"Rachel Gardner" is a story by Katherine Karlin from issue six of American Chordata, a biannual magazine featuring fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. Katherine Karlin's collection of short stories Send Me Work was named a Kansas Notable Book of 2012. Her fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, One Story, and other literary magazines.
I became Rachel Gardner when I was 20, in 1968, a year from which no event sticks with me as much as the discovery that I was one-half goy. This was a revelation my mother let slip during one of our many fights. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but in those days it didn’t take much to ignite either of us. I was attending Barnard but still living at home; I resented my captivity and she resented my presence, my lumbering around my little bedroom like a raccoon in a cage, chewing my paws. The more I ignored her the more she wanted to fight, and my father—that is, the man I had always known as my father—adjusted his glasses and found a corner of the living room where he could read the latest copy of Dissent undisturbed. When I closed my bedroom door to her, she sniped that she wished I’d never been born, and, astonishingly, that my father was a WASP who had never expressed the slightest interest in meeting me.
As soon as she blurted it, she apologized—that’s how I knew it was true. Not that she couldn’t lie. She wrote soap operas, most recently A Flair for Living; she had a good ear for a dramatic scene. My mother wrote the first transgender character on network television, when heartthrob Ryan Williamson, long assumed dead after a surfing mishap involving a shark, reappeared as Rena. She also snuck in the Civil Rights movement (through Demetrius, Dr. Wade Gregory’s favorite orderly, who was arrested for marching outside Brookshire’s ice cream parlor, run by the beloved but apparently racist Pop Watson), women’s lib, and the war.
My best friend Jodi Wolfe used to tease me about my blond hair. Breck Girl, she called me, our little shiksa. “Where did you get that?” I was more puzzled by my height; I dwarfed my mother and father, a grown human in their dollhouse. I eventually attributed my growth to better health, more calories. My parents were Depression Jews, children of immigrants, stunted by a diet of seltzer and crackers. But it was the acrimony between my mother and me—more than my blond hair and my freakish altitude—that suddenly fell into place with the disclosure of my mixed ancestry. It was not her fault, it was not my fault. Our home was the site of a racial conflict. She and I were the Six-Day War.
After my mother retreated to her bedroom, our apartment hummed with angry silence. I felt as if I’d inhaled a paint chip and could feel it fluttering in my windpipe, every breath reminding me I was altered. I found my father in his leather chair. He was a dentist, so gentle even the little kids loved him. He worked a clinic in Harlem once a month pro bono. I always counted his genetic structure as the strongest part of me, and now that scaffold had collapsed.
“Is that true? You’re not my dad?”
“I am your dad. In every way that counts.”
He told me I was two when they married, and how elated he was when I lifted my arms and called him Da-Da. As we talked my mother emerged from her bedroom and made her way to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator for a black cherry No-Cal and poured it into a glass. Her makeup was freshly applied, and she wore bell-bottoms and a checked shirt, her weekend gear. She said, “Stop crying. What Jew doesn’t want to find out she’s a shiksa?”
“Me,” I said.
“Well, you’re old enough to know.” She sipped her soda. “So now you know.”
“So, what?” I sniffled. “You had an affair?”
My mother roared and my father petted my arm, murmuring, “No, no, no.”
“I was married to the guy. He was in the Navy. He looked great in uniform. You know. I was young and shallow. Then I grew up, got divorced, and married him.” She gestured toward my father with her glass.
“It is my misfortune to be the responsible choice,” my father said.
“You’re lucky,” my mother snapped. “You got a great dad. He would have been miserable. He’s Protestant, cold. Now you know where you get it from.”
“This explains a lot,” Jodi said, lying next to me on her blue chenille bedspread. We were dressed the same—hip-hugger jeans, peasant blouses—only my blouse had a square neckline, bordered with cross-stitch, and her neckline plunged. “This could open up whole new opportunities for you. Boys love shiksas. Of course you’ve never had headaches in that department.” The arm on the record player reached the end of her Laura Nyro album and repeated over the locked groove. “Maybe that’s why! They smell your gentile chromosomes.”
