The year I’m fourteen and my sister Nancy’s seventeen, Mom splits, and we rewrite The Sound of Music. The Sound of Music lied to us and we need vengeance. When we first saw The Sound of Music a few years before, we were all together. It seemed to promise so much. It promised personal communion and the strengthening of familial bonds. It promised an ever-abiding love.
It’s November 1979. Around us the world is consumed by crises of confidence, gas lines, and angry ayatollahs threatening. We watch one event after another, without end or completion. We’re attired in shades of black our father despises and don black jeans and turtlenecks. We even don berets. Of course, Dad doesn’t have time to comment. He’s always in his darkened bedroom in our little ranch house that looks like the Brady Bunch gone bad. He’s too busy making countless phone calls to Mom and fulminating against racist power structures in his college courses.
He’s also playing Mom’s favorite Glenn Miller pieces over and over. “Moon Love.” “Moonlight Serenade.” Meanwhile, Mom teaches English and discovers writing poetry in Denver, the rawness of expression, as she tells me in one of her calls.
It’s been this way for two months now. The Sound of Music lied to us. That movie never predicted this.
The rewrite is all Nan’s idea. We decide to do this exactly two months after Mom makes like Moses and gets lost. We huddle in Nan’s room with the lavender walls and the poster. Lavender was Mom’s favorite color. Mom actually painted the kitchen walls purple once, but Dad’s planning to have them repainted white or gray, practical colors.
But we’re too busy rewriting The Sound of Music to notice. We even contemplate sending our work to Hollywood. They might do a remake, although this is before bad sequels and reboots. But this isn’t about fame.
“This is about reclaiming truth,” Nan proclaims. “Turning the movie into an experience that reflects people’s actual lives. No bullshit and illusions and breaking out into song.”
Part of me wants out. I wonder what the purpose is. Isn’t this like stabbing a corpse to death? Mom’s gone, The Sound of Music’s like artificial sweetener. But I can’t help but admire Nan’s drive, her certainty in all this. And I do want to stop feeling helpless. Nancy’s been a ghost since Mom left, drifting in and out of her room, so I take this as a sign. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know. It’s something, though.
I think of the times we saw The Sound of Music. All of us. Five or six, at least. And those years before, even just a year ago, it seemed like nothing could touch us. Not divorce, not debauchery. We sat in a theater, wearing serenity or at least not discontentment. Once we had points of agreement, even if the rationales diverged sharply. Dad called the von Trapp family brave in their struggle even if they were privileged. He loved when the Captain ripped the swastika, yelling insults at the Nazis. Even Mom got in on the fun. Mom said the von Trapps were the apotheosis of a good family, self-reliant and creative. A few times she jokingly nicknamed her and Dad The von Trapp Family Teachers.
Once we shared spaces, even if they smelled like sweat and buttered popcorn. Once we could smile at each other, at the experience unfolding before us all in the same moment.
And so we begin dissecting and rewriting The Sound of Music, the tale of a would-be nun bringing music into a bitter widower’s home, while the Nazi menace grows. In this version there’s no Maria, the Julie Andrews character, and an actual person. Her saccharine cheer is gone. This is my suggestion and Nan takes to it with enthusiasm.
“I mean, she’s a substitute mother,” Nan says. “And they just become enthusiastic when she marries the Captain?”
“I wouldn’t be enthusiastic, that’s for sure.” The thought of a new mother with Mom still out there just feels wrong. Even if she’s making a new life in an apartment without guest bedrooms. She drove us to school, helped us with homework. She gave us our names, for the love of God. She’s a point of reference when we talk family.
As to the movie, we keep the 1930s setting for the script. I insist on it, even though Nancy thinks a 70s-set Sound of Music offers possibilities and more rawness. But in my book, with the 30s, at least there’s an elegance to the dress and way people move about spaces, even as the Nazis march.
“I do love your nerdiness,” Nan says, laughing.
“Shut the fuck up,” I quip.
There’s also a distance from which you can look at that time period, in a way you couldn’t look at this year, five years ago, or even a decade before us. It’s as if you’re looking under a microscope, but in a haphazard way. There are things you can avoid, things you can choose to see and amplify.
But the biggest change is the Captain’s first wife runs off with some German aristocrat instead of dying. Nan says it stretches the truth of things, but symbolically it’s rife with verisimilitude.
