Authors: Tama Janowitz
For John Laughlin
by Phyllis Janowitz (1930â2014)
My mother blew away in a molecular
diffusion. I never stopped asking her
questions although her answers
could not be heard over weather conditions.
Something remains: a smile, an obsolete refrain.
I remember my mother in Queens; in New Jersey;
in Portugal; Lima; Franconia, New Hampshire.
Clever woman, she is liquid mercury
between my fingers. I see her or touch her
but there is no holding her, not her arms,
not her hair. The little that is leftover
will presently roll out of reach.
As for me, I will continue the family tradition,
vanishing, one part then another
with the argyle socks on the line
cotton sheets and underwear piecemeal
swept off in an easterly direction
the same way I saw her come towards me
when the Amherst bus stopped at Leverett Station
setting her down in a blizzardâshe
staggered, hip-deep in snow
rigid cold stiffening her connections
to a house she had never been to,
finding the right road regardlessâ
or when suitcase open, her torn
umbrella turning inside out, she flung
herself from a taxicab in Boston
at midnight, the wind baneful
and Commonwealth Avenue too chilly to welcome
a visitor so temporary, so uncontainable.
have decided to leave you my property.” It's my father on the phone. “Please come at once.”
Dad has lived for fifty-five years in western Massachusetts, five or six hours away from where I'm living in upstate New York. I moved here to look after my mom, and my daughter, Willow, who is seventeen, left Brooklyn to move in with me. Then, I had to put Mom in the home. Now it's just me and Willow. My husband, Tim, still lives in Brooklyn, but he'll meet us in Albany and make the trip with us.
We take my mom's car, a 1995 Mazda: it only has twenty-five thousand miles on it, but it is still a very old car. I have had the wheels replaced, the cooling system, but it seems every time I drive it, it needs a valve replacement or some other bypass operation.
My father owns two hundred acres of swampland. It's mortgaged up to the hilt. It's got a mortgage, a reverse mortgage, and restrictions. Still, it's a beautiful swamp.
Dad has summoned me to discuss how I will handle my inheritance.
In particular, he doesn't want my dogs in his house, although he used to have a dog. I guess he means after he dies. Before, when I visited, I had to stay in a motel. Now he says he will cover the floor of the guest room with plastic if I will come to visit, and that I can bring the poodles.
By the time we arrive it's evening.
My father greets us at the front door. He is dancing with excitement. “Hi! Welcome! Sooooo .Â .Â . my drug dealer is coming over in a little while!”
He's a pothead. Dad is eighty-three years old and has smoked marijuana every day since I was eight. That's almost fifty yearsânot quite, but let's round it up. And when I say “every day,” what I mean is he smokes
day. From when he gets up until just before bedtime, every couple of hours. When he started, he smoked joints and the pot wasn't so powerful. Now the stuff is so strong that when his friends come over and he offers a bowl, bad things happen. They fall over in a faint, they go backward in a chair and smash their heads on the tile floor, they fall into the swamp, they get in car accidents.
“My friend Alan took one puff and had a seizure!” he said once, laughing. Dad barely gets high from it, that's how accustomed to it he is.
He starts the day with a “public smoke” in his garden room (the one with the hot tub and the orchids). Or at the kitchen table, or on one of the many screened decks overlooking the swamp. Maybe three times a day it's a public smoke. Then two or three times a day he goes up to his room for a private tokeâyou can smell it as the smoke plumes out under his bedroom door, great wafts of it, gusts of it, like a skunk got in the house, which is what I always think at first until I realize, Oh, that's just Daddy!
There is not an hour when Dad is not stoned. Still, it's not enough.
I can tell when Dad needs another few puffs because .Â .Â . well, he starts to decline. The black cloud of rage and hate comes over him and he gets angrier and blacker and bleaker. Then he has to go to his room and sit on his bed, which is covered with beaver pelts from his swamp. He keeps trying to kill all the beavers, but they only come back stronger.
