I am alone on the plane. No wife. No kids. No deals. Going overnight for the funeral and a visit to my cousin, Mary Lou. I've avoided this visit for years, ever since her "accident,” her family winking at the word. I'm a lawyer who prefers analyzing deals, crafting contracts, and tracking negotiations. I have a hard time with make-believe. When I read fairytales to my kids, I pretend I believe, but the last time I lived in imagination was before law school. These days I want to understand how things work, instead of how they might. One reason I never let Uncle Morry know I was in town was that I was uncertain whether I could successfully pretend I bought the story. The other reason was my unease for not meeting with Mary Lou that fateful night. But my wife, Valerie, expects me to attend the funeral, and my memories, reawakened by my uncle’s death, demand it. I won't see Uncle Morry, as the casket will be closed, but I will see Mary Lou. Ask forgiveness for not having answered her call for help so many years ago.
I'm tired of flying to the deal of the month – the hotel for sale in Dallas, empty projects in Houston between the building booms. Odd, that a funeral should be a welcome change. I have nothing to work on, nothing to read, and no way to avoid reflection. I won't attempt to fabricate my uncle's appearance, or fantasize his voice, or recreate verbatim my discussion with Mary Lou on that ancient night. Instead, I will seek the essence.
Here I am at the apartment on the Gold Coast, where my uncle, aunt and their two children live.
There I am as a teen, during a visit to my uncle's home in Florida. My Uncle Morry: a man who never smiles; who barks commands like a sergeant.
Then I summon-up my family's visit to Florida, when we escaped the snow and I learned what my uncle already knew: the ocean breeze helps us forget all fear of the future. We were on the pier at my uncle's home on an island near Miami. Uncle Morry was talking sex. My dad knew better than that. He hinted sometimes, but never said the word or even the euphemisms. Like how the Jews avoid the name of God. He has a name, but you never speak it aloud. Uncle Morry was breaking the rules. Maybe he didn't even know them. The afternoon sun had dried the lawn. A breeze blew toward us from Biscayne Bay, carrying the smell of wet salt. I looked across the water, empty of cruisers and therefore waves. Uncle Morry was staring without expression, as though he had such discussions every day, down at the edge of the pier, watching boats should they appear, studying the resultant waves. It could be a ritual, like a martini at dusk. I realized my presence was irrelevant. My uncle wanted to live in memory. I understood, even then, that reflection is best done in private.
Uncle Morry whispered about how he had been fooling around on a pile of straw, his hand between the farm girl's legs, pulling down her pants.
I can't remember the exact sound of Uncle Morry's voice, but I do remember he was usually barking orders at his wife and kids or yelling at his partner on the phone. Uncle Morry had my attention, talking sex in the heat of the sunset. I had my hand against my forehead, sheltering my eyes against the setting sun and any need to respond. He said they did it without condoms, frowning, uncertain if I had ever met that word. He said he didn't knock her up, and avoided the clap, then looked to see whether I knew those words, as well. It occurred to me that he could have been shooting blanks. Even at 14, I knew how to pronounce supposition.
Consider this. Uncle Morry and Aunt Sophie had two kids, Danny and Mary Lou, each adopted at different times, neither looking like the other, much less their adoptive parents. They had the best of both worlds, children of millionaire Jews but able to pass as Gentiles if required. Danny and Mary Lou were both spoiled, but in different ways. Uncle Morry gave Danny whatever he wanted, but first Danny had to ask. Mary Lou got gifts she didn't know existed. Understanding the characters makes sense of a scene.
These pieces of the past, somewhere over Alabama, so fragmented they barely qualify as memory, surprise me by their persistence. Have I succeeded in being different than Uncle Morry? After law school, marriage, my kids, I rejected memory. Now, I must acknowledge I was neither the author nor the audience on those visits. Just a bit player. Even so, I want to understand. If it were all part of a play, then the final act should contain two scenes – the death of Uncle Morry, and this visit to Mary Lou. I try to pin a date on her call for help, but it has sunk to the depth of games in the streets when I was a kid, my wedding day, my wedding night. Memory meanders. When you return to the site, the footprints are gone.