“I mean, if you’re going to run off, have a reason,” she says.
True. Running off to Denver or Berlin and finding power in art is a reason, but it’s not one you can wrap your head around. It’s not one you can easily explain to yourself or an audience. There’s a part of me that wishes Mom had run off with some German named Gunter or Heinrich. There would have been a point of understanding and an easy source of anger too.
In the original movie, the wife conveniently died. I know the movie’s based on real life, but it’s already been bastardized anyway, Nan says. In real life the Captain was the tender father and Maria was a hardcore disciplinarian. But this is something I won’t learn until years later.
We know no dead parents, just slammed doors and empty spaces. Plus, a dead parent still seems too convenient and allows for idealization, a beatific figure hovering about their spaces. Of course, whatever their flaws, whatever love they offered or didn’t, they’re gone. There are only so many ways and times you can add them up. Nan and I sometimes remember Mom’s efforts at tenderness, the times I got sick and Mom sat beside me at night. She kept saying everything would be all right and not to worry. I think she meant it then or thought she did, but it was Nan whose jokes and faces made me laugh, really laugh.
So what does Mom mean now?
“So the Captain’s wife runs off with a Nazi?” I say.
We’re in Nancy’s room working away. We’re one week into the project and hostages are being held in Iran. Dad’s been holed up in his bedroom and I heard thumps on the walls, as if he’s been striking them. Must be primal scream night, Nancy jokes. There have been more and more nights like that, uncertain and ominous. I wonder if he’s destroying the drywall. He’s said during a revolution you destroy everything associated with the old order.
Nan’s radio’s blasting The Doobie Brothers, “What a Fool Believes” at full volume. The moon spills through the curtains, mingling with the graying shadows and there’s something truly creepy about all this. It’s as if the moon knows we’re alone, but instead of offering solace, she’s in cahoots with the shadows. They’re laughing.
“He’s not a Nazi per se,” Nan says. “Let’s say he’s expendable. Principled for a price. He represents the world that the mother seeks. Cold pragmatism, little brother. Cold, rotten pragmatism. Although maybe she thinks of it as something new. A contrast.”
“Do you think so?” I say. “About the pragmatism?”
Mom is, I mean was, very pragmatic. She was always engrossed in making lists of chores and grocery lists. She spent hours going over the grocery lists and the bills to be paid. How could someone who lived in calculation take such a gamble?
“Well, little brother, people adapt a lot more readily than they think,” Nan says. “This aristocrat could be a Nazi one day and then a rabbi the next. Extreme example, but you see what I mean, don’t you?”
“People have no principles at heart?”
“Close enough.” Nancy smiles, a sad smile. She looks at me and then out the window where the moon drifts in and out, teasing again.
But I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of not having principle.
Now when Mom speaks in terms of poetry, alliteration and allusion, I imagine a body taken over by a completely different soul. This is a soul who speaks a language of struggle. Sometimes she reads her domestic poems, rife with terms like “paroxysms” and “refrigerator doors like cannons.”
I picture a metamorphosis having a sort of ripple effect. With one changed body, another is disrupted somewhere. Once Dad asked us questions about history over dinner, his own odd little brand of love. Instead of talking piano lessons and report cards, we talked Jeffersonian racism. Now he asks us perfunctory questions. How was your day? What are you two up to? Occasionally, he makes a joke, tells us not to kill each other for Mom’s sake. Then he retreats and plans his next attack on the racist-industrial complex, as he calls the college administration.
I wish I could bring back the questioning. I wish I could dissolve Nancy’s sad smile, bring back the old smirk, sly, elegant. It was a smirk that contained inappropriate jokes about gas line fights and about the President and his peanuts. She called him “the master of the sweater.” She even joked about how Ayatollah Khomeini’s beard looked like a guy’s balls.
“What parent,” Nan says, pounding the keys with force, “considers running off pragmatism?”
“Well, some come back,” I say. “I don’t know. Some just need to cool off. Maybe they think it’s practical. I don’t get it.”
Nan stops typing and looks at me. It’s a sad little look, like she’s thinking I’m a deluded fool or a child still. And she’d be right. But there’s a part of me that hopes this new life is just a place between a dream and waking up and everything will fall into place. A small part.
