I haven't seen my sister in twenty years. She left
home in September of her senior year. She didn't go far, just
over to the next development, where she bunkered in with her history
teacher, Judy Bennett, and waited for college. She came home occasionally
for books or her mail, but otherwise we didn't see her much.
I was a sophomore that Fall, with a cheerleader girlfriend
and a promising basketball career.
This was in 1969.
My coach was a West Point man who thought that I
was lazy. He approached basketball with a sense of high moral
purpose. Loose balls must be dived on, mistakes atoned. He was
offended that I didn't sweat like the other players. When I took
a charge or got knocked off a pick I always stayed on the floor
a second longer than necessary, enjoying the change of perspective,
the new view of those musky, twisted, competing bodies. I hated
contact, and did my best not to present angles to be hit. I was
rarely squared away on the court, always angling sideways, elusive,
never long in one place. Watchful, always in motion, hard to hit,
I was striving for a kind of cool, remote distance from my body,
and had, even then, the unflappable sensibility of a television
When Jean left things got ugly. My little brother,
drawn by the screaming, came downstairs and asked what was wrong.
My father panicked and called the New York State Troopers. He
slammed the phone down and cradled his head in his hands. Jean
countered by calling the ACLU. Somehow she was put through to
an attorney. In a calm voice she described the beatings she'd
received, how our father tied her up and lashed her to the banister,
how his sick Republican values had led him and Nixon and the country
to this violent moment.
Then she added, And he murdered my brother Tommy.
My father roared his denials into the phone from
behind my sister's ear. His large hands rose and fell in frantic
gestures, chopping the turbulent air around her white throat.
Jean's voice rose into the phone, "You hear him, he's mad!
He's a lunatic, I told you. He wants to kill me. This is his fucking
war, its come home, it's in his goddamn fucking living room now
and he can't stand it, he still doesn't get it. Did you write
down the address? I've got to get out of here. He's fucking crazy,
I told you!" My brother Robert bit his lip and looked pleadingly
at me. Our mother whimpered in a corner, clutching her Bible to
her chest and imploring God not to let the children see. Don't
let them remember this, Dear Jesus, she kept repeating. And for
twenty years I didn't. I had the scene on mental tape, but never
played it. Until now.
By the time the Troopers arrived we had the living
room equivalent of what Cronkite on the seven o'clock news might
have called a demilitarized zone. Rooted to the ground, immobile,
as if witnesses to a train wreck we stood there, mute with shock.
Tall men with large gray hats and holstered guns, the State Troopers
asked questions: What had happened? Nothing. Why had they been
called? Silence. They looked at my father and pointedly asked:
What do you want us to do? It was clear that my father had not
thought about this question. Finally, he gestured to Jean's luggage,
piled by the door, and asked them to give him a hand. They looked
at him, then at Jean, who was crunched in the space between the
kitchen and the hall, still holding the phone receiver in her
left hand, staring into space. No one said anything. The dog
circled and sat by the kitchen door. Finally, the Troopers helped
Jean out the front door and when she left she didn't look back,
not even to acknowledge our mother's frantic gestures for a goodbye
I see these things so clearly now. My mind, I knew
then, was a camera. But it was as if I held the camera facing
outward, it never focused on me. There was no interior footage,
no camera for that. I was never in the picture. So much wound
up on the cutting room floor.
I want it back.
* * *
Here is what I know so far:
I am thirty-eight years old.
I am tired of lying.
My life is not working.
I have a leave of absence from CBS, where I am regarded
as a bright and ambitious reporter and weekend anchorman. I am
I have come to Paris to destroy what my life has
I know that I want to start over. And that I'm frightened.
My wife and children wept when I told them I was leaving, but
did not try to stop me. The flight I booked has an open return
date. No one accompanied me to the airport.
I know that I prefer the company of women to that
of men, though I don't know what to think of that.
I have been unfaithful to my wife, more times than
I can remember. I feel dispersed, like I'm out there, everywhere,
and when I see a certain type of woman, with lyric beauty and
tragic eyes, I feel that I've come back, I feel that I'll live
forever. In her arms, things come into focus, temporarily. I want
her. We set up a hotel civilization, just the two of us, founded
on lies, built from bits of borrowed time. It generally ends badly;
I don't want to want her. Then the search begins again.
No one at work tried to stop me from going, no one
pled with me to reconsider. No other family members were notified.
My parents are dead, as are my two brothers. Robert was killed
while climbing Mont Blanc with some fraternity brothers. This
was years ago. His fall, I am told, was spectacular. His grave,
like Tommy's, is unmarked.
