Flying over Philadelphia
My love of writing came from my mother. She was a creative soul who longed to express herself in some meaningful way. She carried around a matchbook with a picture of a dog on the cover and the words, “Can you draw me?” the inside-cover language encouraged the reader to send in a sketch for a free talent evaluation.
“I can draw that,” she told me and then sat at the kitchen table with pencil and paper and dashed off four or five flawless reproductions.
“Mom, send them that one.” I pointed to a perfect replication from the pile.
She examined the small printed figure on the cover, critiqued her drawing and found some imperceptible flaw. “I can do better than that,” she said, and tore the sketches into small pieces and dumped them in the trash, save the one I pointed out to her.
My mother carried the matchbook cover and matching sketch around in her apron like an unannounced winning lottery ticket. But drawing was not her only creative talent. She could look at a dress in a magazine and make a pattern of it. She had a flair for decorating. I watched her arrange driftwood, shells, and dried seaweed into arrangements. She could take a collection of inconsequential objects collected at rummage sales and redecorate a room with them. I never saw my mother use a recipe. Her ability to create in the kitchen was legendary.
As talented as my mother was, her hunger to write was preeminent, and Ernest Hemingway was her idol.
“Did you know Hemingway used to live right here in Florida?” She talked about him like he was her closest friend, as though he lived just across the street, and she could’ve walked down, knocked on his door, and had coffee with him. “He moved to Cuba, in the middle of the Cuban revolution.”
Despite her vast knowledge of Hemingway’s works and life, she spoke almost singularly and religiously about his “juice.” She had read that Ernest Hemingway was a quirky writer, who could only write well when his creative juices flowed. Hemingway referred to this creative stream as “juice.” Mother explained this as a creative fountain inside a writer that was either on or off. She further complicated this scenario by adding that there was some mysterious force in the cosmos that determined whether there would be “juice” or not. She accepted this as fact. When she couldn’t write, she would throw up her hands and say the juice was gone.
My mother kept the products of her own juice enshrined in spiral notebooks hidden under her bed. I have many pictures of my mother in my memory, but none as cherished or vivid as her seated at the kitchen table, hunched over a spiral notebook, escaping into the land of Juice.
“Mom, this is really good. Why don’t you finish it?” She made me read every word she wrote. The long shallow box under Mother’s bed contained dozens of spiral notebooks filled with unfinished stories.
“Even Ernest Hemingway has juice problems.” She read in an interview that as he got older it was harder for him to get his juice flowing. Standing to write was one gimmick he used, she told me, to spur his juices. But like the matchbook figures she drew, and every other creative venture my mother pursued, it had been clear to every person in my mother’s life, save her, that she had immense talent. In all the years Mother labored for her Pulitzer, she never finished one story, never submitted one drawing in the matchbook contest, and never made the first effort to do anything conclusive with her talent.
These were my memories of Mother before she stopped writing and drawing and lost hope. These were the times before Billie came to stay with us and changed our lives. As fresh and clear as these memories were to me, they are about the times when I was a child and still loved my mother. Since then feelings of anger, resentment, and hatred towards her have haunted me. As the MD88 jetliner touched down at La Guardia Airport in New York, I pictured Mother sitting at the kitchen table exasperated that she couldn’t write, trying to force words on paper that just weren’t there. I acknowledge that the same unseen cosmic force that robbed my mother of her juice had robbed mine as well. This was no temporary spell of writer’s block. Even if I stood on my head, I couldn’t write a single word.
New York City
La Guardia had its usual snarl of traffic. Horns blew, people yelled at one another, and the lady behind me in a line for a cab beat me to death with her luggage. Trash swept along by November breezes swirled around the concrete columns, all part of the city’s standard welcome.
My cab inched its way to the head of the line. I’d already paired people ahead of me in line with cabs queued for passengers. Normally, I’d end up with a hand-painted ten-year-old Ford LTD, with no hubcaps and a foreign speaking driver who’d take me to midtown via Newark. I heard the disk brakes scrape as the older Chevy Caprice ground its way to my waiting feet. The trunk clicked open and rose like the lid of a coffin in some Dracula movie. I walked to the back of the cab and loaded a small Hartman overnight bag in a rusted-through trunk. A small piece of army green loop pile carpet covered the gaping hole and separated my luggage from the oil-stained concrete below. Hesitating, I closed the trunk, wondering if I’d ever see my luggage again. I always feel constrained to place my luggage in the trunk of these vehicles that would be in junkyards in any other place in the country. I felt like I was posting bond, to insure payment of the cab fare. It offends me, even though no one has told me that this is an unwritten rule. So New York’s first assault against my sensibilities was the announcement that I was not to be trusted. In fairness, I should have kept something of the cab driver’s to ensure I arrived at my destination in one piece.
