Faked Deaths in My Family

Theodore McCombs Click to

Author Photo - McCombs (higher res)Theodore McCombs is a writer and lawyer, formerly of Wall Street, currently in Denver. He studied Literature and Mathematics at the University of California, San Diego, then law at UC Berkeley. His non-fiction and fiction have appeared in the Hastings Journal of Race & Poverty Law and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. He is a member of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and he tweets as @MrBruff. He is currently working on a first novel about the life and career of the SS's official Holy Grail hunter.

I cradled the dead snake’s slack, dark line, smashed into a double kink, and cried. Nana had found him squirming over the handle of the laundry room door, screamed, then slammed him into the jamb, breaking his neck—but since a snake is all neck, really she’d broken the whole of him. His skin was dry and papery but it glistened as if moist—black, with two shivers of gold tracing his length, like someone had drawn lines of sun down his storm-colored sides. I caught him in the creek bed that ran behind our property, trickling over the cracked earth, and when I picked him up, he curled and slipped around the knobs and edges of my hands. I’d had to pee, so I raced inside and draped him over a doorknob, where he craned his thumbnail head round the door, a slim, black finger bobbing in the air. From the bathroom, I’d heard Nana’s heavy shoes on the tile, then a shriek, a bang—

“Meshuggeneh girl!” Nana’s black eyes fixed on mine, the marionette lines on her chin creased deep and fierce. “Why did you bring this filthy vermin in!”

“Oh, Nana, Nana! He was mine…!”

Garter snakes are harmless. The eat slugs and crickets and can’t deliver their mild venom and they’re all neck. If a man breaks his neck, it’s the most tender, least protected turn of his spine taking the rest of him down, but my garter snake was one thin, threaded spine, nerves and skin, all tender.

My parents were both out on different errands. I was twelve. I wailed and howled.

Nana, an obelisk of black, high-collar velvet, regarded my grief with suspicion, as if I were some fairy mirage that would resolve in time: a weeping oak hollow or a mossy changeling. Her winged eyebrows arched; her frown settled into the grooves her temper had carved out over seventy years, in an Old World full of troubles.

My brother Richie and I had learned about the troubled Old World from our Dad; anything uneasy to tell about Nana was off-limits with Mom. Dad’s high wingback study chair opened above him like an outlandish tropical flower as he steered us through Hitler, Stalin, Poland, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact—the tenements, Brighton Beach. Nana had suffered deprivations so unfathomable they could be described only in populations; Nana was six million Jews, murdered, Nana was ships of bowed, hollow-eyed Poles writing out American names in a ledger on a strange harbor island. He read us poetry by Paul Celan and finally dismissed us from his study with a kind, mordant smile.

We’d lingered in the hall outside his study door for a long time, joined in stunned confusion. That night, while Nana read her novels at the cleared dinner table, we’d pried into our grandmother’s room, at the far end of the house, poring over the loose objects in our soft, fat, browned hands, as if Nana might have carried over in her clothes trunk some artifact of this overpowering story. Nana lived with the windows shuttered, and slept in a small bed with a gauze canopy. On her nightstand was a brass clock, a gilt-leaved prayer book with thin, Hebrew script like waving grain, stood upright, next to a porcelain doll under a bell jar. We crept guiltily around these things with a sense their places might shift and reshift each week. Some, we picked up and set down hopelessly, understanding nothing. The room smelled of dust, silver polish, and fabrics rank with starch and sweat. In her purse: rolls of bills, a dried sprig of lavender, a small gun.

Nana’s face, sometimes, brought to mind a small gun. Small, sparrow eyes, small skull, a long, point-tipped nose.

Nana had me put the snake in a paper bag and push it to the bottom of the trash, beneath the rinds, coffee grounds, fish-bones, and eggshells. I washed my hands, alone, and felt a burn at the rims of my eyes. When Mom came home from her shopping, they were puffy and red. I heard her high heels snap over the foyer tile and quickly dragged my arm across my face.

“Eleanor, dear, have you been crying?”

I swallowed a lump of hurt as big as a peach pit. “No, mama. How was your day?”

Her beautiful lips trembled at their corners, as if she sensed she would soon be terribly afraid of something. “Why were you crying? Why won’t you tell me?” Her voice climbed to a dangerous pitch.

“Mama, it’s the pool. I tried to open my eyes underwater again.”

Mom seemed to tighten one twist further; then she relaxed into a sigh.

“My little jackrabbit,” she said, smiling, catching a scraggle of my hair in her thin fingertips, “you’ll wind up with split ends…”

The next morning, things felt clearer, and I was angrier about all of it: the snake, Nana, Mom. But Dad enforced serenity in the house, and so I bottled it all in. A tantrum could make Mom go to an ‘institution,’ a term that was both generic and special, and better and worse than a hospital. And anyway Nana didn’t take tears seriously—how could she, I suppose.

I went swimming out back with Nana minding me, though the California heat and her awful black dress made her dozy. Her lids settled behind her reading glasses, and her nose started to wheeze. The concrete cooked my feet whenever I stepped out of the water, and I played at standing the heat then jumping, so that Nana woke and scolded me for the splash and dozed off again every five minutes. The light split inside the water, dancing in white slender lines along the pool bed. It was a Sunday. Dad was in his study. Mom and Richie were at her Unitarian church; she was thinking about converting.

We had a toy boat floating in the pool and I figured out that, if you capsized it, all the air trapped between the hull and the water could keep you going for ten minutes, even longer. As Nana dozed off, I swam under the boat and let my limbs sink lifeless, then waited for her to snap awake.

I pictured Nana startled out of her craggy frown, flushed and flummoxed, lines of sweat beading on her temples where her granite bun yanked back, hollering ridiculously in Yiddish. I heard my breath loud on the water. Above me, through a dark rain of drops, the hull played with the same snaking light as the pool bed, but a dull, ghostly green. My breath grew fiercer—my nostrils sucked in a burn of chlorine, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the twisting green lattice of lights—like a glow I cast myself, a snaking fire inside—

She’ll be sorry, now, she’ll be so, so sorry now… .

Nana’s screams pierced the boat’s hull as a distorted, animal sound, like a strange jungle bird. “David! David, get down here!” she shouted for my father. Then, to herself: “Och, shit! Shit!”

I had never heard my grandmother curse, not even a ‘damn’ or ‘hell,’ so I lost my cool instantly. A loud snort escaped from under the toy boat, and Nana’s shouts quieted. A breath passed without any sound from the pool deck. Then suddenly, there was a bang! on the hull, and water exploded around my face. The boat’s bottom knocked at my head and the hull kept going bang bang bang! I caught a breath and sank, looking up through the water, which burned like vinegar at my eyes—Nana had found a broom and she was smacking it against the boat, screaming thickly through the water, “You devil! You big, freckled, devil of a wild dog’s child!”, until Dad came and caught her by the wrists and she dropped the broom, her wiry hands seized up into talons, clutching air as if she could wring the dryness from it.

There were long mornings when Mom stayed locked in her room until after lunch. Dad was in his study by eight, every day, but told us to give our mother her time. Richie, when we were little, used to loiter by Mom’s door anyway, and sometimes we’d hear her crying or, in a sickening way, laughing and crying. But mostly there was silence, silence that itched over your scalp, made you check through the drapes for both cars in the drive way, and I’d tell Richie she was dead, that she’d driven over the bluffs or hanged herself with one of her nylon stockings because he was so stupid. Then Richie would burst into tears and run down the hall to no one.

But the night before the long morning, in the pitch of a catered faculty party, Mom was a sight to behold. Tall, sinuous-lined, in a carnelian cocktail dress, and dripping with turquoise bracelets and beads, she stood in the foyer and welcomed the South American economists and Stanford game theorists. Her close, black ringlets shimmered in the porch lights. Her hands smelled of chamomile lotion. From upstairs, I watched her take guests’ hands in hers, her soft knuckles flexing like a pianist’s. She had a sharp singing contralto that broke down anyone’s reserve, and quoted Jane Austen, and shrieked with laughter at the mildest humor, as though her listeners were stunted and relied on exaggerated cues. I watched from my dark second-floor landing with a genuinely painful love, like watching an opera heroine killing herself in the final act.

