Book II Excerpt: A Day That Will Live in Infamy
Here I am once again, a cringing child, in my old familiar seat behind my father. The musty smell of old upholstery, tobacco smoke, and discarded food wrappers makes me gag. My stomach is clenched as I fight back the familiar nausea. I have automatically closed my window, even though my father no longer mouths, chews, sucks, those awful rolls of dried tobacco called cigars; he has rediscovered, instead, his old pipe collection, and now sucks on one of these. Now I do not need to fear the advent of explosive spittle carried from the driver’s open window to mine; I will not need to mop slimy gobs of it from my cheek. In the background, my father’s favorite radio station mews plaintively, A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces…the melancholy melody, the words of the song hit me like barbed steel darts…
We must have crossed the borough of Queens in record time, Daddy’s well worn Oldsmobile weaving and ducking the Kennedy airport traffic, threats and curses shouted and, the usual… son of a bitch, what the fuck do you think you’re doing? Fuck you, anyway… BEEEEEEP… but I am so numb, so petrified, I register nothing. Trickles of sweat travel downward from my armpits, and yet I feel a chill that goes beyond weather. I am feeling adrift without Eddie, who has been unable to be here to support me today. There is an empty space in my world where his dark, svelte, striking Latino presence should be. I am forced to face this travesty alone, feeling as though yet another of my limbs is missing. I have my hastily scribbled notes clutched in my hand, along with the Blueback covered Order to Show Cause…a demand for me to appear before a court to explain why I am not unfit to care for my six children. Legalese tends to parse its venom in the negative. I am being charged with abandonment, with being unfit as a mother for this reason. Now my six abandoned children packed like sardines in a can, sit silently beside me, except for Tracy, now three, who is snuggled in a nest of my arms, on my lap. There is no squirming today, no whining or quibbling. …An airline ticket to romantic places…
A shiver skitters through me. Daddy maneuvers the moribund Olds through varieties of side streets, between a motley assortment of wide craters and deep looming crevices, over weather and rutted wear ruined Queens’s streets, and into Nassau County, whose roads are just barely better. He knows his way around. He also knows his way around the law, although he hasn’t practiced law since his graduation with honors way back in the Great Depression. But he sports his usual confident, arrogant façade. He will know what to do, I have faith. Not so sure if my faith runs to the high powered attorney that we have retained to defend me.
Are we here yet? Kevin, five, true to form, asks the inevitable question, breaking the unbearable silence, and we all chuckle. I murmur the inevitable answer, yes, Kevin, we are right here. More rapid laughter, that fades quickly, breaks off in an instant leaving a enormous silent vacuum in its wake. This is a most serious and threatening time.
A pregnant silence… Oh how the thought of you clings… We move silently through a canyon of ancient buildings, taxpayers and storefronts with businesses that have existed for eons. Auto parts, Chinese take-out, Family Deli, Laundromat, Real Estate, Insurance… These establishments are labeled in an assortment of languages. The Hispanic ones catch my eye first, touch deep buttons leading to nostalgic sensations. Flashes race across my mind of another place, if I squint I can believe that I am there, and then quickly I am back in Queens. An effluvium of litter, garbage, is met by indifference. Faded brick, windows clouded with years of exhaust fumes that have solidified into a uniform gray muck. Some of them are boarded up, or show for rent signs. I barely notice, as I barely notice the throngs of humanity moving en masse, bobbing and weaving along the route, people going about their daily business on a bright June morning in the year 1970. Sad, preoccupied people, concerned with the business of surviving. None of them I muse, my thoughts centered on myself and my predicament has ever had to face a day such as this. I am encased in my personal horror; no one exists outside of it.
These simple things, remind me of you…Eddie, I whisper somewhere deep inside my head feeling monumental pangs of guilt for even this slight momentary act of perceived disloyalty. Where are you today, what are you doing that could possibly be so important that you have been unable to be here with me on this earth shattering day to support me?
White letters on the archetypal green sign at the side of the street declare that we are approaching the Mineola Courthouse, bile rises in my throat, bitter tasting, acidic, burning my throat and mouth. What am I doing here? How has this happened? What if Steve really takes the children away from me? Phrases flit through my mind, they never take children away from the mother, and then another, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know…Step right up, place your bet. Pick a winner, Ladies and Gentlemen, choose your poison. Who will take the prize? Prizes; six children are the grand prize.
How did this happen? What am I doing here?
I do not recall Daddy parking the car, but that long walk up stone stairs bordered by vast lawns and elaborate shrubbery and early multi-hewed summer flower borders, perennial and annual so reminiscent of my own garden, stands out in my memory; I glimpse peripherally masses of violets hugging the edges with their characteristic abandon, in obdurate stillness. It is my last mile; I sense with a sudden chill the inevitability of some manner of capital punishment awaiting me at the end. I feel numb, flanked by Mom and Dad, who have each put an arm through one of mine, and they all but carry me into the huge building. I sense their concern, their support, but I am not comforted. An image flashes somewhere in the tangled wiring in my mind of the day of my wedding to Steve, when they escorted me down the aisle in similar fashion, my feet barely touching the ground. They cavalierly feign certainty, confidence they do not feel. But they never take children away from the mother. I hang onto the mantra, mindlessly.
I see a massive, dark, carved wood door open, and we are propelled inside as if by some unseen force. I feel my insides shrivel, my mind go blank; blanker that it already is but for the occasional memory flash. Now I have to pee. Why do I always need to pee? Incongruously, I hear Daddy’s voice in the far distant past, I want you to eat every carrot and pea on your plate, wrinkle my nose with the unsettling memory. Can I make it to a restroom, and back again without crumpling into a pile of useless refuse, dissolving into fragments? How will I get through this, I ask silently? My mother glances at me, sideways. She is about to cry, at any moment. Daddy is grim-faced, resolute. I don’t remember how I manage to make it happen, but somehow I maneuver myself inside the courtroom. Massive walls, uncountable juxtapositions of polished mahogany paneling and elaborate crown molding, sturdy deeply stained wooden conference tables buffed to a mirror-like finish, a higher than high podium for his Honor, the Judge. In God We Trust, engraved in huge larger than life gold Roman capitals shouts its message from above the podium, just beneath the ceiling. Surreal; I am overwhelmed by the impact of icy cold pomp and circumstance, completely intimidated by architecture, massive and austere. Where am I going on this next voyage, a small voice asks deep inside me? Don’t worry, says the oily voice of my well paid attorney as if responding to my internal query, they don’t take children away from the mother.
I glance over at Steve, and his attorney, tightlipped and confident, smug and righteous. I am gripped by a sense of terror greater than any sensation I have ever felt before, many times greater than that first crushing labor contraction that signaled incredible pain yet to come. At least that pain was finite, was precursor to getting a baby; this is the signal for interminable loss, for the beginning of the end, the access to a dark place of perpetual ever downward spiraling loss. Eddie’s absence is a glaring neon sign, creates a visible vacuum. Steve’s sister Elaine, and his father Aaron, are sitting behind Steve, as my parents sit behind me. They, however, are fat cats, and their smug faces tell me that they have already swallowed the canary. I imagine them licking cream from their whiskers, or canary feathers. I am the canary, drowning in cream. Steve has learned an immutable lesson at his father’s knee. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. How many conversations have I overheard at Bar Association meetings held at my home, where I was the caterer, the scullery maid, and the waitress, invisible to the membership at large? Who would have ever known that this would be the final proving point of Aaron’s grand theory, to be validated on the head of the mother of his grandchildren and at their expense? Steve’s attorney glances over, and winks at mine, a wink, so slight and delicate as to barely be visible. I have served him drinks in my own living room. I have been sitting across the table from him at Kiwanis dinners. Ice rather than blood is racing through my veins.
Oyez, oyez, this session of the Supreme Court in and of the Town of Mineola, in the County of Nassau, in the State of New York, is now in session. A case like this one should be about to be heard according to protocol and statute in Family Court in Suffolk County, where we all live, instead it is being heard in Mineola Supreme, where Steve has his very carefully nurtured business contacts. You would think this would instigate immediate red flags, would be an obvious enough ploy to contest, but it is a classic Catch 22, impossible to fight this issue in this particular venue. I slide down in my seat, a crumpled bundle of defeat. His Honor, the judge, is a member of the same Bar Association of which Steve has been vice president. I have shaken his hand, in the day, at one or the other Bar Association or Knights of something dinner: Columbus, Pythias? This is a show. There is no way I can win this battle. Maybe, hopes an inveterate Pollyanna, I am imagining all this. Maybe everything will be all right. Maybe Steve will realize…
He is a good person, an honorable man, whispers Pollyanna in my ear, he would never do that to his beloved children, or to me, not even to me. Take my babies away. He would never separate children from their mother. He once represented a streetwalker, a drug addict in one of his rare court appearances, who was being sued for custody by her child’s father, fought with devout intensity and morally indignant certainty, and won for the mother. Imagine that. They never take children away from the mother, he said almost piously, puffed to overflowing with the pride of success, at the time. The Steve I fell in love with so many years ago could not commit an act like that. I attempt to convince myself, but my own words fall on hollow ears. That is the reason we are here, indeed. My nerves are strung so tightly that I fear their imminent strained splitting. Steve takes the stand.
Mr. Heffner, are you the petitioner in this proceeding? His attorney, Gabe Kohn, his solid presence enhanced by gray silk suiting, crisp button down shirt and elegant sky blue tie, his large florid coarse featured face framed by masses of thick gray tipped bronze hair begins questioning his client. The atmosphere in this immense hall is so tense and fraught with emotion that Gabe’s skillfully framed words echo like gunshot in the icy silence, echo threateningly in the large court room….
Are you an attorney?
Admitted to practice in the State of New York?
Where do you maintain your office?
Jamaica Avenue, New York.
Were you and the respondent married on June 15, 1958?
Where did the marriage take place? Kew Gardens Hills, New York.
Did you have children of that marriage? Yes. Are they the subject of this proceeding?
9 Chatfields Lane
East Hampton, NY 11937
Phone: (631) 907-2936