Selection from Curves of Pursuit
by Thomas Farber
Saturday morning, two eggs soft-boiling, and I'm worried that they've been in too long. I've made eggs for breakfast since I was a child, but I've never quite settled on a way to be sure they won't overcook. This used to drive my wife wild. She decided to wean me--onto scrambled eggs, poached eggs, fried eggs, eggs-in-a-basket, omelets (especially Spanish omelets, for which I acquired a real affection)--but when that strategy failed she gave me an egg timer she knew I wouldn't use. I don't think I'm obdurate, I simply have always wanted to sense the moment the eggs are done the way I want them, that instant just before the yolk becomes a solid.
I remember one summer in the Sierras I ended up with runny eggs morning after morning, unable to believe how long it took water to boil at five thousand feet, nor could I break my lifelong habit of putting the eggs into the water when I first turn on the flame. "You'll never change," my wife would say, watching me watch the eggs. "You knew who I was when we married," I generally responded, though actually I no longer felt like that person at all. And though, I should add, my wife seemed only ever more strange to me.
In any case, she was wrong, I have changed some things, even as regards eggs. When I was a child we ate them at the kitchen table in eggcups, and always, to my mother's dismay, I'd slice the top off mine. She'd come downstairs each morning before anyone else was up--well before six, that is--to prepare a single egg, very soft-boiled, which she'd tap open with her spoon. I can't remember just when, but at some point I decided to-dispense with eggcups.
At this particular moment, however, I'm worried that the eggs have been in too long. The cats are already fed, catfood can washed--ants! ants!--the way my wife has always insisted on. Ties that bind. I'm humming Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" as I clean the kitchen counter ("Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then . . .") and pouring on the Ajax, occasionally taking a break to eye the eggs. Western Man. When the phone rings I drop the sponge, turn off the burner, hold the pot under the tap. For a moment I'm transfixed, watching the water spiral down the drain.
The phone rings four times, five, six. I've only just plugged It in. If I get less than eight hours sleep, I find, I'm useless. Cranky, mean, confused. And then I realized a few years back that most of the really bad news I've received in my life has come after ten at night. Nothing, I now feel, can't wait until morning.
The phone keeps ringing. Turning off the cold water, I pick up the receiver. "Northern California command control, I say. "Speak to me." I hear the sound of a great distance and then a whistle. My response is pure Pavlov. " Qué tal ?" I ask, just as I have asked for as long as I can remember, "Trezbean." This is my brother's whistle, Trezbean one of my childhood names for him, our bastardization of très bien . Perhaps because my brother was a prodigy with languages, received so much praise from teachers for his skill, he took a perverse delight in translating idioms literally. "What a piece," I'd exclaim, seeing a pretty girl. "Quel morceau. Was für ein Stück," my brother would mutter sotto voce before the sound of my words had faded.
In this he was imitating the translators we'd observed at work in New York City. My brother, you see, once won a translating prize for high-school students, an all-expense-paid trip--for two!--to the United Nations. From the time we arrived in Grand Central on the train from Boston, however, things were confused: the public-relations woman assigned to us totally ignored my brother, spoke only to me. I'd raise my eyebrows, my brother would shrug. "What is this?" I asked him as soon as we were alone in our room at the Hotel Roosevelt. "What's with her, anyway?" "Quién sabe?" he replied. " Wer weiss? Who knows, who knows?"
The same thing happened the next day in the sightseeing limousine, at the top of the Empire State Building, and at the Russian Tea Room. It was only when we reached the United Nations and the prizewinner was to pose with translators from around the world--all in saris, kimonos, and burnooses--that the truth emerged. We were both pretty good-sized then, my brother at seventeen about six-one (though thin as a rail), while at fifteen I was already six-three, tipped the scales at one ninety. "Boer," my brother often called me. Beef. Having been told before we arrived that the prizewinner was the older brother, the public-relations woman had from the moment she laid eyes on us made an understandably incorrect inference. "Quelle tragedie, " my brother muttered as the enraged woman took him firmly by the arm. "I can't believe it," he said to me. " Je m'en doute plus the subjunctive."