“It occurred to me that he indulged me precisely because I wasn’t his kid, because he pitied me. The whole narrative was recast: eager stepfather and unloved child, a couple of wild atoms circling around each other in the universe.”
Jodi had taped and untaped so many posters to her bedroom wall that it was scarred with pits. Behind the radiator, the paint cracked in psoriatic splotches. All day I was nagged by the sense I had left a book at home, or that I’d forgotten a nightmare. I was unwhole.
“You are in mourning,” Jodi said. “In mourning for your lost tribe.”
I replayed a memory of driving to the Berkshires with my dad and stopping at a Howard Johnson’s on the Massachusetts Turnpike for ice cream. I must have been three, and he bought me a double cone, strawberry and pistachio. As soon as we stepped into the parking lot the ice cream toppled, both scoops landing on the pavement with the cigarette butts and discarded straws. I started to cry and my father lifted me and carried me back into the shop for a new cone. The very dadness of his actions—swift, indulgent, affectionate—always defined for me a distillation of parenthood, that blood connection, that sprung-from-my-loins empathy. Now it occurred to me that he indulged me precisely because I wasn’t his kid, because he pitied me. The whole narrative was recast: eager stepfather and unloved child, a couple of wild atoms circling around each other in the universe.
“I am in mourning for my father,” I said.
Jodi asked if I wanted to meet him.
“What? No, I meant David Cohen. The dentist. The man I call Dad. I miss him.”
Jodi perched her chin on her pillow. “But the other guy. Aren’t you curious?”
“Stop sulking,” my mother said. “You think your troubles are so big? What about the blacks? What about Dr. King’s four gorgeous children? They have troubles. They lost a father. You just gained one.”
To prove it, my mother unearthed some photographs from her first marriage that she’d stuffed into a Bonwit Teller box. “This is when he was in the Navy, when we started going together.” She examined a picture, tilting back her face to look through the bottom lens of her glasses. “Here he is in college—this must have been his. I hardly knew him then.”
She flipped the picture so I could see. Evidently a yearbook photo, a nondescriptly handsome young man in a track uniform, kneeling on one knee.
“I always get the feeling, seeing these old pictures,” I said, “that your life was in black and white back then.”
She waved an eight-by-ten at me. “A far as I’m concerned, it was.”
There was a wedding picture, my mother’s husband in a white uniform, my mother in the green sheath dress that still hung in her closet. Only the groom smiled. “You don’t look very happy,” I said.
“What? I was happy. My mother, she wasn’t pleased.”
Anyone could see this couple was mismatched. He was a foot taller, his blondness reflecting the glare of the photographer’s flash. My mother, small and dark, her expression not angry, exactly, but wry. I didn’t know anyone who resembled this man. His affability was so close to the surface it glowed.
“He was one vanilla ice cream cone, I will say that,” my mother said.
“Was that why your mother wasn’t pleased?”
“She thought he was too good for me. She said, ‘Katie, you’ll never hold on to him.’”
“And she was right.” I laid the picture on the bedspread, savoring my cruelty. But my mother ignored it.
“No, I didn’t hold on to him. But it worked out well. I ended up with the better husband. The better father.”
But he was not my father. I harbored the blood of the shiny naval officer.
One evening in Washington Square Park, Jodi and I ran into a couple of boys we knew from high school. Gordie and Mickey: Gordie was at Purchase, and Mickey at Cornell, but both were considering dropping out to devote themselves full-time to antiwar activity. Schoolwork was irrelevant. Jodi’s decibel level increased whenever she met a cute boy, and Mickey was cute, a hell of a lot cuter than he’d been in high school: a few years had given him resolve, a sense of purpose. He had been a science geek in high school, but he switched his major from physics to philosophy, and now he was all about Hegelian dialectics and Marxist means of production. Jodi kept up with him; when she contradicted Mickey he reared his head in umbrage, but he was clearly impressed. I had no idea she was so smart.
We smoked some grass and listened to steel drummers on the east side of the park, and walked in circles as night fell. Tourists disappeared and flower children emerged from the trees. Jodi and Mickey walked in front. I watched them, profile to profile, Jodi occasionally pushing him in the shoulder to punctuate a joke. Gordie and I walked alike, our hands stuffed in our jeans pockets. He wore his hair shoulder-length, like most of the boys we knew, but Mickey’s hair was as short as a cop’s, a bold statement: he was subverting the subversion.
