Green Hills Literary Lantern

Written on the Sky

The sky in Toronto is a kind of blue that’s so different from anywhere else I’ve been, especially the Midwest—Kansas, Illinois, and now Iowa—where I teach playwriting and script analysis. I don’t know if it’s all the farms and humidity that make the blue of Iowa not quite as bright, but in Toronto it’s almost an opaque powdery blue, the calm comfort of faded blue jeans.

I’m sure I didn’t really think that way about it when I was a kid, but the backyard sky was something that protected me, an umbrella that hid me from the nuclear ash of my parents’ bitter arguments. They fought all the time, and often Dad—perpetually angry with my mother—deflected his dinner table rage on me, calling me Hoover, the big goombah who sucked up food like a human vacuum cleaner. When not wincing me with words, he’d whack my face for being lippy. But in the recesses of our backyard, I invented scenes of escape, comical set pieces: the Lone Ranger on the take; John Wayne trying to sing “Bang a Gong”; and my Macedonian grandpa, in his thick European accent, struggling to explain the nuances of offsides in hockey to a grandson. I guess I never did have many friends, outside of those I scripted.

Anyway, by backyard hedges I dreamed of disappearing into sky, writing something as great as The Honeymooners—I mean like really writing on the sky: my words chiseled marks, like a Mark VII logo hammered onto the closing credits of Dragnet. Hell, in our family we never watched Masterpiece Theatre or anything on PBS. Get Smart, All in the Family, and all shows produced by Jack Webb were what were on in our home.

Mrs. Casson, our neighbor, often heard me doing some bit like the time I was Superman getting his secret powers from Matzo crackers and gefilte fish, and then she’d laugh and offer me a Coke (never from a can, always a glass bottle), or a triangle of French cheese, or rye bread slashed with pate. She loved international foods. “A woman’s got to dream of getting away, doesn’t she?” she once said, as way of explanation. She smelled of Coppertone and vanilla, and I never saw her husband. He was a disc jockey on easy listening CFRB, but like I said, I never saw him.

Many an afternoon she sun-tanned on a lawn recliner and asked me real questions—not what I wanted to be when I grow up or how much do I weigh or what grade am I going into—but explorations of meaning that my father never invested in: is there something beyond that vast blue—alien civilizations? Multiple gods? What would it be like to write on the sky and use the clouds as erasers?

It felt good to be around her. I was only thirteen the summer that Jack Tremblay moved in with us, but I sure felt something in Mrs. Casson’s presence. It was a want that traveled like prickly cattails through my heart and fingers.

Mrs. Casson smiled, and then lay on her chest, against the green recliner, her bikini top unstrapped.

I thought Mrs. Casson was pretty and even went so far as to tell my mom that our neighbor had a nice figure. “Oh, really? Mrs. Casson? Why, she’s all shoulders, and her ass is too big. Her proportions are all wrong.” And then she said the ultimate insult for a 1950’s woman (although this was 1974, my mom came of age in an era of curves and rockabilly): “She looks mannish.” Damn, my mother loved commenting on other people’s looks, especially actors in old movies. She noticed which ones had puffy eyes from too much drinking and who wore a rug, pointing out where the real and synthetic weaves broke in different directions. Ray Milland was a favorite object of ridicule. “Cary Grant–lite,” she called him. I never could see what she was talking about.

Outside of critiquing people’s looks, Mom was pretty generous. She always gave me a leftover dollar to buy hockey cards, Mad Magazine, or candy bars. And every Halloween she traveled door-to-door with two orange and black boxes collecting for UNICEF. She even made all the costumes for our fourth-grade play, a jazz variant on Snow White. I played a dwarf. 

Throughout seventh grade (the last school year before Mrs. Casson moved away), Mom often signed me out early from Woodbine Junior High under the pretense of a doctor or dentist’s appointment. She knew I was struggling—not with school; I was an “A” student, but the social stuff. I was sad after Nancy—our Snow White in the jazz musical—moved to, of all places, Montreal. I had a crush on her since way back in second grade. She was one of those girls who hit a softball further than you, and you didn’t hate her for it because she was girly in other ways: wearing blue dresses and laughing at your jokes. In fifth grade, she loved how I said “faucet” with a hard “k” for the “c.”

