Monday, August 6, 2012

Excerpt from Trompe-l'oeil for the Internet Peace Day HOP Broadcast

Chapter 39

Kit awoke several hours later after a long sleep—then crawled carefully out of bed so as not to wake Daneka, who seemed almost to be in a coma.  He surveyed the chaos in the room and chuckled, then slipped on a pair of jeans and walked to the French doors and out to the terrace overlooking the piazza below.
It was early evening, and nothing in all of Kit’s experience had prepared him for the sight of an early-evening Italian sky in late spring.  He was a photographer who knew how to create magic with light, shadow, shade and all of the nuances in between.  And yet, he was at a loss to name—much less describe—what here and now met his eyes.
The sun had apparently already dipped below the western horizon.  In its place, he watched as the promise of another far more subtle visual delight climbed up from the same favonian source behind the thirteenth-, fourteenth- and fifteenth-century residential buildings surrounding the piazza.  As it passed through filters of dust particles close to the earth’s surface and then feathered out onto billowy cumulous cushions, this refracted light played with a palette of pinks, oranges and reds unlike any Kit had ever seen replicated in a color spectrum.
At the same time, gangs of swallows chased flying insects, when not each other, in funnels up and down and across the piazza—a pointillist’s portrayal of whirlwinds, occurring and then dissipating just as suddenly and as randomly as they might in the desert or at sea.
At ground-level, he noted activity quite different from what he’d seen earlier that day.  Preparations were underway for some form of entertainment or spectacle.  If Paris could have its summertime son et lumière on the Champs Elysée, and Athens its equivalent at the Acropolis, then Rome, Kit suspected, could certainly accomplish something more on the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori than mere window dressing for the next day’s bit of business.  What luck—he thought to himself—that we weren’t able to drive directly on to Positano, but instead decided to spend the night here!
Elaborate scaffolding stood at center stage just behind the statue of Giordano Bruno.  To what purpose, Kit still didn’t know—and nothing about the scaffolding itself gave him any real indication. It was obviously robust enough to handle something reasonably heavy, but not large enough to accommodate too many of whatever—or whoever—was going to sit or stand upon it.
As he looked to his far right, he saw a flatbed truck arriving through one of the side streets leading into the piazza.  On it—and surrounding some large, black, solid object that Kit couldn’t yet identify—were about a half-dozen young men.  As the truck came into clearer focus, he realized the object was a piano—a grand, no less.  So that was it:  a concert of some kind; and if a grand piano, then probably something classical.  But looking at the throngs of younger people starting to enter the piazza, he somehow doubted it.  This might well be the country that had given birth to grand opera, but young people were young people the world over.  He didn’t suppose that hundreds of young people—though beginning to look more like potential thousands—would come to the center of town on a weekday night to listen to a classical recital.
No, he decided.  It had to be something else.  But what?
Kit dressed quickly but quietly.  Daneka was still fast asleep and—he noticed for the first time—snoring.  How delightful!  he thought.  A snoring Danish mermaid.
He opened and closed the door quietly, walked the couple of flights down to the lobby, then decided to check with Reception to see whether someone might know what it was all about.  He approached the desk clerk, who looked up with a cordial smile.
Buona sera, Signore,” Kit said.
Buona sera!” the clerk answered with what Kit thought was slightly more enthusiasm than a mere exchange of greetings should warrant.
Mi dica, Signore.  Sa che cosa sucede nella piazza stasera?”  (“Tell me, sir.  Do you know what’s happening this evening on the piazza?”)
Ma si, Signore.  C’è una dimostrazione contro l’invasione.”  (“But of course, sir.  A demonstration against the invasion.”)
Contro l’invasione?” Kit asked.  “Contro che invasione?”  (“Against what invasion?”)
Ma contro l’invasione dell’Iraq.  Me ne dispiace.”  (“Against the invasion of Iraq.  Sorry.”)
Kit couldn’t believe his luck.  “Grazie, Signore.  Mille grazie!
The one night in his entire life he’s in Rome—an extraordinary bit of serendipity to begin with—and he’s going to bear witness to an antiwar demonstration!
If only I’d brought my camera, he thought wistfully.  But no.  This evening, his eyes would be his camera.  This evening, he’d make himself look and record with his mind and not with film; he’d force himself to remember—then later, when he next saw his parents, to relate—every detail of the drama he was about to witness.  This evening, he’d participate for a change, and not merely chronicle.
He walked out the front door of the hotel, turned and crossed the thirty feet of cobblestone between the hotel entrance and the piazza.  He was already being jostled by far more pedestrians than he’d seen in the same place earlier that day, though commerce was not the reason for this human tumult.  Their reason was a cause—and one to which Kit subscribed.  What they might do if they discovered he carried the passport and spoke the language of the ‘enemy’ was something he couldn’t know.  He hoped, if his identity were somehow discovered, they’d be generous enough to overlook his passport and his age and accept his show of solidarity—to accept him, simply, as one of their own.
At the same time, he hoped there’d be no flag-burnings or anti-American sloganeering.  Kit deplored patriotic displays no matter what the cause.  A part of him actually hated the Fourth of July—its excess and the refuge it afforded every scoundrel to wax bombastic about something for which most had never spent a single drop of sweat, never mind blood.  Likewise, he found the mob chorus of “USA! USA!” at international athletic competitions so repugnant, he could no longer even tune in to watch the events on television.
For the same reason, however, he hated to see flag-burnings—whether of his own stars and stripes or of any other country’s colors.  Flags, he knew, were merely a symbol.  But they symbolized the poetry and pain, the hard work and high hopes, of simple people as much as they did the military or economic might (or lack of it) of a nation.  He knew it was the simple people—above all the poor people—who were history’s waifs.  That it was they who’d died defending not a mere flag or a way of life about which they could only dream, but rather the hope that some little portion of that dream could one day be theirs; or if not theirs, then their children’s—or their children’s children’s.
In flag-burnings and sloganeering, Kit knew, the mob ignored those people and their dreams.  And so, they were twice cursed:  once to serve—to become wounded or crippled for life, possibly to die—for a cause and a way of life they could, at best, hope to enjoy the crumbs of; and a second time in being included in the general condemnation—and so, rendered mute, voiceless and every bit as villainous in their graves or in their wheelchairs as those who waged war in their names and who sent them into battle by the truckload.
Now, just a couple of dozen feet away from what was obviously a stage of some kind, Kit looked at the flatbed and thought there were much more worthwhile things one could do with a truck than haul soldiers into battle.
The half-dozen or so young men aboard the flatbed wasted no energy on banter as they prepared to lift the grand piano to the stage.  Kit heard “uno, due, tre” as they all simultaneously reached under and lifted up, moving the instrument carefully to its recently erected platform.  Let the world say what it might about Italian engineering know-how and can-do attitude towards hard work—or lack of, as the case might rather be; in this instance, both were proving to be quite up to the task.
The piano in place, the ad hoc crew of young roustabouts turned its attention to power.  Within minutes, they’d jury-rigged an electrical system for microphone and lights that put the stage in sharp relief against the piazza that surrounded it, practically invisible in its obscurity as night had indeed descended like a heavy, black curtain over Rome, over the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, and over the demonstrators.  Incredible as it seemed to someone who lived in a city where the lights never really went out, and who’d consequently never seen the stars from street-level or even from his rooftop, Kit looked up and saw an entire panorama of them twinkling like little beacons.  At the same time, he surveyed the circumference of the piazza and remarked, in amazement, that every window had gone dark; that in each stood a candle; that from behind each, in pale reflection of the meager power each candle projected, a face—sometimes two or three or four—looked out in eager anticipation of the spectacle that was about to take place.