I opened the rear door to the all too familiar cage that I willingly occupied to my destination. Between the top of the front seat and the roof was a metal and Plexiglas divider that separated the driver from the passenger. The Plexiglas was badly scratched and difficult to see through. I checked the identification of the driver. His first name was Mohammed. I couldn’t pronounce his last name. His picture looked like a mug shot taken in a police line-up. There was a little window that could be opened and closed in the Plexiglas. I heard the driver mumble something, and I replied, “Marriott Marquis—Times Square.” The rear seat pulled loose from the floor, and my butt slid into the space between the back and bottom of the seat. The compartment smelled like urine. As the cab pulled away from the curb, destined for the bowels of the city, I heard every valve in the engine clatter, as age and abuse had finally taken its toll on the heart of the yellow beast. The engine ran on six of its eight cylinders as it climbed the Tri-borough Bridge headed for Manhattan.
We edged toward mid-town along the river. Graffiti adorned the buildings, overpasses, phone booths, trash receptacles, and even vehicles that had stood in one place too long. Occasionally, abandoned vehicles, long stripped of anything of value, had stood as sentinels to the entrance of the city. The road was rough. The paved surface replaced long ago by a mosaic of macadam patches, in various halftones of gray and black.
Staying in no particular lane at twenty miles an hour over the speed limit, my cabby demonstrated his prowess behind the wheel. When blocked by a non-professional driver who dared to do the speed limit, he laid on the horn, screamed in Arabic out the half-opened driver’s window, and he repeatedly beat the heel of his hand against the steering wheel; each strike sent waves of rattles across the dashboard.
Catapulting across town to Broadway, past the adult theaters that announced our approach to Times Square, we slammed into gridlock just two blocks from the hotel. From the left and rear of the cab I heard a repeated whistle blow grow louder. Suddenly, the car exploded with a startling thud, and a large heavy man scrambled across the front of the cab and left a crater in the center of the hood. The official New York City cab medallion on the damaged hood caught the fugitive’s old, tattered flannel shirt and ripped off a large square of light-blue and green material. The man bounced off the hood of a Jaguar to the right, tore off the hood ornament, and smashed that hood, too.
Mohammed exploded in anger. His unintelligible ramblings converted to action. He bolted from the car only to be forced back into his seat by two pursuing police officers who also elected the shortest route to the fleeing man over the top of Mohammed’s cab, expanding the huge dent in the middle of the already destroyed hood. Apparently, the officers had discriminating taste. They avoided the Jaguar and opted to bounce across the hood of another cab. The pair bounded to the sidewalk in pursuit of the man with a torn shirt and a gray wool cap pulled down over his ears.
“Sheeeet,” Mohammed said in broken but understandable English. He clumsily made his way to the street and joined the drivers of the other cab and Jaguar as they shared their mutual disbelief, anger, and misfortune. The trio stood helplessly as they watched the three-person wrecking crew run down the crowded sidewalk toward the theater district, whistles blew and the crowd separated like the Red Sea at Moses’ outstretched arms.
Mohammed inspected the damage done to his already disheveled car as though it had just received its first dent. There wasn’t a piece of sheet metal on the car that didn’t have either contusions, abrasions, or rust. From where I sat, the readjusted condition of the hood fit well with the ambiance of the cab in general and the city that I had come to loathe in particular. Mohammed was a small thin man with dark but expressive features. His mood lightened, but he still muttered to himself in Arabic, now motivated to move on by the yells and screams of other cabbies and drivers who soon bored of the situation and were ready to move on. Mohammed slammed the car door so hard the glass came off the track and fell inside the door with a crash. He slammed the heel of his hand on the steering wheel again, turned his head in my general direction, and said in his broken English, “I lub dis place.” He gave me a grin of yellow-stained teeth via the rearview mirror. Mohammed’s smile faded rapidly to a snarl. He slammed the gear shift lever into drive, the car now sputtered toward the Marriott Marquis Hotel, my opinion of Gotham unchanged.
I waited for Lisa Catera, my agent, in the coffee shop at the Marriott. Her office was on the 4700 block of Avenue of the Americas several blocks away. I’m surprised she suggested we meet here, since it usually would have taken surgery to remove the phone from her ear at her office. Our once annual in-person conversations were like a poster I saw once that defined management as interruptions interrupted by interruptions. I hated her office anyway. Its appearance would encourage volunteers for a “Save the Forests” campaign. Stacks of manuscripts formed a leafless pine forest of their own, not only in Lisa’s office, but in every inch of available space in the agency. Her office was depressing. The dreams of all those writers lay in stacks of white and manila envelopes like so many concrete blocks. It was humbling, too. A reminder of what a small group the published really were.
I looked up at Lisa, stood, and stretched out a hand. “Hi, Lisa. You look terrific.”
She shook my hand in an all too professional manner, and dispensed with her usual warm friendly hug. Lisa was my age, nearing the half-century mark. She was a woman of the nineties, professional but comfortable. Short light brown frosted hair was cut in Lisa Minnelli fashion, and she always wore a severe business suit, complete with dark hose and Reebok tennis shoes.
She hung her backpack purse on the chair back directly across from me. “How are you feeling, Jack?” a veiled reference to my current inability to perform to her expectations.
I looked directly at her. “The same.”
“Black coffee,” she said to the hovering and unpleasant waiter.
“Jack, we just have a few moments before Barksdale arrives. I thought it best if you heard it directly from him.” Lisa fumbled with the napkin. She looked at everything in the restaurant but me.