Anyway, Jack Tremblay, who was staying with us that final summer with Mrs. Casson next door, often had a beer in his hand and smoked in the backyard so that he could talk to our neighbor before the red sky darkened. “Why don’t you play 500,” he’d say to me. “Looks like Mo Frazier could use someone to shag flies.” An open lake of green spread between our townhouse and the public school, and there was Mo (Maurice to his mother), a doctor’s kid with a bat resting against his left shoulder. Reluctantly I hustled after each fly ball, this one hitting me in the shoulder, that one on my hip, another against my knees. Through the scratches of sky—dandelion puffs and bits of dust kicked up most nights—Jack leaned on hedges, a hand at the side of his chin, his head bent in a tableau of listening. Mrs. Casson, knees together, nodded, following the thread of his words, but her shoulders were square, pulling her back. I couldn’t help but notice how when Jack was around her, the bikini top was never unclasped.

“Hey, dumbass, that’s the fifth fly you’ve muffed,” Mo said, his spiky hair looking like a surrealist landscape. I chucked that ball at his head, but it arced awkwardly, twisting twenty feet to his left.

Maurice cursed me. He was always Jesus Christing something. His father, like mine, was rarely home. His mom, Doris, I learned years later, was a closet alcoholic. She was my mom’s best friend, and they often shared coffee and personal stories. Anyway, everyone in the neighborhood knew about her drinking, I guess, but no one could do anything to help her. She directed our jazz musical and told us to watch Carol Burnett. “She never breaks. This play is funny, but if you laugh you ruin the fun for the audience. You want to laugh, buy a ticket and watch it from the front row.” She also promoted the virtues of margarine over butter, whole-wheat noodles over white, and water over Kool-Aid. She wasn’t a lot of fun, but she was healthy—except for the drinking part. That must have been her Carol Burnett moment; the control she had to present around us, all the time.

“Mo, don’t curse so much. The wind caught Gary’s throw,” Mrs. Casson said, giving me a big thumb’s up. Through the gauzy scratches of twilight, I waved back and promised myself to do better.

“Doesn’t he look like Johnny Cash,” she asked Jack.

“Yeah. I guess I can see it a little.”

“A little? Look at the eyes—”

The next fly ball somehow caught the center webbing of my glove.

 

 

One hot summer afternoon when I was twelve, the kind of afternoon that burns the edges of your shoulders and gives the space between grass and sky a crinkly weave—Jack and my father took me to the bachelors’ pad. They were three guys who shared a townhouse and enjoyed lounging at the compound’s pool, drinking dark beers in plastic cups, and checking out the girls and flirting with other men’s wives. All three were in their mid-twenties and sold cars. My dad thought they were “pretty cool dudes.”

Anyway, the year before when Dad was unemployed he had gotten to know Mark Holmes, the leader of the posse. They had planned for months to go into a pool cleaning business, but Mark, according to Mom, “got cold feet. He’s just a kid.”

This particular afternoon when I was twelve, Mark couldn’t believe it when one of the other bachelors announced that he had slept with Lynn (that’s Mrs. Casson. Although she gave me permission to call her by her first name, I never called her Lynn. I don’t why. It just didn’t feel right). Slept. I kind of knew what it meant—it was more than just blankets and bodies intertwined, and when Jack pumped his fist twice and said “Solid, Jackson,” I knew it was serious stuff. Hell, maybe I did know what Bachelor Number Two meant, but I didn’t want to believe it. “Right there in the kitchen, huh?” Jack asked.

My father’s laughter was a coughing cacophony. It rumbled deep in his stomach and barreled through his chest, making his face and shoulders shake. When something really cracked him up, he raised a hand as if asking an umpire for time out. His hand was again up, doing the asking. “I’m not touching any of the leftovers.” He pointed at the refrigerator door. “Let me tell you that much.”

