A story by Grace Paley
A young man said he wanted to go to bed with Alexandra because she had an interesting mind. He was a eabdriver and she had admired the curly back of his head. Still she was surprised. He said he would pick her up again in about an hour and a half. Because she was fair and a responsible person she placed between them a barrier of truthful information. She said, I suppose you don’t know many middle-aged women.
You don’t look so middle-aged to me. I mean, everyone likes what they like. That is, I’m interested in your point of view, your way of life. Anyway, he said, peering into the mirror, your face is nice and your eyebrows are out of sight.
Make it two hours, she said. I’m visiting my father, whom I happen to love.
I love mine too, he said. He just doesn’t love me. Too, too bad.
OK. That’s enough, she said. Because they had already had the following factual and introductory conversation.
How old are your kids?
I have none.
Sorry. Then what do you do for a living?
Children. Early teen-age. Adoptions, foster homes. Probation. Troubles—well . . .
Where’d you go to school?
City Colleges. What about you?
Oh, me. Lots of places. Antioch. Wisconsin. California. I might go back someday. Someplace else though. Maybe Harvard. Why not?
He leaned on his horn to move a sixteen-wheel trailer truck delivering Kleenex to the A&P.
I wish you’d stop that, she said. I hate that kind of driving.
Why? Oh! You’re an idealist! He looked through his rearview mirror straight into her eyes. But were you married? Ever?
Once. For years.
It’s hard to describe. A revolutionist.
Really? Could I know him? What’s his name? We say revolutionary nowadays.
By the way, my name’s Dennis. I probably like you, he said.
You do, do you? Well, why should you? And let me ask you something. What do you mean by nowadays?
By the birdseed of St. Francis, he said, taking a tiny brogue to the tip of his tongue. I meant no harm.
Nowadays! she said. What does that mean? I guess you think you’re kind of brand-new. You’re not so brand-new. The telephone was brand-new. The airplane was brand-new. You’ve been seen on earth before.
Wow! he said. He stopped the cab just short of the hospital entrance. He turned to look at her and make decisions. But you’re right, he said sweetly. You know the mind is an astonishing, long-living erotic thing.
Is it? she asked. Then she wondered: What is the life expectancy of the mind?
Eighty years, said her father, glad to be useful. Once he had explained electrical storms before You could find the Book of Knowledge. Now in the cave of old age, he continued to amass wonderful information. But he was sick with oldness. His arteries had a hopeless future, and conversation about ail that obsolescent tubing often displaced very interesting subjects.
One day he said. Alexandra! Don’t show me the sunset again. I’m not interested anymore. You know that. She had just pointed to a simple sunset happening outside his hospital window. It was a red ball—all alone, without its evening streaking clouds—a red ball falling hopelessly west, just missing the Hudson River, Jersey City, Chicago, the Great Plains, the Golden Gate—falling, falling.
Then in Russian he sighed some Pushkin. Not for me, the spring. Nye dyla menya ... He slept. She read the large-print edition of The Guns of August. A half hour later, he opened his eyes and told her how, in that morning’s Times, the Phoenicians had sailed to Brazil in about 500 B.C. A remarkable people. The Vikings too were remarkable. He spoke well of the Chinese, the Jews, the Greeks, the Indians—all the old commercial people. Actually he had never knocked an entire nation. International generosity had been started in him during the late nineteenth century by his young mother and father, candleholders inside the dark tyranny of the czars. It was childhood training. Thoughtfully, he passed it on.
In the hospital bed next to him, a sufferer named John feared the imminent rise of the blacks of South Africa, the desperate blacks of Chicago, the yellow Chinese, and the Ottoman Turks. He had more reason than Alexandra’s father to dread the future because his heart was strong. He would probably live to see it all. He believed the Turks when they came would bring to NYC diseases like cholera, virulent scarlet fever, and particularly leprosy.
Leprosy! for gods sakes! said Alexandra. John! Upset yourself with reality for once! She read aloud from the Times about the bombed, burned lepers’ colonies in North Vietnam. Her father said, Please, Alexandra, today, no propaganda. Why do you constantly pick on the United States? He remembered the first time he’d seen the American Flag on wild Ellis Island. Under its protection and working like a horse, he’d read Dickens, gone to medical school, and shot like a surface-to-air missile right into the middle class.
Then he said, But they shouldn’t put a flag in the middle of the chocolate pudding. It’s ridiculous.
It’s Memorial Day, said the nurse’s aide, removing his tray.
