By W. A. Smith
Foster is drawing a picture of a very tall lavender man in a cowboy hat. Deeper lavender trees grow near the man, barely reach his waist. Foster chooses an equally deep green for the giant’s hands, and without raising his eyes from his creation he asks his mother how old his grandfather is. ‘Is he inordinately old?”
Angela cannot help smiling. ‘No, not inordinately,” she says. She’s a little embarrassed, she’s unable to tell her son precisely how old her father is. ‘About sixty-six,” she says.
“Yikes ‘ that’s old.”
She can tell Foster’s working it out in his head, calculating the difference between his own age and his grandfather’s. So far there are two new words today: inordinately and yikes. Foster is four, and he compiles words the way other children in the neighborhood collect high-tech toys and grass stains; he never fails to entertain her with his diversity. He seems to find a word for every occasion, and he’s inventing brand new occasions too. Dumpling Day, for example, when everybody is compelled to locate a dumpling. (“Absolutely everybody,” Foster explained. ‘Even the smallest baby child.’ He gave no direction as to what to do with the dumpling; mere possession appeared to be the key.) He retains everything, instinctively practicing each addition to his vocabulary, making it real. He waited to start talking, until he was over three. Michael had said it was because Foster was sitting back, arranging everything. Then, before either of his parents thought to offer, Foster taught himself to read, this year. Of course she and Michael had helped at every opportunity ‘ it was a privilege ‘ but there was no doubt theirs was a secondary, supportive role.
A year ago illuminating had been Foster’s first word longer than three syllables. He had pronounced it illunamating at first, but he got it; and he’d used the word so often it had begun repeating itself ‘ echoing in Angela’s head, illuminating ad nauseam ‘ like a Top 40 tune she’d like to bury in a concrete box.
“My grandfather,” he informs her now, “is sixty-two years older than me.”
“Older than I. You’re exactly right…and inordinately intelligent.”
Foster grins back at her and shrugs, only slightly embarrassed: his standard reaction to a compliment. ‘Is he coming to visit us? Did the letter say he’s coming to Minneapolis?”
The letter arrived yesterday and is the first communication Angela has received from her father since she married Michael and moved here seven years ago. Michael’s Jewishness was too much for Big Josh Harper to accept. The living legend couldn’t abide the thought of his only child marrying into that bunch: not just Michael’s immediate family ‘ every Jew, everywhere. The fact that Michael’s father had not been able to hoard some facsimile of a fortune made the situation worse in Josh’s eyes. If you could not live up to your own stereotype, what the hell good were you?
She always wrote to her parents after she moved away from Los Angeles. When her mother died she continued writing to her father. The irony was that it was Michael who made her write by coaxing and pestering. It was Michael who told Foster about his famous grandfather: Michael’s version, so Foster could respect the grandfather he’d never met.
When Michael died, Angela dispatched one final paragraph to Los Angeles: Your beautiful son-in-law is dead, she wrote. He was twenty-nine and, so far as I know, without prejudice. Do you feel better now?
She would not allow Foster to read his grandfather’s letter, said it was personal. So of course he thinks of nothing else. Twice he has asked the same question about a visit.
“No, Fossie. I told you yesterday, he’s not coming to see us right now.”
The letter was five brief Hollywood-dialogue paragraphs, self-conscious. Her father tried to chat, asked how things were. Would she mind sending a recent photograph of the boy? That’s what he called Foster: the boy. Can he really read at his age? her father wanted to know. And in his closing paragraph: I hope you and the boy are doing all right during this difficult time. I’d come see for myself, but you know how I feel about snow.
The last sentence intended, of course, to be amusing, an ice breaker. An ice breaker about snow, she thinks, closing her eyes.
Foster touches her knee, tickling with his fingers. When she looks at him he opens his eyes as wide as they’ll go and bats his lashes at her as if they each weigh a pound, trying some physical humor to transform her solemn face.
“I hope my grandfather comes here soon,” he says. ‘I wanna ask him about being a cowboy.”
“He’s not a cowboy,” she tells him. ‘You know he’s not. He’s a movie actor. He’s played cowboys in the movies.”
For a split second she sees her father in a white Stetson: tall, chiseled, death-defyingly handsome ‘ squinting down the barrel of a Winchester. She suspects he keeps score when he squeezes off a shot. The image makes her fist clench, and she frowns at Foster without meaning to.
“A cowboy,” she says, tightening down on the word, making it as small and hopeless as she can. ‘He wouldn’t be caught dead with a cow, unless it was on a plate. And he doesn’t even like horses.”
. . .
She stands at the kitchen sink washing fruit and vegetables, glancing down the hall into the living room where Foster is kneeling on the rug beside the cat. Angela sees his mouth moving, hears the shadow of his voice, but she can’t make out what he’s saying. He tilts his head from side to side, talking nonstop as he strokes the cat’s spine with his cupped hand. She imagines he’s telling the cat how exceptional it is. He likes flattering ‘ people, animals, inanimate objects ‘ describing how good or pretty or intelligent they are. Last night, when Angela was about to leave for her friend Suzanne’s house for dinner, Foster looked up from the picture he was coloring.