Sure, Dad could be rough with me, but when laughing, dark crescent moons for eyes, he was fun to be around. When I was five, Dad told me that he and Jack were WWII heroes, a submarine commander and his Chief Petty Officer (I never knew what that meant, but it had to be important). Well, some Nazis schweinhund blew up their sub, and Jack and Dad seized hold of fuselage remnants and floated twenty miles of ocean to an island of coconuts. “See, see, kid? My right arm, to this day, is longer than my left. That’s ’cause I was swimming with this here arm.” How was I to know that from 1939-45 my father was between the ages of two and eight?

Jack, even that summer when I was thirteen, enjoyed laughing alongside Pop, embellishing their stories about work (fellow milk men stealing from the company), transvestites at the bar (dancing with unsuspecting college kids), or forlorn women at the track (looking to be “rescued”). “I don’t have a drinking problem,” Jack periodically repeated that summer. “I have a problem staying sober.” That seemed to be the funniest line ever. Apparently Tillie, Jack’s wife, didn’t find it so funny, asking him to quit drinking or to quit her. Like I said, I don’t think I ever saw him without a beer, especially during Saturdays’ Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts.

But I liked Jack. He let me have the first sips off of freshly opened bottles, and he made the coolest paper airplanes. I don’t know how he did it. His didn’t look like mine, flying evergreens, all razor-sharp and pointed. Instead, he folded the paper in such a way as to create replicas of bush pilot planes flown by WWI aviators. And they dipped and skipped like flat stones through air.

The sky, the afternoon we visited the bachelors, was excruciatingly bright and hurt my eyes, but the lights inside were dim. Extra beers, the ones they couldn’t fit in their refrigerator, were parked along a kitchen counter. The soldiers had different labels and were probably imported. There were also two floor lamps in the room, a couple of low slung couches covered in crocheted throws, and a solid-state television topped with ashtrays full of crumpled cigarettes.

But I wasn’t really looking at all that. On the walls were photographs of naked women. I couldn’t really tell you the color of the walls, because of all the centerfolds upon centerfolds. I knew about Playboy. Mo and I had snuck glances at the magazine resting high on the rack—by the bread and deli aisle—of our local IGA. In the store, our gazes were quick, looking for the floor manager while still looking at the girls, but now I couldn’t believe I was allowed to stare at all that beauty. I felt for sure someone was going to scold or hit me.

“What do you think, huh?” My father nudged Mark as if to say, check out the kid. Mark smiled, his bleached hair matching the color of his skin. A giant peace chain dipped around his neck like a gold anchor. “Pretty cool dudes, huh?” Dad elbowed me gently.

“Pretty cool,” I think I echoed. What struck me were the highly noticeable tan lines. There was something about those borders, faded lines against darker accents on white bodies, that suggested a peering into the forbidden. The lighter swatches teased you with the promise of more to see: a mystery revealed while still remaining veiled. I felt a yearning I never knew before. “What’s her name?”

A model relaxed by a pool. A soft drink was in some kind of Styrofoam holder, and her legs were crossed, backside exposed, and chin cupped in her hands as she looked at me. Her un-tanned butt was bright. I pointed her out from the ten or so models close by.

Mark laughed. “What, you want her phone number, killer?”

My stomach was full of rocks.

My father examined the photograph on the wall. “That’s Sharon Clark.”

“Nice ass,” Jack said.

“Not as good as the ass I got last night,” Bachelor Number Two said.

“So I hear.” Jack smiled back. “She’s not a ball-breaker, is she? After my wife I don’t want no more ball-breakers.”

“No. Very smooth. Like a glass of Crown Royal.”

The rocks suddenly dissolved into pebbly shards, fluttering about in my stomach, as I feared not my mom catching me looking but Mrs. Casson finding out. I didn’t want her to know that I was looking at these girls and hearing these words, because I knew she held me in such high regard. Several months before, while sharing some cannoli she had ordered from the French Quarter in New Orleans, she said I wasn’t like most twelve-year-olds. “You’re what we called in my day eccentric. But I now call interesting.” I was arty, into the deeper meanings of things. Some people learn that “blue is a relaxing color, but you, Gary, you want to know why blue and not red or turquoise.” I smiled, and she fell back in the lawn recliner, her arms triangles above her head. And that’s when I told her I wanted to be a writer for a show like The Honeymooners. You notice how Alice never attacks Ralph? She only responds to his attacks. She never attacks first.

