After the accident, Brooklyn College, where I go, and Midwood High School, where Desiree and Charlotte were students, jointly called him in. He was supposed to be some big specialist in student despair and suicide. I said, I'm not in despair and I'm not going to kill myself, so why should I see you? The dean practically forced me to go, and I don't want to be here. Dr. Wing said, how do you feel? He was a con man, I have to give him that. I always thought dad was one, but he's really more of a thug, nowhere near as slick as Dr. Wing. And he suckered me right in. I should have said, "Fuck you," and walked out that day, but instead I said, "Angry." He said, "Why do you feel angry?" And so on.
Since I'd always lived in my family, I'd never seen it as being something weird or special or off to one side. Dr. Wing was this plump, slick Jewish guy who looked kind of like a seal (he wasn't fat enough to be a walrus.) Talking to him made me realize that being a Chalfin was like being in the Mafia, or in Vietnam, like Uncle E (Ian Chalfin, dad's younger brother). There was no way to explain anything to Dr. Wing. I probably saw him about fifteen times in the end. Fifteen hours of my life, nearly, and all of it like we talked two different languages. "Dad told me to stay away from you, you're a real skeevy guy." "Explain skeevy." And so forth.
Dr. Wing gave me this book, and he asked me to write in it, every day, about my feelings and the accident. I never wrote anything until now. I got a phone call this morning from someone at school that they heard on WINS all-news radio, that Dr. Wing killed himself. And I went and got this book from the bottom of the closet, so I could throw it out, or rip out the pages or something. It was like being fucked one more time. Not that I ever really liked or trusted the man, but I came close. Because he was slick and had this kind, sympathetic way. And I was in this very wild state, thrashing around, and I needed someone I could talk to. I had Terry, but I could have used an older man, someone from my own background. Dad was useless, Uncle Charlie the politician was worse, and E was too crazy to help, though he tried. So there wasn't anybody except Dr. Wing. But he had this Uncle Charlie thing going. I kept catching a vibe talking to him that it was all an act. And I guess from the fact that he jumped out the window of his office in the Williamsburg Savings Bank building downtown that I was right about him.
I was pretty calm these last few months, and now that I heard about Dr. Wing, I feel so angry I just have to put it somewhere. So I'm going to do what Dr. Wing said, and put it here in the pages of this book, and see if that works. No reason why it should, since everything else the man said was obviously total bullshit, but we'll see.
First I start with the accident. It really wasn't my fault. I came around a blind curve and saw Desiree's Ford had t-boned Jim Fowler's Continental. I wasn't even speeding, like they were; I was going maybe forty-five miles an hour, ten under speed limit because of the icy conditions. I pulled off to the left to avoid the cars and stomped on the brake at the same time. When I saw the two cars, I thought something like, "Oh my God, people probably died and I'm going to die," and then, when I saw I would get clear---I couldn't stop, but I was going to slide right by those two cars without hitting them---I thought, "Oh, good, I'm OK." Actually, from what Eugene Sparrow told me, nobody had died yet. I caused the first death. Just when I thought, "I'm OK," Desiree popped up right in front of me. I already had the brake of that big old Cadillac to the floorboards and the wheels weren't even turning; it was just sliding forwards at thirty-five or forty miles an hour.
They say in a several car accident you should always stay in your car, never run from it, because its more dangerous. Desiree left the Ford; in fact she left her best friend, Charlotte Davis, unconscious in the front seat, and Tommy McPherson, the owner of the car, asleep in the back. And ran right in front of me. I didn't see her until she was right on my bumper.
Here's where it gets really strange. I've asked myself one million times whether what I'm about to write I really saw, or I dreamed it, or I made it up afterwards and believed it. I know how fucked up people's memories are, because I've heard dad tell a story about a fox he saw, but I was there the first time dad heard the story from Uncle Charlie. And afterwards he made it his own.
It was like Desi hung in the air for a second, looking at me through the windshield. I've seen movies, before and since, where they have really sad and upsetting things happening between two people who are separated by glass. One is in a train being taken to a concentration camp, the other is on the platform. One is being driven away by gangsters to be killed, the other is on the sidewalk. One is in the cockpit of a crashed airplane about to drown, the other is looking down through the glass bottom of a boat. And in every case the person who's about to die has a pleading and sad expression. Lip trembling, hands waving, please help me. Or: its not fair; I'm going to die and you're going to live.
This was nothing like that. Desiree didn't look hurt, or frightened. She looked irritated and surprised. Those big eyebrows of hers were raised. Actually, her expression was not that different than a couple of times when I waited for her on the steps of the high school and she didn't want to see me. It was like she was thinking, "Here's a situation, how do I get out of it?" But it seems so unlikely that I still have to wonder if I saw it, or made it up. Like maybe I would rather imagine her annoyed in the last moment of her life than terrified and in pain. Dr. Wing said there is no way to know. He said sometimes people see things quite vividly in a split second and remember them forever. But sometimes they make them up, see what they want.
Then she flew away, over the top of the car, and I didn't see where she went. I was occupied with wrestling the car to a stop. I was frightened I would slide right past the "Yield" sign onto the highway and get hit by someone else, or go off the road to the right down into the little rocky depression between the entry ramp and the local streets. So just when I think "I'm OK," I hit someone, then I worry about dying again. But I mastered the car and came to a stop on the right a little ways down. Just at that moment, there was a huge shrieking, grinding crash. I was half out of the car and this big mass of wreckage, the two cars and something behind them, seemed to be coming at me. I started to sit down behind the wheel again to try to drive away, but the cars stopped sliding when they were about twenty feet from me. First the Lincoln, then the Ford, bucked as if a wave was passing through them.
I ran up the hill and I saw a body lying under the front of the Continental. It was bloody all over and it was like its whole face was mangled or crushed. I couldn't even see who it was or if it was alive or dead until it said, "Where's Desiree? Is Desiree all right?" Then I knew it was Charlotte Davis. In the front seat of the Lincoln, there was another crumpled up body which could only be Jim Fowler, but it didn't even look like a person. I didn't go see what had happened to Tommy McPherson or Big Moe. I found out later from Sparrow they were dead. I killed Desiree, Big Moe killed himself, Tommy and Jim. He must have come down that ramp seventy miles an hour. Only Charlotte and I survived the accident, and I'm the only one who escaped without any physical injuries. Hers were pretty severe.
In the movies cars that have hit each other are always in flames, but nothing was burning here. They were dripping, but I didn't know if it was from the rain or if the gas tanks were leaking. There was a gas smell. I was wondering how to help Charlotte and all this different advice I remembered hearing was going through my brain: Don't move her. Hold her hand. Press down on the place that is bleeding the worst. Make a tourniquet from your shirt. Keep her warm. Keep her cold, so she stays alert. I know it sounds from this description like a long time had passed, but it was probably under a minute from the time I stopped my car. Not more than two minutes, anyway. I never stopped to think that another car could come down the ramp, hit the mangled wrecks and take me out too.
Then Jim Starling got there. Jim is a cop I've known since childhood. Actually, known is too strong a word; I've seen him around my whole life. Dropping by Uncle Charlie's house. Bringing E home when he got drunk and disorderly. At neighborhood street festivals. Coming into Battista's to say hello when dad and Charlie were conferring. Starling's uncle was in the state legislature like my uncle Charlie, but was a senator instead of assemblyman and was more powerful in the New Reform Democrats, the club that runs our part of Brooklyn. So we always knew we had to be nice to Jim Starling.
I didn't see him coming. He must have been passing on the highway, saw what happened, and backed his car up the ramp. He had parked right in front of me. "What happened here?" he asked me. I told him how I had hit Desiree. He looked around for a moment, taking stock of the situation, then said, "Get out of here, kid."
"What?" I said. "Shouldn't I...." But he gave me a push. I was always raised to be obedient to people in authority, so I went back to my car, and that's where everything started to go wrong for me. Wrong at first, but on the path to being right, as you'll see. I should have told him to fuck himself anyway, and stayed where I was 'til the other cops got there. If I could have done that and still made the decisions I've made since that led me to Terry.
So I left. I never saw where Desi had landed. I was spared an awful sight, looking at a dead human being and saying, "I did this," even though it wasn't my fault because she ran right out in front. But not seeing her makes the whole thing not real. As you can tell from two dreams I had after I stopped seeing Dr. Wing, so I never got to tell him about them.
In both of them, Desi comes over the hood, and hangs there for an instant looking at me, just like I remember. Then she flies away. I stop, but there are no crashed cars on the ramp, Big Moe never comes along like a bat out of hell, and it is mid-afternoon and sunny. There are even flowers growing by the side of the road. Strawberry Fields Forever. In the first dream, I look around and can't see Desi anywhere. It is like she flew away into the sky and disappeared.
In the second dream, I am wearing a hat with a little feather in it. It is an old man's hat; E has one like it he wears sometimes, though he is not old. It is made of a gray material with different color threads, like a tweed. This time I find Desiree in the band of my hat. She has changed into a playing card, the Jack of Hearts. She's got a little beard and a sword at her belt, but I know its Desi, from the big waves of blonde hair and the dark eyebrows and her beak of a nose.
I wish I had gone over and seen Desi in the road, because then I would know this really happened, and not have this feeling that it isn't real. Dr. Wing said that's why people often have open caskets at funerals.
Desi was buried two days later; the Jews bury really fast, unlike the Catholics who hold onto the corpse and make a fuss over it for five days or so. I wanted to go to the funeral, which half the kids at Midwood did, but dad wouldn't let me. Because Starling hadn't told anyone I was there, and dad, who thinks I'm a fuck-up, wouldn't trust me not to break down crying and say I killed her. Which I might have done.
I also couldn't go to any of the other funerals, because then it would look strange that I skipped Desi's.
Since all the people who died were friends of mine, it was really harsh that I wasn't there, and a lot of people held it against me later, before the truth came out. Then, when it did, most of the people I knew saw me differently, like I was a cold-blooded killer who left the scene. That's when I knew I loved Terry, because she was the only one who stood up for me and held fast and wouldn't let anything be different.
