Last words & epigraphs
Buy Gargoyle online
This work first appeared in Gargoyle, issue #22/23. Please respect the fact that this material is copyrighted. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose without the express consent of the author or artist.
An hour and a half after sunrise I was down from taking pictures and my parents were in Virginia cloth finishing breakfast. They'd finished. They were having additional coffee, in boiling-point fractions of cups. My mother was wearing a limegreen dress of Virginia cloth with a pleated front, my father a beige shirt (and bowtie). He was dunking anise biscuits his sister sent.
By Virginia cloth I mean the fabric much clothing is made of in our state. It's a tightly woven cotton, very thin, very pliant. You imagine that after being loomed it's farmed out to people who hammer it, wash it in lye soap and hang it in the weather. It never appears in bright colors. Yet in the clear air among the greens and blues it suits. My mother's dresses and blouses gave the effect of leaves on a stream,
"Such ambition," I said, though they were always up at six. I set my camera stuff down on the mat with the garden shoes. I was nineteen, home from college for a few days in October. "The appointment's not till nine-thirty, is it?" My father and I were to go ask the bank for money for second semester. As a school principal he could take the morning off. My mother didn't work outside the home except at church free.
She looked up as if licking a stamp. Her hair was still quite black. When it turned gray it would turn all at once, not one strand at a time. She kept it a little too short because her beautician told her that like pruning a bush this thickened it. "Do you want your breakfast first or your shower?"
"Yea, son, sit down, have some breakfast." My father, one of the last of the great eaters, always fit, crunched into another biscuit. He sonned his son and daughter-of-mined his daughter. She, Nan, one of the last of the great sleepers, was upstairs in my old bed, not due for hours. "We even have Earl Grey tea."
Abashed, my mother looked out the window, where the branches of the maple tree, my exact contemporary, crowded the porch.
"Yea," he huffed. He reached into the pocket of his sport-jacket, which he'd hung, foursquare, over his chair. He shook his head vigorously. "Nine forty-five last night?" --closing on their bedtime--"your mother got worried that we didn't have Earl Grey since you always drink it for breakfast."
"Oh come on."
"No, that's right." He pitched his voice lower. "So . . . race down to Kroger." Kroger stayed open late, on Thursdays. "Whew. I'm deducting the amount from your check."
"Please, it's just that there's no way to get a real breakfast, so I do strong tea."
Now she turned her gaze to me saying with it: consider, consider.
He lit up his pipe, shook the match, and checking her for an interdiction lofted the first sharp cape of smoke, Blair House.
The night before on the way out of town I'd stopped at the Donut Hole on the bypass and spent a while watching the girl who worked there, exchanged a few phrases with her. On the one hand she talked up a storm with the customers. She laughed pointedly. On the other she didn't seem to be exactly present. At the breakfast table I was thinking about her more than I had a right to.
"Lou," my mother warned. A bird's wings hit the jalousie like a wad of paper as the bird, a bluejay, came to the feeder, unbalancing it. When it took off the branch rapped the siding. "Well, I wouldn't mind seeing Skip Terry myself this morning," she said. He was known as good-looking and was running for church council and school board at once, the steppingstones.
I said, "I was thinking maybe it'd be better if I went on and went by myself."
"Shoot," she said and rammed her chair back. She walked into the kitchen, clicked a button on the range, and filled my cup--our cups belonged--with boiling water.
My father brushed crumbs onto his plate with the bottom of his pipe hand. "Well, son, she and I agree, since I used to work with Skip, that might tip it."
"I was thinking it might be more persuasive to speak for myself."
She rang the cup of tea down in front of me. Its aroma, never more like rank fruitcake, overwhelmed that of the bacon. "Yes, my land," she said. "Great."
Later as we left she ran to the door and pointed out a late oriole picking up seeds frittered off the feeder. "Have you seen him before, Lou?" Straight on her glasses magnified her eyes greatly.
"No, sure haven't."
"Well he's simply amazing."
In the side yard my father had burlapped the fig trees, the only ones in the area, already. On the coldest days of winter he would stow an oil lamp inside with each.