My sister ram away from Miss Bennett's house when
she was still seventeen, on the night of the Moratorium against
the war. She never came back. Miss Bennett's story was believed
generally, by the public: She didn't know anything, Jean just
disappeared. She hasn't seen her. Some years later ago, I met
up with Judy Bennett at a party in New York. She had quit teaching
the year after Jean's disappearance--she got the Lakeland job
right out of college--and was a fund raiser for an environmental
group that worked on cleaning up the Hudson. We had an affair.
I still see her occasionally, though we haven't slept together
in years. She is rumored to have contacts with radical ecology
groups. She tells me she thinks of me as her brother. She holds
to her story.
Jean is thought to be alive and active in the underground
left. She is wanted by the F.B.I., who still search for her in
connection with car bombings in several states on Christmas, 1972.
These bombings were of black Buicks wrapped in white Christmas
paper, with embossed red crosses and "Henry Kissenger, War
Criminal," written in blood on the hoods. They occurred promptly
and simultaneously at midnight, on wide boulevards in Midwestern
states crucial to Nixon, with no fatalities but one famous maiming:
An eight year old boy who had run from his parents after exiting
a movie and tried to unwrap a Buick. There is a file photo of
a woman in black running from the stricken boy, eyes wide apart,
mouth open in a silent scream, dark hair flying. The Bureau believes
this to be Jean.
Robert is buried at Mount Hope in Yonkers. My mother
was eight months pregnant with him when Tommy died. "Born
to sorrow," my mother used to say. At the funeral, there
was still no word from Jean, she was still lost to us, still at
large. Standing beside my parents at the grave, I realized that
Jean and I were shades of death. We were fading. We lived in a
place halfway between the living and the dead. We hadn't much
After the graveside service I asked one of my uncles,
a man reputed to have mafia connections, where my older brother
was buried. No one seemed to know. Thirty feet away, my parents
were helped into a waiting limousine. Asking them was out of the
question. A buried child is a difficult thing to talk about under
any circumstances. My uncle Ron lit a cigarette and shook his
head, remembering. "Geez, John," he said. He ran his
manicured fingernails through his curly hair, gestured vaguely
over his shoulder and said, "Over that hill, on top, that
way. It came so sudden, none of the family had any plots out here
yet, we just looked in the yellow pages and found this place.
Mount Hope. Your mother liked the sound of that. She was glad
for the hill, too, she liked that, but there was no one around
him at the time we buried him, no strangers." We stood silent
for a while, standing up to the blasts of frigid air coming out
of the north, looking up at the hill. He tugged at the collar
of his topcoat, turned and faced me. "That was a tough one,
that one. Not that this here is any picnic, you understand, but
that one, well shit, we were all so young. We hadn't seen so much.
No one could have seen it coming. It hit us all hard. You stayed
with us. You don't remember that, do you?" He looked at me.
I shook my head. "I thought so. How could you, you were what,
three? Four?" He dropped his cigarette to the ground and
crushed it with a patent leather shoe. "No," he said,
"You wouldn't remember. Your father, though. I thought he
was going to throw himself into the fucking grave with your brother.
My sister--" He broke off, putting another cigarette to his
mouth, and dabbing his eyes with his cuff. "Your mother--It
was awful, trust me, John. The worst."
* * *
I look out the window of my hotel at the cafes and
art galleries of the narrow rue Jacob, on the left bank of the
Seine. From here I can see the waiters in their short black vests,
carrying their small trays, performing their timeless duties with
an economy of movement, walking between the small crowded tables
with quick, sudden steps. The brightly colored cars and trucks
on the street seem to pass right through me. I have neither slept
not eaten since I arrived two days ago. Hours ago, I went outside,
thinking I was hungry. In the Sixth Arrondissement, entering a
cathedral bathed in early morning light, I stood before the southern
wall which holds the body of a dead philosopher famous for his
meditations, interred upright.
I visit the streets of my childhood memory, in Yonkers,
and try to call back the pieces of myself, back from wherever
it is that they have gone. I vow to call true what comes back,
in whatever way it appears, whether in dream or waking life. I
want to swear off the sustaining lies of my middle age, and with
them all of the strategies of self-evasion that have brought me
to this moment.
My last affair ended last week. A girl named Wendi
who worked in a video store, who snapped gum as she dusted the
shelved movies and laughed the long, cleansing laugh of the young.
