My mother had a dream about her father, Federico Schiaretta, immolated in the suspect fire, well before my birth, that destroyed his Station Street cobbler’s shop. It was custom, almost liturgical, among Italians in East Liberty to summon a bookie and play a number, often a birth date, some scrap commemorating the beloved, any time they dreamt of a deceased relative.
My father, Travis Sweeney, was not at all a connected guy. In fact, he remained deliberately disconnected all his life. But, like my mother, he grew up in East Liberty, and knew plenty of mugs who took action – he knew everyone and about everyone – so it was to him that my mother, Rita Schiaretta, appealed the morning after the dream when she showed up at Fox’s Grille where he tended bar.
She worked next door to the bar as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, a square one story white block pillbox, with a golden name arced across the lone rectangular window facing Highland Avenue: Sheldon Roth, Dentist. Shelly Roth: a slick Jewish guy, educated and allusive, generous, chrismed and dandy, unapologetically friendly-effeminate. On the job, he wore a white tunic, but with panache. It buttoned up the side and fastened high on his neck. Like he was a baron or shaman or an ambassador from another planet. The neighborhood leagued him with the rackets. Some said he was dangerous. My father said the only thing dangerous about Shelly was his mind.
My mother was twenty-three, a graduate of Peabody High School, the dancer Gene Kelly’s alma mater, where she had been a swimmer and student of promise, a young woman of wit and resource, certain to make her mark. Yet she had never made it out of the neighborhood. There were things about herself she’d never know; and, on that day, December 23, 1956, ten o’clock in the morning, when she stormed into Fox’s expressly to request Travis Sweeney, a few years older than she, play a number based on a dream a mere six hours old, she would never have said that she had been cheated in the womb or that her attachment to vendetta was pathological. She did not realize these things about herself, nor would she ever, though all her life they would at every turn devil her and those she loved.
That day, my mother was neither bitter nor filled with inexplicable fury. It was before she started dying her hair, when her smile still had promise, and the things that would by and by become monstrous in her were innocent, sweet, even beautiful. When she was still committed to happiness rather than misery. Before her longing gouged a ditch through her heart.
She wore a plaid jumper and a red car coat, red gloves with red balls and furze at the fringe, red scarf, and red tam – as if she had dressed in the blood of the Yule to more passionately importune Travis Sweeney. Her eyes were brown and soft, a kindness imbedded in them. Her hands as well were soft. They would stay that way all her life, even as the rest of her hardened.
At the bar perched a string of played-out drummers in low-brim fedoras nursing shots and beers, stubbled gray faces twisted around filterless butts. They glanced up at her when she walked in. They knew her and her brothers. They knew her mother and how her father had died. She smiled fearlessly at them.
Fox’s was dark as a church. Mysterious spangles of light, through which dust nebula and reams of smoke wafted, hung like tinsel. The TV was on. The Secret Storm: the stunted lust of the monochromatic mid-fifties. Christmas music: “Santa Baby,” whined torchily by Eartha Kit. Bing’s “White Christmas.” The Andrews Sisters: “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” Next to the jukebox slouched a dwarfed artificial tree with a dozen pink bulbs and ropes of orange blinking lights that strafed the twinkling fifths queued behind the bar. A few sprung booths where people ate macaroni and ham and pickled eggs under a canopy of smoke. Neon beer signs: Straub, Duquesne, Iron City. A grease-splashed framed autographed glossy of Pirates slugger Ralph Kiner knitted at the corners with desiccated Easter palm.
Fox’s was the last flicker of my parents’ childhood, the omniscient threshold of their futures. The final syllables of the prologue they’d been languishing in.
“Travis,” my mother said, her voice mixing with the smoke
“Will you do me a favor?”
My father smiled, slipped the scarlet package of Winstons out of his breast pocket, waved his hand over it like a magician, and proffered the pack with two cigarettes staggered out of its mouth like a TV ad. He wore a white shirt, and pleated grey trousers. He possessed the cobalt blue eyes of a Siamese cat, a full head of furious black hair and a passionately pacific temperament. He liked to hang out on the Hill and listen to jazz at the Crawford Grill.
My mother chose the taller of the two. My father flicked open a silver Zippo, and spun the flywheel over flint. My mother, the beautiful white cigarette between her bloody red lipsticked lips, leaned into the blue flame and took a puff.
“I want you to play a number for me.” She smiled. “Please?”
“I thought the cigarette was the favor.”
“It is, but not the one I came in here for. Can you play a number for me?”
