Life with Strings
Mom shook me awake at sunrise. The cold hurt so bad that I cried. Delicate ice ferns had formed on the inside of my bedroom window and the humidifying water pan that Dad set on the heat radiator had crusted with ice. I pulled the covers over my head and shuddered. But Mom would have none of that and yanked them down.
“Get up, Margaret. We have work to do before the GDC gets here.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “Do you have the tea brewing yet?”
“Yes, but you’d better hurry before your Father drinks it all.”
The GDC was Mom’s code name for the “God Damned Colgroves.” The clan included my Dad’s younger brother Alfred, his snooty wife Astrid and the Guv’nor, a title reserved for my British grandfather. They lived in New York City and would show up once or twice a year at our Pennsylvania farm for a weekend visit. “They’re checking on their investments,” Mom had once complained. At sixteen, I didn’t understand much about our family’s finances. I only knew that we were poor and in debt.
I slid my bluish feet into slippers, grabbed my robe and hustled along the upstairs hallway to the bathroom. If my sisters beat me to it, I’d have to go downstairs to pee and face my father’s wrath. He hated seeing any of his daughters before we had dressed, combed and braided our hair, and for Carolyn and me to put on light makeup; at eleven, pipsqueak Nancy still had a makeup exemption.
After gobbling breakfast and donning heavy jackets, scarves and mittens, we girls followed Dad outside to the tool shed. Brandishing shovels, the four of us attacked the drifts along the sloping hundred-yard driveway that connected our stone farmhouse to the state highway. The snow felt heavy. We shoveled for a couple of hours until Dad declared victory. After retreating to the enclosed porch to remove sodden clothes and shoes, we stumbled into the steaming kitchen, half frozen and sore-muscled. The smell of a roasting leg of lamb made my stomach growl. But like a sheep dog, Mom herded us out of the kitchen and upstairs to shower, change into good clothes and await the GDC.
Shortly after noon, Nancy cut loose with “They’re here, they’re here.” A new 1960 Cadillac rumbled up the driveway and parked next to the barn. Dad and Mom hustled outside while we girls stood in line in the living room, like soldiers awaiting inspection. In a few moments the sound of British voices filled the house. The GDC pushed inside, commented on the kitchen smells, then headed our way.
“Just keep your mouths shut and smile,” I murmured. “You know how Uncle Alf likes to argue.”
My sisters nodded, even Carolyn, who at fourteen had learned the fine art of talking back and getting away with it.
The hubbub drew nearer, with Dad making the most noise. But I heard a voice that I didn’t recognize. My mouth dropped open when the Guv’nor entered the room. A tottering old man with a limp right arm had replaced the well-spoken and impeccably dressed English gentleman that I’d seen the previous summer. We’d gone on wonderful walks into the woods above our house. He’d taught me the names of all the birds and plants, knew their scientific names, and could draw them better than Dad. But he stood before us now, hunch-backed, wearing a rumpled tweed suit and a crooked smile below clouded eyes. His speech was more of a mumble and squeak than actual words. He grinned, showing gold teeth, shuffled over to Nancy and laid his left hand on her head. She flinched.
“Now don’t be afraid of the Guv’nor,” Uncle Alf said. “He’s had a bit of a stroke but he’s still full of piss and vinegar.”
“Maybe he should use the toilet,” Aunt Astrid suggested.
Dad hurried the old guy down the hall. The rest of the adults relaxed onto the sofa and into wingback chairs while we sat on the hearth, three little Indians all in a row, our backs baked by the fire. Alf and Astrid complained about the snowdrifts on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, how the tractor-trailers had almost run them off the road, and the icy tunnels. Mom just sat there and nodded until Dad and the Guv’nor returned. The complaints were repeated, the men’s belts loosened, coats collected by Carolyn and hung in the hall closet, and the first round of cocktails poured. Astrid unpacked a satchel full of the obligatory gifts: art and nature books for me, fashion magazines for Carolyn, and a board game for Nancy.
