I was standing on the elevated platform at Boyd Avenue, waiting for a Manhattan-bound train. This was several hours before my mother’s service. I’d dressed to attend. Two-tone English brogues, a charcoal suit, a black slicker. I don’t think anyone calls them slickers anymore. It was raining. The rain was panging the tin overhang so hard I couldn’t hear the traffic below. It’s all very clear now, down to the dander on my shoulders. I’d paid my fare, but it wasn’t too late. I could still pivot, push back through the turnstile, and walk up the avenue, into the funeral parlor.
There’s peace in any structure when it isn’t serving its function. A public school on a Saturday. A museum after hours.
This may sound odd, but I’d grown up in that parlor. My father owned it. There’s peace in any structure when it isn’t serving its function. A public school on a Saturday. A museum after hours. Summer and winter breaks, I’d accompany my father to work. In the morning, he’d set up in his office, worrying over stacks of envelopes and invoices. He’d give me a nickel to dust the mourners’ chairs though he had a cleaning woman on the payroll. More than anything, my father wanted to be left alone.
At the end of the lobby was a hallway that formed a large square with doors on either side. The more expensive rooms were to the left, the less expensive to the right. Less expensive because they weren’t true rooms, but rather partitioned-off areas of what used to be a large warehouse. You could hear people grieving other deaths through the drywall. Each space had some unique detail—a piece of stained glass hung against a wall sconce in one, an embroidered (by my mother) tapestry in another—but on the whole they were very much the same: overly beige, overly neutral, overly nondescript. Like hotel conference rooms, only faded and washed out. For a touch of class, my father named them. You could launch your loved ones into eternity from The Napoleon, The Mayflower, The Atlantic.
Each morning, I would dust the rooms in a different order. The room I ended on would be the one where I’d spend the rest of the day drawing. I drew in a hard-backed, 8x11 book. The kind mourners sign. My father had given me a blank and a box of pencils with the name of the parlor spelled incorrectly down the sides. I drew sitting on the platform built for caskets. The rooms had no windows and the lighting was best there. I drew characters from books my mother had given me, books I was far too young to be reading. Of Human Bondage was one. I remember drawing pages and pages of clubbed feet. I didn’t know then that I would become an artist. I had no professional vision whatsoever. All I wanted at the time was to run away. If books taught me anything, it’s that no one who’s interesting stays at home.
A half-dozen years later, standing on the Boyd Avenue platform, I was still looking to run. I must have been reading Baudelaire around that time. When he was twenty, his stepfather tried to send him to Calcutta. The moral for me was that sometimes it’s right to break family ties. Now that my family was just my father, I was more certain than ever that I didn’t want to be a part of it. I don’t feel this anger now, but looking back I can honor it.
Brandon pissed in a stairwell. Larry set fire to the American flag. We spilled buckets of paint across the auditorium stage, emptied filing cabinets, stomped, and spat on the papers. We filled the gym teacher’s dress shoes with packets of liquid cheese.
Spring of my junior year, two other boys and I vandalized our school. It was early evening and light out. We found an open side door. Brandon pissed in a stairwell. Larry set fire to the American flag. We spilled buckets of paint across the auditorium stage, emptied filing cabinets, stomped, and spat on the papers. We filled the gym teacher’s dress shoes with packets of liquid cheese. We tore pages from books, broke their spines. Everywhere we went, nothing was locked. No one was there.
Despite our pact, Brandon confessed. We were suspended and required to a see a counselor. They sent me, at my father’s expense, to a shrink on the Upper West Side. She had a Star Trek–themed office. Her desk lamp was a replica of the Enterprise with light emanating from its belly. She kept collector plates with portraits of the ship’s crew mounted on the walls. Maybe she thought this would appeal to adolescents; I believe I was at the older end of her clientele. In any case, she was unorthodox. During our first session she stopped to order takeout. She wore jeans and looked like she’d slept in her armchair. But it was all purposeful. The fate of the world did not rest on what I or anyone else said in that room.