“Maybe she should,” Mrs. Casson said. “Maybe she ought not be that nice. I’m not nice.”

I wanted to tell her that she was, but instead babbled something about the candy dish on the show, the one lonely sign of a woman’s life in their apartment, and how it must have been something Alice placed there to brighten up the place, and her life.

But on that particular day with the bachelors, my father, and Jack, I wasn’t thinking about candy dishes. Instead, I felt shame and guilt for thinking about women in ways I had vaguely approached.

“Crown Royal? Guys, c’mon, huh? Keep it above board. The kid?” Dad touched my shoulders.

“Sharon Clark,” I repeated to alleviate the tension. I often did that. I appeared clumsy to many. Hell, alongside “Hoover,” Dad’s favorite nickname for me, was Max, as in Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, because I was always stumbling about. I’d come in from playing ball hockey or baseball outside and trip in the door’s entryway. And at the kitchen table, I can’t tell you how many times I knocked over a glass of juice. But in social situations I had some grace. I read people well—moods, disappointments, recriminations. I know when to be funny, when to deflect a situation. So I returned to the poolside Ms. Clark. “I tell you what. Wow. With a glow-in-the-dark butt like that who needs a night light, huh?”

At the time, I was still using one.

“Good one, kid. Good one.” And the men all laughed.

 

 

 When I was six, I saw a live children’s show with Mom at the O’Keefe Centre and all the way home was sulking in the car. “What, you didn’t like it?” she asked. “No, no.” I couldn’t quite articulate it, but I didn’t like sitting. I wanted to be up on stage with the other performers. I wanted to be in the show. Not a spectator. I think Mrs. Casson knew that about me and sometime after our conversation about Audrey Meadows, she invited me into her home. It smelled of flowers and fresh bread, and the colors were all bright yellows and pastel pinks. In her basement was a huge chest that I expected to overflow with doubloons and pieces of eight. But it was crammed with costumes, wigs, hair extensions, and theatrical props like fans, parasols, and pistols.

Mrs. Casson wanted to be an actress. Well, as a matter of fact she was an actress and had done some indie shows in downtown Toronto, but her husband didn’t like other men looking at her and asked her to retire. So she did. “I don’t know why I listened to him.” She placed a hand on the side of her face and looked out into the backyard. “I guess I was in love.” She laughed and placed a scepter in her right hand. “Oh, well, too late for a comeback.”

That first afternoon we re-lived a scene from Henry the Fourth, Part One. She was Hal, me Falstaff. I don’t remember the particulars, but it had something to do with the players playacting conversations in a mood of comic relief that would later be played out for real. I felt immortal, no longer afraid of messing up, of flubbing a ground ball or hitting myself in the forehead while dribbling a basketball. With Mrs. Casson there was no self-consciousness. On subsequent summer afternoons, I was Mitch to her Blanche Dubois, or we set aside the classics, often writing or improvising our own scripts. She made pirate hats out of paper—well, they actually looked more like something Robin Hood would sport, but I didn’t say anything about that—and we’d imagine ourselves on the Seven Seas, but instead of carousing and robbing other ships, we offered to make fellow seafarers laugh by putting on a show. She’d slide into a pair of tap shoes and then hit the floor with repeated gun bursts. “A tap dancer is but a frustrated drummer,” she once said in a middle of a rousing rat-a-tat-tat. And I’d sing some kind of self-penned rock ’n’ roll song. One was called “Watergate” and featured such pithy lyrics as: “It started with a Washington cocktail / and then it got carried away / until it went to the president / of the USA / Watergate, Watergate.”

Afternoon flowed into afternoon, and we traveled beyond sky to worlds where aliens ate cheese and drew animals that resembled horses in the margins of their weekly stock reports. It was fun and there were no rules. She even kissed me on the cheek once, because her character had been in an asylum for two years and was finally set free. I was her younger brother and on the way home stopped off at a Dairy Queen because she was unable to get any of that in the asylum. At the time, I didn’t think about subtexts. Did Mrs. Casson feel trapped in an asylum in real life? Now, I wonder. Anyway, back then we were outside of judgment, just following each other’s impulses, living, being.

