“That’s my principle, too,” said my uncle. “Let him learn to box his corner. That’s what I’m always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that’s what stands to me now. Education is all very fine and large. . . . Mr. Cotter might take a pick of that steak,” he added to my aunt.
I looked up with a wan closed-mouth grin, cheeks-furrowing outward, eyes raised like arch-windows. An old church pew had been repurposed as a bank for one side of the dining room table. And it was there, my back against the wall and my plate on the plastic blue-and-white checkerboard table cloth atop the long wooden rectangle table, that I, trapped between wall and table, took every meal that summer.
“You’ll be wanting a bit of potato with your steak, Mr. Cotter?” My aunt was swinging open the fridge door, leaning forward over her patchwork apron.
Mr. Cotter, unrightful head of the table at every repast, leaned back a measure in the sturdy old wooden chair with the wide arms and convex back. “Well, then, if there’s a bit of steak and potatoes left, well I guess if no one minds an old man’s strange breakfast habits. Never was one for cereal.”
Insufferable old goat! To every day steal at breakfast all the best leftovers! When no one else even had the stomach to desire the goods, let alone argue for their rights! And using — and this though he was not yet quite 50 — that same ridiculous excuse every day without fail round about 7:30 AM. And this though breakfast was generally either a delicious pudding-like porridge with fruit and nuts or hearty eggs and home fries with avocado and cooked tomato, and almost never cold cereal with milk. “Well I guess if no one minds an old man’s strange breakfast habits. Never was one for cereal” !!
You could tell by the pout in his lips, tilt of his head and scratch at his beard, by the leanback with arms hanging orangutang-like over the wooden chair arms, by the indulgent, back-throated, roundly rolling pronouncement rehearsed every morning and fit for the two-bit melodrama stage: you could tell he was proud here too! Here once again pridefully crowing over some bit of half-assed inanity. Just like how he read only books written before the beginning of the last century. Just like how he “economized time and money” by always wearing the same outfit (white dress shirt, tan slacks). Just like how he daily praised Bach to the disadvantage of Beethoven or Mozart — regardless of how improbably it fit into any of that day’s conversations. Just like how he had been “unlucky in love, but lucky in my pipe” out there stinking up the back porch with his billowing carcinogens. Proud! Proud of little peculiarities adopted in no small part simply because they seemed to him somehow extraordinary proofs of his own specialness.
To the outside observer, perhaps, he seemed a kind of sad character. Old and defeated before his time. Broken by whatever it was that he couldn’t quite manage. Pretending his idiosyncrasies were the ingredients of a profound genius, rather than self-imposed cliches he hid in while his few relatively good years floated past, floated with the seagulls on the salty billows that gusted along the half-mile-wide estuary behind the house. At least partially a victim of his own emotional dressings: keeping himself a sad-case with the warmth of his own delusions, which he preferred to real life. Doubtless another little human tragedy crushed beneath the cruelly clattering wheels of Fate. But I was fifteen and outraged — both with real anger and in the pride one finds in scorning and despising another.
– – – – –
“And then his life was, you might say, crossed.”
I heard my aunt say to my mother as I trundled down the gray-carpeted steps.
Thirty, and fresh from the seminary, ready after those “exploring years” — a phrase that always sounded so ironic when my parents, who could not help but tuck their chins and otherwise frog-face while ribbitting it — to take up the family business. Well, kind of. There was to be one more adventure. An intermediary step. And as my aunt and uncle lived reasonably close to the airport, and as we were about due for a visit anyway — well, here we were!
My uncle stood tall and slender at the sink, doing the dishes in the slanted evening light. My aunt and mother leaned towards their teacups at the dining table at one end of the long rectangular living room and adjacent the long rectangular kitchen. That heavy-oak long rectangular table was the link between kitchen and living room. Where food and community met. A perfect sort of place. Snuggly from every angle, as coziness flowed in from all sides. Even out yon wide windows overlooking the small sailboats bobbing in fading sunlight; even from that direction came a gentle depiction of homey Americana (well, New-England-Americana, anyway). My father, though nearly 60, had chosen to spend the last of the daylight skimming rocks along the river at medium-tide. He’d invited me to come along, but I’d demurred with a comment about needing to organize for the trip.