Can you see that my brother was shy, reserved, that for him this kind of incident was not entirely untypical? Of course he was also a wizard with languages, though I didn't really comprehend the extent of his genius until we went to Europe. We'd decided to take the ferry from Dover to Calais--he was twenty then, I was eighteen, this would have been 1966--and I'd drunk too much warm beer before departure. Feeling queasy, I found myself surrounded by a hundred English Boy Scouts. There were stacks of large porcelain bowls nearby, apparently for the seasick, but the Scouts and I were soon vomiting in any direction. When my stomach finally settled I searched out my brother. In the middle of a small crowd, he was talking a blue streak. French, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, in each tongue taking on a different persona, the essence of the national type as he heard it expressed in the language. Though fifteen years have passed, I see this with absolute clarity, the ferry pitching and rolling, sky gray, waves green and then black and very large. And my brother, utterly engaged, soaring beyond himself, gesticulating madly, laughing. "Incroyable, " I said to him, bolding on to a bulkhead for dear life. "Boeuf," he replied, grinning. "Incrédible, absolument incrédible." And then we both began to laugh, appreciating his great love of cognates and the moment itself.
Again, through the waves of distance on the phone, I hear my brother's whistle coming at me all the way from Boston. " Qué tal? " I say for the second time, and, "Hey, how's it going?" Sensing that no answer is forthcoming, I add, "What's shaking?" My brother could respond to this last question with the rote "Ain't nothin' shakin' but the leaves on the trees," taking "leaves" long and slow to catch the black idiom. This would have the virtue of begging the question while of course qualifying as an answer. But instead my brother replies as he generally does when asked--in English, in any case--something that could in any way be construed as personal. "Oh, I don't know," he responds, his voice almost without affect. My brother, my brother, I say to myself. We need a football, though at three thousand miles it would be one hell of a throw.
When I came home from the bookstore the other night I found a packet in the mail from a Reverend Ewing of Atlanta, Georgia. "This is your lucky day," it said on the envelope, the ink red-orange, the underlining profuse and very black. Enclosed, there was a red-- "for Christ's Blood"--paper "Prayer Rug," as well as four pages of greetings and exhortations from Reverend Ewing. As I skimmed the text, I came to a color picture of a family. After this father, mother, and two children started writing "faithfully" to Reverend Ewing's Ministry, God blessed them with two restaurants, two motels, a "Dairy Creme," a service station, thirty employees, four cars, and three trucks.
Examining the rest of my mail, segregating anything that looked like a bill, I found a chain letter. "And all things, whatever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive." This quotation from Matthew, I read, had been sent to me for good luck. The catch was that I had to pass on twenty copies of the letter within ninety-six hours. If I didn't, well, "Joe Elliott received $450,000.00 and lost it, because he broke the chain." By this point racking my brain to determine who'd done me the kindness of sending the letter, I was further troubled by its internal inconsistencies. "While in the Philippines, General Welch lost his life 6 days after he received this letter. He failed to circulate this quote. However, before his death he received $775,000.00."
"For the love of God," I said out loud. "What's the moral of the story?"
I was just wondering why I couldn't even get a coherent chain letter when I heard a detonation in the kitchen. Macho, of course, my ringtailed orange tom. Dropping off the table, putting all his weight into it, using whatever gravity would allow to announce that it was time for dinner. "Out," I yelled, and felt a rush of self-pity: Did Macho ever do anything without ulterior motive? Was he ever not waiting to be fed?
At this point I heard him calling from outside. Reminder number two. Given the dynamic he and I have perfected over the years, I had several options. I could open the front door and make a mad rush at him, in which case he'd hightail it under the fence and out to the sidewalk, staying there perhaps five minutes before returning to start calling again. I could then escalate by. going after him with a pail of water, a shoe, or the broom, though I rarely had the energy. My only other option, really, was to get out a can of catfood. Macho and I both knew it would happen sooner or later. Why not sooner?
Hearing the opener on the rim, Macho came sprinting through the cat door and headed for his plate. "No," I yelled, and he screeched to a halt, drawing back around the corner of the stove. Out of sight/out of mind was his message, though I knew he was there and he knew I knew. It was at this moment, her timing exquisite, that Tina, black-haired and slightly overweight matriarch, joined in with a plaintive meowing. As if she'd never been so hungry, as if she should have been fed days ago, as if she had no hope of ever being fed again.
Such a maneuver is typical of Tina. Her favorite ploy is to call to be petted, to call piteously for as long as it takes for you to respond. When you approach, however, she keeps drawing back just beyond reach. She has also always liked to eat as slowly as possible, her object to have Macho finish first so he'll steal from her. Why? Because she knows I'll see him and then chase him out, that's why.
