Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories

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"I know. I didn't mean for her to find it."

"Really." He tapped his pencil against his teeth. He was not convinced professionally, but personally he may have been. "I think you ought to go home now and straighten things out."

"I guess I'd better."

"Tell your mother I might stop by, either tonight or tomorrow. <\nd James-don't underestimate her."

While my father was alive we usually went to Yosemite for three or four days during the summer. My mother would drive and he would point out places of interest, meadows where boomtowns once stood, hanging trees, rivers that were said to flow upstream at certain times. Or he read to us; he had that grown-ups' idea that children love Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. The four of us sat in the backseat with our faces composed, attentive, while our hands and feet pushed, pinched, stomped, goosed, prodded, dug, and kicked.

One night a bear came into our camp just after dinner. Mother had made a tuna casserole and it must have smelled to him like something worth dying for. He wandered in while we were sitting around the fire and stood swaying back and forth. My brother Michael saw him first and elbowed me, then my sisters saw him and screamed. Mother and Father had their backs turned, but she must have guessed what it was because she immediately said, "Don't scream like that. If you frighten him there's no telling what he'll do. We'll just sing and he'll go away."

We sang "Row Row Row Your Boat," but the bear stayed. He circled us several times, rearing up now and then on his hind legs to stick his nose into the air. By the light of the fire I could see his doglike face and watch the muscles rolling under his loose skin like rocks in a sack. We sang harder as he circled us, coming closer and closer. "All right," Mother said, "enough's enough." She stood abruptly. The bear stopped moving and watched her. "Beat it," Mother said. The bear sat down and looked from side to side. "Beat it," she said again, and picked up a rock.

"Margaret, don't," my father said.

She threw the rock hard and hit the bear in the stomach. Even in the dim light I could see the dust rising from his fur. He grunted and stood to his full height. "See that?" Mother shouted. "He's filthy. Filthy!" One of my sisters giggled. Mother picked up another rock.

"Please, Margaret," my father said. Just then the bear turned and shambled away. Mother pitched the rock after him. For the rest of the night he loitered around the camp until he found the tree where we'd hung our food. He ate it all. The next day we drove back to the city. We could have bought more supplies in the valley, but my father wanted to go home and would not give in to any argument. Though he tried to jolly everyone up by making jokes, Michael and my sisters ignored him and looked stonily out the windows.

Things were never easy between my mother and me, but I never underestimated her. She underestimated me. When I was little she suspected me of delicacy, because I didn't like being thrown into the air, and because when I saw her and the others working themselves up for a roughhouse I found somewhere else to be. When they did drag me in I got hurt, a knee in the lip, a bent finger, a bloody nose, and this too Mother seemed to hold against me, as if I arranged my little hurts to get out of playing.

Even things I did well got on her nerves. We all loved puns except Mother, who didn't get them, and . Next to my father I was the best in the family. My forte was the Swifty: " 'You can bring the prisoner down,' said Tom condescendingly." Father encouraged me to perform at dinner, which must have been a trial for outsiders. Mother wasn't sure what was going on, but she didn't like it.

She suspected me in other ways. I couldn't go to the movies without her examining my pockets to make sure I had enough money to pay for the ticket. When I went away to camp she tore my pack apart in front of all the boys who were waiting in the bus outside the house. I would rather have gone without my sleeping bag and a few changes of underwear, which I'd forgotten, than be made such a fool of.

And she thought I was coldhearted because of what happened the day my father died and afterward. I didn't cry at his funeral and showed signs of boredom during the eulogy, fiddling around with the hymnals. Mother put my hands into my lap and I just let them lie there like something I was holding for someone else; the effect was ironic, and she resented it. We had a sort of reconciliation a few days later after I closed my eyes at school and refused to open them. When several teachers and then the principal failed to persuade me to look at them, or at some reward they claimed to be offering, I was handed over to the school nurse, who tried to pry the lids open and scratched one of them. My eye swelled up and I went rigid. The principal panicked and called Mother, who fetched me home. I wouldn't talk to her, or open my eyes, and when we reached the house Mother had to guide me up the steps one at a time. Then she put me on the couch and played the piano to me all afternoon. Finally I opened my eyes, we hugged each other, and I wept. Mother didn't really believe my tears but was willing to accept them, if only because I'd staged them for her benefit.