“Yes,” said my mother. “He was a disappointed man. You could see that.”
I felt a strange, unchristian, lump of animosity welling in my throat. To let that feckless old humbug off with such soft talk! My mother noticed my eyes grow large and my head snap in and back. “Is something the matter?”
I didn’t want to tell her about how I’d been shocked to discover myself overwhelmed in this sad moment by a boyhood animosity, especially one that I’d knowingly stoked out of boredom spite and pride, and which I’d subsequently, if not quite repented of, heartily shook my head and went “sheesh! of all the silly jerky behavior!” over.
“Oh, just. I’d not realized. So he’s passed then? Cotter?”
“Yes. Didn’t you hear my father and I talking about it on the way up?”
“Yeah, um, I was lost in the, um …”
“Quite an adventure you’re going on, Timothy!”, broke in my aunt.
My mother eyed me from across her tilting teacup, took a sip, returned cup to saucer, and, both hands cupped around her ancient ritual, gave me a tired, thin-lipped smile, “You ready to go?”
I came and sat down at the chair that Cotter had stolen every day of that summer now long gone when my aunt and uncle had been so kind as to take me in while my parents worked abroad and I studied for the entrance exams of a big-deal high school. I’d been set on transferring. I had in fact transferred. I’d always kind of regretted transferring, blaming it on my loss of childhood friends and blaming that on some cool, ethereal, distant unhappiness that I’d noticed lacing my bones and which I felt somehow kept me locked inside myself. But that was all crazy talk. Not completely. But largely. Oh, who can say? And what difference does it make now? Things have turned out well enough.
“Yup. All set!”
My aunt smiled her full cheeks at my mother, and with face down and eyes up, “He’ll have to take some oatmeal cookies for the plane ride.” And then turning her neck to face me, eagerly, her straight shoulder-length grey hair flopping a little up and down with the sharpness of her movements, “Timothy! You’re not too health-conscious for a few oatmeal cookies, are you?”
“I’ll never turn down your oatmeal cookies!” I said, glad at how honest it made me feel. There was at least one salt-of-the-earth, hearty, family-friendly enthusiasm that I could still voice without irony! Now, of course, I shake my head at this Cotter-like self-deification of my own failings. But, well, that was me at 30, I dunno.
The next morning we had a fine breakfast of spinach and Gouda omelets with sweet potato home fries. Though it was a Saturday, my aunt and uncle were dressed for church. My uncle had to perform Cotter’s funeral.
My father could not stop speculating about the ideal route. He consulted various traffic apps. He considered the day of the week, the time of year. He wondered aloud and then into his phone about the possibility of some event or events that my aunt and uncle, being rather “out of the loop — well all non-ecclesiastical loops” might not have heard of. He recounted driving surprises from the last few decades of his life: those occasions when one begins the day confident one’s chosen the best possible path, but is proven terribly wrong by the day’s evolution. He agreed to a bit more eggs and sweet potato but said he’d had enough coffee. He stood abruptly up to go look at a large sail boat heading towards the drawbridge. “If they lift the bridge now, we should wait for it to close and then head out.” He also liked watching the bridge go up and down and relating the inner workings of the machinery — like one might translate a song for someone who didn’t speak that song’s language (even perhaps without being bidden to; even perhaps if it meant trampling over the conversation that person was clearly trying to establish).
My uncle quietly took my father by the arm and asked him to come outside so he could better see the bridge as my father explained the gears. My aunt and mother exchanged bright, eye- and cheek-popping smiles — the kind where hilarity holds itself in check because bursting out laughing would be a little mean.
“Timothy! You excited for this trip!?! I’m so excited for you! I think it’s gonna be big! I think there’s something there for you to discover. That’s what — I was telling this to your mother — I’ve got a sense — a real sense about this!”
I smiled, sipped the tea, thought with strangely heavy heart of Cotter, his orangutan-recline, all the left-overs he must’ve stolen over all the years — his selfish reign finally brought to an end.
Author: CG Triolog