“That’s illegal, Rita.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“I’d do almost anything for you, Rita.”
“What wouldn’t you do for me?”
“What I wouldn’t do is ever tell you no.”
“Then you’ll do it?”
“What’s the number?”
She had been awakened in the middle of the night by the unmistakable sound of her father’s soft, almost womanly, voice, though he had been a man of singular hardness. Calling her name. Not Rita, but her christened name: Carita. Which means beloved, a derivative as well of the Latinate for charity: caritas. A dream, but not really a dream. A vision.
“You think I’m kidding?” my mother asked when my dad smiled bemusedly at her – and saw that flash, that slight declension, the rev behind her brown eyes that he would grow so acquainted with in the years to come. He was falling for her, yet he knew that she spelled trouble. He was a scholar of trouble. Loving Rita Sweeney would be his tragic flaw.
“No, I’m listening,” he said. “A vision.”
“Don’t make fun of me, Travis.”
“I’ll walk out of here.”
“Please, Rita, continue. I’m not making fun.”
At the sound of her name from her father’s seared mouth, she had bolted upright in her single bed on Omega Street – the house she grew up in. She was surrounded by flames, as if the room itself was on fire – though no heat. In fact, the room had turned inexplicably cold. The white porcelain doorknob turned until released, and there in its naked jamb, wearing a suit of smoke, stood my dead cobbler grandfather. My namesake. He walked, lock-jawed, hands hidden at his back, to her bedside. Behind him burlesqued an entourage of smoldering souls, the convicts of Purgatory, writhing in a hurdy-gurdy of agony.
Smoke leaked from my grandfather’s closed mouth, from his nostrils, his ears. When he removed his grey fedora, a tiny bow on one side of its maroon band, plumes of it flared up toward the ceiling. He looked down on his daughter, Carita, frozen to her little bed, its headboard draped with the rosaries her mother insisted upon, then above it the crucifix. The entire room a reliquary of statues and icons, her dresser and nightstand baroque altars of idolatry. A sickbox on one wall, a holy water font affixed to another.
“I couldn’t move,” she told my father.
My grandfather had held out his hat. In it flared a nest of glowing red coals. He stirred them with a bare hand. His gray face grinded open.
“I have no memory of my father speaking to me. My whole life, I can’t remember a word passed between us. And finally he’s speaking to me. I tried to rise to the sound of his voice, but I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t figure out what he was saying. Something in Italian. I just couldn’t make it out.”
Then Ouma, my exotically beautiful gypsy grandmother, given to wearing her dead husband’s clothing – who traipsed between the worlds of the living and the dead, who guarded the threshold of the living against the dead – burst into the room. My mother could not be sure if Ouma was of the dream or if, indeed, she had actually been there in the flesh. Smoke lifted off Federico in white shrouds, like holy vapors from the thurible. But instead of frankincense came the stench of charred leather.
Ouma threw up the sash of the bedroom window. The frigid night stormed in. My grandfather turned his back and walked out of the room. The poor souls of Purgatory followed him. My mother was sure she saw the Blessed Mother hovering above the flames they walked through. The blue mantle, the serpent curled about her ankle, the smile. The pact between her and her child, Rita Schiaretta.
“He was about to speak, Travis, to finally say something to me. Something that really mattered. I just know it. And then she opened that goddam window. I wanted to kill her, whether she was there or not.” She took drag off the cigarette as my father stared at her. “I want you to play 311. March 11. His birthday; and his shop – the shop he died in – was 311 Station Street. Okay?”
My father obliged her with a wry smile that would become his signature for dealing with Rita Schiaretta. He didn’t believe in those kinds of dreams or the prognostications Italians gave themselves over to in caprice or terror and sentiment. Emozione. He did not give credence to the numinous or fantastic. He did not believe in God. Though he understood better than anyone I’ve known that the mystical is often the tide of random, the inexorable erasure of history.
Nevertheless, he’d been mesmerized by Rita Schiaretta’s wild tale – the mere fact that she had confided it to him. That she looked deeply into his eyes and clutched his forearm. He could tell that she was close to breaking down – that she was always close to breaking down – but she wouldn’t have given him or those sons of bitches drooling at the bar the satisfaction of seeing what was inside her. She’d walk out on Highland Avenue and fight any one of them. She’d rather take her place at the stake in Purgatory than let anyone see her shed a tear. He lit another cigarette and placed it in her mouth.
