Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today Will Be a Quiet Day – Amy Hempel


It’s nearly impossible for me not to bring something of my own life into a story when the characters consist of a father, a son and a daughter. To draw me in deeper, when some of the action…or most of the story takes place in a car, I find myself drawing far too many parallels with my life as it was between the ages of 8 and 18.

My sister and I crammed alone time with our father into 5 or six hour blocks speeding up and down the east coast. I think we tried our hardest to make those five hours equal in quality the time that other children spent in the car with their father going to school, the store, the movies, the gas station…

I have a hard time remembering exactly what we discussed and what I thought about at that time. I’m sure though that whatever it was, any subject that my sister or I brought up, it would have to be of appropriate to discuss in front of the other sibling.

I wonder what my father thought of us. For his life, was interrupted when we re-entered it.

He had to plan events not just for himself in mind – but he had to make arrangements for us too.

And as I read these stories, my mind drifts once again to my father’s past behavior after the divorce.

Again, I’m trying now to imagine my father’s mind... as I am of the same age now, that he was when I was 10-11 years old.

Unfortunately, rather than having a nice pocket of memories to draw upon…yes there are a few…my most vivid memories are sad.

And most of these memories are related to my father an his inability to unplug from his work – and now I’ll relate a memory that for my sister and I was - “A Quiet Day”.

Even when we visited, my father still found it necessary to work…and work at a level that is/was unnecessary.

And these memories transition my thoughts towards summer weekends in center city Philadelphia.

My father couldn’t leave us at home when he pulled several all-nighters down in center city.

Our weekends would start early Friday mornings. We would ride into the city from Chestnut Hill with the novelty of a train ride cushioning our fall.

Walking through the dirty, dust hazy morning city streets from the train station to his office on the 7th floor we took a quick last look at the outside world.

Painted high gloss white cinderblock walls, polished linoleum floors and harsh florescent lighting. This would be our home for the next ? number of hours.

No windows.

During the day on Friday, there would be the normal activity of people moving through the hallways of an office building and they all looked the same to us in their green scrubs and white coats.

It was generally a safe building where we could go to the vending machines and grab a coke without his supervision as long as we told him that we were leaving the hall.

There was also a game room on the first floor that we spent some time in as well, but because we weren’t that skilled in video games, and my father had a limited amount of quarters he wanted to part with, the attraction and access soon faded.

As the day wore on, people left early for the weekend and the halls became even quieter than they normally were. Lights hummed, water swooshed through hidden pipes, vents blew cool breezes and strange echoes bounced through the halls.

During the day, we slunk around the halls, past curious eyes and found comfort in a spare office. We listened to the radio, drew pictures, wrote letters and read magazines. We typed on a typewriter and played with clay.

Sometimes lunch and dinner would allow us off the floor or a quick trip out into the loud smoggy city with dad.

Upon returning to the office, we’d find that my father’s floor was close to empty. Shoes and socks came off and the halls became our private race tracks.

Our bare feet would slap down on the hard polished floors with such a noise as we raced up and down the hallways causing an occasional visit by a security guard baffled by the strange sounds.

Time faded and we had no concept of the external world…day or night.

My father would emerge from his office and his fatherly duties would suddenly reappear and he would inform us that it was time to sleep.

We found our beds to be an industrial sofa and office carpet. We’d fall asleep to the whisper of cold (not cool) air conditioning passing through the vents above us.

Sleep was difficult as carpets are hard. We’d wake early in the morning and stumble into the hall –not knowing if we had slept 8 minutes or 8 hours.

Dad would be at his desk, kicked back papers all around…working.

We’d use the bathrooms – and have breakfast in the cafeteria. The day would be a replica of the previous day with the only difference being that there wouldn’t be the traffic of fellow office workers.

Saturdays were quiet and we had the hallways to ourselves once again…but to a child, the cold stale halls were…just not right.

We found relief mid afternoon or early evening as our dad felt that HE could go home.

Relief from our polished linoleum and white cinder world.

We’d squint at the headlights or at the last remaining rays of sun as we headed towards the train station bound for his little one room apartment.

****And now a small scene from our polished linoleum and white cinder world …recently related to me by my sister.

Now before you entered my father’s office hall, there would be two service elevators. I don’t think it occurred to my father to steer us away from riding those elevators. It just never occurred to him.

One day, my sister was riding on one of the elevators and a worker pushed a cart onto the elevator that had a cage with a dog…a beagle. My sister, being a child was fascinated with the scene of a dog on an elevator in an office building, but because we were who we were, she quietly hid her excitement. I don’t even remember her telling me at the time that she saw a dog. And perhaps because of what later happened, she never felt the need.

A few hours later, my sister found herself on that same elevator…perhaps on her way to a vending machine.

The elevator stops a few floors down from the seventh, and the same worker from earlier in the day pushes his cart onto the elevator. This time, the cart has an empty cage on the top, and below it, a black plastic bag. It takes only a few seconds for my sister to do the math and realize what was in the black plastic bag because the texture of fur could easily be seen pressed against the walls of the bag.

I never knew my sister witnessed this.

Here we are decades later, and what does my sister remember of a summer visit to my father’s?

A beagle in a trash bag.

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