BLOOD-LINES

 

Published in The Biscuit Anthology Selected Stories

Long-listed for BBC Opening Lines Competition

 

I am sipping bourbon and thinking about Martha. She died this afternoon, just as the minute hand slipped away from one o’clock. She was 29. We had not expected her to live so long.

It’s a quarter past two in the morning and the room’s turning cold. We’re sliding towards the Fall now. With the window down and the wind in from the east, I pick up, or believe I do, the smell of the zoo. It comes to my expert nostrils through the stench of pig and steel and fish and squalor that Cincinnati sweats into its skies. Some nights, after the rail trucks have been shunted into sidings, I’ve heard the screech of a gibbon and once, at Christmas it was, when everything was shut down, a caged wolf, head back like a set trap, condemning the moon.

It could be I’m wrong about the smell. Perhaps I carry the spore on me, lodged in the fibres of my clothing. It may be that which has kept people away all these years. Sniffing the taint of beast on me they become repulsed by what they know, after all, to be their own base smell.

Something is pushing my thoughts of Martha to one side. Disturbing me with promptings from a body with which I had hitherto believed myself to be at one. It is the memory of the young woman I saw this evening in the restaurant!

She was sitting at a table, crying. Hunched over a single coffee she was weeping out loud. For a life snatched away? For love gone sour? Whatever it was, she unsettled us; my fellow diners and I. We eyed her and then we eyed each other, agreeing silently that grief (if that was what it was) ought to be a more private and dignified affair.

The waiter too was uneasy; she had occupied the table far too long. I watched him twice sidle towards her, and twice retreat, before at last hurriedly dashing in to pull away her cup.

It was as she lifted her head to his retreating back that her face became visible beneath her grey hat. Glossy impala eyes staring from a pale mask! They caught the splayed flame from the gas flares on the wall. She turned bravely to the room. “I am so sorry” she told us. The inflection was German. Not uncommon, of course, in Cincinnati. We averted our eyes. But I at least turned one last time to watch her as she slid out easily between the table and the chair, her body thinner and poorer than her clothes.

I did not follow her out onto the street. I did not reach out to touch her shoulder and ask: “Is there anything I can do?” I felt (and resisted) the nudging from Grandmother`s ghost, although I knew that if it could have spoken it would have said, “Look at that face! Pure blood my boy! Am I ever wrong?”

Instead I picked up a newspaper abandoned by some previous customer and began to read about Europe where they are taking in a second harvest. Even now as I sit at my desk, young men are falling in the fields of France! Their faces are registering surprise as their legs buckle beneath them. Some of them will not even move onto pain.

I know their deaths will be like this because my grandfather was a field doctor with the Union during our internal war. “Like corn being scythed,” he had said. And then, on the occasion of some honorable anniversary: “One time I wrote a letter to Mister Gatling, congratulating him on the efficiency of his invention. I told him it was by far the most successful of his agricultural machines and I suggested the devil promote him to general of one of his squadrons.”

It always angered Grandmother to see Grandfather and I sitting together after dinner was over. She wouldn`t say anything at the time but she`d somehow manage to find an opportunity to unburden herself later. “These things he oughtn`t to be telling to a young boy. Not when he can`t tell them to his wife. I`m not your mamma! I don`t have the nerves!”

Soon after the young woman left the restaurant, I finished the egg I had left on my plate till last, wiped my mouth and paid the bill.

In the men`s room the silvering was coming off the mirror. Behind blemishes like black explosions a middle-aged man was eyeing me suspiciously.

I don`t mind being sad. It suits me. The inveterate smilers, grinners, belly-laughers don`t know what they`re missing. And doesn’t everyone love a sad song? Like the one playing now from across the street; a human voice struggling out of the crackle and hiss of a phonograph. Another insomniac. And Love of course. It`s always Love. What else is there to sing about?

“You got to get yourself out to dances” Grandmother wrote me from New York. “You think more about baboonies than you do about human beings? What kind of profession is Zoo-illogical Gardens?”

I couldn`t tell her she was right about my affiliations. She never wanted my honesty.

