Illustration by Nathan Ota
MY DAUGHTERS WERE BIG, BEAUTIFUL blondes who shared a loft in the East Village, but lately they'd been staying at my place, helping me resettle. I could hear them now in the living room, the younger one, Cammie, asking as she came to, “Where is it I have to get up this second and go?”
“Supermarket,” said Cake. “We need napkins, disposable cups. We have no ice tongs.”
She sighed and said, “Cammie, my God. It's a good thing your clothes are all-occasion.”
Cammie had slept fully dressed on my couch.
“Well, but I wake up ready to go,” Cammie said.
“I think you drink,” said Cake.
“What if I do?” Cammie asked as she pulled up and shook off.
Now both of them arrived in the kitchen.
“Not water from a tap, though, which is something I've seen you do,” Cammie said. “What's this we're cooking?”
They stood at the stove. On one of the front burners sat a huge gurgling kettle.
“Clothes,” Cake said. “They were ugly, so I'm dying them. That sundress what's-her-name gave me, and this other stuff, if it doesn't get pitch black I'm throwing it out.”
She used a long wooden wand to stir the clothing and the kettle's dark water.
“Did you make that? It's an oar,” Cammie said.
Cake nodded. Both my girls had, like me, degrees in anthropology, but Cake had gone into the design and production of wooden spoons. Cammie served drinks at a cowboy bar.
“Hi,” I said now, from my seat behind the breakfast nook. I had been sitting there, unnoticed, the whole long time.
THEY RETURNED FROM THE MARket with sacks of food and the idea of using my bigger kitchen to make hors d'oeuvres.
They had invited me to a cocktail party that night at their loft. I was looking forward to the party and to meeting their many friends. The past eighteen months, I'd been away traveling on a grant. I'd gone to Ciudad Juarez to live with the Okut.
“Before we do anything,” Cake said. “This kitchen.”
THEY CLEARED SHELVES AND CABInets and flipped cans and jars into recycling bags. They used what they called the “six-sack solution” — separate sacks for paper, glass, metal, plastics, food garbage, and one for nonperishables.
I left the kitchen and hid; close, but in another room.
I heard Cammie say, “Here're all the supplements we bought for her — iodine, zinc, chromium, selenium . . . . Seals unbroken, soon to expire.”
Cake called out to me in a tone that made my cat leap: “Mom! You cannot rely on food for nutrition! The soil your produce is grown in is worthless!”
“Come here, Moo,” I told the cat. “You didn't do anything.”
NOW THEY WERE DEFROSTING MY freezer.
“Get back! Get that blowdryer outta here!” Cake yelled. “That is so dangerous! Mom, will you tell her this is dangerous? And that she can't slam at it with a ball-peen hammer. The thing's got Freon!”
My door buzzer sounded. As I got up to answer, I saw the doorknob turn, saw the door open. My father slipped in. I exhaled relief and sat back down.
Dad was dressed for cold in a topcoat and a furry black muffler. His face and bald head were deeply tanned.
“Unlocked?” he asked me. He glanced left, glanced right. He leaned over my chair. “Who's here?”
“The girls,” I said. “You're so tan!”
He straightened. He said, “Thanks,” as he unbuttoned his topcoat. He said, “I use that cream. It's not bad. Not streaky orange like in the old days. I'll bring you some.”
Cammie's voice said, “Grandpa? Don't take this the wrong way, but no.”
She stood in the kitchen entryway. She was holding a platelet of ice.
“It costs three or four dollars,” he said.
“I know,” Cammie said, “but the greater cost. There're laws now about smear-on tans. That anyone who has one can't vote.”
“I'm not registered anyway,” Dad said when Cammie was gone.
“Oh lordy,” I said. “Don't tell them that.”
“Who's in authority here?” he asked.
“I'VE GOT CROCUSES, A FEW TULIPS,” he said. He lived in Brooklyn. “Saw kids doing an egg hunt the other morning. Oh, and, Gloria, I read in Cosmopolitan that you're supposed to — ”
“Wait,” I said. “You read Cosmopolitan?”
He looked right, he looked left. “Only sometimes, if it's lying out and I happen to pick it up.”
I hadn't moved in hours and my chair's upholstered buttons had numbed circles into my back.
“This article cautioned you to cook eggs all the way. You want to be certain of that when you're getting ready for Easter.”
I didn't comment, but Cake called from the kitchen, “We're a little old for baskets, Grandpa. Though we still need Mom's help tying our Easter bonnets on.”