One such night, Dad came tipsy up the stairs to fetch his cigars and spotted me there. He paused, smiling at me with a mischievous, Roman-god sort of indulgence. He squatted down to level his eyes with mine.

“You are an extraordinary young woman, Ellie. You can do anything you want,” he said to me; but in another way, not to me. “You’ll leave us far behind, one day, owe nothing to anyone… ”

I took in his cologne, the wine on his breath, and grew pleasantly drowsy: a snug, toddler feeling as if I were in his arms again.

I was Dad’s favorite and Richie was Mom’s favorite, as though they’d worked it out fairly sometime. We respected this; but it made each of us plunge towards the other parent in strange ways, and, later in our lives, Richie and I specialized in uncovering the terrible failures that other parent had performed over our lives. Dad had never invested much time in Richie, and more and more came to see him as a bit of a fuck-up, which is what Richie became for many years. Mom: well, I had a lot on Mom. Those towers of Christmas boxes we glimpsed but never unwrapped because she had to return them, say. Stepfathers one and two. But what killed me is how fragile the air was around her: when she was down she could collapse like an ice shelf under you, and when she was up, it was worse, gaudy, tragic, death by chocolate cake.

Once, when Richie was a baby, I found blue paint in the garage and I painted the refrigerator. I can’t remember what drove me to it except an overwhelming silence in the house—an awesome, oppressive, cathedral silence that had to be answered. Probably one of Mom’s long mornings, now that I think about it. Because she came out in a flesh-pink kimono, hair wild and starchy, and when she saw the fridge she blew her stack. She might have had a glass of tomato juice in her hand; if she did, she let it roll out of her fingers and smash bloody over the floor and if she didn’t, then it was her face by itself doing the same thing. She didn’t shout at me, but she turned in place crying like it was the last thing she could do and whispering things about me as if I couldn’t hear.

Nana found us like that in the kitchen, me staring stupidly with my brush and scabs of blue up my arms, and Mom turning in place. Nana looked me over: I must have looked terrified, since I wasn’t crying; she didn’t even seem to register her daughter. She bent and took the brush and laid it in the sink, then stood me up, gripping my wrist in her huge, skeletal trap of a hand. Mom gestured hopelessly to the fridge.

“I like blue,” Nana said, in a pronounced, very proper English.

I can think of a dozen other times that it happened the other way round, and Mom shielded me from Nana’s brand of crazy. You never let someone face crazy alone in that house, as a rule. Not back then, anyway.

Richie and I grew to hate faculty party nights. We grew to hate each other on the mornings after. I said nasty stuff to him, we played mean tricks on each other, and in our heat those words and tricks seemed the most important things we had said or done in our lives. As if we were telling each other something so, so crucial that couldn’t be said, not because it was necessarily terrible but because it belonged to a different part of the body than the voice.

One long morning, after he cracked a cold egg down my shirt, I told him I was through, I’d run away, steal Nana’s gun, and live off the land and never have to see him or anyone here again. I got out a sling bag and even started packing in front of him. He was horrified, then furious and skeptical, then frantic. When I went off to the kitchen to make a sandwich for my escape, he snuck into my wardrobe and pretended to hang himself from the closet rod. He took one of my white Sunday stockings and strung himself up between my collar dresses, his tongue thrust out and lolling, lids heavy.

I screamed at him, not because he’d fooled me—only for a second, or less—but because what that trick said really was so horrible an idea. He couldn’t do that to me, run off like that; I couldn’t do it to him, either. I fell backwards on my butt and hugged in my knees. My eyes were shut tight, so I didn’t see Richie lift off of his toes and untie himself, but I felt him lie down by me, repentant also, rubbing his little palm along my arm.

