Today it all came back. Once again, on another brilliant dawning, the Western Yetness still calling me, I woke with a toothache. A stupendous one! In half an hour, despite quick brushing, the stimulator poked here and there, gargling, all proving useless, the ache remained in force. It was, without a doubt, the chocolate again, or the mere thought of chocolate. I knew I was weak to most any candy, and to chocolate in particular, right from the beginning.
Believe me, me being Paul Legatione himself, that I am so much more than all of this around me. And I remember, vividly at times, how it all started; my father walking away from us when I was six or seven and my mother, Delores, wanting as much time as she could get with her many subsequent men friends, seeing to it that I was judiciously bought off with candy and books. The Big Swap I could have called it. Those friends arrived in their turns, some staying for long spells, and some for random short visits. She must have spread the good word far and wide, though, for she had lots of friends calling on her. And the candy arrived with them, toted as part of their baggage, and the books.
So frequently did they come that I grew up with them… the friends, the candy, the books. But tastes soon developed along with my character needs. As much as I could I declined the friendship of the men, often drawing back into a feigned facade, learning artistic ways of evasion, but I ate the candy meanwhile and read the books. Both, I swear, avariciously, relishing the sweet taste in my mouth, the sweet turn of a phrase giving me music, experiences moving in the back of my head. Of course, from that onslaught, my teeth went bad, but I read the books cover to cover, every word of every book, not that I was selective in the beginning, being reduced to strangers’ tastes. I could read a book while worrying a tooth or rooting at that sore member with my tongue, so that I’d get by the aspect of pain, molars my anathema, my digging spots. Slowly, though, I developed my own taste and preference in reading and made suggestions, dropped hints, left notes about the house boldly marked with book titles, or authors’ names that eventually began to crawl out of the narrowing selectivity in my mind. Joining the ranks, I guess you could say. By taking advantage of things, the library grew assiduously, and I learned a whole lot, absorbing all I read or reflected upon, every word, every sentence, every illustration. My mother, on such days, was the happiest mother around. And you can say what you want about that happy phrase.
I suspected one time, like I had probably known all along, that she was sleeping with The Creole, a rather smooth but talkative man later speculation said must have come from James Lee Burke’s bayou country down at the end of the Mississippi. He seemed like a nice enough guy, with the subtle dominance an occasional man can master, slow and steady, most always in first gear, moving ahead, no woman’s piece or part deterring him. Even mother’s speech changed for that dalliance, evincing a flair for a soft, slow Louisiana drawl she employed for either pleasure or annoyance… I was never sure which. It was always pointed at me, me the subject and object in what I imagined as an admission of guilt, a clearing of the air. An atonement, perhaps, she had intellectually arranged. It made me think of Huckleberry Finn and how the old boy, Mark Twain himself, prefaced the whole vernacular flow of his novel with that perfect aside right up front. He just set the record straight for his readers, his critics, all that history coming down the line right at him and his marvelous creation, Huck and Jim on the river, a spell of time and its particular sounds.
Of course, before The Creole suffered his entertainment, she welcomed The Corsican, and The Hammer-Thrower and The Glutton and The Sword-Swallower. From the earliest I had reduced her many friends to short descriptors, each of them following one another like trail hounds after my father walked away that day. Obversely I’d bet to a man they called me The Candy Kid. Sometimes I thought about that dictate, how the word must have spread, about Delores and her kid with the good sweet tooth, and it made me sour to my stomach.
I grew, though, while she entertained and my teeth went bad so many times I lost count. Visits to the dentist were horror shows I will remember into the pine box. But I had some innate abilities springing to light in spite of my mother and those dalliances, if I may call them that in polite terms. She bloomed with a man around, or men, did Delores. On other days, the slack days, such a difference came, a laundry sack of a woman… she’d become morose, depressed, near lifeless. There’d be no lipstick pressed upon her mouth, no care to dress, supper a poor substitute for the goodly fare; eggs for supper, fried eggs, quick eggs, or a bowl of dry packaged cereal, an old meal resurfaced, a rushed sandwich without pickle or condiment, her fast-food dictates at hand.