The Valiant was that year's when the Valiant looked like a sculpture of eyebrows. Our road, lined with nice pines--also my age, the development having opened shortly before I was born--ran up a considerable hill to Lindhurst Road. The power company had cut the grown pines into wrench shapes. Virginia macadam is the blackest in the country, the dividing lines the whitest, yellowest. Lindhurst ran into Wayne, pure Virginia macadam, and Wayne, four hopeful lanes, into the downtown then out to the bypass. The macadam imparted no sound to the tires. Over level Wayne Avenue arched yellow-brown chestnuts all the way to the post office. The town paid a man, Grady Mill, to edge and rake town curbs according to the season.
"Did you get the shots you wanted?" He rolled the window down a notch to vent smoke. "What were you taking? I know," he growled; he smacked my leg, "you can't talk about such things."
"No--just trying to capture a certain aspect." I would have had to explain wanting to show people in secret and that with a cold heart photography seemed the way.
"Yea, yea, Tell me, what aspect?"
My right arm lay across my lap, my left over the back of the seat. "That bare line of Loft Mountain, a lot of sky, just a couple trees, and then the glow. Not dawn. I mean right before the top of the sun emerges." I'd overexposed the pictures to have the ridge and trees appear ghostlike in a grainy radiance but I didn't want to explain that either. My father liked a frontal view of a person from the shoes up. He liked "Miscellany" at the back of Life, where, for instance, the lens made a horse appear to have eight legs.
He pulled into a space, got out and thumbed pennies into the meter. "What about your character studies?"
"This is a character study."
"Of who, you and Liz?"
"I guess, if you want to be specific." I imagined people left prints on emptiness, that if you shot a bedroom the disturbance in the sheets showed those who had disturbed them. This was a fad in the photography magazines. If you shot a mountaintop with a lot of sky you showed people who'd lain looking at the sky at that location.
"The studies I didn't like were the Dupont workers with smokestacks coming out of their heads."
"That was intentional."
Because of the elevation and time of year the light lay pale on the sidewalk; the shadow side of the street was curtained in blue. A woman in a dress of Virginia cloth--a print like powdery wallpaper--and a sweater the lightest pink, crossed to greet us.
"Hey, Ruby, remember my boy?"
She pulled her sweater around. "He doesn't remember me."
I did remember her the moment I saw her husband across the street. The girl who had been working at the Donut Hole walked past him in medium heels and a suit, russet, a grown up little package. When he crossed his arms watching her I remembered them from county teacher meetings I'd been taken to, the Aldhizers. The girl flounced more than I wanted her to, fussed with her pocketbook. She went into Garst's stationery.
Stepping out of the shadow Mr. Aldhizer crossed, fluttering his hand on his trouser pocket. As he shook mine he took stock, jauntily, through steelframe glasses. Then the man we were supposed to see, Terry, came out of the stationery store. He and I noticed each other, recognized each other--he had taught me physics and driver's ed.--but pretended not to. He put a hand to his tieknot. He put something in his mouth. He shook his suitjacket sleeves down. Looking at the jacket it seemed too large for him but looking at his back and arms they seemed too large for the jacket. His reflection shot ahead on the banked window of the next store then doubled back then went high into the corner behind him.
"I'd put something on the side of her head Ajax won't take away," Mr. Aldhizer said.
"John, how did the company decide on . . . ," my father began.
Mr. Aldhizer looked back across the street. "They messed up on us pretty bad, Lou."
My father shook his head.
"We're enjoying your peppers, Lou," Mrs. Aldhizer put in. At the end of summer my father sent around jars of hot peppers from the garden, although the people here don't generally eat hot food. At someone's house once I saw years of unopened jars, the pigment separated out into solid plugs.
"You and Edna come see us," Mr. Aldhizer said. "And Glen if he's home."
As we walked up the block my father asked, "You're not nervous about this?"
"Really, I'm not."
Built of cement the color of the sidewalk and with flatly linteled windows and square columns flush to its front the First and Merchants didn't catch shadows except mornings that of the overhang of the Cline building roof next to it. The lobby went the two floors up; there were pillars and a mezzanine of glassed-in offices. The air was perpetually hazy, as if the Chamber of Commerce held smokers in there. Removing his hat my father stopped one by one up the line of tellers. "I wouldn't let mine in the house," Evelyn Armentrout said. An oblong of fluorescent light shone on the counter in front of her.