This, then, was the romance and the light he’d seen so often in his parents’ eyes whenever they’d spoken of their Roman moment.  And here he was, a generation and thirty-plus years later, about to drink from the same fabled fountain.
Kit felt gooseflesh rise up on his arms.  At the same time, he realized—whatever the consequences—that he was stuck.  The piazza was packed.  How they’d all gotten in so quickly was a mystery to him, but he couldn’t deny the evidence of it:  he was locked in by warm bodies.  As he looked from one face to another in the crowd, the names Rafaela, Laura, Julietta and Beatrice occurred to him again for the first time since his arrival at the airport.  He’d never seen so many gorgeous women—or men for that matter—in one place at one time.
A bearded, bespectacled—and somewhat less than gorgeous—someone or other ascended the platform and stood in front of the microphone.  “Testing, uno, due, tre,” he said, and apparently found the volume and clarity entirely satisfactory.  Then, for the obvious benefit of some of the old-timers in the crowd, he bellowed:  “Fate attenzione!  La CIA ci spia!”  (“Be careful!  The CIA’s watching us!”)
A roar went up in response.  It may have been an old Sixties chant, but it had clearly lost none of its power to electrify a crowd.  The CIA was always spying on someone or other, though in more recent times, rather less effectively.  Given the effusiveness of the roar—and Kit detected a great deal of laughter in the mix—maybe even the Italians understood this newer reality.
The speaker droned on for a bit about Irak, about Afghanistan, about Yankee imperialism, about Western imperialism—the usual stuff and fluff of antiwar demonstrations.  He introduced a few other bearded somebodies or other who read from the poems of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Alfonso Gatto, and Cesare Pavese; one or two articles from Antonio Gramsci’s Letters from Prison; translations from Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke; and finally, but from the lips of a woman Kit thought resembled a jean-clad Greek or Roman goddess more than any mortal he’d ever seen, a couple of the antiwar poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti followed by a rendering, in Italian, of three or four of the love poems of Pablo Neruda.  Leave it to the Italians, he thought, to kick off an antiwar demonstration with paeans to love.
Just as she concluded to rather too-generous applause—at least as much for the visual privilege of her reading as for the aural honor of Ungaretti’s and Neruda’s writing, Kit was certain—the first bearded, bespectacled somebody returned to the microphone.  Now, he informed the crowd, the music would begin, and he had the privilege of introducing two relatively unknown, but—at least in his opinion—highly regarded artists.  Both carried passports and spoke the language of the ‘enemy.’  The crowd booed and hissed.  But each, he reminded that same crowd, spoke for his own country’s opposition to the invasion.  The fickle Roman mob cheered.  What’s more, the speaker insisted, each did it in his own way with music and poetry that was on a par with the best antiwar lyrics ever written.  The skeptical crowd remained silent.
The first man to be introduced was as much a mystery to Kit as—he assumed—to most if not all of those present:  an Australian by the name of Eric Bogle—a squat man with a bit of a pot belly, and who wore a funny old hat.  He was accompanied by an entourage of musicians bearing various kinds of guitars, a cello, a flute, a recorder, a fiddle, a mandolin, an autoharp and a dulcimer.  One of them also wore a harmonica around his neck—Dylan-style.  Bogle himself carried a banjo and a guitar.  He laid the banjo down and stepped up to the microphone to introduce his band.
Buona sera, compagni e compagne!” he started off, his Aussie accent coming through loud and clear in a bumbled attempt at Italian which the crowd quickly warmed up to.
He gave a No Man's Land nod to his band, then started in on a song Kit recognized immediately:  The crowd was amazingly respectful, Kit thought, as many around him quietly provided ad hoc translations for the benefit of those who didn’t understand enough English to get the gist of the song.
Bogle concluded his first number to enthusiastic applause.  He put down his guitar, then picked up his banjo and announced his second number in English: And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.  Kit had never heard of it; but by the second stanza, he was mesmerized by the simple lyrics.  Once again, many around him served as translators to others.  As Bogle approached the conclusion of the song and started in on the more familiar refrain of the original Waltzing Matilda, Kit was amazed to hear the crowd sing along with him.  A chorus of thousands of peaceful voices could be a moving thing, especially when those voices were singing in a language that was not their own.  However much he might’ve deplored America’s part in making English the de facto lingua franca of the commercial world, this was one instance in which he felt something approaching pride.
Bogle and his band finished up with a word of thanks.  The demonstrators, in return, thanked him with thunderous applause.
The next performer was a tall, wiry American, a man by the name of John McCutcheon.  Kit wondered whether the crowd would react with hostility; it did not.  Either they’d taken their host’s earlier words to heart, or McCutcheon had a reputation here, locally, that would seem to have largely escaped him at home.  He also greeted the audience with a cheerful “Buona sera” and then introduced his band on fiddle, viola, cello, guitar, mandolin, mandocello, and half a dozen other instruments.
As McCutcheon picked up his guitar and started in, Kit recognized the song instantly as one he’d grown up with: Christmas in the Trenches. The melody was hauntingly simple; the accompaniment spare and perfectly attuned to the stripped-down poignancy of the lyrics.  As for the song itself, McCutcheon had the perfect voice:  deep, unaffected; as clear as well water.  Kit felt a tight spot in his chest as he listened.  He looked around and saw tears on the cheeks of many of those in his vicinity who were listening with one ear to the singer, the other to a translator.  It was a long song, yet no one seemed to tire of it.  When McCutcheon concluded as simply as he’d begun, there was a moment of near-perfect silence, followed by the same thunderous applause that had greeted Bogle at the conclusion of his performance.
Kit wondered again at his luck:  two talented musicians who clearly didn’t just happen to be passing through at the same time looking to busk on the sidewalks of Rome.  He wondered, too, who could possibly follow them.  The demonstration was not yet at an end; that much was clear to him.  But how would it end?
Kit sensed a bit of a stirring off to the left and behind where he stood.  Someone was coming through, and the crowd’s enthusiasm for this new arrival was not only audible, but palpable.  When he was finally close enough for Kit to see a face, Kit didn’t recognize the man—middle-aged, salt and pepper beard and hair, wearing dark-framed glasses, dressed in faded jeans and a loose-fitting shirt.  Kit didn’t, however, have long to wait.
A chorus of “Antonello! Antonello!” rose from thousands of voices.  Kit was beginning to think he was in a dream.  Could it possibly be—?  The man ascended the stage and spoke a few words into the microphone.  What he said had the immediate result of quieting the crowd to near silence.  He subsequently turned and said a few private words to the emcee, then seated himself at the piano.  Opposite him sat a second musician at a synthesizer.  The two of them waited a few moments while Bogle, McCutcheon and both of their bands came back up on the stage.  Their collective re-appearance—Kit decided—was apparently the substance of whatever the man had just said to the emcee.
The still unidentified artist and his accompanist nodded to each other and smiled in that way musicians have of communicating—especially when they’re about to be transported by music.  Then the man—this Antonello—lifted his hands to the piano and played a few notes.  His partner answered after a few bars in what sounded to Kit like a synthesized hammer dulcimer, or perhaps a mandolin—he couldn’t be sure which.
Eventually, the man began to sing.
Campo de' fiori io non corro più, gli amici di ieri,…
And then Kit was sure.  It was.  It was Antonello Venditti!  And he was singing the song that took its title from this very piazza; the song that had been a rallying cry through the Sixties and Seventies for all kinds of protests; the song that had been the musical equivalent of baby’s milk to Kit in his infancy; the song that—no matter how bad their mood, how deep some passing disagreement—had always brought his parents into each other’s arms; the song that then stood for them as a reminder of better times, of bigger times and bigger issues than their temporary disagreement; the song that had, by dint of serendipity, brought Kit to request a room in a hotel overlooking this piazza so that he could share all of it, in some way, with Daneka.