I drove the Cadillac home. It was dented in the front, and I remember seeing some threads from Desi's clothing in the grille, though that might be another made-up memory. I went in and immediately told dad what had happened. The first thing he did was called up Al Davis, and within twenty minutes Davis had an employee of his, a Hispanic guy who didn't even speak much English, come to our house and drive the car away to a 24-hour body shop somewhere. They washed the car and hammered out the dents and by the time I saw it again, a few days later, you couldn't even tell it had been in an accident. I wouldn't drive it again, and dad sold it a few months later.
Jim Starling had called Uncle Charlie, who collected Sid Klein the attorney and came right over. By now it was after midnight. First Klein, a skinny little smooth guy with no hair, gave me the third degree like I was on the witness stand: How fast were you going? Did there come a time when your car came into contact with Desiree Stein? At what point did you first see her? Did you have the opportunity to avoid her?
Everyone agreed it wasn't a good situation, but Klein said, "It could be worse. He was driving reasonably slowly, hadn't had too much to drink, successfully avoided the accident and was not actually in control of his automobile at the moment he hit her, through no fault of his own. And the girl was negligent in running into the roadway. Finally, you can't really say he left the scene. He was ordered to by a cop."
Klein pointed out that my dad had jumped to the conclusion that Starling intended to cover up my presence. He might just have been getting me out of the way, since I could be no help and it was possible another car would come along and hit all of us. In that case, the only legal complication might be my dad sending the Caddy out to be fixed. But dad and Charlie weren't convinced; they knew Starling and had no doubt he was covering for me. Uncle Charlie started to curse like a stevedore; he said that the last thing in the world he needed right now was to owe that mick a favor. At that moment, the phone rang; it was Starling, and first dad spoke to him a few minutes, then Sid Klein.
Starling had already told the cop in charge that Desiree had been thrown from the driver's side window on the second impact. As if he had seen it. And he had said nothing about my being there. So now we knew we were dealing with a done deed. At this point Sid Klein began losing interest in the whole thing. Looking like a man who was thinking about something else, he said he could understand if we were planning just to sit tight, but he couldn't really be involved beyond that. He left and after that the whole matter was in the hands of Charlie and dad.
My father, Bernard Chalfin, is an important Brooklyn businessman who owns a lot of stores and restaurants and some houses and apartments as well. For years, he's had this idea I'm a fuck-up, and hitting Desi on the ramp was the biggest mess I made yet. I kept asking him how he thought it was my fault, and he wouldn't answer, just looked at me with this viciously satisfied glare, like: I always knew you were a disaster.
I kept thinking, though, that if Desi accepted my invitation to drive her, she would be alive and Charlotte wouldn't be hurt. In fact that would have saved Tommy McPherson too, because we would have left him at Coop's. Only Big Moe and Jim Fowler might still be dead, and they were two people I didn't really care about. Everybody knew that Big Moe was going to die young; the kid sniffed glue and he had cracked up a car before.
Living in the Chalfin house was like being a sort of semi-intelligent pet, like a through-bred dog that everybody had high expectations of but which messed the carpet too often. Nobody ever asked my opinion on what to have for dinner, let alone how to deal with the situation we were in now. When I finally went off to bed, dad and Charlie were pouring shots of Jim Beam and talking over different situations that might come up.
Depending on who you are (I'm imagining that some stranger will read this one day) you probably find it hard to imagine someone living like this. My whole life was arranged for me. Dad and Charlie had it cooked up that I would either go into politics with Charlie or take over dad's businesses. I had no choice in the matter. You're going to think I'm really strange when I tell you that dad had even figured out who I was going to marry.
Down 26th Street from us lives Judge Dario, who's been in for 24 years and who is a big muckety-muck in the New Reform Democrats. He has a daughter, Beth, who is four years younger than me. Admittedly, she is a very beautiful girl, like something in a Renaissance painting from the Janson's we're using in History of Art. They have all these paintings by masters of the young Madonna with Jesus on her knee, and Beth looks like that or like one of the even younger women grouped around helping the mother. The problem is that Beth was only twelve years old when dad said I should marry her, and she's still only fourteen. The first ten times he said it, I thought he was joking, but it turned out that he had spoken to the judge about it and they had pretty much agreed it would be the thing to do. Dad said that when I graduated college I would marry Beth; she'd be eighteen and graduating high school, and she could cook and keep house for me and keep my bed warm in Albany or Brooklyn, whatever he and Charlie decided for me. I said, what if I want to marry someone else? Someone who works? Someone with a college education? He said that he married mom when she was only nineteen, and she never went to college. What was good enough for him should be good enough for me. I said that dad picked mom himself; his father didn't do it. He got angry and said his father was never around, and I should be glad I at least had a dad to help me pick a wife.
I tried talking to her, to see if she knew. On the one hand, she was a little girl who came into the street with a skipping rope, who got excited about Barbie dolls and riding horses at the Prospect Park stables on weekends. On the other hand, I would catch her looking at me as if she knew something, when she thought I didn't see her. Dad spotted me from the window talking to her one day and told me that if I touched Beth before we got married, he'd cut my dick off.
A week or two before the accident, I told dad that Newsweek had an article that one out of three marriages now ended in divorce. I said that an arranged marriage between me and Beth at the ages we would be didn't have much chance. He said, what about your mom and me? We're together. I said, some marriage. Mom wishes she died young, like Charlie's wife Belle, and you keep mistresses. What mistresses, he said in an angry whisper, looking around to see if mom was in earshot. Like Celine, I said. She had just died a few weeks before. She got ovarian cancer and he dropped her like a hot potato, but kept her employed in a store he owned. He knew I got friendly with her when making the Friday cash pickups, but he had no idea how much I learned from her. What women don't know doesn't hurt them, he said. I asked did he go to the funeral, and he said no, and wouldn't look me in the eye. Why would I go, it was over and when something is finished, its finished. Did he know where Celine was buried, because I'd like to visit the grave ? No. I asked him what Celine's last name was, and he tried to make a joke out of it: Celine Lingerie, like the name of the store. I remembered when I was small there was a girl on the block we called Ava Underpants, because we had seen hers drying on a clothesline. That was the first time I looked at my father and saw this overgrown baby who would never be any different. After the accident, I went by and saw Diane Ventura, who took over the store, and she gave me the information. Celine's last name was Weinberg; she was a Jewish girl from Kansas City of all places, who came to New York in 1950 to work as a waitress and then got involved with the Chalfin brothers. Diane paid for the cemetery plot, and she's the only other one who goes. Sometimes I visit (I've been there three times this year) and I find flowers, or a pebble which Diane left on the grave (that's a Jewish tradition.) And I'm glad, because Celine must not be so lonely.
Our big conspiracy only lasted two days. I remember everything about that time---practically everything that happened to me every hour from the accident through Eugene Sparrow's visit---but no feelings at all. E says I was in a state of shock, and he should know. I was just walking around like I was dead myself, letting dad take care of all the details. Which wasn't so unusual, but in normal times I would be interested, usually angry, sometimes pleased by his actions. Those two days I felt nothing.
It ended around one o'clock in the morning the second day after. Desi had been buried that afternoon. Eugene Sparrow was another plainclothes cop who I knew better than Starling. It was part of his job to make the Midwood and Brooklyn College kids miserable, keep an eye on them and look out for drugs and such. He made me empty my pockets once, and gave me a lecture about staying away from Brian Hanrahan, my best friend at the time. That was Sparrow's way: he was always hassling people. In the world of my friends, Sparrow was very important, because he could bust you and ruin your life. In the Chalfin world, he was nobody, a man of much less importance than Jim Starling.
Sparrow and Starling didn't like each other, so I was brought down by a dick size contest. Sparrow went to the scene, saw Starling and checked things out extra carefully. His big achievement was discovering that Starling had lied about my being there. Dad and I were sitting up and talking, or rather he was talking at me as usual. He was in his bathrobe and eating that disgusting Vienna sausage from a can. Mom was asleep. The doorbell rang and it was Sparrow. Dad could see him through the study window, off to the side, and told me to stay in the room with the light out. He went to the door and spoke to Sparrow, who raised his voice a little, asking for me.
I usually think that the accident affected my whole life, but dad said later that it was my decision at that moment which changed everything. All I had to do was continue hiding in the study, in the dark, and Sparrow would have gone away, with no evidence. The whole thing would have died down, and I could have continued running along on the rails dad and Charlie laid out for me. I don't remember exactly what I was thinking at that moment. When I saw Sparrow at the door I was glad, because I was eager to tell someone about the accident who wasn't a Chalfin. When I understood that I was going to hide in the dark and Sparrow would go away, I was disappointed. And I stepped out in the hallway, in the light, and said I wanted to talk to him.
I walked past my dad, who hissed in my ear, "Say nothing, you idiot." It was freezing cold outside and I went and sat in Sparrow's old blue Volkswagen with him. I remember saying, "I hit a girl. I hit Desiree Stein." And Sparrow said, "She's dead." I replied, "I know." He asked me a few questions and I told him the truth, about what had happened and how Starling had sent me away. He complimented me for being honest with him, and said I was a good kid. He told me to tell dad he'd drop by to see him tomorrow. I went back in the house and dad was in a purple rage. "Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory again," he said. "I raised an idiot." He went to call Charlie---it was after two in the morning---to consult with him about this new development.
I went up to my room and began to have feelings again. I felt good, like someone who had to go to the bathroom really badly and just had the chance. Relieved. But weak, like I didn't have much energy. I cut school the next few days, just stayed in the house. Lay on the bed and watched TV.