I said, "Don't worry, I walked straight off the bus into Shorter's." Donnie Shorter was the downtown barber.
"You father's a handsome man."
"Oh come now," he said, rocking back, holding his hat in front. "Let's not get carried away."
She blew at the surface of her coffee. "I'm being perfectly serious."
Her intercom said send us up.
The office fronts were glass from the waist up, the doors full length. The framing recalled cases for mini ball and mineral collections. When Terry shut the door behind us with such care, however, it wasn't out of concern for its delicacy but to show what precision courtesy a big man in his mid-thirties was capable of, to the fingertips. "We look forward to your peppers every year," he opened with.
"Well, this go-round they're a disappointment, a little on the bland side."
"Lou," he said. "Lou," he stage whispered, "keep on disappointing us." He swung his arm around my father's neck. They went grin to grin. "Keep right on breaking our hearts, maybe we can eat a few of the damn things." He winked at me, he patted my father on the belly. That done, he waved us to the chairs while he sidesaddled the front of the desk. He was chewing Lifesavers, Pep-O-Mint. His face was a bit narrow, his features a little bit fine for his size. From coaching junior varsity when he taught and from playing golf he kept a tan, like a light woodstain, year round. His eyes were blue, his suit grassgreen. "Now tell me, y'all getting along all right?"
"Can't complain, as the man says. Wouldn't do no good to."
"Wouldn't do no good to. Nancy like Madison?"
"Very much, thank you, Skip. She's always had a good head on her shoulders. Yea, I guess one out of two's not bad. Just joking, son." He was sorting through pipe, foil pouches and lighter in his pocket.
"Right," I said.
"She always impressed me as a fine young lady."
"They both made it home for the old folks' anniversary."
"What old folks?" He looked back and forth.
"Okay, okay, cut the clowning. Frankly, Skip, that's the reason we're here. Having both in school is a strain on the finances."
"I'm aware of that, I'm awful worried about my own girls time they get there." One leg stirring. He asked me, "What do you expect from that sorry excuse for a football team y'all got?"
"Not a whole lot this year. At least they're not as sorry as some, U. Va., some of those." I had yet to attend a game at school but did follow conversations.
"We'll see about that next weekend I reckon."
"You coming down? We'll see who buys beer. I won't bother bringing money."
"Won't even be necessary."
"Bring your money, boy."
I said, "No point to it."
He said, "Well I'd like to sit yap with y'all all day but I reckon we ought to work around to the business end. Tell me your troubles."
"Actually, they're my troubles."
"Well, Glen, shoot."
My father dipped slightly away, while, on a sort of sine wave, bringing his cupped hand down then up in my direction. Frankly I cared less that Terry could give or not give money than that the girl had gone into Garst's to meet him--what else would he have wanted in a stationery store at nine a.m., a nib for his pen?--to arrange to lay her love on his full platter: that power. He had had and would have it all his life. "It's not too complicated. I'd like to get one of those government-backed loans. I work--I wait tables--it's not really sufficient. I mean I don't need a fortune. A thousand." We'd settled on that figure intending to drop back to seven-fifty, five hundred.
"Can't do it," Terry said, plainly, as if plainly acknowledging the coldness he and I shared.
"That's what we came to find out. So thanks."
"We're not able to, son."
"Fine." I was supposed to mention the cars and homes I would finance with a B.A. I wouldn't meet his eye; I didn't mind the meeting, I minded the angle.
My father readjusted himself, not for leaving, for staying, now that I'd had my fun. He set his hat on his lap, set his pipe, never having lighted it, no ashtrays, on the carpet against the chair leg. He diminished to one of his students in wrinkled flesh, sent to the office. "Skip, as I understand it, if Glen runs out--and I'll have him thrown in jail personally, citizen's arrest--if he runs out you've got me as co-signer. If I run out, if I run off to San Diego with a hoochie-koochie dancer"--he exhaled wetly on punchlines-- "Uncle Sam makes good."