Mary Lou lived two blocks from the apartment were Val and I lived. I often passed by her walk-up across from the fancy hotel, but I never visited, never called, never even considered the proximity of her existence. I only knew she was there in the abstract, unrelated to my daily life. Then, on that midweek evening of a mid-summer month before we moved to the suburbs to have our kids, Mary Lou called. I had just arrived home and was changing into sweatpants and a pullover, ready to relax, when the phone interrupted, and she announced her name along with a nervous laugh. I asked what was new, as though it had only been a few weeks since we last spoke. When Mary Lou pleaded for a meeting, I could have asked if something was wrong, invited her to come right over, suggested she wait while I spoke to Val, or did Mary Lou want to meet nearby for a coffee or a drink? I could have said almost anything that might have changed destiny, assuming destiny is susceptible to change, but instead I had left my lawyer's mind at the office and forgotten about alternatives. Or was it that I was unconcerned about anyone else?
Instead, I suggested Friday night, allowing Val enough time to shop and prepare. Mary Lou repeated her request to see me sooner, typical Mary Lou. Immediate Gratification was her other name. After the call, I approached Valerie in the kitchen to give her the news about Friday night, but I failed to say enough to alert her to the ring for help underlying the telephone call. Maybe I didn't know they were warning bells. Perhaps I did but ignored their clang. When Friday arrived, Mary Lou didn't show up. The irresponsible child of a doting millionaire.
The next day, Cousin Judy called from Miami. She was a transplanted Chicagoan who had moved to Florida to pick up a New York accent. Unless she had picked up the accent first, and then been forced to move there. Mary Lou’s own accent might have explained why I missed the subtext in her call. Judy reported "she" broke her back while climbing into "her" window. Who, what window, where, how, why, were the obvious questions. Without mentioning Mary Lou's name, Judy said that she wanted to surprise her folks, found a ladder and was climbing up to her room. Okay, now it was obvious. That explained the empty chair at the Friday night table, but not the fairytale about her climbing in. Mary Lou was used to doors.
She has been paralyzed ever since. My mother has mentioned her progress, or its absence, over the years, but I never wrote or called her or Uncle Morry. Not that I didn't care. Instead, I was afraid of the verdict. Now I am visiting that other country, invited by my uncle's death, forced to ponder any connection between whatever Mary Lou needed and her sudden flight to Miami. Cross-examining myself, I concede it might not be a mere failure to recognize a connection; rather, it could be a deliberate refusal to see any link. On redirect, why did she choose the ladder? The doorbell would have been sufficient surprise.
The Julia Tuttle Causeway surfs from the mainland to Miami Beach, level with Biscayne Bay, daring the waves every other hurricane as it hop-skips the intermediate islands. Uncle Morry's home is on one such island, protected by a gated entrance complete with a guard and electric arm. But Death had arrived by water, dripping its way up from the pier.
When I arrive, Danny and Aunt Sophie are in the living room, surrounded by family, friends and Howard, the Black retainer who, in his early 60s, followed Uncle Morry to Florida 30 years earlier. Howard does not clean house or cook meals, but he knows how to mix a martini, drives within the speed limit and has 40 years of service. Danny beckons on seeing me, his usual glass in hand, the same red cheeks and puffy eyes, sitting in the corner of the room, surveying the scene. If I join Danny, I am in for some whiskeys and water, whatever it takes to keep him calm. I go to one of the empty chairs that surround Danny like a barrier reef and say I will have whatever he is drinking, determined to avoid the usual argument. I sit on the edge of my seat, ready to move away if he is past his fifth drink, or to lean back if he is just starting. When I tell him that his father had offered to set me up with an office and some business if I ever moved down to Florida, I regret my words. I have no idea what Uncle Morry might have promised Danny, who reaches for the drink Howard brings for me, says he would have preferred independence any day, empties my glass in a gulp, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, waves the empty glass at Howard, and complains about his father's constant scolding. I say I never heard Uncle Morry raise his voice. But that wasn't true. I was there when he yelled at Aunt Sophie, or cursed the gardener, or argued with any of his tradesmen. What was true was that my uncle had never shouted at me. Uncle Morry had a voice like crushed gravel rattling in his throat, so the threat was always there, but I had never been bruised by the dust.
Danny leans forward, cheeks almost as flushed as his nose, his tongue thickening his words. I put a hand on my cousin's arm. Two months older, I have always been able to stop Danny this side of a fight. I tell him that his father had always expressed his love for him, which makes Danny slump back in his chair, eyes moistening, denying that his father ever told him any such thing.