Then came, for me, the red letter day if I may say so, when The Corsican, big as he was, massive at the shoulders, gently cupped her buttock one morning with his outsized hand. Early angled sun dropped bars through the narrow windows of the house. Those bars fell in slanting bands of joyous light across two walls of the kitchen and made the silverware glitter like coins in a till. A dark blue oil cloth on the table condoned a swift mirror of brightness. The room was a warm happy room at that exact moment. The Corsican and mother were just inside the kitchen door, caught up in bands of sunlight set about them like matting in a picture. In a memorial pose were the two of them. Then she leaned her head on his shoulder when he had cupped her rear in what appeared to me to be the ultimate signal of giving all one might have, right there or in the immediate future. The ultimate of promises. I saw it framed. I wondered what her eyes looked like then, what they might have said, for I swear I heard the song in her begin; the near mute tra-la-la making appropriate commentary, the notes that move behind a smile.
The Corsican was a big man with a huge smile and marshaled a look in his eye that could dwarf anyone less than noble or courageous. Hair as black as a night skyline showed his eyes and his teeth to great advantage, making him softer, and gentler I’d bet, to mother. Also, there was directness to his actions, which she loved in strong men; they knew their wants, they spoke their piece, they took their booty. Thus, this cupping day, starting at breakfast, was hers in celebration. The bloom was hers, and the candy was mine. I never fully knew what that dalliance really was, until some years later I met the daughter of a Buick Roadmaster owner, and encountered my first dalliance in the front seat of the Roadmaster hardtop before the engine of that magnificent machine was humming again, though her humming, and mine, went complete.
If you want to know about me, how I was made and how I have come along the way, I’ll let you in on just about all of it. Where I learned it I don’t know, but it was in my mind and in the touch of my hands, primal, from the git-go. A gift clearly bestowed upon me. I understood things, contraptions, working parts, and their reasons for being, their methods of operation, what part did what job in the collected mission. Theory came easy, complex reads were simple tasks. Connections of all sorts found instant access in my thinking… schematics, plans, routines, processes. I saw it all and most immediately, a counterpart ingrained and open.
Talent came, scads of it, like a flood or a bursting. Was all of it a trade-off? Was I driven there? Did I seek it out and dare not refuse it? Was I being recompensed for the role given me in life, and my mother’s? I’ll never know for sure, but today, in drop-dead certainty, I can hone a car to perfection (from tappet size to exhaust ratios and you can throw in all the kinds of theory you might advance), or a piano, or a guitar, sometimes so keenly at it that drivers or players exult at the zenith of their capacities. And with my ear I can make a harmonica nearly dance by itself, never mind an old piano awash in the universe, its old keys bouncing like a junk car’s shock absorbers. I do horns, computers, VCRs, washing machines, dryers, you name it. I am a player and a doer. I am special and I damn well know it and they do too, mother and her friends. Hadn’t that Ferrari and that old Strad peaked at my finger touch, humming alongside the universe itself, all that mellow music at the ear, all in tune with each other? I had it! I had it, every belly-pumping inch of it! Oh, what glorious humming I could accomplish! God, I’d often say, all of us should be so endowed.
But, despite all the ready goodness, all the acceptance and praise, all the tumult of ass-kissing accolades, I kept saying I would not, damned if I would, eat chocolate again. I couldn’t afford it, so I kept saying it like prayers: Not a bite, bet on it! Not a Sky Bar chunk or a Tootsie Roll or the heavily-wrapped two dollar goodie she always brings home for me and a potential occasion. I’ll not close my teeth again on a Heath Bar or a Hershey or an Almond Joy. Bet on it! Bet on it! Bet on it! Include Snickers and Milky Way and Three Musketeers in the whole toothy arsenal of hits. I’ll read the books but I’ll swear off the candy stuff.
I said it all the time and I relented all the time. I caved in.
And so I learned about trade-offs.
They caught us in Dockery’s Greenhouse, the 3 A.M. moon in the first quarter, the alarm ringing, us stupidly afoot and agape. I was eight years old. All of us kids had seen the chocolate bunny in the window; it had ridden its tongs and grips deep inside. I knew what the grace of chocolate was, that cocoa distinction, that dark softness on the palate, the lingering mouthful of richness, and I enticed them with the sweet promises. And, as vowed, I picked the lock on the back door of Dockery’s Greenhouse. It was a snap! And we hefted the chocolate bunny the night just before Easter was to come along, and suddenly there was Dockery himself and the cop on the beat standing in the doorway. There was an uproar, of course, but we were kids and got away with it. I could taste that chocolate bunny even as my mother whipped my butt. But she liked men and I liked chocolate. They came together. I never knew if perhaps Dockery or the patrolman had formed a union with her.