It takes no effort to “see” her writing the letter. To witness again the flickering tongues of the fire, the scorched furniture and Mamma sitting in her chair, counting her fingers. By the time she was taken away Mamma must have reckoned on more than a million on those fingers of hers.

And, turning as I do now to my open window, looking out into the stained night, I remember her as she was before Pappa and Martha left us. A dancer, a singer, and a teller of stories. Martha and I would look at one another as she and Pappa waltzed in the candlelight. We used to try to pull them apart in the way that children do; and it hurts me now to think of us doing this for they had such a short time together!

When Martha and Pappa went down with the scarlet fever Mamma bathed their heads and sponged their bodies. Then her own face turned red and she fell sick too. When she woke up they were both gone. I remember Grandmother telling her this, remember Mamma`s caked mouth breaking open on my name “David” and then her attention turning suddenly to her fingers.

The fever didn`t touch me. I bloomed.

“What`s wrong with the boy?” Grandmother said. “Why doesn`t he get sick?”

Grandfather shook his head. “Maybe the fever thinks it`s done us enough damage.” Coming from a supposedly medical man this seemed a pretty odd statement and certainly didn`t convince Grandmother who preferred to put my not succumbing down to mere defiance.

A strange dusk settled upon the house in the days after the deaths and on one of those mornings I was to witness Grandfather wearily setting about sealing the windows and doors with rags. We moved out with relatives for a day while a pungent flame burned in the centre of each room. “It starves the disease,” he explained but he didn`t fool me, I knew he was burning away the memories of his only son and his grand-daughter mown down in their own beds while he sat in the next room incapable of helping them.

“What could you have done?” I heard Grandmother shout one night. I was upstairs wrapped in bedclothes and I listened closely, my ear to the floorboards. “If praying doesn`t work what good can your medicines do?”

Grandmother was not heartless but some dark event in her childhood had got her used to Death. He was simply an elderly and unpleasant relative who called on her now and then. It meant that though she did care for her, she had little patience for my poor mother.

“If she`d had my life,” she`d say, “then she would be entitled to her nerves”

Though it wasn`t her own, Grandmother carried the Epstein name like a banner. “You`re the last of the Epsteins!” she`d regularly tell me. I`d think of Mister Fenimore Cooper and of flintlocks flashing in forests, of forts assailed by redskins. Then I’d stand on a stool to look at my own frailness in Grandmother’s mirror and I’d grow afraid.

“But Grandmother,” I dared to say once, “ there`s Epsteins at the end of the block”

“Don`t you practice your clever talk on me boy!” she snapped. “I washed your bottom! They`re nothing to do with us and you know it! Theirs is tainted blood. The Grandfather married Irish!”

It would not have been considered proper for her to spit but I sensed that she wanted to do so.

It became her personal ambition to rescue the name. At the synagogue, in the stores, over cups of gritty coffee in family homes she went fishing for nice Jewish girls.

Sometimes they`d arrive unannounced (at least to me) and I`d have to sit at the table with a little be-ribboned black-haired girl while grandmother told her mamma what I was going to be. Some days I`d be a bank manager some days a professor of the scientific.

I confessed to grandfather what I really wanted to do but we kept it to ourselves. Even when I went to college she thought I was training to become a doctor. When she found out she was furious with him.

“You let him become an animal doctor? You knew all this time? An Epstein with a surgery full of puppy dogs?”

 

After Sol Stephan, the director, had accepted me at the Cincinnati Zoo they came to the station to wave me off. All the time they were standing on the platform Grandmother never once removed the glare from her eye nor the scowl from her mouth.

The train took me out of New York, down into America`s underbelly. The whole country wiped itself across my eyes. I lay in the moving dark, hearing my childhood rumble away in the repeated four beats of the bogeys on the rail.

I knew at once it had been the right decision. Stephan was not as intimidating as he looked. A big and bearded anthropoid he extended his humanity out towards the animals. You only need look at the elephant house to appreciate his regard for them! He often talked of the integrity of beasts and I understood what he meant.