“Do you think that?” Nancy says. “How do you tell anyway?”
“I don’t know,” I say. And truth be told, the way Mom talks about space and time, I don’t. Maybe she’ll come back in a month, a year. But it doesn’t add up. The way she kept talking, there’s a certainty to her words, as if she mapped out the arrangements.
“Well,” Nan says, smiling, leaning into her typewriter, “maybe. But not in our script. We’re truthtellers.”
The song ends. The moon disappears, leaving us with the shadows. A new song starts up, Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender,” the one with the lines about being a happy idiot struggling for the legal tender. Something that Nan and I will both be, Nan a family lawyer, and me a movie producer, both pretending to love the politics for the sake of the Benjamins. But that’s still to come.
Nan can be brittle and brooding, but she’s my sister. She stayed up with me all night when Mom split, told dirty joke after dirty joke, until the moon set and dirty jokes were too painful. She’s taught me to drive her Toyota Corolla. She carries creativity like a Fabergé egg, coming up with ideas, thinking about how to subvert popular culture and the world. She once imagined a sitcom about the Ayatollah called Little Fatwa on the Prairie. She also cranks up music when Dad rants from his room, dares to call him pathetic. She holds a kind of power that I don’t, a guy she sometimes calls sensitive. It’s a compliment, it’s an insult, it’s an expression of worry, and maybe she’s right.
Dad calls Mom an average of ten to twelve times per night. Nan counts. He promises to bring her back, but he’s promised so many things. She threatens to call the police if he doesn’t stop, but asks about Nan and me.
We struggle to figure out how the mother breaks the news to the Captain and the children. We want absolute truth, but as Nancy says, in the 30s, a runaway parent’s not going to say they need “space.” Plus, Nan says, space is such a cold word. It’s like we’re furniture blocking someone’s view or path. And I wonder if that’s what we are.
“Let’s have her send a telegram,” I say. “No. A letter.”
“That works. And it conveys distance better than talking about space,” she says. “Yes, that’s just it. She can’t bother to sit down and explain. Just have her say she’s sorting out her life and she loves the children. And emphasize the love part.”
I can’t argue with that. When I talk to Mom on the phone and she says she loves me or Nan, I want to believe it. I want to see a tenderness in it and not just a platitude. I want one thing to take from that conversation, for me, for Nan. And I suspect Nan does too. There are times she looks so young, younger than me even. She clutches her hands like she’s waiting for a promise, waiting for things to be all right.
I wonder if Mom ever believed in The Sound of Music. I want to think so.
The Captain’s wife speaks words all too familiar. She tells the children that her love is abiding. This isn’t their fault. Their father is difficult, she says. He’s just too difficult, too Quixotic, and people need to look to the future, to security. She just needs time to herself, time to find the missing pieces, just as the children need their own time alone. She knows the children will get on well. They’re old enough now to understand adult problems.
Nan doesn’t have to imagine those words. I remember them being spoken through the phone, husky deliberation piercing me. It’s like a pain you feel, but don’t know how to deal with. You close your eyes and wait for it to end. You close your eyes, even while your sister confronts Mom, her hazel eyes flickering with steel acknowledgment, responses peppered with variants of “fuck.”
“What do you fucking mean you need space there? There isn’t any space for visitors?”
“Understand. Love. What do those things mean? What do they fucking mean, Mom?”
“So you can’t spare one weekend? One weekend to talk? You owe us, Mom. You owe us that much, don’t you think? One small, good, fucking thing. No, of course, we need to understand, understand.”
You just want to cry, surrender, wake up. Every single time. You want to cry even more when all your sister says in the aftermath is, “She loves you, Nicky. I know that might not mean much, but she wanted me to tell you that.
You want to cry even more when she looks at you long and hard and says, “You’re a good guy, Nicky.”
I wonder if the idea of space doesn’t better capture verisimilitude than a letter or phone call.
