Excerpt from a novel in progress
[Raymond is still 40, still grieving the death of his mother (JP), and he remembers.]
This business of shifting my brain’s focus when I don’t like the direction it’s taking causes a certain internal conflict: while it can keep me from obsessing over morose matters (the harrowing ordeal of my mom’s death, for instance, or all the wish-I-hads I haul around now that she’s gone), maybe I’m just dodging the truth, refusing to face what’s really happening, regardless how uncomfortable it might make me. What’s the difference between what I’m doing, in other words, and an alcoholic turning to the bottle, or a TV junky burying his brain in “reality shows” rather than taking the time to look long and hard at what’s happening in his very own life?
JP had her own version of this: “I blotted it out.”
I heard her say this all my life – whenever something was dogging me or my sister Christina, she’d tell us to blot it out – yet I never understood what was meant by it until, twenty years post facto, I started digging for information regarding her divorce from my dad. Her previously acknowledged despair during those dark days had me wondering how she’d managed to make it through, especially since she had two young children in tow, putting that much more pressure on a spirit already stretched alarmingly thin. And her answer – once she’d shed some 20-year-old tears, requiring a run to the bathroom for a roll of tissue – was that she’d blotted it out, meaning she sort of pretended it wasn’t happening, pushed all that despondency down deep within her and piled new experiences on top so she’d not have to see it anymore. Out of sight, out of mind.
And I get it, it makes sense to me, the bank robbery she witnessed being an example of how this became a survival technique even my shrink can’t be critical of. Back in the late 40s, before she started working in the clothing store, JP spent a year working as a teller at a local bank that no longer exists (hell, are there any local banks left?). She was 18, graduated high school with no plans for college, happy to have a job at all even though she was working for peanuts. But in her seventh month the bank was held up by five armed gunmen, an event that really rattled her.
“They were bad, bad men. They’d done a bunch of robberies all across the southeast, they were wanted by the FBI because they’d shot someone, the works. I learned all this later, of course.”
Though the bank had been alerted to the robberies, as had every bank in the state, young tellers like JP paid it no mind, didn’t think twice about it.
“This kind of thing went on. These Be On The Lookout memos would come through. You just couldn’t worry every time you heard there’d been a robbery somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi. So even though word had gone around about these men, I’d forgotten all about them by the time they showed up at our branch that day.”
When she shares this story – 70, retired, me home visiting for the weekend – I sit in stunned disbelief that it’s something that happened to her, my mom, this extraordinary thing. Even into my mid-thirties I was guilty of forgetting that parents are people too, people with histories, people to whom things have happened, some of which were downright harrowing.
“This was at least an hour before we even opened. Bugsy, who was our branch manager, he was the first one in. But we came next, us tellers. We had to count up and everything. Balance the drawers. So me and the other girls were always there a good solid hour before time to open. All girls, as far as us tellers went. Funny, isn’t it? There were no male tellers back then, not in those days. Just like there was no such thing as a female branch manager.” She shakes her head, takes a sip of wine. “Different world.”
I wonder if she’s suggesting something with regard to the robbery, like maybe if there’d been men in there—
“Oh heavens no. These guys were pros. Wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. Bugsy was there, don’t forget. So no, didn’t matter at all.”
She doesn’t remember a lot of details, though – she became so frightened, she says, that she blotted out most of it.
“I remember letting myself in – even that’s funny, that all us girls had our own keys. Well I tell you I’d hardly taken one step through that door when this gun stuck against my head. Scares me to death even now, just thinking about it.”
No doubt – sitting on the opposite end of the sofa I see her whole body wriggle at the recollection.
“You know how in all the old movies the bank robbers had bandanas tied around their faces?” She mimics tying something to the back of her head in case I don’t get it. “It was just like that. They were all in suits and ties and hats, and those black scarves so all you could see were their eyes. And the guns, of course.”
Strange to say, but I confess this actually sounds romantic to me.
