I could just as easily begin this account in a more overtly momentous year: 1994-the year of my father's failed campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. 1996-the year the twins were born. 1997-my mother's last year on earth. But in a way that's difficult to articulate, those final months of that first year of the brand-new millennium marked a culmination of all those things. In memory, the intervening years seem a sort of holding pattern, after the dust had settled on significant events, but before life cranked back up again in earnest. Though there was hardly an hour door to door between Ted's new house and our old place on Mohawk Street, I couldn't help imagining my father and my brother faced off across Mobile Bay like distant nations on the brink of war.
* * *
So it was under these circumstances that I found myself pitching horseshoes with my father on the last Wednesday in November. It was early evening, unseasonably warm even for lower Alabama, light melting down through the branches of the trees. I watched Dad draw back, slowly, slowly, watched him let a horseshoe fly, watched the horseshoe catch an edge and cartwheel past the stake.
In a discouraged voice, he said, "What are we playing to again?"
The ground was littered with fallen leaves, brown and brittle, all curled in upon themselves. I thought maybe I should rake tomorrow, wondered if he'd raked at all this year.
"Eleven," I said.
"I used to be good at this." He rubbed his eyes, gazed over the chain link fence. There was a little yellow house back there, an old woman puttering on her back porch. "We'll visit your mother in the morning," Dad said, meaning her grave.
We walked the length of the pit, toeing the ground in search of wayward horseshoes. The leaves were that deep. Down in the mulchy yellow grass, I spotted the ID tag from a pet collar. The lettering had weathered off. I showed him what I'd found but he just shrugged.
"It's five o'clock," he said. "I need a drink."
And he trudged off toward the house without another word. I sat on the ground to wait for him, rubbed the ID tag between my fingers. You could hardly feel the traces of engraving there. Hardy the Lab, Mullet the mutt, Salmon P. Chase the cat. The long-gone pets of my youth. It was hard to believe the tag could have belonged to any of them, could have remained undiscovered in the backyard all that time. My father drove those horseshoe stakes when I was nine years old. That was nearly a quarter century ago.
Behind me, I heard a woman calling, "Allo-o." There was plenty of French accent in her voice. "Ooo is that I see?"
I stood and faced the voice and saw the old woman closing fast from her side of the fence.
"You must be the son," she said. "Ted, no?"
I told her, "I'm the other one," and I would have sworn she looked disappointed. She was my father's age, maybe a little younger. It was hard to tell. She wore her hair in a silver-blond pageboy and her features were all pinched together in the middle of her face.
"Frank," I said.
The woman extended her hand. Her fingers were limp and knotty in mine.
"Madame Langlois. I am you father's neighbor." She pointed behind her at the little yellow house. "You look like your father very much."
"He's inside," I said.
Madame Langlois fingered the collar of her turtleneck, a gesture made girlish by the tilt of her head and by the fact that her nails were painted prom-dress pink. "Your father, he is a good man." Her accent was like something from the movies, all bouncy pitch and rounded vowels, her S's edged with Z's. "There are not so many like him willing to dedicate themselves to-how you say?-public service." She bobbed her head to underscore the words.
What she said was true. My father was a twelve-term city councilman, an important man in his way, dedicated, locally connected. There were photographs of him with Jimmy Carter, with Mike Dukakis, with Bill Clinton hanging in the room we had always called his "den." The Clinton photo was taken in 1994, the year Dad ran for Congress. The president was in town stumping for local Democrats. Likely his endorsement hurt more than it helped in this part of the world.
* * *
Mohawk Street was located in an older part of the city known simply and practically as Midtown-halfway between the bars and the business district and the shipyards down near where the river met the bay and on the other side, the more upscale neighborhoods in west Mobile, the country club, the private schools and so on. My father moved us there when I was six years old in an effort to expose his sons to more diversity. To an old Southern liberal like my father, diversity meant black people, and he wanted to see his boys riding bikes and playing ball with a more colorful group than was handy in west Mobile. Much to his dismay, however, lots of well-intentioned white folk had the same idea and the neighborhood began to gentrify around us almost as soon as we moved in, new paint glistening on the shotgun houses and Creole cottages, contractors banging away all day long, landscapers' trucks parked along the curb. The net effect was to drive property values up and most of the black residents to the other, less pallid side of Government Boulevard. The house had tripled in value since Dad bought it and Ted was always pushing him to sell, maybe buy a condo on the bay, closer to him and Marcy and the girls, and sock the rest into a mutual fund or something, set him up big time in his retirement, but Dad refused. He claimed both inertia and nostalgia but I think he was embarrassed by how much the house was worth. I think he was waiting around for the neighborhood to go to pot again.