It was 1956 – a couple months after Don Larsen threw his miraculous World Series no-hitter against the Brooklyn Dodgers. A little more than a year since Allen Ginsberg had read “Howl” on Fillmore Street at the Six Gallery, something my dad knew all about it, but had no one to talk it over with. McCarthy was ransacking America, galvanizing in young men like my father dreams of riding a motorcycle to California – though he knew he never would. He didn’t even drive a car.
Smart as he was, and politically astute – he scoured daily the entire newspaper, had read books and studied history – despite a practical streak of Black Irish blood, he had no ambition. By the time he and my mother struck their bargain, he was an agent of ennui and even knew the word; though, like so many words he reckoned the meaning of, not merely their definitions, he never uttered it. Nor did my mother possess a speck of ambition. It had all dwindled, then disappeared. But she had backbone, something she would accuse my father all their lives together of not possessing.
My father was already in love with Rita Schiaretta, though she’d swear for the rest of her life that she’d never thought twice about him until that day: two days before Christmas in the brutal Pittsburgh winter of 1956. My mother had already made her break with Ouma. By all accounts she took her father Federico’s death badly, though she despised him. Whatever might have really happened between my mother and grandmother, a woman I rarely saw, like all the stories moiling together in East Liberty, became irrelevant. A spate of nonspeaking became a lifetime of vendetta.
So: it was my mother who took her dream to Travis Sweeney, and Travis Sweeney who walked out Fox’s front door and hatched the deal with Philly Decker, a bookie who loafed outside the bar, and played the fin my mother had handed him on my dead grandfather’s birth date. And it came to pass, as foretold in lore, that the number hit on Christmas Eve for four hundred bucks, a small fortune, and my mother somehow convinced my father to trek with her to the Jersey shore for Christmas. Tales of similar magic are not uncommon in East Liberty.
My father hadn’t wanted to go to New Jersey, but by this time he had his eye on my mother. Initially, he wouldn’t have said a word in response to her suggestion that they drive to the ocean in late December. The method he would come to adopt in coping with my mother was to humor her. He shot her a politely impassive look, as though he had his fingers crossed behind him. “Okay, Rita,” he said pleasantly, not a trace of incredulity in his tone.
They left December 24, 1956 after their shifts had ended. Shelly Roth insisted they take his ‘53 black Cadillac de Ville. He sure wasn’t going anywhere for Christmas. As a little surprise, a bit of Christmas cheer, he stashed a fifth of Four Roses on the front seat.
In that same red coat, gloves, scarf, the tam, my mother slid behind the wheel. My father, who would never learn to drive, something my mother never forgave him for, rode shotgun. He had a flashlight and a map. He illustrated for my mother the sagging crimson thread, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that traversed the bottom of Pennsylvania, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania was a near perfect rectangle, except for its jagged eastern border where it penetrated New York and New Jersey. On the map, it was no larger than an open book of matches. The Atlantic Ocean, aqua blue at the map’s edge, was mere inches from Pittsburgh, printed in big black capital letters. My mother had never seen the ocean – she had never been outside of Pittsburgh – and, because she could not bring herself to admit this to my father, acted as if she knew exactly where they were going. My father, who had not only seen the Atlantic, but the Pacific as well, sensed this about my mother, but it didn’t matter – neither that she had never seen the ocean nor that she pretended she had. My mother was dangerous, my dad knew, bad news; but he couldn’t turn away from her – as much fault his as hers.
He assured her that as her navigator he’d keep his eye on that red line on the map, that it would get shorter and shorter, as they traveled in the Caddy toward that immense pool of blue; and when the road was a nub, no more than a period at the end of a story, they’d smell the Atlantic. Then what could be better? She should check in with him every now and then along the way to see how close they were, to see if they were there yet.
No one had ever talked to my mother like this. That kind of hushed, unhurried inflection, the patience, that smooth, almost poetic, way of putting things. She was a bit undone that my father’s gentleness softened her resolve to tell all the world to go to hell. Yet she wasn’t able to simply dismiss what he had to say as bullshit. Nor did she want to. Had there been anyone else around, she would have told my father off, told him to kiss her ass. But the two of them alone: what would it hurt for him to say such unimaginable things to her?
A minute later, she asked, “Are we there yet, Travis?”
My father’s finger, still on the line, moved slowly, as if of its own accord, like the cursor on a Ouija Board, as the de Ville rolled down Highland Avenue, through the heart of East Liberty, beneath the flashing Christmas bell garlands, on its way to the end of the earth.
