My Uncle Arthur went to the Second World War with two different colored eyes, which everyone said was caused by the scarlet fever. He was also a little hard of hearing. The regular military wouldn’t have him, but the Seabees took him. They cleared land and built camps for the Navy and I guess it didn’t matter if someone couldn’t hear well or saw things differently. Uncle Arthur was a cook and won the prize for the best hooch in the camp, three years running. My grandmother was inordinately proud of her son’s award. She hung it next to Arthur’s picture above the mantel. But then, she spoke hardly any English, so having the best hooch might have seemed a great honor. All of this was told to me by my mother, Marie, who loved and resented Arthur in equal measure.
“I remember when Arthur was born,” my mother told me, “your grandpa handed out silver dollars. It was during the Depression and we hardly had anything to eat. Somewhere, though, he found silver dollars and whiskey to celebrate the birth of his son. But it was me who looked out for Arthur. I taught him how to smoke and fight and where to hide when your grandpa came home loaded.”
The last time I saw Arthur was at my mother’s funeral when I was twenty-eight. He and I were the only two people there. Finding the right burial place had been a slow and melancholy process. I had bypassed the suburban cemeteries, with their row on row of flat memorial slabs, spindly adolescent trees, and the haze of grease from the surrounding fast food restaurants. Instead, I had chosen an older graveyard, in one of the many Eastern European neighborhoods that were scattered throughout Cleveland. The tombstones here were tall and randomly placed, some leaning companionably toward one another, as if sharing old stories about the people they stood for. The trees were ancient, firmly rooted with broad arcing crowns. The cemetery backed onto an alley lined with neat little bungalows, and it was there that I found a place under a birch tree. I imagined my mother as an inquisitive ghost, peeking into those bungalow windows at the dinner hour. This was a place for old souls, which I knew her to be.
It was a changeling April day when we buried my mother. Budding trees dripped, and the grass and tombstones were wet from a recent shower. Clouds and sun elbowed one another to be the backdrop for her funeral. A priest who didn’t know her very well said a few neutral words. I was cried dry, but Uncle Arthur wept openly and inconsolably. He was a big, awkward man, his hands and wrists hanging from the sleeves of his ill-fitting jacket. “Aw Sis,” I heard him say. “Aw Sis.”
In the ways that really counted, life had always been about my mom and me. My father had disappeared early on. I had no brothers or sisters. My grandmother was dedicated to being disappointed and had little capacity for love beyond Arthur. There were really just the two of us. “Two for the road,” my mom used to say. “The two amigos.” Knowing this about my mother and me was my true north.
But the day of her funeral, standing beside my weeping uncle, I finally understood that there had always been three of us. Sure, “two for the road” meant the road we were on—my mom and I. Yet the day she was buried, I saw that there was another road, one that adjoined ours, an older road where my uncle stood in the shadows, expecting the love and constancy that had always come his way, and that she was willing to give him.
Most of my memories of Arthur were shaped by my mother. For a short time, we lived in the same house with my grandmother, Arthur, his wife and their two kids. I was a young child then, during the early 1950s. We were a crowd in those small spaces, but it was after the war when housing was scarce and families were accustomed to tumbling through each other’s lives.
Arthur was a tall, shambling guy who didn’t have much to say. He was thin, his Levis clinging to the boney ridges of his hips. He often seemed to be squinting, as if trying to picture some distant place. I remember him as somehow fixed, always standing or sitting in one place, hands folded, ruminating. Much as I think my mother cared about him, she was irritated by his inaction.
“Arthur,” my mother would say, “why don’t you read a book or go to a movie? Do something. You’re always moping around.”
“Aw Sis, leave me alone. I’m all right.”
It was complicated. Part of her was devoted to him. She had been his defender in a world where boys like him needed the protection of someone savvy, nervy, brash. It would have been better if he’d had an older brother to do this work. But he had my mother, and she was his willing, eager champion. As a child, she stood up for him against the bullies in the neighborhood. As an adult, she took his part in arguments with his bosses and eventually his wives. In retrospect, she probably went where she shouldn’t have gone in his life. But she wouldn’t have seen it that way.
