My father got out of control angry just a few times, always because my mother would not stop talking, needling – I knew if she would just stop everything would be okay – didn't she know she was making him furious, that it was building, cresting, like a wave?
In the car – he is driving, she in the passenger seat, me behind her, sisters, younger, beside me. It is dark. We are returning from somewhere. My mother is doing it, doing that thing that makes him grip the steering wheel in silence. Tighter. My sisters and I in the back seat are quiet quiet quiet, waiting for this to be over, my father responding in short terse phrases only when he feels he must, clenched teeth until finally he stops the car by the side of the road, gets out, says, “I'll walk home,” -- he is about two miles away – and now my mother is quiet, finally, the spell broken. She drives us home and noone says anything except maybe I play with my little sister as if nothing happened, knowing I can give her this much, easily.
It is easy to give to my little sister, the one with the curly hair, the big eyes, the round cheeks. Different from the other sister whose hair is straight and light brown whom everyone says takes after my mother. That's what the adults say so she and my mother are one team, and me and my father are on the other, and the littlest sister, Esther, who comes last, after the teams have already been formed, is sort of on both and neither.
Later, in high school years, my mother occupies the room at the head of the stairs. It's the one she was in when we were little, before we moved away. Now we are back and though most things feel very different my mother returns to this room, and now it is completely her room. When I was little my father sometimes joined her in the double bed up there, but for many years that hasn't happened in this or any other house we have lived in, and there have been several.
Her room still has the dark wide boards with the old square nails – though by now much of the house and its old board floors have been covered in wall-to-wall beige carpeting, my father's doing. Beige is his favorite color – he says so to me as if this choice is classy, a sign of aristocratic taste.
My father would like to be a member of the aristocracy. Not American aristocracy. There is no such thing. There is only European aristocracy. He even uses the word “nobleman,” pronounced it gently with his Hungarian accent, with complete sincerity and respect when describing a character in a novel he is reading.
My mother has a plain, wooden dresser in her room, dating from my early childhood when she used to seek out old pieces of furniture and refinish them – sanding and staining. She doesn't do stuff like that anymore. When I was little she had a camera and a camera case and a light meter she held in her hand and a darkroom where my little sister sleeps now. My mother takes a few photographs now, but only snapshots and the drugstore develops them.
In her room, in the corner between two windows, she has a simple wooden desk with three drawers down the left-hand side. The desk is glossy and must too have once been something she bought and re-stained. The beige push-button phone sits on this desk along with things needed to pay bills and write short notes.
My father bought us all beds when we moved back in, and he bought a double bed for my mother.
He sleeps downstairs now on a yellow fold-out couch. He closes the two narrow French doors at the bottom of the stairs in the evening when I, my two sisters and mother have gone to bed. He closes the doors and sometimes he plays classical music records on the stereo that sits inside a big piece of furniture with glass doors and shelves – it fills a wall. He calls it an “armoire” and he keeps his shirts folded from the dry cleaner on the shelves below, hidden behind wooden doors – and on the upper shelves behind the delicate glass doors he keeps mementos from his travels: the brass mold for coins from Morocco, the Kenndy silver dollar floating in a cube of plexiglass, the tiny enamelled pill box in which he keeps the gnarled stone they took out of his gall bladder when we still lived in England. The pill box has small elegant print: I am yours while life endures, it says, and I know the blonde, rich Swiss woman, Helga, whom we are supposed to call “aunt,” gave it to him and I know he would rather be with her than with us.
Sometimes at night my father sits in one of the two big armchairs upholstered in a yellow and brown print of sunflowers, reading an Iris Murdoch novel or Somerset Maughm, always with a Mont Blanc pen in hand to underline the words and phrases he likes. Sometimes I review the marks he has made in a book. They usually make no sense to me – random underlinings – and when once or twice I ask him, “Dad, why did you underline this?” he raises his eyesbrows and smiles as if he has a secret and will not tell. As he reads he keeps a chunky glass of whiskey on the rocks beside him, and the kitchen is nearby when he wants a late night snack. No one else snacks.
When we first come back from England, moving back into this house, my fathers sits me down and shows me a brochure for asphalt. This is his new job, he says proudly. He will be selling this road surface and he makes it sound like a job that is fabulous and glamorous and how he is excited. He says too that he has only brought in $7,000 so far this year, a fraction of what he used to make. These numbers are foreign to me. I do know that my father has never sold asphalt to anyone before – that this is not at all what he should be doing. He is someone who needs a fancy office in a city with a secretary – but these things seem to have disappeared and he is acting now as if selling asphalt is the perfect next step.
But it's only when I see the Christmas tree that year that I know something is very very wrong. There are not enough presents. There are too many empty spaces and holes where there should be a package or a bow, and that's when I know we are poor, that I must not ask for anything.