One other really important thing happened: Terry called. Terry, who today is everything to me, is a black girl from Trinidad I met at Brooklyn College. We dated for three months or so before the accident, then I messed up badly and slept with Desiree again, and also didn't tell her about my father being a bigot. So I had screwed up in every way I could with her, and she broke up with me but the last few weeks she had been my friend again, though in a distant sort of way. We never spoke on the phone any more, but now she called and said, "I heard about the accident. How are you, John-O?" She was the only person who asked me that. Everyone else was either too busy fighting fires and making plans, like dad, or getting hysterical, like mom. I said, "I think I'm all right." She asked, "Aren't you sure?" I answered, "No, there's so much going on." "Like what?" she asked. "I can't really talk now," I said, "but maybe I'll tell you when there's some time." "I'm around if you need me," she told me. "OK, thanks," I said. "I'm really glad you called." "I love you, John-O," she answered, and hung up. Now, Terry had never said "I love you" to me before, but only "I think I love you," which is different.
What happened next is still kind of mysterious to me. According to Sid Klein, who we had to bring back in soon after, someone squared Sparrow and got him to back down. He wasn't after me; he wanted to ruin Jim Starling. So when Sparrow dropped his plan to get Starling, I was unexpectedly left twisting in the breeze. How this happened even Sid couldn't really say.
Dad's idea is that Sparrow decided to fuck me up because he couldn't hurt Starling. I don't believe that. I only really had a chance to talk with Sparrow alone twice, once when he searched me, and the second time when we sat in his VW and I admitted hitting Desi. A total of less than thirty minutes of conversation. But the feeling I got about Sparrow was that there was no bullshit to him. He was a very angry man, but fair. If I'm right about that, Sparrow wouldn't have tried to hurt me. He had told me he wouldn't; he didn't think I had done anything wrong.
Another possibility is that Starling put me in danger, but that doesn't make sense either, because he had the most to lose.
So it must have happened some other way, like there was a piece of paper floating around with my name on it, which said I admitted that I left the scene. Anyway, the next thing I knew, a uniformed cop, Phil Signorelli, dropped by. Then, a couple of days later, I came home from school, and Sid Klein was there. Dad told me to put on a jacket and tie. It turned out we were going downtown to the district attorney's office where I had to surrender for a misdemeanor of leaving the scene of an accident! I said that I didn't leave, I was sent away by Starling. So why should I surrender for something I didn't do? Dad got in a rage and said he didn't have time to explain to me now. He would take care of it, but I had to go with Sid. Sid and I left in his Mercedes; dad didn't come with us. As we drove downtown on the expressway, I told him that if I had a chance to talk to anybody, I was going to tell them Starling sent me away. He pulled over on the shoulder and started to scream at me. Now I've been yelled at by dad and by Charlie, who are experts, but I'm used to that. Being shouted at by Sid was more frightening, because I'd never even seen him frown before. He was an even-tempered guy. He said, "If you so much as open your mouth, you little punk, I'm walking out and you'll be completely on your own without a lawyer." This frightened me so much I shut up. Looking back, I think that was the point: it was a form of one person crowd control, to make sure I was like jelly when we saw the DA.
It worked. We sat around in a waiting room a lot. They fingerprinted me, we spent ten minutes with a pleasant young DA, and then he took me over to court. Sid had to wait outside for a lot of this, but said he would meet me there. At some point I had been officially arrested and was in the DA's custody, though I was never sure exactly when this happened. Sid had sworn up and down that I wasn't going to prison even for an hour, and would sleep in my own bed, but I didn't totally trust him. That was the way it turned out, though. He was waiting for us in court, and we sat in the middle of all these hard characters, and harder characters they were bringing in from holding cells in the back. Some of whom had many tattoos, handcuffs, even leg irons. When they called the cases, every third lawyer answered, "Waiting for Mr. Green." I asked Sid who this Mr. Green was, who had so many people waiting for him. He laughed and said it was a code word for cash. Each lawyer meant that he wasn't ready to appear because the defendant's girlfriend or parent hadn't gotten there yet with the bag of money to pay his fee.
When it was our turn, Sid and I stood up and he told the judge I pled not guilty. The judge released me on Sid's recognizance and we went home. He also suspended my license until trial.
Sid said that we would get this thing taken care of and that I would most likely have no permanent record, but I lay in bed that night feeling very depressed. I had used and carried all kinds of pot and hash around, shoplifted a few times when I was younger and even once held someone who Brian wanted to punch out, but now I was finally arrested for listening when Jim Starling said, "Get out of here."
I'm going to jump ahead and tell you how this part of the story ends, though it wasn't until six weeks later. We went back to court for a status conference to set a trial date. Again, dad wasn't there. This was a much smaller courtroom and it wasn't the same judge we had seen at my arraignment. That was a friendly, joking Jewish guy; this was a powerful Irishman, built like a football player, with a killer stare. I was feeling a lot feistier than I had six weeks before, and this time, instead of arguing with Sid, I waited until we were in front of the judge and I started trying to tell him what really happened. He looked away as if he didn't hear me, while Sid gave me a painful kick in the shins under the table. The judge's eyes then wandered to me like I was a bug. "If you do that again," he said, "you can experience a holding cell for the rest of the afternoon." I shut up and the judge left the courtroom. After a while, a clerk came out and asked Sid and the DA (who was the same one from before) to come in. They left the door of the judge's chambers half open. I was sitting in the courtroom alone, except for the clerk who was reviewing some paperwork, when the door opened and Uncle Charlie looked out at me for a moment. Then he went back in, and I didn't see him again that day. A few minutes later, Sid and the DA came out, then the judge. We hung around another twenty minutes for a stenographer, and then they put some mumbo-jumbo I didn't understand on the record.
Sid and I walked out to the garage to get his car. "What happened?" I asked. "ACOD," said Sid. "Adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. That means you just don't fuck up, don't get yourself in any trouble for six months, and the charge is dismissed. They'll seal the record, meaning you can still join Charlie in Albany or do whatever the fuck you want." But my driver's license was suspended for a year.
A few weeks later, talking it through with Terry, I had the idea I had been in a game of poker without knowing it. I still can't say exactly how, but it would have been something like this. It was a game between me and Jim Starling. Once my name became known to Officer Signorelli, one of us had to be in trouble, after what Starling did. So I played a Charlie Chalfin card (or dad played it for me). Starling said, "I'll see you and raise you," because he had a Pat Starling card, his uncle in the senate. A Pat Starling beats a Charlie Chalfin, so I went down instead of Jim.
I think Charlie made a deal with Jim's Uncle Pat. The best way to protect Jim Starling would be for me to take the rap. In return, Pat would help make sure I did no time, paid no fine and had no permanent record. Just an idea, but it fits all the facts.
There was one more deal: Charlie made dad pay for involving him in something that was almost a scandal. One day, dad came home angry and said, "Charlie says Cissy likes the lingerie store." Cissy was the mistress Charlie kept in Brooklyn Heights.
"He's making you give her a job?"
"He made me give her the store," dad said.
After that, Charlie seemed much less interested in having me in politics. Maybe he thought everything was my fault, maybe he just felt I attracted trouble. In any event, the idea of my going to work for Charlie in Albany never came up any more, and dad seemed certain I was going to join him in business.
A few days after Signorelli paid his first visit, everybody knew that I had hit Desiree. Some of my former friends avoided me like I was a criminal. Others, including Brian Hanrahan, were disgustingly curious, wanting every detail: what was the look on her face? Was there blood? Did I see what she looked like after? As if I had done something interesting and even admirable. In general, the accident taught me what all the people around me were like.
It never occurred to Charlie or dad that I might need any help as a result of being in the accident. I had missed some school and then shown up for classes looking trashed, when the dean stepped in and asked me to see Dr. Wing. This was about three weeks afterwards. When I told dad, he said, "What do you need to see a shrink for? There's nothing wrong with you." So I went in to see Dr. Wing armed with suspicion and ready to deny everything. The code of the Chalfins.
I was having dreams about the world ending. Something unknown was going to happen on a certain day and millions of people were gathering near a launching field hoping to get off earth. But if you succeeded in getting a place on a spaceship, there was still no place to go. Just fly through space until you ran out of air and choked, crashed onto some asteroid, or burned up in the sun. I thought I'd rather stay behind and die here, where everything is familiar. In another dream, we were at Judge Dario's house, and Beth was playing sad classical music on the piano. The judge said there was an autumn leaf wrapped around the earth and we were all going to die in a few hours. From lack of sun.
I felt terrible loneliness in the dreams. And when I thought about Desiree, I kept thinking, "She must be so lonely." I had had the same feeling about Celine, and when I was a child, my Aunt Belle, who was 30 when she died. As if people lay in the grave and felt a longing to be with their loved ones. And the dead couln't stay away from the living, but constantly roamed around the edges of their lives. That made me want to visit Celine's grave, which I did a few times. The cemetery, Beth Israel, was in an area of Nassau County which is all cemeteries, Christian and Jewish. I had heard Desiree was also in Beth Israel.
The Jews don't put a gravestone up until a year later. I went to the main office and they marked Desiree's grave on a map for me. I walked and stumbled around that place for an hour but I couldn't find her. It was beautiful, like being in the country. I saw rabbits and all kinds of birds. There were whole families buried together, and people of respect. So and so, husband, father, scholar. Finally, I thought, maybe she wouldn't even want me here. I don't belong here. She wants her mother, father, and Charlotte. How awful that the last person she saw was me behind the wheel of the Caddy.
Dr. Wing said that ideas about what the dead feel are a way of denying they are dead. You are the lonely one, he said. I know that Belle is still alive, I said. I saw her a year after she died. She was in our rec room, in this pretty nightgown she always wore, with beads on it. She smiled at me and didn't say anything. That was a dream, said Dr. Wing. I started to cry. Naturally, I was furious with Dr. Wing, like he made me. But after that I cried a lot. I was afraid people would know, because I couldn't control it. I would be in class and run out to the bathroom. It would take me at completely unexpected moments. Like in Art History, looking at a picture of a little girl who died, on an old Greek gravestone. She was petting a dove.
