Each month, in coordination with our reading series in New York, the Forward publishes an excerpt from the work of that month’s series guest or guests. This month, we will feature readings by Jonathan Wilson and Yael Goldstein (for full details, please see sidebar), and the excerpt we have chosen to highlight is from Wilson’s new book of short stories, “An Ambulance Is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble.”
We take the floor in a cloud of eau de cologne. My mother sings under her breath, “This is my lucky day. This is the day that I will remember for all my life,” but breaks off when the Ronnie Fox Trio strikes up the chords to “True Love.” We waltz past a circle of loopy grins and sporadic hand claps. Johnny Fox croons, “I give to you and you give to me trooo love, trooooooo luv.” My mother dances on tiptoe and stares over my shoulder, monitoring guests for offensive behavior. On our second circuit I see Dad slumped in a chair, as pale as the icing on the bar mitzvah cake. Very bad behavior indeed. He looks to be coughing uncontrollably, but I can’t hear him. As “True Love” reaches its Oedipal climax, my mother touches her hand to her head and delicately coifs the brown waves sculpted hours earlier by Neil of Davis Salon. She’s about to reach Nirvana when Aunt Fanny blunders into the room. Fanny’s in a rat-fur coat and holding a small blue and white suitcase. She looks as if she’s been waiting on a platform somewhere east of the Rhine for twenty years and has only now learned that the war is over and it’s safe to go home.
“Oh my God,” my mother mouths at my father, doing a tango tilt so no one will notice what she’s saying. “It’s not even wrapped.”
Is that blood on my father’s shirt?
“I’m sorry, Mildred,” my father manages to get out. “I can’t hear you.”
“Love furreeeever trooooooo.” My mother joins in with the last line, plants a wet kiss on my cheek, holds me at arm’s length, then smooths down my hair. Meanwhile, Dad’s flat on the floor and Joe Green, a family friend but also a doctor, is kneeling over him, thumping at his chest and yelling for sugar cubes. Too late. The band has already segued into “Let’s Twist Again” and the guests take a collective step back “to watch the children dance.”
Fanny’s first on the floor, swiveling her horrible knees, wobbling her wrinkled, freckled cleavage, and beckoning in partners from a fifteen-foot radius. I fight my way through to Dad. They’ve got his head leaning against the back of a chair. My mother’s finally noticed what’s going on. She’s got an expression on her face that I can describe only as extremely pissed off. Is it possible that Dad is going to ruin the greatest day of her life by dying? Yes! He is!
“Do you remember when things were really hummin’ …”
My Uncle George yells, “Someone shut that f***ng band up!”
My mother says, “Do you have to use language like that?”
“I’m sorry, Mildred,” Dad splutters.
Moments later, without adding a word, he expires.
At the funeral, Mum makes me wear Dad’s coat and his trilby hat with the feather. I look ridiculous. The same people who were doing the twist when Dad died come back to our house after he’s buried and eat food left over from the disrupted bar mitzvah reception. My mother’s still going on about Aunt Fanny’s suitcase.
“Can you believe it? She brings a suitcase to a bar mitzvah!” It’s as if the shock of witnessing such an act of stupidity caused my father’s heart attack.
Polly Taylor, one of my mother’s friends, clucks me under the chin and asks me what I want to be when I grow up.
“A footballer,” I reply.
“Not an office manager like your dad?”
“No,” I say, “a footballer.” I’ve never heard anyone say they want to be an office manager. It would be like saying I want to be a diabetic when I grow up, just like my dad.
After everyone has gone, my mother slaps me across the face.
“I heard what you said,” she yells. “Why couldn’t you say a lawyer, something professional?”
“Footballers are professional.”
She raises her hand again but has second thoughts.
Later, my mother says, “How about a game of Scrabble? Take our minds off things.”
We use the velvet drawstring tile bag that Dad made one time when he was in occupational therapy. I’m about to add ODOMIZE (76 points) to the trailing S at the bottom of my mother’s TEAS when the phone rings. It’s my girlfriend, Pat McNally. She’s been away on the Isle of Wight for two weeks.
“Guess what?” she says. “My family’s decided to emigrate to Australia.”
“That’s all right,” I reply. “My dad died.”
A month later I go to see Philip Sanders, our family doctor. His surgery is in one the roughest parts of the neighborhood. I sit in his waiting room and look fixedly at the floor because Trevor Peacock of the Chapter Road gang is on a chair right opposite me. After about two minutes Peacock asks, “Who are you f***ing staring at?”
I keep checking the pattern in the lino and pretend I haven’t heard. Peacock repeats his question.
A green buzzer goes off and the receptionist tells me to go through.
On the wall behind his desk, Dr. Sanders has a picture Dad painted. Dad gave it to him after one of the times he nearly died and Sanders came to visit him in the National Heart Hospital. It’s three droopy chrysanthemums in a glass bowl. Dad was just a beginner in art.