Gordie started talking politics to me, about how the center of the black struggle had shifted from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to the Black Panthers, but sensing my unresponsiveness he interrupted himself, asking if I had participated in the Columbia sit-ins. He tilted his face to show he was interested in my opinion, and his kindness made me shy.
“I really admire those kids,” I said. “But I’ve always balked at politics because my mother kind of owns it, and she doesn’t leave me much room.”
We walked a few yards, the drums receding, the street lamps turning on. “Owns it how?” Gordie asked.
“She was quite the radical in her day. Raised money for the Spanish Civil War.”
“Communist Party?” Gordie asked, and Mickey, mid-conversation, spun around.
“Who’s Communist Party?”
“Rachel’s mother,” Jodi said.
“Still?” Mickey demanded.
“As far as I know,” I said.
“CP, CP!” Mickey chanted. “The biggest obstacle to the development of the New Left. Not Republicans or Democrats, but the fucking CP and their Stalinized distortions. So, what, were you weaned on socialism-in-one-country, popular frontism, Soviet-German non-aggression bullshit?”
“Not really,” I said. I enjoyed his mockery of my mother. “She never got that specific with me.” The fine points of Communist politics were something she discussed with her friends, over contentious dinners, and I tuned it out. Although I did get the sense my mother was the true believer and her friends, as she said, were dilettantes. “She just dragged me to a lot of Pete Seeger concerts. ‘Abiyoyo.’ To this day I can’t stand a banjo.”
“My parents left the Party after the Hungary invasion,” Jodi said. “They don’t talk about it much. I think Rachel’s mom considers them apostates.”
A girl with lovely curly hair and ripe lips appeared from the shadows in a long white dress and offered us hits from a rubber bulb. The other three accepted but I demurred. Jodi laughed and said I was too much. Still there was something impossibly beautiful about the scene, the girl in a circle of light, her pre-Raphaelite hair in a nimbus of gnats, her step so light in her sandals she floated toward us and away.
Gordie was into film, and the four of us would go to see French movies he liked. Paris was on strike, and Mickey complained there was a disconnect between the French worker and intellectual. New Wave film would always be irrelevant, he claimed, as long as it remained the province of the petite bourgeoisie. I thought the movies were interesting, dreamy, with beautifully framed shots (Gordie pointed them out to me) and I admired the drifting narratives, but the women were shaped like Barbie dolls and about as interesting. The four of us argued about this in diners late at night, pouring our collective change onto the tabletops to come up with enough for coffee and pie, arguing whether class trumped sex or if aesthetics trumped all. We dug ourselves into trenches except for Jodi, who moved from position to position to tease out our points. She and Mickey were having sex. They were not a couple, though. He was sleeping with other girls and she was theoretically free to sleep with other boys. We couldn’t figure out where Mickey found time to seek out other women since the four of us were always together. Gordie expressed his admiration for Janis Joplin, and Mickey pounded his fist on the table so hard our coffee cups jumped in their saucers, insisting Janis was as bad as Elvis, stealing black music and rendering it palatable for whites—Aretha was who you wanted to listen to. Gordie, unruffled, claimed he could like them both, it was possible.
We went to a photography exhibit, Gordie and me, featuring Diane Arbus. I liked photography, but associated much of it with my mother’s leftism. The noble revolutionaries in Capa’s Spanish Civil War, the haggard mining families of Walker Evans’s Appalachia. Helen Levitt’s sad and knowing children. Gordie assured me Arbus was nothing like that. She preferred “freaks.” Not freaks as in hippies, but midgets, nudists, pimps, cross-dressers. “Then you come to a picture of the quote-unquote normal people,” Gordie said, his arm winding up like a pitcher’s. We were walking down 56th Street. “And you have been so conditioned by looking at freaks you start to see the everyone through that prism. The margins disappear. The normal people look deformed and miserable, the freaks are contented. Fearless. Arbus says they’ve been tested by trauma and they already passed the test.”