Born in 1975. Maybe I wanted to humiliate myself. The pattern
of these affairs has finally become clear to me. Here, in a hotel
room. The irony of this. I now can identify beginnings, middles,
endings. As the structure of the affairs comes into focus the
women themselves blur, become indistinct and interchangeable,
then fade completely. Gone too the remembered rush of spontaneity
that had accompanied the onset of a new affair, the feeling of
newness I'd depended upon, that made the truth seem tired, dull,
and irrelevant by comparison.
On the third day I let myself be lifted out of ordinary
time, drawn into the draft of what was, of what has been. I sit
in my room at the Hotel d"Angleterre, close my eyes, and
wait for the jolt. Deprived of sleep, I can feel my consciousness
thinning out, becoming translucent. Waiting here, in Paris, I
see the tenses of my life hover and float, chaotically mix and
separate, disappear. No past escapes imperfection, no future has
been ruled out for possibility. The one thing that never could
have happened, has. All is present at once, the way a god might
remember, or a ghost with infinite capacity for substitutions.
At last there is a sense of destiny, and with it the terrible
things that are left unsaid.
* * *
I have spoken with Judy Bennett. A meeting is arranged.
* * *
In the days after Jean's departure, my father withdrew.
We didn't see him, though surely he was in the house somewhere,
perhaps in the basement. He didn't sleep in my mother's bed. Lying
beside her in the evenings, she confided in me: He wasn't a spiritual
leader in the home. He was a man, the head of the house, but he
wasn't fulfilling his God- given responsibilities, and if he didn't,
what could she do, a wife? She had talked to the Pastor about
this. He was losing his family, my father. He was a gentle man,
my father, you didn't know him then, she said. Her hot tears fell
on the flowered sheets of the bed, dropped onto the pages of her
open bible, blurring the black ink of Saint Paul's epistles.
I cried with her. I was an oldest son. There was no talk of Tommy,
My father stopped talking to me. He was absent at
my games that season, and the next. I had my career to myself.
We all did.
* * *
Sometime in October my parents despaired of her ever
returning, and I was assigned her old room. Entering her second
floor bedroom, I felt like a trespasser, that this was a form
of criminal behavior that would someday be prosecuted. I piled
my stuff in the middle of her room like a tourist in a hotel.
Face down on her bed I looked around the room and tried to connect
things to Jean. It was hard. There wasn't much left. Her white
dresser had three diamond shaped openings in each of the six drawers.
It came equipped with colored placards three deep in each opening.
You could alter the color according to your mood: blue, yellow,
pink. Jean's were blue, but I found no great meaning here. The
furniture, I now realized, had been my mother's idea. What I saw
was a mother's idea of what her only daughter's room should look
like. The telephone on the small night stand was white, the walls
blue, the throw rugs on the polished hardwood floor, gray. The
mirror I could see from my vantage point on the bed held an image,
but not Jean's.
I wondered in that moment what it had been like for
Jean in the mornings before school, what that mirror had shown
her day by day. I thought about her putting on makeup. I tried
to puzzle out the movements she might use, the delicate line of
her arm raised, fingers touching face, the way her hands played
over her skin. I raised my arms and waved them slowly, shifting
positions on the bed until I saw them magically enter the mirror's
memory. I looked at my hands, the visible part of my brain. So
many things hands do, things they can remember, gestures that
are learned in childhood: tie your shoes in kindergarten, mimic
your father's strong, quick movements. Smile his smile back to
him, inhale his pride, his manly smell, untie his knots. The hands
in Jean's mirror had done this, by the banister, late at night,
when her gentle weeping called me like a lover. I untied her hands,
I read my father's knots.
* * *
In my Paris room, I sleep. The waters of childhood
memory carry me back to Yonkers. I dream of angels and great swooping
birds with faces like humans. I see a duck the size of a house
peer in my window, wanting in. He taps lightly on the casement
window, he shows me how to crank the lever, his white wings are
hairy and hand-like, with leathery knuckles. I refuse. Astonished,
he disappears. I awaken.
* * *
One Saturday, shortly after I inherited Jean's room,
I visited her at Miss Bennett's house. I stopped on the way to
pick up my friend Jeremy. The two of us walked down the Aqueduct
that ran behind our development, connecting it to Waterbury Manor.
We talked trash the whole way-- which girls were hot, who'd gotten
laid and who hadn't and who wasn't likely to. We stopped for a
minute to harass three junior high kids who were throwing rocks
at the pumphouse windows. Jeremy scowled and asked what the hell
they thought they were doing, throwing rocks like that. This was
community property, didn't they know that? What if everybody decided
they could throw rocks at their houses? Where were their mothers,
anyway? Jeremy's feathery voice got higher with each question,
and the brats kept throwing rocks. One of them finally hit a window.
