Authors: Jane Smiley
“I ate with Ty, Daddy.”
“Well, then, sit down or go out. You’re making me nervous standing there.”
I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down.
He said to Marv, “Something the matter with the food?”
“Then why are you eating it that funny way?”
Marv turned pink, but smiled bravely. “People don’t know that it’s not what you eat, but the order you eat it in that counts.”
“Counts for what?”
“Digestibility, efficient use of nutrients, toxin shedding.”
“You’re not fat.”
Indeed he wasn’t. He said, “Actually, I don’t even think about fat any more. I was obsessed with that for years, but that’s very low-level body awareness. Thinking about fat and calories is actually a symptom of the problem, not a way to find a solution.”
“What’s the solution?”
“My main effort now is to be aware of toxins and try to shed them as regularly as possible. I urinate twelve to twenty times a day, now. I sweat freely. I keep a careful eye on my bowel movements.” He said this utterly without embarrassment. “Knowing that organizes everything. For example, when I used to think about exercise as aerobic conditioning or muscle strengthening, I found it very difficult to motivate myself to do it. Now I think of it as a way to move fluids, to cleanse cells and bathe them afresh, and I
to exercise. If I don’t exercise, I can feel myself getting a little crazy from the toxins in my brain.”
I said, “How so?”
“Oh, you know. Negative thoughts. Worries about things at the bank. Failure of hope. That kind of thing. I used to have that all the time. I can spot someone in the toxic overload stage a mile away.”
I said, “What are the toxic foods?”
“Oh, Ginny, goodness me, everything is toxic. That’s the point. You can’t avoid toxins. Thinking you can is just another symptom of the toxic overload stage. For years I was nuts about eating just the right things. Beef never touched my lips, or chocolate, or coffee. It got worse and worse. I was cutting out something every month, desperately looking for just the right combination of foods. I was crazy. I was getting thinner, but then you store the toxins in your muscles and organs and it’s actually worse.”
“When was that?” I said. “I had no idea.” Daddy had stopped staring at Marv and started eating, which was a relief.
“No one did.” He finished his eggs and began on his sausage. “It was a very isolated time for me. Now I talk about it whenever it comes up. I feel much better. You blow off toxins through your lungs, too.”
“Hmmp,” said my father. Marv fell silent, and Daddy looked up to watch Marv eat his English muffin. He said, “You got any hot sauce? Tabasco works the best.”
“For what?” said my father.
“Drawing off a good sweat.” He gave us an innocent smile. I smiled back at him and shook my head. “We don’t eat much spicy food.” Marv wiped his mouth and said, “That’s okay. I’ll get to it later.”
Daddy seemed more or less his normal self. He drank every night and was gruff every morning. It was a habit we were used to and was reassuring in its way. I’d made up my mind to ask him point-blank if he’d been serious about incorporating the farm and giving Ty and Pete more say-so in its operation. The fact was, it had taken mere instants for the two of them, and Rose, too, to take possession in their own minds, and mere instants for Caroline to detach herself. Disbelief, or even astonishment, on Harold’s back porch had turned with marvelous suddenness into intentions and plans. My talk with Ty had soothed me, but then, when I woke up, it was Pete I worried about. Pete’s natural state of mind was an alternating current of elated certainty and angry disappointment. I was a little afraid of him.
The night before Rose got married, she sat at the foot of my bed rolling up her hair, caroling her amazement that she had actually gotten him to marry her. Secretly, I was amazed, too, and maybe a bit jealous, so handsome was Pete, the image of James Dean, but smiling and ebullient, never rebellious or sullen. And he had real musical talent—he played four or five instruments well enough to put himself through college playing in three different ensembles: the university string quartet (first violin), a country band (fiddle, mandolin, and banjo), and a jazz group (piano, occasionally bass). He made more money and went to more get-togethers—weddings and parties, concerts, jam sessions, hootenannies, funerals, recitals,
rehearsals, gigs in bars—than seemed possible for one kid. He played all over the central part of the state, and Ty and I saw him in all his incarnations—flannel shirt and boots, tux, blue suit, black leather jacket. His energy and his lust for playing music looked inexhaustible.