She never once mentioned the incident that brought me there. Instead, she asked for my earliest memory. Again and again she said, No, there’s something earlier. She had me close my eyes. Somehow, she dug up an apartment I’d forgotten we’d lived in. She had me walk her through it. There was an island separating the kitchen and living room. There was a grill on a balcony that looked onto an empty lot. There was a cubbyhole built into a wall in my room. Sometimes I would climb in and close the door. Nights, I’d orchestrate journeys for my stuffed animals. They were seafarers. The monkey I liked least was always getting captured by some vague enemy. The narratives were all flight and rescue.
I had one very specific memory from this apartment with the balcony and cubbyhole. It was late at night. My mother had started smoking again. As part of my adventure skill set, I’d taught myself to pick household locks with a hairpin. I couldn’t have been older than five or six. The phone rang. My mother left a cigarette burning in the bathroom, balanced on the edge of the sink. I locked the bathroom door from the outside, then snuck back to bed. My mother was twenty-ish, alone. I don’t know where my father was; I couldn’t conjure a single image of him in that apartment. When I came back out of my room, my mother was sobbing, slumped against a wall. She kept crying long after I’d opened the lock and returned to bed.
Over the course of our sessions, the shrink worked me from that apartment up to the present. She drew out patterns I hadn’t recognized before. My parents compared themselves to their parents. My father’s father, they said, was incapable of affection. My mother’s mother lost interest in children once they could talk. I was lucky to have parents who loved me. For seventeen years, I’d taken them at their word. The truth is, they were, both of them, embittered versions of their parents. I wasn’t angry at them for their faults. I wasn’t angry at them for lying to me, because they had lied to themselves first. I was angry at them for having me. For not being extraordinary enough to imagine something different for themselves. They were brilliant, both of them. My mother had endless energy and could be quite charismatic when her mood allowed it. My father was a gifted man. He spoke multiple languages, played multiple instruments. He’d memorized reams of Faulkner. Like everything else that was wrong with him, he’d inherited the parlor from his father.
I left therapy determined, though my determination had no positive focus. I was determined not to be something, but even that “something” was vague. Ordinary, maybe? I developed a knack for inventing deathbed epiphanies. Everyone I came into contact with—mail carriers, schoolmates, teachers, cafeteria workers, store clerks, bus drivers, neighbors, strangers walking their dogs—I imagined bleeding out or suffocating or just shutting their eyes. Always, in that last moment, there was the same realization: the words they’d tried to inhabit—community, family, home, love—were red herrings. Traps they’d been too average to avoid.
My father understood this too. In many ways, we had similar dispositions. Nights, he would shut himself up in the bedroom drinking port and listening to tapes of foreign radio. He loved language, loved music, loved literature. He had a deep interest in everything people produced, but almost no interest in people themselves. He loved history, but paid no attention to current events. He saw a similar bent in me. He was planning to open a second parlor in Maspeth. He meant for me to run it. If I joined the family business, I’d be validating his path; if I didn’t, he’d be forced, through me, to imagine what else he might have been. The shrink taught me to be cynical where my parents were concerned. I feel more compassion than cynicism now, but I still believe my reading was accurate: if he were able to recreate himself in me, then he’d know that his life couldn’t have unfolded any other way.
My present to myself for my eighteenth birthday was a passport. I visited every job board at every embassy on the island of Manhattan. A language school in Rabat was looking for an English teacher. It was 1979; the ability to sit upright and talk with an American accent was qualification enough.
It happened that the school’s director was in New York, trying to orchestrate some kind of student exchange with another private school. I met him at a cafe in the West Village. He was young, maybe thirty. He was dressed casually, but was very neat, with everything tucked in and buttoned, in pastel colors. He would have fit in anywhere but the West Village.
