"Learning to Love It," Title Story
by Thomas Farber
Ray was a great athlete in high school and college. Massachusetts schoolboy record for the high hurdles. Star shortstop. AA and AAA minor league ball before knee injuries ended his career at twenty-four. Then two packs a day and enough beers to take the edge off, this plus an insistent refusal to reminisce about the glory days not simply with semi-strangers but even with close friends. Ray did, however, take into the future several imperatives from what had been the passion of his life: bend your knees; keep your eye on the ball; always be moving forward.
Ray often said he'd die young-- "Who cares, I'm going to die young anyway," was how he usually put it. This verbal tic stemmed from an assortment of impulses and insights: from self-reproach for the smoking and drinking; from an attempt at a reverse curse, in effect asking God to give him a break since Ray was taking the risk of saying God wouldn't; from a simple reading of the medical odds; from a weakness for the maudlin; and from what proved to be a quite accurate bone marrow intuition about his fate. Also, Ray was driven by a genuine if intermittent desire to be free of all that bound him. Think of him as the first male in his family since the great grand- father from County Kerry not to fight in a war in the U. S. Army: baseball injuries spared him Vietnam. Think of him as the first male in family memory to hold a job in peacetime, go to college, to stay this side of alcoholism, not to take the occasional swing at his wife. All this despite his father, Ray I (Ray himself being Ray Jr., his own first-born being Ray III). A father who, unemployed with spouse working two jobs, had the capacity to watch Ray compete in the high hurdles as a high school sophomore and then tell Ray he'd shamed him by finishing second. When the drunk teenage driver's van hit Ray's car, therefore, there was irony--in high school, Ray often drove while half in the bag--and for Ray at least some element of relief. His parents imposed a Catholic funeral on his wife, who was in shock, his unemployed cousin lying by arguing that Ray had only recently talked about wanting to start going to Mass again. When the funeral procession left the church in Charlestown, the line of mourners' cars became separated from the hearses and limousines, took a wrong turn on the Southeast Expressway, and never did arrive at the gravesite. Keep your eye on the ball, Ray might have said, suppressing what kids in New England continue to call a shit eating grin.
Ray, married with two children, in his late thirties, one more blue Monday heading for work in downtown Boston. Another gray December morning, cloud ceiling low. At Park Street Station, off the T and up the ancient escalator--out of order yet again, so hustling up two steps at a time, trying to beat his previous personal best. A guy coming down the stairs past him wearing a kelly-green sports coat with brass nautical buttons. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Ray says to himself, "does nothing ever change?" And then mutters, "Screw it, I have no problem with that."
Off the escalator onto Tremont Street, past Bailey's, where his grandmother once worked serving ice cream sundaes to Brahmin matrons. Tan cloth raincoat, hod-carrier's cap, black rubbers over penny loafers, tweed sports coat, regimental tie, gray slacks. Camou- flage. Protective coloration. In this environment, absolutely ordinary. The coat and tie an effort to mask the rapaciousness of the species, Ray often thought, watching proceedings over at the State House. The legislators, that band of male primates, distance between rhetoric and reality rivaling Animal Farm . Ray's own costume belied, or made irrelevant, by the speed at which he walked. He couldn't help it. In the office he'd go from cubicle to cubicle at an incredible pace, arriv- ing at someone's desk like a skater braking to a halt-- whoosh --just in front of the goal. He'd do this perhaps twenty times a day. Or he'd finish a meeting at another agency's building and walk--churn--back to the office with members of his staff struggling to keep up. "Bend your knees," he'd tell them, though they always received the line with a slightly puzzled look, having no reason to read it as metaphor, and though it wasn't fair anyway, since Ray's fuel was anxiety, of which he had so much that he'd arrive at the office not only not winded but soothed.
Ray's bag lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he made for himself each morning at five thirty. In by seven, long before his employees. Reading the Globe , having the first of maybe fifteen cups of coffee. Then out for another to one of the croissant shops prolif- erating in the downtown, though the idea that croissants were so saleable in Boston drove him crazy. " Buy American ," he used to mutter--growl--as he stood waiting for change.
Lunch was usually at 11:40, once a week over at the Fatted Calf, a burger and beer joint for politicos and lobbyists at the foot of Beacon Hill, hard by the government offices. Conspiracy stories. Political gossip. Ratio of men to women 9:1. Ray eating his burger, generally the first person in, waitresses still gearing up, and then heading back to his office at a fero-cious clip, shooting a glance at King's Chapel as he turned right onto Tremont, tooling past the Old Granary Burial Ground, Park Street Church, cop on horseback, Salvation Army bellringers. Maybe having another lunch around three, pulling out the paper bag from home.
