Spring/Summer 1992, Volume 9.2


Portrait of a Portrayal

"Grandpa," remarked Grandma as she stacked the dishes, "was a hard nut to catch."

"Not sure that 'catch' is the right," began my father, looking away—at the carpet, at the sailboat picture on the far wall, anywhere but at his mother. He could never finish his sentences and did not do so now.

"Imi wakaranai," muttered Andrea, my thirteen-year-old sister, who had restricted herself to Japanese since early February. No one took much notice, figuring it was just a phase, like her earlier adherence to Finnish. It was just after dinner, all of us ranged around the cracked Formica table in the kitchen, as we each pursued our separate gastronomic processes. My brother Eric idly picked his teeth with a tine of his fork; Father belched laboriously. Mother hadn't yet gotten home from teaching, and we were all subconsciously straining to hear the crossing of the threshold as the front door opened and slammed shut. Grandma had lost the thread of her discourse, as she so often did. There was at that moment a comparative rarity in our household: silence.

It didn't last long. Eric removed the fork from its leverage point at a bicuspid and laid it carefully slantwise on the table. "I have supped my full," he announced. "I am no longer esurient." He eyed each of us for a reaction.

"I should think you wouldn't be surly any more, not after three slices of my meatloaf," remarked Grandma, returning to the table with a two-story cake that seemed to have a basement, as well. Her baked goods, whatever else they were, were definitely her own. When the cake was passed to Andrea, she helped herself with chopsticks and proceeded to get a substantial amount in at the right orifice. Father toyed with his portion, gutting the basement and digging a red moat in the surrounding plum jelly. He was really just waiting for Mother to get home, as if she added some finishing touch.

He was right, in a way: Mother did complete things, though mostly other people's sentences. I suppose she came by the habit honestly; she was, after all, an English teacher in the local junior high, in a town that could best be described as ungrammatical. The Baylor household was a haven of correctitude from the savagery outside, or so Mother believed, and instructed us accordingly. Grandma's malapropisms she could do nothing about—how can a woman ever correct her mother-in-law?—but from the first offspring who puled out "Mama," all of us came under what Eric termed, in one of his happier phrases, "the fascist phrasemonger."

The front door creaked open with the familiar sound that Father had been meaning to fix since 1962, ten years ago. There was a longer pause than usual between the creak and the slam, which meant that Mother had packages. Father looked up from the ruins of his cake. His gaze wandered, then settled on me. "Harry, help your mother with." In the foyer, Mother handed me a shopping bag full of Drano bottles (she was addicted to special sales), and I dutifully brought it into the kitchen, where I found a place for it under the sink, next to the twelve cans of Dutch Cleanser and enough steel wool to line a hair shirt.

As the rest of us lingered politely at the table, Mother went into the kitchen and peeled back the aluminum foil surrounding the remnants of the meatloaf. She helped herself to corn and cabbage and one of Grandma's curious rolls: a Parker House with three buttocks instead of two. She sat down opposite Father and began to eat efficiently and without fuss. The smudged make-up and a trace of chalk dust on one shoulder made her look like the victim of an explosion, but she didn't seem to notice. She never noticed her appearance; she noticed others' appearances. In between mouthfuls, she told Eric that he had cake crumbs around his mouth and me that I needed a haircut. Andrea she left alone, probably because Andrea was halfway up the stairs already. Before the threshold of her room, Andrea announced, "Tadaima," and took off her shoes. She wouldn't let other people in unless they followed suit.

In another moment, Eric excused himself, though not, of course, in those words. "I must absquatulate," he noted, frowning at us all.

"Can't you even find a chair?" asked Grandma.

Father waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, it's not."

"That he's talking about." Mother was already finished with her plate. "Sometimes, I think dictionaries should be kept from children until they know better." In fact, the house was lousy with dictionaries, from the giant Webster's Second Edition to pocket-size glossaries of Serbo-Croatian and Flemish. We had rhyming dictionaries and slang lexicons, Roget's and Fowler's and Partridge's cheek by jowl. We had the Oxford Companion to everything and both the Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedia. On the other hand, we didn't own a television set, and if we ever needed to watch something, we went to the Donaldsons' next door.