My lying separated us, too, and the fact that my promises not to lie anymore seemed to mean nothing to me. Often my lies came back to her, people stopping her in the street and saying how sorry they were to hear this or that. No one in the neighborhood enjoyed embarrassing Mother, and these situations stopped occurring once everybody got wise to me. There was no saving her from strangers, though. The summer after my father died I visited my uncle in Redding, and at the depot coming back I tried slipping away from the gentleman who'd sat next to me, but I couldn't shake him. When he saw Mother embrace me he came up and presented her with a card and told her to get in touch if things got any worse. She handed his card back and told him to mind his own business.

It wasn't only the lies that disturbed Mother; it was their morbidity. This was the real issue between us, as it had been between her and my father. She did volunteer work at Children's Hospital and St. Anthony's Dining Hall, collected things for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She was a lighter of candles, and in this my brother and sisters took after her. My father was a curser of the dark. And he loved to curse the dark. He was never more alive than when he was indignant about something. For this reason, the most important act of his day was the reading of the evening paper.

Ours was a terrible paper, indifferent to the city that bought it, indifferent to politics and art. Its business was outrage, horror, gruesome coincidence. When my father sat down in the living room with the paper, my mother stayed in the kitchen and kept the children busy, all except me, because I was quiet and could be trusted to amuse myself. I amused myself by watching my father.

He sat with his knees spread, leaning forward, his eyes only inches from the print, nodding as he read to himself. Sometimes he threw the paper down and paced the room, then picked it up and began again. Now and then he read a choice passage aloud. He always started with the society section, which he called the parasite page. This column began to take on the character of a comic strip or a serial, with the same people showing up from one day to the next, blinking in chiffon, awkwardly holding their drinks for the sake of foreign orphans, grinning behind sunglasses on the deck of a ski hut in the Sierras. The skiers really got his goat, probably because he couldn't understand them. The activity itself was inconceivable to him. When my sisters came back from Lake Tahoe one winter weekend in raptures over the beauty of the place, Father calmed them right down. "Snow," he said, "is overrated."

Then the news, or what passed in the paper for news: bodies unearthed in Scotland; former Nazis winning elections; rare animals slaughtered; misers expiring naked in freezing houses on mattresses stuffed with thousands, millions; marrying priests; divorcing actresses; high-rolling oilmen building fantastic mausoleums in honor of a favorite horse; cannibalism. Through all this my father waded with a fixed and weary smile.

Mother encouraged him to take up causes, to join groups, but he would not. He was uncomfortable with people outside the family. My parents rarely went out, and rarely had people in, except on feast days and national holidays. Their guests were always the same. Dr. Murphy and his wife and several others whom they'd known since childhood. Most of these people never saw one another outside our house and didn't have much fun together. Father discharged his obligations as host by teasing everyone about stupid things they'd said or done in the past, forcing them to laugh at themselves.

Though my father did not drink, he insisted on mixing cocktails for the guests. He wouldn't serve straight drinks like rum-and-Coke or even Scotch-on-the-rocks, only drinks of his own devising. He gave them lawyerly names like the Hanging Judge, the Ambulance Chaser, the Mouthpiece, and described their concoction in detail. He told long, complicated stories in a near whisper, making everyone lean in his direction, and repeated important lines; he also repeated the important lines in the stories my mother told, and corrected her when she got something wrong. When guests came to the ends of their own stories he would point out the morals for them.