“il tempo ha già sconfitto le ombre di un'età.
E gli amori, gli amori, sono proprio veri
e non ho più paura della li-ber-tà.”
The tight spot he’d felt in his chest earlier as McCutcheon had sung his song now became a hard knot of emotion.  The plaintive melody and lyrics recalling lost, carefree youth and an increasingly uncertain future threatened to overwhelm him as he suddenly felt, for the first time, what it meant to grow older and lose that gift of carefree youth.
As he first remarked how the other musicians, one by one, seemed to be picking up on the melody; as he further remarked that voices around him were starting to sing along with Venditti until the entire piazza was one mass of twenty, thirty, forty thousand singing voices; and finally, when he felt arms to either side of him slipping through his and pulling him back and forth in a human wave to the music; it and his resulting emotions no longer threatened to overwhelm him: they did overwhelm him.  As he felt warm tears running unabashedly down his cheeks, he looked at his nearest partners in this wave of human bodies and saw through smiles back to him and mouths rapturously moving to the song’s lyrics that their cheeks, too, were covered in rivers of tears.
One of them—a beautiful young girl who’d slipped her arm through his, and who apparently realized that Kit was not Italian, graciously—if unnecessarily and somewhat clumsily—began to translate for him:

Campo de’ Fiori:  I no longer run among the friends of yesterday.
Time has already conquered the shadows of an age.
Love is now for real, and I’m no longer afraid of freedom.”

