Read A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father Online

Authors: Augusten Burroughs

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father (2 page)

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
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My mother held my hand tighter after this, her fingernails biting into my wrist. But she could not protect me.

We visited deep, slick-walled caves, our guide a local man who warned, “People have been lost in these tunnels. Unless you know them very well, it’s easy to mistake one passage for another.” He wore white and looked like light itself and I followed him faithfully, utterly trusting him.

The tunnels were dark and cool. Somewhere in the center of the cave, he cupped his hands into a black, still body of water and held them out for me to drink, drops falling from his fingers. The water was sweet, so cold it numbed my throat.

Outside, he pulled the needle from a cactus and showed me how, with the fibrous thread still attached, you could stitch a wound if you had to. My mother called me away from him. “Come now,” she warned me in a whisper. “We don’t really know this man.” But he adored me and I knew it. This was a new, euphoric sensation. My first taste of a drug. I wanted more.

Reaching out for his hand, I twisted the silver ring on his thick, hairy finger. He smiled and slipped off the ring, dropped it into my palm. He closed my fingers around it and with his other hand gently stroked my cheek. “I had a boy just your age,” he said to me softly as my mother pulled me into step beside her. “Wave good-bye,” she said, and I did, turning back to watch him as she led me away. I waved and waved and waved.

In a restaurant, I sat on the chair with my feet tucked beneath me. I wiggled and swung my arms, shrieking, laughing, telling her all I had noticed.

The man had given me his ring and I was happy. It was much too large for my fingers, so my mother kept it in her purse. I continuously watched her bag, as though it might suddenly glow with my ring in its belly.

I was drunk. I was silly and sloppy with joy because the man, who said he’d had a boy my age, loved me and I knew it and felt it and I wanted to go back to him.

The chair tipped. I fell and silently impaled myself through the back on an ornate decorative iron spike attached to the radiator beside me.

Pinned like a butterfly to a setting board, I could not move. I began to cry, growing more afraid as the grown-ups left their tables to gather around me, frantically motioning and shouting in Spanish.

My mother quickly pulled me off the spike and held me against her chest, blood staining her fingers. The manager rushed to the table. He spoke Spanish, she spoke English; language bounced between them, landing nowhere. At last, he drew a map on a napkin and she carried me to the hospital in her arms.

She was relieved, so relieved, to have an American doctor. He told her, “Another inch to the left and he’d have been paralyzed for life.”

This memory is vaporous to me now. Dissolved by the medication I was given at the time, it has eroded to almost nothing but her recounting of the story so many years later. “I was just terrified to be in a foreign country, to be in a Mexican hospital. I looked around and felt frantic by how dirty it was.”

IN MEXICO MY mother wore thin-soled sandals and looked over her shoulder. She watched me through large, dark sunglasses and said, “We had to get away from your father. He’s not safe to be around right now.”

This is my first clear memory of my father: I am in Mexico, I am five, and he is not safe to be around.

I could not fathom what this meant. The things I knew that weren’t safe included furious dogs, putting a fork in a toaster, rushing water. How was he like these things?

Everywhere we went, an awareness followed us: we were fleeing. The feeling tainted even the food we hastily ate out of the cans stacked in her suitcase, a measure of economy. I was not allowed to have ice because it, too, was unsafe.

WHEN WE RETURNED, we did not go home to the new red house in the woods of Shutesbury. We’d moved into the new red house when I was three. I remember seeing it when it was only wood bones, like the skeleton of a whale. Instead, we went to an apartment in the center of the town of Amherst that I had never seen before. It was on the second floor of a house and had a bay window in the living room, a small kitchen with a cold tile floor. The bathroom had a tub with claw feet and I had my own bedroom. It was just the two of us. My mother sat me on her lap as she explained that my brother was down south with our grandparents, Jack and Carolyn.

But where was my father?

My mother said, “We have to stay here for a while. We can’t see your father right now.”

Fear wafted from her skin like a fragrance.

“But Mom, why not?”

“Because he’s dangerous,” she said.

Her words lingered in the room like a third person standing in the corner watching us.