I was drawn to all the pictures, but arrested by The Jewish Giant. Distorted by his long limbs, he stooped benevolently beneath his living room ceiling, his unsmiling parents as high as the waist of his trousers. They looked into the lens with incredulity, as if to say, “We did nothing to deserve this.”
I made the mistake of telling my mother about Arbus, and she wanted in. She visited the exhibit on her lunch hour and came home unimpressed. “I mean, what’s the point? All those deviants? And even the ones who aren’t, those suburban worker bees, I mean, who cares? Where are the answers? Where are the answers, Rachel?”
“Why do there always have to be answers?”
“She’s an artist, an artist in a gallery. She can’t offer one answer? I have time for this?”
I didn’t have the language to defend the pictures. Language was her weapon. And trying to argue with her would only dissipate my buzz.
“Educate me,” she said.
By mid-May it was hot. Businessmen walked around without jackets. We four got high, or we went to the movies to soak in the air-conditioning. One night Jodi told the boys about my gentile father—the real one—and Mickey was animated. “Was he CP? I bet he was CP. Lots of Jewish women in the Party married goyim.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “She says he writes for television now.”
“Like your mom does,” Gordie said. “That’s interesting.”
“But my mom writes soaps. My father—” I still felt disloyal saying the words, as if I were a cheating lover— “he writes real TV. Prime-time. A detective show.”
“Decent! Decent!” Mickey bellowed. “Let’s watch it.”
“Oh shit,” Jodi said. “We better get stoned first.”
On Friday night we got stoned and watched Buck, the show about Peter Buckstrom, a private investigator who lives on a barge and has a potbellied pig for a pet. “What’s with the fucking pig?” Mickey asked, his pupils wide and serene as a lake on the moon.
“Pig for the pig,” Jodi said, holding her breath and passing the joint.
“But Buck’s not a pig,” Gordie said. “He’s a private dick.” Gordie recognized Peter Buckstrom. He’d been a child actor in the 30s.
“Evidently he’s fallen on lean times,” Mickey said.
“But he’s kind of sexy, I think,” Jodi said. “Would you fuck him, Rachel?”
“He’s my father’s alter ego. I can’t think of him sexually.”
“But you don’t know that he’s an alter ego,” Mickey said. “You don’t know what your father’s really like. How can you not want to know?”
I needed time to consider; the past few weeks I had devoted so much energy to wondering what I meant to David Cohen, to the man I always took for my father, that I had none left over for this other guy, Gardner. His TV show was kind of dumb. My mother told me he started out as a novelist, he worshipped Fitzgerald: “We all did!” She considered it his moral failure that he wrote for television, even though that’s what she did. My mother, though, would never have dreamed up a pet pig, scampering underfoot and rooting through the trash.
And then quickly, as the credits rolled on Buck and my father’s heirloom name rose on the screen like a seagull, it was decided that we would head west, Mickey and Gordie and me. We would pack into Mickey’s VW and point it toward California. Jodi had a summer job in a research lab, she couldn’t possibly go, but she grabbed a legal pad and scribbled the details, calculating how much gas we would burn and how far we could drive per day. She was very efficient when she was high.
My mother didn’t balk when I told her I was leaving to cross the country with two boys. She thought it was a good idea, get out of the heat, see how the people lived, although she cautioned me to stay out of the South, which of course was our plan. She didn’t ask if I was going to meet her ex-husband. My father, on the other hand, inquired if I’d be interested in meeting my “real father.” I said, “You’re my real father.”
“I am, but you’re lucky enough to have two.” He carried a little step stool from the kitchen to the bedroom closet, and after a few minutes of pulling boxes and putting them back he found what he wanted, an old camera he’d bought in the 50s but hardly used, an Argus C4 in a caramel-colored leather case trimmed with white saddle stitching. He showed me how to load film, line it in the sprockets and advance it, how to use the viewfinder and adjust the shutter speed. The technical aspects absorbed me, a rarefied vocabulary—the first collection of words I would not share with my mother. The night before we left he went to the drugstore and got a bag of film, color and black and white. “You decide which you prefer,” he said.