The counterweight to her devotion was a deep anger. She was the smart one. She was the hard worker. She was canny and shrewd, the person the immigrants in the family called on to unravel the tangled bureaucracies that were part of living in this country. She was the constant, the faithful child. She looked out for their mother, my grandmother, and every Sunday she visited Sunny Acres, the tuberculosis sanatorium where my grandfather was slowly dying. Her constancy, however, earned her nothing. Her parents cherished Arthur, craved him. He wasn’t smart, he paid little attention, he didn’t take care of things. Yet without trying or caring, he was prized. He was their son.
“You know,” my mother said to me later in life, “this is why women must have gone into convents, to make their brothers do some of the family’s work.”
Where I was concerned, Arthur was always kind in an absent-minded way. I don’t think I held much substance for him. I was just Marie’s kid. Every Christmas, he would buy me the same teddy bear: large, unwieldy, unwrapped, the price tag still hanging from its paw.
During this time in my childhood, we lived on Lisbon Road in Cleveland. When I was a little older, I was surprised to learn that Lisbon was an exotic city in some faraway place. It amazed me that another country would name a city after our little street. We were settled with my grandmother on the first floor of the faded green frame house that she owned. Upstairs, there was a small apartment where Arthur, still unmarried, lived. Across the street was a steep embankment leading down to railroad tracks. On one corner was a factory that made cement vaults for coffins. At that end of the street was a bank of sheds. Once, my mother warned me, something bad happened to a little girl in those sheds, so I was forbidden to go near there, and I never did.
On the other end of Lisbon was John’s Garage, a rambling repair shop that threw off gas fumes and the sparking noise of blow torches. The only people I ever saw at the garage were rangy men in greasy blue uniforms, orange rags in their back pockets and single-syllable names stitched on the fronts of their shirts. They never spoke to me or my mom when we went by. They just watched.
John’s Garage had a guard dog who was always tethered to a cinder block by a long rope. No one knew if he had a name. When anyone passed by, he leapt, barking, straining at his leash, his eyes wild. You could see his teeth and a ropey drool that blackened his chin.
“Shadduup,” someone would yell from the back of the garage, and the dog would silently crouch, watchful.
At one end of Lisbon Road were the forbidden sheds. At the other end, the German shepherd. These places formed the dark parentheses of my world. Within, there was safety.
The highlight of my week happened every Friday evening. My mother and I had a tradition—I was her Friday night date and it was always the same. We went to the big library downtown and got armloads of books to read during the week. We would browse the shelves together and she would make up silly stories that she thought fit the titles. Afterwards, we went out for a grown-up supper—just us girls, just the two of us.
One Friday before we headed out together, she disappeared into her room and returned with a large box. Inside, wrapped in tissue, was a book bag.
On the front was Howdy Doody’s face, complete with his freckles, gappy grin, big lopey ears, and rakish cowboy scarf. Howdy wasn’t handsome and he was a puppet and not a real boy, but he was my heart throb.
“Did you know,” my mother said, “that Howdy has forty-eight freckles, one for each of the United States? Which one do you think is Ohio?”
I pointed at random to one of the orange dots. I didn’t care which dot was Ohio, I was too amazed by how my mother had so perfectly known the very thing I had been wishing for and had given it to me.
After the library and dinner, we always took a taxicab home—one of our few extravagances. “We’re living large now, cupcake,” my mother would say to me in the cab. Then she’d pull her pocket mirror from her purse, check her teeth for lipstick, and fluff out her hair. My mother had dark red hair and it was her one vanity. When she’d had a few beers, she’d talk about the sign she once saw on a truck: I honk at brunettes, stop for blondes, and back up for red heads.
“Did that truck really back up for you Mom?”
“Sure, what do you think?”
Even though the fashion at the time was boyishly short hair, she kept hers long. I remember seeing her in the oncoming lights as the taxi drove up Euclid Avenue. She would run her fingers through her curls, coil them up on the top of her head and hold them there, her arm raised in an elegant affectation from some other time. She was tall, like Arthur, and thin. I remember her wrists, the knobs of them, her watch dangling as she held her pocket mirror.
