House of the Tomato

If a woman wants to be a poet, she must dwell in the house of the tomato. -- Erica Jong

Regional website for the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, in partnership with the Reader's Loft.

GREEN BAY / NORTHEAST

Celebrating, sharing and inspiring poetry throughout Wisconsin.

SOCKS, An Essay

                 "Please," I said into the phone. "My son's father is very sick. We need to get to London, but our passports have expired. Can you help us?"

                 "It's possible," said the woman. I could hear her rummage with the phone in her hand, the echo on the line of sliding stacks of paper, cavernous cinderblock space. Her voice had the timbre of perforated tin. I'd lost track of what sub-department of the Consulate with which I was now speaking. I had been on the phone for hours, calling numbers listed and unlisted, my call transferred from official to official to official. Until, finally, I was connected with this woman in the basement. 

                 "How?" I asked, feeling a flutter of hope between my tense shoulderblades. I sat hunched at my desk, an old-fashioned desk phone squatting at my elbow.

                  "You must come to Washington, D.C.," said the woman.

                 "Okay," I said hesitantly. I was pretty sure D.C. wasn't on any flight pattern connecting Wisconsin to London. However, anything was possible, right? With foresight and extra cash?

                 "Bring your passports. This can only be done if you already have passports. No passports, impossible." The woman spoke economically, with an accent I didn't recognize, her answer, I was sure, to the exertion of explaining bureaucracy eight hours a day.

                 "We have passports," I re-emphasized.

                 "Good," she said. "Here is the address. When do you fly?"

                 "Next Friday afternoon." Although I hadn't booked our flight yet, not knowing if we could get out of the country, I had done the research.

                 "Come Saturday morning. After 9 o'clock. The door will be locked but call this number. Mention my name. Someone will let you in."

                 "Thank you very much," I said. I triple-circled the number on the pad scribbled with my many failed attempts. "I didn't know what we were going to do."

                 "You will need your passports," she said again. "I am sorry about your son's father." She set down the receiver, and the basement swallowed her up again.

                 If I tried, I doubted I could ever recreate the pattern of calls that lead me to her. Getting through to her was one of those fluke-ish, propitious events that occur in life often enough to convince a person that things happened for a reason.

                 My truculent, disheveled 17-year old son slouched in apparent apathy on the way to the airport. It's possible he was high or under the influence of a friend's grandmother's pain medicine. I was pathetically naive about such things, but in dealing with him I often felt like I was in a rehearsal for the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. My son Leathan was angry and moody in the extreme, now facing a prospect I had yet to face. The very real possibility that he might lose his father. How did a parent prepare a child for that? Especially divorced parents, living in two entirely different countries. The only thing I knew for sure was Leathan needed to be there. If there was a chance my ex- was still alive, and they could hug or knuckle pump, and say "I love you," or not say it, but mean it in a father-son look they exchange, I was going to take it. Despite the time off work. Despite my son's inopportune absence from his senior year of high school. Despite the awkwardness of the situation for me, a remarried ex- without a legitimate reason to tag along. Except I felt down to my SmartWool® socks that I needed to go as interpreter: between my son and his "other family," between my son and hospital-dom, between my son and his distant father. 

                 My son was a ringer for his father in every conceivable way. He was broad like his father, with that same enigmatic jaw and high Celtic cheekbones. That same look in the eye like the wild seas: majestic, stormy and cast to the far-flung horizon. That same bone-dry sense of humor. That same persecution complex and obsessive-compulsive behavior. In other words, he could drive a mother beyond the brink with his challenging stonewalling defiance. Until she was literally standing robe-naked in the slushpile of the garage screaming at his departing headlights like some demented banshee. I don't know what happened. We used to be the dynamic duo. Even when Gordie was around, but especially when he wasn't. Now, I was appreciative of the headphones my son wore on the flight from Wisconsin to D.C. as, lately, we weren't particularly good at conversation. I also didn't say anything as his shoulder slumped into mine across the armrest, and he snored loudly in my ear. Like me, he was a mouth-breather. His hair was too long, his body too thin, and his distinctive jaw-line a wasteland of ginger stubble. He smelled of cigarettes, fried food, cheap aftershave and the pervading stench of feet because he refused to wear socks. Even the invisible kind.