Sometimes, feeling all he'd done was create yet another bureaucracy, one more indispensable layer of civil service workfare for people like himself, after leaving the office Ray would head over to the Museum Bar on Huntington Ave. It always made him laugh: right up the road from the Museum of Fine Arts and Symphony Hall, just a joint with its hookers and street alcoholics of various races and ethnicities, equal opportunity and affirmative action in action, cabbies and dispatchers between shifts from the garage around the corner, booths along the wall with roaches to whack, floor of the men's room flooded, somebody passed out with his head on the bar, no hassles, nobody giving a shit--no one unmasked, exposed-- all this with a mural depicting some South Seas paradise on the rear wall. So Ray would be there-- "Anybody's lookin' for me, I'm over at the Museum," he'd call to the night desk man as he went out the door, the guy just nodding, leaving Ray to wonder--putting away a beer, another, another, eating dozens of crunchy orange goldfish, all salt and 'cheese-flavored', until finally the thought of even one more made him sick, often not getting home until nine, nine-thirty, driving through the sleet, wipers clacking, prying off his rubbers on the back porch, dinner cold on the table, boys already down, Barbara not saying anything but making him feel bad.
One of the things that disturbed Ray was Miss C, as he called her. C for Cabot. When she first came to work for him he was just starting out and she was already eligible for Social Security. Driving a hard bargain and proud of it, he offered her eighty a week to be executive secretary. Soon she pretty much ran the place. Wrote most of the grants, the annual report, hired, fired. After a while he raised her salary to one fifty, but more than that she wouldn't take. The deal was, he realized, she wanted somewhere to be.
Every day, accompanied by her border collie, she came in from Hyde Park on the T. About five one, eighty-five pounds soaking wet. (Ray tried not to picture her naked). Pure will. Never sick, incredibly sharp. A spinster, had perhaps never been kissed. Her mother married a Brahmin, whose family, appalled that his bride was Irish, cut him off completely. Then her father's business went under and he began to drink, finally disappeared. Miss C--Emmie to her mother--took a job while still in high school, and soon the routine was that she worked while her mother stayed home. At the end of the day Emmie would return, having also gone shopping, to make dinner for both of them, and then she'd wash up. Her mother kept her from dating, which perhaps suited Emmie: men seemed only coarse to her. ("I've never really understood what kind of beauty artists see in the proportions of the male nude," she once said to Ray.) This, in any case, is how things went until she was nearly sixty-five, when her mother died. Miss C thought then that she too would die, but when she didn't she bought the border collie and got in the habit of walking it every morning in Arnold Arboretum. That first April after her mother was gone she watched spring come in: crocus through the late snow; witch-hazel; some early tulips; forsythia, jonquils, daffodils. Not long after, she applied for the job with Ray, the proximate cause being that her old boss got angry because she bought a Chrysler. "You don't need a Chrysler," he shouted, knowing that she rode the T, that she never went anywhere. It infuriated the man, all of it, including that she'd saved money on the pittance he paid her. So she took a job with Ray. Which was fine with him, given her extraordinary competence and loyalty, but on the other hand she seemed too typical an aspect of the city, another life shaped by denial, loss, sacrifice to family/prejudice/economic exploitation. Ray didn't really believe revolutions would change the world--the first thing he'd noticed about Castro was a brother well up in the hierarchy--but perhaps, he'd think, hearing Miss C in the next office, perhaps a revolution might be worth a try.
One time Ray arrived at Miss C's house to visit--she was seventy-five by then--as she was coming down the ladder after putting up the old wood storm windows. Later she cooked a full dinner for the dog, pot roast/lima beans/mashed potato. Another time Ray came out, Miss C was down on all fours cutting the back lawn with hand clippers. She cackled: "The lawnmower's broken." He used to wait for her to complain, but she wouldn't. That is, he waited for her to complain about her fate, as opposed to tirades about this employee or that one, but she never did, even when the surgeon decided to amputate a breast though she'd been in perfect health her whole life, even though the surgeon later conceded the growth was benign. Miss C's only real problem, it seemed, was who to will her house to, but then she found an organization that pledged to care for her border collie until its death if she left adequate resources. Ray had it checked out--Miss C had gone through a period of getting burned by contractors, benefitted from three new roofs in three years--but every thing seemed for real.
