An Honest Reflection Serves No One
by Lasher Lane
Standing at the Atlantic shoreline, holding hands with my dad, I looked to the horizon and asked, “If I could walk straight across the ocean, as far as possible, where would I end up?”
Not even hesitating, he pointed to my tiny feet in the sand and answered, “Right back here.”
Confused and frustrated by his reply, I asked again, sure that wouldn’t hold true if I were to go left, or right, or backwards, but his answer was the same: “Remember, the Earth is round. No matter which direction you left from here, if you were able to walk as far as you could go, you’d come back to this same spot.”
Five years old, I stood on tiptoes and stared at the ocean before me, straight and flat, straining to see where the water might round itself to hug the planet, without spilling a drop into space.
I’m told before I was born, when Silvercup produced bread instead of entertainment, my parents could frequently be found parked behind the closed building at night, kissing in its dimly-lit lot. This was Dad’s idea, but Mom admitted that at first she did it mainly to escape the confines of the tiny, three-room apartment she shared with her parents and the grasp of her overprotective, not only old-fashioned, but very old Irish father. Yet with time she’d grow attracted to the shy, pensive “sparrow,” a creature her parents, my future maternal grandparents, said Dad reminded them of with his seemingly meek and diffident character, traits they didn’t realize would quickly vanish in a parked car, in the dark.
They first met on what Mom considered the wrong side of the river: New Jersey, when she’d been invited to attend a party of her best friend’s relative. With only a river between them, my parents discovered they were from two very different worlds. A tiny strip of land with a single traffic light, hidden under the 200-foot shadow of the Palisades was the only one Dad ever knew. Besides marinas, factories and taverns, there wasn’t much to do in his town but fish, drink or fool around with the local girls. He and his friends called themselves “river rats,” boatmen and fishermen who lived by the tides, as if, instead of blood, the saltwater of the Hudson coursed through their veins.
Mom, a diehard New Yorker, grew up in Morrisania, a vibrant section of the South Bronx, offering its Grand Concourse, modeled after the Champs-Elysses, Fordham Road’s tree-lined avenues with elaborate, art deco architecture, The Hub, with its many shops and certainly more than one traffic light.
After being introduced, she shared that she was nineteen and a secretary for the Lily Tulip Cup Company. He was six years older and had just come back from Korea, where he’d served as an Army mechanic. Upon returning, he worked in carpentry and bought a newspaper route. Mom misunderstood, thinking he delivered the newspapers himself.
She’d recount how they met, saying, “I was convinced something wasn’t right. How could a man be twenty-five with a paper route? I’d never seen grown men in the city delivering newspapers. I couldn’t help picturing him on a bike, flinging them left and right, so when he asked for my number, I deliberately gave him the wrong one, but without my knowing, my friend asked to see what I’d written and corrected it. When he persisted in calling and explained he didn’t deliver the newspapers himself, that he owned the business, I decided to see him.”
They’d date for a year, then honor Mom’s wishes, marrying on Valentine’s Day in a Catholic church. Their union wouldn’t sit right with my paternal grandmother who’d renounced Catholicism decades before, even going so far as to name my father Martin after Martin Luther, the monk, a man who’d protested Indulgences, or the Church’s doctrine of gifts for favors.
The priest wasn’t happy about the nuptials either and let those attending know by slamming the heavy, marble gate, creating a resounding echo and preventing my parents altar access, then marrying them with the gate between.
Dad, always more interested in science than man-made religion and its bizarre rituals, only cared about coaxing his new wife across the river to his childhood town, where he’d build a 1950’s ranch-style house from a kit, which sat next door to his parents’ Victorian, on a vacant lot they gifted him as a wedding present.
I’d be their only child. If not for complications during childbirth, Mom dreamed of a boy and a girl. One of each, or none; I think Dad could have cared less. Though he wasn’t demonstrative, only showing affection with a smile and a wink, he was extremely yielding, never raising a hand or his voice. Over the years those winks meant much more to me than Mom’s many hugs and kisses, often canceled out by the stern, swift sting of a slap across my face, a form of 1960s childrearing I’d never comprehend.