I love playing the piano. Loved. Before Mom, I used to play the piano. There were a number of pieces, but my favorite was Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale. I played that hundred times over and over because it conveyed an era of carriage wheels and Russian aristocrats speaking French and order. Sometimes, she’d praise my elegance, my verve, she called it, but other times she’d ask me to keep it down. Couldn’t everyone just keep it down, she’d ask, her voice cracked with desperation. I wanted to offer some comfort. I wanted to offer to cook her dinner, to give her some small token, but I think a part of me knew it wouldn’t be enough. Even years later, as an ostensibly mature adult, Mom and I will talk of all this and refer to this as the era of claustrophobia. Of course, Mom will insist that I call her Penelope, since we’re speaking as adults.
Back then, we lived in starched neatness, a family seemingly propped up like buttresses on a cathedral. There was a proverbial history professor father, eccentricity still a faint buzz. There was a mother who taught high school English. This was a family who lived on principles and weekly movies, even if they lacked the kind of tenderness and exuberance of sitcom parents. Of course, this all was before last year, the rising voices, the pop of Dad’s bottles late at night, Dad’s uneven laughter, the clickety-clack of Mom’s heels, and finally the heels mingling with slammed doors.
We drowned out Dad’s battles, a college professor teaching what he called real history. Dad’s voice, gravelly and worn-out, Mom’s, low, tinged with a thousand cigarettes past. Until we couldn’t.
Picture of one such night, arguments bouncing back and forth:
“Principles, Herman, principles. We have to live. Teach the curriculum. Don’t play hero with the department.”
“Last time I checked, freedom of expression is still valued, Penelope. It’s a wonder that survived Nixon.”
“While you play hero, who do you think picks up the pieces? Who do you think has to attend to bills, her own grading, and on top of that, Nick and Nancy?”
“Well, I’m not playing hero. I’m trying to help students, Penelope. I’m trying to make sure they’re not brainwashed by right-wing nut jobs. You know those people. They think everything’s dandy and questioning is tantamount to being a Bolshevik. God forbid we should mention Thomas Jefferson’s liaisons or Ben Franklin’s racism.”
The hills were alive with the sound of discord.
“Do you know what it’s like, Herman,” Mom said, “to have people calling, waiting for you? What it’s like to always talk about our time, our time. What about my time? What it’s like to have children demanding. Help me with homework, why is the world like this? Why this? Why that? I love them, but damn it, Herman, I’m being entangled like an octopus. Dear God, when do I get my time?”
This was only five months ago.
We don’t write anything during Thanksgiving. Mom calls and tells us to keep each other happy.
“I miss you and Nancy,” she tells me. “But this is the best for us all. I’m truly happy, Nick. Happy in a way I haven’t been for a while. You’re fourteen, so you need to hear these things. I’m creating, you know. These poems are things I don’t have to answer for. I wouldn’t have imagined this a year ago.”
“I’m happy for you,” is all I can say.
“I know this must be hard on you,” she says. “But look, you have my number. I just need to really take this all one day at a time. Call me if you need something, Nick. Same for Nancy. Any emergency. Seriously. If you truly need something.”
“What about Christmas?” Nancy growls from behind me.
I don’t know if Mom hears her, but she says she has to go. She’s been invited to a function with friends, she says. I think of The Sound of Music when the Captain is moved by his children’s singing. Nan and I tried so much before Mom left. We took over cooking, cleaned the kitchen, tried to give her a night off, and still she went.
Nancy and I get drunk after that call. Turkey with champagne, wine, brandy, whatever we can find. Dad doesn’t bother to stop us. We plan to do the same for Christmas.
It’s another late-night work session in Nan’s room. Christmas beckons. Dad’s stopped in from time to time, but he’s never complained. On the contrary, there’s been a sort of sadness, a tenderness to his look, standing in Nan’s door. He’s just worn this odd little smile. Maybe in those moments he’s been trying to find something decent in all this, in Nan and me. Maybe he sees some success as a parent. Or maybe he’s deluding himself, hoping that by our being together, we’re looking strictly forward and he can keep on with his crusades and futility.
“Say,” Nan says, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Do you think the actual von Trapps loved each other, Nick? Really loved each other? I mean the ones the movie’s based on?”
I want to say many things. I want to say that I think they loved each other, that they were able to find purpose to their lives. In some ways that’s true. Only years later, though, will I learn that Maria married the Captain more out of fondness for the children. She had difficult times both with her stepchildren and with her real ones, the byproduct of her marriage to the Captain.
“I think they did,” I say. “I think they loved each other greatly.”