My father laughed. She turned to him and smirked, an unlit Chesterfield in her mouth. He grabbed the cigarette and lit it, took a drag, then placed it back between her lips. Then he busted the seal on the Four Roses.
At this point there’s a gap in the story. They easily could’ve hit bad weather and had to detour south, or they seized on a lark: Florida. Florida in 1956. Travis and Rita, 23 and 27, laughing, falling in love in Shelly’s Caddy drinking his Four Roses, the bookmaker’s four C-notes in Rita’s purse, the snow repeating itself white in ceaseless shreds. Florida: because the ocean there, the same Atlantic that lapped against New Jersey, was warm as bathwater. Amethyst blue. The sand was white. My father, in his vagabond days, had bathed in that warm blue water. Or they got lost. Or drunk.
They ended up in West Virginia – diffident and landlocked, shelved under Pennsylvania – crawling down a deserted dark winding road through a blizzard along the frozen Elk River. Florida’s tepid turquoise water was in another kingdom entirely.
“Are we there yet?” Rita asked.
“Not quite,” answered my father. “But we’re close. See that river.” He pointed over at the ice-locked hoary Elk. “It runs into the ocean.”
The snow dropped a white curtain over the Caddy. Blinded, it slid about the road. Massive bucks flanked the rimed shoulder, their racks silhouetted in the headlamps. Along their route out of Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia, the road had been littered with deer carcasses. Those bucks terrified my mother, their wanton abandon, their hobbled death wish.
Up ahead burned lights, the town of Darden. From utility poles on abandoned Main Street swung stars and tinsel. Not a soul on the street, but lights burned in all the silent houses lining it, and many of them had strips of colored lights framing their lintels and hanging from the eaves. My mother skidded into a parking lot, under a neon sign in busted-out purple cursive: Elk Motor Court. A string of blue Christmas lights swagged across the front of the motel. Next door was Crider’s, a plywood store, spliced to a garage, no windows, with Esso pumps out front. On the other side of the river, smoke fumed out of the chimneys of little plank houses. Deer congregated on the bank.
It cost three dollars a night to stay at the Elk. Neither of my parents wanted to use real names, so they checked in as Mr. and Mrs. Charles O’Connor. The room was tiny. One bed with a baby blue chenille spread with a coin box like those attached to the bucking plaster kiddie ponies outside the A&P. A dime made the bed vibrate. There was an unraveling fan-backed rattan chair. On the dresser, between a Bible and a green-faced alarm clock with white phosphorescent Roman numerals, sat a small black and white TV.
They left the room quickly and walked over to Crider’s. My mother could barely negotiate the frozen lot in her heels. Up on the mountain, a foot of snow had already fallen. It piled in the valley where they stood in the wind blowing off the brittle white river.
An old man with a long beard and galluses over a brown flannel shirt slumped behind Crider’s counter. He wore an old-fashioned snap-brim like the aged Italian men who stood on the corner of Larimer and Meadow in East Liberty. In the middle of the concrete floor blazed a pot-bellied black wood stove and a pile of split locust. Next to it was a large cardboard carton. The man asked them where they were from, where they were headed. My father explained that he and my mother were bound for the warm waters of Florida. My dad smiled at him and asked, “Are we close?”
The old man smiled back. “I reckon.” His voice was gravelly, but the inflection was padded and slow.
There was rue in the eyes of those two smiling men, one very old and one very young. As if sharing a not entirely funny joke – that only they understood. As if they both knew, had always known, that my father and mother would never reach their destination. This old man: whose look my father recognized, who allowed in that look that he stood where he was behind that counter in Darden because he’d been thwarted himself, many years ago, in his original desire and destination. Not so much hard luck, but simply the way of it. He had taken his chance. We all choose. Just so. Not much to tell.
Because it was Christmas, because hope and illusion blazed so determinedly about them, the store man wanted to say to my father – whose mind, in turn, he was reading as well – that everything would be alright. Had he permitted himself to say it, maybe something would have opened up. Not just an opportunity for my mother and father, some windfall, some secret they’d discover, but even more than that – a hidden passage into another world, a staircase leading straight up through the roof and into the snowy mystery of the future. But the man hushed and time stood still.
My mother stood next to the stove, holding open her red coat to its warmth, head flung back, eyes closed, long brown hair hanging swinging out from her back. When she opened her eyes, the men were staring at her.
“Look in that box there,” the old man said to her. He came out from around the counter.