We heard the eerie sound of crashing glass falling on the concrete
floor inside the empty pumphouse. Something turned over in me
when I heard that shattering glass, some early scene of childhood
disorder was jumping in my memory: another mess, another clean-up.
Jeremy looked at me. A thin line of perspiration had formed above
his upper lip. He looked pathetic, like a teammate frozen with
embarrassment after throwing the ball out of bounds. I frowned
and walked up to the biggest kid. I laid my hands on his shoulders
and turned him around so that he was facing his friends, then
said, "I know who you are. All of you. I know your fathers."
They ran off.
The pumphouse sat like a medieval castle at the top
of a forty foot embankment, the mechanical heart of the New York
water system that pumped the precious fluid through clay arteries
throughout the state. I'd looked at that pumphouse for years without
seeing it, not like I saw it that day. It was constructed of red
brick and mortar. The four side windows were barred. There were
dirt paths leading up to it on four sides. We climbed up one of
those paths and put our faces to the north window, which was caked
with grime, and peered between the black bars. Nothing. Jeremy
walked to the door and took out his pocketknife. He picked the
lock. We swung the heavy metal doors open. Inside, it was dark
as night. Mutely we stood there, waiting. Expectant. And then
we saw the pipes, gleaming. I touched one of them and felt the
moisture beading on my finger. There was a low incessant rumbling
that came up through the soles of our feet and made every move
we made seem more important. I'm saying there was an urgency in
that building that I had never known. I felt connected finally,
to whatever it was, at the darkened source of all that mattered
in this world.
I heard a sharp sudden intake of breath, and swearing.
It was Jeremy, beside me now. He had stepped on the glass the
kids had broken. I helped him kick it away from the pipes to the
side wall, our sneakers sliding sideways on the smooth cold floor.
We didn't talk. It was silent as a church in that pumphouse. When
we finished we walked to the doors and pulled them closed, taking
care to see that the lock clicked.
Ten minutes later we were at Miss Bennett's house.
A tall guy with boozy breath answered the door. He
said his name was Dan or Dave, I forget which. He invited us in
when I told him my name. "Yeah," he said, "I know
your sister." I glared at him until his eyes focused again
and then said, "I'd like to see her." He shrugged and
walked off down the hallway. Jeremy and I stood there by the door
looking at the beer cans scattered on the floor, and the cheese
dip spilled on the coffee table. I was wondering to myself how
Miss Bennett fit in here when Dan or Dave came back in the room
offering us drinks. Jeremy started to ask for a beer but I cut
him off and said, "No thanks." The guy did this thing
with his shoulders that was meant to be another shrug, you could
see that was what he was after, but his timing was off this time,
or maybe his muscles weren't up to it, and it came off looking
like a bizarre kind of stretching manoeuver, a kind of freakish
Jack Lalanne move. I looked at Jeremy and started to laugh, then
checked myself when I heard loud screams coming from another part
of the house.
The guy looked worried. He left us standing there,
again. The screaming escalated into a full throated roar, then
suddenly subsided. This was followed by a woman's mournful sobbing.
Another woman's voice could be heard now, calm and soothing. Then
a quiet whimpering.
Jeremy looked confused. I wasn't talking.
Minutes later, Jean came in by herself. She was wearing
a faded blue smock with hand painted daisies on it, and jeans
with the knees and butt ripped out. On the smock, over her left
breast, was a black and white button showing suburban Cape Cod
houses, four in a row, and factories belching smoke. At the top
you could make out some kind of luxury car, maybe a Mark IV or
a Cadillac, and at the bottom six businessmen with briefcases,
each with a hat and topcoat, each going off in the morning to
build America, to make her great. In the middle of the button,
in the space that should have been the infrastructure of the houses
and factories, it said "Middle Class."
Jean was always the political one in the family,
the only one with the will, Christmas Day, 1968, to pull the World
Book Encyclopedia from the dusty shelf, looking past the inscription
to dead Tommy--"To Jean Carole, John Allen and Robert Thomas,"
our mother had written, "In memory of their brother Tommy,
who had a thirst for knowledge"--who found Volume 9 and looked
up Indochina. The rest of us, by then, had kind of shut down.
As I think about it now, many years later, I see that the war,
though it came later, after Tommy's death, was nevertheless connected
to it in some powerful way.
