Scenes from an unpublished novel
“We were once – Aggie and I – caught in – what’s the legal term? Flagrante delicto. With my trousers down.” The slender, very unworldly (but no longer virginal) seventeen-year-old stares into the empty distance, his dark eyes focused on nothing visible
“Which one was on top?” The ever-so-worldly Jonny-without-an-h (he is insistent upon that orthographic vagary) smiles, a triumphant satyr, the gentle malice in his gray-blue eyes magnified by thick lenses.
“You needn’t be snide.” Vasco confronts his seducer with a scowl. “It was all laughably innocent. Except in my mother’s eyes.” Then after a musing pause: “Maybe it would have been better if it hadn’t been. Unfortunately we were both so improbably –‘ignorant’ is a better word than ‘innocent’ – we couldn’t even imagine the depravity my mother suspected.”
* * *
“Want me to leave the room?”
It begins, that dreadful scene, with Aggie’s question, as innocent as his reply:
“Why? It’ll only take a minute. Just turn to the wall.”
Still, after so many years, he cannot recall the incident without suffocating from remembered shame. For everyone concern¬ed. His mother most particularly.
It is a daily ritual, changing from his school clothes to his jeans before going out to play. Repeatedly warned about personal modesty, he is, ordinarily, more than vigilant in his practice of it. Far more vigilant, in fact, than his parents, who, despite their insistence upon his modesty, never seem particularly fastidious about their own bodies. On almost any morning he can see one or the other of them running about the house with no more on than a pair of undershorts or a slip. But adults are invariably incon¬sistent. There is, worst of all, never any reasoning with them for they seem immune to logic.
No sooner are his trousers off than he hears the ominous tap of his mother’s footsteps approaching his bedroom. He knows also that she is coming to spy on him. Parental behavior seldom requires a motive. Not one that he can understand, at any rate. Like God’s, it exists of and for itself. She has taken recently to spying on him. As for her reason – more than likely there isn’t one. Or one that he can fathom. He thought, at first, since the bedroom and the bathroom laundry hamper seemed to be the focus of her suspicions, that the starchy traces of his dreams might be the cause, for the phenomenon has become of late alarmingly frequent. Initially he tried to wash away the evidence, only to be accused of having wet his bed. Which at his age is an accusation scarcely to be borne. Yet his indignant denials simply make matters worse, transforming his offense from the physical to the moral plane. To his infinite embarrassment, his mother’s interest in the condition of his sheets and his pajamas only increas¬es, reducing him ultimately to subterfuge.
He is not clever at deception. Every clumsy ruse merely serves to intensify her morbid curiosity. If he strips his own bed on Saturday mornings and hides the sheets in the hamper, she studies them that much more intently. Nothing is ever said, but the shadows that cross her face make her silence more ominous than words. Since there is apparently no way of damming the supply (simply thinking about a solution increases the need for one, and deliberately not thinking about it is even worse), he has found that the defilement of his sheets can best be prevented by anticipating the inevitable in the shower. It is a stroke of genius that solves many problems. Including the total waste of sin without pleasure. Which is rather like being spanked for stealing a cake someone else has eaten. But oddly this subterfuge does not diminish his mother’s spying. Curiously, she is most vigilant when Aggie is present.
“Here she comes,” he whispers. “You better get outside.”
Without a demur, Agnes Mueller slips out the backdoor and into the walled patio. A recent arrival in San Oriel, where all strangers are viewed as Okies, though she herself has never so much as passed through the state, she is used to hostility, and where grown-ups are concerned, never requires an explanation for any directive. Although obliging, she is not fleet. There is no grace or speed in her movements. It is not an altogether silent exit.
Holding his jeans before his bare legs, he quickly inspects the door. It is safely closed. But just as his mother enters the room, the outside screendoor, delayed by an airpump, clicks shut.
It is the trigger that detonates the ensuing explosion . His mother stiffens at the sound, her soft Murillo-like features instantly turning to stone.
“Was Aggie in here with you?”
Blushing until his eyes water, he nods to cover the lack of sound issuing from his throat. It does not enter his mind to deny it. Although he feels himself, in his trouser-less state, at a silly disadvantage, like a prisoner in the dock convicted before his trial begins by the shame inherent in his role, he does not dare move and continues clutching his jeans to apron himself.
His mother’s glance is dark but not nearly so ominous as her silence. Without speaking to him, she moves to the outside door, and opening it, calls down to Aggie sitting on the stairs below:
“You might as well go home, Aggie. Because he’s not coming out to play this afternoon.”