“What’s the problem?” he asks. Sanders has a nice round shiny face, glasses, and thin brown hair.
“My mother. She’s driving me nuts.”
I explain about the broken dishes, tears, hysterical outbursts, listening in on my telephone conversations.
Sanders hears me out, looks at a card in front of him, then says, “Any recurrence of conjunctivitis?”
“No, it all cleared up with that ointment.”
“So there’s nothing actually wrong with you.”
“Well,” I say, reaching for a phrase, “I suppose I’m feeling a bit mental.”
“You’ll be all right,” Sanders replies.
“Looks like you’re just about taken care of.” He gives me a warm smile. “Give my best to your mother. She’s having a rough time. Not easy to lose a husband at her age.”
He presses the button that sets off the green buzzer. I ask if he minds if I leave by the side door rather than through the waiting room.
My mother has a tea party for her sisters and their husbands. It’s the first social event she’s organized in six months. She buys bridge rolls and smoked salmon and bakes an apple cake. Uncle Phil and Aunt Eva are the first to arrive. Eva jumps smartly out of their 1959 Riley, crosses the street, and enters the house. Phil’s getting something out of the glove compartment. He seems to be taking his time. After a minute or two there’s loud knocking on the door.
“Go and let your Uncle Phillip in,” my mother says.
“Be a dear, will you?” Eva adds.
I go and answer the door. Phil falls right in and collapses at my feet. He’s dead. This is all getting to be a bit too much. They put a large white napkin that was going to line a basket for slices of apple cake over Phil’s face. Aunt Eva starts sobbing. I go up to my room and stare out over the garden toward the railway tracks in the park. Then I go back down. Phil’s where he was when I left him.
In short order the following people arrive
at our house: the police, someone delivering flowers to the wrong address, the milkman, who gets paid on Saturday afternoons, a doctor, all my other uncles and aunts, and Rabbi Rabinovich. It appears that they turn up in the wrong order, because when Rabinovich enters our house my mother says, “He should have been here first.” On the other hand, as my Uncle George points out, Rabinovich had to walk over because he couldn’t violate the proscriptions against riding on the Sabbath.
“He could have set out earlier,” my mother responds.
Uncle Phil gets buried right next to Dad, which is strange because he’s not Dad’s brother but my mother’s sister’s husband. It turns out, though, that the two families bought contiguous spots and the Burial Society made a small mistake. The wives were supposed to be on the inside, flanked by the husbands, but now it will have to be the other way around. I’m pleased Dad’s next to Phil because I know they got on and liked chatting to each other. Mildred and Eva are a bit upset, of course. When their time comes they’re going to be separated by the men for eternity, which wasn’t what they had planned, because after a certain age, apparently, you simply prefer female company, especially that of close relatives.
When they lower the coffin Aunt Eva cries and so do I because I liked Uncle Phil a lot. Uncle Phil and Dad once took me on a day trip from Folkestone to Boulogne. On the channel crossing Dad took a photograph of a ferryboat that passed us going the other way. Later he pretended it was the boat we’d been on. No one could figure out how Dad got the shot. We took a bus out of Boulogne and wound up in some village where Phil bought peaches and we all, me included, drank a bottle of wine. I threw up on the boat coming back.
Mr. Jessel from the hardware store comes up behind me, indicates the descending coffin with a nod of his head, then winks and whispers in my ear.
“If you’ve got any messages for your dad, now’s the time to pass them on.”
I step forward to shovel dirt in the grave and mumble, “Mum’s driving me crazy. We have commercial TV.”
After this funeral my mother sits in the kitchen in total darkness. She’s found a packet of cigarettes in my jacket pocket and says Dad must be turning in his grave. When I ask if that’s so he can talk to Uncle Phil more easily she throws a wet rag in my face.
A fortnight passes. I come home late from school because I’ve gone over to Harlesden to spend some time with Noreen Prince, who’s Jamaican. My mother’s sitting in the car outside our house in a light blue polka-dot summer dress. She’s had her hair done and her face is made up. She’s not going anywhere and she hasn’t been anywhere; she’s just sitting there.
I see her as I’m hitting top speed on the curve of our street, running in the final of the Olympic two hundred meters. As I break the tape next to the car my mother rolls down the window and says, “I know where you’ve been.”
I’m not surprised, because before leaving the house I told her where I was going.
Then she adds, “Don’t even think about visiting your father’s grave.”
“All right,” I reply, “I’ll try not to think about it.”
She leans forward as if she might actually turn the ignition and start the car, but then she simply slumps forward against the wheel.
I go into the house. Her “drives” usually last a couple of hours, and longer if no one comes by. Sometimes she waits three and a half hours for a neighbor to appear walking a dog or carrying groceries, and then she gets out of the car as if she’s just been somewhere and “bumps into” them.
I start staring out the window at the beginning of June, and it seems that I’m still staring at the end of August.
No one dies the whole summer.
From “An Ambulance Is on the Way,” by Jonathan Wilson. Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Wilson.
Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.