“Oh I know what you mean,” says the Matriarch, letting me off the hook. “Well, just that everyone dressed in those days, even the bad guys. But let me tell you, there was nothing romantic about that gun against my head. Right here . . . ” – she touches her right temple with two pointed fingers – “and he pushed it hard. I had a bruise there afterwards.”
They made everyone – “There were maybe four or five of us” – including JP, all five-feet-five-inches of her, lay down on the floor while they worked, bagging the money or what-have-you, and repeatedly said they’d be shooting everyone as soon as they finished.
“Oh yes, they said it over and over, the whole time. “‘As soon as we’re done we’ll kill everyone in here, so don’t bother trying to remember.’” She’s shaking her head, and I can see her getting antsy. “‘They’ll never catch us,’ they said. That I remember: ‘They’ll never catch us.’ And it worked. I paid no attention to what they were doing. Didn’t try to hold one detail.”
“So you’re just there on the floor? Waiting for them to shoot you?”
An emphatic nod. “Far as we knew. Based on what they were telling us, that’s exactly what we were doing. Just waiting for them to shoot us. So I pretended it wasn’t happening. I closed my eyes and just . . . hid. I suppose I kind of escaped into my memories. What’s funny is that I remember exactly where I went, what I started thinking about – it was The Fellas. These boys who used to sing to us in high school. I couldn’t tell you one thing about those men, the robbers, whatever it was they were doing. Once they’d said they were going to shoot us I blotted them out. I do remember thinking about Bugsy, because he was the one leading them around. Letting them in the safe and that kind of thing. I assumed he’d be the first to go.” She stops for a minute, shakes her head and – I swear – visibly wriggles again, shaking it off. “Then it was just me and The Fellas.”
Sipping her wine, she seems to reflect on something curious, her brows squinching up. “What I don’t recall is if I ever told them. The Fellas. You’d think I would’ve, because I saw them off and on over the years, and in a way they’d come to my rescue that day. But I don’t remember telling any of them—”
I hate to interrupt, but curiosity gets the best of me.
“All right, not to side-track us, but who were these guys?”
“Goodness, that’s its own story.” It’s also an opening for her to take a big sip of wine: JP’s sips put me to shame. She doesn’t gulp exactly, because her lips are pursed like a wine-drinker, but when she raises that stemmed glass a good bit goes down before she lowers it. “The Fellas were these boys in my senior class. There were . . . five of them, I believe.” She rattles off the names in succession, like it’s nothing, counting them on her fingers – I’m thinking I’d be hard-pressed to recall five names from my entire high school. “Kurt Considine, Chubby Parks, Dick McKeegen, George Hartman, and Butter, Joshua Buttimer. There’s nothing so much to tell, really. Just that they sang. Well, it was the Forties, we all sang. It’s not like it is now. Everyone was into music, and into the same music. But The Fellas got together as a . . . like a group, you see. Whenever there was a dance or a ball game The Fellas would do a song. And oh Ray, they had gorgeous, lovely voices.”
She polishes off her wine. “I think I’m ready.”
I’ve still got nearly half left, but I’m up before she budges. “Let me get it.” Not only do I enjoy doing things for my mom, it’ll take me half the time. Not because JP has a hard time moving around or anything (that’ll come later). Fact is, I’ve never known her to be in better shape. But having retired, and relaxed – truly, deeply relaxed – she moves with the unhurried leisure of one who has internalized her serenity so never feels the need to move any faster than a monk might in a monastery. And on a night like this, when she’s right in the middle of a story, it behooves me to get the refills so I don’t have to wait as long for her to continue. This is something I became aware of in my late twenties, and how cool is that? I’m so riveted by my own mother I can hardly stand the suspense of her stopping – I just want her to keep talking.
In the kitchen, I ditch my tepid half-glass down the drain.
“You still want white?”
At some point in the evening she always switches to red, and I’m not sure if she’s there yet.
“I think I’ll have red. There should be an open bottle on the counter.”