Mostly, these were our Friday nights together. But sometimes, as I waited for her in the kitchen with my pile of books, the books that I had read and re-read during the week now secure in my Howdy Doody bag, my bangs held neatly in place with spit and my face scrubbed and radiant, she would say, “Honey, I need to go out with your Uncle Arthur tonight. We have a few world problems to solve.” And then she’d be gone. Just like that.
During the summer I was five, Arthur bought a used car. His buddy Louie Sidorowicz was going into the army and sold Arthur his ’49 Ford, a black and white convertible with pink fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror. On the night he brought the car home, my mom and I sat on the front porch watching him get ready for a date.
He was parked in the driveway with the top down, the radio playing. Next to him on the front seat was Brownie, a small dog of indeterminate breed. On this evening and many others during that long summer, Brownie sat in the car, upright with impeccable posture. Arthur loved that dog.
We watched as Arthur pulled down the visor, where he had attached a mirror, and examined himself, turning his head from side to side. Then he shaped his hair, a pompadour that was so well-oiled with Vitalis you could see the tracks of his comb. With a twist of his wrist, he created a forelock that hung over his eyebrow. It was the fastest thing I’d ever see him do, flick that forelock. He wore a white, white T-shirt, its brilliance ensured by my grandmother’s laundering. In his left sleeve, he’d rolled up a pack of Kools. Finally, as Brownie, my mother and I looked on, Arthur unwrapped a stick of Juicy Fruit and slowly chewed it.
“Arthur,” my mom said, nudging me, “you’ll never get a wife if you keep taking that goddamn dog on dates.”
Uncle Arthur nodded and smiled, stroked Brownie and said, “Okay, Sis.”
Later that year Arthur did marry someone who became my Aunt Betty. Eventually, they had two kids: Elizabeth and Joey. Elizabeth was a biter—she bit everyone, indiscriminately. Once, my mother bit her back. They talked about this at every Christmas dinner, how my mother bit Elizabeth on the arm to show her what it felt like.
After the wedding, Aunt Betty moved to the upstairs apartment where Arthur had been living alone. She was an interloper, that was clear. My grandmother would complain about her in broken English.
“Look at Arthur. He too skinny. She no cook. House dirty. She dumb Romanian.” And then my grandmother would make a spitting sound, “puh.” This was the period that always punctuated her description of someone as a “dumb Romanian.”
“Leave it alone, Ma,” my mother would say. “She’s okay. Anyway, what can anyone do about it? They’re married now.” Sometimes she would add, “And Ma, Betty’s not a Romanian. She’s a Slovak. Just so you know.” Not that it mattered.
Aunt Betty hated Brownie. She was happy to tell anyone who would listen about her trials with him. She was appalled that the dog slept with Arthur and her, that he sat in Arthur’s lap during dinner and was fed from his plate. Sometimes we’d hear shouting and crockery smashing upstairs.
“Get that goddamned dog out of here, Arthur,” she would holler. “I’m not cooking for a dog.”
“Food only good for dog,” my grandmother would observe.
So Brownie moved downstairs with us, where Arthur would secretly visit him and take him for rides in the Ford. Brownie acquired his own set of family legends. My grandmother claimed he could understand Hungarian. She would demonstrate this by telling him to sit and stay: “Ul szobor.” Once, Brownie ate the Easter ham. He was so sick that no one could get mad at him. The only time my grandmother got really angry at Brownie was when he followed her to church on a Sunday morning and stood at her pew, barking. He had underestimated how important dignity was to my grandmother, in the presence of God and the neighbors. She pretended not to know him until finally one of the ushers dragged him out by the collar.
My mother commented later, “Brownie must have thought there was food at that church, otherwise he would never have gone.”