Kit already knew that there are episodes in life that you take to the grave—episodes that remind you, in your death rattle, of why it was all worth it, of what it meant to be really alive, if only for those few moments.  And of why every living thing, from a thousand-year-old Redwood to the ten thousand-year-old lichen that lives upon it, will fight to the death to maintain that life, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds.  For Kit, this was one such episode.

“Ma i tuoi bambini crescono bene, rubano sempre ma non tradiscono mai.
Oh mai, oh mai.
Campo de' fiori io non corro più, sulle strade di ieri
il tempo ha già sconfitto i soldi di papà,
ma le partite stavolta sono proprio vere
e adesso ho un po' paura per la libertà.”
The young girl next to him continued to translate:

My, but your children grow well.
They may steal, but they never betray.
Campo de’ Fiori:  I no longer run along the roads of yesterday.
Time has already exhausted all of Papa’s money;
and so the games this time are for real,
and now I’m a bit anxious about liberty.”

Only one thing lacked, and it occurred to him that he hadn’t thought about her in an hour.  The thing keeping this moment from being a perfect souvenir was that Daneka was not present to share it with him.

I tuoi bambini io li vedo crescono bene,
rubano sempre ma non tradiscono mai.
Oh mai, oh mai.
Adesso ho un po' paura per la li-ber-tà

I see your children growing up well.
They may steal, but they never betray.
And now, I am a bit anxious about liberty.”

He wondered if she still slept, and looked up again at the buildings surrounding the piazza.  As before, he noticed that all of the windows were dark except for the dim flicker of candles burning in each.  He then looked to where he imagined their hotel room to be.  Light shown through a single pair of French doors—faintly, behind gauze-like curtains.  In dark silhouette behind those same curtains, and in sharp relief against the light behind her, stood a woman.  Although the silhouette revealed to him nothing of the face, Kit could make out immediately from her curves, from her height, from the way her hair fell to her shoulders, to whom that silhouette belonged.
She stood, unmoved and unmoving, not part of any wave.  Not part of any wave at all, except her own.
Chapter 40

The demonstration concluded without incident.  Kit exchanged quick kisses on the cheek with each of his two immediate neighbors.  The one who’d just provided him with a translation of Venditti’s song let her lips linger a bit longer than mere Continental custom might’ve dictated, and Kit was acutely aware of it.  He was equally aware of her breasts, now pressing against his chest in a way that suggested to him in the afterglow of the demonstration why Rome was called la città eternal—but could, just as easily—he mused—be called la città materna.  With her lingering lips and breasts that seemed to want to ponder where they could best press, she, too, apparently meant to remain eternal—at least in one man’s mind.
Her lips strayed from one cheek as he rotated his face to give her the other.  Halfway through that rotation, however, they stopped and found his lips—and lingered longer.
She was gorgeous, and Kit suddenly felt himself caught in chasm:  a hiatus of no happy exit.  The woman he loved was not more than two-hundred yards away—nothing in real distance, although he wondered how really far removed they were, one from the other.  This other woman, this beautiful stranger, had her lips on his.  Roman lips—like rose petals;  lips of almost unfathomable fullness; lips that seemed to dissolve, then resolve, blending into his until he felt that his own were merely an obstruction.
He loved Daneka’s mouth.  He loved what she could do with it and the words that came out of it; the expressiveness of it; occasionally, the wantonness of it.  But hers were Scandinavian lips that could be smart, terse, indicative, stentorian, imperative.
These were Roman lips.  These lips dwelt in the conditional tense and in the subjunctive mood:  What if—?  If only—.  If one might—.  If we could—.  The conditional and subjunctive, Kit knew, were a danger zone.  He took stock of the situation:  he was susceptible at this moment and he knew it.  Rome would not have him, not tonight.  He broke the kiss.
Come ti chiami?”  (“What’s your name?”)  he asked.  She let go of his lips, but not of him.  Instead, she leaned her lower body harder into his.
Her mouth slipped back from Kit’s and found his ear.  “Mi chiamano Afrodite,” she breathed.    (“They call me ‘Aphrodite.’”)
Kit wondered whether he was hallucinating and whether the whole last hour—and now this woman—were merely a dream.  This Roman goddess of love could, he knew, easily tempt him into an Elysium of her own making.  But he was already in love—and with another woman.
Dunque, Afrodite, La ringrazio per tutto,”  (“In that case, I thank you for everything.”)  Kit said and gently disengaged himself.
Her hampster’s pout and withdrawing breasts felt to him, at that moment, like the contents of a canteen poured into the sand before the eyes of a man crawling out of the desert.  But Kit had willed it.  Just before he let her go, he kissed her softly on the forehead and hoped the gesture would help to remove any shame she might’ve felt at his rejection.
He made his way back through the dispersing crowd to the hotel, took the elevator up to the fourth floor, unlocked the door and entered.  Daneka stood waiting for him with her back to the piazza.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In the Animal Kingdom

“Mammalian life is social and relational.  What defines the mammalian class, physiologically, is … the possession of a portion of the brain known as the limbic system, which allows us to do what other animals cannot:  read the interior states of others of our kind.  To survive, we need to know our own inner state and those of others, quickly, at a glance, deeply.”  From “Programming the Post-human,” by Ellen Ullman.

