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Birds of America: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)by Lorrie Moore
It's fitting that Christmas should degenerate to this, its barest bones. The family has begun to seem to Therese like a pack of thespians anyway; everyone arrives, performs for one another, catches early flights out, to Logan or O'Hare. Probably it's appropriate that a party game should literally appear and insert itself in the guise of a holiday tradition (which it isn't). Usually, no one in Therese's family expresses much genuine feeling anyway; everyone aims instead--though gamely!--for enactments.
Each year now, the stage is a new one--their aging parents, in their restless old age, buying and selling town houses, moving steadily southward from Maine. The real estate is Therese's mother's idea. Since he's retired, Therese's father has focused more on bird feeders; he is learning how to build them. "Who knows what he'll do next?" Her mother sighs. "He'll probably start carving designs into the side of the house."
This year, they are in Bethesda, Maryland, near where Andrew, Therese's brother, lives. Andrew works as an electrical engineer and is married to a sweet, pretty, part-time private detective named Pam. Pam is pixie-haired and smiley. Who would ever suspect her of discreetly gathering confidences and facts for one's adversaries? She freezes hams. She makes Jell-O salad days in advance. She and Andrew are the parents of a one-and-a-half-year-old named Winnie, who already reads.
Reads the reading videos on TV, but reads.
Everyone has divided into teams, four and four, and written the names of famous people, songs, films, plays, books on scraps of wrapping paper torn off the gifts hours earlier. It is another few hours until Therese and her husband Ray's flight, at 4:30, from National Airport. "Yes," says Therese, "I guess we'll have to forgo the 'Averell Harriman: Statesman for All Seasons' exhibit."
"I don't know why you couldn't catch a later flight," says Therese's sister, Ann. She is scowling. Ann is the youngest, and ten years younger than Therese, who is the oldest, but lately Ann's voice has taken up a prissy and matronly scolding that startles Therese. "Four-thirty," says Ann, pursing her lips and propping her feet up on the chair next to her. "That's a little ridiculous. You're missing dinner." Her shoes are pointy and Victorian-looking. They are green suede--a cross between a courtesan's and Peter Pan's.
The teams are divided in such a way that Therese and Ray and her parents are on one team, Andrew and Pam, Ann and Tad, Ann's fiancé, on the other. Tad is slender and red-haired, a marketing rep for Neutrogena. He and Ann have just become engaged. After nearly a decade of casting about in love and work, Ann is now going to law school and planning her summer wedding. Since Therese worked for years as a public defender and is currently, through a fluky political appointment, a county circuit court judge, she has assumed that Ann's decision to be a lawyer is a kind of sororal affirmation, that it will somehow mean the two of them will have new things in common, that Ann will have questions for her, observations, forensic things to say. But this seems not to be so. Ann appears instead to be preoccupied with trying to hire bands and caterers, and to rent a large room in a restaurant. "Ugh," said Therese sympathetically. "Doesn't it make you want to elope?" Therese and Ray were married at the courthouse, with the file clerks as witnesses.
Ann shrugged. "I'm trying to figure out how to get everybody from the church to the restaurant in a way that won't wrinkle their outfits and spoil the pictures."
"Really?" asked Therese. "You are?"
The titles are put in two big salad bowls, each team receiving the other's bowl of titles. Therese's father goes first. "All right! Everyone ready!" He has always been witty, competitive, tense; games have usually brought out the best and worst in him. These days, however, he seems anxious and elderly. There is a pain in his eyes, something sad and unfocused that sometimes stabs at them--the fear of a misspent life, or an uncertainty as to where he's left the keys. He signals that his assigned name is a famous person. No one could remember how to signal that and so the family has invented one: a quick pompous posture, hands on hips, chin in air. Mustering up a sense of drama, Therese's father does this well.
"Famous person!" Everyone shouts it, though of course there is someone who shouts "Idiot" to be witty. This time, it is Therese's mother.
"Idiot!" she shouts. "Village idiot!"
But Therese's father has continued signaling the syllables, ignoring his wife, slapping the fingers of his right hand hard on his left sleeve. The famous person has three names. He is doing the first name, first syllable. He takes out a dollar bill and points to it.
"George Washington," shouts Ray.
"George Washington Carver!" shouts Therese. Therese's father shakes his head angrily, turning the dollar around and pointing at it violently. It bothers him not to be able to control
"Dollar bill," says Therese's mother.