The impersonal calm of the voice increases his apprehension. She waits as Aggie shuffles guiltily away. Then locking the outside door, his mother turns to face him.
She has a way of scrutinizing him, wordlessly, that can shrivel his soul. Wiping her face clean of all emotion, of recognition as well as affection, she throws back her head and transfixes him with her x-ray eyes: unapproachable hauteur transfixing a presumptuous stranger. By her mere glance, she gives
him notice that every last approach to her heart is already barred.
“And now, young man.” Still holding the knob, she leans against the door to marshal her strength.
The trial, he can tell, is already over, his single nod having convicted him, but the sentencing is sure to be long.
“You’re not to leave this room. All afternoon. Understand? Not until I’ve had a chance to talk to your father.” She pauses and the terrible impersonality of her voice is suddenly shat¬tered. No longer a stranger, she is his mother once again. That old familiar Mater Dolorosa with a whole quiverful of swords blos¬soming from her exposed heart. Our Lady of Sorrows.
“And just how do you think that’s going to make me feel?” She is herself by now close to tears. “So ashamed! “
She loses her voice momentarily, but it soon returns to castigate him:
“How could you?”
There is something too personal for expression in her question, which leads him to suspect she has been more shocked by his choice of accomplice than the crime itself. That hers is as much an aesthetic as a moral revulsion.
“But she was turned to the wall.” His voice cracks and tears rush to his eyes. “She didn’t peek. She never does.”
“You actually expect me to believe that?”
He is conscious suddenly of a hole in his undershorts, and reaching back, verifies with his finger that there is indeed a worn spot through which a patch of his bottom is exposed. If only she would let him finish dressing!
“If it was all so innocent, why should my coming have frightened her away? Answer me that.”
“Because – because I knew you’d – ”
“No. Don’t make it worse by trying to lie your way out. I could hear you giggling. The two of you. All the way from the kitchen I could hear your giggling.”
“Giggling?” He is truly baffled now. At the moment he cannot imagine ever in his entire life having giggled. Or so much as wanting to. “We weren’t giggling,” his voice almost a whisper. Squinting, he tries to focus on the recent past, to resurrect wh
atever it was they were talking about before he asked Aggie to turn to the wall, but it is doomed by its very innocuousness to be lost forever. Wiped clean from the slate of his memory.
“Don’t make me even more ashamed by denying what I heard with my own ears.”
“But that was before.”
“Before? Before what?”
It is hopeless. Choking, he cannot answer.
“And after everything we’ve done. Everything we’ve tried to teach you.”
Her sense of injury is more than he can bear.
“Whadayou mean – everything?” Breaking through the barrier of tears, his voice comes out louder than intended. “Just don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Nothing but don’t!”
“Now listen here, young man!” She is over and at him, holding him by the upper arm. He drops his jeans ro the floor.
“Oh – !”
For a second he is sure that he will, after all, get a slap, which he’d far prefer at this point to the flogging of her words. But she lets her hand drop – and him along with it so that he loses his balance, falling onto one knee.
“Did Aggie – ” For an instant she is unable to get the words out. “Did Aggie have her blouse off too? Or was it just you showing yourself off?”
“Whadayou mean?” His shocked whisper is barely audible.
“You know very well what I mean. I want to know just what kind of nasty games the two of you were playing in here.”
Now he is ashamed. Thoroughly ashamed. For her as well as himself. How could she even think! And the tears burst out of him, uncontrollable. Throwing himself onto his bed, face down, he can no longer bear to look at her.
“What does it matter? You never believe anything I say, anyway.”
“How can you expect me to believe you when you go around behind my back, playing sneaky, dirty games. How? And then try to lie your way out. Yes, go ahead and cry. You should. For shame. And while you’re at it, you’d better start preparing yourself for confession tomorrow. In the meantime, you’re not to see Aggie. You’ve been seeing entirely too much of her, anyway. It’s not healthy. At your age.”
“Who else is there to play with in this lousy, stinking ole town?”
“There are plenty – ”
“They’re all Tony’s friends. Not mine.” For an instant anger conquers shame. “Aggie’s the only real friend I’ve got. And you never like anyone I like. Just because she’s fat.”
“Being fat has nothing to do with it. I just don’t like you playing with girls all the time. It isn’t healthy. Certainly there are boys in your class.”
