Fall 2016 (Volume 20, Issue II): 20th Anniversary Issue
ALEXANDER PAYNE MORGAN
Savannah, December 23, 1953, 11:00 AM
Daddy is wearing a brown suit and polished-like-new brown-and-white shoes and a green tie. He gives me a hug and then a kiss, which is okay. Daddy does that.
“What grade are you in now, Alex?” Daddy is asking. “I’m a third grader. I go to Massey School.”
“I know what school you go to. Where’s your mother?” “She’s reading.”
“Well, where is she?”
“She’s upstairs.” Mother reads in her bedroom with the door closed. “Do you have an Erector Set?” Daddy asks me. “I’ve got some presents for you and your brothers.” He turns and starts fumbling on the floor with some boxes wrapped in white tissue paper. He turns back to me. “This is heavy. I think it’s an Erector Set. Do you have one?”
“Maybe Avery has one.”
“That’s right! I got it for him before you guys left me. Well, look at this.” He hands me the big box. “Your very own Erector Set! What do you say to that?”
Avery doesn’t play with his Erector Set, and I never thought much about it, but now I know what to say. “It’s wonderful, Daddy.” I use the moment as an excuse to throw myself in his arms once more. He is laughing and picking me up and hugging me and swinging me. Dizzy with excitement, I am laughing with my daddy. Around we go in our shabby hallway that doesn’t feel so shabby just now.
I hear stirring upstairs and in the kitchen. Soon, Mother and my brothers will be here. I ache to find a way so Daddy knows I didn’t want to leave him, so he knows I love him, but the seconds drain before I can think of anything. Mother’s on the stairs. Avery and little brother, Jamesie, are coming, too. I feel the tears I have to hide as Daddy turns away.
Avery is eleven. He’s a lot bigger and taller than me. He brings a reluctant half smile to Daddy, doesn’t look him in the face, turns sideways to half accept, half reject, his hug. I don’t remember living with Daddy in New Hope, Pennsylvania, but Avery does. He liked his kindergarten, where he learned French and had a girlfriend named Mindy. He remembers a brightness in New Hope that was shattered every time Daddy came home, once every few weeks from New
York City. And Mother stayed in her room a lot, even then. I sort of remember hiding under the kitchen table with Avery in New Hope when Daddy got mad, but it is a vague memory, maybe a memory Avery has told me and not my own.
Jamesie is five. Mother maybe doesn’t know, but Avery and I already know there is something wrong with Jamesie. He can’t dress himself. His smile is confused and misdirected to any stranger. He talks without taking turns, words that tumble down without fitting together. Jamesie offers Daddy a hopeful smile and waits for hugs. Now it is Daddy who turns half away, gives a quick half hug and turns away and doesn’t see Jamesie’s face falling.
Mother takes her last step down the stairs, her eyes filled with spiders and flies. Daddy lifts his arms as if to offer a hug but doesn’t complete the motion, and it becomes a shrug. Mother presses us children aside. The grownups have to talk.
They go in the living room and close the door. Avery runs around to listen through the crack where the sliding doors never quite close tight. For a tiny moment, I imagine going with him to share whatever he discovers. Then I decide against it.
Jamesie wanders back to the kitchen to finish his cereal. I go upstairs to my secret place. Mother has draped a blanket over the metal frame at the head of my bed, and I can snuggle down between the blanket and the wall with Urnk.
Urnk is a terrycloth elephant with big button eyes. He looks like a sand-colored rabbit, except he has a long nose that sticks out and curves up. He doesn’t look anything like the elephants in my picture books. He has no tusks. He has long floppy bunny ears. His mouth is not connected to his trunk.
None of these differences with an actual elephant matters. Mother told Granny that Urnk’s funny name means “oink,” because I thought he was a pig. That story is a lie. I always knew he was an elephant, and I never thought he was a pig. I don’t remember where his name came from. I was two-years-old; I must have had my reasons.
Urnk has been my friend in times of trouble. He was with me in New Hope, and he still keeps me company at night or anytime I want a long safe snuggle.
After a while, I hear Daddy calling, yelling up the stairs for me to come down. I leave Urnk, because I know Daddy will think I’m too old for a stuffed animal.
Daddy is smiling his big smile. He says he’s going to take us all out to lunch.
But everything is wrong.
Mother looks through bloody clouds. She cocks right and left like a ferocious bird. Daddy is waiting for me to finish coming down the stairs, but I’ve stopped a few steps short, because I’m worried about what I’m walking into. Mother begins to back down the hall toward the kitchen, as if caught in some wind. She is silent but beckons for us kids to follow.
