ArchivesSite MapSubmitOur GangHot Sites
tearing the rag off the bush again
Normal & Thin: Two Stories by Laurie Stone PDF E-mail

When I come home, there are six police cars outside. Things will be out in the open, now. I am 15, and I have not enjoyed clarinet practice today, because, let’s face it, I will never be a Benny Goodman, and in my family it’s all or nothing.

Mom is applying lipstick in the bedroom when Dad finds something wrong with her. She’s mulling over breakfast, maybe thinking the scrambled eggs turned out too soft. He likes them firm. He notices a drifty, thoughtful expression in her eyes, so he picks up the nearest thing and smashes her face with the phone. There’s a sickening crunch, and her teeth ping off the glass top of the vanity. Her mouth is open and red is streaming out, and he’s afraid he’ll be burned, so he gets a hammer and bashes her skull. She’s lying across the vanity, her lipsticks toppled over like toy soldiers, and he’s about to finish her off when he notices my brother in the door. My 14-year-old brother has broken into his parents’ bedroom, and my father hears the “uh oh” voice in his head and runs.

By the time I get home, my father’s sisters are outside, and they say, “Madeleine, you don’t want to go in the house.” But I do. I want to remember where I come from. They drive me to a Burger King where my brother is waiting, and I sit across from him and look into his large, brown eyes, which are the same shape and color as our father’s. They seem to be slipping down his face, and I want to catch them like little fish. I want to lick the ketchup off his top lip, which looks gory and clownish. “Someday we’ll laugh about this,” I say, because laughing is what we do when we don’t know what to say. We laugh out of embarrassment and because extravagance is our inheritance.

“I can laugh about it, now,” my brother says, the corners of his mouth curling up. “I mean, we live in a big house and go to a nice, quiet school, but our father tried to kill our mother, and he almost got it done. Nothing happened to set him off. It was a normal day.”

This is true. Normal for us is bleak and terrifying, and I begin to slide into self-pity but push it away. If this is our normal, what else, really, do we know? However much we’ve been marked by our experiences, the deed is done and we can only be who we are. My brother seems to have matured over night. Just yesterday at band practice, he shook his head like Ringo Starr and tickled Jennie Mitchell’s neck with a drum stick and chased her around when she tried to grab it away. Now, it seems we are orphans and that my brother is the older one. Watching him eat his Whopper, I feel hope in the way that condemned people enjoy a final meal. We are Hansel and Gretel, picking our way through the forest. We will say that our parents went mountain climbing and disappeared in an avalanche or fell over a cliff, and the thought of never seeing them at opposite ends of the table, planning our lives, is light past a thicket of trees.

What I can’t erase is the expression my mother wears as my father boasts of his business deals—then wrings his hands worrying his trust is misplaced. He is self-made, up from the streets of Brooklyn, and if he loses his money, who is he? My mother listens with a look of surpassing boredom that makes it seem a pod person or a zombie has taken up residence in her body. Such is marriage, for better or worse. I feel a chill. Why don’t I feel worse for her?

Active Image

A few weeks later on Yom Kippur, my brother and I visit our father in the hospital in New York City. He’s on a bed, a mountain on a prairie—seemingly at rest but quietly stirring. I stare at the soles of his enormous feet, and I can see how he needs them for ballast. In order to avoid jail, he has walked into a mental hospital and given himself up. He’s crazy. No one is going to argue about that, and I think this calculation is brilliant, in that it suggests he is also sane. I feel a sense of family pride sneak back in. Unavoidable.

Our father is piecing himself together in one bed while our mother lies stitched up in another. She is going to live, even though her skull has been cracked. She is going to allow our father to return home, and she will not press charges. We don’t find this surprising, and I don’t wonder how my father will live with what he’s done. My parents will stay together because in their imaginations something is worse than what has already happened. Every pot has its lid, the saying goes, and inside every pot sit the children. My mother isn’t all that great at protecting her young if you use the lion for comparison.

Our father rises from his bed like a golem and says he needs to atone. This is his plan for the day, and one day is all he can manage. He’s a Jew, and it’s Yom Kippur, and he wants to take his kids to shul. He has been raised as a Jew, and he needs to pray and confess his crime. He needs to have his kids beside him, especially his boy. He needs to see something in his son’s eyes beside the smirk of amusement my brother has worn since he witnessed the open melon of our mother’s head. I try to imagine living past the experience of war and the spectacle of a mass grave of murdered corpses, something like that. I feel I should have these images in my head from now on, but I laugh at my father, asking forgiveness from a God he doesn’t believe in.