I sit here now as I sat here then.  He’s not here now; he wasn’t here then.  The only difference between now and then—fifteen years ago—is that I know the difference.
Then?  Then I had a child’s imagination, a child’s belief that all things were possible—even the impossible—perhaps because I had no knowledge of im.  Im is a prefix that comes with age, with experience, with rejection and failure.  Slowly.  More quickly if you have nothing even worthy of rejection.  Then, im comes at you without mercy.  And very quickly, you’re no longer even able to see the word “possible” without its attendant im.
But that was fifteen years ago—when I was a mere child—with a child’s imagination, a child’s belief, and a child’s still imperfect vision.  None of which could distinguish between im and him.  And him was what I’d been anticipating for almost a whole year.
Today, the greatest of all days on the American calendar, is Thanksgiving—now as then.  No other holiday—he’d said it himself many times—can compare.  It’s the day on which we all come home, wherever home may be.  Sometimes, that home is just a heartbeat.  But so long as a heart is beating, it yearns for home.  And home is where we come—on Thanksgiving.

* * *

“What time is Papa coming?” I shout from where I’m sitting next to the front window.
“Six o’clock,” my mother shouts back from the kitchen.
“And if he doesn’t?”  I ask.
“He’ll be here.  We agreed.  And if there’s one thing your father is, it’s punctual.”
I know.  It’s the German in him.  He can’t help himself.
“It’s the German in him,” my mother shouts, unprompted.  “He can’t help himself.”
My sister looks at me.  I look back at her.  We’ve both heard the words many times before.  At a quarter to six on a cold and wet November afternoon, there’s little comfort—dry or warm—in hearing this same old gripe about my father and his people.

* * *

Her Russia and his Germany—I realize now—were thousands of miles apart and two generations distant.  Nevertheless, the ethnic jibes between them had always begun like swift after-kicks on the hoof of an argument:  a land-grab here, a pogrom there, Gestapo tactics everywhere.  Not to mention any number of other ‘old Europe’ defects that lodged in their genes and coursed through their veins—and so, through my sister’s and mine—like slightly flawed diamonds on an otherwise steady stream of pure Doodle Dandy lava.
This was the first Thanksgiving since their separation—which my father liked to call ‘collateral damage’ by way of association with that other undoing in lower Manhattan.  But the real truth of their undoing was another matter altogether.

* * *

“What time is it now, Mama?” I yell out again from my perch where Alice and I sit like a couple of famished baby birds.
“5:57. Any minute now.  Trust me.  No, don’t trust me.  Trust him.”
I put my cheek up against the window and close my eyes tight.  And that’s when I see him.
He’s wearing an old, black corduroy coat, which I recognize immediately, and which I once saw it hanging on a throwaway hanger in the basement.  I asked my mother about it at the time, and she told me it had been my father’s coat from his college days—something he’d picked up at a thrift shop for a couple of bucks, and which he’d too often and too proudly called his ‘Diogenes coat.’
“So why does he keep it?” I asked.
“I don’t know.  Maybe he thinks he’ll need it again one day.  There are many things about your father I don’t understand.”  With that, the conversation ended; and we both promptly forgot about the coat—until now.
As he comes up the street, I look more closely at this coat.  It’s ragged, worn gray in spots where it should be black, the collar too wide, the sleeves too short.
As he moves closer, I notice he’s carrying a bag—a dark, brown plastic bag of no markings.  I know my father and I know that bag.  The contents of a dark brown plastic bag of no markings can be only one thing.  This is, after all, Thanksgiving—the greatest feast of the year.
He steps up and rings the bell.  Alice and I run to answer.
When I open the front door, my first impression is that he’s aged.    Maybe it’s the coat, I decide.  That, and something about his hair.  My father had always been careful about his hair, especially in times of economic stress. “Good times might come and go,” he’d frequently say.  “But my hairline takes the longer view and stays the course,” he’d invariably add with a flair for the obvious.  This time, I’m not so sure that his coat—or his hairline, for that matter—are holding fast to any course whatsoever.
It’s merely a first impression.  We fling the door open, and he scoops us both up while managing very carefully, I notice, to keep the contents of the bag out of harm’s way.
He brings the three of us inside—me, Alice and the bag—to greet my mother, who comes out of the kitchen bearing a dishtowel like a tired wife at a policemen’s ball.  This isn’t their first meeting since their separation.  But this is their first on a significant holiday.  In other words, this is their first contractual meeting.
My mother looks down at the bag.  “Happy Thanksgiving,” she says in a cryptic monotone.
Ditto,” my father offers in return.  (My father had always believed in brains over brawn.  And, whenever possible, he’d use Latin to prove it.)  He quickly diverts his glance from my mother to the dining table, puts both Alice and me down before seating himself, holds the bag up to her as if surrendering a weapon.
“It looks fabulous!” he says as he glances down at the spread.  “Here.  The red’s for the turkey.  The white’s for everything that comes up between now and the first delectation of that turkey.”
“We’re having goose,” my mother counters.
“Goose!” my father says, not even trying to conceal the fact of his pleasure.  “We haven’t had goose since our very own first Thanksgiving together.  Before these little munchkins—.” The last of his declaration goes the way of former Thanksgiving goose dinners, unknown to both Alice and me.  “‘Must be a special occasion,” he deadpans—an all-too-familiar smirk forming at the corners of his mouth.
Alice and I look at each other.  We’ve just spent a whole week preparing for such a contingency.  If my father can have his collateral damage—we reasoned—we can have our preëmptive strike.
I harrumph, and my father looks at me.  I indicate with my eyes a sign, taped to the wall directly behind his head.  He turns ‘round and reads.