I leaned forward, reached across the table, and placed my hand on hers. “What’s this about Lisa?” I was tired of the intrigue.
She looked at me with narrowing eyes. “Jack, you have to finish ‘No Place for a Lady.’ I’ve already made all the excuses I could think of. He’s angry, Jack. And you can’t blame him. He championed your three-book deal. He put his butt on the line for the one-point-five-million-dollar advance you received. You promised you’d have the second book finished six months ago. You haven’t written the first word. He’s pissed, Jack.”
I wrapped my hands around the hot coffee cup as a camper might warm his hands to keep the edge off a cold morning. The gesture did little to remove the chill of her look. I leaned back and looked at the lady who helped me sell seven novels over the past eight years. Though we saw each other infrequently, we talked every other day. I liked Lisa. I trusted her. Every dime I made passed through her hands on the way to my checking account—minus her ten percent commission. We were more than friends and business partners. I had to be honest with her.
“I can’t finish the book, Lisa.”
“What do you mean you can’t finish it?” Her look bespoke disbelief. I had her attention.
“I can’t finish it, money or no.”
“Sure you can, Jack. It’s a good story; a great plot. Right down your alley.” She tried to encourage, but her voice was on the edge of anger.
“I’m done, Lisa. I can’t even write one, simple, lousy sentence. I sit at the computer all day, and not a damn thing comes out. It isn’t just the desert story, Lisa. I can’t write anything. I’m through. Do you understand? I’m finished.” Months of frustration put force behind my words. I’m angry, too, but not at Lisa. I’m angry at myself, and the confession to Lisa was long overdue.
Her face reddened. Her hands in front of me now on the table turned to tightly clenched fists.
“Jack, if you factor in the first book you finished, there is still nearly a million dollars sitting on the table. You just can’t walk away from that. I can’t walk away from the commission. Our firm has already deposited and spent our share. It will create a terrible problem if we have to return it.”
“I can’t help that. I tell you I can’t write anymore. When I dig down for the words they aren’t there. If I could change it I would.”
I saw the frustration etched in the lines of her thin, elongated face. She brushed the hair away from her forehead. “The medication isn’t helping?”
“No.” I didn’t tell her I had refused the medication. I leaned back in my chair. Lisa looked over her shoulder as though Barksdale would show up at any minute.
“Jack. Promise me that you won’t utter a word of this to Barksdale. If you tell him what you just told me, his lawyers will crawl all over both of us and demand a refund of the advance. For my sake, I beg you not to say anything. Promise me.” She reached across the table, took my hand in hers, and looked at me with panicked, sad eyes.
“All right. But we’re just delaying the inevitable. I’ll never finish that book—any book.”
A waif of a girl, with a bicycle helmet, long stringy blonde hair, black tights, leather finger-less gloves and a worn, brown leather bomber jacket appeared at the table. She barged right in. “Lisa Catera?”
Lisa nodded. The girl handed her a sealed business envelope, with the Reynolds and Ryan logo emblazoned in gold in the upper left-hand corner. “Here, sign this.” The girl thrust a form in front of Lisa. The girl, who could have been a poster child for the anorexic, spun on her heels and departed; odors from the street whirled about the table. Lisa trashed the envelope and pulled the handwritten note out with a flutter.
She rolled her eyes and looked at me. “It’s from Barksdale. Can’t make it. Says you have forty-five days to finish “No Place for a Lady,” or the contract is canceled, and then he expects a check from both of us for one million. Wishes you well. Short, sweet, straight for the jugular.” She held the letter out for my inspection. I declined.
I said, “So there it is. Between royalty checks and what I have left of the advance, I should be able to come up with my share. What about you?”
“I don’t want to hear this. You sound defeated, like you’ve given up. This isn’t you, Jack. Before you quit, I want to know why. You owe me that much.”
“I don’t know, Lisa. If I knew why, I’d fix it and finish the book.”
“Could you change your medication?”
“No,” I say, without explanation.
“Are you still going to counseling?”
“No. It’s a waste of time.”
“Something is causing all this. There has to be an explanation.”
“There is an explanation. We’re just not going to find it in my lifetime.”
Lisa dropped her head and clasped her hands. She shook her head slightly as if to say, I can’t believe this is happening to me. “Jack, you’re throwing away a brilliant career.” She raised her head and looked at me. She was on the verge of tears.
“You sound like Emily.”
“She loves you. She’s as concerned as I am.” Lisa turned and looked toward the lobby of the hotel; at the entrance of the coffee shop, a throng of conventioneers waited to be shown to their seats. She looked at the line of people as though one of them might have a word of advice. She looked back at me with eyes less emotional. “Jack, I’m not just your agent. I’m your friend. You have to resolve this. You have to go back to counseling. You have to find out what’s going on. There’s a reason for all of this. You can’t just give up.” She pounded her fist on the table; dishes and silverware rattled in response.
I was silent. I had no words of encouragement for Lisa. Hell, I had no words of encouragement for me.
Lisa pushed her chair away from the table. She picked up the Barksdale letter and placed it in front of me. “Jack, I can’t stay. I’ve got an appointment in a half-hour. Have dinner with me tonight, and we’ll talk more. You are staying aren’t you?”
