My daughter Elizabeth is in an awkward stage. She’s lost her front teeth and lately her rapid growth has drawn the baby fat from her face giving her a lean look that is less cuddly than her little brother. She is sleeping now but grinding her teeth when I enter the room. I feel sad for her because she is so jealous of Jonathan. She was numero uno before he came along. One time a couple of years back, she tried to make him go away by dumping an entire can of talcum powder on his face so that he couldn’t breathe. Maybe she expects revenge because now she literally sleeps with one eye half-open. I kiss her on the nose and leave the room. We have a smoke alarm in the hall that I haven’t checked for a while. I make a mental note to trigger it in the morning when the kids are about to get up. It’ll be like a fire drill.
Downstairs, Alice is folding laundry on the living room couch and watching television. When I try to get romantic she reminds me that I haven’t taken out the kitchen garbage. By the time I finish the chore she’s gone upstairs to put the clothes into drawers. I sit waiting in my favorite chair and fall asleep before she returns.
In the morning she’s standing on the platform as the F train charges into the station. She’s dressed in an outfit I haven’t seen before, a flowery print dress. The side of her breast tugs at the light cotton material. I wonder where the kids are. We exchange a brief glance. Then I hear Carlos singing, “I see you every morning on dee sobway,” and I wake up to realize that I’m still home in my living room and that it’s the middle of the night. When I climb the stairs to our bedroom, Alice says groggily, “I didn’t have the heart to wake you.”
Sure enough, the next morning at work Carlos and I are split up. The boss gives me his recently laid-off son-in-law to break in. The guy was an aeronautical engineer and is forever cleaning his fingernails. I’m now ready for another stint at writing.
At lunchtime, I call Gertrude Stein. She says, “Maximus, where have you been?”
I tell her, “I had dialer’s cramp.”
It’s amazing how she keeps going with four kids and a husband to take care of. In spite of all the distractions a slow but steady stream of work comes off her typewriter.
She’s my lifeline to letters. I call her when I feel I’m slipping too far away from it all. She tells me she’s been published in Commentary! “Are you sending any of your writing out?” she asks.
“I’m too tired when I get home,” I say.
“Are you reading?”
“The last good book I read was “Look Homeward, Angel” and that was months ago.”
“You naughty boy,” she says.
I tell her about Carlos, Van Johnson and the girl on the F train.
“So, you’re gathering material,” she says.
“Well--I put it in my pocket.”
We sign off and I scribble ideas I have for a story on a bill from a supply house: A locked door in the attic, he sits behind, living lives of people in his mind, God—giving—taking, shut off from the world, children, wife, feeling guilty, yet knowing these things matter, a sound, peace threatened, he checks the door, he’s outside inside and inside outside, time rushing by, sifting through spaces between fingers of the mind, mantled in cobwebs, another day might have birthed another page, he puts down something old and turns the key to life, outside he sadly trips over an abandoned toy still warm from play . . .
It’s the first time I’ve made a note in ages. My stomach has settled down. I’m now looking forward to quitting work and getting back to writing again, even if it means storming out of the attic to stop the kids from fighting or to separate our car’s bumper from the garage door.
And slowly, after many months of being locked up in the top of my house, collecting those polite but wounding rejection slips, imploding, shedding all that plumbing savy, I’ll swing around to missing work in the city and the train rides and the quiet lunches – that reminds me to ask Carlos when I see him if he’ll come help me trim a tree in the backyard. It will get him to visit and see my kids.
I suppose I’m lucky having this freedom to change from writing to plumbing and back again – a good life. It’s been going on for years, this amphibious existence. I guess it’s only natural. After all, an alligator is an alligator is an alligator.
Terry Berkson is an author living in Richfield Springs.