“Yikes, Mama, you look extraordinary!”
It almost made her cry. Extraordinary. She never knows quite what to expect from him. He’s gorgeous and eccentric. She loves to squeeze him. She loves how he smells. Sometimes she catches herself thinking of him as a little man and hates herself for it. Robbing his childhood while he’s sitting there just trying to have one. The sitter had been delighted, laughing out loud at Foster’s compliment, and he turned to look at the girl, disconcerted by her laughter. ‘What’s so funny?”
Angela is scrubbing a red potato when the first snow begins to descend in a swirl against the marbled sky outside, dusting the grass in the yard. She recalls a white night when Foster was three, her last year at law school. Michael was still working, but the cancer was red hot and on the move. That’s how Michael described it. The three of them were in the kitchen, huddled over an ancient Rand-McNally map of the world Michael had discovered in the basement.
“Hey,” said Michael, lifting Foster into his lap, “wanna see something incredible? Here’s a picture of the world.”
“Incred ‘ ,” Foster began, looking into his father’s face.
“In-cred-i-ble.’ Michael unrolled the map on the kitchen table, finding things to hold down the edges. A salt shaker, his beloved beer stein. “It means hard to believe.”
“In-cred-i-ble.’ Foster savored it, beginning to make it part of his life, and Angela watched his face change. His eyes widened as he gazed up into the infinite reaches of their tiny kitchen, as if someone had called his name and he was trying to determine which direction the voice came from. He was imagining the shape and color of disbelief.
They studied the map, pronouncing and repeating names of countries, continents and towns, laughing at the silliest and most exotic ones. Mozambique, Constantinople, and Walla Walla, Washington, were instant hits. They leaned their heads together and traced the fading borders with their fingertips.
“Walla Walla Walla Walla,” Foster sang.
Angela admitted her lack of expertise in geography. ‘I’m just no good at it,” she said in a dismal voice.
Michael sighed and allowed that he too suffered from the shortcoming. ‘It’s embarrassing,” he said. ‘I’ve never been able to place all the countries.”
Foster watched them, alert to the sudden intensity in their voices, shifting his dark eyes back and forth between them. ‘It’s okay,” he whispered urgently. ‘We look at the world very hard… then we know everything.”
She stares down at the potato glistening in her hand and wonders how long it will take her to begin remembering the bad times she had with Michael, the times when she hated him. There must have been some.
. . .
She thumbs through the day’s mail. Bills and junk. ‘The creditors are hungry,” under her breath, reminding herself of Michael. He chanted it as they paid bills at the end of the month. ‘Terribly hungry,” he’d say, and she’d respond in a gruff sex-starved Transylvanian accent: “Then we must feed them, Igor.”
Foster walks into the living room and observes her smiling down at the piece of paper in her hand. ‘Is that a letter from Big Josh? He’s coming to stay with us?”
“No!” She turns quickly, startled by his intrusion. Foster shrinks back. ‘I mean this isn’t from him,” she says more gently, folding the electric bill back into its envelope. ‘I don’t know if he’s going to come for a visit, Fossie. Maybe he will sometime. But he’s not coming to stay.”
Foster averts his eyes. His expression recalls the one he had when he was figuring out the difference in their ages, but the furrows in his brow suggest this problem is more exacting. Watching him, Angela recognizes her father’s face. It’s Michael’s hair…but Josh’s face. The features are all there. Has she always known this?
Foster looks back at her. ‘Why don’t you like my grandfather?”
“Why don’t you ever talk about your father?” she says flatly. ‘You never talk about him.”
“I used to, Mama.”
“Well why did you stop? Don’t you care about him anymore?”
His eyes begin to fill, his lips tremble. He is attempting to shape words he doesn’t yet know. Immediately she pulls him to her, wanting to say she’s sorry, but the words won’t come for her either. She holds him cheek to cheek, and he wraps his arms around her so fiercely his strength surprises her. ‘You got sad when I talked about him,” he tells her.
“Yes,” she says. ‘Yes, I know.’
. . .
They’re watching a documentary on public TV about General George Armstrong Custer and the battle of the Little Big Horn. Foster’s eyes are riveted to the screen. Thyroid, alias The Cat Who Ate Minneapolis, sleeps soundly nearby, purring like a chainsaw. Foster is awestruck by Sitting Bull’s dark, restful face. Every now and then he sucks in a breath and says, ‘Geez…Custer’s Last Stand.’
The first time he spoke, the three of them were watching a movie just like this on TV. It is not something she tells everyone. She isn’t particularly proud of the fact her precocious child uttered his first words during a B movie about soldiers massacring Native Americans (known then, and even now, as Indians). They were watching the movie because her father was in it. And of course it was Michael who wanted to see it.