I scraped my chair backwards preparatory to rising. It was already seven o'clock. Homework was not a problem in the Baylor household—we all got good grades—but I needed to do some research for an English paper assigned a week ago. "I have to go work," I suggested.

"On that paper you mentioned?" Mother paused, her fork lifted for emphasis. "What did you say you were working on—Conrad, wasn't it?"

I hadn't said what I was working on, and the Conrad reference was purely maternal interpolation. It was up to me whether I followed her educated guesses; it usually depended on what mood I was in. That night, after a better-than-usual supper, I was feeling tractable. "Right, the Conrad paper on, on . . . ." I let myself grope, knowing who had hold of the rope at the other end.

"On Heart of Darkness, of course," responded Mother brightly. "It's such an enchanting work. It's what I wrote about once for a college paper. Now, what was it I said about it?"

I exchanged a look with my father, who shrugged, but then charitably put in a word. Four words, to be precise. "Grace, maybe he doesn't."

"Know where to look? Of course, that's what the library is for. Oh, and Harry, when you're there, would you pick up a book for me? There's a Dorothy Sayers novel waiting for me at the reserve desk. Thanks."

That night at the library, I found more than enough material on Conrad. The adults in Greenvale, if they went there at all, were after the bestsellers, and the kids used the place as a social center. So the real books were always sitting on the shelves, waiting to be taken out for an airing. I decided to check out a biography of Conrad and two books of criticism. I was on my way out when I remembered I hadn't yet read Heart of Darkness—Mother always got me muddled this way—so I went back and found that, too. Then I got distracted by a copy of The New Yorker (our subscription had lapsed), which I sat down with and paged through for a while. I did the usual, which was to read the spare short story they had and fill in all the gaps.

The divorced character named Sam—I gave him a history that included an education at Yale and an inexplicable stint as a garbage collector. Marjorie, I decided, couldn't connect with Sam because she was really aphasic, which in fact was how her dialogue sounded. The small child in the foreground—it wasn't clear whether it was Sam's or Marjorie's—was actually a dwarf, a guilty reminder of a failed pituitary experiment. And since the story had no ending, I had them all run over, flattened by a huge semi-trailer. That, I thought, was fitting—they were two dimensional characters anyway.

Eventually, I opened up Heart of Darkness and read the first ten pages of that (it would never have gotten published in The New Yorker), and by the time I thought of heading home, it was near closing time. I never considered myself an intellectual—Mother said a sixteen-year-old could be at most intellectually inclined—but I did like the library. For one thing, I actually liked looking up facts—and not all of them were in our mammoth home-reference center. So I came to know the public library fairly well, including the two reference librarians, Miss Dodge and Mrs. Cartwright. They were the kind of duo you find in a lot of cheap fiction: Miss Dodge was thin and intent, a steely-eyed, hawk-beaked spinster, guarding those stubby pencils as if they were gold ingots. Mrs. Cartwright, on the other hand, was a jovial, plump woman who handed out bits of information like party favors: a neat citation from The Beekeeper's Gazette, for instance, printed on a scrap of paper as small as your finger. Or where to find a description of the mating habits of the kingfisher. Both women knew their reference works; they both knew the whole Baylor family, too. As I headed towards the exit, Mrs. Cartwright called out, "Tell Andrea we have a new Japanese dictionary!"

I turned back to thank her, and a girl named Ellen Crowley from my World Civ. class caught my eye. She was there with her friends, cracking jokes and cracking gum. When I smiled weakly at her, she returned the smile—but I knew I was being smiled at, not to. Walking home through decaying sidewalk snow, I whipped my grungy snorkel coat tighter around myself (Mother had bought five of them on sale, five years earlier). Suddenly, I had a vision of my family all sitting around the table, wearing space helmets. And kids like Ellen Crowley pointing and gaping, having grasped us as the aliens we were.