 

 

 

From what I saw, Jack was gentle around my mom. About Mrs. Casson he’d blurt about blunt things, like he wished he were a truck driver and how he’d ball her jack. But I never heard an unkind word about my mother. Every night, after dinner, he helped wash and dry the dishes. “Hell, a woman’s work may never be done, but us men folk can sure give a hand.” It was so cornball but damn sincere.

So imagine my surprise when I came home from a long bike ride into the bright suburbs (I often did that—writing stories while riding) to discover Jack and his two suitcases and paper airplanes were gone. He was no longer living on the cot in the basement. Had he worked things out with Tillie?

“What do you know about Tillie?” Mom shook her head and said I ought to mind my own beeswax.

So I went and asked my father, who was spread across the couch watching another Audie Murphy western.

“I left his bags on the front stoop for him to take,” Dad said, his left hand shielding his eyes from the television’s brightness. “And he took them.”

 

 

 

Over the years I often wondered why it was that Jack left so unceremoniously, and it wasn’t until my early forties, and following my parents’ divorce, that my mother told me that Jack had made a pass at her. She didn’t reveal all the details, but here’s what I was able to puzzle out:

Jack, tired from just having talked with Tillie over the phone, slunk into a chair by the kitchen table. His wife blamed Stoyan (my Dad) for Jack’s excessive drinking and staying out all hours. She even insisted on Jack passing the phone to Frances (my mom) so Tillie could cast aspersions on Mom’s inability to control Stoyan. Jack wouldn’t let her. “Stoyan’s not to blame. I make my choices.” “Stoyan is to blame. And Frances.” “No, you are. You don’t even want to make love.” “I don’t want to make love to a man who smells like a distillery.” “Bullshit.” “Well, bullshit right back at you.” Jack laughed at that last comment and Tillie hung up. “Tillie sends her regards.”

“She blames Stoyan for your drinking—”

“Pay no attention.” He held up a hand. “She’s upset. She’ll say anything. It’s everyone else’s fault but hers.” He looked at his fingers. “I drink because I want to. I choose to.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t do a lot of things.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing.”

Then I imagine my mother looked away, ladling broth over her roast. With a roast she often mixed up a side dish of cucumbers, cumin, and sour cream, and she probably prepared that right then to distract herself. “She ought not to call here. If she expects to talk to me—” The tops of her arms were shaking.

“You’re right. She shouldn’t harass you.” He leaned back and wondered when Stoyan would return from Vic Tanney’s, a local gym.

“Why didn’t you join him?”

He arched his back, sticking out his beer gut, hitting it with his fists as if it were a giant floor tom. “I like the way I look.” He laughed. “She thought we were—?” He looked up at her and then back into his cup of coffee. “Coffee’s the perfect drink, you know? It’s food in a cup.”

“You want me to freshen up your cup?”

“No.”

“You mean, because Stoyan’s not here, Tillie thought—?”

“Yes.” He sipped at his coffee. “I mean, I wouldn’t even think of it unless—”

“No.”

“Right.”

Anyway, that was it. That one overture, and the next afternoon Jack’s two bags were sitting on the front stoop, waiting for him.

I imagine Dad was not only furious but didn’t want to hear from Mom how the pass was but a vague drive-by quip. Dad didn’t see moral issues in shades of gray. It was all cut and dry. A man makes a pass at your wife; he’s no longer a friend. Maybe Mom, in defending Jack, mentioned how every morning construction workers whistled at her from the bus stop to her place of work or how dark-complected men with darker hair shouted their affections through open streetcar windows. Men are always on the make. “I should know.”

“Know what?”

“I see how you look at Lynn.”

“Lynn? Are you nuts? That girl sun tans way too much. Her skin’s darker than an unpeeled potato.”

Mom and Dad argued even more after Jack was gone. The phony truce between them was broken. They no longer minded their manners, and if I spilled juice at the table I got smacked pretty good.

