When I handed her the phone, Laura looked like I was taking her to the dentist. Her father was in town and threatened to come over. I had met the guy twice. The first time we stood on the lawn of Laura’s old place on Myrtledale, and he looked on me suspiciously, like he must have looked on all her boyfriends since she started bringing them home around the age of 16. He complained about his truck and the lack of rain on his pecan trees, and I told him that the publishing industry was going to the dogs. Nice conversation. Mutual incomprehension. Lasted about five minutes.
Next time I had the pleasure of Joe’s company was the day after Christmas. He called and said that he’d be over in two hours. We had just cleaned up after the Christmas dinner the night before. Laura’s mother, Laura’s two sons, and a couple of friends had come over to eat. We were still hung over, and there were a lot of dirty dishes. The timing wasn’t great. Two hours later, Joe showed up with his wife, Carolyn; Laura’s sister, Susan; Susan’s husband, Lloyd; and Susan’s daughter. Joe plunked himself down in an armchair in the front room and declared the excesses of Christmas bankrupt and insufficiently mindful of Christ. Carolyn, who agreed with everything her husband said, added that in their church people were against materialism and that godless TV was turned off during the holidays so people can have a nice, non-alcoholic dinner and praise the Lord. They lived in Jigger, a small town in northern Louisiana near the Mississippi border. They had moved there after Joe’s second triple-bypass surgery. He’d given up his wife, drink, cigarettes and the law and taken up Carolyn, Jesus and farming. He’d been a prosecutor in West Baton Rouge Parish and a ward heeler for Dixiecrats running for state offices. He gave up all that.
The Christmas visit wasn’t so bad because Joe was kind of hemmed in between Laura and Susan and couldn’t express himself very clearly. His daughters knew him too well and anticipated nearly every one of his yarns with a detouring quip. And then there was Carolyn. Once Carolyn’s shrill voice launched forth the battleship of a story, there was no stopping her. She churned the waves at top speed, and there was nothing anyone could do except get out of the way and let the parable subside. Her stories were all parables. One of her sons had bad grades for a year; then he found himself and did well. The moral of that was that everybody has their own timetable. That was a placating parable for liberals like me, offered in penance for one of Joe’s unfinished stories about educational problems among the darker-skinned folk. Joe’s story had been ruthlessly chopped to pieces by the whirring blades of Laura and Susan’s daddy-choppers, but Carolyn figured that enough of it had gotten out to offend the liberal establishment—me.
Joe had seen action in Japan and wasn’t going to buy anything Japanese if his life depended on it. “I’d rather shave with broken glass than the best Toyota shaver they got,” he announced. That was how far he got that time in the land of diversity. His daughters were quick to point out that you couldn’t tell the difference anymore between what the Japanese and the Americans made, because they were all mixed up together, from management to actual parts in cars and electronics. That nearly got him, because if there was anything he couldn’t abide, it was this mixing. He had views on that and on miscegenation, but they never saw the light of day. His girls saw to that.
After they left we felt a residual weirdness, like another kind of hangover. We tried to analyze it. He had gotten Laura all worked up, which was, she said,“ his specialty.” The former prosecutor had been a formidable dinner-table presence in her childhood. She had honed fearsome debating skills to resist the onslaught of her father’s provocations. He had used the family as practice for the court. They all felt like lawyers and criminals, always on the alert for another burst of eloquence, sure to be defeated but not allowed to give up before putting up a good fight. Laura’s mother had reacted by creating a passive aggressive resistance that was intricate, mute and so “feminine” the prosecutor couldn’t get in. It was like going into a women’s bathroom. He was a gentleman. He drew the line there. His daughters adopted different strategies. Susan also played the feminine card and wriggled and winked and brought up matters of esoteric hormonal import that were worse than trespassing into the ladies’ room. Joe flirted with her for self-preservation. Laura, on the other hand, met him head on, on his own turf. She countered and parried his arguments, got the better of him, didn’t quit until he admitted defeat, which he never did. Outside the home Joe played rough and dirty for his candidates. Laura went after him in the field. She played dirty. She seduced daddy’s law partner. She was only 15. When Joe found out, he was ready to shoot somebody, but who was he going to shoot? He made a lot of belligerent noises. Did he admit defeat? No. He had a heart attack instead. Left her mother. Took up Jesus. Well, not in that order, but this was the order that Laura saw at the time. No amount of grown-up reason could later dislodge it. She’d felt personally responsible for all the disasters subsequent to her victory, and it had put her in an untenable position. She learned that victory over daddy is a terrible thing but that daddies can be defeated using female wiles. Her insurgent sexuality was a match for any man’s posturing, including her invincible daddy’s. Is there a worse thing to learn in your adolescence? Of course the sonofabitch had invited it. He had challenged and challenged, prodded and poked until she had gotten her back up. Was he surprised? Of course. It had been only a game for him. He never expected to be taken seriously.