The kid who killed Ray. He came around the curve on the wrong side of the road. No surprise: he'd been drinking Scotches straight up at a local bar for more than an hour. O'Malley. Twenty-four, unemployed, a mother who couldn't say no. Her van. He attended Suffolk University for a semester, then quit to work for an uncle at Wonderland, the dog track out in Revere. Liked both uppers and downers. Liked to bet the spread against the Celtics/Sox/ Patriots. A would-be bully who'd never moved out of the family home. A type utterly familiar to Ray, so that if at the moment of the crash he beheld death's visage, saw the kid through the two dirty windshields, Ray would have had to laugh. Nothing more exotic than another thwarted local loser? Merely the naked face of home-grown violence? The New England fan equivalent of skinheads out at NFL games in Foxboro if you were black and made the mistake of needing to go to the men's room; the umpteenth teenager to smash your car window to get the tape deck while your car was parked illegally when you went to the movies and decided to risk the ticket to save being gouged at the garage; or that representative of the lumpen- proletariat in Dorchester who smoked angel dust and then ripped the face off an eighty-year-old for her wedding ring. Going on to serve a life sentence, all of it pointless except maybe for the fee to the court-appointed lawyer, salaries of the judge/bailiff/ cop/steno-grapher/ guard/warden/counselor/parole officer.
Being good. Ray was good in part because he was afraid not to be, afraid he'd become an alcoholic, be unemployed, be like his father/grand-father/great-grandfather. Beyond this, Ray thought that whatever Dionysius spoke for in other cultures, in Boston the god spoke not for freedom but for may hem. Child abusers; tax-evaders; politicians fixing a deal with contractors, hospital walls crumbling; State Police cheating on promotion exams; star guard fixing the basketball game; victory being not joy but tearing down goal-posts. Those with means moving out to the suburbs, then deploring urban violence.
Car windows. A friend put a sign in her Honda: No Radio. Came out one morning to find the windshield smashed, a different sign taped to the dashboard: Get One .
Ray did cut loose, once, right after leaving baseball. This was in '69, the whole world going crazy. He went to Europe, read books on the beach in Italy, smoked hash, thought he might just figure out how to stay a while. He knew a little of the history of the continent, it seemed nothing if not a record of war after war, one population being exterminated, yet another springing up in its place, the castles were fortresses, all this was clear. Nonetheless, in Italy for some reason Ray could imagine a middle ground, there governments seemed the danger, individuals and clans endowed with an instinct for peace, for savoring, nurturing. But in Boston, Ray felt, in Boston you really had to choose which side you were on.
One night he was out with his old friend Brian, drifting down Exeter Street. He and Brian played ball together in grammar school and high school. Baseball had saved Brian from two alcoholic parents, especially from a father who liked to beat the shit out of him. Now, a gambler and occasional coke dealer, Brian was drinking heavily. As they passed one of the fern-bar singles places, Brian saw a guy playing Asteroids by the window, pushed his way through the crowds at the door, walked up to him, and said, "I want to play," which the man correctly understood to translate as, "Get out of my way," to which he responded, "Fuck you," after which Brian took a swing, so Ray tried to ride his back to slow him down. Hard to do, since Brian was a bull. In fact, Brian once said to Ray's wife, "What fucks like a bull and winks?" and then winked.
The next day, Brian hung-over and sober, Ray asked, "What was that about?"
"Come on," Brian said, "the guy was just another Carolan or Hoolihan or whatever. I didn't like his attitude. Tryin' to be a fuckin' preppy or something. Thinkin' his shit doesn't stink. Fuck him." The accent on 'fuck', not 'him.'
Being good. Ray was good to his wife Barbara because he knew her, because he felt gratitude, because he felt obligation, because she was an extraordinary person--bright, giving, beautiful, loyal--because he was afraid of the wider world--AIDS increasingly crossed his mind as an argument for monogamy--because she put up with him, because he loved her even though he was certain that to love is to coerce. As for the kids, Ray was good to them because he couldn't help it, because when he first held Ray III in his arms he experienced a hormonal change, felt himself in that instant an utterly different person. Juices reconstituted, as he put it to himself, grin- ning. This was beyond choice: he just wasn't about to let anything hurt his child. A sensation that only deepened as he watched Ray III grow with an openness and trust that amazed him. Sitting in the rocking chair in the living room one night, studying his infant son, it occurred to Ray that he'd had to teach himself everything, every- thing. He'd been lonely all through his childhood, a very, very long time. Tears came to his eyes; he shook his head. Maudlin while sober, he thought. And envying my boy. Pathetic. What's become of me? He wiped his eyes, inspected Ray III's diaper. "A bean's a bean," he then said to his son, "but a pee's a relief."