"Lou, don't you know we make twice as much on auto loans? I can show you this directive out of Richmond, tells us to stop doing like we do. It's a hemorrhage on the books." He went behind the desk and flipped through papers in a coil. His wall decorations were civic commandments and a five-foot browntone of Natural Chimneys facing one of Monticello showing the pool.
Stop-traffic sign. "Never mind Exhibit A, so it's doing the customer a favor."
"We're not even doing Dupont DeNemours no more favors no more. How about that?"
"That was pretty good."
"Not doing DeNemours no more favors no more."
"Just for the record . . . " The chair budged, tipping the pipe. "Oh my my," he said, or my mother in him. "Give me a scrap paper, I'll brush up this mess."
"Just leave it, Lou, no problem."
I said, "The bank is poor but they still have janitors, right?"
Finally Terry sat down at his desk, taking a load off us all. "Time being."
My father was fingering the ashes into the pipe bowl.
"Lou, I'm asking you, now."
"Just about got it." He leaned back. "Edna and I've banked here twenty years, first mortgage, second mortgage--too bad there's no such thing as third mortgage--little loans here and there . . . she goes on the warpath for a bedroom suite and next morning I'm right here, signing on the dotted."
"And Frank Blakey told me do everything I can and don't you know if there was any way in this world . . . How's Edna's daddy making it? I haven't seen her to ask since we stopped coming to early service."
"Aw he's having these awful hallucinations, refuses to do right. "
Fine, I thought, now we get out of here. I was sick of his sitting there hands on knees, hat between, Virginia cloth shirt, red bowtie, shoes polished fifty minutes ago. The way he sat there I saw his entire exile among the bland eaters of the Shenandoah Valley. I saw his father before the officer on Ellis Island, quenching himself, any price just to get into this land of the stiff necked, the corn fed. Then to elaborately say, "Come on, give us the darn loan and quit your fooling around."
"I could not ever justify it to the auditors."
Then, "I spent the best years of my life teaching history before they kicked me upstairs."
"Years well spent, anybody in this town will tell you the same." Terry was chewing further back in his mouth. He appeared impatient only to the extent he thought my father wouldn't notice. I could notice if I chose to, and give him credit.
"I wouldn't know." I barely knew.
"No wonder you got through them farmboy skulls better than I could." The telephone buzzed, he answered, not grasping, balancing, the receiver. "Four o'clock would be fine, m'am, meet you at the dealership. Not a speck of trouble."
"Another notion I stressed was how lucky they were to live in a small place where you know the individual histories behind the public events. For example"--he checkmarked the air: "when So-and-So Paving won the Route 340 extension: I explained to them, well, So-and-So, he and the highway department head are old frat brothers, they hunt together, this and that, la de da--So-and-So contributes, handsomely, to Harry Bird: Who gets the contract? Then when So-and-So announced he wasn't running for city council, well, that was because the mayor got scared of him and dug up some of these funny bids. In other words, I told them to rub their little faces in the local dirt then apply it on the national scale. That's history. Do you follow me?"
"I'd love to sit down talk with you; I would." He hadn't quite let go of the phone. He seemed to be considering a new possibility, watchfully, as if having taken one drink but not intending to take another. "I seldom get a good conversation. Especially with someone who can bear on the European view."
"Dad, there's no reason to hang around. A bank's a bank." Talking pedagogy to Terry.
"Keep your shirt on, son," he said, patting out restraint. "Skip, maybe you don't follow this rigamarole, but I'm trying to make a point, a couple points, that in a small town history is your next-door neighbor. Do you see what I'm driving at?"
"Like I say, Lou, I'd love to delve with you, over a pitcher of brew of an evening." Taking me off guard he flashed me some charm, boyish, clear.
"Humor an old man. All I'm saying, first off, is my wife and I have a history with First and Merchants, and I feel you should honor that history."
"If you wanted a dormer window on your house I guarantee the money in five minutes."
"You want me to go on?"
"I'd be interested." He didn't give off impatience anymore. He gave off a heightened nonchalance.
"I wish you'd reconsider."
"I'd be interested in what you have to say." He barely kept his eyes open.