I never knew what he saw in Rose, not that there was nothing to see—I always adored Rose—only that there was nothing in her that was like anything in him. She was pretty but not beautiful, smart but caustic, never chic, never ambitious, always intent on teaching elementary school for a few years, then getting married and having two children and living back on a farm, though not necessarily our farm—a horse farm in Kentucky was one of her early ambitions. When she started to date Pete and we met him, his spiral seemed to be widening, carrying him to cities—Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and beyond. I was worried that Rose would get hurt, would count too much on someone who would have to leave her behind.
Then he announced he was tired of the road, and even of music, that he wanted to settle down and learn how to farm, and they got married and he brought that same enthusiasm to this new venture, but he could never seem to get on the right side of Daddy. I doubt that Rose and Pete actually intended to stay long on this farm—they were more ambitious than that. Pete was up early and late, brimming with ideas, fevered with ideas. Pete wanted to make a killing, and an idea hatched was already in his own estimation a killing made, concrete and cherished. Doubt, especially my father’s doubt, was much more than a challenge, it was more like the sudden disappearance of something almost in his grasp. It took me years to understand the depth of Pete’s disappointment when his enthusiasms met with my father’s inevitable skepticism. His anger would be quiet, but corrosive, later erupting at odd times toward Ty or Rose, even at me or his daughters, wildly, viciously eloquent, insults and threats, mounting crazily until you couldn’t believe your ears. It frightened me, but it didn’t frighten Rose. She would stand back, her arms crossed over her chest, slowly shaking her head, saying, “You should hear yourself, you really should hear yourself.” Cool, dismissive, inviting punishment. Punishment came, later, not often, but enough. Then, one night, he broke her arm, and after that, that was four
years ago, he never touched her again, went through another change, into a kind of settled, sour despair. He drank. My father drank. They came to see eye to eye on this.
Their wedding picture used to sit on the piano in their living room, and though Pete put on less weight over the years than any of us, he looked less like his youthful self than any of us—his face was lined and wrinkled from the sun, his hair was bleached pale, his body was knotted and stiff with tension. That laughing, musical boy, the impossible merry James Dean, had been stolen away.
A share in the farm would be the first encouragement my father had ever given Pete, the first dream he had ever allowed Pete to realize, the first time he’d treated Pete like more than a hired hand or a city boy. My fears for Ty were motivated by affection. My fears for Pete were motivated by dread.
The problem, I thought, would be to get my father to acknowledge what he’d said his plans were. I was turning this over in my mind, looking back and forth between Marv Carson’s rosy-peachy cheeks and my father’s dour countenance, when Marv solved everything for me. He said, “I used to work five days a week. Now I work eight. But that’s just it. There isn’t any distinction between work and play. It’s a flow, like everything else. Anyway, I’ve got some papers in the car, and I talked to Ken LaSalle last night. We can meet here after church, and chat about everything, and sign. How’s that?”
“Can’t be soon enough for me,” said my father. “Ginny, you get the others here, and we’ll do it before dinner.” He turned to Marv. “You going to be staying for dinner?”
“Thanks but no.”
“Well, that’s something, anyway.” He went to the door and stepped into his boots, then said to Marv, “Come on. Let’s go take a look at the fields.”
HE EASE OF MY BREAKFAST TASK
gave me hope for my church task, which at the time seemed significant but not really threatening. My father was easily offended, but normally he was easily mollified, too, if you spoke your prescribed part with a proper appearance of remorse. This was a ritual that hardly bothered me, I was so used to it. For all her remarks and eye rolling, Rose could perform her part, and after the fact, could even get our father to laugh about some things. Caroline, though, was perennially innocent, or stubborn, or maybe just plain dumb about this sort of thing. She was always looking for the rights and wrongs of every argument, trying to figure out who should apologize for what, who should go first, what the exact wording of an apology should be. It was one of those things about her that you could say came from being a lawyer, except that she’d always been that way, and being a lawyer only formalized it and, I suppose, proved to her that blame could indeed be divvied up.