I want to do what Mother wants, but Daddy is a powerful pull. Avery’s expression is strange, caught between a grin and a grimace. Mother comes back, takes hold of Jamesie, offers me her hand, but I won’t take it. Avery ignores her. With Jamesie only, then, Mother retreats down the hall. Jamesie tries to twist free when he sees that his brothers are going to stay, but Mother slaps him and pulls him with her. He’s not even walking as she drags him into the kitchen.
Now, Avery and Daddy have an argument with their eyes. Daddy’s still smiling, but the smile has become a tough kid’s grin. “I don’t care,” he says out loud, as if Avery has said something. “I’m leaving. You can come or you can stay.” Daddy looks at me. I jump to his side, and we go out the door together.
He turns up his collar against the winter drizzle. There is a cold rush of loss. Everybody is unhappy. I feel tears coming again, and again I struggle to hold them back.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Daddy, who looks at me and shakes his head. The tough kid has disappeared. Daddy looks sad, too.
I have a stab of hope, and then I see him harden. He’s not going to go back inside to gather us all together and say, “This isn’t what any of us wants …” Instead, he descends the wooden steps with their flaking grey paint, stretches over drizzle-filled puddles, opens the black-iron gate, and marches across the red-brick sidewalk to his rented Cadillac, trailed by me, his loyal son, Alex.
Savannah, March 18, 2004, 8:30 PM
It was sad to see him so happy to see us today.
One day a year—now that Mother has died—Avery and I dutifully fly down to Savannah to visit, spend the day with Jamesie. He likes to be taken to old haunts, Tybee Island especially, Savannah Beach, where we children sometimes found sand and sunshine and sanctuary.
Our day with Jamesie is long, a day of him happily talking about anything and everything in the never-ending tumble that doesn’t admit interruption until exhausted we can hug him goodbye and retreat to a downtown Savannah bar. The dark and the alcohol and the cute girl bartender are soothing recuperation for men who are not saints, who need such relief after only one day with their little brother.
We sit at the bar now, and Avery lectures me on artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology, the coming singularity that will launch us into the eternal tomorrow. He’s read a book, and the book has wound him up, and he’s got to tell me about it. And anyway we’re tired of talking about anything of today or yesterday. I’m sort of an expert in
AI and robotics, and I listen to Avery’s exposition of the book’s wild extrapolations with a professional’s skeptical ear, but even so I’m relieved for the diversion. I’ll take a Jetson’s future. I’ll take a happy big brother. I’ll take a gin and tonic and then another gin and tonic, and a girl in tight jeans to mix them up for me, anything that floats me away.
Let there be hives of specialized, cooperating bio-mechanical henchmen, scooping up intel with their camera eyes, pattern matching with their learning-algorithm brains, cobbling comprehension out of bits and pieces, mimicking their masters, the ape gods. Let the AI’s reproduce themselves in an ever-upward robotical evolution. Let Avery fly us there in clouds of words and alcohol and anything not to think about our poor brother who lived with his mother until she died and now makes do in a Medicaid-funded residential facility for the old, the broken, the never wanted.
Avery gives some attention to his cigar. I sip my drink. The bartender bends at the waist as young women do. I relax into watching the ebb and flow. I am savoring this hiatus, but Avery has something itching in his soul.
“Remember that day when Lucretia and Dimitri went into the living room to talk?” His tone is casual, but his smile—that mask of pain—is beginning to form.
I think: I shouldn’t know what he’s talking about, but I know exactly, fresh as yesterday.
I’m startled. I was drifting. I rouse, groping to fend him off. “Daddy’s long dead; Mother’s just died. What does it matter now?”
Avery snorts. “Time you knew what that bastard was up to.” Time? I want to beg. But Avery is driven.
He draws deep on the cigar and lets out the smoke in a long dramatic suspension. “That bastard was trying to make out with Lucretia.”
I nod carefully, not sure how my big brother wants me to react, not sure if I need to say anything. But he doesn’t wait for me.
“She didn’t want any part of him. ‘We’re not married anymore,’ she says, so he says, ‘You’re the woman I love. I only married Scottie for her money.’”
Finally, then, I am drawn into the Kodachrome filmstrip of my brother’s documentary. I see the couple on the golden sofa in front of the bay window that looks down on the black iron fence with the seven rose bushes—sometimes scattering their vermillion detritus on the brick sidewalk—and the everywhere attendant streams of brown ants that live under the little piles of clean sand they’ve built between the bricks. It’s all there. Daddy and Mother on the sofa. I can see it all.