It is time to visit Mary Lou. Danny directs me to the top of the stairs, flashing the blackened teeth that come from using dentist money for booze. Mary Lou's second-floor bedroom has a brightly curtained window overlooking the bay. I see sails moving against the sky. Clouds overhang the water like leftover smoke from an Everglades fire. Only the top rung of an imaginary ladder fails to finish the picture. Mary Lou is propped-up in a double bed that exaggerates her thin frame. She is under a yellow, cotton blanket meant to disguise her destruction. Once slender, now she is withered, the blanket draping her legs and her chest, but the part of her body that shows is tanned, her face vibrant, her hair bleached. Howard must carry her outside to lie in the sun every day. She surprises me by smiling. We could be at her parents’ apartment for a long-ago Thanksgiving or following a mid-winter drive from the snow to the sun. Or as though she was arriving in my apartment for Friday night dinner with something to tell and on legs with the strength to say it.
She greets me without referring to our broken date years before, or to her father's death, or to my decades-long absence, making it easier than I deserve. She waves away my apology, smiling and patting the edge of her bed by her teddy bears. I sit next to her, saying I have often thought about the night of her call, which is a lie. I hadn't started until halfway through the plane ride, but I believe I should have thought about it, which means that it will become true if I work at it. I tell her I should have invited her to come right over, my belief growing stronger, a seed now watered into recollection. Mary Lou tells me how ashamed she was when she made that call, prompting me to claim the guilt as solely my own, against my professional instincts. I touch the blanket on her legs, aware she is unable to feel my hand.
Mary Lou says she never blamed me, and that her father never blamed her for what she did. She tells me her father used to come to her room and sing to her. Uncle Morry had usually barked, even when he whispered, regardless of whether he was sharing a remembrance of his first sexual experience, giving unsolicited advice, or telling how his banker had made him apologize to a secretary he had insulted. I could reconstruct many tones of Uncle Morry's voice, but not how he sounded when he sang. It would take an extraordinary effort, but Mary Lou believes it, and that seems to comfort her. She places her hand over mine, squeezes, surprising me with her strength. She must exercise daily, her hands denying company to the rest of her body. She tells me that when her boyfriend came down after the accident, she told him to go home. What was the point? She stares at her shrouded legs.
Although I am a lawyer who takes pride in my eloquence, I now fumble, admitting I never thought there might be a boyfriend. The words erupt without any forethought. That's no way to practice law.
She smiles and asks me, what did I think? She doesn't say why. So, I must figure it all out on my own.
The cemetery is above ground, stone walls stacking tombs high above the sea-soaked soil, avoiding the risk of leaching, offering the deceased a view of the pastel skyline of the city, even, for those at the top of the stack, the sight of the ocean beyond. As in the case of the real estate that supports my standard of living, the customers pay for location. When the ceremony concludes, I wait until the departure of the family and friends' limousines – the Bentleys of the newly rich, the Jaguars of money outliving every recession, and the Cadillacs of the rest of the crowd. Then I drive my rental back to the airport and catch an earlier flight home, ready to meld the sense of past and present. I can't be certain my interpretation of the script will be right, but if it goes unchallenged it will become the truth.
As an officer of the court and minister of the law, I know that at the time of Mary Lou's call, long before legal abortion, couples relied on the pill, or a condom, or even early withdrawal to avoid the issue. The introduction of a boyfriend to the cast has propelled Mary Lou's play to its finale. She must have been pregnant. I must acknowledge that truth and consider the further questions. Had I seen her at once, or if Mary Lou herself had waited for our Friday night dinner, had I possessed that empathy, or she that patience, had she then detailed her crisis, what would I have said? Would I have assured her of her father's forbearance? Would I have told her of a father who himself once had sex in the straw? Would she have avoided failing at suicide and succeeding at paralysis? I am eager to close my eyes when the plane takes off. If I look within, reconstruct the scene, restage the set and rewrite the dialogue, my imagination will prevail. I will become the hero.
I am at home from work, following another triumph. What is the weather? How am I dressed? Which deals have advanced, or at least avoided disaster? My call.
It is still raining, but the mid-summer sun breaks through the clouds, providing a setting seeking a rainbow. The rain drools down the windowpanes. My view is too high above the trees to see their tops, unless I look down while pressed against the window, or step out onto the balcony and lean over the railing. Why not? My shoes are already wet from my walk. As I turn away, a startle of light demands my attention. I stand motionless, lest my movement, even so far away, smother the rainbow's breath. At that moment, the phone rings. When I answer, I hear a voice that permits alternative recognitions, each as likely valid as the other but, as I am the playwright, so it must be her.
"I hope I'm not interrupting dinner." Her voice is devoid of both hope and appetite.
I sniff the mushroom soup and brisket. When it rains, Val cooks winter meals. "Just got home." I shrug my Burberry onto the bench in the foyer.
"Jerry, I need to see you."