So now he's banging on about his drug dealerâthat the guy might be there within an hourâbut it's nine thirty and I am wiped out. “Dad, I'm tired, and I don't want to let the dogs out if this guy is going to come up the driveway and run them over.”
“Nah, I don't think he's coming. He's very nice. He's gentle. He's a nurse at the local hospital. But .Â .Â . he's not the most reliable!” Dad cackles with glee.
Willow comes into the kitchen. I know she smokes pot. Once, I sermonized her at Mom's house: “I would prefer you don't, but I know you do. I am now raising you as a single mother. The neighbors here are peculiar. At any time, they can call Social Services and Child Protection. I can get in trouble. They can make my life difficult. If they took you away from me, I would die. I don't approve of you smoking weed. My dad has smoked for almost fifty years. It is no different than other addictions. But if you are going to smoke pot, don't do it in the house!”
So she smokes pot with her boyfriend, elsewhere. I know Dad is just dying to get high with her. I know because he often asks me, “Will you have a bowl with me?”
And I say, “No, Dad.”
And he says, “I guess Tim doesn't want me to invite Willow.”
Dad likes to stroke her bare arm and the side of her face and tell her how lovely her skin is. She, in turn, tries to politely move away. He would ask her himself to get high, but .Â .Â . I think he is afraid of Tim.
Even though he and Tim smoke the pipe or bong together after dinnerâor maybe more often, what do I knowâfor a long time Tim has told my dad, on our twice-a-year visits, “Don't smoke in front of Willow.”
Tim is very reserved in many ways. He's British. The last time we were at Dad's he drank a quart of vodka, smoked a bowl, fell off the stone wall in back, and broke his leg.
As far as I am concerned, if Willow and my dad smoked together, this would probably be the best way to get Willow to quit smoking pot altogether. Dad can be so creepy! He was always on my case to smoke grass with him when I was growing up. Finally I did, when I was eighteen, and I never touched it again.
Dad gets so .Â .Â . lascivious. That's right, lascivious. Like, when I was fifteen and I couldn't find a summer job, he tried to get me to enter a wet T-shirt contest. First prize, three hundred dollars. But I would not. At what age are you supposed to get over being scared of your dad entering you in a wet T-shirt contest? He would have had to drive me to that bar, too, since I was too young for a license.
Because Dad is a psychiatrist, he knows how to make you feel you are mentally ill if you don't care for his attentions, or if you don't agree with him, like how he started explainingâas soon as Willow, his granddaughter, turned thirteenâthat the legal age for sexual consent should be thirteen, fourteen tops, for girls.
But, whatever. So far Dad and Willow haven't smoked together, and so far Dad hasn't disobeyed Tim's request not to get high in front of her, either. But I guess Tim should have thought harder and told Dad, “And please don't have your drug dealer come over while your granddaughter visits.”
I'm tired after the long drive from Ithaca to Albany and then all the way to western Massachusetts. I'm yawning. “Well, Dad, I know you wanted me to meet your dealer. But if he isn't going to stop by, I'm going to sleep.”
His house is in the middle of nowhere. Dead center, middle of nowhere. His driveway is, like, half a mile longâa dirt road through the woods, off a dirt road in the woods. We are not talking Montana remote, but it's “a couple hundred acres of private swamp in western Massachusetts” remote.
The nearest shop is a hippie co-op, a three-mile drive away. He built his house, assisted by my brother, almost forty years ago. Everything in it is made by hand: the hanging lamps of stained glass, the massive wooden couch, the hot tub. Even the beaver skin bedspread is from his very own beavers he trapped and drowned.
“Okay! Good night!” Dad says. “I'll see you in the morning. The main thing is, while you're here, you have to call your brother and tell him you are going to inherit the house and he will not be getting anything!”
“Hang on,” I say. “You want me to call Sam and tell him you disinherited him?”