As indeed there is: it stands in a small ceramic dish with a fancy cork, some silver-topped thing that looks like a deco adornment. Not that I’m a snob about it but our taste in reds is pretty different, and since the bottle I’m holding looks like an inexpensive Merlot I decide to stick with white, polishing off the last of the bottle from the fridge. “You keep talking,” I say while taking care of all this.
“Thanks to Cinderella.”
I look over and she’s smiling, shaking her head as if she’s tickled herself. “When we had this house built there was . . . there were different models we could choose. Layouts, floor plans. They gave them all names, you see. And the one we picked, this layout, was called The Cinderella. And I picked it because of the den being connected to the kitchen. I wanted to be able to be in the kitchen cooking, but still have Jack and Christina right here, not off in some other part of the house. You hadn’t come along yet, of course. Didn’t work out, really, because even the few years he lived here Jack wasn’t home half the time anyway.”
Meaning he was out screwing around. I hand her her glass, resettle on my end of the sofa, sorry for the sad memory that seems to have snuck up on her.
“A shame, huh?”
But she brushes it off. “Jack never even wanted this house. I wanted roots, a home you kids could grow up in. But your father . . . of course he’d been an army brat. The Colonel moved them all over the place.” (My paternal grandfather, dead before I was born.) “So that kind of thing, roots and a home, it just wasn’t important to Jack. Not in the least. Not how he grew up.”
“I love this house,” I say, not insincerely. The fact that it’s a small, basic three-bedroom affair, simply decorated in JP’s rustic – but tasteful – style, matters not a whit to me: no mansion could move me more. Making trips home to visit, my mom and I comfy on the couch drinking wine and happy that no one’s around to temper our fun, I sense the unstoppable onrush of Time like something that’s simultaneously wonderful and terrifying, something I both relish and fear. And now that JP’s on her own here, the place feels different, the whole vibe has changed. Part of it is her having gotten rid of a lot of the old furniture we grew up with, replacing it with stuff that better reflects her taste nowadays, her mood – warmer, lighter colors, less of that deep faux-mahogany palette the place was always darkened by. Likewise she had the whole house painted – the inside, I mean – and it’s just so different. JP is a good example of the new-agey logic I once laughed at: that one’s “energy” directly affects the place she lives in, and with a certain sensibility you’ll notice this the second you move into that space.
“I like it, too,” she says. “I like it now. I never told you and Christina, but I considered selling it.”
“What?” This shocks me. Is she crazy? I grew up here, for christ’s sake!
“The place felt like it was full of bad memories, Ray. Almost like it was haunted. Now you know I don’t mean you kids. But we went through hard times in this house.”
“Okay wait. I hate to say it, JP, but we’re way off topic here. What about the robbery?”
She just laughs, because this happens to us all the time, particularly when it’s late and we’re getting deeper into the wine, to say nothing of our memories. With no notion that she needs to finish one story before starting another, JP will wander freely from one thing to the next almost as if endings are negligible. But sometimes when she’s on one of her good late-night rolls it’s like listening to a jazz improviser, a soloist flying off on her own with the melody subtle underneath it all for when she needs something to fall back on. Let’s just say it’s my job to remind her of the melody.
“I told you about the robbery. Didn’t we finish that?”
“Not at all. You were right in the middle of it. On the floor thinking about those guys singing.”
“Oh, The Fellas, that’s right! Well, I’m not sure where I was going with all that. It was just an awful, awful thing. Very scary. I just closed my eyes and pretended it wasn’t happening. It was like I could hear The Fellas serenading me. They did that, you know. When Chub Parks had a crush on Stacy Udinski, The Fellas showed up outside her bedroom window one night singing ‘If You Are But A Dream.’ Like something out of a movie.”
She stops to reflect and I get swept up in the wake of her past as if it was my own. Typical, when listening to my mom talk about the world she grew up in – it’s a world to which I’m weirdly drawn, one whose romantic current catches me every time. So much of today’s world is alienating – this fast, noisy, crowded place, where standing outside a woman’s window with a boom box blaring is about as close as a guy gets to “serenading.” And hell – that image, copped from a cheesy teen movie, is decades outdated at this point. Nowadays he wouldn’t even bother going to her house, he’d just email an MP3 file of his favorite song, the one that makes him think of her.
