Saturday, January 7, 2012

Drama, Updated

The curtain rises on our stage. Looked at from the street, Comedy and Tragedy are relatives, who—for reasons of economy—live together in very close proximity, in fact, side by side.

For now, all you really need to know about the characters depicted in the unfolding drama is that two families have been cast here by Fate. The set consists of a duplex dwelling that was converted from a carriage house early in the 20th Century. Our family purchased their property in 1970, the year my brother was born. We live on the left, at number 139, my grandparents on the right, at 137.

On the right side, you will see a victory garden, less ambitious than the one tended by Mr. Crockett on PBS, perhaps, but full of treasures nevertheless: cucumbers, peppers, rhubarb, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes, onions, and chives. This is where I dug up a crusty dime minted in 1857.

Beside the garden, there is a pleasant patio full of potted plants sheltered by a large corrugated aluminum awning. Here, men with aquamarine anchors tattooed to their hairy forearms are invited to smoke—veterans of campaigns in the Pacific—exiting with a discrete cough through a side door.

They would never be left alone with their cigarettes, however. These men were always attended by my grandfather. He would excuse himself from the living room like this:

“If all you gals are going to do is gossip, I’m going outside to smoke with Jim.”

“Francis, one of these days, I am going to hit you over the head,” my grandmother would hiss.

Francis was not a smoker himself, or a drinker, or a veteran anything, actually, except for my grandmother’s rolling pin, Chinese checkers and the vinyl chloride vats of Goodyear. (Enlarged heart, flat feet, 4F. Sorry, son.)

According to family tradition, it is possible that—in revenge for the rolling pin—my grandfather broke my grandmother’s nose at the time of The Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962: the fatal day Florence snuck up, leaned over Francis’s silent figure and shouted, “Boo!” as he was dozing on the davenport.

I do not think any malice was intended. From the way she rolled her eyes when he told the story, I gathered that he accidently struck her in the face with his fist when she frightened him out of his wits.

Besides, violence would have been completely out of character for him, if not for my grandmother. She was a different sort of creature altogether. Florence once threw a croquet mallet at my mother as she ran out of the happy home they inhabited during the Eisenhower administration.

When I asked her why anyone would want to throw a croquet mallet at her, my mother looked up from the jaws of the ceramic shark she was painting (a bank, a future Christmas present for me, it turns out) and she said that she didn’t know. She said she was a perfect child. She invited me to ask my grandmother about the incident. I immediately turned on my heels and stomped out of the house like the Spanish Inquisition. I rang the bell (which I never did) and my grandmother answered the door. She was pickling beets. She led me up the back stairs.

“Why did you ring the bell?”

“Why did you throw a croquet mallet at my mother?”

She turned and squinted and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Because she deserved it.”

Having been spanked with a wooden spoon by my mother on more than one occasion, I could accept that. I sat down on the steel and rubber step stool my grandmother used to reach the upper shelves in her pantry (where she kept mason jars) as she decanted a can of Spicy Hot V-8 in an orange juice glass. She gave it to me and went back to stirring her cauldron.

My grandmother might have made a spectacular witch, as my grandfather often alleged, but she was a terrible shot and had no sense of timing: the mallet crashed through a pane of glass in their old screen door instead of hitting my mother. I also adore Spicy Hot V-8 juice and did as a child.

A loving husband and a caring father, I have always felt that my grandfather—uncle Franny, as he is known to my cousins—played the role of pater familias and gracious host to perfection. He will succumb to cancer while I am holding his hand.

With that same hand, on a rickety wooden gardening table, beside the clean blade of a spade my grandmother used for transferring her plants to larger pots, he would habitually place a chipped ashtray decorated with tiny, indeterminate flowers. On the reverse side, the glaze bore the mysterious legend, ‘Made In Occupied Japan.’

This was the one ashtray that my uncle John refused to use. He preferred to use another one in the living room, one that my grandfather reserved for his butterscotch candy wrappers. For some reason I could never fully fathom—maybe because he had a reputation for being more ornery than everyone else—the only visitor allowed to smoke in my grandparents’ house was uncle John, a recently retired shoe salesman. I loved him for that. When he insisted, nobody resisted.