Mom knew I needed to escape all that, so she often drove me away from the school to the early autumn of downtown Toronto, where we caught a matinee. I loved old films, the ones CBC would show on Fridays starring Bogart or Cagney, and I liked Woody Allen because he liked Bogart, and his films were funny. So we walked among the crisp gold and red leaves and later saw movies like Play it Again, Sam, Bananas, and Sleeper.

But on this particular day, two weeks after Jack left, Mom’s mood was off. She was eating a giant-sized hamburger from MacDonald’s and slurping back a soft drink that looked like a can of oil. Mom hated junk food. She offered me a fry and then the remains of her hamburger. “You want a bite?”

“No, thanks.”

She worried her right hand along the top of the steering wheel while speeding south on the Don Valley, grits of food sputtering from her lips. “Lynn’s a bitch. A real bitch.”

Mom never used that word. I stared out the passenger window, watching the guardrail posts zip by like plastic pegs on a Lite Brite board.

Just the previous weekend, I had returned from a soccer game to find Mrs. Casson catching one of her last tans of the season. It was getting too cool to keep it up much longer. Anyway, she asked me to rub suntan lotion on her lower back, reaching places she couldn’t. I lowered and rubbed between shoulder blades, down to her bra strap. Her shoulders weren’t tense at all. I had figured since she too was in a bad marriage, her back would feel all knotted up, but it was smooth.

“You don’t like school, huh?” The stiff fabric of the chaise muffled her voice.

“I do all right.”

“Stay with school.” I was too sensitive, too smart, to not become a college professor or something. Mrs. Casson also told me that she dropped out after tenth grade. She was chronically shy and would get “nervous bumps” in her stomach, or at least that’s how it felt.

“You were shy?”

“Surprised?”

“Yes.”

“Today I was looking into the sky and imagined myself dissolving into all that blue. Like an Alka-Seltzer tablet in a glass, you know? I know that image isn’t the prettiest, but that’s how I felt. Bubbles popping, hissing, and then no more.”

I quit kneading the lotion and sat closer to her, wanting to reassure her that the world would not be a better place without her, but I didn’t have the words and mumbled something about how there had to be something beyond darkness. Mrs. Casson didn’t think we ever died. From energy we came, and to energy we become. In the end we enter the cosmos as a pulsing force, providing the light of wisdom for others. “This I truly believe,” she said, and then she pictured a distant future, the two of us writing across a bone dry sky, sparking bubbles of hope for others.

And then she said I’m sorry, I talk too much, and her eyes were wet.

Breaking up homes.” Mom now stopped across the theater and yanked on the parking break.

Breaking up homes. I knew what that meant. My mom and I had watched a lot of Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis movies. “Mrs. Casson and Jack?”

“No, not Mrs. Casson and Jack. No!” She slapped the top of the steering wheel with the undersides of her hands.

The rest of the afternoon was surreal. “Let’s see some arty shit,” Mom announced. This was a woman who loved Ingmar Bergman, and now she was calling art cinema shit and eating hamburgers. Anyway, we watched a film, A Woman Under the Influence, directed by John Cassavetes, and it was bizarre for a thirteen-year-old to behold. It was nothing like the sitcoms or cop shows on mainstream TV. The protagonist, a lady who was a bit of a kookaboo (mentally unstable I would now call her), had all these shifts in moods and let the kids in her care run free and naked about her house. Her husband slapped her around, and she gets institutionalized for a time. Before they take her away, she sings to her husband—the Columbo guy—and his friends, and it’s real awkward and hard-bitten and strange as boundaries of the proper and improper break down. It was the most real experience I ever felt in a theater, for I was watching my own family’s histrionics (neuroses, I’d now call it) dancing across a sky of white.

 

 

You’d think after what I knew about Mrs. Casson and my father, I would never see her again, but life doesn’t always play to expectations. With autumn we no longer had weekday afternoons, but I found time on weekends to visit. Maybe I wanted answers, a direct apology, but I never asked her about the affair.

I never asked my father either.

