Brothers and Sisters —
Let me say right off the bat that when Eva screamed that I was the cause of her poison ivy — UNTRUE. First, she got poison ivy in 1996. Twenty-one years, twenty-one years ago! Second, in 1996 she went dancing through the weeds in Wellfleet. Am I responsible for poison ivy growing around a rented cabin? If our sister hadn’t enough sense to avoid three-leaf plants—whose fault is that? The only reason I bring this up is that the last time we were all together she publicly declared her problems to be a direct result of that previous affliction. What was she scratching at under those long sleeves of hers? Not 1996 poison ivy. Truth is truth and now I can get down to business.
No matter what — look straight at trouble, Mama always said, and I did that. I faced whether to tell you or not to tell you. I tossed a coin. It came up heads three times out of four. Who slipped that quarter to me? I have my suspicions. Let bygones be bygones—not a chance. You know who you are.
I started this letter five times. Remember that ancient cow with peanut brittle crumbs bouncing off her flat chest who spent an entire year teaching us how to write a letter. I swear we must have all had her for fourth grade. What is the proper format anyway? Forget it.
Anyway, “Dear Brothers and Sisters” is how I’ll start. Siblings, you know how it is when you have to do something, and you don’t want to do something, but you have to do something. Let me say that I have delayed; I have procrastinated, and I have dragged my feet, but this is the day for telling.
Okay. Down to business. Me — I’m seated at my desk — yes, it’s twilight. I bought the apartment last year. Insider price. Bought it with the inheritance from Mama. I admit that. Anyway, the apartment is quite good, but the furnishings, the decorative innards are rather commonplace. The desk I am sitting at is one of those grossly heavy gray metal things with seven drawers. The kind that corporations discard in favor of mahogany. Cost a fortune to have its elephant weight hauled here from secondhand heaven. I’m adjusting a gooseneck lamp that doesn’t need adjusting and I’ve poured myself a healthy drink that needed doing. It is time. If I wait much longer, I shall lose courage.
Makes sense to think that you wouldn’t be able to hear any noise twenty-three floors up. Wrong. I swear a squirrel cracked nuts on the windowsill outside this room last week and smacked those shells against the glass. How did the little varmint get on that narrow band of stone? Don’t ask me. Still, it’s not all disadvantages up here. Twilight on the twenty-third floor for instance is a bang. When that liquid light suns itself in the margins of these rooms — I ought to applaud. You haven’t been here, have you? None of you have ever been to my apartment. Consider yourselves invited. Still, we’re not much on visiting, are we? The severed family tree. Children scattered like confetti.
I never intended to write one of those fits-all letters. I think generic messages like duplicated holiday greetings intended to inspire cannibalistic envy deserve to be crumpled and thrown away or spat upon. That’s what I think. I meant to tell you in person, my brothers and sisters, have a face-to-face experience. Pay my tariff. Not an apology. I had no actual plan, no prepared speech. It would be off the cuff. I thought I would be able to say what I must when we all sat crowded together in that absurdly dark front room of Mama’s that could be a transplanted Victorian parlor lit by forty-watts. I never spoke; of course, you already know. The opportunity didn’t arise or the atmosphere was too dour or the room was filled with bawling relatives. Have you noticed how at funerals it is mostly second or third cousins who cry and beat their breasts with the handles of their handbags? It must be easier to weep for relatives who are basically strangers.
I believe the odds are against our ever being together again, therefore, I have chosen to say what I must this way. There was never a question that I wouldn’t tell you. Don’t think of this as a confession, nor am I asking for absolution.
We sat in together after the funeral — brothers in business suits and sisters in black. I swear each of us must have had in our closets perhaps beneath a dry cleaner’s shroud of plastic the perfect mourning outfit. We were raised to be conscientious.