My father put his chin to his chest, and from that declivity looked up to the other man. "Well then, in the second place, you participated in an act, a piece of history, not everybody knows about."
That was one of the saddest things I ever heard him say. It was the most unnecessary. There had been no need whatsoever for him to crawl down to Terry's level--for me? for this, a semester in college? I could have taken leave. If I'd been drafted, I would have acted according to my beliefs and faced the consequences, which I was capable of. My mother was sitting home on the slipcovered couch waiting for us to call but she was hardly liable to crumble if this one more small attempt had failed.
Terry swang sideways in his chair, the bulb of his jaw working, standing out as cleanly as a frogleg muscle. "Lou, I'm assuming you're not referring to an incident dead and buried several years, might as well be a century. I assume you don't want to damage the opinion I have of you to that degree." Three years ago he'd resigned from the school. At four o'clock today he would pick up his new girl somewhere and take her somewhere and tell her about my old man spilling his pride in his office; her old history teacher most likely.
"All right, don't damage your opinion. Just sign the papers." The affable growl.
"I am amazed by you."
"Okay, okay, we'll drop the subject. Let's go back to first base."
"I have no authority to contravene an order from Richmond."
"Come now, Skip."
"Pardon me," he said, swinging back. "Is Glen aware what you're referring to?"
"No, not from me."
"Really, I have no idea."
"What do you think of your daddy doing this?"
"I don't know."
He was at me--"What would you feel if he went to church council and made innuendos, ruined any chance of a future for me here, after I've worked to deserve that future again?"
"I think that's fine."
"You think that's fine. For a thousand-dollar government loan."
"It's fine, I mean I'm sure--"
"You're sure what?"
"I'm sure he'd do the right thing."
Terry reached for the bladed pen in the holder. "You think he'd go through with it?"
"I have no way of knowing."
"Fine. Real fine. I'm going to sign this paper. You deserve it, you've earned it. Anybody that loyal to his daddy deserves a thousand bucks. Hell, how about a hundred thousand. Are you with me?"
His restlessness, still-faced, was such I wouldn't have been surprised to see him buck and to feel, with his weight added, the edge of the desk at my neck. But signing he didn't cut the paper but I cut it through to the carbon.
My father, dropping his pipe in his pocket, got to his feet. With his snapbrim he stood to, merely pleased and unconcerned, like greeting people at the auditorium door after a band concert. "We appreciate this, Skip."
"Like I say, anybody that hews to the second commandment." He stood, offered his hand to my father then me and I never stopped to consider not taking it.
Things were better outside. That's the advantage of our valley. I remembered in high school when a friend of mine was having trouble and we'd gone up the mountain to ride his jeep coming back in the morning how good the light was, lifting, like a hydraulic lift, shutting out the engine, shutting out mistakes, floating us out black Wayne Avenue under the trees. My shirt collar--his roomy loaner, eggshell white (with a pattern, discernible under a microscope)--beat around my neck. Still at the comer of the drugstore I stopped. I struck the pose of the delinquent I never was. Giant faded Verichrome Pan boxes collecting dust in the window display. A pinging yawned behind my skull--spring in the arctic--he was rapping his pipe on the sash.
"Brrr, nicotine fit. Hey, don't look so gloomy."
"I'm going to tear this damn thing up."
"Aw that's just the normal give and take. What was I supposed to do, droop my head? You've got to get them where they live, as the man says. Come on, let's have some coffee and pie and call your mother."
"Couldn't you let him be a jerk, by himself?
"There comes a point where you have to look at the other fellow and think: As for you, buddy, you know what they say in Russia! Pie a la mode, then you can take the car to Liz's."
It wasn't easy to deflect his virtually triumphant manner. "You're wrong about everything. We don't see each other anymore."
"Well now you can tell her you've got money to get married on. Not much; a couple months rent anyway."
"Or go ahead pay tuition, whatever. I just thought, your mother and I thought, the thing was maybe you wanted to get married."
"That never crossed my mind." Which way it had changed them I didn't know. Two decades swathed in Virginia cloth and still my parents bore this low threshold of credulousness-believing in this instance that at my age everything went first for love.
We continued on down to City Lunch. He had an appetite.