To tell you the truth, I was a little jealous about what had happened between Mrs. Casson and my father. I know, it sounds like some goddamn Oedipal drama, but that wasn’t the issue. I didn’t want to sleep with Mrs. Casson, but our relationship was more than just a childhood crush or infatuation. Around her I was more myself than I was in the presence of my father (and my mother). With Mrs. Casson I felt an overwhelming sadness that I wanted to extinguish from both of us. 

Mom worried about me spending time at Mrs. Casson’s. She never said anything directly; it was all subtext: a downward look, a distracted shrug, a quick gasp of air. “Always about her looks with the damn sun tanning. Doesn’t she ever work?” Sometimes, I wondered if Dad had told Mom all about taking me to see the Playmates on the bachelor walls because Mom often placed Lynn within that landscape.

Anyway, my games with Mrs. Casson weren’t as spirited as they were before the affair and often took a downbeat turn. Our narratives were now about alienation, loneliness, and sadness. Our heroes lacked direction, shifting through settings. With no clear goals we drifted from one situation to another. On one afternoon we traveled to another planet and forgot all about returning to Earth. It just didn’t matter anymore. And she never did tap-dance again.

To counter her blue moods, I often suggested we do something funny, so we dusted off Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, and she was a very fastidious Felix, ad-libbing lines, complaining about the smell of burned leaves in my hair or how the tag to my Lees was sticking out above the denim. I liked playing Oscar.

“Don’t say the lines the way they’re written. Say them how you feel.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Words—they’re just suggestions.” She lit a cigarette. “How do you intersect with this character?”

I don’t know. I’m messy, I guess. Disorganized. I wanted to tell her that my writing was changing. What I scrawled on yellow legal pads were no longer parodies of Superman and the Lone Ranger. Instead, a sexual subtext was filling in at the edges of my sitcoms, including one about a liberal, single mother, a high school drama teacher, and her son, an NDP voter, sexually conservative, and recent graduate from the University of Toronto, who is struggling to find full-time employment and thus returns “home” to live with her. They fight about everything, especially her romances with younger men. The opening scene to the pilot begins with his unexpected arrival. Mom opens the door to find her son standing there, men’s briefs (not his own) dangling from his hand. “I guess some things never change,” he says. Years later, that opening scene evolved into my first produced play, Honest Goodbye.

So, unable to express what I wanted to tell her, I changed the subject. “How about you? How do you intersect with your character?”

She hesitated, playing with the delicate buttons on her blouse. “I don’t. I’m channeling Tony.” That was her husband.

I wanted to ask why he was never around, but kids don’t always feel like they have the right to ask such questions. So I just nodded my head like I understood, feeling the gap between me and adulthood was years away from closing.

 

 

 

The following spring, after the holidays, Mrs. Casson had moved to Burlington. Years later, I was working on a play, my fifth, set in 1964 about a World War II vet and drifter who works at the foundry and falls for a woman dying of Parkinson’s, when I heard that Lynn Casson had died from skin cancer. At her funeral were twenty or so people, including myself and Doris Frazier and her young son from a second marriage. The eulogy failed to bring alive any of Lynn’s complexities, her desperate need to be loved, to be understood. Afterward, I joined Doris for coffee and we rekindled Lynn stories and how one New Year’s Eve, dressed in a parka imported from Russia, Lynn danced in her backyard to Beatles tunes.

My father died of brain cancer last April.

I know nothing of Jack Tremblay’s life or whereabouts.

My mother experienced a stroke, two years ago Labor Day. Afterward she began reinventing her life, conjuring up new stories that didn’t jive with the past. For example, she’d brag to my wife how I was brought up in a “cultured” household, listening to the “classics”: Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Really? The beat of my childhood can be traced to the soundtrack of Easy Rider, the choogle of Credence Clearwater Revival, and the anxiety-laden depression of the Moody Blues’s Days of Future Past.

Just the other day, Mom told my oldest girl, Annie, that the large stuffed tiger sitting on top of Grandma’s dresser had been something she saved her allowance money up for a whole year and bought for $125.00 when she was fourteen. Again, really? Since I was eight, Mom told me Dad bought her that tiger during their honeymoon, New York City, 1956. Mom’s nickname for Dad was tiger. I guess the past gift must’ve felt like some residual hold over her that she wanted to be free of, so she revised history for a new narrative about frugality and patience.