It was hard, in 1969, to see this. No one knew who
to believe. Kids had learned to question the stories of their
fathers and mothers, to find the loose thread in the family fabric
and the courage to pull it. Nothing seemed to add up. There was
not even agreement on so basic a question as whose war it was.
It was easy to say that it was our parents' war and to let the
fact escape us that it had become our war, the evidence for this
mounting each week with the body counts. What was happening was
violent. The war provoked violent emotions and we learned to be
violent with each other, ruthless.
All my life, as far back as I can remember, Jean
was teaching us. There were questions she thought couldn't be
ignored. I guess, at the time, we thought ignoring them was O.K.,
was the thing for the times. This annoyed her. She needed to know.
If we couldn't tell her, she'd go elsewhere to find out. Jean
was a female King of Thebes, relentless for the truth, even if
it meant her own destruction. She'd do anything, sacrifice anything,
pay any price, but she was going to know. If she felt knowledge
was being withheld, or that she was being lied to, she'd become
enraged. Then she'd attack. She could be ferocious.
My sister, as a young girl, had liked to sit in my
father's lap and look at maps. He used to tell us war stories,
and Jean, as a child, listened closely. She was two years older
than me. She went over the maps with my father, seated in his
lap, while I played with toy soldiers and marbles in a corner
of the living room, less anxious than Jean to enter history. Together,
the two of them traced the dotted supply lines, the ragged lines
of battle. But like most men of his generation when speaking of
his war, he'd clam up if you asked him about what he'd seen, about
the killing. He'd fought it, it was over, he thought. He wanted
to rest now. But there seemed to be something inside that he wasn't
facing, stories that he not only hadn't told us, but hadn't told
to his wife, or to himself. As she got older Jean sensed this,
and she stirred something inside him. She brought it out in the
open; he found what he needed to respond, then, riding her raw
energy, and the result could be frightening. And now there was
this other war. But no one had a good reason for why we were fighting
it, or at least one that satisfied Jean. Once he screamed at her,
"Why is it so damned important to you, Jean! Why can't you
just accept it? Why can't you just live like the rest of us!"
And Jean walked to the shelf, pulled down the World Book with
its inscription, and handed it to him.
Her sense of drama. The way she held us all spellbound,
there in that living room, was intoxicating.
We were, I think, all a little bit in love with her.
I know I was. She was an older sister.
Staring at her button there at Miss Bennett's I
wanted to ask Jean if we were still a close family, ask her to
give us all insight into what was happening to us, to shed light
on family life now that it seemed like we were at the end of the
world, adrift in a leaky ship, like those old world maps cartographers
made that showed monsters and sea-demons at the edges of the known
world. I wanted her to navigate us past them. But more than that
I wanted to ask her when she was coming home, how she liked it
there at Miss Bennett's, if there was anything I could get her,
anything I could do for her.
Instead, what came out was, "Hey Jean. Great
She stared at me, disbelieving. Her brown eyes were
puffy from crying and her hands looked swollen and pale. She glared
at Jeremy until he looked at his shoes. Just then, Miss Bennett
entered the room. She was tall and fair, and walked with a slight
limp. She bent over the sink, and ran water over some dishes.
When she saw that no one was talking she went to Jean and stood
behind her, waiting. And then Jean said to me, "Is that it?
Is that what you came here for, hotshot? Did they send you? That's
it, isn't it? Boy wonder, with his pal Timmy, come over to rescue
errant sister. Where's Lassie, boys?"
I got angry and denied it, No, no, no one sent me.
Then why are you here, she asked?
It was a simple question, and it shouldn't have,
but it did: It stumped me. A voice buried deep inside was prompting,
The pumphouse, you fool, tell her you want to show her the pumphouse,
but listening to it, and seeing Jean standing there before me,
I just got incoherent. I muttered something about just walking
around with Jeremy in the neighborhood and she rolled her eyes
and said, "Bullshit. You're a shitty liar, you know that?
You're worse than them."
She put a flier in my hands. "Look," she
said, "Have you heard about the Moratorium? It's this Saturday.
We're meeting at midnight at the school flagpole, in the parking
lot, and we want you there. It's important for your class to be
represented. John? Did you hear what I just said?"
And then I did it. I lost her. That she would think
I would have gone all the way over there as a child spy for my
parents, that she would have thought about me merely as someone
to organize--something in me crossed over. I flashed on my father's
deep sadness, felt instinctively what remained unspeakable in
him. Willingly in that moment I accepted the role of the good
son, felt the anguish of the middle child, the eldest one still
living. I didn't want any part of her movement, her protest. I
began to have the sense that I've had ever since, that I didn't
want to belong to anything, that I wasn't a joiner.