In the three or four months right after the accident, it was like I had no emotions at all. I was hard and stony. Then suddenly I was this tear bucket. The water would start flowing out of me. Some days I wouldn't go to school because I couldn't handle it. I tried to hide it all from dad, but he could see I wasn't myself. He started saying that he thought he had raised a son, not a daughter. "You're just a girl," he said. He said he killed people in WWII. E killed them in Vietnam. I said E was not a good example, because he tried to cut his wrists after. Also, I said, dad killed bad people he went over to Europe to fight, not a girl he hit with his car by accident.
You grow up thinking your parents know everything. At least if you're me. My dad was like God. He controlled our whole world, and mom never made a decision by herself. Dad used to say, "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." So it always seemed very natural, never to question him. Not that I never did, but I always felt selfish or on thin ice, like I was trying to get away with something. Like I'd fight with him about whether I should marry Beth Dario, but I'd think, "She's pretty and her dad is rich." So I always had it in the back of my mind that dad knew everything, and saw more than I did.
It was only with that Celine Lingerie comment that I started to see him differently. He was a big schoolyard bully, like the fat kid your age who happens to be taller and weighs twice as much and thumps on other people. Its not that he didn't know how to trick the system. He and Charlie and Sid had that down to a science. They knew how to deal with this one and that, the zoning board and the liquor authority and whatever. But all that stuff, which used to be the whole world, now began to seem really unimportant to me. Because there was this whole bigger place beyond it. The cemetery, with the little rabbits, and the blue sky around which that autumn leaf went in my dream. And I said to myself, dad knows nothing about that. Ask him about someone dying, and "Celine Lingerie" is all he comes up with.
In the spring, I had no friends. People like Shipwreck, Allen and Coop dropped me, because they blamed me for killing Desi and running away, and I couldn't bear to see Brian and the Apple Bonkers, because they wanted to know did I see Desi's bloody body, did her clothes come off, did I see Big Moe without his head in the last car. I stopped going to Jay Park. To his credit, Brian came and looked for me a couple of times, but I ducked him and he finally stopped.
I was thinking about Char Davis a lot. I heard she was Char Stein now; Desiree's parents had adopted her. I wanted to see her, because I had this idea that she and I had something in common. We were the only ones who understood that you couldn't just walk away from what happened. I knew she was talking to Dr. Wing too, but when I asked him about her he wouldn't say anything. I heard that she never came out of the Stein house, wouldn't see visitors and that her face was still very fucked up. So I gave up any thought of going over there, especially because I was afraid that the Steins and even Char would see me as a murderer.
Before the accident, I always had it in mind to get Char aside one day and ask her why she disliked me so much. Was it because I'd slept with Desiree, or was she one of the kids who thought I was a spoiled rich snob? The girl made a face whenever she saw me, and I couldn't hack that, especially because I liked her better each time I met her. Maybe she saw me as a rival; there was a story going around that she and Desiree were into each other more than Desiree was into any man. Now, with the accident, I felt I would never know what Char held against me.
During the days, especially when I cut school, I spent a lot of time over at E's, helping him with the carpentry, building bookcases and stuff. He taught me a lot in those months. What I liked best about E was that he was so easygoing, the opposite of dad. E enjoyed the company, he never expected anything from me. It was impossible to spend an hour with dad, even when he was in a good mood, without his punching you in the arm, challenging you to arm wrestle, or proving he was smarter or stronger in some other way.
I had stopped seeing Dr. Wing in April; I told him he was an asshole one day when he was asking questions about mom, and I never went back. So now I had no-one to talk to at all, except E. I ended up telling him everything about Desi, but he was little help. On the one hand, I cried at his house and he didn't call me a girl. On the other, he had this whole theory of God which made me feel like a prisoner in the world, like the way I felt in my father's house.
It started with my idea, which I just couldn't shake, that the dead are very lonely. I tried to take a step back from that and ask why God would make Desi that way. A seventeen year old girl, beautiful and smart, with tons of personality, gets hit by a car and is alone in the ground. She never got to be anything, go anywhere, have a husband or a job or hold her own baby. Why is that fair. That was all I could think about those days. I read in the paper about people raped and murdered, children who starve or are beaten to death by their parents, and I was trying to figure out about God. Why he would allow it all to happen. I asked E, which was a mistake. Because E believed (as he said) that God knows about the fall of the sparrow, as well as the fall of an empire. Everything happens for a mysterious reason. Children die because God calls them home. Other people die because they are bad and God wants them out of the way. Now, I was seeing Terry again, and had been for some months (I'll come to this in a little while.) E knew it, though dad didn't. I had told him the whole story of how I had hurt Terry, last October, by going with Desiree again. How Terry cried and cried when I told her. Desi had said to me at the party, when we were both stoned and drunk, "I'll bet I could get you back if I want to." E, who was never married or even had a girlfriend as far as I know (the last women he had any experience with were the whores in Saigon), painted Desi as the bad woman. God got her out of the way because she tried to come in between me and Terry.
I couldn't accept that. I was very mad at E, but controlling myself. I said to E, "So you think everything happens for a reason." He said, "Yes, I do." I had three quarters in my pocket. I pitched one against the wall in his workshop, missed it with the second, hit it with the third. "You think God reached out his finger and made the second one miss but the third one hit?" "Yes," E said. "Everything happens for a reason." "Welcome to planet Chalfin," I said. "In my house the role of God is played by your brother Bernard." That made him nervous, because it was blasphemous. He tried to get back onto the topic of God wanting to dispose of Desi. I wouldn't let him. "She was just a girl, very nice sometimes, nasty other times, but not bad. Your God," I said, "either doesn't care, or he's a psycho killer." And I left his house for a few days, because in the end he wasn't any more help than anyone else.
I told you that Terry had called me right after the accident. For a few months, until about March, we were friends who saw each other every week. I was in my stony period, but it was good to be with her and not talk much. She was the most giving person I ever knew; I never had to be on my guard with her. Then we became almost lovers again, except we still didn't have sex. The first time we were in bed and I felt she was still intact, I sighed with relief. Because there was absolutely no reason why she couldn't have met some other guy after I hurt her, and I wouldn't have had a thing to say about it. But she hadn't.
I wasn't very interested in sex in my crying period, but she moved us along a little bit. She had a friend, Marguerite Roy, who was a French instructor at the college, and had an apartment a few blocks away. From April on, Marguerite went every weekend at a family house at the end of Long Island, and she gave Terry the key to her place so she could see me. It was very different than taking girls over to a frat like Harrison House. There everything was disgusting, left over pizza from the night before, beer on the carpet, dirty linen. You felt you couldn't make it any worse. While Marguerite had this completely clean and tidy place. The first time Terry drew back the quilt and said we should get in, I hesitated. Terry laughed and said, "What do you think Marg lends me the place for?"
So then we used to go to bed there a couple of times a week. Two months of this, and Terry was still a virgin. Given how the Bonkers laughed at me because I didn't break Terry's cherry the first time we went to bed, you may think I'm strange. But at the time it seemed very natural. I was very low and not thinking much about sex. Last fall when we were first together Terry had said she didn't want to give up her virginity. So I guess I just figured she would tell me when she did. And then there was another reason. I felt like a user. Terry gave me everything and I gave her nothing. If we had sex I would be like the ultimate taker, unless I offered her something more than I could just then. Something more than I had.
So we would go to bed and it would usually end with her bringing me off with her hand, or I'd come against her back. I offered to do things for her, but she didn't want me to. Sometimes she just asked to be held, which I liked too. Those were the best times, actually, though the sexual stuff was comforting. One of those Saturdays in Marguerite's bed I had what I remember as being the first original thought of my life. I was kissing Terry's thin shoulder, and I thought: The most wonderful thing is to kiss the skinny shoulder of a woman who really loves you. It was the first idea I'd ever had which didn't come from planet Chalfin.
Then one Saturday we were walking into Marg's apartment when Terry told me she'd gone to Planned Parenthood and gotten on the pill. I had a moment of insanity, like why would she do that when we don't have sex? I actually said, "So you want to see other men?" And she hit me in the head; not hard enough to really hurt, but it stung. And said, "No, you dope, I want you inside me."
"Are you sure?" I asked. And she said with an adorable smile, "You talk too much." So we did it. It hurt her a lot, but she was really happy afterwards, humming and hugging me. But it brought us to a crossroads, like I knew it would.
It took until late July. Up until then we were so drunk on each other that we spent a lot of time at it. There was nothing else we wanted to do. I had been with a few girls but never with anyone I loved, so that made it very different. Terry had only kissed a couple of boys before, and not very seriously.
I had been seriously interested in two girls in my life, Desi and Terry. Desiree was vain; she was very into her body, into sensations, into drugs and sex. Terry was the opposite. Boys almost never pursued her; she wasn't a magnet for them like Desiree. I even found myself thinking at times, a plain girl is better; they're less selfish and can love you more. But at some point I no longer found Terry plain. I looked at her one day and realized she had become beautiful to me.
We ran into roadblocks again in the middle of the summer. Marguerite, who had been gone all of July, was teaching an intensive French class in August, so she'd be around on weekends. She offered to let Terry use the place anyway, but we were uncomfortable. We used to scooch down under the covers of her bed for six, seven hours at a time. So we were a little irritated to be interrupted, and racking our brains to find another solution.
Then someone, I'm not sure who, told dad we were together again, and he hit the roof. He said, "What is it with the colored girl?" He told me how shocked and disgusted Judge Dario would be, and Beth, and how Charlie would never want to take me into politics, if I was with a black girl. I said, "Charlie doesn't want to bring me to Albany anyway." He said "That's not so certain," as if he knew it was but didn't want to admit it. I said, "I could be with a black girl and still work with you in the businesses." Dad said, "No you couldn't."
"Because I say so."
He was giving me little raps of the knuckles on the head, not too painful but a little scary. I wouldn't look at him, wouldn't rap him back, though I wanted to. I said, "If you met her, dad, I'm sure you'd like her. She's very smart and nice. She comes from one of the best families in Trinidad." And he imitated me, talking in a high-pitched idiot voice: "'If you met her, dad, I'm sure you'd like her.' No I wouldn't. I'm not gonna meet her." But I wouldn't give up. I said: "I've never asked you for anything...."