"Bill!" says Therese. At this, her father begins nodding and pointing at her psychotically. Yes, yes, yes. Now he makes stretching motions with his hands. "Bill, Billy, William," says Therese, and her father points wildly at her again. "William," she says. "William Kennedy Smith."
"Yes!" shouts her father, clapping his hands and throwing his head back as if to praise the ceiling.
"William Kennedy Smith?" Ann is scowling again. "How did you get that from just William?"
"He's been in the news." Therese shrugs. She does not know how to explain Ann's sourness. Perhaps it has something to do with Ann's struggles in law school, or with Therese's being a circuit court judge, or with the diamond on Ann's finger, which is so huge that it seems, to Therese, unkind to wear it around their mother's, which is, when one gets right down to it, a chip. Earlier this morning, Ann told Therese that she is going to take Tad's name, as well. "You're going to call yourself Tad?" Therese asked, but Ann was not amused. Ann's sense of humor was never that flexible, though she used to like a good sight gag.
Ann officiously explained the name change: "Because I believe a family is like a team, and everyone on the team should have the same name, like a color. I believe a spouse should be a team player."
Therese no longer has any idea who Ann is. She liked her better when Ann was eight, with her blue pencil case, and a strange, loping run that came from having one leg a quarter of an inch longer than the other. Ann was more attractive as a child. She was awkward and inquiring. She was cute. Or so she seemed to Therese, who was mostly in high school and college, slightly depressed and studying too much, destroying her already-bad eyes, so that now she wore glasses so thick her eyes swam in a cloudy way behind them. This morning, when she'd stood listening to Ann talk about team players, Therese had smiled and nodded, but she felt preached at, as if she were a messy, wayward hippie. She wanted to grab her sister, throw herself upon her, embrace her, shut her up. She tried to understand Ann's dark and worried nuptial words, but instead she found herself recalling the pratfalls she used to perform for Ann--Therese could take a fall straight on the face--in order to make Ann laugh.
Ann's voice was going on now. "When you sit too long, the bodices bunch up. . . ."
Therese mentally measured the length of her body in front of her and wondered if she could do it. Of course she could. Of course. But would she? And then suddenly, she knew she would. She let her hip twist and fell straight forward, her arm at an angle, her mouth in a whoop. She had learned to do this in drama club when she was fifteen. She hadn't been pretty, and it was a means of getting the boys' attention. She landed with a thud.
"You still do that?" asked Ann with incredulity and disgust. "You're a judge and you still do that?"
"Sort of," said Therese from the floor. She felt around for her glasses.
Now it is the team player herself standing up to give clues to her team. She looks at the name on her scrap of paper and makes a slight face. "I need a consultation," she says in a vaguely repelled way that perhaps she imagines is sophisticated. She takes the scrap of wrapping paper over to Therese's team. "What is this?" Ann asks. There in Ray's handwriting is a misspelled Arachnophobia.
"It's a movie," says Ray apologetically. "Did I spell it wrong?"
"I think you did, honey," says Therese, leaning in to look at it. "You got some of the o's and a's mixed up." Ray is dyslexic. When the roofing business slows in the winter months, instead of staying in with a book, or going to psychotherapy, he drives to cheap matinees of bad movies--"flicks," he calls them, or "cliffs" when he's making fun of himself. Ray misspells everything. Is it input or imput? Is it averse, adverse, or adversed? Stock or stalk? Carrot or karate? His roofing business has a reputation for being reasonable, but a bit slipshod and second-rate. Nonetheless, Therese thinks he is great. He is never condescending. He cooks infinite dishes with chicken. He is ardent and capable and claims almost every night in his husbandly way to find Therese the sexiest woman he's ever known. Therese likes that. She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor's office, but it is a limited thing--like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands, and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable. It is nothing, except that it is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, Jesus Christ, she needs that.
Ann is acting out Arachnophobia, the whole concept, rather than working syllable by syllable. She stares into her fiancé's eyes, wiggling her fingers about and then jumping away in a fright, but Tad doesn't get it, though he does look a little alarmed. Ann waves her Christmas-manicured nails at him more furiously. One of the nails has a little Santa Claus painted on it. Ann's black hair is cut severely in sharp, expensive lines, and her long, drapey clothes hang from her shoulders, as if still on a hanger. She looks starved and rich and enraged. Everything seems struggled toward and forced, a little cartoonish, like the green shoes, which may be why her fiancé suddenly shouts out, "Little Miss Muffett!" Ann turns now instead to Andrew, motioning at him encouragingly, as if to punish Tad. The awkward lope of her childhood has taken on a chiropracticed slink. Therese turns back toward her own team, toward her father, who is still muttering something about William Kennedy Smith. "A woman shouldn't be in a bar at three o'clock in the morning, that's all there is to it."
"Dad, that's ludicrous," whispers Therese, not wanting to interrupt the game. "Bars are open to everyone. Public Accommodations Law."
"I'm not talking about the cold legalities," he says chastisingly. He has never liked lawyers, and is baffled by his daughters. "I'm talking about a long-understood moral code." Her father is of that Victorian sensibility that deep down respects prostitutes more than it does women in general.
" 'Long-understood moral code'?" Therese looks at him gently. "Dad, you're seventy-five years old. Things change."
"Arachnophobia!" Andrew shouts, and he and Ann rush together and do high fives. Therese's father makes a quick little spitting sound, then crosses his legs and looks the other way. Therese looks over at her mother and her mother is smiling at her conspiratorially, behind Therese's father's back, making little donkey ears with her fingers, her sign for when she thinks he's being a jackass. "All right, forget the William Kennedy Smith. Doll, your turn," says Therese's father to her mother. Therese's mother gets up slowly but bends gleefully to pick up the scrap of paper. She looks at it, walks to the center of the room, and shoves the paper scrap in her pocket. She faces the other team and makes the sign for a famous person.
"Wrong team, Mom," says Therese, and her mother says "Oops," and turns around. She repeats the famous person stance.
"Famous person," says Ray encouragingly. Therese's mother nods. She pauses for a bit to think. Then she spins around, throws her arms up into the air, collapses forward onto the floor, then backward, hitting her head on the stereo.
"Marjorie, what are you doing?" asks Therese's father. Her mother is lying there on the floor, laughing.
"Are you okay?" Therese asks. Her mother nods, still laughing quietly.
"Fall," says Ray. "Dizziness. Dizzy Gillespie."
Therese's mother shakes her head.
"Epilepsy," says Therese.
"Explode," says her father, and her mother nods. "Explosion. Bomb. Robert Oppenheimer!"
"That's it." Her mother sighs. She has a little trouble getting back up. She is seventy and her knees are jammed with arthritis.
"You need help, Mom?" Therese asks.
"Yeah, Mom, you need help?" asks Ann, who has risen and walked toward the center of the room, to take charge.
"I'm okay." Therese's mother sighs, with a quiet, slightly faked giggle, and walks stiffly back to her seat.
"That was great, Ma," says Therese.
Her mother smiles proudly. "Well, thank you!"
After that, there are many rounds, and every time Therese's mother gets anything like Dom De Luise or Tom Jones, she does her bomb imitation again, whipping herself into a spastic frenzy and falling, then rising stiffly again to great applause. Pam brings Winnie in from her nap and everyone oohs and aahs at the child's sweet sleep-streaked face. "There she is," coos Aunt Therese. "You want to come see Grandma be a bomb?"
"It's your turn," says Andrew impatiently.
"Mine?" asks Therese.
"I think that's right," says her father.
She gets up, digs into the bowl, unfolds the scrap of wrapping paper. It says "Jekylls Street." "I need a consultation here. Andrew, I think this is your writing."
"Okay," he says, rising, and together they step into the foyer.
"Is this a TV show?" whispers Therese. "I don't watch much TV."
"No," says Andrew with a vague smile.
"What is it?"
He shifts his weight, reluctant to tell her. Perhaps it is because he is married to a detective. Or, more likely, it is because he himself works with Top Secret documents from the Defense Department; he was recently promoted from the just plain Secret ones. As an engineer, he consults, reviews, approves. His eyes are suppressed, annoyed. "It's the name of a street two blocks from here." There's a surly and defensive curve to his mouth.
"But that's not the title of anything famous."
"It's a place. I thought we could do names of places."
"It's not a famous place."
"I mean, we all could write down the names of streets in our neighborhoods, near where we work, a road we walked down once on the way to a store--"
"You're the one who said we could do places."
"I did? Well, all right, then, what did I say was the sign for a place? We don't have a sign for places."
"I don't know. You figure it out," he says. A saucy rage is all over him now. Is this from childhood? Is this from hair loss? Once, she and Andrew were close. But now, as with Ann, she has no idea who he is anymore. She has only a theory: an electrical engineer worked over years ago by high school guidance counselors paid by the Pentagon to recruit, train, and militarize all the boys with high math SAT scores. "From M.I.T. to MIA," Andrew once put it himself. "A military-industrial asshole." But she can't find that satirical place in him anymore. Last year, at least, they had joked about their upbringing. "I scarcely remember Dad reading to us," she'd said.
"Sure he read to us," said Andrew. "You don't remember him reading to us? You don't remember him reading to us silently from the Wall Street Journal?"
Now she scans his hardening face for a joke, a glimmer, a bit of love. Andrew and Ann have seemed close, and Therese feels a bit wistful, wondering when and how that happened. She is a little jealous. The only expression she can get from Andrew is a derisive one. He is a traffic cop. She is the speeding flower child.
Don't you know I'm a judge? she wants to ask. A judge via a fluke political appointment, sure. A judge with a reputation around the courthouse for light sentencing, true. A judge who is having an affair that mildly tarnishes her character--okay. A softy; an easy touch: but a judge nonetheless.
Instead, she says, "Do you mind if I just pick another one?"
"Fine by me," he says, and strides brusquely back into the living room.
Oh, well, Therese thinks. It is her new mantra. It usually calms her better than ohm, which she also tries. Ohm is where the heart is. Ohm is not here. Oh, well. Oh, well. When she was first practicing law, to combat her courtroom stage fright, she would chant to herself, Everybody loves me. Everybody loves me, and when that didn't work, she'd switch to Kill! Kill! Kill!
"We're doing another one," announces Andrew, and Therese picks another one. A book and a movie. She opens her palms, prayerlike for a book. She cranks one hand in the air for a movie. She pulls on her ear and points at a lamp. "Sounds like light," Ray says. His expression is open and helpful. "Bite, kite, dite, fight, night--"
Therese signals yes, that's it.
"Night," repeats Ray.
"Tender Is the Night," says her mother.
"Yes!" says Therese, and bends to kiss her mother on the cheek. Her mother smiles exuberantly, her face in a kind of burst; she loves affection, is hungry and grateful for it. When she was younger, she was a frustrated, mean mother, and so she is pleased when her children act as if they don't remember.
It is Andrew's turn. He stands before his own team, staring at the red scrap in his hand. He ponders it, shakes his head, then looks back toward Therese. "This must be yours," he says with a smirk that maybe is a good-natured smirk. Is there such a thing? Therese hopes.
"You need a consultation?" She gets up to look at the writing; it reads, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." "Yup, that's mine," she says.
"Come here," he says, and the two of them go back down the corridor toward the foyer again. This time, Therese notices the photographs her parents have hung there. Photographs of their children, of weddings and Winnie, though all the ones of Therese seem to her to be aggressively unflattering, advertising an asymmetry in her expression, or the magnified haziness of her eyes, her hair in a dry, peppery frizz. Vanity surges in her: surely there must have been better pictures! The ones of Andrew, of Ann, of Tad, of Pam and Winnie are sunlit, posed, wholesome, pretty. But the ones of Therese seem slightly disturbed, as if her parents were convinced she is insane.
"We'll stand here by the demented-looking pictures of me," says Therese.
"Ann sent her those," says Andrew.
"Really?" says Therese.
He studies her hair. "Didn't your hair used to be a different color? I don't remember it ever being quite that color. What is that color?"
"Why, whatever do you mean?"
"Look," he says, getting back to the game. "I've never heard of this," and he waves the scrap of paper as if it were a gum wrapper.
"You haven't? It's a song: 'Geese and chicks and ducks better scurry, when I take you out in the surrey . . .' "
"No?" She keeps going. She looks up at him romantically, yearningly. " 'When I take you out in my surrey, when I take you out in my surrey with the fringe on--' "
"No," Andrew interrupts emphatically.
"Hmm. Well, don't worry. Everyone on your team will know it."
The righteous indignation is returning to his face. "If I don't know it, what makes you think they'll know it?" Perhaps this is because of his work, the technosecrecy of it. He knows; they don't.
"They'll know it," Therese says. "I guarantee." She turns to leave.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," says Andrew. The gray-pink of rage is back in his skin. What has he become? She hasn't a clue. He is successfully top secret. He is classified information. "I'm not doing this," he says. "I refuse."
Therese stares at him. This is the assertiveness he can't exercise on the job. Perhaps here, where he is no longer a cog-though-a-prized cog, he can insist on certain things. The Cold War is over, she wants to say. But what has replaced it is this: children who have turned on one another, now that the gods--or were they only guards?--have fled. "Okay, fine," she says. "I'll make up another."
"We're doing another one," announces Andrew triumphantly as they go back into the living room. He waves the paper scrap. "Have any of you ever even heard of a song called 'The Surrey with the Fringe on Top'?"
"Sure," says Pam, looking at him in a puzzled way. No doubt he seems different to her around the holidays.
"You have?" He seems a bit flummoxed. He looks at Ann. "Have you?" Ann looks reluctant to break ranks with him but says, quietly, "Yeah."
"Tad, how about you?" he asks.
Tad has been napping off and on, his head thrown back against the sofa, but now he jerks awake. "Uh, yeah," he says.
"Tad's not feeling that well," says Ann.
In desperation, Andrew turns toward the other team. "And you all know it, too?" "I don't know it," says Ray. He is the only one. He doesn't know a show tune from a chauffeur. In a way, that's what Therese likes about him.
Andrew sits back down, refusing to admit defeat. "Ray didn't know it," he says. Therese can't think of a song, so she writes "Clarence Thomas" and hands the slip back to Andrew. As he ponders his options, Therese's mother gets up and comes back holding Dixie cups and a bottle of cranberry drink. "Who would like some cranberry juice?" she says, and starts pouring. She hands the cups out carefully to everyone. "We don't have the wineglasses unpacked, so we'll have to make do."
"We'll have to make do" is one of their mother's favorite expressions, acquired during the Depression and made indelible during the war. When they were little, Therese and Andrew used to look at each other and say, "We'll have to make do-do," but when Therese glances over at Andrew now, nothing registers. He has forgotten. He is thinking only of the charade.
Ray sips his a little sloppily, and a drop spills on the chair. Therese hands him a napkin and he dabs at the upholstery with it, but it is Ann who is swiftly up, out to the kitchen, and back with a cold, wet cloth, wiping at Ray's chair in a kind of rebuke.
"Oh, don't worry," her mother is saying.
"I think I've got it," says Ann solemnly.
"I'm doing my clues now," says Andrew impatiently. Therese looks over at Winnie, who, calm and observant in her mother's arms, a pink incontinent Buddha who knows all her letters, seems like the sanest person in the room.
Andrew is making a sweeping gesture with his arm, something meant to include everyone in the room.
"People," says Tad.
"Family," says Pam.
Ann has come back from the kitchen and sits down on the sofa. "Us," she says. Andrew smiles and nods.
"Us. Thom-us," says Ann. "Clarence Thomas."
"Yes," says Andrew with a clap. "What was the time on that?"
"Thirty seconds," says Tad.
"Well, I guess he's on the tip of everyone's tongue," says Therese's mother.
"I guess so," says Therese.
"It was interesting to see all those black people from Yale," says Therese's mother. "All sitting there in the Senate caucus room. I'll bet their parents were proud."
Ann did not get into Yale. "What I don't like," she says, "is all these black people who don't like whites. They're so hostile. I see it all the time in law school. Most white people are more than willing to sit down, be friendly and integrated. But it's the blacks who are too angry."
"Imagine that," says Ray.
"Yes. Imagine," says Therese. "Why would they be angry? You know what else I don't like? I don't like all these gay men who have gotten just a little too somber and butch. You know what I mean? They're so funereal and upset these days! Where is the mincing and high-spiritedness of yesteryear? Where is the gayness in gay? It's all so confusing and inconvenient! You can't tell who's who without a goddamn Playbill!" She stands up and looks at Ray. It is time to go. She has lost her judicial temperament hours ago. She fears she is going to do another pratfall, only this time she will break something. Already she sees herself carted out on a stretcher, taken toward the airport, and toward home, saying the final words she has to say to her family, has always had to say to her family. Sounds like could cry.
But first Ray must do his charade, which is Confucius. "Okay. I'm ready," he says, and begins to wander around the living room in a wild-eyed daze, looking as confused as possible, groping at the bookcases, placing his palm to his brow. And in that moment, Therese thinks how good-looking he is and how kind and strong and how she loves nobody else in the world even half as much.
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