She needs. Her needs are at the root of her estrangement from her father. Uncle Morry is used to command and supplication. He dispenses favors to his children as though he is the rabbi and they the rabble. I have witnessed these children at their father's altar throughout my youth. I have not seen Mary Lou for years, not even when she moved to Chicago to study art and rented an apartment a few blocks from my own. Now she is on the phone, announcing need.
"If you want some cash, I'll be glad to cover you until your dad can send a check."
"Not that. I need to see you."
I am anxious to change out of my wet clothes, but she is family. "Why don't you come right over?" I could suggest we meet at Butch McGuire's bar a few blocks away, but on a Wednesday night the crowd is warming-up for the weekend. The Pump Room is across the street from Mary Lou's apartment, but I have already removed my tie one-handed while on the phone. I could invite Mary Lou for Friday night dinner, and let Val demonstrate her skill at roast chicken, but Mary Lou's voice does not have a Sabbath tone; it has the echo of a deathbed prayer. After we hang up, I go to the kitchen and give Val the news. She smiles without question and sets another place. Considering the menu, I feel better about my decision. The meal will be split three ways. I have never been a fan of brisket.
Ten minutes later, the doorbell sounds. I ring her up. I hang Mary Lou's coat in the closet and escort her to the sofa left over from my single days. I offer her a drink.
"I'd better not. My father will kill me. I want to tell you while I'm sober."
Mary Lou does not look like she has been drinking. She has managed to escape the example of her brother. Whether she has a substitute vice is hidden by a long-sleeved blouse that shields any scars on her arms. But the visit probably has nothing to do with her reputation as a teen. She is clear-eyed, and her nose is dry. Then, why is she squeezing-out her words as though afraid she might be unable to complete the sentence?
"Okay, you talk, I'll drink." I look away from Valerie's scowl.
"I don't know where to begin."
In my experience, that means she knows exactly where to begin, but is uncertain from which direction. “Why don’t you tell me what you need, then we can discuss how to get there."
"What I need is an abortion." She reaches for my glass, grabs it out of my hand and drains the scotch. "My Dad will kill me."
"Know who the father is?"
Val frowns. But what is more appropriate? Condolences? Congratulations? Talk about the Cubs? Fatherhood would be at the top of Uncle Morry's list, once we make the call.
"You could get married. If you knew who, I mean."
Val glares again, as she does whenever I am witless. She is the civil side of our union.
"Or you could give it up for adoption. You were adopted yourself." As though out-of-wedlock birthing were hereditary.
Valerie is out of her chair and approaching me.
"Or keep it, raise the baby. Your family can certainly afford it."
There. I've outlined all the options before Val can shut me up. Now, I merely need to fill-in the details when Valerie sits down.
"He'll kill me."
Again, with the killing. Yell, maybe. Nothing more dramatic than that. "Why, because you didn't use a condom? You should have been on the pill."
"I was away for the weekend. I forgot."
That was my cousin, all right. Needy. But forgetting what she needed.
"Did he ever tell you the one about him in the hayloft?" Probably not, but she should get to know her father beneath his shouts.
We call Uncle Morry from my apartment. I let Mary Lou tell the story. I can hear my uncle's voice pinging from the headset like radar seeking its target, but Mary Lou's shoulders, which press into her ears at the start of the call, relax during the diatribe. At the end, she is crying, but smiling, still afloat. She hands me the telephone.
"Would you put her on the plane, Jerry?" Uncle Morry says. There are no thanks, but no curses, either. My uncle is whispering without hint of a bark.
I press my eyes even tighter, determined to capture my uncle's tone, the timbre of his voice, the softness of his words. I can now hear all of that, create this new reality, and shape the truth to a better resolution. I grow calm, rewriting the dialogue, reworking the words, detailing the movements, coloring the costumes and peopling the stage. My head is beginning to ache. I fight the temptation to relieve the pressure by opening my eyes. If I keep them closed longer, squeeze even tighter, and with the utmost sincerity, I might yet see my uncle sing.
A native Chicagoan, Dick Carmel's writing has been published in Typehouse Literary Journal, Akashic Books' Monday Are Murder, Chicago Literati, birds thumb, Mash, Travel Today Magazine and the Northwestern University Law Review. He has also written two novels (both unpublished, but he is still trying). Suffering from either eclectic or haphazard taste, his favorite authors include Elmore Leonard, Tobias Wolff, Jennifer Egan, A. E. Home and Rupert Thomson. Carmel has a BA degree from Northwestern University and a JD degree from the Northwestern School of Law. Widowed, he has two children and two grandchildren – all better-looking than he is.