The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait

BOOK: The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait
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a family portrait

blake bailey

w. w. norton & company
new york • london


To Marlies and Scott


That’s one of the damnedest things I ever found out about human emotions and how treacherous they can be—the fact that you can hate a place with all your heart and soul and still be homesick for it. Not to speak of the fact that you can hate a person with all your heart and soul and still long for that person.

—Joseph Mitchell,
Joe Gould’s Secret

table of contents


title page




part I day thief

part II weeds don’t die

part III a functioning mediocrity

part IV stille nacht

part V the calm mid-heaven



also by blake bailey



y brother Scott was born in 1960 and screamed a lot as a baby, until one night my parents left him in their dorm room at NYU and proceeded to the roof, where a locked door prevented them from splattering themselves on a MacDougal Street sidewalk. In later years they’d tell the story for laughs, but I wonder if they saw the humor at the time. In the “funny” version I always heard, there was no locked door, and they carried Scott to the roof with them; the question was whether to throw him or themselves off. For a while they stood there, staring down at the lights of Washington Square while my brother yowled and yowled as if to egg them on to their doom. Not wishing to inflict this racket on the populace, perhaps, they retreated downstairs with the burden still in tow.

Life had been a heady affair up to then. My father, Burck, had come to Manhattan as a Root-Tilden Scholar at NYU Law, on his way to fulfilling his promise as the most gifted young man in Vinita, Oklahoma, a gray blur off the Turnpike between Tulsa and Joplin. He was whip smart, top of his class, American Legion “Citizen of the Year,” even something of an athlete; he insisted on playing football even though—at five-ten, 135 pounds—he wasn’t really big enough and kept getting banged up, almost losing a leg to gangrene when it was stepped on by a steel cleat. My mother, Marlies, was an offbeat German girl who bore a striking resemblance to Shirley MacLaine. She’d come to the States a couple of years before, age nineteen, and took an apartment at the Hotel Albert with two Jewish girls who thought she was a kick and vice versa. She and my father had met on a blind date. Both were escaping a home life they found oppressive, unworthy of the personages they hoped to become. Then my mother got pregnant.

My father supplemented his scholarship by working at a liquor store, while my mother had to stay home with the baby. Home was a tiny room with a Murphy bed, on which my mother sat in a funk all day, hour after hour, while little Scott emitted one heart-shriveling shriek after another. He rarely slept. Sometimes his eyes would glaze as he screamed; he’d stare at some vague speck on the ceiling, as if screaming helped him concentrate on some larger plan. For her part (I imagine) my mother dwelled ruefully on the recent but dead past. She’d been having such a good time in America. Before marrying my father—before
—she worked in the gourmet shop at Altman’s and got plenty of dates; her English was excellent, she was wistfully intellectual, and she liked to argue in favor of atheism and Ayn Rand.

The doctor had given her some sleeping drops for the baby, which she ended up taking instead. Meanwhile she’d gone a little mad with postpartum depression. She couldn’t keep food down, and had pretty much given up on eating. “I had huge milk-filled breasts and the waist of a ten-year-old,” she remembered, wondering whether her milk had been somehow tainted by the dreariness of it all. Plus her crotch itched something fierce; the doctor had sloppily shaved her prior to slitting her perineum.

Many years later my mother and I had a lot of tipsy conversations about all this.
Where did we go wrong?
conversations. One night she started sobbing—drunk or not, she cried only in moments of the most terrible grief—and said she’d once done a terrible thing when Scott was a baby. This was around the time my father had almost died from a bleeding ulcer. As usual he’d been studying in the bathroom late at night, sitting on the toilet with tissue in his ears, when my mother heard a
(his head hitting the sink) and found him passed out in a fetal slump. While he was away at St. Vincent’s, Scott redoubled his efforts to nudge our mother into the abyss—screaming and screaming and
as if to berate her for some ineffable crime against humanity. Marlies, in turn, tried frantically to calm him: nursed him with her aching breasts, changed and rechanged his diaper, shushed and cuddled and pleaded with him. Finally, beyond despair, she muffled him with a pillow. If the baby had struggled, writhed a bit, she might have forgotten herself and held the pillow in place a moment too long—but he only lay there as if to emphasize his helplessness. Even then, Scott had a knack for self-preservation in spite of everything.

When I later mentioned the episode, Marlies vehemently denied it. She’s denied it ever since. So maybe she was only dreaming out loud that night, unburdening herself of a persistent but intolerable thought.

part I

day thief

crucial difference between my brother and me was that he spoke German and I didn’t—which is to say, he inherited my mother’s facility and I inherited my father’s all but total lack thereof; in fact, it became another aspect of Scott’s curious bond with my mother, as they’d lapse into German whenever they wished to speak or yell privately while in my presence. Scott learned the language at age thirteen, during a solo trip to Germany to visit our grandparents, and on return he contrived to insult me in a way that would call attention to this superiority. I was ten and didn’t brush my teeth as often as I might, so he dubbed me Zwiebel Mund, or “onion mouth.” It stuck: he never again called me anything else unless he was angry or discussing me with some third party.