Like other dogs in that time and place, Brownie had the run of the neighborhood. You could tell the strays from the pets because the strays didn’t have collars and tags. Only the German shepherd at John’s was tied up. Arthur reported that sometimes he would see the German shepherd late at night, loping down the middle of Lisbon Road, like a wolf, his rope dragging behind him. It occurs to me now that it was soon enough after the war that the dog’s nationality might have added to his menace, his reputation for ferocity.
The German shepherd became directly involved in our lives one day, and many things changed after that. He was the unexpected player that altered our little rhythms. It was fall. I had just started first grade.
On this particular morning, I was on my way to school, wearing a red corduroy jumper with little white buttons sewed on the yoke and a white, stiffly starched and meticulously ironed blouse. My grandmother used to walk me to school every day while my mother was at work. But for some reason, I was alone in front of John’s Garage that day. I sensed the German shepherd, off his rope, before I saw him. When I did see him, we were eye to eye. He had jumped up on me, his front paws on my shoulders. He was taller than I was. I could feel the heat of his breath and smell it, meaty and raw. I sensed his weight, pressing me down. He growled low, from some feral place and infused me with such terror that I was absolutely speechless. That’s what I remember most, the complete inability to make a sound, even the one that could save me.
A workman came out of the garage and pulled the dog off me by his rope. As he thrashed, angry at being dragged, one of the dog’s teeth caught my face, under the cheekbone, and tore it to my lip. For a moment I felt nothing—everything was curiously suspended. And then there was so much blood. Seeing the blood brought the pain, an insistent throbbing. My blouse, so dazzlingly white a moment before, was now splattered with vivid red blooms. I could taste the iron of it as it ran down my cheek to the corner of my mouth.
Then I peed. I peed through my day-of-the-week underpants and left a stream of incriminating yellow on the cracked sidewalk.
Another man, whom I believed to be John, ran out from the garage.
“Get that goddamn dog the hell out of here,” he said. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and held it to my face.
“Do you know where you live?”
I did: “2659 Lisbon Road, Cleveland 4, Ohio.” My mother had made me memorize these facts after the time I had gotten lost in the dime store. He took me by the hand and walked me to our house. No one was home and the door was locked, but I knew where the hidden key was, under the mat. He led me back to the kitchen, sat me on one of the wooden chairs by the table, rinsed his handkerchief in the sink and dabbed at my face.
Next, he pulled a worn brown wallet from his back pocket and handed me a crumpled dollar bill. “You’ll be okay,” he said. It was then that I realized I had left my Howdy Doody book bag on the street. My mother would be so angry, I thought. I started tell him, but he was gone, the door clicking behind him.
I sat at the kitchen table for what seemed like a very long time, one hand holding the bloodied handkerchief against my face, the other clutching the dollar bill. I didn’t cry, I just sat and counted the squares on the red and white checked oilcloth that covered the table.
When my grandmother came home, she was panicked to find me in this condition. Her little bit of English failed her and my polite Hungarian, consisting of please, thank you and Merry Christmas, wasn’t up to the task of explaining what had happened. Neither of us could conceive of how to call my mother at work. While my grandmother flew around the house, collecting iodine and bandages, muttering in Hungarian, I finally wept, fear and relief muddling my tears.
Later, when my mom got home and heard my story, she became brisk, efficient. First she called Doc Szabo. He came, examined me and said, “It’s a pretty deep cut. Luckily he missed the eye. Keep it clean so she doesn’t get infected. She won’t need stitches but she’ll probably be left with a slight scar.”
After he left, my mom gave me some aspirin and tucked me into bed, kissed my forehead and closed the bedroom door behind her.
Then I heard her raised voice. She sounded furious. It confused me. It seemed to me that I should be pitied, petted, praised for my heroism and given ice cream. Instead, I had been sent to bed and there was anger and shouting. It must have been, I mourned, because I had left my book bag behind.
After that, events seemed to telescope. Arthur and Betty were arguing much more. At least, that’s how I interpreted the yelling and breakage I heard from upstairs. One evening while we were eating supper we heard clattering on the stairs and Betty burst into the kitchen. Her lip was cut and bleeding.
“This is what your prince of a son did, you old cow,” she screamed at my grandmother. We all froze. Betty was weeping and trembling. My mother walked towards her, holding out a hand as if to calm her.