Lisa pulled a compact from her backpack, checked her mascara, and tossed the compact back into her purse.
“I’m not staying. I’ve had too much fun for one day.”
Lisa stood, and I followed her lead. She walked around the table and hugged me warmly. She held me by the shoulders. “Promise me you’ll go back to counseling.”
“All right. I’ll go. But I can’t finish the book, Lisa. I can’t.”
“Make an appointment with LuAnn. Talk to her. Then call me. I have to go.” She hugged me again, picked up her backpack and left.
“Anything else for the gentleman,” the waiter said, clearing off the table. “My, are we busy. Look at the line waiting for tables.” He laid the check on the table and scurried off to annoy other patrons. New York, the home of hospitality.
I picked up the note from Barksdale. I recognized his bold, flowing handwriting. I could even picture his large, fleshy, impeccably attired body hunched over the paper as he wrote my death warrant. He probably wrote it with the Monte Blanc gold tip fountain pen he fancied. Forty-five days? I’ve never written anything in forty-five days, not even a short story. Even with the outline finished, the task was monumental. I was through. No amount of counseling would change it.
I checked my airline guide and found a non-stop flight back to Orlando that left in three hours. Leaving a twenty on the table, I fought my way to the lobby, then down the escalator to the covered entrance. I put the strap of my overnight bag over my shoulder and walked around the corner and out to Times Square. Rush hour neared. Yellow cabs, busses, and the foolhardy snarled the streets. I took a deep breath of the particulate laden air that smelled of diesel fuel and vented air from the subway system. I felt like the air smelled. Dismal. I wanted to leave for the refuge of Mt. Dora, to sit on my porch, look out at Lake Dora, and drink copious amounts of Cabernet.
I signaled for a cab. From the center lane, a badly damaged relic cut off two lanes of traffic amid cursing and blaring horns and limped to the curb. I opened the door, and I was nearly knocked over by the strong pine scent. I looked in the front window and a half-dozen of the pine tree-shaped fresheners hung from the rear view mirror. I threw my overnight bag into the back seat and forewent the trunk clicking routine.
“La Guardia.” The cab lurched away from the curb before I closed the door. I jerked the door closed. The smell of the air fresheners was stifling. I found a hole in the door panel where the button to open and close the windows once was. I looked through the wire cage to the black man driving. “Can you open my window, please?”
He spoke to me in a language I couldn’t recognize. He flashed me a brown toothed smile over the seat, then focused his attention on wedging the worn Crown Victoria into a spot no bigger than a Yugo in the lane next to us. Fumes from the exhaust system seeped through the floorboards. Traffic was at a standstill.
“God I love this place,” I said to my driver as I laid my head back against the seat.
Mt. Dora, Florida
It was nearly midnight after the three-hour flight and an hour drive from the Orlando International Airport. I navigated through the small town and on to Lakeshore Drive. I rolled down the window and marveled at Lake Dora bathed in the light of a full moon. With the lake and its many boathouses and docks to my left and elderly but stately homes on the knoll above to my right, I cruised the short distance along the lake to the 1920’s home I had bought from the estate of a deceased citrus baron. The crisp November air filled the car and cleansed my senses with familiar sights and sounds I had grown to love. Mt. Dora was as far away from the theme park throngs of Orlando as I could get without forfeiting good restaurants and shops.
As I neared my home, a small yellow moving van stood like a billboard in the moonlight. Every light in my house was on, and the truck blocked the drive, forcing me to park in the street. A burglar was my first thought, until I saw Emily hunched over a heavy box she struggled to carry to the back of the truck. Security lights at the southwest corner of the house washed over the truck like stage lights in a play. She strained to deposit the box into the back of the truck, and then retraced her steps to the house.
As I walked up the drive, heat from the truck’s engine compartment felt good against the chill of the early morning air. I looked in the back of the truck. Various shaped boxes with U-Move printed diagonally across them were haphazardly scattered on the wooden floor. I decided to wait by the truck for the solution to the mystery to come to me. I could hear the door from the house to the garage open and close and then footsteps across the garage floor. Emily rounded the corner, caught the sight of me, screamed, and dropped a small box, which split open when it hit the ground. Bras, underwear, and nightclothes spilled onto the concrete.
“What are you doing here?” She shifted from one foot to the other, hands on her hips.
“Remember, I live here.” I held out my arms toward my second spouse, my faithful mate of eight years. “How about a kiss to welcome your successful author husband home from his trip to Babylon?”
Her eyes flashed, and her brain worked at warp speed for an explanation. She threw her hands to her side. “Shit, Jack. I wanted to avoid this.” She began to cry. “I’m leaving you.” She bent over, put her now public unmentionables back into the injured box, and tossed it into the truck. Without a word she twirled on her heels and headed back into the garage.
I grabbed a hand, and pulled her back to face me. “Just like that. ‘Oh, by the way, Jack, I’m leaving you.’ I can’t believe this. You didn’t even have the courage to tell me to my face; you waited until I was gone and tried to sneak out in the dead of night?”