Jodi, as she stood at the curb outside my apartment, said, “You can fuck Mickey, but you have to tell me.”
“I’m not going to fuck Mickey. He doesn’t like me that way.”
“It doesn’t matter. You just have to tell me. Deal?”
When the boys rolled up she hoisted my duffel bag into the trunk and stood in front of the car, hands on hips. “Did you check the oil?” she asked.
“Oh, like you know anything about checking oil,” Mickey said.
“It seems like a thing to say.” She stuck her head through the open window after I climbed in the back, my knees to my chest. “Drive safe,” she said. “Stop often. Drink lots of water.” She kissed us all good-bye on the mouth.
We spent our first night in State College, Pennsylvania, where Mickey had friends. They made a pot of lentil soup and a big bowl of salad—that was the first lentil soup I ever had, and it tasted of the earth. We drank a bottle of Spanish wine, sitting at a long table like the disciples of Christ while Mickey and the other men argued about Althusser and Eurocommunism. The girls were beautiful, seraphim in muslin, and after dinner, as I helped clean up in the kitchen, I showed them my camera.
“Ooh, an Argus,” she said, a girl named Beatrice. She adjusted the focus.
“I saw this Diane Arbus exhibit,” I said.
“Arbus uses a Rolleiflex,” Beatrice said. “Double-reflex. But this is a good camera to start with. What do you want to take pictures of?”
“Sure,” she said. I took pictures of her scouring the soup pot, her strong round arms at work. I set the aperture wide to accommodate the low light, but the moment I snapped the shutter she pivoted to lift the pot onto a shelf. The picture would be a dim blur.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I missed the shot. Could you wash the pot again? I mean, don’t pretend. Maybe you missed a stain?”
She theatrically lifted her chin with the back of her hand. “Want me to pose?”
“No. Not pose exactly. Just be more, I don’t know, still?”
The next day we headed for the coalfields of southwest Pennsylvania because Mickey wanted to see them. We didn’t quite know what to look for; mostly we drove through small towns with tidy frame houses, women on the porches monitoring us. These were not the starved and tattered women of the Walker Evans photos my mother loved; these women were in jeans and cotton-blend blouses, blond with a touch of glamour. “The men are in the mines,” Mickey explained, and went on the describe the fight for coal miners’ hearts and minds being waged between Jock Yablonski and Tony Boyle.
“Which side are we on?” Gordie asked.
“Definitely Jock Yablonski,” Mickey said. “Definitely. Rank and file democracy.”
I asked the boys to stop.
“Oh sure,” Mickey said. “Three Jewish kids from New York tumbling out of a VW in the middle of coal country. That won’t attract any attention.”.
“Attention of the worst kind,” Gordie said.
“Nonsense,” I said, and I demanded to be let out, which meant Gordie had to remove himself from the passenger seat and flip it forward to free me. I approached a yellow house with two girls about my age sitting on a porch swing. The boys hung close to the Bug. “Hello,” I said. They looked at each other. One was barefoot, in bell-bottoms, pushing the planks of the porch floor to rock the swing. I put one foot on the bottom step. “We’re from New York.”
“And?” Both girls sipped Pepsis. Pretty constellations of freckles over noses and cheeks. I took another step.
“Are you for Boyle or Yablonski?” I asked. The girls stared at us.
“You’re in Westmoreland County,” the barefoot one said.
“Meaning this is Yablonski country.” She spoke as if to a child, as if she would follow up with “Duh.”
I asked if I could take their picture, and they didn’t mind, so I got up on the porch and sat on the railing, snapping and advancing as fast as I could. After four shots I thanked them and we drove away.
I took pictures of women at an Ohio square dance we crashed. Waitresses in Indiana. At three in the morning we had coffee at a truck stop in Nebraska and I shot a woman trucker, the first we’d met. When we walked out to the parking lot, Mickey complained I was taking fetishized pictures of working people like they were exotic animals, and Gordie told him to shut up, I was finding my voice. In Wyoming we were humbled by the expanse of sky, the depth of the blue. Finding a phone booth at the intersection of two county roads, we pooled together our dimes and called Jodi, dropping one coin after another and taking turns at the receiver. When we asked how she was doing, Gordie thought Jodi said, “So much for rest,” but Mickey heard “So much unrest.”
