a child’s mind/ creative non-fiction/memoir/ by Jess Nadelman

There was always music in the apartment in the Bronx where I was brought once the doctors gave my mother and father the ok. Given that the first baby died within a couple of days, the doctors were cautious.  Symphony music, my mother’s favorite before she became an opera addict, was delivered by the radio or one of her 78 RPM albums.  I remember being in my crib, hysterical over some undefined wrong that had been done to me and my mother putting on music.  My mother used to get me to sleep by singing Silent Night.  The only music my dad really liked was big band jazz from the 1930s and 1940s.  I don’t remember my mother ever allowing it to be played in the house.  I don’t remember him ever being home. 


It was winter 1948, the Bronx, a beat up 1945 Plymouth sedan, green with grey bench seats.  No seat belts.  “Sit back,” he said, demanded, yelled.  “If I stop short then you’ll hit your head on the dashboard or maybe go through the windshield glass, guaranteed, and then what will your mother and I do?”  So, I sat back as straight and hard as I could in my special winter coat with the mouton lamb collar that my furrier grandfather made for me.  Because of the angle, the chin strap on my wool hat with the flaps, cut off not only my breath but the blood to my head causing me to hallucinate that I was a pilot in an airplane that I built, high above New York City, waving to my mother and father, a big smile on my face.  I knew I had to get out of their house as soon as possible. 


My father moved us to Cedar Rapids after his carpet business failed. My memories of the neighborhood begin with my being frightened by a large bush on the way to fish in the creek where I was pulled down the muddy bank into the water by a fish no bigger than your thumb.  The bush cast different shadows in different light, all of them reminded me of my father, some days his pockmarked nose became a grappling hook used by butchers to catch and carry sides of beef.  And what if it wasn’t just a shadow but actually my father, ready to leap out of the bush with a knife and kill me so he could steal the minnow I caught.  I never told him. I knew it would add to the reasons he didn’t want me around. 


Yankee Stadium.  Night game.  Only time my father and I ever went to a game.  And not for me but to impress the poor kid we had at the house for a week as a volunteer family for the Herald Tribune’s summer Fresh Air Fund.  Middle class guilt.  Grandstand seats covered by the next tier of adulation.  The Mick is up.  I yelled.  “Hit the ball Mick.  That’s what you’re paid for.”  He scolded me for not being nice.  


Almost 13, ill prepared for my confirmation, never did learn all of the big readings out of the bible.  Nobody seemed to mind but me.  He and I are at Simpson’s Clothing and Shoe Sore.  We are buying my first almost a man suit.  A guy down the suit aisle makes some remark about Bill Haley, Mr. Rock Around the Clock.  I parrot the remark, then chided, scolded.  The suit was a light grey herringbone.  Blue button-down shirt. Can’t remember the tie.  Felt even smaller.  Why didn’t he ever say he loved me, whether he meant it or not? 


He was never home except to eat and yell.  Six days a week, for 18 hours day at the butcher store he owned with his uncle and brother that eventually went bankrupt: hands raw, cheeks and sides of his mouth strained from smiling at customers he hated, the smell of refrigerated raw pork and beef coming out of every pore, and all he wanted was to shower and lie down forever.  My mother would list my daily transgressions, guaranteeing that I was the reason he never wanted to come home. 


He came to a Little League game only once.  Robbie Alston pitching, a 10-year-old phenom.  Bases loaded bottom of the ninth.  I strike out on 3 pitches.  In front of him. He waves his hand at me in disgust.  I walked home, my eyes to the sky, imagining what it would be like to ride a cloud. 


Summer in NYC.  Living in apartment across from a drug rehab center.  Windows open, mine and the center’s.  Shrieks of pain and solitude crossing the street even without two cans and stretched string.  My home after a brief stay at law school in Wyoming.  Driving a cab. Writing awful jokes to be performed at 2 AM to the backs of a half a dozen bar flies.  “I’m so fat that . . .” Holes in my Frye boots.  My father and I met at the Bickfords on the corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street, just around the corner from my 300 square foot apartment with the cedar closet and the constant smell of curry and cumin.  Got to order a real meal instead of my dinner of cole slaw, an English muffin and coffee.  Needed a loan.  He refused.  Didn’t agree with what I was doing with my life.  Last time I really cared.  Last time I hoped that we could be different. Last time I would feel abandoned by him. Last time.  


Eternity.  My father loved me, kind of respected me and in the end had to depend upon me.  But like me?  I don’t think that ever happened. Before dementia became his only persona, we connected but just about the industry that eventually provided him a comfortable pension and me a career of inauthenticity and charming executive mediocrity.  Conversations about my personal life were nothing more than executive summaries of how me and my family were doing, was the dog still alive, when are you coming home to visit.  


I delivered a brief, appropriate and meaningless eulogy at his memorial service attended by presumed friends, far fewer business acquaintances than he would have imagined, hoped for, wanted, what was left of the family who cared and were also competent and healthy enough to make the traffic jam and pot hole riven trek to Brooklyn, and the funeral home staff who joined the rest of the congregants hoping to get out within an hour. 


The railroad tracks were 200 feet from the back door of the first house in Cedar Rapids.  The dishes rattled; the kitchen table moved slightly; I was frightened every day at 9 in the morning; 2:05 in the afternoon; and sometimes at 4:30 at night.  I didn’t care.  Every Sunday morning, my father let me sit on his lap and read the newspaper comic strips to me.  Just me. 


Jess Nadelman is a contributing writer to Lightwood magazine. He lives in Colorado. See his other pieces here by clicking his name on our Search Button


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