The menu the other night could have been Bits o' Beef, or Tuna and Liver with Sauce, or Red Meat Tuna, but was in fact Tuna with Kidney. I could barely look at the stuff, much less spoon it out, but as usual some juice dripped onto my fingers. I was just gauging Macho's portion when he bumped into my elbow in his rush to the plate, making me spill more juice on my hand. "I said get back," I shouted, and he withdrew perhaps a foot. Another time this might have been enough, but I was feeling mean. "Damn it to hell, Macho, I said get back." He retreated to the far side of the stove, peering around the corner every few seconds to check on my progress. Finally, Tuna with Kidney on both plates, I whistled, the same whistle my mother used to call the dog when I was growing up. One-two-three one-two. Fast-fast-fast slow-slow.
The feeding accomplished, my own appetite suppressed, I went into the living room, poured myself some Johnnie Walker Black, lay down on the couch. The Scotch began to work on me-- "Right to the pineal gland," I muttered--and there I was again, thinking about my wife, about us.
The first time we ever went out we had Japanese food and then drove down to the Bay for a long walk in the fog. We put away some Johnnie Walker that night, that's for sure. Right after we left the restaurant I asked her what she liked to drink. We were passing a liquor store. When she didn't immediately reply I said, "How about some Scotch?" It turned out she almost never drank. She was twenty-one then, I was twenty-seven. When we arrived back at her place it was midnight. As we came up the steps of her front porch Tina was there watching.
Hands in my pockets, shifting my weight from foot to foot, focusing on the tear in the screen door, I pondered what to do. And then, startling myself, I blurted out, "Excuse me, do you have a razor handy?"
"A razor? For shaving? You want it now?"
"If you don't mind," I said, forcing a grin. I thought I was crazy, actually.
"Wait a second. Not to get personal, but can I ask why?"
"Sure, you can ask."
"But you'd rather not say."
"Correct. I also need scissors."
"Nothing else? Well, come on in. Excuse the mess."
When she produced a Gillette with a dull blade--and she had no spares--I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Flourishing the scissors, I drew an imaginary line from nose to chin to Adam's apple and began cutting back my beard to the left of it. Black curly hairs dropped down to the sink.
Left side cropped, right still untouched, I worked some soap into a lather.
"You're really going to?" she asked incredulously.
"I'll keep the mustache. I've had it since I was eighteen. The beard was just an experiment."
Growing impatient with the Gillette's dull blade, getting careless, I cut myself. Plastering a wad of toilet paper to my cheek to clot the blood, I studied the effect in the mirror.
"Ignore the self-mutilation," she said, laughing. "You could be spokesperson for the National Society of Schizophrenics."
"Can't help it. I need another blade before I can be monophrenic again."
"Monophrenic? Not bad. Not bad."
She was sure that all the stores in the area would be closed, but then asked if I didn't have some blades at my house, so I invited her to come witness the rest of the mayhem. By the time I finished shaving, however, she was asleep on the living-room couch. When I shook her shoulder she pulled herself up, stretched, and yawned. Then she stared. "Pretty good," she said at last.
"What can I tell you? This is what I really look like."
"That wasn't you in the beard?"
"No. This is who I am."
"Exhausted," she said abruptly. "What time is it? I have to be at work at nine."
"It must be one-thirty, quarter of two. Sorry. I just wanted you to see what I really look like."
"And now I know?"
"No." She laughed. "Not really." She laughed again. "Sorry. Couldn't resist it."
"I guess it seems pretty crazy."
"I don't know why you say that. Just your run-of-the-mill first date. But do you want to hear what I really think?"
"OK," I said reluctantly.
"What I really think is that it's time for bed." She yawned, rubbed her eyes. "Hey, you with the mustache you've had since you were eighteen."
"Where's the bedroom?"
"Down the hall and turn left."
"I think I can find it," she said, laughing. "If you're coming, better bring the Scotch."
It's confusing. Though I've tried many times, I just can't remember who taught me how to pass. My father won a varsity letter in college, but he was a lineman and I have no idea if he even liked to handle the ball. Further, he died, having been ill for years, when I was ten. Was there, nonetheless, some interlude when he was feeling all right, an autumn day when he took me over to the park to show me the basics?
