The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Rachel Bentley

      Five-thirty in the afternoon on a hot Friday in August: It is always a long journey home on summer weekends, and I am making the trip less often now. I wear the usual dark blue dress, nondescript and corporate, and I carry the usual brown handbag. I have a small suitcase for overnight.
      The trip starts underground, five stops on the Number Two from Wall Street to Penn Station. We stand in clusters where we expect the subway door to appear, straining over the platform’s yellow danger line, gazing down the tunnel for the lights of the oncoming train. When the cars roar by in a hot wind, we recoil, and when the train stops we twist and squeeze past sluggish bodies while the loudspeaker squawks: Stand back and let ’em off.
      Everything is familiar: the odor of salami and garlic on people’s breath, the hurtling, side-to-side roll before we pull in at the graffiti-marked stop beneath Penn Station. The same mechanical voice: Stand clear of the closing doors.
      I change trains at Jamaica, the beginning of Long island The loudspeaker’s voice becomes less cramped and commanding: It sings, leaving for BALD-win, FREE-port, BELL-more, WAN-taugh, SEA-ford, Massa-PE-qua, but none of these pleasantly named towns is mine. My train doesn’t go that far. My train heads south, sliding past places that don’t have names—factories, storage buildings, machine shops—until I get closer to home, near the Sunrise Highway with its unsynchronized lights and its shopping centers, where carloads of local greasers cruise up and down the road all evening waving crude signs out the car windows and making faces. Nobody out here trusts Manhattan. They call it The City, as if Queens were The Country. I wanted to go to The City all my life, and so I went. Now, my father wants me to come back and live with him.
      He has been a widower these past few months. A few neighbors have been sympathetic, but he has not been open to their compassion. There are two parts to him: the one that takes in everything clearly, and the one that stays back, withdrawn and hidden. Lately, he seems to have retreated to a place inside his head, thinking in a different language.
      A man in a wrinkled business suit sits nearby, watching me. I open my handbag and look inside. It’s filled with nothing, just small fragments of my life. A smile starts to play at the corners of my mouth. I have to tighten my lips to make it go away. Everything you do in life gets so mixed up with strangers you have to be careful, even just looking at them. It’s safer to gaze out the window as the used car lots and funeral parlors slide by and think about what I’m going to say to my father. No. No, I’m not coming. Get someone else. Get Bobby and Melissa and their two teenagers. Get Helen to come back from California with her salesman. Get somebody else.
      The man I’ve been seeing, Richard, thinks I’m being childish about it. “You’re almost thirty years old. What’s all the terrible conflict about?” He wants me to move in with him. He’s The City. He’s Manhattan, the glittery Manhattan. He says he’s related to the Bush family. I ask him, “Cousins?” He says, “Distant.” He is sweet and funny and easy to see through. He can also be kind.
      This is the not-quite-suburbs. In spite of the distance, when I get off the train, I’m still within the city limits. The platform at the Rosedale station is a great concrete slab that leads to an arching bridge over the tracks. The bridge has wire mesh sides to prevent public atrocities. When the trains pass below, the noise of metal on metal blends with the surge of overhead jets as they descend into Kennedy airport, making a dreadful music. For a few years my parents rented in East New York. Then they moved here—a step up the ladder. I guess that’s what it means to be settled down—all the imagined journeys you trace for yourself across the maps and globes in a schoolroom reduced at last to just a daily commute, a repeated voyage past houses with lights on and people inside eating supper.
      My father traveled farther. He came across the sea from Yugoslavia before the slaughter, long before the shells of the Serbian artillery. There was always puzzlement in his eyes as his family grew up around him. The older and noisier we became, the lonelier he seemed to feel. Perhaps we, too, were sort of an escape, his flight from the past without destiny or calling. Often, when I asked him about growing up in that distant country, he would lower his eyelids, turn down the corners of his mouth, and swat the air with one hand, as if the first part of his life had been an insect. So I had to imagine the country that he would never talk about, and all I could see was forlorn villages surrounded by waterfalls and wolves, where farming was still done by hand and people traveled everywhere in carts. Then I imagined the endless pop-pop of snipers in the hills, teenagers with their shoulder grenade launchers, closed shops, blasted buildings, listless walkers in shattered streets. My father said the family farm overlooked the sea, but this vision seemed too sunny for anything I could imagine. I suppose he had a childhood, but whenever I asked him about it he would struggle for an answer. “What do you want to know?” he would say.
      I swing my suitcase up the front steps. Its weight provides enough momentum to carry me through the front door, and I slide it across the floor. My father’s chair, in the kitchen, scrapes back and he emerges holding up his hand, looking at me the way people look through windows. Then he stops, slumps his shoulders, and stoops to pick up my bag. He wears his gray pants and shirt, with Tony stitched across the pocket. It is cleaned and pressed, but its metallic dullness, which matches the color of his hair, makes him look like a man stubbornly dedicated to sadness.