I fear you will believe I was watching you, and I was. In the kitchen was Etta jingling her bracelet heavy with charms intended to mark important events that otherwise might be forgotten and complaining that we hadn’t used a caterer. But which one of us would have sprung for the costs? Eva licking her forefinger greedily after sticking its manicured tip in the nut-encrusted rectangle of cheese, and Belle slapping her as if they were children again instead of glittering matrons. Our thrifty Jake pouring weak drinks until brother Rudolph made him stop. There are limits, he said. Lloyd’s wife, puffy with anger, refusing to help, even to set out napkins — not forgiving those among us who missed her son’s wedding. Trays of food clasped to our bosoms we moved among the people.
Forget the in-laws, there were eight of us. Direct descendants. Spun off from the main tree. Eight babes grown up. Eight is a thick word. A grandchild called us a bunch of black crows. I wasn’t supposed to hear that. I won’t name the child. We alone could have filled the house. Only three of the immediate mourners present in that house were without partners. Belle who was newly divorced, Marty whose wife was in her ninth month and was forbidden to travel, and me. Mama had eight children, and every one came to the funeral.
Our common memories though are limited. I was only ten years old when Rudolph married for the first time that mystical woman. Was it true she joined an ashram? Anyway, Marty and I were the kids still at home when everyone else had gone off. Did anyone see the look on Norman’s face when I asked for a whiskey? He was actually ready to challenge my right to have one. Yes, I would have said, baby sister is old enough to drink, and as a matter of fact is known to have quite a few drinks per evening. Someone, perhaps it was Eva, brought up that friend of Mama’s, Mrs. Zeibel, long gone from the neighborhood but who had returned for the funeral. “Better that it should have been the Bastard in that coffin,” that woman had said in such a loud voice. Marty made us giggle when he said that afterwards Mrs. Zeibel actually spat over her shoulder on the floor. “Well good for her,” Lloyd said. “Better the Bastard in the coffin than Mama. Pity that it wasn’t.”
People left the house by four o’clock. In the backyard nieces and nephews and Mama’s three great-grandchildren raced each other and shrieked. It had been unseasonably warm that day. Rudolph closed the door. Three, four strangers lingered nibbling leftovers. Clear the table, Etta whispered, and they’ll go. We bent to the task whisking crumbs into glasses marked by fingerprints and flipping crumpled napkins into plates. What to do with remaining food? No one was staying in the house after today. Norman ran after two old women who had not yet reached their car. “Wait,” he said. We shoveled salads into aluminum foil pans and thoughtlessly covered them with piles of cold cuts. Etta without a minute’s hesitation rescued the paper bag from the bakery that had been stuffed into the garbage can and filled it with leftover rolls and bits of cake. I was the one who carried all that to the old women. Waste not, want everything.
Afterwards, there was the dishwasher to be filled. We hadn’t used paper plates, because we’d forgotten to buy them. So there was that exorcising work in the kitchen to be finished, the floor to be swept, and trash to be taken out. All the time the men were checking the upstairs windows making certain they were locked. Chairs dragged back to their accustomed places. The remaining bottles of liquor given to Rudolph albeit grudgingly to put into the trunk of his car except for one bottle of bourbon with a drink or two left in it. Belle said she’d take that back to the motel with her. Everyone else would be flying home that evening. Half-empty bottles of liquor impossible to pack. With this homely disorder going on, there really was no appropriate moment for me to speak.
Later we went to the front room. Two taxis had been ordered for those going straight to the airport, but they wouldn’t arrive until five-thirty. Jake would ferry the rest of us back to the motel. True, we began to feel companionable sitting in a circle in that room. Perhaps through the garlands of ancient drapes that framed the windows it was twilight. We had seated ourselves by sex with the dividing-line a worn rose on the carpet. Boys to the right, girls to the left. Gray-haired boys, soft bodied girls. There was an epidemic of shuffling feet. It was a near silence that called for a rescue. Jake’s wife had settled herself in the corner of the couch. “I think it all went well,” she said. “Yes, the afternoon went well.”