I try to conjure it up. This would be more than twenty-five years ago. I don't see a football weekend, high and clear, air bracing, I just don't. No, if I see my father at all it's a cold and blustery afternoon, rain threatening, neither of us minding much. I've never handled a football before, and watching me try to anticipate its crazy hops and jumps my father laughs. I'm startled, because after so much illness he almost never laughs. And then, abruptly, he pulls me to him, carefully showing me how to control the ball with my fingertips, fingers themselves slightly spread, laces under the second joints, my thumb cupping the far side.
My father backs up six or eight feet. "Come on, son," he says. "Throw me one." I want very much to please him, try to remember everything he's told me. I bring my right arm back, steady the ball with my left hand, and take a step forward with my left foot, carefully pointing it at the receiver, my father. The ball is in the air, heads right for my father's hands, but it does not spin, simply floats toward him. "What was that?" he says, laughing again as he catches it. "A cloud? Come on, son, let's get you to throw a spiral."
Afterward, won't my father take me for ice cream at Brigham's? I have a vanilla/fudge/marsh, he has a half pint of chocolate and vanilla mixed. (It amazes my brother and me, how my father can eat ice cream so fast and not get a headache.) And then don't we drive home, my father turning off the ignition a hundred yards before the house, cruising in silently to a stop? I get out of the car--a 1950 Studebaker, all snout and fins--and my father rubs his knuckles against my scalp, kisses my cheek.
But of course all this is impossible. My father was dying, needed two canes to stand, was fifty pounds below his college playing weight. And anyway, my hand wouldn't have been large enough for him to bother showing me. And yet, perhaps that day he was feeling better. Perhaps he started with a child's ball, switching to regulation size later to give me some sense of what the future would hold. Perhaps it really was a beautiful autumn afternoon, leaves turning, air so clear and cold your eyes would ache. Perhaps, but I don't think so. No.
It is possible, I suppose, that I taught myself to keep my elbow down, tip of the ball slightly up, to whip my wrist on release, to follow through, though I tend to doubt it. For a while I believed I'd been taught by Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Jr., though this was patently wish fulfillment: the great Y.A. didn't even come east to play for the football Giants until 1961 and had retired by the time I became starting quarterback of my high-school team. Nonetheless, wasn't it Y.A. who inspired me to hang an old tire from the elm in the side yard and thread the needle over and again as the tire swung? (My brother, when he wasn't leafing through stacks of vocabulary cards, chucking the ball back to me each time.) And wasn't it Tittle who told me what I already knew, that the target is not the receiver but where the receiver should be when the ball gets there? And, finally, wasn't it Tittle who showed me how to impart a spiral to the ball to make it fly strong and hard and true?
To impart a spiral. I spent hours at the park by myself each week: throwing the ball, chasing it, throwing it again. Our boxer, Alfred, long since tired of the game and hungry, would whimper, it would be getting cold, the light would be waning, and I'd hear my mother's call. Yoo-hooooo . There was no mistaking it, she meant "Come home right now." Heading back, throwing yet another last pass, I'd see the arc of the ball against the darkening sky. I had no reason, no reason at all, to doubt the great Y.A., but I never could really believe that there was any practical reason for throwing a spiral. I always felt the ball would reach the receiver anyway, and of course the passes of several famous professional quarterbacks--Bobby Layne, for one-- wobbled, went end over end, were hardly picture perfect. "Dying ducks," the announcers called such passes. No, though I was never asked, from early on I would have assumed that the imperative to make the ball spiral was purely aesthetic.
In any case, if I really had to decide who taught me how to throw, I'd probably come up with Dave Bass. He would have been in his early twenties when I was learning, about six-five, very thin, with a face so narrow it gave me pause, made me wonder what it must be like to have such a face. Dave played some semipro baseball, held down a part-time job with the Greek greengrocer who worked our neighborhood (COUTSOHERAS VEGETABLES, it said on the side of the green REO truck), but mostly he just hung around the park waiting for a game. Baseball, football, basketball--he didn't care. He always wore his high-school letter jacket and a Red Sox cap no matter what the weather, and I don't believe we ever had a conversation or even exchanged more than nods. I think he once just showed me how to hold the ball. And sometimes, seeing me there alone, he'd go out for my passes, a wonderful target since he was so large I could hardly miss. It was with Dave Bass as my receiver, probably, that I began to practice pump fakes to deceive defensive backs. And, soon after, eye fakes.
Pump fakes? Eye fakes? This makes sense. It must have been Dave Bass.
© Thomas Farber,1984