“Don’t you come near me, you bitch,” Betty said slapping my mother’s hand away. “You think Arthur is so perfect. That I’m not good enough for him. He can’t do anything wrong. Well, take a look at what he just did to me.”
And we did. We looked at Betty, standing at the kitchen door, her fingers touching her injured lip. Instinctively, I reached my hand to the scar that ran along my own face. It was so quiet, I remember, that you could hear the sink dripping, the faint clacking of a train across the street, the tick of the teakettle clock. Then Betty turned and left.
The thing that perplexed me most is why she would call my grandmother a cow—why that animal in particular, I wondered.
Later, my mother said with some amazement, “Boy oh boy, Betty must have really done something to get Arthur to smack her one. I never figured he had it in him.”
Not long after that, Uncle Arthur and Aunt Betty moved to somewhere else in the city. We only saw them on holidays when they were obliged to make an appearance. Even though it seemed that they had patched up their marriage, my grandmother still didn’t like Aunt Betty, which made those holiday dinners silent and tense. After they would leave, my grandmother would weep about the inconstancy of her only son, who had married an unworthy woman and left his mother alone to cope with a world she didn’t comprehend. She wept to my mother, who was there every day, taking care of things.
About that same time, the German shepherd disappeared and another smaller and noisier dog replaced him.
Eventually, my mother and I moved as well. We moved with the fierce joy of a young couple, setting up housekeeping.
I rarely saw Arthur after that. Sometimes he’d call and my mom would go meet him. Occasionally I’d hear them argue on the phone about how he couldn’t hold a job. Even though things weren’t always easy for us, I think she would send him money. I didn’t give him much thought, and I didn’t believe my mother did either. After all, she and I were the two halves of a whole.
Many years later, when my mother’s funeral brought my Uncle Arthur and me together again, I learned there was a postscript to the day I was scarred. Arthur had moved to Florida, where he had married for a second time. I was living in Chicago, where I had gone after college. I was about to be married myself. My mother had stayed in Cleveland, always intending to move to a warmer place but never packing a bag.
She had been sick for more than a year with a riddling cancer that she would dismiss with a toss of her head. She was almost bald from the chemo-therapy, but sick as she was, she still affected the red-haired pinup girl that could make a truck driver find reverse. I visited her every weekend during that year, driving the five hours from Chicago. We spent our time talking and looking at old photographs. If she felt well enough, we went out to dinner and drank red wine— “living large.” She liked to reminisce about her early life. How she had won the Lowell School spelling bee with the word “disconsolate.” How during the Depression, her parents sent her to New York to live with an aunt, and how she ran away and came back home, even though they didn’t want her there. How in high school she usually did Arthur’s homework so he’d have some hope of graduating. When she recounted her memories, they somehow ended there, in high school, as if nothing important had happened in her life after that.
Following the funeral, Arthur and I sat around my mother’s apartment, among the odds and ends of her life, and remembered the old times. We drank 7 and 7s, the adult’s cocktail of choice during my childhood. He told me again about how Marie had fought his battles, how she was always the tough one. He talked about my grandmother, who was now senseless with dementia and living with Arthur and his new wife, unaware that, finally, she was with her son every day. Arthur railed against the Russians who had destroyed Hungary and all of Eastern Europe, but mostly Hungary. He had never been there, but it was his birthright and it had been forever ruined for him. We laughed about Brownie, that almost invincible dog who ate the Easter ham, went to Sunday Mass, and was Arthur’s loyal companion on so many bad dates.
Arthur shook his head. “Brownie,” he sighed. “I sure loved that dog.” Then he went on, “You remember the day that German shepherd jumped you?”
“Sure. I was terrified.” I hesitated, not sure I wanted to admit to this weakness. “Since then, I’ve always been afraid of big dogs.”
Arthur was quiet for awhile, looking at his hands. They were large, working-man hands. The fingers blunt, a trace of dirt around the nails.