And what did I say to her in that moment?
"Mom and Dad are right. You're out of your
Miss Bennett frowned. Jean spit on the dirty linoleum
floor. Dan or Dave hustled out of the room, spilling his beer.
I ripped the flyer in half, threw it to the floor, and steered
Jeremy out the back door, slamming the screen door closed behind
That was the last time I saw her.
* * *
In my hotel: Insomnia.
The meeting is set for tomorrow, 10 A.M. At midnight
I walk the Boulevard St Michel, heading for the Bibliotheque Nationale,
where I used to spend a great deal of time in my other life. Cars
hiss by, and carriages carrying tourists. The horses hooves strike
the pavement like a hundred angry hammers. A slender man, dressed
completely in black, uses both his hands to turn down his overcoat
collar, which keeps standing up in an annoying way. The way he
walks is amusing, one foot on the curb and one on the black street.
Then he gives a short hop, stops short, reaches for his collar
again. I follow him. The restlessness of his walk has now moved
to his shoulders. He draws them up, twice, and lets them fall.
He does this six or seven times in rapid succession. Then he takes
his umbrella and hooks the handle to the back of his coat collar.
Vertical, it parts his back between the protruding shoulder blades.
It seems to support him, he walks confidently now, striding, but
the umbrella slips sideways, as if activated by demons, and the
man's convulsive hands, shaking wildly, struggle to steady it
against his spine, as though they want to make it part of his
I turn aside and cross the street. It feels so wide,
I have never seen it so wide. The far sidewalk appears like a
shoreline that never quite comes into focus from the shaking sea.
I stand for a while leaning against a bridge railing. My knees
quake. I feel used up, as if this man's fear had been accepted
and transferred to me. I have become him. I want his umbrella.
In bed: I dream that I am in my parents' house, seated
at the kitchen table, when the phone rings. The caller's voice
is Italian. He appears to ask for Jean, but there is a bad connection
and the static on the line distorts his voice so that he sounds
as though he is singing a strange aria. He has found work for
her, he says, I must contact her. He gives an address and phone
number for me to relay to Jean, and I want to, because I know
she needs the money, but I have no pencil and he is talking too
fast. Frantic, I call out to my parents, who come at a run and
start speaking at once, then bark directions at me, so that I
cannot hear the man on the phone. There are three voices speaking
at once and it annoys me so that I scream also and as I do the
line goes dead.
* * *
Morning. I sit in my room and try to remember what
Jean looked like. She was short, our mother's height, maybe five
foot two. Her hair was long and dark brown. When I was twelve,
at dinner, I once made the mistake of calling it black. She went
into a rage, saying that no one of European descent had black
hair, that this was known scientifically. She treated us to a
learned disquisition on the hair color of the world's peoples,
delivering it in a blistering stream of rabid words that were
as molten lava creeping across the narrowing space between her
mobile mouth and our astonished eyes. Couldn't we see, didn't
we have eyes? She flung her hair out in front of our faces, holding
it with both hands for our inspection. Then she flipped over a
bowl of peas and stormed off to her room. She was a furnace of
contempt for anyone too stupid to know the difference between
brown and black hair.
I find it odd that I cannot remember what my father
or mother looked like when I was a child. After my father's death
my mother didn't last long. She had a stroke, a major one, then
a series of aftershocks that seemed momentarily to electrify her
eyes, her blood popping in a series of invisible explosions. When
she died last month I wanted to lay my head on the velvet pillow
beneath her head in the casket, to feel the coolness of her cheek,
to know the secret of her final end, a peace that passes all understanding.
Speak. Come, memory.
My earliest memory is of my sister
I am standing on the balcony of my grandparent's
home. It is Christmas. In my hands I hold Jean's new talking doll,
her Christmas doll. She is below me, on the ground floor, calling,
pleading. I throw the doll off the balcony.
I am four. Jean is six. We have had to leave the
big house where we lived, grandfather's house, because he has
moved to Florida. We are at play in our apartment, in Yonkers,
on Stanley Avenue. It is not a large apartment, and we are underfoot.
It is morning. We step lightly over the vacuum cleaner with the
easy grace of children. Our mother laughs as Jean draws pictures
of snowflakes on the windows, wet with winter's condensation.
Mother is baking apple pie for dinner, our favorite. Outside,
I see it is snowing madly. Jean and I watch at the window together
as our father shovels out the car. He is dressed, our father,
in a heavy coat and black gloves. Beside him stands Tommy, nine
years old. The car's engine idles roughly, its windshield beaded
with melting snow. It is a heavy February snow, and my father
grows weary. Tommy takes the shovel manfully, and flails away
at the snow. But he tires quickly, there is no end to the snow,
and now he is cold. My father opens the rear door to the car on
the passenger side, and Tommy climbs in to warm himself.
It happens with the quickness that terror comes upon
you, with the suddenness that alters lives forever.
Our father appears at the door, Tommy's beautiful
body limp in his arms. They fill the doorway, blocking the light.
On our father's face is a look that I have not seen before My
mother looks at his face, then at the silent form in his arms,
and shrieks loudly. We feel her spirit leave her body and carom
off the walls, the cabinets, appliances, hurtling itself into
the world of uncaring things until it crashes into my father,
and me and Jean, then lies wailing on the tiled floor. After this,
I remember, she had difficulty forming sentences. The parts of
speech which she offered could not easily be formed into a whole.
And my father began the long, slow journey to a place where he
would never arrive, a place not on any map, where he sought to
amend his misliving.
There are men in the room now, tall men with hats
who stoop to the floor and place their heads near my brother's
face. A tall tank appears, with clear tubing attached. The hatted
men speak to each other but to no one else: Fumes, yes, doesn't
take long, just backs up, blockage, we've seen this before, yes.
Yes. One of them begins to beat on my brother's chest, hitting
him harder and harder, shaking his hatted head. I scream. I tell
him not to hit my brother. I cry and ask my parents to tell this
man to stop hitting Tommy. Can't they stop him from hitting?
I am sent upstairs to a neighbor. She is an old woman
who smells of stale beer. She has no toys. Jean is not with me.
I do not know where she is. I have taken my dog, a dachshund that
Tommy won on a TV game show, and the dog's ball. I roll the ball
and Sergeant gives chase, placing his long snout under the water
heater to retrieve it. The old woman's hands are shaky as she
answers the clanging phone. A horrible smell drifts up from the
apartment beneath us, white smoke curling upward from the floor
register. My my, the old woman says, someone is burning something
in this building.
I don't tell her what I know, that it's my mother's
* * *
We meet in the church of the dead philosopher. She
walks straight towards me and buries her head in my chest. In
seconds we are rocking violently, wracked with sobs, so that I
fear we will tip over backwards onto the stone floor. There are
teary jokes about the dead philosopher, and remarks on each other's
looks. Her olive skin is unlined and smooth, and she looks dangerously
thin. As I press her to my chest again, now, she flutters like
a small wounded bird.
"Were you followed?" she asks
"No, I don't think so."
She slips a scrap of paper in my hand. "We can't
stay long at any one place. Meet me at this address tonight at
six. Goodbye, John."
Pere Lachaise. Away from the camera clicking tourists,
the beercaps and flowers strewn on Jim Morrison's grave, we walk
to a far green place, in a corner near a fence. Jean walks ahead,
her small hand in mine, tugging slightly. We sit.
"I come here a lot. This is the first place
I found in Paris that I called mine."
"How long have you been in Paris," I ask.
"Ten years, off and on. The party found it useful
that I spoke French. I was useful for a long time. I'm not so
useful anymore, I guess. They didn't like that I kept in contact
with Judy. They figured she'd tell you, eventually."
"She didn't want to."
Jean is wearing a wig, shoulder length bleached blonde.
I play with the ends, then say, "A girl with great blonde
hair like this, why does she want to go and dye the roots black."
She laughs, then punches me and says, "Brown,
Her face clouds over. She looks up and says, "Bobby
"Bobby Turnmire. The kid we hurt on Christmas.
Did you know he's a systems analyst now with Hitachi? He works
on Westchester Avenue in White Plains, down the road from where
Dad used to work. He's got a wife and two kids and lives in Somers.
"The embossing on the wrapping paper was a nice
touch, I always thought."
"Yeah, well, that was my idea. All those art
classes in high school."
She drops her head into her hands. She is sobbing
now, shaking convulsively.
"It was awful, you know. The blood. I couldn't
stop it. His arm was just gone. I didn't know where it was. He
just laid there and I freaked. I ran."
"We run, Jean. That's what we do."
She looks up. She takes off the wig. Her hair is
short and spiky, lighter than I remembered, the color of her
"Not any more," she says.
We sit there on the damp grass, our legs crossed,
Indian style, talking it out.
Later, before we leave, she takes out a homemade
cross from her bag, just two straight twigs, really, lashed together
with twine, the kind of thing you'd make at summer camp. She moves
things around in the bag, then takes out another one, identical.