She tried unsuccessfully to free her wrist from my grasp. “I’m tired of being the punching bag for your unhappiness. You’re depressed, and somehow I’m always the cause. I’m not the cause, Jack. I’ve gone above and beyond trying to stick it out with you. Not anymore. Now let me go.”
Emily yanked free and stomped off through the darkened garage and into the house. In the kitchen, the lights from the fluorescent fixture danced on her hair and skin. She appealed to me more than at any time in recent memory. Short brown curly hair, brown eyes, and light skin cast a spell on me. Even in this, the most menial of endeavors, Emily dressed to perfection: pearl earrings, brown cardigan thigh-length sweater, matching blouse, and pants.
“I like how we leapt from happiness, to separated and skipped the arguing, fighting, and counseling part. Isn’t it written somewhere that we get to talk first before we split up the furniture?”
Hands on her hips she said, “Happy? Is that what you call this? This isn’t happy. This is you miserable while everyone around you walks on eggshells. This is bimonthly sex and romantic starvation. There has to be a relationship before you can talk. There’s no relating going on here, Jack. You’ve crawled into that emotional hole of yours and I haven’t seen you for two years. Well, I’m not going to stand around and watch you destroy yourself. And I’m certainly not going to let you destroy my life, too.” Tears. Angry tears.
Emily pulled napkins from a holder on the kitchen counter and dabbed her eyes. She took in a deep breath. “I’ve got packing to do, and I don’t want to be all night.” She pushed past me, aimed for the kitchen.
I followed the trail of her light perfume. “Will you stop for a minute? You can’t just leave like this,” I said frantically. I felt rejected and fearful. The potential of losing my publisher was not totally unexpected. I had many clues the confrontation was at hand. But Emily. I thought about the events of the past few days. They seemed normal enough. Certainly no signs of her imminent departure. “Can’t we talk about this?” I blocked the doorway. She pushed into me with a box and forced her way through the door.
Once in the kitchen, she slammed the box down on the kitchen table and turned on her heels to face me. “We have talked. I’m done talking. I’m tired of you sleeping half your life away. I’m tired of listening to how unhappy you are. I’m tired of watching you throw a fabulous career away.”
“Well, we’ve finally gotten to the nub of it, haven’t we? It’s the money, isn’t it? Everything was great while the money was coming in.” I regretted the words as they left my lips.
Anger swept her face. She slapped me hard on the face. Through clenched teeth, “You’d better leave.” Her eyes narrowed, and the muscles in her jaw tightened.
“You’re doing enough of that for both of us.”
She slapped me again. “Get out.” She grabbed me by the arm and tried to drag me to the door to the garage. “Now, go Jack, or I swear to God I’ll call the police.”
“All right. I’m going.”
“I’ll be out by morning. I’ll send for the rest of the furniture I want later. You can have your precious little house.”
I walked through the garage, past the truck, and down the drive to my car. I leaned against the door and looked out across the moonlit lake. I knew Emily would not be back.
Emily was the long-suffering sort who reached a certain point then acted. Once she turned a page, she never looked over her shoulder. If it was a job, she moved on. If it was a friend, she permanently wrote her off.
I loved Emily. But I felt dead inside. She needed a husband and a lover, and, in honesty, I had been neither. I couldn’t have cared for my own needs. I heard her footsteps on the drive, and the thud of a box dropped into the back of the truck, then footsteps back to the house to retrieve another box. I should have been crying, I thought. But there were no tears. I got in my car and reversed my earlier course. I knew none of the motels in Mount Dora would be open this late, so I drove out to the main highway.
At Highway 441, I pulled the car off the road. I had no idea where to go. Traffic was light and the moon so bright you could drive without lights. I turned off the headlights and engine and sat in silence. When I was seventeen, my mother had drunk more than her usual share of Chianti. We were sitting at the kitchen table. Through bleary eyes, she had told me she didn’t want to live anymore. Her face was as clear in my memory as if she had been sitting next to me now. As a young boy, this was the first time I had felt completely helpless. She had been in pain and I couldn’t do a thing for her. I loved my mother deeply and had known I didn’t possess the power to have made her happy.
As I sat in silence, I felt like that teenage boy again. Helpless. Hopeless. As bad as things had been over the last two years, I had never thought of suicide, until now. I just didn’t want to live anymore. I looked toward the glove box. I kept a loaded nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol there for protection. I contemplated opening the glove box and removing the gun.
As I reached for the glove box, someone rapped on the driver’s side window. The unexpected intrusion made me jump in my seat. I turned and a sheriff’s deputy stood a safe distance away and a little behind me. His hand was on the butt of his handgun on his belt. I rolled down the window.
“Everything, OK?” the deputy asked still on alert.
“Would you step out of the vehicle, please?” The deputy backed away from the car.
I opened the door slowly and got out of the car.
“May I have your driver’s license, please?”
The deputy’s cruiser was parked behind my car. I turned to the deputy, pulled my license out of my wallet and handed it to him. “My name is Jack McNamara. I just went home a few minutes ago and found my wife leaving me. She asked me to stay somewhere else tonight while she moves out. I’m trying to figure out where to go.”
He inspected the license, looked at me, and said, “Could I see the registration for the car?”