Dr. Murphy had several theories about my father, which he used to test on me in the course of our meetings. Dr. Murphy had by this time given up his glasses for contact lenses and lost weight in the course of fasts that he undertook regularly. Even with his baldness he looked years younger than when he'd come to the parties at our house. Certainly he did not look like my father's contemporary, which he was.

One of Dr. Murphy's theories was that my father had exhibited a classic trait of people who had been gifted children by taking an undemanding position in an uninteresting firm. "He was afraid of finding his limits," Dr. Murphy told me. "As long as he kept stamping papers and making out wills he could go on believing that he didn't have limits." Dr. Murphy's fascination with my father made me uneasy, and I felt traitorous listening to him. While he lived, my father would never have submitted himself for analysis; it seemed a betrayal to put him on the couch now that he was dead.

I did enjoy Dr. Murphy's recollections of my father as a child. He told me about something that happened when they were in the Boy Scouts. Their troop had been on a long hike and Father had fallen behind. Dr. Murphy and the others decided to ambush him as he came down the trail. They hid in the woods on each side and waited. But when my father walked into the trap none of them moved or made a sound, and he strolled on without even knowing they were there. "He had the sweetest look on his face," Dr. Murphy said, "listening to the birds, smelling the flowers, just like Ferdinand the Bull." He also told me that my father's drinks tasted like medicine.

While I rode my bicycle home from Dr. Murphy's office. Mother fretted. She felt lonely in her confusion but didn't call anyone because she also felt like a failure. My lying had that effect on her. She took it personally. At such times she didn't think of my sisters, one happily married, the other doing brilliantly at Fordham. She didn't think of my brother, Michael, who had given up college to work with runaway children in Los Angeles. She thought of me. She thought that she had made a mess of her family.

Actually she managed the family very well. When my father lay dying upstairs she pulled us together. She made lists of chores and gave each of us a fair allowance. Bedtimes were adjusted and she stuck by them. She set regular hours for homework. Each child was made responsible for the next eldest, and I was given a dog. She told us frequently, predictably, that she loved us. At dinner we were each expected to contribute something, and after dinner she played the piano and tried to teach us to sing in harmony, which I couldn't do. Mother, an admirer of the von Trapp family, considered this a character defect.

Our life together was more orderly, healthy, while my father was dying than it had been before. He had set us rules to follow, not really much different from the ones Mother gave us after he got sick, but he had administered them arbitrarily. Though we were supposed to get an allowance we always had to ask him for it and then he'd give us too much because he enjoyed seeming magnanimous. Sometimes he punished us for no reason, because he was in a bad mood. He was apt to decide, as one of my sisters was going out to a dance, that she had better stay home and do something to improve herself. Or he'd sweep us all up on a Wednesday night and take us ice-skating.

He changed as the cancer did its work. He was quieter, less emphatic and faultfinding. He relaxed his coolly teasing way with us. For the first time in my life I began seeking out his company, at my mother's urging to begin with, then because I found I liked him. He taught me to play poker and chess and sometimes helped me with my schoolwork. Mostly we just sat and read. I was working my way through Sherlock Holmes; he had given up the newspaper and begun rereading the Norse sagas he'd fallen in love with in college, to the point that he'd considered devoting himself to them as a scholar. The sagas made him boyish. Now and then he'd stop and read aloud a particularly brutal passage: "Hard men!" he'd say, happily. "Men you would not care to meet outside the pages of a book."

One afternoon he looked up and saw me watching him. "What?" he asked.


"Now then, what is it?"

"Areyou afraid?"

"Of course not." He looked down at his book, then back at me. "Yes."

"Me too."

"Ah, son. I'm sorry. But don't ask me that again, please."

Toward the end he slept most of the time. From below, sometimes, faintly, I heard Mother playing the piano. Occasionally he nodded off in his chair while I was reading to him; his bathrobe would fall open then, and I would see the long scar on his stomach. His ribs all showed and his legs were like cables.