WHEN MY UNCLE Mercer, her brother, came to visit from Cairo, Georgia, he brought me a cardboard box in the shape of a space rocket. He assembled it for me on the living room floor and I crawled inside. But I didn’t play with the rocket, I only sat inside and stared at him through the porthole. He had been the first person to hold me after I was born.

At night, he walked me outside to the parking lot so that we could look up. I liked to stare at the night sky. I didn’t understand the stars. They looked to me like sparkling lakes, seen from a great distance.

My mother sat on the sofa smoking and whispering urgently to her brother. I didn’t listen to her words. But, like a dog, I heard the anxiety and fear in her voice. I sat on the floor and held Mercer’s large hand, pulled at his fingers, which were stained yellow and smelled of nicotine. But being in the living room with my wide-eyed and whispering mother made me anxious so I filled the tub with warm water and then climbed inside. I bathed with my new brown plastic Noah’s ark, dozens of small animals floating in the water all around me. There were so many new toys that I worried I had traded my father for them. So, except for the Noah’s ark, I didn’t play with them. The price for having the ark, I reasoned, was not seeing my father for a while. But to play with all the other toys would be to drive him away for good.

I saw Peter almost every day because my mother spent many afternoons at Hyacinthe’s home, an L-shaped one-level ranch just outside town. Peter and I played in the backyard among the skunk cabbage plants that grew in the wetlands behind the house. There were so many cabbages we were compelled to pick them and invent games. One of us would be the shopkeeper, the other the customer. A cabbage cost five round flat stones. We had a wealth of something we didn’t want, but the wealth itself was intoxicating and we invented games just so we could experience the sensation of having too much of something.

We watched 
Sesame Street
 in his basement and we learned to count. We both shrieked with joy when five was the number of the day. We placed olives on each finger and then ate them off, one by one.

Hyacinthe spoke French with her son and I was so jealous of him for being able to talk to his mother in this exotic secret language.

My mother would sit on the sofa and weep while Hyacinthe tried to soothe her, massaging her neck and shoulders and reassuring her in that beautiful, melodious voice. That my mother needed the comfort so frequently, that she wept so constantly, scared me. I felt like we weren’t walking on solid ground but on a quivering net suspended in the air, and at any moment our feet could plunge through the holes.

I learned to ride a bike in the parking lot of our new apartment house. Now six years old, I was enrolled in Wildwood Elementary School. Because my mother had told me our living situation was “temporary” and that eventually we would be reunited with my father and move back into our red Shutesbury house, I found that I could not concentrate in school. I avoided making friends because I would just have to give them up eventually. But my reluctance was misinterpreted by the other children and I became the object of bullying. The defining moment occurred on the playground one afternoon when my class divided into two groups, the boys and the girls, with each group chanting at the other, “boys are better than girls,” and “girls are better than boys.” I stood between the two groups, trying to remain neutral. “Come on,” one of the boys shouted at me. “Come over here.” But I joined the girls instead, since they seemed less hateful and were certainly much cleaner than the boys. “Girls are better than boys,” I sang out, the only one on my side of the playground without a barrette or a hair band.

From then on I was despised by the girls 
 the boys. The boys hated me for siding with the girls, for virtually becoming one before their eyes. And the girls plain mistrusted me.

I became the sickly kid. Some mornings I ran a high temperature or displayed a rash of raised, red bumps. Other days my malady was more amorphous; I just didn’t 
 good. I saw the doctor more frequently than my mother could afford. She worried about money, standing in front of the phone, biting her lip, knowing she had to call my father to ask for more but unable to do it. I missed a lot of school. Some mornings, just imagining the blue metal doors of the building caused my stomach to clench miserably. I only wanted to stay home in bed; home with my mother, grilled cheese sandwiches, and Fanta orange soda.

My mother drove a brand-new, 1971 red Chevy Vega, which she named Rosie. It had a black interior and a manual transmission, and the small car smelled new inside. Each day when I saw it pull into the parking lot, I nearly wept with relief. Opening the heavy passenger door, I climbed inside and slid onto the vinyl seat.