Henry Dodge, our minister, gave his yearly sermon about all worldly riches having their source in the tilling of the soil, which was guaranteed to appeal both to the farmers’ self-regard and to their sense of injury at the hands of the rest of society, so I thought Daddy, who was there, sitting in the back pew with Marv, might be in a good mood.
After church, I said to Caroline, “Come along, be around, go up and give him a kiss on the cheek and a hug, and just say, ‘Sorry, Daddy.’ You can do that. That hardly even amounts to an apology.”
“But I spent the night at Rose’s.”
“Ignore that part.”
“He won’t. That’s the insult added to the injury.”
“If he mentions it, say, ‘I was afraid you were mad at me, Daddy.’ ”
Her lips thinned. “I hate that little girl stuff.”
“Well, weren’t you afraid he was angry with you?”
“No. I was furious with him! All I did was express a little—”
“He’s touchy. He was drunk. Can’t you just make allowances—”
“Ginny! It’s time we stopped making allowances—” Her voice was rising, and I could see Rose and Pete and Henry Dodge glancing in our direction. I stepped between Caroline and the church and sort of backed her down the walk toward Rose’s car. I did my best to speak softly and seriously. “We’ll stop making allowances tomorrow. This is important. He’s handing over his whole life, don’t you understand that? We have to receive it in the right spirit. And Rose and Pete and even Ty are ready to receive it. Just do it this once. Last time, I promise.”
“That’s another thing. I’m not ready to receive it. I think it’s a bad idea for him, and it’s certainly a bad idea for me. Frank was appalled when I told him. In fact, he called Ken LaSalle at home last night, and Ken told him he’s been advising Daddy in no uncertain terms not to do this. If he were in bad health, that would be one thing, but he doesn’t have to worry about estate taxes all of a sudden right this minute. You know when Daddy came up with this idea? Wednesday! He decided to change his whole life on Wednesday! Objectively, this is an absurdity. He knows it, and he knows I know it, and that’s why he’s so pissed at me. If I knuckle under to this sort of bullshit, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Are you going to stop him? No! You’ll just goad him on!” I tried another tack. “He’ll cut you out! This is it. If you don’t calm him down, it will be like you were never born. Doesn’t that scare you? It scares me! This is just like the Stanley brothers over north of town. When Newt Stanley died, his last words to Bob were, ‘Goddamn Larry Cook. You get that farm from him if it’s the last thing you do.’ ”
“Eileen Dahl said Bob Stanley told her that himself.”
“It isn’t amazing! The county is full of old grievances like that. If you let this happen, people are going to talk about it for fifty years. Longer.” I made myself wheedle. “Just this once.” By now we were in the street. I looked down and saw that my feet were apart, and I was kind of leaning over Caroline. I glanced toward the church. I couldn’t see Rose, but Henry Dodge was trying, or not trying, not to look at us. I smiled and pretended to relax. Caroline looked down the street toward the elementary school and the playground. I could tell that the inquisitive souls in front of the church hadn’t even entered her mind. I was annoyed, I have to admit. I said impatiently, “You’re making up your mind about right and wrong, aren’t you? This isn’t a question of right and wrong, it’s a question of what he wants to do.”
“I don’t see that, Ginny, but I’ll think about it, okay? I’ll come along and hang around, and we’ll see, okay? Don’t be mad at me.”
“Why can you say that to me and not to Daddy?”
She looked at me quizzically, then, after a moment, she laughed and said, “Sweetie, you deserve to be mollified and he doesn’t, I guess.”
Deserving was an interesting concept, applied to my father. His own motto was, what you get is what you deserve.
Caroline got into Rose and Pete’s Dodge. I turned and walked down Boone Street toward our GM pickup, imagining, as always, the padded bar of a child’s car seat arcing across the center of the back window. Strolees were the best, I’d heard. A five-year-old child could still fit into a Strolee. If there was anything I hated, it was the sight of a toddler in a pickup, standing, swaying, between father and mother, set for disaster. I opened the passenger door and sat up on the bench seat, the way you do in a pickup, framed on all sides by the fresh spring light. I was pretty pleased with the morning’s work, on the whole, and I was inclined after all to agree with those who thought maybe my father’s impulse had been the right one, if not for him, then for us.