On the other hand, I’m a man. How am I supposed to take this? Here I am living with a woman who is both a skilled debater and a guilt-ridden daddy-killer. I say guilt-ridden because that is what I attribute her extreme sensitivity to. Laura under attack is a lot like an aroused lynx. She did in the king; who am I to oppose her? But her guilt is also her weakness. If she makes too bold a move, she throws herself, weeping, into my arms. I hold her there; then I seduce her. She gives all of herself. She never wanted anything else. She only wanted daddy to admit defeat and then hold her. I never admit defeat, but I hold her. I am a man, just like her daddy, but I cannot be killed because I am her lover, like her daddy’s enemy whom she seduced at 15. I am both daddy and anti-daddy. We get along just fine.
The third time Joe came to visit, he gave no more notice than he did before. But there was something different this time, and he made a mistake being casual. Laura and I had gotten married the month before. Joe knew, but he didn’t say a word. He didn’t call or write the whole month. And now he was coming over on two hours’ notice.
Carolyn was right behind him, chatty like a sparrow on a fencepost. Joe made a dash toward the commanding post of the first armchair, but I beat him to it. He had to sit next to his daughter on the couch. Carolyn took the other armchair. Between us was a table, on which sat a fine chess set with figures that looked sculpted by Brancusi, my co-national, who made ovoids. It was a birthday present from Laura. Carolyn showed off the carved ivory piece around her neck. She had matching earrings.
“An ivory orchid,” said Laura. “Isn’t ivory illegal?”
“It’s fossil ivory!” gloated Carolyn. “My friend found it in Canada and had the craftsman carve it into an orchid. It’s a birthday present from Joe.”
Laura pointed to the chess set. “That’s my birthday present to Andrei.”
“Do you play chess?” Joe asked, as if he was asking if I was homosexual.
“Yes,” I said. “The best chess players are in jail and in Eastern Europe.”
“Five-year-old Hungarian girls!” Laura said. “Masters.”
“The only thing I’d know to do with a chess set is take out my gun and shoot the queen,” said Joe.
“That wouldn’t be very useful,” I said.
Carolyn sensed danger. “Did you see it snowed in Shreveport at New Year’s? We were at the church playing dominoes after the New Year’s meal and heard the radio announce snow, so everybody went home. The kids were disappointed.”
“Our people,” Joe said, “the Scotch-Irish, Anglo-Saxon people…”
Laura was ready. Carolyn was ready. I was waiting.
“Our people,” Joe said, enjoying the suspense, “have a whiskey problem, so the preachers and the bootleggers got together and declared the town dry. In the old days, women couldn’t walk down the main street without being shouted at. There were gunfights. They outlawed it, and the drinking moved outside the town limits. Jigger is peaceful now.”
Everybody laughed. What a relief. Joe was being self-mocking. Then he sighed and said, “Burnt cork! Burnt cork!”
“Yes,” he continued when he saw bafflement, “the dark-skinned ones all got $50,000 from the government because they were discriminated on past loans. I need to get some burnt cork to rub my face with and get myself $50,000, too.”
“We don’t have enough money for our seniors’ hot-meal program,” said Carolyn, as if there was a connection.
Joe said that the two counties, theirs and the neighboring one, received unequal money for the seniors’ program, even though they were exactly the same size. When I asked why, Joe said it was because of the two representatives in the state house in Baton Rouge. One got the money; the other didn’t.
I stared at the chess set. I didn’t want to know what colors these representatives were. Joe didn’t push it.
“Did you hear about that county in Florida—Palm Beach, I think it was—where they tried to make Spanish mandatory? They were going to outlaw English.”
“Like in Quebec,” agreed Carolyn.
“Indeed,” said Joe, “Carolyn won’t eat in any of those damn restaurants in Quebec. If they can’t print their menus in English, no do-re-mi for you!”
“Too bad,” I said. “You’ll be missing some fine French food. We eat from French-only menus right here in Baton Rouge. Paté. Croissants. Etouffé. Sauté.”
“That county in Florida,” Joe said, “where they had all those poor illiterates—that’s where they tried to outlaw English.”
“My mother lives there,” I said, “and her English is fine.”
“And she didn’t vote for Buchanan, that’s for sure,” laughed Laura. “She voted for Gore.”
“They showed that Florida ballot in a nursing home in New York. Everybody figured it out. One woman said, ‘They’ve been out in the sun too long in Florida.’” Joe stopped to laugh to himself and lifted his hand, warning of the coming of a joke. “They asked Barbara Bush why people thought Dubya wasn’t too smart, and she said, ‘Who’s smarter? Dubya, who has an M.B.A. from Harvard, or Gore, who dropped out of divinity school?’”
Joe and Carolyn laughed. We did, too. Laura said, “Gore left divinity school to go to Vietnam. And no mother’s going to say her son is dumb. We are still waiting to see how dumb he is.”
“Nobody goes to divinity school,” I said, “to make good grades. They go there to think about serious issues.”