In the box were six baby rabbits, each the size of a coffee cup. They were silvery-brown with white blazes on their foreheads. Their eyes were tiny black pearls. They huddled together twitching on a pink blanket spread on the floor of the box.
“Oh my God,” my mother said.
“A dog killed the mama,” said the man.
“What’ll happen to them?”
“If they don’t die, we’ll raise them for the table.”
“You’ll eat them?” asked my mother.
“Yes, ma’am. If they don’t die.”
“May I have one?” My mother turned and looked at the man.
My father did not at all want a wild infant rabbit. It was an utterly absurd notion, no less absurd than borrowing Shelly Roth’s Cadillac for a trip to Florida, and then getting stranded in a blizzard in some Godforsaken mountain town in West Virginia – every bit of it predicated on a crazy dream my mother had had about her dead shoemaker father. But the number had hit. There was something to that. My mother was about to turn and ask him if they could adopt one of the rabbits. He knew that if he did not dig in right then and there, once and for all, and pronounce, “Hell, no, Rita, we’re not carting that rabbit along with us,” for the duration of his life on earth he would be powerless against her.
He didn’t want to lose her, but he didn’t know why he wanted her so much, or if he really wanted her at all. How could there be both? Wanting and not wanting? After not even half a day with her, she was already a habit – like dope or booze or cigarettes, things people fall in love with that destroy them. The old man was pinned down by my mother’s gaze. Maybe, like my father, he had never really known what he wanted. But Rita Schiaretta always knew what she wanted and when she wanted it – even if it was anathema. And in that moment – just before the old man, said, “Yes, ma’am, pick you one out,” and Rita turned to my father – Travis Sweeney accepted my mother and the sacred vow of fatalism to which he’d remain forever steadfast.
My mother looked at my father. He smiled at her, and said, “Of course,” before she opened her mouth.
She was bending into the box when the man added, “It’ll be dead by morning.”
Though my father knew this was true, he put his arm around my mother and the bunny she held in her arms and said, “Maybe not.”
“We’ll take care of him,” said my mother.
“Yes, we will,” my dad added.
“You got to feed him with an eyedropper,” said the man.
“We can do that. Can’t we, Travis?”
The old man looked at my father. He understood every bit of what was going on, and he wanted my dad to know he knew. Not that he condemned him for it. He would have done the same thing. It was wrong for my father to give his consent on the rabbit. Wrong for the old man to permit it in the first place. He held my dad a moment longer in his stare. That little rabbit was going to die.
“Alright then,” the man said. “I’ll fix you up some formula.” He disappeared through a door at the back of the store that led to a bay. A car was up on the lift and, under it, a man with a mask and a blowtorch. Sparks rained down on him.
My parents, the tiny rabbit in the crook of my mother’s arm, walked along the dusty shelves. They bought cigarettes, a six-back of Tasmanian Lager, potato chips, a wedge of hoop cheese, bread, and chocolate milk.
When the man returned, he had a shoebox padded with rags and a little mason jar half-filled with white liquid. He handed these to my father and then an eye-dropper.
“You got to feed him every three hours. Just this. You give him anything else, you’ll kill him. And don’t give him too much.”
“What’s in it?” asked my mother.
“Little Karo syrup, sweet condensed milk, some egg yolk. It’s to be warm when you give it to him. Remember. Nothing else, but what’s in this. And keep that little thing warm. And feed him slow or you’ll drown him.”
“We’ll pay for that,” my dad offered.
“Well,” said the man. “I’m not giving you much. He’ll be dead in the morning.”
They waited for him to say something else. He and my father shook hands.
“Thank you,” said my mother. Then she hugged the man, who closed his eyes and held her a moment.
When he came away, he said, “Don’t pet him. They can’t take handling.”
My mother and father turned with their groceries and the trembling rabbit, now held against my mother’s breast, under her coat, and walked out of the store.
Across the road from Crider’s was a church. In its front yard a crèche had been set up. Statues big as people. Cows and sheep too. They were difficult to make out for the pounding snow, the blurred pointillism. The statues moved – imperceptibly. They were real people. Like a play. Out there in a blizzard. Joseph and Mary and the shepherds. Real animals. Angels with wings and haloes. Even a real little baby. In awe, Rita and Travis paused and stared.
“Where are the Wise Men?” my mother asked.
“They’re lost,” explained my dad. “They won’t get here until January 6.”
“We’re not lost. Are we, Travis?”
“No, Rita, we’re not lost. Not in any conventional sense.”