My father turns back and looks at me.  I know his angry look, but this isn’t it.  Instead, there’s just a hint of appreciation in his eyes—the kind I was once used to seeing whenever Alice or I might say something that struck him as amusing.
It’s a look that never failed to produce in me the same sensation I’d once felt whenever he’d put his arm around me and call me his guy.  It’s the same sensation I felt whenever I’d performed well at some sport and would then look in his direction for a reaction.  He wouldn’t shout or rave like other parents.  He’d just give me a firm, quiet thumbs-up.  Whatever I might’ve just accomplished on a given field or court or diamond, however loud the cheers or rants of other kids’ parents, I’d look for his thumb.  When I found it, I’d always feel that kind of shudder that opens like a gasp, closes like a sigh.
“Goose,” he says, looking at my mother.  “I can hardly wait!”  He then looks at Alice and me and winks.  I wink back, now feeling supremely confident about Alice’s and my first success as peacemakers.
My mother returns to the kitchen.  My father sits down in the Mission Style armchair we’d inherited as part of their separation agreement—his chair, once, but given up without a fight.  He runs his hands along the arms of that chair as I’d seen him run his hands many times along my mother’s arms—until abruptly, he glances away, but only for an instant.  His eyes and thoughts then return once again to us and to the occasion—and, his arms outspread, Alice and I rush in.
“Thanksgiving.  Who amongst you can tell me the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving?”
“Who between you, you mean,” I correct.  “There are only two of us here.”  He gives me another one of his looks—doubtless piqued by my correction, but awed, too, by this bit of erudition I’m showing off like a pair of shiny new silver spurs.
“Okay, who between you?  And who between you is going to cast the next stone?”
“Fowler says—” I start in, careful, as he always used to insist, to know and quote my sources accurately.
“Fowler said many things,” he interrupts.  “But Fowler’s dead, and dead men don’t thow stones.  Who between you can tell me something about Squanto?”
I know, of course, because he’d brought the story to my attention years earlier.  Alice is too young to know the answer—or rather, to understand the real question.  He isn’t asking whether one of us knows the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving.  Instead, he’s asking whether either of us remembers how we first came to know the story.
I pause.  At this moment, I understand, perhaps for the first time, how important it is to my father to be remembered and appreciated—as a father, as a provider, as a teacher—at least by his own children.
For months now, he’s been on the outside looking in.  Our contact has been almost exclusively by telephone.  He’s been out there somewhere, at a distance, and growing more distant and detached by the day.  But he still has an urgent need to instruct us.  He still wants to believe that his accumulated knowledge of the way things work, however skewed, is of some value—if only to us.  He still wants to believe that if he can’t directly feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, he can at least give us a leg up on the world in which he, himself, has so badly stumbled.
“Squanto,” I begin, “was an Indian, sold into slavery in Spain.”
My father gives me an encouraging nod.  “That’s him!  He’s the one!”
Now it’s my turn to sigh and look back at my father as I heave coal into the firebox of a linguistic locomotive I’m about to drive towards some invisible Promontory Point.  “Squanto was about hurt and separation and the pain of loneliness.  Squanto was also about forgiveness.  And about more hurt, separation and loneliness.  But also about more forgiveness.  I don’t know whether Squanto was a real person or only a symbol.”
“You mean personification?” my father shoots back—too quickly and recklessly it seems to me.  Yet I can see in his eyes—whatever refinement he needs to supply to my symbol—that he’s immensely pleased with my characterization of Squanto and with my explication of the subtext of the story.
 In truth, I was immensely pleased with myself—even if words like ‘characterization,’ ‘explication’ and ‘subtext’ weren’t really a part of my vocabulary just then.
There’s something else I catch in his eyes for the first time, and I wince inwardly as I see it.  On the one hand, I feel pleasure.  On the other, I feel a fear of something until now quite unfamiliar.  What I see in my father’s eyes is his own pain, or at least the appearance of pain.
Sure, I know what real pain is, and that it often results in tears.  I’ve seen tears of pain, almost daily, on Alice’s cheeks.  I know the occasional feeling of tears on my own cheeks, though less often now that I’m getting older and am not supposed to cry at every little scratch or unkind word.  I even know what tears look like on an adult’s cheek, as I’ve seen many such adult cheeks in the weeks and months since the ‘undoing.’  And, of course, I’ve seen tears on my mother’s cheeks since my parents’ separation—though only in the kitchen and only whenever she thought she was alone.  Even then, she’s always seemed to meet my stare from around the corner with an onion in one hand and a knife in the other, as if to dismiss each new eruption of tears as the collusion of a silly vegetable and one knife’s untimely cutting of it.
I notice that Alice is fidgeting.  But I want to pursue this new knowledge—and decide to try a different tack just to see if it might produce a different reaction.
“I was looking at the moon last night,” I say. “At the man in the moon.”  The leather of his chair creaks as my father leans forward.  “Sometimes, I’d look away.  Then I’d look back again.  Other times, I’d just blink.  And each time I looked again, the man in the moon had a different expression.  Sometimes he looked happy; sometimes, sad.  Or surprised, or disappointed, or even confused.  The more I looked at his eyes, the more wrinkly they got—mostly, around his left eye.  It looked like he had a black eye, or maybe a scar.  Do you suppose he was ever a boxer,” I finally ask with what I now know to be a stab at something adults call ‘irony.’
My father smiles at this second exhibition of my shiny new spurs.
“Cosmic debris,” he mutters.  “The man in the moon is always boxing with cosmic debris.”
I look at him in complete confusion and think for a moment he might be speaking French—as he sometimes used to do on holidays.
“It’s the stuff that flies through the night—the stuff you can never anticipate.  That even the man in the moon can’t anticipate, and so he just takes it on the chin.  You can’t plan for it.  You can’t build a defense against it.  It just happens.”
I continue to look at him and wonder when I might finally be allowed to resume.
“Sorry,” he says.  “‘Just rambling.  Go on.”
“What I wanted to ask,” I start in again, “is why the man in the moon always seems to be changing his expression.”
My father looks at me over a fist squeezing a chin like a wet sponge.  What I’d seen earlier in his eyes is now gone as he struggles to find his fatherly voice of authority.  Finally, and entirely out of character, he answers.  “I dunno.  But maybe we can work out a theory.  Whaddya say?” he suddenly lays on the Brooklynese like the phony-bologna it is, and I shudder.
We are, thankfully, saved by my mother’s announcement of dinner.  “Soup’s on,” she shouts from the kitchen.
Alice and I take our places at the table.  My father, of course, is already sitting—and the three of us now turn our attention to why we’re about to give thanks.
On one side of the table stand various zakuski; on the other, Vorspeisen.  In between, like a happy Maginot Line—and every bit as porous—stand two bottles of French wine, one red and one white, a pepper mill and candelabrum.  We can choose—if little hands care to pass through that line like intrepid soldiers—from the one side:  Rotkohl; Sauerkraut; plain, unadorned herring; asparagus wrapped in Westphalian ham; coleslaw with walnuts and raisins; thinly sliced pieces of Kasslerrippchen.  From the other side:  sturgeon caviar and salmon roe; smoked pike and whitefish; selyodka swimming in waves of oil and vinegar with little onions like whitecaps; also maslo and pashtet iz seldi; pirozhki; vinegret; and an assortment of other salads.
In my view, the Russians clearly have the advantage.  And yet, in an effort at culinary détente—my mother’s transparent attempt at a Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty—lie side by side and on one plate what she calls Buterbrodi and what my father calls Butterbrötchen.  Her version, with red caviar looking like tiny red balloons; his, with plain butter—each slice standing like a smart little ship carrying a creamy golden treasure as cargo.