“I kind of miss it,” Nan says, smiling a sly, little smile. “It was stupid, but at least it was predictable. And kind of fun.”
“Don’t start singing ‘My Favorite Things’ now, Sis.”
“Seriously,” Nan says.
I can’t argue. I still think of that opening scene, the possibility when Julie Andrews breaks out into song on the mountaintop. I still remember feeling the vastness of possibility, the verdant hills calling. But we must keep going. The movie is a seductress, a promiser of things that can’t be delivered.
“Do you think they ever thought about leaving? Each other, I mean,” Nan says. “The von Trapps.”
Truth is, I can’t answer that one. But I think of Nancy’s calls with Mom, the things she never said to Nan. I’ll send for you all when I’m settled. I’m so sorry for all this disruption. I’d love to see you. I think of how Mom hasn’t mentioned that movie at all once, but talks of darker fare like Apocalypse Now.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think they thought that for a minute.”
The Captain keeps trying to get his wife back. All too true to life. We emphasize this. He calls, demands, paints pictures of children clamoring. He tells his wife stories about their artistic endeavors, their singing aspirations. The things they do together as siblings. An empty phone keeps ringing somewhere. Ring, ring. He calls late at night when the wife might be busy with the German socialite and once or twice. Through their rooms, the children can hear the slam of the phone, the Captain’s cursing.
Sometimes, he talks into the phone without making the call. He does it drunk, he does it sober. He does it in between.
“Answer, darling,” he barks once. “Please, please, please answer. For the children. I know you think I’m crazy, but all this I do for you, the children. I want them to have a better future, a better country. I love your neatness, your principles, but please think of the children.”
There’s something pathetic and powerful in his calls. We can’t bear to call Mom. Her calls to us came once a week at first. Now it’s every other week. We could call her, but we don’t. Maybe we’re afraid of what’s on the other end, the things she might reveal, truths about our family that might come out and disrupt things further. Maybe it’s the fact she calls us Nicholas and Nancy more and more, the distance growing like a fungus. Gone are Nick and Nan, or Sunny and Stormy as she once called us because of our childhood temperaments.
Maybe we don’t call because right after Thanksgiving, with Dad listening, she says, “I love Denver. You’ll always know where I am.”
After Christmas, the phone calls from Mom will stop for three months. She will later say she’s upset, had setbacks with her work and life. Nothing more will be known.
In our script, the Captain now has a coterie of women, some the same age of his oldest daughter, parading through the grounds. They start coming about three months into his new state as a single father. They fuck in hallways, screw on the stairwells, even in ballrooms and beneath Christmas trees whose branches wear indolence and defeat. They never make true love, and they certainly do not enter the Captain’s bedroom. When the children catch them, they just laugh or try to talk down to the children, asking about their favorite colors and movies. The children cannot help but slightly respect the effort. The Captain still sits in the bedroom, in that rocking chair in the corner, where the mother once nursed seven children.
“This place is just too big,” the Captain says when caught in the act. “You know? You need someone to talk to, someone to fill it. If only for a fleeting moment. You need to know what it feels like to interact, to have people interested in you. To know you’re not coming apart completely.”
Now it occurs to me that one of the ladies’ names is Misty.
One of Dad’s “harem,” as Nan calls it. It’s a name that reminds me of an agile, youthful cheerleader or someone who’s too happy. Mom’s name is Penelope, which translates to weaver. But Misty’s name connotes a life still forming. She’s someone whose life is still a bit of a fog. She’s older than Nancy and I, and yet that mere name seems a reminder that our own lives have closed in some way, no matter how one tries to move forward and yet we can’t fully close them. Something is missing. We have the knowledge of the things unfolding, but not the solutions. I can only laugh and keep laughing because I could cry.
The harem disappears after Christmas. I feel sorrow for them, figures rushed in and out. What does Dad recall of each one? What does it meant for them to be left behind too?
Dad promises to make the New Year great. He even hints at dialing back his political rants and defiant moments. But the more he promises, the more earnest he seems, the more we’re doomed.
We consider changing the Captain’s behavior altogether. He’s become too sniveling, too pathetic even for truth, Nancy says.