In the early evening Dennis stood at the door of each room of Alexandra’s apartment. He looked this way and that. Underuse in a time of population stress, he muttered. He entered the kitchen and sniffed the kitchen air. It doesn’t matter, he said aloud. He took a fingerful of gravy out of the pot on the stove. Beef stew, he whispered. Then he opened the door to the freezer compartment and said Sweet Jesus! because there were eleven batches of the same, neatly stacked and frozen. They were for Alexandra’s junkies whose methadone required lots of protein and carbohydrates.
I wouldn’t have them in my house. It’s a wonder you got a cup and saucer left. Creeps, said Dennis. However, yes indeed, I will eat this stuff. Why? Does it make me think of home or of something else? he asked. I think, a movie I once saw.
Apple turnovers! You know I have to admit it, our commune isn’t working too well. Probably because it’s in Brooklyn and the food coop isn’t together. But it’s cool, they’ve accepted the criticism.
You have lots of junk in here, he pointed out after dinner. He had decided to give the place some respectful attention. He meant armchairs, lamps, desk sets, her grandmother’s wedding portrait, and an umbrella stand with two of her father’s canes.
Um, said Alexandra, it’s rentcontrolled.
You know what I like to do, Alexandra? I like to sit with a girl and look at a late movie, he said. It’s an experience common to Americans at this hour. It’s important to be like others, to dig the average dude, you have to be him. Be HIM. It’s groovier than a lot of phony gab. You’d be surprised how friendly you get.
I’m not against friendliness, she said. I’m not even against Americans.
They watched half of A Day at the Races. This is very relaxing he said. It’s kind of long though, isn’t it? Then he began to undress. He held out his arms. He said, Alexandra I really can’t wait anymore. I’m a sunrise person. I like to go to bed early. Can I stay a few days?
He gave reasons. 1. It was a Memorial Day weekend. and the house in Brooklyn was full of tripping visitors. 2. He was disgusted with them anyway because they’d given up the most beautiful batik work for fashionable tiedying. 3. He and Alexandra could take some good walks in the morning because all the parks to walk in were the lightest green. He had noticed that the tree on the corner though dying of buses was green at the beginning of many twigs. 4. He could talk to her about the kids, help her to understand their hangups, their incredible virtues. He had missed being one of them by about 7 useless years.
So many reasons are not essential, Alexandra said. She offered him a brandy. Holy toads! he said furiously. You know I’m not into that. Touched by gloom, he began to remove the heavy shoes he wore for mountain walking. He dropped his pants and stamped on them a couple of times to make sure he and they were disengaged.
Alexandra, in the first summer dress of spring, stood still and watched. She breathed deeply because of having been alone for a year or two. She put her two hands over her ribs to hold her heart in place and also out of modesty to quiet its immodest thud. Then they went to bed in the bedroom and made love until that noisy disturbance ended. She couldn’t hear one interior sound. Therefore they slept.
In the morning she became interested in reality again, which she had always liked. She wanted to talk about it. She began with a description of John, her father’s neighbor in the hospital.
Turks? Far out! Well he’s right. And another thing. Leprosy is coming It’s coming to the Forest Hills County Fair, the Rikers Island Jamboree, the Fillmore East, and the Ecolocountry Gardens in Westchester. In August.
Reality? A lesson in reality? Am I a cabdriver? No.
I drive a cab but I am not a cabdriver. I’m a song hawk. A songmaker. I’m a poet, in other words. Do you know that every black man walking down the street today is a poet? But only one white honky devil in 10. One in ten.
Nowadays I write for the Lepers all the time. Fuck poetry. The Lepers dig me. I dig them.
The Lepers, Alexandra said.
Cool! You know them? No? Well, you may have known them under their old name. They used to be called The Split Atom. But they became too popular and their thing is anonymity. That’s what they’re known for. They’ll probably change their name after the summer festivals. They might move to the country and call themselves Winter Moss.
Do you really make a living now?
Oh, yes. I do. I do. Among technicians like myself I do.
Now: I financially carry 1/3 of a 12-person 3-children commune. I only drive a cab to keep on top of the world of illusion, you know Alexandra, to rap with the bourgeoisies, the fancy whores, the straight ladies visiting their daddies. Oh, excuse me, he said.