When Ray returned from Italy--Barbara wrote that if he didn't come home soon she'd start dating other guys--he took a job working for a church-sponsored recreation program in Roxbury helping inner-city kids. That is, housing-project blacks. Ray did so well the board encouraged him to set up a halfway house for ex-convicts, and he did so well with that that soon he had two halfway houses and fifteen employees not to mention a roster of pacifist volunteers doing alternative service. His system then began to attract notice because it had no therapy. Non-therapy, Ray called it, that is, nothing more than job counseling, use of existing social services, a place to stay, and a few rules to offer some structure during the transition from prison. Remarkably effective without any talk of rebuilding the soul of the convict, not to mention consonant with Ray's skepticism: no unnecessary assumptions. Please.
There were only two problems for Ray. First, as the organization grew his salary grew, and as his salary grew he kept thinking he was overpaid; and second, his fear that the whole network might fold and he'd be unemployable. After all, what he had was a B.A. and some expertise on the baseball diamond. Barbara would say, "Fine, you want security, go work for the State Department of Corrections, Department of Youth Services, whatever," but they both knew he wouldn't. This though she shared Ray's amazement that a career line could be built out of so little. So it was that despite praise from people in the human services community, Ray felt he was doing it with smoke and mirrors. Wasn't it just common sense, really? To hold all this together, he came in at seven, left at seven, brought paperwork home for the weekends: the only way he could carry it off.
Actually, sometimes Ray knew he had special gifts. Blarney, for instance, being able to bullshit people, set them at ease. He and all the kids he knew growing up could do it, but out in the world it was apparently a scarce commodity. Then too he understood loyalty, or, loyalty was for him not an ethical imperative but, rather, like being able to play the ball on the short hop, something he didn't remember learning. So Ray was constantly surprising people by his loyalty, which, briefly, kept him surprised. As for the ex-cons, they were dazzled by freedom, which they failed to comprehend in all its complexity, coming as they were from the intricacies of not-freedom, and in part they saw Ray as responsible for their freedom, though he never claimed such power. Beyond this, Ray had no need to dominate the men, simply talked in practical language about the choices available to them. Perhaps too they sensed Ray wasn't physically afraid. He was, actually, if he thought about it, of course some one nut was capable of going crazy and pulling a gun. But day-to-day, because the men often had less self-control than other people they seemed to Ray refreshingly direct, not nearly so menacing as some bureaucrats he'd encountered.
If the ex-cons were street-smart but not educated, Ray found his staff overeducated but not smart. Which was fine, since it left him some place to operate out of. Further, many of his employees, even the ones older than he was, seemed to need a father, would place him in that role whether or not he wanted to be there. That's just the way it was.
Barbara. Considering everything she could have been worse off. They'd bought the house when the market was still down; now it was worth a fortune. More, to everyone's surprise Ray had actually acted on his words about dying young and taken out a big life insurance policy.
These practicalities aside, Barbara had the benefit of not wishing she'd just had one last chance to talk to Ray. They'd known each other fifteen years, had been married for ten. They were best friends, long since familiar with each other's sorrows. Often he'd wake her in the middle of the night. "Babs, I can't sleep," he'd say mournfully, and, now wide awake, she'd console them both.
Barbara failed to wish she had one more chance to talk to Ray even though he didn't really speak to her the last six months before the accident. His silence--except for the absolutely necessary words--began after Ray III, age two and a half, came home from the hospital. It was a miracle, what the surgeons had done, but as Barbara saw it Ray was irreparably altered, finally just shut her out.
The nightmare started after Ray III had a cold for several days, but then instead of recovering kept vomiting, began to seem increasingly unresponsive. At the hospital, delirious, he was taken to Intensive Care. "Now we know what we're dealing with," the doctor finally told them after the blood test. "The high level of ammonia in the blood is diagnostic. This syndrome is rare, and poorly understood. Not genetic; usually comes after a viral infection. There's swelling in the brain, so we're going to begin medication to reduce it."
