and that was pathetic, considering how unstable Stuart was.
He would take off for months at a time. Once for a whole year. Stuart tried other jobs, other cities. Nothing took.
He was back in town. He didn’t like Wayne any more than he liked the others. This time, he rented a duplex on the north side of town and got a job at the bookpacking warehouse. All day long, packing books in boxes and labeling them. Schoolbooks mostly. Sent to high schools. Junior College bookstores. Books weigh a lot. Stuart was in the best shape of his life.
Each night, after work, Stuart stopped in the tavern and had a beer. Or two. Some nights, he stopped by to see Mia. Sometimes to see Esther. Sometimes on weekends, he took Mia overnight so Esther could have some privacy with Wayne.
“Wanna beer?” he offered one to Mia when they got to his apartment. She giggled like she always did when offered something illicit. She knew Stuart was joking.
“You know, sometimes love doesn’t die soon enough,” she said.
“Sometimes it seems to hang around long after it starts stinking.” She was thinking of Wayne. Of Bob, Ed, Ed and Robert. Even of Dan, who she now saw only once a year or so. Her biological father had moved to California, remarried and had two new children to take care of.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I just did.”
I suppose it’s time to bring up Mia’s grandmother. Esther’s mom.
One looks for a beginning, a cause.
Before every story, there is a long backstory. And after every story, there is an eternity of sequel.
Esther liked to think of her mom as the cause of her fragmented life. But we could look to her mom’s parents to find the cause of that, and to their parents to find their causes.
One of the lies of our belief that we are the protagonist in our own novel is that our story is just the crest of one wavelet in a very large ocean. It starts before we can find any records. It continues through us. We are only a conduit for something perpetual that flows through us, or through which we flow. One bead on a string. One button on a fly. The sum of all that went before us. And god knows what we cause in those that follow. All racing somewhere. The future? Meaning? Apocalypse? Entropy?
Ether’s mom lived happily with the same man for 57 years. Esther’s father didn’t live happily, but he hung on.
Her name was Naomi. His was Morris. He was in the garment industry. He was a good provider. He was short, bald and wore wool suits. He was a lady’s man, although Naomi never knew about it. And he was a firm believer in the sanctity of marriage. Not, as you can see, in the sanctity of genitals, but in the contractual nature of marriages. It was a deal he made, and he was going to keep his word.
For Naomi, it meant she had a life of security — or felt she had — and it let her live a life so normal in its accessories and appurtenances, that she almost disappeared. For, to be normal is to be invisible. It is a fact of physics.
She disappeared in her lady’s club — always elected recording secretary — she disappeared in her PTA. She disappeared in her temple, in Hadassah.
She could be counted on to bring something to the covered dish supper, but no one could remember which dish was hers.
Morris spent all day on Third Avenue, keeping track of inventory. He took a short lunch, often at the Chinese buffet. And on those nights when he wasn’t “working late” and taking some other woman to a show, he came home, ate his pot roast, patted Esther on the head, asked her how her schoolwork was going, took the pocket watch out of his vest pocket and put it down on the dresser after winding it for the last time of the day, and kissed Naomi goodnight. On the forehead.
The magic of childhood is that we believe everything we encounter is normal. We can never know what life is like for others, and our own is the meter-stick we use to measure by. Esther believed the ritual rhythms of normality were those that beat in her home.
And she hated it. Hated every moment of it. She wanted drama. She wanted excitement. She wanted novelty. It never came.
Routine makes life navigable, but it puts no spice in the soup.
Esther didn’t know about her father’s alternate life, at least not until much later, after her mother was dead. She believed Morris and Naomi were the two most boring people on the skin of the planet.
In this tale, we decline to dig deeper into the strata, to find out what defined Naomi: Her parents’ life that was anything but normal, that ended for many of their family behind wire fences in Poland. Her parents had passed as Catholic in Vienna before the war, but got out as soon as they could see history’s great, steel-toed boot waiting to stomp.
We won’t go into that, or into the lives of their parents, who left Russia, or their parents, or the parents before them. We could ride that trolley all the way back to Eve, no doubt, with stops in Egypt and Babylon.