We went to Cheyenne to buy more film and Gordie suggested I get a light meter. He showed me how to use it in front of a yellow-brick drugstore on a wide street with diagonal parking, sky at each end of the road. I tried black and white.
We got stoned in the mountains because we were told grass was more efficient at high elevations. We met a guy, recently back from Vietnam, on the street in Las Vegas who invited us to crash at his apartment. He offered us his bed, insisting he always slept sitting up at the kitchen table.
By the time we reached California I was more excited about developing my film than about meeting my father. We parked the VW in Venice and walked up and down the boardwalk until we found a kiosk where I could drop my film rolls. It was about two in the afternoon, and Mickey and Gordie, hungry and in need of a shower, elbowed me into a phone booth that had a beat-up directory. I searched for the name Gardner. His number was listed and I dialed it, the first local call we’d made all week—I think it cost ten cents.
A woman answered. I asked to speak to “Mr. Gardner.” He wasn’t home, and she asked to take a message. I pressed the mouthpiece against my chest and told the boys he wasn’t home, and they gesticulated urgently. “Tell her who you are!”
“My name is Rachel Cohen. I’m the daughter of. . . his wife?” My breathing grew shallow.
There was a silence, and then the woman said, “My God, Rachel. I know who you are. You’re here in Los Angeles?”
“Yes. With two friends.”
“Will you come over?” She gave me directions and I repeated them to the boys. We had nothing to write on so they committed them to memory, ticking off the street names on their fingers. The woman said we would know the house by the bougainvillea around the door. I drove while the boys navigated, fighting between themselves. “Left on Mulholland.” “No, you idiot, it was most distinctly right on Mulholland.” The streets had no signs and when we found the house, it seemed nothing more, at first, than a garage perched on a hilltop.
“I am a spy in the house of the bourgeoisie,” Mickey said as I pulled into the driveway. The address was right, but there was no bougainvillea, and in fact no front door.
“This guy is a TV writer,” Gordie said. “He doesn’t own the means of production. At best he’s petit bourgeois.”
“Haut petit bourgeois,” Mickey said. “And that layer identifies with the bourgeoisie, and since consciousness determines being, he is, for all intents and purposes, bourgeois.” Mickey was stuffed into the back seat, his head between Gordie’s shoulder and mine like a friendly retriever.
“Well,” Gordie said, pulling on the latch, “let’s meet the patriarch.”
We crept around looking for a door. The house sloped down the hill, invisible from the street, and the bougainvillea magically appeared. Gordie rang the doorbell because Mickey and I were scared: two and one-half Jews, rank from our travels, trembling on this storybook threshold. A trim woman with a Vidal Sassoon haircut and paisley bell-bottoms opened the door. She seemed stylish, a lot more stylish than my mother—but about my mother’s age, which surprised me. “Rachel?” She asked. “Oh my goodness, of course. I can see it.” She twirled her finger around her own face. “The resemblance.” She hugged me and she smelled good. Perfume. Her name was Sylvia Gardner.
Mickey was suddenly shy, but Gordie lunged into conversation, complimenting Sylvia on her “spectacular” home, requesting a tour. The house descended, one tier after another: living room, kitchen and dining, two bedrooms, a deck with a movie-worthy view of the city. Gordie knew to ask about the flora and fauna, the style of architecture, the kitchen appliances. As she answered him, Sylvia glanced at me. I had no idea how to impress her. She was the kind of woman my mother would dismiss as a professional hostess, surface shine and good manners. She was refreshing.
“Your father is playing golf,” she said. My father. “I called the club and left a message, so he’ll know to skip the 19th hole.”
“I don’t want to interrupt his game,” I said.
“The 19th hole, Rachel,” Gordie said. “It’s a stop at the bar. Golf has 18 holes. Get it?”
My mother would have said, “What do I know from golf? I’m a Jew!” But I didn’t. Sylvia mixed a pitcher of sangria, which was new to us, and we went out to the deck and looked at the city, smog curled over it like a scarf. We sat above the smog.