“Sure, three.” He turns over on the bed to confront her. “Three, besides me. Lawrence Rodriguez lives out near the Landing and Henry Yamamura goes to Japanese school in the afternoon. And old Wheezy. And you don’t expect me to play with him, do you?” Poor old asthmatic Wheezy Anderson, the lone classmate with any intellectual pretensions and thus his natural enemy.
“Well, you’d better find an alternative. Because you’re not going to be seeing much of her anymore. Now take off those shorts so I can darn them.”
He beseeches her with a wry, bewildered grimace.
“So that’s it, is it?” Once again she turns on the x-ray eyes. “Young enough to undress in front of your girl friends, but too old to undress in front of your mother. Well, we’ll see about that.” She strides to the door, turning for one last look. The Mater Dolorosa has given way once again to that fierce remote stranger. The Avenging Angel. “Leave your shorts on top the hamper. And remember, you’re not to leave this room until l’ve had a chance to talk to your father.” And without another word she is gone.
It is over. The horrid scene is finished.
And the curtain falls.
He scarcely dares to breathe for fear of conjuring her back. It is over. Done with. He is alone again. Blessed solitude.
When he grows up he is going to live all by himself and never, never have to deal with other people and their unreasonable demands. In the meantime, everything might still be all right, if only he could move to The City. Once again live with his grandmother. He never thought he could miss anyone so much as he misses her. She would never think evil things of him. She would never forbid him to see Aggie. Or anyone.
He takes off his undershorts and idly inspects the hole. He can’t bear this recent and rude concern with his most private person, which he isn’t about to share with anyone. Friend, family or foe. It’s for his eyes alone. Why, he would no more think of exposing himself to Aggie than to a busful of strangers, when he very nearly dies of shame every time he discovers his fly is open because he has forgotten to button after peeing. But most perplexing of all, he cannot imagine why anyone, and especially his own mother, could even think he might want to show himself off to Aggie. Or to anyone else, for that matter.
He turns, twisting his body at the hips, the better to study himself in the closet-door mirror. This stranger he scarcely any longer recognizes. The legs pencil-thin, like a heron’s, the hips slight but well-formed, the skin over the buttocks a blushing-peach. Maybe, as long as he is already undressed anyway, with nothing else to do and no one to talk to, he will shower early.
Throwing his shirt and undershirt onto the bed, he walks to the closet to get his bathrobe. Before the mirrored door he pauses, and arching his shoulders, because the effect is always more impressive that way, he tenses his abdomen.
His physique is so slight the word physique itself seems far too grand to describe it. It’s only a body. But his skin is so fine the most haphazardly performed calesthenics – and their performance is never more than haphazard – reveal almost immediate results and his stomach becomes a fairly convincing washboard. He will never, he knows, even if he went regularly to some gym – as if San Oriel had a gym to go to! – and lifted weights every day of his life look like any Mr. America, but his body has what the magazines he is forever browsing call “definition.” Of course, he doesn’t want to look like any overblown, pumped-up Mr. America with biceps bigger than his waist. Buster Crabbe is the impossible ideal he has set for himself. The golden-haired deity of the weekend serials. Flash Gordon in the flesh.
Sounds from the front of the house distract him. Hushed, he leans against the cool mirror of the closet door, listening. He can hear his mother’s voice, artificially loud and high¬-pitched as it invariably is when she speaks on the telephone. And he holds his breath in chilly anticipation.
“Hello? Mrs. Mueller?”
Clipped, trimmed and sharpened, her words are spat out like poisoned darts.
“This is Mrs. Ramos. Yes, Louise Ramos. Are you going to be in this afternoon? Because if you are, I’d like a few words with you No, I’d rather not say over the telephone, if you don’t mind Yes, that’ll be fine. Thank you.”
His heart sinks to the soles of his feet. A trifle to tread upon. So it is not over. Only just begun.