He talked about Moorish architecture, about the desert to the south where birds dropped from the noon sky, dead of heat stroke. He said it would be best to declare myself a Christian, because while Muslims distrusted Christians, they looked on atheism as a moral disease. He described the other teachers: all of them poets, painters, linguists, musicologists. He said Rabat was rapidly becoming what Paris had been early in the century. We talked about everything but teaching. I found him very persuasive, but then I had every intention of being persuaded. The Sheltering Sky had just been reissued. I saw myself apprenticed to Paul Bowles. I was already worried that he wouldn’t like me.
I planned to tell my father first. I sat for a while in the lobby of our building, rehearsing. I would be blunt. My parents would be angry, disappointed, but they were, especially my father, too passive and ineffectual to stop me. Still, I hesitated before I got on the elevator, hesitated again before I opened the apartment door.
I checked the bathroom, their bedroom, my bedroom, the fire escape off the kitchen where he sometimes liked to sit by himself in the evening, drinking and reading with his back to the window. I even looked in the closets. No father, no mother, no note.
It was a little past supper time. My parents ate at the same hour every day, Polish-American cuisine, everything fried or boiled. Stepping into the apartment, I felt no humidity, noticed no scent of cabbage or potato, no clattering dishes or running water. The lights were out in the foyer, the kitchen. In the living room, the television ran in the dark, the volume spun low. I remember the image on the screen: a close up of a news anchor’s face cut by jagged lines of static. An uncorked bottle of wine—no glass—and a half-eaten circle of Camembert lay on the coffee table. I called for my father. No answer. My first thought was that he and my mother had argued over his drinking. I would discover him slumped somewhere in the recesses of the apartment, saliva bubbling from his lips. I checked the bathroom, their bedroom, my bedroom, the fire escape off the kitchen where he sometimes liked to sit by himself in the evening, drinking and reading with his back to the window. I even looked in the closets. No father, no mother, no note.
This had never happened before. I didn’t know what to do, what was required of me. I sat on the couch, bit off a hunk of Camembert, took a swallow of wine and re-corked the bottle. The woman who lived above us was vacuuming. I raised the volume on the television. My body and mind seemed miles apart. Physically, I felt limber, weightless, as if I had just exited the sauna after a perfectly modulated workout, but my mind was moving very quickly, as though it were two minds, each talking over the other. I had no doubt that either my mother or father was dead, and I knew, suddenly and unequivocally, that Rabat had been a child’s whim, a machination that would never see the light. I sat with my feet on the coffee table, eating cheese and flipping channels, not landing on any one in particular, feeling stimulated by the movement, the flashes of color.
It was late, maybe one in the morning before my father turned up. As I watched him listing through the foyer, I thought: He killed her. Part of me hoped it was true. I’ve always wanted to have a big life. But she had died in a car accident on the Gowanus Bridge, on her way to consult a divorce attorney. A week later, we received a bill for the missed appointment. My father never said so, but I’m sure they made him identify the body. Despite his profession, my father had a very soft stomach. Mention a disease or a symptom and he’d cross his legs. He told me later that a priest put an arm around his shoulder, said, Mr. Anderson, people die far younger than forty-two. My father joked in a very bitter way about using that line at the parlor. It didn’t help that the priest had her age wrong.
The fact that my father took so long to tell me confirmed a vague and persistent feeling that I was a spectator in the family. Or maybe a specter. He didn’t have to tell me that my mother died because it didn’t concern me. I wasn’t real. Of course, I understand it differently now. My father, like many chronic introverts, appeared, possibly even to himself, not to feel the world. In truth, he felt life more keenly than most people. He must have put a good deal of weight on how he told me. It had to be in person. The words would be important—the most important words he’d ever spoken. He must have decided to sit with a drink while he composed them. He may even have asked the bartender for a pencil and a clean napkin. But the glass was empty before he’d shaped the first phrase. He ordered another. His wife had died hours before. He had a right. My father was a coward. I don’t mean that to be cutting. Courage isn’t a quality people choose for themselves.