I once read in a biography of a great man that he "died well." I assume the writer meant that he kept his pain to himself, did not set off false alarms, and didn't grossly inconvenience those who were to stay behind. My father died well, even serenely. It was as though the irritability and solitude of his life had been a kind of stage fright. He managed his audience-us-with an old trouper's sense of when to clown and when to stand on his dignity. We were all moved, and admired his courage, as he intended we should. He died downstairs in his favorite chair while I was writing an essay for school. I was alone in the house and didn't know what to do. His body didn't frighten me, but immediately and sharply I missed my father. It seemed wrong to leave him sitting up and I tried to carry him upstairs to the bedroom but it was too hard, alone. So I called my friend Ralphy across the street. When he came over and saw what I wanted him for he started crying. I made him help me anyway. Mother got home not long afterward, and when I told her that Father was dead she ran upstairs, calling his name. A few minutes later she came back down. "Thank God," she said, "at least he died in bed." This seemed important to her and I didn't tell her otherwise. But that night Ralphy's parents called. They were, they said, shocked at what I'd done, and so was my mother when she heard the story, shocked and furious. Why? Because I hadn't told her the truth? Or because, having learned the truth, she could not go on believing that my father had died in bed?

When I came home my mother was arranging wood in the fireplace and did not look at me or speak for a moment. Finally she finished and straightened up and brushed her hands. She stepped back and looked at the fire she'd laid. "That's all right," she said. "Not bad for a consumptive."

"I'm sorry about the letter."

"Sorry? Sorry you wrote it or sorry I found it?"

"I wasn't goingto mail it. It was a sort of joke."

"Ha ha." She took up the whisk broom and swept bits of bark into the fireplace, then closed the drapes and settled on the couch. "Sit down," she said. She crossed her legs. "Listen, do I give you advice all the time?"


"I do?"

I nodded.

"Well, I'm supposed to. I'm your mother. I'm going to give you some more advice, for your own good. You don't have to make all these things up, James. They'll happen anyway." She picked at the hem of her skirt. "Do you understand?"

"I think so."

"You're cheating yourself, that's what I'm trying to tell you. When you get to be my age you won't know anything at all about life. All you'll know is what you've made up."

I thought about that. It seemed logical.

She went on. "I think maybe you need to get out of yourself more. Think more about other people."

The doorbell rang.

"Go see who it is," Mother said. "We'll talk about this later."

It was Dr. Murphy. He and my mother made their apologies and she insisted that he stay for dinner. I went to the kitchen to fetch ice for their drinks, and when I returned they were talking about me. I sat on the sofa and listened. Dr. Murphy was telling her not to worry. "James is a good boy," he said. "I've been thinking about my oldest, Terry. He's not really dishonest, you know, but he's not really honest either. I can't seem to reach him. At least James isn't furtive."

"No," Mother said, "he's never been furtive."

Dr. Murphy clasped his hands between his knees and stared at them. "Well, that's Terry. Furtive."

Before we sat down to dinner Mother said grace. Dr. Murphy bowed his head and closed his eyes and crossed himself at the end, though he had lost his faith in college. When he told me that, during one of our meetings, in just those words, I had the picture of a raincoat hanging by itself outside a dining hall. He drank a good deal of wine and persistently turned the conversation to the subject of his relationship with Terry. He admitted that he had come to dislike the boy. He used the word "dislike" with relish, like someone on a diet permitting himself a single potato chip. "I don't know what I've done wrong," he said abruptly, and with reference to nothing in particular. "Then again maybe I haven't done anything wrong. I don't know what to think anymore. Nobody does."

"I know what to think," my mother said.

"So does the solipsist. How can you prove to a solipsist that he's not creating the rest of us?"

This was one of Dr. Murphy's favorite riddles, and almost any pretext was sufficient for him to trot it out. He was a child with a card trick.

"Send him to bed without dinner," Mother said. "Let him create that."

Dr. Murphy turned to me. "Why do you do it?" he asked. It was a pure question, it had no object beyond the satisfaction of his curiosity. Mother looked at me and there was the same curiosity in her face.

