6. HEADING SOUTH




My father has decided I'm a failure, but won't say so to my face.

At this moment I'm staring down into the tunnel in Baltimore, while our Thanksgiving visit replays in my brain. It's like a bad pop song I can't shake.

I'm dazed by hours of driving, the ribbon of highway rolling, rolling under my wagon. I've decided to head south for "parts unknown:" New England in the side-view mirror, magnolias up ahead. The radio is blaring, and it feels like we're falling down the east coast.

In the back seat, is my new young wife with our two children, a baby and a toddler. My wife, Jenny, is the one all the fuss is about. When memories of those caring, stern looks of Father and Mother overwhelm me, I look in the rear-view, and it's like coming up for air.

I can't say my life makes sense right now.

I think I'm going to settle in North Carolina or Texas, revive my contracting business, go where people don't look at me and ask why I didn't finish college. Or why I left my wife and children on Long Island for our baby sitter.

Over the holiday my father spoke to me amicably enough, about his law practice, about the private school where he serves on the board. About the time he carried the ball for Harvard in the fourth quarter and succeeded in getting it to the second yard line before they were overwhelmed by Princeton and lost.

"It was the proudest moment of my life and still is," he announces. This story is like a mirror he has held up to himself and others over the years.

"I'm sure your days of being a champion have the same meaning for you," he continues. He studies my face, trying to determine how I got off the track.

Father calls anyone who competes a "champion," the way he calls all students at the private school "doctor." I won a couple of local ski jumping contests and came in third once in a regional.

But I didn't do it for the glory.

I did it, instead, for the incredible serenity that I've only known twice in my life. The first times when I was flying then floating, just me and the wind, over the silent fans who for a few long moments were so irrelevant. The other times, when Jenny and I make love.

"I remember when you twisted your leg after a bad landing and had a cast on for months. But you went right back to competing, to being a champion."

I realize his face has settled into a landscape of handsome wrinkles, like the Massachusetts mountains where they live. One brow is permanently higher than the other. Very distinguished.

The day after Thanksgiving, Mother and I go for a drive alone. Following long disguised inquiries about my state of mind, she at last confides in me.

"Your father asked for a divorce, this fall."

I'm dutifully silent as she weaves the Mercedes through a light snow dusting the roads.

"To his secretary," she laughed. "I mean couldn't he be more original? ... And I told him flatly no, never! I care about him too much. And I think he does about me, to get carried away by a passing infatuation."

My mother has one of her perpetual colds and sniffles the whole time. She dabs her nose with a tissue, for emphasis, I think.

"And you know, Gerald, I really do believe he was relieved. He cleared his throat more times than I can remember, and shuffled his papers on his desk, but in the end, he was glad I put my foot down....Now we're happier than we've been in a while."

Then, like a concerned grandmother, she changes the subject to the babies. She delicately inquires about Genevieve and our plans for the future, while letting me know I can't discuss her marriage. That I should be grateful she still talks to me.

The snow becomes heavy so we head back to their large house, overlooking the lakes and the valley. As we climb the step drive she suddenly blurts, "Why do we save our best face for others and show our worst face to those we love." And cries for one of the few times I can remember. I hand her a Kleenex.

Before dinner I go back up stairs to the east wing and walk down the long hall of the "children's" side of their home. I open the door, peer into my old room. It's almost the way I left it, chock full of hockey sticks, pennants, footballs, skis, and trophies. It looks like it belonged to some other kid.

After dinner everyone ends up in the den. It is dark, cozy with leather couches you can really settle into. My wife and I grab one and pass the babies back and forth. My aunt crochets, my mother wraps herself in a handmade shawl. My father comments. We watch TV to avoid talking about my brother and sister. They're gone on a deluxe ski trip to Switzerland, with their families.

Thanksgiving behind us, Jenny and I leave early in the morning. Everyone comes out to wave as we drop down the hill in my aging station wagon. For the first time I realize my mother's smile is as hard and delicate as the Massachusetts snows.


Now we've been driving all day, I can see the sun setting in the side-view like a fire I'm fleeing.

And also I've been watching Jenny in the mirror: the baby reaching up to her, suckling her, sleeping in her arms; the toddler putting his fingers in her mouth, wiping her with saliva, milk, and graham crackers.

From the back I hear her quiet voice, "Gerry, we need to find a motel soon, I don't think I can last much longer."

I know that tone, soft and firm. I exit at the first food-fuel-lodging sign on the interstate, and we race down a strip of plastic restaurants to a Comfort Inn.

I look in the rear-view to check on Jenny. She's asleep with the toddler curled up on her lap and the baby nursing from her open blouse. A soft neon glow mixes with the left-over sunset as I signal my turn.

But in the middle of the parking lot, I have to bring our wagon to a halt. I'm having trouble seeing, my eyes have glazed over with tears.






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