By the time he made it home, he had almost no words at all. Your mother is dead, he told me. He muttered it over and over, then fell face-down on the couch. I turned his head so he wouldn’t suffocate. His clothes and breath stunk of whiskey and tobacco. I stood over him. I felt deflated where before I had felt exhilarated. My father was alone in the world. In the following days, people from the neighborhood brought him groceries. They said, if you need anything, anything at all… But my parents had never once that I could remember had anyone over for dinner. They didn’t go out on weekends. They were, both of them, what I am now: only children whose parents died young.
In the days following my mother’s accident, I thought I felt nothing. I prided myself on it. I hadn’t loved my mother when she was alive, I wouldn’t mourn her now that she was dead. In fact, I was better off. I went further: she was better off herself. I don’t know of any diagnosis, but I’m certain she was mentally ill. The upswings seemed to be losing out. The pockets of rational thought were fewer and farther between. How she reacted to the external world had less and less to do with actual happenings. Her last winter, our apartment developed a pervasive cockroach problem. She decided I was to blame. I was slovenly. I let my dishes putrefy (her word) in the sink. Afternoons, I would come home from school to find cockroach corpses scattered across my bedding. With her death, a great obstacle to my happiness had been lifted. This is what I told myself, but beneath that was something more sinister. A helplessness. A feeling that it was impossible to be an agent in my own existence, that my actions would ultimately have no effect on the course of my life.
The morning of my mother’s service, I woke early, saw that my father’s bedroom door was open, his bed unmade. He wasn’t in the kitchen, wasn’t in the bathroom, wasn’t watching the morning news. I found him on the steps to our building, surrounded by children, all boys, the smallest camped on his lap, the oldest—maybe eight or nine—standing off to the side, looking bemused. My father had his wallet in one hand, an ornate silver flask in the other. He was laughing—deep bursts that came in triplets. Now and again he’d pat a child’s head, muss his hair. There was a full morning’s worth of cigar butts extinguished on the concrete around him. The boys had their school bags and lunch pails. I ought to have shooed them away. I ought to have taken his wallet from him. Instead, I walked past, kept going when he called after me. I heard him say, That’s my son. Isn’t he tall? Someday you’ll be tall like him.
I ate breakfast at the counter of an Italian pastry shop a few blocks from our building. Cappuccino with a minim of foam, a half-dozen St. Joseph’s pastries, each with a different filling. I wanted, years later, to be able to say with certainty what I’d eaten that morning.
When I got back, the stoop was clear. My father had found his way onto the couch, or maybe the building super had deposited him there. He lay on his back, head lolling on one armrest, knees folded over the other. I felt his snoring through my shoes. He hadn’t shaved, hadn’t washed. Maybe not since she died.
I changed into my work clothes, the same charcoal suit and black tie I wore to the parlor on weekends when I’d steer the grieving towards the appropriate casket. It took me three tries to knot the tie. The jacket was in bad need of pressing. I stood over the ironing board, mentally listing who, besides my father’s staff, might be there. There were my mother’s acquaintances: members of her knitting group, neighbors from the laundry room and the supermarket, women she gossiped with and about. There was the psychiatrist she saw for a while but broke with when he tried to prescribe medication.
What about me? Would anyone be there on my behalf? It was strange to think in those terms. This was the summer after my senior year; if I’d been in school, my classmates might have felt obliged to go. But now? At graduation, which my mother forced me to attend, I thought, I will never see these people again. I’d known a core of them since I was six or seven, yet at the time I felt no nostalgia or regret. Some I looked on as tormentors, most as dullards. Over the years, a handful of the tormentors had become dullards, but beyond that nothing changed. There was, to be fair, a small minority of whom I felt in awe. There was a classical musician. A violinist. Julliard kept a spot for her on reserve. She practiced morning and night. In between, she had a mind for science that embarrassed our teachers. I used to lie in bed and imagine her giving concerts just for me. But I never once approached her. She inspired the worst kind of self-loathing in me. Worse than the tormentors. My mother’s death had turned a spotlight on my isolation. With the exception of my father, the relationships I’d grown up in were over. My mother’s wake would be populated with strangers, people who couldn’t bear the thought of no one going at all. In my father’s absence, I would be her only kin. There was nothing in it for me but humiliation.