Before I’d be old enough to succumb to the force of her backhand, Mom would cry while pushing my stroller along the quiet streets of our tiny town, watching window curtains discreetly pushed aside, as some spied on the new stranger, including her new mother-in-law who’d have to get used to the idea of her son’s “mixed marriage.” In the city, where learning to drive was not a requirement, Mom never felt trapped, but she did in her new, small town . If she wanted to get anywhere she had to rely on her two feet, but soon realized there was no anywhere to get.
She didn’t regret being a new wife and mother, but she was lonely. With Dad not home much, she found herself missing her old neighborhood, her old job, even her old, overprotective father. And even with Dad working two jobs, we’d never be wealthy, always having just enough to get by. Seven days a week, he’d wake at 3 a.m., no matter the weather. In the pre-dawn hours, he’d drive to pick up heavy bundles of The Bergen Record, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Newark Star Ledger, then to a rented garage, where he’d meet his workers, and they’d “fold” mountainous piles of sections, each bundled separately, assembling every paper in the order it was to be read. Rainy or snowy Sundays were the most time-consuming, with large editions having to be stuffed into plastic bags. Even so, hours later, our phone would ring off the hook with some saying their papers were wet or left in the wrong place, wanting immediate redelivery or they weren’t paying.
Only after he’d help load almost seven-hundred newspapers into two vans, and watch the workers leave to deliver, would Dad would come home for coffee and quickly change for his second job: building houses. Mom wouldn’t see him again until dinner, which she’d have to walk to the grocer, the only store in town, to buy. There’d be no struggling to manage a stroller and a lot of bundles back home, since there was never much money to spend.
Having grown up witnessing her own father’s disposition, which changed for the worse with alcohol, Mom vowed she’d never marry a drinker, and though his temperament remained even and I’d never seen him falling down drunk, Dad was a drinker. How could he not be, coming from a town with eighteen taverns in its mere four-mile radius? He’d acquired a taste for beer at a young age, when his father told him to drink that and save the ginger ale for mixed drinks when his parents entertained.
If Mom wasn’t crying from loneliness, she was yelling about his daily drinking. On occasion, she’d even snatch a bottle from him and throw it at the wall. Dad believed in peace at any price. Without flinching, he’d smile coyly and say, “Brat, I can’t help it. The beer relaxes me,” With her many moods, Brat had become his affectionate nickname, and from the one-sided fights I’d witnessed, she’d more than earned that moniker.
There were one-sided fights concerning his fidelity, too. He was her first and only boyfriend, yet she knew his own past included relationships with many thinner women in town, women she’d constantly compare herself to, never having lost her pregnancy pounds. To prove his faithfulness, he’d stash away a dollar a day, in his toolbox in the garage, hoping he’d have enough saved by Christmas or her birthday, so he could give her the cameo or seed pearls she’d admired in a store window, or maybe new shoes, so she would no longer need to stuff her worn-through soles with cardboard. He knew she longed for the finer things in life, and he’d try his best to obtain them.
Never driven to make millions, Dad was happy with his ordinary life but did long for the day when we could live more comfortably, not just paycheck-to-paycheck. He also wanted to be free of the obligation in caring for elderly parents, since only months after he married Mom, they reluctantly took in his in-laws.
Without Grandma knowing, Grandpa was leaving his Bronx apartment at all hours, then not remembering how to get home, and my parents suggested they come live with us. So his father-in-law wouldn’t wander off at all hours, Dad reversed our front and back doorknobs, locking us all in. We’d have to use a key to get outside, making Mom feel even more trapped. “When does our turn come?” I’d hear my parents ask each other, when they thought no one was listening.
On mild days, Grandpa was allowed to sit on our front porch, where he’d smoke cigars and sing old Irish songs, but being outside had its drawbacks. When the Fuller Brush man or other salesmen came to the door, he’d invite them to sit a while and converse. Some would oblige,hoping to make a sale. The Jehovahs were the worst, staying for hours, trying to sell salvation to an old, disillusioned Catholic. With Dad at work, me at school and Grandma asleep, Mom tried to avoid them all, but not wanting to appear entirely rude, she’d quickly offer coffee and cake, then excuse herself to clean the house.
