Songbird At the Close of Day
By Francisco F. Amanti
He was a barrel chested man with the strength of an elephant. Like most children, I suppose, I was both bewitched and terrified of my father. Children and the aged are allowed these simple incongruences of the mind. It’s expected. Call it one of the unspoken enchantments of time, both little and much of it. Adults aren’t allowed to be capricious. The very young don’t know better; and the very old… well, I suppose we no longer much care.
He was a raging alcoholic, my father. Drank bourbon in the morning while he worked, and then in the evening, vermouth - sweet. It helped him sleep.
“This is what you’re reading,” he had asked one evening. He summoned the book from me, and I obligingly gave it to his hands.
“It’s what Miss Turner has the class reading. All of us.”
He smiled. He flipped through the book, looked it this way and that, and then put it down and picked up a tumbler with ice.
“You don’t like it?”
“No, it’s…” he sucked an ice cube from the glass and chewed it loudly with his teeth. “It’s fine.”
Which of course, meant it wasn’t fine at all. That’s how it went with my father. That’s how it always went. You didn’t talk to him, he talked to you. He was the wisdom from on high, the guru upon the mount, the enlightened, the all-seeing maharishi who dispensed wisdom with the stroke of a pen and the clack of a typewriter. I and everyone else, Miss Turner included, were just mere recipients of it. Supplicants. It was our lot in life to climb Kilimanjaro and grovel for scraps of divinity. It was his to speak the word of God. To not accept this was a sacrilege.
“I think it’s a fine book,” I said, pulling it from the arm of his chair. I made sure to put it behind me, out of his reach.
“Is that so?” His eyes twinkled at my audacity. His nostrils flared and closed with the breath he was consuming. His very stare could melt steel. At times it seemed like even the oxygen was his. “And where, young lady, is your Pulitzer?”
My jaw slackened, the air in my lungs escaped me until I was deflated. I’ve never held a Pulitzer. Or an Booker. Or a Newberry. I’ve never gotten any awards. He had received his Pulitzer at twenty three. That hateful coin was framed in our hallway.
As a very young child I was never allowed into his writing room. It wasn’t until after my ninth birthday that he walked up to me in the early hours of the morning and said, “Well? You coming or not?”
Why had he waited until then? To this day, I don’t know what the change was. Perhaps he wanted company. Perhaps he was miserable in his loneliness, as I have come to believe, and I was, as a child, at least some semblance of companionship. Or, perhaps I had reached some unspoken milestone in my life, where he believed it was time to tutor me in the arts, beyond what I learned in my classrooms. Whatever the reason, when I say that I was astonished when he took my hand and led me up the stairs to his study, it’s not an understatement. I was struck dumb.
He never told me why he took me there that day, and I never asked. But, I can remember it now as if it were still happening before my eyes, though since that day I have seen the better of eighty years.
He led me up the stairs, the floor boards creaking slightly as our combined weight intruded upon their wooden slumber. The morning’s chill was just starting to be beaten back by the sun, which had only just begun its ecliptic climb above the horizon. I could tell that in a few hours whatever cool crispness remained would be replaced by the humid heat of the tropics. When we got to the top of the stairs, he proceeded to make his way to a cabinet standing against the wall.
“Elizabeth, open the windows.”
I did as I was told.
And then it was as if I wasn’t even there. He walked behind a monstrosity of a desk, a sheer Gibraltar’s rock of mahogany and polish. He kicked off his shoes and stood barefoot before the monolithic slab, a fresh glass of amber whiskey in his right hand.
He put the glass down and after sliding a pair of silver glasses upon the crook of his nose, proceeded to type.
I remember being under his desk as he wrote, the typewriter banging and shaking the desk’s thick wood, as if the harder he pounded the keys, the more forceful his words would be on paper. For a while I thought I was in the midst of a storm, and the thunder and lightning he was producing as he typed would reach through my wooden fortress and strike me dead. My father didn’t simply type upon his typewriter. He beat it into submission. He pummeled his words upon paper. How the machine survived his abuse is one of the great mysteries of the universe. Twelve novels he pounded through that mechanical animal. When he died, the green Royal was my inheritance. It was all he left me. And when I got it, it still worked perfectly.
“Words have a flavor,” he would say to me when he stopped writing long enough to refill his bourbon. “You can taste them. Do not be lazy with how you speak.” His voice had the bite of charred oak. When he wasn’t looking, when he was once more absorbed in his work, I stuck my finger in his glass.
When I sucked that amber droplet, my mouth caught fire.
By noon I was bored and amused myself the way a child does, by singing.