I imagined them now: narrow streets festooned with laundry lines, cabals of old men gabbling in front of bodegas, school kids—all of whom suddenly seemed much younger than me—cluttering the sidewalks.
Still, I started for the parlor. I’d polished my shoes, put gel in my hair: habits my mother had always wanted me to form and I had always resisted. Walking down the street, I felt conspicuous, as though people were sniggering at my gleaming head and feet. But then it occurred to me that the sidewalks were empty. It was a weekday, late morning, but still it was odd: I’ve always marveled at how many people in this city don’t have day jobs. It was as if I’d stepped into a de Chirico painting. In fact, I felt very much as though I were trapped inside a painting. I was walking quickly but the landscape, a landscape I’d known my entire life, wasn’t changing. I knew there was a pharmacy on the next corner, but it wasn’t coming into view. For the first time in my young life, I couldn’t convince myself that I was awake. I don’t mean that figuratively, though I didn’t believe I was asleep, either. It was as if my brain had thrown up the images around me to block out the world that other people saw. Almost immediately, I thought: this is why my father drinks. It wasn’t pure cowardice, as my mother had insisted; it was a way of relaxing into the state of consciousness I was now experiencing, of going with it instead of against it. My father had lived a life that wasn’t his: parents, job, city, wife, child—none of it fit him. This was one more thing we had in common. My mother’s funeral would be the culminating moment of a youth that wasn’t mine. I thought again of the neighborhood faces—women who strode the avenue in curlers, men with the kind of misshapen bodies that come from a lifetime of heavy lifting and fried meat. They were salt of the earth, ancestors of the first generation to move to the cities. I couldn’t think the way they thought. I couldn’t value what they valued. They weren’t real to me, and I’m sure I wasn’t real to them. Neither was my mother. They would be there because my mother had spent time in their presence, because their code instructed them to send off the dead, but the ceremony could only devolve into spectacle because, as people who never understood her, there was no way for them to be anything but an audience. It wasn’t a question of inferior or superior, better or worse: we were the ones who didn’t belong.
Of course, there were other ways to look at it. They were evincing a kindness. Their principles were received, but they were principles nonetheless. In all likelihood, they were closer to goodness than I’d ever be. If I’d been able to shake the feeling of unreality, then these other perspectives might have won out. Instead, I continued shambling forward through streets that seemed both to exist and not exist. I had no plan. No conscious plan. I’m not sure how I arrived at the platform. I remember bumming a cigarette off a man carrying a toy poodle with a cast on one paw. I’d never smoked before. I couldn’t figure out how, physically, to draw the smoke into my lungs.
Trains came and went. I walked further up the platform, peered through a gimlet hole in the corrugated tin wall. Except for a church spire and the tower on the fire department, the platform itself was the tallest structure until the hills of Forest Park.
Trains came and went. I walked further up the platform, peered through a gimlet hole in the corrugated tin wall. Except for a church spire and the tower on the fire department, the platform itself was the tallest structure until the hills of Forest Park. Facing south, the neighborhood was a dense grid of houses, the roofs all uniform in shape, the tar looking as though it had been tamped down by mammoth human palms. A few backyards featured grape vines, signs that an older generation still lived there, people who remembered, dimly, when the surrounding acreage was farm land. I looked at my watch. Soon the decision wouldn’t be mine. I mean the decision to attend or not attend my mother’s funeral.
I boarded a train. My final memories before the clinic are of that ride. I remember looking out at the station plaques—Euclid, Grant, Hoyt—a succession of names I knew by heart though I had never set foot above ground in any of these neighborhoods. I imagined them now: narrow streets festooned with laundry lines, cabals of old men gabbling in front of bodegas, school kids—all of whom suddenly seemed much younger than me—cluttering the sidewalks. Nothing too inventive, but the world became a bit more real with each stop, until I was certain that, were I to return, I would find exactly what I’d pictured.