The husband’s muffled voice (a swindle of an uncorrected cleft palette) is a sharp note in a detrimental melody. Yet the opposite sex finds him elegant and powerful. He has an appetite for women of color—fantasies ignited by Lena Horne’s dazzling smile. After he marries, the wife is absurdly jealous of his phantom lovers.
His Portuguese is impeccable. His Brazilian classmates invite him to share an apartment in Sao Paulo to finish his doctorate, but he needs a job. He works in the Hollywood post office during the Christmas rush and opens a savings account at the Bank of America.
He’s sorting mail on the swing shift when he spots her: blondish, broody, petite. She’s wearing a white peasant blouse trimmed with zigzag ribbon—gillie-tied shoes adorn her slim feet. Her silver bangle bracelets shift forward on her wrist in a pleasing jingle—she smells like earth and ocean. He is bewitched.
She is full of scattered bartering thoughts—skittering softly—landing nowhere. She rides the streetcar to night school where she hammers and saws endlessly at a sterling shank in her jewelry making class. She thinks of herself as a designer, a ballerina who never had the opportunity to learn to dance—a flautist who never learned to play. For the time being, her future husband is oblivious to her crumpled moods and vague diversions.
She is pregnant within a month. His ticket to Brazil is redeemed—paying for a bassinet, marriage license, and a pink rayon robe for when she comes home from the hospital with their new baby girl. There is another daughter from a previous encounter, waiting anxiously mute, gnawing her nails.
He plays the amateur photographer, dragging camera bags and tripods everywhere. He provokes his wife and daughters to churlish whining moods. They are required to sit or stand for tedious modeling sessions—monoliths of flesh and blood. He straightens their dresses or smoothes his wife’s ponytail—holding a light meter to her cheek.
The father herds his suitable family to the museum—he tramps them about every weekend, snapping more photos of his unhappy brood. He swears when frustrated, “Fuck! Shit! Goddammit!” He speaks military jargon, “When I say ‘Jump, you JUMP!”
On Sunday mornings, he saunters through the door holding a white bag in his hand—inside cheese filled Danish and faintly marzipan bear claws. He feeds his wife’s food obsession and admonishes her for not dieting. She is no longer the svelte beatnik girl he married. He promises her a diamond ring if she will lose 40 pounds.
He helps his youngest daughter build six-foot kites from a patchwork of brown grocery bags. They walk to the marina and launch them in the fog. He buys her chemistry sets and they brew sulfured rubber eggs and foaming tubes of noxious fluid. He whistles show tunes, thumbing through the Sunday Chronicle. He tells her war stories about Nazi Germany and endless rows of dead bodies. He shows her snapshots of humans stacked like cordwood and shoveled into mass graves.
One afternoon, walking home from school, the younger daughter slips into a hushed and empty Catholic church on Balboa Street—candles flicker inside red knobby glass cups, the gold alter reflects a weary Christ. She lights a candle, yet what can she give? She offers mumbled made-up words.
That same night, the six-year old understands that God is not a man. She divines that a swirling halo of constellated black holes is actually the center of a Thoughtful Universe. She explains her vision to her mother: If someone dies, his or her soul takes refuge in this thoughtful palpating infinity and becomes One—in fact, this nucleus may very well be what some call heaven.
At Christmas, the husband takes the youngest daughter downtown to the City of Paris. They buy gifts on credit for his wife: a fancy peignoir, a cut velvet purse with gold chain handles, new silver bangles, Sees candies.
Christmas cards are taped to the wall, and the pile of presents for the girls is so enormous they are overcome with fear. They breathe tenderly, cautiously, knowing what comes next: a spanking, a slap, a punishment for each of them because they are presumptuous.
The father lights a Marlboro. One of the girls is sobbing, standing in the corner with her nose pressed to the plaster while the wife hacks off the oldest daughter’s hair with scissors. The girl betrays no emotion, she holds her fragile face aloft and it is a white canvas—lacunal eyes beneath jagged bangs. Her pale softness is exposed and burns its likeness into her little sister’s skin.
The little sister knows what burning feels like: the mother has burned her with cigarettes, accidentally, and scalded her with hot steaming coffee—accidentally. Each time there is a great reaction and apologies, yet it happens again, usually in public. People on streetcars gasp and the mother pulls the daughter’s dress away from her pink thigh, waving her hands, lighting another cigarette.
The wife takes the younger daughter to Moar’s Cafeteria. They eat bread pudding and fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. The daughter splits into a million colored edges—camouflaged by the mosaic walls. On the way home, they stop at Swenson’s for chocolate dipped ice cream. The wife has not earned a diamond ring.
The family takes frequent trips to the zoo to feed the animals—sacks filled with carrots and stale bread. The father photographs the girls feeding camels and deer. Their mother follows them silently through the park. The youngest girl realizes that the great apes are furious. Taunts fly from the crowd—peanuts and popcorn litter the concrete. Red-rimmed gorilla eyes channel primordial hatred. And what animal wouldn’t, the girl reasons—what animal wouldn’t crave freedom from its misery... for this is how it is and always will be, until the great ape speaks aloud.
Causes Madeline MacGregor Supports