"You never had to, because I gave you everything."
"Now I'm asking you, not to make up your mind before you meet Terry."
"I'm not gonna meet her. Because my mind is already made up." He gave me his corkscrew stare, the one that goes through the back of your head, and put his palms up in the air, like everything was resolved. "I've worked too hard for you to fuck everything up. I have plans for you."
"I'm asking you to meet Terry."
He gave me a slap on the cheek, not too hard but I could sense he was barely resisting whaling on me. In defense of dad, he only ever hit me hard two or three times in my life; he wasn't like my friend Coop's father, who beat on him every day and once put him in the hospital. Dad's cruelty was mostly mental.
"I thought I was raising a man. Not some whiny girl. Give it up." He was practically snorting with frustration. "I can't even call Charlie. This would kill the deal once and for all." He was pacing. "I'm gonna call Sid Klein." He called Sid at home. "Sid, does that P.I., Sal Infante, still work for you? I have a job for him. You can't even tell Charlie about this. Swear? OK, John is back with the colored girl....."
I took the phone out of his hand and hung it up. He cocked his fist, blue-faced and hollering, "Don't you ever do that." Mom ran in the kitchen then, as if she'd been listening outside. Whack. He aimed at me and caught her in the eye, just like in the movies. It was the Brooklyn waltz. I picked up a solid wooden kitchen chair (E had made it) and was ready to go for him. Mom stood up, holding her eye, blocking him, looking at me. "Get out of the house, John, just go." I went to E's.
On the way over, I had a picture in my mind. I was hanging from a bridge over a river by my hands. I'd seen it before: it was a raging river and I was trying to pull myself back onto the bridge. This time, the water below was a calm-looking slow stream. Cool and inviting. And the bridge was splintered and rotten. I thought, why not just let go?
I told E what happened and then about the bridge and the stream. And he said, "That's how God speaks to you."
"Don't be ridiculous, Uncle E. Its just a picture I had in my mind."
"That's how God speaks to you, John. Not a voice yelling in the thunder, or whispering in the darkness. Remember how God talked to me in the poem by Mr. Milton? 'They also serve who only stand and wait'? That's how God communicates, John. When I was first back here in Brooklyn after I got out of the hospital, did I ever tell you about the time I was feeling low, and wondering if I really heard from God the first time, and thinking about offing myself again? Did I ever tell you the story?"
"No, Uncle E."
"I was sitting in the living room here, wondering if God wanted me here or in heaven, and I heard a woman's voice outside, saying 'Stay, stay.'"
I waited a minute but he didn't go on. I said, "Uncle E, couldn't she have been talking to her dog?"
"She was, John-boy, but that's the point. Why do you think God sent a woman by to talk to her dog at just that exact moment?"
I said, "Uncle E, we're never going to see eye to eye on this."
He went over to a drawer in the kitchen cabinet and pulled out place-mats and coasters. Underneath them, he found a little quilted pillow which said in script letters:
LET GO LET GOD
E said, "I bought this in Big Indian the day I got out of the hospital. Here, take it."
"I can't take this. You've had it for years."
"I want you to."
I slept at E's that night. At one a.m. dad called and insisted that I come home. E, who didn't usually stand up to dad, talked to him for an hour. He promised him I would be home in the morning.
I didn't go, though. Instead I went to school and looked for Terry. She was taking one class over the summer, and I knew Wednesday mornings I usually could find her in the library. She was there, and we walked outside to the hidden place in the trees by the turtle pond. We sat on the concrete bench and I told her that dad was on me again.
She said, "I feel like we're in a maze, John-O. We reached a dead end last year, and since then we've retraced our steps, room by room, thinking we would find something wonderful. But we've hit another wall."
"Why? There's nothing new with dad. He's always been like this."
"I love you, John-O. But I feel like I'm in a tug of war with your father. I never wanted that. And for me its very painful to be dating a man with whom I can't be seen. Whose family I can never meet."
"You deserve better. You should have an African prince."
"I don't want one. John-O, I never meant to have this conversation with you right now, but I just don't see how we could ever marry. Given your family's reaction. And mine."
I couldn't lie to her. "If I married you, I'd be giving up my father."
"Yes, and Uncle Charlie, and your future in politics or in the business."
"Fuck the future," I said.
"Easy to say, but hard to do. John-O, if I was a better person, I'd say it didn't matter. But my biggest nightmare is to be like my mother. I can't live the life she did."
Terry's mother was like Celine, kept by a man for years, but never married.
I said, "I understand. Are you breaking up with me?"
"I'm not," she said, "but I don't see where we go from here."
I felt very lonely and sad. Sorry for Terry and myself. "If we broke up," I said, "you'll regret giving me your virginity. Instead of saving it for the man you marry."
"I never wanted to save it for the man I married, just for the man I loved," she said. "And I did that. I won't regret that, John-O."
I told Terry about what E had said. We had talked over E's views before. Terry's family was Catholic, and she believed in God, but in a much quieter way than E. She never spoke to me about religion, unless I brought it up, but I knew she prayed sometimes. She believed in a just and merciful God, and therefore didn't have an answer to the question of why God would throw Desiree in front of my car, for example. "Maybe He just can't be everywhere at once," she told me once. Now after hearing about E's latest sermon, she said, "We'll just have to trust in Him." I gave her the little pillow, which she put in her bag.
There was a commotion out on the quad, and we walked over to see what was going on, as there was nothing more to say. A guerrilla theater troupe was performing, and then they invited the audience to do some exercises. I don't usually get involved in things like that, but I was feeling loose and reckless, as if I had just been invented. So we went over, and we joined in a game where you held someone's hands and leaned as far back as you could with your eyes closed. Then you let his hands go and fell straight backwards, trusting someone else to catch you. I was just leaning back when I heard Terry say, "Wait. I want to catch him."
There was some shuffling behind me, and then Terry said, "Ok, now."
I released the actor's hands, but I'm so much bigger than Terry that she staggered and I almost fell. I opened my eyes and got my legs straight, leaning on Terry's shoulder.
"Wait, we'll try that again," said a man who looked just like George Harrison, and he braced Terry's shoulders from behind. I turned away, took the other guy's hands, shut my eyes, and leaned back as far as I could. This time, when I launched, Terry caught me.
I went home at dinnertime and dad wasn't there yet. Mom had a shiner. I looked at her and thought how little dad respected her, how little I knew her as a result. My own mom.
"Thank you for what you did for me."
"I was afraid he would hurt you."
"So he got you instead. You should put some ice on that."
"I had ice on it all day."
I went up to my room and looked around to see what I would take. There was really nothing; I didn't want the baseball cards, the glove, the toy soldiers, or the Hardy Boys. The whole bridge was rotten.
Dad came home and I went downstairs. He was ice cold, totally in control of himself.
"Ok, here's how its going to be. I called up cousin Lucas in Cincinnati. You're going to spend next year there. He'll get you into the community college. You'll work afternoons in his insurance office, for no pay. If you're good and you forget all about the colored girl, you can come back the year after and graduate from Brooklyn."
"I'm not going to Ohio."
"Yes? What do you think you're doing, little girl?"
"You're a big fucking talker."
I started towards the door. Afraid every step of the way he would hit me. But he was in control of himself. First he said, "Stop goofing around." Then: "You come back right now." I opened the door. "John, I don't care if you were planning to come back in one minute. You go out that door, you're dead to me." I went out. I've laid eyes on him since, but we haven't spoken.
I was thinking as I walked to the train, that the rules of life were very clear. Just think what dad would do, then do the opposite.
I called Tom Tolbert and said I wanted to see him, then took the subway to Bay Ridge, to his new muffler shop. He was closing up when I got there. He shook my hand and said something about my consorting with the enemy. When he left to open his own place, Dad had sworn to put him out of business within a year.
I said, "Tom, I need a job."
"What are you talking about, kid? Bernard put you up to this?"
"I've left home."
"I'll buy you a cup of coffee and give you a lift back."
"I'm not kidding."
"So you want a job, eh? I don't need no vice president of operations or chief financial officer."
"I just want to work in the back, like anyone else."
"You don't know how."
"I'm good with my hands. I can learn."
Tom always liked me. "All right, we can give it a try for a week."
"There's one more thing," I said. "I need a place to stay."
From Tom's house, I called Terry. I rarely did that, because her grandmother would either hang up on me or drop the phone on the floor and yell, "That boy is calling!"
I got past grandma this time, and Terry said in a rush, "John-O, I've been thinking that if we didn't see each other awhile, things might calm down with your father."
I felt strangely light, and merry. "You can't get rid of me so easily," I said. I told her I had just walked out on dad.
"You left your house?" she said, as if she'd never imagined such a thing was possible. For other people, maybe, but not that scamp John Chalfin.
"Just think of me as a stray dog that followed you home," I said. "Will you keep me?"
"Would you be a kept man?" she said, half-joking, buying time, I think, because she was so amazed.
"With all my heart," I said. "I'm not proud."
That's the story of the first successful escape from planet Chalfin.
August 7, 1982. I guess its not much of a diary if eleven years go by without you writing anything. I put the book in a box in our basement, but I took it out when we packed for Martha's Vineyard, because I had been thinking for a while about bringing it up to date.
I'll start by describing something that happened yesterday, and then I'll go backwards and tell what happened after I left dad's house.
This is only the third time Terry and I have vacationed outside New York City, with or without the children. Not having grown up here, Terry never got used to the racism. She is more sensitive than American blacks, though also not so angry as they are.
So when we vacation, we have to find places where the chances are less that there will be the shouted insult, raised eyebrows or even the double-take from a hotel clerk or restaurant hostess. Which is hard, because the place hasn't been invented yet where we won't find any of that. There are whole big sections of the country where we won't travel at all because we could be beaten up or shot. There's a guy out there somewhere in the heartland who they haven't caught yet who travels from state to state killing interracial couples with a sniper rifle.
Someone recommended this resort on Martha's Vineyard which is visited mostly by middle class black people. As a white guy, I always lived in the world without even knowing that the black middle class existed, that there were so many black doctors, lawyers or engineers anywhere. They didn't live in my neighborhood.
So we came up here and we've mostly had a very good time, with people making a fuss over our two beautiful girls. The first morning, Terry had been by the pool with them for two hours when I came down. I was the only white guy there and I got the double-take.
Now, that's happened before and I'm used to it. I went and immediately got into the pool, to establish that I'm just one of the guests here, not putting on any airs. I thought that a white guy not going in the water would make people think he didn't want to share a pool with black people. So I felt successful but like a failure at the same time, because after nine years of living mostly among black people, the first thought in my mind when I came down there still had to do with race. I felt like I could live with black people for fifty years and still never forget that I'm white. I don't know how to make a world where nobody would be thinking about it at all. Uncle E would probably say, leave the world-making to God.
The conversation had hushed when I first came out, and it never really recovered. I tried to play with some of the children, and the older ones held back. Some of the younger ones wanted to play, but when they saw their older brothers and sisters avoiding me, they did the same thing. So I played with my own girls, Rikki and Helene. Helene is only six, and didn't notice anything, but Rikki is eight and old enough to pay attention. They are both such knockouts that the other kids in the pool couldn't resist them, so after a while, I was back in the thick of things, with my girls as a passport. Which is the way it usually happens.
Terry had stopped talking to anybody, and after a while she went back upstairs. When we came back to the room two hours later, she was angry, ready to pack and go home. We were both glad her brother Lionel hadn't come with us; he's more resentful than Terry. I said we should stay, that I didn't mind. "How can you not?" she said. "They're as bad as the white people." But I really didn't. I can't even explain it. Without making excuses for anybody, I had two thoughts in my mind. One, they're all people like us, so why should they be any better? Second, if every day of your life people insulted you, why wouldn't you tighten up if someone comes to your private place who looks just like the people who behave that way? I never felt sensitive in the way Terry did, because she lives in the world more than I do. I live on planet Jones, the world we founded together, and if I'm with my wife and girls, then I'm happy.
The next afternoon, Terry drove the girls into town and I went back to the pool. You approach it through a passageway which comes out behind the little house with the towels. I was standing there and overheard people on the other side talking about us.
"Terry is a very smart-looking woman. She teaches at the City University. I can't understand why she couldn't find a proper black man," a man said.
"He is very pretty, though," said a woman.
I took a deep breath, walked out and said, "Thank you. And as for your question, sir, I don't know why she didn't, but I thank my lucky stars every day that she picked me."
They were completely mortified. The man looked like he wanted to be anywhere else, and the woman, who was standing in the pool, almost sank down out of sight.
"I didn't mean anything personal," he said.
I had decided I was going to charm them. Years ago, after hooking up with Terry, I learned that I could turn on that Uncle Charlie thing at will. But instead of using it as a hose to squirt bullshit, as he did, I found it was a great way to deliver honesty. "Managed integrity," Tom Tolbert calls it.
An hour later, I was holding their three year old son in my lap while we talked. Walter Johnson was a doctor from Brooklyn and his wife, Tonya, had been a nurse.
We've exchanged phone numbers and I'll make sure we see them in Brooklyn. See how it works out. Our only friends until now have been through Terry's university and the girls' school.
OK, now run the film backward to 1971. When I walked out of dad's house, two things happened very quickly. I felt much lighter and happier than I ever had my whole life, now that I no longer had to live by Chalfin rules. Living with dad was like being in the same house with a growling panther; you had to make sure it was quiet and feed it lots of red meat. The other thing I discovered, was that I liked making decisions. I had never had the chance to make any my whole life.
Terry was stuck with me at that point, because I had done it for her. I have to say one thing for the girl: she never had a second thought, never looked back. As soon as she knew I was hers without any conditions, she told grandma Louise that I was and would be the man in her life. Which Louise already knew. It still took some months for us to meet, because Louise refused to see me.
Terry started bringing her brother Lionel around to meet me. Lionel, who was eleven, was much darker than Terry. Her father was white, his was black. He had grown up mostly in the U.S., didn't have that wonderful Trinidad accent like his sister, and was more street-wise. Louise and Terry called him "the American." He started by treating me really suspiciously. It was the first time I ever decided to charm somebody. Lionel became my friend. He called me "White boy," which he soon shortened to "W.B." I called him "B.K.", for "black kid." One day, Tom Tolbert was driving us somewhere---it wasn't quite one year from the accident and my license was still suspended. Tom's girlfriend Diane (Diane Ventura, formerly of Celine's Lingerie) was in the front seat, and Terry, Lionel and I were in the back. I realized Lionel was leaning on me, even though there was a lot of room in the middle. That's when I knew he was my brother too, and practically my son.
Another time, we talked about smells. "Don't I smell different to you?" he asked. "Yes, you do, but I like it," I said. "What about me?" "You stink," he said, but he was just joking, and he added right away, "I've gotten used to you too."
I was living at Tom's until October, so Terry and I had almost no chance to be alone. Tom and Diane would go out and Terry would come over sometimes, but these visits were difficult to manage, because Bay Ridge is one of those places where black people get beaten up. Terry had to take a cab to the neighborhood, because I couldn't go get her, and I had to escort her out, unless Tom was home in time to take her. So we were only able to be together a few times.
Now I was the one who was talking about marriage all the time and Terry was a little hesitant. "I don't want anyone but you," she said, "but we need to figure out some things. I want to finish college." I've probably never mentioned she was a year ahead of me; Terry is eighteen months older. "You should finish too." I wanted to drop out---I was crazy to work, and make a better living than I was making at Tom's, and support her and have children and a house. She said she wouldn't marry me if I didn't graduate. So we soon began talking of the day after as the date we would marry.
Terry wanted to go on to get an advanced degree in comparative literature. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had no interest in medicine, the law, anything which required another degree. I was only a B student at best. Terry was the brains of the family. Since dad always had my whole life planned out for me, I had no idea what I wanted, or even what I was good at. Terry and I spent hours discussing it. We figured out I would be good at sales, because I had already learned how to turn on the Uncle Charlie charm, but I had no interest. Terry asked, "What do you enjoy doing that could be a career?"
I was almost at my wit's end when it came to me that the thing I loved best on planet Chalfin was doing carpentry with E. I mentioned it and Terry said, "Why don't you try it then?" I started singing, "If you were a lady and I was a carpenter, would you still love me?"
Terry was talking to my chest. "I didn't fall in love with Uncle Charlie or with your dad," she said fiercely. "I picked you. I don't care what you do, as long as it keeps you busy and happy and you're not a bum sitting in my house all day drinking beer."
So I went to see E. He explained that if I wanted to do construction work I would have to be in the carpenters' union. If I just wanted to build bookcases and cabinets for people, and maybe own a custom furniture store, it didn't matter. The union sounded difficult and like it was filled with Charlies and Bernards, so I picked the other way.
It turned out that E had more than a hundred thousand dollars in the bank he had inherited from my grandfather. Charlie and dad had used the money grandpa left them to invest and become millionaires. E had left his in a savings account at three percent. "I just wanted to forget it was there," E said, "or I probably would have spent it on cars, women and whiskey." A year and a half after I graduated college and started doing carpentry for a living, E staked me to a store in Brooklyn Heights. His only condition was that I throw him some work sometimes and allow him to hang out with me in the store. A promise I wasn't able to keep in the end, but I'll come to that.
Opening the store put me at another crossroads: what to put on the sign. I was actually doing carpentry under the name Jones. I had taken Terry's name as a protest against my father, and because I wanted to prove I could make it on my own. Terry never approved of it. She wouldn't let me call the store Jones' Custom Cabinetry; she said it was too plain. So in the end I took my own name back and called it Chalfin's Custom Cabinetry. In Flatbush, everyone knew Uncle Charlie and my father, but in Brooklyn Heights the name Chalfin didn't mean anything. Though it caused Cissy Burton, Charlie's girlfriend, to come in one day and ask if I was the prodigal son. I got to know her a little, though not as well as Celine. Getting her the lingerie place had been Charlie's idea, not hers, and she hadn't enjoyed it. She gave it up to someone else, though I'm sure dad was still paying Charlie from the profits, because that's the way planet Chalfin works.
Cissy was an exotic-looking woman in her thirties with long, fine curly black hair. She looked like she could be from any ethnic background: Jewish, Arabic, Greek, maybe Spanish. Terry was sure she had African-American blood and got her aside one day and asked her. Cissy said her grandmother was black. She didn't have much to do in the evenings when Charlie was away in Albany, and later she sometimes baby-sat for Rikki when we went out to the movies.
By the spring of my junior year of college, Terry and I were living together. We rented the upstairs of a house from a black family on a mixed block in Flatbush. The whites were moving out, and people from the islands were buying up all the houses. A few elderly white people, too tired or too un-bigoted to move, were going to stay on the block. We weren't totally comfortable, because there were some tough teenagers around who didn't like me. Lionel, who was twelve going on thirty, said he would settle them, and he did.
Lionel was having trouble with grandma and was at our house more than half the week. We set up a bedroom for him. By the summer of 1972, he was living with us full-time. Grandma Louise, who had come to the U.S. solely to raise two children born to her daughter out of wedlock, began talking about going home to Trinidad.
I had still never met her and the news that she would probably leave made me want to make peace with her. I convinced Terry to take me over to Louise's apartment in Fort Greene, where Terry and Lionel had lived for seven years, and let me in with her key. We walked in and I saw a heavy, smooth-faced old woman sitting in a chair watching television. "Who is that, Terry?" she cried out. "Is it that boy?" I hadn't planned what I was going to say. I knelt down in front of her---something I never did when talking marriage with Terry, because we just worked it out without there ever being a moment I actually proposed. I said, "Grandma Louise, you and I have never met before but I feel like you're my grandmother too. You raised Terry to be the most decent, honorable woman on earth and she's been like a rock for me. I love her and I feel like I love you too, because you brought her up." She was upset and grumbling, but when I said that she looked me in the eye the first time. She said, "Terry, see if he wants something to drink."
"Don't be rude, grandma," Terry said. "His name is John."
"Get up, John," Louise said. She still had a hard time with me but before she went home to Trinidad, we were friends. She would have come back for our wedding but she was sick. She only lived another year. I've seen that happen sometimes, when people have to raise their grandchildren. One day the kids are off their hands, and they relax and die, as if their job in this world is done.
I continued working afternoons and weekends at Tom's until I graduated college. I was driving again; Tom sold me his Chevy when he got a new car, and took the small monthly payments out of my paycheck. In order to get from our neighborhood to Bay Ridge, I had to go through Chalfinville, and I got in the habit of stopping at Battista's sometimes on Friday nights, just because I knew I would see Bernard in there. He was no longer dad to me; when I spoke of him to Terry I called him Bernard. He had been as good as his word: I was dead to him. He hadn't called or written (neither had I) and when he saw me in Battista's he met me with a blank, fuck-you stare. He would sit at the opposite end of the bar and talk to people as if I wasn't there. I would do the same down at my end. After I did this a few times, Giovanni Battista asked me not to come back. I don't really blame him. Keeping on Bernard and Charlie's good side was important, and I counted for less than nothing on planet Chalfin now.
I still saw E, who was a little nervous about offending Bernard, but was basically too good a guy to drop me. Through him I had reports of both of them. I knew when Charlie wanted to run for state senate and was humiliated by the Starling faction, and when Bernard started to experiment with buying rental apartment buildings and taking them co-op.
In the fall of 1972, Brian Hanrahan, my former best friend and pretend older brother, was shot in Jay Park. It was as much of a fluke as the accident on the BQE ramp. Little Moe got hold of a gun, and he got mad and went for Jack McPherson, Tommy's older brother. Little Moe probably wouldn't even have shot him. Brian wanted to be a hero and tried to knock down Moe's gun hand, as a result of which he got a bullet in the lung. He died three weeks later in Kings County hospital.
I had seen Brian only twice since the summer of 1971. The first time I ran into him on the street in Flatbush. The next time, in the early fall of '72, not long before his death, he was pumping gas under the BQE. I pulled up in the Chevy and didn't even look at the face of the attendant until he said, "Well, if it ain't Little Brother." Brian hadn't cut his hair, but he had it neatly back in a pony-tail and he was wearing a blue uniform with the Shell insignia on the pocket.
He had knocked up his girlfriend, Lina Griglia, the year before, and she decided to have the baby, a girl named Kimberleigh. I had never known Lina really well, but I liked her, because she was always smiling. She was like Terry, a one-man woman, happy if loved. Brian was trying to cut out the drugs and booze and fly straight, and they had gotten married. I congratulated him on his new life and he made a sour face and said, "Yeah, great." But he was pleased. Six weeks later, he was dead. We recently ran into Lina and she still hasn't remarried, and wouldn't stop talking about Brian, eight years later. Terry was very moody afterwards. "Nothing better ever happen to you," she said, "because that's what I'd be like."
I had never thought about being without Terry, so I said I would be the same way. "Not you," she said, cuddling up to me in our bed. "You'd fall on the floor and weep for a while, then you'd get attached to someone else. John Chalfin can't stay sad long."
"Do you see me as a happy person?"
"Are you kidding? Everyone sees it. You're Mr. Sunshine."
"Its the air here on planet Jones," I said.
In 1973, Terry graduated college, and she went right on to a masters, then a PH.D., at the City University. CUNY is free, so Terry didn't have to work. I didn't make much, but we didn't need much either, so we were able to live. Louise was also sending a monthly check from Trinidad; a few dollars, but it helped. Most of our money in those days went on Lionel, who was outgrowing clothes like crazy. He had shown signs for a year or two of running with a bad crowd, but I followed my rule of doing the opposite of what Bernard would do. So I didn't push back, and soon Lionel settled down and began making good grades in school. He's nineteen now, and a sophomore at the University of North Carolina.
In 1974, I got my degree; I almost came up a few credits short, and I had to go in and charm the dean into counting German I in my favor even though I got a D and never took German II. A week after, we went down to the City Clerk's office and got married. Diane and Tom, whose wedding we attended three months earlier, were our witnesses. Tom brought rice in his pocket and threw it on us as we left the building, and then we all went to Anna's Banana, a Caribbean place in Brooklyn Heights, for a dinner with a few friends. E was there, the sole representative of planet Chalfin.
In 1975, we opened the store. Its been a good living ever since; the people who have the brownstones in Brooklyn Heights have money, and I've built fixtures for a couple hundred of them over the years, as well as sold some pre-made furniture we brought in from North Carolina. Today, I have three employees; one helps me with the carpentry, one handles the front and sells, and the third keeps the back office and deals with the vendors. I'm in the store almost every day, all day.
For the first three years, E came in a few days a week. He had a right to be there, because he was (and still is) a co-owner. Around 1978, he was drinking more. He not only looked terrible and smelled of whiskey, but he wasn't finishing jobs. Or if he did, he wasn't building what the people wanted. Strangely, his work was almost as good as it was before. He just wouldn't make things to the customer's requirements. I finally had a conversation with him, after which he stopped coming in. He was mad for a while, but got over it and I still go to see him.
Terry and I moved to Brooklyn Heights, one place we could live among mostly white people with no fear of being harmed. Though we still had to deal with the raised eyebrows. That year, Rikki was born. She wasn't planned. Terry had switched from the pill to the diaphragm. We had some serious discussions. I wanted her to have the baby. Terry felt that having an abortion would be a worse sin than sleeping with me before we got married. So we had Rikki. Terry read up on it and decided that spacing children three years apart would be best; in our case, she was anxious to finish her education, so we made it two years, and Helene was born in 1977. It was a big inconvenience to Terry's studies; having the two kids delayed her getting her degree by three years.
There's only one other thing I can think of to tell: In 1979, mom left Bernard. She had made friends with Terry while we were still in college, and used to come over to see us, wherever we lived. She had to sneak away behind Bernard's back to do it, which is why she couldn't come to our wedding, because they were on a cruise. She was very good to Terry and Lionel and used to help out in the hard days by giving us a little money, though dad didn't allow her very much. She used to take Lionel clothes shopping too.
I knew my mother so little I was surprised she wasn't a racist like dad. But she grew up in Italy and had never seen a black person until the war. Then the black American soldiers showed up, who seemed very exotic and interesting to the Italians, and equal to the white Americans, though they were in segregated units. One of mom's childhood friends married a black soldier and went to live with him in Seattle.
Mom met a Jewish widower who lived down the block, Morrie Klingman. She had been friendly with his wife, who died of breast cancer. Mom and Morrie ran around behind Bernard's back for a year; they actually drove across the George Washington bridge together to the type of motels on the Jersey side which have signs saying, "Love Your Neighbor Here." I was mortified for her, though it couldn't happen to a nicer guy than Bernard. Mom's excuse is that she had to try Morrie out before deciding to leave planet Chalfin. They didn't want to live in Brooklyn any more (I think they were a little afraid of Bernard) but moved out to Los Angeles, where Morrie's children are. They come into New York regularly, and we've been out to L.A. twice with the girls and Lionel.
To sum it all up, I'm the luckiest man on earth. I have a wife who loves me, two beautiful children, and a store that's doing well. Sometimes I think about my life: holding a guy while Brian punched him out. Smoking hash in Coop's basement. Bernard hitting me. The accident. Being charged with leaving the scene. How I got out of all that. I had the thought one day that in a way Desiree, who they used to call Streetcar, was the vehicle and I was the pedestrian. I am not proud of this idea, because it might cheapen Desiree's death or support E's theory of God. But I thought: I got hit by a streetcar, and it threw me into a new world.
June 6, 1989. E killed himself yesterday. He committed suicide by cop, as they call it.
He was increasingly flaky in recent years and had been back in the Brooklyn VA hospital a few times. They had him on different anti-psychotic medications but he would always stop taking them. He went out in the street in his underwear, talked to himself and scared the neighbors, and his house stank. Bernard and Charlie didn't know whether to commit him or disown him; E hadn't paid Bernard any rent in years. He finally spared them from having to solve the problem. He took a bus up to Olivaera and walked into Hyde's Sporting Goods, which is owned by a Vietnam buddy of his. He sat there a few hours, shooting the breeze with Tim Hyde, until Tim went to the bathroom and E stole a handgun from a display-case. He had no ammunition for it; apparently he wanted it as a back-up. He hitchhiked up to Big Indian, to the hospital where he was after he came back from Saigon, which is now a hotel again. He went out back, in sight of the Catskill Mountains, and he stripped to his underwear and poured lighter fluid all over himself. Someone called the police and when they got there E was crying and screaming. He was holding a lighter but frightened to set himself on fire. He was calling out to God as the police walked up to him. He reached into the pile of his clothes and drew the gun, which he pointed at them, so that they had to shoot him dead.
I've been crying today. First time since 1971.
Everything else is good, thank God. Rikki will be fifteen soon. She and Helene are both strikingly beautiful girls, and the boys follow Rikki everywhere. Terry says she has my looks, but she also got her mother's brains, so she has a really level head on her shoulders and I never worry about her (Terry does, though; I guess its a mother's role.) We have them both in the St. Anne's school here in the Heights, which is kind of a hippy-dippy place but seemed like somewhere we could send them where they would have both black and white teachers and classmates, and no violence. People look at the girls like I looked at Cissy Burton when I met her: they're gorgeous and you can't tell what background they're from. They could be from any or all, and it doesn't matter, because everyone falls in love with them instantly.