The next morning Ray III was still comatose. "What we have to do now," the surgeon told them, "is check the spinal fluid pressure so we can determine just how much medication can be safely used." The surgeon seemed to be planning to leave it at that, but Ray insisted on knowing more. "All right," the surgeon replied impatiently. "I under- stand. Informed con sent. Well, we use a bone saw to remove a section in the skull, making a kind of window, then cut through the membrane below, the dura mater, after which we guide an ICP monitor to the ventricle of the brain to measure intracranial pressure."
This alone could have sent Ray over the edge, Barbara believed, but the surgeon, apparently feeling Ray had goaded him, wasn't finished. "If the swelling continues, the medicine isn't working. What happens then is the liver continues to turn to fat, and the brain swells until the brain stem, which controls breathing, is pushed through the bottom of the skull. This-- herniation--is terminal. If the medicine does work, however, we operate again to take out the monitor and replace the bone square. There'll be no anesthesia when we begin, since your son is in coma and feeling no pain."
It was too much for Ray, Barbara thought. Not that he'd been great even at her deliveries. "I gotta go now," he kept saying when she was in labor, and he'd head out for yet another cigarette. He just didn't know how she could stand it. But with Ray III, he crossed into some other zone completely. Perhaps, Barbara thought, perhaps because for weeks after the miracle of Ray III's survival, scar slowly disappearing as hair grew back, Ray III had terrible nightmares. The staff in Intensive Care restricted his movement and bound his wrists in gauze to keep the bandages from being disturbed, which appeared to explain why after he came home you could see him in a yet another dream wringing his hands, moaning, shifting, trying to escape. Nor would he cry: perhaps from his point of view he'd cried at the hospital, and all that had happened was someone then came and hurt him again.
Ray knew it was wrong, he felt terrible guilt, but even so he stopped talking to his wife. The deal they'd made, Ray seemed to be saying, was that he'd work and she'd raise the children. Protect them , he'd apparently understood that to mean. So he turned on Barbara, something he'd never done before. Emotionally spent after the operation, getting almost no sleep for weeks because of Ray III's nightmares, she decided to wait until spring to talk to Ray about it. But then he was killed. The short-term effect was that life became easier, his anger now absent. Nor did she have to deal with his insomnia/fear of being found out/anxiety about money/tirades about nepotism and patronage. His reflexive or genetic need to establish some security, his rage at being vulnerable to such a need.
A few months before the kid killed-him Ray suffered the paralysis of one side of his face. "An aberrant response of the immune system to a viral infection," the specialist explained, "always affecting just the right or left seventh cranial nerve." Not life-threatening, but also there was no treatment. The paralysis almost always ended, eighty percent of the time within several months. Ray badgered the man. Was it stress? Smoking? Diet? In fact he wasn't about to change his life, but he did want some explanation. "Listen," the specialist replied. "It's just random. No cause, no blame, no nothing. Not some thing you did or didn't do. The nervous system--the brain-- tells itself a story about whatever it encounters, which is to say, it looks for a pattern. But this phenomenon has none. Not everybody gets this viral infection, and of those who do, only a very small number get this paralysis. The impulse of the nervous system to find order is its nature, but in this kind of situation such an impulse just cannot be successful."
As for the level at which the phenomenon could be described if in no way instrumentally affected by the capacity to describe it, one side of Ray's face retained its mobility while the other was unable to move. Along with hyper-acusis, that is, increased sensiti- vity to sound, which only made Ray's insomnia more frequent and severe, and beyond the fact that he had to tape his eye closed at night to protect the cornea since the lower lid sagged, and after you noted that his fore head was furrowed on only one side, the paralysis gave his smile an odd quality, a kind of wryness even when Ray was most happy, one corner of his mouth drooping slightly, and also endowed even his scowl with an adjoining neutrality. So it was that when the kid's van barrelled around the curve on Ray's side of the road, when he saw it coming right at him, Ray began to grimace and was saying to himself, "I know Babs understands why I've been hurting her," and thinking, "We really don't need any more time to set it straight," and wondering if the new corrections grant would come through from the Feds and whether Miss C would be all right and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, who's going to be there to teach the boys how to play the game, and even at the moment of impact-- "Always be moving forward," were Ray's last words to himself--he also appeared to be sporting some kind of a grin.
© Thomas Farber,1993