I opened the driver’s door, crawled across the front seat, blocked the deputy’s view of the glove box, and pulled out the registration. I closed the box, backed out of the car, closed the door, and handed the yellow slip to the deputy. He looked at both then handed them back to me.
“Are you OK?” He searched my face for clues. If I looked like I felt, I could understand his cause for concern.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thanks for stopping.”
“This is not a great place to park. There’s a convenience store about a half-mile south on the right. They’re open all night.”
“I’m going to Altamonte Springs. But I appreciate your help just the same. Thanks.”
“Good night, then.” The deputy gave me a brief two-finger salute from the bill of his Smokey-the-Bear hat and left.
When I thought about what I had contemplated doing, I thought about my mother. Even though she had been dead for seventeen years, it made me angry that our lives seemed to be so intertwined. I blamed her for the dark side of my life. I knew my troubles were inexplicably linked to hers, a fact that only enhanced my anger toward her. I felt alone, deeply unhappy, and unable to escape.
I started the engine, turned on the headlights, and put the car in drive. As I thought about the unhappiness that filled the remaining years of my mother’s life, I decided then that I didn’t want to end mine that way. I had been miserable long enough. I had no idea how to pull my life out of a free fall, but for the first time in two years, I wanted to try.
LuAnn Calder’s Office, Orlando, Florida
In my twenties I had this incredibly bright idea to open a bar. It would be a neighborhood joint with red check oilcloth table covers and an antique bar from the gay 1890’s. On the weekends folksingers would entertain. I was going to be rich.
So, I gathered up my dreams and took them to a local banker my father knew. The banker picked patiently at his fingernails while I enthusiastically shared my genius. When I finished, he asked me how much of my own money I would put into the business.
“None,” I said. “I don’t have any money of my own.”
At a very young age I learned the first hard lesson of life. Banks don’t lend to people without money. Seeing a counselor is a very similar experience. Counselors don’t have answers for people who don’t have answers of their own. At nearly a hundred bucks an hour, they listen to your aimless rambling, and when you accidentally stumble onto a nugget of personal wisdom, they say smugly, “There you go. Now you have it,” as if they have had the answer all the time and have used their years of training to make you think you have come to this conclusion all on your own.
This is the relationship I had with LuAnn Calder, which was why I quit coming to her. I don’t dislike her, but I’m not sure I like her much either. I always felt like a child called to the principal’s office when I had done something wrong. I didn’t feel threatened. I just felt like I was twelve years old and not the smartest guy in the world.
She asked, “What’s bothering you?”
“I’m depressed,” I said.
“Why do you think you’re depressed?” She drilled right to the heart of the matter.
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here.” I was a smart-ass with my principal, too.
Coming there was like trawling for one particular fish in the Atlantic Ocean with no bait on the end of your hook. The odds were one in a gazillion, but you’ve convinced yourself there was a shot. So, I submerged myself into an ocean of feelings and searched for the key to unlock my emotional prison. The odds were better winning the lottery.
I hated LuAnn’s office. It looked more like a den than an office. The only thing missing was a fireplace. Way too frilly for my taste. When I came there my mood was dark. I wanted darkness, not little shelves with tiny teddy bears congregated and white flowery wallpaper. She overused vanilla air fresheners. After more than a year of coming to her, I smelled vanilla and was instantly depressed. I could tell I had been in counseling far too long when I had begun to look at the counselor’s office with ideas for redecoration.
LuAnn was distractively attractive; mid-thirties, long dark hair, nice figure, friendly face, and a condescending demeanor. I don’t know what it was about her, or how she did it, but everything she said came across with attitude. During the past year, I’ve tried many times to figure how she created this impression. On the surface, she was the nicest person in the world. Sweet. Charming. Likeable, but condescending.
She sat in her recliner. She didn’t have a desk; she said desks made people uncomfortable. She had a little clipboard in her lap and a pen in her hand. She wore a sky-blue pants suit that matched her eyes.
She cleared her throat and crossed her legs. “What brings you to my door, Jack?”
“Well, yesterday my publisher threatened to cancel my contract, Emily walked out on me, and I seriously thought about blowing my brains out last night. Typical day in the neighborhood, I’d say.” A stuffed bear on a bookshelf above and to her left grinned and stared me down with his one remaining black-button eye.
“Tell me about it.”
This woman had a heart of stone. Not, “Gee, I’m really sorry,” or “I feel badly for you.” “Tell me about it,” she said.
I looked directly at her for the first time. “Nothing much to say. You know the deal about the publisher. Emily has overloaded on my marvelous personality and disposition. And like my mother once told me, ‘I don’t want to live anymore.’”
“When did she tell you this?” The word “this” was spoken with an incredulous tone.
“Why didn’t you tell me your mother attempted suicide?”
“She didn’t try to kill herself. She said she didn’t want to live anymore. There is a difference.”
My attempt at sarcasm ignored, she asked, “When was the first time?”
I thought for a minute while LuAnn chewed on the end of her plastic ballpoint pen. “I guess I was about seventeen. We were sitting at the kitchen table where we always talked. It was a couple of years after my older half-sister left, or I should say after my mother threw her out.”