As the weather grew cold and Grandpa was forced back inside, I didn’t help Mom’s hostage situation by catching every childhood disease that passed through my school. The couch became my new vantage point, where I’d watch her welcome the Dugan man, who delivered cakes weekly, and the dark-haired, handsome young doctor who made house calls, checking on me and Grandpa with scary things from his bottomless, black bag. After prescribing nitroglycerin for Grandpa, a vaporizer for me, and diet pills for Mom, which she had hoped would counteract the effects of all the cake deliveries, the doctor stood in our kitchen, one leg crossed in front of the other, his stethoscope around his neck like a snazzy accessory, while he leaned his back against the kitchen sink to light a cigarette. Coughing, I’d watch from the couch, as the doctor stood near our dinette table, where my cake-eating mother and chain-smoking grandmother sat with my grandfather, chewing on his unlit cigar and crying along to “Puff the Magic Dragon,” as it played on the transistor radio behind him. Those lyrics would make anyone cry.
As I grew, I’d be immune to childhood diseases but not the opposite sex. Without Dad wanting me to know, he’d confess to Mom that on the day I’d finally marry, if he didn’t approve of who I chose and couldn’t stop me beforehand, he’d go so far as to fake a heart attack, even while walking me down the aisle.
Twenty years had passed since that day on the beach when Dad let me know I wouldn’t get very far by walking around the Earth. Now on Father’s Day, I sat with him at a picnic table in the corner of our yard. He was the only father present, since both his own father and father-in-law had passed away years ago. Though finally free from obligation in caring for them, I could see something still weighed heavily on his mind, as I watched him grip his cold Schaefer tightly with both hands, while taking a break from checking food on the grill. Dad was a pensive pipe- smoker, quiet and soft-spoken, but I couldn’t recall him ever being this quiet. He never handled stress well, holding it all in, while clenching his jaw, and showing that stress by frequently biting through pipe stems. His face ashen, he seemed not only deep in thought but worried. I asked what was wrong. He shook his head, took a sip of beer, then reached into his pocket. “In case I don’t see you in the morning,” he said, handing back my car keys after checking out an engine problem. “I want to make sure I don’t forget to return them before I leave for work tomorrow.” Though never mentioned in front of me, I knew it was work he’d learned to dread, when I overheard him plead with Mom more than once that he wanted to quit. She’d respond with, “I don’t want to talk about it, you know how much we need the money.”
The year before, our tiny, sleepy town had offered him the job of building inspector, which came at a good time, since he admitted he was too old to be up every morning at dawn, lugging heavy newspapers, then rushing off to climb scaffolding and carry heavy lumber. I was surprised when he sold the news route, stopped building and took the job, knowing he hated the thought of being confined to four walls, eight hours a day. He accepted the new position, thinking that other than just having to memorize some building codes, since he already knew how to build houses, the rest would come easy. But he was wrong. Soon after he’d earn his new title, two local boys would die in structure-related accidents. One broke into an abandoned factory at night, then fell down an empty elevator shaft, the other was trapped as he slept in the attic while a kitchen fire raged below. Even though the abandoned factory was bordered by a chain-link fence, the one boy and his friends found an opening, and even though the other boy was in his own house, sleeping in an attic was considered illegal and unsafe. My dad felt he was the only one to blame.
He was at the scene that morning, when the firemen brought out the boy, swollen and incinerated beyond recognition. I remember Dad’s eyes welling with tears, as he stood in our kitchen afterwards, mindlessly stirring sugar into his coffee, saying, “You’ve never seen anything until you’ve seen a body that’s been in a fire. Burnt flesh weighs a lot. The firemen could barely carry him.”