“I don’t remember how long the whole thing took. It seemed like a long time, but afterwards – the questioning with the police and all that – it turned out they were in and out of there pretty quickly. Under 10 minutes or something. And they got a lot of money, or what in those days was a lot of money. I forget how much. As I say, these guys were pros. They’d scoped out the bank in advance and all that. They knew what they were doing.”
“Tell me no one got shot.”
She shakes her head. “Obviously that was just to make sure we cooperated, all those threats. And it worked, let me tell you. No one gave them an ounce of trouble. Scary, scary men. And I don’t doubt they would’ve killed someone. They’d done that before.”
“What was it like after? When you went to work or whatever?”
“Psssh. Well, maybe for a little while we were nervous. But that kind of thing was such a rarity. I had friends who worked for the bank 30 years or more, and that’s the only robbery I knew about.”
I try to imagine being on the floor with my face buried in my arms while some masked guy with a gun runs around saying he’s going to shoot us once he’s finished his business. It’d do a number on me for sure, which is exactly what I say to JP.
“But you know, Ray, that’s when I learned you can live through a lot. A lot more than you think. It was scary – don’t get me wrong. But once it was over I just blotted it out and went on like it never happened. What’s the point of being afraid all the time?”
“I hear you, I just . . . I’m not sure I’d be so good at letting go of something like that.”
“Plus, they got those men eventually,” she goes on. “That helped, I’m sure.”
“Oh sure they did. They were famous, those robbers. Somewhere I’ve got a folder with all the newspaper articles about them.”
Which she’ll show me, at some later date – lots of brittle yellowed clippings extracted from an old manila envelope, FBI in all the headlines, multiple stories about the robbers and their seemingly endless spree, like the 40s version of Bonnie and Clyde.
“A couple of them were killed, I seem to think. I’m pretty sure that’s right. But they got them. It was maybe a year later or something. I’ll try to find those newspapers to show you at some point.”
So okay: blotting it out clearly has its benefits, worked well for her. She was able to forget about that robbery and all those terrifying threats and move through her subsequent days lacking the insidious siphon of fear, even to the extent that she could tell me about it all those years later without being the least bit bothered by it. But this wasn’t at all the case when we’d dredged up that stuff about her divorce from my dad, having to fetch tissue because she’d gotten so upset talking about it. She’d blotted out that stuff, too, but given what I saw twenty years later it hadn’t really gone anywhere, was just waiting to come out.
Or was it?
All that pent emotion, all those hurt feelings buried in there . . . is it possible they were doing a number on her just the same, only out of sight? Or is it the excavation doing the damage? Which is to say, if those old wounded feelings were left alone, never again tapped into, would my mom have been a happier woman?
I can’t buy it, and it’s not just because I need to let myself off of the proverbial hook. It’s because I’m trusting what psychologists tell us, and who am I, a mere redhead, to say they’re off the mark? Those wounds we don’t deal with, address in some fashion, they’ll do their share of damage one way or another (say the shrinks), only we won’t know it, won’t recognize that the source of our woes is rooted in that very stuff we “blotted out.” There’s a body buried in the back yard, and regardless of the pretty garden grown up around it, the gazebo or the swingset, in some mysterious fashion that body is working against us, manipulating our moods, depleting our resources.
So I try. I try not to turn my head when I don’t like what I’m seeing. I try not to run. But it ain’t easy. And there are times when blotting out that bad stuff – the damage done by my dad’s alcoholism and brutality; a heart soured by misfortune and the myriad indignities life, even a good one, continues to dish out – gets me through the day, makes minutes tolerable. There may be a body back there, but all it takes is ten minutes on that swingset to remind me that what’s buried underneath it isn’t going to reach up out of the ground and grab me.
Not unless I dig it up.
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Joseph Hanson