Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Jewish Man Calls His Mother by Holli Downs

In 1986, outside the boundaries of the synagogue, Beth Shalom, it was strange to meet another Jew in Kansas City. My father and I lived there in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, pink townhouse squeezed next to several others, exactly the same. He had owned the townhouse since 1973 when it was built and pastel colored plastic siding was groovier than it was feminine.

He had bought it for my mother. The place always felt a little off to me once I was old enough to notice things like that. I never knew her to be a part of the house, but she was still there. Her cross stitched “Home is Where the Heart Is” hung above the oven in the kitchen. Her lava lamp was hidden in the back of the closet until I was sixteen and took it out for mood lighting. Dad never talked about her sober, and I wasn’t the kind of kid who was brave enough to ask. I knew March 30 was her birthday because Dad got drunk and cursed at photo albums after I went to bed.

“God damn woman,” he said. I was nine or so one of these times, and he was getting kind of loud. It scared me. He looked surprised I when appeared in the doorway, “Come here.”

This night, under belches of whiskey, I learned about my mother.

I learned she wanted to be an artist. My father told me about finding out I was on the way. She had thrown a pregnancy test at his dorm wall.

“You’ve never seen a woman so angry,” he laughed.

I wanted to ask if she wanted me at all, if she missed me, if she remembered me. I didn’t. I was afraid it would break the spell. I was afraid of the distance between me and my father when he talked about her.

“So, I guess you were about six months old.” he had fallen into a kind of stupor and the room drew close on us, “I came home and her bags were packed up. She said the strangest thing. ‘I can’t remember how old I am’ she said. Isn’t that bizarre? Nineteen, I told her, nineteen! But she went to her mothers.” My father started crying. It was uncomfortable. “She didn’t come back for us, Isaac,” he said

I don’t remember ever really hurting for anything. My father was never a very good cook and we sat over ranch-style beans and dark toast for most of my childhood, but we could always pay the bills. At least, if there ever was any trouble, I didn’t know about it.

I did know that he wouldn’t give away a penny he could keep. Even though the women at George’s, a second-hand clothing store downtown by the movies, made him uncomfortable he took me there when I needed new things for school. My father has always been a very handsome man. We had as much help as he could handle when we went out together.

“Time to go, Isaac,” he would whisper at me from behind the racks of neon jump suits.

“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe a few more.” I would pretend I couldn’t make up my mind, try on another suit and stride out of the dressing room to a friendly audience.

Ranch-style beans, and George’s was good enough for me until June 1986. MTV started airing a new show, “120 minutes,” and Bar Mitzvah daydreams took on less of a Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” look and more the Cactus World News’s “Years Later”. I wanted my leather jacket and my black square-framed glasses, and I wanted to be the first one to put them on.

At first, Dad hemmed and hawed at the idea of paying $40 for something I would “just use the one time and never be seen in again” but a month before the party I found a Schott’s black leather jacket laying on my bed when I got home.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever owned. I wore it until someone stole it from a party on Avenue C during my first semester at NYU. My wife, who I had been dating for a couple of months by then, swears she had nothing to do with it, but admits she was relieved when it disappeared from our lives. “Our lives,” she says. Like us together is the most natural and perpetual thing in the world. We haven’t decided to have any children.

My father worked most nights managing the twenty-four hour self-serve car wash place a few blocks down. Sometimes, he would bring home the things he said people threw out of their backseats and into the trash. Mostly it was just junk: pens, old travel mugs, maps, obsolete 8tracks. Once that summer, though, he carried in a pair of jungle boots, gripping each one by the sole, and held them against my feet. “Looks like this should work,” he said.

The boots were dirty enough to suspect they were authentic. The leather had creased and cracked and been worked to a shine again so many times that when my foot slid in them they didn’t bend. A few of the eyelets were missing, and one of the strings was so short it could only be fed to the third hole from the top. There was one stain on the heel of the left boot- kind of a yellow smear, like new pollen on your fingers. I told the guys at my Bar Mitzvah it was left over mustard gas. They didn’t believe me so I challenged them to smell it and no one would.

The girls were a foot taller and more interesting than interested when we were thirteen. They all came to my party, though. I told them the DJ knew Billy Crystal from his work on SNL. Kids spent all night at his table asking him if he got to stay backstage with the cast. The DJ told them he didn’t know what they were talking about and my classmates nodded conspiratorially. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to say, I had told them, you know how it is with famous people. They knew.

I had just finished convincing Brittany Barnett to let me kiss her when my father walked up.

“I would like to speak with you,” he said.

“Dad, can it wait?”

He looked from Brittany, blushing up to her roots, to my assumed of wary superiority and smirked, “Five minutes. I will meet you in the lobby.”

My wife makes me tell this story at dinner parties now, but she never lets me get to the part that happened next, “and he missed!” She howls with laughter. I missed. I went to kiss Brittany Barnett on the lips, but closed my eyes and fell against her neck. I picked the wrong girl to kiss. She told everyone how I had done. Sometimes, I think that story is my wife’s favorite thing about me.

When I got to the lobby my eyes were still red, but Dad didn’t say if he noticed. He was standing by the check-in desk speaking in low tones with an attendant wearing a maroon bellboy hat and a service smile.

“Dad?” my voice broke.

My father motioned to the man that he’d be right back and guided me to a bench on the wall. The sun streaming through the windows was hot. I took off my jacket and laid it in my lap.

“You are a man now,” my father looked me in the eyes and I looked away.

“Come on, it was just one kiss, I mean- I don’t need you to-“

“This is not birds and bees, Isaac. Be quiet,” my father was rarely stern. His tone surprised me. The ache of distance between us solidified.


The sounds of my Bar Mitzvah leaked through the hall to where we were sitting. The DJ was encouraging everyone to do the chicken dance.

“This is your mother’s number,” he said, handing me a crumpled flyer from the car wash, “The man said you can use his phone for a minute.”

I stood up to scream at him. I was going to tell him how he had tricked me, how he had betrayed me. How he had known and never said. But my father suddenly looked fat in his suit, his trimmed and combed hair out of place on his head.

“Dial this number,” I said to the clerk and slid the paper over. I looked up, daring him to question me. If anyone was watching they were going to know I was certain.

The first ring echoed in my ears and I leaned against the counter. I was biting my tongue and forgetting my language.

The pause seemed long. “Hello?” I jumped when the second ring interrupted me.

The line opened up.

My mother said, “Hey Rhonda! Sorry about that, I wiped the phone right off the counter. The baby was crying. He’s been so fussy lately.”

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