A half-hour later Sylvia’s husband stood at the sliding door. I didn’t feel a blush of love, exactly, just the glide of a brass bolt into its cylinder, a satisfying click: of course. That is my father.
He stood the way men do when they feel extraneous, stooping a little, ape-armed. He was heavier than in his wedding picture, older, naturally. A little more jowl, a little dryness around the eyes. His lips had lost their color. He was a man who spent a lot of time in the sun, and his blond hair was bleached like straw. He was still handsome, I guess, but the whole package—the golf shoes, the lamb’s wool cardigan with the V-neck, the camel slacks—was a ping from another solar system.
“Well,” he said, “looks like a party.”
Sylvia waved for him to join us. “Hub, come meet Rachel and her friends.”
He didn’t hug me, and I was both relieved and disappointed. Instead he squeezed my elbow, then he shook hands with the boys. He poured himself a glass of Scotch and sat on a lounger. His knee grazed Sylvia’s, and I thought this must be a habit with them. A different marriage from that of my parents, who sat across the room from one another, my mother braying and my father trying to read.
“He had a deflated air, a resignation, that I thought must have come from having been talked to death by my mother. In that way, both my fathers were the same.”
The boys startled me by introducing themselves as Michael and Gordon. I’d never heard them use their full names before, nor seen them drink Scotch, which they accepted from my father. It was as though my father had secretly conferred upon them adulthood with the shaking of hands.
When my father asked about the trip, Mickey said the highlight was driving through southwest Pennsylvania. “Yablonski country.”
“Jock Yablonski,” Gordie said.
“He knows who Jock Yablonski is,” Mickey snapped.
“I’m a little rusty on current events,” my father said, “but I believe he’s the mine workers’ union leader?”
“The opposition leader,” Mickey said.
“Oh, of course. The good guy.”
“Rachel took some really interesting pictures there of these girls we met,” Gordie said.
My father turned his face to me, “Oh, you take pictures, do you?” As the boys continued talking he responded politely. He had a deflated air, a resignation, that I thought must have come from having been talked to death by my mother. In that way, both my fathers were the same.
At one point Sylvia inquired where we were staying in Los Angeles, and my father interjected, “They won’t find a room with the Democratic primary going on. They should stay here.” So we paused in our drinking and unloaded our duffels from the VW to a guest room—a girlish room with a four-poster bed and gold wallpaper stamped with a faint nouveau swirl of paisley. We assured Sylvia we’d be comfortable, the three of us bunking together. We’d been doing it since we left New York. She said, “You kids.”
When we were left alone to settle in, Mickey said, “This room. Do they have children?”
“They don’t,” Gordie said. “Sylvia mentioned it when we she was showing me the house.”
“Maybe this is your room, Rachel!” Mickey said. “I bet they’ve just always been waiting for you to stop by. And they pictured you as Gidget.”
“Imagine the depth of their disappointment,” I said.
My father offered to take Mickey and Gordie for a tour of the studio, while Sylvia and I would go shopping. I was surprised how enthusiastic the boys were to examine the bowels of capitalist reproduction of ideology. Sylvia drove a red Mustang and took me to lunch in Beverly Hills, a patio restaurant full of smartly dressed wives like her, where we drank more sangria and I was aware of my unwashed jeans and peasant blouse. I felt like a clot of dirt on a crisp bedsheet. Sylvia asked if I had read Betty Friedan, apologizing in the same sentence that Friedan was probably too old-fashioned for me. “What about your mother,” she asked, casually lighting a cigarette and waving the match. “Does your mother dig women’s lib?”
“My mother distrusts anything that brushes her up against other women,” I said.
“That’s the sort of thing he would say about her. You’re just like him.”
She was talking about genetics, but I knew he and I had been scarred identically by the velocity of my mother’s impact.
I watched Sylvia, how she bantered with the waiter, stopped to greet friends after paying the check. To my mother, everyone was a fool until they proved otherwise. For a Communist she could be very elitist. But Sylvia asked a bouffanted matron about her hydrangeas, and made no sarcastic comment afterward as we waited for the valet to bring around her Mustang.