Now Alexandra: Imagine this: two bass guitars, a country violin, one piccolo, and drums. The Lepers theme song! He sat up in bed. The sun shone on his chest. He had begun to think of breakfast, but he sang so that Alexandra could know him better and dig his substantialness.
first my finger goes goes goes
then my nose
then baby my toes
I’ll go your way
my little Neck rose
Well? he asked. He looked at Alexandra. Was she going to cry? I thought you were such a reality freak. Alexandra. That’s the way it is in the real world. Anyway! He then said a small prose essay to explain and buttress the poem:
The kids! the kids! Though terrible troubles hang over them, such as the absolute end of the known world quickly by detonation or slowly through the easygoing destruction of natural resources, they are still, even now, optimistic, humorous, and brave. In fact, they intend enormous changes at the last minute.
Come on, said Alexandra, hardhearted, an enemy of generalization, there are all kinds. My boys aren’t like that.
Yes, they are, he said, angry. You bring them around. I’ll prove it. Anyway, I love them. He tried for about 20 minutes, forgetting breakfast, to show Alexandra how to look at things in this powerful lasthalf-of-the-century way. She tried. She had always had a progressive if sometimes reformist disposition, but at that moment, listening to him talk, she could see straight ahead over the thick hot rod of love to solitary age and lonesome death.
But there’s nothing to fear my dear girl, her father said. When you get there you will not want to live a hell of a lot. Nothing to fear at all. You will be used up. You are like a coal burning, smoldering. Then there’s nothing left to burn. Finished. Believe me, he said, although he hadn’t been there vet himself, at that moment you won’t mind. Alexandra’s face was a bit rumpled, listening.
Don’t look at me like that! he said. He was too sensitive to her appearance. He hated her to begin to look older the way she’d had to in the last 20 years. He said, Now I have seen people die. A large number. Not one or two. Many. They are good and ready. Pain. Despair Unconsciousness, nightmares. Perfectly good comas, wrecked by nightmares. They are ready. You will be too, Sashka. Don’t worry so much.
Ho Ho Ho said John in the next bed listening through the curtains. Doe. I’m not ready. I feel terrible, I got lousy nightmares. I don’t sleep a wink. But I’m not ready. I can’t piss without this tube. Lonesomeness! Boy! Did you ever see one of my kids visiting. No! Still I am not ready. N O T R E A D Y. He spelled it out looking at the ceiling or through it, to the roof garden for incurables and from there to God.
The next morning Dennis said: I would rather die than go to the hospital.
For gods sakes why?
Why? Because I hate to be in the hands of strangers. They don’t let you take the pills you got that you know work, then if you need one of their pills, even if you buzz, they don’t come. The nurse and three interns are making out in the information booth. I’ve seen it. It’s a high counter, she’s answering questions, and they’re taking turns banging her from behind.
Dennis! You’re too dumb. You sound like some superstitious old lady with rape dreams.
That’s cool, he said. I am an old lady about my health. I mean I like it. I want my teeth to go right on. Right on sister. He began to sing, then stopped. Listen! Your destiny’s in their hands, ft’s up to them. Do you live? Or are you a hippie crawling creep from their point of view? Then die!
Really. Nobody ever decides to let you die. In fact that’s what’s wrong. They decide to keep people alive for years after death has set in.
You mean like your father?
Alexandra leaped out of bed stark naked. My father! Why he’s got 20 times your zip.
Cool it! he said. Come back. I was just starting to fuck you and you get so freaked.
And another thing. Don’t use that word. I hate it. When you’re with a woman you have to use the language that’s right for her.
What do you want me to say?
I want you to say. I was just starting to make love to you. etc.
Well, that’s true, said Dennis. I was. When she returned to him, he only touched the tips of her fingers though all of her was present. He kissed each finger and said right after each kiss. I want to make love to you. He did this sweetly, not sarcastically.
Dennis, Alexandra said in an embarrassment of recognition, you look like one of my placements, in fact you look like a kid. Billy Platoon. His real name is Platon but he calls himself Platoon so he can go to Vietnam and get killed like his stepbrother. He’s a dreamy boy.
Alexandra, you talk a lot, now hush, no politics.
Alexandra continued for a sentence or two. He carries a stick with a ball full of nails attached, like some medieval weapon, in case an enemy from Suffolk Street CIA’s him. That’s what they call it.
Never heard that before. Besides I’m jealous. And also I’m the enemy from Suffolk Street.
No. no said Alexandra. Then she noticed in her mother’s bedroom bureau mirror across the room a small piece of her naked self. She said Ugh!
There! There! said Dennis lovingly, caressing what he thought she’d looked at, a couple of rippled inches between her breast and belly. it’s natural, Alexandra. Men don’t change as much as women. Among all the animals, human females are the only ones to lose estrogen as they get older.