These latter day revisions got me to thinking: What if my mother has always been revising stories? What if instead of just the imaginative wanderings of Lynn and me and the games we played on hot afternoons, Mom too was a fanciful storyteller?

“You never had much of a childhood, did you?” Doris said that afternoon we went out for coffee. What with all the fighting and tension and marital unhappiness, your mother said it made you retreating, distant from others, guarded. “I don’t know, I guess you were just born old, Gary.”

“That’s from a movie,” I said to change the subject, and then Doris told me that her husband had since passed, and Maurice was now a corporate lawyer out in Vancouver. Doris also said that she had beaten alcohol, and it showed: her face was much brighter, less pulled down with the weight of liquor. Then I told her about Mom’s failing health, misaligned stories about the tiger, and Lynn’s affair with my father in 1974. Doris nodded and solemnly reached for my hand, reciprocating in the way that one intimacy leads to another, telling me about Frances and Jack. My mother needed gentleness and appreciation and to be loved. Doris’s re-telling was vague, full of gaps, but the “day of the pass” went something like this:

“Can you believe that, my wife thought—?” Jack looked down at the scuffed marks on his shoes and shrugged.

 “Why not think that?” According to Doris, Frances tossed silverware into the sink, and it clattered like a thousand clacking marbles. What do people think of us anyway? My mother wondered. This family? She shook her head. Before Jack came to live with them, Stoyan often abused Fran and Gary with cruel shouts, upended furniture, and flourishes of anger, broken objects: plates, radios, curtain rods. Where had the tenderness gone?

And poor Gary—the repeated slaps to his face and words hurled upon his psyche had become such a dinnertime occurrence that the boy had started asking if he could eat in the living room, in front of the TV. He said it was to watch re-runs of Run for Your Life and Perry Mason, but Frances knew better. Even at school, Gary was skittish, unconnected to the other kids in his classroom. When he was five, Mrs. Salisbury and Principal Hamilton thought Gary might be mildly retarded, so he was sent to a special school for a week. Their findings? He’s fine. Get him a dog. A dog? No, he needed a family.  

Jack touched Frances’s shoulders and told her she was a great mom, and he’d talk to Stoyan and tell him to back off a little and not spend so much money throwing darts in a bar or chasing women at a track. He then graced the ends of her hair, sweeping some of it off her shoulders, and the sink was no longer crackling with silverware, and Frances wished the sound would return to pause her from kissing Jack.

“I’m a mess,” Jack said afterward. “Look at me.” He tousled his own hair. “I drink too much.” He might stop drinking for a woman like her, but he wouldn’t bet on it. He kissed her elbows and the tip of her shoulders and then the bridge of her nose. “I’ll talk to Stoyan.”

“Don’t bother,” she said, the sheet tight under her chin because she was a little embarrassed and shy over what had passed. “He won’t change.” She offered to make Jack a second cup of coffee.

“Sure,” he said.

Perhaps Jack was bitter at my mom’s eventual rejection of him and at Stoyan for never offering him a chance at clarification. But what was there to clarify really? Perhaps Jack just accepted it all; the same way Lynn accepted her loneliness.

I don’t know. It’s another story: Doris’s words being filtered through me. Is it a truth? Did Mom embellish for Doris or did Mom scale back for me?

Aw, hell. I’m probably just writing against the sky, the way Lynn always wanted me to. Maybe I’ll write a play about all this someday and like O’Neill and Long Day’s Journey have it published three years after I die. I don’t know. Perhaps Lynn’s with me now as I write these very words, guiding my hand, mourning for us all.

I like to think so anyway.

 

 

Grant Tracey teaches creative writing and film at the University of Northern Iowa and edits North American Review. He has published three collections of stories and recently had a play produced in Cedar Falls. Favorite film director: John Cassavetes; favorite film actor: James Cagney; favorite band: the Ramones; favorite comic book artist: Steve Ditko. Grant is not from New York City.