Then two more. She sticks these crosses in the ground, twisting
them in the soft earth until they stand by themselves, facing
each other, about a foot high. Then she reaches in once more and
pulls out the Book of Common Prayer.
It takes us about an hour, I'd say.
Later, we sit with our feet in the water at the fountain
outside the Eglise de Saint Eustache. It's getting dark, a warm
summer night. Jean rests her head on my shoulder. In her hands
she holds a white and black tube of chapstick. Beside us, an elderly
woman reaches into a picnic basket and pulls out a turtle. The
turtle walks slowly towards us, pausing every few seconds to lift
his head. His lidless eyes are small and unblinking.
"Jean, did you know that I went to live with
Uncle Ron after Tommy died?"
"I didn't know where they had taken you,"
Jean says. "The last time I saw you Uncle Ron was carrying
you through the snow to a car. I cried and called for you, but
they wouldn't tell me where we were going. I remember I didn't
go to school for a long time. I don't know how long it was. Mom
cried the whole time, every day. Why do you think they separated
"I don't know. At Robert's funeral I asked Ron
what happened. It took awhile, but I finally got out of him that
Mom had a breakdown after Tommy's death. They gave her electroshock,
the whole fifties treatment, and put her away for a few months.
I guess they thought it would be easier for Dad and Grandma to
take care of just one."
The turtle is staring up at Jean, inches away from
her bare knee. She reaches down and strokes the painted shell,
from back to front, with the index finger of her left hand.
"I'm turning myself in, John. I was going to
contact you to tell you last week, after Judy called to tell me
I lift her head from my shoulder and turn her face
toward me. She wears no make-up and her lips are chapped and broken.
I reach over and take the chap stick from her hands and apply
it gently to her lips, from the center outward, to the edges.
She opens her mouth to make it easier, then purses them together.
"I called Judy, asked her to set it up. The
Green Party, the press, Hoover's boys, the whole sorry spectacle.
She's coming in tomorrow."
"Who's your lawyer?"
"Kuntsler. It's all set. I'll be O.K."
"I know. It's just that I'm getting used to
having you around."
"Hey! I'm not going to be that easy to get rid
of, you know."
Jean gets up and carries the turtle back to the woman.
She comes back and stands behind me. With one hand she covers
my eyes, with the other slips something into my hand. "Guess,"
she says. I use up my three guesses. I look. It's her middle class
button, dented in the middle.
"You always liked this, so I figured, it's yours."
"So what are you going to do, John?"
"Quit. At your press conference. Devote myself
to your defense. "
"After what? You're high maintenance, it's a
full time job."
"With your reporting skills, John, and your
profile, I mean, think about it, we could set you up with Noam
I take her hand and bite it gently, then flip her
over and pin her shoulders to the grass. Then I take the button
and pin it to her shirt.
"I want to see Sally and the kids. That's it."
"That sounds like a plan," Jean says.
"So where do we do this spectacle of yours,"
"At the Pantheon," she says. "Between
Rousseau and Voltaire."
"You're kidding, right?"
She looks at me, squinting into the setting sun.
Then she gets up, pulls me to my feet.
"No sense thinking small," she says.
"Yeah," I say. "Why start now."
Jean spends the night in my room. She sleeps with
her mouth open, her knees curled into her chest, her left hand
lying limp over the side of the bed. She hardly seems to take
up any space at all on the king- sized bed, and a few times, when
I look over at her from the couch, I'm afraid she's gone.
I get up to use the bathroom. I part the curtains
and see the spire of the old church, looming. I go to Jean, take
her arm and place it back on the bed. She moans, then turns her
head into the pillow. I wait. She is still.
In the dream, I take the keys from their place on
the credenza and back my parents' car out of the garage. I steer
the station wagon through black space in the direction of Lakeland
High School, eight miles away. The moon appears like a white hole
at the top of the sky. I see school buses, row after row of yellow,
silent monsters, with delicate black lettering that looks like
lines of carefully applied mascara. In the student parking lot,
I wait. A crowd gathers, carrying torches, bright in the November
night. They meet at the flagpole. I see an American flag, dipped
in blood, lit by fireflies, a thousand specks of striped light
rising to the top of the pole. A small figure approaches, carrying
a candle. I cut the engine. A hooded sweatshirt shadows the face.
She stands there, outside, peering in the glassy windshield, the
candle lighting her face now, her head tilted at an odd angle.
Her head pivots, then dissolves into the blackened hood.