Choking with shame, he longs to die, then and there. To curl up and shrink to nothingness. A garden slug sprinkled with salt. Soon the entire town will know. He sinks to the floor and leans his head against the mirrored door. He will kill himself. Then she’ll be sorry. Another cheek, cool and slick, presses against his. How should he do it? A knife is certainly the most readily available weapon, but he would never, he is all too aware, be able to get it far enough in for serious damage. Besides, it would take much too long and be altogether too messy. All that blood! And he can’t bear the sight of blood. Even an animal’s. The red geyser gushing from the neck of the newly decapitated chicken whose bound legs he is forced to hold for Tony’s joyful swing of the ax. He will swallow something. Poison. But what kind? It would have to be something painless and fast. Movie stars, he knows, always take sleeping pills. But where would he ever be able to get his hand on those? Maybe a whole bottle of aspirin would do the trick. But the very thought of waiti
ng for death to sneak up on him, ever so slowly, stealing from the tips of his fingers and toes, the chilling numbness creeping inch by slow inch up his arms and legs, as he waits for the darkness to lead him to oblivion is more than enough to give his stomach an uneasy wrench. A painful twist of the gut that fairly doubles him over. Another hand, steady where his trembles, firm where his is weak, comes up to meet his. Palm against palm. He is not, after all, entirely alone. Or unloved. His lips part, his thighs press together
* * *
“Poor Aggie.” Vasco drapes himself with a towel and moves toward the shower. “She got the worst of it. As usual. She always got the worst of it. I was simply confined to my room. My father came in later that evening for his – ‘talk’.” Vasco’s laugh is little more than a dry snort. “Maybe there are fathers who talk to their sons. I’ll have to take that one on faith. I think, perhaps, if I’d been able to ask him a specific question – if there’d at least been a climate in which questions were even possible, he would have answered. And honestly, I’m sure. He wouldn’t have had the imagination to lie. But by then it was already too late for honesty. And he isn’t a poet.” Vasco chuckles, at the memory of his father squirming in agonized embarrassment. “If the poor guy had primed himself that night and finally presented me with the whole unvarnished truth, I would have thrown up in his face. Fortunately, he was even more embarrassed than I was. He did nothing but stumble around the subject. If possible, confounding my confusion. And the next day I was marched off to church to confess my sins. And by that time I was convinced I had done something shameful. Something, anyway. But Aggie – poor thing – she really got it. With her father’s razor strap. A week later her back was still yellow from the bruises.”
“Jesus! And all this time, I’ve been idealizing that sweet little mother of yours. Like some Christmas-calendar Madonna. And she turns out, like all the rest, to be a proper horror.”
The words stun Vasco. He has not, surely, intended to paint his mother as a monster. Even wearing her full regalia of faults, she doesn’t belong to the same species as Jonny’s alcoholic old harridan of a mother. A real monster if there ever was one. A veritable vampire.
“No, she isn’t, really. No.” He shakes his head as he moves toward the shower, reaching through the curtain to turn the hot water on. “Not at all. She’s just – my mother.” And he has a fleeting vision of the Avenging Angel suddenly, with virtually no prelude to prepare one, transforming herself with a smile so radiant it can light up an entire room and upon the instant disarm the most hostile of her critics. It is a trick of charm that he too has already begun to employ to devastating effect.
“The War’s changed her, anyway. Made her softer and more vulnerable. Now that Tony’s on a tanker out there in the Pacific waiting for some eager kamikaze to zero in on him and his buddies. And since I’ll be eighteen myself in five months, she’s so afraid I’m going to get my head blown off, she doesn’t have energy left to worry about my sexual depravity.” His smile in the rising steam is once again radiant, like the sun burning through the morning mist. “Now that she actually might have some cause.”
And dropping his towel, he steps into the steaming shower.
Julian Silva is a fourth-generation Portuguese-American whose Azorean ancestors first settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1870s. His novel, The Gunnysack Castle, was first published by Ohio Universiy Press in 1983. The second section of the Death of Mae Ramos, “Vasco and the Other” was originally published in 1979 in Writer’s Forum 6, University of Colorado.
In 2007, Distant Music Two novels: Gunnysack Castle and The Death of Mae Ramos was published by Portuguese in the Americas Series, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth . Distant Music is the story of the Woods (anglicized Portuguese) and Ramos families and their descendants in California. In these narratives Julian Silva “celebrates not only the resilience of men and women confronted with failure but, even more important, he exposes the compromised morality of their achievement” (Portuguese in the Americas Series).
“The rise of an anglicized Portuguese is chronicled in a weaving of many strands-the immigrant experience, the place of women, the ambience of the noveau riche-that makes a voluptuous tapestry of life and a richly satisfying first novel…This is a compelling novel of Portuguese assimilation into the American mainstream.”
— Publisher’s Weekly
“…the women in the book are complex, vulnerable, proud, silly and wise; in other words, they are real people and their lives and their stories are affecting and memorable.”
— San Jose Mercury News