She had always wondered how her father managed to land his first jobs, given the fact that the best people in the business at any moment were likely to be Jewish. But she knew: he had given them his full name and a firm handshake and one of his Joshua Harper smiles, guaranteed to melt steel. He probably sent gifts for Hanukkah.
Michael told her he was studying her dad’s films in order to impress him the next time he saw him.’ I’ll have the characters and plots on the tip of my tongue.’
‘My dear father doesn’t have them anywhere near the tip of his tongue ‘ why should you?’ She offered him the tip of her tongue to shut him up.
‘The truth is I love the cavalry,’ Michael said. ‘All that horse manure and dust. Bunch of guys sleeping under the stars together. Sabers rattling, lots of hot stew. Who wouldn’t love the cavalry?’
‘The Indians,’ she said.
Foster had jumped suddenly and seemed to point at the screen as his grandfather and the regiment of bluecoats thundered down on an unsuspecting settlement of Shawnee. He shouted in his secret baby code and waved his chubby arms around his head as if he had just discovered the cure for something. Then he said something else that sounded to Angela like gravity.
They looked at each other for confirmation.
‘What?’ said Michael.
‘I’m not sure. Gravity?’
Foster gave them a second chance and repeated it.
‘Calvary?’ said Michael.’ Cavalry! Our son just said cavalry,’ picking Foster up and looking into his eyes. ‘Want some hot stew, Fossie? We know you’ve got plenty of manure.’
Later during the same movie, after intense prodding by his father, Foster pronounced the word blood. It might have been butt or blub, but Michael was convinced and said it couldn’t have been anything else but blood.
‘He’d do anything to impress you,’ Angela said.
‘Blood and gravity,’ said Michael. ‘The ties that bind.’
. . .
The telephone screeches, something demon-possessed in the near distance. Still mostly asleep, she sits up suddenly, switches on the lamp and looks at the clock beside her bed: 1:30. She lifts the phone to her ear, whispering, “This better be good.”
“It’s Josh,” he says. ‘Your father.”
For some reason she isn’t surprised. The connection is fine, but his voice sounds milky, frail.
“I miss you, Angie. Want to see you.”
“It’s snowing,” she tells him.
“I want to say I’m sorry.”
Angela takes a breath and rubs her eyes with her free hand.
“I’d really like to do it in person,” he says.
Which person? she wonders. Will it be the quiet, deadly police inspector or the shy, deadly Army captain? Maybe the soft-hearted yet deadly sheriff.
“Sorry doesn’t quite cover it,” she says.
He doesn’t say anything. She can hear him breathing. She can hear what she thinks are his slender tan fingers drumming on a tabletop somewhere in LA.
Finally he says, “How’s the boy?”
She clenches her teeth. ‘My son has a name.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean anything by it. Boy is just a term I use, for boys.”
“It’s not a term we use.”
“It’s been too long, Angie.”
“That’s a good one. You know something ‘ you shot too many Indians. Too much manure and dust.”
“Too much what?’ His voice quickens. ‘You say Indians? Hey, I had lunch with the Indians just yesterday. You know, the ones on the set ‘ this new picture I’m working on.”
“Listen, Joshua, I’ve got to be in court in a few hours. I’ll talk to Foster about this, ask him how he feels. I’ll think it out for myself a little too.”
It’s the first time she’s ever called him by his name, in whole or in part. To him it feels like a blessing. “Please don’t wait too long, Angie.”
She hangs up, turns off the lamp, but she knows getting back to sleep now will be as impossible as forgetting the sound of his voice. She thought she had forgotten it. Her heart is pumping in her throat as if she swallowed something still alive. She’s sweating and shivering at the same time. She covers her face with her hands for a moment, then gets out of bed, pulls her bathrobe around her shoulders and walks down the hall to Foster’s room.
He’s asleep, flat on his back, with his mouth open and Thyroid stretched out beside him like an economy-sized meat loaf. She studies her son’s face, the shape of his body under the covers. She wonders if he ever dreams about her. His sweet scent drifts up.
Yesterday, or the day before, standing on his tiptoes on the kitchen table, Foster invited her to do the Very Cherry Mama Dance. She had to admit she wasn’t familiar with this particular dance.
“It’s easy,” he told her.
“Of course,” she said.
“I hold cherries up here above your head,” extending his hand with the imaginary fruit held delicately by the stems, “ripe cherries, red, very good, and you dance under them. Any dance you want, for as long as you like. All day if need be.”
If need be. He kills her, the way he says things. The Very Cherry Mama Dance. Geez.
She knows she doesn’t need to ask Foster how he feels about a visit from his grandfather. She looks down at his face and imagines the conversation, his clear voice:
It’s okay with me if Josh wants to come for a visit. I think it will be inordinately illuminating.