Mind, there were many variations. Usually he called me Zwieb, and what had begun as an insult assumed, over the years, the caress of endearment. In its adjectival form—Zwiebish, Zwiebian, etc.—it meant something like: pompous but in a kind of lovable, self-conscious way (as
saw it), or benignly self-absorbed (ditto) and given to odd, whimsical pronouncements because of this. The nuances were elusive and mostly lost on the world beyond my brother and me. There were also ribald noun variations—Zwiebel-thang, Zwiebonius, etc.—or, when he was particularly delighted (high-pitched) or admonishing (low), he’d throw his head back and say
with a faint, nasal Okie twang to the vowel sound. My brother had more of an accent than I, especially as we got older, due in part to the different company we kept and perhaps because he was often stoned. Kind people tell me I have little or no trace of an Oklahoma accent. If so, I have my mother to thank—her own English sounds, if anything, vaguely British—though my father too has mostly purged his deep, lawyerly voice of its Vinita origin, except when he’s trying to connect with the common folk, and in any case he still pronounces the
in pasta like the
in hat.

And what, in turn, did I call Scott? I called him a very matter-of-fact (or deploring)
. No endearments on my end.

father was hired by Morrison, Hecker, Cozad & Morrison in Kansas City, where he and my mother and Scott lived in an apartment complex called the Village Green. I picture their two-story row house as a rather drab, dispiriting place, but of course it was paradise next to Hayden Hall at NYU. Life got steadily better. Burck’s colleagues at the firm were a festive, hard-drinking bunch who thought Marlies was a hoot (she danced on tables at parties), and meanwhile she’d found “some kindred women” through volunteer work at the Nelson Art Gallery. One of her better friends was a gorgeous trophy wife who used to complain bitterly about things, and finally hanged herself in the attic.

The Village Green was aptly named, as its long blocks of housing units surrounded a big lawn perfect for frolicking toddlers. Scott played mostly with toy cars, pushing them back and forth in the grass while making a monotonous
vroom vroom
sort of noise; when the neighbor kids tried to join him, he’d gather up his stuff and leave. Indeed, he preferred the company of an imaginary friend named Ralphie. No doubt Ralphie was a quiet, thoughtful little chap like Scott, and hence a reasonable alternative to the real-life playmates at hand, so raucous and silly in comparison. The two-year-old Scott also had a great fondness for climbing, another maverick tendency: on the children’s playground at the zoo was an old fire engine, and he’d scare my mother by skittering to the top while the other kids watched wide-eyed from below.

That was the year they decided to move back to Burck’s home state. As Marlies would always tell it, they’d been driving through a blizzard to Vinita for the holidays, almost wiping out at one point when the car went into a spin. Then, at the Oklahoma border—like entering Oz—the snow stopped: not a flake in sight. “This is where I want to live,” my mother announced. As luck would have it, the state’s new attorney general was a friend of Burck’s cousin, Bill Bailey, who urged my father to apply for assistant AG: the pay wasn’t much, but it was a good way to build trial experience. Burck was hired a few weeks later, and in January 1963 they moved to Oklahoma City with me in utero.

of my grandmother’s house in Vinita was an ugly paneled room that used to be a screened porch. My grandfather had once gone there to drink in peace; Scott and I slept there during our childhood visits. One wall was covered with photographs of then-living relatives I knew slightly or not at all—for example, my great-uncle Tom and his wife, Louise: not only did these two refuse to smile for the camera, they appeared to make a positive effort to look nasty. Perhaps they thought it was more dignified. A few years later, when I was seventeen or so, I encountered my uncle Tom in the anteroom of the funeral parlor he ran with his (nicer) brother, Charles. This was maybe the second time our paths had crossed. Tom had a glass eye that stared obliquely over one’s shoulder. After a brief chat he announced—apropos of nothing I can recall—that I was a bleeding-heart liberal just like my father. Tom’s glass eye gave him a dreamy air as he sat there denouncing me.

The first time I ever heard the expression “not worth the powder it would take to blow them up” was when I asked my father about that photograph of Tom and Louise, whom I’d yet to meet at the time. In those days, as far as I could tell, my father divided his Vinita family into two basic categories: tiresome, bigoted creeps like Tom and Louise, and “salt of the earth” folk like my uncle Charles, who almost never left the environs of Craig County during his eighty-odd years on earth. The second kind of person was better than the first, of course, but I’m not sure either was particularly desirable.

BOOK: The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait
12.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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