* * *

Our feastno word sums it up more succinctly—was saluting from atop white lace covering ecru-colored holiday linen, all of which I now understand to have been left over from a previous era in which my parents had conclusively disposed of a disposable income.

* * *

My father stands up, reaches for the bottle of white wine, and walks to my mother’s end of the table.
Du vin blanc, Madame?” he asks like the princely student-waiter he’d once been.
Mais oui, bien sûr, Monsieur,” my mother aspirates to complete her part in the ceremony.
He fills her glass to three-quarters.
Spasibo,” she says laconically to an alienated husband who’s now once again courting her in the guise of a charming student-waiter.
Bitte,” he answers, reduced to a lean Teutonic sound bite.
He walks back to his end of the table and fills his own glass.  Alice and I also have wine glasses for the occasion, though they cater only to apple juice.
From a standing position, my father raises his glass.  Zu den Abwesenden,” he announces grandly.  Za otsyustvyuskikh,” my mother pronounces as if from under the clouds of a sun-forsaken Eastern Europe, and so with far less of my father’s rain-swept Western disposition.  Then, for our benefit—though we already know both expressions by sound—they pronounce in unison:  “To the absent ones.”
After a few seconds’ pause, and with utensils now busily in motion, my mother continues.  “You’re looking well.  Well, if also a little thin.”
Qui dort, dîne,” my father offers with glass raised, though no glass meets his.  And then, to the two of us as he hastily brings his glass back to port:  “As the French would say, ‘He who sleeps, eats.’  In addition to which, I’ve joined—rather, rejoined—the School of Peripatetics,” he now grandly announces.
A moment of silence drops like a stone before my mother breaks it.  “For the children’s benefit, what exactly is the School of Peripatetics?”
My father settles knife and fork quietly back down on his dinner plate as his eyes and the corners of his mouth run to take up battle-stations behind a smirk.  He knows that this “for the children’s benefit” is nonsense.  I know that he knows it.  He knows that I—and maybe even my mother—know it.  Only Alice is still too young to share in the general family omniscience.  As amusing as it might be in certain other word-games we play, in this context it is not.  In fact, it has become one of our unhappier routines whenever we find ourselves seated at the dinner table.
I seek to quash it before it can erupt yet again into tension and closed mouths.  I nod at another of Alice’s and my creations on the wall, this one hanging directly over the hutch with an illustration of a very fat, very satisfied cat.  My father looks and reads soundlessly:


 “Very clever,” my father says—but with nothing like the enthusiasm he’d shown upon reading our first billboard.
In the same instant, he disengages the muscles that hold the smirk, finds a couple of vagrants to replace it with a scowl, and continues in earnest to Alice and me.  “Peripatesis was the brainchild of Socrates, who didn’t like to write.  Its effectiveness was noted by Plato—to some laughable degree also by Xenophon—who had to walk and write at the same time because Socrates couldn’t be bothered.  This was all documented and codified a couple of generations later by Plato’s greatest pupil, Aristotle—born a full fifteen years after Socrates’ death—who believed that people absorbed and assimilated—learned, if you will—new information better if they were in motion, even if just walking while talking.”  He leans back again and picks up his knife and fork, a signal to us that he’s ready for summation.  “And so, it was really about walking and talking and doing.  Which is why, to this day—”
My father’s eyes rather too cavalierly move to my mother’s end of the table—then, however, pull up short as they meet a yawn.
It’s entirely unintentional. I know it.  I’m sure he does, too.  And yet, nothing in her arsenal can turn him from gregarious to taciturn more quickly and more soundlessly than her yawn.  His own radar can spot a yawn—particularly one of my mother’s—like an incoming skein of Canada geese, and all of his defenses go on foolish, full-scale alert.  To his credit, perhaps, even he can appreciate that not everyone shares his enthusiasm for things like ‘peripatesis.’
I try to distract him.  “Which is why, to this day—?”  I repeat, but he won’t be distracted.  He simply goes back to eating.  The discussion—his holding forth, really—is holding no further.  Nothing—not even one of Alice’s and my billboards—can now return us to the holiday mood of just seconds earlier.
For once, my father doesn’t say anything disparaging, and my mother doesn’t pretend to excuse herself.  We’re at a standstill.  It feels like old times, and old times don’t feel very good—especially at Thanksgiving.  We chew and swallow, each in his or her own way, each pretending that the happy sounds of holiday cheer still prevail over the near silence of chewing and swallowing.
Alice and I have worked on other billboards.  They all hang there, just waiting like Band-Aids for blisters to break out from some ill-timed word from him, some yawn from her.  But our remaining billboards have already turned redundant and, like my father, will find no further employment.  The silence, deeper than any blister, persists.  Alice and I look up at each other from time to time.  For once, no giggle crosses either of our minds.
I glance at my father out of the corner of my eye.  His face looks strained, much older than even just an hour earlier, and minus any remnant of the appreciation of my erudition or of Alice’s and my wit.  He, too, simply eats.

Our plates are almost empty.  A single piece of goose remains on the platter.  My father and I are now approaching that point at which we’d often stage a mock standoff in the years leading up to my parents’ separation, when both of us were still hungry—or at least pretending to be hungry.  This contest of wills and appetite was one I’d grown used to, grown fond of, grown up with as a rite of passage, not knowing until later in life that it was not so much about lingering appetite as about something more primitive—something my father had called ‘atavistic.’  He’d tried to explain it to me on a few occasions.  But ‘atavistic’ had, each time, gone the way of ‘peripatetic.’  Now, however, I’ll explain.
It had been my father’s contention that the reigning male of a pride or pack always got first choice of the spoils of a hunt, and would eat his fill, only then allowing his mate and cubs to gorge themselves on the remaining bits.  This—once again, according to my father—was nature’s law.  He’d always illustrate it, his own fork poised with slightly menacing tines, over the last bit of meat or other desired edible.  At that moment, with weapon hovering, he’d utter the injunction “In the animal kingdom…” letting the rest of the explanation flutter off like an elliptical butterfly.
However much I might’ve pretended to challenge his claim, he never failed to remind me of the law of the jungle.  If he then granted me this last remainder, it was only to sit back in his chair with the benign smile of one who’d just bestowed a favor upon a subordinate.  This, he knew, was also the law of the jungle—but of the human jungle.

* * *

I time my last mouthful to coincide with his last while keeping my fork aloft and with the tines pointed in the direction of the meat platter and of that single drumstick.  My only competitor for the remaining bit ignores my challenge and continues to chew, holding his own spear nonchalantly.  At last he swallows, and I see his eyes focus on the platter that lies before us.  As he raises his arm and spear in its direction, I quickly move both of mine towards the same target-fowl.  Our tines pierce the flesh simultaneously, and I look hard into his face in happy anticipation of the commencement of our ritual.
In the brief seconds that pass between his silent stare and mine, I see his eyes, like those of the man in the moon, pass rapidly through phases and moods to settle finally on the one I’d seen earlier that afternoon.
I jab at the drumstick so as to prod him on to a challenge.  He doesn’t respond.  Instead, he slowly withdraws his fork.
Please, Papa, no! I think to myself—and yet, for once I hope he can read my mind—“quickly, at a glance, deeply.”  Fight for it!  It’s yours.  You’re still king.  Please, Papa.  Fight me for it!
But he simply retires his fork and aligns it noiselessly alongside his knife.

* * *

I remember that I then opened my eyes—my cheek still pressed hard against the front window, my father nowhere in sight.  The street was dark.  It would now have been well past six o’clock.  Alice was on the floor playing with the only set of toys she hadn’t yet broken without hope of replacement:  her ten fingers.  My mother came out of the kitchen and announced dinner.  I stood up from the couch and took my place opposite hers—where, I imagined, my father would’ve sat.
My mother lit a single votive candle in the center of the table.  She served both Alice and me a hefty portion of chicken nuggets onto which she’d grated a bit of nutmeg.  I noticed she’d bought ketchup for the occasion—a holiday treat.  For herself, she’d prepared a single chicken breast and a spoonful of rice, no nutmeg.
She drank water.  The two of us drank apple juice.  We all drank out of water glasses.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” she said as she raised her glass of water and, with her eyes, implored us to do the same.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” we answered in unison as we raised our glasses of apple juice.  I looked hard at my mother, but Alice—I noticed out of the corner of my eye—didn’t look up from her plate.
We ate.  The only sound in the room was that of three people eating and swallowing—and digesting the absence of a fourth.  I understood.  Buildings had been undone, and families had come undone with them.  The once proud circumstances of a disposable income and of a fine roof over a foursome of heads had changed, and it was only fit that we change with them.  Under this newer roof, and with only my mother’s income to keep it attached, goose was no longer on the menu.  Nuggets were.  But we, at least, had nuggets and a roof.  For that, we could be thankful at Thanksgiving—the one, true celebration.
I stood up and raised my glass.  I looked first at Mama, then at Alice.  “Zu den Abwesenden,” I said.  “To the absent ones,” they said in unison—neither of them raising their eyes from the table.

The End