When I was around Andrea's age, I didn't mind so much. I could always go back to my book on the couch, and I always did. It was a way of ignoring any and all frustrations, particularly ones connected to family. At wit's end over Grandma's garblings (which I could detect by the age of five)? Go read a James Thurber story. Tired of Father's maundering incompletion? Take up Nabokov, linguist extraordinaire—I read Lolita when I was Lolita's age. I admired the vocabulary, but I had to take the lust on faith.

Of course, the real problem was Mother. She didn't just run your life, she ran your sentences. I knew she meant well, but that only made it worse, since then I felt guilty about my annoyance and had to compensate in some pretty bizarre ways. You really had to experience her for a while to know what I mean. And it wasn't just me. I'm fairly sure she drove my sister to become a polyglot and my brother to the far reaches of sesquipedalianism. As for myself, I was actually mute for a good seven months, but I eventually recovered. Or at least stopped being mute.

When I took stock of myself the month before (I did it twice a year in a double column of "assets" and "problems"), I decided I was moving toward normalcy. Or maybe the other kids were moving in my direction. Some had started wearing glasses, the end of playground games had shaken out a discernible intelligentsia, and there were even a few I could talk to. People whose conversation wasn't restricted to rock-music lyrics—which Mother parsed in derision—and baseball statistics—my father's one move in that direction was to take Eric and me to a double-header at Shea four years earlier, when all three of us had been overtaken by boredom.

Only at this point I was facing a new problem, something I felt I should have gotten to a long time ago. Maybe it was hormonal, or maybe different families just emphasized it earlier. Or maybe it even had to do with baseball—developing your body or something. It wasn't a subject much mentioned in the Baylor household, though it wasn't that any of us was a prude.

(Slight clearing of the throat.) The subject was sex.

On paper, I was an expert. I read the Kinsey report when I was in the fifth grade, and any orifices left out I learned from Terry Southern's Candy. In fact, I take it back—it wasn't sex, exactly. I just had this urge—I don't know quite how to explain it; when I try, I lose my articulacy—if I saw a girl nearby, I wanted to do something for her. Write a sonnet, stand on my head, slay a dragon—anything to please her. And this was true even if I didn't know who the girl was—particularly if I don't know who she was. Because it may have been gonadal urgings, but one thing cooled my ardor like ice in the bed: when she opened her mouth and out came gobbledegook.

She nattered on about the latest Bronson movie she'd seen, and I couldn't help wondering if she knew how to spell. If she told me she liked going to the beach, I got an image of radio-cassette players, sand, and sunlight so strong I couldn't read. She said her brother had a green MG, and I thought about how Grandma once innocently described herself: "I haven't a car in the world." I couldn't help it: I heard a grammar mistake, and it was as if she had corn stuck between her teeth. I suspect my Mother had something to do with this; I kept meaning to read Freud, but I hadn't got to him yet.

I thought about all this as I was walking home (alone) from the library. Halfway home, I remembered that I'd forgotten to pick up the Sayers book for Mother. When I got in, Grandma was sitting in what we euphemistically called our parlor but which was really an extension of the hall. She was darning socks the way only grand- mothers can, so that the toe or heel grows a thickened patch of mismatched wool. She looked up and remarked that it must be colder than eyes outside. Who nose? I told her, and she bobbed her knitting in affirmation.

I went upstairs to work on my history homework, which this week meant reading about Jacksonian democracy. Jackson, it seemed, was a boob and a half, but that just made him all the more popular. You can see it in the classroom; you can see it in politics: America distrusts brains. Which made for disgruntlement in the Baylor household. As for politics: my father hadn't taken an interest in elections since the last time Adlai Stevenson ran.

Around nine o'clock, Grandma went into the kitchen to make some cocoa, and the drifting scent of hot chocolate eventually brought the rest of us in. Even Andrea, who must have been struggling through her Spanish homework in Japanese. She had already gotten two letters from the dean, but Mother had recently intervened, clearing the way for Andrea to get credit for her waywardness. The six of us shared four mugs of cocoa and three marshmallows in our communal but restless way.

Eric stirred what was temporarily his cocoa. "Deliquescent," he said.