“But we’re not there yet, are we?”
“Maybe not quite, but close. For most people, close is pretty good.”
“Let’s stay here, Travis, and wait for the Wise Men.”
At that moment, Christmas Eve, 1956, Travis Sweeney and Rita Schiaretta, independent of each other, contemplated stepping away from the destiny that awaited them in Pittsburgh, and accepting the invitation of that poor little one-horse town in the Appalachians ringed by mountains they couldn’t quite see for the snow storm. Without knowing it, they had stumbled across one of the invisible portals that exist in the mysterious ether – those we walk blindly by day in and day out: the entry into another life in another place, the chance to be better, to be the someone we desperately wish to be, the someone we actually are, but don’t realize. Through the scrim of snow, they had caught a blurred glimpse of that other life the old man at Crider’s had been on the verge of telling them about.
I want to say that portal is not so otherworldly, not some Twilight Zone-like parallel universe. I want to say that the fare into that other world, the better world, is love, but for that kind of love – the love that chooses happiness over self-immolation – my mother, though she desperately wanted it, was ill-equipped. She simply could not locate the seam bordering love and suffering.
My father knew nothing about tending a crop or livestock, how to split wood, drive a tractor. He was not that kind of man. He was not physically resourceful. He rarely got dirty. But he was unafraid of the earth he stood on at any given moment, of what it hides and might render. He was about to tell Rita this – in those very words since he realized that something was happening between them, that on that evening carefully wrought words mattered very much to her, that no one had ever talked to her the way he had – or at least gotten away with it. If he chose his words with precision and passion – I am unafraid of what the earth hides and might render – she would be his.
My mother saw in that little hamlet mantled in white a confounding, ineffable beauty for which she had no language. She thought about living there. But do what? She would have babies. She would dip her hands into the earth. She would plant a life there in Darden. Shriven of her father’s assassination by fire, her gypsy strega mother. The vendetta and recriminations. She could stop being Italian. And become Travis Sweeney’s.
Gazing down slumbering, snow-shrouded Main Street in Darden, West Virginia – a place that may not have even existed – the very Nativity itself hatching before her very eyes, she felt that perhaps this was her entrance into the dark heart about to explode in light. Then she pictured Shelly. Would he laugh at her? “You’re too smart for that, Rita. You can be somebody.” Living among these hicks, these hillbillies?
And these people? They were good people – in this little town. My mother could tell from the lights in their houses. Busting their asses trying to figure it out. No different from the Napolitano East Liberty peasants she issued from.
Shelly was a queer Jew dentist living above his shop on Highland Avenue. Plenty of nights he ended up in Fox’s, then later upstairs suffering. He knew the score. He might sit down and pull out a cigarette from his white tunic. Take both her hands. “Get out of East Liberty, Rita. Nothing’s ever going to happen again here. You’ve got that script memorized. You and Travis. You’re brilliant. You’re beautiful.” Shelly would laugh. “Move to West Virginia. Buy a farm. You’re only young once. Take a chance.”
But the country – the streams and fields, the sound of beasts in the woods, the dizzying vertigo of this altitude. Everything unchecked, unpaved, unbeholden. She’d grow angular, her mouth a hyphen, hair like dried black thistle. A thin faded blue dress with tiny yellow flowers on it. Eyes out on her cheeks – a tetched Appalachian Napolitana. The land terrified her. She wanted high heels, to ride the streetcar downtown to Gimbel’s, go to the show. There probably wasn’t even a hospital or A&P. Why not just take the banana boat back to Naples?
My father had been watching her, mesmerized. The blood red coat and high heels in a blizzard, cradling that baby rabbit against her, a powerful twenty-three year old girl skating along the blade of a razor. The cryptic Appalachian mountains peered far into the future, beyond Travis and Rita – their bit parts – and me, their only child, beyond my progeny’s progeny and even beyond the point where everything is forgotten.
My father had already learned to read my mother’s mind, a fabulous talent, but one that would aid him little over the years in predicting what she might do. He had fallen for her, for her wild, unbridled fear of earth, fear that would claw her hands through her long wavy brown hair – before she began to dye it blonde, against my father’s wishes – and pour invective like lighter fluid from her red lip-sticked mouth; and, often worse, suture in silence that same mouth for days, weeks – not even to eat, barely to breathe. Because her great power, her insupportable curse, was wielding silence like one might wield a blade or a revolver.
But they were still locked in that little vial of magic. It was in my father’s power to alter their course, to swerve out of the oncoming – with just a word. But which word? My mother was afraid. That’s what it was, what it had always been. If my father would have said something, she’d follow him. That Christmas Eve in Darden, she would have followed him anywhere. But he had to say it. He had to have the backbone to say it.
When they got back to the The Elk, they wrapped the rabbit in towels and placed it on the bed. It lay peacefully on its side, its flank caving with each gentle suspiration. My mother rubbed its ears, and ran her fingers across its plush fur. The smoke from my parents’ cigarettes shone in the rabbit’s black oracular eyes.
“Rita, honey, you should try not to pet him too much.”
“I know, I know, but he’s such a baby.”
“He is. He’s dear.”
“You’re dear, Travis. The things you let yourself say are dear.” She laid her hand on my father’s. He looked down at their hands, locked on the blue spread.
“Rita,” my father said.
She smiled. “Tonight is more than anything I’ve ever done. It’s like a dream.”
My dad brought my mother’s beautiful hand to his lips and kissed it. “We should feed this bunny,” he said.
They warmed an eyedropper of formula with a Zippo. Rita placed the drowsy rabbit in her lap and fed it. It took the food slowly, deliberately. Little clicking noises as it sucked and swallowed. Two droppers.
“He’s hungry. He wants more,” Rita said.
“The guy at the store said don’t overdo it.”
“You think he’s okay. He’s going to be okay. Isn’t he, Travis?”
“I think he’ll be fine. We’ll follow instructions to the T. He’ll be fine.” It was 10 o’clock. My dad got up and set the alarm clock for 1 a.m. “But you should try not to pet him, Rita.”
My mother fondled the rabbit, now asleep in her arms. “That’s it,” she vowed. “I’m going to stop now. Poor little lamb.” She set the rabbit, wrapped in the towel, next to her on the bed, then patted the bed for my father. He lay down, the rabbit between them, and turned off the lamp. A blue swaying luster from the blowing Christmas lights beyond their window fell across the three of them. In a six foot drift, Shelly’s lone black Caddy brooded in the The Elk’s lot. Coyotes yammered from the ridge, but my parents mistook them for the yowling wind. They lay in silence, smoking cigarettes, for a long time.
Suddenly, my mother stood. “I’m going to get him settled. I’m afraid we’ll suffocate him.” She picked up the sleeping rabbit, cuddled it against her face, kissed it, swaddled it up again in its towel, tucked it back into its shoebox, walked a few steps to the dresser and set it down. She switched on the TV and dialed through the spastic stormy channels. “Maybe there’s something Christmassy.”
By the light of the TV, my dad spread the food from Crider’s on the bed. “Are you hungry, Rita?”
“I think I am.” Then: “This is all that’s coming in clear.” Bird of Paradise, with Louis Jourdan and Debra Paget. “Will he be warm enough, Travis?”
“I think he’ll be fine. We can put him on top of the TV once it heats up.”
My mother flopped on the bed. My parents drank whiskey from the motel’s cloudy plastic cups and the bitter beer straight from its blue cans. They ate the cheese and bread and potato chips. They drank the chocolate milk.
My dad whipped out a dime and dropped it in the slot. The bed groaned and twisted, shuddering like a cold car as it tries to turn over. My mother couldn’t even get her cigarette lit.
“You’re an ass, Travis,” she said, laughing.
The movie was tragic. A Frenchman (the dashing Jourdan) visits his high-born Polynesian college roommate’s island paradise, falls in love with his exotic, impossibly exquisite sister (Paget), marries her and remains on the island.
My mother plucked tissues from The Elk’s magenta Kleenex box. The gorgeous islands, the jungle birds soaring in the cloudless blue sky, the warm soft sparkling ocean reminded my parents that they were bound for the Atlantic. In both of them, simultaneously, grew a longing, the gnawing crave, for peace and goodness. There would never be quite a moment like this again between them. They, of course, had not known this then, nor should they have. There had been too much augury already in their bargain. But they did know: when you know, and that was enough to keep them together – God Help them – for the rest of their lives.
The bed shuddered to a halt. My father leaned over and kissed my mother, gently and with honor. Their first kiss. My mother was a woman to stick a knife in a man she couldn’t suffer kissing her. My father kissed her again – with more ardor and intention. She knew then – as if in possession of the future, a talent passed on to her in blood by her mother – that she would never meet a more memorable man than Travis Sweeney.
She wore a pretty silver satiny blouse, and she began to unbutton and move out of it. It was clear, from the way she looked at my father, the cast of her depthless brown eyes, that this was part of the ritual, that he should in no way interfere. He sat and watched, realizing that the machinery of something completely unpredictable, but inevitable, had been set in motion.
She opened the blouse and lifted it upward off her shoulders, down her arms, behind her and held it spread open that way, like wings, for a moment. Her brown hair was long. She looked at my father who sat before her, mesmerized. She was his angel, not a good angel nor a bad angel, but merely a fallen confused one, like himself; and he almost interrupted her, halted her kermis, as if to go back in time, because more than anything, he was flooded with the certain knowledge that she would reveal to him terrible things. Had he dropped his eyes, or closed them, diverted his attention in the slightest, my mother would have retracted her wings, covered herself, pinned back her hair, and walked out into the blizzard.
My father did not even permit himself to blink or breathe. This moment had been foretold, somewhere in the writ, and there was no turning back. She folded the shirt and laid it across one of arms of the chair. Then she wiggled out of her skirt, bending her knees slightly, and twisting back and forth in a shimmy till it fell. She laid the skirt across the other chair arm and, with her back to my father, removed the rest of her clothing and dropped it in the lap of the chair.
Then she stilled, in the lamplight, fully illuminated. Her hair fell to her shoulder blades, then the long drop of her unmarked body – like a famous painting of a nude, maybe Renoir: that composed incandescent quality of an untouchable dream woman, a conjured woman, immured in paint on canvas and framed, though no less real for one’s longing for her. Perhaps it was the cast of gauzy light, from the lamp and television, where the taboo love between the Frenchman and the Polynesian had become clearly doomed, the plot lurching deeper and deeper into the darkness.
My mother was preparing to turn and face my father: to reveal whatever he had been summoned to this hidden patch in a mountain blizzard to reckon, and the unimaginable chain of events her turning would trigger. He had signed on for it. It was no longer his to halt. He’d not be spared the agonizing secrets of love: not merely what had been waiting so devoutly beneath her clothes, but the devastating tumult of her blood, and the vengeance meted out by it. Such rectitude was a long way off, yet my father Sweeney sensed it marshaling in her, like a freak blizzard lurking in a placid sky. There was nothing he could do to prevent it.
So he laid back against the headboard, swigged another ounce of Four Roses, lit a cigarette, just as my mother turned to face him, allowing him to study her in the light for just an instant – her breasts, the various intersections of her limbs and torso, the nuanced hollows, what she refused to cover, her arms at her sides, hands open mid-thigh, as if daring him to look away, as if testing him – before she extinguished the light of the lamp, as if lowering the curtain, on the last recorded second of Carita Schiaretta’s girlhood – Travis Sweeney, like a documentarian, there to record the moment.
She remained at the foot of the bed, now bathed in the holographic sepia convulsions of the television, and the watery purple light from the Elk Motor Court neon. Then she climbed onto the bed, snugged against my father like a second skin, and kissed him deeply, with intent and alarming might. He wished desperately to open a window, at least gaze through it and assure himself of the frozen world.
Suddenly my mother sat up, perched cross-legged before him, clutched a corner of the blue spread, and covered herself. Her face, the hair spangled over it, and her partially concealed breasts were lavender.
“I still want to go to Florida, Travis.” She fetched her whiskey.
“We’ll set out again tomorrow.”
“Yes, I do, Rita. For now, let’s drink to your old man, the philanthropist who funded this adventure.”
“To Papa Fred,” said my mother, raising her plastic cup. “The only decent thing he ever did.”
For a moment, before they drank, before they turned down the bedclothes, my grandfather, Federico, in one of the expensively tailored suits he somehow sported on cobbler’s wages, smoldered in front of them. He had crossed the ocean, Italy to America, that they might share this fateful night together in a Braxton County, West Virginia blizzard: his daughter, Carita, and a dreamy Black Irishman who aspired to nothing loftier than to be left to his thoughts.
When a deadly volcano erupted, Debra Paget, too beautiful to live, flung herself to appease the gods into its spewing mouth. My mother jumped up and snapped off the TV, reached into the shoebox, stroked the rabbit for a moment, and bundled it up again. Then she crumpled on the bed and wept. My dad pulled her to him, popped another dime into the box, and the two of them – not quite there, but closer every moment – resumed their journey to the Atlantic.
Some time, during the long holy night, as the snow prognosticated, my mother rose, and placed back in bed between her and my father the slumbering rabbit.