No, we’ll just stay with Naomi and her young Esther, longing for something more than macaroni and cheese.
When Esther met Dan in college, she didn’t see macaroni. She saw sex.
It came over her like a caffeine rush.
Away from home, free to thumb her nose at normality, she found Dan and his arms, his eyes, his brains and his penis. Dan found his penis, too. When two young people discover their bodies together, it can be like a freight train. It was for them.
In the morning, in the evening. In the spring time, in between time.
It is another of the universe’s little jokes that the discovery of copulation fools its discoverers into believing they have found the path out of banality, into a world so alive, so exciting, that they alone are the possessors of it. Only they have penetrated the mysteries, only they can save the world from K marts and time cards. If they only recognized that everyone in the world feels and thinks exactly the same thing, they would see the joke in it. They don’t. The cosmos cannot allow it.
So, their two-backed globe spun like a top, spinning magic into their lives. Escaping Naomi, thought Esther — or rather, she didn’t think it so much as embody it.
And so, Esther and Dan got married.
We probably want to backtrack here a little to pick up Stuart. He is the other focus of this elliptical story.
Stuart never had a normal moment in his life and even if he did, he wouldn’t have recognized it as it passed. Stuart was the second of four brothers: His elder brother, Bernard, was a doctor. His youngest, Michael, was still in school, getting his third or fourth Ph.D. The fourth, was no longer there; Sam shot himself, holding a shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger with a thumb. Sam’s girlfriend had called Stuart first, so he became the one who had to handle it with the police, the funeral home — he had to phone his other brothers.
We don’t have time to get into it here, but Stuart wound up with his dead brother’s girlfriend for a while afterwards. That didn’t help.
Stuart did not share his surviving brothers’ drive for accomplishment. Stuart liked being “unstructured.” Being loose, unstuck. Aimless.
It was something of a syndrome with his generation. You could list those he went to college with. It makes dismal reading. There are success stories, but there are many tales of communes, co-ops and always further graduate work. It seems that Stuart’s class had a very hard time slipping into the mainstream of American life.
And the tales that don’t even make it to the alumni journal are even hair raising. Puddy Bigsby lived with a man 12 years her junior because she was afraid of getting old. Paula Wayne had two children from different fathers and then took up with a Puerto Rican silversmith near Philadelphia. JB went to England working for Scientology, dunning members for unpaid dues. David Janson nearly didn’t survive several bouts of hepatitis from rusty needles. Cathy Landermann lived with her man and several other couples in a shanty without heat or running water and made what little money she could from selling lemonade at rock concerts during intermissions. After going through eight or nine religions, Steve Winslow became a Roman Catholic and planned to take lay orders in the one remaining Latin-speaking brotherhood. Walter Formen became a Buddhist in Colorado and studied with the Rinpoche and Allen Ginsberg. Cathy Wagstaff drove a delivery truck for a feminist co-op in Seattle and pretended, none too successfully, to be a lesbian. Donald Sparrow drifted through a couple of terms in the Peace Corps, not knowing what to do after graduating. He drifted into a Masters degree and stayed on at Indiana University as an adjunct faculty member, grading correspondence course Spanish papers. Kathy Emerson had as many different jobs as Stuart had and became a part-time librarian, pretending, none too successfully, not to be a lesbian. She never even got her drivers license.
I could go on for pages naming people from a whole generation, and these people were not the dregs, but the best and the brightest of those years. They were all potential straight-A students.
There was Helen of Syracuse, Mary Staram of South Dakota, Judy Castleman of UNC-G. Doug Mason in Seattle riding a bicycle as a delivery boy and later as a part time sales clerk in a wine store, using his diploma from the University of Virginia as shelf paper. Michael Jones in Seattle changing jobs like underwear and lamenting that he could never stay with a woman more than six months. Robin Randleman changed from swing band dancer to floral arranger to half-time zoo keeper, living on a houseboat in the middle of the city, leaving her husband and searching for a replacement. She could never figure out what she was looking for. After a brief tryout, it wasn’t Stuart.
So, he was just one more molecule among many floating in brownian motion through the ’70s and into the ’80s.