Grandma looked surprised. "At this hour? Eric, they'll all be closed."

"Dajare," responded Andrea, mugless but with a brown mustache from her last sip of my father's.

I don't know what it was—family induced claustrophobia, the abrupt memory of Ellen Crowley grinning at me—but I banged down my mug on the Formica. I had no plan, not even any idea where my resolution was coming from. But I was going to get myself a girl. My family looked at me in surprise. They so often read my thoughts that it was funny, then, how they couldn't see what was on my mind.

My father simply raised his eyebrows—halfway.

"I take it you've finished," said Mother quietly, reaching with a sponge to absorb the pool around my mug.

I nodded, getting up from the table. "One man with courage makes a majority," I told them (Jackson) as I went upstairs to plan strategy. Eric and Andrea weren't the only ones who could be obfuscatory—and I had at least two years on them.

Unfortunately, everything that seemed inevitable the night before seemed awfully hypothetical in the cold gray light of the classroom. How could you attract a member of the opposite sex? Kingfishers did it by waving their brilliant plumage, with a special mating call. I was wearing a brown sweater Grandma had damned—make that darned—and had no idea what constituted a good opening line. "Haven't I met you somewhere before?" wouldn't do—of course I'd met her before; I met these girls every day—I just didn't know any of them. "Haven't I known you somewhere before?" was what a character said in a fantasy novel I read once, but he was talking about reincarnation.

And whom would I ask? There was Trudy Simmons in my trigonometry class: she understood circles and lines, and in the world of angles she struck me as acute rather than obtuse. She had no curves to speak of—but then, I didn't intend to bisect her triangle, or did I? Peggy Traub in my history section had a figure so well developed she looked like a sofa, the one I used to fit in perfectly in our living room and read books there in one sitting (or lying), before I grew too tall and started reading longer books. Anyway, Peggy already seemed to be attached, frequently at the hip and shoulder, to a large, unfriendly football player named Mike or Ike. Cathy Dunbar was bookish, or at least she carried around a lot of books. But she dressed impeccably, everything color-coordinated, making a rag-patch creature like me a bit suspicious.

Try a variety. Don't throw all your eggs into one bucket, Grandma would say. But I didn't know any of these girls well enough, I realized. Harry, you don't know anyone well enough, sniped the small, shrill voice that also reminded me of minor courtesies and dental appointments. It was true: all things considered, I'd rather have taken out a book.

This was what I was trying to change. Can a person will himself to mature?

Nothing ventured, nothing, as my father would have mumbled. The hall bell clanged, and it was time for English class. In the honors section, we were discussing Hemingway, an author I had always hated and would dearly have loved to point out why, but that day my tongue was busy exploring my teeth, particularly the two front ones with a slight gap between them. I made what Eric would have called a susurrus. The closest I got to an approach was bumping into statuesque Jane Smithson as I was leaving class. "Excuse me," I muttered, and she acknowledged my excuse with a nod.

It was no use. I just couldn't—what's the phrase?—make contact. My head was stuffed with plots of novels and arcane words. Not one person in my family was good at socializing. So why did I still want a girl? Why did the Man in the Iron Mask ever want to leave his cozy cell? Didn't he have enough to read in the Bastille?

The rest of the day passed, as they say, in a fog—something like those miniature rainclouds that loom over the heads of cartoon characters. I'm not even sure what I was thinking at any point, though I do remember getting on the lunch-line twice; that, and staring intently at a pigeon outside the window of the chemistry lab, wondering whether flying was worth having hollow bones and eating worms for breakfast. When another pigeon began pecking amorously at the first, I looked away.

I've also forgotten most of the walk home from school that day, but I do recall the last hundred yards because that's when I came up with the solution. A little man above me scattered the fog and installed a lightbulb over my head. All of a sudden, the winter surroundings looked bluer, greener. I ran into the house, fended off Grandma's offer of a little gnash, went to my room, and shut the door. For over a month, I had been teaching myself to type on the assumption that it was a Useful Skill. I slipped a sheet of virgin paper around the roller of the family's Olympia portable. Only then I couldn't think where to start. I looked out my window, with an overhead view of the backyard birdfeeder taken over by the squirrels. A blue jay chattered angrily nearby. Past the picket fence, our neighbor's son Bobby Donaldson was playing catch with a friend of his, using a grimy snowball scooped up from the worn coat on the lawn. Plop, smack, plop, as the snowball grew ever smaller. I turned away and looked hard at the wall in front of me, which was basic beige with no pattern at all. I began to type.