In an effort, perhaps, to expedite the process, he'd let the old place fall into disrepair, both inside and out. The toilets ran. The paint was chipped. The gutters sagged. The floors needed refinishing. The shutters were missing slats. This was not to mention nonstructural wreckage, the pile of New Yorkers in the foyer, the discarded undershirts and boxer shorts on the bathroom floor, the unwashed dishes in the sink, all of which seemed somehow to emanate, like fallout, from the den.
That's where I tracked him down after parting ways with Madame Langlois. He was pretending to sleep in his recliner but I could tell he was awake. His face was alert even though his eyes were closed. A single lamp was burning beside the chair, spotlighting him, accentuating shadows, making the scene look staged. He had the TV tuned to the news, the volume muted.
I flicked on the overhead.
He stretched and faked a yawn. "Did you say something? I just turned this on to see the weather. I guess I dozed off. That's what happens when you get old."
I tossed yesterday's Press Register on the floor to make room on the couch. The other cushions were strewn with men's dress socks, maybe three dozen, brown, black, blue, argyle, none of them balled into a pair. The room was a sort of quintessential den, with its wood paneling, its furniture banished from other, better rooms. Mom always kept her distance, partly, I suppose, to allow Dad a sanctuary in the house but also because the room had reached, long before she died, an irreversible momentum toward decay.
"Your neighbor dropped by."
I watched his face, his eyes.
He brought the recliner upright with a hand lever, patted his pockets for his glasses, got them situated. There was a tumbler of scotch sweating on the end table. I was pretty sure the timing of his exit was deliberate. He knew exactly who I meant.
"The French one," I said.
"Is she gone? What did she want?"
I sniffed a blue sock to see if it was clean. "I don't know. Just to talk to you, I guess. To introduce herself to me." I pushed my hand up in the sock and worked it like a puppet. "Sounds like you guys are pretty friendly."
My father made a face.
"That woman's nuts," he said.
* * *
We ordered pizza for dinner and when there was nothing left but rinds of crust, I suggested a game of chess. We Poseys have always played games-horseshoes, chess, backgammon, poker, darts, croquet-to pass the time. We set up on the breakfast table. By the time the doorbell rang, maybe half an hour later, my father had slugged two more scotches and played me into a corner. It was just after nine o'clock. I padded through the darkened dining room, dodging furniture by memory, catching my knee on an umbrella stand. There was Madame Langlois on the stoop, bearing a Tupperware container.
"I brought you a cake," she said. "It is nothing. I was baking."
Without waiting for an invitation, Madame Langlois retraced my route through the dining room to the kitchen, but my father was gone when we arrived. She surveyed the room, took in the chess pieces still poised, the pizza box on the counter. I could hear the shower running upstairs, the rattle and groan of old plumbing. Madame Langlois turned on her heel.
"It is poppy seed and lemon," she said.
I thanked her, told her that she shouldn't have, but Madame Langlois waved my gratitude away. She opened the refrigerator, scanned the shelves. There was hardly anything in there (I'd already decided to go shopping in the morning) but Madame Langlois hesitated with her cake as if searching for space. She made a pensive, puckery sound, then faced me again, the cake at her shoulder like a waitress.
"Listen to me," she said. "I can see that you are helpless. You must let me cook for you tomorrow night."
"I thought I'd take Dad out."
"Non," said Madame Langlois. "The holiday, it is about the home. The turkey and the pilgrims and the giving thanks."
I almost laughed. "That's too much trouble."
"I insist," she said. "It is final. No more talking. My family is, how you say ...?" She fluttered her hand. I had no idea what expression she was looking for so she finished the thought herself. "I am alone. I have no plans."
That's where the trouble always started with me. I liked this woman-her overcooked accent, her aggressive loneliness-and I wanted, just then, to make her happy. Plus, I'm sure part of me was worried about being alone with Dad, worried we'd both be miserable. The whole thing was purely selfish. Though I could sense repercussions looming, I shunted all thoughts of the future aside and accepted her invitation. I walked her out, feeling pleased with myself, then headed upstairs to check in with Dad.
"I'm in the shower," he shouted. "What do you want?"