My father doesn’t look at me. This is normal. I’m not that visible. I scatter when he approaches or stand my ground and disappear in my head like an animal into a tree. On the street, other families pass us in slow motion. In terms of mood, they don’t look that different from us, and I wonder how we appear to them, a trio of giants with our heads in the clouds. I remember my father lifting me up when I was little, high above him, and I would look into his soft eyes, safe beneath his bulk. The light in those eyes has gone out either from the drugs he has taken in the hospital or the chemicals in his brain. He is at the mercy of his brain, the doctors have explained, and I try to understand this. He is poisoned by his brain as if by a bad piece of fish. For my mother I have one question: How will you share your life with your murderer? Am I about to do the same thing?

My father asks if we’re hungry, even though it’s Yom Kippur—the day when you are supposed to abstain from food. He smiles sheepishly, and I feel that if there are to be any consequences in life I am going to have to impose them. I wonder what my first rule should be, and I think: Don’t fall asleep. We find a street vendor selling soft pretzels, and my father buys three, and as he offers one to me, wrapped in waxed paper, he strokes my cheek. I remain in place, as I have trained myself to do, not wanting to anger or disappoint him, and I feel the soft pads of his fingertips against my skin, and they feel good, even as I wonder if he will erase my features and leave a blank where my face has been.

My father looks pained, maybe by the terror I reflect, or maybe I am smiling at the way he is encouraging us to eat rather than fast. Should I kill him? Suburban dad goes berserk with hammer. Daughter murders father.

I crunch the salt of my pretzel, wondering what I should atone for, and I think, this moment—the way I am already turning it into a story. I need to go on telling it, if only to myself, as if in this way I can make reparations for the fact of us. My brother pulls off pieces of pretzel and shoves them in his mouth, oblivious to the lawlessness of our acts or else sinking into it. My father looks ahead, sad and hungry as usual. And this is how we come to be walking on upper Broadway, my brother and I and our resurrected dad, this is how we came to be looking for a shul that will admit us to Yom Kippur service without tickets.


When Dan called things off, I flew to California to give readings and stay in the house of a sadomasochist my friend Ruby was dating. I was thin and wondered how long it would last. Ruby arranged my bookings and housing. She was a good friend, although she once told me we had the same ferrety, Jewish faces. I was a little insulted by the comparison, although after that, whenever I looked in the mirror, I could see what she meant. I read at Beyond Baroque with a fiction writer who gave me a sweater for my birthday. It had a collar made of feathers, and I wore it for the softness. I hadn’t eaten much during the time I was with Dan because I was always worried he wouldn’t show up.

The sadomasochist went by the name Jaz. He was small and fretful with a closely cropped head and sad eyes. Ruby had met him online, and he lived in a house behind another house that faced the street. One of the rooms was locked, and I imagined it contained a dungeon, although it could as easily have been where he tossed his dirty clothes. The dungeon came to mind because I usually found such environments exciting, but now they reminded me too much of my relationship with Dan. I rented a car at the airport, and when I arrived at Jaz’s place he drilled me on the care of his belongings and cat. Like I was supposed to feel grateful for his sullen house and chipped plates! I thought I must have brought this on myself.

Ruby was in love with the sexual things Jaz did with her, but in time she found them comical. “Perhaps the drive to hurt the body always turned people on and religion and sacrifice were invented so we could keep doing it,” she said. This idea appealed to me because it made sex seem like something you weren’t responsible for. I was not at the laughing stage about Dan. I was still too attracted to him, or something. Jaz asked me to drive him to the airport. He was jittery in the car, not sexual or scary, and it felt like catching a magician out of costume. He taught people to make self-promotional videos in order to score job interviews. He was off to give a workshop in Texas. In the mornings, I’d tune in the financial news on his enormous TV and watch the numbers scroll along as if they were on their way to some place important. Most days, I had no destination, and Los Angeles was a good place for this, since I didn’t know how to drive from point A to point B.

At my last meeting with Dan, he came to my apartment with the things I’d given him. “Keep them,” I said, although I now miss my mug from the Soho Grand Hotel. I spent so much time looking at the ways he couldn’t love me, it was a job.

After Jaz returned from his trip, I stayed with Ruby in her stucco cottage perched on a hill that was slowly slipping to the road below. A glass wall looked out to a patio blooming with oleander and bougainvillea bushes. I slept in the little guest house lower down the slope where Jaz had once instructed Ruby to wait for him on her knees, naked over a bowl of ice cubes. He was driving to see her and wanted to imagine her in readiness, as if she had nothing better to do. Ruby was accommodating. It was one of the reasons I liked her, too. She was one of those people whose desires and personality were a good fit. We sat on her white bed, and she said that time was long and grief was like tricking with a stranger. This wasn’t my experience with grief, but I listened to her anyway. She said work was the center of our lives—that was the kind of women we were. I could feel the house slipping. Something was moving, and I saw that the loss of Dan was bigger than our relationship had been. Ruby said that love was Midsummer Night’s Dream; your demon lover always turned out to be an ass. I didn’t believe this in every case, but her words moved across me like affection and as her gaze rested softly on my red, puffy eyes I began to feel like eating.
< Prev   Next >