When I came down for dinner that night, I had an announcement to make. The family was grouped around the table, investigating a greenish soup that Grandma had just brought out.

"Taberarenai," murmured Andrea, poling the depths with a chopstick.

My father took a tentative sip and nodded at the rest of us. "It's spinach. Spinach is good for."

"Iron and vitamins," prompted Mother. She spooned a mouthful. "This is really quite tasty."

"I have a green thumb," Grandma allowed.

Eric's silence was eloquent.

With all this competition, it was difficult to intrude a comment from left field, in a conversation already way out of the ballpark. So I ate my soup, bided my time, sawed through some leathery liver, and over dessert mentioned that I had met a girl named Isabel at school.

"Oh?" Mother's casual gaze was a pose, I knew.

It was Grandma who got to the point and asked what about Isabel.

I didn't know where to start exactly. I had pages and pages on her, but no specific beginning. I knew her preference in beverages: lemon tea, the same color as her hair. She wore oversized oval glasses, and she could read Proust in the original but was too polite to mention it. She lived on the top floor of a row-house with her mother, who worked as a reference librarian; her father never sent the alimony check on time; her favorite place was up in the attic; she had a habit of biting her nails; the color of her underwear was—but as you can see I had no idea where to begin.

"How did you," asked you-know-who. Instead of waiting for Mother, I answered.

"I met her after school. She, uh, dropped her books." This wasn't in the script, but I suddenly realized that, if I gave away certain details I'd written, people might begin to investigate. In fact, I mentally deleted her last name; she would just be Isabel. Despite this studied vagueness, I was able to pique the curiosity of everyone around the table. Even Andrea asked a puzzled "Dare?" ("Who?")

During this next week, I added dimension to Isabel, including the tactile sense. Her hands were warm and delicate, but clammy as Cape Cod when she got nervous. Her yellow hair was hopelessly split, soft as breath. I elaborated; I extrapolated; here and there I interpolated, for my benefit as well as that of others. She wrote poetry, though she knew it was no good. She'd always wanted a dog, but space was a problem, so she kept a pet mouse named Roland instead. And she cared for me. I was happy then, I think, but all stories have to come to an end.

What happened to Isabel after that? We talked a lot, and even went out on dates several times. Once we saw a French movie that both of us wittily dissected afterwards. Another time, she dragged me dancing. I almost met her mother, but I drew the line there, literally. My family was getting too nosy. Also, one or two of her traits bothered me: the affected way she held her teacup, for example, and her vehement dislike of P.G. Wodehouse. I thought of trying to reform her, but I couldn't face the job of revision. Eventually, we broke up, which is to say that I fell in love with a new character, an older, dark-haired woman named Dorothy. She had a soft, almost pained maternal look, and knew things that Isabel did not. But she had a husband, and soon I got lost in the extramarital complications.

So I created another woman and a whole supporting cast, including an intelligent male friend for myself, though the sense of competition finally got on my nerves. I began again. And again and again, because I found I liked it and I was clearly improving. Which is to say that I became a writer. And I lost some of my uncertainty, though I've retained my self-consciousness. My early stories are littered with pieces of my dreams, like shards of glass on a threadbare rug. They're quite visible, but you have to be careful in picking them out. My later stories are far more embroidered—you might get lost in the weave.

I do worry occasionally about the success of my creations, about their relative welfare after I send them forth. I also leave occasional threads hanging. You may have certain questions yourself. Did I ever find a woman? Have I matured in other ways? And what of my family, my dear, demented family—how have they taken to all of this? Do you, in the end, believe in them at all? If I showed you how I made them all up, would it bother you?