“How was school?” my mother asked.

“I just want to go home.”

Some days, my mother was bright and hopeful, her hair washed and her spirits high. “Would you like to drive to Northampton and go to the Farm Shop for a Golden Abigail?” The cheeseburger with crinkle-cut french fries, served in a red plastic basket, was a favorite meal.

But other days she arrived disheveled, with creases from the pillow etched into the soft skin along the side of her face, like a tree bare of leaves. Her hair was oily and unkempt and she was despondent, her eyes ringed with red. On these days, she worried out loud, “I’m just afraid that if we go back home to your father that something terrible will happen but I don’t know how much longer we can survive on our own.” Her hands trembled, even as she gripped the steering wheel.

But I missed his presence, the fact of him in the house. And I didn’t understand what had happened. Why, suddenly, was she afraid? Why was he dangerous? Why hadn’t he come with us to Mexico? And why were we living in this strange, small apartment when we had a brand-new home?

So much had happened since I last saw my father that I wasn’t even the same person anymore. At night when I was supposed to be sleeping, I’d lie awake and wonder if he would like the new me. And I was new, wasn’t I? Didn’t every new thing you did become a part of you, one of your bricks? I was part Mexico now, and part new school, and part bicycle with no training wheels.

My mother said he was sick. I asked, “Is he in the hospital?” Standing at the dingy, chipped porcelain sink in the small kitchen and arranging wildflowers in a rinsed-out jelly jar she said, “Not that kind of sick.” She wouldn’t look at me.

I wanted to bring him my hot water bottle. It always made my stomach feel better. I knew I might need it myself, but I would give it up for him, I really would. She kissed the top of my head and said, “We’ll see.”

AT NIGHT MY mother locked the door and checked the windows. She picked up the telephone to check for a dial tone. She made sure we had candles and matches, as if we were preparing for a huge storm, the certain failure of our electricity. Her fear leeched into me, became mine. My father, already a mysterious man I used to see mostly at night when he came home from work, became a larger and more ominous presence in my life. Though I could no longer form an image of his face in my mind, I felt him under my bed, behind the closed door to my closet, lurking in the shadowed corners of our small, temporary home. I started to fear him instead of miss him. If he’d suddenly appeared at the front door, I might have shrieked and run in the opposite direction.

I BEGAN VIOLIN lessons with a private instructor. Once a week, I was taught how to tuck the instrument under my chin, curling my thumb against the underside of the neck. Over and over, I raked the bow across the strings, trying to achieve a sound and not a screech. I learned the names of its various components: the frog, the bridge, the tailpiece, and the pegs. And while I was proud to be able to name the parts of its anatomy, it was the smell of wood, rosin, and velvet that I loved. The best part of every lesson was opening the violin case and lowering my face to inhale. Also, it seemed almost a miracle to me that this hollow figure eight, as light and elegant as a lady, as my aunt Curtis, was made from wood, from a tree, like the trees out back behind our house in Shutesbury. I just could not see how this was even possible. And that wood—
—could make a sound so ethereal you were tempted to look over your shoulder and see if somebody transparent were standing right behind you, watching and smiling. It gave me that looking-at-the-night-sky feeling. It made me think of the word 

I longed for my father to see me holding such a beautiful thing so properly; it seemed impossible that so massive an addition to my life could occur without his knowledge. And then I felt guilty for thinking of him and betraying my mother. By longing for him, it was like I was inviting him back into our lives. And if I was inviting him back when my mother was so afraid of him, I was responsible for scaring her. And her trembling and weeping—it was my fault.

I destroyed the violin by winding the strings so tight the neck snapped.

My mother wasn’t angry with me. She sat me down and told me it was natural to feel upset and angry with my father. I hadn’t known I was angry with him, but because she said I was I began to wonder if it was true.

Soon, I couldn’t remember why I’d ruined the violin and could no longer play it. I’d only wanted to see him without hurting my mother, but she’d said I was angry with him, and I had broken my instrument’s neck, so maybe it was true.

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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