Dad was lounging on the carpet now before the television. The cat came from the shadows and climbed onto him.
“Your husband still with that woman?” he asked me.
I said, “Why would you believe me, but I don't know or care.”
“You may be fooling yourself,” my dad said.
“Then I successfully have. Just shoo her away. The cat,” I said.
“Oh no, don't worry about it. I'm flattered she wants to sit here.”
“Except I do like these pants,” he said after a moment. He lifted the cat off his lap and brushed at his trousers.
I got out of my chair and stood by a bookcase. I had heard Cake say, “You want to bet that if we go in there she still won't have moved.”
“Badgering your own witness!” Dad told the TV.
Perry Mason was on, and Dad had been ahead of the prosecutor character with objections. “Not best evidence. Wasn't introduced in cross.” He said, “I think this must have been a joke episode, the way Raymond Burr keeps announcing he's waiting for Mr. Right.”
“Have you seen this one?” I asked.
“I don't know, I might've. I've got them all on tape. It's to the point that whatever I'm doing I move to the theme song, you know? Tahd-ah, duhd-ee, tahd-ah, duhd-ee.”
The smoke alarm in my kitchen sounded.
The girls, through the entryway, high-jumped. Cake swatted at the alarm. Cammie was fanning at it with a towel.
My dad scooted over to me and asked if he should intervene. “Although I'm not sure how,” he said.
I pantomimed palming the lid, turning it, plucking out the alarm's batteries.
Above its shriek, Cammie screamed, “A potato! That's all I was trying to do! This is about a fucking potato!”
The spud flew past us and thumped against the wall, hard, and awfully close to the cat.
WE WERE ON THE WAY TO THE girls' cocktail party. Cammie had her car in a tight alley, competing with a cab. Usually I enjoyed riding with Cammie. Her driving included many tricks she'd learned in her days of pizza delivery.
Now we were caught with the cab side by side at the alley's end. The cabby hauled himself out and came around to argue.
I said, “How about if we just — ”
“In fairness, I think he started it,” said my dad.
“It doesn't matter who started it!” I said.
The cabby was yelling. Cammie geared into reverse.
We arrived for the party at the same time as a lot of guests. Some were carrying drinks, coolers, and bags of ice that they dumped into the sinks in the kitchen.
My dad wove through the room, chatting and introducing himself and shaking hands.
I knew no one. While I was traveling, the girls had picked up a whole new crowd.
And they had redone their loft — lacquered the floor tiles, painted murals, stenciled the woodworking.
“The guy behind you,” said Cake. “Not straight behind. Five o'clock.”
I turned, turned back. “He looks like Aldo Ray,” I said.
“Yeah,” Cake said. “But Mom, he is the sweetest person.”
“He certainly does have a lovely tan. Golden! Your grandfather must've got to him. He's older than your grandfather.”
She said, “The sweetest. You know, the last time he stayed over — because he lives out in who-knows and some nights it's too cold. The next day he kept apologizing, 'cause I guess he'd been snoring. Saying, 'God, I'm a warthog! Honk, honk!' Saying that over and over.”
“All your guests are old,” I said.
Cake looked at me as if I'd burped.
I could hear my dad behind me. He was talking to somebody, asking, “How could you tell? You remember these? Nineteen forty-three, in fact. They're my war shoes. Old, but they are perfect shoes to this day.”
I thought I saw someone. I went stiff and wheeled slowly around like a rotating store-window mannequin.
“Tell me that isn't,” I said and grabbed Cake by the wrist.
“Well, yes,” she said, “I'm afraid it is. We have a party, they come if they want. Mom, pretend you don't notice.”
“How?” I asked.
“Easy,” she said. “Just pretend.”
NOW THE CROWD HAD ME CORnered. My husband and his friend were dancing close by. Their moves had flourishes, and the lacy tops of the woman's thigh-highs showed with her every turn.
I tried to look engaged. I leaned to the ear of a woman who was reading her watch. I whispered, “I, too, need to know the time.”
“This won't tell it,” she said, and finger-snapped the watch face. She was bare-legged. She wore a cocktail dress, a bowler hat, ugly black shoes.
“Would you just talk to me for a second?” I asked.
The woman pulled back. She said, “Glow-ria. You don't remember me. We used to be best friends.”
“Oh,” I said, “Bonnie. I'm sorry. I didn't see it was you.”