More bad days followed, but after the boy’s deaths, Dad suffered in silence, and though I wished he would have, he’d never mention quitting to Mom again. Besides the two tragedies, what should have been positive events turned just the opposite as we witnessed our formerly industrial town of Edgewater being swiftly transformed into a luxurious “bedroom community” of Manhattan. Developers showed sudden enthusiasm in rat-infested riverfront lots, where once-bustling factories now stood empty and forsaken. At the time, I was oblivious to what Dad was going through, unaware that a well-known organized-crime family had taken an interest in Shelter Bay, a condominium project, while the FBI took an interest in them. A co-worker warned Dad that a trailer, serving as an on-site office for the project, was where conversations were being secretly recorded between the mob and certain town officials, including himself and the mayor. While the mob posed as legitimate developers themselves, hoping to push all others out by offering our town officials bribes of cash and gifts in exchange for the entire waterfront, the FBI offered protection for informants willing to turn on those accepting bribes. What our sleepy, naïve town didn’t realize was that the government had been secretly investigating mob-related New Jersey waterfront activity for four years. Finding himself under surveillance and stuck in the middle, with no way out, Dad wanted no part of what either side had to offer.
During this time, a UPS man began attempting to deliver gifts to our front door. As soon as he’d enter our yard, Dad would run outside with his hands up, waving in an exaggerated way, as if he wanted the neighbors to witness some valiant effort at honesty. The gifts were gestures sent in hopes Dad would cancel upcoming court dates for ignored code violations, lack of fire exits or construction permits.
“Take it back!” he’d yell, as the delivery man would run halfway down the steps with a different size box every few days. After a few weeks, they’d both laugh at this back-and-forth, as if it were some kind of running joke. Defeated, the UPS guy would smile and shake his head, then run up the steps again, every package undelivered.
Dad knew who the gifts were from and why they were sent, but I didn’t. I’d stand next to him, disappointed I’d never get to see the contents of all those boxes. When I asked why he chose to turn them all away, he looked at me and said, “At the end of each day, you’ve got to be able to face your reflection in the mirror and like what you see.” Only later would I realize that he did share something in common with his namesake: like the monk’s disdain for the Catholic practice of Indulgences, my father didn’t approve of gifts for favors. Although the mayor and others would go to jail for accepting those gifts, with Dad’s attempt at honesty, he’d suffer a worse fate.
The morning after Father’s Day, there was no 911 system in place. The town had one ambulance and no hospital. With only zero to call, when Mom got through, the person on the other end apologized that our only ambulance was transporting a patient to a hospital out of town and would be delayed.
When the ambulance attendants finally got there, I watched their futile efforts, as my father’s limbs jolted violently to the current coursing through his body, his eyes fixated on the ceiling, his face expressionless. Shortly after, two policemen arrived, suspicious there’d been some marital altercation, thinking Mom pushed Dad, after the ambulance attendants had alerted them to a large gash on his forehead, an injury from hitting the corner of the china closet when he fell, taking his last breath.
The police asked me to remain behind and answer questions, while Mom, tears streaming down her face, silently followed the stretcher that held my father’s lifeless, body out the door. I stood there numb, my mind blank. One policeman held a pen and pad, taking a seat at one of our kitchen stools. I looked over his head through the kitchen window and watched the ambulance slowly pull away. With no siren and no one in a hurry, I held onto hope, asking, “Will they still try to revive him on the way to the hospital?”
“We’re so sorry. What year was he born?” the seated officer asked, briefly looking to his partner who stood across the room, then back to me. I knew their sympathy was genuine, since my father, a government official like them, was from the same tiny town where everyone knew each other. Yet from the looks they traded, eyes wide with surprise, I could tell they thought that maybe I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, but I did, only too well.
Realizing my father’s head injury hadn’t resulted from being pushed, the police wrapped up their inquiry and left me alone. My own heart almost stopped when I recalled the very last words Dad had said to me just the day before, “In case I don’t see you in the morning.” Thinking there’d be plenty of time for all the questions a daughter might ask of her father about how the universe worked, I’d foolishly put them off, convinced he’d always be there. Now I had so much to ask, but I knew that was no longer possible, as I stood in the silent, empty house, staring down at round defibrillator pads left behind on our dining room floor, round just like the Earth.
Lasher Lane has worked many years for Prentice Hall in book composition. She is currently published in Scars Pub./ Down in the Dirt and The Zodiac Review.