      “What’s new, Daddy?”
      “Nothing. Stomach pains. And you?”
      “I’m so glad to see you.”
      “Why are you looking around?”
      He leads me upstairs, carrying my suitcase. Inside the house, piles of newspapers and mail cover every horizontal surface. With Mother gone, the rooms seem large and dim, the carpets heavier, the ceilings higher.
      In my bedroom, my mother’s primly shaped dresses are spread out across the bed. “You should have those,” my father says, setting down the suitcases. I can hear the labor of his breathing.
      “Daddy, I’ve already looked through this stuff. The dresses are not my size. They’re old-fashioned, I can’t wear them.” Saying this suddenly seems blasphemous. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I just can’t wear them.”
      “You should go through them again. Make sure.” He holds one of them up, shaking out the wrinkles. “If I put them in the Goodwill box, some punk just sets them on fire.” “What about the fur coat?” It’s the only thing that remains in Mother’s closet, next to several bottles of old perfume.
      He frowns. “It’s got a tear in the sleeve. But I keep it for a while. Maybe I find something else for you. I look around. Something in the metal box, maybe.”
I cannot imagine what something else might be. The metal box is full of nothing but old papers: the deed to the house, my father’s Yugoslavian passport with his picture in merchant seaman uniform. Nothing we have is of any value except for the coat, a new battery in the car, and an ancient lathe with worn out belts that he keeps in the basement (an awkward sentence). I can’t use the battery or the lathe.


      Next day, we’re sitting on the front steps, each of us with a can of soda. I wish I could blurt it out, tell him I don’t want to move back. I want nothing of my father’s grip on the smallness of life, or the old people I’ve known since they were young, and the middle-aged people I knew when they were my present age.
      The street is potholed, and the sidewalk in front of us is crumbling and cracked. Some local entrepreneur is building a duplex in the vacant lot across the street. In the day’s heat, the workers remove their shirts, soak them in buckets of water, and squeeze them over their heads.
      I’m like a child when I come to Rosedale, fearful of my father’s judgment of me: a frivolous person. Richard says, “Love to come out there and meet your dad sometime.” But it won’t happen. Not ever. Richard is Manhattan.
      He doesn’t need me. I like that. It means he doesn’t judge me. Is that love? If it is, it’s a new kind of love for me.
      If my father knew about him, he’d quickly see my lazy self-indulgence. That’s how fearful I am. But only here, in this house, are my mind and energy drained by such fear. My father’s lips are pressed together now. He looks steely and quiet, his face expressionless, his eyes fixed and remote. He is thinking to himself in his native language.
      The grass in the two small rectangles that front our house has turned brown. The workers across the street have their wet shirts hanging down from beneath their hard hats, like soggy burnooses. The studs of wood they are handling look warped from the heat, glistening with spots of resin.
      “Daddy,” I say carefully, “are you angry, are you sad that I don’t come out here more often?” He is quiet. Then I say it, “Daddy, I’m not moving back here with you.” There is an up-spin of relief, and then it is gone. The oak trees stir slightly, then we’re caught again as a deafening jet thickens the air on its way to Kennedy.
      His head lowers, then his face tips up and his eyes come into view, hardening. “I’ll be home on weekends more. I promise,” I tell him.
      I stand up, getting my blouse unstuck from my stomach and my skirt from the back of my legs. The big oak tree in front of the house casts a shadow that ripples across the hot gleam of cars passing in the street. I sit down again, watching the workers across the street, their dull hammering drowned out by the intermittent sound of jets.
      It is a longer wait than I had anticipated for him to answer. The shadows seem to stretch out further as we sit here. We are going into the worst part of the afternoon. My father moves his head from side to side, without removing me from his stare. I frown at my lap. I scratch at a spot on my blue skirt.
      He gives me a long, shrewd stare. “But I understand,” he says, in an alarmingly different voice. Everything is strained, unnatural. Then: “You sleeping with some guy?”
      My ears start to burn. “Daddy, I’m going to live with some guy.” My words seem blurred and indistinct. “I’m sorry if it bothers you. Is that enough? I’m sorry.”
      The heat and noise seem endless, draining us of everything but simple thoughts. It’s too hot for feelings.
      He presses his lips together, as if my answer is impertinent and slightly irritating. “You know something?” he says. “We moved out here twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five years ago, today.”
      He could live here for another twenty-five years too. I could live with him, surrounded by the house he once ran (ran?) and would soon be running us, with its demands for paint and new plumbing, the dampness of its basement, the squirrels in the gutters, the moths beating night after night, with their big wings, at the window screens.
       “Twenty-five years ago,” he says. “Now everybody’s moved away or died. Even D’Ambrosio’s dying.” He glances at the house next door with its drawn shades. “But you’ve always hated him.”