By mid-afternoon and dinnertime, the adults were plastered, all except the Guv’nor. They had moved to the dining room, ran their fingers around the rims of martini glasses and recalled stories of their shared lives in New York City. The Guv’nor holed up in the living room with Nancy and watched the Art Linkletter Show and Queen for a Day. The old guy cackled louder than my sister. Carolyn had her nose buried in a Glamour Magazine. I helped Mom put the final touches on dinner, knowing that whatever she served would be tersely commented on by Alf as “not how Mother, God rest her soul, would have served it.”
We finished off the heavy meal with slices of Bakewell Tart that Aunt Astrid had bought somewhere in the City. The adults drank brandy from ridiculously large snifters. When they started telling family stories, Carolyn rolled her eyes and asked to be excused. Nancy took the Guv’nor into the TV room with instructions from Dad to keep the volume down. I started clearing the table. Mom tossed off more brandy.
“Remember that time we took Father out for his seventy-fifth birthday?” Alf started.
Dad grinned and nodded. “Yes, I bloody well do. We had gone to Delmonico’s the week before and booked a table for the Guv’nor and a party of twelve.”
Alf’s face turned beet red and little squeaks of laughter escaped between compressed lips. “And when we arrived that night, all the waiters were lined up on the sidewalk with towels over their arms, standing at attention. Remember the look on the headwaiter’s face?”
Dad downed his brandy and choked and laughed simultaneously. “I am sure that bloke crapped his pants when Father climbed out of the limousine instead of Governor Dewey.”
“Yes, but they never complained. And Father never let them know that anything was amiss. We got the best damn service and the Lobster Newberg was delicious – although I almost went broke paying for that meal.”
The talk between the brothers subsided. They sipped more brandy. I finished clearing the table, closed the kitchen door, and began washing and drying the china, a line that Dad had designed before the war. Low muttering came from the dining room. I moved to the door to eavesdrop. Alf and Astrid had begun their attack.
“So what the bloody ’ell happened, Charley?” Uncle Alf asked. “Why did you fire your agent? It took me three months of fast talking to get him to take you on.”
“He failed to earn his ten percent, that’s why.” Dad’s voice came out slow and deliberate, like someone speaking to a doltish child.
“What? Wasn’t he getting you any work?” Astrid asked. “Seems to me commercial art jobs are everywhere in the City.”
“The hell you say. Yes, he got me jobs, but they were rubbish, utter rubbish . . . doing designs for bloody wallpaper companies, greeting cards of barns in snow, package design.”
Alf snorted. “What is wrong with those?”
“I was the head designer for Castlemen China, for Christ sake. Besides, those jobs don’t pay . . . and the damn wallpaper companies stole my ideas.”
“What do you mean?” Astrid demanded.
“I’d get my rejected work back in the post. There would be scraps of tracing paper between the painted plates where they copied what they wanted.”
“You cannot be sure of that,” Alf said. “You’re just not trying hard enough.”
My face burned and my hands shook. I leaned against the door, ready to rush into the dining room and strangle Alf. Tears dripped from my eyes. Most nights I’d find Dad bent over the drafting boards in his studio, chain smoking, hands stained with tempera, stinky casein, or ink after producing dozens of works. He’d trained me to be an artist since I was four. Now, when he needed animals or figures, he’d ask for my help and we’d spend late nights together, struggling to get the designs just right.
Mom cleared her throat. “Now take it easy, you two. You’ve got no idea how hard Charles works. We’ve had some bad times. But he’s–”
“Belt up, Edith,” Alf growled.
“Don’t tell me to shut up you limy bastard!” Mom’s voice rose, taking on her own family’s German accent.
“This is a Colgrove matter,” Alf snorted. “For all I know your spending is part of the problem.”
“Come on, Alf,” Dad whined. “I just need to ring up my contacts in the City. It will take some time but it’s going to get better.”
“Better, my fat bum,” Alf said. “Every month the amounts of money I give you get larger and larger. You’ve got a family to support, Charles, and you’re not pulling your weight.”
“I’ve had some bad breaks,” Dad muttered. “I just need to find a few new clients.”