                 My son's father Gordie and I divorced when Leathan was in the first grade. That started some of the unraveling between us. Gordie and I met when I was a post-graduate student in London, working in a pub for cash and experience. After eying me for several weeks, Gordie chatted me up with the hustle-free zinger, "Half a lager and bottle of Long Life, please," revealing a propensity to mix things up, especially beer. He was older and dashing and unlike anyone I had ever met. He would pick me up in his grey Vauxhall after my shift at the pub and take me to a Greek after-hours restaurant where he'd watch me eat a gyro while he smoked his roll-up cigarettes. He laughed at the grimace I made when I tried ouzo for the first time, his laugh like low-rolling thunder, an exciting powderkeg of tension and drama.

                 "Tell me a story," I would beg, sipping my ouzo, peering eagerly across the table with my dark foreigner eyes. 

                 Gordie would thoughtfully arrange a pinch of tobacco along the length of a cigarette paper. Exhaling the sweet-smelling smoke, he'd say, "The most white-knuckled jump I ever made was the balloon jump." And he'd be off, regaling me with a tale from his years in the paratroop regiment or his years in the boy service. In fact, the year I was born he'd been shipped off to the Mediterranean for peacekeeping. He was tight-lipped about the peacekeeping but effusive about Greek food, beaches and sunshine. While in the military, he was teased mercilessly about his Highland accent. To survive, he'd learned the facility of turning it on or off, depending on the company he kept. With me, he let the "r's" purr, resonating the air between us.

                 Miraculously, on an innocent-looking tree-lined street, we stood outside the glass-paned doors of the Consulate in D.C., called the number, and a security guard let us in. He lead us through the building, down two floors, to another set of glass doors, behind which was another security guard and a security scanner complete with metal rollers and stacked, plastic bins. My purse and Leathan's backpack were examined. Luckily, we didn't have to take off our shoes. I said a silent prayer that no paraphernalia would be flagged in Leathan's backpack. Cleared, we were instructed to head to one of two windows. There, an official renewed our passports for another ten years. Just like that. Even Leathan was impressed. He pushed into me with one shoulder, giving me a lop-sided grin. For a brief moment he swept the long, sandy-colored bangs off his forehead, and I could see the green brine of his eyes. Another man entered. He emptied the contents of his pockets into a bin on the metal rollers. His tasseled shoes looked expensive. His demeanor was suave and world-traveled, despite the five o'clock shadow. As he re-pocketed his wallet and keys, he gave Leathan and I a nod. For a brief moment, we, too, were sophisticated world-travelers. 

                 I had allowed for a big layover in D.C., just to be safe. Even though the woman in the basement had told us what to do, I was dubious it would work so smoothly. I was glad to be wrong, but it meant we had significant time to sit around at the airport Starbucks, picking at threads of conversation. Leathan and I did agree on Starbucks. We grabbed a table barely bigger than a dinner plate, and I brought him his Venti Java Chip Frappuccino while I warmed my hands on a vanilla latte. It was still relatively early, and the mounting sun shone through the airport skylight, casting overlapping geometric shapes on the floor.  

                 "So we're going," said Leathan, sliding the Frappuccino back and forth on the table between his two large hands.

                 "Looks like it," I said.   

                 "Think he'll be all right?" 

                 I could tell by the fragile set of Leathan's jaw that he was worried, scared. "Oh, Leathan," I said, holding his two hands. "He's a tough old bastard. I don't think he'll give up that easily."

                 "He is, isn't he?" he said, shaking his hair, giving me another hopeful eye glimmer.

                 Grace and Oliver met us at the airport with their retinue of children: Harry and Ava, the two eldest; and the trio of younger boys -- Riley, William and Thomas. Oliver was Leathan's half-brother, and Gordie's son from a previous relationship. For what it was worth, I had been Gordie's only legal wife. Oliver's daughter Ava was only two years younger than Leathan. They had met as children when Gordie and I gave Leathan the grand tour, and Leathan had met his Scottish grandmother, with a short stop-over at Oliver's. Oliver's wife Grace reminded me of a taller version of Babs from "To Sir With Love." She was street-smart and vivacious with rounded cheeks, soft shoulder-length hair dyed a reddish plum and a gap between her two front teeth. Her family adored her and, at the same time, were a little in awe of her. Oliver had Gordie's jaw, and he folded his arms across his chest in the same contemplative way that Gordie did, hands levered beneath his armpits. He was shorter than Grace, but they were eye-to-eye on priorities: kids, family, home, finding the humor in most situations. His laugh had the same resonance as his father's. Oliver had his own heating company, and Harry, their oldest son, worked for him.

                 "Hey, mate," said Oliver, walking up to Leathan. Oliver shook Leathan's hand and gave him a one-armed hug, standing on tiptoes.

                 Grace called my name and reached for my carry-on. "You must be knackered," she said. "We're glad you've come." She gave me a look deep with meaning.

                 Oliver drove us in the work van, steering his way through London traffic. It felt familiar and strange to be driving on the left-hand side of the road through the many roundabouts on the motorway into London. The boys, rustled out of bed at an early hour, were rambunctious and asked Leathan a stream of questions about America. About the telly. About the food. About sports. Leathan smiled his lopsided grin and answered their many questions. 

                 Experiencing jetlag and two days in the same clothes, I was beginning to feel like a condiment gone bad, sour and crusty around the edges, but I couldn't help but enjoy the scenery: the misty-green, drenched countryside giving way to clusters of houses and strings of shops all in a row with their bins of produce or racks of clothes out in front colorfully advertising. Grace and Oliver lived in a three-story house just off the high street on a dead-end cul de sac. On the outside, their home was a fairly standard brick-terraced bungalow with bikes, balls, grills and tools in random disarray in the paved garden. Inside was an oasis of light and style. The combination of Grace’s design sense and Oliver’s abilities as a handyman created an eye-catching and habitable home. I loved to sit in the clean, white kitchen on the first floor around the large central island with barstools enough for seven, sunlight catching whorls of blue glass in the under-cabinet tile. The family room on the middle floor was another favorite gathering place. Spare and full of contrast, it contained an extra-large sectional couch in a dark-brown plush fabric, littered with a variety of pillows, a 52-inch LED TV, and an upholstered ottoman in peacock leather. Canvas photos of the family in candid poses lined the walls.

                 Leathan grabbed my arm. "Mom," he said. "Come and see Riley's room."

                 There were bedrooms on every floor. Harry got his own room on the first floor, off the kitchen, with access to the paved garden. (Leathan and I ousted him during our stay.) Ava also got her own room on the second floor, opposite the family room and next to the youngest boys who shared a smaller bedroom with bunk beds. The parents were in the process of renovating a bedroom suite on the third floor with dormer windows overlooking the clay-tiled roofs of the city. Riley's room was in the headroom space between Ava's closet and the bathroom. There was a hole in the wall in the hallway that Riley could climb through on a stepladder. The room was just big enough for a single bed and a small TV at his feet and was cleverly equipped with shelves and hooks for storage. Riley also had a wardrobe in the young boys' bedroom. The hole in the wall had a door Riley could put in place like a manhole. It was an ideal "capsule" for gaming, and Leathan and Riley would often squeeze together in the wall space to play.

                 Grace made us all tea and handed us mugs as we pulled up around the island. The stringless teabag bobbed up and down in the milky tea as we talked about our flight, our stopover in D.C. Our trip really had occurred without incident. We avoided the subject that was topmost in all our minds. Two of the younger boys sat on either side of Leathan and bumped him back and forth. He blew on his tea and smiled. He did not tell them to stop.

                 "When can we go see him?" I asked, finally.

                 "Visiting hours are 10 am to noon and 3 pm until 5 pm every day," said Grace. "Also some evenings."

                 "He's at the Royal Infirmary," added Oliver, “which is almost two hours away on the bus and tube. You'll have to switch lines. But I can take you today since I'm off. It doesn't take quite as long in a motor, depending on the traffic."

                 After we rested, Leathan and I climbed back into the van. Oliver drove, Grace came along as moral support, and Ava stayed home to keep an eye on the rest of the family. Leathan had half-slept watching television on the plush couch, scoffing at the idea of sharing a bed with me. He slid into the way-back even more disheveled.

                 Oliver zipped through traffic, stop-starting, honking and swerving through roundabouts almost giddily. The driver's window was open, and he rested an arm on the frame. The breeze from the window stirred up the detritus of the van. I was chilled but exhilarated. Something about travel always put me in a fug, as if I had to reassemble body parts and perspective in the new destination. The wet London air seemed to help.

                 The hospital was imposing against the drizzling, overcast sky, grim even, like a scene from Elephant Man. We checked in at a faceless window and milled about in a waiting vestibule no bigger than a closet. I was taken aback by the cramped functionality of the place, more familiar with the resort-style hospitals in the United States.     

                 "How's he been?" There. I finally asked it. 

                 Leathan took out one earbud.

                 Grace fluttered her hands. "Not good," she finally said. "The doctors say he is 'failing to thrive.' He's been... difficult."

                 I could well believe it. Gordie was cantankerous even when healthy.

                 "He didn't need the surgery," Oliver burst out. "I talked him into it. I wish I hadn't." He paced the small room. Something his father and Leathan did when agitated, as if they could somehow outpace their troubles.

                 "Oliver," said Grace emphatically. "He needed the surgery. This is not on you."

                 Oliver cast her a look, striding back and forth, unwilling to forgive himself.

                 There was a visitor limit so Oliver and Grace ushered us away with the nurse and waited in the vestibule. I imagined my face looked like Leathan's: colorless, cowed by the stiff decorum of the place and dreading the first sight of Gordie. The nurse wore a cap that looked like the prow of a boat, her eyes schooled in emotionless. "Here he is," she pointed and left us. His hospital bed was parked in the middle of a ward like it had been forgotten there. Rolling divider screens were arranged haphazardly around him, looking like cheap shower curtains. He didn't even have a bedside table, just a flip-up tray and an IV stand. He was dozing when we approached the bed, but his eyes clicked open almost immediately. Gordie was a very light sleeper. His hospital bed was tilted up slightly, and he was covered with a thin hospital blanket. His arms and legs were uncovered, revealing his almost blue Scottish skin. Someone had made the attempt to comb his gray hair. Coarse and thick, he wore it swept off his high forward with balsam oil. I suspected Grace. Still, he looked rough. There was a long beat until he realized who we were, and then he smiled like a beacon, his mouth displaying every tooth in that strong jaw.

                 Leathan said, "Hi, dad," and showed Gordie the results of years of orthodontia. 

                 Gordie motioned him closer, and Leathan received his second one-armed hug of the day. Gordon looked at me over his shoulder and nodded, and I knew I had done right by bringing Leathan. Gordon rasped something in Leathan's ear, and Leathan collapsed onto Gordie's chest with laughter, so I knew it had to be inappropriate. Gordie always said if he couldn't use four-letter words, he'd have no vocabulary at all, which of course wasn't true. But it hardly mattered. Leathan finally came up for air, put away his iPod and slouched out of his jacket. We stood awkwardly around Gordie's bed while he explained how he'd got there. Actually, he was intubated so he couldn't really talk, but he gestured with his hands, and we repeated what we'd been told by Grace and Oliver. Between us, we pieced together a tolerable recap. Gordie had been diagnosed with colon cancer months and months ago, the night in retrospect that he'd called Leathan and I just to say "hi" from his favorite Greek restaurant. At the time, I had thought it was just the beer talking, making him nostalgic. He had undergone a series of chemo and radiation treatments. Grace had done most of the ferrying. "So painful," he mouthed, making the sign for asshole. They'd shrunk the cancer to a point viable for surgery. The doctors and nurses had worked so diligently on him, he'd felt obligated to, as he put it, "see it through." Even though he was half-inclined to say "f*** it," and take his chances. If the surgery was successful, Gordie would need to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.

                 My eyebrows sailed into my hairline, but I didn’t say anything. Gordie was fastidious to a fault. I had known him to take three showers within a 24 hour time span, shaving each time with a horsehair brush and straight razor. Another legacy of his days in the military.

                 The three of us were an island in a sea of crazy. Leathan and I stood in attendance around Gordie's hospital bed while doctors, nurses and orderlies moved around us, bringing in patients, rolling them out, sliding screens and equipment about. A tall doctor in surgical-wear, his face covered by a procedure mask, stepped out from the shadows. "Visiting will be over shortly. We need to do our rounds. You'll have to come back later."

                 I felt like arguing. You don't understand! You don't know how far we've come! But I didn't. Gordie squeezed my hand. I looked down, noticed the contrast in our hands.  It made me realize how much less of Gordie there was. He had been a brick shithouse of a man, short but stocky and powerful. I squeezed back, feeling tears prick the inside of my eyelids.

                 "We'll come back tomorrow," I said, too loud. Leathan winced. A nurse looked over. I didn't know who exactly I was I reassuring.

                 As we retreated to the vestibule, Leathan actually looped one of his long arms around my neck. "He looked good, right? He looked good, didn't he, mom?"

                 Oliver took Leathan to the local pub while Grace prepared dinner. Harry went along, too. Leathan was of age to drink beer in London, and Oliver asked if it was okay. In London, pub-life was central, so I didn't object, but I did worry. Grace was making some kind of ratatouille. She handed me vegetables to chop: onions, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, aubergine. "I’m glad you came," she said.

                 "Me, too," I replied.

                 "What did you think?" 

                 I didn't pretend I didn't know what she meant. I finished chopping an onion, slippery layers shooting out from my curled fingers. "I hope he comes around," I said. "Do you think he wants to?" Gordie could be so stubborn, but it cut both ways.

                 "I think so," said Grace. "Although the treatment was tough on him."

                 "That's what he said," I replied, "a big burden on you."

                 "I didn't look at it like a burden," said Grace. She got out a casserole dish from one of the cupboards, moving around the kitchen comfortably, in her domain. "After he came back to London," she looked at me measuredly, "we were just so grateful that the kids got to know him. Oliver, too. They'd never had much of a chance before."

                 "I'm glad," I said. And I was. Oliver deserved it; Gordie hadn’t been around much when he was young. 

                 Oliver and Leathan burst into the front door, Harry in their wake. They were full of beer and prowess, having won big at the pool table. Gordie had taught both a good game.

                 "Did you see the look on that bloke's face?" asked Oliver.

                 "Gobsmacked," said Leathan, having learned a new word. He was flushed, smiling and his hair was pushed off his face.

                 The two of them hunched their shoulders together, giggling like schoolgirls.

                 Benignly Grace looked at me over a glass of wine. Ratatouille bubbled in the oven.

                 After a few attempts, we heard the whole story. A pair of guys challenged them to pool, not thinking a "kid" could play.

                 "We showed them," said Leathan.

                 "That was good crack," said Oliver, grabbing Leathan by the scruff of his neck and rocking him back and forth.

                 It was uncanny to me how Leathan and Oliver's gestures mirrored each other; how they would be on the verge of saying exactly the same thing. How like brothers they were.

                 Leathan and I got into a daily rhythm. Rousted out of bed in the morning with a cup of tea by Grace, we'd shuffle to the kitchen where Grace organized everybody about their day. Oliver and Harry on their first heating call, Ava to work, and the younger kids off to primary and secondary school. We'd have another (quieter) cup of tea. Then, with the house relatively to ourselves, we'd shower and start the trek down the hill to the bus stop.

                 In very little time I was back in the swing of the London transportation system. Leathan, too, got pretty adept at it. We took a No. 7 bus to the tube station, change lines twice, went three stops, and walked a block to the hospital. Our timing never seemed to be exactly right, so we'd end up waiting in the closet-vestibule anywhere from ten to thirty minutes. When we were allowed in, Gordie would rouse from his pain stupor, happy to see us, his hospital bed perennially parked in the middle of the ward. But one day when Leathan had stepped away from the bed to get Gordie some water, Gordie looked at me meaningfully and sliced his throat with an index finger. 

                 I feigned I didn't know what he meant and stared back at him fiercely, as only an ex-wife could. "You can't do that to him," I said. "Besides we're not married any more. Even if they would...," I looked around at empty space. There were no medical personnel in the vicinity. At that precise moment I was glad to be American, and I was homesick all at once. "Even if they would," I continued, "they wouldn't listen to me."

                 His mouth made a woeful shape.

                 Gordie had had enough. Enough of being sick. Enough of lying flat on his back.

                 "He needs you," I hissed. "Oliver, too."

                 I kept this exchange to myself. I could hardly tell Leathan, and Oliver and Grace were too hopeful, preparing Gordie's flat for his return from hospital. Riding back on the tube to Oliver and Grace's I wondered if I had been fair to Gordie. Did I owe him more sympathy? Empathy? Did I owe him anything? As his former wife and co-parent? When we were married, because he was a bricklayer and older, I had lived in fear of falling walls and unstable foundations. I had never worried about him getting sick because he never was sick. I’d thought after the divorce I’d be able to let go of the fear. Foolish me. Love and fear were inexplicably entwined. A lesson Leathan was learning early.

                 Leathan bounded next to me on the bench seat of the underground train. "Dad did it again, didn't he, mom? He got us back together? You and me, we're reconciled, right?"

                 I looked into the long-horizon sea-scape eyes boring into mine. I could barely swallow, but I smiled. "Yes," I said. "He did that."

                 I had loved Gordie before the forces of two different cultures, two different classes and two different generations pulled us apart in dramatic, painful, and seismic shifts. At the time Leathan was conceived, Gordie was working for a developer who bought and sold older London terraced homes which he’d convert into flats. Exactly the sort of work Gordie liked. I had just turned in my thesis and had a fresh, new degree to my credit. We celebrated with a duty-free bottle of French Cognac I had brought back from a trip to Paris with my sister. We probably should have named Leathan Martell.

                 Gordie rallied the next few days. I wasn't sure what made the difference: seeing Leathan, being cared for by a new (and relatively cheerful) nurse, or hearing my scold. We all took heart, and it seemed possible that Gordie, Oliver and Leathan would take that dreamed of fishing trip together. It had been Leathan's suggestion: a bonding adventure. Gordie liked to, as he out it, “drown a few worms.” Leathan and Oliver would lounge on the plush couch in Oliver's family room, jabbing each other with suggestions for the trip. A fishing vest for Gordie. A closed bale for Leathan. A flask of strong tea for Oliver. During the commercials Leathan would disappear into the wall space with Riley. As if he couldn't quite decide who he wanted to be with more: the adults or the kids. I understood. There were moments I didn't want to be an adult neither.     

                 Leathan and I kept our routine for the remainder of our stay, visiting Gordie on the morning of our flight home. It had taken Leathan and I a half hour to say goodbye to Grace, Oliver, Ava, Harry, Riley, William and Thomas. Thomas clung to Leathan, his new favorite uncle. We promised to send presents. At the hospital, Gordie grew very agitated at the idea of Leathan’s leaving. I had to go home having exhausted the largess of my boss. Also I was missing my new husband and daughter. Leathan was missing high school, but this was life. 

                 "Do you want me to extend Leathan's ticket?" I asked Gordie.

                 Gordie's responding smile was beatific.

                 I looked the question to Leathan.

                 "I want to stay," he said, moving closer to his dad.

                 "Okay, then."

                 For the rest of visiting hour, we chitchatted. Oliver. Grace. The kids. The fishing trip. The sound of Gordie chuckling through the intubation tube continued to be eerie, and he complained repeatedly about being cold.

                 We ran out of time. I had to say goodbye.

                 "Get better," I said. Gordie nodded. He looked chilled and moved his lips, "My feet are f-r-e-e-z-i-n-g." Well, he added an expletive, but at least it was alliterative. Normally Gordie was like a furnace for giving off heat.

                 I flagged down a nurse and asked if she could find him some socks. She looked at me like I had asked for a helicopter to land on the roof. There were no socks to be had.

                 I was able to give Gordie a makeshift hug around the nightstand and IV. He was tense. As I stood up, I asked, "Do you want my socks?" I was wearing dress boots and my favorite wool socks. I’d be returning to winter in Wisconsin.

                 "Yes," he rasped.

                 So I gave him my socks, and I rode the train sockless to the airport where I extended Leathan's ticket. And I was grateful to do both, small actions within my control that meant something to the people I cared about. There would always be that.

                 Everything happened for a reason.

 

© 2017 House of the Tomato