Dad stalked in and closed the bedroom door softly behind him. “Are you insane?” he hissed at us both, just over a whisper. “Can you imagine what would have happened—” He stopped himself, but the sentence kept going in the glare he shot us, like that was the last thing he needed. Richie bowed his head. He tended to bolt automatically to shame, to grab for it in Dad’s presence, as if they were in a competition over it. Somehow, I felt ashamed of myself too.

Long before me or Richie or the divorce, my parents were two teenagers in love, too brilliant for the Jewish ghetto and determined to break out of Brooklyn at any cost. They scored top of their classes and put their summer wages into graceful, Anglo clothes and haircuts, taking the train into Manhattan to stroll around the tall, white, Episcopalian architecture. Their classmates elected them Prom King and Queen, as if that might keep them near Brighton Beach. But David was headed to Harvard, to study macroeconomics on scholarship, and he’d take Rachel with him. They were engaged after graduation and married before fall term. David took a bus to Boston to arrange special campus housing. His father’s parents had chosen well at the Ellis Island ledger — “Polk”—now Rachel had that luck too, and nothing could slow them down.

He decided to return south by train, first-class. Somewhere in the Connecticut countryside, a big bullish fellow in a sagging suit started marching up and down the aisle, growling, “I wanna know if there’s any Jews on the train…” From one end of the train to the other, flashing dark looks, “Any Jews here?”, “Anyone a Jew?”

David had rich, black, curly hair and deep-set eyes, but people registered these features as racial only on less attractive men; the same prejudice protected Rachel. He had spent the last two days passing as a natural Boston brahmin, and intended to do so for the rest of his life. He played tennis. He didn’t owe a thing to his past, he felt; it had only tried to hold him back. What was it that made him stand, then?

My father lifted from his seat and looked squarely at the stranger. “I’m a Jew,” he said, ready to fight for it.

“Finally!” The man’s ill humor disappeared. “Can you imagine? I’ve been looking for a fourth for pinochle since Braintree!”

(There’s a loyalty we hold, even to our albatrosses. Is it because denying them means slighting a part of ourselves?—Richie would say that. Or: because it would admit that sloughing those weights was always possible, and you were only too feeble and teary to do it sooner.)

My parents had most of college and grad school before Mom’s hold slipped. The only time I heard my father explicitly reference our Jewish roots was in his attempt to convey—soon after their divorce went through—what this time of descent had felt like: “I kept returning to that story of the man who thinks he’s married one wife, but turns out to have married her older, more difficult sister.” Rachel and Leah: he left it to me to see how even her name had lined up. I had to admit, I was impressed, though not exactly persuaded that I would have done the same.

I never admitted it to Richie, though, who would have accused me of siding with Dad. He always seemed braced for the inevitable sides. “That bastard walked out on us and Mom,” he said, trying to draw a hard circle around the three of us. But Richie walked out on her too, though years later. All of us walked out, in the order she’d found us: Nana died, Dad cheated and left, then I graduated, then Richie disappeared. And the really awful part is she accepted it quietly, unexploded. Couldn’t handle a blue refrigerator but this, she bears.

Long before any of this, though, my parents were two brilliant teenagers in love, and Rachel and her mother lived on the third floor of a shabby brownstone. Nana Helen was by then a full-blown, classic hysteric, mad in the idiom of her time—that arch, over-gendered, Freud’s-Vienna sort of hysteria. Whenever David and Rachel tried to leave the apartment on a date together, dressed in their fine clothes, Helen collapsed in front of the door, gurgling and convulsing and clawing her chest, as if she were having a heart attack. The doctor repeatedly told them these so-called attacks were purely psychological and the best course would be for them to ignore her. With every date night, then, my parents got used to gingerly stepping over poor Nana, writhing pop-eyed on the floorboards, and her nostrils big and black and catching that enigmatic mingle of cologne and Ivory soap that wafted down, and gently settled.


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