“And how are you going to do that without an agent . . . and you sitting out here in Podunk, Pennsylvania?”
“So you want me to come back to the City?” Dad yelled.
“Good God, no,” Astrid said. “We’d rather have you poor and sane in the country than going off your trolley again in the City.”
“That’s just cruel,” Mom said.
I heard chairs scrape against the plank floor and thought the two women might be at each other’s throats.
“All right, all right. Everyone settle down,” Alf said.
I pushed out through the kitchen door. Four drunken faces turned toward me. “Does anybody want tea?” I asked.
They stared at me, red-faced and wide-eyed. Somebody mumbled “No.” From the living room, the TV muttered in the late afternoon. Nancy and the Guv’nor cut loose with gales of laughter, then silence. I ducked back inside the kitchen. I retrieved a water glass from the cupboard, poured it half full with cooking sherry, and gulped it down. Its sweet taste made me gag. But like a kid in a horror movie who’s scared to watch but can’t help herself, I returned to my eavesdropping post. Dad was speaking.
“Listen everyone. I know I made a mess of things in New York . . . and I couldn’t ask for a better brother and family . . . paying the psychiatrist’s bills . . . buying this farm . . . supporting us for years and knowing that I’ll never be able to repay you.”
Alf cleared his throat. “Well, there may be a way you can.”
“What’s that you say?” Dad asked.
“Yes . . . well you could help us out of a predicament.” Alf’s voice got even smarmier. “You see, Astrid wants to return to work at the Museum . . . and with me away at the office there won’t be anyone to look after Father. Besides, our flat in the City is just too damn small for the three of us. We were hoping that the Guv’nor could live with you here. You’ve got a big house with plenty of room. And the old chap gets along splendidly with your daughters and dearly misses his garden.”
Silence followed Alf’s speech. I held my breath, knowing that whatever Dad said could change our lives.
“That’s an interesting idea, Alf.” Dad sounded cautious. “But you of all people know how strapped we are for funds. How could we possibly take on–”
“We would provide you with a generous allowance,” Alf said. “Besides we would rather pay you and have Father stay with family than hire some stranger to watch over him. He loves it here. Just listen to him with your daughter.”
More laughter filtered in from the living room. The Guv’nor and Nancy were watching The Andy Griffith Show. But the silence built between the GDC and my parents. Finally Mom spoke, her voice cutting, bitter.
“You know damn well I’ll be the one taking care of the old guy . . . hauling him to the John and wiping his ass, bathing him, feeding him, dressing him. You want me to babysit the Guv’nor while Astrid gets to go back to work.”
Astrid shot back. “We’ve had him for five years. It is your turn . . . plus you owe us.”
“Yes, I suppose we do,” Dad said before Mom could reply. He sounded defeated.
I jumped when something glass smashed against the kitchen door. Mom sobbed as she climbed the stairs. The bathroom door slammed shut. The silence returned.
“Then it’s settled?” Alf asked finally.
“Yes,” Dad replied.
“Good. I’ve taken the liberty of packing the Guv’nor’s belongings in the boot of the car. Could you help me haul them in?”
Chairs were pushed back from the table. The last thing I wanted was to face Alf and Father because I’d say something that would just pour gasoline on the fire. I grabbed the sherry bottle and headed for the back door. Pulling on my jacket and mittens, I burst outside and hurried up the mountain that rose in back of our bank barn. I knew exactly what the GDC had done, made Dad feel guilty about his failures, about his dependence on them, then established the payback – taking care of the failing Guv’nor. Alf and Astrid, and maybe even the Guv’nor, had planned it all, played on Dad’s emotions and damaged pride. I hated them and vowed never to take anything from them again. I would owe them nothing.
I climbed the sloping farm road, pushing through the snow and breathing in frigid air. The bare limbs of the oaks and ashes reached into the gray sky, with only the brilliant red cardinal adding color. I knew I’d always love the farm. But that day, I began planning my escape.
About the Author: Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California, with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 250 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes for his stories “The Sweeper” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.