I had my own reputation, I guess you could say. Not just precocious, but handy to the Nth degree. It did not take long to make that point, and to exact fair payment. When I was twelve I was doing a motor job on old Essering’s convertible engine with poured Babbitt bearings Essering didn’t even know existed. I blued them and scraped them and fine-combed those bearings and tuned all those parts and I made that car hum with a music it had not known in ten years. Out on the pike he swore it raced off at 80 miles an hour and he could hear the sacred humming in the seat of the pants. And he made my mother hum in his own turn, the old Dodge their transport. They rode off in that chariot for days on top of days and came back late. For weeks she was singing in the kitchen in the morning, and late at night. I remember the night I told myself I was a mechanic and she was a lover. There was one trade-off for you! Kid stuff that kids are made of.
And before you know it, there’s a Buick Roadmaster being pushed into our garage at the side of the house. One of mother’s friends, The Carpenter, had squared the garage away for my use, put up shelving, a skylight, a bench fit for Edison himself. The Roadmaster daughter’s name was Amie; I think she came with the car. At least she was with it, it seemed, from Day One, sitting in the front seat, primping, exhaling, being smelled and inhaled above grease and oil flavors, and only fifteen years old in her burst of beauty. Once I caught her fondling herself, her eyes smoked with slow, dark combustion. Soon she was fondling me. I was hanging the exhaust system under that old Buick Roadmaster while lying on my back, part of me under the car, part not. She straddled me, as if she could not have altered those actions in this lifetime. She showed me she wore nothing under her skirt. “I never wear underwear,” she said. It was an affirmation of destiny, the role in life, making one’s own claim on things to be.
“Never. Never,” she repeated, half the world in her eyes. I was to remember that statement, that vision, every time I saw her again, and lots of others for that matter. That day we advanced upward to the fabric of the front seat, me straddled again, her knees against the back of the front seat. I suddenly knew I was different too. Another trade made.
I guess I essentially began to measure things then. My gravitation to all of this. How important Don Quixote had become and Huckleberry Finn and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and a man named John LeCarre and the hilarious first part of Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard and Robideaux’s fisty friend Clete painted up by James Lee Burke. I guess I began to know my mother better too, the way I began to learn more about books and stories and the people that put them all together.
When The Handshaker came in his turn, he brought nothing but himself. He asked for candy once in a while instead of bringing it, smiling at choice sweetness, thanking me cordially, but never overboard with his gratitude. The huge surprise was that he began to borrow books from me, read them quickly, asked my opinion on a number of books or authors, engaged in liquid conversations with me about where ideas might spring from, knew about Huck and Jim on the river, Mr. Timothy, Francie and Johnny Nolan down in old Brooklyn where the tree was growing. Interest walked with him on every corner.
And my most avaricious mother, my one-road, one-grained, one-mind, one-appetite mother must have sat up one day, suddenly like a light switch had been thrown in her darkness, and saw all that was about her. The Handshaker consistently made points. More than once he ushered a newcomer from the front door, his voice authoritative, at times imperial. Nights full of April lilacs and daffodils he kept to his room in the back of the house, and if they had meetings they occurred when I was not about. One day, after a pretty bad toothache had ground itself from existence, he convinced me and her that I should have many of my upper teeth extracted. That it would be best for me, even at sixteen. He kept saying it was not a sin, that new intelligence about teeth and implants and such things were steadily improving, that my health should be protected from the invasion of poisons my poor teeth kept inviting.
The transition among us was not noisy, but it was in motion.
“You’ll smell better too,” he added one day later when we were sitting on the porch, both of us relaxing from a book, mother in the kitchen preparing a fish meal he had proposed. “That’s a gift in itself.” I had not entertained the thought of bad breath. The Roadmaster daughter had never said a word about that. Nor another car girl after the Roadmaster was driven away.
That’s the night he told us about losing a son, how life ached for the longest time, and that a certain comfort had come upon him at our house he thought was no longer attainable. We were sitting on the porch again, one light burning above us, the lilacs with long hands touching us, the fireflies dancing at a distance, continuity expressing itself. I saw the affect on her, the way a curtain comes down on stage, makes separation, allows alterations. I remembered The Corsican’s huge hand on mother’s buttock, the sunlight on the walls, her yielding and signal gesture. Now silence was a gesture of its own. I heard her silence. I heard her acceptance. I heard eventual change inserting itself in our lives.
I bid the chocolate adieu.
As the philosopher says, The sweet taste lasts longer than the first bite.
Header photograph: By JOHN LLOYD (Flickr: 1954 Buick Roadmaster) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons