Push. He’d had this experience before, this thought before, this word before. There on the tip of his tongue and the lobe of his ear, push, one quick exhaled syllable between a thought and a whisper. Push, spoken with urgency by a strange woman, coming to him from far off as his mother squeezed him through her birth canal. Meaningless then, just a noise, prophetic forty years later with a sudden, final act. There was no coming back from this push, no turning back to defend himself from a new world rushing at him. He could only fall in anticipation of a hard landing, hold his breath convinced he would need it soon.
He was on his way to the barber. His wife Patricia likes his hair kept short. “It makes you look ten years younger, Stan,” she lies every time. She used to say five years, when the difference and the distance were not so obvious; the lines around his eyes, the gray at his temples he can’t yet bring himself to dye, require this exaggeration. Someday the Cuban woman who cuts his hair while she calls him Mr. Burke and alternates between chatting with him about the foot traffic on Columbus Avenue and speaking rapidly to the other barbers in Spanish will make him look fifteen years younger, then twenty with a little plastic surgery from some greasy surgeon on the Upper West Side, and finally just old.
He still attempts to please Patricia after eighteen years of marriage. It’s the groove he treads, as reliable as it is predictable. He sees nothing wrong with this, finding the people he knows who can’t seem to sit still, who thrive on change like a drug of which they must have periodic doses, sad and dissatisfied. He is neither. He likes his apartment on Seventy-second Street. He likes his season tickets to the theater. He likes his job, investing other people’s money in blue chip stocks and watching their joy at taking control of their lives, mastering their own destinies while collecting shrinking dividends. He performs his service with a smile, like the gas pump jockey he remembers from his youth, when his father would pull into the station three blocks from their house and say, “Hey, Scott, fill ‘er up.” Scott would expose his crooked teeth in a loopy grin, roll his eyes at Stan’s older sister Jeanette, and set about being the best darn gas station attendant anyone had ever seen in that town. “Good kid,” his father would say, as they drove off with the window clean of bugs and the smell of gas wafting around them.
Stan wanted to be a good kid, too. It is something he pushed for, a goal from the age of three. Even then, staring up at the towering figure of his father who, at six feet two inches, was as immovable and inscrutable as a mountain, he knew it was an ambition he could never achieve.
* * *
Roseville, Illinois, is considered by some a suburb of Chicago. Thirty miles from the city, it sits in a large depression of land just south of where the glaciers stopped. In the woods a few miles from the tract house where Stan grew up there are rocks deposited all the way from Canada, fossils of animals extinct for a million years, and arrowheads and bits of clay pots from the Indians who’d inhabited the land for centuries. Once a small industrial city whose economic base depended on the manufacture of recreational vehicles (Welcome to Roseville, RV Capital of the World!), Roseville has become another casualty of someone else who could make it cheaper and better, with the factories that supported hundreds of families and not a few millionaires long shut down, relocated to Arkansas, or Mississippi, or Indonesia.
When Stan was a boy his town was in full swing. His father, though never employed by a factory, catered to the workers’ needs with his affordable retail clothing store offering fashions at reasonable prices for the frugal shopper. Stanley Sr. was a proud man who’d worked for himself from the age of sixteen, “back when I was pumping gas, just like Scott,” when he’d decided he could take the train to Indianapolis, buy up some clothes at wholesale prices and bring them back to sell at a decent markup. Folks in the village of Brandon where Stan Sr. grew up were mighty pleased at not having to travel themselves for the latest Paris-like fashions or order them mostly sight-unseen from a catalog (this was before malls and Walmart, when the Internet was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination). They could actually touch the skirts, shirts, blouses and undergarments (those last discreetly kept in a box for private viewing), try them on, check to see if the colors matched their complexions. Twenty years later he had his own store in a bigger town and a placard in the window, “Celebrating 10 Wonderful Years of Serving You!” The economy was strong enough for people to be buying up the RVs coming out of Roseville as fast as they were welded together. The country had not spun into anarchy with the assassination of Jack Kennedy, and things seemed just about perfect.
* * *
The Burkes lived in a two-story house on Euclid Street. The house had dark green siding the color of fir pine needles and large sturdy windows that always made young Stan think of benevolent eyes watching over them, making sure they made it home safely. The porch was enclosed, with a swing on one side and white wicker chairs on the other. Margaret Burke, Stan’s mother, kept roses along the front of the house before she died; and it was this image, this configuration of red and white and green, of warmth and protection, he would define as home and seek so vainly the rest of his life.
The world was kept in order his first ten years by the force of his father’s will. Stan Sr. was not so much a harsh man as expectant: he expected prescribed behavior, he expected good grades, he expected the doting and devoted Margaret to make the maintenance of their family’s appearance her highest priority. Discord was unacceptable. When news of riots in Watts or protests over the Vietnam war came on the television, the channel was changed. When the local radio station switched from classical to a rock-and-roll format, the offending location on the dial was marked in red and forbidden. Stan and Jeanette were allowed to listen to nothing more startling than the Carpenters, whose albums they were given as Christmas presents each year along with the Jackson Five, Bread, and occasionally novels by writers safely dead before foul language was permitted in print.
For her part, Margaret Burke played the housewife to perfection. A petite woman standing five-two in heels, Margaret was the mother they wrote about in Good Housekeeping, the wife lauded in Family Circle who kept recipes alphabetized on 3 x 5 index cards, the community pillar conspicuous by her presence at every meeting and function where a mother of this caliber could be expected. She came from a family of four daughters, with an abiding mother of English descent and a German father not far removed in his stern manner from the man she married. She’d been groomed for her role as a helpmate as carefully and consistently as any male heir to a family empire, and when she brought the industrious Stanley Burke home for their inspection, her father smiled for perhaps the second time in Margaret’s life.
* * *
Push. The wind rushes out of him. He attempts to replace it quickly with a breath sucked in in shock. Light fills his vision. He thinks for an instant he is being reborn, that he will burst forth on another side and be blinded by magnificence and chaos, dark shapes swirling around him with their limbs stretched out to seize him. Screee, screee, sounds and sparks, and that godwaful feeling of falling, falling.
His mind careens ahead of his thoughts, too fleet to be imprisoned in words. Gibberish bounces from one side of his skull to the other as he urinates in his boxer shorts. Patricia likes him in boxer shorts; she would be horrified. She would cling to him like his mother clung to him when they washed the blood off and laid him on her chest. She would leap this way, clutching his arm; they would shout out together.
Push. Like the best of sex, rarefied as high mountain air. Push me ba-bee, and he thinks, strangely, at this moment, of thrusting his hips against Melinda Murphy’s thighs in seventh grade, of his first orgasm at twelve, and the shock he felt when he saw his father’s penis and oh my god will I ever be that big and how amazing each sensation has always been when felt the first time, thinking of it now, strangely, in the span of an instant.
What would the Cuban woman who cuts his hair make of him now? She’d feel sorry for him, worse for the loss of a customer. She’d cross herself, surrendering his survival and her own need to believe to the Holy Virgin Mary. She’d watch the news on the Spanish station for details and tell her friends, “I cut his hair! Madre de dios!”
* * *
Margaret Burke died unexpectedly from a stroke. Stan was ten; his sister Jeanette was just thirteen, recently bleeding for the first time and full of questions that would now go unanswered.
They were eating dinner together; they always ate dinner at precisely six o’clock. Stan Sr., in a gesture remarkably outdated, left the store to his assistants for ninety minutes each night while he headed home for dinner, after which he returned to work until eight-thirty. The four of them sat to a presentation of the major food groups determined beforehand on a menu Margaret taped to the refrigerator each Sunday after church. Tonight it was meatloaf, broccoli, baked potatoes, and strawberry Jell-O for dessert.
Stan was reporting on his history lesson, how General Custer had miscalculated the Indians’ strength and paid for his blunder with a stunning rout at Little Big Horn. A small gasp caught his attention, and along with his father and sister he turned to see a most startled expression on his mother’s face. As if she had remembered something long buried in her mind, a perfect Oh on her lips and her eyes wide as half-dollars.
“Mother?” Stan Sr. said, instinctively knowing something was wrong and reverting to the name he used between the two of them.
Stan said nothing, still caught between the mistakes of an arrogant general on a plowed-under battlefield and the surprise of his mother sitting perfectly, suddenly, upright at the end of the table.
Margaret fell face forward on her plate.
Stan was ten years old. He did not see her soul leave her body.
The funeral was four days later. Several hundred people were there, returning the favor for the smiles and charitable gestures Margaret had handed out so freely, and for Stan Sr.’s easy credit terms and deep discounts before such things were heard of. The family was comforted by both sets of grandparents, the grandmothers crying openly while the grandfathers bucked up. All three of Margaret’s sisters were there, each looking eerily similar in dress and manner, skirts in dark colors below the knee, flat shoes and long sleeves, as if they’d been tutored by the same harsh seamstress. They smothered young Stan in the flurry of their skirts, fretting over who could raise him properly. (He knew his father had been advised to remarry practically as soon as his mother’s body was wheeled out; he did not believe this would happen, though, and maintained his distance from the aunts so prepared to fill their sister’s vacancy with the first appropriate candidate.)
Over the next few weeks he was intrigued by the sound of his father crying in the night. Muffled sobs coming through the wall, so low and unexpected he wasn’t sure he’d heard them.
“He’s pretty shook up,” Jeanette said when he mentioned it to her. “He loved her very much.”
It struck him that he couldn’t remember his father expressing this love. Aside from calling his wife “Mother” when his guard was down and nodding his approval at the dinner she’d set, Stan Sr. was not given to displays of affection. His love, to his son’s understanding, was something to be earned through perpetual and futile effort, a brass ring always inches beyond the seeker’s grasp. That he would cry in the night at the loss of his wife seemed to Stan to be too little too late.
He often wondered if his father would cry for him, should he die suddenly. It was a game he played, imagining himself hurt at school or mortally wounded by a careless driver. A crowd would gather, gasps uttered at the sight of his broken body. Don’t move him, someone would say. His neck could be broken. He would breathe slowly, carefully, afraid of piercing his lung with a shattered rib. And then the crowd would part, step aside, step aside, as his father broke through in huge strides of his long legs. He would kneel down, tears streaming, gather his son up in his arms, swoop him up in the protection of his strong arms, mumbling over and over, I love you, I love you, I love you. Stan would hang on for two days, stirring now and then from the depths of a medicated sleep to see his father sitting by the hospital bed. Finally he would die, and his father would be devastated, ruined, regretting for the rest of his life what he had not said and done for the sake of his child.
* * *
Push. Had not this been the driving force of his life? To be compelled, blindly, always seeking the next milepost upstream. Little fish we are, he thinks, in this moment, propelling ourselves in the very large pond of eternity. Hoping to make marks, to have our signatures recognized by someone who will come along tomorrow. Strangers impressed, commenting on the effort it must have taken to reach such a pinnacle of success.
Patricia likes his hair short. Patricia has been sleeping with another man. He knows this; he smells it on her, another man’s testicles, another man’s cum. The more she flatters him, the more he knows what she’s been doing with her lunch hours. His friend Bob saw her coming out of the Mayflower Hotel with a dark haired man, tall, about Stan’s height, dressed very well in a black double-breasted. They held hands and kissed at the corner of Sixty-third and Central Park West. That night she told Stan he looked thinner and five years younger and if she just wasn’t so tired she’d like to fuck him right there on the kitchen table. That wild thing, that traitorous whore. He’d like to push her off the terrace, seventeen flights down, and listen to her shatter as his heart had shattered and had been shattering all his life.
He has lost the understanding of English. Suddenly words shouted at him, toward him, that he would have comprehended five minutes ago, sound as odd as Chinese, sing-song pitching as he flails helplessly for purchase.
Patricia likes his hair short.
His mother liked him half-asleep when she tucked him in, kissed him goodnight, suggested he have sweet dreams.
His father liked him scraping for approval, always trying harder and never hard enough.
Who am I? he thinks. Will anyone miss a man who doesn’t know who he is? Help me.
* * *
Against all advice, Stan Sr. refused to remarry. He bought his thirteen-year-old daughter a cookbook and told her she was the woman of the house now. Jeanette met the responsibility with valiance and an increasing use of street drugs.
Stan’s sister had crashed headlong into adolescence, unprepared and uneducated, with only inoffensive love songs to be her guide. There were pressures, Stan knew, at this most volatile period in American history: war protests, cries for civil liberty, drugs and pulsating music. The extent to which their mother was an anchor became painfully clear in her absence. Jeanette had no tutor now, no cheerful oracle to predict order day to day. She was set adrift and sinking rapidly.
Jeanette Burke had once been a pretty girl, her hair dark blonde and soft as it cascaded over her shoulders. Her eyes, clear and reflective to the age of thirteen, green like her mother’s, indicated in their curiosity and their innocence a child of exceptional intelligence. She wanted to know. This need for information expressed itself in a barrage of questions at the prospect of anything new: How does it work? Where does it come from? Can I do that? She asked these things regardless of anyone’s ability to give her an answer, whether walking through a museum on a day trip to Chicago or down an aisle of curious appliances at the local Sears store. In this way she differed starkly from her brother, whose efforts to please and need for approval left him saying nothing at all rather than risking saying something he shouldn’t. Where Stan observed, Jeanette commented; where Stan hesitated, Jeanette plunged. Like many a bright, probing child, she would be damaged irreparably by her singular logic, her thirst for knowledge quenched until she nearly drowned.
Un-tempered by his wife’s gentle servitude, their father became harsh in his demands. It was no longer enough that the house be clean; it must be spotless. No longer sufficient that the lawn be free of leaves and grass clippings; it must be immaculate. Stan Sr. would come home for dinner at his set time and expect the three of them to sit at the table as they’d always done, fed as he had been fed, given reports on the children’s day, and still have tem minutes to inspect the house and yard. Most troubling, he required a place be set at the table for Margaret. It reminded his son of the inscription on the altar at church where communion was held: “This do in remembrance of me.” But it was not the reverent re-enactment of the last supper (though it had been that for his mother); it was a morbid, obsessive, refusal to let their mother die and their own lives move forward.
Perhaps it was this action, setting a plate that was never eaten from for a woman who had, in her way, abandoned them, that pushed Jeanette over the edge. In incredibly short time she went from straight A’s to barely passing her classes, from perfect attendance to notes on her truancy she ripped up before her father saw them. Her friends changed also, the Glee Club members she used to bring home for lunch replaced by suspected drug dealers with arrest records.
A phone call came one night just as the table was cleared. Stan recognized Miss Emers’s voice when he answered, having met the school counselor once when Stan had gotten into a fistfight with another boy who said his mother wasn’t dead but had run away. He called his father to the phone, hearing Jeanette’s bedroom door close quietly as he handed the receiver to Stan Sr.
It was an amazing display of control. Stan knew something fundamental had changed in their lives from the way his father locked his jaw, stared off at some point in mid-air, and nodded, saying simply, “Yes, yes,” to whatever was being reported from the other end. Stan moved away when his father hung up, sensing trouble the way one smells rain in a clear sky.
Stan Sr. slid his belt from his pants as he walked back to the bedrooms. He went directly to Jeanette’s room, threw the door open, and stared unbelieving at the open window through which his daughter had made her escape.
* * *
Push. That is how he got here, in this predicament, so far from that open window thirty years ago. The progression had been logical. How can he regret it?
Patricia will be pleased, once the shock has worn off.
He likes his suit. He likes his job. He feels his bowels give way.
I’m gonna make a go of it . . . in old New Yooooork! Pushing steadily, hard-headed, persistent. Against all odds, that’s what his father had taught him. That even a foolish boy, even a stupid boy like him, could make something of himself if he just pushed hard and long enough. “You don’t have much to work with,” the old man said, “must’ve been buying ice cream when they handed out the brains, but you’ll do well enough if you set your mind to it.”
He had set his mind to it with a vengeance. He’d passed with flying colors. Test after test of endurance and intellect. Sex at fourteen, the top ten percentile, scholarships like junk mail offering him the future of his choice. The old man never paid a dime, not a dime, and when Stan got his Masters in Business Administration his father, the retail clerk, said, “Nice piece of paper.”
Push. The American dream, nose to the grindstone. That’s the way it’s ‘sposed to be. Nothing comes easy, nothing comes free. He has pushed all his life, tried just a little bit harder, and now, it seems, that momentum cannot be stopped. It carries him over the edge of the subway platform with the sound of a crowd muttering in unison, Oh my God!
Patricia will be notified, called at the office. She’ll become pale, possibly fainting for effect. Her secretary will offer her water and a Valium. They’ll send her home early, and she will go – to the dark haired man for comfort. Now, now, he’ll say, his hands on her breasts, there’s nothing you could do, and he’ll push himself inside her.
