avatar under the wooden table

A ritual.
Every Saturday we took the Long Island Railroad from Bellmore to Manhattan. New York City. The train ride was about forty-eight minutes, station-to-station. At the candy store in Bellmore, he got a newspaper and a coffee with a little milk; and I would get chocolate milk. On the train, we would find seats – two together, side by side – and we would sip and he would read, and I would stare out the window watching the world swish by.
He had been arrested.
A bribery case.
The United States vs… My Dad.
He didn’t expect to be caught. He didn’t expect to be arrested. We didn’t expect life to change. She didn’t expect to pawn all her jewelry. I didn’t expect to be bullied and harassed, and to have imaginary friends. We had never known that kind of fear and sad before, and now they had moved in with us, constant companions, tagging along where ever we went.
You don’t expect that kinda shit when you’re 8 years old.
He needed a job; to feed us, to pay the bills, the mortgage, the car, the clothes.
He got a job working at Melvin’s Frame Shop in the West 30’s. Or maybe it was the West 40’s. We would walk from Penn Station, the LIRR, to the shop. His friend, Murray, got him the job. Melvin was Murray’s cousin. Melvin made frames for Museums, and Art Gallery’s and was pretty well known in that world. Elaborate frames. Fancy frames – gold, and silver, huge frames. My dad was hired to sweep the floors, and clean the place. A janitor. He would sweep, and clean, and label frames, and organize things, and I would sit on the wooden table, my little-girl skinny legs dangling, and I’d watch – mesmerized – as my dad swept the wooden shavings from under the tables with a huge broom and dustpan. And Melvin would berate him, in an accent sprinkled with angry. “Sweep here. HERE. This. This. Here. THIS. This dust, and this sand, and these wood chips… and the mess… sweep, god-damn-it, sweep, you lazy man, can’t you see where you’re sweeping, Goddamnit?” And my dad would shrink right before me – right before my eyes. He would shrink, and disappear, and I was so scared he would disappear forever. He was a tall man – six foot one – but Melvin could make him disappear. Melvin had the same tattoos that Phyllis and Henry had. The same exact tattoos. I called them cartoons. I didn’t know what tattoos were. Numbers – like a telephone number – on their forearm. Melvin had the same tattoo as them. I knew about those numbers. I knew that Phyllis and Henry had lost both sets of parents. All four. They had burned to death in an oven. I knew that story. I had heard that story over family get-togethers, dinners. Incinerated, was the word used. I watched, witnessed, as Melvin spewed at my father. Goddamn you, you lazy man. And I would sit on the wooden worktable, my little skinny legs dangling, and watch my dad lose whatever faith he was clinging to while I was clinging to him. I wasn’t sure why he brought me with him on Saturday’s. Maybe he wanted me to know that he loved me. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe because it was a Saturday, and he never needed to work on Saturday’s, and that was our day. But our days were different before the arrest. They were filled with hope and possibility; museums and plays, and theater, and movies and Aunt Jemina pancakes. Maybe he needed to know that no matter what, no matter fucking what, I would love him. We would leave the Frame Shop right on the dot: Five O’clock, and we would walk down Broadway to Penn Station. Stopping at the automat. He would get a hot steaming cup of coffee, and I would get a milkshake. Chocolate. And we would sit at the counter, and I would watch my dad stare into his coffee, a million miles away. And I would make believe that I was a Princess from the Island of Long, and we were having a day out and no one – no one – could find us. I liked that game. And then, we would stand up, and almost on cue, we would both exhale, and then he would leave a tip, a few coins for the waitress behind the counter, and we would walk to the train station, a few blocks away, and climb down the stairs into the station, and find the track number, and go to the platform, and wait for our train, and the train would swish into the station, loud and steamy, and when the conductor said: all aboard – because back then they did – we stepped in, and found our seats, and I grabbed my dad’s hand and didn’t let go.
I didn’t let go.
And I could feel every bit of his sad, and his unhappy, and his burden and his disappointment and his humility and his anger and his disgrace and his embarrassment and his shame and his worry and his fear and his doubt entwined in my fingers. Our hands. I could feel it. And when I finally caught his eye – when he finally looked down at me – his little girl, his princess – my eyes were saying, you’re my hero, Daddy, you’re my hero. And I think maybe for a few seconds he believed me, and I think that maybe that gave him just a little more courage. A little more hope. At least enough courage and hope to get us home.
After months – day in, day out, day in – my dad was acquitted on a technicality. And our life came back, piece by broken, chipped, cracked piece. He stopped working at the frame shop, and my mother stopped pawning her jewelry, and I stopped having imaginary friends, and we never, ever talked about that time. It was taboo. That huge, massive cluster of shame was hidden deep, tucked away, because that’s what you did back then – when something bad, awful, horrible happened – and it was swept under the wooden table along with all the wooden chips and all the dust and all the shavings; into corners and crevices and cracks and under rugs – hidden and buried deep.

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2 Responses to “under the wooden table”

  1. avatar
    Mark Olmsted

    WOW. I grew up in Mount Vernon, the son of a woman who’d grown up in occupied France, and the de-facto nephew of another French teacher who’d been hidden during the war and whose parents died at Auschwitz.
    And little old me managed to get himself to prison in 2004 (for 9 months, “only” but enough to be the subject of my memoir.)
    So you might say I identify with every theme and element in this piece. I feel like I have just licked the tip of an iceberg I am about to dive into.
    Sign me, YER NEW FAN

  2. avatar
    Jon Freedman

    Hi Amy,

    I just found this while searching for midlife blogs. I was blown away by how you transported me into the frame shop. Thank you. In a few short paragraphs you painted a diorama that will stay with me for a long time.

    So I’ve just started a blog that offers a male perspective on midlife. If you have the bandwidth, please feel free to stop by.

    Best to you and your journey,

    Jon


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