      “I don’t complain about him. I’m a happy man. I know something about laughter. You know who he is? One of the family.”
      “You don’t know who the family is? You’re such a baby. Half of Rosedale belongs to them. They keep order here. They help the cops. Smart people. You don’t get money without being smart people. D’Ambrosio, he always wanted to be gunned down in some nice little restaurant off Mulberry Street. But look at him now, just dying behind the window shades.”
      I begin to think again of what it is going to mean, moving in with Richard. It is going to mean not being on my own. It’s going to mean having someone to bitch at, someone to lean on, someone to tell me I am essential to his breathing and being. Lots of things seem better than that.
      I listen to my father, polite but neutral now. Because I remain detached, he wants to tell me more: life in Queens, the way the neighbors looked down on him because he had an accent and wasn’t Irish Catholic. When I say nothing for a long time, he adds, “Where will you go when this guy is through with you?”
      It’s as if I’ve been expecting the question all the time he’s been talking, and with no answer prepared, I just lean forward, with my face and part of my body leaning over the steps, and say, “I’ll go somewhere. I don’t know where yet, but somewhere.”
      He edges back into the shadow of the porch. “I will go somewhere,” I say, emphasizing each word carefully.
      I cannot tell, by his hard gaze, whether he senses this feeling I have. But whatever purpose is emerging, he looks like he wants to grasp it for himself. Suddenly he starts forward and catches my arm. I watch his face as it is smitten by something I haven’t thought to display before him, much less brandish: my youth. I can see that he wants it. His grip tightens on my arm, and it seems to strengthen this feeling.
       I do not pull away from him. Then he inclines his head as if to accept responsibility for my frustration. Too weary to move, he stares at me and says, “The land.” He clears his throat. “You should have it someday.”
      The dry leaves on the oak tree rustle. I do not understand what he is saying.
      “I said I would look around for something to give you. Your mother’s coat, no.”
      He gazes through his thoughts at the oak tree and continues. “Ten hectares. Karla writes me from Yugoslavia, ‘When are you going to sign it over to us, Tony? You don’t need it any more. We could add it to the farm.’” But I never sign it over.
      “On the hill near Kraljevica. It still belongs to me. It looks down on the sea. I never sign it over to Karla. Some day, maybe, you can see it yourself. I still have it. It’s in the metal box upstairs. It’s a deed, ten hectares. Maybe you can use it someday, maybe not. If not, then dream about it. It’s yours.”
      That was all he said, as the heat continued to press into darkness. The construction workers across the street set down their tools and began to leave. A few moths appeared and we hoisted ourselves up and walked back into the house. The gathered heat of the day, sultry and depressed, was worse than the outside. The sweat sprang from my skin. I tried to force the windows higher in their sashes, but there was no breeze anywhere. No air.
      I saw him standing in the living room, staring at the ceiling.
      I was reminded, then, of how he would wait at the foot of the stairs for my mother when they went out, just the two of them, for an evening. My mother would walk about overhead, and I could hear her high-heeled shoes clattering as she moved from her bureau to her closet mirror. Her staccato footsteps, patternless at first, would become more purposeful as she stopped to pick out earrings or brush her dark hair. All at once she would march across the floor, and the sound of her shoes’ percussion would burst out like a tap dance as she came down the stairway.
      My father, as if signaled, would go to the hall closet for her fur coat. He would hold it out for her as she passed, and she would always say, “Tony, Don’t you look terrific!” Now, I tried to continue our conversation, but my father seemed exhausted. His gaze moved down from the ceiling, looked around the room. His head retreated into the collar of the shirt with Tony stitched across the pocket.
      Suppose he was once a boy? What were the summers like? Maybe there were flowers and mulberry trees stretching across the ten hectares down to the Adriatic shore. Maybe he ran through fields of grass, but who wanted to remember? Those days and nights were all weighted down for him like stones. No one said it was poetry finding a promised land (awkward) or giving up an old land whose bitter memories kept him reaching doggedly ahead.
      I usually do not believe things people tell me before nightfall. Only when there are cool and melancholy shadings in the air do their words become real. This was the only time, before he died, that my father ever mentioned this land as a legacy, this field somewhere on a hillside, in a country I will never see. But that night, he showed me the deed in the metal box, and that evening I set out on my travels. I may never possess this field as my own. But I might take a gentle step toward it and then, realizing that I am not alone, I might see the outlines of a new shore and strain in the sunlight to see it clearly.

Rachel Bentley's books, Post-Freudian Dreaming and A General Theory of Desire, are available at Amazon & Powell's. She’s a Pushcart Prize nominee, and won the Paris Review/Paris Writers Workshop International Fiction Award. She has published over 200 works of fiction, poetry and memoir in Literary Magazines and Quarterlies in the U.S., the UK, France, Canada and Brazil.

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