Jeanette was last seen in the background of a crowd photo in Time magazine, accompanying an article on the great hippie migration to San Francisco. Stan recognized his sister but didn’t say anything to their father, knowing Jeanette did not want to be found and knowing, too, their father did not want to find her. She would call home eventually. She would show up two years later with a baby, or her father would be called to identify a body found with needle marks on its arm. That was how these stories ended, Stan knew; no need to rush to a conclusion.
Stan and Stan Sr. lived alone for the next eight years. Not once was the boy told he was the man of the house; this could never be with his father alive. He would always be overshadowed, expected to serve and please. And when the old man said jump, he said, that’s not high enough, I can go higher. Higher.
* * *
Patricia expected him to jump, too. She never came out and said it. Overt aggression was not her style. She preferred subtle manipulation, looks and gestures that conveyed what she was too skilled a player to say: that is was okay he’d lost a promotion to a younger man, it happens, that it was all right he’d made an ass of himself at their anniversary dinner, drinking martinis as if he were a near dead plant soaking up water, acting so happy to have made it eighteen years with his honeybunch, laughing loudly, grabbing her breast from around her shoulder. It was to be expected. She let him know in so many small ways how disappointed she was in him. No children (whose fault was that?), no penthouse (whose fault was that?), no real career opportunities now that he’d gone as far as he ever would (they both knew whose fault that was). She let him know on a daily basis that living with him all these years was something she’d resigned herself to. Like having a disabled child – you can’t just drop it off at the police station or leave it on a doorstep. She had, after all, made her bed. And she was quite comfortable in this bed. Stan, despite his mediocrity, made a very good salary. Their combined earning power had put them on the 17th floor with breathtaking views. It got them to Europe every spring, and promised a comfortable retirement. Patricia had no intention of cutting her income in half; and, after her own manner, she loved the man. He was easy to be with. There were never any power struggles because they both knew who had the power. She wasn’t evil, just complicit in his misery, and she didn’t even know it. Just as well, he thinks, watching people rush too late to catch him, this way she can make of it what she will: searing grief, a quick recovery, and an appropriate waiting period before she filed for benefits.
* * *
When he got a scholarship to Columbia he thought his father would be impressed, but what pleased the old man most was that he wouldn’t have to pay. Stan had been told so long he wouldn’t amount to anything, that he was a stupid kid who couldn’t cook and whose mind was caked with filth, that he couldn’t wait to get to college and make a point.
Dean’s list every semester. Number four in his class. (“Number four?“, his father said, showing the only interest he ever took in Stan’s education, “What about the other three?“) Stan brought his fiancé home his junior year. Stan Sr. eyed her tits and asked her to make dinner. Stan graduated summa cum laude, and his father said the school’s standards must not be very high. Stan got a job in Manhattan making three times his father’s gross income, and the old man said he’d had to work for his money, nobody works anymore, it’s all a scam.
Jeanette never did come home.
Stan got married and moved to New York City. He spent his life acquiring, buying, mortgaging, leveraging, and finally found himself with a balcony high up on Seventy-second Street, enough stock options to paper Central Park, a closet full of pin-striped suits. Armed with everything he owned, he stopped to catch his breath and saw that eighteen years had rolled over him. The best years of his life had left him holding the bag.
His father is still in business.
* * *
Push. From out of nowhere a mumbling man shuffles up behind him, taking his rage out on the stranger Stan, shoving him in front of the local downtown 9 train. He doesn’t have the time or opportunity to ask the derelict why he would do such a thing, or to offer something, anything, in trade for his life. It is a serendipitous moment, a chance encounter that had to happen.
He will die in the subway, he knows this. The frightened crowd, thinking of its own mortality, will be unable to help him, saving their versions of events for the six o’clock news.
He thinks in these last instants of his life of Patricia seeking comfort with another man. He thinks of his mother, and his sister, and his father, a hundred visions from forty years of memory flashing through his mind with crystal clarity. He wishes he had tried harder, that maybe if he’d pushed just a little bit harder, this would not have happened to him. It is, somehow, a final failure.
He cries out for his mother at the sound of the train attempting to stop, knowing it can’t, knowing it will make of his life in a split second a mess of bones and blood. He throws up his hands to stop the train, a gesture so ridiculous it makes him smile.
And then he screams.
Marshall James was born James Marshall Green, the last of nine children to an obviously large family in Mississippi. The year was 1958. He currently lives in New York City.