“I was supposed to take you to school that day,” Arthur said. “Marie asked me to. Your grandma had to go to the doctor. I told Marie I would walk you. I was out of a job then. They had fired me from the mills. I don’t know, things were confusing. Betty was yelling at me because I was supposed to drive her somewhere and I had forgotten. Betty always hated when I did anything for Marie. She always thought Ma and Sis were against her.” He took a breath, a long sip of the 7 and 7 and looked out the window, as if picturing that morning.
“I went downstairs and you were all dressed up for school, waiting on the porch. I remember you had that Howdy Doody book bag and those goofy braids that were always coming undone. You were such a serious kid. A real bookworm. Anyway, I said, ‘You’re a big girl. Do you think you could walk to school alone today?’ Don’t you remember this?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” he said, “you just nodded yes and went. It wasn’t so far to school, just few blocks. How old were you, anyway? Nine? Ten?”
“No. I was only six. It was first grade. I had just started going to school for a full day. That’s how I remember.” I paused, touched my face. “There was yelling that night, after it happened. I remember that, too.”
Again, he was silent. I looked at Arthur and tried to see the genetic link between him and my mother, the point where their two circles overlapped and shared a common space. But it wasn’t there. He was so slow and plodding and my mother, before she became sick, had rung with energy and impatience. She must always have been ahead of him, looking back.
“I remember,” he said. “All that yelling was at me. She was mad at me. It’s the maddest I’ve ever seen Marie, and it was at me. She said it was my fault that you were attacked by the dog. She threw a hairbrush at me and, I think, the coffee pot. She called me stupid and lazy, irresponsible. Betty got into it too, and Grandma. But what I remember is Marie. Boy, she was something, she was a pistol. I don’t think she talked to me again for months. Maybe it was less, but it seemed that long. At least months.”
He poured another drink. I turned on the lamps. Evening had come, closing the day I buried my mother. We sat in her living room, each of us in our own pool of light. It was April. The windows were open and you could sense the rain from earlier in the day, the coolness and the promise of green.
If she had been alive, there would have been food. But there wasn’t.
Arthur said, “You know, I killed that German shepherd. One night, a few weeks after he jumped you, I went to the garage and I put my hands around his throat and choked him. He was still tied to his rope. He was dead and I left him there tied to his rope.”
I stared at him for a moment trying to absorb what he had just told me. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone, but particularly Arthur, could commit such a brutal act—and against a dog. Arthur had always seemed so passive. Wouldn’t the dog have fought back, struggled? Where within himself could Arthur have discovered the will, the sheer physical force to choke such a large animal to death?
“But why would you do that—kill the German shepherd?”
“Because of you. And because of Marie. I didn’t know how to make it up to her, so I killed the dog.”
I never saw my uncle again after that day. I tried to contact him, but for reasons only he knew, he didn’t respond.
Before her death, my mother left a note for me in an envelope on the kitchen table, next to some dollar bills. The beginning gave a few instructions: the cash was for the paper boy, St. Vincent DePaul was to take her furniture and clothes. She described an insurance policy from the union that would pay for her funeral, with probably a little left over.
Then it went on: “Give Arthur my car. I don’t think he’s doing so good and he could use it. I know he’s in Florida and far away from you, but try to keep up with him and make sure he’s okay. He usually needs a little help. You were always a good girl. Love, Mom.”
That was it, and it was so little. Our entire lives together in five sentences: four for Arthur and one for me.
In the months after my mother died, I would parse her final message. Each time I opened the envelope, her handwriting—the familiarity of it—would overcome me. The curve of her letters, the graceful joining of vowel to consonant contained her essence and made my heart fly, as if she might be in the next room.
I would deconstruct those few sentences in search of some buried meaning that would speak to the completeness of the two of us or would provide an important lesson to help me go forward. It came to me one day that there was a message not in the words themselves, but in the allocation of them—how, on balance, she had given me less than she had Arthur. I realized that, in her way, my mother was telling me that though she loved me, I couldn’t have the whole of her heart. That, in fact, no one can claim the whole of another’s heart. Maybe she had tried to tell me this all along. But just then, I knew it to be true.