“Elizabeth please, you twitter like a baby bird.”
I’d pull the hairs on his legs and get a sharp kick from his bare foot in return. Then he’d stand, straight as a rod, pull a page from the platen and read as the ice in his whiskey watered it down in the heat. He took no lunch.
If you had asked me then, I would have told you I was happy. Now, looking back, I’d say I was only innocent. To the outside world, father looked it too - happy if not exactly innocent, smiling for whatever photographers happened to stop by and marvel at him more than his writing. Esquire. Time. Colliers. Life. He was a charming man. Until the writers and the cameras left, and then he wasn’t. Then, I’d hear my mother yell and the open curtains of the house would flutter with her words. I ran upstairs and broke into my father’s study. Under that mahogany desk I sat and rocked, with the animal heads my father had collected in lands God Himself had renounced staring down at me from their mounts on the walls in mute disappointment at my cowardice. At least they died with honor. I just sat under the desk with my knees in my chest.
“You’re a whore,” my father yelled. A slap followed, which I could hear even though my parents were downstairs. The night has a way of carrying voices. It’s why I have always been scared of it. In the absence of light, their whispered furies would ebb and flow, like the manic rustling of leaves upon a storm.
“What did you say? Don’t you walk away from me. Say it again.”
Heat lightning flashed through the windows of my father’s study and played among the fangs and tusks on the wall; their shadows grotesque, monstrous on the pale plaster.
“I said I wouldn’t be with him if you were more of a man.”
Another slap, this one louder.
For a girl of nine, well, what was I supposed to do? I drew pictures on the bottom of my father’s desk in ink. I didn’t know any better. In later years I’d stand between them, arms outstretched, and take my mother’s punishment.
Time changes you.
I must have fallen asleep sometime in the middle of the night. When I did awake, I saw his bare feet standing on the rug. I could hear him pounding on the Royal, bleeding on paper.
Over the course of the latter years of my youth, I was invited more and more into his inner sanctum. Most of the time for my chastisement.
“You write like a pig,” he said, “you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Don’t be a smartass.”
He didn’t look up at all. Instead, he held a pen in the thick fingers of his right hand.
“If you are going to have the pretense of being a writer, Elizabeth, at least try to pretend like you care about what you are doing.” His fingers were scarred like those of a workman’s. Every so often, more often than not, he’d furrow his brow and I could hear the pen scratch my paper. He’d leave angry lines and even angrier remarks.
“Don’t try so hard.”
“Jesus Christ, at least put in some effort.”
“Don’t write emotional.”
“Make me cry for fuck’s sake, this story is about someone dying isn’t it?”
The one thing I learned from my father is I am a miserable writer.
“Did I ever tell you about Faulkner?” We were at dinner. He was picking with his fingers at the carcass of a chicken.
“Malcom, please,” my mother whispered.
“William,” he sniffed, and leaned back into his chair, “William was a genius.” My father licked his fingers clean. “Really was. He was a postman. Did you know that? Well, he was. Terrible. Terrible postman. Got fired from it. Never bothered delivering the mail. I tried asking him about it. He told me to bugger off.” My father laughed that belly laugh of his. It was infectious in a crowd. Mother and I both smiled, our lips somewhat crooked. We watched as he tipped his glass up and the vermouth slid down his throat. “Know what he said?” He stared at me.
“No. I don’t”
My father waggled a finger at me. “He said, ‘Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.’”
My father got his Nobel when he was forty two. When I was forty two, I got a divorce.
When I came home, my Mother was cutting celery with a knife my father bought in Germany. Only the best you know. Nazi steel.
“He told me he didn’t love me,” I said.
My mother said nothing. I could hear the blade make swishing noises as it parsed the celery into little crescent-moons of fibrous green.
Swish swish swish.
The coffee my mother made me was black, and the fog of its steam rose up out of the mug I held in my hands and collected in my eyes. There it condensed and fell like so much rain upon the slate of my mother’s kitchen floor.
“Oh, honey.” My mother handed me a kitchen towel. “Don’t cry my little songbird. Wipe your eyes.”
“He told me that when we were standing at the altar and we got to the part about ‘to love and to cherish,’ he was lying.”
Swish swish swish.
“I told him he was unoriginal, and if he was going to plagiarize, he should at least have the human decency to plagiarize someone whose words were worth stealing.”
“That sounds like your father.”
Swish swish swish.
My mother stopped cutting, Solingen steel in her right hand; left hand in a fist, squeezed white, with a trickle of red crawling its way along the board to the pile of celery.