There you have it — forgive me, Jake — but the woman is a bloody idiot. Went well! It was the wrong thing to say. Weren’t we embarrassed? What a haphazard and shabby table we had created for the people traipsing to the house after the funeral. Who was that woman who called herself our cousin from Champaign? Gobbling up what she called the funereal repast. Let’s be honest, none of us still lived in this city, and perhaps we had not cared enough about what people thought. Anyway, it was done. It was over. We were now tired and becoming a little testy with each other and that afternoon might have ended in a quarrel.
“Lemon,” Lloyd said suddenly imitating the squeaky voice of that demanding and unfamiliar cousin from Champaign. “Where is my lemon for the tea?” That started us laughing because the woman had created endless scenes as she searched for the nonexistent lemon. It was our fault. We did have Mama’s lovely Haviland teapot filled with steaming Earl Grey and we’d set out the matching sugar bowl, but we had neglected to buy lemons. You needed the car to get to the nearest store, and although several of the grandchildren were old enough to drive, Rudolph felt the neighborhood was not safe anymore. We decided not to send anyone out to buy lemons. There was certainly no rush to the teapot. Most of the people either took coffee or went over to the bar that at least was decently stocked.
Yes, I might have spoken then, but Rudolph stood up too quickly. Who could believe that Rudolph was already a grandfather? When we were children, if anyone had a problem, the cure was to tell Rudolph and watch him pluck solutions from the air. Rudolph with his face damp with sweat stood up and planted his feet firmly on the fringes of the rug.
He cleared his throat and looked terribly official and then told us how much Mama had left to each of us. It wasn’t official, he said, but since we were all going away, he thought we should know what would come.
Our surprise was genuine. She had all that money? Mama could have gone anywhere, done anything. Instead, she lived alone in this house like a widow or a spinster. She wouldn’t leave. Norman looked up to shake a fat symbolic finger. “His fault,” he said. “The Bastard.”
“Absolutely,” Belle agreed. “Mama stayed here to spite him. So that he would know that she still lived in the original house where we were all born. It was to get him.”
All right, the other comments became strident, ugly, name-calling. Money has always been important to us. Remember Lloyd’s first marriage to that cold-hearted bitch? I’m sorry to bring that up. Then too, there was that craziness about Belle’s credit. What should I say? Money ruled our roost.
What about the house? Fair is fair, Eva said. Her husband nudged her. We all saw that. There will be an exact accounting, Rudolph said. He was Mama’s executor. The house was up for sale. Rudolph and Jake had already been to a real estate office and left them a set of keys. None of us wanted the house. It had been too much for Mama to keep up. Before the funeral we had taken the broom to spider nests and carpets of dust. The bedrooms had patchy rain-streaked wallpaper and the painted windowsills were cruelly chipped. “Mama fired every housekeeper that Rudolph hired for her,” Etta said.
Marty handed out a ten-page inventory that he had prepared of the contents of the house. He had those pages duplicated and stapled and each of us was given a copy. Most of the furniture would be either given away or sold to the secondhand man from Miller’s. Rudolph would receive the silver as specified in the will, and Etta and Belle would divvy up the china, and everyone else had a right to choose a thing or two. I know that the fact that I took nothing was noted. I explained that I lived in this three and a half-room apartment and where would I put anything? I admit now that was an excuse. I simply did not want anything from the house. Don’t misunderstand. I had no bad memories of my life here with Mama. What I did absolutely had nothing to do with Mama.
Look, I’ll tell you straightaway what I did. I went to see him. Yes, I did. I saw the Bastard. Should he be given another name? I never heard him called anything else. Did I wonder about that? I don’t think as children anyone went around cursing freely without expecting a strong slap. But already when I was very young, our father was called the Bastard as in: ‘Damn the Bastard!’ or ‘Who needs the Bastard!’ Mama never contradicting.
I grew up thinking of him that way, and I suppose the name was deserved. I never knew him. The man packed up and left when I was two years old, and Marty only an infant in Mama’s arms. Who knew him? Rudolph and Lloyd were already teenagers when he was still with the family. What did the boys call him before he went away? Was it Dad? Or Old Man? Perhaps a polite — Sir?
I guess everyone who was over the age of eight before he packed his suitcases knew him. Eva was only five but she always swore that she remembered him. I, on the other hand, have no memories whatsoever. Maybe if I ever went into analysis, they might pull from me some primal memory of having been held in his arms, but I doubt it. I don’t think there was a photograph of him anywhere in the house. Not that I ever went looking for one, because I didn’t.
Rudolph must have been the Bastard’s scourge. He and Mama whispered, but I never heard the words, or perhaps I did but was uninterested in the details of financial shenanigans to be conducted in the presence of a sympathetic judge.
I thought what I witnessed was the planning of a conspiracy. I heard in my mind drum rolls. Now, of course, I know all that was only about money. Mama always battling for extra funds. I didn’t know whether payments were late or whether there was never enough. Was the Bastard stingy? I never felt sorry for him.
I have lived in New York for eleven years. This must not be construed as representing any period in which I was looking for my father. I always knew who he was. I never saw him. I suppose I ought to say instead that the Bastard never wanted to see me, because that’s true. Of all the fights that took place in courtrooms there was never one about custody or visitation rights. The Bastard never came to see us. Did I ever ask about that? I went only so far up the ladder of my brothers and sisters before phlegm and anger descended upon me. Why did I want to know about the Bastard? I had no answer. As I grew older I began to despise the Bastard on my own. He had made me a fatherless daughter.
When did I decide to see him? A year ago. His telephone number was unlisted. You’d be amazed what you can find out through persistence. I want to make it clear that when I called him I did not say this is your daughter. I told him my name and then without a pause I asked if we might meet for coffee. He said that would be very nice. We selected a diner on Broadway. I picked a refugee-style café. Perhaps I wanted him to be out of place. By this time I knew what he looked like. I found pictures in the archives of newspapers, and although he might have aged because years had passed since those photographs were taken, still I felt certain I could pick him out. I had rehearsed my manner and decided to be extremely polite. I would not offer him a parade of questions or the catharsis of my rage.
We had agreed to meet at three o’clock in the afternoon. I don’t know if he was there on time, but I was deliberately twenty minutes late even knowing that he might have left. What I hoped was that his curiosity would be too great and he would sit there waiting. I guessed right.
He was easily recognized and not because he looked out of place. He grew his hair long in the back with delicately curling silver edges. For a moment I thought of walking right past him and taking another seat and not being the daughter that the Bastard expected.
You should know that it was the resemblance that demolished my resolve. He was a large man not shrunken by time at all. The shoulders of a pugilist. He had Rudolph’s build — no reverse that — it goes from father to son, doesn’t it? He was the source of our gray eyes and had even bestowed Jake’s twisting eyebrow. Eva held her head in just that fashion and at an angle. If there had been a genetic fight in the womb, he had won.
He had dressed for the surroundings that I had chosen. He matched a half a dozen men in that restaurant who looked as if they had once had better times. He even managed to mimic a slight dustiness. Seated in a booth near a window he had already ordered a cup of coffee. I knew his age, but up close he didn’t look much older than Rudolph. He stood up when I approached, and we shook hands before sitting down opposite each other in that booth.
I feared that those few greeting comments we exchanged were going to be the end of the conversation. I was determined not to mention Mama. I stared at him; he, on the other hand, seemed busy stirring sugar into his coffee. Then I became aware that his hands trembled and his watercolor gray eyes blinked. The man was nervous and not at ease. I regarded that as a gift. Ask him something? Ask him what? I was not there to learn facts or allow him to paraphrase his biography — what he has been doing during all the years of my life. Nor did I wish to give him in turn my own experiences. I know what you want to know — why didn’t I get the hell out of there?
We both began to drink our cups of coffee. He was the one who spoke first. Friends, he told me, had invited him to Italy next month. He would be in Florence. It is very beautiful, he said. Had I ever been there? Yes, I said, but I had stayed in a boarding house. He looked amused as I had intended.
With a gesture that was incredibly insensitive yet perhaps necessary — he reached into his pocket. He had brought me something. A recording with its plastic box properly cellophane wrapped. The La Scala recording, he said. I puritani. He slid the box across the table. Yes, I took it. I examined it and looked at the notes on the back. It was her recording. The preserved voice of the very woman my family loathed. He asked then if I was musical, and if I was interested in opera. I play no instrument, I said, but I am interested in music. This recording, he said, this, and Cavalleria rusticana were her last. He then offered anecdotes about the diva. He was not present in his stories. His vanity was all in the insider’s glimpse — the ‘I was there.’
He took it for granted that I knew the singer had died, which I had. Had I ever heard her? Not in person, I said. He and I did this tarantella through her music. Her Tosca. Or did I know the magnificence of her Italian bel canto repertoire? In truth, he said, her voice is more magnificent in the concert hall and the opera house. It is not that the recordings are not true but that a certain brilliant edge is lost. Such vocal discipline is seldom achieved.
I understand, my brothers and sisters, that you are shocked that I possessed any of her recordings. I know that any mention of her or her music was banned in our house. But I first heard her sing elsewhere — her recordings played in the homes of friends. All right, she was a great singer. How could I not own her music? It wasn’t as if she ever knew that I did.
Back in that booth, we ordered more coffee. I began to wonder at his indifference to our meeting. Perhaps he has denied the reality of who I am. He spoke of the diva as if he were only her manager and not her lover. We both knew that it was unlikely that I would have met her anywhere.
I swear he never asks another personal question of me, not one question. His days of child support payments were long past. Did he ask about Rudolph? His oldest son. The man asked about none of us. Of Mama — not a word passed his lips. Did he remember that he had ever held her in his arms?
We are back in the conversation about my not having ever truly seen the diva. I have a photograph, he said. I realize that this is part of something that he has rehearsed. What gives him away? A flicker of anticipation crosses the face, a tremor of lechery remembered. He waits to see how I will respond. There is no attempt to show the picture unless I want to see it. Yes, of course, I said.
The photograph taken from the wallet is on the table in front of me. The surface of the table is gray and white mottled Formica. I lean over to examine the picture, but I do not pick it up. The truth is that even in this small picture the woman was startlingly attractive with an intelligent and sharply angular face. Why the photograph? I am being shown this I realize as an explanation. He makes no comment about it, but you see, I understand. Look at her. This woman offered herself to him. This incredible woman whom he never expected to possess. Yet it had happened. How then, I believe he was telling me, could he resist? He lacked the strength to do that. That was the message. His rationale was no more than ‘out of all the men in the world she had chosen him.’
I watch him. The singer has been dead at least twelve years, and he still wonders at the fate that made her his. He grieves her loss. This picture is intended to serve as the ultimate explanation.
I want to say again that this meeting between him and me happened more than a year ago. True, I never told any of you before. I never mentioned it. Mama got sick, but that wasn’t the reason that I didn’t tell you. I needed time to absorb this. Yet I have not committed any act, I insist, that defiled Mama’s memory. I did not forgive this man. Don’t think that for a second.
It was true that I expected him to be a living monster. How could it be otherwise? The adulterous pig! What did I see? I saw that man in the café sitting opposite me in the booth.
What I want you, my brothers and sisters, to know is that what was knitted into our childhood was never the way that we thought it was. It was not such an exalted scandal.
What actually happened was quite uncomplicated. Somehow it got twisted and its details magnified and weighted. There was the great size of the forgotten family and then too the notoriety of the woman. All this became something grand because there were so many of us and the woman was who she was. This became the centerpiece of our lives and corrupted us and stuck in our throats.
What is important for us to accept is that this was only an ordinary betrayal — a breaking of vows. An everyday occurrence in life. If we had only realized that what happened was that a man walked out on his wife and kids. It was never any more than that.
That’s what I want to tell you.
Your loving sister
Bette Pesetsky is the author of two short story collections: Stories Up to a Pont and Confessions of a Bad Girl. Her recent fiction is published in Oblong, Chicago Literati, Sleet, Litro, The Moth, Flexible Persona, Matchbook, LitMag and elsewhere.