Nan also wants to change the mother’s behavior. She wants to give the mother some softness, have her at least reach out to her children. She even flirts with the notion of having the mother invite them to live with her or at least try it. Truth be told, I feel a kind of betrayal when Nan suggests it and I don’t know why. It’s not like I haven’t imagined that sort of scenario with Mom. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s just bringing this up now, even while the distance between Mom and us grows.
“What about truth?” I say. “What about staying faithful to that? Isn’t truth the most important thing?”
Nancy frowns. People can’t be fully villainous, she says. She’s worried that the mother has become just that.
“I don’t think she’s a villain per se,” I say. “But we promised to be truthful. Aren’t we undermining it now? What good is it?”
“Fuck truth,” Nan says, slamming her fist down on the typewriter.
“I’m sorry Nicky, but they all promise it. Truth, truth, truth. We love you, we know what’s good. These arrangements are for your sake.”
“I’m just saying, Nan. We wanted to make this real.”
Nan sighs and smiles.
“I’d like to give the mother one good thing,” Nan says. “One thing she can give her children. What could it be?”
The Captain’s wife is gone. Mom’s gone. She can’t give anything. She can send boxes of chocolates or her own poems (as Mom has), but the items still hold a hollowness, convey a sort of social contract. Here’s a gift. Here is a small piece of me, the only piece I can give you. The only piece I want to give you.
“I don’t know, Nan.”
“Damn it, Nicky, don’t be so dogmatic.” Nan’s voice is cracking.
“I can’t, Nan,” I say. “I mean this is about truth.”
“Fuck truth,” Nan says. And she’s starting to cry. “Just one thing. Can’t the mother send one fucking postcard? Or tell them some memory from their childhood? Why don’t they go to the movies? One last hurrah.”
“I wish she could,” I say. “But she can’t. She just can’t.”
“It’s our story, Nicky,” Nan says. She’s crying even harder now. “She has to. How come she can’t? Why can’t she? What fucking logic makes her so cold?”
“She can’t,” I say, trying to find the words. “She’s just lost in her new life, I guess.”
“Just give me a fucking reason,” Nan says. The tears sound as if something’s choking her, grabbing her. And I guess something really is. “One reason, Nick. Don’t bullshit me, little brother.”
I take a Kleenex and try to slowly wipe away Nan’s tears, the way I see the mothers do in old movies, but Nan pushes away. She laughs a little, shakes her head. I try again and she pushes me away once more.
“No, Nicky,” she says. “This has to hurt. Leave it be, Nicky. Leave it be.”
“Please don’t cry.”
“Let it hurt, Nicky,” she says. “I need to let it hurt. Think about it.”
“She’s unhappy, Nan,” I say, but I know otherwise.
She left. Abandoned the children. She ran off. The Captain’s wife, Mom, and so many other parents. Left, abandoned, ran off. These are all the rawest of terms, a knife under your skin, a knife that digs deeper with each utterance. And looking at it, they were all conscious of their acts, no matter how they tried to package their words. No matter how many times they spouted platitudes about “abiding love,” and all that. And there’s no other way to add them up. They are there, you are here. You shouldn’t have to play with the words and dig the knife into your own skin, but sometimes it has to happen. Sometimes you have to be wounded to be sane. Sometimes, you have to dig before you pull back and find completion or a semblance thereof.
Mom’s words from months ago echo in my head, her comparing us to octopuses in particular. Octopus. Octopus. Is that what Nancy and I are? Creatures? When did we become monsters? What happened to the Mom who used to read to us before bed, even though reading Anna Karenina to children isn’t appropriate? At least it was an effort to reach out, to make us better and more cultured. It was an effort. What happened to the Mom who used to help with homework, who explained Abraham Lincoln with methodical calmness, but a kind of odd tenderness too? Sometimes, she’d slip a “honey,” or “sweetheart” in for good measure.
“I love you, Nan,” I say, because it’s the only thing that comes to mind.
Nan smiles, the tears subsiding a little. There’s a kind of emptiness in this room. What will fill this up now? More tears? Or will we walk through a stormy wonderland alone, something without form?
“Say that again,” she says, smile widening a tad, “and I’ll kick your ass so hard, your nose will bleed.”
“I love you.”
A new year hits us, 1980. Hostages still await their fate. The master of the sweater looks tired. Dad tries to pull back from political statements and calling Mom. No luck. I just want things to take on logical conclusions.