That night I stayed in my old bedroom. My parents had furnished it with light airy furniture. It was the color of maple, or bamboo, a gentle honeyed amber with fabrics of white and periwinkle. The night was hot and stifling, sweaty and oppressive, the way it always is in our house in the midst of summer. Before I went to sleep, I folded the comforter and placed it on a chair. I opened the window above my old bed.
At some point in the night, my father came in to my room. I don’t know what time it was, but the ragged fingernail that was the moon had long since left the sky. In its place, twinkling stars now populated the velvet blackness enveloping our house. The air inside my room was warm and still, though from the window came a gentle cascade of night jasmine that perfumed my pillow. I didn’t turn and see that it was my father. There was no need to. He always had a presence about him. Even in the dark.
He was near my face, kneeling by my bed, and though he wasn’t touching me I could almost feel his whiskers against my cheeks. His breath smelled like the bottles of Cinzano in his study. As a teenager, I loved those long, thin bottles with their ethereal glow. When he wasn’t around, I’d sneak in and take them. He would have whipped me if he had known.
His clothes rustled - a soft caress of linen upon his skin, the creak of leather from his belt. I lay there, eyes closed, not saying a word. It’s hard for me to explain what I felt at the time. Part of me wanted to reach out and touch his face, to see if he was still real. Part of me wanted to simply turn away. I suppose he felt the same. But forty two years of estrangement leaves its mark. Some rituals cannot be broken, even when they should be. In the end, neither one of us did anything. Soundlessly, wordlessly, my father placed his hands upon his knees and stood up before crossing the room.
In the darkness, he made his way to the door. There he stopped. I half expected him to speak. To say something profound, something esoteric and wise, the way he would if he were writing. But he said nothing.
When he opened the door, through slitted eyes I saw him silhouetted by the light of the hall. His features, once sharp and cutting, seemed suddenly aged and pale against the hallway light. The shadow he cast seemed unnaturally large for a man who seemed at that moment so thin and so small. I’d like to think that he smiled.
I never saw him again.
The newspaper said my father died of alcoholism. Cirrhosis of the liver. They wrote effusively of his life, the way they always had: About the house in Olathe, where he lived before I-35 linked it to Kansas City and turned it into just another crummy piece of suburbia. Our home in Miami where he wrote his novels. The Nobel. The Pulitzer. They effused about the power of his words, the hidden meanings of the things left unsaid between lines of prose. My mother got a line. His mistress got two. The way the news article was written, you would have thought my father died with his fingers still on the keys of his Royal. They even hinted at an unfinished masterpiece sitting beside him on his desk.
After I read the article, I cut it neatly from the paper with a little blade. The ink of the newspaper left black marks on my fingers as I folded the strip of news print and put it in an envelope. I didn’t bother washing my hands. It was a good article. He would have been proud. I know he would have. Because the novel that was sitting on his desk wasn’t his.
It was mine.
It was the only thing I kept in the divorce.
My father pulled a page from his Royal.
In his study, it was cool and bright, with the crisp air of October playing with the dust upon the windowsill. I sat by his feet and watched him as he worked. He read, bit a pencil, read some more. And then, after a while, he added the page to a stack on his desk. I looked up at him from beneath the edge of his desk. From my perspective, he looked enormous. His legs were tree trunks rooted in the very heart of the Earth itself. The leather of his belt pressed into the waist of a shirt that he wore half open. He had a shark’s tooth he hung from a hide cord around his neck. It lay framed within the gentle space of his collarbone, at rest above his very soul.
He bent down and looked at me. He was smiling. I crawled out from where I was, and stood next to his chair. He pulled me up on his lap.
“Is it finished?” I asked and put a finger on his typewriter.
“Finished,” he said, and he reached for a thin bottle on his desk.
“It’s yours if you want it,” he said watching me press the round metal keys.
He swirled the vermouth, put his lips to it and let it play on his tongue. I heard it as it ran down his throat in a gulp.
“All of it.”
My father watched me with eyes clouded over with storm. He looked at me with a sadness I only understood once he was gone. “Yes,” he said, and passed his fingers through my hair.
In the gentle light of morning I was happy. The ream of paper by the Royal seemed so regal. It looked pure, white.
“All of it,” I whispered, touching that rectangular mass of paper on his desk.
My father picked up the bottle of Cinzano and poured another glass. “All of it,” he whispered.
From outside the window came a gentle breeze that played upon the hairs of my arms. The sound of a mockingbird was in the trees. And in the distance, my mother’s voice, talking softly to the man who came to our house to sell vegetables.