Is that it? she said.
Then there was nothing to talk about for half an hour.
But how come you knew that? she asked. The things you know, Dennis. What for?
Why—for my art, he said. And despite his youth he rested from love the way artists often do in order to sing. He sang:
out in the forest daisy
under the gallows tree
ace of pentacles
you’re drivin too fast
Daisy you’re drivin alone
Hey Daisy cut the ignition
let the oil
back in the stone.
Oh. I like that one. I admire it! Alexandra said. But in fact, is ecology a good word for a song? It’s technical . . .
Any word is good, it’s the big word today anyway, said Dennis. It’s what you do with the word. The language and the idea, they work it out together.
Really? Where do you get most of your ideas?
I don’t know if I want to eat or sleep, he said. I think I just want to nuzzle your titty. Talk talk talk, Most? Well, I would say the majority are from a magazine. The Scientific American.
During breakfast, language remained on his mind. Because of this, he was silent. After the pancakes, he said, Actually Alexandra, I can use any words I want. And I have. I proved it last week in a conversation just like this one. 1 asked these blue-eyed cats to give me a dictionary. I just flipped the pages and jabbed and the word I hit was Ophidious. But I did it, because the word does the dreaming for you. The WORD.
To a tune that was probably “On Top of Old Smoky” he sang:
was invented by Freud
oh three ladies murdered
the rattlesnake writhes
in the blue snakey garden
More coffee please, he said with pride and modesty.
It’s better than most of your songs. Alexandra said. It’s a poem isn’t it? It is better.
What? What? It is not better, it is not, god damn. It is not ... It just isn’t . . . oh, excuse me for losing my cool like that.
Forget it sonny, Alexandra said respectfully. I only meant I liked it, but I know, I’m too frank from living alone so much I think. Anyway, how come you always think about wives wives mothers?
Because that’s me, said peaceful Dennis. Haven’t you noticed it yet? That’s my bag. I’m a motherfucker.
Oh, she said, I see. But I’m not a mother, Dennis.
Yes, you are, Alexandra. I’ve figured out a lot about you. I know. I act like the weekend stud sometimes. But I wrote you a song. Just last night in the cab. I think about you. The Lepers’ll never dig it. They don’t know too much about life. They’re still baby bees trying to make it to the next flower, but some oldtimer’ll tape it, some sore dude who’s been out of it for a couple of years who wants to grow. He’ll smell the shit in it.
I know something about you baby
don’t be mad
That you will never have children at
at that beautiful breast
everywhere you go, children follow you
are the children of your life
than the children of the married wife.
That one is out of the Bible, he said.
Pa, Alexandra said, don’t you think a woman in this life ought to have at least one child?
No doubt about it, he said. You should have when you were married to Granofsky, the Communist. We disagreed. He had no sense of humor. He’s probably boring the Cubans to death this minute. But he was an intelligent person otherwise. I would have brilliant grandchildren. They would not necessarily have the same politics.
Then he looked at her, her age and possibilities. He softened. You don’t look so bad. You could still marry dear girl. Then he softened further thinking of hopeless statistics he had just read about the ratio of women to men. Actually! So what! It’s not important. Alexandra. According to the Torah, only the man is commanded to multiply. You are not commanded. You have a child, you don’t have, God doesn’t care. You don’t have one, you call in the maid. You say to your husband, sweetie, get my maid with child. OK. Well, your husband has anyway been fooling around with the maid for a couple of years, but now it’s a respectable business. Good. You don’t have to go through the whole thing, nine months, complications, maybe a Caesarean, no no pronto, a child for the Lord, Hosanna.
Pa, she said, several weeks later, but what if I did have a baby?
Don’t be a fool, he said. Then: he gave her a terrible long medical look, which included her entire body. He said, why do you ask this question? He became red in the face, which had never happened. He took hold of his chest with his right hand, the hospital buzzer with the left. First, he said, I want the nurse! Now! Then he ordered Alexandra: Marry!
Dennis said: I don’t know how I got into this shit. It’s not right, but because your habits and culture are different, I will compromise. What I suggest is this: Alexandra. The three children in our commune belong to us all. No one knows who the father is. It’s far out. I swear—by the cock of our hard-up gods, I swear it’s beautiful. One of them might be mine. But she doesn’t have any distinguishing marks. Why don’t you come and live with us and we’ll all raise that kid up to be a decent human and humane being in this world. We need a slightly older person, we really do, with a historic sense. We lack that.