So we keep going. What else can we do? We can quit this whole thing, but we can’t. We need the rawness. We need the completion. It’s not just about revenge now. I can forgive the schmaltz and the illusions. I’m just tired and so is Nan, tired of Julie Andrews’ cheer, tired of promises and pretense, and just tired from being tired.
In our latest work, everyone drinks and gets into bar fights, especially the Captain. He goes to Hamburg and slams a man he thinks is his wife’s lover into a bar counter. Nan wants a jukebox for more pain though.
How many jukeboxes realistically existed in Austria and Germany in 1937-38?
There’s something powerful in an exchange of rage and bewilderment, in fists flying. And there’s another kind of power in the adversary, lashing out, pushing and fighting, until the Captain’s the one sprawled across the bar. Glasses and invisible internal forces are broken. But the Captain keeps trying and trying.
But as we both know in real life, some people fight, others sit in the dark and expect things to come back together. They dine on onions-and-crackers and drink champagne and write treatises about familial loss and racism. They try to live and they even try to try, but they fail.
The bar fight stays. Then it goes.
Dad gets fired for his behavior. He comes home and tells us he’s sorry. He’ll find something else. He tells of arguing with the department head, Dr. Edgar, making his case to be retained, but we need more than words now.
The bar fight comes back.
We like the image of flying fists. We can feel it, feel the air taunting and teasing. Motherless, motherless, the air whispers. We accentuate the fight. We’re fighting the fights that Dad’s abdicated, fighting the world. We’re fighting the world that doesn’t want us and that relegates us to spaces.
But we can’t still decide where the Captain should go. Where the children should go.
So all, we can do is look to the children as key. Because that is the key. They’re there through dissolution, political turmoil, and they’re not going to abandon each other. They still wield creativity.
In one section, they think of warm fires and talk of how burning things clears things up.
So in the end, the children burn things left behind.
They burn scrapbooks and paint walls black. They have bonfires every night, the past rising into the sky until there’s just rawness. Letters melt in the heat of the night, smiles turn to smoke. although they do keep several pictures, small vestiges of the past, photos with all of them donning smiles, a labyrinth of arms and illusions so visible. Some small mementos.
The Captain watches, a shadow. He looks as if he wants to rush out, to salvage things, but he can’t. We cannot yet know the ending. We cannot know that Dad will disappear from the world within a year, Nancy and I left to our own devices. We can’t know he’ll be struck by a train and that Mom will be in and out of our lives. She will become a reasonably well-known poet and Nancy and I will cover our souls and walls in money.
But now, we know only that Dad’s like a skier going down a hill, faster, faster, but he can’t slow down. And he doesn’t want to, because maybe he’d have to see the things and people not there.
The Captain drinks his champagne from a distance and watches as the children release items with cold precision. There’s no cursing or screaming here, only a slow, methodical act of release. A few Nazis even offer to join in the fracas, thinking there’s a book burning transpiring. Obviously that’s not truth. Although in real life, a few neighbors come over and complain about our own burn party, as we call it.
The Captain later comes out and proclaims love for his children, even though he washes that down with champagne and belligerence. But the fundamental truth is this: A family of siblings has been abandoned by their mother. The father, the Captain, other fathers cannot explain it. When they ask if the mother loved them, all the Captain can say is, “Look, it’s complicated. She’s complicated. You should know this. I wish I could explain her better, but there’s so much I don’t even know.”
Those words require no embellishment.
Talk about truths.
This an almost ending that doesn’t promise. It doesn’t promise like empty letters and phone calls from hundreds of miles away, telling us this all isn’t the kids’ fault. It doesn’t promise the chance to go over the Alps and find paradise. This is an ending with no room for what-ifs. What if she did come back? What if she didn’t leave? And yet there are what-ifs where the Captain is concerned. Will he retreat? Will he move forward?
And how will the children talk of their mother in the years to come? What will the mother think of her children going forward?
This is a true and slightly incomplete story. We need another line, another moment to tie it all together.
It will be uncertain. It will be quite dark, perhaps darker than any other section. We know all this.
So what the hell is that line? We just need a line. Or maybe two.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in WestWard Quarterly, Café Lit, and Ariel Chart, among others.