We shared a fascination for the variety of creation and when we got the giraffes to breed we each understood a little the indulgent pleasure God must have felt on that morning of the sixth day. Our successes with the sea lions, the bison and the trumpeter swans made us heady. We had no doubts about the Carolina parakeets or the passenger pigeons. It would just be a matter of time, we thought.

Grandfather came to visit once. I showed him around the zoo and he listened with interest and asked me questions. Only when we were sitting over dinner did it occur to me how closely he had been watching me. His visit had been a test, I realised, and I had passed; for I could see he felt my life had its value. It was only as I was accompanying him to the train that I appreciated how thin and pale he had got.

Two weeks later there came the telegram telling me he was dead. Grandmother`s oldest relative had walked in through the door again. I went back for his funeral and then twice a year after that, to talk to my mother about things she couldn`t or wouldn`t remember and to hear Grandmother tell me how disappointed she was that I had not yet met a nice girl.

She died disappointed in me. At her funeral were all the Rachels Rebeckas Leahs and Naomis that she`d tried to pair me with. It looked like Grandmother had been a good judge; it seemed they`d all turned out to be good breeders.

I stayed long enough to put Mamma in a Jewish home along with a bunch of other crazy Mammas. They had their full complement of screamers, declaimers, self-mutilators and undressers, but Mamma was their first accountant.

I went straight back to the Zoological gardens where things were getting critical for the pigeons. They looked like they knew their time had come.

When I first arrived the zoo was down to three. The male, Henry, showed no interest in Sophia and Martha, and they none in him. They pecked abstractedly at the grain at the bottom of their cage and looked embarrassed by the attention we were giving them.

Soon there was only Martha. The fact she bore my dead sister`s name made me feel close to her. I used to stand by her cage and broo-broo to her. She got so used to me she`d push up against the bars so I could stroke her breast with my finger.

Sometimes when there was no-one there I`d talk to her and she`d broo-broo-broo back to me, blinking her glossy scarlet eyes. I think she understood sadness too.

I was careless once. A large family group walked in on me while I was talking with her. One of them; a shrivelled skinny little man with bandy legs seemed to be the patriarch.

“What`s that you got there?” he asked, peering into Martha`s cage.

His dismissive manner led me to proudly point out her significance

“The last passenger pigeon,” I said

“Hogwash” he said “I`ve seen sky-fuls of `em. I`ve even helped smoke `em down from the trees at night”

“And now they`re all gone” I said, not caring whether he felt I was placing the blame for their demise uniquely upon him. But he wouldn’t be convinced.

“Taint possible “ he said “You can`t go from all that many to just one”

“You find me another!” I challenged him.

 

The skies are black over Cincinnati now. Someone once told me the pigeons could do that to a day-time sky; but that`s all over. We move on.

It`s the first of September 1914 and a whole species has just quietly slipped out of the world.

I was with Martha when she died. At the very last she turned and twisted her neck as though in parody of the mating ritual I had read about but never seen. She was giving me the final come-on!

I drink the bourbon and sniff the wind. Blood in the air! Coming from the west where the abattoirs are. Trucks full of iron are squealing in the rail-yard. I reach across to twist the tap on the lamp. The valve closes its brass mouth. Its gas-breath putters and hushes and my window becomes just one more blank eye. But still the city labours. Its chimneys pant steam. In its foundries stone is giving up its metal and cooling to slag. In the rendering plants hands, turned raw by water, scrub bristles from the boiled bodies of pigs

“Life dies,” my grandfather once said to me - in one of his more melancholy moods “We must all slide out of this world.” Down there frost is blessing the sidewalks.

I am thirty-eight years old. Soon I shall be thirty-nine, and though I know that one can do without love; that it is neither sustenance nor life-breath, at this moment it feels like a fat stone has been tossed into the well of my heart. I cannot stop thinking of the young woman in the restaurant. I think too (strangely) of my father`s final birthday. Of my mother and sister kissing him. Of them beckoning to me.

“Thinks he`s too big for kisses, Mamma!”

My mother laughs. It is the last time her mouth will make the shape.

“You`ll learn,” father is shouting, the blotches already visible on his face, “you`re never too big for kisses!”

I stand apart from them, at the other side of the living-room, while they hug one another and kiss and kiss and laugh.