“Catch your breath,” the man with her said kindly. Rhinehart, I believe, was his name. He stared off at the speaker system and nodded at its song. As it ended, he looked back to us, still nodding. He said, “Love is a lie. One big lie.”
“It's like you're holding an egg yolk in your hand,” I said in a low voice.
Bonnie said, “You mean the other person's holding the yolk.”
“You two are psychotic,” said Rhinehart.
“Gloria,” someone whispered, and took me by the shoulders and turned me around. It was Aldo Ray. “I'm Sasha. I just wanted to introduce myself.”
I said, “It's nice to meet you. I already know who you are. Cake was telling me. About the night you stayed over? The honking and snoring. Not that she thought you were, by any means.”
DAD FOUND ME IN THE DINING ROOM, on one of the spindle-backed chairs at the banquet table. Before me were ice buckets, and the girls' new pairs of tongs, many kinds of liquor, glasses, and drinks paraphernalia.
“I did a terrible thing,” I said.
My dad said, “I heard.”
“Oh my God, no. He's telling people?”
“No, I overheard,” said my dad.
He sat across the table from me. He said, “I finally found a remedy for that jumpy stomach of yours. It's a tumbler of gin. You get into bed, you're half lying down, you gulp the whole glass, you're cured.”
“No, Dad, that's being unconscious. It's not a remedy for anything.”
“It works, little lady. I ought to know.”
“Of course it works! You're passed out!” I said. “You're in a coma!”
After a bit, he said, “One evening, I remember coming home from work. You must have been in your room upstairs. A banana peel shot straight out your window and landed on the roof.”
“Those were the days,” I said.
“Well, it took me all next morning to get it down. Assembling the ladder, crawling out on those old shingles. Some of them loose.”
I said, “Dad, you choose now to reprimand me?”
“No. I'm saying, Gloria! There's a point at which your kids aren't who they were anymore. They aren't even kids. They're over there, a couple of people.”
IT WAS CAMMIE WHO JOINED US AND warned that we were abandoning too many traditions. She said, “This is why tribes die.”
“Which traditions?” asked my dad. “Cultural? Religious ones? Our family?”
“Those're they,” Cammie said.
Cake was there also. She said, “You're going to have to be more specific.”
“Okay, Easter dinner. It used to be a ham covered with pineapple rings and cloves,” said Cammie.
“Even if I didn't think this idea dangerous,” Cake said, “I wouldn't eat ham.”
She said, “And you're not going to get me out caroling. Nor do I see myself wearing a hat in church.”
“Not rules, you're thinking rules. More like customs. Like holly. Or breaking the wishbone on Thanksgiving,” Cammie said.
“Spankings on my birthday,” said Dad.
Cammie said, “Or how about quarters under my pillow? I just had this wisdom tooth yanked.”
“You floated through that on Percodan. You weren't even there,” said Cake.
“Cards,” Cammie said. “I will buy you all gift boxes of greeting cards to send to me.”
“I like jelly beans and Easter candy,” my dad said. “Not marshmallow chicks. Nobody likes those, they're always stale. Though they look good.”
“Hershey's a decent company,” said Cake.
I said, “Maybe you're right about traditions. What I missed in Mexico was anything familiar.”
“Live at Five,” Cake said. “Denny's.”
My husband and his woman friend entered the room. My dad sought to distract me by starting a loud complaint about the wine in my glass. He said, “Gloria, honey, stop! I tasted that wine you're drinking. It's gone bad. And besides that, the girls say it's all full of sulphitates. You better excuse yourself immediately. Take a word of advice and go heave.”
“I'm fine,” I said. “Let me finish.”
I said, “You know, when you're a kid, how you want everything to move really fast. So you can grow up, or get to change classrooms, or you want to have more gears on your bike. Plus, the bad things. You chip a tooth, or the way the UPS man ran over Pumpkin.”
Cammie looked deep into me. She said, “You were a piece of wood when that guy killed Pumpkin.”
“No, no, that's just what you saw. I was devastated,” I said.
Now Cake was crying and writing our dead dog's name on a table napkin.
“Aw, little baby,” my dad said to her, or to any of us, or to all.
He removed his war shoes and moved them along the carpeting and presented them to me. “Gloria,” he said, “put these on.”
He said, “I'm serious. Just try them.”
“All right, I have to admit they're pretty good,” I said.
He said, “I want each and every one of you to wear them.”
The girls were nodding. Cammie said, “Me, next.”
From Tell Me, published by Counterpoint. Copyright 2002 by Mary Robison.