I tried the knob, unlocked. I poked my head in so we could hear each other better. He was perched on the toilet, fully dressed. A look of panic washed over his face, then anger, then resignation. Finally, his features settled into sheepish. I'd never seen him look sheepish in his life.
"What's going on, Dad?"
"Nothing," he said. "Nothing's going on."
I told him about Madame Langlois's visit, about the plans we'd made, and my father pushed abruptly to his feet. "No. No. I will not have my Thanksgiving with that woman."
He dropped his shoulder, brushed past me out the door. I followed him to his room down the hall. To my surprise, the room was immaculate, a perfect contrast to the rest of the house: the bed neatly made, no clothes scattered on the floor. Even his loose change was stacked in little piles atop the dresser-pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters. My mother was always on him about picking up after himself.
"C'mon, Dad," I said. "She's nice. She's all alone."
"She's a nuisance," my father said.
On what used to be my mother's nightstand, I noticed a long, red wig, the color of stained cedar, on one of those Styrofoam heads. She'd bought lots of wigs during her run of chemo but I was pretty sure that this one was the last. It was creepy, seeing it there like that, made my joints all watery.
I told him, "It's too late to cancel," but there was no resolve left in my voice.
"It's not. Go over there right this minute. It's not too late. Tell her anything you want."
His eyes were round, bloodshot, his hair mussed like he'd been asleep. My father had gone gray years ago and he had these wild white eyebrows. My mother used to say his eyebrows put her in mind of a demented genius but just then he resembled nothing so much as a tired, old man. I didn't see how I could refuse him.
* * *
Madame Langlois answered the door in a white silk bathrobe with what looked like peacock feathers on the lapel. She smiled, blinked, clutched her robe across her chest. Her chest was mottled with liver spots and right away I knew I couldn't go through with breaking the date. My father would be furious, but I'd figure something out. The question now was what to tell her about why I'd come.
"Bonsoir," she said. "Come in, come in. You will excuse my appearance, s'il vous pla��t. I wasn't expecting anyone."
I followed her to the living room and she waved me into a chair, offered me tea? brandy? a little wine? I said no thanks. Madame Langlois settled herself on a chaise longue. The room was spare but tasteful, everything antique, old books in the built-in shelves. The whole house smelled of cooking. Not just baking but the savory aroma of meat warming in the oven. Was it possible she'd already started preparing for tomorrow?
"Do you have pets?" I said.
"Oui." She pointed at a birdcage draped with a pale blue sheet, drew her knees up. Her shins were practically translucent. "My parakeet, Abigail. She is asleep."
"It's just that I found an ID tag-you know, like for a dog collar. I thought maybe you might have lost it-your pet I mean."
"Abigail does not wear a collar."
"Right." I felt a blush coming on. "It would only apply if you had a dog or cat. Whatever. Maybe you know if one of the neighbors is missing something like that?"
"This is why you've come?"
I cleared my throat.
Madame Langlois reached over to pat my knee.
"Tell me about yourself," she said. "I know about your brother. The lawyer." She accented the second syllable instead of the first making Ted's profession sound suddenly exotic. "The father of Jeff 's grandchildren. Twins, yes? But I know only that you exist."
"He talks about Ted?"
"Your father is very proud."
* * *
I turned thirty-three years old that year. I was single and without prospects. When people asked me what I did for a living, I told them I was a member of Shakespeare Express, this theater group that traveled around to high schools all over the South, doing half-hour versions of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or a sort of greatest hits compilation, the big, dramatic moments from the most popular plays, anything we could cram into the time allotted for a school assembly. I hated it but how else was I supposed to pay the bills? I also performed at The Playhouse over on Spring Hill Avenue. That past summer I'd done Vince in Buried Child, which sounded, at least to me, more legitimate than Shakespeare Express but paid less well than delivering pizzas. Now and then I had a date or two with one of the actresses from whatever show I was working on. Sometimes we had sex. I mention this only because, given the specifics of my life, people often assumed that I was gay. The rest of the story is that I tried New York after college and failed and when I came home I thought I'd figure out some other way to make a living. I never did. Here's the point: I understood, despite the holiday dustup, why my father would be more likely to discuss Ted's life than mine, but still it took the wind out of me a little.
Excerpted from The Holiday Seasonby MICHAEL KNIGHT Copyright © 2007 by Michael Knight. Excerpted by permission.
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