As you might imagine, the day uncle John died was something of a disaster—especially for him. I heard the phone ring in the kitchen. I followed the blur my grandmother formed as she whizzed by me—as she tripped, running up the front stairs, shouting, “Dad, Dad!” When she was forced to complete her ascent by crawling on her knees, bawling like a baby, I almost laughed. I had never seen an adult behave like a child before.

I thought my grandfather might have agreed. I am not sure that he did. He stood—dentureless—in a pair of periwinkle pajama bottoms and a V-neck t-shirt on the second floor landing—trying to make sense of things.

He was getting ready for work. Third shift.

“Ma, Ma, what is it?”

With wet hands, he lifted her gently by her elbows from where she knelt. While I am sure it took only a few seconds, it seemed like an eternity had to pass before my grandmother could gather her head together sufficiently to blurt out, “Oh, Francis, John is dead. He had a heart attack.” I had no idea what a heart attack was, but it sounded pretty serious to me, even worse than death.

I dropped the chain of multicolored plastic monkeys I had painstakingly connected on the carpet and was about to dispose of in their home—a brown plastic barrel. Suddenly, I felt like crying, too.

In fact, I did cry. So did my brother.

We had no idea what was going on. Uncle John had never died before. Nobody in our family had ever died until that day—not to my knowledge. What are you supposed to do under such circumstances?

Once my grandfather had inserted his clean teeth—grimacing in the mirror, pressing a thumb against his upper plate, making sure it was sealed against his gums strongly enough to resist the forces of gravity and permit difficult conversations—he closed the door. This time, I sat on the stairs. I heard a tap gushing into the sink. He emerged a few minutes later clad in a pair of dark slacks, a white shirt and a sea-gray acrylic cardigan with a black Greek meander design dancing up both sleeves. He smelled ever so faintly of Barbasol.

After making a few quick phone calls, my grandmother drifted off to her bedroom, sobbing again, selecting something suitable to wear to my aunt’s. My grandfather tied my brother’s shoes while she took her turn in the bathroom.

He took us next door and explained the situation to my mother, before driving my grandmother to stay with her sister, aunt Midge, and then on to work. He always kept an extra pair of work clothes in the trunk of his car.

As I had already eaten dinner, I rejected the trembling dish of goulash my hysterical mother offered to calm me down. My brother was not a liver fan, so he may have sampled some. That, I don’t remember.

You see, I was 7, which I had always been led to believe was a lucky number.

Now, I was confused. What did the death of uncle John mean for the blackberry bushes that grew next to his garage? Would aunt Midge allow me to continue to pick them? Would the proprietors dim the pink and blue neon bowling ball at Rojek’s on Payne Avenue, two doors down the street from the chilly house with the lemon trim where my aunt and uncle lived? Would Principal Baker order the flag at Grant Elementary School to flap quietly at half-staff for a few days? Would President Ford address the nation? What kind of future did I have to look forward to? Would there be nuclear war?

I wanted answers. Unable to articulate my actual desires, I asked for a Windmill cookie. Only my grandfather ate those, of course, and he was carefully backing down the driveway, trying to avoid the swing set he had once almost demolished with his Buick. In other words, we didn’t have any Windmills in our house. Or answers.

By way of a compromise, my mother peeled a Ho-Ho and placed it on a plate, still half-wrapped in tinfoil. It rolled to the edge, paused, and then rolled back to the middle, glittering at the center of a flower fringed universe like a gilded turd. I didn’t want a Ho-Ho. I was told to stop being a brat or go to bed. I opted for brattiness and went to bed. It was already after 8:00 p.m., anyway. I saw no reason to sit in the kitchen and sulk.

38 hours later, a prophylactic whisper in the funeral home foyer informed me that my favorite uncle had passed away on his porch, napping beneath The North Tonawanda News, after eating a basket of fish and chips at Arthur Treacher’s.

I may not like liars, but I have always admired a lie told with élan. My mother could always manage that. She took no chances. Out of the air, she plucked a pen that seemed to be swinging rather too freely in space and time from a chain of brass BBs fixed to a little pulpit. She signed for all three of us: Edwin, Kathleen, Eric and Kyle. She laid the pen to rest in the shadowy valley between the pages of the Visitors Book before she led my brother and myself to the casket.

My father was at work. My mother said he would be dropping by to add his name to the book later.

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