My mother was an optimist, my father was an optometrist. They opened up the shop at a time in Brooklyn when you didn’t have to be so serious about a thing like that. You could have a little fun, you could put some of yourself into it. That’s how it seems now, anyway, walking past some of those old stores that have somehow hung on: Lotz of Pets, The Uniform Garden. My parents probably wouldn’t have said it was fun. But they did put themselves into the shop. They didn’t know any other way.
Optical Illusions was like this: rows of glinting glasses, a smell as if someone had just spilled ink, posters in the window meant to catch the eye – an Op Art reproduction and a kitten in a teacup. There, on a day long before I’m born, is my mother in high-waisted polyester pants that ripple across the hips, trying to hang a display cabinet. It goes crooked, it’s about to fall, and she shouts for my father.
He runs up from the basement , which used to belong to a restaurant, and “tomato sauce for days,” as will often be said in my childhood. (My mother will put the sauce out with pretzels at one of my birthday parties.)
Anyway, my mother shouted and now my father is frightened, and, as always when frightened, very angry. She hasn’t yet learned this. He pushes her aside and grabs the cabinet, pulls it from the wall like The Hulk.
The Hulk doesn’t yet have a TV show, only comics. And so, in the next panel, two backs, side by side: my five-foot Hulk-dad and my mother staring at the jagged holes in the wall. In the next panel, my mother is gone. The door’s slow hinge quietly closes.
My father regards the display cabinet in his arms. They’d picked it out together, it’s “wood-look.” Several of the nails have clawed-off chunks of plaster sticking to them.
He turns to the window to see whether anyone walking by has noticed, and is already reassuring himself that no one has when he sees the child. The child is black, or some mixture, with a very high forehead, as if he’s already balding, and for some reason my father now remembers his dream from the night before: a baby in a cradle, impossible to tell at first that it was lying on its stomach because the back of its head looked like a long, blank face. And my father stared and stared, not wanting to pick it up because he was afraid it was already dead.
The real child in this real world looks at my father like he’s seen this before: a man who’s broken something. Although maybe he’s just looking at the Escher print. It’s as likely as not that this boy has nice parents, a nice father, nicer than mine or my father’s.
But what’s certain is this: my father raises his arm and shakes his fist. The boy jumps a little, surprised – probably no one’s ever raised their hand to him like this, like he’s some pigeon. My father, encouraged by something actually working, moves closer to the window. He’s winning, for once!
He’s winning over what is then being called “the inner city,” a neighborhood that has both of their families very worried. People who thought they shouldn’t set up shop here will shit themselves when they see how well he does. The boy is walking away, glancing back a time or two, at which my father makes a fearsome face he’ll later recreate while telling the story. In the story my father tells, the boy will grow older and older with each repetition. Eventually, he’ll acquire a knife. Here’s my father’s last line: “I never saw his face around there again after that.”
But where’s my mother? Follow that polyester! She’s walked over to the waterfront, straight down the hill, two long blocks, a frightening highway underpass, and now, for her troubles: sharp wind, gray water.
I imagine her resting a hand on her stomach, but isn’t that just the egotism of the child? She probably didn’t know yet that she was pregnant and if she did – well, let’s just say she wasn’t the touchy type.
It’s cold. She has her hands shoved, not very comfortably, in her tight pants pockets. Her knuckles rub against each other and the wedding ring.
She watches a tugboat and smells diesel. It’s the nineteen seventies. No animals have come back to these waters as of yet, not even close. People say bodies get dumped here. Tanning chemicals definitely do.
Back at what we will call home, the display cabinet rests against the wall. It will go back to the basement, dwell among tomato cans for the rest of its days, or at least until we close the shop. My father’s already retelling the story with the boy in his mind. He’s more than tough enough for this place!
My mother … ?
I don’t know what my mother is thinking. She never tried to make herself a mystery, but here we are.
When she lay dying, she made the nurses keep my father out of the room. She said to me, “I think I want to keep living, actually.” Maybe this was one of her famous dry jokes – obviously, it wasn’t up to her. But in that moment, she sounded like she thought it was. And I think she meant for me to notice that ‘actually,’ to understand what it meant about how much she had ever gotten from my father and me.
Nadia Kalman is a former NEA fellow currently working on her second novel. Her first novel, The Cosmopolitans, was published by Livingston Press. Essays and stories of hers have appeared in such magazines as Korean Literature Now, PEN America, and Moment. She was born in Kiev, Ukraine and currently lives in Brooklyn.