“What older sister? I thought you were an only child.”
“I am. Well, I guess technically I’m not.”
“You have me confused.”
“My mother was married before. She had a child with her previous husband. Kind of a family skeleton.”
“When I was fourteen, my mother got a call from this girl. I answered the phone. The girl on the phone had a thick southern accent, like Mother’s. She wanted to know if Kit McNamara lived there. I handed the phone to Mother. She turned white, broke into tears, and asked me to leave the room.
“The call was from your sister?”
“Half-sister. But I didn’t know it at the time.”
“When did you find out?”
“Later, when my father got home. They had a huge argument. Just before bedtime, my mother and father came to my room and told me about Billie.”
“What about Billie?” Her words had a sharp edge. I knew she was angry with me for keeping all this from her, but I really hadn’t given it much thought until now.
“I never knew my mother had been married before. Before that phone call I didn’t know I had a half-sister. My mother said Billie was coming to live with us.”
She wrote a few notes on her clipboard then asked, “Why did your mother throw her out?” She tapped the end of the pen lightly on the edge of the clipboard.
“I don’t know. I asked her several times. She wouldn’t talk to me about it.”
“And this is the reason your mother didn’t want to live anymore.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You coupled your mother’s not wanting to live anymore with Billie’s leaving.”
“No I didn’t. You asked me when she first told me she didn’t want to live anymore.”
“You don’t think these things could be connected?”
“I’ve never thought about it. Mother had always struggled with depression. But after Billie left she really took a nosedive. Perhaps they are connected.”
She shook her head. “I can’t believe that you’ve been coming to me for two years and haven’t mentioned any of this.”
“It didn’t seem important. I certainly don’t want to go back and relive any of that.”
Her lips tightened into a thin line. She scribbled on her clipboard feverishly. “Tell me about Billie.”
“Not much to tell. She came to our home in May of 1961 and left in August, just before school started.”
“Were you close?”
I was surprised how hard the question hit me. “Yes, we were.” I was not prepared for the emotion I felt at the answer. “Very close.” I could see Billie’s face, tears streaming down her cheeks on the day she left.
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“When she left in 1961; although I saw her briefly a week before my mother’s funeral in 1978.”
The answer didn’t please her. She uncrossed her legs and pushed herself to the edge of her chair. “This was someone very close to you, a sister, and you’re telling me you haven’t seen her in over seventeen years?”
I didn’t know how to answer her. I had wondered about this myself. After Billie left, she almost didn’t seem real to me. In fact, that whole summer is difficult for me to remember.
“Jack, why did your mother hide her daughter from you?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you feel about your sister leaving?”
“I was very angry.” I stood. Suddenly I felt very uncomfortable. “What made me most angry was my mother’s refusal to discuss it with me. I’d asked her many times about it. She just wouldn’t talk about it.”
“Now, your mother died in 1978. It was cancer wasn’t it?”
She flipped through her notes. “Yes . . . and you told me that you were still angry at her when she died. But you said the reason you were so angry with her was that she wasted her life on pills and wine.”
Suddenly, the picture of my mother’s funeral was vivid, eternally etched in my memory.
Orlando Cemetery and Gardens
The cemetery workers manicured the lush grounds with impeccable care. Spanish moss draped from two-hundred-year-old live oak trees danced to the rhythm of the winds. The shade from these living relics made the air feel cooler than it was. A Canadian cold front had swept away the humidity of summer earlier in the day, heralding the beginning of fall. The subtle pageantry of autumn had finally come.
The cool, dry air swept across my face. A break in the canopy created by the giant oaks let a shaft of light through to warm my mood. I tilted my head back and turned my face slightly to take in the full measure of the warmth of the sun.
I said to myself, “Mmmmmm,” like I had just tasted something wonderful, not with my mouth but with my soul. It was then that I first heard the melody. A mockingbird in a branch not far from me sang all the songs it knew. The grey bird with white striped wings performed his repertoire of songs and drew me into a world of calm beyond my experience.
Earlier that morning, I had eulogized my mother. My father had appointed me, not because of the closeness of my relationship with my mother, but because I would “know the right things to say,” and I was a “better speaker” than he. So he shared with me words he wanted me to say, and I added them to my own.
I stood behind the podium in St. Ann’s Catholic Church and spoke the words I had written and performed the duties of an only son. I delivered the talk with powerful words and external conviction. But they were not my words; they were empty of emotion. I could have given this eulogy with the same passion for the women who cleaned the church.
At the cemetery, I stood behind my family, friends, my mother’s side of the family, and most of my mother’s closest friends. Men in dark suits, with their heads bowed low, hands clasped at their waist, provided a backdrop for the roses, carnations, mums, and gladiola sprays that surrounded my mother’s dark brown metallic casket. The liturgical words of the priest and the smell of incense pulled me from that distant, peaceful place. The priest assured us that our prayers, for her sake, would shorten her time in purgatory on her journey to heaven. I stood in the back because I was ashamed. There was not a dry eye under the canopy save mine. Sobs of grief and sorrow swept through the small gathering as the casket was lowered into its final resting place. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. As workers symbolically covered the hole with green carpet, I hoped no one would see my lack of grief. As they straightened the green carpet, like one might smooth over a spread on a bed, I tried to return to the place of peace I had felt only moments before. It eluded me then and eludes me now. But when I heard the song of a Mockingbird I was reminded of the greatest peace I had ever known and it brought back to a place of my greatest tribulation.