When he met Esther, she had been divorced from Dan three years, and had a three-year-old child, Mia, who Esther wasn’t entirely sure what to do about.
Here, we should mention the odd tides in the universe that wash two such people together: She looking for somebody who wasn’t normal and finding her perfect match in Stuart; he, drifting into commitment because he didn’t recognize it as it approached him.
He knew he liked Mia.
“The world is filled with republicans,” Stuart said.
“That is, it is filled with republicans with a lowercase ‘r’ — they are the white-bread people. They make none of the art but buy most of it. They are those who never question socks, meatloaf or the existing world order. This has nothing to do with political parties. By my definition, Ted Kennedy is a republican. For that matter, so is Brezhnev.
“They are the men in the blue suits who turn the world gray.”
Stuart had begun once again. This time, it was for Esther, and Esther was buying.
“Those engaged in party politics cannot understand this. The recent fight between liberals and conservatives is only a parochial fight on a narrow issue between two groups that don’t really disagree much. It is like the vicious infighting between certain communist and socialist parties: They had rather kill their own over which end of the egg to crack.
“Jesse Helms and Jimmy Carter agree on almost everything; they are both the progeny of Plato, Aquinas, Tom Paine, the French Revolution, Horatio Alger and Lucy Ricardo. They both wear suits and ties. To my knowledge, neither has ever worn a fez (with the possible exception of Helms looking for votes at a Shriners’ convention).
“And ‘convention’ may be the operative word here. The horizon of the republican is very narrow, very conventional. Three squares a day, square rooms, square windows, square TV screens. From inside the culture, it can be very hard to see just how similar Carter and Helms are. We all swim in our culture like fish unaware of the water.
“But step outside and look back, and the squabbling becomes risible.
“From our position outside, we look at all the factions that turned Beirut into a concrete Swiss cheese and wonder, how could they shoot at each other? Can’t they see how they are all so much the same? We sure can’t tell them all apart, even with the help of McNeil and Lehrer.
“But to a Maldive Islander, Helms in his suit is the twin of Carter in his. They are both republicans.”
Was ever a woman with this humor wooed? Was ever a woman with this humor won?
Even Stuart must have realized that, for most people, this would be strange pillow talk. Esther wrapped her arms around Stuart’s right arm, holding on to it in bed as he held forth.
“That means they both tend to look at problems in the old ways, come up with old answers, even when dressing them in new words, and pretty much expect that the world they grew up in is the world they will send their grandchildren into.
“When you are interested only in answers, as politicians are, you tend not to notice that the questions change.
“So when I hear a politician talking about ‘imaginative answers,’ I break out laughing. He should better search for imaginative questions. The answers usually take care of themselves.”
It was hard to know how much of this Stuart actually believed. He often rode a verbal jag like a surfer on a 12-foot wave, curling this way and that before either he or the wave gives out, or until he loses his balance and falls off.
“Is there any difference at all between blue eye shadow and Sioux war paint? Between pierced ears and pierced nipples? Why does anyone think one form is acceptable and another barbarism? Convention.
“The republicans say there is no virtue in being different just to be different. But I say there is. It is a sign of being alive.”
Mia is the perimeter around the two foci. We should look at her, too.
Born to two very bright parents, she wasn’t the mean of their IQs but the sum of them added together. Tall for her age, whatever age it was through her life, and slim, she learned before school how to read. She walked before she was two and she outgrew the Three Stooges by the time she was three.
Luckily for Mia, she didn’t know she was smart. She just thought — like all kids do — that she was normal.
She was too young to understand why her dad wasn’t there: At three, she just assumed a family had a mother and a child and a series of visiting men. She hadn’t really come to know Dan. Perhaps a psychologist would tell us she had been traumatized by the divorce, but Mia never felt it, if it were true.
And when her mom started bringing home this gangly, hairy man who told jokes all the time, she just assumed that’s how fathers were gathered by mothers.
To Be Continued
I quite enjoyed this first part of the story and look forward to reading more.
I liked this first part of your story and look forward to reading more. I am worried for Mia, however, and dread what I am afraid is going to be dark and sad. but I feel compelled to find out!