“I went to get an eye exam in Florida,” Joe said, “and the optician was a retired Canadian who had sold seven optical shops in Canada before he retired. He couldn’t stay put, so he built himself another one in Palm Beach. He couldn’t stand it, he said, because of all those whiny, pushy New York Jews. He was moving back to Canada.”
“That’s just how they are—pushy,” agreed Carolyn.
“He couldn’t have been a very good optician because nobody could read that spaghetti ballot,” I said. Some of my good humor was beginning to fray around the edges. So far Joe had gone after nearly everything he suspected I was: a Jew, a liberal, a Spanish-speaking something…but of course there was more. In our three encounters so far, he had not asked me once where I was from. I would have told him. Transylvania. Southern Romania. Ex-commie country. He knew all that but not from me. When Carolyn said later, “You’re a teacher. You know what I mean,” apropos of something or other, I realized that of all my identities and possible places of origin, they had settled on “teacher” as the least offensive. A teacher might marry Joe’s daughter, but all those other things—ex-commies, writers, Transylvanians— they had no right.
“It can be argued,” Joe said in a sort of prosecutorial manner that had Laura half out of her seat, “that the Southern states are still under occupation.”
“By whom, pray,” laughed his daughter, “with a Southerner in the White House, and a Republican congress?”
“By the armies of Northern aggression…” Joe intoned gravely.
“That would be Wal-Mart,” I said.
“Yup,” agreed Laura, “occupied by Sam Walton.”
Carolyn thought that it was time to intervene for reasons of balance. “I hate Wal-Mart,” she said. “We had a nice little store with everything—children’s, women’s, men’s. It’s gone now. There was another little store one town over. Gone. Wal-Mart’s the only store in 50 miles.”
“The bankers are bankrupting the farmers,” said Joe. “The New York bankers.”
Carolyn followed on the footsteps of that with a detailed account of the disasters wrought on farmers by Wall Street. Their own 35 acres of pecans were not in question; the soul of the country was.
“Where is all that booming economy Bill Clinton was talking about? I don’t see any money.” Joe looked angry.
For once I agreed with him. “It’s funny how that booming economy left with Clinton.”
“Everybody around Clinton dies mysteriously,” Joe said, having had enough of making nice. “Just like that. They found a guy shot in the back of the head. They said it was suicide.”
“Must be the Kennedy syndrome,” Laura said.
“That was the work of a single gunman,” Joe said proudly. “That Jackie Kennedy was one loose woman.”
“Her children were probably all by Jack’s daddy, Joe,” Laura sighed, briefly amused by the game.
Joe laughed, but Carolyn didn’t.
I wondered who was left. We had already done the Japanese the first time we met. The Jews, the Hispanics, the Quebecois and the Catholics had just been disposed of. Joe was in a good mood.
“When Earl K. Long couldn’t run for governor anymore, he ran a friend of his. They were campaigning in northern Louisiana, and Earl went to take a leak in the bushes while his man, who was a terrible speaker, kept droning on and on. When Earl came back, an old-timer who didn’t understand one word of the speech said, ‘Is that guy a communiss?’ Earl laughed. ‘No,’ he said,‘he’s a Catholic. He can’t be a communiss; his brother is a priest.’‘ I knew there was sumpthin’,’ the old man said.”
We all laughed, Carolyn the loudest. She was Catholic.
Joe got suddenly serious. “I first voted in 1948. I didn’t vote for either Truman or Dewey. I voted for Strom Thurmond. He was running on states’ rights.”
“A lot of elections since then,” I said. “I wish I understood what Strom says when he speaks.”
“Sure,” Joe said. “How about that Jesse Jackson? Is he going to retire with Jimmy Swaggart and that Tammy Faye Bakker?”
He was being conciliatory. I extended a finger, too. “I can’t understand what Jesse Jackson says, either.”
“They should have a conversation, Strom and Jesse,” laughed Laura.
Joe’s mood got visibly cloudy. “I ran a lot of elections…I neglected other things for them!” He looked ready to mist over. “I’m 75 years old!”
Laura winced. In the past she must have heard some variation of the age thing. But there was more here. He was old, but he was still Daddy. Stubborn. His girl may have married, but without his permission, it meant nothing. But it was only a game. He knew that his stubbornness meant nothing. Laura knew that it meant nothing. But it hurt nonetheless. It was between them, half-forgotten, still raw. It was everybody’s second marriage—Joe’s, Carolyn’s, Laura’s and mine— but in some alternative universe, none of that had happened.
When they got up to leave, I felt like I’d been in a wrestling match. All my muscles hurt. At the door Carolyn launched into another story. I shook Joe’s hand. Laura lingered with Carolyn while I retreated into the room and started playing chess with myself.
Laura looked as if she’d trekked through a swamp.
“That man.” She shook her head. “Carolyn told me why they were in town.”
“Why? To wish you well in your marriage? Which they haven’t mentioned?”
She shook her head. “He’s getting operated on. A tumor in his neck.”
I shook my head, too. Can’t win, one way or another. If the opinions don’t get you, life will. Diversity. What a joke.