Our beginning. Not theirs. Ours, not mine, because now that I am telling it, I cannot separate myself from him. We are a pair. I was seven years old when they met and Adam was five. When I am eighteen I am asked to write my own obituary for my first journalism class. I write that our mother passed away in the first line because it is the first thing anyone should know about us. The professor is handing back our papers, and pauses at my desk for a moment, like she wants to say something, but decides against it. She puts the paper down on my desk. She moves onto the next student. My paper is full of red marks. The words passed away are crossed out and died is written in red above them. So there it is. Our mother died.
My father begins to woo her. It does not occur to him that she will say no. I hear him late at night on the phone in the kitchen, murmuring and charming. She is interested but reluctant. She is enjoying her life in Manhattan and since she had just broken up with her fiancé, she was starting to date a lot. She tells her friends that my father is a lunatic. His self-confidence unnerves her. He has this troubling, insistent optimism. But in the way these things often work, the very attributes that flash warning lights in your head, begin to also attract you, and then ultimately become the very things that anger you the most and contribute to your ruin. Part of you always asking, why didn’t I listen to myself?
We have moved from our apartment in north Jersey to a small, square brick rented house in Staten Island right off Watchung Avenue. The teacher’s strike is over for now. Adam has started kindergarten and we all go on the school bus together to P.S. 30, my father standing in the aisle of the bus like a giant. The kids in school tell me to be on the lookout for escapees from Willowbrook Hospital. They tell me the crazies are locked up in there. On the weekends while my father sits on a bench reading the Times, and Adam is busy ruling the park, I am on the constant lookout for crazy people in hospital gowns carrying machetes. Even at five, Adam is the leader of any playground he is on – standing at the top of the slide, roaring like Gigantor, causing the kids to scatter like a flock of birds. The biggest boys try to imitate him and can’t. He can go across the monkey bars with unparalleled speed. He stands on the edge of the spinning circle platform and jumps off and lands on his feet, flashing his grin at the rest of us still going around in circles.
During school, I try to navigate being a student where my father teaches. We have never been in the same school before. The kids are lining up in the gym after we get to school one morning and a boy cocks his head towards where the older kids are gathering. He whispers to me, “That’s your father?”
I look over. The gym has gleaming wood floors with big squares of light coming in from the high windows above the bleachers. My dad is wearing a white- buttoned down shirt, open at the neck and dark pants. The other male teachers wear ties, but my father does not look like them. He looks like wrestler or a lion tamer. He is holding a white piece of paper and calling out kids’ names. He has a deep voice, a radio voice. “Yeah,” I say. “That’s him.”
He leans into me and says, “Well, everyone in his class hates him. My brother told me, he’s in there. They are all scared of him. And besides,” he says with a hiss, “He has a really big nose.” I blink my eyes in stunned silence. I don’t want my father’s whole class to hate him. Or to be afraid of him. It makes me feel sick for him. I look around to see if anyone else heard him, afraid that my father will find out. I stare at this boy and wonder where he got such nerve. Doesn’t he hear that my father comes with his own soundtrack? You can hear it before he even enters a room – it’s a slightly jazzy off beat tune, a low insistent drumbeat, with an overlay of some finger snapping. The melody sounds like it threatens to get out of control but never quite does. This boy must be slightly crazy or else he’d see that my father should be exempt from the ridicule that all teachers deserve, based simply on the fact that he could break this kid in two. So I lean in towards him, look him in the eyes and say in the same menacing voice he used on me. “Shut the hell up or I’ll tell the guy with the really big nose to beat the crap out you.”
He rears back and takes that in.
And then he leaves me alone.
We are late for school almost every morning when my father doesn’t have bus duty. My teacher is increasingly mad at me for this. I get detention. I have to sit at my desk after school after everyone leaves, with my arms clasped on top of my head as punishment.
“Why can’t you get to school on time?” Miss Perillo asks, her back to me as she organizes her desk.
When I don’t answer, she turns around, smoothes her skirt, and stands with her hands on her hips. I do not want to give her the satisfaction of admitting that my arms are by now dead weights. I smile and say, “The mornings at our house are chaos.”
“Chaos?” she says, her overly tweezed eyebrows arching like two crescent moons.
“Yes,” I say. “We have one crisis after another.”
“I see,” she says, waiting a moment before adding, “Just because your father works here does not mean you don’t have to follow the rules. The rules apply to everyone. Even your father.”
My face burns with shame at this criticism of my father, but I do not want her to know, so I look away.
“Do you hear me?”
I refuse to look at her.
“You can just sit there like that until you decide to answer me.”
I keep my lips zipped. I think about how angry my father will be because of the detention, because I’ve embarrassed him, because I am the cause of the crises of the mornings – spilling orange juice on my only clean dress, fighting with Adam, not getting up on time, not finding my homework. The mornings are chaos because we are on our own. We have lost yet another of the steady stream of older women my father hires to watch over us.
I sit there with my hands clasped on my head and think about how Adam and I are hard on these women. They are sometimes hard on us. Sometimes they don’t appreciate our sense of humor. Most times they quit and my father has to find new ones.
I think about how I wouldn’t be in detention if the last one didn’t quit. My father is especially angry with us about this. He said she was one of the “good ones.” I agreed. She was as wide as she was tall. She was missing more teeth than she had. I’d like to blame what we did to her on Adam but I can’t be sure whose idea it was. We waited until she was in the shower one day. We put two small chairs out in the hallway opposite the bathroom door. We sat on the chairs and yelled, “Fire!” as loud as we could. She burst out of the room, naked and wet, her hair a halo of shampoo bubbles, trying to pull a small bath towel around her body, and she ran towards the front door. We clapped. We gave her a standing ovation. We cheered like she just won the World Series. She stopped and turned, her body white and doughy, her hair dripping rivers onto her shoulders. She looked at the chairs and then to us. We watched as her face slowly changed to disbelief. She looked stung with disappointment. I wanted to feel worse about this than I did. She had to pass us on her way back to the bathroom. She wouldn’t even look at us. Adam said to her “Were you even going to try to save us?” His unanswered question just hung in the air.
I keep my eyes on the blackboard. Our math lesson is still on it. It is all about measurements. I study them.
Twelve inches in a foot. Three feet in a yard. 5280 feet in a mile. 1760 yards to a mile.
I see Miss Perillo making herself busy in the classroom. She keeps glancing at me to see if I am ready to give up. It is going to take way more than two dead arms to make me answer her.
“Allison,” I hear my father calling for me. “Let’s go. I’ve been waiting for you.” I do not answer him either.
“May I speak with you out in the hall for a moment,” Miss Perillo says, marching towards the door.
My arms hurt so much that I just wish she would be quick about telling my him how mad she is at me.
Eight ounces in a cup. Two cups in a pint. Two pints in a quart.
I hear them talking.
“Take your hands off of your head,” my father calls to me.
Four quarts in a gallon.
Miss Perillo is raising her voice, talking faster and louder.
“Get your things,” my father says.
I put on my coat, gather my schoolbooks and slip past them into the hall. I wait by the stairs for him because they are still talking.
My father does not say a word about the detention. Miss Perillo does not make me stay after school anymore. I close my eyes the next day and remember the lesson on the blackboard. I get 100% on my math test.
The teacher will not agree to go out with him. Two weeks pass. He starts to mail her letters. He writes them on white lined paper from school. They are long letters, or short ones. I am not sure. He talks about us in them. Tells her amusing stories about us. Or not. He talks about when he was a Marine, when he fought in the Korean War, about his family that has been of no help to him. Or not. I do know he does not write about our mother. She never happened.
He sends her a poem.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever god may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley 1849-1903
And this does it. She agrees to see him. The bloody, unbowed head is always irresistible.