When I told Sylvia about my film she veered south on Sepulveda toward Venice and then strolled with me on the boardwalk to the kiosk, undeterred by the stoners and panhandlers. When the clerk handed me the contact sheets she encouraged me to take a look, and we spread them out on the countertop. The Wyoming sky, the wide-faced women with their triumphant gazes, they were all rendered flat and ordinary. Snapshots. I shuffled the contact sheets back into their glassine.
We found my father with Gordie and Mickey on the deck drinking Scotch. Already my friends were beginning to mirror Gardner’s studied casualness, reclining on the cedar chaises and regarding the ice melting in their tumblers. Gordie told me about the studio, about the set of Buck’s office and how the Foley guy simulated the sounds of a creaking barge by rubbing together two party balloons. When Sylvia mentioned the contact sheets, my father said, “Let’s take a look.”
He had a study, where he wrote. It was in the lowest level of the house, dug into the hillside, windowless and cool and surprisingly plain: just a pine board with an Underwood typewriter and some shelves crammed with bound manuscripts. It was so small we sat knee to knee, and his physicality suffused the room—the smell of Scotch and aftershave, the delicate capillaries of his nose, his smoothly barbered cheek. I listened to his breathing while he looked at the contact sheets with a loupe, marking some with a red grease pencil. “The theme seems to be different women,” he said.
“I guess so.”
He grunted, bent over the loupe. “What is the question?”
“What’s missing?” he said. “What’s being asked? What’s left for the viewer to interpret?”
These were heady challenges from the hack who wrote Buck. And in them not a hint of paternal affection, not an iota of encouragement. He was unimpressed with the pictures and what’s more, he was unimpressed with me.
“I guess they’re not very good,” I said, tugging at the corner of the contact sheet pinned by his loupe.
“I didn’t say that. Why are you hearing that? You’re like your mother; unless it’s lavish praise you hear criticism.”
I fixed my gaze on my lap. I felt the fancy lunch Sylvia bought curdling in my stomach. From upstairs I could hear the boys talking, their words indistinct.
“These are your first rolls of film?”
I nodded. If I looked at him I knew I’d burst into tears; my face felt bloated. “I saw this photographer in a gallery—Diane Arbus.”
“These are your first rolls, and they show a lot of promise. There’s nothing wrong in promise. You have to work at it.”
I was quiet, and he added, “God! Your mother gave up serious writing because her English professor said her first story wasn’t good enough. She always resented me because she thought things came to me too easily. They didn’t come easily, I just kept at it.”
His indignation was fresh. This stranger’s jab at my mother hurt, and it gratified me, too—most gratifying was the dent she had left: she still mattered. But I knew her flaws were mine. Her hunger for attention. I wanted it from him and I didn’t think I should have to work for it.
The next day we packed up and headed home. That was the summer, of course, when Bobby Kennedy was shot. We heard the news in a diner in Denver.
For a few months, after we returned, Jodi squinted at me and asked what happened on our road trip, and I’d always tell her, “Nothing happened,” meaning no, I did not fuck Mickey.
“But what was he like? What was your father like?”
“I don’t know. Normal.”
“That sounds so relaxing.”
Jodi is retired now but writes a blog about the warming of the ocean and the disappearance of bees. I prefer color photos these days, but when I look at pictures from that time I am amused by the gaudy purples and gold left by the subtractive process of Kodachrome. I’m fairly certain our landscape is tinted differently now, and the sounds of my youth—the clack of teletype from newscasts and the beating of helicopter blades during traffic reports—have vanished. Still, I am amused that Jodi and Michael and Gordon have assumed in their speech the cadences of our parents’ generation, an echo from the early part of the last century. Who knew that with old age came their vocal tics, the choice vowels and syntactic inversions? And likewise the sound of my mother resides in me. I had four parents, two Jews and two gentiles, and from them I acquired an Argus camera, a sense of decorum, a work ethic, and a voice: my mother, whose spirit is unwilling to take its leave from this planet, always reminds me she was here.
From American Chordata: Issue 6. Used with permission of American Chordata. Copyright © 2018 by Katherine Karlin.