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tearing the rag off the bush again
Tell Me Again PDF E-mail

It was my turn to do the telling.

I told him his name, his former occupation, everything except the reason for his being there. You keep falling down, I told him, which was true enough.

The weather was very fine. He wanted to wear his best jacket over a pair of hiking shorts. I tried to argue at first. He’d walked right out of the hospital once but this was different. We walked so slowly my limbs wanted to scream, they did scream. Why are you so old? they shouted. The weather was very fine.

It was Sunday. We would walk as far as the park. In this park men used to play conga drums every July and August too, although August seemed as far as the entrance seemed now. He took me into an empty schoolroom once. You can cry but not in the street, he said and went on talking. In those days he parted his hair very far on the side. This was supposed to hide balding. He wore brown corduroy slacks, a loose jacket. He had learned upper class style by imitating and by shopping. But his stomach stuck out, his teeth were stained, he lost his temper in front of everybody. That was the year he quit smoking. You quit just like that, I reminded him now.

We were approaching the park. We’d been married for twelve years, divorced for almost as many. Our children were meeting us there. No restaurants, they’d said. Of course not.

I did?

You smoked three packs a day.

I was a chain smoker.

It’s impairing your memory functions, I said.

What?

A cloud passed and I let it go. No; a cloud didn’t pass. I just let it go, because they said to. They said, don’t bring it up. Turn his mind to other things.

You ran a school, I told him. Before that you taught at another school, Walden.

I was a French teacher.

That’s right, I said.

The French are cowards, he said.

He went to Frankfort-en-Mein in 1946. He caught tuberculosis from a Polish woman who hated Jews. It occurs to me that this might be only a story, an explanation. He came not from poverty but through the Depression into a different era. His father graduated from City College at nineteen and never did anything, he said. My father was a shipping clerk, my mother took bromides for her nerves, he used to say, meaning, Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You can become the hero of the story of our own life if only you tell it so.

I do it all with mirrors, he sometimes said.

Where is the restaurant? he asked now.

We aren’t going to a restaurant. We’re meeting the children.

The children!

The park was mildly crowded. A low metal chain gate, looping from low post to post, surrounded a grassy knoll. Since last I’d been here, someone had planted many bushes at the apex of this knoll. Although they were plants they put one in mind of humanity. They were huddling together or preparing for take-off into some other world where hedges rule.

You realized how bad smoking was for your health, and you quit, I said.

It wasn’t for moralistic reasons.

You were a libertarian, I said.

I
am a libertarian.

A cloud floated overhead. That’s not right, excuse me; the sky was very blue.

Look, he said. He pointed. His arm lifted. His face broke into a wide smile. His eyeglasses had been haphazardly repaired. There was a baby in a carriage. He loved babies. He loved babies’ mothers and fathers and the anxiety family provokes. He liked to cure people of it. Our grown children were walking toward us. I say our children but Emma, the eldest, had chosen not to be adopted by him, and he had a daughter by another marriage, the daughter who died. The winter she died he would leave the dinner table and go into the bathroom and weep. At night he would wander the apartment.

If Aristotle were correct, and literature is the soul’s striving higher, a lot of books wouldn’t get written. Perhaps Aristotle was right in his time.

People tell their life stories again and again until the shape suffices. Some people have the gift of storytelling. My aunt Nancy turns everything, a lost check, a barking dog, into a hilarious story. Her nostrils flare, her head flounces. At sixty, she tends to her husband, my uncle for whom we pray in shul. I told my uncle and he looked embarrassed. He was once a Freedom Fighter in Mississippi. They have two sons, a doctor and a financial analyst. The analyst works with public school systems, helps them to understand and plan for the future.

I’m starving, he said.

I’ll get you a muffin, I said. How about an egg sandwich.

But he was restless. He didn’t want to stay in the park. The children wouldn’t tell him the name of a restaurant. No, no. In the end he tried to stalk off but stumbled. He was getting very angry. We took his shaking arm. Look, he said, a horse. We turned. In the hospital, the first time, he looked across the harbor at a giant trestle and said:It is a horse. He was delirious but he was also speaking in metaphor. When the doctor asked him, Where are you?he said, A kind of church or bank. He lives in a renovated church, I explained. Where are you? the doctors kept asking. Somewhere between purgatory and damnation, he snarled. He could crack a joke but he couldn’t find his way home. Did you have a job?What job?I was a teacher, he said. How many children do you have?That question stumped him every time.

The horse was very fine. It stood at least sixteen hands high and proud. It had forelocks, withers, a blaze of white above its long thin muzzle. Muzzle didn’t seem the right word for that part of a horse’s body. We thought for a long while. How about apricot, he said.

We laughed. Our youngest leaned in. Are we there yet?she asked, as if we were riding in a car. I say grown children but she wasn’t, quite.

Our son wiped his eyes.

Emma shook her limbs all over like a horse.

I want to go there, he said. Why won’t anyone tell me?

The sky grew darker.

No; the sky had not grown darker in the least; it was a gorgeous day; we were taking him out for a post-breakfast stroll; we had promised to return him in good condition; he wasn’t listening. Careful, I said because I wanted something to say. Come on, come on, he said, ushering us into the street. He never could let people just cross streets. He had to help them to safety. Streetwalking is a key to a person’s nature. If a person jaywalks, head high, his father probably said to him, Our kind don’t run, they walk. We had reached the opposite curb by the time it started to rain. It rained so much that day the cats were swimming in the gutters, the birds flew off to Africa. No. We had reached the opposite curb; the weather was splendid; we had never seen such an April morning; there would never be such a morning again.

 
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