Thank you, Alexandra replied. No.
Her father said: Explain it to me please. For what purpose did you act out this nonsense? For love? At your age. Money? Some conniver flattered you. You probably made him supper. Some starving ne’er-dowell probably wanted a few meals and said why not? This middle-aged fool is an easy mark. She’ll give me pot roast at night, bacon and eggs in the morning.
No Pa, no, Alexandra said. Please, you’ll get sicker.
John in the next bed dying with a strong heart wrote a little note to him. Doc, you’re crazy. Don’t leave enemies. That girl is loyal! She hasn’t missed a Tues., Thurs. or Sat. Did you ever see one of my kids visit? Something else. I feel worse and worse. But I’m still not ready.
I want to tell you one more thing, her father said. You are going to embitter my last days and ruin my life.
After that, Alexandra hoped every day for her father’s death, so that she could have a child without ruining his interesting life at the very end of it when ruin is absolutely retroactive.
Finally, Dennis said: Then let me at least share the pad with you. It’ll be to your advantage.
No. Alexandra said. Please Dennis. Eve got to go to work early. I’m sleepy.
I dig. I’ve been a joke to you. You’ve used me in a bad way. That’s not cool. That smells under heaven.
No, Alexandra said. Please, Shut up. Anyway, how do you know you’re the father?
Come on, he said, who else would be?
Alexandra smiled, bit her lip to the edge of blood to show pain politely. She was thinking about the continuity of her work, how to be proud and not lose a productive minute. She thought about the members of her case load one by one.
She said, Dennis, I know exactly what I’m going to do.
In that case, this is it, I’m splitting.
This is what Alexandra did in order to make good use of the events of her life. She invited three pregnant clients who were 15 and 16 years old to live with her. She visited each one and explained to them that she was pregnant too, and that her apartment was very large. Although they had disliked her because she’d always worried more about the boys, they moved out of the homes of their bad-tempered parents within a week. At the very first evening meal they began to give Alexandra good advice about men which she did appreciate years later. She ensured their health and her own and she took notes as well. She established a precedent in social work which would not be followed or even mentioned in state journals for about five years.
Alexandra’s father’s life was not ruined, nor did he have to die. Shortly before the baby’s birth, he fell hard on the bathroom tiles, cracked his skull, dipped the wires of his brain into his heart’s blood. Short circuit! He lost 20, 30 years in the flood, the faces of nephews, in-laws, the names of two Presidents, and a war. His eyes were rounder, he was often awestruck, but he was smart as ever, and able to begin again with fewer scruples to notice and appreciate.
The baby was born and named Dennis for his father. Of course his last name was Granofsky because of Alexandra’s husband Granofsky the Communist.
The Lepers who had changed their name to the Edible Amanita taped the following song in his tiny honor. It was called “Who? I.”
The lyrics are simple. They are:
Who is the father
Who is the father
I am the father
I am the father.
Dennis himself sang the solo which was I! I! I! I! in a hoarse enraged prophetic voice. He had been brave to acknowledge the lyrics. After a 38-hour marathon encounter at his commune he was asked to leave. The next afternoon he moved to a better brownstone about four blocks away where occasional fatherhood was expected.
On the baby’s third birthday, Dennis and the Fair Fields of Corn produced a Folk Rock album because that was the new sound and exciting. It was called For Our Son. Tuned-in listeners could hear how taps played by the piccolo about 40 times a verse, flitted in and out of the long dark drum rolls, the ordinary banjo chords, and the fiddle tune which was something but not exactly like “Lullabye and goodnight.”
When I’m old and very shaky?
Yes I will for you’re my dad
And you’ve lost vour last old lady
Though you traveled very far
To the highlands and the badlands
And ripped off the family car
Still old dad, I won’t forsake you.
Though I’m really not alone
Still I’d like to see my boy
For we’re lonesome for our own
Yes I will for you’re my dad
Though you dumped me and my brothers
And you sizzled down the road
Loving other fellows’ mothers.
Though I look like time boiled over
Growing old is not a lark
Yes I will for you’re my dad
Though we never saw a nickel
As we struggled up life’s ladder
I will call you and together
We will cuddle up and see
What the weather’s like in Key West
On the old-age home TV.
This song was sung coast to coast and became famous from the dark Maine woods to Texas’ shining gulf. It was responsible for a statistical increase in visitors to old-age homes by the apprehensive middle-aged and the astonished Young.