"I don't know," I said, and that was the truth.

Dr. Murphy nodded, not because he'd anticipated my answer but because he accepted it. "Is it fun?"

"No, it's not fun. I can't explain."

"Why is it all so sad?" Mother asked. "Why all the diseases?"

"Maybe," Dr. Murphy said, "sad things are more interesting."

"Not to me," Mother said.

"Not to me either," I said. "It just comes out that way."

After dinner Dr. Murphy asked Mother to play the piano. He particularly wanted to sing "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."

"That old thing," Mother said. She stood and folded her napkin deliberately, and we followed her into the living room. Dr. Murphy stood behind her as she warmed up. Then they sang "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," and I watched him stare down at my mother, as if he were trying to remember something. Her own eyes were closed. After that they sang "0 Magnum Mysterium." They sang it in parts and I regretted I had no voice, it sounded so good.

"Come on, James," Dr. Murphy said as Mother played the last chords. "These old tunes not good enough foryou?"

"He just can't sing," Mother said.

When Dr. Murphy left. Mother lit the fire and made more coffee. She slouched down in the big chair, sticking her legs straight out and moving her feet back and forth. "That was fun," she said.

"Did you and Father ever do things like that?"

"A few times, when we were first going out. I don't think he really enjoyed it. He was like you."

I wondered if they'd had a good marriage. He admired her and liked to look at her; every night at dinner he had us move the candlesticks slightly to right or left of center so he could see her down the length of the table. And every evening when she set the table she put them in the center again. She didn't seem to miss him very much. But I wouldn't really have known if she did, and I didn't miss him all that much myself anymore. Most of the time I thought about other things.


I waited.

"I've been thinking that you might like to go down and stay with Michael for a week or two."

"What about school?"

"I'll talk to Father McSorley. He won't mind. Maybe this problem will take care of itself if you start thinking about other people-helping them, like Michael does. You don't have to go if you don't want to."

"It's okay with me. I'd like to see Michael."

"I'm not trying to get rid of you."

"I know."

Mother stretched, then tucked her feet under her. She sipped at her coffee. "What did that word mean that Murphy used? You know the one?"

"Paranoid? That's where somebody thinks everyone is out to get him. Like that woman who always grabs you after Mass-Dorothea."

"Not paranoid. Everyone knows what that means. Solipsist."

"Oh. A solipsist is someone who thinks he creates everything around him."

Mother nodded and blew on her coffee, then put it down without drinking. "I'd rather be paranoid. Do you really think Dorothea is?"

"Sure. No question about it."

"I mean really sick?"

"That's what paranoid is, is being sick. What do you think. Mother?"

"What are you so angry about?"

"I'm not angry." I lowered my voice. "I'm not angry."

"I don't think she knows what she's saying, she just wants someone to listen. She probably lives all by herself in some little room. We should pray for her. Will you remember to do that?"

I thought of Mother singing "0 Magnum Mysterium," saying grace, praying with easy confidence. She could imagine things as coming together, not falling apart. She looked at me and I shrank; I knew exactly what she was going to say.

"Son," she said, "do you know how much I love you?"

The next afternoon I took the bus to Los Angeles. I looked forward to the trip, to the monotony of the road and the empty fields by the roadside. Mother walked with me down the long concourse. The station was crowded and oppressive. "Are you sure this is the right bus?" she asked at the loading platform.


"It looks so old."


"All right." She pulled me against her and kissed me, then held me an extra second to show that her embrace was sincere, not just like everyone else's, never having realized that everyone else does the same thing. I boarded the bus and we waved at each other until it became awkward. Then she began checking through her handbag for something. When she finished I stood and adjusted the luggage over my seat. I sat and we smiled at each other, waved when the driver gunned the engine, shrugged when he got up suddenly to count the passengers, waved again when he resumed his seat. As the bus pulled out my mother and I were looking at each other with plain relief.

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