LuAnn Calder’s Office
“Was your anger over Billie the reason you couldn’t cry at your mother’s funeral?”
I slumped back into my recliner, brought back to the reality of LuAnn’s office. I lay my head back against the chair and exhaled deeply. “Sure. I was and still am angry at the way she treated Billie. She abandoned her twice. And I’ll never forgive her for that. But it wasn’t just Billie. It was mother’s depression, her drinking, and the endless draining conversations. Mother couldn’t talk to my father, so she dumped her problems on me.”
Looking at her notes, she said, “You told me she started these conversations when you were eleven or twelve?”
“That’s when I remember them starting. It could’ve been earlier. But it wasn’t until after Billie left that they became marathon, wine-laced sessions.”
“Why didn’t you just tell your mother that you didn’t want to listen to her anymore?”
“I grew up solving my mother’s problems. I carried her burdens around like boulders as though they were mine. I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until I was almost out of high school that I realized I couldn’t help her. Until then, I thought all of her problems were external; my father, her family, circumstances. But as she spiraled downward, I realized I couldn’t do anything for her.”
“So your relationship with your mother changed after Billie left. You never forgave her for what she had done to her. But it would be four more years before you left home. Yet you said she continued to confide in you.”
“Mother didn’t need more problems. She couldn’t handle the ones she had, much less rejection from me. Yes, I was angry. At times I even hated her for robbing me of part of my youth. But I couldn’t hurt her either. My father was doing a superb job of that. He didn’t need any help from me.”
“I want to go back to why your mother didn’t keep her child. This seems a little odd to me. It seems significant that she would hide her child like she did.”
“I asked Billie about it once. Her father told her that mother dumped her when she was two years old after they had gone through a nasty divorce. Shortly after my mother met my father, she supposedly ran off with him and left Billie with a sitter never to return. Billie’s father filed with the court for custody.”
LuAnn shook her head. “From what you’ve told me about your mother, this doesn’t sound like her, Jack. The bond between a mother and her children is not easily broken. Have you asked your father about it?”
“A couple of times. Nothing. Says it’s between Mother and him.”
“That seems odd. It sounds like they are both covering something up. Why haven’t you kept in touch with Billie?”
“When Billie left, mother treated her like she didn’t exist. Her name was never spoken again. I saw Billie only briefly a week before Mother died. And it was only by accident that I saw her. She snuck into town to see Mother. She said my mother had called and wanted to see her. We visited for a few moments, but it was apparent she wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t push it.”
“Sounds like there is more here than you’re seeing, Jack.”
“I understand. But I still can’t forgive her for Billie. There is nothing that could justify what she did.”
“I’m not asking you to forgive her.” She pushed herself up from her chair and began to pace. “First, from everything you’ve told me about your mother, she doesn’t seem like the sort to just walk off and leave her child. She had her problems, but abandonment doesn’t fit.
“You were fourteen when your half-sister came to stay with you. That was thirty-four years ago, and you still carry significant anger toward your mother. Before Billie, except for problems between your mother and father, your mother was fairly happy. It was only after Billie left that your mother had thoughts of suicide. Your mother and father are hiding something. It must have been pretty serious for her to come to the end of her life and not tell you about it.”
LuAnn continued to pace with her finger pressed to her lip. I had never seen her as intense. “Jack, you need to find out what happened with your sister. She is the key to the mystery. You need to find out why your mother lost her daughter, and what happened in the summer of 1961 that caused your mother to take such rash action against your half-sister.”
“What good will that do?”
“You have unresolved conflict with your mother. It is an open emotional wound that hasn’t healed. You need to find a way past it. The fact that you and your mother share depression and thoughts of suicide has significance. I don’t think you can resolve this conflict toward your mother without more information.
“You should go and talk to your father again. If he refuses to talk about it, explain to him how this is affecting you. If you want, I’ll go and talk to him myself.”
“You don’t know my father, LuAnn.” I could just see my father talking to a shrink. He already thinks I’m a “candy-ass wimp” because I can’t handle my own problems. I can imagine the things that he used to say to my mother.
“I believe that your own struggles are tied to your feelings toward your mother. You need to find out what happened.” She looked at her watch, and like a conditioned dog, this is my signal to get up and leave.
As I walked to the parking lot, I dreaded the thought of dredging up all the wounds of the past with my father again. But I dreaded a future of depression even more. I had always wondered about the secrecy surrounding Billie. In the past, it just made me hate my mother more. Mother’s silence was proof that her treatment of Billie had to be appalling for her to go to such lengths to hide it.
I knew LuAnn was right. Whatever emotional short circuit existed, it was tied to my mother. There were times I felt I was reliving pieces of Mother’s shredded life, as though I were drowning in her problems. I needed to know what happened. I needed to confront my father. I had to summon the courage to face him.