“He got angry,” Avery says. “You know how nasty he’d be when he didn’t get his way.”
“But there’s more.”
I wish I hadn’t said the cigar was okay. My eyes are beginning to burn. “So, Dimitri says, when Lucretia keeps pushing him off, ‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll never come and see your sons again.’” Avery’s smile is now a rictus of sarcasm. “So, Lucretia says ‘You can’t deny the boys their birthright.’ She even starts crying.”
“Avery…” I say. “Why…” I turn away to think but get distracted by the bartender. An aphorism comes to mind from some long-lost girlfriend: Men just want a hole to put it in.
Avery’s flow of pictures is no longer a Kodachrome filmstrip. It has evolved into a Technicolor pornographic movie. I see the man sitting on the golden sofa with his reluctant ex-wife, his cock ready for conquest, angry at the delay. Her crying would have incited him with its suggestion of weakness, but actually his bullying would have evoked her steel. As he sits there, indignant and angry on the sofa in his brown suit with his unzipped fly and green tie, advocating his ex-husband’s residual rights, her eyes would be matching the roses’ scattered rage. She would not have given in, not even at the cost of her sons’ birthright.
What an odd appeal. “Birthright” would have meant nothing to him. But thinking in the abstract rules of heritage is so true to our mother’s southern nature I am forced to understand that Avery cannot be lying.
He’s still talking—adding details, commentary, color—but I don’t need to see any more. Daddy would have stomped out of the living room to the foyer. She would have followed. He would have said something like, “Well, at least I’ll take the boys to lunch.” That’s when he would have called me, when I left the comfort of my stuffed elephant to come downstairs for one last lunch with Daddy.
Savannah, December 23, 1953, 12:00 PM
My father and I enter the cathedral space of the hotel dining room. A solemn man in a long black coat and bow tie jumps up, animated by my father’s silver dollar. Two button eyes on the back of his coat lead us to our table.
Tablecloths, thick-starched ironed white cotton, like heavy bed sheets. Enormous matching napkins folded into stiff fans. Plates, delicate and pale, thin as polished seashells. Big and little spoons. Big and little and tiny forks.
“May I recommend the crab cakes, sir?” the man says. “Coffee?” “A martini.” My father catches my eye, then sweeps his hand to indicate the room. “What do you think?”
Once, Daddy threw his plate against the wall because Mother’d scraped the carrots wrong.
I touch the tablecloth, run my hand over it, feel the thickness of its threads. Nothing in our house shines so white and clean.
“It’s wonderful, Daddy,” I whisper.
He grins and picks up the very large menu. “The captain recommends crab cakes. That sound good?”
“I was hoping for waffles.”
“Waffles? That’s breakfast food, but I’ll see if we can talk Pete into making them for you. Best damned cook in Savannah, by the way.” My father orders the crab cakes for himself and waffles, bacon, and milk for me. Milk always makes me gag, but I don’t say anything about it.
Are we really going to eat on this pure white cloth, get it dirty with splotches and spills? I want to tell Daddy we should roll it up, save it, take it home. Mother’s at home in bed reading, the door closed like always, the house a jumble of dropped clothes, piled newspapers, abandoned cartons, dirty dishes. Avery’s out looking for friends. Jamesie’s in his underwear eating dry Wheat Chex and listening to the kitchen radio.
At nearby tables, men in strange pale suits talk of dog racing and Florida. Women laugh, squirm in layered dresses, stretch to show pink- painted toenails in high-heeled sandals.
“You like baseball?” Daddy asks.
“I like the Dodgers.” I’ve heard the name. I have no idea about baseball. Mother hates sports. But my father’s face lights up.
“Me, too. Those damned Yankees, eh?” I grin, already out of my depth.
“I played all the sports before I got this bum leg. When I was a kid, we’d be sent out of the house after breakfast and expected to stay away until suppertime. I organized the games. We liked baseball best. Now, my friends all play tennis and squash, but they don’t want to play with a cripple. Sometimes I take everybody to a ball game, or we drop some dough on the ponies.”
My father is talking and smiling. He looks relaxed and proud. I love being there listening to him so happy. He goes on talking about how he was chief of all the boys, how they built a boat and sailed it on the Intracoastal Waterway, how he collected sea specimens and preserved them in bottles of alcohol that he lined up on the shelves in his laboratory, when he was a boy like me in Savannah.
The tablecloth I discover has a tablecloth underneath.