Lionel is a software engineer in San Jose, California, and doing really well. Mom and Morrie live in Monterey now, and see him regularly.
Four years ago, Terry was finally ready to visit Trinidad. We have since been to Port of Spain twice with the girls. Lionel had no interest, says he can't even remember the place.
Terry is a tenured professor at Brooklyn College now. Her face got thinner after she turned thirty and I tell her she's even more beautiful. I look at her from a distance and see this striking, smart woman with a confident manner and wonder how she married a mook like me. We've had our arguments but there has never been a moment when either of us thought it wouldn't work or wanted to leave the other.
November 20, 1993. Bernard died a few weeks ago. He fell on the bathroom floor at Battista's, dead almost immediately from a massive heart attack. He had stayed true to his word, and we never spoke again after I left his house. I last saw the man three years ago, when I accompanied mom to court. She had a lawsuit against him about some property, which he and Sid Klein used every trick in the book to drag out. Bernard undoubtedly swore she would never get a cent, and she hasn't until now. Morrie is wealthy, so it was more the principle of the thing. In court, we sat at two different tables and when Bernard's eyes crossed me he had that same blank, fuck-you stare.
Since E died, I've been so much out of touch with planet Chalfin that I didn't learn about Bernard's death for twenty-four hours. I'm surprised Charlie didn't call, though I haven't spoken to him either since I left in 1971. It was Sid Klein who called me. (In 1989, it was Sid who, at Bernard's request, told me to stay away from E's funeral.) I took down the information about the funeral home where the wake was being held, but I knew I wouldn't go. Terry wanted me to and would have come with me, but it would have been a farce, and I'd have seen people I didn't want to speak to, like Charlie, Giovanni Battista, and the Badalamenti brothers.
Sid came by the house yesterday; he called an hour earlier to say he was in surrogate court, which is across Cadman Plaza from the Heights. He accepted a glass of seltzer and sat on our living room sofa. The women were out, Helene at St. Anne's and Terry at the college. We sent Rikki to Harvard, though we weren't sure how we were going to manage.
Sid was more wrinkled than I remembered, but still in very good shape. He looked very old when I first met him, but he didn't look twenty-five years older than that today. It turned out that he was in court probating the will of Francis Multimano. Frankie Many Hands, the Mafioso. I guess even those guys have property in their name: houses, boats, cars.
He said I am Bernard's sole heir. I asked what year the will was made, expecting that it was done before I left. Sid said there were two more wills after that, the first to cut me out. When mom left, Bernard wrote a new will, putting me back in and excluding her.
I was amazed. Sid shrugged and said, "He always said he'd rather leave everything to you than a stranger."
"I'm surprised he didn't give it all to Charlie."
"He and Charlie weren't getting on so well these last few years. The idea came up but he always said, 'That bastard has enough of mine.' He never forgave him for taking the lingerie store in particular."
The estate will probably come to about two million dollars, before taxes, but there are a lot of problems. Property that has to be sold and some other wrinkles to iron out. Sid said that around 1983, dad was worth an estimated fifteen to twenty million, but he made some reckless plays in the real estate market, buying at the height and getting stuck with properties he couldn't even co-op when the market crashed. At the end, he was back to the three muffler places and a few other things. Sid suggested I sell the muffler shops to the Badalamentis and Al Davis, who are still there. I said I'd be happy to.
I'm planning to give mom half of whatever's left after taxes, if she'll take it.
When he was about to leave, Sid seemed to want to say something personal. He looked around at the pictures of the kids on the end tables and said, "Your dad never got over the way you defied him. You could have been an important guy in Albany with Charlie, or if you'd been at your dad's right hand, you could have carved off a few millions for yourself by now. Instead, you're a carpenter. Was it worth it, kid?"
I said, "Sid, when I left the house on East 26th street, I was like a kite being untied from a rock. I've just been rising ever since. I never looked back."
I said it with all the conviction I felt, but I don't know if he believed me.
Lionel is married and has kids now, so we're almost like grandparents. The only negative is that I lost Chalfin's Custom Cabinetry. We didn't do anything wrong; the Heights got more popular and the landlord quadrupled the rent. For a half-year, we moved into Cobble Hill, but my old customers wouldn't follow me, and the people there didn't have as much money to spend. Finally, we had to close up, and now I do jobs I get through advertising in those free Brooklyn papers given out in stores. People that I met over the last fifteen years also send work my way. My revenue is not as much as it was, but I have no expenses, so I'm doing almost as well. And Terry makes decent money.
June 17, 1996. Uncle Charlie called. I hadn't heard his voice since 1971, so it was very strange. He sounded elderly and hesitant, and it took me a few minutes to find out what he wanted. The congressman from our old part of Brooklyn retired, and Charlie is running for his seat. That means he has to give up his place in the Assembly, after forty years. Everyone thinks he's a has-been and too old for the job; Sid Klein says he doesn't have one-tenth the clout he had. Maybe its just his way of retiring. Anyway, Charlie asked me to send him a thousand dollars, the maximum an individual can contribute under the campaign laws. I think he felt because I inherited Bernard's estate, I owe it to him. I said I would, and I did. That closed one more account; I had the upper hand of Charlie again. He is running third in the poll and has almost no chance.
May 3, 1998. I ran into Charlotte Stein today, who used to be Char Davis. I hadn't seen her since the night of the accident in 1970.
Four times a year, I make a little cemetery tour in Nassau County. I have a lot of people there now to visit. In the Catholic cemetery, Bernard, Belle and E. In the Jewish place next door, Celine and Desiree. Terry thinks it is morbid and doesn't like to come with me. She's also much busier than I am on weekends, grading papers and such. With both girls out of the house (Helene is at Brown, and Rikki getting an MBA at Wharton), I have to find ways to keep busy, and the trips out to the cemetery are restful. I only stay with Belle a short while; I have just a few memories of her but they are good ones. I visit with E for a half hour or more. His grave says, "They also serve who only stand and wait." I don't stay with Bernard, just make sure the place is clean and being cared for. On his stone it says, "Home is the hunter, home from the hill, and the sailor home from the sea." Its a quote from Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, as E would say. Charlie must have picked it. The first time I saw it, I thought: home is the hitter, home from the hit.
I sit another half hour or so with Celine. Her grave has only her name and the dates. I only started visiting Desiree five years ago, because before that, I didn't feel welcome. Now I do. I talk to her sometimes in my thoughts. I told her long ago how sorry I was, and I felt peaceful, as if she was saying she knows it wasn't my fault. I like to think that she's glad to see me, because the grave was getting a little messy with weeds. It also has a quote on it, which mostly the Jews don't do: "Something walked that seemed a burning cloud." I had to clear some grass to read it. Her dad is gone, and her mom remarried and lives in Philadelphia. I don't think Charlotte ever came; at least there was no evidence, no little stones on the grave. I took a liberty and started paying to have Desi's grave kept up, a few years ago.
Today was the first nice weekend day all spring, so a lot of people were visiting. I saw a dark-haired woman standing over Desiree. She was wearing a gray pants suit. I knew at once it must be Char, though I didn't see her face. I wanted to go over, but I felt shy. After all, she hated me even before Desi died.
I went to the diner on the highway that runs by all the cemeteries, to have lunch there as I always do. I had my head down over my plate and a voice said, "John Chalfin?" I looked up and recognized Char. Her face hasn't changed that much. I could see the very faint scars under the make-up. She is a handsome woman, very self-assured, but very tense. Or maybe that was just with me. I invited her to sit down and she did.
She said, "They told me at the office you've been paying for upkeep for Desiree's grave."
"I did," I said. "I've been going there for five years. I have a family member buried nearby."
"You have a Jewish relative?"
"Its a long story," I said.
"I'd like to pay you back." We finally left it that I wouldn't accept money for the past. She would pay the bill going forward.
We spent a few minutes bringing each other up to speed on our lives. She is a lawyer, a partner in a Manhattan firm. She totally lost track of me after the accident. When I told her I married Terry Jones, she had a remembering look for a moment, and then she said, "The...." The black girl, I thought. I was used to it. But she caught herself, and said, "The girl from Trinidad."
She said she is getting hitched in September. For the first time. Imagine not being married all these years. I would have died, and probably without regret. Terry says I wasn't cut out to live by myself, and not to love somebody. Char didn't sound like she was thrilled about getting married, but she had a tight manner and never showed any emotion during most of the conversation. I showed her pictures of the girls and Lionel's family and she said the right things.
I got brave then and asked her why she never liked me. She said that Admiral Davis, her grandfather, knew Charlie and didn't think he was honest. He had also had the worst of some real estate dealings with Bernard. When Char met me, she thought I was a shark like them.
She said, "I have a question I've wanted to put to you since the accident. May I?"
"You can ask me anything," I said.
"Its very important to me to know which way Desiree was facing when...."
"When I hit her."
"Answer my question, then I'll tell you."
I thought about it for a while. "I don't know," I said. "I didn't notice her until she was on the hood of the Caddy, and then she was looking at me. Whether she was facing me, or to the right or left, before I hit her, I have no idea. She could have been going any direction except away, and then twisted around when the car struck her."
She was silent, and then she put her head in her arms on the table. I waited, and then asked if she was all right. "Yes," said a muffled voice. She didn't want me to see her crying, I think, so she turned her head away quickly, and went off to the ladies' room. She came back composed, make-up freshly applied, and ordered a cup of coffee.
"Why was that important?" I asked.
"Because Desi left me in the car. It would help to know if she was heading back towards me when she died. All these years I imagined you knew the answer."
I wished I had lied to her, but I didn't know what she was looking for. "I'm sorry," I said.
"Its not your fault."
We shook hands. "I couldn't come here for years and years," Char said, "because it hurt too much." "I understand," I said. I wished her the best for her wedding. She thanked me, and as I walked to my car, she called, "I'm glad you've been visiting Desi."
Based on that, instead of going home, I drove back to Beth Israel, and spent a little time with her.